Two months after his wife’s rape, Hessen started growing knife fingers. They made perfect sense, jutting straight out from his second knuckles, his fingers curled under them the way a bird tucks its feet when it’s about to strike.
Because his wife had said her attacker was six feet two inches, very pale with jet-black hair, and wore maroon boots with square toes, Hessen began going out at night. Looking around her parking garage—what had been her parking garage.
He settled for a mid-height blond guy in sharp-pointed black boots, came at him like justice from the shadows. Just sharper. And maybe screaming more.
The battle was epic.
The sharp-booted man was Karsten. Last month, for no reason any of his doctors or specialists could make sense of, his skin had begun hardening into bony plates. It made him need to eat bananas and walnuts all the time. His doctors told him not to but it wasn’t a thing he could help.
His new skin made sense now, though.
For every overhand slash Hessen had been practicing in his head for hours, waiting in the dark, watching car after car slip by, Karsten countered with an upraised forearm, where the bony plates were thickest. Followed of course, as these things go, by a fast-rising knee—also reinforced, and very desperate besides.
They were perfectly matched, had been made for each other.
The one time they gained anyone’s attention over the next forty minutes, it was from the security guard Hessen had been ducking all night. The security guard centered them in his hot pool of light.
Hessen growled, eviscerated him as easily as a child opens a piñata, as easily as you can break the surface tension of a drop of water when it’s hanging from the edge of the table.
The security guard tried to hold himself in, failed, kept failing over the next few minutes. His flashlight spun away.
Hessen nodded about this, that this is how it was supposed to be, killing somebody.
They came back together, fell into each other, over thick concrete railings, into parked cars that came alive with their weight, and finally they crashed into the guard booth. Hessen drove Karsten back into the caltrops that were meant to flatten the tires of any non-payers.
Karsten’s bony plates protected him again.
Hessen screamed, slashed, caught another knee that sent him sliding chin first into a curb.
This was for his wife, though.
He pushed back up, stood there.
“What are you?” he said across to Karsten.
“It could be yours, man,” Karsten said, using the guard booth’s pay shelf to haul himself back up.
Hessen tried to follow this, what Karsten had said. What Karsten was saying.
He was panting like an animal, his breath grey in the chill.
In his head he was punching Karsten’s words into every possible slot until there was only left: the ‘it’ Karsten means had to be the baby his wife had had raped into her. The baby that had made her finally confess this rape instead of keeping it inside, ashamed of it. The baby that was pointing its unformed finger at Karsten. Never mind the boots. She’d probably remembered them wrong. Because this was definitely her attacker.
Why else would he fight back so? Why else would he have been so prepared for this night?
Yes, she’d remembered the boots wrong. And the hair color. Or maybe Karsten had been in disguise.
And, no, the baby couldn’t be Hessen’s. He was sterile. This had been established years ago, to his undelight.
“You’re wrong,” he said to Karsten, “her pregnancy’s proof, it proves it,” and then before he could get any deeper into his explanation, a car shrieked up, stopped by the flashlight beam leaking back from the bushes.
Both Hessen and Karsten looked to the driver, a woman in a house-robe, spilling from the car now, a hot dinner crashing into the air, hanging there and hanging there.
“No!” she screamed, falling to cradle the security guard’s head in her lap. To smooth his hair away from his eyes again and again.
She said it again and again, her No, and seemed to be staring up at Hessen and Karsten without really seeing them, her own hair hopelessly in her eyes. Forever in her eyes.
Hessen swallowed whatever was in his throat.
“She—she told me it wasn’t working out, you know,” Karsten said, “between, like, the two of you,” and Hessen closed his eyes, saw a hundred steamy windows on a hundred different nights, on all levels of this garage. His wife’s urgent voice filling the domelit interior of her car. Karsten’s boots in the front floorboard on the passenger’s side, definitely maroon, never square in the toe.
“No,” Hessen said, as if he’d caught this infected word from the woman in the house-robe, and he looked down not to the patrolman but to the patrolman’s blood, already drying on the concrete, and then he looked past it, he looked ahead, into his own future, and he felt the distinct sensation of a hard, malleable shell calcifying around his heart.
Hurry, he said to it, inside, and sheathed his fingers.
WRITTEN BY STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES
ILLUSTRATED BY SHAWN CONN
Stephen Graham Jones is the award-winning author of various genre novels including It Came from Del Rio, Demon Theory and All The Beautiful Sinners.
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