Alan Jacob Campbell, the man with the terrible eyes, has been running, and he has been running now for three months.
It has been three months since leaving his Supervisor lying in a pool of blood beside Alan's dead and dying clones. It has been three months since leaving Iotech and the only city he's ever known. Three months since getting on a bus bound for nowhere in particular, beginning a journey whose only direction is as far away from Iotech as possible.
But though he is now in a constant metaphorical state of running, at the moment, he is sitting. One leg dangles over the side of the bed, sock-less foot inches away from the ground, the other leg crossed underneath him. He scans the newspaper he's reading --one free courtesy of a box outside the motel office-- until he finds the classifieds.
There are the usual sections and subsections he's come to recognize in these sorts of papers: people selling cars or large appliances, pets that need good homes, people either needing to hire or wanting to be hired. He scans the personal ads quickly and finds nothing. He doesn't allow himself to feel relieved, though, and searches the pets section.
For a moment, it looks as though everything here, too, is on the up and up until he comes across the one he's been looking for.
White Fur With Black Patches.
26 Years Old. Indeterminate Eye Color.
Last Seen in Baltimore, Maryland.
Will Be Accompanied by a Black Dog.
Shoot Black Dog on Sight.
Does Not Like Collars.
Needs A Collar.
If Found, Contact Iotech Industries at...
Followed by the phone number.
He sighs. In every newspaper he's encountered for the past several months, there has been an ad like this. Sometimes it's disguised like this one as a lost pet. Other times, as a personal ad-- "single white female seeking man of about 5'5, black hair, interesting eyes, good with electronics, considered highly dangerous. Will be accompanied by a large black dog. If interested, contact Iotech Industries." Or something like that. A couple times, he's even been listed as inanimate objects, usually as a car with indeterminate colored headlights, black hood, and faulty electrical wiring.
He folds the newspaper and tossed it aside. He'd been hoping that the farther away he'd get from Iotech, the less often these ads would crop up, but it seems Iotech has solicited every major and minor newspaper in the east coast. Unless they already owned them, he thinks.
The soft grunting and shuffle of movement that have been the background noise for the evening escalates into chitinous clicking and growling interspersed by a few short, sharp barks.
"Hey," Alan says, rolling to the other side of the bed and peering over the edge. "Cut it out."
Dog is on the thinly carpeted floor, lying on his back, legs awkwardly paddling the air while dozens of shiny black beetles crawl all over him. Dog's tail beats wildly, stirring dust from the carpet up in clouds and kicking off the few beetles unwise enough to crawl onto his tail.
"Careful, Dog," he says. Dog barks happily in response. Whether Dog understands the words or not is still up for debate; sometimes Alan is certain he understands English, and other times Dog seems as dumb as any other animal.
"Keep it down," he says. "I'm not supposed to have pets here."
Dog says nothing, but his happy wriggling with the beetles calms down some. A few beetles crawl up the leg of the bed Alan is sitting on and skitter up his arms.
"Hey, Bugsy," he says, bringing a familiar little bug on his hand up to his face. He doesn't know why he can pick Bugsy out of the crowd; there's nothing physically distinctive about it, nevertheless, in the past few weeks, he's come to know Bugsy as the beetles spokesbug. Bugsy clicks in what Alan presumes to be a greeting, and he lightly strokes the beetle's back with his finger. Other beetles, seeing him, leave Dog and go to him. He dutifully pets them one by one.
He leans back, resting semi-upright against a pile of pillows he's made, still stroking the bugs, and scans the room. It's drearily familiar; they've been hiding here for a week. It's small, has one dresser, a closet, a bed, and a desk with a TV that doesn't work and hasn't worked since before Alan arrived-- something he's grateful for as if it had been working, he's certain the mere extended exposure to him would've broken it anyway. This way he doesn't have to worry about paying for it.
After the fortieth bug or so, the room begins to feel small. It's too hot; the ceiling fan's lazy spin isn't doing anything to cool off the hot summer air.
"Okay, guys," he says, sitting up. "Enough." He slides off the bed. The beetles cling to his clothes as a sort of game, and he has to pick them off a few at a time and place them back on the bed. "I mean it. I'm going out."
Dog perks up with a curious wuff sound.
"Just to the corner store. I'm thirsty, and I'm sick of tap water."
Dog starts getting up, but Alan says, "Stay here. I kinda just want some fresh air alone, you know?"
Dog whines uncertainly, but settles back down.
"Anything goes down, I'll call you," Alan says, stepping into his unlaced shoes that wait by the door. He leaves.
Outside, the evening air is as hot and heavy as it was inside. There are clouds that glow with the last leftover light from the sunset, coloring everything in shades of orange and purple. The motel parking lot is half-full of cars and trucks. Alan makes his way straight across, reaching the sidewalk on the other side.
The corner store is exactly what it sounds like; a small liquor store on the corner of the block. A recording of a bell plays over the speakers when he enters, and the air here is blessedly cool. The man at the register gives him an odd look, and he tries to smile in what he hopes is a disarming way.
"Hot out," he says.
"Yeah," the guy says, turning his attention back to the magazine he's reading.
The store's selection isn't that impressive, but neither are Alan's tastes. He chooses a bottle of soda, a small bottle of orange juice for the morning, a packaged muffin -- also for morning-- and a microwave burrito. The man at the reg rings him up without looking directly at him. Alan worries briefly that his eyes can somehow be seen behind the sunglasses, but then he notices the cashier's own eyes, red-rimmed and blood-shot, and understands.
He pays and leaves, dropping the few cents change into the Take a Penny Leave a Penny tray on his way out.
Outside, he thinks he is alone. He starts back towards the motel.
"Hey, mister," says a voice behind him.
He stops and turns and sees two little boys. One is less little than the other-- maybe ten. Maybe twelve. It's hard to tell; he hasn't had much experience with kids and doesn't know how fast they actually grow. The other one is probably eight, unless he is seven or six.
It isn't hard to see them at all, despite the combined dimness of the setting sun and his sunglasses; Alan's night vision has been improving steadily over the last couple months. The older boy has brown, tangled hair, a medium complexion and a voice that makes him seem much older than he looks. The other one is a freckle-faced blondie who averts his gaze when he sees Alan looking at him. Both are wearing jeans and zip-up hoodies.
"Hey mister," the older one says again. The hairs on the back of Alan's neck rise up, and his hidden third eye flutters. "You gotta car?"
"Uh. No," Alan says, rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand, trying to calm the eye down. "Sorry." He frowns, brow furrowing.
Why did I apologize?
"Then you must be staying someplace close by, right?" says the older boy. There is something about his voice that put Alan on edge. It doesn't sound too old, now that he hears it again. But it doesn't sound the right age, either.
"Not too far," he finds himself saying.
"Would you be kind enough to take us there?" says the older boy, flashing a wide, white smile.
It's not the voice, he realizes, but the way the kid is speaking. The words are simple, but he's eloquent. There's no stammering, or misplaced pauses, or words run together. The words are clearly enunciated and spoken with a surety that most adults even lack.
"We need to call our mother," the boy says smoothly. "We need to go to your home to use your phone. We're lost." He doesn't sound upset. He sounds confident.
"S'not home," Alan mumbles, still staring at the boy and his wide, white smile. "S' a motel."
"It'll work," says the boy. He steps toward Alan. Alan steps back. "Don't worry," says the boy. "I'm just a little kid."
He keeps moving forward and Alan keeps moving back, but he does so with more and more hesitation with every step.
It's just a boy. What's so scary about a boy? He stops moving, despite the screaming in the back of his head telling him to run.
"Why don't you take off those sunglasses, mister?" The boy says as he slowly approaches. "It'll make things a little easier for us."
"I can't," Alan says, and even as he says it, his hand is reaching up. He realizes what he's doing and jerks his hand back. When he does, the bag slips from his other hand, and the bottle of soda rolls into the pavement by his feet. Hastily, he bends down to pick it up. He glances at the boys and freezes mid-crouch.
Their eyes, which had been shadowed somewhat in the dim light, are pitch black. There is no sclera, no iris, and no pupil, just the black. They both watch him hungrily.
"Your eyes-" How could he not have noticed?
"What about them?" The boy says a little too forcefully. "We need your help, Mister." His teeth flash white. "Take us to where you live."
The instinct to run claws at Alan like a wild animal. He wants to turn and sprint away, back to the safety of the motel where dog and the beetles will protect him. But he now realizes what his gut has been trying to tell him since the boy first spoke; these are predators. And you don't run from predators if they're not already chasing you. That only makes you prey.
"I'm sorry," he says, his voice level. "I can't help you."
He slowly and deliberately turns his back on the two, one arm looped around the bag, the other with his hand tucked into the pocket of his coat, fingers itching with electricity should the boys --They're not boys, not even close-- try something.
"Get back here!" says the boy. "Hey! I said get back here!"
"I can't help you. Gotta go." He keeps his back straight and his eyes focused straight ahead.
"Obey me! Return at once." The voice definitely sounded too old, then.
"Don't you walk away from me!"
"Good luck, kids."
"Nobody walks away from me!"
Alan keeps walking. He doesn't risk turning around, but he moves his hair out of the way and opens the eye on the back of his neck. This eye cannot see as well in the dark as the others, but even with that disadvantage, it is clear that the two boys are gone. The parking lot is empty.
He returns to the motel.
He slams the door shut behind him and leans against it. Dog and the beetles all look toward him and fill the air with a permeable sense of concern.
"Nothing," he says, showing his teeth in a poor substitute for a smile. "Nothing at all. Just a little antsy."
He leaves the door. It has locked automatically, now open only to any cleaning staff with a copy of the key, but that doesn't help the unease building in his chest. He goes to the bureau and, after a few minutes struggle, drags it in front of the door. It might not help, but it makes him feel a little better. Dog and the beetles still stare at him.
"It's nothing!" he says a little too loudly. "Nothing at all."
He pointedly shuts the light off and crawls into bed. Dog soon joins him, and though he knows nothing can hurt him here, it's still hours before he can fall asleep.
* * * * *
The next day, he doesn't wake up until sometime around noon. The air in the motel room is muggy from the heat. Light leaks in through the cracks in the blinds, and someone it knocking on the door.
"Sorry," he tries to shout. "Go away." It comes out more a croak, and they apparently don't hear him. He hears the rattle of the door unlocking, and a few seconds later a woman in cleaner scrubs comes in wheeling a cart full of cleaning supplies. He sits up.
"Sorry," she says when she sees him. She starts to back out.
"No," he says, getting up, hand covering his eyes. He's still in the same clothes from last night. "Sorry. I'll get out of here." He grabs his shoes and sunglasses and slips past her and the cart. The beetles are gone. Dog isn't anywhere in sight, but he's not worried. Dog always turns up eventually.
Outside the sun is bright and hot. The air is humid and thick and causes his already-dingy clothes to stick to his skin.
Ugh, he thinks and says at the same time.
Dog materializes beside him. "We gotta get out of the heat," Alan says. "Know anyplace cool?" Dog wags his tail and bounds off. Alan follows, grumbling. "You're covered in fur. black fur. You should be more uncomfortable than me."
Dog ignores both him and the heat and stops ahead, cheerfully waiting for him to catch up. Alan follows dutifully behind.
Dog always knows where to go. No matter what town they wind up in, Dog always knows the lay of the land far better than Alan, despite the two rarely being apart for more than a matter of minutes. Soon Dog has led him to a movie theatre-- the only one in town, from what he could tell.
He doesn't particularly want to be there, but it has air conditioning, and he had discovered some time ago that he had no trouble watching the films, if he so chose. While normally television screens break seconds after he looks at them (with computer monitors of any kind faring slightly better), the screens at the theaters were in no danger from him-- provided he didn't look up at the projector. However, as fascinating as it had been to finally see a movie like a normal person, he found that theatres were too loud for him, too cramped, and the constant motion on the screen during the film he'd seen (some CGI-fueled action/sci-fi movie) made him both nauseous and paranoid. He didn't need to see fictional monsters; he'd had plenty in real life.
So now, he debates whether or not he should try to stomach an animated movie about dragons for two hours, or if he should remain sitting in the lobby area nursing a soda twice the size of the human bladder.
"Sir?" says a voice behind him. He turns in his seat and is greeted by a smiling, yet stern looking, security guard.
"Yes?" he says.
"How long have you been here?" the guard says, sounding as though he is pretending to be cheerful.
"Uh." He tries to think. "Few hours, maybe?"
"What movie did you see?"
"Uh. Didn't see any."
"Waiting for someone? Waiting for a particular showing?"
The guard adjusts his belt. "Sir, some people have complained that you're making them uncomfortable. If you're not here for a movie, I'm afraid you'll have to leave."
"Uncomfortable?" he says, baffled. "Why?"
I haven't looked at anyone, he thinks. I've been wearing my sunglasses the whole time!
"You've been here, sitting in the corner for hours and hours, wearing sunglasses indoors. It's creeping people out."
"Oh," he says, face burning red. "Sorry. Can I get a refill on my soda first?"
He lightly shakes the plastic novelty cup. The guard nods and walks him over to the concession stand. The man waits as he gets his drink refilled by a young woman who won't look at his face, then walks him to the door of the theater.
"Have a nice day," the guard says.
"You too," Alan mumbles as the door shuts behind him. He walks down the sidewalk, then onto the pavement, following the painted-line guideway out of the parking lot and onto the city sidewalk proper.
Dog arrives from seemingly nowhere a few minutes later carrying a dead squirrel in his mouth. He stops walking and holds out his hand with the resignation of someone who has done this a million times before. Dog drops the still-bleeding squirrel into his hand, tail wagging cheerfully. Alan's nose wrinkles, but he forces what could be mistaken for a smile and tucks the squirrel into his jacket pocket. The jacket is old and has been through a lot; one more questionable stain won't make a difference.
"Thanks, Dog," he says.
He's walking away with Dog when something at the edge of his vision catches his eye: a pair of small, pale figures standing in the theater's wall-to-wall windows. With a sharp intake of breath, he turns-- a little too quickly. The only people there are a mother and her young son who are entering the theatre. He relaxes.
Just the kid's reflection or something, he thinks.
Dog watches him, head tilted curiously.
"Nothing, boy," he says, patting Dog's head. "Just my imagination."
They continue on, but the uneasy feeling of being watched never leaves him. Several times through the day he finds himself looking over his shoulder or turning suddenly, absolutely certain that the black-eyed children will be there. They never are.
It's not until evening, when he's in his way back to the motel that he sees them. They stand along the other side of the street, watching him. There are two of them, a boy and a girl, neither of which are familiar. At first, he doesn't recognize them for what they are, but they wave when they see him looking, and he feels the same creeping horror as with the first two boys. Dog barks.
"Hey mister," says a voice far too close behind him. He stumbles and turns and sees the two boys from before smiling at him. There is no hiding their pitch black eyes now. "We're lost," the older boy says. "Can we use your phone?"
Alan backs away. Dog gives a short bark and wags his tail once, looking at Alan quizzically.
"Get away from me," Alan says.
"We just need to get out of the cold," the boy says, rubbing his arms. It's not cold at all out. "It's getting dark. You wouldn't leave us all alone out here, would you?"
The boy moves closer. All the children move closer. Suddenly Alan finds himself half-surrounded by a dozen black eyed children, all baring their bright white teeth. All of them are completely silent; even their footsteps make no noise, and when they get close, he sees that their chests are still. None of them are breathing.
His stomach is full of jagged shards of ice. Blood pumps in his ears and he finds it difficult to breathe. His heart pounds and his hands go cold and sweaty.
"You scared?" The older boy says with a small chuckle. "Don't be scared of us. We're just kids."
He reaches out to take Alan's hand, and Alan snaps. He turns and sprints for the motel, the laughter of the children filling his ears. When he risks a look behind him, they are gone, but he keeps running. Dog appears out of the shadows ahead of him, clearly confused.
"Just run!" Alan pants.
The motel isn't far. Several of the black eyes children stand on the street opposite of his room, but he doesn't care. he bolts into his room and slams the door shut behind him, before Dog can get inside. he drags the dresser away from the wall and pushes it in front of the door, then leans against it. Dog steps out of the bathroom a second later.
"Sorry," Alan says, not feeling sorry at all. He gets up from the floor and risks a look out the window. Even in the dark, he can see the children at his door. They stand straight, with even space between them and their hands by their sides. Despite the street light behind them, they cast no shadows. When he moves the blinds to see them better, they turn their heads in unison towards him, and he sees their black, hollow eyes clearly set in their pale faces. None of them are smiling save for the older boy.
"Let us in," the boy says. He isn't yelling the words, and logically Alan should not be able to hear them through the walls and glass, but he does. The words drill their way into his head and repeat themselves over and over.
Let us in. let us in. Let us in.
Without thinking, he scrambles to shove the dresser back out of the way. He doesn't try and put it back where it belongs; he just moves it enough so that the door can be opened. It's not until he is trying to unlock the door with too-shaky hands that he realizes what he is doing and stops. He sinks to the floor again, back to the door, and anxiously runs his hands through his hair.
Dog whines. The beetles crawl out from under the bed and under the dresser and from the kitchenette until they carpet the room. They click with audible concern. Dog picks his way through the beetles-- the beetles careful to move out of the way of his paws-- and goes to Alan. Dog thrusts his nose into Alan's face and licks him.
"They're outside," Alan says, panic rising in his voice. "Oh fuck. They're right outside. What are we gonna do?"
Dog tilts his head. Some of the beetles crawl onto Alan's legs. He notices Bugsy going up his arm, and picks the bug up.
"Yeah?" he says. "What is it?"
For a second, the little black beetle does nothing. Then he moves, and Alan feels a sharp, stinging pain in his hand. Then he feels many stinging pains on his legs and arms.
"Fuck!" he shouts, jumping to his feet. He makes as though to shake the beetles off, but they have already left him. When he checks his legs, he sees dozens and dozens of tiny bite marks. Some are just raised and red from the irritated skin, others are bleeding a little. The bite on his hand is also bleeding.
The beetles all back away, like a wave of black withdrawing to the far side of the room.
"Seriously," Alan says again. "What the Fuck? Why did you-"
He stops. Outside, the boy has not stopped the chant of "let us in," but now it isn't working. It is as though the permeable cloud of fear that has been following him all day has dispersed.
Why the hell was he hiding? It was just a bunch of creepy kids.
Suddenly Alan feels very stupid. Dog and the beetles all watch him.
"Sorry, guys," he mumbles, face red. He sighs, unlocks the door with steady hands, and opens it as far as it will go.
The older boy grins at him.
"Will you let us in?" he asks.
"Sure," Alan says with a careless shrug. He removes his sunglasses. "Come on in." He looks at the kids. They surge forward, and then stop suddenly with a collective hiss.
"Your eyes," says the older boy.
"You're one to talk." Alan feels a slight weight on his legs and glances down. The beetles have swarmed, and they're crawling up his pants. He turns his attention back to the boy.
"So, what the hell are you kids even doing?" he says casually as the beetles climb up his torso. A few settle on his neck and face. He keeps his eyes steadily on the boy, who does not move. Dog steps beside him, appearing even larger than usual.
"It's late out," Alan says. He steps outside of the doorway and absently lets a bit of electricity flicker through his fingers. "Either come inside or go home."
The children vanish, all save for the older boy. The boy glares at Alan and makes a noise like a dog snarling. Alan sees the boy's bright white teeth again, but this time he notices how oddly sharp they are. Then the boy, too, vanishes, leaving no trace that he or any of the other children were ever there.
Alan takes another look around, then goes back inside.
"We'll check out tomorrow," he tells Dog and the beetles. "Sorry about the trouble, guys. I dunno what came over me."
The beetles click cheerfully and Dog butts his head against Alan's palm, indicating that he wants pets, and Alan obliges.
So maybe not as done as I had thought.