Looking around at the array of bodies on the variety of machines, Louis King thought if there was some way to bottle up the energy burned at the gym during the first week of January, you could probably power some little country like Iceland or Lichtenstein for about a year. Louis also thought he could feel that spent energy heavy on the air like an invisible fog. If he’d told Evelyn this, she’d have laughed.
The treadmill beneath his feet beeped and the ten-mile-per-hour run slowed until it was down to a three-MPH walk. He took up his water bottle and emptied it in a pair of gulps. Sixty seconds after the cool down beep, the machine quit and Louis stepped off. He’d put a disinfectant-damp towel over the time screen and now used it to wipe his germs away from all that he touched. Which was very little.
He was a regular at Snap Fitness on George Street, used the treadmill two days a week, and still it felt something like climbing out from a boat when he got off. He walked slowly through the throngs of exercisers in their Christmas-new Nike, Puma, Reebok, Under Armor, and Asics garb. The majority ranged from soft to flabby. Most he’d never seen in the gym. They’d probably buy their annual membership at a steal, foster great intentions, and give up after a month. Some would make it two, but there’s a reason they hadn’t worked out last year, which was the same reason the faces were foreign to him. Exercise doesn’t do it for everyone, the thrill doesn’t come and harboring weight-loss dreams is rarely enough.
Stopping by the elliptical trainers, Louis took out his earbuds, letting them dangle around the sweat patch centering his abdomen, and looked over his wife’s shoulder. She had four minutes left.
“I’m going to catch a shower, meet you by the fountain,” Louis said, touching her forearm.
She nodded, headphones in, eyes on the TV screen before her. It looked like one of those reality shows he refused to watch, but everyone seemed to talk about. One of the competition ones with closet cams and endless sexual tension and backstabbing.
He crossed the workout floor. The big room had thirty machines in total, a yoga space, and two universal weightlifting stations. Louis would be on weights tomorrow and then the elliptical the day after that. Six days a week—taking every Friday off—he and his wife visited the gym. He fancied he was the sort of patron the management hated, paying the fees and having the nerve to show up regularly to wear down the machines.
Past the desk, the vacant yoga space, and the busy weightlifting stations, Louis bent over the fountain and drank until he could drink no more. To the right of the fountain was the hallway leading to the men’s locker room.
Being a regular, he rented one of the long-term lockers and swapped his cellphone and empty water bottle for his towel. He slipped out of his shoes, stuffed them in the bottom of the steel cubby and began to strip behind his towel.
On Saturdays, when he visited during the day, there would be old men milling around the change room, naked and wrinkled as raisins, their old balls drooping tremendously beneath the wiry white public hairs and shrunken manhood. Louis promised himself he’d never become one of them. He’d get old, sure, but he’d have the decency to know people didn’t want to see the sagging proof.
He stuffed the sweaty clothes into a black duffle bag and grabbed the mini bottle of Dove shampoo he refilled every five weeks from the big bottle at home. The shower was empty and Louis luxuriated beneath the fantastic heat and pressure of the gym’s waterworks.
“Hey.” Another regular nodded. He’d already posted up by the hallway entrance of the women’s change room. He was a slim man, maybe forty, maybe sixty; tough tell nowadays.
“Hey. Did you see my wife go in?” Louis leaned against the wall next to the man and began unwrapping a protein bar.
“No. I went straight to the shower same time my wife went in…what, maybe ten minutes ago? I don’t know. She usually beats me out,” the man said.
Louis chewed and swallowed. Evelyn rarely beat him out of the shower, but he wore a tight crop of hair and she had a foot-long ponytail to dry. At least partially.
“Madhouse this time of year, huh?” Louis spoke around a mouthful of granola, chocolate, quinoa, and peanuts.
“I don’t mind, these dopes buy the new machines. The fewer who follow through on New Years’ resolutions, the fancier the treadmills.”
Louis laughed at this though it wasn’t exactly nice. “Yeah.” A couple of the machines were only good for walking, though probably perfect for the two middle-aged women he saw puttering around in blue jeans and t-shirts, cans of Coca-Cola in the cup holders.
The other man pulled out his cellphone and checked the time, then opened Facebook. Louis then did the same and quick-scrolled through Twitter after that.
“She should’ve been out by now, geez.” The man pocketed his phone.
Louis thought likewise about Evelyn.
A woman came towards them—not a regular—and Louis said, “Hey, you mind checking to see if the janitor forgot to put the seat down and our wives fell in?” He pointed to his chest and to the other man, back and forth, a grin creeping to his lips.
The woman was red faced and short of breath. She scowled at the question as she walked by and entered the change room. The other man followed her, facing away, but holding the door a moment. “Deb, hurry up, would ya?” He let the door close and fell back in next to Louis.
Three more women entered the room, but none left.
“Hey.” A third man joined Louis and the other.
Louis had his phone out, scrolling everything. Absurd, she’d been in there almost an hour. The other man yelled through the open door three times, but never got a response.
“I’m getting an attendant.” The man stormed away.
“What’s his deal?” The new guy smirked, thumbing towards the departed man.
“Our wives have been in there forever.” Louis pocketed his cellphone. It was after eight and he was starving.
“Women, am I right?” the new guy said. He was a soft man, not a regular, looked fifty, but might’ve been forty or thirty.
Louis doubted he’d see him again after January, but nodded because he was the polite sort.
The attendant came back and led a two figure parade. She stopped at the door and turned to the flustered man. “You wait here. You can’t come in.”
“I know. Tell Deborah Johnson to hurry the hell up. Please.” He added the nicety like an afterthought.
The attendant, a little woman, fit and muscular, disappeared into the change room. The trio of men waited. Minutes passed, two more women went inside.
“What in the hell is going on?” the first man asked, looking to Louis for an answer.
At two minutes to nine, six men stood outside the change room. A chunky man in a windbreaker outfit charged through and kicked open the door. “Man coming in!” The door swung behind him and the others waited.
“Been in there five minutes,” Louis said, looking at his cellphone.
“Fuck this,” another newcomer said. This was an occasional user of Snap Fitness on George Street. He wore his real world clothes—khakis, loafers, a black parka with fake fur accenting the hood trim.
The men stood in silence, all timing this latest investigator.
I guess we should call the poli—” the lone woman said. She refused to enter upon seeing all the men and hearing the story.
“No. I’m going in.” The first man said, cutting her off. “Get some skipping ropes and tie me up.”
The idea was absurd, but seemed wholly necessary, so they did, most terrified, intrigued, and impatient to be home; there was no possible way something screwy was happening in there. It had to be a gag. Women, playing a trick, had to be it.
The man went in and Louis was the front of the line with sixth skipping rope in his firm grasp where he stood by the handle. Good skipping ropes, woven cotton and wooden handles. Heavy.
The group started muttering as the man disappeared around a corner just inside the door. “Shoosh,” Louis said, and they did. All of them. The only noise was the music coming through the ceiling speakers out on the work out floor.
He heard a strange sound then and instinctively began tugging on the rope. He reeled in until the slack was gone, now holding the third rope instead of the sixth. He tried to pull back further, but couldn’t.
“Grab that one, “I’m going to see.” Louis point at the sixth rope coiled on the floor beyond the fifth and fourth ropes.
Another man took up the slack and wrapped the end around his fist. Louis started in, slowly; the rope was tight and leaning down. He went through the door and tried to tug for more, but it refused to move. He had to let go where the rope pressed against the privacy wall.
He took a deep breath.
“What do you see?” a man asked from by the doorway.
Louis shook his head gently. So far he saw nothing, was too scared. Then he thought of Evelyn and straightened. He had to do something.
He jumped around the short wall as if to surprise the mystery away.
The rope…it drove into the floor. “Huh.” He stepped slowly. The green tile seemed to flicker and he grabbed onto the rope again. He pulled, and this time it moved about six inches before yanking taught again.
He got as close as he dared, looking into the shimmer and dance of the blue tendrils riding within the surface of the floor. It looked like electricity.
His eyes remained tight on the image as he reefed on the rope. It came toward him without disrupting the solidity of the tiles. He took a step closer and his foot went through the floor. He scrambled, using the rope and the shoe still on steady ground to push himself upright.
Heart trying to leap up his throat, he bent to catch his breath, looked at his feet. The leather shoe that passed through the solid looking floor seemed melted and dried, as if the material sat out in the sun for an extended period.
He was about to call back when the skipping rope went slack. “What in the world?” Louis leaned in closer and then jumped back as a great, green beast leapt, its scales and plates electrified with blue energy that writhed about the creature’s frame. Louis tried to break for the door, but the long jaw snapped and he skittered to his left. It was like one of those gators the history channel showed in CGI—a prehistoric ancestor to the modern beasts.
“Help!” he screamed, his voice cracking at the volume.
The door swung open and the giant gator looked at the men and the one woman who’d squeezed near the doorframe. The door quickly closed. The gator spied Louis again as it pulled itself up through the floor.
Louis was on the move. The electrified spot on the floor was about eight feet across, so he skirted it and broke for the showers, anywhere to be away. He glanced back as he ran—that beast had to be twenty feet from nose to tail tip.
The thing opened its mouth as it ran, the shape of the jaw made it seem like it was smiling. The teeth were huge and blood stained; the beast’s tongue a shade of red that Crayola might’ve called RECENTLY FED.
The showers in the women’s change room had stalls instead of a communal space. Louis jumped in one and pulled the plastic curtain behind him. The beast instantly bit the curtain down and Louis screeched like a final girl.
The beast tried to swallow the shower curtain and began choking. Louis watched it a moment, wishful. It then spat the curtain and Louis grabbed onto the framework of the stall and pulled himself up. The beast was snapping and growling, biting into the stone tile and the steel of the showers.
Then the door into the change room opened and shouting men began charging. Louis watched them, wanting to warn them. The men, armed with straight bars and thirty-pound kettle bells and fifty pound plates hefted over their heads, broke in to the room looking to save him, but fell through the floor, erasing all the sound they’d made as if falling into the vacuum of outer space.
The gator looked back for about a half-sized moment. The woman hefted a straight bar, but hadn’t followed the men all the way in. She eyed the thing, obviously uncertain.
“Go, call the cops!” Louis said.
The gator turned a side-eye on Louis and swung its great tail. It had bone blades and spikes like a dinosaur. The stone pillars around the stalls smashed and the steel bent. Louis started sliding toward the gator’s yawing mouth.
He wheeled his arms and legs against gravity. “Nononono!”
The fetid heat and the stink of recent consumption washed from the giant mouth. Louis closed his eyes at the last second, unwilling to witness his demise.
A metallic thump sounded and his feet connected not with teeth, but with reptilian hide. He opened his eyes to see the long bar on the beast’s jaw and his feet settled precariously over its eyes.
“Come on!” the woman shouted.
Louis leapt then, unthinking until it was too late. The bad spot. The energized spot. The spot that had gone soft. That’s where he was about to land.
The tendrils of blue latched onto him with greedy fingers as he began to fall, his feet disappearing for a heartbeat before the gator’s great tail swung and smashed into his back, sending him eight feet before landing on an invisible ledge. His upper half clung to the change room floor, his lower half through the change room floor.
The gator snarled and growled, charging for him and then sinking in a snap, disappearing.
“Help me!” Louis began sliding.
The woman grabbed him. She was sweaty and the grip was poor, but together they managed to get him topside. His khakis had paled and both his shoes looked much older than their years. The bottom half of his parka was spotty brown instead of steady black.
“We have to get out of here,” the woman said, helping Louis to his feet.
He leaned on her as they broke from the change room out into the vacated gym floor and then through the main doors. The woman stepped into the parking lot, only stopping because Louis had.
“Oh. My. God.”
“What?” the woman looked to Louis and Louis pointed straight ahead, she followed his finger.
The local Curves was a three-storey gym—by far the biggest location in the city. Blue tendrils of energy played about its walls and onto the street. No cars, no pedestrians, no nothing between the Snap Fitness parking lot and the distant building.
“It’s like…it’s like…” the woman trailed as an enormous claw appeared through the grey asphalt not fifty feet from where they stood. Electricity danced.
Tyler has been the editor in chief of Signal Horizon since its conception. He is also the Director of Monsters 101 at Truman State University a class that pairs horror movie criticism with survival skills to help middle and high school students learn critical thinking. When he is not watching, teaching or thinking about horror he is the Director of Debate and Forensics at a high school in Kansas City, Missouri.