As he emerged from the subway, Liam's cell phone began ringing. Suspended, as he often was, in the stale dissatisfaction following his workday, the ring tone startled him, and he jumped, scaring the woman on the escalator step behind him. He patted down the pockets of his raincoat, found his rarely used flip phone and answered it, sounding like the confused middle-aged man he had become. Through the crackles of the still uncertain connection, he was finally able to make out that it was about his father. His father had collapsed at the Department of Defense labs, where he worked as a scientific consultant. He had died around the time Liam had been in his cubicle making placating assurances to a customer angered by a shipping delay. Liam asked the caller to hold for a moment. He put the phone against his chest and loosened his tie, looking up towards the small square of sky to which the escalator was slowly delivering him. He put the phone back to his ear. "Yes, I'll be there. Yes, yes."
Liam did not feel shock. What he felt was a sudden cavernous emptiness. While he had not been especially close to his father-his father had not been the kind of man who desired close relationships with anyone-he did feel his loss. His father was a presence confirming Liam's sustained psychological youth. With his death came the realization that he must now assume the role of an elder. And Liam was not ready for that.
Over the next several days, during which Liam took a short leave of absence from his job, he stood with one of his half sisters, Marcella, and chose a satin-lined casket, a copper-lined vault, two large arrangements of family flowers, thank you cards, and decided whether or not their father should be buried with his gold wedding band and gold-filled teeth. Together, he sat with Marcella and the funeral director's son--whose profile Liam felt looked exactly like a buzzard--and composed the obituary. Mostly, Liam nodded his assent to Marcella's decisions. There was no real purpose in asserting himself in these matters. However, when his other half-sister Miriam finally arrived and learned the choices were already made, she demanded they go back over each one. Liam stood with his hands in his trouser pockets and waited while Miriam and Marcella sniped at one another over minute details. They hobbled through the viewings. Again, Liam kept his distance from these women, whom he felt were so foreign to him, so unlike his father, even though his father had also been their father. They tended to behave more like their mother, who had come later, after his mother had died. Miriam, taking the opportunity to trot out her pavé earrings, her diamond eternity necklace, and a tennis bracelet with tiny, grayish stones, sparkled in a way entirely inappropriate for a wake. She browbeat her husband and carried around a crumpled hanky, which she used to dab at her eyes when people approached her. Hefty Marcella, surrounded by her three similarly overweight children, did not move during the 5-7 visitation period nor between 8-9:30. People came to her, bent at the waist to hug her, and when they pulled away, Liam could see she was almost entirely expressionless. She was not in shock, as far as Liam could tell, but seemed to be operating under some chemically-induced fog. Her pupils, he saw, were twice their natural size.
Following the funeral, they realized that while their father had a will, an inventory of all his things was necessary before it could be sent into probate. So over the next few days they spent long hours in his father's Woodley Park townhouse, going through his clothing, his file cabinets, his record collection, his old books.
Liam was preparing to go into the basement when he saw Miriam holding a book by its cover and shaking it to see if money might come out.
"Stop it!" Liam said, rushing to grab her arm. "You'll break the bindings."
"What if there's money in these? I can't go through all these page by page."
"You don't have to be an animal about it," Liam snapped irritably.
"You should know," said Miriam, sliding another volume off the shelf and flicking open the cover.
Liam waved her off and descended into the basement, moving his arms in front of him to catch the cobwebs that always seemed to get caught in his hair.
It was dark at the bottom of the steps, and he hunted for the string to the bulb he remembered should be there. The area before him, with its low ceiling, sandstone foundation, and dirt floor, was cluttered with junk: lithographed-tin doll houses that were now rusting, his childhood chemistry set in a wooden case, three or four bicycles with pitted chrome fenders, broken dining room chairs, an unbalanced roll top desk that was missing two casters, a Victorian sideboard with a mirror whose silver was flaking away, and box upon box containing who knew what. Everything was covered in a shaggy accretion of filth. Spider webs hung from the ceiling supports like Spanish moss. Liam exhaled loudly. This would be more of a job than he'd realized.
Turning his head to scan the room's far corners, he saw a Formica top on which a set of titration tubes stood. They filtered the milky sunlight coming through the glass block window above them. Nearby, test tubes were positioned in a stand, but they had not been recently disturbed. The liquid they once held had long since evaporated, leaving behind chalky residues. Liam walked closer and pulled on the stained yellow string that lit another overhead bulb.
Before him, in surprisingly neat order, was an entire miniature lab. His father had been keeping meticulously written notes on a long sheet of graph paper attached to a clipboard. There were strange tallies, indecipherable markings. Near the Formica top was a book shelf Liam had not initially seen. It was filled with thick volumes, most of whose bindings were coming off, showing the yellowed stitchings and quires beneath.
Of particular interest to Liam was a still largely intact multi-volume set all titled Otia imperialia. The cover was embossed with a pattern suggesting leather and made to look as is if it were hand-tooled and gilded. Liam saw, when he opened to the title page, that it was a newer Oxford-published edition. He paged slowly through, reading passages here and there until he realized that the pages were growing thinner at the center, although when he lifted them, they were each the same onion-skin thickness. At the volume's center something loomed. The page before it featured the reproduction of an etching depicting a dog-headed man, who was attacking a woman holding a rosary. Liam lifted the page and saw that the remainder of the book had been hollowed out and within there was a weathered slate-colored card stock box with a lid that folded over and snapped.
Liam was astonished. The book seemed so uncharacteristic of his father, a scientist interested in neither folklore nor legend, who had insisted on scientific facts and irrefutable proof. He remembered, as a child, sitting in the kitchen with his mother, while she took coffee with a neighbor who had changed the subject from ordinary conversation to Christian evangelizing. His mother, clearly discomfited, smiled and stammered, "well, Gladys...well, I don't think...Gladys, you know that puts me on the spot..." However, the woman continued, reaching across the table and putting her hand on his mother's and continuing to cajole her into agreeing, into promising something. Liam's father, who had been standing in the hallway, heard the woman's monologue and came charging into the kitchen, where he began asking the woman a series of pointed questions. When the woman could offer no answers other than the canned expressions she had been taught, Liam's father struck his palm with his fist and said: "Show me proof or get out! You come here and fill my son's head with fictions and plow my wife over with incessant fairytale-making! You don't know a damn thing! Get out! And don't you dare come back here!"
And now, thought Liam, weighing the open book in both his hands, there was this. He closed the book and pulled out volumes one and then two. These were unaltered, containing no interior compartment. He went through all the books then, and followed by inspecting each of the drawers in the makeshift desk beneath the countertop. Finding nothing else of note, he picked up volume 3 of Otia imperialia and went up the stairs.
He walked passed Miriam, who was still going through books, but with more reason now. She fanned out the pages loudly and when convinced nothing was there, she let them fall on the floor with a glorious thud. Liam had heard this below, but had been too absorbed in his own discovery to consider what it was.
"What've you got there, Pugsley?" Miriam said, employing his childhood nickname. She had stopped what she was doing and was looking directly at the book Liam was holding.
"Oh, just a book."
"What's in the book, Liam dear? Come on now, show us all," urged Miriam. Marcella, who had been clearing out the kitchen cabinets, heard this and wandered in, wiping her brow. She was sweating profusely.
"Nothing, just a book on werewolves."
"Ha!" hooted Miriam, "a book about what? Not the Daddy I knew. You're not a very good liar, Liam. Open it up."
Liam was careful not to open to where he remembered the hollow began. To his relief, it opened to a page of pure text. He saw the light go out in Miriam's eye.
"Oh," she said, flatly. "Figure you for something boring. You're not trying to take it out of the house are you?"
"No, of course not. I'm just bringing it upstairs with the others."
Disinterested, Miriam turned back to her own stacks of books. Marcella, too, sighed and wiped her hands, turning back to the kitchen. Liam lingered for a moment and then went out the back door where he placed the volume in his car, under a blanket.
* * * *
It was nearly eight that evening before Liam was able to inspect the book's contents in private. He brewed a pot of coffee first. The sense of expectation had become such a rarity for him, and he wanted to savor it. He felt buoyed up by his father's mysteries, by information that he alone now held.
He sat down and opened to the book's hollow space, removing the slate colored paper box. He saw that a faded sticker on the narrow edge of the box revealed that, at one time, the box had held lenses, although for what instrument, Liam didn't know. He opened the snap and lifted the lid. Inside was a foam cushion on which a vial lay. Beside it was a small, torn sheet of paper that contained his father's angular script: "Corpus lupi; experimental test 10/18/02". Liam took the cork-sealed vial and held it up to the kitchen light. The liquid was dark green, translucent but cloudy. Precipitate rose from the bottom and moved like crystals in a snow globe. Liam shook it and watched it become opaque.
"Like absinthe," he said out loud. "Will you bring me bad dreams, then? Green fairies?"
Liam chuckled to himself. He took the foam bed out of the box and saw underneath a paper folded into a rectangle small enough to fill the box. He opened it. It was a departmental memo written by his father, detailing the scientific findings of the "Corpus Lupi" project, which, from what Liam was able to gather, involved the chemical conditioning of the individual foot soldier. The memo held two short paragraphs which described the positive effects of the liquid on two unidentified experimental subjects. These subjects "gained significant muscle mass" and seemed capable of "uncommon feats of strength." Liam reached the end of the first paragraph and looked again at the vial.
Dropping the letter, he went to the bathroom on the second floor. The vial was still in his hand. He shook it unconsciously as he went, taking the stairs two at a time. His pulse raced. This, he thought, was my father's legacy to me. He knew I would go down there. He knew the girls wouldn't. He knew I would be the one to find it!
He could almost visualize his father returning the book to the shelf and saying, Liam's a clever boy, although this was never an expression he'd actually heard his father use.
Liam stood in front of the full-length mirror and looked at himself with newly critical eyes. Here was a man, balding, awkwardly tall, with a bulbous nose, and bare feet that splayed outward like shovels. Long ago, he'd spent weeks lifting weights, but his sweat had never looked noble as it did on some. He'd always appeared to have been wrung out, and the resulting musculature was so meager that it had given his frame no greater fluidity of motion. When he jogged, he had all the gracelessness of desert camel.
He'd lived in this derisory figure of manhood with quiet resignation for decades. He'd been turned down by how many women? He couldn't even remember. And since there was no predator in him, he had ceased to hunt them at all. He looked again at the vial. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps now.
In a confused ecstasy of possibility, of preoccupied hope, he drank down the vial of liquid, gagging as he reached the end of it. It tasted strongly metallic, but also there was something else, something that reminded him of rancid oil. He stood gazing at himself in the mirror, waiting for the change to take place. Yet, nothing happened. He sat on the toilet lid and after a few moments, got up again to check his appearance, flexing his arms, pressing on his gut. Nothing. He didn't even feel particularly unusual.
Maybe, he thought, it needs to circulate through the bloodstream. To distract himself, he went back downstairs and turned on the television. As he slumped back into the sofa, he thought: maybe this is my father's last big joke, although he realized this was not in his father's character either. The man had not had a significant sense of humor.
Eventually, Liam began to feel nauseous, and there was a dull ache in each temple. By 9:30, a little over an hour after he swallowed the vial's contents, he passed out. He slept a deep, narcotic sleep for nearly twelve hours and woke as sunlight poured into his front window, the television running the Wall Street ticker and broadcasting the very end of the morning news. It was almost 10 o'clock. He felt the halo of relief that usually followed a severe headache, but forgot most everything that had occurred the night before.
Liam's initial sensation was anxiety. He was supposed to return to work that day, and already he was two hours late. He moved quickly then, whisking off clothes and heading to the shower upstairs. The first thing he saw was the vial in the sink, and he looked immediately into the mirror.
What stared back at him was, in fact, not Liam. At least, not the Liam he was familiar with. There was something to the eyes he did not recognize, something keen and rapacious. His usual appearance of calm submission had been replaced by a look of predatory insolence. He stepped to the full-length mirror and saw something subtly different about his body. The sagging muscles, the blue-veined nakedness he was familiar with...was less pronounced. He flexed the muscles in his gut and realized his paunch was disappearing. He turned sideways and saw his love-handles and their bumpy chicken flesh were gone, a lean flank of muscle traveled from his back, which he could not see well, to below the waist of his pants.
He stared at himself for awhile, stunned.
In the shower, he began to think about what might be possible for him now. Perhaps he wouldn't need to go back to work, back to the cubicle where he processed government printing bids, managed orders, and brooked the wrath of both his boss and irritated clients. The heaviness this monotony had produced over the years seemed to lift from his shoulders.
He dressed more slowly than normal, and this time in front of the mirror, which was something he had not done before. Previously, he had never had reason to gaze at himself. Instead, he had avoided any reminder of his inadequacies. His eyes wandered to the glowing clock radio reflected in the mirror, and he saw the numbers read 11:11, which jarred him out of his reverie. He picked up the phone and dialed Mobius Printing's main number. He would avoid talking to his supervisor as long as possible. Just a general message, relayed to him, should suffice at this point.
Sarah answered. Sarah. Liam stopped dead. He would know her voice anywhere.
She was a bubbly twenty-three, if that. Yet she was earnest, kind, always smiling at him as he went past, but not in the inquisitive way girls sometimes do to older men. No, she was nothing like the other girls he saw, the eye-rolling, playing-card thin, unsympathetic raptor birds.
"Sarah? Yes, this is Liam Marvelle."
"Oh, hello, Liam. I hope you're doing better," she said gravely. "I was so sorry to hear what happened."
"Thank You," he faltered for a moment, forgetting himself. "Yes, I called because I wanted to let Rick Bass know that I'll be in, I'm just running a bit late. The final bit of family business." An unusual fluency had kicked in, suddenly, as he spoke. It superseded his usual stammering response mechanisms. The lie came out unimpeded by conscience.
"Oh, yes. I'll let him know."
The innocence of a child, he thought. He imagined the curls on her shoulders bobbing as she nodded. "Thank you so much, Sarah. I'll see you soon, then."
He went back to the bathroom and adjusted his tie, overcome by a sudden sense of restlessness and confinement. His muscles had begun to ache, but he imagined that this was attributable to a build-up lactic acid that often happened following over-exercise, and he hoped this meant that his muscles would develop further.
On the way to work, Liam bought a bouquet of six pink and white Stargazer lilies from a man selling flowers on the sidewalk. He presented them to Sarah when he came through Mobius Printing's glass doors.
"You," he said, leaning over the half wall that supported the receptionist's desk, "need lunch. I can see it in your eyes."
For a moment, her hand flew across her chest to her collarbone, and he wasn't sure how to read this gesture. Had there been a twinge of fear in her expression? Is that what he saw?
Her eyes darted to the left, where, a moment earlier, Liam's boss had been standing, although Liam didn't know that.
"Come on, now. My treat."
"It's okay. I really shouldn't. Thank you though. I...I brought something." She did not touch the flowers.
"A coffee then?"
Again, the eyes went left and then settled back on Liam. "O...Okay. Now?"
"Why not?" Liam surprised himself. He liked this new, easy glibness. If this was a side effect of his father's cocktail, he regretted not having found it sooner.
In the coffee shop, Sarah ordered a chamomile tea, and Liam ordered espresso, something he had never felt even remote interest in before. Since their walk up the street, he had not had an awkward moment with her. She seemed to have calmed down and become less guarded in her speech. He smiled at her, remembering to keep the conversation topical, to make only glancing inquiries, mostly about her interests: did she like books? What are you reading now? Oh you paint?
Within fifteen minutes of their having left the office, however, Liam began to sweat. As they sat at the table by the window, his perspiration increased. Sarah either did not notice or chose not to draw attention to it. He, however, loosened his tie, opened his sports coat, undid the top button of his dress shirt collar. While he continued to smile at her, he became distracted. His head had begun to throb. Sweat beads shone under the pendant lights. Finally, Liam toppled over, landing hard on the ceramic tile and bruising his cheek. Sarah screamed. The barista called 911.
When he woke up, it was not Sarah but Miriam who sat beside his bed. A glucose drip, fed through an IV, ran to his arm, and an oxygen mask covered his nose and mouth. Miriam had been staring at him with a kind of concentrated resentment, perhaps willing him awake.
"Christ Almighty, Liam. They dragged me out of the spa for this. What have you done?"
Liam pulled the oxygen mask aside, "Where's Sarah?"
"Sarah who?" Miriam snapped.
Liam did not answer her. "What happened to me?"
"What happened is you haven't eaten in three days. The doctors say you're dehydrated and your blood sugar is low. Whatever your problem is, snap out of it! The world doesn't revolve around you!"
Liam chuckled at this.
"What's so funny?"
"Go home, Miriam."
"I said, go home. I don't need you here, since the world doesn't revolve around me."
Miriam gazed at Liam for a moment, her eyes so wide that the whites shone around the irises. "What's crawled over you, Pugsley?"
"Get out, Miriam."
Miriam took her coat and purse and left the room, never breaking eye contact with Liam.
Liam took off the respirator mask and pulled out his IV. He got up out of bed. The man in the bed next to his was watching television. He turned his head to see what Liam was doing, "You'll get in trouble, doing that."
"How long have I been here?" Liam asked, looking at the man's sunken features. He seemed to be radiating a yellowish haze. It smelled like death.
"Don't know. I just got here this morning."
Liam turned towards the door as a nurse came in with a rolling a blood pressure monitor. When she saw Liam, she said, "Oh no you don't! Back in bed, Mr. Marvelle. You're weak."
"Actually," he said, "I'm not."
"Come one, now, Mr. Marvelle. Back to bed, please. No fussing." She stepped away from the monitor and touched his shoulder to shepherd him towards the bed.
He pushed her away, apparently with greater force than intended because she fell into the wall near the built-in sink. And when she began to yell for help, Liam ran.
Across Liam's back and extending all the way down to his buttocks, which was exposed by the loosely tied hospital gown, was an emerging growth of bristling hair. It was not all brown, some of it was gray. He saw this in a security mirror placed in the stairwell, and he remembered, instantly, the image of the dog-headed man attacking the woman holding a rosary.
A white hot fear bloomed in Liam's gut. "Good God," he said aloud. "What have I done?"
He scanned the stairwell for cameras, saw none, and kept running. Down one flight, then another. When he reached street level, he went through the emergency exit and ran until he saw a cab. The cab actually stopped, and the driver rolled the window down, "Where are you going?"
"I don't go that far out." He laughed a little, looking at Liam's gown, "What's with the hospital dress? You escape from somewhere?"
Liam reached in and grabbed the driver by his neck, squeezing the glands under his jaw and pressing on his larynx. "Get out," Liam said, calmly. "Or I will pull you out, just like this."
The driver appeared to reach for the door handle. But instead, he produced a German Army surplus pistol, shot at Liam and missed, grazing Liam's arm and creating a red, bloody trail that brimmed and trickled down Liam's broadening bicep. Liam instinctively wrenched the gun from the man's hand and threw it into the traffic moving across Loughboro Road. Horns blew as Liam pulled the cab driver through his seat belt and out the passenger window, pitching him onto the sidewalk several feet away. The man landed, legs and arms splayed like a Raggedy Andy doll and immediately began making loud, hysterical gasps for air.
Liam got into the cab and began to drive, although in the process, he realized he was still disoriented. Things began to look similar. He continually lost his way, doubled back, tried again. Occasionally, he would wipe at the wound on his bicep and put the bloody fingers to his mouth. There was a guilty pleasure in this. It allowed him to temporarily muster greater focus.
Finally, having reached his house but without his keys, he was forced to break through a window on the first floor. He picked glass splinters from the flesh on his knuckles and dripped blood onto the carpet as he walked gingerly over glass shards and several days' worth of mail, which had come scattered through the letter slot. He headed for the kitchen to look for the rest of his father's message.
Initially, he could not find the memo. He remembered having dropped it on the table before he had gone upstairs with the vial. Finally, he found it lying near one of the table's claw feet, having reverted to an open version its original folded shape. A breeze Liam had made while passing it, on the day he had collapsed in the coffee shop, had carried it off the top and onto the floor, nearly out of sight.
On looking at the sheet again, a word popped out of the text that he had not noticed before. It was euthanize.
It will, most likely, become necessary to euthanize the subjects, as their strength increases in direct proportion to their insatiability and irrational behavior. Currently, the subjects are incarcerated, but both have become dangerous at any distance. Technicians cannot be in the cell with either of them. A protective grill must remain between handler and subject at all times.
Liam's eyes scanned the lines faster than he was genuinely able to comprehend the meaning of the words.
Because the two subjects have altered significantly in appearance since the experiment's outset, their families have been informed that each has been killed in friendly fire incidents. Ashes have been substituted for their bodies and sent home for funereal purposes. We await your decision on whether you wish us to disengage from the project or continue to watch the progress of each Corpus lupi test subject. Please advise.
Liam fell to the floor and began to sob. The only sense of hope he felt was the fact that he did not know how the Corpus lupi serum had been administered. Maybe, he thought, maybe they took the drug intravenously rather than orally. Maybe they had to be given repeated doses. Maybe this will make my chances better.
Liam patched the window with a wide rectangular piece of flake board and some plastic sheeting he found in the basement. He hammered masonry nails into the wooden window frame to keep the board in place. Over this, he duct taped the plastic sheet, which expanded and contracted like an air bladder as breezes moved around the board from outside. The sound of it blowing taught and its crackling release was somewhat comforting to Liam, who lay on the couch for a long while, gripping his father's memo and watching the air in the plastic ebb and flow, like a sail, like a mother's belly.
For days, Liam stayed inside the house, pulling the blinds down below the window sills. His pain increased ten fold. Often, it felt as if his head might crack in two. His teeth ached. His jaw felt as if someone was wrenching him forward by it. He isolated himself in the basement for some time, making himself a bed of old blankets on the concrete floor. He had sequestered himself there because the concrete and earth would, he felt, provide a better sound barrier than any other room in the house. Still, he feared the doorbell or the loud knock. Yet no one seemed to come around. Not even his half sisters, but for this, he was genuinely glad.
When the pain became too great, he cried out to alleviate the pressure. His eyes were constantly tearing, forced to squint as he did by the pressure in his cranium, in his cheekbones, running down each leg and each arm. He felt as if he were on the rack, that his limbs were being pulled from their sockets. And because of this, he looked at everything through a veil of lachrymal moisture, sometimes rocking back and forth on his haunches. Occasionally, the pains would ease, and he was able to sleep. However, Liam's circadian rhythms were also changing. He had become more aware of his world in the evenings. His powers of concentration became even greater at night, but unfortunately so did the pains.
He found the basement had mice, and he became very adept at catching them. At night, with the lights off, they would dart out, their noses twitching at his increasingly musky scent. But they did not see him until it was too late. When Liam ran out of food, they became his staple.
All this time, Liam did not dare look in the mirror. He did not dare feel his face. He did not know what he looked like now or when the transformation would cease, but at that moment he did not desire that knowledge. He felt surprise at the fact that he was full of a vast desire to live. While his pain was intense, his will to survive was greater than the anguish he was enduring. And this was perhaps the most dramatic change that he recognized. Before this, Liam Marvelle had never been too keen on life. While he was not necessarily suicidal, he was entirely indifferent to his circumstances. He clung to his life with no great tenacity and often thought of the relief he would experience should he never wake up in the morning. Now, floating towards a fate unknown, he embraced his consciousness, his ability to breathe as if this were all he had left.
He was no longer certain what day it was when the door bell rang. Liam climbed the stairs carefully, having grown unaccountably skittish during the daytime. He did not care for light and preferred the deep shadows of the basement.
Stepping over shattered glass, scattered aspirins, Lean Cuisine trays, which littered the passage leading to the basement, he went to a side window and plucked back the shade with a long, hooked nail. On the step at his side door was Sarah. She was carrying a casserole and a bouquet of black-eyed Susans in an enormous cellophane wrapper. He saw her look up at the door with her sweetest smile, and then glanced out towards the street, distracted by some noise Liam could not hear inside. She rang the bell again and moved back a step. She had not noticed him at the window. He let the blind go carefully, so as not to attract her attention. Seeing her sliced Liam to the quick. He very badly wanted to open the door, welcome her in, but he knew, he knew better. He peeked through the blind again and saw she was rummaging around in her tiny purse. She had laid the flowers and casserole out of his sight line, ostensibly in front of the door. He saw that she was preparing to write him a note. He gazed at her glossy curls, the curve of her cheek, and his heart constricted and skipped a beat.
Liam let the blind go, leaving behind the condensation of his breath on the windowpane, "I might have had a chance, old and sorry as I was." He covered his head with his hands, which were more like claws now--thin, tapered, not unlike talons.
He heard a door close, a car start up, and Liam knew she was gone. Peeking out the window once more, he examined the area for observers, saw none, and brought the note, the dish, and the flowers inside with consummate stealth.
Inside the dish was lasagna, which Liam greedily scooped into his mouth by the handful. He then read the message, which said in a more rapidly rendered version of her neat cursive: You are missed at work. Hope you are okay. It's been so long. Please come back soon. Yours, Sarah
He put the note against his chest, closed his eyes and two fat tears came coursing down his grizzled cheeks. "I want," he stuttered, realizing his voice was entirely different. It was harder for him to form words. "I want my old life back. I want my life to be like it was before."
Liam confronted the mirror now. Perhaps, he thought, I have not become some awful monster. What he saw in the mirror drove him from the bathroom. He looked exactly like a dog, though not a handsome one. There was nothing noble in his appearance, nothing that suggested loyalty. The vault of his cranium had decreased dramatically and his maxilla and mandible now protruded, which explained the nature of his pain: his whole craniofacial structure had changed. And now, with the flattening of his skull and the protrusion of his mouth, he was beginning to lose the capacity for conventional speech. One thing that did captivate him were his eyes. Flecked with gold, they were otherwise a deep, opaque black, showing no evidence of white at all. They reflected the light coming in through the bathroom window and reflected back to the mirror a green to purple glow that reminded him of his mother's old bi-colored tourmaline ring.
In time, Liam's pains, beyond his devastating emotional desire to reclaim his old body and his old existence, subsided. He rattled around his house at night, rooting through his possessions. Occasionally, he would escape through the wood behind his house and slip over the District border into Rock Creek Park, where he spent time hunting ground moles, chipmunks, and rabbits. He ate his kill under Boulder Bridge and washed himself in the creek water afterwards.
He stayed out of sight for a number of reasons. For one, he was afraid of his mounting desire for more substantial meat, and there were joggers in the park, even at dawn. He also did not wish to be captured. If he were seen, he counted on the fact that his appearance would be dismissed as another frivolous legend, and the person reporting his existence would consider themselves mistaken after telling someone else.
Still, the desire to kill began to slowly grow inside Liam. The blood he had tasted from his own wound months ago had been a kind of energy-infusing intoxicant. He wanted to feel that again. Thinking of Sarah, he stifled his impulses and resolved not to kill another human, even though the thrill of the hunt made his flesh prickle and his hair stand on end. Instead, he would use a substitute. Sadly, he understood, it necessitated someone else's involvement.
Liam, who had become hoarse and incapable of adequately producing some sounds, dialed Marcella's home number. Marcella's husband, Richard, answered.
"Could I speak with Marcella?"
"Who is this?"
"This is Liam."
"Liam? What the hell happened to your voice?"
Liam coughed, for effect. "I'm, uh, under the weather."
"Marcella's not here. I'll tell her you called. Hanging up now. Good bye."
Richard was always very brusque with Liam, for whom he expressed a patent dislike. "Your brother's just a weak-willed sonofabitch," he'd heard Richard whisper loudly to Marcella at a picnic. Liam had been standing near them, and the wind carried Richard's words. They had cut him deeply. Worse was that Marcella did not defend him or look in the least bit offended, and since she and Liam didn't share a mother, perhaps she agreed. What was bad in Liam was no reflection on her.
Liam dialed Miriam's number, hoping to get her husband Bob. Instead, he got Miriam.
"Liam? What's happened to your voice?"
"I'm sick, I told you."
"Well, you chased me out of the hospital room, and now I'm good enough to call up when you need something. You abused me, Liam. I don't know if I can forgive that."
This was characteristic of Miriam's peevishness, and Liam ignored it. "I need you to get me some meat at the supermarket. Can you do that? I'll give you $250 dollars."
"Meat, Miriam. I need meat. Please don't argue with me." Liam had a spasm in his arm, and sucked in a cry of pain.
"What's wrong with you?"
"Will you do it? Get me the meat and a large bottle of aspirin? There's a hundred for the groceries, and one hundred fifty in it for you." Tears came to his eyes again. His muscles were contracting painfully.
"Yes, yes. I'll do it."
"Within the hour?"
"Yes, yes, yes," she repeated with exasperation and hung up.
When he hung up the phone, he missed the cradle. His fingers, which ached with what he imagined was similar to the rheumatoid arthritis his grandmother had suffered from, were no longer responding as they should. He saw now that hair had begun to develop across the knuckles, which still bore the faint evidence of his having broken the window not long ago. But he healed incredibly fast now. The bullet graze from the cab driver was almost gone.
When Miriam arrived, she rang the doorbell three times in quick succession, evidence that she was thoroughly irritated with the task already. Liam was certain he could not show himself to her, and his muscles trembled so badly, he could not stand for any length of time. He crawled to the front door, over shards of glass still there from the broken window, and opened the letter slot with one crooked finger and spoke into it, "Hello, Miriam."
She jumped backwards, dropping the grocery bag. "Oh, Jesus, Liam! What are you doing? Open the door and quit being a freak."
"Listen," Liam said, his voice gravely and his pronunciation slurred. "I will slide the money through the letter slot in an envelope. You see?"
"What are you doing? Open the damn door, Liam."
"No, Miriam. Do what I tell you to do. Do not argue with me. Set the bags on the porch, and take the money. Then turn around and go home. Understand?"
"Liam, you're going to open this door right now or I swear I will call the psychiatric hospital and have you committed! White coats, Liam! Strait jackets! Do you understand that?"
The night latch turned and the door flew open. Liam stood in the doorway without his clothing, covered completely by wiry fur. His chest, twice its normal size and broadly muscled, had a sparse grizzled coat that seemed worn thin in patches, but in actuality, it was only just coming in. His thighs and calves were lean, sinewy, and likewise covered in a stiff, mouse-brown fur all the way to the tops of the feet, which were no longer feet, not feet that Miriam recognized as Liam's. The toes curled under. The toenails had gone dark and calcified. They had the gloss of Junebugs. Miriam saw that Liam's ankle appeared to have a dew claw. His head and chest seemed to move fluidly from shoulders to head, without any indication of a neck. His face, too, was markedly different, but she didn't stop to inspect it. She simply knew this was not Liam.
Miriam dropped the bags of meat and pills, and they landed on the step with the rattle and a moist thud. She turned around and began to run towards her car. Liam came after her. Miriam began screaming, "Help me! Help! Anyone!"
Lights went on in the house next to Liam's. The neighbor's front porch light flooded Liam's driveway with yellow illumination that momentarily blinded them both. Miriam fell, Liam dove after her. He straddled her, wrenched her arms behind her back, while she continued to scream, "Ahhh, oww! HELP! Someone...someone help me!"
"Shut up, you shrew! Shut your foul, ungrateful mouth!" Liam got close to Miriam's ear and said, "I will kill you if you tell anyone. I will pull out your black little heart and eat it. Do you hear me, Miriam?"
"HELP ME!!! ANYONE!!!!!"
A deafening blast knocked Liam sideways. Blood and shot gun pellets showered the driveway, and Miriam screamed and scrambled out from beneath Liam. Liam, lay on his side, gasping for air, having been blown onto his back. The pellets that lodged under his skin stung, but nothing had penetrated far enough to truly injure him. He made to stand and the blast sounded again. Still, Liam continued to move forward. Despite their velocity, the pellets did not severely puncture his skin or seem to have any adverse effect on him. In fact, he felt his power increase, drawing from some unacknowledged reserve that flooded through him in a great white hot wave. Anger pulsed in his temples, he let loose a noise he did not recognize as his own.
He moved into the light, which backlit the shooter. He could see the man's will was beginning to falter not by sight, but by the involuntary trembling in his stance. Liam sniffed the air in front of him. For the first time, he realized he could identify fear by smell alone. Fear, he realized, had the same odor that the man had emitted in the hospital bed. He saw, crouched just behind the man in the doorway, a little boy, possibly a grandson. The man kept looking down at the boy, pushing him back in the house with his leg, "Get inside, Will. I said, get inside, damn it!" As Liam got closer, he could see the boy had wet his pajamas. Inside Liam, something split open and released a warm pocket of emotion that inundated all his other senses. He looked at the boy, who shook but was incapable of any greater motion. Liam put his crooked hand to his heart, bowed his head, and turned back towards his own house. As soon as he turned, the door slammed and there was the sound of locks being thrown. The house lights, both inside and out, went dark.
Liam moved back into the descending dusk, feeling an exhilaration and relief he could not explain. Miriam's car was gone. He had heard her peel out of his driveway while the gun had been going off. The sound of sirens could now be heard in the distance. They were moving closer, at a rapid rate of speed. He thought he could even see the lights bounding off siding and brick.
Liam took the two bags Miriam had brought with her and ran into the spartan wood behind his house. He would make it to Rock Creek Park before night truly fell.