The white font of my phone read 5:00, a full four hours before I had to be awake, but the damn thing kept singing. Playing Hotel California over and over on a loop.
“What the hell do you want, Michael?”
“Listen, this is an emergency. I need you to get out of the house and meet me. Don’t talk to mom or dad. Don’t talk to… to me. Just get out and…”
I ended the call. Didn’t recognize the voice — it certainly wasn’t the sound of my brother — so I assumed he left his phone at the bar or a frat house and someone picked it up to prank me. Nothing new. The kid once went through three Galaxies in a month.
I was already awake with no chance that my insomniac ass would fall back asleep, so I figured I’d rise with the birds. Make some coffee. Try not to wake my parents — if they were even home.
They left for work two nights earlier and neither of them had been back since. They answered their texts and their calls, but always gave two-word answers. I’m good. I’m fine. Love you. Back soon.
But those plans changed once I saw three missed calls from my brother, three voicemail messages, and a single text from late last night that said: Borrowed your car. Don’t worry, I’ll bring it back in one piece. Two, at worst.
I slipped a jacket over my shoulders and flip-flops between my toes, and went outside to check that he’d actually brought it back. Luckily, it was there, no scratches, no dents.
And no gas.
I slunk into the driver’s seat, which was adjusted to the wrong angle, with a plan to fill up the tank at the station down the street.
But after I clicked my seatbelt into place and jammed on the stereo button, I heard a woman’s voice slither out of the speakers. Something about the reckoning, alien invasions, and the death of mankind. One of those crackpot religious channels.
I pressed on my preset channels for some actual music, but every single one was set to a similar channel where either a preacher or some ‘inspirational speaker’ was talking about the end of the world. About how the apocalypse was upon us.
I made a mental note to kick Michael’s ass for screwing with my car and reached for one of the CDs I kept scattered across the backseats. The first one I found slipped from my grasp, leaving a yellow residue across my fingers.
It looked like blood, except it was the wrong color. Too thick. It almost felt like the slime we used to play with as kids. The kind that stuck to the wall and crawled its way down.
I twisted my torso to get a better view of the backseat and that same… liquid… was covering all my CDs. Covering the whole backseat of the car.
I twisted the keys, yanked them out. I needed to search the garage for cleaning products. If that stuff stained, I was going to kill —
“Mmphhh grwahh mmphh.”
The voice sounded strained, muffled. I could barely make out a word. But I could tell where it stemmed from, so I got the hell out of the car. Popped the trunk. And saw him.
My brother. With his ankles and wrists bound, mouth gagged, gashes across his forehead and cheeks.
“Is this an initiation thing?” I asked, more annoyed than concerned. “Did the frat boys pull this shit? I told you that they were all assholes. You shouldn’t be messed up in that.”
He answered me in grunts, so I yanked off his gag. Worked on untying his wrists as he muttered an “I’m sorry.”
That yellowish goop was lodged in the cracks of his cuts. It looked like it was coming out of his cuts.
“What exactly happened?” I asked as he undid his ankle restraints and rested his feet against the gravel.
“Frat boys.” He blinked. Once, twice, three times. “Sorry again. So dumb.”
“Are you okay? You don’t need me to drag you to the hospital or anything, do you?”
“Nah. I’m good.”
It was my brother’s face, my brother’s voice, but the enunciations were all wrong. And most of his sentences were short, clipped, even though he usually didn’t shut the fuck up.
I remembered the phone call from earlier, the one that originated from my brother’s cell but sounded nothing like him: Don’t talk to mom or dad. Don’t talk to… to me.
“Well if you’re all right, I’m putting you to work,” I said. “Help me clean that shit out of my car. What even is that gunk?”
“Okaaaay. Thanks for all the info.” I forced a smile and retreated to the garage for supplies. And while I was there, out of earshot of my brother, I figured it would be smart to check my messages. Just in case.
The first one was from around midnight. In it, a man with a deep, gruff voice was whispering:
“Hey, yo, it’s Michael. It might not sound like Michael, but I’m telling you it’s Michael. Something fucking… weird happened last night. I was headed to the club with the guys, but on my way to your car, there was this thing staring at me from the neighbor’s yard. This dude.
Carly, it’s insane. I fucking… I look like it now. I have its face. Its voice. Almost had a heart attack when I looked in the mirror before.
I don’t even know when it happened. One second, it was looking at me. The next second, it looked like me. Like my twin. So I rushed it. Knocked it to the ground. Tied it up. Threw it in the backseat of your car.
I ended up moving it into the trunk so it would be more secure, so don’t go near it, okay? I think after it turns you, it usually kills you. It just didn’t get a chance with me.
But mom and dad… I found bodies. Two bodies. I think it’s them. It looks nothing like them, but I fucking think it’s them.
Anyway, I’m going to try to get help. I have to figure out what’s going on. Hopefully I’ll be home by the time you wake up. If I’m not, then I’ll try to — “
The message cut off there, so I listened to the two that were left. Both of them were shorter, under a minute long. Warnings not to go near anyone that looked like mom or dad, because the people walking around with their faces were strangers. Monsters.
I wanted to call the number back. Talk to the unfamiliar voice that used words like Michael. But before I could dial, I heard the garage door close behind me.
And when I turned around, he was in there with me, thick yellow blood dripping across his cheeks, into his smile.
I was alone with the stranger that wore the face of my brother.