Always There

Sunlight streamed through the tattered curtains.

Heather groaned, swatting at the warm spots dancing over her skin. She did not want to move; it was far too comfortable in her nest of pillows and cushions. Every part of her was happily numb, her mind half-asleep and unable to think of any reason to get up.

Then her stomach gurgled, managing to make a convincing argument.

It took several minutes of stretching to relieve the stiffness in her joints, reminding her that curling up for hours wasn’t a good idea; she’d stop doing it were there any other way she could sleep. Once her bones were cooperating, she swung her legs off the four-poster bed, shakily stumbling towards the window and pulling open the curtains.

Her eyes surveyed the wide stretches of lavender below. They began at the ragged hedges surrounding the mansion, stretching all the way up to the front walls. The flowers consumed the entire yard, but there were a few dips and patches where they thinned to reveal a path. In the bright sun she could see that this path was dark, far darker than it usually was; clearly it had rained during the night.

She sighed, smiling as she leaned towards the glass. It had been hot and dry for a week; the lavender was due for a good watering. Any longer and she would have needed to use her personal supply to water them manually. She didn’t think the plants would die, this strain had proven resilient against all types of weather, but as her main line of defense it was important that they remain as healthy as possible.

Two months on and she still couldn’t believe her luck at finding somewhere so secure. There hadn’t been a single Nemier sighting since the day she arrived, and that one hadn’t made it further than the hedge.

A sudden movement drew her attention to a patch of lavender close to the front door. The stems shuddered as if blown by the wind.

The wind that wasn’t there.

Heather squinted but couldn’t see anything. Still, the flowers shook. A chill began to creep up her spine and she looked closer, pressing her forehead to the cool glass.

Why? She thought. Why that one patch… 

A small shriek escaped her throat when a bird emerged from the flowers. The shock gave way to a flood of relief, and she mentally slapped herself for getting so worried. Even if the Nemiers did get past the hedge they could barely move in lavender. Something about the scent caused their nerves to freeze, rooting them to the spot like twitching statues. Once, when she was trapped in a hospital, a doctor managed to get a sample of Nemier blood and mixed it with fresh lavender; the blood had coagulated into a sticky paste.

The creatures seemed to know this; she’d seen them avoid the flowers several times. They only risked it when pursuing someone.

If she stayed unseen, she would be safe.

With a small chuckle she began walking away from the window.

Okay, what to do today. Go have breakfast, that’s a start, then maybe check the doors and windows are still secure. 

Heather had reached the top of the mansion stairs, the large foyer stretched out beneath her as she turned towards the stairs.

I really should go and have a look at the hedges in case there are any gaps, but I doubt it’ll make much difference. It’s not like I’m leaving anytime soon. Perhaps I can try the radio, I haven’t used it in a while so maybe I can get a sig…

A dark figure stood on the balcony opposite her.

…nal.

Heather’s entire body became rigid, her eyes unable to turn away from the thing staring back at her. Staring wasn’t exactly right; she’d never seen a real face on the elongated oblong of a head. Whenever she had gotten close, she thought she’d seen sunken shapes which could have been eyes. But they weren’t, they were shapes and grooves in the skin, kind of like the creases of a sheet. The whole thing reminded her of a sheet, a dark grey sheet in a humanoid shape. The head, thin skeletal body, stick-like legs and gorilla arms stretching nearly to the floor… these were all distinctly visible. At the same time there were long stretches of skin hanging down from the shoulders, the arms, the head, even the legs. When she first saw it, Heather had jokingly named it Blanket.

The name had stuck but it was no longer a joke… now she just wanted it gone.

Blanket took a step forward.

That motion made her own limbs respond, walking down the stairs at a brisk pace. It followed, Heather could see it out the corner of her eye and began speeding up. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs she was taking them two at a time, all but jumping onto the marble floor. Her feet skid slightly as she ran towards the kitchen, forcing herself to slow down and avoid slamming into the counter.

It would take time for Blanket to catch up, she knew that. The thing walked so slowly it could never keep up, even if she just power-walked it would be more than enough. The problem was it was able to track Heather. No matter how long it took or where she went, it always found her. If she was fast enough, she could go hours without seeing it, and on rare occasions it went into the empty attic and just stood there, unmoving. This had happened recently, and she liked those times, but they never lasted. Once she’d even tried locking the attic, only for it to spend almost a full night hitting the wood until the door gave way. The mansion may have been a safe place to live, but its size made escaping from Blanket impossible.

The Nemiers outside were worse though.

Heather shook her head, turning her attention back to breakfast.

Not only was the mansion defended by plenty of lavender, but it was also well stocked with food. Nearly all the fresh stuff had gone off before she’d arrived but there was a large pantry full of tinned and dried goods, some cured meats and various bottles of water, juice and even alcohol. Whoever lived here before must have stocked up just before the world went to hell. By the time Heather had arrived the only trace of the previous occupants were a few bloodstains and scraps of cloth; if there were any bodies, she had yet to find them.

Her hands soon pulled out a tin of peaches, setting it on the counter next to the sink before pulling open a drawer to find the tin opener. The kitchen echoed with a clattering of cutlery, Heather occasionally stopping to look towards the kitchen door. Blanket hadn’t arrived yet; it must still be working its way down the stairs.

Ah, gotcha.

Her fingers wrapped around the tin opener and within moments she was picking out pieces of syrup-soaked peaches, chewing and swallowing almost mechanically. It probably wasn’t good to have something so sweet first thing in the morning but not only was she trying to keep her rations going for as long as possible, but she found that fruit was often the easiest thing for her to eat. It was ready without cooking and had some nutrients, though the syrup cancelled out most of them. That wasn’t a bad thing as sweetness from any source was more than welcome in Heather’s life.  

The world flitted between sour and bland these days; bearable but either unpleasant or monotonous.

Her fingers were now sticky with syrup, and she hissed as the edge of the metal scraped her skin. There was a burst of pain, but it was only a small scratch, not enough to draw blood. There were still plates and bowls, dusty from lack of use, but she couldn’t be bothered with washing them.

A faint set of footsteps caught her attention, and Heather became aware of a presence behind her. She knew what it was, immediately putting the empty tin down on the counter and preparing to turn away. Then her gaze was drawn to the window above the sink, the lavender outside tall enough to be nearly at eye-level.

A clump of the scented flowers shuddered, though the rest stayed still. It was just like what she’d seen from her bedroom, how many birds could be living in there? As soon as she’d noticed it the shaking stopped. She watched for several seconds, slowly blinking as if to catch it in the act before changing tactics. Her gaze became steady, watching intently as if willing it to move again. The more she watched the more she could swear she saw the flowers begin to twitch.

A weight pressed against her back, and a pair of long, grey arms lay across her shoulders.

Heather shrieked and twisted out of the odd embrace, side-stepping away from Blanket and dashing out of the kitchen. Her heart pounded and her breath caught in her throat, not stopping until she was back in the entrance hall. Heather had known it was there. She knew what would happen if Blanket got too close, and yet she let herself be distracted. She couldn’t afford that again; she had to keep aware and make sure she didn’t forget. If she let it linger too long, if she let Blanket touch her with its soft skin…

Don’t forget what comes with the softness. It is not a way out. Remember that Heather, it is not a way out.

Pressing the tips of her fingers into her forehead, she took a few deep breaths before beginning to walk again.

She made her way throughout both floors of the mansion for the next couple of hours, briefly inspecting every door, window, and wall; anywhere that could be broken into. This time she didn’t go more than a minute before looking behind her, always keeping an eye out for Blanket. When it got too close, she would dash to the opposite side of whatever room they were in at the time. This worked, and soon she was satisfied that the mansion was suitably secure from any potential Nemiers attack. Back when she had first found the mansion, she was much more thorough, lining lavender into every doorway and crack and boarding up any unneeded window, but the longer she lived here the harder it was to focus on these little details. If she’d been able to avoid discovery or attack for this long, then what difference would a few sprigs here and there make? Now she did the bare minimum, only bothering to put lavender into the main door.  These had died but considering how close the door was to the flowers outside and how fiddly the process was, Heather couldn’t bring herself to replace them. 

No harm in leaving it today. She thought. I can do it tomorrow.

Her thoughts then returned to the radio, guiltily remembering how long it had been since she last tried it.

Maybe now is a good time. It’s not like it’s that much effort.

Heather spent a few moments playing cat and mouse with Blanket, carefully maneuvering so it would be as far as physically possible away from the radio room. Then, once reasonably satisfied, she ran as fast as she could up the stairs to a little door on the right balcony.

The room inside was small, a cramped space more like a cupboard. The far wall was taken up by a wooden desk, a small chair in front of it. Sat on top of this desk was the radio, an old thing that even now fizzled with faint static. Its age was an advantage, as it was sturdy and didn’t require much power to run. The main system was directly connected to a small generator crammed beneath the desk; fuel operated with a winch, nice and easy to use.

Heather took the time to lock the door behind her, glad this was one of the few locks that still worked. Blanket would still try and get to her, it always did, but at least this way it couldn’t interrupt her. Then she sat in the chair, placing the heavy headset on her head and pulling the boxy microphone towards her. She stared at the radio, taking in each button, dial and knob individually. It was already charged, all she had to do was start searching.

But she didn’t do anything.

Seconds passed.

Then minutes.

Still nothing.

Heather looked down at her hand and saw that it was trembling. A lump began to form in her throat, and she felt her eyes starting to itch.

Come on Heather. Just do it. You must find out if anyone else is out there.

A deep breath rattled through her chest.

And she began to twist one of the dials. The small fizzle of static erupted into a loud crackle, assaulting her ears with the noise. She gritted her teeth and turned it further.

Back and forth it turned, the static changing every so often to high pitched whines and squeals. She alternated the dials she turned, focusing in on every scrap of noise that came through. Every so often she could get a shout or a few broken words, but whatever channel she tuned into always disintegrated before she could get the full message. Her top teeth sunk into her bottom lip, deep enough to leave a mark.  She continued in this manner, unsure of how long she’d been sat here; any clocks in the mansion had long-since broken, and in this windowless room there was no daylight with which she could judge the time.

No results.

Within time she became aware of the faintest of knocks at the door, barely noticeable but for the fact that she was expecting it. The knocking was constant, and soon Heather was able to ignore it.

The dial between her fingers turned clockwise.

… H… h-hello?… is any… there?…

Heather blinked, barely able to believe that she had heard right.

… are… other survivors… anyone… can you hear me?…

It’s real… That’s really a human voice!

She spluttered with sudden laughter, lips splitting into a shaky grin as she tried to focus in on the signal, flicking a few other switches to make the sound much clearer.

… need shelter… Nemiers… our co… 64 North… 73 West… repeat… coordinates are 64 North and 73 West…

Heather pulled a scrap of paper towards her, scratching at its surface with a chewed-up pen.

64 North and 73 West…

She had to check a worn map and jot down a few calculations, but Heather soon realised those coordinates were only a few miles from the mansion. She had no idea how bad the Nemiers were now, it had been weeks since she’d last checked the hedges for signs of infiltration, but she wasn’t worried considering how much lavender there was. There was enough room and supplies for a large group, and it was always safer to live in numbers. Plus, she was down to three bullets in her gun, with no way of making the lavender filled shells she relied on, so any chance of someone who knew how to make them would be beneficial. There was the issue of Blanket but maybe someone would know a way to get rid of it or lock it up.

… hello?… is anyone there?… if you can hear… please respond…

The voice snapped her out of her thoughts, Heather’s trembling fingers flicking a few switches, waiting to hear a low squeak before pulling the mike to her lips and all but gasping out “H-hello? Hello I’m here! Can you hear me?”

Static.

Then…

… Hello?… Hello we hear you!… Thank God… another survivor… where are you?… your coordinates…

“Yes hello! My coordinates are-”

KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.

Heather’s response caught in her breath as she heard the knocking, far louder than it had been before. On and on Blanket continued to knock, she’d been able to ignore it previously but for some reason now it was obnoxiously noticeable.

… hello?… there’s a thumping sound… you still there?… what’s happening?…

Heather looked back at the radio, swallowing as she tried to respond.

KNOCK. KNOCK.

Her throat tightened. Her fingers started to fidget. Her eyelids blinked up and down rapidly.

… hello?… your coordinates… still there…

All she could do was stare at the machine, the words fizzling in and out as the static increased. If she didn’t act soon, she’d lose the signal, and who knew how long it would be until she got in touch with somebody like this.

KNOCK.

… hell… o… sig… signal…

KNOCK.

… hel…

Click.

The noise died away instantly, leaving a thick silence broken only by the incessant knocking. Heather stared at the now quiet machine, tears threatening to spill from her eyes the longer she watched it.

Don’t let it get to you. You made a mistake, but you can try again. If not now, then later. Don’t let this sink in. Don’t let this consume you. Don’t let this break you. Don’t.

She got up.

The chair legs scraped harshly against the old wooden floor, and Heather fumbled at the latch of the door before wrenching it open. Blanket was still stood there, one hand raised to knock again. Its head cocked slightly upon seeing her, with Heather glaring right back.

“Fuck off!” She spat; her voice filled with as much venom as she could muster. She roughly pushed the creature back, cringing at the fleecy softness of its skin. Blanket did not react. It did not fight or stop her from pushing it out the way. It just turned to begin its slow walk after her.

The tears were getting harder to hold back, forcing her to run to her bedroom and frantically stumbling over the threshold as she slammed the door behind her, not bothering to lock it as she didn’t want to hear that knocking again. Blanket couldn’t be kept away even if she did.

Stupid thing! It’s your fault I missed the chance to… to…

She clutched her arms, hugging herself tightly as she rocked back and forth on her heels.

Heather knew deep down that this was her fault. All she had to do was give her coordinates so they could find her, that was all she needed to do, and she’d blown it. Now she just wanted to crawl into her little nest and forget everything.

Her eyes lingered on the soft mish mash of pillows, the misshapen fabric so inviting. A memory of softness flitted across her mind, and she shuddered but couldn’t bring herself to push the thought away. She’d experienced real softness once before when Blanket had caught her. Too much softness, too heavy and too smothering. A comfortable discomfort that she never wanted to feel again. But the pillows wouldn’t do any harm, this was her bed after all.

I could lie here for a while. Just curl up and ignore everything. Blanket, the mansion and the world outside. Shut out all the creaks and knocks and moans…

Wait… moans?

Now she focused Heather could make out several long, strange moans. Quiet at first but now louder.

And close.

Her feet turned from the bed to her window, and soon her forehead was once more pressed against the glass. 

What she saw made her blood run cold.

There were three of them.

The tallest of them was scratching at the wood of the front door while continuing to emit that horrible moaning sound. It was a grotesque, malformed creature with limbs that were skeletal near the torso before bloating into thick blobs of misshapen fat. The belly wide and the chest thin, with a short neck crowned by a flat head and bulging eyes.

Next to this one was a creature just as hideous but in a different way, having a very thin and flimsy looking body coloured a deep, mottled green. Its body was weighed down by bulges on the end of its arms, legs and long neck, forcing it to awkwardly crawl while the bulges made a strange jinglingsound each time they hit the ground, like bags of money. This one looked sluggish and stiff in its movements. Heather knew it must be due to the lavender but knowing this only made her question how the creatures had even got as far as they had.

Her answer came as she noticed the third creature, a centipede-like beast with a vast array of limbs along an oblong torso and the barest lump of a head. It was half in and half out of the lavender, moving in a slow, jerky manner like stop motion. It inched it’s body out from the flowers, slow as a snail.

“Oh no…” Heather whispered, the realisation sinking in her gut as if she’d swallowed a rock.

All the shudders of the lavender, she’d seen it happen before. They must have been slowly crawling through for days without giving up; she never even considered that they would try something like this.

At that point, the crawling one bent up; its tiny head pointed at her as it emitted a high-pitched scream. This made the others look up, emitting noises of their own as they saw her at the window.

Heather stepped back only to crash into Blanket, shrieking as she pulled away “I’ve got no time for you!”

Rushing past she began heading down the stairs, stumbling in her haste. There were now loud bangs and incessant scratching at the door, clearly seeing her had increased the Nemiers resolve to get in. She stumbled towards the pantry, heading to an empty, narrow cupboard and struggling to wrench the door open. It had no lock, but it always stuck, meaning anyone who tried to open it would have to struggle for at least a minute. This was what Heather was counting on, as she reached up to a high shelf and pulled down a small handgun before squeezing into the cupboard, making sure the door was closed tightly before crouching down in the blackness.

Part of her wanted to run away before the Nemiers got in, but a bigger part was loathed to give up the mansion. It was easy here, she had plenty of food and a comfortable bed to sleep in; she could live here for years. Being in such a large building with no other people wasn’t pleasant, and there were points when she felt lonely, but that meant there was only herself to worry about. Blanket had followed her long before the Nemiers, so its presence made no difference in that regard. Besides there were only three trying to get in right now, whereas there was likely to be many outside the mansion grounds. She had lived out there before, and the thought of once again suffering for survival made her skin crawl. Better to take these out now, and perhaps start thinking of what to do if more of them arrived.

If she had to run, she’d rather do it when she was better prepared.

Her fingers flicked over the gun cartridge, clicking it out and feeling the three bullets lodged in there. One for each creature. She had to make the shots count, it had to be in the head to kill them. That wouldn’t be easy with the crawling one, but it wasn’t like she had any choice. They would track her down, then she’d have the time it took them to break in to aim her gun before she had to shoot. A shot at point blank range would let her take one out straight away; two would be easier to manage than three.

She gripped the gun tightly, adjusting her knees so she’d be ready to jump out at a moments’ notice. Already her body was beginning to cramp up in the small space.

She waited, unable to settle her breathing.

More time.

There was a distant crash and the unmistakable wail of the Nemiers. They were through the front door quicker than expected; maybe she should have replaced the lavender linings. Nothing she could do now; with their sense of smell, it wouldn’t be long until they found her.

A set of footsteps caught her attention, getting louder as they approached the pantry with Heather raising her gun in preparation. The footsteps stopped in front of the door, a vague shadow filtering through the bottom. Then the handle began to rattle, not much at first but then more while her hands began to shake alongside it.

Calm down Heather, calm down.

But she was unable to, having to keep both hands on the gun as she pointed it at the door.

A pull on the wood and…

The door yanked open, and instinct took over. The trigger pulled back and the gun flashed, Heather instantly pushing forward. She brushed past the creature, noticing how soft its skin was.

Soft…

Her eyes swiveled back to see Blanket stood there, off balance from the shot but otherwise unharmed. She’d just wasted a bullet because it was there instead!

Her mouth opened to yell in frustration, but at that point the malformed Nemier waddled into the kitchen and slammed its thick forearm into the wall with a roar. Heather forced her attention to it just as another limb smacked into her stomach, knocking her against the counter. Her ribs groaned in pain, but she still managed to roll away from another attack, her fingers tightening on the gun as she tried to aim between dodging attacks. Despite its awkward motions the Nemier never stood still long enough for her to take a shot, and she was acutely aware of Blanket walking towards her, idly avoiding the attacks as if they were an annoying fly. The Nemier itself seemed to move away from Blanket without acknowledging it.

After finally slipping past to the kitchen door, Heather dashed towards the main hall. The front door was in shambles, even now she could smell the lavender outside. When she tried to leave, the centipede Nemier dropped down from the ceiling in a mass of flailing limbs, causing Heather to shriek again and fire off a hasty shot.

The cry of pain and the spurt of greenish blood told her she’d hit it, but nowhere near its head. Still, she took the distraction to head towards the stairs, hoping to climb down the ivy from her bedroom window. With one bullet left, her only option was to get to the lavender, maybe lure them in so she could trap them, re-supply and…

Leave? Hide? What else can I do?

A strange jingling proceeded the third one moving down the stairs, legs flipping around like a cartwheeling gymnast. It was moving so quick she was losing track of where the head was, being forced to stumble back to avoid getting hit. Her feet twisted on the edge of a step, and she was sent sprawling to the ground. The back of her head smacked hard against the floor, ears ringing as the pain shuddered through her.

Heather was running out of options. The Nemiers were working to corner her, and she only had one bullet left; there was no way kill them all.

Something tugged at her hair.

She forced herself up before the centipede Nemier could drag her back, a few of her hairs getting yanked out in the process. Heather tried to stand up. only to duck from the swing of the malformed Nemier now behind her. Scrabbling away she raised her gun as the three of them moved towards her, stepping back while flicking the barrel from head to head to head.

She didn’t know who to shoot or what to do or where to go or… or…

Her world went black.

Something soft was pressed over her eyes, a heavy weight resting on her shoulders and against her back.

Soft. Warm. Soothing.

Her fingers went limp as she felt herself drop the gun; the sound was muffled by the softness now covering her entire head. Every limb trembled. Her knees buckled and she leaned forward, feeling more of her body enveloped, wrapped up like she was a baby in a blanket.

Blanket…

“Blanket…”

She knew this feeling; it wasn’t the first time Blanket had done this.

A small voice in her mind screamed at her to Get up! Run away! Don’t give in to this! You don’t need this! You don’t want this! Just move! 

Tears began to fall, her throat tightening as she choked through sobs. The softness clutched her, supported her when her own legs failed. They sank to the floor, Heather dropping to her side and curling into the fetal position. Blanket continued to wrap itself around her, the long sheets stretching until she was completely buried. She sniffed and the grip around her tightened, but this only made her cry harder.

I know this feels likes an escape, but it isn’t; what if you don’t get up again? Come on Heather! Don’t do this to yourself!

But Heather had already given in.

Part of her mind still thought of the Nemiers. She couldn’t hear them anymore, were they still approaching? Were they leaving? Were they waiting for her to reappear?

They’d be waiting a while.

Last time she’d been under here for hours.

Comfortable, safe… and trapped.

Ragged gasps left her throat, her chest growing tighter and tighter as Blanket’s weight pressed her down. No sound penetrated her strange cocoon. Everything was dark, suffocation and claustrophobia scratching at the walls of her psyche.

Despite this she nestled deeper into the embrace, feeling the softness slowly smother those feelings, replacing them with numbness. Her eyes continued to stream with tears, but she was no longer sobbing. She didn’t feel sad, or afraid… only hollow. Getting up would be a terrible struggle, but that didn’t matter; there was no reason to get up. Here she was secure, away from the difficult life stood just outside the confines of Blankets skin. 

Blanket wasn’t good.

Blanket was a problem.

But Blanket was always there for her.

//

So there is my first post, hope you enjoy it and please do leave any constructive criticism in the comments.

This story means a lot to me, it’s actually the first time I was able to comfortably explore my depression through fiction which is kind of a big step. Not only does it show that I’ve reached a good place, but I’m normally an escapist writer who doesn’t use many personal experiences as inspiration (preferring imagination) so bringing something this personal into my writing is a big step. But I’m really proud of how it turned out.

On a lighter note, this was partially inspired by Tomb Raider.

Here’s the itch.io link – https://anmanarrative.itch.io/always-there

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