Scott H. Urban has worked as a teacher, assistant principal, and social work case manager; however, throughout the years he has continued to write prose, poetry, and reviews, most often centered on dark fantasy and the macabre. His most recent fiction can be found in Midnight Tales. His early fiction is collected as Bloody Show (available in Amazon Kindle edition). With Martin H. Greenburg, he edited the DAW anthology The Conspiracy Files. His poetry has been collected in the volumes Night’s Voice, Skull-Job, Alight, and God’s Will

He lives with his family in southeastern Ohio in a farmhouse that's not haunted . . . yet.


by Scott H. Urban


Megan was grateful for the fact that, when she emerged from the subway stairs, she was already in sight of her brownstone, positioned in the middle of the very next block. Its stolid façade, so concrete, so present, provided an immediate antidote to any grievances of her commute. She could, at least, call this borough home: she felt as if she knew the bistros, the bodegas, the sidewalk grates, the feet of those lying outstretched in the alleys between the foundations. 

Her day at the university library had been filled with an incessant round of undergraduates seeking citations, faculty asking questions to which they already should have known the answers, and administrators wondering why she hadn’t replied to any of their scatter-shot emails. But now she could let it all slough from her shoulders, could anticipate…what? A fresh salad. Some soothing music on her Spotify channel. And, oh yes, that bottle of wine she’d been saving for . . . well, no particular reason, save simply a personal celebration of another week well-survived.

The sidewalk crowd wasn’t too bad, especially for a Friday afternoon edging into evening. She prided herself on her ability to cut through the throng, weaseling her way between those she termed the “palm-worshippers,” holding their cell phones at mid-chest and enveloping themselves in tweets, texts, and newsfeeds. Much earlier she had made a vow not to walk with her phone out, to keep herself in the moment, to be mindful, keep up the vigilance that had protected her thus far in the metropolis.

As she approached the brownstone’s stoop, she saw an unfamiliar figure standing in front of the main door. The individual was tall, a good head higher than Megan herself. The figure was shrouded in a robe that swept down floor-length and the head was hooded. Maybe an abaya? But whereas a traditional Arabic garment would have been a flat black, the material which adorned this individual had a faint luster to it, an oily sheen that even took on rainbow hues in patches under the stoop’s overhead lamp.

As Megan began up the steps, the other turned back slightly to face her. Megan could now see that what might have been a niqab covered the greater portion of the person’s features. In the very narrow unveiled space above the cheeks, there was a reflective gleam from eyes that appeared unnaturally set apart. Megan noted that the person was holding two large brown paper grocery bags, one in each arm, and that a third bag sat on the ground at the hem of the robe. Bundles and packages poked above the rim of each bag.

“You. Help me please. Megan.”

The voice and the odd intonation were so startling that Megan nearly took a faltering step back, which might have resulted in a nasty tumble to sidewalk level. She brought a hand up to her chest and stifled a gasp. You can never appear shocked, she told herself. You always have to be in possession of yourself. Megan had assumed the person was female, but the voice was alternately raspy and then almost avian-chirpy.  

“Wait a second.” Megan held herself at arm’s length from the other. “How do you know my name?”

“Neighbors.” The figure inclined the head toward the entry door. “You can. Help me with the door and. This bag?” Megan supposed she heard a rise in intonation, indicating a question and a plea.

A sense of relief, almost approaching gratitude, washed over her. A neighbor, caught in an awkward situation. And wasn’t this one of those things for which you moved to the city from a fly-over state: a chance to lend a hand, to show another person we’re all in this together. To learn from different cultures and to absorb what had once been alien. 

“Oh, of course!” She bent and caught up the unexpectedly hefty sack. “I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. But I don’t know everyone in the building by name.” She reached out to unlock the entry door, and a small niggle itched at the back of her brain. “Wait a second. How did you even get here with these bags, if you’re having trouble carrying them all now?”

There was a moment’s pause, during which Megan imagined the other simply might not answer. Then:

“There were. Handles.” A pause. “Came off.”

Her companion took a step back so that Megan could open the door and hold it. As the other brushed past her, Megan felt the length of the arm inside the robe. But that can’t be right, she thought. It felt like there had been knobby joints between elbow and shoulders – and more than merely one? She had to have been mistaken.

“Which apartment is yours?” Megan asked once they were both inside the foyer.

“Down this. Hall.” Her neighbor advanced toward the far left corner, where a dimly lit corridor now ran to the east. 

Wait a sec, thought Megan. That’s right across from the stairs down to the laundry room, and I’m sure I’ve never seen a hall there before

“I must be in my own little world most of the time,” Megan confessed to the other. “I guess I’d never noticed this hall before. Is this a new section? Did this just open up?”

“Just. Opened up,” the other echoed, as if Megan had offered an ingenious suggestion.

Megan hurried to follow her new neighbor. As she entered this wing, she felt she had left the brownstone behind. The ceiling seemed to be at least another ten feet over her head. It wasn’t illuminated in the same way Megan’s hall was; not that it was ever bright enough for her, but the shadows here were definitely becoming more deep and inky with each step. There didn’t seem to be any light fixtures overhead, but what was providing that odd, greenish glow? Surely those couldn’t be irregularly spaced patches of bioluminescent lichen, could it? De Marco, the super, indolent though he was, no, even he wouldn’t put up with that.

Her neighbor was moving along the hall much more quickly than Megan had realized. She increased her pace. “I, um, didn’t catch your name. You know mine—Megan—well, duh, of course you do. Megan Callahan. What’s your name?”

“Pleased to meet. You.” Megan noted, with incipient frustration, her companion’s proclivity to provide a response, without providing an answer.

As they proceeded Megan became aware that the other’s gait was, simply, wrong. People, when they walk, make a tiny bob, a natural dip toward the ground as one takes a step and falls just a little bit, only to catch oneself and come up to full height again. But the neighbor advanced without that bob. The individual seemed to glide, not in the way of a model on the runway, but as a package on a continual conveyor belt. As the hem of the robe brushed the floor, Megan couldn’t see how such mobility was possible.

She was on the verge of asking about it when she heard rustling just below her left ear. It was the sound of something alive, moving inside the bag she was carrying. Megan had lived in much worse tenements than the one she currently occupied and so was familiar with the sound of multiple, chitinous legs scurrying across linoleum. It’s in there! And it wants out!

She couldn’t hold it back this time: she emitted a shriek and nearly tossed the bag from her hands. 

I don’t want it crawling on me; I don’t want to touch it; I don’t want to see it!

“Hey! Wait! Something got in here! Something crawled inside your bag!” Megan hated the frantic tone in her voice, but she couldn’t help it.

Her companion noticed that Megan had stopped and briefly turned toward her.

“Is fine.” A pause. “There are places where. You can. Purchase them alive.”

Megan shook her head. She had heard the words, but they didn’t seem to come together in any recognizable sense. Her neighbor began—no, not walking, but progressing nonetheless along the corridor, and now—

Now Megan realized that, for as far as they had traveled down the length of the hall, she had yet to see a doorway set in the wall to either side. Her thoughts began to seem as disjointed as her companion’s words: Where are the doors? The apartments? As a matter of fact, we’ve walked so far we ought to be in the same space as the building next door! 

She looked back the way they had come, and the opening into the brownstone’s foyer now looked like a pin-prick, a distant star in some galaxy light-years away, its illumination taking millions of years to reach this globe.

All right, that’s enough, she allowed herself. There’s lending a helping hand, and then there’s going beyond the pale. Fuck this

“Listen,” Megan called out to the other. “I’m just going to set your bag down here. I’m—”

And she didn’t finish her statement because, just then, the toe of her right shoe caught on some unseen obstacle—a loose floorboard, or a child’s abandoned toy—and she sprawled full length on the ground, pain immediately shooting up from her left knee, her companion’s bag now dropping from her hands and spilling its contents across the floor.

“Shit! Shit! I’m so sorry!” Stop apologizing, Megan! she berated herself, yet she continued. “I’m a complete klutz!”

With a groan she pushed herself to her knees and sat the grocery bag upright. She started to reach for the packages in order to place them back inside, but then she saw

A medium-sized container, much as one might expect to see holding Chinese take-out, except that its top flaps had come open during the spill and, from within, something emerged, something long and segmented, with many, many legs scritch-scratching, and although it was scurrying-rodent-quick, it also took a long time for its entire body to fully exit

And before it disappeared, it paused – pivoted its foremost segment, its head, back toward Megan, mandibles clicking in rhythm, and there were actual beetling brows that it raised above multi-faceted eyes, accusing her, wordlessly, You were going to help end me.

“Oh God!” She felt hot, acidic bile at the back of her throat and she hacked to keep it down. “Good Christ!”

“No matter.” Her companion had seen what had occurred, but the voice was stoic. “More. Megan. Where that came from.”

“Wha—what did you say?”

“Please help pick. Up.”

She couldn’t still the trembling in her hands. She reached out and picked up what she could locate of her neighbor’s purchases. Some of them were frigid. Some of them pulsed against her palm like a disembodied heart. She didn’t even question their contents, simply hoped to remain ignorant. She felt tears sting the corners of her eyes. This is not me, she wanted to protest. This is not the way I am, here in my home, here in my city

“Anyway. Are here.” Her neighbor’s uninflected words cut through her thoughts.

Megan looked up to see an opening within the wall: not an apartment door that swung inward, but rather an aperture, or, perhaps, a sphincter, dilating to dimensions that could admit her companion’s height. Iridescent light, in a color she had never seen before and to which she could not put a name, throbbed just beyond the incongruously organic threshold.

I don’t want to see, she realized. I don’t want to know. I just want...

“Here are your groceries,” she offered weakly. “I’m just going to leave your bag here. You can put your other bags down, and then you can come back and pick this one up.” The words were coming out in a rush, as if they were carried by an implacable current over a waterfall. “It’s been nice meeting you. I hope we can see each other again soon.” There: that inane impulse to be polite, to be neighborly.

“Come. Megan. Is more. Where that came from.”

And as Megan was backing away, trying to retreat, struggling once more to make sense of the words without syntax, her neighbor’s third arm, which easily could have accommodated that third bag, shot out and wrapped itself around her shoulders.