Short Story – Becoming Clickbait
“Hey Lana, you still awake?”
She blinked a few times. Her eyes felt dry from staring at the bright screen for way too long. The new message from Tristan brought her back from her drift into another world.
“With my messed up sleep cycle, am I ever truly awake?” She typed the message quickly and sent it off.
Lana got up and took a few steps to reach the bathroom. The cold tiles didn’t bother her at all; she was barefoot at home all the time. She washed her face in the sink and rubbed her tired eyes. Then, without looking into the mirror, she trotted back to her computer. Horror movies taught her not to look in the bathroom mirror in case a monster appeared behind you. It was the same reasoning that forbade her from dangling her feet over the edge of the bed.
Her bachelor suite was tiny but just the right size for a single woman who didn’t like to have friends over; as well as the right price for her income. Lana worked from home. She was lucky enough to turn her passion of creating pretty pictures into a decently paying job as a freelance web designer. Even though she dropped out of college and never finished her degree, she was able to get more clients than some of her former classmates, who later transferred into a completely different field of study because success didn’t happen fast enough for them.
“I have another pick-up line I need to try out before I take it on tour, if you have a moment”, read Tristan’s response.
She sighed. Tristan was an online friend, she never met him before but they had some fun conversations. He wasn’t creepy, like most of the other guys, but she could tell that there was some low-key flirting on his part. Despite that, he was a fun distraction from her usually boring life and always offered helpful feedback when she got too skeptical of her own work, so why not keep him around as long as he’s harmless?
“This better be good, Trent.”
“Hey, don’t call me that. That’s a stupid nickname.”
“But your roommates have a point, dude. You either pay rent or you sleep in a tent. So, let’s hear it.”
“The world is lost with you, but I am lost without you.”
“Fuck, you starting a cheese factory? That barely makes any sense at all. Give me another one.”
Lana got up again. When she was in a state of awareness she could not sit still. So she walked up to her kitchen sink and grimaced at the pile of dirty dishes. She meant to clean those last night but lost track of time. Lana went back to her desk, almost walking right into the couch that was placed in the middle of the room. Another thing she meant to take care of. This couch reminded her too much of some regretful nights with her long term ex-boyfriend. Recent, regretful nights.
She sat down in front of her computer and prepared for Tristan’s next eye-roll-inducing pick-up line.
“You need to leave, they think you’re ready to salvage”, it said.
That was just straight up strange. She couldn’t believe that he was getting that much worse with it every time. Lana double-checked to ensure she didn’t miss any context. But no, this was Tristan’s direct response to her previous message.
“Yeah, that one seems ready for a field test”, she replied, assuming that he meant to send that to someone in another conversation who wouldn’t find it as ominous.
“Listen, Lana, they’re already here. They’re around you. They know you.”
Now what the hell was going on with this guy? Was he trying to freak her out because she made fun of his shitty living situation?
“They’re in the walls.” She read that out loud. A sudden scratching in the wall next to her made her jump. It happened immediately after she finished the line, as if she startled something.
Just a rat, she thought.
“Ok, you freaked me out. You got me good. Can we move on from this?”
“I’m close by. I can get you out but you need to stay still. Don’t let them know you’re aware.”
What did he mean he was close by? She lived in the heart of Toronto and Tristan was some Belgian exchange student currently living in Barcelona. He couldn’t possibly be anywhere near her place, or even know where she lived at all.
“What are you talking about, dude?”
This was some dumb elaborate prank, she thought. However, Tristan might have lied to her about where he’s from. It wasn’t hard to fabricate screenshots of his map location; it’s just that she never had a reason to believe that was the case. Until now, that is. Now, where he assures her he’s close by, ready to save her from some vague, made-up threat. Was Tristan a crazy stalker this whole time? A kidnapper or serial killer? They have been chatting for only a few months, but it had been so consistent, Lana thought she knew him more than anyone in real life.
No, she decided he was just fucking with her and she’d play along.
“I’ll be fine, they can’t get me if I don’t go near the walls, am I right?” She wanted to see how he’d react. They’d have dumb jokes like this sometimes, only not that out of the blue. She had to make sure he wasn’t a nut-job murderer and still just her European idiot internet friend.
He took his time with the next line.
“What do you call a wall that’s not standing upright?”
Oh, neat, she scoffed. A stupid riddle. What was that supposed to mean? A wall that wasn’t standing upright?
“The floor?”, she said out loud and instinctively looked down.
There was a significantly big crack in the floorboards beneath her seat. A tired, yellow eyeball, slightly bulging out of pale, leathery skin stared back at her.
The eye vanished. Scratching noises rumbled through the walls. Lana jumped up from her chair and ran towards the door. She didn’t look where she was going and bumped her thigh into the edge of her couch. Lana fell to the floor and tried to get up immediately, but the pain in her thigh stung like a lightning bolt, forcing her down on her hands and knees.
The scratching noises subsided. It was quiet in her suite, all quiet but for the low humming of her computer. Did she just imagine all of it? Did sleep deprivation get the best of her? She closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, slowing it down so her head would stop pumping so damn loud. Her concentration didn’t break when she heard a creaking noise next to her.
It’s fine, she thought, floor boards creak some times.
She opened her eyes and looked to the side. One of the floorboards was pried all the way up. A bald, nose-less face with its eyes closed shut peaked through the hole in the floor. One bony arm held up the board, while another felt its way around on the floor. Searching for something. Searching for her.
Lana didn’t move. She didn’t breathe anymore, either. The creature opened its thin mouth and bared a row of jagged, yellow teeth. It snapped its mouth open and shut rapidly, sending out a rattling sound that made Lana wince. Then it stopped abruptly. The thing tried to open its eyes. It seemed to take a large amount of effort. The squishing sound of moist skin peeling announced the wide opening of one of the yellow eyes, staring right at her.
Lana jumped up and took a step towards the door. Her legs were immediately seized by the long arms of the creature and she smashed her face on the floor. Her head rang like a bell followed by the smell of copper in her nose.
Another, less subtle, creaking noise came from the wall to the left. Then another from the wall to her right. Several creatures, looking all alike, crawled out of the walls, careful not to open their sensitive eyes unless absolutely necessary. They slithered onto the floor, touched around with their hands to look for obstacles. Their curved claws clicked on the hardwood floor as they methodically made their way closer to Lana. Sharp, yellow teeth shattered in anticipation of their tasty meal.
Lana couldn’t move. The monster behind her dug its claws deep into her ankles and made sure she wasn’t going anywhere. Another creature was closing in from the right. Its seeking fingers briefly scraped Lana’s hand and hesitated for a moment, before violently stabbing into her palm. She couldn’t even scream. Shock and despair took priority over any physical sensation. But she could still hear them.
She could hear their rattling teeth.
The scratch and click of long, thin claws sliding and tapping on the floor.
And more creaking noises from the floor and wall boards.
She heard another, louder noise. A bang on the door. Another one, louder this time. Then the door burst open. A bright light beamed into the entire suite. The monsters screeched. Lana felt something tug on her hand and feet. Someone picked her up from the floor. She caught a brief glimpse of his face. Young, clean shaven, dark blonde hair. Then she passed out.
How could she ever sleep after all this. She felt herself drift back into consciousness, but kept her eyes closed. Lana listened for the sounds around her. A crackling noise nearby made her shudder at first, but when she listened closer, she realized it came from a wood fire.
“Are you awake or was that just another sleep spasm?”
She finally opened her eyes. The young man sat in front of the fire, staring at the burning logs and poking them occasionally with a metal rod.
“Tristan?” She asked.
“You can call me Trent.”
“You fucking serious?”
“No, but that way you know it’s me, right?”
“What the hell happened? Also, why the hell happened?”
“Wall People”, he said as calm as if it was the most commonly expected reply.
Lana tried to move. Her whole body felt sore. She noticed her pant legs were rolled up. Bandages covered the wounds on her ankles. She checked her right hand and was not surprised to find another bloody bandage wrapped around her palm.
“Sorry, I tried my best. I’m not a medic.”
“What are you then? You knew about them, these Wall People. Ugh, I’ve seen them and it still sounds crazy to say it.”
“It’s a really dumb story if you think about it.”
“Fucking try me.”
He sighed but still did not turn to face her. He poked the fire some more, causing the logs to move and create space for the flames to dance.
“They exist because of someone in our world. Someone with extraordinary psychic powers, who can will anything and anyone into existence just by thinking about it really hard.”
“Alright, I kinda see why you were so hesitant. It is a dumb story. How am I supposed to believe that? How could you possibly know that?”
“You saw the things, Lana. It shouldn’t be so hard to suspend your disbelief.”
“Fine. Continue your prophecy, this better have a happy ending.”
She sat upright against a wall. It looked like they were in a high-rise apartment building that was still under construction. Bare concrete walls and a stairwell not too far from her. They must be on a higher floor. Lana was a tiny young woman, but it was impressive for a guy like Tristan to carry her all the way up here. He didn’t look any stronger than her. But other than the empty walls there was nothing else to see. Nothing but the fire in this hopefully functioning chimney.
“Where was I?” He asked as he gave the logs another poke.
“Professor X created Wall People.”
“Right. This psychic person created them. They put them into this world with significant limitations. But the Wall People believe that this world should be theirs, as they were promised by their creator. So they seek the person that brought them to life and somehow force their creators’ powers to change world, no, change reality itself to benefit only them. No more light, no more warmth. Only darkness to give them all their strength to end the human reign.”
“Of course. You know all this from your Belgian folk tales or something?”
“They can communicate, you know? Psychically, I think. Probably another gift from their creator. I can hear them. They talk to me.”
“Oh hell no.”
“Lana, they think you have the power to change the world.”
“What do you mean they talk to you?”
She tried to get up, sliding up the wall in pain and anguish. Tristan didn’t move a muscle.
“They want to use your gift to destroy us all, Lana.”
“I don’t have that fucking gift. Tell them to leave me alone.”
“You create new worlds all the time. Have you never felt spaced out for so long that when you come back to it feels like you’ve been gone forever?”
“I make stupid websites for stupid people who think they can sell stupid garbage to other stupid people! And that’s it!”
She hobbled away from the wall and away from Tristan who was still sitting there, letting the flames swirl around the metal rod. Lana stumbled and almost fell but caught herself in the last moment by leaning against another wall. She made her way towards the stairwell. When she was halfway there, Tristan stepped between her and the stairs. The metal rod in his hand was glowing bright orange.
“They wanted me to lead them to you, Lana. But when I got to know you, I had to stop. I refused to help them, you see?”
Lana hobbled backwards and kept her eyes on that glowing rod.
“But they could see into my mind. They knew where you were. It was too late to stop them. I swear if I could, I would have stopped them.”
“I, I believe you, Tristan.”
Lana kept looking around. There was no other stairwell in sight. She needed to keep him talking and occupied with his stories, so that she could slip away before he’d go nuts.
“There’s too many of them and only one way to make them stop.”
“How can you make them stop, Tristan? I can help you. We can do it together.”
He took a few steps towards her. She tried to shimmy sideways and create a wider opening between him and the stairwell. Lana was sure that with a burst of adrenaline she could get her body to run past the madman and down the stairs. She thought of her legs getting ready to move and felt the soreness leave her body.
“They’re dying. Our world is killing them ever since the beginning. We just need to wait. We need to make sure they can’t get what they’re after, Lana.”
“Alright, Tristan, that’s a great plan. We can wait then. It will be all over soon, right?”
Lana hoped her feet could carry her weight despite her injured ankles. She felt the muscles in her legs tense, but didn’t feel any pain, as if there never had been claws stabbing through her.
“No, they know who you are. They know where you are. You’re not safe from them.”
He raised the metal rod. For the first time, Lana looked into his red flushed eyes. Tears poured down his cheeks.
“And we’re not safe from you”, he said and lunged at her.
He swung the rod but Lana ducked under it and started running towards the stairwell. The concrete floor did not feel cold on her bare feet as she skipped several steps to reach the next level of the stairwell. Tristan was hot in pursuit. She heard the metal rod scratch along the walls as he ran after her.
Lana didn’t pay any care in her steps. Speed was more important than accuracy when she made her way down several floors. She hadn’t noticed the protruding nails on some of the prior steps. But one misplaced nail finally hooked itself into the flesh between her toes. She tripped forward and knocked her head against the wall. From skull to toes, pain streamed through her nerves as she rolled down a set of stairs. Lana couldn’t move her neck. The scraping of the metal rod slowly came closer. With only one eye open she watched as Tristan casually came around the corner of the stairwell and approached her broken body. The glow of the rod was dimmer than before, yet it grew brighter as the hot end speared towards her.
Tristan pushed the logs aside with the rod. Only a few flames were left burning in the chimney. It took so long for everything to burn.
He threw the rod aside and sat down before the chimney. The grey dust in the centre was still hot. Tristan undressed and sat naked on the cold concrete floor.
“The world is lost with you”, he said as he reached into the hearth and grabbed two handfuls of ash, “but I am lost without you.”
He rubbed the ashes on his face. Dust showered down on his body.
“Stay with me”, he whispered.
He took another two handfuls of ashes and rubbed them on his face. Then another.
The clicking noises in the distance didn’t sway him from his process. He knew they would be angry. Lashing out at him was the last thing their dying species had left.
“Stay with me”, he whimpered.
The walls were clicking.
Jagged teeth rattled nearby.
Art by: Aisha Boucher