Esther didn’t like people much. And she hated animals.
When Esther bought her condo, the land across the street had been nothing but a dense wall of trees, wearing blackberry brambles around their trunks like bristling party dresses. A party where humans were not welcome.
Now, it was a dog park, crawling every day with people and their yapping companions.
She should pull her curtains. She knew that. Go make a cup of tea. Retreat to her knitting or her books (whose pages were the only things that possessed the power to make her care about people). But, just like every day, she found herself stuck to her chair in front of the window, seething and staring across the street at the dog park crawling with canines and their masters.
Vermin, she thought. They made her nose itch, with allergies or rage, she couldn’t tell.
She’d grown up on a farm, the only allergic person among a family of animal lovers. No one had respected her sensitivities. Once, while she was soaking in the tub, her brothers had flung open the bathroom door and let all their dogs into the room — big, overly friendly Labradors with perpetually muddy paws. Worse, they’d tossed the family canaries into the small space like feathery bombs. The confused, shrieking birds had become tangled in her wet hair. She’d never stopped having nightmares about that day in the bathroom.
Esther sneezed. And sneezed again. God, the sight of that park, and the thought of its feces-smeared grass cooking under the sun, made her so mad. Just look what it did to her! Her eyes began to water.
Behind her, birds chirped.
Her chair creaked as she pushed it around with her feet. She produced a rather avian squawk of surprise.
A tall figure stood in her white, sparsely furnished living room. The being’s head was a featureless tangle of brown hair. Its height and build summoned flares of memory: Watching her dad out in the barn while he made chainsaw carvings of yetis for extra cash in the wintertime; awed by his ability to create detailed shapes with such a rough, snarling implement; wood chips flying around him like a miniature snow storm —
Esther blinked, darkness fuzzing the edges of her vision. Only a sneeze prevented her from passing out in shock.
The thing’s body was covered with feathers, scales, udders, eyes, antlers, and fur of all kinds and colors. The creature’s arm, its only arm, tweeted at her sweetly: a chain of pretty yellow birds, waving back and forth in slow, delicate motions, like a strand of long hair floating in water.
A bulge formed on its torso and grew into an ugly tumor. The tumor split open and an alligator-limb slithered out, balancing out the birds on the other side.
“Dear God in heaven!” she wheezed, sneezing again. She grabbed an empty coffee cup sitting on the little table next to her chair and threw it at the monster. The alligator arm whipped to the side, knocking it away, snapping and hissing through long jaws that seemed to grin.
“Help!” she screamed, as she hobbled toward the hallway and her bedroom. She could lock herself in there. Call the police. Open the window and climb out onto the fire escape. Esther was old, and spent most of her days staring at the dog park and its inhabitants. She was in no condition to run from monsters.
Behind her, the room grew cacophonous with meaty bubbling and tearing sounds, and then growls and howls and more hisses. Esther faltered, looking back. She couldn’t help herself.
The monster, which was pursuing her at a slow, lumbering pace on its thick sasquatch legs, was growing new arms. They emerged through angry, bulging growths. A snake arm coiled and uncoiled with liquid ease. There was an arm with a red panda at the end, its cute face slicked with gory fluids. It nipped at the much longer and more graceful limb next to it: a giraffe with a mouth so full of fangs its lips couldn’t close properly.
Esther had no time to react to what she was seeing, because a violent barrage of sneezes was coming down the chute. Her eyes squeezed open and shut so rapidly, the details of the beast standing before her took on a stroboscopic effect. She watched the monster arms being born in jerky flashes, like a series of eerie photographs
A shark slithered out of its shoulder, eyes as black and doll-like as the man in the movie had said. A spiky row of porcupines burst out of an armpit. A hairless cat arm came out squalling, its skin wrinkled as if it had been soaking in a tub for far too long. A peacock arm squeezed out between the monster’s ribs, its harsh cry bouncing around the small apartment’s walls like a ball.
One particularly huge tumor exploded in a loud pop that sent pus spraying all over Esther and the room. A burly arm with an elephant’s head shoved through the wound. A gray trunk unfurled between bloody tusks and immediately groped for the old woman.
She shrank away, her senses returning to her. Esther remembered that she was trying to flee, but as she started to run again, the elephant’s trunk, covered in cottage cheesy afterbirth glop, struck a glancing blow against the back of her head. She smacked into the wall and fell to the ground, her hip tweaking painfully on her way down.
Above her, a boil-sized lump on the creature’s stomach, roughly located where its belly button ought to be, burst with a zzzzzzzzttttt!, and a pink arm shot out, as thin around and vulnerable as an infant’s, with the exposed yellow teeth and old man face of a naked mole rat at the end.
“Ugh ugh ugh!” Convulsive sounds of disgust pumped out of Esther’s throat. She shook her head back and forth, her legs paddling feebly against the white carpet as she tried to push herself down the hallway. Blood, pus, drool, and other fluids dripped down around her. The beast stood over her, more and more tumors pulsing across its torso and giving birth to animal-tipped arms.
The limbs vied for space as the monster’s body began to run out of room to support them. Some started turning on one another — the shark-arm reared back and bit off its giraffe sibling in one bite. Blood gouted everywhere, pulsing across Esther’s face. The elephant wrapped its trunk around the neck of the peacock and broke it. The peacock arm went limp, dangling crooked and useless.
The rest of the arms, and the monster, remained very focused on Esther.
In the confined space of the hallway, she found herself back in the bathroom of her childhood, the birds tangled in her hair, the dogs leaping into the tub. She could not tell where she stopped and the animals began. She was losing herself.
Oh, she was lost.
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