Three Invitations – by Austin J. Fowler

Henry Gable sat alone in his apartment, a frail, forgotten man tucked away from the burning world. Descending slowly from the night sky was a monster, the approximate size and mass of a small town. Emotionless and impenetrable, it breathed columns of fire onto his city. There were others just like it in every direction, polka-dotting the globe with destruction. There was nowhere to run.

The cries of the monster gnawed at his nerves. So did the mournful sounds of neighbors, grappling with their new reality. But now, in this moment, it was the simple awareness of time that hurt the most.

Tick-tock tick-tock

The dust-covered clock on the wall behind Henry tick-tocked its incessant reminder of time, wasted and quickly running out. The skin around his eyes twitched at the sound of each passing second. They felt like hammer strikes on his coffin.

He stirred his right arm and gently patted the outside of his coat pocket. He exhaled a tentative, shaky breath at the feel of three small envelopes tucked inside. They represented his last remaining hope.

The monster bellowed again. An explosion shook the earth. It was time to move.

The wooden chair creaked with relief as he rose. He held a cane in his right hand and leaned on it heavily as he walked. Bare walls and sparse shelves greeted his passage to the entry. At the door, he took a faded brown fedora off the coat rack and fitted it snug atop his head.

A soft drizzle pattered outside. Henry eyed his umbrella. On this night, with a world-burning monster bearing down upon his city, holding an umbrella felt like carrying Band-Aids during a bombing. But he grabbed it nonetheless, wrapping nervous fingers around the chipped plastic handle.

Propping the cane against his leg, he reached for the doorknob. But then he stopped. His heart twisted.

Fear slithered inside and squeezed his chest. Not fear of the monster—that had come, peaked, and already begun to fade. For Henry, people were far worse than monsters. It was the fear of connection, his lifelong nemesis, that stung him now.

Breath quickening, he scrunched his eyes shut and pushed against the memory reel of lost chances. Love dismissed, opportunities skipped. Years, decades wasted. Why this fear resided inside, he never could clearly define. A reason deeply ingrained but long hidden, a still-buried artifact of the soul.

Tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock

He took a step back and released a heavy, defeated sigh. He knew this feeling, and this decision to retreat, all too well. A tear rolled down his cheek, and his shoulders slouched. Slowly, with a shaking hand, he removed his hat and reached to return it to the rack.

A woman’s voice, softly singing on this haunted night, sifted into his apartment. It was his next-door neighbor, Yessenia. She had such a beautiful voice, and his breath caught at the sound of it. The thought of her carried his hand back to the envelopes in his pocket, her name inscribed on one of them. He listened as she kept singing.

Surely, she was afraid. Surely, she understood the danger. But still she sang.

A flash of boldness jolted through Henry. His eyes snapped open. He took a deep breath and stepped back to the door. He slowly placed the fedora back on his head.

The fear screamed at him, angry and hostile. Anxiety vibrated through his bones. He could barely breathe. But he stayed rooted to the floor, and for the first time in his life, he stood toe-to-toe with the fear.

He gritted his teeth. It was now or never.

With an audible cry, he turned the knob and pushed his way outside and into the drizzle. He slammed the door shut—harder than he should have, but it felt good. He opened the pastel blue umbrella and breathed in lungsful of air. Small pools of water gathered and slipped off the edge of the fabric. The patter of raindrops and the smell of wet earth charmed his senses. A smile touched his lips.

He shuffled across the courtyard. When he reached his first destination—a door on the opposite side of the square—a rusted mail slot waited before him. On the other side of the door, his neighbor Peter was surely in crisis, wrestling with the impossible. If he was still alive, that is—he didn’t seem long for the world even before the monster came.

Henry removed the envelopes from his pocket and held them in both hands. Three invitations addressed in his neatest handwriting. One for Peter, one for Yessenia, and a third for another neighbor, Chloe. Offers to come and dine together, to drink and tell of what would be lost. To have one final connection before the fiery end.

For Henry, it would feel like the first.

The scream of the creature, nearer than before, rattled through every fiber of the building. He looked up and watched as the sky glowed orange, the monster breathing fire upon the earth. The beast was unseen from his vantage point, but it was there, red eyes the size of houses, defying gravity as it crept down through black clouds, bringing the end of the world with it.

He found Peter’s envelope. Carefully, he fed it through the slot and heard it tap down onto the man’s carpet.

A stirring came from inside and his heart fluttered. If Peter opened the door, Henry wouldn’t be standing there dumbly. He turned and shuffled to Chloe’s door, aware that Peter’s never did open. He slid the second invitation through the slot, then made his way to Yessenia’s and did the same.

His task complete, he returned to his own door. Would they read his invitations? Would they come? Or would this night be like all the others?

He’d chosen the three with intention. Yessenia, because life and energy emanated from her every move—he could feel it even through the wall that separated their units. Peter, because he was reminiscent of a younger Henry, nervous and hermit-like, leaning into a life wasted. And Chloe, because she brought cookies to his door every Christmas. The reasons weren’t much, but they were as good as he had.

He pulled the umbrella closed, entered his apartment, and shut the door. He leaned on his cane, waiting, unsure what to do next.

Tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock

All he could hear again was the clock. It invaded his ears. Invisible, spindly fingers grabbed and twisted his insides. The fear whispered to him, coaxing him back down into the dark place. It suggested that he bolt the door and ignore any knocks from his neighbors. Or that he flee into the deadly night. Or that he simply end it now.

The monster roared, nearer still, barely cracking through his fogged mind. He beheld the clock, and defiance flamed within. He shuffled to the wall, reached up with his left hand, and pulled it off its nail. He held it in front of him.

TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK

He released his grip and let it drop to the floor. Before he could hesitate, he lifted a leg and brought it down, crushing the clock underfoot.

He listened, and at last there was silence.

Yessenia’s door creaked open. She stepped to his. From across the room, he watched the mail slot nervously, the final hours of his life balancing on this moment. Finally, it rattled open and in fell her invitation.

Heart hammering in his chest, he waited until she was gone before returning to the entry. He slowly bent and grabbed the card. He held it up in front of him.

There, written in big red letters, was the word YES. Circled and underlined.

He filled his lungs with air that felt fresh for the first time in years. Then another door opened, and footsteps padded across the courtyard, coming his way.

The ground shook and the city burned. But the guests would be arriving in less than an hour, and he had to get the drinks on ice.

A broad smile reached up through Henry’s eyes, and Yessenia’s singing carried sweetly to his ears.


Austin J. Fowler is a husband, father, and nonprofit manager from Seattle, WA, US. In addition to Rockvale Review, his short stories have appeared in The Chamber Magazine and Dark Speculations (forthcoming). His favorite tales (to write and read) are dark, speculative, redemptive, and humorous, especially if all at once.