“Ma, maybe you shouldn’t go out,” Yuri warned, his voice serious. “It’s too dangerous.”
Elena made a shushing sound and waved her hand dismissively, forgetting that Yuri couldn’t see the gesture over the phone. She switched the handset to her other ear as she opened the refrigerator. It was a vintage metal icebox with rounded corners and a curved horizontal handle made of dulled chrome. Blooms of rust scarred the once-white finish. The door swung open with an anguished squeal. It was dark inside.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I’m just going around the corner.”
The refrigerator’s wire shelves were stacked with cardboard shoe boxes and dented metal cookie tins. Elena took out one of the shoe boxes and carried it over to the kitchen table. The refrigerator door swung shut and latched with a solid clunk. It sounded more like the closing of a car door than a kitchen appliance.
Yuri tried to reason with his mother. “Why don’t you let me bring you something? I can be there in a few hours.”
“Oh, you’re coming to visit? Now you have time?” Elena chuckled. “I feel honored.”
“Come on, Ma. Don’t do that. You know how it is with work.”
Elena sat down at the table. Wisps of her white hair caught the late afternoon sun, framing her profile in a halo of golden light. She had high cheekbones and a strong chin, with eyes that were a striking shade of pale Mediterranean blue. Her skin had the look and texture of finely-wrinkled tissue paper. It slid loosely over her bony hands and arms like an old silk garment.
She removed the lid of the shoe box. Inside was a kaleidoscopic array of embroidery threads, in spools and bundles of every imaginable shade and color.
“Have you made partner yet?” Elena asked, as she dug through the box. Her tone was casual, but the question was barbed like a fishhook.
There was a long silence before Yuri replied. “Not yet.”
“Mmm. Well.” Elena nodded. “Someday.”
There was another long pause. Here it comes, Elena thought.
Finally, Yuri spoke.
“Promise me you’ll be careful?”
And there it is. He wasn’t coming to visit. He never had any intention of doing so. His offer was a charade, his concern merely performative. It was a little one-act he put on for his own benefit, one where he could play the role of a dutiful son, while she played her part as the disappointed-but-understanding mother. It was a familiar show, one she had seen thousands of times before. She’d had a front row seat for years.
She couldn’t blame him. He had his life: his apartment on Central Park West, his girlfriend from that perfume commercial on the television, his job moving money from one place to another. It was a life full of opportunity, full of gallery openings and wine tastings and conversations about Michelin stars and designer clothes.
There was no room for a lonely old woman with cracked linoleum floors and threadbare sweaters with holes in the elbows. No room for the old neighborhood. No room for the past.
Elena knew her son was ashamed of where he’d come from. Of who he was. Of who he still is, she thought, with a hint of bitterness. No matter how much he tried to pretend that he wasn’t, like it or not, he was still her son. Her blood was his blood. It was a fact. An undeniable, inescapable fact. But she let him pretend that it wasn’t. It was easier than arguing.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “I’ll be careful. As always.”
“Good. Okay.” He sounded relieved. “And if I get off work in time …”
“Of course. You’re always welcome.”
“So, maybe I’ll see you.”
“Maybe,” she said, not believing for a second that he would come. “I’ll save you some leftovers, just in case.”
Elena gripped the railing as she made her way down the crumbling stairs in front of her apartment building. Broken glass crunched under her blocky, thick-soled shoes. Dumpster water trickled out of the alleys and into the gutter, leaving the air heavy with the stench of urine and rotting food. A vagrant slumped in the doorway of an abandoned storefront, a needle dangling from his arm. His soiled and sodden belongings spilled out of a torn plastic bag printed with the words “THANK YOU” in a garish red font.
The neighborhood was no longer the place Elena had once known it to be. It used to be a vibrant melting pot, brimming over with the sights and sounds and smells of immigrants from around the world, all striving for better lives for themselves and their families. Elena and her son had fit in well, drawing little attention despite their thick accents and unfamiliar habits. Over time, the two of them had acclimated and assimilated, adopting the language and customs of their new home and losing most of the vestiges of the old country.
Yuri had found work, first at a local bank, then eventually making his way to the hallowed grounds of Wall Street. It was as if he had been born for the world of high finance. He was self-absorbed and selfish, with little regard for the well-being of others. He wasn’t encumbered by inconveniences like guilt or empathy. He had no conscience. He fit right in.
Before long, he was cavorting with swimsuit models half his age, parading a different one past his doorman seemingly every night as he escorted them up to his penthouse apartment. He ordered call girls like takeout, with the numbers of several local traffickers on speed dial. Discretion was paramount; money was no object. His enablers were happy to oblige.
Elena, meanwhile, had stayed behind, preferring the familiarity of her cramped, fifth-floor apartment to Yuri’s high-gloss, high-risk, high-rise lifestyle. Nothing much had changed with the place since she first moved in, so many decades before. She had the same creaking wood floors, the same peeling, piss-yellow wallpaper, the same leak-stained ceilings. She watched the same analog TV, which still sported the same rabbit-ear antennas, despite having been converted to cable years ago.
While Elena and her apartment had remained constant, the neighborhood had crumbled around her, becoming increasingly infested with drugs, poverty, and crime. It seemed like every day, there was another report of another murder, another person gone missing. Sirens wailed at all hours of the day and night, spilling red and blue light onto the ceiling from the street below. Light posts and metal roll-top doors were wheat-pasted with homemade fliers featuring words like MISSING and IF FOUND, PLEASE CALL, right next to faded ads for HOTS GIRLS and FREE PU$$Y.
To be fair, it had never been a paradise. There had always been danger, since the day Elena and Yuri first arrived. But the danger was of a different nature back then.
In those days, the danger lurked in the shadows. It would emerge soundlessly from the darkness, then would vanish just as silently into the night. Now, the danger operated in broad daylight. It was brazen. Unafraid. It dared people to notice it. To do something about it. To stop it. But would they? Of course not. They couldn’t be bothered. Everyone was too wrapped up in their own lives. Just look at Yuri. He feigned concern, sure. But that didn’t bring him back home.
The truth was, nobody cared about each other anymore. They didn’t even know each other. Everyone was a stranger. The whole city was infected with a terrible anonymity. A plague of indifference.
Violence had lost its power to offend. Another prostitute gone missing. Another junkie drained bloodless in the gutter. Another homeless man found disemboweled in a back alley behind a Starbucks. It didn’t matter. It was background noise. Radio static. People had more important things to worry about. They had selfies to take. Photos to post. Followers to influence. They couldn’t be bothered with trivial things like murder.
It was all fine with Elena though. She appreciated the invisibility that came with indifference. It allowed her to move unnoticed through the streets, to do what she needed to do, and then to make her way back home undisturbed. The more people ignored her, the safer she would be.
Elena navigated around a sleeping junkie’s filth-encrusted feet, then rounded the corner onto the main avenue. Down the street ahead of her, she noticed two young men in their early 20s lounging on a stoop next to a boarded-up pawn shop. She had seen them there before. It was their regular spot. Their place of business.
The tall one was named Afsal. He was lanky and lean, with heavy eyebrows and an unruly beard. His hair was shaved on the sides and long on top, slicked back and tied in a small, tight bun. A black Brooklyn Nets jersey with a white number 11 hung loose on his frame. He wore clean white sneakers that looked fresh out of the box.
The shorter man was Leo. His broad shoulders filled out an oversized white t-shirt that came down almost to his knees. Tattoos covered every inch of his arms, from his knuckles, up the back of his hands, over his muscled forearms, and into his sleeves. A flat-brimmed Yankees hat was pulled low over his eyes, with a pair of wraparound black sunglasses perched above the brim.
As Elena approached, an emaciated twenty-something dodged his way through traffic and crossed the street to meet Leo and Afsal. The kid spoke briefly to Afsal, then slipped him a wad of cash. Afsal palmed something back to him, a tiny plastic bag of brown powder. The addict fist-bumped Afsal, then hustled off down the street.
Afsal unfolded the money he had been handed and added it to a thick roll of cash from his pocket. Elena gave a short little sniff of dismay while she passed. Afsal heard it. He shot her a cold look. Elena quickly averted her eyes. She tightened her grip on her purse and quickened her pace.
Afsal stuffed the cash roll back in his pocket, then cupped his hand over his mouth and said something to Leo. Leo nodded. They waited until Elena was a few doors down from them, then casually fell in step behind her.
From the moment they stepped off the stoop, Elena knew she was being followed. She could sense it.
She cast a quick glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, Leo and Afsal were behind her. They weren’t too close, but they were close enough. And getting closer.
As the thugs quickened their pace, Elena abruptly took a quick sidestep into an alley on her left. It was a deft move, surprisingly agile for a woman of her age.
A few seconds later, Leo and Afsal rounded the corner into the same alley. They stopped dead in their tracks.
Elena was gone.
“The hell?” Leo exclaimed. “Where’d she go?”
The alley was a dead end. It was empty except for a few damp cardboard boxes piled haphazardly next to the back door of a Chinese restaurant. There was a fire escape overhead, but its ladder was still retracted. There was no place for her to run. No place to hide. And yet, she was nowhere to be seen. The only evidence that she had been there at all was her purse, which lay abandoned in the middle of the alley.
“She ghosted you,” Afsal chided.
“She probably went through here,” Leo said, ignoring the dig. He tugged on the restaurant’s back door. It was locked.
“Or not,” Afsal said. He laughed at Leo.
Leo kicked over the pile of cardboard boxes. A large rat scurried out, squealing. It ran straight up the alley wall, ascending vertically, then paused on the windowsill overlooking the fire escape. It peered down at them with its tiny black eyes, whiskers twitching.
“What’re you looking at?” Leo growled at the rat. It hissed back at him in response.
“So?” Afsal asked Leo. “What now?”
Leo noticed Elena’s purse laying on the ground nearby. He looked at Afsal. Afsal nodded.
Leo squatted down, picked up Elena’s dropped purse, and opened it.
Meanwhile, Afsal thrust his hands in his pockets and walked to the end of the alley. He meandered casually out to the sidewalk and looked both ways, checking to see if any cops or other witnesses were around. There were a few neighborhood drunks smoking cigarettes in front of the liquor store down the street. Other than that, there was nobody. Afsal popped a piece of gum in his mouth, then leaned against the wall and started scrolling through his phone, his thumb occasionally pausing to double-tap on an image of a duck-lipped girl in a lurid pose.
In the alley, Leo shuffled through Elena’s purse. He pulled out a brown vial of pills, examined the label, then pocketed it. He found a handful of crumpled bills and pocketed those too. All six dollars worth.
“Anything?” Afsal called, keeping his eyes on his phone.
“Not much,” Leo replied. He dug to the bottom of the purse. His eyes lit up. “What’s this?” he mumbled. He pulled out a delicately embroidered silk wallet. It was closed with a loop of string around a small black bead. Leo snapped the string. The bead popped off and fell to the ground, bouncing off the concrete and into a dark, oily puddle.
Leo opened the wallet. Disappointment registered on his face. It was full of … photographs? Seriously? Who carries actual photographs anymore? Isn’t that what phones were for?
Leo flipped through the photos. They were old. Like, really old. They looked like they had been taken with one of those antique cameras, the kind where the photographer has his head under a black sheet, with a flashbulb that pops and sizzles like a burger on a grill. The kind they have at Coney Island, where you dress up like your grandparents and pretend to be old. Old Tyme Photos, the place was called. It was stupid, but people seemed to love it. Leo had no idea why.
The woman in the photos was the same one they had followed into the alley. She looked about the same age too. But the dress she was wearing looked like something out of a history book. She was with a guy who was maybe in his forties. He had close-cropped hair, and wore a well-tailored suit with a pocket watch tucked into his vest. He was too young to be her husband, unless she was some sort of sugar mama. Maybe she was. Old lady’s still getting the D, he thought, a small grin curling his lips.
Leo pulled the photo out of its plastic sleeve and turned it over. The words “Elena & Yuri 1871” were scrawled on the back in thin cursive letters. It reminded Leo of the kind of writing you’d see on the Declaration of Independence or something.
Damn, Leo thought. This lady is old as dirt. He laughed to himself, then dropped the photo into the puddle at his feet.
Just then, he heard a rustling sound overhead, like a bedsheet flapping in the wind. He looked up. His eyes went wide.
Out on the sidewalk, a gust of warm air blew out of the alley and rustled Afsal’s hair. Still looking at his phone, he called to Leo. “You almost done, or what?”
There was no response.
Afsal shoved his phone back in his pocket, then turned and wandered back into the alley.
“Let’s go. Speed it up.”
Afsal stopped chewing his gum mid-chew.
Leo’s Yankees hat was on the ground, upside down. It rocked gently, as if it had been dropped only seconds before. Elena’s purse was next to it. Its contents were half-spilled out into a puddle. The photo wallet lay face down on the asphalt nearby.
Leo was nowhere to be seen.
Afsal turned around and looked back out towards the street, checking to see if maybe he had missed Leo walking out of the alley while he was scrolling his phone. He hadn’t.
For the first time, Afsal noticed how much darker it seemed to have gotten all of a sudden. The sun had set behind the buildings, leaving the alley deep in shadows.
“Leo!” he called. “Where’d you go?”
He tugged at the door to the Chinese restaurant. It was still locked.
He walked over to where Leo’s hat had fallen and picked it up. He turned it over, looked inside, then turned it over again.
This is some Bermuda triangle bullshit, he thought.
“Yo, Leo, we gotta go!” Afsal shouted. His voice echoed off the alley walls. “Come on, I’m hungry!” He listened for a response.
“Alright,” he called. “I’m out. Leaving your hat though.”
He dropped Leo’s hat on the ground where he found it. As he turned to leave, something wet dripped onto his face. It hit him above his eye, ran over his eyebrow, then splashed onto his clean white sneakers.
His first thought was, Bird shit. Then he looked down at his Nikes. They were splattered with dark crimson.
It wasn’t bird shit.
It was blood.
“Ugh, what the—” Afsal scooped the blood from his eye and wiped it reflexively on his Nets jersey, smearing it across the white number 11. Then he looked up to see where it had come from.
On the fire escape above, a dozen feet or more overhead, Leo was sprawled on his back. Wide blossoms of blood were spreading across the back of his white t-shirt, merging together into a single enormous stain. One of his arms dangled loosely over the edge. A stream of blood ran down its length and drizzled from the tips of his fingers. More blood poured through the black iron grate of the fire escape floor, raining down in long, elastic drops. It pattered softly onto the cardboard boxes below.
Elena was perched on top of Leo’s body in a deep squat. Her bony knees were flared out on either side of her shoulders. Her head was lowered near Leo’s chest, out of sight. Leo’s body twitched and jerked as Elena tugged at his torso, doing something Afsal couldn’t see from his angle below. He could hear it though: a wet, squelching sound that reminded him of his pit bull sloppily gobbling down a bowl of canned dog food.
“Jesus,” Afsal blurted out. He stumbled back a few steps.
At the sound of Afsal’s voice, Elena picked her head up and swiveled it to look down in his direction.
She was nearly unrecognizable. Her eyes had gone completely white. No pupils, no irises. Like a blind man, or one of those lizards that spends its whole life in a cave, in the dark. Her mouth was oddly distended, her jaw seemingly unhinged, her gums protruding past her lips to reveal rows upon rows of long, needle-sharp canine teeth that leaned inwards at haphazard angles. The bottom half of her face was smeared with blood. Thick black clots dangled from her chin.
As Elena glared at Afsal, her arms roughly tugged at Leo’s body. Something gave way. She lifted her hands. Her arms seemed to have doubled in length. Her fingers were impossibly long and thin, almost insectile, with razor-sharp talons that curved from her fingertips. They were wrapped around something irregularly shaped, about the size of a small grapefruit.
The organ spasmed weakly, seemingly oblivious to the fact it was no longer attached to Leo’s body. Elena fed it into her maw and bit down. She chewed it greedily, never breaking eye contact with Afsal.
Afsal remained frozen in abject terror. His mind grasped for a rational explanation.
What am I even looking at?, he thought. Whatever it was, it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. Old women didn’t just turn into demons and eat people. Someone must’ve slipped him something. Some PCP, maybe. Or angel dust. Sent him on a trip. A crazy bad trip. He was probably gonna wake up on his couch in his apartment, with Leo laughing his face off. Probably end up on YouTube, going viral.
Afsal slowly started backing away down the alley, keeping his eyes trained on Elena above. If the old woman was busy doing whatever she was doing to Leo, maybe he could slip away. Run home. Lock the door. Never leave the house again.
For a few seconds, it seemed like his idea might work. Elena seemed to lose interest in him as he slowly retreated, step by tortuous step. Instead, she turned her attention back to disemboweling Leo’s body.
Then Afsal stepped on Leo’s fallen sunglasses. They shattered with a sickening crunch.
Elena immediately responded to the sound. She hopped up onto the fire escape railing with cat-like grace and perched on it like a gargoyle. A series of loud clicking sounds emanated from deep in her throat. The clicks bounced and echoed off the sides of the buildings, painting an aural picture of the alley’s geometry. She cocked her head and listened. Her ears were elongated and oversized, the tapered tips drawn backwards into long points.
Afsal turned and bolted down the alley towards the street in a full sprint. He opened his mouth to shout for help, but no sound came out. Just a rush of air that sounded like, “Huhhhhhh.”
Up above, a pair of thick, leathery wings unfolded from Elena’s back. She launched herself from the fire escape, arms outstretched, wings extended, fangs bared, swooping down towards Afsal, slicing silently through the air like a raptor diving for prey.
Elena rode her building’s clanking, shuddering elevator up to the fifth floor, then walked down the hall towards her apartment. She looked normal again. There was no trace of the horrific transformation Afsal had witnessed in the alley. It was almost as if it had never happened.
As Elena turned the corner, she noticed someone leaning against the wall outside her apartment door. It was a man in his mid-40’s, with a close-cropped haircut and a well-tailored suit. A diamond-encrusted Rolex encircled his wrist. He tapped expertly on the screen of his iPhone with his thumbs.
Elena gasped in surprise. “Yuri?”
The man looked up from his phone and smiled.
“Hey, Ma,” he said.
“You came,” Elena said, her voice a choked whisper. She cleared her throat. “I thought you had work.”
“Yeah, well,” he replied. He powered off his phone, then tucked it inside his suit jacket and patted it. “It’ll be there when I get back.” He smiled. “How are you? Did you get yourself something to eat?”
Elena nodded. Then she opened her purse and withdrew a small, grapefruit-sized bundle rolled in black fabric. The material was torn and shredded, with the remains of a blood-streaked number 11 still visible on one side. She handed it to Yuri.
“Mmm, smells delicious,” he said, as he began to unwrap the offering. “What is it?”
Elena smiled at her son.