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The Nature of the Beast
Tina has been watching the place between the wall and her couch for either three minutes now, or for her whole entire life. It’s two thirty in the morning—2:34, actually, which feels like fate, like either a really lucky or a really terrible number—and she’s on her way back from checking the sliding glass door, because she couldn’t remember if she’d locked it or not, and who could sleep like that? But what she can’t remember now is if there’s a tall, broad-leafed rubber plant on the far side of the couch or not, making that for-sure-there shadow fall against the pale wall in that . . . she doesn’t want to commit to “wrong way,” but a way she’s not sure she can look away from, as it might twitch closer in that instant. Maybe she can wait it out, though? Maybe she can think it through, reduce it to the nothing it surely is, that it would have been if she hadn’t traipsed down here to check the sliding glass door that she’d already checked before bed, last thing. But, another part of her argues—and she hates that part of herself—wouldn’t a plant’s leaves be sighing the least little bit in the gentle breeze from the ceiling fan? At least one of them, which is in a different state of maturity than the rest, meaning it’s looser or tighter? Less attached to the main stalk, or more attached? Plants don’t go still when someone walks into the room, anyway, like she’s ninety percent certain this one just did. That would be stupid. Also, there’s no plant there anymore, Tina knows. The pot it had been in, it’s even out on the balcony, turned upside down so it won’t collect water, become a mosquito incubator. Tina specifically remembers setting a glass of iced tea on it a few hours ago, and joking to herself about how this was the perfect coaster at the absolute perfect height, that she was going to miss this wonderfully comfortable coaster when she finally took a chance on another needlessly large houseplant. So, if this is the shade of a plant she’s seeing, then it’s the after-image of the plant she killed in February, it’s the memory of the plant that was, it’s . . . it’s her guilt made manifest, even though it wasn’t really even her fault, plants die all the time, it’s completely natural, and guilt over a plant has got to be stupid, doesn’t it? Still she does the calendar math from February until now—February to June, five months, depending how you count—but it doesn’t soothe her, it doesn’t explain what she’s pretty sure is standing over there in the darkness. It just makes it worse. If the pot really is on the balcony like she knows it is, and if this really is a plant, then how’s it even standing, right? Meaning—do the math, Tina, face the facts—meaning it’s probably not a plant, is it? And it’s not some made-up childish “plant ghost” either, get real, grow up. Plants don’t have ghosts. Only people do. Unless, of course, this is just her mind playing tricks on her. Isn’t that what ghosts are anyway? Projections? Imagination run wild? Something fake that you choose to believe in, to scare yourself with? All the same, Tina knows—she knows knows knows— that if she keeps walking through to the entryway to go back upstairs, then she’s going to see that carbon monoxide detector by the couch from an angle she doesn’t want to. An angle that blips that little green light into darkness for a moment, because there’s something or someone standing between Tina and that light. Something that wasn’t there before, that shouldn’t be there at all. And if she doesn’t see that light blip out, then she doesn’t have to know, she doesn’t have to acknowledge, she won’t have to start screaming, she won’t have to run up the stairs with her back swayed in because those are for sure and for certain footsteps behind her, clomping in. “You’re being stupid,” she whispers to herself out loud. Then, more like a chide, “The sliding door was locked, you’re alone in here.” But . . . what’s the history of this apartment, after all? This land? That couch? And, just because the sliding door was locked doesn’t mean it was locked two minutes before she crept down here, when she didn’t even have a real reason to be creeping at all, other than that it felt wrong to crash through darkness, to blunder through this kind of unsuspecting silence. At night, everything is made of the thinnest, most breakable glass, isn’t it? Everything’s made of glass, and there are doorways opening with each step you take, doorways that can deliver you places you don’t want to be, and can’t find your way back from. “Said the dramatic girl,” Tina adds, her lips thin, teeth bared, eyes surely flashing, giving her exact location away. But she has to acknowledge that what could be happening here is that the animal part of her brain is whispering truths her more rational side doesn’t want to listen to. Because animals know. But Tina doesn’t. Or, rather, she does, but what she knows is that, even though the sliding glass door was locked, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s alone right now either. So she stands there caught, waiting like all of us—all of us except that presence in the corner by the couch, either staring back through the darkness at Tina, or not really there at all. Which doesn’t mean it can’t hear what her animal brain is telling her, is insisting on, is promising is the temporary solution to this moment. Run? Scream? Wait this out? Laugh at herself, and hope it doesn’t turn into uncontrollable sobs? Say something out loud again, hoping her voice won’t crack down the middle, revealing her soul, cringing smaller and smaller? Or maybe it’s nothing. Maybe there’s nothing there on the other side of the couch at all. That’s the best answer, really. It’s always nothing, it’s always just Tina’s nerves getting the better of her, like happens with all of us in our weaker moments, at two thirty in the morning. Or, at 2:34 on the digital clock on the component under the television, actually, a dimply, glowing-green number that really should have advanced already, Tina’s pretty sure, if the world could just be a place that makes sense again, please, she’s ready for the moment after this one, the next minute of all the minutes she has coming, she doesn’t want to have see into that darkness on the other side of the couch, because what if it’s her over there, right? What if it’s the version of herself that walks the floors at night, barefoot, running the hungry pads of her fingers over the back of the couch, over that line of trim in the wall, because people can have ghosts, she has to admit, but if she sees her own, then she’ll lose track of which is who, until she’s the one caught over there, thinking that if she can just stand still enough, then this will all be over, it’ll all be done, and she can go back to pacing the hall, the kitchen, stopping every few steps to cock an ear upstairs, listen for footsteps approaching, but otherwise just returning again and again to the sliding glass door like home base, to move that lock up and down, exhilarating in the space between but also falling headlong into it, and rushing away from her reflection if she happens to see it, because you can’t get caught in that back and forth, nosiree. If you get stuck in that loop, in a moment like that, then an important part of you never quite makes it all the way out, like you’re made of thread and running from where you snagged on the slightest, most invisible burr in the wall, or your life, only each step leaves you thinner, less substantial, until, at some point in the night, the thread runs out, and you just snap into nothing, keep going.

Stephen Graham Jones is The New York Times bestselling author of nearly thirty novels and short story collections, as well as a number of novellas and comic books. His most recent books are The Only Good Indians,which won the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction; My Heart Is a Chainsaw; and the forthcoming Don’t Fear the Reaper (all with Saga). He lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.