For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Invisible Stalker
You are trapped in your apartment with an invisible, silent, almost certainly malevolent presence. You don’t know what its intentions are but it has targeted you, it has tricked its way inside, and no matter what you do it is coming for you.
You hear feet scraping on the pavement and you move to make room for them to pass. But when you glance over your shoulder, no one’s there. Your feet tangle. The empty sidewalk stymies you for a moment. It’s hard to qualify exactly why you feel so puzzled, you only misheard. But it was more than that, the sense that someone was right behind you was so very strong. You could practically feel the weight of their body about to brush past yours. Feel the breeze displaced by their movement on the back of your neck. But no one is standing or walking behind you.
A car passes, headlights gleaming. A knot of people, laughing, stroll by on the other side of the street. The stillness immediately behind you somehow takes on an unnatural edge. As if the breeze has suddenly dropped, or something is blocking it. But you smile and shake your head, wondering what brought on this sudden paranoia.
Your shopping bags are heavy, the handles squeeze your hands. You turn and keep moving in the direction of your apartment building. You try to put that weird sensation out of your mind but as you start walking you swear you hear someone behind you again. They wait for a moment but then match your pace almost exactly. You hear the scrape of feet echoing your strides. When you look though, there’s still no one there.
The shape of this neighbourhood is changing, gentrification. Your apartment building is an old one but there are new buildings looming, towering, over the originals, some still under construction. This didn’t used to be a safe place to walk at night and some parts of it still don’t feel safe, even though they probably are. An old storefront, an alley, a street corner, that just feel stained in some way. Little patches of darkness. Maybe that’s what triggered this unsettled feeling. But they’re surrounded by light and safety, there’s no reason to be scared. New mixes with old. Cafes and candle stores, and little art galleries, next to independent grocery stories, tattoo parlours, and clinics. Artificial character mixed in with real, just like the hipsters buy into until they destroy everything about a place that they claim to love. But you like the cafes and candle stores and art galleries, so it’s hard to complain.
The sidewalks and streets are damp. Puddles and mushy garbage collect in the gutters. You hesitate at a sidestreet, looking both ways. With a hop, you avoid a puddle. Halfway across the street, you hear something splash behind you. You look back and see water rippling in the gutter as if someone has just stepped through it.
You continue to your apartment building. Struggling a little with your keys, the handle, the grocery bags, you make your way inside. The lights in the common area are on a motion sensor and they flicker to life as you enter.
Behind you, the door drifts closed. And then it bounces. If you didn’t know better, you’d say someone shouldered it open just before it could close. You feel a breeze and hear something that could, could, be the patter of feet on the entryway’s tiles. But as you twist and turn to identify the source of these anomalies there’s nothing there. The door glides shut. A small patch of shine on the floor catches your eye. It’s a footprint, fresh and perfectly formed, as if someone has been walking barefoot on the damp sidewalk and they entered just ahead of you.
The building has no elevators. You carry your shopping up the carpeted stairs. Your heart is racing much too hard to be explained by the little bit of physical exertion. You force a smile, you try to laugh. You’re being weird and paranoid, and you try to convince yourself to lighten up.
At the door to your apartment, you fumble between your keys and shopping again. You move with exaggerated care and a casual air, like a prisoner in an interrogation room on the mirrored side of one way glass. The door swings open and you move to block the gap with your body but something almost seems to give one of your shopping bags a hard yank. A can of cooking spray falls out of the bag and rolls across the landing. Without thinking, you give chase and stop it before it rolls down the stairs. You check the bag for rips but it’s fine. It’s unclear how the cooking spray fell free. When you turn back, the door to your apartment is wide open.
You enter your apartment and turn on the light. Nothing looks disturbed but you feel unsettled. It’s the kind of feeling you get when someone’s been in your room and they’ve moved a few things around. You can’t consciously identify what’s changed but you know it in your gut.
You live alone in a two bedroom apartment. You enter directly into the living area and across the room is a separate kitchen. The bathroom and two bedrooms are down a corridor on the other side of the apartment. Most of the furnishings come from Ikea but there’s a few pieces of art on the walls that you’re proud of. You’re messy, but not too messy. The apartment is untidy but not dirty.
You hesitate just inside the doorway. Your heart thunders. The door clicks shut behind you. You don’t know what to do with your shopping. One of the bags could be used as a weapon. It’s heavy but not that solid. Swinging it at someone would probably distract them more than hurt them.
“I know you’re in here,” you say, aloud, to the clearly empty apartment.
It’s a joke, you tell yourself. You’re kidding around, with no one to hear you being weird anyway. It’s the equivalent of thinking, as loudly as you can, ‘I know you’re reading my mind’ to a roomful of people to see if anyone looks at you funny. But something reacts. You don’t see any movement but across the room a jacket, thrown over the back of a chair, suddenly falls and drops to the floor. The timing is one hell of a coincidence. It’s almost as if someone, surprised at your statement, brushed against the jacket and knocked it loose.
“Oh, God,” you say.
A plastic plant at one end of your bookshelf rustles. Something, someone, unseen, you assume moving from the table and across the back of the living room in the direction of the bedrooms. You move in the other direction. Still carrying your shopping, you circle the living room and head toward the kitchen. Your legs feel weak, shaky. Your breathing rasps as if there’s not enough room in your chest.
In the kitchen, you hurl the shopping bags onto the counter. Contents spill. Defrosting goods leak moisture. You cross to your knife block by the sink and withdraw a butcher’s blade. With swinging arms and exploratory jabs, you cover enough of the kitchen to be assured that it is truly empty.
This is insane. This is genuine mental illness territory. You’ve never had any reason to doubt your own mental acuity before, but actually thinking you’re being pursued by some invisible presence because of a couple of weird sounds and coincidences? You’re being crazy. But what if you’re not? What if you unpack your shopping, make something to eat, and relax for the evening, and that’s exactly what this person or thing is waiting for?
You stop at the entryway of your kitchen, blocking it with your body. You feel confident you can turn your back on the kitchen but the rest of your apartment is an unknown element. Your living space looks unfamiliar, and threatening, like a foreign No Man’s Land.
“This is crazy,” you say, but you’re past that. Something, some presence, some invisible thing, is in here with you regardless of how sane that sounds.
You have your phone with you. You hold it in one hand and keep the butcher knife in the other. You should call someone, you think. Police. But what will the police do if you call them and tell them you think there’s someone in your apartment? They’ll come to investigate of course, they’ll no doubt do a thorough check. But what happens when you tell them you think the person is still there they just can’t see them? You could leave, but then what? Never come back? How can you ever be sure this invisible stalker isn’t there when you return?
“Hello? Are you there?” you ask the empty room. “What do you want?”
Nobody answers. As far as any outside observer would be able to see, you’re completely alone. Even you can’t trust your own perception.
“If you leave-, if you just leave, this is all over. I won’t call anyone, I won’t tell anyone.”
Again, for what feels like a long time, nothing happens. And then suddenly your apartment’s front door swings open as if of its own accord. It gives you a fright and confirms to you, with a mix of terror and satisfaction, that you’re not going crazy. That the invisible presence, person, whatever, really exists. The door hangs open for a moment and then drifts closed.
You feel a wave of relief. They’re gone. But then, the lock on your door ratchets closed. This creature, whatever it is, didn’t have a key. The only way it could have locked that door is from the inside.
You are trapped in your apartment with an invisible, silent, almost certainly malevolent presence. You don’t know what its intentions are but it has targeted you, it has followed you, it has tricked its way inside, and it is still confident that you can’t stop it even with your knife and phone. Your mind races. You pull bits of movies and television shows featuring invisible villains from your memories.
“Okay, you want to do it like that? I can do that.”
You try to keep a brave face but your heart is thumping against your chest hard enough to hurt. Your breathing feels short. You back up into the kitchen. You think of the footprint you saw downstairs on the tiles. It would suggest the presence is human or at least shaped like one, just invisible. The fact it was barefoot suggests, like so many movies and shows, that they could be naked as they’re not able to turn their clothes invisible with them. That means they can’t be carrying any invisible weapons. They’re assumptions but good ones, you think. They give you some feeling of having a measure of control over the situation.
Reversing across the kitchen, you throw the cupboards open. Shoving your phone into your pocket, keeping the knife, you grab a bag of flour. It’s full, unopened, you bought it after that lockdown baking craze had already passed and never used it. Using the tip of your knife, you slash the top of the bag open. Your hands shake but you force them to steady. Raising the bag, you scatter flour across the kitchen. White powder drifts to the ground, uninterrupted, suggesting the kitchen is empty.
You move to the kitchen doorway. With the flour, you can section off the apartment piece by piece. You scatter some more in the area immediately outside the kitchen. Nothing catches in the air or on the ground. If somehow this turns out to all be in your head, you’re going to have a lot of mess to clean up. At the edge of the living room, you spray a wide arc into the air and watch it settle on your bookshelf, your fake plant, the back of your couch, and your carpet. Nothing touches it or disturbs it in any way that looks unnatural.
“Where are you?” you say.
Keeping your back to the wall, you circle the living room and scatter more flour. You make it to the front door without finding anything. You double check the lock. Your invisible stalker is still somewhere in the apartment with you.
Moving toward the bedrooms, you throw more flour ahead of you. It catches on nothing, not even a breeze. The knife handle grows sweaty in your grip. You don’t know what you plan to do with it if you actually find this guy. A ghost or a ghoul is one thing, but if this is really some invisible person, a person, you don’t know if you can bring yourself to stab someone. Maybe the knife is just to scare them off, or to take a slice at them, but not to kill them unless they try to kill you first.
You check the bathroom, scattering flour even inside the shower stall. You close the door behind you. You can’t lock it from the outside but unless you see that door open again you can consider it clear. You check the smaller bedroom first. It’s barely a child’s room really, more like an oversized closet. You’ve filled it with boxes of stuff you’ve never unpacked and some pieces of extra furniture. There’s not a lot of floorspace. You scatter some flour around anyway, finding nothing, and close the door to it as well. This is kind of like a game, you start to think. Maybe that’s exactly what it is to them, the invisible stalker, a game.
The doorway to your master bedroom looms open, dark inside. The bag of flour is almost empty. With the hand holding the bag, you grope at the lightswitch and turn it on. Your bed is unmade and there are clothes splashed across the floor. Nothing looks out of place. You can’t feel anything either. You listen for sounds of a body shuffling, for breathing, and hear nothing. Maybe they’ve looped around behind you. You press your back to the doorframe and move inside.
Something hits you from the side. You cry out. The bag of flour falls out of your hand. Fingers lock around your wrist. You look down and see the impression of someone’s grip on your sleeve, digging into your flesh, but you can’t see a hand. You tumble to the floor with someone on top of you. They ram your wrist into the corner of your closet. Another blow dislodges the knife from your grip. An invisible swipe sends the knife spinning across the floor.
“Let go!” you yell, surprised you can form actual words.
They say nothing but you can hear them panting, huffing, as they climb on top of you. Invisible hands grab your arms, your shoulders. Without thinking, you lash out. You hit something that isn’t there. You see your knuckles crease and your wrist bend, you feel it, as your fist lands on empty air. It’s hard to work out the shape of their body or where they are at any moment. They do seem to be human though, a man, not big, not small, with lean muscles. Strong enough to pin you down when combined with the advantage of you not being able to tell where they are.
One of your wrists is still pinned. You reach out with the other hand, clawing at whatever you can find. Something comes to rest in your palm. It’s soft, dangling, wrinkled. It’s familiar, in an intimate sense. The invisible man is standing over you, you realise, not kneeling, hunched over. You bunch your hand into a fist. You rip down, you twist. Finally, you hear a real noise from your attacker. It’s not words, it’s a strangled cry of obvious pain. They wrench away, out of your grip. They release their hold on your wrist. You see bits of clothing scuffed under invisible feet.
Rather than push your luck, you scramble to your feet and out of the room. You swing the door closed. Again, it doesn’t lock from the outside but it might slow them down. You run back to the kitchen. You leave footprints in the flour across the floor but you’re still wearing shoes and the invisible man is barefoot. You rip the phone out of your pocket. Even if the cops think you’re crazy, you need their help. But your hands shake so badly you can’t unlock it.
You hear your bedroom door crash open. You hear them crossing the living room, grunting and breathing hard. They still don’t speak. Your eyes go to the ground, watching the doorway. The invisible man collects himself, controlling his breathing, and everything goes silent again. And you wait. You wait for them to make the next move.
Puffs of flour suddenly appear and linger in the air just outside the kitchen. They’re coming. They realise you can see them and suddenly they rush the kitchen. You see a perfectly formed footprint smear itself into the linoleum just inside the kitchen doorway, seemingly unattached to any foot.
Your shopping is still lying on the counter. You drop your phone and grab for one of the bags. The cooking spray, the same can the invisible man pulled out of your groceries to distract you earlier. You knock the cap off of it and fling your arm around just as you feel something hit you again. You aim at where you think the invisible man’s face would be and push down on the aerosol. Cooking oil hisses and coats something only a handspan away.
You hear them cry out, another wordless howl of pain. Oil sticks to something, you can make out features, a face, a fringe of hair, coated in a yellowish slick. Then you see hands as well, oil sticking to them as the invisible man reaches up to protect their face. Blinded, visible, they stagger across the kitchen.
You return to the knife block. You took the biggest knife from it already, leaving it somewhere in your bedroom, but you grab the second biggest. It’s long and sharp, just not as thick. You round on the invisible man again without thinking. Oil coating his hands and face, the stalker lurches toward you with a wordless yell. You slam the knife forward, and he practically throws himself on top of it. The impact hammers through your arm, into your shoulder. The blade of the knife disappears, just disappears from view, and something wet and hot but invisible coats your hand. You pull the knife back, the blade reappearing like a magic trick or a prop knife. You jam it forward again. The knife disappears. The invisible man chokes. More hot, wet nothing splatters your arm and chest, your cheek. You release the knife. It backs away from you, the handle waggling in midair. Oily, barely visible hands grab the knife and withdraw it instead. The blade reappears and the knife falls to your kitchen floor with a clatter. You feel you should go for it but you hesitate. Footprints and then puffs of flour retreat away from you. You get a sense of the invisible man, only the oil on his face and the flour on his shins really visible, crossing the room to the front door. Your lock clicks. Handle fumbling, you watch the door wrench open. Any sense of the invisible man disappears and the door swings shut.
Carefully, you start across the living room. You keep your hands raised, shaking. They feel wet. You return to the front door and lock it. You don’t know how long you stand there, in shock. Struggling to control your breathing, you wander around the living room and back to the kitchen.
Something begins to appear on your hands, on the floor, and on some of the furniture. Your hands and clothing are turning red. There’s a trail of red splashed from the front door and all the way back to the kitchen. It’s heavier in the kitchen, mixing with the flour and turning it to sludge. Bright red arterial blood. It coats the kitchen floor and the knife dropped in the middle of it. You look back and see streaks and handprints smeared all over the front door. There’s so much of it, you clearly hit something important on one of those blind thrusts. There’s more blood than a person can afford to lose.
You feel a wave of relief. Something tells you, you won’t be seeing the invisible man around here anymore. That is, if you ever had to begin with.
Sean: Not the first story I’ve written in second person, which is a fun little way of putting a reader in the character’s shoes. This one though I hope is a little bit more empowering, and less insulting, than Escape from AllMart.
Had the idea for this when I was meeting some people out for the evening, in an area of Sydney very similar to the one described – once a bit dodgy at night but now very much gentrifying, and just got a sense of someone behind me… but nothing there. Personally I feel the questions in this one are better off unanswered, where did the invisible man come from? What did they want? Are there more of them out there? Is there one of them in the room with you right now? What was that sound? Did you just feel something brush your arm?
As we come toward the final month of this challenge, make sure you keep watching the website for updates and check out some of my earlier stories if you haven’t already! You can also find updates on Facebook, Twitter (for as long as that lasts), and Reddit.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Modron