06: Legs

It was as if I stepped into a world of complete contrast.

Well, that's not exactly true. The interior was only slightly less chilly than the exterior. Besides that, though? From day to night, almost literally. I didn't want to leave the front door open, not knowing how long the straight-jackets would pound away at the outer fence, but with it shut, I couldn't even see to walk around. Mist spilled in through the portal, whispering across the floor and disappearing into the darkness, like steam from a witch's cauldron.

It took me all of a minute to understand why the place was cordoned off. It wasn't for want of protecting some important secret, that was for sure. I knew that old buildings often built up an odor, especially old apartment buildings. My old man had been superintendent of a place called South Ashfield Heights since around 1970 or so. From the time I started school until Mary and I got a lease on our house, I didn't live anywhere else, and I spent God knows how many hours helping Dad in his various duties. The Heights had been built in the thirties, I think, and after fifty years, there were all kinds of scents once you got into the cracks and crannies of the place. Those were the scents of age, and thanks to my father's careful and diligent stewardship, it was graceful aging. Upon it carried the memories of the years, and I always liked getting into the ductwork or tinkering with one of the water heaters because those scents were what defined the place as my home. It was the spice of my life, you might say.

Here in the lobby of the Wood Side Apartments, I could smell the age, too. But, there was no grace to this aging. This was sour age. This was the aroma of an old place too dead to remember its inhabitants, a place where all hint of personality had long ago been devoured by mold and rot. It wasn't even a ghost. It was a cadaver. Where South Ashfield Heights was dowager, this place was merely geriatric. I wanted to get out of here as soon as possible, because I knew there could not possibly be anything here for me. Of course, this would have to be by way of some back door. This could actually prove to be a blessing in disguise. A back door might lead right around all these obstacles.

The gloom settled into my eyes, bit by bit, and gradual definition came along with that. I could only see outlines, but that was enough for me to grope my way along one of the walls to the one opposite of where I entered. My hand swept across the wall at waist level, gliding across a pitted, scabrous mess that I was glad I couldn't see, hoping that it would come across a doorknob. It did, but only after one such pass revealed to me a recess which turned out to be a short hall. There was a door at the end, but it was locked. I tapped it, and a reverberant metal clang told me all I needed to know about my chance of successfully forcing it open.

Facing the lobby, the silhouette of a stair railing stood out against the light of the open door. I gripped it, and its opposite number, for dear life as I took my first ginger step towards the second floor. The next wasn't quite so tentative, and after about six I felt fairly confident that the staircase wouldn't collapse under my weight. They circled the perimeter of the lobby and then around a suspended foyer, back around to the wall. There was better light up here, thanks to a broken window across and above. Most of them had apparently been boarded over, but some of the boards had fallen away. I could see the walls now, and they were covered in graffiti. Part of it was the dimness, but the brute force of age played a large part in rendering these messages unreadable. How long had this place been abandoned, that even the vandals no longer bothered plying their trade?

There was a door at the end of this curve, glinting like a badly-used tooth. Whatever its looks, it wasn't locked, and it revealed to me a hallway. It was in awful shape. Plaster, probably once the shade of eggshells, now looked like newspaper left in a sunny window. A series of deep fissures formed a crazy latticework which extended along the entire surface. The floor, once tiled with what looked like laminate, seemed to have, at some point, rejected those tiles as a body would reject an incompatible organ. They lay all about, some merely cracked, others shattered to the consistency of corn chips, none of them intact that I could see. The very fact that I could see the tiles, or anything else, should have immediately announced itself as an unexpected development, but this only dawned on me when the whole image flickered. The image of the cracked walls and gouged floor blinked in and out with the speed and irregularity of an insect skittering across porcelain. When I looked up at the ceiling, I was almost stupefied. This building was deader than dead, hardly safe enough to explore, let alone inhabit. By all appearances, Silent Hill itself was merely in a less-advanced state of the same being. And, yet, the second floor of this crypt boasted a living fluorescent light. I'd already been given reason to believe in omens today, and hopefully, this was an example of the kind I could actually use.

I had a choice of direction, but naturally, I went to where the light was. This happened to be where the path branched. Neither announced themselves as obvious choices. Neither was even really desirable, as they both led away from the light, and I wanted to leave the light as much as I felt like tossing off my blanket on a February morning. I ended up going forward, the choice made entirely at random.

There were doors on either side, but I only tried the first two. One had a lock that had fused into a solid piece thanks to years of rust, and the second knob snapped off when I tried turning it. I couldn't picture any of them leading anywhere important, and at least half of them would never open anyway, being sealed with boards nailed across them at crazy angles. Then, I came upon one that I did try to open.

I was probably a dozen yards away from the light, far enough away that I couldn't even see this door. Yet, I knew it was there. A thin halo shone from on the floor, which had to mean that there was more electric light inside. I had to feel around for the knob, but once I did, it turned easily.

If the fluorescent back up the hall left me stupid, the light in this apartment almost left me dead. I could feel my heart lurch and then stop, like an engine throwing up its timing belt. The light itself had nothing to do with this. It simply lit the way to my halfway heart attack.

The clothes drew my attention immediately, and the draw was so intense that my perspective could not extend beyond them. This lasted only as long as that one heartbeat, but that was one minor eternity compressed into about a half-second of real time, in which I understood that my search was at an end. Doubt rushed in as soon as the thought formed, and outright dismissal followed right after, but in the span of that heartbeat, I was certain that it had all meant something after all. It didn't matter that this ruin meant absolutely nothing to either of us. It didn't matter that I was in this ruin only because circumstances forced me to come this way. All that mattered was that I opened this door, and behind this door was—

—headless. Armless. My heart, having apparently rediscovered its rhythm, now wished to exit by way of my throat. But, that too, passed. Christ, but it was like walking right into a memory. A memory, granted, which lacked some of the proper elements, but there was sledgehammer power in the remaining suggestion. White like the ghost I thought it was, the dismembered seamstress's doll held center stage in this small living room. It faced the wall, and its angle made it seem as though it knew I was there and understood why it shook me, but was determined not to show it.

It was the calamine sweater, the white dress with floral patterns. A wholly unremarkable outfit, save for the fact that if I could snap a Polaroid, I'd have a close reproduction of the photo I carried in my wallet—minus, of course, Mary Sunderland's arms and head. Mary's outfit came not from a department store, but from a fabric store, usually in cuts of cloth, occasionally in full bolts when she felt like experimenting. She had an expert's hand, as far as my untrained eye could tell, and it was her hands and machine, adjusting stitches and making measurements from memory, which produced at least three-quarters of her wardrobe.

That said, could this possibly be coincidence? Mary wasn't here, so intuition told me. I could give the place a search, but it would turn up nothing. And, though I still wanted to believe in coincidence, this whole town had, so far, presented one compelling counterargument after another. The dress-up doll offered no explanation for its outfit, and I thought it unlikely that anyone else would happen along, holding a guidebook filled with answers. The doll cared nothing for whether or not there was a purpose to its clothing. I supposed that I shouldn't, either, absent any clues.

I was happy to settle for the tangible rewards, however, and I clipped the flashlight in a vest pocket. Its plastic body was warm to the touch, and the lamp itself was hot. How long had it been left running? How long would it last? It didn't matter, really, because this flashlight and I were now friends for life—its rather than mine, I hoped. This apartment had a single wonderful quality which at least partially offset the fact that it had no others: I was alone here, and hopefully, it would remain that way. I would stay in this place not a minute longer than it would take to find the back door, but at least I might be able to count on a little bit of peace while I looked for it. So thinking, I turned around to leave.

And that's when I heard the radio.

I whirled around so fast that my eyes couldn't keep up with the light, and I needed to let them reacquaint. It had to be behind me, whatever it was.

At first, I had this crazy thought. I thought the dress dummy had come to life somehow, a crazy thought that was, on the whole, perfectly logical given the circumstances. I thought that it had been hiding in the guise of a dummy, a kind of predator's camouflage that let it lie in wait while its prey approached, never the wiser. The first flash of movement came from right behind it, but in that moment of disarray, I must have postponed my depth perception. Clarity of thought returned to me only when the perceived threat got knocked over by the real threat.

Focused as I was on the dummy, the monster appeared at first only as an outline against the darkness, but even that was enough to let me know that I was dealing with something different. For one thing, it had upper appendages. Arms, you might call them, but that was only because of their being upraised. But, no, not arms. I could see that now. No arms on the torso because there was no torso. It was as if someone took another set of mannequins, divided them neatly right at the navel, and fused them together somehow. The upside-down legs had been severed at the ankles, leaving behind stumps as black as wet ash. I should have been running even then, but I couldn't quite do it. I couldn't help being fascinated by the thing facing me. The funny thing was—while things could still be funny—the mannequin thing seemed to be just as curious about me. One of its arm-legs stood erect, as if testing the upper limits of its reach. The other flopped forward, as limp as a dog's ear. Neither of us moved. We had ourselves a showdown, although showdowns tended to be high-tension affairs with both participants praying they drew a split-second faster than his opposite number. I didn't sense a threat from this creature the way I had with the straight-jackets, but of course, those guys didn't hesitate. Once they caught sight—or whatever—of me, they were relentless.

So, I made another assumption. It wasn't human. Even the straight-jackets bore at least the suggestion of humanity, whatever they had now become. This guy here could not claim even that. And, even for all that, I made my assumption based upon its initial behavior. It wasn't until after it lay quivering in its death throes that its motive became clear to me.

Its erect leg-arm went back, and then shot forward as if driven by a piston. If my curiosity had been of the dumb, awed variety, I'd have gotten it right in the face, and it probably would have been game over right there and then. As it was, I had already seen too much crazy shit today to be caught entirely flat-footed. I lunged aside the instant I saw it cock its punch, and it missed me by more than a foot. A good thing for me, too. The walls in this place weren't probably in any decent state of repair, but I doubted I could put a fist through one of them without breaking bones. My attacker wasn't fazed by any such considerations. The stump hit the wall and kept right on going through the wizened plaster. A thicket of plaster dust exploded from the point of impact, reminding me of the lines drawn in comic books to illustrate motion and collision. That could have been my cue to make tracks. I had, after all, found a nifty little prize here already. I didn't need to die for want of greed, or even curiosity. Problem was, though I'd dodged the mannequin's attack, I dodged left when I should have dodged right. This was better than standing still and taking it through the chin, but now the monster blocked my path to the door.

The mannequin recovered quickly, yanking its more violent leg-arm out of the wall and retracting it to its old position. I'd noticed how the straight-jackets moved with a dancer's grace. The movements themselves were hardly poetic—they were, after all, not the most pleasant example of impossible anatomy—but there was such fluidity in the actual motion. They'd sway and thrash on their feet, sometimes going so far that you couldn't believe they were able to remain upright, but every move was so smooth so as to bring to mind precision-made machinery. Obviously, machinery couldn't bleed, and irrationality so completely defined their behavior that they couldn't be programmed to be the way they are, even by some accident.

The mannequin was like that, and more. Thoughts of machinery came easily to me again in this old apartment. It matched my every movement. When I tried to dart around its flank, it pivoted in near-synchronization, tracking me, following my movement as a magnet tied to a string would follow a piece of iron held just beyond its invisible grip. It lunged then, lashing out not to punch a hole through my face, but overhead like a club. I dropped back a step just quick enough to see that blackened stump fly by my face so close that it seemed to brush against the tip of my nose. Something caught me by the ankle, and for a horrified moment, I thought that it the mannequin had a partner, lurking unseen while I dealt with my attacker, waiting for a moment just like this to strike from the shadows and leave me prone. I went down, so fixated on the second attacker that I made no effort to break my fall. There was a loveseat behind me, and I landed on it the way a sugared-up kid might. Breath exploded from my lungs, but it was all surprise and no pain. Maybe later, I would take the time to be thankful for its presence, and the certain injuries it averted.

Brown and speckled like dirty road snow, the mannequin advanced. Both of its upper legs were held upright this time. A sheen coated them like wet plastic where the flashlight beam caught it full-on. In about three seconds, those things would come crashing down, perhaps both at the same time, perhaps not. Either way, if I was still on this loveseat when they finished their descent, they would turn my brains into hamburger. That was plenty to make me want to bolt immediately, but I held back one second, two seconds—

Both legs bent back to gain leverage, and then they came at me. I twisted aside and leapt to my feet, feeling the whoosh as they cleaved empty air. This was followed by a sound like a deck of fresh playing cards being snapped off of someone's thumb, and I saw that one of the mannequin's stumps had torn a gash through the patterned fabric of the loveseat's back cushion. I swung my stick at that leg, its left. The exposed iron fangs at its business end had been pointed in the right direction by lucky accident; for sure I hadn't the presence of mind to make such an adjustment manually.

Considering what it had done both to the wall and to the loveseat, I had expected only to wound it, hoping that it would concern itself with itself long enough for me to get away. But when the nails bit into the joint which was either an elbow or a knee, it only slowed the force of the swing rather than stopping it cold. With a sound like cracking ice, the whole leg ripped free from the upper part of the torso. A gout of something, something which I thought had to be blood but was as black as india ink, sprayed from both severed ends and left spidery marks on the seat cushion. I'd seen nothing like a mouth on the creature, but it must have had one somewhere, because it let loose with a sound unlike any I'd ever heard from a living creature, yet the note of pain was unmistakable for all that. I yanked the stick away with a groan I could barely hear over the creature's cries. I thought I'd already emptied out my stomach this morning, but it hit the spin cycle anyway. It seemed to want to crawl out and run away to where it wouldn't be subjected to so much abuse in so short a time.

I kept it down though. I had to, because even though the mannequin convulsed and cried, it seemed to also be trying to stand. This could have just as easily been my own fear and paranoia at work, but I poised to strike anyway. Ignoring paranoid ideas wasn't a luxury I could afford anymore. As it turned out, that's precisely what it was. It quaked now, as if beset by the world's most wicked bout of epilepsy, erasing all semblance of motor control. It went on and on, at one point beating a visible dent into the floor. I thought that if I stood here any longer, watching it, listening to it beat its death tattoo against the sofa and floor with the accompanying mad treble provided by the radio, I would go mad. Then, the quakes became quivers, then trembles, and finally, it slumped against the floor. Its remaining upper leg bent reverse against the lip of the seat.

I had the shakes, myself. The adrenaline bled out of me, and with it, my muscles felt ill-used and a hair's trigger away from going slack. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself with a deep breath, but all that did was fill my lungs with awful, wet decay, the reek of meat discovered in the back of the refrigerator after about eight months in hiding. Get out of here, yeah. That's what I had to do. Get out of this apartment. Get out of this whole building, and ten seconds from now wouldn't be soon enough for me.

On the way out, I noticed that it was indeed another mannequin which took me out at the ankle a moment before. I rolled it over so that its limbless bulk lie flat on its back, and I stared at it for a long time. The photo was in my wallet. It would be no trouble at all to pull it out and compare the here and now to the captured memory. But, why bother confirming what I already knew to be true? All that would do is distract my thoughts, and I could think of nothing I needed less than something to draw away my focus. I stepped over it and left the apartment, priding myself on my self-control even as I wished I could pluck the image from my mind and leave it in the darkness with the real article.