Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A very warm welcome to the inaugural outing of Night Terror Novels’ new and ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and a much belated welcome back to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week. This feature was originally launched all the way back in December of 2020, but returns to the site today in a new, updated and improved format.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding our current flash fiction theme and submission window here.
The theme for January’s submissions was fresh starts and new beginnings: stories centred around New Year’s resolutions, starting over, resolving to change, or similar such concepts. We kick off this series with Mia Dalia’s Primal Scream, a powerful and relatable story of the burdens of modern-day life, and the crushing effects it can sometimes have. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
Every evening at approximately the same time, my neighbour lets out a scream.
No, that’s really me underplaying the situation.
Every evening at approximately the same time, my neighbour lets out a primal scream that rattles my world, sends shudders down my spine, rips apart the very fabric of existence for a moment.
No, now that I’m thinking, maybe I’m overdoing it.
The thing is, it’s too bizarre of an occurrence to describe adequately and is too frequent to ignore. I thought about reporting my neighbour to the rental company, but it’s blatantly obvious I don’t have the words to do so. Besides, this is a perfectly fine neighbour otherwise: quiet, nonsmoker, never threw a party. Those are tough to come by these days.
I’d know. I’ve been in this building for ages. Longer than any other tenant. Possibly longer than the rest of them combined. It wasn’t built for a long stay, I think. Maybe once upon a time when it was a proper mansion, a single home residence to someone wealthy and fancy, sure. But it’s long since been sold and subdivided—quite shabbily I might add—into several small units. Good for college kids, single people going through a transitional period in life, newcomers to the city … I’m neither of those.
I’ve been in this city way too long. I know it well enough to know that where I am is decent enough of a situation to hold on to, if only for lack of more suitable options.
My mother always used to say, ‘Save for the rainy day, cause life is stormy.’ And so, I did. I have. I’m always saving. Not an easy thing to do on the small salary of a desk jockey. The thing I long ago discovered about money is that if you can’t make more of it, you gotta spend less. That’s how I ended up in my apartment in the first place. It was cheap then. And it is still cheap, relative to the area. The smallest unit in the building. A box, really, with some amenities.
I’ve long reflected on how life is just a series of boxes. I go from the small box of my apartment to the smaller one of my car to the tiny one of my cubicle and then back again. All to eventually end up in the tiniest box of them all. It’s depressing to contemplate. I try not to.
I’ve thought about leaving, but the practical details always bog down the grand plan. I’m all about details, ask anyone at work. Meticulous is what they put down on my last two annual reviews.
And yet I do not know much about my neighbours. They come and go on a yearly rotation. They don’t even take the time to put their names on the mailboxes in the lobby. There are just numbers there. Anonymous numbers. Could be anybody. We travel like ghosts through this building, on different schedules, different parallel lives.
We’re all stuck here in our tiny boxes, sharing thin walls with strangers.
The neighbour in question, the screamer, I don’t know a thing about either, except that I think it’s a woman because I can hear the heels against the hardwood floors. The scream tells me nothing; it’s rendered genderless by its pitch, by its volume.
It haunts me, that scream. I lay awake at night sometimes imagine scenarios that would lead a person to express themselves like that. The pent-up rage, sadness, powerlessness, frustration, the claustrophobic feeling of the walls closing in on you, the weight of life growing slowly but steadily crushing. To tell the truth, I don’t have to stretch my imagination all that far. I think my neighbour screams the scream I hold inside every day.
I’ve grown too curious to let it go anymore. I’m no longer satisfied with my imaginings. I still haven’t met my neighbour, and I don’t know if I ever will, and I have made peace in my mind with the fact that I’m about to do something unseemly, unthinkable, really. I’m going to spy on another person.
I place great value on privacy, but sometimes you just have to do something outside your moral code. Technically, this won’t be a difficult feat. There is a system of metal stairs attached to the back of the building so that the tenants can get out in the event of a fire. A noble idea that’s long been appropriated for smoking balconies. I think that with a small degree of contortion, I can get to her window. Just to sneak a glance. That’s all.
I pick a nice evening, reasonably mild with clear skies. The nights come early these days, providing the much-needed cover of darkness, and I’m wearing all black to blend in further. She shouldn’t be able to notice me unless she’s looking for me.
I have a pretty good idea of her schedule by now. Whatever her job is, it usually sees her home by six. By that time, I’m already stationed on a small metal grid landing outside her window, gently rubbing my knee I bruised getting there.
She enters her apartment. It is indeed a she. Plain-looking woman in her thirties. No one you’d give a second glance to on the street. Business-casual clothes, smart low-heeled shoes, a black leather bag. She kicks off her shoes by the entryway too small to merit the title of the foyer, hangs up her long woollen coat on the wall hook. Discards her bag to the floor. Pushes her hand through her shoulder-length brown hair and exhales.
She seems even smaller now. As if whatever inflated her to buoy her through her day has abandoned her. She goes into the kitchen, washes her hands thoroughly, then pours herself a glass of something and drinks it, leaning on the beat-up Formica counter.
I wait, feeling increasingly like a creep. About a decade ago, there was a serial rapist in this neighbourhood who spied on women—just like I’m doing now—only he would then get in and do his worst. All I’m after is a reason behind a single action. All I want is an explanation. And then I’ll leave. Back to my box. Never to be seen or heard or noticed. As is the custom here.
Her drink finishes, she enters the sparsely furnished living area, lets out another sigh. And then she lifts up her arms and does the single most disturbingly unforgettable thing I’ve ever seen. She reaches behind her back as if to unzip a dress, but what she really undoes is her skin. And then she proceeds to peel it away with that familiar scream.
It is so much louder out here; I instinctively throw my hands to my ears and yet the sounds travel straight through my desperately clutched fingers. I can’t help but listen. And I can’t help but watch.
She takes her skin off like one would their clothes at the end of the day. If those clothes were sewn onto a person. And beneath, there’s no bloody mess of muscles and things you’d expect from anatomical charts. Beneath, it is pure fire. It looks like lava, molten, powerful, alive. Almost too bright to look at directly. And yet I can’t turn away.
From this fire unfolds a pair of wings. Beautiful fiery wings. Like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined. She is a mythical phoenix, trapped in an ugly small apartment. A stunning, incongruous thing.
She approaches the window now, and I finally come back to myself enough to move, scramble, flee. I make my way back down a flight of metal stairs as quickly as I can. The screaming has stopped, and now the only sounds in the night are the oceanic swoosh of blood in my ears and my panicked gasping breath.
She opens the window. I watch from below as she contorts her body to step outside, then straightens out, brilliant incandescence against the darkness of the night.
And then she opens her wings and takes to the sky. Gone in a moment. Too soon to register, almost. And now that she is gone, none of it seems real. Plausible. Possible.
I stare at the night sky, but she isn’t coming back, I know, not anytime soon. I won’t hear her footsteps until much later in the night or even early morning. Where does she go? What does she do? I can no longer speculate on such things. She is an impossibility, a dream.
Have I dreamed her? Now that I’m back in my apartment, a place so plain, so soul-crushingly bland, it seems impossible indeed that what just happened, happened.
I sit down in my chair, then get up, turn the chair around so that it faces the window instead of the tv.
What a world, I think, what a way to flee it, if only temporarily.
Tomorrow, she’ll be back in her business casuals, in her predictable nine to five routine, and no one would ever suspect, no one would ever know, her brilliant, incandescent secret.
No wonder she screams. Trapped in this split existence. I’d scream too, to shed this skin, to get out of myself for a while. I’d scream too.
About the Author
MIA DALIA is a new author who, until recently, was mainly writing non-fiction essays and reviews. Mia can be found lurking anonymously on Goodreads, delighting hundreds of followers with over fifty reviews each month, or on the internet at https://advancetheplot.weebly.com/. The author’s flash fiction appears here on Night Terror Novels and will soon be featured in Flash Fiction Magazine.