It seems fitting to end 2020 with a horror story.
Fair warning, this one is dark, so don’t forget you can check out the content warnings in the pop-out spoiler below if you wish to.
The cat was on the fridge. The owner was on the fridge too – and the walls, the floor, the windows, the bench top, the couch, even the lava lamp. Not that she was recognisable as human anymore; it looked more like someone had been trying to make a raspberry and vanilla milkshake and the blender had exploded. In a certain sense, that was what had happened, except the ingredients had once been a twenty-one-year-old girl, rather than inanimate pieces of food.
It had been tracking her for weeks.
She had seemed like a good candidate right from the second it first sensed her and in the end, its instinct was proven right. Her body was healthy, her life was fabulous, and her will was strong. Another of its kind might find the third of these a challenge. A reason to leave her alone. This one had found it the most essential element of all, for it did so love a good fight. Without the fight it almost wasn’t worth it.
So, it stalked her.
From November to Christmas, it followed her through every moment of her life and watched her at her best, worst, and everything in between. Because she had no idea it was there, she was not able to hide anything from it, not that it would have made any difference if she had known.
But it was more fun this way. This way it got to invade her intimately and get to know the real woman beneath the flesh that it would soon strip away in order to get at the essence that would be the only thing that remained when it was done, and which it would then have to tear to pieces in order to claim what it had now decided was rightfully its.
Matter was easy to manipulate, it had learned. Mind was another thing entirely.
So it went on – day after day, week after week – and all the while it slowly absorbed her life and she remained blissfully unaware. It learned her habits, hopes, dreams, despair, friends, enemies, lover, father, and mother. It learned her life just like she had learned Algebra or English back in school and took its education far more seriously.
It loved her.
It knew she would never understand this – that her destruction was the highest compliment it could possibly pay her, how it had passed over so many other much easier targets in order to be with her – and that saddened it, but there was nothing to be done about it. There was always regret. Such was life. In order to have life, it had to do what it had to do. She might not understand on a human level, but it knew deep down that she would know deep down that it made logical sense.
It watched, and it waited. Made sure it acquired all the knowledge it would need in order to live her life. The more it discovered her, the deeper its love grew. Although there was no doubt in its mind that it had been love at first sight, it found peeling back the layers of her life almost as exciting as it would find peeling back the layers of her skin in the end. Just the thought of it filled it with such ecstasy that it almost couldn’t bear to think of how it would be when it finally possessed her.
It was almost afraid of it.
But that was not enough to stop it.
It had possessed countless others before. That was what it did, after all. But none had ever been like this. Where the others had been weak, she was strong. They came apart too easily, and sometimes it had not even been able to put them back together afterwards. Sometimes it had been incomplete, or unsatisfactory, and even when it was, the satisfaction didn’t last.
But this time was going to be different, it could feel it. This one was going to be the last one. It was the dream of all its kind but one that few ever realised. It knew it was special, just as she was, and the thought of their combined uniqueness filled it with an anticipation that nearly killed it as surely as its own breakdown would.
It happened every time it lost a host.
As its suit of flesh gradually failed, so did its own essence. It could only survive so long on its own and its continued existence relied on finding another suitable host before its abilities were diminished to the point where it would not have the energy to hold itself together, let alone put a new host back together. This was the longest it had gone between hosts and it knew it was testing its limits, flying too close to the sun, but it was absolutely certain that she was worth the wait, and the risk.
Far from fading, it seemed to draw strength just from spending time with her and at night, when she slept, it chipped away the tiniest little pieces of her to sustain itself whilst it waited for the rest. The slices it made were so small that it took no more flesh than she would otherwise have shed in the night anyway, except this way it was feeding the thing that would soon become her, and not just the dust mites.
When it tasted her it also tested her for compatibility and found the results almost too delicious to tolerate.
Oh yes, she was definitely the one.
It watched her every second of the day, but its favourite time was when she slept. Then she was herself. No airs, no graces, no clothes, no shields. Just her, completely at rest and utterly exposed. It watched her, and it worried for her.
It feared for itself too. What if one of her own kind had seen the same thing in her that it had and decided that they must possess her as well? It did not know if, in its current state, it would be strong enough to fight them off. At full strength it could take on an entire army and leave nothing more than an old wives’ tale about impossible decimation and disappearances behind.
It wondered, sometimes, whether any humans knew that it was where the phrase “vanishing without a trace” had come from.
The phrase was a lie of course. There were always traces. Sometimes they were just very, very hard to find because by the time it was done there was very, very little left. It knew, with this one, it had to be careful like never before, so it slowly started to take more and more of her during the night. Even so, it barely made a mark on her flesh. Once or twice she woke in the morning wondering where a small scratch on her arm or other spot had come from but merely wrote it off as having scraped against something during the night.
The strength it gained from just these tiny tastes of her was incredible. Usually it had to consume an entire person before its power was replenished but it found its energy and abilities more and more restored every time that it took its tiny bites out of her.
It went from so weak to so strong in such a short time that it began practising integrating well before it usually would. Its first tentative forays into her mind were agonising and terrifying because she had such strong defences even when she was unaware of its attacks, and it was petrified of doing too much damage too soon. It started with her dreams, because it was easier to invade her unconscious mind. Slowly, slowly, it put its intangible feelers out and felt about for any opening it might be able to exploit.
It learned much from her dreams. If only people knew what they revealed about themselves whilst they slept. Dreams might not be reality or even a distorted reflection of it, but they said something about the substance of a person, deep down, and that was what it needed to get to. Somewhere in there lay the key to understanding and unlocking her which would help it win the war against her will when the moment finally came.
Progress was slow, and its frustration built.
The bites grew bigger.
The days dragged by and it took more and more of her in the night. One day she woke, found herself covered in marks, and realised something was wrong. For a single terrifying instant it worried that she somehow knew of its existence, but then she picked up her phone and dialled the number for her doctor. She suspected a skin condition, not a prelude to an invasion. It salivated to itself as it watched her change her sheets and rub the skin cream on.
Let her think it was mites, whilst it continued to bite.
It accompanied her everywhere and learned her every friend, enemy, and routine. It made sure to pay proper attention to everything it encountered. It practised the musicality of her laugh, the crack of her knuckles, the way she rolled her eyes when she expressed sarcasm and the way she shivered when her lover touched her. It could not yet feel these sensations itself, but it knew the moment was coming, and as it watched her back arch and her body shudder in her boyfriend’s arms it imagined that it would feel much the same way when it possessed her as the man who was with her did.
It loved these intimate moments most of all. She let her guard down at last and it was able to make far more significant inroads against her defences when she cast off her cares along with her clothes. Even better, it could feed on her body as much as her mind, knowing that any and all scratches and scrapes would be blamed on their enthusiasm and not questioned.
Its frustration mounted along with its anticipation. It knew its own ecstasy would soon take the place of hers and it had to be patient but day by day it found it harder not to lose control and rip her apart. Only the reminder that if it did so before either of them was ready they would both die, and there would be no chance for resurrection, held it back.
So it vented its frustration in other ways.
It began by tormenting the cat.
Cats were tricky, it knew from experience. There was something more to them than your average animal and they had seen through its disguise on more than one occasion prior. Not this time, it vowed. It would be put in its place or it would be disposed of before it could cause trouble.
It practised moving objects around her apartment until it finally felt like it was starting to gather some strength, then honed its control by aiming them at the cat. It started to enjoy those moments almost as much as it enjoyed her, but only because it meant the time was drawing near.
It watched, it waited, it studied, and it learned. As Christmas drew closer, so did the inevitable confrontation. It felt confident, but wary. It now knew every aspect of her life inside and out and indeed it knew her in the same way, in every possible sense, and it was excited about the life that it would soon adopt, with nobody the wiser.
At long, long last, the moment came.
It sat through Christmas with her family and the compulsory Boxing Day sales and visits with the grandparents and the boyfriend’s parents. It even took her nieces and nephews to an animal shelter with her to pick out a puppy and managed to enjoy going with her to buy a new collar for the cat. All the while it continued to infiltrate; to push along the dark, delicate road to proper possession. Always seeking, searching out the key.
Then, as the year came to a close, it finally found it.
December 31st. New Year’s Eve.
She came home after a long, last day at work for the year and sat down wearily on the couch. Took off her shoes and scratched the cat’s ears as it wound itself around her legs, purring. Picked the cat up, hugged it tight, and just sat for a while, letting the weight of the world slip off her shoulders.
At 6pm she cooked dinner and watched the evening news. At 7pm she had a shower, and by 8pm she was ready. She checked her reflection in the mirror and checked her voicemail. She had a message from the boyfriend detailing the landmark they would meet by in the square so they could find each other in the crowd.
She memorised it, and then erased it.
It memorised it, and then erased her.
There could be no warning of the attack, so she never knew what was coming, even when it hit. One moment she was standing in the kitchen, reaching for her coat, and the next she was being blown into a billion pieces by something she could neither see nor name. It was not painless or instantaneous. It took a long time to take her apart, and she felt every single slice. She did try to fight, and lasted longer than anyone else had, as it had known she would. It felt proud of her even as it destroyed her.
But it did not stop, and it tore her mind to pieces even as it shredded her flesh.
At some point, she miraculously became aware of what was happening to her. She opened what remained of her eyes and seemed to stare straight into the thing that she could not see. Gathered what remained of her will, directed it at it, and almost defeated it. But there was simply not enough of her will left, and not enough of her left to survive even if she prevailed and so she would never know how close she came, in that blink of an eye, to overthrowing a thing that had never been beaten.
It admired her even as it threw everything it had at her and finally, mercifully, she died.
Taking her apart had taken more out of it than it had ever lost, and it worried for a while that it would not be able to put her back together again. But, ever so slowly, it sought out all the splatter that seemed to cover every surface in her apartment and started to make sense of it all. It could not afford to miss a single particle or the process would never be complete and it would die as surely as she had.
It took an agonisingly long time to build a body out of the mess and to incorporate itself into it but finally, at 11pm, it stood in front of her mirror and looked into her reflection from behind her eyes and not behind her shoulder.
It had flesh! It was whole. It smiled at itself and marvelled at its good fortune. It looked at the clock. It was creeping close to midnight. She would have to go soon or be late. It went around the apartment and gathered up the things that would be needed. Handbag, coat, ID, keys, scarf…
The cat was still on the fridge. This was the true test. If it could fool the peculiar feline sensibility, it could fool anything. It put the handbag down and moved towards the animal. The cat watched it. As it moved closer, the cat moved back. It reached out a hand and the cat flattened its ears and hissed. It was tempted to just kill the thing but instead it stuck its hand out again. The cat spat and took a swipe at it. It scowled.
It was the first words that it had spoken, and they felt good. It also seemed to do something to the cat, which recognised its owners voice and pricked its ears up. It wagged a finger at the cat and spoke more softly.
The cat inched closer. It offered its hand once more and this time the cat sniffed it. It held its breath and waited. The cat leaned forward and rubbed its head against its hand. It smiled and stroked the cat’s ears, then scooped it up and squeezed it, held it up in front of its face and told it off. Finally, it put the cat down on the floor, turned off the lights, and went out into the night.
It remembered the way to the square without trouble and skipped along the pavement with the pure joy of being alive. Because it was New Year’s Eve, nobody noticed. It felt the cold air in its lungs, the warmth of the scarf around its neck, watched its breath in front of its face, and knelt down to feel the snow on its hands.
It made it to the meeting place just in time and was pulled into a series of hugs by a group of gathered friends. The boyfriend called out “Hallelujah!” when he saw what he recognised as her and grabbed its hand and pulled it through the crowd to the front.
As the clock struck midnight he leaned down and kissed it, then spun it around so its back was to him, wrapped it in his arms, and held it tight. They stood there, together, watching in wonder as a spectacular fireworks display lit up the sky overhead. All around, people were celebrating wildly and loudly.
The thing which now had form stood amongst them and celebrated silently. It felt the chill of the night, the warmth of the embrace, and the satisfaction of knowing it had gotten away with the most heinous of crimes. Everywhere, the same shout rang out, and as the seconds ticked by and it moved into the first year of its newly acquired life it smiled and added its own voice to the throng.
Happy New Year.
© Copyright 2020, Grace Penney*
*This version – this is another old favourite that was on my old blog back in the before times.