Simon Strantzas is the critically acclaimed author of Nightingale Songs, Cold to the Touch, and Beneath the Surface—three collections of the strange and supernatural published by Dark Regions Press. His British Fantasy Award–nominated fiction has appeared a number of times in the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series, as well as in venues such as Postscripts and Cemetery Dance. His story collection Burnt Black Suns is forthcoming from Hippocampus Press. He can be found haunting the streets of Toronto, Canada, where he continues to live with his ever-patient wife and an unyielding hunger for the flesh of the living.
I’d called Dr Thistle because I was tight on cash and because the place I’d been staying had just been flipped by the police again. It was getting old, to be honest, but I was used to it. The police and I didn’t get along—not after what happened when Mrs. Mulroney died, at any rate—so I did my best to avoid them. They were bad for business, and it didn’t help that Detective McCray still had his crooked eye on me, along with the rest of his moustache gang.
But I thought I could trust Dr. Thistle to help, or at least hide me out for a while. I’d known him for nearly my entire life—ever since I was a weird little kid and he was my weirder neighbour. My parents had warned me to keep away from him, but even then I knew they were full of shit and didn’t know what they were talking about. Dr. Thistle treated me like an adult, which is all any kid really wants.
He wasn’t a regular doctor. I’m not even sure he ever went to medical school. When he first told me to call him “Doctor” I did and never questioned it. He had all the credentials: his house was full of all that equipment only a doctor could afford. It all seemed legit to me and I’d seen enough doctors on TV to know what I was talking about.
I eventually figured out he didn’t treat people and that he was a bit of a quack, but that only made him more interesting. His thoughts were crazy, and the mumbo-jumbo he talked about when I first met him only made marginally more sense once I was a teenager and had some school behind me. Some of the words he used went right over my head—so far over, I think a plane might have hit them. Eventually, I got bored of going over there all the time to deal with his insanity, but I kept it up because my asshole of a father forbade it, and because I’d read a book once where a crazy old man gave a fortune to the one kid dumb enough to stick around and talk to him. It was a gamble, sure, but no one else ever visited and those machines couldn’t have been cheap to buy.
When the bus let me off at Thistle’s I barely even looked at the house I grew up in. My parents still lived there as far as I knew, but if they did I knew they’d never let me back in. They believed everything Detective McCray told them about me, and that was that. There was nothing more to do. If they saw me get off the bus in front of Thistle’s house they didn’t open the door or come to the window. I was like a ghost to my own flesh and blood, which was kind of ironic when you think about it.
Thistle’s house had an aura around it. The feeling was palpable as I stood there, staring at the two levels of dilapidation, my skin slick and clammy. The air smelled of ozone, as though reality had been bent, something I was far more familiar with than I would have liked, thanks to Mrs. Mulroney. Still, it left me feeling nauseated.
Whatever Thistle was up to inside, it was clearly a bad idea. My gut knew it, even if my head thought different. Still, I couldn’t help but be curious, so instead of running I climbed the uneven concrete steps to the porch and swung the front door’s tarnished brass knocker. Flakes of paint fluttered like dead leaves to the ground.
The old man that answered the door must have been Thistle, but it was hard to tell under all those grey wrinkles. He was dressed only in an old undershirt and boxer shorts, and both were stained so severely I wondered if they’d ever been washed. He was sweating and out of breath, and the putrid smell that hit me took me off guard. It burned my eyes.
“Owen! It’s good to see you. Your timing is perfect. Now, inside. Quickly!”
I kicked the dirt off my feet even though they were probably cleaner than his carpet. Doctor Thistle was, quite simply, a hoarder, and over the years since I’d been in his house it had only grown worse. When I was a kid, visiting was like going on a treasure hunt, and I think all the things I discovered there beneath the piles and stacks taught me that there was always something interesting to find if I just looked hard enough. It also taught me that other people’s stuff was unimportant next to finding those things. Thistle complained, but he never kicked me out for tearing his stacks apart, which is another reason I stuck by him for so long.
He led me down a narrow path between stacks of old science journals and newspapers. The further into the house we got, the sicker I felt.
“I need some help, Doc. I’m a bit light on cash and—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, waving my predicament away. “I need to show you something. I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, so just follow me; I haven’t written everything down yet and I don’t want to get confused.”
I don’t know how old he was when I first met him, but after so many years Dr. Thistle had to have been ancient. You could see it in the cataracts of his jaundiced eyes. The smell in the house hadn’t eased, but I’d acclimated myself to it somewhat and was able to stop cupping my mouth in my hand. I wondered what Thistle had been cooking and whether I could pry one of the painted-over windows open enough for some fresh air. It was like breathing in a room full of rotten meat. The flies were legion.
Thistle’s old heavy feet clomped on the bare wooden staircase into the basement. I’d never been allowed down there before, and as we descended I felt the old tingle of childhood fear creeping up on me. I hadn’t been afraid of anything in so long that part of me was amused by the sensation, but there was another part that wondered why it had occurred at all, especially considering all the horrible things I’d witnessed since. I suppose we’re all just an amalgamation of our childhood fears and instincts; no matter what our brains know, sometimes old fear runs much deeper than logic can dam.
And for that fear, I can only blame my parents.
My mother had told me there were rumours about Dr. Thistle, and I knew Dad and she were angry about him moving in, but it didn’t make sense. He may have been strange, but he’d been nothing but nice to me. I can probably guess, in hindsight, what stories my mother had heard, but nothing unsavoury ever happened. I’m pretty sure I would remember something like that. Well, reasonably sure.
The basement lights were off, but sunlight edged around the material papering the windows. I heard the hum of the machinery running, as well a whining noise and something shuffling. The rotten tobacco odour from upstairs had given way to the tremendous stench of old musky sweat, and no matter how deep I breathed it wasn’t deep enough to get acclimated. The world wavered in the periphery of my vision, and what I could see amounted only to the red and blue indicator lights of a room full of electronic gear. I heard something there in the dark, like breathless panting and slobbering, and a low growl that sounded as if it was almost on top of me and not very happy.
“When did you buy a dog, Doc?”
“A dog?” His voice seemed warped there in the dark. “I don’t have a dog. What you’re hearing, that’s—well, that’s something else entirely. I’ll show you, but you need to see something else first. Just stand right where you are. I don’t want you knocking anything over.”
I heard Thistle’s footsteps move away from me, and I thought I could make him out faintly in the corner of my eye, rippling the dark as he passed. The smell off him faded a bit, but I still felt nauseous. And curious. I definitely felt curious.
The lights blinded me when they came on. I don’t know if they were too bright, or I just wasn’t ready, but the pain in my head was as sharp and swift as a razor and I was already screaming before my eyelids shut. It drove whatever animal Thistle had down there crazy. It started howling and thrashing while Thistle’s shushes seemed aimed at us both. When I finally managed to pry my eyes open again I immediately wanted to shut them. Impossibly, the basement was more cluttered than the floor above. I don’t think there were as many boxes and piles, but what was there was larger and odder shaped. It just seemed full of equipment. Blue network cables were wrapped around and hanging from joists crisscrossing the room, sometimes dangling so low they looked as if they’d clothesline any average-sized man walking past. Machinery and computers were running everywhere, displays spitting out screen after screen of meaningless code. In the middle of it all was what looked like a mirror. About two feet square, its surface was less reflective and more as if it had the appearance of reflection. That’s the best way I can put it. Whatever I could see in its surface was blurry and didn’t look quite right. The thin metal square was held up by a two-post rack, and I wondered if every goddamn cable in the place attached to it in some way.
“What’re you building down here, Doc?”
“Oh, it’s built, it’s built.” Thistle laughed but the sound of it had strange throaty warble, and the look on his face was hard to peg. “It’s a door, Owen. I’ve built a door.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Hang on. Don’t touch anything.”
He started hitting buttons and turning knobs and the machines in the room made the same noises they had before, but the pitch was higher. It was as if they were working together to produce the most ear-splitting whine possible. Immediately, my nausea tripled, and I experienced something similar to my worst flashbacks. I covered my ears, but Thistle didn’t, probably because he was already used to the experience. Or maybe he’d just found a node to stand in. He worked the controls as if he was a lot crazier than I’d ever given him credit for. He danced between the switches and keyboards with glassy-eyed glee, his tongue peeking from him mouth, periodically licking his bottom lip. I also heard the mournful cries of that animal, though it wasn’t easy over the device’s whine.
Thistle turned around—it was the first time he’d looked directly at me since switching on his equipment, and without missing an excited step started pointing at the middle of the room where the reflective metal square was standing. Beneath it, lights flickered with the same hyperactivity, but the mirror itself had changed forms. Earlier its reflection had been a poor reproduction of what was in front of it—colours muted, angles bent, images blurred and unknowable—but the surface had started to glow and ripple, and whatever had been reflected there wasn’t any more. Just what images were reflected was baffling, but the sight was enough to make what little I’d eaten for breakfast come rushing up my throat. I bent over and vomited, and it spread across the floor like thick soup.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, Owen?” I stood up and nodded, looking at Thistle though my watering eyes. I wiped off my mouth.
“The noise is really messing with my head.”
He nodded. “It takes some getting used to. Don’t worry, it’ll wear off in a minute. And don’t worry about the floor. It’ll be fine once it dries. Come look at this.”
He led me to the mirror, and though I felt the pressure in my head worsen, my stomach settled down. Thistle’s odour didn’t help matters. I wondered what I was doing in that basement, and what the hell Thistle was up to. Mostly, though, I wanted to leave and get myself to a bar. If there was one thing I’d learned about throwing up, it was that it always tasted a lot better followed by a shot of gin. And maybe one before, as well.
“Look, but don’t touch,” Thistle said, and I peeked into the mirror with suspicion. I didn’t see my refection. What I saw I don’t think I can properly describe. It was like a window hanging over the middle of the floor, and what was on the other side of it was a vast landscape of rock and scrub brush. I peered closer as Thistle watched me, a playful smile on his face while mine was no doubt clouded with confusion.
“What is this?”
“It’s a world, Owen. A world almost nothing like ours. I discovered it many years ago, but over time the barrier between there and here has grown thin. So thin, in fact, I was able to fashion a quantum hole using harmonic glass and—”
Thistle looked at me over the top of his glasses.
“I am a doctor, you know.”
Suddenly, I saw the truth in his eyes.
“You think this is going to make you rich, don’t you?”
Thistle cleared his throat. “Well, the thought did cross my mind, but no, not yet. I haven’t been able to tune it. Right now, this is the only world I can see, and it’s not the kind of place anyone wants to visit.”
“What do you mean, visit?”
“Yes, Owen. This isn’t a window. It’s a door.”
When a man as old and as obviously crazy as Dr. Thistle smiles, when you get a good look at those crooked yellow teeth and the white film on his bleeding gums, it’s nothing short of disturbing. Especially when that man is talking to you in his underwear. Compared to that, a portal into another world barely registered. I’d seen weird things before, as the late Mrs. Mulroney can attest, and eventually they stopped being anything more than curious. But old people’s smiles…those things ate at my soul.
“Have you gone through it yet?” I took a step closer to get a better look. Thistle stopped me with an arm across my chest.
“You don’t want to get too close, Owen. But this brings me to what I wanted to show you.”
“It wasn’t this?” I was confused, and more than a bit irritated he wouldn’t let me get closer to his dimensional window.
“I only showed you this so you’d better understand what I have locked up in the other room. It’s no dog.”
“What is it?”
“One of them.”
“One of who?”
Again, he smiled that creepy smile, this time punctuated with a slide of his tongue across his lower lip. I don’t think he knew he was drooling.
“One of them.”
Now things were getting interesting.
After he led me through the maze of wires and equipment that filled the basement, Thistle stopped me at the door to the rear storage room. It had a large padlock around the handle to keep it shut. From other side of the door I could hear that growling, slobbering noise again. I didn’t know what it was, but it was clearly inhuman.
“If you were anyone else, I wouldn’t show you this, but I have a feeling that you won’t judge me too harshly. I wouldn’t be surprised if this didn’t shock you at all.”
He was wrong, though. What I saw inside that storage room was indeed shocking. Beneath the deadening fluorescent lights was an old wooden table. Short thick ropes were tied around each of the legs, and they led up to secure Thistle’s trophy to the tabletop. I recognized it at once, and I felt a rush of revulsion and excitement that were so close together I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. The creature he stole from that other world looked to me like no creature at all, but instead like a teenage girl, no more than fifteen. She was tied down spread-eagle. And she was naked.
“Beautiful, isn’t it? She looks almost human.”
“Where did you find her?” I asked. The primal side of me was reacting to her nakedness in a way I was trying desperately to stop. Her violent gyrations on the table didn’t exactly help. I was really very worried about the situation I was in, especially if cock-eyed Detective McCray found me. If Thistle had picked this girl up off the street—even during some hallucinogenic episode—then I was in the kind of trouble I wouldn’t be able to slide out from under. “Where did you get her, Doc? I need to know.”
“I told you, Owen. I got her from over there. And I know what you’re thinking, but don’t be fooled. She’s not some little girl I snatched up off the street. She’s a ghoul.”
“See for yourself.”
I walked slowly to the girl, forcing my eyes away from her tiny breasts and the allure of her bare mons. I kept my eyes on hers, looking for any sign of humanity in them, but there was nothing there. Only animal ferocity. She was a feral beast, and when she looked at me and roared I could see her teeth were ragged and sharp. And there were far too many of them. I hadn’t seen a ghoul before that point, and she was nothing like those I saw later, so I don’t know if I can call her that now in hindsight, but I know from experience that every plane has its own reality, and I suppose she was just as likely to be a ghoul as not.
“She doesn’t seem to have any idea of where she is.”
“No, I doubt she does. She’s no more than an animal. As far as I can tell her reality doesn’t have any sort of civilization, merely hunting packs.”
I stepped back, afraid of the stress I saw her putting on the ropes. She looked far stronger than I expected. “Why did you bring her over? You know you’d never be able to sell her.”
“Well, maybe not for any scientific reason, but…” He trailed off into that smile again, waiting for me to understand what he was saying. I thought I did, but I didn’t believe I was right, not until I noticed the erection in his pants.
He nodded slowly but with pride. As though she understood what we were talking about, she began violently pulling at the ropes, bucking and thrusting her groin into the air in an effort to break free. She did not seem pleased with her situation. I was at a loss for what to say. I wondered how many men might pay for the experience of fucking an animal shaped like a teenage girl. Then when I realised the answer I wondered just how much they would pay. I looked back at the creature, and she was staring straight at Thistle and growling at a quiet, subhuman decibel.
“You haven’t— Have you—?”
“I had to test it out, Owen. I had to make sure that…that all the parts worked. Then I had to make doubly sure.”
I nodded, wondering how I managed to get myself into another mess.
“So why show me?”
“I know you, Owen. You’ve got connections all over the place, and from what I gather they aren’t the kind who’d be shocked by something not quite of this world. There’s money to be made here, and I want you to be my partner. No more sleeping on the street or rundown flops or begging for money for you. It’s really the kind of experience you don’t forget, believe me. It’s addictive. I feel years younger, and I think maybe I look it, too. I haven’t taken my medication in weeks. I don’t need to, not with this thing around. It reinvigorates me!” He spit at it and it hissed and strained at its ropes, rubbing its arms raw. “Go ahead,” he said, at last getting to his point. “Try it out.”
Sometimes I get put in strange situations. I’m not going to tell you I’m a saint by any stretch of the imagination, but neither am I as bad as people say I am. People like crooked-eye McCray, for one. That sort of thing, it’s good for the reputation, and having a reputation tends to open more doors than it closes, but sometimes you’re expected to do things you wouldn’t normally do, and the question is always whether you do them and deal with the consequences, or don’t do them and allow a chink in that precious image you’ve worked so long on building to protect you. It’s amazing how quickly one can be destroyed.
Whether it was the obviously aroused Thistle or the naked girl writhing in front of me, I wasn’t sure, but I became acutely aware that the storage room smelled of stale sex. Thistle was chuckling and was rubbing himself over his stained boxers at the mere thought of watching me fuck the bound creature. The last thing I needed was his perverted eyes on me while he masturbated.
“I’d rather do this on my own.”
In an instant, his face broke. It was obvious he didn’t want to leave. “But it’s not safe. What if she gets loose?”
“Something tells me that if you’ve gone at her alone that you’ve made sure she’s tied up good and tight. I’ll take my chances. Better the devil I can see.”
His disappointment turned to irritation that bordered on anger, but I reminded him of the help he was going to need to get his project off the ground.
“All right, I’ll give you a few minutes. I need to check on the window anyway.”
He closed the door on me and I locked it, then I turned around and faced the thing on the table. She panted heavily, her mouth opening and closing as if she was warming up her muscles. I wanted nothing to do with her, but the scent of her sex and soft flesh was making my head swim. I wanted to look away, but despite my bravado in front of Thistle I was afraid that she’d somehow break free when I wasn’t paying attention.
“You’re a good girl, right? You aren’t going to hurt me?”
She snarled and I shuddered.
I knew I had only a few minutes before Thistle’s fantasies got the better of him and he tried to sneak in to catch me literally with my pants down. I wasn’t going to give him the opportunity. He didn’t leave me with much in the storage room, strangely the one place in the house not cluttered to the ceiling. I guess he wanted some room to show his ghoul who was boss. As far as I saw it, despite his grandiose ideas Thistle was not one to share, and his hunger was always going to be bigger than he could fill. I pulled out the folding knife I kept in my pocket and started to fray the ropes around the girl’s wrists and ankles. I was careful not to cut too much—I didn’t want her escaping before I set things in motion. She almost seemed to understand what I was doing, because she struggled less as I worked, but when I looked into her eyes I saw they were as empty as a shark’s. There was nothing behind them that approached a soul. Only further blackness.
On cue the door shot open revealing Thistle, his boxer shorts now gone, his pencil at full attention. “What the hell are you—” was all he managed to get out before my knife cut through the last of the ghoul’s bonds and her inhuman strength did the rest. She leapt across the room at such speed Thistle didn’t have a chance to move his hands from his hard-on before she tore off his face with razor-sharp teeth. Still, he tried to speak, his voice a gurgling brook as she crouched over him; then those same teeth removed a large piece of his throat and finally shut him up. She began to lap up the blood as quickly as it spurted while his body shook and convulsed, his hand still clenched around his member so tightly it had turned deep blue. I chose this moment, I think wisely, to dash out of the room while the girl was still distracted by her meal. I thought I felt her hands claw at my ankle as I passed and I shrieked, but didn’t stop until I was outside the storage room and was able to shut the door and padlock it. At that point I checked my leg for damage and was relieved to find none.
I slumped to the floor, my heart racing, astounded I’d made it out alive. I don’t know if it was the fear or the sight of that bloodied naked girl, but I found myself somewhat aroused by the whole ordeal. That sensation withered once I felt the pounding on the door I was leaning against.
It was like sledgehammer coming down hard, again and again, from the other side, and judging by the way the wooden frame was splintering it was clear the room wouldn’t hold Thistle’s ghoul for long. I scrambled to my feet and looked around the stacks of debris from the dead man’s life. The only thing in my favour once the girl broke free was that the basement’s maze of junk and wires would prevent her from springing on me, but the obstacles were just as confining for me as they were for her, if not more so. There was no way I could outrun her but, maybe, there was a way to escape her. Thistle had left his dimensional machinery on and running, and the window was still operational. I picked up a book from one of the piles and threw it at the window; it passed through with a flash of static. I looked back at the door to see a thin bloody arm break through and begin to tear the wood apart. She made a hole easily big enough to fit her tiny body and leapt through to land on all fours about fifteen feet in front of me. She snarled and lifted her nose to the air.
She had my scent, and in my terror I wondered how she could smell anything with her face covered in blood. It ran through those rows of sharp teeth and then down her neck until it dripped off her tiny breasts. She raised her head skyward and made some horrible screech, and when she was done I heard its response from the electronic window humming behind me. I dared a quick peek and saw a row of shadows in the distance moving across the rocks. She was calling reinforcements, calling her pack, and I knew that if I didn’t do something quickly they were going to find their way through the portal. If that happened, a lot of bad news was going to follow, not the least of which being that I would be deader than Thistle. Some gratitude, I thought.
“Here, girl. Come here, girl.” I tried to whistle, but my mouth was too dry. She looked at me with those dead eyes and cocked her head. “Be a good girl and jump through the window.” I could hear the howling behind me and wondered how much time I had left before the pack arrived. A minute? Maybe two? I couldn’t turn around to see their approach while the girl in front of me stared and growled. I was running out of options. “Come on, girl,” I said, motioning her forward. I’d have shown her my throat as bait, but I didn’t want anything to happen to it. “Come here.” When she took a step forward, I almost wet myself.
I worked to keep the window between us while she took sideways steps, looking for an opening. The cables from the ceiling kept her grounded, but they also keep me from moving very far with any sort of protection. She was making a wet bray as she stalked toward me, and I knew I was running short of time—the howls of her pack were getting louder and louder—but I kept speaking quietly to her, kept tempting her forward. Each step she took left a bloodied footprint behind, and as she knocked computer equipment aside I prayed she didn’t do anything to damage it. When she was within six feet of me she stopped and went up onto her haunches. I could see that all the muscles in her body were so tightly tensed she was like a wound spring. She was getting ready to pounce, but all I could think about was how engorged her labia had become. I swallowed hard.
I moved more by terrified reflex then anything else when she leapt. As soon as those muscles started to unfurl, time for me slowed to a crawl. I immediately stumbled backward, flailing my hands out in front of me. I managed through sheer luck to push the two-post rack over onto her, and as it fell she managed to leap into the portal and disappear from this world and into the next. The window continued to fall toward the floor and I braced for its impact, but it never came. Instead, the electric window hung a foot from the ground, its intact wires and cables breaking its fall. Then I heard wild howling and knew the pack had arrived.
I reached up and started pulling any wire I could get my hands on, hoping to disconnect the window before those creatures leapt through. I could feel the cables giving handfuls at a time, but that sickening hum didn’t stop. I saw an arm appear from under the hanging window, an arm far larger and thicker than the one I’d seen on Thistle’s ghoul, and I knew I didn’t have a choice. I leapt over the fallen debris onto the back of the fallen two-post rack, adding my weight to it. The cables holding it up snapped immediately, and it and I crashed into the ground. The window shattered and I was thrown forward, hitting my head on the edge of one of the tables, knocking computer equipment to the ground. Everything went black for me then.
When I awoke I knew two things: the first, that I was still alive; the second, that I wished I wasn’t. My head throbbed and, when I put my hand on it, it came away covered in blood. I tried to stand, but the world was spinning way too fast and I had to sit again. At least until the room slowed down. I looked around me at the destruction. A thick beastly arm lay cleanly severed at my feet amid broken glass and plastic. There was blood everywhere, some of it mine, and footprints across the concrete leading back to a broken door and some massacre beyond it. I’d made a clusterfuck of things again, and I had no idea how I was going to explain it away. Normally, I’d just leave, but there was no way my fingerprints weren’t all over the place, no doubt full of blood. My only solace was the knowledge that no one would be missing Dr. Thistle, which bought me a little time.
I managed to crawl upstairs after a while and found a towel to hold against my bleeding head. The wound wasn’t as deep as I thought, and the crazy glue I found in one of the millions of boxes was enough to keep the wound shut without me having to go to the hospital for stitches. I crawled into the bathtub and turned on the cold water, then sat there for as long as I could, trying not to pass out. I didn’t think I had a concussion, but I wasn’t going to take the chance. I wasn’t crazy, despite what I kept telling myself.
I’d had to do a lot of things in my life, but getting rid of a body was never one of them. I had a vague idea of what to do, and thankfully Dr. Thistle had all the tools I needed somewhere in his piles of clutter, but sawing through bone is a lot harder than it sounds. When I managed to get him down into enough manageable pieces, I put them and the severed arm into a black garbage bag and carried it over to a place I knew behind Greenwood Racetrack. It was the place you took things you wanted to forget about. Everybody knew that. Once I got back I cleaned the house as best I could and made some space for myself. I’d finally found a home. At least, for a little while. Until they shut the power off, at any rate.