Morph

This Halloween, Tor.com is proud to present an exclusive reprint of “Morph,” a short story from David Lubar’s horror collection Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge (Tor Teen 2014).

When Andy notices a suspicious character preying on Chinatown smugglers, he follows a path that leads him to horrible, life-threatening discoveries.

 

 

 

“Morph”

To a white boy like me, Chinatown is a movie, an adventure, and a horror show all rolled into one. To my friend John Fong, it’s just home. No matter how often I go there to hang out with him, I’m always amazed by the activity. Everyone is moving, walking, talking, selling, and buying. The whole place seems to vibrate. I’ve heard there are bigger Chinatowns in other cities. Maybe so. But I’d bet there isn’t a busier one.

John’s parents own a bakery right around the corner from their apartment. It’s not the kind of stuff I’m used to—not like the pastries they sell across the river or the fancy breads you can get uptown—but it’s pretty good, especially since everything tastes better when you get it for free. John and I had just stopped by the bakery for a snack, and then headed to the Lucky Pleasure Arcade. We were on our first day of spring break from Washington High, so we were pretty much ready for some serious fun.

As we squeezed through the crowded streets, I scanned the food shops. You never knew what you’d see hanging from a hook or heaped up in a crate.

“Hey, Andy, check out the baby eels,” John said, pointing to the window of a grocery store.

“Whoa, you eat those things?” I leaned over and watched the wriggling black strips in their water-filled pan. They reminded me of living rubber bands.

John shook his head. “My parents might. Not me. Too slithery.”

A flurry of motion in a high-sided enamel tray to the left of the eels caught my eye. My subconscious survival instinct must have taken over because, by the time I realized what was there, I’d already jerked my face away from the window.

“Whoa!” I took a step back and pointed.

“Man, that’s creepy.” John leaned closer, so his forehead was pressed against the window. “I don’t think my parents would eat one of those. Maybe my grandfather.”

Still keeping my distance from the window, I stared at the pan-full of scorpions as they crawled over each other, forming a mass like one living creature with hundreds of claws and stinging tails. “Would you?” I asked.

“Not for a million dollars. But you got to admit you white boys eat some pretty disgusting things, too.”

“Like what?”

“Like rare steak,” John said. “It makes me think of those medical shows on TV. You slice through a slab of quivering meat with the knife and the blood leaks out all over the plate. Nurse! Hand me the steak sauce! Hurry—he’s bleeding out! Disgusting. And what about tuna salad?” He jammed a finger down his throat and made gagging sounds. “Now that’s something no civilized person would eat.”

“It’s still better than eating it raw,” I said.

“You idiot. That’s Japanese, not Chinese. You are so culturally uninformed.”

“Excuse me, you all look alike. What can I say?”

“Not much,” John shot back, “considering you bear an uncanny resemblance to a peeled potato.”

It was a good thing the people passing by weren’t listening. They might have thought we were serious. No way. I’d been friends with John since he moved here back in fourth grade. That was seven years ago.

“Come on,” John said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of quarters. “We’ll settle this like real men—head to head at the arcade.”

As I turned away from the grocery, another motion caught my eye. The storekeeper stepped up to the inside of the window, snatched an angry scorpion from the pan with a pair of wooden tongs, and dropped it into a small cardboard box—the kind they use for takeout food. He handed the box to a customer. That’s where I got my second surprise. From what little I could see through the dirty glass, the man wasn’t Chinese.

Why would anyone buy a scorpion? I waited for the man to walk out so I could get a clearer look.

“Come on, Andy, let’s get going,” John said.

“Just a second.” I had to see what he looked like. Maybe I’d even ask him why he’d bought it. Ever since I was little, I’ve been curious about stuff. I guess that’s a nice way to say “nosey.” Dad used to joke that I’d either end up as a scientist or a spy. Mom hammered me all through my early years with that saying about curiosity killing the cat. I’m pretty sure she’s told me, “It’s not polite to stare,” at least seven thousand times.

It would be seven thousand one if she was here on the sidewalk right now. I couldn’t help staring at the man when he stepped from the store—not because of what he’d bought, but because of what he lacked. His skin was as white as the carton he carried. So was his hair, which he wore long and parted in the middle. His eyes were pink. I’d seen albino animals before, but never a person.

He stared back at me. I was too transfixed by the layers of strangeness to look away. Then he lifted the box and shook it in my face. The hard body of the scorpion rattled against the soft cardboard.

That broke the spell. I jumped aside.

He laughed and moved past me. After a few paces, he looked back over his shoulder, shook the box again, and smiled, revealing yellowed teeth. Then he slithered into the crowd.

“That was pretty much the strangest thing I expect to see this week,” John said. “It’s going to be hard for me to think of you as a white boy after this.”

“You think he’ll eat it?” I shuddered at the thought of him popping the living scorpion in his mouth and crunching it up like a piece of peanut brittle.

John shrugged. “Who knows?”

“What else would he do with it? I mean, he just bought one, so I think it’s safe to say he isn’t having the gang over for a scorpion fry.”

“Maybe some kind of medicine,” John said. “People use all kinds of strange stuff—snake venom, animal claws, just about anything. When my aunt’s shoulder hurts, she rubs this brown liquid on it. She keep the stuff in a jar with a couple huge beetles and all kinds of roots. ”

“That’s really weird,” I said.

“So is using mold to kill bacteria,” John said. “Or tree bark to cure a headache.”

“Okay—you’ve got a point. But at least molds and trees don’t feel pain. I’m not all that worried about beetles, either. But I heard they’re wiping out the rhino just for the horn.”

“It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac,” John said.

“You mean an Asian-disiac,” I said, trying to make a joke.

John groaned. “Anyhow, that’s what they use it for. They swear it helps them get horny.”

It was my turn to groan. “How appropriate.” As we walked toward the arcade, I thought about the sad state of a world where people would kill a rhinoceros just for the horn. My deep thoughts lasted less than a block and a half. Once we reached the arcade, my whole mind and body were centered on kicking John’s butt at Shock Fighter Deluxe. Unfortunately, John was pretty centered, too. So, as usual, my fighter ended up on the ground while various parts of his body flew in separate paths through the air, leaving crimson trails of veins like dozens of scarlet tadpoles.

“Again?” John asked, grinning at me while the CONTINUE? timer counted down and his player tap-danced a victory celebration on the scattered remains of my inept warrior’s innards.

“Nah, I’d better get home. If I’m late for dinner, Dad will make what we just did look like a pillow fight.”

“Later,” John said, moving off toward the pinball machines.

I left the arcade and cut through an alley toward the bus stop on Third St. That’s when I saw the albino again, just ahead of me. Halfway down the alley, he ducked into a narrow pathway between two buildings. I walked up to the opening and peeked around the wall. The albino was standing by a solid steel door at the end of the path, about fifteen feet away from me. It looked like the back entrance to some sort of business. He opened the carton and reached inside. The scorpion wriggled and slashed as it hung between his right thumb and forefinger.

He dropped the carton, then put the scorpion on his left palm. He stroked it gently with the tips of his first two fingers. I expected it to make a dash for freedom, or plunge it’s stinger into his palm, but it sat where he’d placed it, unmoving.

I watched, as frozen as the scorpion.

For a moment, what I saw was so strange I didn’t realize I was seeing anything at all. The images passed through my eyes and entered my brain. But they hung there like abstract forms—shapes with no meaning. His left hand changed. Somehow, it curved and shrank and drew toward his sleeve. The scorpion on his palm withered and shriveled like a leaf on an unwatered house plant.

My stomach rippled. There was something beyond strange here, something unnatural and evil.

He raised his right hand and knocked at the door.

A minute passed. As much as I was dying to know what this was about, I found myself hoping nobody would answer.

I heard the clack of a bolt sliding open.

Whoever came out would see me. I stepped back into the alley, then squatted down so I could peek around the wall.

A middle aged Chinese man wearing an expensive light grey suit stood in the doorway. He spat out a couple words. I had no idea what he was saying, but he sounded angry.

The albino spoke, also in Chinese. Once or twice he touched the other man with his right hand. He seemed to be trying to calm him down.

The Chinese man spoke again. His face softened a bit and he stepped out from the doorway. He smiled and nodded.

The albino slipped closer and put his left arm on the other man’s shoulder. His hand was still hidden within his sleeve.

I realized I was holding my breath. I exhaled, then inhaled quickly, gasping. To me, the sound was as loud as a shout, but neither of them looked my way.

A pale shaft emerged from the albino’s sleeve. It slid into the other man’s neck like a pump needle into a football.

For an instant, the victim didn’t seem to notice he’d been stabbed. Then his mouth opened as if he wanted to shout. His hands rose toward his neck.

They never got there. His body jerked like he’d grabbed a frayed power cord. His eyes rolled back. His knees buckled. A sigh drifted from his slackening jaw. He would have fallen, had he not been pinned to that dagger. The killer finally lowered his arm and his victim slid free, dropping to the street. His head bounced once against the pavement, the thud echoing between the buildings like an exclamation point.

I had no doubt he was dead.

As the albino turned away from the corpse, I ran out of the alley. People stared at me as I rushed away from Chinatown. The crowds actually parted as I passed among them. I must have stunk with fear. I felt I was leaving a trail.

I kept checking over my shoulder, but I didn’t see the albino. He probably never knew I’d watched him.

Or maybe he didn’t care.

The rest of the day seemed to take place at a distance. I know I ate dinner and went to bed, but part of me never left that alley. My first thought when I woke up was that I’d had some sort of vivid dream.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t explain away my experience that easily. The murder made the paper. Next to last page. But nobody knew it was a murder. The article merely said that Shaoming Li, owner of the Golden Dragon Novelty Supply Company, was found dead of an apparent heart attack. The body was discovered by an employee.

I called John. “We gotta talk.”

“It’s not even noon. Can’t it wait?” He sounded like he was still half asleep.

“No. It’s important.”

“Okay. I’m awake now. Thanks to you. Come on over.”

I thought about the alleys and the scorpions. “How about you come here?”

There was a pause. Then a click. He’d hung up. But that was okay. I knew he was on his way over. That’s the kind of friend he was.

When John got to my place, I showed him the paper. “Did you know this guy?”

“Sure. Everybody knew Li. He’s one of the three main import-export guys.” John winked, then said, “Import-export,” again, as if it was a secret code.

The wink told me nothing. “I don’t have a clue what you mean.”

“Anything you want to bring into the country, Li was the man to see. Tiger paws, bear gall bladders, ivory—you name it. He was deep into all kinds of traffic.”

“How do you know?”

“People talk. And they never pay any attention to me. They act like I’m just a kid. I hear stuff. But it’s no secret. It’s the same all over. Any part of the city, you’ll find a couple of guys doing import-export. Chinese, Russian, Mexican, Irish. Crime is multi-cultural. I’m sure some of your Czech relatives or neighbors are involved in something.”

“I’m not Czech. I’m Polish. And only half that.”

“All you Slavs look alike to me,” John said. “Anyhow, why this sudden interest? And what does any of this have to do with me getting robbed of sleep?”

“I saw something.” That sounded like such an empty description.

“What?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.” I wasn’t sure I really believed it myself.

“I might. Now that I’m awake. You got anyone better to tell?”

He was right. I told him. Sharing it, crazy as the whole thing had been, was a relief.

“You saw this for sure?” John asked after I finished the story. “You weren’t that close, were you?”

“I was close enough.” As I thought back, doubt invaded my memories. “It looked like a scorpion stinger. But maybe he just had something in his hand. I guess it could have been a long needle, or an ice pick. Or maybe some kind of knife.”

“Forget it,” John told me. “That’s best. Just forget it. So what if he was killed? Do you think Li was some innocent business man? I’m sure he had plenty of blood on his hands. Andy, these guys don’t just import animals parts. They bring in guns. They bring in drugs. Maybe someone was just doing the world a favor.”

I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was the only one beside the killer who knew Shaoming Li’s death was a murder. Normally, if you witness a murder, you have to speak out. It’s the right thing to do. They tell us that in school. They tell us that in the movies and on TV. They tell us that in novels and comic books. But, right or wrong, there was no way anyone would believe me. I’m pretty sure John didn’t. And there was no way I wanted the albino to learn that I was a witness. Maybe John was right. It was best for me to forget all about it. Or maybe I was just a coward, looking for an excuse. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to think things over before I made a decision.

I was wrong.

 

The next murder happened two days later. Hop Ngo was found in the back of his restaurant. This death attracted a bit more attention than Shaoming Li’s, though nobody knew it was a murder. Still, it was a vicious enough death that reporters swarmed all over the story. According to the paper, Hop Ngo had been attacked by his own dogs. The paper mentioned one strange item discovered at the scene. Along with a pair of live pit bulls, police found a third dog. But this one was a dried up husk.

This time, I was disturbed enough to track John down when he didn’t answer his phone. His sister Katie, who was two years older than John, and two light years better looking, let me in. I went up to his room and held up the paper.

“There’s been another killing.”

John pulled the pillow over his face. “Are you going to wake me up every time someone from around here dies? Because if you are, I’m never going to get any sleep.”

I yanked the pillow away and thrust the paper in his face. “Is this guy an importer?”

John sighed and took the paper from me. “Yeah. Hop Ngo was an importer. Different front operation, but he brought in the same kind of stuff as Li. They each had their own territory.”

“It wasn’t an accident,” I said. “It wasn’t his own dogs that killed him.”

I could picture everything in my mind like it was a silent movie. It’s late at night. The restaurant is closed, but Ngo is available for other business. The albino comes in. He brings a dog with him. Or maybe he grabs one of Hop Ngo’s dogs. He presses the dog to his face and starts to change. His head becomes —

“Hey, Earth to Andy.”

“Huh?” I realized John had been talking to me. “What?”

“Wow, you were drifting off toward elsewhere,” John said. “Let it go. This has nothing to do with you. It doesn’t even have anything to do with me. These guys live and die by their own rules.”

“No. I can’t let it go. This is about more than murder.” I hated the thought of sharing my universe with a creature like that. “You said there were three importers. We have to warn the third guy.”

“I’m sure he knows something’s going on.” John said. “Everyone in town is going to notice that two importers died.”

“But he doesn’t know about this creature. I have to warn him there’s a killer stalking him.”

“Sam Yung wouldn’t listen to you,” John said.

“Sam Yung,” I said, repeating the name.

John groaned. “Man, forget the name. Please. He won’t see you. You won’t get near him. He’s big trouble. He eats kids like us for snacks.”

“I have to try.” I walked out of John’s bedroom. Behind me, I heard him running to catch up.

“Okay, just wait a sec’ while I throw on some clothes. Maybe I can at least keep you from getting your throat slit while you try to find Sam. You’re already pale enough.”

“Thanks.” I was glad he was coming.

We went into the depths of Chinatown to find the last of the big three importers. Unlike the other two, he didn’t have one main front operation. I let John do the talking. We got yelled at a lot, and even spat at once. I didn’t know if it was because we were asking about Sam Yung or because I was with John. But he was right—nobody takes kids seriously. Even kids old enough to drive and shave never get any respect.

We kept trying. If you knock on enough doors, eventually, you hear an answer. In the end, we didn’t find Sam. It wasn’t necessary. One of Sam’s men found us.

This guy in a cheap brown suit, black shirt, and white tie, slipped up from behind and tapped John on the shoulder. They talked in Chinese. Then John said, “Sam wants to know why we’re looking for him. I told this guy that we had private business to discuss, concerning Sam’s safety. He’s taking us there. He said that if we annoy Sam, we’ll end up tied to a couple of rocks at the bottom of the Naugus River. The fish will eat our eyes and the turtles will dine on our tongues.”

“Thanks for sharing that.” I wondered how many different kinds of monsters I was dealing with. Maybe the ones who never shifted their shape were even worse than the unnatural killers.

It was too late to back out. We followed the guy down a maze of side streets toward an old, rickety building. There was no sign in any language out front—just a street number. We went inside, then climbed stairs that creaked beneath our weight. The bannister was loose under my hand. I could swear I felt the building shifting under me. I smelled stale food on the first floor, but something darker and exotic took over as we moved past the second floor, up to the third.

“This whole place is falling down,” I whispered to John.

The guy glared at me, hissed a couple words at John, then led us down a hallway. It was too narrow to walk side by side. John went first. I was just a couple steps behind him. We moved past several closed doors. There was an open door ahead on the right. John glanced in, then turned his head away like he’d accidentally looked straight at the sun.

I took a longer look. The room was large, but lit by a single lamp on a table. That was enough for me to see more than I wanted. It was like someone had bombed a zoo. There were animal heads, paws, tails, skins, and other parts stacked all over. I saw a pile of elephant tusks, and another pile that looked like rhino horns. An old man at a table was grinding one of the horns into powder with a file. Except for the lamp, the scene could have been set five hundred years ago.

The guy with the cheap suit poked me in the shoulder and grunted out a couple harsh syllables. I didn’t know the words, but I’m sure it was the Chinese equivalent of, “Get moving!”

We walked toward a door at the end of the hall. The upper half was frosted glass with S. Yung, Restaurant Supplies painted on it in black above a row of chinese characters. Behind me, I could hear the rasp of the file on the rhino horn. But the sound was soon covered by the creak of the floor boards as they groaned beneath my weight. I was eager to get this over with as quickly as possible and return to the fresh air of the street.

The guy with the cheap suit opened the door and motioned us inside. He came in behind us, spoke a couple words, then stepped out, leaving John and me alone with Sam Yung, the third importer. Sam was a thin guy in his forties, with the face of someone who’s survived more than a couple knife fights. The phrase You should have seen the other guy flitted through my mind.

“You are inquiring about me?” he asked as the door closed behind us. His English was better than mine.

For a moment, I couldn’t find my voice. I knew this guy could snap his fingers and have me killed. I knew he was a criminal. But someone was planning to murder him, and I refused to keep quiet. “You’re in danger,” I said. My words died in the room like dialogue from a bad movie.

Sam Yung spread his hands. At least he didn’t laugh at me like a villain from a bad movie. “It comes with the job. Half the punks in the city would kill me if they thought they could get away with it. What’s the deal, here? I’m not going to find you amusing for very long.”

“I saw what happened to Shaoming Li,” I told him. “It wasn’t his heart.”

Sam Yung barely reacted, but I noticed a slight ripple of tension flash across his cheeks. “Tell me.”

I told him what I’d seen happen to Shaoming Li, and what I suspected happened to Hop Ngo. When I mentioned the albino, Sam Yung nodded and muttered the name, “Richter.” When I was done, he said, “Has it occurred to you who would have the most to gain from the death of my competitors?”

Not until that instant. Oh, God. I’d never even thought that Sam Yung might be behind the murders. I felt like I’d just been kicked in the gut. I looked at John. He glanced over his shoulder, like he was thinking about making a dash for the door. But we both knew the other guy was right outside the door. I turned my attention back to Sam Yung.

The slightest smile twitched at his lips. “Foolish boy,” he said. “That’s not our way. We don’t hire outsiders to solve our disputes. You know nothing about us.”

I realized he was playing with me. “But you seem to know the man I saw. You called him ‘Richter.’”

“I know of him. He’s tried to benefit from my hard work. He wants what isn’t his. But this other thing you spoke of, this is nothing but a children’s story. My grandmother used to scare me with tales of shape shifters. You have an active imagination. You’re young. You don’t know what you’ve seen. But I thank you for coming to warn me.”

It didn’t matter whether he believed me. All that mattered was I’d done what I had to do. I’d warned him. That might be enough. At least he wouldn’t be easy to surprise, the way Shaoming Li had been. I was ready to leave.

But Sam Yung wasn’t finished. He glanced at John, then back at me. “We have one problem that must be resolved. You’ve seen things you shouldn’t have.”

“We didn’t see anything,” John said. “Neither of us.”

Now I understood why John had looked away from the down the hall room so quickly. There was enough illegal stuff going on in there to send Sam Yung to prison for a very long time.

“Of course I have your silence,” Sam said to John. “You know what would happen to your family if you spoke.” Then he pointed at me, “But I don’t know if your friend he can hold his tongue. Or whether it needs to be removed.”

He stared at me with the cold eyes of a surgeon trying to decide whether to remove a tumor.

I wanted to say something, but I had no idea what sort of words would make any difference to him. I knew it was pointless to beg, or to point out that I’d gone out of my way to warn him. Maybe I could just swear I’d keep silent about what I’d seen. Before I could speak, the glass in the upper half of the door exploded. Something flew past me and thudded to the floor by Sam Yung’s desk.

A head.

It took a moment for me to recognize the guy without his cheap suit. Or his body.

Someone—something—crouched outside the door. His face was all scales and teeth—somewhere between human and reptile. But it shifted back as I watched.

“Richter.” Sam Yung snarled the name.

The albino reached into his coat pocket and drew out a brown, furry claw. He held it to his body.

Across the room, I heard Sam Yung fumbling through a desk drawer.

I heard John whisper something in Chinese.

I heard the roar of a bear.

The albino crashed through the remaining portion of the door. His body was still rippling and changing. He dropped the dried claw on the floor. The lower half of his face was that of a bear. One hand was a claw. His massive shoulders stretched his shirt.

As he ran past us, he threw a backhanded swipe. The blow lifted me off my feet. John and I crashed into the wall.

For an instant, as my head and body struck the plaster, the room went soft and black. I fought the darkness, knowing that if I sank into the comfort of unconsciousness, I would never wake.

My head cleared just in time to see Sam raise a gun. His hand jerked as the gun spat out a small pop, no louder than a cap pistol. A patch of flesh in the Albino’s shoulder explode in a mass of red.

It didn’t slow him.

He crossed the room before Sam Yung could fire again. The claw swipe caught Sam under his chin. With no effort, the albino removed most of the man’s face.

It happened so fast, Sam didn’t seem to realize yet that he was dead. For a moment, as flesh and gore dripped down the splattered wall, and most of his jaw bounced across the floor like a shattered ash tray, he stood in place, a life-sized version of that plastic man in science class, half exposed to the eyes of the curious, brain and muscle and bone revealed for all to see. A bubbling sound rose from the ruins of his throat. His tongue moved, as if searching for teeth.

Then he fell across his desk.

The albino turned toward us.

I staggered to my feet. “John, run!”

John didn’t move. I reached down to help him up, but he was knocked out cold. There was no way I could carry him. There was no way I could protect him. There was nothing I could do for him except try to lure the monster away.

I ran into the hallway.

Heavy footsteps followed me.

Another of Yung’s men rushed up the stairs. He pulled a gun from inside his jacket. It would be the final sick joke of my life if I ended up getting shot by the lesser of two evils while running from the albino. I ducked into an open doorway.

Outside, a single gun shot punched the air. Then I heard a scream overlapped by a wet, ripping sound. A body thudded down the stairs. I knew it was the gunman.

The albino stood at the edge of the doorway, red clots of skin dripping from his claw as it completed its transition back to a hand.

“My curious friend,” he said, nodding toward me, speaking almost in a whisper. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped his hand. “You have been a bit of an inconvenience. An amusing one, but an inconvenience none the less. I can’t allow your continued existence.”

I backed away from him. As the earthy stench of hides and bones hit my nostrils and I realized the full meaning of where I was, I lost hope. I’d truly screwed up. Of all the places to seek shelter, this was the worst imaginable.

“Lovely,” the albino said, his eyes caressing the stacks of animal parts. He patted his coat pocket. “I brought my own supply, but this is truly splendid. What shall it be?”

He reached out to the nearest crate and stroked a wolf’s head. “Our noble pal Canis lupus, perhaps?” His hand, where it met the gray fur, began to change. “I think not. Too swift. Wolves kill quickly, efficiently. They have no instinct for cruelty. You deserve better, my young friend.” He studied me with those pink eyes. “I want you to linger. I want to savor our time together. Now, where would they keep the snakes?” He flicked his tongue like a serpent.

I moved deeper into the room. Beneath my feet, the wood creaked. Behind me, I heard a rasping breath.

The albino took another step. “Or maybe a leopard?” he said, reaching down to stroke a spotted skin. “Yes, that seems right. Cats play with their prey. Sometimes for hours. Thank goodness there’s such a large stockpile. We’re going to have so much fun.”

I could hear the old man, the one with the file. He was crouched under a table, whimpering. I risked a glimpse over my shoulder. One chance… If I was wrong, I was dead. If I was right, I might still be dead. If I was right and very lucky, I’d live to have nightmares about today.

I plunged my hand into the box and scooped up a handful of the chalky powder. I threw it at the albino, trying to believe that this would save me. I threw a second handful, then a third.

He laughed.

“Is that it? Your best effort? Oh my, I truly hope you give me more sport than that.”

He reached to brush the dust from his cheek.

The change began.

For a moment, he seemed puzzled.

His hands grew thick. They grew large and gray, like dense lumps of clay. His face twisted and changed. His shirt split as his chest swelled. A horn thrust from where his nose had been.

He dropped to all fours with a heavy crash, then lowered his head, aiming the horn at me. He took a step with one hulking leg. And then another step. There was less than two yards between me and death.

A scream ripped through the room. But it didn’t come from any living creature. The air filled with shrieks as the ancient wood gave way beneath the weight. One leg crashed through the floor. His chest hit with an ear-numbing boom.

For an instant, that was it. He raised his head toward me and bellowed a cry of rage. The eyes within the rhino’s face were hot coals of hate.

He struggled to pull the leg free of the hole.

I backed up another step.

He fell.

He dropped so suddenly, it was almost as if he’d been sucked through the hole. An instant later, I heard another crash. Then another, fainter. And far away—a thud, a wet smack of flesh against concrete.

That was it. He was in the basement.

I inched toward the hole like I was moving on thin ice, expecting the floor to collapse at any moment. But the floor held. Down, far down, so far I felt dizzy as I looked, lay a crumpled mass of white and red.

Around me, the lifeless eyes of countless animals bore witness to the moment. A sound from down the hall caught my attention. I edged past the hole and went back to Sam Yung’s office.

“How you doing?” I asked John. He’d managed to sit up, with his back against the wall, but still looked pretty dazed.

“Did we win?” he asked.

“Yeah.” I held out a hand and helped him to his feet.

He winced. “Oh, man. My head hurts.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “You should see the other guy.”

I walked with John back to his place. As we passed through the streets of Chinatown, I thought about how foreign each of us is when he leaves his small part of the world, and how much there is that none of us will ever understand.

“You know what’s scary?” I asked John when we reached his front door.

“Your face?”

“Beside that.”

“I can’t imagine anything scarier, but go ahead.”

“If Richter was a bigger monster than Sam Yung, I guess it’s possible there’s someone out there who’s a bigger monster than Richter.”

John patted me on the shoulder. “If there is, I’m sure you’ll run into him. And drag me along. But maybe that can wait for another day.”

“Fine with me.”

At least I knew there was a little less evil in the world. It was a small change, but a good change. And that’s something to be glad about.

 

“Morph” reprinted from Extremities © David Lubar, 2014

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