Stan awoke that night to something opening his apartment door…from the inside. He heard a soft scuffling of feet over his entryway carpet before the click of his lock, and the door whining momentarily as someone murmured something in a low voice.
If Stan had been in a fully functioning frame of mind, he might have thought it odd that the intruder had been inside his apartment before unlocking the door, since the only other way in would have been through the window that had no fire escape or any means of reaching it from outside, and he was on the third floor. But, as he was still half-asleep and therefore not in a condition to analyze, he went straight for his bedside lamp and quietly slunk out of his bedroom and peaked around the corner at the end of the hall.
What he discovered were two things that had never been in his apartment before: a three-foot tall monster, stained pitch black from the tops of its tentacle-like antennae to its lizard-esque tail, and a woman.
The monster—more like a living cartoon—turned its head towards Stan, blinking narrow, pupil-less white eyes. The only other parts of it that were not solid black were the red spiral on its white belly, and the row of perfectly triangle piranha teeth protruding over its bottom lip. The woman, on the other hand, appeared fairly normal: long, straight dark hair, a pale complexion that begged for sunlight, and a small, sharp nose. She wore a leather soft cap on her head that was a size too large, so the brim shrouded the upper half of her face. Yet when she looked up at Stan with her deep brown eyes, Stan’s heart suddenly squeeze tight in a way that he couldn’t decipher was fear, or…that other thing he had heard so much about.
“That him?” the woman asked the inky-black thing.
The monster grinned, its overbite of serrated teeth making it look more goofy than threatening. “Yep, that’s my man, Stan! See, told you he wouldn’t mind us bunking here. Hey, Stan, you got anything to eat, or should we call for takeout?”
Stan took a step into the room, staring with speechless bafflement at his guests. “Uh…what?”
“An eloquent one,” the woman muttered. “Look, I’d kill for some coffee right now, if you got some.”
“She would, you know,” said a mystery voice that sounded like it came from the woman, but the woman’s lips had not moved when it spoke. “She’s a psychopath. Actually, it’s me who’s a psychopath, but since we’re—“
The woman stuck a finger in her right ear, and the mystery voice was smothered.
Stan put the lamp down on the floor. “Okay, this is either the weirdest dream I’ve ever had, or someone is pulling a really good prank.”
“This isn’t the weirdest dream you’ve ever had,” said the monster. “The weirdest dream you’ve had was probably that one where you were wearing a diaper while trying to wrestle the shark in the yellow bikini that was spitting muffins at you—“
“Hey!” Stan snapped. “What the heck are you, anyway?”
“Come on, you don’t know me?” The creature’s grin rotted into a prickly grimace. “You put me in almost every notebook margin while you were taking calculus. You had me bite the head off of a doodle of Mr. Simmons, remember?”
Stan’s eyes widened as the familiarity of this sketchy monstrosity registered. “Holy…Skritch? You’re…you’re real?”
“Surprise! This is Tabby,” Skritch explained. “She’s escaped from the clinic too. And that thing in her head calls itself Attic, I think. Don’t mind it, it likes to insult people. It’s a whole Jekyll and Hyde thing.”
Stan raised his hands in a gesture for everything to slow down. “Okay, hold it. How can one of my drawings be standing here in front of me? Who are you—” he pointed to Tabby—“and why are you all IN MY APARTMENT??”
“You were at the Piece of Mind Clinic, right?” Tabby asked.
Stan was about to reply, but he was caught by her gaze again, and found he could only look at the floor and nod.
“Well, Skritch is what they pulled out of you,” Tabby said. “And this is what they tried to pull out of me, but it only came halfway out. I hate to add one more level of bizarreness to your day, but you were bound to notice it sooner or later.” She removed the cap from her head, revealing the extra pair of green eyes planted in her forehead.
Stan’s jaw hung open to his chest.
The green eyes narrowed wickedly on him as Attic spoke out of Tabby’s ear. “Ooooh, fresh meat. I like the geeky ones.”
Tabby’s face flushed as she forcefully shoved her hat back on.
“You suck,” Attic spat.
“That place, the clinic, is no good,” Skritch continued. “They got all these babbles locked up in containers, pumping us full of chemicals. But they didn’t know that I can make myself two-dimensional.” He demonstrated by pressing himself down into the floor until he was as flat as shadow. “So I slipped out of storage, and did a little reconnaissance. I found Tabby and Attic locked in a room, so I let them out. We gave the doctors the slip out the back, and the only place I could think to go was here so I squeezed under your door and let us in. Answer your questions?”
“And I can’t go back home right now,” Tabby said. “They’ve probably already found out I’m gone, and they have all my info so they’ll come after me. They may know Skritch got out too, and when they do, they’ll come looking for you, so we better find someplace to hide out for now until we sort this all out. You got any place we could go?”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Stan’s head was beginning to hurt from all the information being thrown at him. “Why do we have to run from the clinic? I mean, how do you know it’s ‘bad’? And if we don’t want them ‘curing’ us, why should they care if we changed our minds? They wouldn’t really send cops or something after us, right?”
“Not cops,” Tabby said. “But something.”
“Stan, you’ve read the forums. You’ve read the ‘rumors.’ Buddy…” Skritch’s face scrunched into sour detestation. “They—are—killing—us.”
“K…Killing? The babbles? But…I thought the babbles needed to be reinserted into our brains, so our minds don’t fall apart. People said that they’ve seen their cured babbles at re-assimilation.”
“Not their babbles. A babble, but not theirs.”
“We think the clinic manufactures artificial ones,” Tabby said. “Ones that are designed to…influence people.”
“More permanent. Irreversible. Why, we don’t know. Could be some kind of government-funded conspiracy, or maybe underground anarchists.”
“Just like the forums say,” Skritch said. “When you were reading them, I was reading them too.”
Stan wiped his hands over his hair, taking deep breaths. “Okay…so, say the clinic is messing with people’s minds, for whatever reason. What are we supposed to do about it? It’s not like the police will believe us, even if we show them Skritch…which probably would not be a great idea. And I’ve never been a mastermind about anything. I’m just…me.”
“Hey, set yourself on ‘chill’ mode,” Skritch replied. “I’ve got a plan.”
* * *