Horror Vacui

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic



Horror Vacui

by Rachel Sheldon

Noun: horror va·cui

: horror of empty spaces; especially :  an aversion to empty spaces in artistic designs. New Latin: “horror of a vacuum.”  – from the Webster-Merriam Dictionary.


By August, Meghan’s roommate had a boyfriend and was never home. When the lease expired in September, Meghan opted to foot the other half of the bill herself and rent the next place alone; she justified the change by saying this place was smaller, she had the money, and she could use the extra space for her shoe collection. Her mother expressed fears over the telephone about her daughter living by herself in one of the world’s largest metropolitans. Meghan found herself at a loss for words – she was unsure how to explain that she’d always felt as if she were living alone, that making it official made no difference. She packed up her things, some of it still plastic-wrapped from the bedbug incident six months ago, placed her cat into his carrier, and moved into a 6-story brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, but only ever known as Bed-Stuy.

Meghan worked three jobs but still felt as if she were broke. She worked as a hostess at a fine-dining restaurant on Montague Street three days out of the week, sang in a Presbyterian Church choir every Sunday morning, and had recently picked up a holiday job “elfing” at the Macy’s flagship store near Penn Station. Out of the three, elfing was the most draining. Her face ached from smiling by the end of her shift. Twice she’d had to call security on a drunken homeless man who didn’t understand she was only a paid actress (minimum) and she could not let him cut the line to get into the North Pole. At least she could call security to escort the homeless man out, which is more than she could say for some of the children and their parents. The children were either well-dressed and well-behaved or well-dressed and the spawn of Satan. There was never an in-between.

Her plan to survive the elfing job had been to avoid the rest of the cast and make it through December without being talked to, but with every acting gig comes a hundred different types of extroverts, and this one was no exception. A few of them had tried to befriend her over orientation. She tried to explain that her best friend slot was already occupied by red wine, but they all seemed to think she was joking when she said this and would only laugh. It was as if they believed making friends at work made the job more enjoyable.

In particular, there had been a slender little brunette with a black flower clip pinning her bangs back and a windbreaker so blue it looked like something out of a cartoon. Her eyes were huge. Meghan felt a bit disgusted that someone that cute could exist. The girl’s elf-name was “Marzipan”.

Marzipan had just turned twenty, which made Meghan feel like a spinster at twenty-seven and a half. They were both beginning to become friends with Dante, another twenty-something year old actor, this one born and raised in New Jersey, but whose golden skin and dark hair – of Filipino descent – made him the target of jokes from patrons who snickered at, “Santa bringing in Mexicans to fill the workshops!” Meghan admired the way Dante only ever laughed at these patrons. His eyes always glittered. He had a collection of hundreds of different kinds of smiles, but she noticed there was always a very soft one reserved for Marzipan.

Marzipan and Dante worked as part of the show in Santa’s Workshop, which was separate from the photo op with Santa, so Meghan only saw them during lunch, when the three of them pooled snacks in the break room and bitched about the customers they’d been forced to interact with over the past few hours. Meghan found out the girl’s real name was Angie. When Meghan thought of her, she thought of the color blue.

Angie and Dante had both asked to be her friend on Facebook. She had accepted, but first ignored the hey messages and then the fifteen consecutive Christmas elf memes that followed.. One Saturday night they asked her to come to a restaurant after work with a few other cast members; she said she had company coming in the morning and had to be up early. She didn’t know why she said this.

On the side of her three jobs, Meghan still went to auditions. She ended up in a Facebook help promotional video. Her voice appeared in a radio jingle last September. There was a commercial for Downey laundry detergent that came on the television sometimes, a commercial featuring girls in white dressing flouncing across a sunlit field while waving around banners of even whiter sheets. If you looked very closely – or better yet, paused the commercial at about 0:34, you could see her in the background, Downey Sheet Girl #5. The whole thing had taken about a day to shoot and paid well. She’d gotten it by responding to an ad on Craiglist, but had never had any luck there since.

She’d stopped responding to these ads about three months ago, after she’d taken a temporary job as an event hostess. She’d worked the front desk at a hotel the company was renting out for the night, while the event itself took place on one of the upstairs floors – she’d check people in and then direct them towards the elevator bay. She’d gotten chatty with the manager who asked her if she wanted to work upstairs next time. $200 minimum a night, and it wasn’t prostitution. Foot fetish parties were all the rage in New York City; it was fun, it was harmless, and there was a guard there the whole time to ensure things didn’t get out of hand. (Or rather, out of foot)

Meghan was more curious than she needed the money. Unlike elfing at Macey’s, it wasn’t as bad as she thought it’d be. It was afterwards she felt weird about it, and despite an email from the manager, she never went back. Who does that, she wondered. Who lets someone do that and does it? She was a nonjudgmental person – everyone had their thing. This philosophy didn’t transfer very well to herself, no matter how hard she tried. She never talked about the party with anyone; it never came up in polite conversation. When her family asked her how New York was, she always made a sound, somewhere between an “eh” and an “mmm”.

Meghan came home from work on an unexceptional Saturday around four PM, but it was as dark outside as if it were nine. She had been elfing for eight hours straight and could still hear the bells on her shoes jingling. A baby had spit-up on her striped stockings. A Brooklyn family had asked her why Santa didn’t have a Turkish accent since the real St. Nick was born in Asia Minor. She informed them about the black Santa available upon request. They said that didn’t make sense, either. Furthermore, why did one have to specifically request the black Santa? Why wasn’t he just an option?

Meghan uncorked a bottle of cabernet and poured wine into a glass so large, her sister had bought it for her off the internet as a joke. Asia Minor, she snorted, resealing the bottle. Who the hell knows where that is?

Meghan took her laptop off of the counter and carried it into the bedroom. She nearly tripped over a CD rack on the way. Why did she even have a CD rack? She couldn’t remember. Maybe she’d wanted to turn it into a plant stand? There was so much junk in here. She’d go through it tomorrow, or over the weekend, or after Christmas – whenever she had the time.

Here kitty-kitty-kitty, she called, stepping into her bedroom, but that little bastard never made an appearance unless her voice was accompanied by the rattling sound of a can of kitty treats. She slid into her desk chai rand opened the laptop. She thought about watching something on Netflix, but it seemed like flirting with danger; she knew she’d fall asleep – it didn’t matter if it was 4 PM or 1 AM. It was a pattern she was coming to grips with.

She had left the front page of ABC news running. The entire screen filled with the pixelated image of a man in a Guy Fawkes mask.

Must be Anonymous, she thought. Threatening to shut down the government and assisnate Trump or something?

But it wasn’t Anonymous – it was just a man in a Guy Fawkes mask staring at the screen with his hands folded pleasantly across his desk. The headline said, “WOMAN, 27, MURDERED IN BROOKLYN HEIGHTS APARTMENT.”

Meghan swallowed. She guided the cursor towards the headline. Just before she clicked on it, she noticed something else: the names of all the other article titles on the left and right of the screen. The headlines under “business”, “celebrity news”, “world”, “finance”, and “politics”.



 “Gang of Killers on the Loose?” – POLICE BAFFLED BY BROOKLYN HOMICIDE

Someone knocked on her bedroom door.

“Shit!” Meghan cried, falling out of her chair. She made a sound like gagging and grabbed the edge of the desk for support. There was someone on the other side of the door. She couldn’t open it. She stared at the floor. Seconds passed, or minutes, or perhaps half an hour. The carpet became a blur.

There wasn’t another knock. It couldn’t have been a knock. It was the cat. It’s the cat, it’s the cat, it’s the cat, it’s the cat, she told herself, standing. She crossed the room. She reached out to wrap her fingers around the doorknob. Stupid cat never shuts up. The door knob began turning in her hand. It was not her turning it.

“SHIT!” she screamed again. It wasn’t the cat, it wasn’t the cat, it definitely wasn’t the cat. She ran to the bed and ripped her lamp free from the nightstand. She lifted it over her head like a baseball bat. She did not even have time to feel ridiculous. Her stomach turned as if she’d swallowed sour milk. She tensed her arm, ready to swing. When she approached the door again, she did so as slowly, as if she were approaching a wild animal.

She twisted the doorknob and pushed out with her shoulder. It creaked its way open.

She blinked so her eyes could adjust to the darkness. The empty hall stretched out before her – long, narrow, dizzying. The hallway rug looked unfamiliar. The CD rack looked unfamiliar. The way the shadows slanted across the wall looked unfamiliar. She waited, waited, waited, staring out, listening to the sound of her heart pumping blood up to her ears, sounding like a jackhammer nailing her chest. When nothing happened, she backed into her bedroom and shut the door again. She sat down on the bed but kept her hands clenched firmly around the neck of the lamp. “I’m psychotic,” she said. “I’m actually psychotic.”

Knock, knock.

Meghan was at the door before her brain registered her feet were moving. This time, when she looked out into the hallway, she saw – she saw – something. There was a glitch in time. It was a scratch on a piece of film stock; a split-second aberration. A dark, massless figure stood by the kitchen door, but when she blinked, it seemed to disappear and reappear again, this time further down the hall. Blinked again, and it was even further. Blink. It had reached the end. Blink. It was gone. Maybe it had just been a floater in her eye.

“STOP KNOCKING!” she screamed, and slammed the bedroom door.

Meghan stood in her room for a long time, clutching the lamp, sweat forming on the back of her neck and trickling down between her shoulder blades. The hair on her arms stood on end. She bit her tongue to focus on the pain and nothing else.

For the remainder of the hour, there was no more knocking. Meghan focused on simple, ordinary, mind-numbing tasks. She released her death grip on the lamp and plugged it back into the wall. She dusted her shelves, organized her closet, and played 103.7 POP! radio through her laptop. It was mostly techno beats. She clicked the volume button up until the walls trembled with the bass. Despite the frigid December air, she slid open the window over her bed so she could hear the sounds of traffic below – and better yet – the drunken shouts of her neighbors partying from their rooftop.

Soon there was nothing left to clean in the bedroom. She finally ventured to open the door. The hallway was empty now. She could see the neon green of the digital clock on her microwave shining through the kitchen doorway. It looked like the color an alien might bleed.

“Don’t be stupid,” Meghan chided, inching down the carpet, her back pressed flat to the wall like a spy. Liberated from the bedroom, she began the process of turning on every light in her apartment. Wherever she went, the lights came on. She even pulled the light bulb chain in the broom closet and left the door ajar.

She texted her cousin Leah back in Ohio: hey, can you call me after you put the kids to bed?? i think i legit need a therapist or maybe i need to quit drinking alone lol

When she ran out of lights to turn on, she sat down in front of the TV. She thought about watching Nickelodeon or Disney Channel– something young and silly, with bright colors – but all she could find on cable was an old cartoon she didn’t recognize. A purple beaver jabbered on to what looked like a talking tree. She didn’t like it. What if some of the voice actors were dead now? What about the animators? The screenwriters? Everyone could be dead. She switched it to a live news coverage. The people were warm and bright -- real, talking, albeit somewhere else, yet filling up her living room as they so candidly explained the plight of a village in Colombia washed away by rising flood waters.

“It’s a tragedy,” a blond, middle-aged man who looked disconcertingly like Meghan’s father said. “A real tragedy. Homes have been completely decimated. To make matters worse, the pass from here to Guapota has been blocked by rock slides, making relief efforts increasingly challenging….”

Flood waters made Meghan think of her water bill. Her water bill made her think of showering. She probably still had glitter paint on her face from elfing earlier. She did not want to get up from her chair. She wanted to watch Colombian homes being washed away, wanted to watch people with real problems and real sufferings.

“You wanna do me a favor, Meghan?” the man on the TV said. “You wanna let me in?”

Meghan turned her head to look at the screen. The man was interviewing a volunteer from the Red Cross. She rubbed her eyes. He was still interviewing the volunteer. She shook her head like a dog shaking off water and then clicked off the TV.

Meghan took a shower, keeping her phone balanced next to the sink so she could keep listening to the radio. She sang as loud as she could into the spray – some song by the Weekend she’d never liked before. When she got out twenty minutes later, she pulled on a hoodie and rubbed the steam from the mirror over the sink with her sleeve. She hated the way her face looked when she got out of the shower – pale and blotchy, like she’d been scrubbing at it with steel wool. She took her toothbrush out of the cabinet.

Knock, knock, on the bathroom door.

Meghan swore through a mouthful of toothpaste and spat into the sink. I’m not opening that damned door, she thought. I’m crawling into the bathtub and curling up until I disappear.

But she couldn’t bring herself to step over the lip of the tub and go into the shower. What did she have on hand this time? What could she do – squeeze shampoo into its eyes? Did it have eyes? A curling iron! But it would take a while to heat up. She couldn’t think straight enough to take it out of the cabinet and plug it in over the sink. She didn’t have to. A slow creak sounded from behind her. The bathroom door swung open from the outside.

Her toes curled over into the bathmat. Every muscle in her body locked. This was unreal. Too much wine. Too many pills. Die, die, she thought. Dead already.

There was nothing when the door opened. The lights had gone out in the hallway so all she could see was darkness. The blackness seemed to swirl around itself, in and out, coming together and then pulling apart, a movement she could feel through a vibration in the air – a tremor – but could not see. Meghan had never been overwhelmed with nothingness before, but the weight of it now, bowing down on her shoulders, made her turn her head in case she vomited.

The unnatural nothingness seemed to be about five feet off the ground. Almost eyelevel. A little lower. She could taste her own fear – a raw, sugar flavor that soured the longer it pooled in her mouth. There was no one there, nothing, but the empty spot seemed to ate at the air like a cancer. Something, nothing. Nothing, something.

Back up, back up, back up. Her feet slid off the bathmat; they were now on the tile. Her back hit the glass door of the shower. She pressed into it as if she could climb up it, as if she could scramble up to the ceiling and disappear through the slits of the heating vent. Nowhere else to go. No way to get away. The empty spot slid towards her by inhaling the air that separated them, breath taking an invisible breath.  

“Get the hell away!” Meghan snarled. “Get away from me!”

Her voice sounded so loud in that tiny bathroom. It bounced off the walls and the mirror and seemed to break apart in the air. It came out shrill, like a little girl’s.

And then, because she was raised Catholic, she cried out:


The space in front of her teemed. She imagined the air crawling around itself. Beetles clicking their mandibles. Legs, legs, legs wiggling. Human legs writhing. Soil moving. Soil squirming.  She imagined molecules and atoms and amoebas all swarming together, confused, displaced. It teemed and teemed and teemed. She imagined closing her eyes and rubbing them until she saw spots and colors, patterns that were there, but not quite there.

Laughter. It was laughing. She felt it. She felt it ringing in her head. Felt it emanating from the space. Felt it like bacteria making the room sick. Felt it compressing her.

“In the name of Jesus, GET OUT!”

The space widened; Meghan finally moved. She bolted out the door, not knowing if she ran through the space or around it. She couldn’t remember deciding to move. She took off so fast, she nearly wiped out on the bath mat. The space dilated like a pupil.

She ran down the hall, through the living room, into the kitchen. She heard a door slam in the bedroom. The lights flickered fast and hot like strobe lights. It was the spaces. Before they were teeming, crawling – like those beetle legs moving on top of one another, a slow writhing of matter. Now they were whipping into whirlpools, furious, sucking, slurping, reaching. Every single corner became something heavy, something leaden. Pulling! The walls stretched out like silly putty. The floor spun.

She grew dizzy. There were hooks sinking into her body and jerking, wrenching her flesh apart. Her vision stretched. The corners wanted her. The left corner of the room wanted her. The right corner wanted her. The empty corner next to the grandfather clock wanted her. Damn it, why hadn’t she put something there? She’d almost put a $2.99 plastic fern there from Dollar General. Why hadn’t she filled that corner? Where there was furniture, nothing pulled at her. But there was too much empty space.

“Oh, God,” she cried again, because the grandfather clock was sliding across the floor, sliding right into that leaden corner. The second and minute hands were spinning in all directions. The clock seemed to resist – it started to fall backwards, it hesitated – and then schwoom! It fell forward into nothing and disappeared. There was no sound. But now there was more empty space, more hungry space; she felt the pull of its gravity on her feet. She was standing in the middle of her kitchen but she was falling. Falling towards the corner. Two pulls of gravity: the normal one, the weaker one, keeping her anchored to the floor, and this black, second kind, trying to slurp her down and crunch her in some all-consuming point. All the magnets on her fridge were shifting around. A penny on her table spun like a child’s top. A lightbulb exploded over the marble island. She screamed as the glass came tinkling down onto the countertop.

Her Android buzzed in her pocket. Everything seemed to still. She pulled it out and said: “Hello?”

Static crackled on the other end. Her ears were full of vibrations. The entire room was one hellish, throbbing vibration. She lived between the tines of a giant tuning fork.

“What do you want?” Meghan said. It came out more like a scream than a question.


The voice sounded warped. She could hear it breathing.

“Come…come...let me…in …”

The phone slid out of her hand and clattered onto the kitchen floor.. She took a step backwards, away from the corner that had devoured the grandfather clock, and bumped into the  table. A china bowl full of apples and bananas. A 2016 puppy calendar with beagles wearing Santa Caps. A receipt from Trader Joe’s. An open box of Jasmine tea. Her head was too full of red waves of panic to form thoughts, but she did have an inkling of one, and it went something like:

These stupid things are going to be the last stupid things I ever see.

Blue electricity hissed out of the wall sockets. She could almost feel her feet separating from her body, right foot going one way and the left foot going the other. Her heart rate was the worst – it had gone from a frantic beat-beat-beat-beat-beat to a WHUMP! WHUMP! WHUMP! As if her chest were a dryer and someone had put a cannonball inside and set it to “tumble”. She was not entirely sure it was her heart beating. The room would draw and quarter her. She closed her eyes.

Ding-dong, went the doorbell.

As if on cue, the lights stopped flickering. Everything seemed to still again. Meghan felt the pressure receding. The beating ceased.

She stumbled over to the front door and peered through the spyhole. She was looking down at a bright face and a blue windbreaker.

Meghan opened the door a fraction of an inch. “Angie…?”

“Well, hiya, Meghan. What’cha doing in there?”

Angie and Dante stood in the hallway. Their cheeks were flushed from the cold; Angie had clapped on a pair of fluffy white earmuffs that looked like cat ears while Dante stood huddled in a Calvin Klein peacoat she had never seen him wear as an elf. A single spritz of cologne came wafting over the doorstep. His eyes looked particularly glittery. So did Angie’s. They were both shifting from foot to foot and giggling, covering their mouths with their mittens. Meghan saw ice crystals gathered in their hair. It must have started snowing.

“So, we’ve been building a snowman in Central Park…” Dante began.

“Uhhm, you mean I’ve been building a snowman in Central Park,” Angie pouted. “You’ve been making cracks about how ugly and androgynous he is.”

“Weeeell, that’s because he is androgynous. He’s definitely a gender-neutral snowperson. You’re insulting his sexual identity by forcing your outdated gender roles on him. Or…her. Whatever.”
“Shut up! Just because he’s wearing a pink scarf doesn’t make him any less of a man! Don’t listen to Dante. Anyway, we tried to call you, but the phone got all static-y and weird so I just hung up.”

“Rude,” Dante said.

“Shut it! Your mom is rude. Anyway. Sorry to bust in on you. What we’re trying to say is…”

“Would you like to come and make androgynous snowpeople with us?” Dante finished.

“That was my line!” Angie whined. Her nostrils flared, as if she’d suddenly caught a whiff of something, before she leaned in saying, “Boy, it smells like smoke in here! What’cha cookin’, Meghan?”

“Please,” Meghan said. “I need you guys to go away.”

Angie bit her lip. She looked up at Dante. “Okay…,” she said glumly. “Let’s go…”

Dante’s hand shot out, catching the door. “Meghan, wait!” He caught sight of her expression and let his hand drop. “Sorry, I – . It’s just –. You look scared. Is something wrong? Do you need us to come in?”

“I’m fine. But you two should go. Like, now. You don’t want to talk to me. Seriously.”

She made a move to close the door again.  For the second time, Dante lunged forward and wrenched it from her grip. “Meghan – wait!”

“Dante,” Meghan growled. “I’m serious. Get out of here!”

“Hey, I know we should’ve left a message, but…”

“GET OUT!” Meghan screamed, slamming the door in their faces. She regretted it before the door finished closing. The scream broke apart into a sob. She pivoted and looked back out at her empty, empty kitchen, at all the spaces in between, and felt that pressure fall back onto her again in a wave, like a dumbbell falling onto her head, and she cried and cried and cried until she choked. She felt the spaces shudder again. She felt the air grow heavy. The lights over the island flashed like Christmas decorations.

She pressed her ear up against the door and pushed her fingertips into it as hard as she could. Once again, she sensed a presence on the outside. But this time it was a someone - not a something - leaning against the door, someone small and dressed in blue and murmuring, “Meghan? Please, Meghan…open up.”

“I can’t,” she tried to answer, but she was hoarse from crying and no sound came out, only a wheeze. She slid down onto the floor and wrapped her arms around her knees. She had the sense that Dante and Angie had sat down, too.

“Now what? What should we do?” a male voice said. “We can’t just leave her like that.”

She heard a pause; she imagined Angie shrugging. “Mmm. We could order a pizza.”

The lights flickered again. Meghan reached out as if her fingers might melt through the wood, as if her hand could emerge to grasp one of the hands on the other side. As if there were nothing in the way.

“Hey, Meghan?” she heard Angie say. “We’re just going to chill out for a little bit, okay? Please don’t call the cops on us. We’ll leave eventually, we’re just here if you wanna…ya know…talk or something…”

“We’re getting Domino’s,” Dante added. “Unless you’re vegan.”

Meghan exhaled something heavy. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat felt raw and dry, as if she’d finished a cigarette.

“So…yeah. That’s it. We’re here, Meghan. Okay?” It was Angie. She hesitated between each word.

Meghan rested her forehead against the door. It was cool and solid. Angie’s voice was cool and solid.

“Okay,” Meghan said. She felt the pull of dark gravity release on her feet.

“Okay,” she whispered, and the lights, one by one, stopped flickering.

Submitted: June 17, 2017

© Copyright 2022 Rachel Michael. All rights reserved.

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