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The creature had been seen by at least half the residents of Hartfield—a small suburb of the city, population six hundred. Those residents who had glimpsed it, and it was always just a glimpse, provided those who had not with only the shadiest descriptions, allowed their imaginations to fill in the gaps. “It was dark, I couldn’t see so good” was a well-exercised line.
Initially it was a puma or panther, an escaped pet kept illegally by one of Hartfield’s wealthy; though even Hartfield’s wealthy weren’t wealthy enough to lend the slightest credibility to such a story. When Maggie Hamilton’s son, an unexcitable zoo keeper, explained that an escaped pet puma would not kill in such a manner, nor so readily, the rumors adapted again, evolved to these new circumstances.
Many believed the creature extraterrestrial.
Owing to a clean cut across the belly of a disemboweled cat—far too clean for a puma or other large cat, at any rate—Cyril Newman, a fourth-grade science-fiction enthusiast, forwarded what became known throughout the neighborhood (to Cyril’s intense pride) as the “Extraterrestrial Projection Hypothesis.” The hypothesis, adapted and named by Cyril from theories surrounding similarly inexplicable big cat sightings in rural England, held that the creature was indeed extraterrestrial, and intended to study life on this planet by imitating one of its creatures, so as not to create suspicion. According to the theory, sightings of panther or rabid ape were therefore not the creature itself but a telepathic projection by the creature of how it wished to appear. This would explain the wounds on those carcasses that had been found, as well as the unlikelihood of such a beast prowling around the suburbs: extraterrestrials, it could be assumed, had a conspicuously poor knowledge of the local fauna.
Bones had been left on footpaths.
So far there had been no human victims, but over the past six months an estimated seventy pets of various species had disappeared or been found dead. Nervous residents chattered amongst themselves at neighborhood barbecues: it was only a matter of time, they had family to think of.
Janice Cordwell found a turd on her lawn the size of a jackboot.
These days many residents kept their pets indoors at all times, curfews were imposed for children under sixteen. The local council refused to officially acknowledge the creature’s presence, which created further anxiety, rumor—council worker Mark Smallbone’s roof had bottles thrown on it and his letterbox blown apart. It was proposed that all parks in the area would be closed after dark, and that no child was to play unsupervised during the day. The council reluctantly assented. Order was imposed on all sides. Boyfriends no longer drove over for Friday-night sex like they used to.
No one could remember seeing Jack Fuller for at least a year.
Only a couple of things about the creature were certain: it walked on all fours, it had a mane, and, so far, it hunted only at night. When pictures were drawn by eye-witnesses, they often showed impossible nightmare creatures—designer-monsters with tusks or flippers or a tail with a mace on the end. It did not take too long, of course, for some residents to become dissatisfied with the idea of simply a big cat or freak-primate. The creature became a composite of all of God’s terrifyingly wayward ideas—infected saliva, tentacles, pre-digestion, that sort of thing.
Connie MacDonald’s daughter was a practicing witch.
Eventually, a group was organized by some of the suburb’s weekend hunters. They’d meet on Friday nights, against police warnings, to roam the streets with their rifles. The mystery allowed neighbors who’d never before spoken to converge, exchange rumor: they all had families, this concerned all of them. They exchanged bedtime stories to use on their children, stories designed to keep them in the house at night, away from windows, stories to keep their daughters virgins, to keep them on the straight and narrow.
David panicked inside and gripped the shotgun tighter:
it was definitely something, he could see it now—a great, heaving
black shape behind a tree in the Rigby’s front yard, eating. The
Rigby’s garbage was torn open, rubbish strewn all over their lawn.
A year earlier, on his meditative stroll in the neighborhood park, Jack Fuller, teacher and antiquarian, thought: Bitch. He then mentally reprimanded himself for doing so, seizing his bitterness, folding it several times over on itself, and posting it to some carefree void in his consciousness where abusive mail was systematically dealt with. He thought bitch often these days, having been dragged for months through the minefield of personal antipathy divorces tended to populate. While he valued decorum and publicly maintained the appearance of a chummy “parting of ways,” Fuller’s divorce, he felt, had been not so much a divorce as an anti-marriage, where each had silently pledged to loathe the other interminably. And he had been surprised to discover that his wife seemed to have had something of a headstart at this.
Carmen was a thin, quietly short, bespectacled blonde, and, like Fuller, a high-school teacher in her mid-forties. He’d thought them alike in many ways, he reflected, stepping over a fallen branch, until he’d discovered her and Murray, the rattlebrained over-the-road neighbor, going at it like dogs one afternoon. After that he had her picked as a whole different species of blonde altogether. Murray had been disgustingly carefree about the ordeal afterward, Carmen, however, had ranged the whole legal process against Fuller in pursuit of a profitable and, at least outwardly, moral victory. Suddenly, Jack Fuller was insensitive, lazy, mentally abusive, as well as both impotent and latently homosexual. But it was over now, he again reminded himself, sending off another bundle of uneasy thought-mail and allowing himself a steamily overstated exhalation in the wintry afternoon air: he’d gotten the house, after all. He was free to relax by himself, take advantage of his so far untouched long-service leave.
Enveloped in no less than a singlet, two shirts, a cardigan and a slicker, Fuller was determined to enjoy his stroll in the park despite the temperature. It would be his first night back home after a month-long absence, and he felt a somewhat desperate urge to re-accustom himself to his neighborhood. The restless nights of the past month had been spent at a youth hostel in the village, bunked up next to a bearded fat man who panted phlegmily in his sleep like a St. Bernard and masturbated with a frequency simply beyond analogy. Indeed, this had been another factor worked into Carmen’s defense: not the masturbating fat man, but that he, Fuller, had suddenly up and left once everything had hit the proverbial. According to Carmen it was only the woman who was permitted that type of drama. But it was over now.
Back at the house, Fuller relaxed himself by fetching for examination, and not for the first time that day, his latest acquisition as antique collector: a medieval sword. It was, for such a weapon, in remarkable condition (suspiciously remarkable, in fact—though Fuller naturally tried not to admit as much). The sword was a gift to himself for having survived such a torturous time in his life, and he looked forward to caring for it for a further fraction of what had been its long and probably glorious life.
He placed the antique, which he had wrapped in a blanket, upon the dining table and sat down. Just at that moment, Wellington, Fuller’s short-haired Chihuahua, and one thing for which he hadn’t even had to argue during the settlement, trotted in from its usual spot by the heater, probably in pursuit of its dinner, and proceeded to do what it always did when not otherwise occupied: tremble.
Fuller peeled the folds of the blanket slowly away from their habitant and did the same series of estimations that he loved to do. He guessed the sword a good five-feet long—the blade at least four of those feet. It was a broad sword—double-edged, steel, with a pointed tip. And, as he had again been reminded when lugging it in from the lounge room, very heavy: a two-handed weapon without question.
He crossed the room to a large pine cabinet, opened a lower compartment and removed an armful of cleaning products, carrying them over to rest next to the sword on the table. Wellington sneezed and tugged weakly at his trouser leg, whimpering hungrily.
He polished the blade until it glistened impressively, and he was awed by it. Aside from a score or so of small nicks, why it looked nearly new, he thought, admiring his work.
Although it certainly wasn’t unusual for Wellington to cower inexplicably, when Fuller finally stood up, took the sword in a steady grip and held it before himself, examining his reflection in the blade, the little dog made for the next room as if it were the last refuge of his very mortality.
Early the next morning, or what he assumed to be as much, Fuller was awoken by an incessant ringing of the doorbell: a shrill robotic chirrup that caused his slumberous mind to scrunch up irritably inside his head.
It was Murray. And as soon as Fuller opened the door he began saying something or other, with an over-conciliatory countenance, with hand gestures—with a quantity of get-up-and-go that was not only intensely annoying but downright unnatural so early in the day.
Fuller stood there, rubbing one eye, partially dislodging his glasses, irritated this man was even here—let alone demanding a portion of his attention.
‘What: did you just get up, Jack?’ Murray asked, ‘It’s one o’clock...’ He peered at Fuller as if he were inspecting a piece of bad food.
‘And?’ Fuller grunted.
‘Well, yeah: I just wanted to stop by to pick up that stuff of Carmen’s and—’
‘What stuff?—it’s all mine,’ he interrupted.
‘I know that. Like I said: just the hairdryer in the bathroom cupboard, and a couple of odd—’
‘Yeah, whatever...’ Fuller stepped back grudgingly, allowing Murray room to enter. ‘Suppose I should invite you in.’
He closed the door and leaned against the wall watching impatiently as Murray scurried about the house, lifting cushions and rifling drawers. ‘Watching the game this afternoon?’ he called out from another room, though Fuller wasn’t about to sing out a reply to such a hopeless pleasantry, and walked into the lounge room where he could pretend he hadn’t heard it at all.
Having forgotten completely about the sword until then, he eagerly went over to examine it once again, resting against the bookcase.
It seemed somehow lighter than it had been the previous night, he noticed, gripping the relic like a knight or lord had so long ago.
Murray was finished, and entered the lounge room just as Fuller leaned the antique back against the bookcase. ‘Whoa—what the hell is that?!’ he gasped with his armful of trinkets, staring past Fuller to the sword, moving toward it.
‘It’s nothing. Got everything then?’ Fuller stepped forward.
‘Doesn’t look like nothing to me,’ he replied, placing the items on the couch and coming closer. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘I got a good deal on it, if you must know. Now will that be all?’ Fuller said brusquely, irritated that this man had stayed as long as he had.
‘You and I ought to find out about it... We ought to research it and contact a rich collector. I could help you with the research, you know. And surely Carmen’d know something about it—teaching history and all.’
Fuller was utterly incredulous, and unable to attempt a reply to this outrageous offer for several seconds. Who did this man before him think he was? He was dumbstruck not only by Murray's presumptuousness, his blissful indifference to all he had already taken from Fuller, but the man's appalling disposal of the carefree, spiritual persona he apparently only projected.
After all he’d taken—and now evidently he wanted the sword as well! Fuller reached casually behind him and felt for the hilt. A spurt of electricity touched the tip of his finger, clenched his wrist, and guided his grip around the weapon.
‘Come on Jack: it’ll be a great investment—give me a look—seems really old, who knows how much it’s worth?’
‘I’m not sure, Murray,’ Fuller cringed as Murray moved closer and closer, flailing with his ridiculous hand gestures.
‘Show me—come on... Just give me a look please...’ Murray persisted, before Fuller finally raised the sword effortlessly out in front and made a step backward, letting it glint in the light. ‘That’s more like it—wow.’ Murray leered over it, almost salivating, ‘Looks so cool... must be so old.’
Just then Fuller felt the sword change somehow—its weight?—he wasn’t sure and gripped it tighter, watching the way the blade interrupted the air before him.
He stepped forward, and with terrific force thrust all four feet of blade through Murray’s chest.
Fuller did not panic immediately—panic was late on the scene: he was able to withdraw the blade, for instance, with a steady hand even before Murray hit the floor, dead. However anything his panic lost in punctuality it more than made up for in intensity, and Fuller was overcome as he looked upon the body before him, blood darkening the carpet around it.
It was the sword! thought Fuller with a burst of childish blame-laying. He knew this to be the truth, but his mind was immediately aware of the impossibility of explaining such a bizarre notion to the police. He looked at the sword, lying on the ground in a sheath of blood. It looked quite unmagical—a normal sword, really. But the way it had guided his hands… And how he’d felt, striking him down—it was as if the sword’s own history and grandeur had destroyed Murray, not him.
Jack Fuller spent the next hour pacing around his house, contemplating the paucity of options he felt had been left to him. There was, however, one thing he was sure of: no one would suspect him, a mild-tempered teacher and antique collector, living in a quiet suburb, of anything—certainly not murder, no matter who the victim.
Pacing into the lounge room Fuller was horrified to see that Wellington had taken one of the man’s fingers between his small, rice-like teeth and begun gnawing at it coarsely, as if in fearfully belated but sincere defense of his master. Or was it the other way round? Fuller thought, remembering his failure to feed the animal the previous night. How must it have looked to the hungry dog when he felled this massive creature and left it lying there dead on the carpet?
He put the body on a tarpaulin in the basement. Normally a quick thinker (his conversation was remarked upon often), he found he had no secret reserve in his mind allocated to dealing with such a situation sensibly: he dragged the body to the basement and left it there.
It was during the next month that Jack Fuller began to fall apart.
Since the death of Murray he did not leave the house, and no one visited, not even Carmen. An habitual nomad, Murray had been an equally unreliable lover and tenant since his free-living days in the ’70s. However he was expected to have disappeared, Fuller was clearly not thought to be implicated.
After two weeks he descended to and began living in the basement, bringing the sword, Wellington, and all the food from upstairs with him. He slept with the sword, used it for everything; he knew its dints and contours like the back of his hand.
He became sick several times over the next few weeks from eating unsuitable food or food past its use-by date. He would not leave the house. It was his house. He would eat the food he had and kill anyone who entered.
He stopped getting sick. He was able to eat unrefrigerated meat two weeks old without getting sick.
He ran out of food.
He used the filthy sword to cut flesh from Murray’s body.
He killed the dog and ate what little flesh it provided. A week earlier the dog had impressed him by killing and dragging in a dead cat nearly twice its size for its master; but they had both, at some point, become aware that the armistice between them was over.
He began to leave the basement during the night to gather food, using the hatch at the back of the house to sneak in and out.
In the absence of his glasses, within a few months his eyesight degenerated, but his night vision improved several-fold.
The basement was not heated and the nights were cold. He felt hair begin to bristle in regions of face and body where there wasn’t hair before.
The hair on his head grew long and matted, fell about his shoulders in clumps.
His body became heavily muscled from all the activity he was doing. Soon he could swing the five-foot sword with one arm easily.
He developed a stoop, which eventually degenerated into a severe hunch. He discovered that he could run faster using all fours. He used two legs only for short bursts of speed or for reaching things, or emphasizing his bulk in the reflection of car windows as he passed them in the night.
At some point he had come to understand that he had cut Murray down in the present, and whatever the sword had been through was immaterial. The sword was a fake, he sensed it now—or rather he lost all conception of “fake” and “genuine.” By now the weapon was filthy, tarred with dirt and gore, and dead blunt—more like a narrow club than a stabbing weapon. He did not attempt to clean or restore the sword it to its original glory. Its history or proper appearance no longer occurred to him as something to be restored. Likewise he no longer recalled Carmen to his mind at all. The fiction of their marriage had been destroyed and she could no longer mean anything to him.
He dragged the sword along rocks in the night but this was ineffective and he was unable to find any way of sharpening it. After it failed to kill a stray Labrador and the animal got away, he began to use it to bludgeon his prey to death instead.
Soon he was strong enough from clubbing to abandon the sword altogether, and did so without reluctance. He could run faster without it.
Jesus Christ it had fur—covered lightly in hair, David could see it now… It had to be two hundred and fifty pounds, he estimated, wanting to size it up while trying not to be too frightened by the realization.
He glanced down at the tattoo across his forearm: a basic skull design. All the hunters had one: it was just something they decided. Gave them confidence, David thought, and unity.
If he made a sound it would hear… Even so, he was going to have to go out on to the road, he told himself—walk down the street a little: make sure this isn’t someone’s Great Dane you’re gonna shoot….
It was too big for any sort of dog—shoulders too broad. Even in the dark from a hundred feet he could see that.
He stood in the middle of the road, stuffed a shell into the gun, hands shaking.
The creature’s head swiveled, he could see it looking at him through the darkness.
It hauled its body around the tree and roared—a bizarre sound David couldn’t identify as any animal he was familiar with.
He found himself trembling—raised the gun to his shoulder as the beast began to charge toward him: a ferocious gorilla-run, its long powerful arms hurtling it forward.
It roared again.
He quickly aimed the gun and fired. The creature bellowed and its shoulder exploded, filling the darkness with bloodspray.
Before he fired the second shot—the one that killed it—part of David had had time to realize that it was, technically, human.
The police were called, but no one was arrested—merely
a formality. No one in Hartfield questioned that the carcass lying in
the street was that of a gorilla. It was a gorilla with mange escaped
from a zoo, they said, shielding their children from the sight.
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