He descended the steps to the basement timidly, each footfall an echo of winter on cold concrete. As he reached for the doorknob, the distinct smell of wet dog hit him and he paused; scrunched his nose, thought twice about going in. He was allergic to dogs. He might sneeze.
The heavy wooden door creaked open like an old woman complaining about her sciatica, and he stood still in the black ink shadow it cast on him. He was waiting for his eyes to adjust and realized he wasn’t breathing, so the whoosh-whoosh sound in his ears was the only proof he had that he was really still alive.
His hand reached instinctively to the place on the wall next to the door where anyone would expect to find a light switch, and a flood of relief went from his fingertips to the center of his soul when they grazed the familiar plastic form…
He recoiled, shielding his eyes with his forearms while his brain tried to sort out the information of shapes and images that the light conjured from the dark.
Boxes and pictures and old furniture, and there. There in the far corner.
She was sitting on the floor with her knees folded into her chest, her arms wrapped around herself in a hug that was meant to make her as small as she could possibly get. Her hands, he noticed… her delicate long fingers were wrapped around the cold hard steel of a not-so-small handgun. He didn’t know anything about guns. But the way she held it was an instant education.
He said her name.
She lifted her eyes to meet him, a look of muted surprise and distant threatening storms. Even in the shadows it was the most beautiful face he’d ever seen. He was kind of sorry that he hadn’t told her that more often.
“Don’t,” she said, as she gripped the gun tighter and aimed it at him, emphasizing her command. Her plea. Don’t.
The air around her began to bend in a way that he could see but not fully comprehend. He felt like his eyes were relaxing and playing tricks on him, and his mind recalled those posters that use to be popular that if you stared at it just right, a three-dimensional image would come to life.
But he wasn’t relaxing his eyes, and what he was seeing, he couldn’t quite make sense of. It was as if one detail materialized at a time… a flared and dripping nostril became attached to a grotesque nose, a wiry, whiskered snout and large, glassy eyes… teeth meant for ripping flesh from bone holding back sandpaper tongues… fur and skin and scales and all the worst parts of any animal you could find at the zoo.
She was surrounded by monsters. And every one of them stared straight at him as if they’d already judged him and found him wanting.
Twenty, thirty… too many to count. They were there, but not there, filling the space around her and exchanging the damp basement air for invisible fire. He could smell them, the wet dog smell. And something else. Something like Mexican Elder trees just before it rains and soil that’s been freshly ploughed. The monsters crumbled between two worlds like the images on a poorly tuned old television, appearing long enough to silently introduce themselves. He furrowed his brow, took a step toward her.
They all lurched forward in orchestral unison, she a conductor with a gun in an intense supernatural standoff.
He held his hands up, the universal signal for surrender. He could see it in her eyes, then, and in an instant he understood.
She didn’t need to be saved from these awful things that surrounded her.
She was their leader.