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Varner would have but one chance at it: He had abandoned the box of ammunition in his mad scramble across the floor. If he missed, in the next breath she would be upon him. The image of the nude maiden in the pit, her headless corpse flailing in the mud and her own filth, flashed through his mind.
And then, as if that memory were a question, she gave her answer: The monster struck.
The footboard cracked in half as she barreled from her hiding place; it was that thunderous wallop of breaking wood that alerted Varner. He fired; the shot went wild. Something gave his leg a vicious yank: She had sunk her claws into his boot heel. He pounded between her hunched shoulders with the barrel of the gun as she dragged him toward her waiting mouth. He pressed the toe of his boot against the captured heel of the other and kicked hard. His foot slipped from the trap and he scrambled toward his desk, barely keeping his balance in the pitch and roll of the groaning deck.
Years before, he had made the purchase, in Borneo, from a Malayan blacksmith known for his genius in martial metallurgy: a kris, the wavy-bladed dagger that Varner used to open letters or, when nothing more suitable was handy, pick his teeth. Providence smiled on him in that moment, for the room lit up, and the lightning’s bright light blazed upon the blade lying on the desk. He grabbed the kris and whirled around, thrusting the knife blindly into the dark.
“I cannot say what it was,” wheezed the bedridden old man twenty-three years later. “Chance or destiny. Luck or my guardian angel’s guiding hand that brought the blade in blindness thrust into the black eye of the accursed beast. Aye, blind was the jab that blinded her! Louder than the crashing wave and blasting thunder were her roars of fear and pain as she stumbled back, and I heard her fall into the remnants of my bed. Perhaps she tripped over poor Burns; I cannot say. I was already at the door.”
Chance or destiny had given him opportunity. Now fear and its beneficent progeny, adrenaline, gave him the strength to seize it: He hurled the wardrobe out of his way, threw wide the cabin door, and dived into the driving sheets of rain.
“I looked neither left nor right,” said he. “I cared not if a rogue wave or an errant bolt took me. I made straight for the lifeboats.”
But the rope lashing the boat to the Feronia had become hopelessly tangled and twisted by the incessant wind. Crouching in the freezing water that had pooled in the bottom of the raft, Varner squinted against the pounding rain, numb fingers pulling and tugging vainly at the knotted rope.
With head still bowed and eyes still closed, Warthrop said softly, “The knife.”
“Aye, Warthrop! The knife. And do you know I worried with those knots even as I bit upon the blade, to keep my teeth from chattering completely from my head? Laughing hysterically at my own folly, wrapped about, as it were, in my own good fortune, I cut the rope and dropped straight down, into the sea.”
No one spoke for some moments at the conclusion of his tale. Warthrop remained against the wall, and Varner lay as he had since we’d arrived, as motionless as a corpse, tongue darting between the purplish lips, eyes wandering across the jaundiced ceiling. I stood by the door, where I had stationed myself what seemed like hours before. Had I not seen for myself Eliza Bunton in that obscene embrace, or witnessed firsthand Erasmus Gray’s demise, I no doubt would have thought his tale a product of a tortured mind, a delusion borne of an old salt’s dementia, worth no more than the stories of mermaids, and leviathans able to swallow a ship and her crew whole. Could there be irony crueler than this? How, upon his rescue, the truth had brought him here, to a house for the mad, for only a madman believes what every child knows to be true: There are monsters that lie in wait under our beds.
“How extremely fortunate,” said the doctor, breaking the silence at last. “Not only to have escaped that night, Hezekiah, but to have survived until your rescue.”
“I lost them all, every one,” responded Varner. “And I have spent the last twenty-three years in this horrid place, the final five years confined to this bed, with only my memories and that hideous key-jingling woman for company. Fortunate indeed, Warthrop! For if life is a question, then I have my answer: There is no escaping it. There is no cheating fate. I was the captain. The Feronia belonged to me and I to her, and I betrayed her. I betrayed and abandoned her, but fate cannot be betrayed or abandoned; she can only be postponed. My doom was to be eaten, you see, and though I folded my hand twenty-three years ago, the house has called the bet, and now I must pay up.”
Warthrop stiffened. He stared for a moment at the bloated face, the teary, restless eyes, the scurrying tongue. He scooped the lamp from the floor and motioned to me.
“Hold this, Will Henry,” he instructed me. “Higher. Now step back.”
He grasped the covers with both hands. Varner’s eyes slid in his direction, and the old man whispered, “No,” though he did not stir. Warthrop threw off the bedclothes, and I stumbled backward with an involuntary gasp.
Hezekiah Varner lay naked as the day he was born, beneath rolls of gelatinous fat, his body the same grayish hue as his face, a patchwork of gauze swatches hastily plastered in various locations over his colossal anatomy. A more grossly obese human being I had never seen, but it was not the sight that drove me backward or made me gasp; it was the smell. Multiplied tenfold was the cloying stench of rotting flesh I’d detected before, the foul odor I had attributed to a dead rat rotting beneath the bed. I glanced at the doctor, whose expression was grim.
“Up here, Will Henry,” he said. “Hold it over him while I have a look at this.”
I complied, of course, breathing shallowly through my mouth, but there was a faint taste of it on my tongue, the tingling tartness that accompanies any strong odor. As I held the lamp over the captain’s immobile body, the doctor leaned over and gently began to pull back one of the bandages. Varner groaned, but moved not a muscle.
“Don’t,” he moaned. “Do not touch me!”
Warthrop ignored his plea. “Foolish of me not to see it at once. There could only be one explanation for them, Will Henry.”
I nodded, one hand holding the lamp to illuminate his work, the other pressed against my mouth and nose. I nodded, but I did not understand. An explanation for whom? Varner’s skin stretched as Warthrop peeled back the gauze. The bandage, like the others covering him, appeared dazzlingly white beside his gray flesh. The dressing was fresh. Mrs. Bratton had been quite busy while Starr had delayed us in the parlor, scrubbing down the room with bleach, stripping Varner of his filthy nightclothes, applying these bandages, piling high upon him the fresh linens, all in an effort to conceal… what? Not the bedsores, for they were to be expected on a bedridden man the size of Varner. The answer, of course, buzzed and fretted against the window behind us.
What of the flies?
“Don’t touch me,” whispered the human fodder beneath us.
The bandage removed by Warthrop had covered most of Varner’s right side. Beneath it was a wound roughly the size of pie plate, oval in shape, the edges of which were jagged and enflamed, a weeping cavity bored down to his ribs, which I could see glistening a storm-cloud gray in the flickering lamplight. Bloody pus dribbled over the hole’s lip and coursed down a crease formed by two rolls of belly fat toward the mildewed bottom sheet. Mrs. Bratton had not been able to strip it from the bed; Varner was too heavy for that.
Warthrop grunted, bringing his face to within inches of the wound, squinting into the recesses of the suppurating spot.
“No,” he murmured, with a shake of his head. “Not here… Ah! Yes, our good Mrs. Bratton missed a few. Do you see them, Will Henry? Look closely; see beneath the second rib there?”
I followed his finger to the spot where they squirmed and twisted in the organic muck of Varner’s violated torso: three maggots performing a sinuous ballet in the infected meat, their black heads shining like polished beads.
“Don’t… touch… me.”
“We are myopic in our perceptions, Will Henry,” breathed the doctor. “We populate our nightmares with the wrong carnivores. Consider it: The lowly maggot consumes more raw flesh than lions, tigers, and wolves combined. But what is this?”
He brushed past me to the foot of the bed. I had erred in thinking the captain was completely nude. He was not. He was wearing boots. The leather was cracked; the laces had deteriorated to bits of knotted string. The doctor gently pressed his finger into the swollen red skin directly above the boot on Verner’s right foot, and Varner responded with a hoarse cry of pain. Warthrop slid a hand between the heel and the mattress, and that single touch caused the captain to stiffen in agony.
“For the love of God, if there be any mercy in you, Warthrop…!”
“The foot is swollen, badly infected, so too the left, I suspect,” murmured the monstrumologist, ignoring his plea. “Bring the lamp closer, Will Henry. Stand there, at the foot of the bed. If I only had a sharp knife, I could cut it off.”
“Not my boots. Please not my boots!”
Warthrop grasped the decaying shoe with both hands and gave it a sharp yank. Were these the same boots that had saved his life twenty-three years before? I wondered. Had he lain there all that time, refusing to remove them, in superstitious dread? The muscles in the doctor’s neck went taut as he strained to pull the boot off. Varner began to weep uncontrollably. He cursed. He let loose with a string of blasphemies and invectives wrapped in heart-wrenching sobs.
The shoe broke apart in the doctor’s hands as it pulled free. The stink of decomposing flesh washed over us in an unwonted, nauseating wave. When the boot came off, the skin encased within came with it, sloughing off in a single, curdled mass, and thick, viscous pus the color of pond scum gushed onto the sheets.
Warthrop stepped back with an expression of disgust and dismay. “God damn them for this,” he said in a low and dangerous voice.
“Put it back on!” cried the captain. “It hurts. It hurts.”
“Too late,” muttered Warthrop.
He looked up into my tear-streaked face. “The infection has spread into his bones,” he whispered. “He has only hours, no more than a day.”
He dropped the shattered shoe upon the floor and returned to Varner’s side. With great tenderness he laid his hand upon the suffering man’s forehead and looked deeply into his eyes.
“Hezekiah, Hezekiah! It is very bad. I will do all I can, but-”
“There is only one thing I want,” whispered Varner.
“Tell me; I will do all within my power.”
With momentous effort, a triumph of human will over inhuman circumstance, the old man raised his head an inch off the pillow and whispered, “Kill me.”
The doctor did not answer. He remained silent for a moment, gently caressing the fevered brow, and then straightened slowly with the slightest of nods. He turned to me.
“Will Henry, wait for me outside.”
“Out-outside, sir?” I stuttered.
“If you spy her coming down the hall, knock twice upon the door.”
He turned back to the dying man, confident, as always, in my immediate obedience. He slid one hand beneath Varner’s head and with the other drew from beneath it the pillow. Without turning his head toward me, he said in a thick voice, “Do as I say, Will Henry.”