We met in the front hall, for as I raced down, he ran up, and both of us were winded and slightly wild-eyed, regarding each other with identical expressions of comic confusion.
“What is it?” he asked breathlessly.
And I, with him: “What is it?”
“Why are you asking me ‘What is it?’ What is it?”
“What, Dr. Warthrop?”
“I asked you that, Will Henry.”
“Asked me what;
“What is it!” he roared. “What do you want?”
“You—you called for me, sir.”
“I did no such thing. Are you quite all right?”
“Yes, sir. I must have… I think I fell asleep.”
“I would not advise that, Will Henry. Back upstairs, please. We mustn’t leave Mr. Kendall unattended.”
The room was still very cold. And the light gray. And there was the whisper of snow now against the windowpane.
And the bed, empty.
The chair and the Louis Philippe armoire and the dead embers and the little rocking chair and the littler doll in that chair and her littler still black, unblinking china eyes and the boy frozen on the threshold, staring stupidly at the empty bed.
I backed slowly into the hall. The hall was warmer than the room, and I was much warmer than the hall; my cheeks were on fire, though my hands were numb.
“Dr. Warthrop,” I whispered, no louder than the snow against the pane. “Dr. Warthrop!”
He must have fallen, I thought. Got loose of the ropes somehow and fell out of bed. He’s lying on the other side, that’s all. The doctor will have to pick him up. I am not touching him!
I turned back. My turning took a thousand years. The stairs stretched out below me for a thousand miles.
To the landing, another millennia. There was the beating of my heart and my hot breath puffing my makeshift mask, and the smell of ambergris and, above and behind me, the gentle protest of the top step, creaking.
I stopped, listening. The passing of the third millennia.
I was patting my empty pockets for the gun.
Where is the gun?
He had forgotten to give it back to me, or, as he would undoubtedly say, I had forgotten to ask him for it.
I knew I should keep going. Instinctively I understood where salvation lay. But it is human to tie ourselves to the mainmast, to be Lot’s wife, turning back.
I turned back.
Chapter Seven: “Would You Live?”
It launched itself from the top step, a reeking sepulcher of jutting bone and flayed skin and crimson muscle dripping purulence, a yawning mouth festooned with a riot of jagged teeth, and the black eyes of the abyss.
The once-Kendall slammed into me, its shoulder driving into my chest, and the black eyes rolled in their sockets, like a shark’s eyes when it attacks, in the ecstasy of the kill. I punched blindly at its face; my knuckles knocked against the sharp, bony growths that had erupted from the rubbish of its flesh, bone meeting bone, and my entire arm sang with pain.
The creature seized my wrist and flung me down the last flight of stairs as easily as a boy tosses a stick. I landed face-first with a loud wallop at the bottom, making no more noise than that, for the fall knocked all the breath out of me. In the space of a heartbeat, I rolled onto my back, and it was upon me, so close I saw my own face reflected in its soulless eyes. Its face was not that of a human being. I have looked at that face a thousand times; I keep the memory of it in a special cabinet of curiosities, and I take it out from time to time, when the day is bright and the sun warm and the evening very far away. I take it out and hold it. The more I hold it, you see, the less I’m afraid of it. Most of the skin is gone, torn or sloughed off, exposing the underlying musculature, the marvelously complex—and marvelously beautiful—underpinning. Pointed horns of calcified tissue protrude from the skull, scores of them, like the thrust-up roots of cypress trees, from the cheekbones, the forehead, the jaws and chin. It has no lips. Its tongue has putrefied and broken apart; just the base remains. I saw the brown stringy mass spasm as the open mouth came down at me. The rest of the tongue he swallowed; the lips, too. The only thing in Mr. Kendall’s stomach was Mr. Kendall.
At the last instant before he landed on top of me, I brought up my hands. They broke easily through him; my fingers tangled with his ribs. If I’d had my wits about me, I would have thought to push just a bit more, find his heart and squeeze until it burst. Perhaps, though, it was a matter of timing, not acumen. There was no time to think.
In the time it took for me to realize that this inhuman face would be the last face I would see, the bullet punched through the back of his head, blowing out an apple-size hole as it came out the other side before burying itself in the carpet not quite a quarter inch from my ear. The body jerked in my hands. I felt—or thought I felt—the protest of his heart, an angry push against my fingers wrapped tight around his ribs, the way a desperate prisoner grasps the bars of his cell, before it stopped beating. The light did not go out of his eyes. There hadn’t been any light in them to begin with. I was still trapped in those eyes—sometimes I think I am trapped still—in their unseeing sight.
Warthrop heaved the body away—once he had freed it from my maddened grip—tossed the gun aside, and knelt beside me.
I reached for him.
“No! No, Will Henry, no!”
He lunged out of my reach; my bloody fingertips brushed his coattails.
“Do… not… touch—anything!” He held up his hand as if to demonstrate. “Are you injured?”
I shook my head. I still had not found my voice.
“Do not move. Keep your hands away from your body. I will be right back. Do you understand, Will Henry?”
He scrambled to his feet and raced toward the kitchen. It is human, the compulsion to do the very thing you’ve been cautioned not to do. The handkerchief was still tied around my face. I felt as if I were slowly being suffocated, and all I desired was to yank it down.
A moment later he was back, wearing a fresh pair of gloves, and he tugged the mask down as if he knew without my telling him the immediate cause of my distress. I took a long, shuddering breath.
“Don’t me, don’t move, not yet, not yet,” the monstrumologist whispered. “Careful, careful. Did he hurt you, Will Henry? Did he bite or scratch you?”
I shook my head.
Warthrop studied my face carefully, and then, as abruptly as he returned, he abandoned me again. The hall began to fade into a gray mist. My body was going into shock; suddenly I was terribly cold.
In the distance I hear the plaintive cry of a train’s whistle. The mist parts, and on the platform stands my mother and me, holding hands, and I am very excited.
Is that it, Mother? Is that the train?
I think it is, Willy.
Do you think Father has brought me a present?
If he has not, then he is no longer Father.
I wonder what it could be.
I worry what it could be.
Father has been gone very long this time.
How long has it been, Mother?
Last time he brought me a hat. A stupid hat.
Now, Willy. It was a very nice hat.
I want him to bring me something special this time.
Yes! Something wonderful and special, like the places he goes.
I do not think you would find them so wonderful and special.
I would, and I will! Father says he will take me with him one day, when I’m old enough.
Gripping my hand tightly. And, in the distance, the growl and huff of the locomotive.
You will never be old enough for that, William James Henry.
One day he will take me. He promised he would. One day I will see places other people only dream about.
The train is a living thing; it screeches angrily, complaining of the rails. Black smoke blows grumpily from its stack. The train glares contemptuously at the crowd, the self-important conductor, the porters in their neat white jackets. And it is huge, throbbing with power and restrained rage. It is a huffing, growling, enraged monster, and the boy is thrilled. What boy wouldn’t be?
Look now, Willy. Look for your father. Let’s see who will be the first to spot him.
I see him! I see him! There he is!
No, that isn’t him.
Yes, it—Oh, no, it isn’t.
There! There he is! Father! Father!
He has lost weight; his dusty clothes, rumpled from travel, hang loosely on his lean frame. He hasn’t shaven in weeks and his eyes are weary, but he is my father. I would know him anywhere.
And here he is! Here is my Will. Come here to me, boy!
I soar a thousand feet into the air; the arms that lift me are thin but strong, and his face turns beneath me, and then my face is pressing into his neck, and it is his smell beneath the grime of the rails.
Father! What did you bring me, Father?
Bring you! Why do you suppose I brought you anything?
Laughing, and his teeth are very bright in his stubbly face. He starts to set me down so he may embrace his wife.
No! Carry me, Father.
Willy, your father is tired.
Carry me, Father!
It’s all right, Mary. I shall carry him.
And the shrill, startling shriek of the monster, the last angry blast of its breath, and I am home at last, in my father’s arms.
Warthrop lifted me from the floor, grimacing from the effort of holding me as far from his body as possible.
“Hold your hands up, Will Henry. And hold them still!”
He carried me into the kitchen. The washtub sat on the floor by the stove, half-filled with steaming hot water. I saw the teakettle on the stove, and I realized, with an odd pang of sadness, that it was the kettle I’d heard whistling, not a train. My mother and father were gone again, swallowed by the gray mist.
The monstrumologist placed me on the floor before the tub and then sat behind me, pressing his body close. He reached around and grasped my arms firmly, just below the elbows.
“This is going to burn, Will Henry.”
He leaned forward, forcing me toward the steaming surface, and then plunged my bloody hands into the solution, a mixture of hot water and carbolic acid.
I found my voice then.
I screamed; I kicked; I thrashed; I pushed back hard against him, but the monstrumologist did not yield. Through my tears I saw the crimson fog of Kendall’s blood violate the clear solution, spreading out in serpentine tendrils, until I could no longer see my hands.
The doctor pressed his lips against my ear and whispered fiercely, “Would you live? Then hold! Hold!”
Black stars bloomed in my vision, went supernovae, flickered, and died. When I could bear it no longer, at the precise moment when I teetered upon the edge of unconsciousness, the monstrumologist pulled out my hands. The skin had turned a bright, sunburned red. He held them up, turning them this way and that, and then his body stiffened against mine. He gasped.
“Will Henry, what is this?”
He pointed at a small abrasion on the middle knuckle of my left index finger. Fresh blood welled in its center. When I didn’t answer immediately, he gave me a little shake.
“What is this? Did he bite you? Is it a scratch? Will Henry!”
“I—I don’t know! I fell down the stairs.… I don’t think he did.”
“Think, Will Henry! Think!”