The lift shuddered to a stop and the lights flickered. Janet’s heart fluttered.
It didn’t help that the man in the tight tee-shirt stood so close.
“Does this all the time,” he said with a shrug.
He was handsome, no doubt about that. But there was something in his face that was…wrong. Maybe his eyes were too small, or his ears stuck out more than normal.
But he clearly wanted to make conversation, and Janet had nothing else to do. It would be rude to snub him.
“Been here long?”
“Long enough.” He tilted his head. “You’re in 502, right? Moved in last week? Oh, don’t worry,” he said, holding up one hand, palm out. “Haven’t been snooping or anything. Just keep my eyes open. Hard to keep track, though. Too many new faces.”
“Oh.” She floundered for something to say, grasped the first thing to come to mind. “The agency called them starter flats, so I guess it makes sense that people move on.”
He shrugged again. “Don’t know about that. Just new people all the time.”
“You’re not tempted to move, then?”
He gave another shrug, and for a moment his face screwed up. But then his charming—or was that creepy?—smile returned.
“Temptation’s always there. But someone’s got to keep things in order, right?”
He reminded Janet of someone on an advert, one of those ten-minute ones she found herself watching late at night.
“But the flat’s a good deal, right?” he said. “Better than many.”
“That’s true.” She’d been a bit concerned about the length of tenancy, and she couldn’t quite grasp some of the termination clauses, but for the price she wasn’t about to complain.
The lift shuddered. The lights flickered, and Janet caught shapes in her peripheral vision, reflections in the mirrored back wall. But there was only herself and this man.
She felt the lift rise, heard the grinding of motors. The number 4 on the display blinked out, was replaced by a 5.
“This is me,” she said when the doors opened. “Nice meeting you.”
“You too, Janet. Take care.”
It was as she stepped into the corridor and the door closed behind her that Janet realised that she didn’t know the man’s name. And he hadn’t asked hers, either.
* * *
Life could’ve been worse.
She threw herself into the new job, keen to make her mark. There was always more to do, and Janet would often reach what her mum disparagingly called her bedsit late in the evening, just enough time to grab a bite to eat before collapsing into sleep.
It wasn’t sustainable, though. Her co-workers said she looked tired, and as the summer gave way to autumn she felt increasingly lethargic. Even on weekends, she didn’t want to leave her flat, just wanted to slob about, eat junk and watch crap. She didn’t go out, only ever saw others at work—nobody was around the flats, either in the morning or when she came home.
Janet knew this wasn’t healthy, so she decided to start jogging again. She brought new shoes one lunch-break, clothes the next day. She brought a Fitbit, then warmer clothing as the nights grew colder.
And, one sharp November morning, she put her plan into action.
* * *
The thermal leggings were bulky, but Janet knew she’d appreciate them. The sun wasn’t up yet, and she told herself she’d stick to brightly-lit streets, give the canal path a miss.
There was a man in the lobby. Someone she hadn’t seen before.
“Morning,” she called as she headed to the door.
The man was tall and thin, his features hidden by a hooded top, gloves on his hands. As Janet approached he pushed away from the wall and blocked the door.
“Excuse me.” Janet smiled, stepped to one side. But the man mirrored her movement. And now he raised his hands.
He opened his mouth, and a wash of rancid breath made Janet gag.
There was noise all around, a soft shuffling, and Janet turned to see figures emerge from the stairwell and doorways, a couple behind the desk. They all wore hoods, and they all raised their hands as they approached.
Janet shuddered. The stranger placed a hand on her shoulder. His fingers tightened, and ice shot through Janet’s veins. His stench clogged her nose, made her eyes water. He leaned in, blackened tongue darting between those ruined teeth.
The voice broke the spell. The fingers loosened their grip, and Janet turned, saw the man from the lift on the far side of the lobby.
“She’s not yours,” he said. “Not this one.”
The approaching figures stopped, slunk back. The one by the door growled as he dropped his arm.
“She’s off-limits,” he said, his tone deep and commanding. “You don’t choose who to devour.” He turned slowly, and the hooded heads dipped in reverence. “If any of you wish to test me, just remember what happened to the janitor.”
Heads shook, and the things grunted, retreating into the shadows, leaving Janet alone with the strange man.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should’ve told you about the residents.”
He nodded. “It’s all in your tenancy agreement. You really should read things before you sign. But don’t worry. I like you, Janet. I’ll never let them hurt you.”
He reached past her, held the door open. “But don’t let me stop your exercise.”
The cold rushed in, and Janet shuddered. Her legs buckled as her vision blurred, and she reached out, found his arms holding her up.
“No,” he said, with a smile that churned Janet’s stomach, “While you’re a member of our little family, I’ll never let them lay a finger on you.”
He pulled her close, and there was no warmth in his body at all.
A New Life
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