The Shortcut OG

The Shortcut

a Halloween special

It’s a balmy evening. Your jacket starts to feel suffocatingly warm, but you’re almost home. You increase your pace, turning into an alley to take a shortcut. The walls rise up on either side of you, closing you in. You hesitate, stumbling a step. Your boot catches on the concrete with a scuff that echoes down the alley. A rolling question that peters off into the darkness.

Something answers.

The sound sends chills down your spine. You know that sound, that slow, deliberate scrape. Like claws on stone.

You take a step back. Then darkness moves.

A shape oozes from the gloom, taking form in front of you. A hunched thing crawling on extended gangling limbs. The thing inches closer to the light, revealing shining talons.

Terror seizes you, you can’t move. Sweat drips down your back.

You can hear the thing sniffing you, tasting the air. A low growl shakes the alley as it scents you. The hulking mass moves inside the streetlight’s halo and you glimpse pale gray skin stretched across an almost humanoid frame, glowing red eyes, and a dripping maw wrapped around a serpentine tongue. A demon. A monster.

Every thought screams at you to run. But you can’t. You can’t move. It stalks towards you, talons scraping.

Its back limbs seize and you know it’s almost over.

You shouldn't have taken the shortcut.

It launches towards you with an unearthly screech.

 

***

 

You sit bolt upright on the cot. You look around at the room. It’s just the employee break area at the bowling alley.

Memory comes flooding back. It was just a dream!

You heave a relieved sigh, blinking away the last images of your bad dream.

The door opens and Alfie pops his head in. “Feeling any better?” he says cheerfully.

You nod. “Yes, much better. Sorry about fainting on you.”

Alfie waves away your apology. “I was coming to tell you your shift is over now anyway so head on home once you feel up to it.”

Alfie leaves and you pack up your things. You shrug on your zip-up hoodie over the bowling alley’s rather distasteful red polo-shirt uniform. Then you take off your name tag and tuck it into your locker before you clock out.

You leave the employee break room, making your way over the stained paisley carpet towards the front entrance. You wave goodbye to Alfie at the front counter.

“Remember, you’re covering for Maddison on Monday!” he calls, as you heave open the heavy glass doors.

“Yep, see you then,” you call back.

Slinging your backpack over your shoulder, you start through the quiet carpark, taking care to dodge the puddles from that afternoon’s rain. A phantom wind lifts the leaves of the bushes bordering the carpark and you look forward to the breeze hitting you. But it never comes. A twig snaps.

You whirl around, peering into the hedges, but see nothing. You frown. Something rustled those bushes. And then snapped that twig.

Some teenage boys stumble onto the path swapping insults about bowling techniques. They brush against the bushes, rustling the leaves, and you push out the breath you’d been holding. It was just kids messing around. Nothing to worry about.

You mount the curb and head down the side street that will take you home. The night air is light and fresh, if a little humid. You don’t mind doing the late shift because the walk home in the evening is peaceful. But you’re glad Alfie is closing up tonight instead of you. You haven't been feeling that great today. And this evening when cleaning the drinks machine, you felt sick enough that your head was spinning, and you needed to lie down on the little cot in the break room.

Thankfully the nausea has passed now, leaving only a slight headache. You hope that it won’t inhibit your sleep as you have two assignments due at the end of the week that you haven’t yet started. Plus, your friend, Sarah, is having a birthday party this weekend and you haven’t got a gift. And your sister has been asking for you to babysit her twins on Wednesday, but you have those assignments, so you haven’t given her an answer, but she’s sent three messages today that you haven’t read yet because you don’t know what the answer is and–

You stop as you notice the silence. Those teenage boys are long gone, turning off your route several blocks back. You look around. It’s a quiet Saturday night, but there should still be people around. There is no one. The street is deserted. The houses are darkened and secretive. You pause, biting your lip as you feel the fear creeping up your legs into your belly.

You shake your head. This is ridiculous. You are not a child. You are not scared of the dark.

“What’s out there in the darkness?” an inner voice whispers.

You whirl around, scanning the neat hedges and fences. Nothing.

You force a little chuckle. You are not scared of the dark.

You keep walking, a little faster than before. Not because you’re scared. You just want to get home. And start those assignments. Your mind immediately starts teeming with vaguely remembered criteria. Did the professor say you needed two sources? Or was it three? You remember you need to call Sarah and ask what she got for question six because it doesn't look right. If only you hadn’t taken that holiday during last semester, you might be more on top of things.

You turn the corner. Only a few blocks from home now. You stifle the urge to stop and remove your jacket. Sweat builds but you ignore it. You increase your pace, turning into the alley that will take you almost to your back garden. A shortcut.

The walls rise up on either side of you, closing you in. You hesitate, stumbling a step. Your boot catches on the concrete with a scrape that echoes down the alley. A rolling question that peters off into the darkness.

Something answers.

The sound sends chills down your spine. You know that sound.

You shouldn't have taken the shortcut

You take a step back. Then darkness moves.

The thing.

Your dream flashes before your eyes. Nightmare becomes reality as the thing becomes flesh before you. It melts from the darkness. Grey skin stretched over sharp bones. Teeth, talons and those glowing red eyes.

You are frozen in fear as it sniffs for you. A rumbling growl shatters the quiet night.

You shouldn't have taken the shortcut.

When is a dream more than a dream? When it’s a warning.

The thing’s back limbs seize, and you know it’s almost over. It launches towards you with an unearthly screech.

You shouldn't have taken the shortcut.