I didn't know why I was running. Sure the hoodoo, or whatever it was, seemed menacing, but it also seemed very slow. My natural inclination would have been to watch it and see what it did. It was good I didn't follow my natural inclination.
I hadn't run more than ten steps when something grabbed my toe and sent me tumbling onto the cold, wet sidewalk. I twisted in the air to land sideways, rolling instead of sliding on my face, but it still knocked the wind out of me. I lay there, dazed. I was scraped up and bruised and the cold rain pelted me with heavy drops. I looked back for what had tripped me and saw something like a rivulet of black mercury, no more than an inch wide and extending back to the creature like a liquid tentacle. It was flowing right toward me.
The tentacle wasn't moving much faster than I could roll, so I rolled away from it, right through a puddle of cold water. A couple of quick, but painful rolls, and the next time I was on my stomach I levered myself up onto my knees and then shakily up onto my feet. That's when the rivulet caught me.
As I was struggling to my feet, the tentacle flowed onto my shoe and then up the heal and around the ankle before I could lift my foot. I jerked my foot away but now it started acting less like fluid and more like a respectable tentacle. When I pulled, it just came off the ground like a rope tying my ankle to the black-liquid creature. The tentacle contracted like a rubber band, pulling my leg back toward the monster. I lost my balance on the wet sidewalk and fell back on my seat, bruising my tail bone on the hard concrete.
For the first time, I was really frightened. I jerked my foot back and swung the plastic shopping bag down on the tentacle. It connected perfectly –square on the small end of the box, smashing the tentacle against the sidewalk. Sure, it was just a box of shoes, but the shoes were size-fourteen loafers.
The tentacle just vanished. No explosion, no trail of smoke, no demonic scream of anguish, not even a lingering trace of slime. It vanished entirely, not just between me and the box, but all the way back to the creature.
I struggled to my feet again, watching the creature. That's when I saw how the slow-moving rivulet had caught me the first time when I was running at full speed. The creature puffed up and then seemed to squeeze down. As it squeezed down, it jetted a stream of black fluid at me like a spray from a garden hose.
I threw myself to the side and the steam missed me, but in the process of dodging, I slipped again on the wet side walk and fell. My head collided with a newspaper vending machine nearly hard enough to knock it over. I was dazed again and I didn't know if the wetness flowing into my eyes was rainwater or blood from a scalp wound.
The shooting stream landed in the center of the sidewalk and became one of those black-mercury rivulets. It immediately started flowing sideways toward me. It was an odd impression, you are used to seeing rivulets flow lengthwise, not sideways.
I scooted backward, trying to get behind the vending machine but the tentacle quickly caught my ankle and flowed a grip around it. I swatted ineffectually with my shoes, but I was too dazed and in too-awkward a position to do it right. On the second swing the bag broke and my shoes went flying. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh well, they didn't fit that well anyway."
Suddenly, another flowing tentacle wrapped around my other ankle. More tentacles were flowing from the creature; several were only a few feet away. It seemed that the creature had limited ability to shoot tentacles, but it could flow as many as it wanted. I wondered if the entire creature would flow over to me in little rivulets of black mercury.
I embraced the cold, yellow vending machine and struggled to stand up, but the vending machine was dirty and greasy and slick with rain. I couldn't get a grip. And the tentacles were just strong enough to prevent me from getting my feet under me on the wet sidewalk. A third rivulet caught me. I raised a foot and slammed down on one with my heel. I missed, accomplishing nothing but a splash of rain water and a bruised heel.
On the second try, I connected. It felt like I had broken my heel, but the tentacle vanished. I thought to myself, "Other demons are vulnerable to silver. It's a good thing I got one that is vulnerable to shoes". It just goes to show: even in demonic peril, I can't help being a smart ass.
Two more tentacles caught up with me. I tried the heel stomp again with the other foot, but the tentacles had gotten smart and they pulled back on my feet, keeping me from kicking effectively.
Another tentacle oozed up and around my leg. Another. I again tried to heave myself up on the vending machine and was able to stomp one more tentacle into oblivion, but now I was too bruised and exhausted and the the tentacles were merging, becoming thicker and stronger. I was half up on my feet but they pulled my feet out from under me, dropping again on my bruised tail bone.
In desperation, I pulled the vending machine over onto the tentacles. They vanished -- all of them. I rolled behind the vending machine, off the sidewalk and into a gutter that was two inches deep in filthy big-city runoff. But I was glad to be in the gutter because I heard a ping that told me the creature had shot another tentacle and it hit the vending machine.
On the theory that the creature could not shoot multiple tentacles without pausing, I rolled to my feet and sprinted directly away. thinking to myself "... and vending machine. Remember, they're vulnerable to shoes and vending machines."
Ten minutes later, still jogging, I arrived at the parking garage where I'd left my car. I was soaked and shivering, and bleeding from the head, but not has badly as I'd feared. The parking garage was closed. I spent a few precious moments swearing. Of course since I'd never intended to be in the City more than a few hours. It had never occurred to me to make sure it was a 24-hour parking garage.
There was a clock on the wall. It was four in the morning and the parking garage would open at six. That gave me two hours of demon dodging. Or I could take a cab. I looked around. The streets were deserted in the wee hours of a rainy Sunday morning. Why would any cabbies be out when no one else would be stupid enough to be out?
Across the street was a 24-hour coffee shop. The idea of getting into a closed place with nowhere to run didn't appeal to me, but I was cold and wet and starting to shiver. I could feel the signs of impending exhaustion. I had to sit down someplace warm and get some food. My stomach suddenly spoke up to remind me that I hadn't eaten since lunch the day before.
So I looked both ways down the one way street, then crossed over to the coffee shop. Sure, some wags make fun of guys who look both ways before crossing a one-way street, but when you are being chased by some malevolent black-mercury hoodoo-style demon that shoots liquid tentacles at you, look both ways even if you think you know what direction the demon would be coming from. Really.
The coffee shop was a wonder. I had a glass counter full of some very interesting pastries. One of them was a puffy-looking thing that looked like it might have coconut. I really like coconut pastries. There was also a meat-slicing machine and a menu on the wall promised a wide range of sandwiches.
The proprietress was a thick, elderly Asian woman. It didn't seem like a good idea to have a woman staffing an all-night coffee shop in downtown San Francisco, but she didn't ask my opinion and I didn't give it. Yes, that was uncharacteristic for me, but I was not feeling well.
The woman returned the favor by not asking me why I was soaked and shivering uncontrollably and had blood trickling down from my head. She just asked me what I wanted.
"F-f-first," I told her, "I'd like to know if this p-p-place has a back d-d-door and how I would g-g-get to it in a hurry if I h-h-had too."
She looked over her shoulder at a door in the back wall and said, "There outside door in kitchen, but that for people who work here only."
"S-s-s-swell," I muttered. "D-d-does it have a crash bar or is it p-p-padlocked?"
"Door like f-f-f-ire-escape?" I asked her, unwrapping my arms from my shoulders long enough to mime pushing a crash bar with my hands, "Or door have p-p-padlock?"
She just looked at me and shook her head.
"I look?" I asked her with raised eyebrows in as unaggressive a manner as I could. I walked around the counter to open the kitchen door and look in. Sure enough there was a door in the back. Sure enough it was padlocked. Nuts.
The woman looked at me uncertainly as I walked back around the counter. I went to look outside, looking both ways again. No demons.
I came back inside and told the woman. "Gang." I pointed to my head wound. "M-m-maybe they chase me."
"Oh!" She seemed to understand. "No gang here," she assured me, "Call 911."
I didn't know if she was offering to call 911, suggesting that I call 911, or merely expressing that it was a policy of hers to call 911 in case of gang activity.
Whatever she meant, it was clear that she wasn't offering to unlock the back door for me. I can't say I blamed her.
So I ordered a roast beef with the works including jalepeno, a large cup of coffee, and one of those coconut-looking pasties. Then I sat near the door where I could check frequently for demonic activity.
The food was incredible. The calories and the rest quickly brought my shivering under control but I was left with a feeling of exhaustion. My legs were wobbly when I got up to get a second one of those puffy coconut things.
I had been planning to wait here till the garage opened, but that was starting to look like a bad idea. What if that monster showed up and I was too exhausted to run? I asked the woman to call a cab for me.
Less than an hour later I was home. I figured that as slow as that thing moved, I had hours before it could show up here even if it could trail me when I was in the cab. It never occurred to me that there could be another one waiting for me at my home. Usually I think of stuff like that.
I lived in an old two-story house in Burlingame with my mother. I know it seems a little weird for a 26-year-old man to be living with his mother, but housing is expensive in the bay area. You don't move out of a nice place that your family owns and start paying enormous rent just because you feel like it. My mom didn't interfere with my life too much, so I didn't have any big reason to move out.
The upstairs hall light didn't come on when I flipped the switch at the bottom of the stairs. I think there's something wrong with that light socket because I swear I have to change that bulb three times as often as any other bulb in the house. I struggled up the dark stairs on wobbly legs, trying to walk quietly so as not to wake my mother. I didn't want to explain to her why I had come home soaked and exhausted with blood on my face at five in the morning. Luckily, this old house had lots of creaks and groans to hide the sound of my movements.
At the top of the stairs I went directly into the bathroom to strip off my wet clothes and get into the shower. Hot water never felt so good. I spent a good deal of time soaking and thinking. I was thinking of what I would tell my mother, whether I should move out so as not to put her in danger, what the hell that thing was, and why was it after me?
I was even indulging in a bit of doubt, wondering if I had imagined the whole thing. I suppose I should admit that I was actively trying to disbelieve what had happened. That's why I was being careless and not paying attention. But even if I could explain away the memories and the scrapes and bruises by thinking that the tattoo guy had drugged me and I had been hallucinating, it was impossible to explain away the welts. The swollen red welts left by those tentacles.
I examined them in the shower. It looked like I'd had some sort of allergic reaction to their touch. My ankles were all swollen and red, and there were loops of red at various other places up my legs. They were a bit tender to the touch and promising to become very itchy soon. When I got out of the shower I rifled through the medicine cabinet for some skin medicine and applied it. I didn't know if it would help.
My head wound had stopped bleeding by now, so it was probably too late to do any good, but I applied some antiseptic anyway.
Then I wrapped a towel around me and thoughtlessly opened the bathroom door. I was so startled by the white ghost that I very nearly jumped through the bathroom window before I realized that it was my mother in a white nightgown. That damn burnt-out light bulb.
"Steve! What is that?"
"It's a tattoo, mom. I'm joining a gang." The best way to keep someone from being suspicious about something is to say it like it's a ridiculous joke.
"Very funny. And what are all those bruises and red marks?"
Luckily I'd had time to come up with a story while I was in the shower. "I got hit by a car, mom, but it's nothing serious. Just some bruises and scrapes. The hospital wanted to keep me for a few hours to make sure I didn't have a head injury."
"Why didn't you call me?"
"It was in the City, mom. You don't like to go down there and it was no big deal so I didn't call."
"I would go down there to see you! What hospital was it?"
"It was really no big deal, mom." I couldn't think of any hospitals in the City. "Don't worry."
"Mothers can't help worrying," she told me seriously. "What hospital did you go to?"
"I know, mom." I gave her a hug. "But I'm fine, really. But I haven't slept all night. I need to go to bed."
"Can I make you anything?" she asked.
"Well, I had a sandwich before I came home, but some hot chocolate would sure be nice before I go to bed." It would make her feel better if she could do something. Besides, I had to get rid of her before she saw my soaked clothing. It would be tough to explain why my clothes were still so wet after ten hours in the hospital.
So she went downstairs to boil some water and I grabbed my wet clothes and took them into my room to hang them up. Then I got dressed because I was planning to sleep in my clothes. With shoes on.
I went downstairs so that my mom wouldn't come into my room and see the clothes hanging up. As I passed by the back of the stairs I saw a door that I had not known was there. We had a door behind the stairs and I had never noticed it before.
It's not easy to express how startling it is to discover a new door in your house, a house that you've lived in all your life. I'd had dreams like that as a child; dreams where I would find a new door in the house and open it to find something wonderful or terrible behind it, perhaps an amusement park or a torture chamber.
Maybe that explained this whole thing. Maybe I was dreaming. I did feel a bit groggy from lack of sleep. And there was the door. A door that I had never noticed before although it was logical that there had to be one there. Everyone had a closet under the stairs, didn't they? Why would any builder waste all that space?
As I stared groggily at the door, my mother came out of the kitchen and asked me if I was OK.
"I'm just sleepy, mom." I told her. "What's in that closet?"
"What closet?" she asked me.
"That one." I pointed right at the door.
"That's not a closet."
"What is it?
"What is what?"
"What's behind that door?"
"This door!" I got a bit impatient and rattled the knob.
"You need to get some sleep," my mother said. "Go on upstairs and I'll bring the hot chocolate up to you."
"Mom!" I followed her into the kitchen. "What's the big secret about the door?"
"I don't know what door you are talking about." she told me.
I studied her face. She wasn't lying. She wasn't teasing me. She really didn't know there was a door there. Somehow she couldn't see it. But that made sense; for years I couldn't see it. And after my experience with a black quicksilver demon I was willing to be more open about what I was willing to believe.
I drank my hot chocolate thinking about that door. And about old guys who think that demons are stalking you when there really do seem to be demons stalking you. I walked past the door on the way back to bed. I wanted to open it and see what was back there, but I knew I was in no condition to be running from any more demons if I found one behind the door. And I didn't want to open it while my mother was in the house. Just in case.
So I went upstairs and went to bed and tried to sleep. And I wondered what was behind that door.