Rose Hill

By the second drink, Rin was past the point of feeling nothing, and deep into a panic instead. She fled from the lights, head swirling with liquor and sugar and sweat and high-arousal dread, the kind that tensed her body and prepared it for fleeing, but which she knew she could not escape. In the room of lights there were bodies, big warm barely covered bodies shifting and moving, liquid and metal at the same time. Mercury, Rin thought drunkenly, like mercury, swirling and dangerous and shining and hard-looking, and as with mercury, her proximity to them made her woozy, and soul-sick, and delusional, and maybe eventually dead. So she fled.

It didn’t help that drinking had slowed her movement. A young man in a collared shirt had bought her an electric lemonade and tonic, and he hadn’t touched it, but he’d touched her, and that was enough to set her off. At first he’d asked, politely almost, whispering near her ear, and she’d assented, but then as the glass passed over the bar and into her hand the young man put his arm around her waist and Rin saw that his teeth were bared, two-inches long, and grey and jagged like stalagmites.

When she saw that, Rin was past comfort forever. The hairs on her arms stood at attention. Her eyes went wide, and her nostrils did too, and soon she was breathing in nothing but Axe and Old Spice and spilled beer and drugstore body spray and mineral makeup like it was the air itself. Her body couldn’t process that, and so she stumbled, and tore at the tight straps around her neck. The flashy belt that locked her waist in felt suddenly like a shackle, as did the thick bangles hanging on her wrists. She fiddled at all of it, backing away from him as his teeth slipped out of his mouth. All the tugging failed to give her release, so she elected to release herself.

She pushed through the crowd, spilling drinks on herself, and earning the ire of patrons left and right. Their eyes looked red and slow, like they were possessed with some great evil that had not yet mastered control of their alcohol-slowed bodies. Rin shoved in between big purses, through glistening bodies and past extended arms, and across the sticky floor. Her toes and the bottom of her sandals took on all the filth, leaving her gooey and stained. It was harder than ever to move.

In the moving, shifting crowd of people, someone recognized her, and called her name, but she pressed onward. As she reached the door, she glanced back, and saw the young man looking out to her, perplexed, his snarling mouth barely agape and the massive teeth escaping past his lips, where they hung and dripped with frothy moisture. It seemed he could not comprehend that she had left him there on purpose. Turning her head, Rid sidestepped a puking blonde, straddled a puddle of beer or piss, and sidled past the bouncer, out into the cool night.

Her feet clattered against the concrete as she bolted for the nearest cab. Her long legs and lined eyes caught the driver’s attention, and she snatched the vehicle from a teetering, drunk couple standing in the street. Once in the car, she began digging around in her bag, and fished out green bills that hung limp like wilted lettuce in her hands. The car moved under a street lamp, and in the light the driver could see that her flesh was not dewy and fair, but mottled with dark scars and lumps of barely concealed acne. Now that she’d been revealed to be a fraud, and not beautiful, he refused to drive her farther than her money would go.

He took her up the drive and parked in the lot of a closed-down grocery store, miles from her apartment on the western edge of Roger’s Park. The doors unlocked and he barked at her, “Get.” Rin did, leaving the money in a pile in the back seat. He yelled that she was a rude, entitled bitch, and she ran across the street, turning down the alley behind the mattress store and heading north.

The alley was cobbled with old cracked bricks, and made Rin stumble in her sandals, so she took them off. Her feet were surprisingly numb against the stones, at least for the first few steps. Then she hit a piece of broken glass that made her yelp like a wild animal and draw her leg up and gather her foot in her hand. The glass was embedded deep into her heel. Limping, Rin turned the corner, onto a paved side street. Catalpa. She leaned on a tree and put her sandals back on, wiping the blood with her hands but not daring to extract the splinter.

Rin’s home was perhaps three or four miles northwest, and she assessed that walking there would be a liveable torture with a drunk head and a bleeding foot. Her phone was dead and her account was empty; there was no other appealing choice. But the night was cold, and her shoulders were bare. She longed for the comforts of her home, but the racing of her heart distracted her from it, and so she walked on.

In her apartment, Rin had little more than a mattress, an old wine-stained rug, a windowsill covered in candles, and a stack of milk crates filled with all her clothes. One crate held her sensible shoes. Another was filled with loose-hanging, cottony dresses, like the one that was draped over her shoulder at present. The topmost crate held four old sweaters: a cardigan she’d worn with her high school uniform, years ago, a pullover with an embroidered fox on the left breast, a thin hoodie with a regally purple hood, and a tight pink cashmere number adorned with fake pearl buttons, which she’d taken from a photoshoot when she was seventeen.

The pink sweater still fit like a charm, but it made Rin look like someone she was not. She was not a healthy, nubile girl-thing, flushed in the cheeks, with a naive but provocative glimmer in her eyes. At the shoot, Rin had been dressed and dolled up to become such a girl-thing. Her hair had been bleached blonde and the makeup artist had applied a pink lip and a warm blush to her cheeks. Powder had lightened her skin and foundation had made all the bumps and dark marks go away.

It had felt as artificial as a porn; no buxom, eager coed looked anything like the grotesque, exaggerated girl-creature Rin had been made up to be. The resulting photographs looked nothing like Rin. Rin’s mother held the catalogue and sighed as she looked at the pictures, and called the imaginary Rin inside of them a “beautiful paragon of womanhood”. That made Rin recognize herself in the images even less. But time had passed and jobs had grown more scarce, so Rin held onto the sweater because it was passably warm and worth some money.

Rin held herself as she walked and wished for the sweater. Even if it was annoyingly pale and pink and made Rin forget herself, it would have been useful if only she’d shoved it into her purse. Now she had nothing, just her loose, thin white dress and her bangles and the insufferably tight belt encasing her torso like a sausage.

Rin took long strides, stepping delicately on the ball of her left foot, and thought of her warm radiator and her tattered, but clean sheets marred with minimal bleach stains. She contemplated the underappreciated comforts of her studio and tried to quiet her racing mind by thinking of what she would do when at last she climbed the wood stairs and let herself inside.

Rin pictured hard, cool tap water splashing on her face in the bathroom. Then she imagined filling a pot on the stove with it, and clicking the burner on, to boil it and make tea. She saw her feet, bare and bandaged and lotioned, resting on a pillow while popcorn popped in her thrift store microwave.

In her imagined future, Rin ate the whole bag and licked the yellow butter-dust off the sides, drank the tea, and wiped all her makeup from her face with a warm washcloth. She wouldn’t let her marred, reddened face distract her in the mirror. She would just float from the bathroom to the mattress and lay down to sleep, not bothering to put her clothes away, or brush her hair out, or even pick the flecks of kernels from her teeth.

Morning would come and fingers of light would reach in her windows and touch Rin on the eyelids, and she would rise, refreshed, and embark on a new day, one filled with considerably less fear. She would tidy things up and take her medicine and call her parents. Maybe she’d take a trip home, and embrace her mother and father and forgive them for everything, and life would start over again. Maybe she’d never come back to this place.

A twig cracked behind Rin, bringing her attention back to reality. The pain in her heel pulsed and her head began to spin again. In the near distance, she could detect heavy, uneven footsteps. Two sets of them, ploddingly attended with low, unconcerned laughter. Men.

Rin’s freezing shoulders tightened and she adjusted her posture, to make herself seem larger, less afraid. But there was a shaking coming from deep inside of her, and she was sure it would be apparent to anybody predatory. The same dull, resigned dread rose up in her as before. She walked slightly faster, and dropped her arms, letting them swing freely at her sides. She had to get away from them, but project cool, unfocused calm at the same time. I must not be the weak gazelle, she thought. It was a silly thought, but that was exactly how the notion came to her: in the language of predators and prey.

This was a residential area. Families with dogs and children mingled with aging gay couples, college students, and immigrant families who had established themselves in the neighborhood decades ago. All in all, this was a safe place. Rin remembered a story in the news two summers prior — a headless body had washed up on Thorndale beach — but that was an anomaly, everyone had said. Just something that could happen anywhere, given sufficient time and population density. She had no reason to fear the men lumbering behind her.

Rin stopped at the corner of Clark and Catalpa and looked back, telling herself she would find two drunk dads making their way home after a rare night of irresponsibility. Instead she found two giant, wide-shouldered creatures made of stone, stepping slowly but heading straight for her, their eyes alight, their mouths glowing and oozing with something neon green and fungal.

Rin ran across Clark, past the bars that had shuttered their doors at 2am, not stopping at the intersection. She continued on, darting across Ashland, weaving around the median and a slowly passing, swerving green sedan with a driver who was probably drunk. Rin continued apace past the houses and small apartment complexes, up the side street, clutching at her chest to keep her breasts from bouncing painfully and slowing her down. She could hear the steps coming faster now, and more evenly, the low laughter growing until she realized it was probably not laughter at all; it was growling, feral and hungry.

Rin sprinted until the taste of lactic acid build up in her throat. Home was a distance hope for her now; all she cared about was escape. After Ashland, she passed a few side streets then reached the dead end of Catalpa, where it intersected with Ravenswood and the elevated train tracks. Below the tracks there was a pedestrian tunnel, decorated with mosaics and lit by a single bare bulb. It was about six feet high and five feet wide. She did not hesitate to run inside, hoping it would slow down her massive pursuers.

The tunnel was dank and cool, the walls lined with tile and mirror images of trees and snowflake patterns. The ground was wet and slick with runoff and smelled like sewage. The tunnel sloped down until it came to the midpoint, halfway under the train tracks, where there was a sewer grate that slowly sucked up the moisture. Rin’s sandals caught on the edge of the grate, and she pitched forward, a muffled scream escaping her mouth.

She fell onto her hands and knees. Pain shot from her palms to her elbows, and from her knees to her upper thighs. She could hear the stones thumping in the distance. When she rose, Rin was faced with a pale, tall man with ashen skin and yellow eyes, smoking a corn cob pipe.

Rin’s gasp came out sounding almost like a laugh. She curled in on herself and backed away from the man, then stood to her full height. She tried stepping to the right, to get past him and continue on, but he sidestepped and blocked her egress.

“Excuse me,” Rin mumbled again. She hoped he was just an eccentric neighbor, or a homeless man. Most homeless people were utterly harmless, even pleasant to speak to; she knew that, she knew better than to fear them just because life had treated them brutally. He might be slow or strange in his movements, but that didn’t mean he was a beast like the things chasing her. Rin pivoted on her heel and tried to squeeze past him again.

Somehow the old man beat her to the spot, and when she startled, he snorted and pushed her back. She backed up quickly, not taking her eyes from him. It didn’t make a difference; as soon as she was a few feet away from him, her appeared again, this time behind her, his chest pressing into her back. She jumped away and turned, and there he was once more, on the side of the tunnel, leaning against the mirrored wall. Rin froze in place.

For an elderly man, he was tall, with long arms and stooping, almost birdlike shoulders. His mouth was thin and hung low, like that of an old, sad dog. He reminded Rin of a looming, scavenging bird, and she realized that now she was not a gazelle fleeing lions. She was a dying wildebeast being circled by a much more patient predator. His yellow eyes were impassive, almost bored, and his greasy hair fell in an uneven part, like a mass of unpreened feathers. He took a step toward her, then another, and she drew back, turned, and found him standing before her again.

No matter how quickly she turned, Rin could only ever see one of the man at a time. Yet he was everywhere. She spun, arms extended to keep him at bay, eyes fluttering open and closed in panic, wishing he was a bad dream that would just go away. He kept reappearing, always a foot or two from her, but moving in closer. Rin’s frantic movements delivered her back to the top of the sewer grate, where she stood, dizzy, panting, and ready for the worst.

“I don’t have any money or anything to give you,” she sobbed.

The man frowned with mock sympathy and leaned in. He pushed a lock of her hair from her forehead, then made a disapproving tsking sound. he made it over and over again, leaning in close so she could smell the moldy, sulphurous quality of his breath. Tsk tsk tsk tsk. Rin let out an audible sob, and said, “Please,” and he chuckled wheezily.

“Let me go,” Rin said, her voice breaking. She knew that if this went on much longer, she’d be reduced to making offers, bartering for her freedom. Or else she’d have to fight. Maybe he wasn’t strong. She could try to push back, or claw his eyes out with her nails. Sheer terror kept her from trying. Fear had her shaking and frozen in place.

The man just kept playing with her hair. Rin studied him, hoping that at least she could fix his appearance in her memory, so she could report him if she made it out alive. He was wearing long, grey, nondescript clothing. It was hard for her to look at them straight on, somehow. Her eyes passed over the man’s formless torso, but registered no particular cut, style, or fit.

With a long intake of breath, Rin tried to turn her gaze upward, to his face. She turned her head and stared into the man’s tired, loose-hanging taupe skin. His visage was impossible to pin down. It gave her a sick, cold feeling. She couldn’t articulate to herself a single detail about the shape of his nose, the size of his lips, or where his cheekbones sat. The eyes were bright yellow, like a piece of amber shot full of light, but that was all she could focus on. If she stared into the eyes for too long, her vision shook and spun out. It was better, she decided, to stand still and let him touch her, with her eyes glued to the ground.

The man took her chin in his hand. Her mouth opened for him reflexively, seemingly against her will. He felt around inside her mouth, touching her teeth. She shook while he extended his fingers all the way back to her molars.

He patted Rin’s shoulder with his other hand, then tilted her head back. His fingers went past the breaking gums where her wisdom teeth were coming in, past her tongue, and down her throat. It was then that Rin bit down as hard as she could, digging her teeth into his flesh and cutting through until she felt bone. The man backed away, startled, and Rin swallowed the thick, hot blood that had flowed into her mouth.

Rin pushed the man back and took off running, her sandals slapping the wet ground. She went back east out of the tunnel, and turned left, up the road that hugged the train tracks. The stone beings came up from behind her, thumping the ground, emitting the same low, dark laughter or growling as before. She looked back at them to get a better look.

They were massive, grey-faced pillars of firm muscle, easily seven or eight feet tall with fists permanently formed and swinging at their sides. Their features were deep-set and garishly massive, with square grey teeth bared in rictus, painful grins. Rin saw pulpy, dark wet spots and slimy viscera on their feet and hands.

Rin darted through the tree lawns and onto the sidewalk. As she ran, she opened gates behind her and knocked over trash cans, hoping to slow the beasts down. They crashed through the obstructions with little trouble, sending garbage and hunks of split metal flying and crashing down onto the road. Rin pumped her arms and wailed for help.

A few blocks ahead of her, she saw the glowing porchlights of Fireside, a 4am bar across the street from a cemetery. It was a dive that served cheap, greasy food and stomach-turning cocktails, and Rin had spent a few late nights there before. She prayed that it was still open, or that at least there were bartenders smoking outside after closing up. Even a few drunks ambling their way home would have been a blessing.

Screaming for help, Rin scrambled over the fence that contained the Fireside patio, and pressed her face to the windows. She banged on it and jumped up and down as she scanned the inside. It was completely dark and empty. Closed. Rin swallowed and turned, preparing herself to bolt again. There she saw an old woman with long salt and pepper hair sitting on the patio fence. Not again, Rin thought.

The woman had long sea-green colored limbs, and a throat that was reddened and cut open. The wound was purple, clotted, and not bleeding. When Rin caught sight of her, the woman rose and walked in her direction. The crone was small and frail, and Rin found herself taking the woman by the shoulders and shaking her, shrieking, “You’ve got to help me! You’ve got to help me!”, not knowing why she expected anything but more terror.

The woman opened her mouth and a rich, fruity stink emanated from her. She said something to Rin but no sound came out.

The stone beasts were coming up from behind, making massive gashes in the pavement with each fall of their huge, round, bloody feet. Behind them, Rin could see the old man hovering above the ground, rushing at her, and the young man from the bar, crawling like a feral dog with his fearsome teeth bared.

Rin tugged at the woman’s tattered clothes once more. The woman grabbed Rin’s arm and looked at her with wild-eyed desperation. She spoke soundlessly again, her gums gnawing at her bottom lip.

“Fff,” was all the woman could get out. “Fff.”

She took Rin and turned her, towards the cemetery across the road. The entrance was a ten foot tall shuttered gate, set inside a castle facade made of white stone. Atop the fake parapet, the words Rosehill Cemetery were soldered into a black metal sheet. The woman nudged Rin towards it. When Rin did not move, she slapped her hard on the face. It felt like a rush of icy cold water.

“Fff,” the woman said. “Fffeeeaa,”

One of the stone beasts crashed against the patio fence, and tore it from the ground. He hurled it to the side, where it struck the barrier the train tracks sat upon. The other beast was ripping a bike rack from the ground and pulling its curved metal straight.

Rin bolted out of the patio entrance and across the road, to the gate of the cemetery. The gate was locked but there was a clearance of a foot and half between each of the bars. She went through them sideways, looking back at the woman as the larger of the beasts advanced upon her, taking her frail body in between its fists and shaking her like a rag doll.

Purple slime and tangled tendons and viscera tumbled from the old woman’s neck wound, and rained upon the patio steps. The beasts took turns pulverizing the guts into the pavement and shaking more from the woman’s body, until there was nothing but a thin, green skin and bones left.

The old man and the young man reached them, and stood in place, staring across the road at Rin. The old man muttered something, and the young man snarled and gave chase, his fingers digging into the ground as he launched himself across the road and leapt at the gate where Rin stood.

Rin pushed through the gate, and pulled off her left sandal, and struck the young man in the head with it. She stumbled back, falling on her behind, and the young man’s arms reached through the metal to grab her. She kicked him in the chest, and her other sandal went flying out, into the road. The young man pressed his head through the gap in the gate and he roared at her, saliva foaming at the corners of his mouth and oozing from his long, grey teeth.

Rin stood back, watching. The young man growled and reached for her, but began to slow down as the blood appeared on his forehead where he’d been struck. Behind him, the old man was looming but not approaching. He called to them, his words musical and deep and in a language Rin had never heard before.

The young man pushed his chest through the grate, tilting his body at an angle to make it through. He became stuck at the hips. Rin felt around on the gravel around her and located a rock about the size of her palm, and flung it at him, screaming.

“GET OUT!” she said. “GET OUT OF HERE!”

The young man took the rock to the chest and shook the pain off, and kept pushing through towards her. He strained against the bars and began to gasp. His eyes rolled up in his skull as he reached for her. Rin watched as he struggled, and slid down until his stomach and chest hung against the bottom rung. His claws dug into the gravel. He moaned and thrashed, slowing down further, until his head dropped to the ground and his body went limp.

The old man yelled behind him. The stone beasts came running, their chests now stained with the old woman’s blood and pulverized organs. Rin turned into the cemetery and ran again, heaving with panic and fatigue.

Rin could hear the beasts growling as she ran, but they were not gaining on her. She did not hear them push through the gate. The old man’s screams of anguish lessened too, then disappeared into the distance. The gravel path crested ahead of Rin, culminating in a great hill that was steep to the point of nearly being insurmountable. She pressed on, eyes closed, begging for escape.

Rin’s legs began to burn and cry out for her to stop, and she slowed, falling at last to her knees. As she fell, everything slowed down and expanded around her. She crawled on her hands and knees towards the chapel at the top of the hill. Her belt seemed to enlarge, and fell down her hips and around her legs, then disappeared behind her.

Her dress slid off her shoulders and hung around her rib cage, then fluttered off her body. Her bra and underwear went next, opening up around her and then catching on the gravel as she dragged her body along. With one last firm tug, she moved herself up the hill and left it all behind. When she finally ran out of energy and fell to the ground, she flung out her arms to catch her head, but they were not arms at all, just dappled, furry short appendages topped off with dark black, pointed claws.

Rin rolled over, and tried resting her head on one of her small, fuzzy arms, and found that her whole body felt considerably lighter and more delicate, and yet she was not cold. She looked down and saw that her whole torso had become covered with a layer of mottled brown and black fur. She gasped for air and stared forward, too exhausted to fully process what was happening, too close to death too much care.

Rin blinked and looked her body up and down, but could not make sense of the sight before her. Her vision had become cloudy and dull, with the edges of every object ill-defined. Colors were muted. She could smell the rich earth of the graves around her, and detected a sour, acidic tinge of fertilizer mingled with fresh dew. The grass rose up around her, forming a canopy of long, angular blades as tall as she was. The graves in the distance swelled and shifted until they were huge obelisks and mountains three, four, five times her height.

Rin’s body relaxed against her will and she fell onto her back, and found herself looking past the vast canopy of grass, to a cloudy haze of towering tree branches set before a twilit sky. The sky was lightening, with not a star to be seen. Back east, in the direction that she had come, Rin could see an impossibly huge, purple sun rising from behind the cemetery’s gate.

It all made no sense, but Rin now lacked the energy to grapple with it. At last she was utterly exhausted, and no longer afraid; no longer she at all, really, but it — for as Rin looked down at its furry paws and long, sinewy body, it lacked the language to remark on anything that had happened. It did not know how to make sense of the terror that has risen in its body, and propelled it such great distances just a few moments before. It knew only now that it was a small, strong, naked animal, and that it had survived its chase, and that now it was time to head towards a tree, and to dig a burrow, to curl up on itself, and to allow sleep to fill its small, confused, and frantic brain, until the day arrived in earnest, beckoning it to go forage for food.

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