Everyone knows about shoggoths. Everyone knows how dangerous one can be – and is! — let alone an army of them. And all those grotesque, wet eyes. Bubbly, shiny, like blisters waiting to be popped.
They’re hard to kill but Hildy Allbright took out plenty during the Unspeakable War when she still belonged to a team with a purpose.
Then, shit happened, as the saying goes. No more team for Hildy. No more fieldwork, no desk job – that one stung – and years added up and things didn’t get better.
Maybe you don’t know what that’s like. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to be older, let’s say. Older and alone and taking whatever seasonal fill-in-the-blank job is available to put more pennies in your pocket. Turnover is your friend when you’re older and alone. You can get a job almost anywhere if they don’t know about your past.
Why? You’re dependable. You have a work ethic. You aren’t going to get married or pregnant and quit your crack-of-dawn gig, your retail job, your whatever puts groceries in your fridge, your freezer, your oven, your microwave, or your stomach.
You don’t hang with a lot of people anymore, the ones who still have partners, lovers, and spouses. The ones who didn’t screw up and stayed on the front lines or married smart into a family of attorneys or doctors, or those whose heavily guarded trust fund still pays for occasional trips to Cancun or Aruba or Hawaii with a boy toy, a second husband, a gal pal.
You rub elbows with twenty-somethings now. Kids just getting started. Girls who give you the side-eye, wondering within earshot, why is Grandma working? Shouldn’t she be enjoying the Golden Years? Her retirement?
Sure, pumpkin, but it’s tougher than you think when there’s no dough because of whatever happened that knocked you off-track with the Big Boys. One wrong move and forget your retirement party. Laid off after a devastating “accident”? Oops. No time to rehabilitate your bank account, let alone your health, and, before you know it, there goes the savings and damn quick, too.
So, let’s talk about what it is you do. You take that job. You work holidays or days before and after, weekends, nights, and early morning shifts that nobody else wants. You ignore the fact that you’re left out when it’s time to go for drinks or a burger or a get-together. Just being asked would be nice but hell, you scare them. You’re in a no man’s land between their parents and their grandparents and you’re having to work. You’re not doing it for your health, or for fun, you’re not doing it for research.
You’re doing it because something went wrong, something went very wrong during that last push to destroy the shoggoths, and you got bounced, and you were blacklisted, and – yeah, you need the money. Besides, who’d believe you if you told them you were on the frontest of the front lines during the Unspeakable War?
Longtime friends ghost you because, “Girl, what are you even doing?” They can’t deal. It scares them, too. There but for the grace of …
So, you learn to readjust. Again. And again. Adapt or die. You come in the day after the biggest holiday there is in this neck of the woods, which is Christmas. In the good old U.K., which we might as well call the YUK, this day is called Boxing Day and it’s called that for a whole different reason than many think.
Once upon a time, it was the day when the poorly received gifts of food and money to help them make it through the rest of the cold dark winter.
It’s called Boxing Day here in Metropolis, USA too, especially by those who work retail. It’s the day that tired, irate, weepy, hungover customers come in to return or exchange merchandise and it’s a madhouse. Nobody likes Boxing Day.
“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you coming in so early today, Hildy.”
Hildy Allbright gave her latest and greatest floor manager a big smile. “Not a problem, Flo. I’m happy to help.”
“We’re all grabbing a coffee when the shifts change but since you’re pulling a double, I insist you give yourself a long break,” Flo said. “Just sign yourself out and find me.”
“I will,” Hildy said. She flashed another smile. Her deep-dish dimples were a charming feature, one that age couldn’t take away, and Flo thought Hildy must’ve been a real beauty when young. “Back in the Paleolithic Age,” Hildy would’ve said. She herself made easy fun of her age and worked with decades-younger girls, including Flo herself who had finally hit forty. Hildy did this to head others off at the pass, much like Flo herself sometimes made self-deprecating remarks about being fat. The ol’ beat ’em to it playbook most tenderhearted but smart-aleck people use to throw folks off a blood trail.
“I wish you worked every weekend,” Flo said. “Of course, you might not want or like that.”
“You can always call if you need me.” Hildy wanted to cross her fingers. Working every weekend would be like hitting a tiny jackpot.
“What I need right now is to get out there and ride herd on a bunch of idiots, staff included.” Flo winked at Hildy who hoped the grin she gave Flo in return looked authentic. The younger woman was okay and didn’t suffer anyone, let alone fools, gladly. She now double-stepped out the door and down the hall to the service elevator, the sound of her heels echoing in the cavernous space.
Left alone, Hildy prepped the room to receive whatever came in. She was fast, thorough, and knew what to do. She’d been at this particular gig longer than anyone would guess and made her way to the bundles that had already shown up via the chute and the occasional runner.
Within minutes, she noticed dozens, maybe scores, of small uniform boxes in a pile, all stamped with a luminescent logo Hildy didn’t recognize at first. Then she caught a whiff of something that smelled like food teetering on the edge of a shelf date.
Looking closer, Hildy froze. A half-torn top exposed what was inside one of those containers. There were eyes. Gruesome watery eyes. More than two. Much more than only two. And she knew that mark, that sigil. She knew that stink. She knew that chill flooding her body.
Without hesitation, she whipped her cell phone out of a pocket and punched in a number she’d avoided for years. In the back of her mind, she knew all the old teams may be and probably were retired. Or had they died? Had all her friends – real friends – been lost to the Unspeakable or to other real-life monsters that people call disease?
He picked up on the fourth ring. “Hildy?” Evan Taylor’s voice, still strong and vibrant, held a note of caution.
“How the hell did you –?”
“Know it was you? C’mon, Hil. That won’t work on me.”
“The sigil, Evan,” she said. “The sigil is back. Again.”
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said.
“You’ve seen it.”
“Why are you questioning me, Evan?” Hildy managed to keep her tone civil. “ I’m looking at it right now. It’s stamped on approximately two hundred boxes in a basement at a high-end department store.”
A longer pause.
“Where are you?” His voice was almost a whisper. She wondered where he could be that he would go to verbal ground this fast.
Before she answered, he said, “Never mind. I see where you are. Atlanta. Holy crap. That Eastern Corridor is smoking… ”
“You wizard. Or should I thank modern tech?” She kept her tone light.
“Yeah, well, it’s more reliable than hollering in ancient tongues on mountaintops during thunderstorms. Are you safe? Or — ?”
“I don’t know.”
“Talk to me, Hil. Give me some background. And we can talk later about why you’re still pulling retail.”
“That’s right. Still. And no thanks to you.”
“Okay, don’t get sore. But for now, just wait, don’t do anything. I mean anything.”
“Oh, that’s such bullshit.”
“Hey, you called me, Hildy.”
“If it’s what I think it is, and it is, Evan, it’s always those fuckin’ shoggoths, right? If they all wake up at the same time, if that’s what happens – and that’s what’s going to happen, it’s always what happens, I have to wait for what? The cavalry? Seriously? Because I can still rescue myself. Like always. And I can still whip your ass, Evan, trust me. Not to hurt anyone’s feelings. But! And there are literally hundreds of people already inside the premises.”
“Oh shit. Boxing Day. That’s why the reading is off the charts where you are. Somebody’s stuffed them into boxes and now –”
“That’s right,” she sang.
“I’ll be there in less than thirty. Don’t do anything. Please.”
Hildy sighed loud enough for him to hear the aggravation and its accompanying tension.
“We stand against the Yellow Sign, Hildy. You remember the drill.” His voice wasn’t soft but he wasn’t barking at her, either. Still, a lot of blood under the bridge they once walked together.
“Nice work if you can get it.”
“Well. It’s been a while,” he said. “Hang tight, sweetheart.”
“Sweetheart?” She smirked just as she lost her temper with him. After all these years, he could sit still and listen for a goddam second. “And you’re misquoting, Evan. It’s ‘We stand against the Yellow Sign, with or without others.’ And you should know that drill yourself. You fucked it up enough. And you didn’t stand with me when I got railroaded. So, here I am without others – just like always. Make it fast.”
She broke the connection.
So, you think. It’s happening again. And again, you may be called to service. Real service. Not these bits and bobs you’ve had since the Unspeakable happened and thank you for your service, now leave but oh wait, come back, we need you. You must get rid of these shoggoths as you did once upon a time – even if getting rid of them means beating them back if only for a while. You all but obliterated them some years ago, thanks to your team – but it’s tougher ridding people, especially hardcore believers, the cultists, of old thinking and old fears, old habits. The horror of those Elders still comes around like always whether it’s as a memory, a dream – or more likely a nightmare, or maybe a hokey story some old fart insists really happened to a friend of a friend up North. It’s like a recurring illness or an allergy or some unknown condition that lays down tracks on top of tracks, old tracks from an itch that felt good to assault with the nails, tearing the skin off, let’s say until you yourself find some form of relief. But the little monsters themselves? Still hanging on. Because people are stupid and those people still call them forth, so to speak. Just to see. And so it goes.
And now, again, as they always did, the shoggoths have the audacity and the inclination to literally show up. That open portal they supposedly pass through? What made some teams so good is the fact that they realized it’s nothing from out of space, colour or not. It’s from the mind. Do you think it? You end up owning it – or vice versa, more likely.
You keep up with the underground, the scuttlebutt. You know there’s a rumor that there’s a newfound intelligence about this next generation that tricks almost all who encounter them. They’re still amorphous but no longer bigger than, let’s say a train. Poor Howard. He would be upset to know they had willingly shrunk their own forms after the Unspeakable, and would take to his bed over the fact they had exchanged this one characteristic for bigger and better smarts – however smart they may or may not be remaining to be seen by you.
You know that Evan is good for his word. You know he’ll be there within the promised thirty minutes. And while you wait, sweat beading your upper lip, you hope against hope he doesn’t do something really stupid this time and get killed or cause others, namely yourself, to die.
The smell seemed stronger to Hildy by the time Evan managed to find his way to the chute, crawl into and through, and clang his clumsy way down. Why he couldn’t just walk through the store … why he couldn’t take the elevator …
“Hi, Hil,” he said. His demeanor was that of a man for whom twenty-plus years hadn’t gone by. As if he had just seen you. As if all was well and always had been.
Righting himself straightaway, he looked more like what she remembered than what she had seen the last day they’d been together. And hypervigilant to a fault, Evan saw that Hildy had held up over the years, her hair barely streaking with silver. No real lines on her face, and her neck was still smooth.
“You look good.”
“Thanks,” she said. “You look tired.”
“Life.” He shrugged.
“Don’t I know it?” she replied.
“Where are they… oof, that smell.”
“Follow your nose.”
“Those the boxes?”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “You see it, right? I’m not crazy, right?”
“Yeah, I see it. No, you’re not. If that’s not the Sign, I want to know what is.”
“They’re asleep,” she said. She bobbed her head towards the boxes and he moved towards them.
“Either that or they’re dead, which would really explain the smell. I didn’t get too close.”
“Understandable,” he said, and they both snickered.
Evan looked several of the boxes over. A few were damaged, their tops askew, and he took an up-close and personal gender, viewing the contents with obvious disgust.
“They were out like this, in a big pile, no rhyme or reason, no wrapping paper,” Hildy said. “No real packaging so no return address. Not our boxes. It’s like someone collected them, then dumped them down the chute. We usually take things like this – okay, not exactly like this, you know what I mean – to a charity. Or a landfill.”
“So, they were already in here when you showed up.”
She nodded. “At seven o’clock. Weird, huh?”
“Sounds like a plan. But for what?”
“I remember shoggoths being much bigger,” Hildy said.
Evan sighed. “Yeah. I remember them being tougher and not needing to take naps.”
“If it weren’t for the smell, I’m not sure I’d thought it was anything other than a club or organization sending members what’s supposed to pass for a gift.”
“Yeah. Especially this time of year. Nice packaging. That Yellow Sign, though,” Evan said. “Dead giveaway if you know it.”
Despite herself, Hildy stood closer to Evan, almost pressing against him. They both stared at something that might be real but, on second thought, maybe it wasn’t.
They both played devil’s advocate for a moment. “This might be nothing more than an esoteric gift also meant to disturb, shake someone up, cause a chill, send a message.”
“Maybe the cultists are gathering. Again. That could be almost as bad as the real deal here.”
“But, the eyes…”
They both stared at the gelatinous orbs which some believed were used by shoggoths for more than sight.
“Oh hell, yeah. Those look real enough. I saw plenty back in the day and so did you. Up close and personal, both of us. These are shoggoths.” He wiggled his fingers in an air quotes gesture and grinned.
“In the flesh.”
“So to speak,” he said.
“So. What do we do?”
“Do?” Evan turned to give Hildy a grin. Reaching into the innermost pocket of his overcoat, he pulled out a weapon she recognized immediately. She felt her eyes sting with sudden tears and hoped her expression was more than just that of a once-besotted girl, ready to take out the enemy from a place past Beyond.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded, reaching into the band of her slacks where a smaller, more elegant, but equally powerful version of Evan’s weapon rested against her back.
“As I live and breathe, Allbright. You do still carry it around.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“At’ta girl. Stay alive, Hil. Whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes.”
“We stand against The Yellow Sign, with or without others,” he said. It was the motto, the mantra, the call. She nodded and replied. “We stand against The Yellow Sign, with or without others.”
A screech shattered the near-hushed atmosphere as the shoggoths awoke, spilling out of the boxes. Some shot straight up towards the ceiling, the eyes large and bulging, searching, spilling their foul dampness onto the floor. Their shapes changed at incredible speed. The thick walls muffled the thrum of human activity above them. And until and unless things turned ugly, and if humanity proved lucky, nobody would hear or know what went down.
On task, Evan and Hildy leveled their weapons at the enemy.
Earsplitting squeals of rage shimmered open a portal.
“Just like the good old days, sweetheart,” he shouted.
They were not afraid. They stood together, one more time.