Aphelion Issue 236, Volume 23
February 2019
 
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Indistinguishable

by Philip Roberts



Jeff called up to the third floor and told Lloyd to come down and look at the mess they'd wheeled in. Though it pained him to put his book down and return to his duties as a guard, Lloyd reluctantly pulled himself up from the chair.

At one in the morning the hospital corridors were dark and hushed, only the occasional nurse bored before a game of solitaire or a light on in a patient's room. When the elevator door opened to the first floor Lloyd stepped out into the normal chaos of the ER waiting room. Over forty people sat grumbling along the walls or absently eyeing the TV in the corner.

At the far end of the hallway inside the actual ER Lloyd stopped in front of Jeff's oddity. Nurses and doctors gathered by the door to eye the stretcher and the remains of a man writhing atop it. Lloyd craned his head over their shoulders to see the bloody body, skin cut to pieces, odd protrusions jutting from the muscles. Long, boney fingers gripped his ravaged chest, as if holding his innards in. Several of the nurses and doctors were busy around him, doing what little they could to limit the worst of the damage.

Jeff leaned in close to Lloyd; youthful eyes alight at the excitement. "So get this," Jeff whispered, "guy was brought in about fifteen minutes ago. Burst through the door of a bar about to close down. Looked like that, okay, and the ambulance guys say he's been losing blood so fast they don't know how he has any left in him. Bed sheets in there are already sopping wet. No one can figure out how the guy is still alive."

"Any ID?"

"No clue who he is. This is some weird shit."

Lloyd turned from the room, not disgusted by the gore, but by the fact that he wasn't disgusted. After seven years working security at the hospital and twelve years of police work before that he'd seen his share of violence. Still, he couldn't shake a sense of disrespect at the idea of gawking at a man in his dying moments.

Out in the ER lobby he took up a seat at a front desk normally occupied by nurses during the day. He eyed the crowd of sullen people. His gaze ended on a tall man leaning back against the wall. The muscular man had short black hair, wore jeans and a plaid shirt, and was eyeing Lloyd with a hint of interest. Lloyd had seen a similar look before. He inwardly sighed as the man pushed off the wall and moved towards the desk.

The man stopped in front of the counter and leaned in. "What's your name?" he asked. Lloyd tapped his nametag. The man nodded. "Mine's Frank Reynolds. I bet you were a cop once, weren't you?"

Lloyd raised an eyebrow. "Why you say that?"

Frank shrugged. "Way you look at people. It's good. I can make use of that."

Lloyd leaned forward, hand instinctively touching the top of his gun. "For what?"

Frank leaned in even more, head low as he drew closer to Lloyd. "Take a glance out that window."

He looked towards the sliding glass doors, just a quick glance at first, until the movement caught his eyes and forced him to look longer, but the people who had run by were already gone. Were they people? He'd seen two emaciated forms darting through the dark night, barely lit by the ER's floodlights. His eyes shifted back to Frank's hard stare.

Somewhere in the ER a person began to shout.

"If I were you," Frank whispered, "I'd get under this desk in exactly fifteen seconds."

He pulled abruptly away and moved towards the bathroom door next to the entrance. Lloyd sat stunned, trying to wrap his mind around too many things at once, but he understood the cries were getting louder. The people in the waiting room took notice, rose from seats, murmuring to one another.

Lloyd stood up, but before he could move towards the doors he saw through the nurse's window, saw the warped shape marching through the ER. It looked like if it stood upright it would've been twice the size of a normal man, but it was hunched low, skeletal thin body practically crawling on all fours as it came into view, nude and slick with brownish red. His mind drowned out the shrieks of the doctors and nurses, of the rising horror from the crowd behind him, his eyes focused only on the bulbous head the creature turned towards him, the jagged line of a mouth torn into the skin.

Fifteen seconds, his mind told him. Lloyd dropped to his knees and darted under the thick desk right as the world detonated with a wave of fiery, acrid air.

####

The silence lasted no more than a minute after the explosion tore the majority of the first floor of the hospital apart. When the roar of destruction ended and Lloyd inhaled hot air, he heard the groan of a six-story building above his head and wondered if the ceiling was about to crash down on him.

Then the sharp knock made him jolt up, crack his head on the wood. "It's over," Frank said. He stepped around the desk and Lloyd stared for a second at the man's brown boots. Lloyd reluctantly crawled out and pulled himself up. The entire wall separating the ER from the waiting area had been destroyed. Fire still smoldered along the ceiling and walls, the tiled floor scorched black, charred corpses flung to the walls. Those in the waiting area were mangled from the force of the impact, some still moaning lightly, others crying helplessly, pinned by chairs or other debris. The thick smoke burned Lloyd's eyes red.

"We need to--" Lloyd began, but Frank held out a clip of ammunition before Lloyd could finish.

"I'd put this in your gun if I were you," he said, straight faced, and Lloyd realized the man had a gun in his other hand.

"Did you do this?" he asked.

Frank glanced back at the destruction. "The bomb? Yeah, but I'm guessing you saw one of them before it went off, or else I doubt you would've been under that desk. Take it and put it in."

Lloyd took the clip but made no motion to even take out his own weapon. Frank wasn't waiting, delving instead into the ruined ER. Lloyd followed in a daze, stopped next to Frank in front of the remains of the thing Lloyd had seen, its frail form ripped almost in two, face half melted.

"Five in all," Frank whispered. "Only three would've come in. Other two will be getting here shortly, so I suggest we hurry."

"What's going on?"

"When we get better positioned we can spare the time to talk."

Frank hurried ahead, running towards the room Lloyd had stared into only fifteen minutes prior. The bed had been overturned, used for protection, Lloyd realized, and saw Frank pull it away to reveal the bloody man. Standing above him Lloyd could more clearly see the abnormalities to the man's body, what looked like two extra arms curled against his lower stomach. When Frank reached down to lift the man up, Lloyd caught sight of the folds of flesh hanging from the man's back.

"Where's a good place to hide?" Frank asked.

Something crunched to the left, from the direction of the ambulance bay, and through the haze of smoke Lloyd caught sight of the tall, gangly form moving across the ground.

"The morgue," he said, the first place he could think of.

"Lead the way."

They hurried through the ER, stepping over the dead and the dying. Lloyd refused to look down at the faces of his coworkers, ignored the moans of pain, until they'd left the destruction behind them and hurried across pale green tiles, down white-washed halls, and reached the small staircase to the hospital's basement. At the base of the steps he used his key to open the empty morgue.

The harsh overhead light showed every aberration in the creature Frank lowered onto a table. Lloyd almost thought it was beginning to look less human the more it healed, and he could see that it was clearly getting better. The blood no longer pumped from the body, cuts mending, broken bones pulling back into the flesh.

"Still have the bullets?" Frank asked.

Lloyd looked down, surprised to see them clutched tightly in his left hand. "Yeah."

Frank took up a seat along the wall and leaned back. "I work for a unique company, and this thing here hired us to protect him. However, he...misjudged the danger, and so I wasn't able to get to him before they did. Luckily he made it away in time, though barely, and we were informed he was coming here. I figured my bomb would get the first few that came in after him, but I knew they wouldn't all go."

"Why did you alert me?"

"I caught them by surprise with the bomb. That won't happen again, and these things are not easy to put down. The bullets I gave you will help, but it'll take a lot of direct hits to even harm them."

Lloyd reluctantly pulled out his clip and put in Frank's bullets while Frank turned towards the creature pulling itself upright on the table. It appeared to Lloyd as if it grew out of a human shell. The face bulged outward, flesh like wet cloth against another form.

"How much longer?" Frank asked it.

The thing looked down at its own short, stubby fingers. "Not much, but I can't leave until they're dead. They won't let me." The words were more a gurgle than straight speech.

"They know where we are yet?"

It nodded.

Frank turned towards Lloyd and gestured for him to follow. They left the creature in the morgue and stepped out into the quiet basement hallway lined with unpainted cement bricks.

"Both are on their way. Until we've killed them my friend there isn't going anywhere. You got much experience in a fight?"

"Some."

Somewhere above them the structure groaned, sent dust raining from the ceiling. A nearby boom jolted Lloyd and dropped them both into darkness for ten seconds before the emergency lights kicked in, the thin, yellowish light barely able to light up the hallway. He glanced over at Frank's still form, unshaken by the change, no hint of emotion visible in his face.

"I give them a minute before they get here," Frank whispered. He motioned his head towards a crevice in front of an office door and the two ducked into it, hidden from the stairwell door up the hall. "This isn't going to be much of a cat and mouse game. They'll go right for the morgue. They'll attack us only if they feel they have to, and they won't bother chasing us. We don't have the luxury of letting up the fight."

"What are they?" Lloyd whispered. "Are they demons?"

Frank glanced over at Lloyd, the hint of a smile visible in his tight lips. "Close enough." Up above someone screamed in pain right before a crack echoed through the stairwell.

Lloyd knelt along with Frank. He pushed aside all additional questions about the circumstances he found himself in, his reality reduced to only the splintering sound of a door tearing open and the padded thump of a foot stepping out onto the tiled floor. You saw them murder your coworkers, Lloyd told himself, and that was all he had to brace himself with.

Frank darted from the corner into the hallway with his gun up. The reverberating blasts removed Lloyd's ability to hear as he followed his new companion and brought up his own weapon. A haze of smoke and dust poured from the shattered stairwell, stung his eyes and partially obscured his view of the lanky forms hurrying towards them.

Black ooze sprayed from the holes torn in their thin forms, each bullet bringing a shuddering cry, but doing little to slow their approach. Lloyd managed to fire four times before they were upon the two of them and a five-foot long arm tipped with jagged fingers swung out and caught Frank in the stomach. The man struck the wall but didn't falter, another gun pulled from behind his back. While one focused on him the other rose up in front of Lloyd, bulbous head leaning closer to him, the vague appearance of a face sunken into the skin.

His bullet clipped the side of its head and it darted forward, fingers shredding Lloyd's shirt and the top layer of skin on his chest. The force of the strike sent him into the air and he landed in a heap by the wall.

The first one staggered away from Frank while the second turned towards him, clearly through with Lloyd, aware of the real threat in Frank. Three carefully aimed shots rendered its left arm useless before it could reach its prey, but Lloyd heard Frank's gun go empty. Frank threw the weapon, pulled out a knife, and darted forward to slash, but nails raked across his face before he could do any real damage.

Lloyd watched, feeling like a frightened child, as it pulled Frank up and drove sharp fingers into his eyes. The man's body struck the ground, still convulsing, blood running from his open mouth. It tore open the morgue's door, oblivious to Lloyd rising up behind it.

He didn't fire. So far away he doubted he'd get any worthwhile shots before it reached him. Wincing in pain with every movement, Lloyd only had surprise to aid him anymore. From within the morgue he heard the warbling scream of the other one, the sick crunch of shattering bone.

He passed Frank's twitching form and stepped into the doorway of the morgue. The injured one had been reduced once more into a more human form, huddled in the corner of the room, bloody hands hiding its face while the large demon attacked, sharp fingers tearing away the skin, splashing red across the room.

The first shot caught the creature in the back of the skull, a kill shot, Lloyd had hoped, but it turned towards him instead, the exit wound like a bloody eye in the middle of its forehead. He sensed the desperation in its lunge towards him, somehow detecting frustration in what he thought must be its face.

Every bullet he had tore through the massive frame before it could crash into him. Its head and chest were all but destroyed by the shots, dead carcass crashing into the wall while Lloyd fell to the side. He felt drained, both from the adrenaline flowing out of him and by something else, much deeper than anything he'd felt before.

His chest didn't even seem to hurt, body too worn away to feel pain. He took the outstretched hand the creature he'd defended reached out to him and allowed it to jerk him to his feet. It smiled with what remained of its human face, now like a bloated mask of dead flesh that split open, fell away to reveal a wide toothless jaw, small tendrils of skin growing where teeth would be. It appeared to have no eyes or nose, just an abrupt end to the head above the wide jaw. Reddish flaps of skin tore from the back, perhaps wings, Lloyd thought, but had no interest in understanding.

It spoke, but no longer in words he could understand, its guttural noises almost painful to his ears. He followed it outside into the hallway, not particularly surprised to see Frank pulling himself off the floor, face a mess of wet blood, reddened eyes visible through the still ravage sockets.

He smiled at Lloyd. "Were you even really hurt?" Lloyd asked, feeling as if he'd been part of some elaborate joke.

"I had my eyes torn out. How the hell you think it felt?"

The sound of movement caught their attention from down the hall. Lloyd turned to see one of the janitors, face ashen, staring at them and the creature by their side. As soon as he saw them he turned to run. Frank immediately glanced towards the creature, said, "Get him," and the monster obliged.

"What are you?" Lloyd started to say, but before he could move Frank's fist caught him in the gut, in the cuts across his chest, and Lloyd tumbled to the ground.

He didn't hear the janitor -- Fredrick Helms -- scream. The man Lloyd had spoken to off and on over the years died with only a grunt and the awful, wet sound of his body being torn apart. Lloyd could just barely see the carnage. The thing he'd help save knelt down in the middle of Fredrick's remains, reveling in the murder.

Frank caught Lloyd's eye. "If I'd had any bullets left I'd have done it myself. Too many witnesses to all this as it is, but explosions have a way of screwing with a person's memory. A guy seeing us plain as day down here, though, is something you remember. Can't have that."

"And me?" Lloyd wheezed, aware of the creature walking back towards them.

"Oh, I think I've gotten to know you well enough," Frank said with a smile. "Besides, a lone man saying something isn't worth much. If two say the same thing, people might listen."

He stood up and motioned with his head towards the morgue. The creature walked into it. Frank began to follow, but before he could Lloyd reached out his hand and grabbed Frank's wrist.

"Were they the good ones?" he asked and pointed towards the corpse across from him.

Frank glanced over at it, and then back to Lloyd. "One was a client and one was attacking my client. All there is." He pulled his wrist loose and left Lloyd seated against the wall.

Lloyd didn't bother to look into the room and see how they departed. His nose burned briefly with an acrid odor, but it didn't last. Instead he listened to the hiss of the body in front of him melting, the frail form craving in on itself. In less than a minute, the misshapen corpse had collapsed into a puddle of oozing flesh, indistinguishable from the random bloody detritus on the floor of a slaughterhouse. A minute after that and even the ooze had evaporated, taking with it any evidence of the things Lloyd had been witness to.

How am I going to explain this? Lloyd wondered. Half the building torn up and burned, bodies everywhere... He glanced up at the ceiling, where a security camera should have been recording everyone and everything that entered or left the morgue, and sighed. The camera was gone, with only a few inches of dangling wire to mark its place. No doubt the hard drives storing the video feeds were gone, or 'accidentally' ruined by the blast upstairs.

Lloyd shook his head, wincing as the movement pulled at the lacerations crisscrossing his torso. "Whatever else he is, Frank's a pro," he said, and settled himself to wait for the police.

THE END


© 2011 Philip Roberts

Bio: Stories by Philip Roberts have appeared in many places, including Midnight Echo ("In the Walls", June 2010), Beneath the Surface (anthology from Shroud Publishing, 2008 including Philip's story "The Apartment's Best Feature"), The Absent Willow Review ("Catching Back Up", February 2010), (the list goes on...), and, of course, Aphelion (most recently Sealed Away (July 2010)).

For a complete listing of Mr. Roberts's published works, visit The Writing of Philip M. Roberts.

E-mail: Philip Roberts

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