The young boy woke from his slumber. It had been a week since his parents had left. He was all alone in the three-room apartment. His dirty clothes were in the corner of the room. He had not taken care of them for a few days now. Besides his clothes, his room wasn’t particularly messy but wasn’t orderly either. His desk was filled with books and writings from school, and he never bothered to make his bed. He went for the bathroom and brushed his teeth. He could not stand the foul taste in his mouth after he woke up. After he took a shower and made himself a quick breakfast, he went out. It was midday, and the sun colored the city with a bright and gloomy yellow light. The large shopping mall was close by and his favorite place to hang out. He loved observing the people that were passing by. Each of them had something unique to them.
He was still on school holidays for a few more weeks. All his friends had left town over the summer. It was not like he had many friends at school, but he felt lonely without them. This was the first summer without his parents and without any friends. His parents were often on work trips, so it did not bother him that much that they were gone. But usually, he at least had one friend that would stay over the summer. They would hang out in the mall, in the giant arcade, or outside near the skate park, which had a small forest and stream next to it. The warm weather in the summer turned the skate park into a unique experience. Nobody was skating because of how hot it was, and the whole park was vacant. He and his friends would sit below the trees nearby or walk along the stream.
He still had a few years of school before he would enlist for university. He had no idea what he wanted to study, but he felt obligated to do so. His parents and relatives were always talking about it as if it was a given, even though he had no idea or direction for his future life.
He walked along the second floor of the mall. Today there were fewer people here than usual. A young couple passed by. Both looked happy and were smiling at each other. When was the last time he had seen his parents that happy? He looked down from the second floor onto the large plaza below. There was a small waterfall inside the mall. The water was flowing down from the roof to the ground floor. It fascinated him how people could take something that only appeared in nature and then replicate it in such a different environment. It was a relaxing and peaceful sight.
He was walking his usual route through the mall. All around the U-shaped building. First on the second floor, then again on the ground floor. He took the escalator down and passed by the familiar shops. But there was something different today. The place at the end of the corridor, which once had been an electronic store, was open. There were no signs on the walls or windows, but the doors were open. Maybe they had started to renovate the place. Curiously he walked towards it.
He could not see anyone when he peeked through the doors. The whole place was dimly lit. Most of the old equipment from the electronic store was still there. The cash registers and empty rows of racks where once tech equipment was sitting on. He walked around the place and found the storage rooms. They were also empty. Only large frames up to the ceiling. He had never been in here. Seeing the storage room made him realize how much more there was to the store.
He walked along the empty rows until he noticed something and stopped. There was a large metal door installed on the floor, in the middle of the room. It looked like a basement or shelter door, but he had never seen one in the mall. The door did not seem like an emergency shelter, as it was a tiny two-sided door. Way too small for many people to fit in and way to simple to protect from anything. He took a good look around him. Nobody had followed him, and nobody was in sight. He walked towards the door, then opened both parts. Both were incredibly rusty, but there was no sound when he opened them. They were adequately oiled.
He looked into the room below, but he could not see anything. It was pitch black. It took a few seconds till he could see the small ladder. Only the first half of the ladder was visible; the second half disappeared in the darkness.
He was unsure about the situation. He was curious, but the impending darkness made him feel unease. He looked up and around himself again. Nobody was here. He could only hear the distant noise of people chatting and the splashing sound of the waterfall.
He took a deep breath. Why was he scared? Was he scared of the darkness? But if there was nothing down there, why would he need to be scared? He looked at the ladder again. It was a proper iron ladder, sturdy, and fixed in place. He touched and tried to move it, but it held tight on both ends.
He made the first step and slowly moved down the ladder. Once the ladder faded to black, he waited a bit till his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The shapes of the ladder slowly became visible, and he continued descending. The ladder was not as long as he thought it to be. Only a third of it was hidden in the darkness. He stepped on the concrete ground in the dark. There was only the light from above. It was not that bad, after all. He looked around. The entrance seems to be right in the middle of the room. There was darkness in every direction. But the concrete ground was clean and empty. Nothing was lying down here; no trash or old electronics, not even dust or spider webs. He made a few steps towards the unknown. The further he moved into the darkness, the more relaxed he became. It was only his breath and the beating of his heart that he could hear.
He was now several steps into the darkness, slowly stepping forward. He did not know what he would find down here, but he did not think about anything. His mind was clear. Another step. Another step. The sound had changed. Or had it? He took another step. It was a lot brighter.
It almost sounded like he was walking barefoot. He looked down at his shoes. He could only make them out from their blurry form in the darkness.
He was standing still. It was not him making the sound.
It came from further into the room. He focused on the spot from which the sound was coming from.
Something came into sight: two red dots floating towards him.
Those were no dots. It was a pair of eyes. Red eyes. Directed at him.
The hairs on his body jumped up. There was something down here with him. And that something was looking at him, with its red eyes.
He could not think or move. He was standing still in shock.
The eyes were getting bigger with every step. Soon they would reach him.
Water was dripping on the cold floor. He had peed his pants. He had not noticed until now, but it got him out of his paralysis. He turned around and ran towards the ladder. He leaped towards it and grabbed the highest point that he could reach. His legs smacked against the ladder, but he pulled them up quickly, the bright light hurting his eyes once he was up the ladder. He was still on his knees when he turned around and looked down below. The red eyes were now in sight with the outline of the body. It was a human? He took the left door and closed it with a loud bang.
“Who are you?”
The right door made an even louder sound when he shut it. He locked the door with a bolt; then he quickly got out of the store.
He jumped out of his bed and took a deep breath. He was sweating. He had dreamed of a young boy his age. Red eyes, wearing only shorts. He had touched the boy, touched his head.
He exhaled again. He felt disgusted. Yesterday he had taken a shower as soon as he had gotten home while still clothed. They were still lying in the shower. Now with his sheets full of sweat, he had to do the laundry. After he took a shower, he sat down naked in front of the washing machine. He observed the clothes inside, rolling in circles. Was it a boy he had seen down there? Why would there be someone down there? Did anyone know? He stored the washing detergent and let himself fall on his bed. He napped till the washing machine started to beep, letting him know that it was done.
It was already afternoon when he left the apartment. He did not notice that he had subconsciously walked to the mall until he passed the waterfall. His routine had not failed him. He walked through the mall to the electronic store. It looked exactly like did yesterday. The doors were still open, the dim light still on.
He got himself a filled warm bun from one of the vendors nearby and sat down on a bench. He observed the entrance of the old electronic store. Nobody entered or left the place. Nobody even seemed to notice or care. He waited a bit longer after he had finished his bun, then he walked towards the entrance. The same place with the same interior. Nothing had been moved. The basement door was still locked, just as he had left it. He sat down next to it and listened. It was quiet. No sound was coming from below. He tried to peak through the sides of the door, but they were properly sealed. He could not look inside, and there was no light getting in. What was he doing here? Was this his holiday adventure? He sat next to the door and started contemplating.
Why not check out what was going on inside there? There was nothing else he could be spending his time with. It was way more interesting than his routine of walking through the mall and watching movies till late into the night.
He stood up and unlocked the door. No sounds below. The light was flowing into the darkness. Nobody was there. It was just as empty as it had been yesterday. He opened the other side of the door.
“Hey. Are you there?”
He was on his knees, looking into the darkness. He could not make out any shapes.
“I saw you yesterday. Who are you?”
No sound from below. No feet tapping on the floor. He did not know what to do. Yesterday was probably the scariest moment of his life, and he did not want to have the same experience again. He waited a few more minutes in silence. There was nobody down there. He would just close the entrance and go home.
“Who are you?”
The words were barely hearable. They were not louder than the noise of the waterfall in the background. He was actually not sure if he had heard anything at all.
“Who are you?”
Now he could hear it more clearly. It was the voice of a young boy coming from the direction he had walked towards yesterday.
“What are you doing down there? Are you hiding from someone? You should come out and go home.”
No answer. The boy had heard him, but now he was silent.
“I want to see you.”
Of course, the boy was not able to see him. The light from above was way too bright and had to blend enormously.
“I want to see you too. Come closer.”
He still did not want to go down there. He heard feet tapping a few times. Then silence.
“It hurts getting closer.”
Had the boy been living here for so long that his skin could no longer handle light? He still could not see anything in the darkness, so he had to descent. He slowly stepped down the ladder while he was looking behind him in the direction of the boy. His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. Then he saw him. A blurry outline of the boy’s body. Arms, legs, head, horns? He stopped for a moment. Small horns were growing on top of the boy’s head. Or was it just his hair?
He had made his way down the ladder. The outline was now a lot clearer. The boy was very skinny, almost as if he was only made out of bones. He only wore some short pants; else was naked. It looked like he had bruises and dark patches all over his body. The boy had opened his eyes once he could hear him descend from the ladder. They were red. But not the color of the pupils, they were bloody. The small vessels inside his eyes had popped from the light and made it look like he had red eyes. And he had horns: two little horns growing above his forehead, surrounded by hairs.
The boy closed his eyes again.
“I can’t see you. It hurts. I will go back. My body hurts.”
“I’ll come closer.”
He approached the boy until he was only two meters away from him. They had the same height. The boy opened his eyes again and looked at him. His eyes moved up and down, trying to grasp what he saw. He looked down at himself, his chin laying on his bony ribcage.
“You look very different. I’ve never seen anyone like you.”
“I haven’t seen anyone like you either. What are you doing down here? Why are you here all by yourself? Did someone lock you in here?”
“What do you mean? I could ask you the same.”
He was confused. Did the boy not understand what he was talking about?
“What about your horns? Are they real? Why do you have them?”
“What do you mean? Of course they are real. Where are yours?”
He felt like he had stumbled upon someone from an isolated tribe. They both looked at each other curiously. Then the boy turned his head.
“I have to go. Let’s meet again soon.”
The boy walked off into the darkness. He went back towards the light.
He got up earlier the next day. It was around noon when he entered the electronic store and walked down the ladder. He had announced himself, but the young boy did not appear. He had walked as far into the room as he had yesterday. He stood there for several minutes till he heard the sound of feet coming towards him.
“My body still hurts. I should not go any further.”
His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but it was getting so dark that soon he would not be able to see anything anymore.
“But I won’t be able to see you.”
“But, you can feel and hear me.”
He closed his eyes and walked into the darkness, step by step. He could hear his breath and heartbeat. A few more steps, then he could hear the boy’s. It was very slow and rhythmic.
“What is your name?”
“Can I touch your horns?”
He slowly moved his arms towards him. He touched the shoulder of the boy, then made his way up from there. They were real horns, growing right out of his skull. He had touched the horns of some cows in the countryside before. It felt just like it. Then the boy touched his head. He was searching for horns, but there were none. Then he slowly began touching his ears, cheeks, nose, and eyes. He was following his movements. It was almost like he could feel the difference in their appearance by touching and getting touched at the same time. The boy was so skinny compared to him. It felt like he was touching skull and bones with a light, thin film stretched over it. Then the boy suddenly stopped.
“I want you to meet my friends. Can you wait here for a bit?”
The boy steps slowly faded away till he could not hear them anymore. He was alone again. He sat down on the concrete ground. He assumed the concrete would be cold, but it was comfortably warm. He laid down and soaked in the warmth.
He did not know how much time had passed since the boy had left. He had napped for a bit as well. But the sound of feet slapping on the ground got him up instantly. First, it was only one pair of feet. The boy’s feet. Then more feet started to appear. Some were lighter, some darker, but they mixed into each other. He could not keep up with how many pairs of feet were approaching him, but it had to be more than ten.
Their shadows slowly came closer, and he had the feeling that he was able to feel their presence. He did not need to see the shapes of them with his eyes to understand their physique. Just their breath and aura made him see them. They were all boys with horns, all around the same age. Only a few were his height; the rest were smaller and younger. Now he could make out how many they were. There were twelve of them in total. They stopped and formed a half-circle in front of him. The smallest and youngest boy came forward and extended his arm to touch him. He did the same. The boy’s skin felt weird. Almost like he had scales. He had tiny horns hidden in his hair. He had an earthy and metallic smell to him.
They were all extraordinarily skinny and had bruises and rashes all over their bodies. After they all had touched his head, belly, arms, and legs, they were starting to play a game. They were all sitting in a circle and would draw shapes on each other’s back. Everyone had to imitate the form until it got back to the one who drew it. At first, it was quite simple; Lines and circles. Then it became more complex, and he failed to keep up with it.
They switched to different games several times till they eventually all got up and quietly left him. They all greeted him goodbyes, silently in their own way.
When he got out of the basement, it was already dark outside. Only once he got home, he realized how long he had been down there. It was three in the morning. His clothes and skin were black from all the time in the basement. While he took a shower to get rid of the dirt, he also notices blood flowing down his body.
Over the next days, he left the apartment in the last afternoon. The sun was hurting his eyes throughout most of the day, but it got bearable in the evening. He almost instinctively went down the ladder and kept exploring the large basement. He kept playing with the kids. They always came up with new games and stuff to do, but sometimes they would just nap together on the warm floor.
It had been twelve boys in the beginning, but they were getting less and less. He had not really noticed at first, but after several boys disappeared and only five showed up, he asked them about it. None of them would answer him. They would just continue the game or ignore his questions.
It did not anger him, but he was confused. One day, he tried to follow the boys after they were done playing. He could not keep up with them and turned back around after a while. He tried to get back to the ladder, but he had gotten lost. After stumbling around in the darkness, he encountered a nasty stench. It smelled of feces and urine. He almost threw up and quickly went into another direction. His eyes were utterly useless in this darkness. They would only get useful once he was close enough to the ladder; for the light to guide him.
Something brittle snapped under his feet. It startled him, and he jumped back. He was all by himself, so he walked forwards again and tried to find the thing he had stepped on. He kneeled and picked it up. It was long, sturdy, and had a slimy texture on top of it. It smelled like the chicken wings his dad used to leave in the fridge for too long.
He took another direction and was able to find the ladder. On the way up the ladder, he noticed the blood on his hands.
He woke up when the sun started to shine into his room. He had forgotten to close the curtains last night. The sun seemed to melt his eyes and skin. He quickly got under his blanket and fell asleep again.
The apartment had become a mess: his dirty clothes lay all over his room and bathroom. The dishes were piling up in the kitchen, and the floors had black stains on them from his dirty feet. There were several voicemails on his phone, but he did not check them. When he got up, he quickly washed his face and picked up some clothes that looked the least dirty. He had not taken his medication in weeks now, and the new pill deliveries kept piling up on the kitchen table.
The old man selling him buns in the mall asked him if he was ok and if they should look for his parents. He seemed concerned for some reason.
There were only three kids coming today. They were passive when they greeted him. They did not want to play or nap or talk. It made him upset, and he picked one by his arm. The boy instantly pulled back, took his arm instead, pulled it to his nose, and bit into it.
He could feel the warm blood flowing over his arm. He screamed up as he pulled his arm back. The boy jumped towards him, and he fell on his back with the boy on top of him. The boy tried to bite into his neck, but he used his weight to roll around. Now he was on top of the boy. He punched him with his right elbow. Something cracked when he hit his face. He pushed himself up, only to see that the other two boys were wrestling on the ground. The air filled itself with the metallic taste of blood.
He woke up late at night, still with his clothes and shoes on. His sheets were filled with blood and dirt. He threw up.
He was standing naked in front of the mirror. He had lost weight. His ankles, knees, and elbows had bruises. His skin was peeled off in parts of his shoulder and his face. He threw up again.
It had been a week since he went to the mall. He was getting up earlier day by day and had cleaned the apartment. He even started to take his medicine regularly.
It was the last day of the holidays, but his parent would not come back for at least another week. He walked to the mall, past the waterfall, down the elevator, past the small stands. The man with the buns was greeting him. The doors of the electronic store were still open. He walked into the storage room and down the aisles.
“Hey, this is no place to play around. You should not be in here!”
A middle-aged, overweight man with a large beard approached him. He had been sorting stuff in the back of the storage room.
“Is this place being renovated?”
“Yes, we plan to open it in a month or two. What are you doing here? You don’t plan on helping me clean up, do you?”
The man laughed.
“I wanted to check out the basement.”
Basement? This store has no basement.”
The man looked confused.
“In the middle of the storage room, there is a small door leading down into the basement.”
“Are you sure? I haven’t come across it in the weeks that I’ve sorted things here.”
They both walked down the aisles to the place he had entered the basement. They approached the middle of the room, but there was nothing there, only the concrete floor. They stopped at the spot the doors had been.
“See? You must have confused this store with another. Have you been here before?“
He closed the apartment door and leaned against it. He exhaled, then walked to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his arms and face. He ran through his hair. He did not notice the small horns that were slowly growing out of his skull.