The minutes ticked by. The night was quiet. At last Erasmus called softly from his refuge, “They’ve gone, thank God. And so should we, Doctor. We’ll come back in daylight. I’d rather risk discovery by men than-”
“Quiet, you old fool!” whispered the doctor. “A pot, Will Henry.”
I drew a cylinder from the sack and pressed it into his left hand. (His right held the gun.) He touched the fuse to the fire of the torch and with one graceful motion hurled the pot into the trees. It exploded with a white-hot blinding burst of light, like the flash of a photographer’s camera. Behind us Bess jerked against her harness, and below us Erasmus Gray gave a startled cry. I saw nothing in the explosive’s light. It passed in an instant, leaving the afterimage of the trees impressed upon my eyes, but nothing else, no seven-foot-tall hulking forms with rows of glittering teeth in their chests.
“Most curious,” the doctor said. “Hand me another, Will Henry.”
“They’ve moved off, I tell ye.” Erasmus Gray’s fear had, as fear often does, metastasized into anger. “If they was even here to begin with. Ye hear strange things in the graveyard at night. Take it from me; I’ve come here often enough! Now, you can stay if ye wish, Dr. Pellinore Warthrop, but me and my horse’re leaving. I told ye we shouldn’t’ve come tonight, and I told ye we shouldn’t’ve brought this child. Now I’m leaving, and if you want a ride back to town, you’ll come with me.”
He laid his rifle at our feet and started to scramble out of the hole.
But Erasmus Gray never got out of that hole.
A massive claw, easily twice the size of a human hand, with a two-inch gray razor-sharp barb on the end of each corpse white digit, burst through the dirt between his feet, followed by the bald muscular arm, flecked with black soil and white stone. And then, like some nightmarish leviathan rising from the deep, the broad shoulders broke the undulating earth, those terrible unblinking black eyes glittering in the glancing glow of the torch, the yawning maw stuffed with three-inch fangs in the middle of the creature’s triangular torso snapping as a shark’s when excited by the scent of blood in the water. The claw wrapped around the old man’s upper thigh; the barbs sunk into his leg. Erasmus flung out his arm in our direction, mouth agape in a high-pitched scream of horror and pain, and to this day that haunts me, the old man’s wide-open orifice revealing its pitiful contingent of teeth, an absurd impersonation of the monstrous mouth between his kicking legs.
Instinctively, stupidly, and, no doubt, to the doctor’s disapproval and dismay, I caught the old man’s flailing wrist. Inside the grave the Anthropophagus stuffed Erasmus Gray’s captured leg into its snapping mouth, the teeth closed over his jerking calf, the black eyes rolled in their sockets, and I slid two feet forward, until my head and shoulders dipped into the hole and the screams of the old man reverberated like sullen thunder in my ears. The mouth below continued to work, chomping upward as the claw pulled the old man down, his free leg flailing like a drowning man’s trying to kick to the surface. I felt the doctor’s hands upon my waist, his voice barely audible above the cries of the doomed man.
“Let go, Will Henry! Let go!”
But it was not I who held fast with iron grip; it was Erasmus Gray. His fingers were wrapped around my wrist, and he was pulling me into the pit with him. All at once I slid farther in, for Warthrop had released me, and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the barrel of the doctor’s revolver slam against the old man’s forehead.
I whipped my head around, turning my face from the sight as the doctor pulled the trigger, snuffing out the old man’s screams of pain and panic in a single explosive instant. Hot speckles of blood and bone and brain splattered in my hair and against the back of my neck.
The fingers around my wrist loosened, and the lifeless arm followed Erasmus Gray’s corpse as it collapsed to the bottom of the hole, briefly obliterating the grotesque bloody-mouthed thing beneath him, but I could hear its mouth working, the sickening crunch of teeth pulverizing bone and snapping sinew, the odd grunting like an enormous boar snuffling in the underbrush.
Grabbing the seat of my pants, the doctor yanked me backward and with surprising strength-no doubt the strength born of adrenaline-rich muscles-hoisted me to my feet. He shoved me toward the lane with a single command, a charge that was hardly necessary under the circumstances:
I complied. Unfortunately, so did ol’ Bess, who bolted forward with a spring worthy of a mare half her age. As I sprinted toward the cart, it receded from me, pulled by the panicked horse off the lane and onto the rough ground, the frantic animal cutting across the graves and weaving between the tombstones. I dared not look back, but my ears delivered the sounds of the doctor close behind, and harsh, barking calls that seemed to emanate from all directions.
I was swift for my size, as I have said, but the doctor possessed a longer stride, and presently he overtook me. He reached the back of the bouncing cart before I did, threw himself upon it, landed directly atop the body of the girl, and flung his hand toward me.
Was it my imagination, or did I feel something close behind, its hot breath upon my neck, the thump-thump-thump of its heavy tread on the hard-packed dirt a mere step or two back? The humph-humph! of their calls had grown louder, a frustrated sound infused with rage.
The doctor lay upon his belly beside Eliza’s body, his left hand extended toward me. Our fingertips brushed as I strained forward, but the cart was swinging crazily from side to side. Ol’ Bess whipped first right, then left, picking her path through the headstones with no goal or finish line in mind, only the blind dictates of her instinct to escape. The doctor screamed something, and though I was but a yard or two from him, I could not make out the words. His right arm swung toward me then, the revolver clutched in his hand and pointed at a spot over my shoulder. He screamed a second time, the gun went off, and the back of my shirt tore away as the monster behind me lunged. My pursuer, it seemed, had not been a figment of my imagination.
The fingers of the doctor’s left hand found my wrist. Like Erasmus at the grave he yanked me toward him, though this time toward life, not death, and jerked me into the cart beside him. To my astonishment, he at once abandoned me, shoving the revolver into my shaking hands and hollering into my ear, “I’m going up front!”
And he went, scrambling on all fours toward the seat and the reins that were our sole hope of survival. I had never fired a gun in my life, but I fired it now, until the chamber was spent and the barrel smoked, at the towering forms racing toward us. They came from the trees; they poured out of Eliza’s grave, dozens of them, scores, sprinting with arms outstretched and mouths agape, their colorless skin radiant in the starlight, as if every tomb and sepulcher had vomited forth their foul contents.
Clearly we were being outpaced. I watched in helpless horror as the swarm of fiends closed the gap: Ol’ Bess’s age caught up with her instincts, and her steps began to flag.
Behind me the doctor let forth a string of curses worthy of a merchant marine, and, with the horrific crunch of shattered wood, the cart came to an abrupt halt, the impact hurling me upon my back, my head saved from cracking open upon the rough boards by the pliant body of Eliza Bunton. I sat up and saw that the old nag had dashed between two huge maple trees; she had managed the passage, but the cart had not. We were wedged tight.
Dr. Warthrop reacted immediately. He jumped over the seat into the cart bed beside me. The Athropophagi were a hundred feet away now, and I could smell them, an odor unlike any I had ever encountered, a noxious smell I can only liken to that of rotten fruit.
“Out of the way, Will Henry!” the doctor shouted. I scooted backward on my backside toward the front of the cart. He shoved his arms beneath the shoulders of the young girl’s corpse and, with a roar as primordial as the things bearing down on us, heaved her off the cart. The dead weight hit the ground with a sickening thud.
“The harness!” he cried. “Undo the harness, Will Henry!”
I grasped his goal, bounded over the seat, and dropped to the ground beside the straining horse. The poor animal was mad with fear, eyes rolling, nostrils flaring, foamy spittle dripping from her mouth. A shape dropped from above on her other side, and I gave an involuntary cry, but it was the doctor, who set about undoing the clasps on the opposite flank.
“Will Henry!” he called.
“Done!” I called back.
He swung himself onto the horse, slid his hand into the pit of my outstretched arm, and hauled me onto her back behind him. Bess needed no goading from us: She leaped forward, guided now by the doctor’s sure hand toward the peripheral lane that would bring us to the cemetery’s gates and the road beyond. I turned once, just once, and then turned away, pressing my cheek into the doctor’s back, closing my eyes as I clung to his waist, willing myself to ignore what I had seen in that last backward glance.
The doctor’s desperate gambit had paid off: The pack had abandoned its pursuit and attacked the corpse, tearing it apart in ravenous frenzy, flinging shredded bits of white linen into the air, ripping from her torso her arms, her legs, her head, stuffing chunks of flesh into their snapping maws. The last thing I saw before hiding my face in the doctor’s coat was her luxurious dark curls cascading from one of their jaws.
To the main gates… and through them. Onto Old Hill Cemetery Road… and then toward New Jerusalem. Bess slowed from gallop to trot to exhausted hoof-dragging stride, with bowed head and slick, sweat-dark withers. We relaxed with her, in a quiet made thunderous after our mad flight, and the only thing I can recall the doctor saying on the long ride home that night was this:
“Well, Will Henry. It seems I must reconsider my original hypothesis.”
FOUR.“The Hour Grows Late”
Upon our return to the house on Harrington Lane, the doctor sent me upstairs to wash up and change out of my filthy clothes; I was covered from the soles of my feet to the top of my head with dirt and offal, the right side of my face tattooed with the dried blood, skull fragments, and gray bits of brain that had animated Erasmus Gray for more than sixty years. Pebbles and twigs dropped from my tangled hair into the basin and clogged the drain, which rapidly filled with water stained a delicate pink from his blood. Grimacing, I plunged a hand into the fouled water to clear the clog, morbid curiosity drawing my youthful eye to the gray globs of gore floating upon the surface. It was not horror that seized my imagination so much as wonder: sixty years of dreams and desires, hunger and hope, love and longing, blasted away in a single explosive instant, mind and brain. The mind of Erasmus Gray was gone; the remnants of its vessel floated, as light and insubstantial as popcorn, in the water. Which fluffy bit held your ambition, Erasmus Gray? Which speck your pride? Ah, how absurd the primping and preening of our race! Is it not the ultimate arrogance to believe we are more than is contained in our biology? What counterarguments may be put forth, what valid objections raised, to the claim of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity”?