The Beast in Ellison

1

He dreams of running. Of the full-rich taste of loam in his mouth. Of twilights, and of dawn burning the horizon. And then, sometimes, he dreams that he is awake.

2

At least, that's how the latest draft begins.

3

Sweat. Fabric. Soaked through and cocooning everything. Can't breathe.

Arms tear through. Birth. Taste of open air. Cool, but only by comparison. A window stands open on the other end of the room. Over-dramatic curtains flutter in the breeze.

Rise. Walk. Shed the blankets in a mess on the floor. A spent skin. Close the window. Darkness. Thoughts. A thin, muslin veil over everything. Wakefulness tastes of cotton.

There's an electric light on the night stand, and it flickers at the flick of a switch. Brightdim. Bright. Dim. Dim. Bright. Light. And the room is an artificial island in the sea of night outside.

Sit on the edge of the bed. It's wet. God, the whole thing's soaked. Kick at the tangle of covers, and it barely responds. Lifeless and discarded. Nothing else to do for the moment. Only breathe. And think.

Heat beat slows. The muslin starts to slip aside. Thought rises in ragged clumps, seeping up like sewage from somewhere primal. Teeth and gums. Cuts and copper, running sweet. Glass crunch. Sound rising in volume, then rolling out with the tide. At the center of everything: confidence…and terror at the borders.

Drag the muslin back. Cover up as much as possible. A carpet rolled over a mess. Nail it to the floor with…with…a bottle by the bedside. Two, in fact. Water. And scotch. Only one of them has any real flavor.

Water down the back of the throat, running a waterfall internal. Little gritty sounds as it passes over the teeth. Scraping enamel. A quick-sharp spike of pain, and then the debris are borne away with the flow. Mostly. Something fabricy clings to a denture, caught in the rough cup of a capped tooth. Pull it free. Gristle.

Now drink the scotch. No, don't taste it. It's the flavor of fire, an afterbreath on your tongue. Evocative of dragons. It pours leaden through your system, wrapping your nerves in metal. Smoothing out your muscles. Toning down the dull-drum behind your ribs. Lie back. Close your eyes. Envision sleep.

4

He dreams again. This time concretely. She's talking to him.

"I have to go into town again, just for a few errands. Groceries. More paper. Whatnot. Honestly, it's a hassle driving all the way down that highway when there are stores a couple miles away."

"Just don't stay away too long, okay?" That's his voice.

"Overprotective as usual."

"No, really. There's something that keeps bothering me. I don't do this all the time, do I?"

She fixes him a level look, but says nothing.

"Okay. Maybe I'm…not completely comfortable with this place yet. That's all. Great ambiance. I'm turning out twenty pages a night. But there's something underneath all that creaky-gothic-mansion veneer that bothers me."

She smiles. "Spooky. Maybe your next one should be about this esteemed horror writer who moves into a haunted house and…ends up doing its bidding!" She raises her hands in front of her mouth, pointing index fingers downward. "I vill do your biddink! Blah!"

He sighs. Sometimes there's no mediating between intuition and real people. Especially not real wives. He folds his arms around her shoulders, enclosing her neatly—she's almost a foot shorter than he is—and then drops a kiss on the top of her head. "Just…don't be out too long, okay? I know I'm being silly. One of the problems with writing is that sometimes all these fool notions flutter up into your head. 'Don't trust the townsfolk' and all that nonsense. When the book's done, I'll put it all to rest. But…until then, could you humor me?"

She makes a face. "Only if you humor me. Try writing a romance novel next. I like you better when you're less paranoid."

"Oh?" An eyebrow lifts. "I'll see what I can do." He leans in for inspiration.

Several minutes later, a car starts out front and then trundles down the long gravel drive towards town.

That evening, she doesn't come back.

5

Wake up!

There's a scratch scratch scratch at the window, and a creaking of wind stirs through the house. The breath of something impossibly vast, rolling in. Inflating rickety wooden lungs, straining beams, causing the whole building to groan with life. And there's a scratch scratch at the window again. Wake up.

The wetness on your skin is cold now. Beaded and clear. Drawing off the room temperature and chilling you back to consciousness. Sounds catches the inside of your ears and drags you the rest of the way there.

For a moment, don't move at all. Perfect stillness. Movement will lead to a downhill road towards…no, don't think either. Of momentum and falling. Inexorability. The flesh-pull of destiny.

Rationality catches up. Move. Walk to the window. Investigate. The scratching stops.

There's wind and a tree outside. Curiosity is cinnamon-electric. Fingertips move all on their own to the sill. Stop. Don't open it. The tree is too far away to touch the house, even if it leaned over. Not the tree. Not a bit of wind-blown refuse. Something else.

Memory tugs. Stop down the carpet. Keep it in place. Feng shui. Also, there's scratches in the paint on the sill. Big, knife-rent gashes. Keep the window closed.

Open the bedroom door. Fresh air. Naked. Steps in the carpet down the hallway, leading to the stairs. Pause at the stairs. Peer down into the parlor darkness. Empty.

Soft-step over the bare floorboards, taking the parlor stairs down to the entrance hall. A long, rolling stretch of corridor, terminating in floor to ceiling windows and a door. The door is latched fast. One of the windows is lovely smoked glass, capturing whorls and misty spirals in the pane. The other is jagged pieces on the floor, lying beneath a hole into the dark out-of-doors.

Scrabble sound on the linoleum tiles. Black and white checkered tiles, unclear in the darkness. Scrabble sound. Coming from the hallway nearest the door.

Stretch out straining sending every sense straight strike the wall and steer sideways stop. Movement. A life. Alive. It's moving closer.

Run.

Flash-patter of slap feet on the floor. Tile then bare boards then carpet. Lock on the door of the upstairs bathroom. Shut it. Shut the window. Fling aside the shower curtain. Open the toilet lid. The closet. The medicine cabinet. Stand alone. Flip on the light switch.

THUMP.

Brace the door.

THUMP.

Push feet against the cold tiles.

THUMP.

Metal click-break. The lock.

PAUSE.

Nothing…

Nothing…

Nothing…

Silence.

Breathing.

Cover mouth with one hand. Close it up. Pinch nose shut. Still breathing. Something else breathing. Outside.

Crouch down. Press body to the floor, seeping in the cold. Or the cold seeping in. Syntax flees in the onset of terror. Roll one eye towards the dark crack under the door. Half an inch tall. Strain against the black and see…

An eye. Veined and wide, bulging out of a ridge of bone, stretched over with skin and short, wiry hairs. Whisper-whuff of breath against the underside of the door. Warm and thick, rolling in. A crease of skin rips open and parts, revealing teeth.

THUMP. CLICK.

Throw body against door, pressed so close to the thing on the other side. Feel its muscles, bunching and cording like a lover. Gentle and predatory. Ravenous. Struggle.

Flash-cast eyes around the room. Sight shakes, panic bulging threatening to burst alien from the throat. Clap a hand there. Hold it in. Look around.

A window. Too high to jump. A drain. Too narrow to crawl down. A closet. Dark. Musty. No lock. Imagine the door ripping open. Standing naked in the cold light. Naked under the warm breath. No, not the closet. The ceiling.

A wooden panel. Shift and remove. Stretching out.

THUMP.

Sprawled on the floor, door sliding open. Kick it. Jam a foot in the crevice. Scrape it back closed. Stand.

Something sharp skitters against the nerve-edge of a bare foot. Pain too far off to recognize. Drowned in a thick drink of adrenaline. Pull foot away from the wedge. Stumble forward as the door glides open.

No hesitation. No thought. Jump up and grab. Cord arms. Strain muscles. Pull through the gap in the ceiling, into the attic. Slam the panel back into place just as something else slams into it. Silence.
Silence and breathing down below. Up above, too. Wet, ragged gasps flood in and out. Heartbeat. Heart-burst. Maybe, soon. Think.

6

He's re-reading an old draft. It opens with: Thin slivers of moonlight raked the dirt path, exposing shadows to the night. In one of them hid the Hunter.

It is the scariest thing he could have created. Always hungry. Never properly revealed. A wide eye in the shadows or a voice in the dark. Then a soft, meaty pounce. And it always wins.

Of course, that opening doesn't do it a shred of justice. It's too pulp-occult to be terrifying. Or to even kindle the kind of traveling spine shiver that he prizes as a writer. It took three more drafts, a looming deadline, and at last a move to the unoccupied mansion on the rise over Coltsbridge to get it right. The quiet, run-down house on the east coast is practically a mine for inspiration.

A dark, dreary, cobwebby mine, but a mine all the same. Since coming here with Margaret, he has made a few substantial changes to the idea of the Hunter. Originally, it was just a beast, immortal and terrible, the prowled the dark corners of the earth. Now it is more than that. It is a kind of predatory idea that latches onto minds, growing rich on the fear therein. The more they think about it, the more it developes, until at last it is physical. And then in preys upon them.

It leaves just enough evidence at the site of its kills to generate stories. It leaves just enough survivors to breathe life into a legend. And as long as one person can conceive of it, it exists.

Finalizing these details has sent his story off in amazing directions, but also gets his heart racing. It doesn't seem to bother Margaret, except in that it bothers him, but he can't help himself. Mentally, he keeps a mantra going: It'll all be over when I finish this damn thing.

All the same, fear is hard to fight. He buys an ornamental but still functional gun and hangs it up as a conversation piece.

7

A gun on the library wall. Shells in the kitchen drawer. Another panel over the kitchen. Crawl.

Knee-scrape over ceiling beams. Shuffle, bump, stifle-scream against a cardboard box full of movers' stuff. Keep going. The panel opens up and lets down into the kitchen.

Quick to the drawer. Grab shells. Shells…where? Scrabble. They're underneath the scissors, sewing supplies, and glue. A whole rattling box of them. Run to the library.

Thumpthumpthump pattattattatter elsewhere in the house. Rushing feet growing louder.

Bang limbs in the dark. Struggle. Stumble. Upset a shelf in a lightening crash of literature, but keep going. Find a wall. Slide along it until hands touch the smooth oak of a mounted piece. Tear it off the wall.

Break open barrel. Force in shells. Click-snap-mechanical. No different than hunting. Bring it to bear.

Stare through the darkness, back against the wall, and wait.

It comes into sight slowly, whuffing the air in hungry breaths. Just a dim outline, massive and thick. Fire. Both barrels. Don't think. Fumble. Reload. And fire again. And again. Spit noise and deafening aftershock into the dark air. Again and again and again. Until it stops moving.

Don't bother going closer. It's dead. Or it's harmless. Don't bother. Try not to think, eith-

Oh, God. Nails ripped out, carpet thrown back. Thoughts, black and swelling surge up. Overtaking. A sense-thick mass that feels like suffocating. Memory.

8

He gets the news in the early evening. A car crash. The report comes from the local police department. Practically volunteer. One of three men. He calls in about a vehicle that's currently wrapped around a tree on the way back from town. No passengers. No driver. No bodies. Just a full load of groceries and a curious smear leading off into the forest.

Throat thick with guilt, he sets down the phone on the receiver. He stands immobile for a long time. Then he goes to bed.

9

Slump down. Back against the wall. Barrel against the chin. Finger on the cool of the trigger.

Consider.

10

An unfinished pile of loose pages is left in the house, all jumbled together on a desk upstairs for anyone to find. A typewriter, black and insect-like, sits beside them. Motionless, but not dead.

There is a page still in the feed. It reads, in fresh ink, burn them. Please.