Haunted Passages: “Rooftops,” a new short story by Michael Cole

Rooftops

Just after 9:30 in the morning on a Wednesday in June, the creature tore down Michigan Avenue, upending taxi cabs, snagging awnings from storefronts, its talons leaving three-foot gashes in the asphalt. A few minutes later, the emergency sirens began to sound. In that time, the beast had emerged from Lake Michigan, traveled alongside the Chicago River, and left a trail of smoke and shattered glass down the length of the Magnificent Mile. Then the screaming began. It rose and fell in harmony with the sirens, punctuated by car horns. Before it turned on Jackson Avenue, the beast toppled a twenty-eight-story office building against the Kastorian Tower, a 369-foot spectacle of steel and mirrored glass, luxury condominiums meant only for the eyes of the elite. The incident caved in the emergency stairwell from the thirty-first floor down and cut power to the elevators. For those in the prestigious top floors of the Kastorian, there was nowhere to go but up.

“Can you see it?” Sapna curved a hand over her brow to block the sun. Her wedding ring flashed in the light.

“No,” David said. Smoke billowed up over the edge of the high-rise, blocking his vision before the wind whipped it away. “There’s something—” He gestured at a thirty-foot quill that stuck out of the Tiffany storefront. People coursed through the streets, dragging their children, their pets, sometimes stumbling to the sidewalk and then back up again.

“Help me with these.” Sapna dragged chaise pool lounges across the rooftop, beginning the formation of a large “H.”

“Do you think everyone got out?” David strained over the railing, tried to assess the damage to the tower. On the street below was a massive footprint filled with water from a gushing hydrant. His heart beat reedy and fast and a cold sweat spread down his back. His palm slicked across the railing and he stepped back.

“I don’t know,” she said finally.

“Why are we the only people up here? Surely we weren’t the only ones home.”

“I don’t know!” Sapna stomped a bare foot on the concrete. “Goddamnit, David. Help me!” Her robe fluttered open in the breeze, flashing the long-faded curve of a C-section scar just above her underwear. Another scar ran Sapna’s right arm, peppered by a dozen rough pits from bicep to wrist. The lounge chairs weren’t heavy, but her arm shook.

A mile away, a great forked tongue slipped through the beast’s lips and tested the air. It tasted pollution, the sharpness of jet fuel; it tossed back its head and brayed with enough force to launch another chorus of alarms nearly three hundred feet below. The mournful roar rolled through the city. People stopped and turned toward it—they could feel the sound as much as hear it; it rippled over their bodies. It drowned out all other noise.

David and Sapna pushed the lounge chairs faster into the bottom bracket of an “E.” When the bellow died, the city was uncomfortably quiet. They heard only the soft breeze and their own labored breathing—Sapna’s short and forceful and David’s overweight rasp.

“We won’t have enough.” David gestured toward the few chairs stacked next to the pool.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sapna said. “Somebody will see that we tried. They’ll know that we’re up here.”

“Maybe I can climb down to a balcony, get low where the stairs aren’t blocked.”

“Are you joking?” Sapna made a clicking sound in the back of her throat. It was a sound David recognized as frustration and a bit of condescension. “You’re old. You will fall to your death. And what will you do if the stairs are still blocked? I bet it’s not as easy coming up as it is going down.”

“Christ, Sapna, I’m only trying to help. Are we supposed to just wait up here until the whole building falls down?”

From across the street came a yell. It was faint but drifted over on the humid air. A small crowd of people gathered on a neighboring building. They waved wildly. A man held his hand to his ear like it was a phone. David shook his head, shrugged, and hoped they understood.

“And even you manage get down, what about me? What are you going to do—drag a trampoline up to the building for me to land on?”

“I could tell someone that you’re still up here. Bring them back with me.”

“Who, David?” She spread her arms wide to the city beyond the railing. “You think every police officer and fireman in the area isn’t running for their lives right now? Maybe you could stop and see if there are some cats stuck in trees too.”

“You are so hateful.” David turned away from her.

“Why don’t you just say what you really mean? You just don’t want to be stuck up here with me.”

They heard the pulsing of helicopter blades before they saw them. It approached from the east, gliding over the rooftops. David ran toward it and waving his arms. Sapna signaled with her good arm as well, the right tucked in along her ribcage. They watched helplessly as the helicopter passed over, heading away from the commotion. With their faces turned toward the sky, they couldn’t see the creature charge back up Jackson on all fours, the splintered remains of a falafel truck wedged between giant clawed toes. But they heard it. Each footfall left a crater, ripped up the sidewalks and blew out storefront windows. The impact sent a shockwave up through the Kastorian and made the railing, the rooftop under their feet, vibrate, shudder, then jump.

Sapna saw the great moving bulk of it—the speed, for its size, caught her off-guard. Panic shot through her and she screamed for her husband. She pulled him away from the railing and they tumbled together, the rooftop skipping under them as they rolled. The last syllable of his name grew into a wail.

The beast jumped up at the helicopter and snapped its jaws—a narrow miss—and the displaced air pushed it just out of the thing’s reach. The helicopter wobbled, righted itself, and ascended to safety.

When the beast came crashing down, the apartment tower shifted slightly, a few degrees. Below, with the sound of a New Year’s Eve confetti popper, the seventh floor collapsed in on itself and shot glass and drywall out into the street. The rooftop groaned and then dipped; the contents of the pool, which in June would normally be filled with tanned bodies and the smell of coconut lotion, exploded skyward. The water caught Sapna hard, cut off her ragged scream, and flung her forward. She skidded across the concrete but managed to catch herself with her bad arm. David fell back and the monster loomed before him. It was almost canine and black as charcoal—so black that it pulled in the sunlight—with a thick rust-colored mane. Quills ran down its back toward a spiked tail. Four red eyes, two on each side of the snout and each as wide as hula hoops, swiveled toward David. He recognized something—an intelligence, a rage. David’s body unclenched. There was faint relief that he was already wet, already smelled like chlorine. Down on the street, a Prius hit its brakes and began to reverse. The creature batted it once—and again after it bounced off a city bus—and then lost interest.

David pulled Sapna to her feet.

“I’m fine,” she said when he turned her hand over to inspect her skinned palm. She jerked away. “I’m fine! I’m not one of your patients.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” he said. “I don’t. But I don’t want to die up here.”

“Well, I don’t either,” she said.

The lounge chairs across the roof. Halfheartedly, David began push them back into place.

“You’re right,” he said. “The entire city is a mess. There’s no power, surely no cell service. There must be people trapped in buildings, under rubble, in the subways. We could be up here for weeks. And I don’t even think that the building will hold that long.” He looked down at his feet. Fine cracks stretched across over the rooftop. And the creature still paced below; David could feel every step, saw how they made those delicate fissures grind together again and again.

Three fighter jets screamed overhead. David and Sapna ducked and pressed their hands against their ears. A sonic boom crashed into them and Sapna feared opening her eyes, feared whatever awaited them. The jets left white contrails like claw marks in the sky.

Sapna rose and pulled the robe tight around her body. She ran a hand through her hair.

“What will we do if we get out of this?” She asked. “Where will we go?”

“I don’t know.”

“I want a divorce,” she said. “If we survive.”

“Is this really the time?”

Light came from everywhere and froze everything, the way a lightning strike seemed to pause time. It held each strand of Sapna’s hair that whipped across her face. It stopped a piece of burning paper that swirled between them before rocketing up into the sky. And then came a low rumble. In the distance, a ball of flame and smoke drifted upward.

“Could you tell what that was?” she asked and David shook his head.

They watched the fireball rise and then she asked, “Do you disagree?”

A long silence. The early summer sun had already reddened the tops of David’s ears, the back of his neck.

“No,” he said. They stared at each other across the rooftop with squared jaws and raised chins.

“I decided it was what I wanted on your birthday,” she said. “Do you remember?”

“Do I remember my birthday?”

“You didn’t even come home until the sun was up. You said you were going out to have a drink. A drink—one. And then I heard nothing.”

“I don’t remember you saying anything about it when I got home. You didn’t ask where I was. In fact, I don’t remember you saying much of anything to me at all.”

“And I would think that you would want to spend your birthday with the person that matters the most to you,” she said. “But maybe you did.”

Over her shoulder, a jet peeled away from the ground and angled into the sky. It wobbled and then spun. Black smoke spiraled behind it. The cockpit released and the pilot, still strapped to the seat, shot out. A parachute bloomed. It snapped the pilot up into a rocking drift while the jet continued on without him.

“You can think whatever you want,” David said.

“Okay. So where were you?”

The beast straddled a swath of Millennium Park. Over and over, it made a huffing sound, like it was clearing its throat. All of its massive body shuddered; the chest heaved. Quills fell from its flanks and plunged into the earth below. One struck an ice cream stand and it exploded, sending shrapnel and sweet, sticky soft serve across the bike path. The beast’s hind legs quivered. Then a sound like the bottom tearing out of a wet paper bag and a pup slid out, glistening under a milky caul. The membrane sloughed off as the newborn took its first shaky steps on paws the size of dinner plates. It trumpeted into the air and the mother echoed it.

The city was still. On the rooftop across from David and Sapna, someone shouted, “It’s female! It’s female!” He laughed—peals of joyless, deranged sound that made those around him back away.

To the north, tanks began to roll in from the Great Lakes military base.

“Will they kill them?” Sapna said.

“I hope so.”

“What if that was all she wanted? Maybe she came here by instinct. What if—maybe she didn’t know any better?”

“Does that matter?” David gestured toward the fires, the smoke, the fallen buildings.

They watched, silent, as the monster circled her newborn.

“We may never make it out of here,” David said. “So I need to know.”

This was an old standoff between them, the grooves well-worn. Neither wanted to speak first. Sapna measured David up, thought about what he thought about her.

“I need to know,” he said. “The truth.”

They met eyes and then looked away. Sapna realized that it had been a very long time since they’d really looked at each other.

“Oh, David,” she said. “Not this again.”

“Sapna—”

“No,” she said. “No. How many times? How many times—this argument? It’s been years. We put it to rest.”

“I just don’t know that I’ve ever really been able to believe you. No matter what happens now, if this is the end for us, if we die on top of this building, I want to know the truth. I need to know.”

The beast nudged her pup forward and it dashed around in a circle and then raced down Monroe Street. The mother ignored everything else—the fire that was jumping from building to building, the annoying spatter of assault rifle burst that spread across her left flank. The bullets flattened uselessly against her hide and fell to the ground.

David and Sapna were locked in their own exchange.

“Were you drinking that night?”

“What does it matter now, David?” She turned on him, angry. “You made up your mind, right? You decided years ago. I told you every time that I wasn’t. If I tell you again that I wasn’t drinking, you won’t be satisfied. You need me to tell you that I was so that I can be the bad guy that you’ve wanted me to be.”

“How many times, Sapna?” He reached out and grabbed her shoulder a bit too hard.  “How many times did you say you were through and then you would spend the night with your head in the toilet? Three trips to rehab and you never seemed to be finished for long.”

“I was finished! And how dare you.” Sapna tore away from him. “How dare you think that I would drink with her in the car. After everything, how many times after that night did you see me with a drink in my hand? Zero.”

On the street, a man in a suit screamed as the newborn whipped him back and forth in its jaws. A wingtip loafer bounced off a “No Parking” sign.

“I know what the aftermath of a car crash looks like, Sapna. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Her body was wrecked but somehow you were fine. I know enough to know that you were probably limp, blacked out—just like you’d ended so many other nights—when the crash happened.”

“Fine?” Sapna raised her mangled arm. “I was pinned under the car for hours, David. I nearly ripped my arm off trying to reach her. If I could have, I would. Do you think I wouldn’t trade places with her, even now?”

“Just tell me the truth.”

The newborn loped around, jerking the man from side to side. Then the man was free. He arched through the air and landed behind a bus stop.

“You know the truth. I accepted the blame. I took the responsibility—but it was an accident and I cannot change that. You may have hated me ever since the crash, David, but I was the one that was trapped there with her. I couldn’t do anything while she cried and screamed for me. When she started whispering, I knew she was in shock. And then she was in the coma.”

Below, the man dragged himself against a storefront. The pup watched, its snout low between its paws. The mother edged her offspring forward; it pounced.

“You don’t even say her name.” David pointed at Sapna.

“Neither do you.”

“Help me! Help me! Help—!” The man in the suit yelled. There was a wet crack and he was quiet.

A tank appeared at the end of the street, the tip of the spear. Then two more behind it. And then another two. The beast had laid down, propped up on her front legs. She watched her pup as it lapped at a slick of blood on the asphalt. David and Sapna looked toward the tanks.

“They wouldn’t,” she said. “No. There’s still people here.” She looked across the way to the small group. They waved furiously. A few started backing away.

“There’s still people here! We’re still here!” David yelled.

All of the tank guns retracted just slightly into their armored bodies. The beast cocked her head inquisitively.

“No, no, no, no,” David said, a mantra. He grabbed Sapna by the hand and pulled. The tanks released their payload in unison, five high-explosive anti-armor warheads. The creature twisted her body in front of the newborn. Three warheads found their mark; two detonated along her side and another with her front leg. The fourth was a dud; it clattered uselessly down the street. The fifth veered and struck the apartments across from David and Sapna. The explosion pulled apart the foundation, sent a series of pops traveling up the building, like the flexing of a stiff spine. The people on that rooftop held each other or reached out into the open air for help that wasn’t there. And then the building dissolved, dropping straight down into a column of ash and fire that pulled each of those strangers—people David and Sapna had never known, but who had probably lived just across from them for years—inside. David and Sapna turned away as a cloud of debris rose over the edge of the Kastorian Tower and swallowed them.

David was blind. His hands swiped through the air until he found Sapna.

“In case I don’t get the chance—”

She was just close enough that he could see where tears had streaked through the dust on her face. Blood dripped from her hairline. Her eyes were huge.

“What?”

The tanks waited to fire again while the cloud spilled down the street. And then the creature emerged; her dark fur was ghostly white. The red globes of her eyes narrowed. She lowered her snout to the ground and screamed, spewing ropes of saliva and blood. Lodged between two of her teeth was a bare leg, still in a tennis shoe. She lunged, closing the gap between herself and the tanks before they could fire.

David pulled Sapna close and put his mouth to her ear.

“There was a moment,” he said. “In the hospital. Before she went. That night. You were asleep in the chair next to her bed.”

The beast upended the first tank and it landed upside down on one of the tanks at the rear. She reared back on her hind legs and then smashed down on the stacked tanks. They crumpled under her with the sound of metal against metal and flattened the soldiers within. Another tank fired but she danced out of the way and the warhead sailed by.

“It was just for a couple of minutes. She opened her eyes. And she knew where she was.”

“Stop.” Sapna felt her heart jump impossibly high in her chest. “Stop it, David.”

“She looked around the room.” David choked on the dirty air and his sobs. “She—She squeezed my hand.”

The beast took the tank in its mouth and bit down. The metal cracked one of her teeth in half. She tossed her head to the side, sent the tank pinwheeling through the air. It landed on its nose, bending the gun shaft.

“I should have woken you, but I was so mad. I was so, so mad at what you’d done.”

The fourth tank began to roll backward in retreat. She came down on her haunches and pounded it with her paws. She crushed it a little at a time until it had sunk several feet into the asphalt.

Sapna pulled away from David, but he grabbed her again. His fingers pushed into her arms, his thumb in one of those puckered scars. The pressure that had built up behind David’s secret over the years was released. It whistled through his body, forced his hands to clamp down on her. Jagged white shocks of pain tore through Sapna’s arm and into her shoulder, into her neck. It seized at her nerves and she cried out.

“I knew how much pain you were in. I know you were hurting too. But I couldn’t make myself do it. I—I couldn’t make myself wake you up, not while she was looking at me. Not when I didn’t know how long she’d be there.” David’s face hovered in front of Sapna’s. His words were desperate and choked. They flowed out of his mouth and into hers.

The fifth tank fired but it caught the beast broad. It glanced off her hip and lodged in the tumbled offices that leaned against the Kastorian Tower. Like a bullet, the hole it left was small but it blew through the far side of the building, erupting into a cyclone of loose paper, Styrofoam cups, and melted glass that reached across the empty space and pushed into Sapna and David’s building. The rooftop dropped a few feet. The creature put her front paws on the tank and pushed it through the marble columns of a bank, where she left it buried.

The Kastorian lurched. Sapna started to slide on their bare feet, but David pulled her close.

“I sat there and looked at her and she looked at me, and when her eyes started to flutter, I said goodbye. I got to say goodbye. In the morning, she was gone.”

Sapna shoved him away; he let her. Her eyes, her body, shook with anger. Beneath them, the middle floors of the tower began to crash together. David stumbled but Sapna bent her knees and rode the rooftop as it lowered, a little bit at a time.

And then there it was again. The pulsating sound of the helicopter, gliding toward them. The spinning blades caught the dust and sent it everywhere. Sapna’s hair spun into a halo around her head; her robe twisted around her body. A rope ladder dropped above them. But they weren’t the only two to take notice. Down the street, the beast, breathing heavily as it surveyed the broken tanks, snapped her head up. At the other end of the street, the newborn paced, head down and whimpering, its own spiked tail tucked between its legs. The helicopter was far overhead, but it was still closer to her pup than she was. She kicked her hind legs out, one and then the other and sent plumes of metal and asphalt fifty feet into the sky. She stood tall, puffed out her chest, and roared.

“Go!” David yelled. They reached for the ladder. It was too high above them by a few feet. The helicopter lowered inches at a time—too slow. They stretched up toward the ladder while it shimmied and bounced just beyond their fingers.

Sapna winced. “My arm,” she said. “I’ll never be able to climb it.” Her voice was swallowed by the sound of the helicopter. She held her arm up to show him. The bottom rung of the ladder dipped closer. Almost there.

“First!” David pointed at himself, yelled as loud as he could. “I’ll get on first—then help you!”

The creature sprinted up the street. She kept her body low and when she reached the tower, she lunged upward onto her hind legs and rammed the building. The tower crumbled faster and the helicopter drifted up and away. Sapna looked over her shoulder, down the collapsing roof that slanted toward the gnashing jaws on the creature. Like Sapna and David, she also stretched toward the helicopter.

They were both looking at that waiting mouth when David felt the ladder slap against his outstretched hand. He spun and pulled himself up. His muscles strained, began to tear and bleed under his skin, a plum-colored bruise already blossoming out from under the collar of his t-shirt. But he made it, felt the rung under his heels. He twisted back toward Sapna and reached for her. The beast was closer and David could smell its breath—it was horribly sweet, like strawberries molding in the sun. It sent a burst of hot air at them every time it snapped its jaws.  

Sapna reached up for David and he reached down for her. And then the building gave. The roof heaved upward, some internal explosion pushing it high, and bucked Sapna into the air. David’s mind froze her right as he saw her then, limbs splayed, her head thrown back, long hair cascading, and the hem of her robe thrown over one shoulder. For one horrible moment, he thought it would be his last look at her before she fell with the building, or before she slid down the trembling throat of the monster. But he caught her, somehow, was surprised when he felt her arm in his hand. She dangled over the disintegrating husk of the Kastorian, over the creature that tumbled down alongside it, her mad eyes still focused on the helicopter.

And then Sapna was on the ladder too, her one good arm around a rung, feet stable. David braced her from behind, the fronts of his legs against the backs of hers, so that when they climbed, they climbed together. His body braced hers so that she would not fall if she lost her grip. When they reached the open door to the cabin, strong hands pulled them up—first Sapna, then David. The same hands pushed them into seats and buckled straps around their bloodied bodies. There were voices, just noise, lost among everything else. The helicopter veered away.

The creature retreated toward Lake Michigan, her pup at her heels.

As they sped over the smoking buildings, the spreading fires, the Kennedy Expressway clogged with honking cars, dazed people stumbling through the streets, Sapna and David looked at each other through swollen lids. They really looked, for the first time in years.

Michael Cole is a writer and teacher living in Wichita, Kansas. He has an MA in literature and an MFA in creative writing from Wichita State. He is also one of the co-authors of the graphic novels The Cardboard Kingdom and The Cardboard Kingdom II: Roar of the Beast. He can be found on Instagram @Michael.Cole54 or at home, trying to write when his dogs allow.

Image: pinterest.com

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