Nature vs Nurture

by Orrin Grey

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The scene is strangely quiet, broken only by the occasional sound of their claws striking granite or the roar of one of our gunshots. When they fall they make dull thuds, like a side of meat slapping down on a counter, but usually they’re too far away for us to hear it, or we’re already chambering another round.

Harter stands to my left, shrouded in the mist of the graveyard. He looks like an old-fashioned gunslinger with his faded black duster, his cowboy hat, and his big gun. His rifle–the kind with a bolt-action chamber–is more powerful than it needs to be for this job, and he always has another bullet gripped between his teeth. He raises and fires in a motion so smooth you’d think he’d always done it.

I never developed Harter’s easy sureness. I’m on cleanup, walking along a little behind with a pistol to finish off any that are still alive, or head off any that try to sneak up on us. They don’t try that anymore, though. Now they just run, like animals before a forest fire. “That’s what we are,” Harter would say. “A goddamned forest fire.”

Harter’s rifle roars again, smoke bursting out of the end like a puff of cotton. One of them pitches over, slamming against a headstone and cracking it at the base. The thing shudders and tries to stand, then falls back against the stone, knocking it to the ground.

“Pay attention,” Harter barks, bringing the butt of his rifle down on one’s head. Its skull gives way under the blow and it goes down. Harter turns the rifle around and puts a bullet in its spine, just to be safe. “When you don’t pay attention, someone gets hurt,” he tells me and goes back to his business.

Again the rifle roars and flashes in the darkness. In the illumination, I see them running, see their loping bodies hurtling over tombs and behind trees. I see one go down, but the shot isn’t clean. This one will get back up. I raise my pistol and make sure that it doesn’t.

Because of the darkness, I might have missed it, but the light of my gunshot illuminates it, painting its shadow on the headstone. My first instinct is to shoot, but I don’t. Instead, I bend down to look. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“Get over here,” Harter is yelling at me like a drill sergeant on television. “Goddammit, get over here.” I can hear him approaching, hear the sounds of his boots in the wet grass. He won’t be happy with what I’ve found. We’ve never encountered a young one before.

The thing is tiny, only a little larger than a human baby, but it already has teeth and claws. Its skin is a mottled grey-black-green, a color that I cannot readily name. Moss on an extremely dark stone. Its eyes are glimmering pinpricks, like staring down the barrel of a laser pointer, and it has rocked back on its hind legs, hissing and holding its claws out to attack if threatened. Unlike human children, it is almost an exact replica of its adult brethren, only smaller. Built to scale.

Harter’s footsteps stop just behind me and I hear the sound of a bullet entering the chamber. “No!” the next thing I know I’m grabbing the rifle and pushing the barrel away from the creature, into empty space. “We’ve never found one this young before.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Harter answers. “Little ones grow into big ones.”

“I want to keep it. To study it,” I add quickly. “Maybe we can learn something.”

Harter is silent for a moment, making the low growling sound deep in his throat that he has taken to making whenever he is thinking about something.

“Better ways to kill them,” he finally says, as though finishing my thought. “But it’s your responsibility.”

He turns and walks away as I slip off my coat and throw it over the shaking body of the baby ghoul.

***

For the first week, I have to keep it in a locked trunk. I feed it bowls of milk mixed with a little bit of blood. Whenever I open the trunk to put the food in, it huddles in one of the corners and makes a hissing, rattling sound. Once, I make the mistake of trying to touch it gently, to reassure it, and I draw back a hand ragged with bloody teeth marks.

I have to keep it locked in the trunk at all times. Whenever I’m not nearby, it scratches wildly and makes a sound somewhere between the frenzied bark of a coyote and the wail of a hungry infant. All night, as I lie in bed, I am kept awake by the sounds. I try throwing blankets in with it, to give it something warm and soft, but they just wind up shredded.

The ghoul is malnourished. It doesn’t trust the food that I give it. It always eats, but never much, and never when I’m watching. So long as I keep the lid of the trunk open, it remains crouched in the corner, as small as it can make itself, hissing.

Harter doesn’t come by. I think he’s angry with me. Normally, he would be over every other night or so. Normally, we would go out hunting. During the week, I only get one call from him: to say that work’s been keeping him busy. His voice sounds forced. I tell him it’s all right.

***

I’m just about to shut the lid of the trunk when the ghoul unfolds and begins to crawl out of its corner. I freeze. We’re partway into the second week, and this is the first time it has moved from the corner with me there. It crawls forward, sniffing the air slowly, its claws tapping quietly on the scarred bottom of the trunk. It sounds like a puppy with overlong toenails trying to sneak across a hardwood floor.

Reaching the bowl of milk, discolored and swirling with blood, it lifts a claw and taps the side of it. The milk shakes; a little spills over the side. Once again, it taps the bowl, with the same result. Putting its claw back onto the bottom of the trunk, it creeps closer and nudges at the bowl with its snout. The bowl moves slightly, and the ghoul draws back, but nothing else.

It pounces on the milk with a suddenness that is almost startling after its slow exploration.

***

The ghoul learns to trust me almost as quickly as it grows. In no time, it is sucking the bloody milk from a rag I hold in my hands. It no longer attacks if I try to touch it, though it still doesn’t seem comfortable. Sometimes, it sniffs at my fingers, but it doesn’t draw away. It still looks malnourished, so I move up to feeding it raw hamburger. It eats this as greedily as it once drank the milk, thrusting its face into the meat and chomping and slurping until there’s nothing left.

It has graduated from the trunk to an entire room of the house, which I cleaned out and prepared for it. I still lock the door, just in case, but it no longer shreds the blankets I give it nor howls in the night. Almost a month has passed since I brought it back from the graveyard, and it’s the size of a German Shepherd. A week ago, I named it Charlie, though I won’t ever tell Harter that.

***

Charlie eats an alarming amount of meat for a creature that remains so thin. He is as big as a man, though he moves hunched over on all fours like all ghouls. His entire body is covered in ropy muscle, like cables drawn tight under his skin.

His eyes still glow, though their brilliance has faded. When the fading began, I worried for his health, but it seems to be the way with them as they age. His claws and teeth have grown progressively larger; his jaw has distended to make room for his enlarging canines. Bony protrusions have appeared down the center of his back, a phenomenon I recognize as being indicative of males of the species. In the evenings, I can hear him running around and around the room for exercise, but I am as yet afraid to let him go outside.

A week ago, he learned to unlock the door to the room I kept him in. When I found him in the upstairs hallway, I was able to coax him back in, thankfully, but I could never have forced him. Despite his lack of any real exercise, his ropy muscles have turned to steel under his flesh. He could rip me apart as easily as he once did the blankets I provided for him. I had to buy an outside deadbolt for the door.

I don’t know what to do with him anymore. He’s too smart to keep. And too big. He’s bigger than me now, as big as I’ve ever seen them get. I should let him go. He eats too much. I can’t afford to feed both of us. A voice in my head that sounds like Harter tells me that I should be afraid of him.

But I’m more afraid of letting him go than I am of keeping him. There are people like Harter out there who won’t recognize that he’s different; who won’t know that he’s tame. There are people like Harter who wouldn’t care if they did know. And he is tame now, too docile to be afraid of them like he should.

I pour myself another brandy. Harter called me a few minutes ago and asked me to go hunting with him. I told him that I was busy. Upstairs, I can hear Charlie running.

When I open the front door, Harter is standing outside. It’s raining and water pours off the brim of his hat and the shoulders of his duster. Held limply in his right hand is a pickaxe, the head of it resting on my front step. “Can I come in?” he asks.

I’m glad that Charlie has stopped running. Harter looks like shit and I’ve had more than a little to drink.

Harter comes in, lifting the pickaxe and letting the head of it thump to the floor with each stride. “I thought you were going hunting,” I prompt as he walks into my living room. He pushes his gaze across the room. It almost seems like turning his head is difficult for him. His eyes linger on the brandy sitting next to my armchair.

“Would you like a drink?”

He shakes his head, looking around blankly again. Then, abruptly, he walks over and sits down on my couch without removing his wet coat. I open my mouth, but then snap it shut. Something is obviously wrong; my couch will stand a little rainwater.

“I thought you were going hunting,” I repeat.

“I am,” he says. “I was. The guns are out in the car.”

I nod, settling myself into the armchair and leaning forward. “What’s with the pickaxe?” I ask. He’s still holding it in his right hand, rocking it back and forth on the floor. When I ask, he looks at it as though he had forgotten he had it.

“I thought it might be prudent to do some burying,” he replies.

I nod again. We sit in silence for a while, Harter staring at my front door with blank eyes. He continues to rock the pickaxe back and forth and I can hear the squeaking sound it makes on the floor even over the sound of the rain.

“Learn anything from it?” he asks suddenly. I know, of course, to what he is referring.

“A great deal.”

He nods now, biting his lower lip. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen him so subdued. “How is it?” he asks.

“Fine,” I reply.

He nods again. He lifts up the pickaxe and lets it drop back to the floor with a loud clank. I jump in spite of myself. “You’re not going to kill it, are you?” he asks.

“No,” I say quietly.

Harter just looks sad, not angry like I would have imagined. He shakes his head, looking down at the floor now. “What happened to you?”

I stand up, pacing across the room in front of him. “I trained him, Harter,” I say. “I tamed him.”

“They’re monsters,” he replies, his voice still quiet but full of emotion. It almost sounds as if he is holding back tears.

“They’re animals.”

“They eat the dead!” he shouts, jerking his head up and staring at me with wild eyes, as alive now as they were dead only a few minutes before.

I round on him, “So do we,” I shout back. “So do we. They eat our dead and we eat the dead of animals, cows, creatures not that unlike them. For fuck’s sake, Harter, they’re scavengers. They don’t even kill most of the time.”

He stands up, facing me. He is crying now, the tears spilling down his cheeks, though he doesn’t even seem to notice. “They ate Ginny,” he says. “They ate her. Don’t you understand that?”

I do understand. I remember, all too well, approaching her grave in the twilight to see them digging at the ground, to see them gnawing at her body. I remember the smell and the sounds. But I’m sure I don’t remember half as well as he does.

“I understand,” I start to tell him, but he pushes me away. Harder, I think, than he intends to. I stumble back against the table next to my chair, falling over it, sending brandy and glass spilling across the hardwood floor. I fall atop the mess, a chunk of glass wedging itself into my shoulder blade.

Harter starts forward to help me, but then he stops and shakes his head. He turns away. “I have to see it,” he mutters as he staggers toward the staircase, dragging the pickaxe behind him. I can hear the thump-thump-thump as it ascends the stairs.

I stand, trying not to put my hand down in any broken glass. I barely make it up. The fall twisted or bruised or broke my leg and I can hardly put my weight on it. The brandy burns in the wound on my back. I can’t reach the chunk of glass and I don’t have time to try very hard. I don’t know who I’m more frightened for if Harter gets that door unlocked. Harter’s crazy, but if Charlie realizes that he’s a threat, then Harter won’t stand a chance.

I stumble toward the staircase. “Harter,” I call up it, hoping to at least slow him down. “Harter, don’t do this. He’s harmless. He’s not one of them. He’s harmless.” I don’t know who I’m trying to convince with my refrain, him or me.

My back aches. Every step I take feels like I’m grinding the chunk of glass into my bone. I notice myself limping and grit my teeth. The pain in my shoulder is so great that I can hardly feel the pain in my leg.

I hear the deadbolt click as I round the top of the stairs. Harter is standing in front of the door to Charlie’s room, that blank expression back on his face.

“Harter no!” I shout as he begins to turn the knob. He doesn’t even look at me as I hobble toward him.

Charlie can obviously tell that Harter isn’t friendly because from inside I can hear a rumbling, growling hiss: the grown-up version of the tiny noise he made when I kept him in the trunk as a baby. Harter walks in, dragging the pickaxe behind him.

I slam up against the doorjamb, groaning involuntarily at the burning in my shoulder. Charlie is backed up against the far wall, huddled in a corner, teeth and claws bared, looking almost just like he did when I first found him. Only now, he’s more than ten times that size. He’s almost as large as a gorilla, the biggest ghoul I’ve ever seen, more than two hundred pounds of tightly wound muscle. The growling, hissing sound fills the room. Harter doesn’t look fazed, even though I know he’s never seen a ghoul as big as Charlie either.

“You’ve grown,” I hear him say, his voice barely audible above the vocalization of Charlie’s fear.

I stumble forward, laying my hand on his shoulder. “Harter, don’t. You see he’s harmless.”

He throws me off, pushing me back against the wall. I grind my jaws together to keep from screaming. Harter starts toward Charlie again, wrapping both hands around the handle of the pickaxe. He lifts it; I can see his knuckles tightening. Charlie’s growl deepens.

I launch myself off the wall, driving into Harter’s back with my good shoulder. I send him pitching forward, the pickaxe falling from his hands to clatter on the floor. He falls to one knee with a deep exhalation, like an old drunk. He is reaching inside his coat and I know he lied about the guns, or at least about one of them.

The only thing I can hear is the sound in Charlie’s throat as I lift up the pickaxe. My shoulder is screaming and maybe I am, too. I can feel the growling in my bones.

Harter has the pistol half out of his coat pocket when I bury the head of pickaxe in his back. He falls, the pistol sliding across the floor, and I lever it out to drive it back in. Charlie’s growling quiets and I hear the sickening crunch of bone and meat.

I let go of the pickaxe, leaving it to sag in the flesh of Harter’s back. I don’t waste any tears; he wouldn’t have wanted them. Instead, I reach out a hand, shaking from the pain, and lay it gently on Charlie’s head. I want to comfort him, to let him know that everything’s going to be all right. But I don’t think I can.

THE END

Orrin Grey was born on the night before Halloween, and he’s been in love with monsters and marvels ever since. He has a BA in English and Philosophy from Baker University, and now he writes weird stories featuring mad monks, ape fiends and cursed books, among other things. His first chapbook novella, The Mysterious Flame, was recently released by Dead Letter Press. You can learn more at www.orringrey.com.

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