It was the Beast.
When I was five years old, living east in Illinois, and had to go up some dark stairs in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, the Beast was always at the top of the stairs, unless the small stairwell light was lit. Sometimes my mother would forget to turn it on. I would try terribly hard to make it to the top without looking up. But always I was afraid, and I had to look up. And the Beast was always there, with the sound of the dark locomotives rushing by far out in night country, funeral trains taking dear cousins or uncles away. And stood at the bottom of the stairs and . . .
Now the Beast was hanging here on the edge of my door leading into darkness, the hall, the kitchen, the bathroom.
Beast, I thought, go away.
Beast, I said to the shape. I know you’re not there. You’re nothing. You’re my old bathrobe.
The trouble was, I couldn’t see it clearly.
If I could just reach my glasses, I thought, get them on, jump up.
Lying there, I was eight and then seven and then five and then four years old, getting smaller, smaller and smaller as the Beast on the door got bigger and darker and longer.
I was afraid to so much as blink. Afraid that that motion would make the Beast float softly down to …
“Ah!” someone yelled.
Because the phone, across the street, rang.
Shut up! I thought. You’ll make the Beast move.
The phone rang. Four in the morning. Four! Christ. Who…?
Peg? Trapped in a Mexican catacomb? Lost?
The phone rang.
Crumley? With an autopsy report I would hate to hear?
The phone rang.
Or a voice of cold rain and running night and raw alcohol raving in the storm and mourning terrible events, as the great train shrieked on a curve?
The phone stopped.
With my eyes clenched, my teeth gritted, the covers over my head, turned away against the sweaty pillow. I thought I heard a drifting whisper. I froze.
I kept my breath, I stopped my heart.
For, just now, at that very instant . . .
Hadn’t I felt something touch and, weigh itself . . .
On the end of my bed?
A. L. Shrank was not the next victim.
Nor did the canary lady suddenly fly around her room once and expire.
Someone else vanished.
And, not long after dawn, the bright glass eyes across the street from my tired apartment saw the arrival of the evidence.
A truck pulled up outside.
Sleepless and exhausted, I heard it, stirred.
Someone knocked on my coffin door.
I managed to levitate and balloon-drift over to crack the door and peer gum-eyed into the face of a great beefy ox. The face named me, I assented to the name, the ox told me to sign here, I signed something that looked like a D.O.A. slip and watched the delivery man hoof back to his half-truck and wrestle a familiar, bundled object off the back and wheel it along the walk.
“My God,” I said. “What is it? Who…?”
But the big rolling bundle struck the doorjamb and gave off a musical chord. I slumped, knowing the answer.
“Where do you want it?” said the ox, glancing around Groucho Marx’s overcrowded stateroom. “This as good as any?”
He heaved the wrapped object to one side against the wall, looked around with contempt at my Goodwill sofa, my rugless floor, and my typewriter, and cattle-trotted back out to his truck, leaving the door wide.
Over the way, I saw the ten dozen bright blue, brown, hazel glass eyes watching, even as I ripped away the covering to stare at …
“My God!” I cried. “That’s the piano that I heard playing…”
The “Maple Leaf Rag.”
Wham. The truck door slammed. The truck roared away.
I collapsed on my already collapsed sofa, totally disbelieving that big, vacant, ivory smile.
Crumley, I said in my mind. I felt the lousy haircut too high in back, too short on the sides. My fingers were numb.
Yeah, kid? said Crumley.
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