Unnatural Combinations

I think most people are surprised when they learn one of my hobbies is taxidermy.

I know what you probably expect when you hear that- some shady looking Ed Gein kinda guy. I’m gonna clear this up off the bat. Not everyone that practices taxidermy looks like a serial killer, all empty eyes and unsettling grins. I’d like to say I’m pretty normal, as far as your average human being goes. I’m close to my parents, I have a good job, I even have a dog named Hamlet. But I also really do enjoy taxidermy.

I picked up the hobby almost… god, has to be like ten to twelve years now. At the time, I thought the same as probably most of you, that taxidermy was for people like Norman Bates or Leatherface. That changed during a highschool project where I had to shadow someone at their workplace. Since I was sick the day all the popular choices were taken, I got stuck working at McConnell Taxidermy with the stern looking Walter McConnell. Although I originally expected to be either bored or grossed out, it was actually a lot of fun. For the most part Walter and I just kicked back and watched TV and enjoyed his husband Bernard’s home cooking.

For the actual taxidermy though, I actually found it fascinating. It’s not all blood and guts, some of it is real artistry. I had a lot of fun learning about it, seeing what incredible focus Walter had while sewing together a squirrel, and I was surprised to learn which of the fish on the wall were real and which were incredibly accurate recreations. Walter loved animals, he had at least three rescued dogs and I lost count of the amount of cats that weaved between my ankles as we drunk root beers and sat on his front porch.

Anyway, after that week shadowing him, I ended up going back again and again. I admitted I didn’t really have the patience for hunting, which is where most of Walter’s business comes from, but he let me know that if I found a mostly whole, fresh piece of roadkill, he could see what we could do. After a month of searching, I came across a raccoon that was just what Walter said would work. With him teaching me, I mounted my first animal. I still have it, even though I can point out like a half a dozen flaws.

All I’m trying to say it that no, I’m not the next freak that’ll make headlines for skinning the neighbor’s cat… and the neighbor with it. I can, however, say that some of those said freaks do have that wrong idea about us. And one of them was Clarence Warner.

I first met Clarence when he quite literally ran into me I’d gotten some new taxidermy books and I planned on kicking back at the shop while I read them. I was reaching for the door when it suddenly burst open, smacking the books out of my hand and sending them crashing to the ground.

“Oh! Oh, oh no, I’m s-so sorry!”

The man hurriedly exiting the shop was a scrawny looking fellow, below average in height with extra large glasses that magnified his watery eyes with the bags underneath so dark it looked like he hadn’t slept in a month. The rumpled state of his sweater and slacks didn’t help the impression.

Before I could even tell him it was fine the man was on the ground, carefully smoothing the cover of each of my books, even the hardcover ones. “N-none look to be damaged!” With a nervous smile, like he expected me to suddenly clock him in the face, he carefully handed the books back to me. “I’m so s-sorry, do they look okay? Nothing r-ripped or damaged, I hope?”

I gave the books a once over. “You’re fine, they can take a fall. You in a hurry?”

“Yeah, uh, yup,” The man nervously bobbed his head up and down, “The shop owner, he uh…” he chuckled nervously, “he’s a bit frightening. I decided to m-make myself scarce. I’m Clarence. Clarence Warner.” He stuck out a hand that had nails bitten down so far his fingertips were all red and sore. I sort of just looked at my books before Clarence slowly lowered his hand, his ears turning pink along with his cheeks. “Right. It’s a b-bit hard to shake hands when they’re full.”

“Yeah…” I glanced in the shop, “Everything’s cool man, have a good day.” I side stepped around the clearly socially awkward Clarence and managed to get the door open with my foot, eager to end this bizarre confrontation.

“Wait!”

Clarence’s piercing yelp nearly caused me to drop my books again. I turned my head back around and Clarence looked rightfully embarrassed.

“What’s your name?” He asked while staring at his feet, sounding like more like a shy first grader than a grown man.

“… Everyone calls me Bobby,” I bowed my head, “Have a good day, man.”

“Good day for you too!”

Clarence skittered off down the street, beelining for the nearest bus stop. I just shook my head, got the door the rest of the way open, and made my way into the shop. The classic rock station was playing, the room smelled of sandalwood incense thanks to Bernard, and other than me and Walter the place was empty. It seemed normal, but Walter’s usually unbothered, apathetic expression was replaced with an unnatural hostility that I’d rarely seen from him before.

“You okay, Walter?” I asked, setting my books on the counter before taking a seat on the bench.

Walter was quiet for a moment, watching the door like a hawk. “You spoke with the man leaving the shop?” He asked, his gruff voice quieter than usual.

“Just for a second, he accidentally knocked the books out of my hands,” I nodded to them, “Seemed a bit weird but that was it. What did he do?”

Walter’s mouth pressed into a firm line as he glowered in the direction Clarence had walked off in. “Asked questions I don’t like answering. Keep your distance. Want tea or beer?” Before I responded the man had ambled off to the back, coming back with two beers and setting one in front of me. I accepted, because I’m not the kind of person to turn down free beer, and I didn’t press the matter further. I figured I wouldn’t see Clarence any time soon anyway.

I actually ran into him again that night, while Hamlet and I were on a run. We were on the loop back home when I heard someone shouting my name. I skidded to a stop and pulled one of my headphones out, craning my neck around and seeing a shorter guy dashing on up to me.

When he was close enough, I finally realized that this was Clarence, and he was not looking so good. When he skidded to a stop his knees buckled, the poor guy nearly falling to the ground as he gasped for air. Not exactly a man in the best of shape.

I waited until he’d started to catch his breath before speaking. “Yeah? You want something?”

Clarence swallowed and stood back up straight, wiping the sweat off his pallid forehead. “So so sorry… to b-bother you,” he wheezed and for a second I thought he might pass out, “But you live around here too?”

At first I was tempted not to give him any information about where I lived. I mean, he weirded out Walter, and it’s hard getting under that guy’s skin. But I lowered my guard as I saw him struggling to get his breathing under control. “On this street, yeah. You going to be okay?”

Clarence bobbed his head up and down. “I have… Mild asthma. You’re… really fast,” He swallowed again and finally seemed to get his breathing under control. “I was just thinking about this being a s-strange coincidence, but we’re actually neighbors!” He pointed to the house on the corner. I did remember that the for sale sign had vanished, but I figured whoever bought it was going to plow it over, that place was not in the greatest of shape. “I was sitting on my front porch and saw you run by, I had to be s-sure it was you, Bobby.”

“Yeah,” I tightened my grip on Hamlet’s leash. I did not want my German mix accidentally knocking him over. “Why though?”

Clarence smiled. “Well, you were very nice to me today! I figured you’d be a good person to get to know if you lived around here.”

“What’d you say to Walter earlier?” I asked. “He seemed pretty upset when I entered the shop.”

“Walter- oh! The scary, elderly gentleman that runs the taxidermy place, right,” Clarence looked a bit sheepish, “I’m afraid I’m a bit poor at phrasing my questions. All I wanted to know was more of the process of taxidermy. It’s a s-science I’d like to know more about. That’s all.”

That actually relieved me. I’d been afraid that Walter was on the receiving end of some homophobic bullshit, but that didn’t seem to be the case. I lowered my guard and stopped gripping the leash so tight. “Yeah, no offense, you don’t seem to be the most… eloquent,” I said, deciding that maybe being subtle with this guy wasn’t going to work.

Thankfully Clarence didn’t take offense. “Everyone says that, I’m not really good with people,” He chuckled, jamming his hands into his pockets, “But I hope I can get along well enough in this place. Is everyone nice around here?”

We chatted for a few minutes. I learned he’d been recently divorced from his wife and lost his job, so this was going to be a fresh start. Any of my earlier apprehension quickly dissolved, this was just a lonely guy who just wanted to make a friend. Hamlet didn’t seem to mind him either, although he strangely enough didn’t jump up and try to lick his face- Hamlet thinks face kisses are the best to give to strangers.

When we parted, Clarence looked to be on cloud nine. “Thank you for n-not being upset with me,” He bowed his head in my direction, “I hope we see each other again soon!” With that, my bizarre new neighbor trotted down the street.

I glanced down at Hamlet. “Guess we should be nice to him,” I decided, giving my dog a pat on the head. Hamlet wuffed quietly before he started pulling on his leash to head back to the house. I didn’t double check to see if Clarence saw me head into my home, but I guess he had to have- the next morning there was a package of home made cookies on my doorstep, along with a note with yet another apology about the books.

Damn good cookies, even if they were oatmeal raisin.

Hindsight being 20/20, I really did drop my guard around Clarence too quickly. But it was hard to be freaked out by a guy who got winded running half a block and apologized for breathing the same air as you. I dunno, I just didn’t think he was very threatening. Even when things started to get strange. And by strange, I mean actually fucking horrifying.

We have a lot of pets in our neighborhood, and warning, this is gonna get gruesome, so turn away if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing. It was a week to the day that I first met Clarence that the eldest Waid boy, Brian, came to my front door.

I opened up to see the twelve year old staring at his untied shoes, nervously chewing on his thumbnail. When he first spoke it was so quiet I had to ask him to repeat himself.

“… Have you seen Cooper?”

Cooper was the Waid’s obese chocolate Labrador retriever. Good dog though, even if he was always begging at the summer barbecues and drooling like a monster. I shook my head, not even recalling the last time I saw the dog. “What’s up buddy, is he missing?” I asked.

Brian nodded, chomping down on another finger nail.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen Cooper. Tell you what, I’m about to take Hamlet for a run. I’ll keep an eye open for Cooper while I’m out, okay?”

That seemed to relieve the kid at least, I got a half smile out of him before he bolted from my porch and headed to the next house. I felt for the kid, I wasn’t particularly closed to the Waids but I knew Brian had some social issues. It had to be hard for him to go door to door like that. I went looking for Hamlet’s leash, figuring there was no way Cooper could get far. I’d seen him dozing on his owner’s front lawn without any supervision nearly every warm day in the summer. It would’ve taken a lot to get him to leave his comfort spot.

I figured it would be easy anyway, if the dog had just wandered off. But I combed through the neighborhood, even bringing Hamlet’s gourmet treat bag to try and lure out the greedy pup. I headed out again at lunchtime, and I even told Walter not to expect me at the shop that afternoon because I was looking for a lost dog.

It didn’t cross my mind until it was dark out that perhaps Cooper had not just ‘wandered off’. I mean, he was a good dog. I checked in with the Waids at dinner, all of the poor kids a wreck and the parents having not a clue where Cooper could’ve gone off to.

“After all, we just let him out a few minutes before we looked out the window and saw he was gone. I don’t understand how he could’ve gotten out of the yard and out of sight so fast,” Mrs. Waid said, although the way she fidgeted clued me in that she didn’t believe Cooper ran away. Of course she couldn’t say that around the forlorn Brian, telling the boy someone stole his dog would’ve probably broken him, but I could read between the lines. And it was the only possible scenario that made sense, although why someone would steal Cooper was beyond me.

The next morning when I was going to take Hamlet for his morning walk, I saw the Romero kids stuffing my mailbox with something. At first I was worried it was one of their pranks, but I opened up the mailbox to see a flier.

It wasn’t just Cooper that had gone missing the day before. Rocky, the Romero’s rottweiler, had also went missing around the same time.

Two dogs, one day. It was too spine chilling to be a simple coincidence.

I mean, the cops didn’t take it seriously. Two dogs missing but no one seen ushering either away or lurking around the properties, so clearly both just ran away. Just bad timing. Yeah right. No one in the neighborhood bought that, and by that night everyone was keeping a tight grip on their pet’s leashes.

That grip grew even tighter when their bodies turned up.

I just left the house with Hamlet for his morning walk when my dog suddenly barked and pulled his leash free from my hand, dashing down the street. He bolted right towards a dark shape next to the Waid’s dumpsters that I initially thought was a trash bag. It wasn’t until I got closer that I saw the pool of stagnant blood and realized the ‘trash bag’ was the lower half of a brown dog’s body. Someone had cut it in half, right about where the ribs ended.

I skidded to a stop. I stared for an agonizing amount of time, watching Hamlet growl while buzzing flies crawled between the viscera spilling out of the mutilated corpse.

Then I ran for the Waid’s front door and pounded on it. It was only about six AM, but no way… no way I was going to let Brian leave the house and see that.

This time when the police were called, it was taken far more seriously. It’s one thing to have a missing dog. It’s another thing entirely for the missing dog’s corpse, or well, half the dog’s corpse to be dumped practically on the doorstep. And although the perpetrator may have wanted it to seem like it was a hit and run, there was just no sign of the dog’s other half. Even if by some weird circumstance Cooper was torn in half after being hit by oncoming traffic, which is highly unlikely, we’d have to find some sign of the head and shoulders.

Brian was understandably a wreck, but his mom pulled me aside to thank me. It had been Brian’s morning to take in the garbage. If he’d seen that… god, I don’t even want to think about it. They didn’t give him all the details, but when the remains of Rocky were found later that day, dumped in a similar manner, I imagine he did get an inkling about the condition of his beloved family pet.

I knew one of the cops personally, he’s another of my neighbors, Tim Grove. We met when he moved here a few years back with his heavily pregnant wife Florence. She couldn’t really help with furniture, so I tagged in. Although my first impression of Tim was to be a bit intimidated by the big guy, we’ve ended up becoming pretty good friends. I’m actually go to babysitter for their son Harry. That night after the initial panic had died down, Tim came over to chill at my front porch.

“You know what dead animals mean?” Tim asked me as we watched the sun set in this previously simple neighborhood.

I just raised an eyebrow and waited for Tim to remember my hobby. “Not like what you do,” He rolled his eyes and punched me in the shoulder. “Like what happened today.”

I unfortunately had to nod. “Fucked up person. Really fucked up person,” I said.

Tim nodded, dragging his hands down his face. “Damn it. I don’t ever want to see another dead dog in my entire life,” He groaned.

I got the man a beer, not at all envious of the task that was in front of him. By the time I returned, I internally groaned when I saw Clarence with yet another gift for me, a wrapped up fruitcake. He looked about ready to wet his pants at the sight of Tim.

Clarence sighed with relief when he saw me. “I just came by with this!” He handed me his newest baked offering. “Um, I’m s-sorry, I didn’t know you had someone over already, I didn’t want to be a hassle, I just made too much m-m-mixture and-”

“Clarence, you’re fine,” I interrupted. “This is Tim, he’s my neighbor to the right. His bark is worse than his bite.”

Tim quietly laughed. “Hope you end up liking it around here, Clarence. Moved here little over three years ago myself, and well, other than what happened today, it’s usually pretty quiet.”

Clarence cocked his head to the side. “What happened today?” he asked. Tim grimaced and looked to me to handle this.

“Someone killed a dog. Two dogs, actually. Pretty messed up,” I said.

Clarence looked sympathetic. “Which families? Would they appreciate some baked goods?” He asked.

“Maybe give them a few days. But that’s a nice thought,” I said.

Clarence nodded and nudged his glasses up with a finger. “Goodbye then, I’ll speak with you tomorrow if we run into each other!” With that, he skittered off back to his house on the corner.

Tim waited until he was out of earshot before he turned to me. “That’s the guy that just moved in?” He asked, sounding carefully nonchalant.

“Yeah. He’s all right.” I unwrapped the fruit cake and sat down. “Bit bad at making friends, but he’s all right.”

Tim didn’t say anything, only twisting his mouth before eyeing that cake. “Sooo, is he a good baker?” He asked.

“He’s good at baking cookies at least. I’ll cut us some slices and you’ll find out if he’s good at cake too.”

Answer: yes, he was good at cake too. We quickly changed the subject away from Clarence, really we stopped talking about the events of the day entirely, we needed to decompress.

I imagine some of you are wondering why Clarence wasn’t top of the suspect list, since the mangled dogs showed up right after he arrived in town. And I think it’s because not many people even realized Clarence was there. He was just that invisible of a person. Hell, I wouldn’t have noticed if Clarence hadn’t made it a point to keep showing the fuck up wherever I was. Even then, I didn’t chalk that up to stalking or anything creepy. That’s how nonthreatening he came off as, even if he was bizarre.

Some people are just good at that I guess.

People of course took precautions. Never leave your dog alone in the yard, don’t let them out late, just keep an eye out for anyone who looked off.

It didn’t stop though. That’s the whole chilling part about it, the fact the pet killer saw people had their guards up and it didn’t stop him. More pets vanished, both cats and dogs of all breeds and sizes. In and out the thief would slip into yards, take their beloved pets, and within the week their butchered remains would show up near their home. Only parts and never the whole. I never let Hamlet off his leash when we were outside, which made him miserable, but the very idea of losing my best four legged friend was enough to break me. I’m sure any and all pet owners can empathize with that.

I never considered Clarence a danger until an afternoon I was watching Harry for Tim, a ‘work emergency’ that he didn’t want to go into too much detail about but odds are was another dead pet. That day I’d taken Harry to the park because he ‘wants swings time!’ I couldn’t say no to that lil face, it’s too cute. Besides, I’m not his dad. I don’t have to say no.

Harry was begging me to swing him higher when I heard someone softly clear their throat behind me. I turned my head around and saw a surprised looking Clarence.

“I d-didn’t know you had a son,” Clarence said, nudging his glasses up as he stared at Harry.

“He’s not mine, he’s the Grove’s,” I scooped Harry off the swing, the kid squealing as I set him on the ground, “This is Harry. I’m just watching him for now.”

Harry grinned and did that cheeky wave of his that made him seem shy, but it was all an act. Kid can and would make friends with anyone that gave him even a little attention.

I didn’t expect Clarence’s response, which was to immediately turn his head away and shudder. It was such a visceral reaction that I was, for the first time, truly put off from Clarence.

“Are you okay?” I asked, picking Harry up and letting him cling to my side like a little monkey.

Clarence kept facing away, but I saw his face going red and his eyes looking a bit wet. “It’s nothing,” He squeaked out, his voice barely above a whisper. He finally turned to face me, plucking his glasses off to clean them on his shirt and smiling at the little guy. “H-Hello, Harry. You remind me of my Trudy, you know?”

Harry beamed and waved again. “Hello! Hello!” He chanted, reaching to try and take Clarence’s glasses. Clarence chuckled and mock put the glasses on his face, but he couldn’t hide the genuine pain on his face when he took them back.

“Hello, and… a-another time, then,” With that, Clarence sped out of the park, not even stopping to give a more official goodbye. Harry didn’t pick up on anything being strange, but toddlers usually don’t pick up on social strangeness, he just wanted more time on the swings.

I did though. And I brought it up that night when I was chilling with Tim, both of us cracking open a few beers.

Tim was clearly exhausted, the last few weeks of animal thefts and deaths were wearing him down. He needed the guy’s time on the porch. It was after Harry was put down for sleep when I brought up Clarence’s bizarre behavior at the park.

“Why was he even there?” was Tim’s first question.

“Guy sticks to me like a burr to a sock,” I responded, throwing my emptied beer can into the trash, “I think he’s just… clingy. You know anything about him?”

Tim shrugged. “I ran a background check on him after he gave us fruitcake. Just to see if anything popped up, relax. Guy doesn’t even have a parking ticket, he’s clean as they come.”

“What about Trudy? Did he have a child?”

Tim sighed and reached for another beer. “Did. He did have a child,” He said. “That’s the one thing that really popped out at me, I kinda feel bad for the guy.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“She died. About a year ago.” Tim shook his head. “Clarence was driving home from work, got t-boned in the center of the intersection. He lost his left leg from the knee down and his daughter Gertrude didn’t make it. She was four. Life seemed to just fall apart for him after that. Divorced his wife right after he got out of the hospital, lost his job shortly after that. I didn’t want to give him a hard time, so I left him alone after I ran the check. Just had to make sure he wasn’t some kind of wanted serial killer. They tend to do that, you know- start with animals, work their way up to more… human prey.”

I sat there, completely stunned. No wonder he’d reacted like that around Harry, if he was still grieving the loss of his own kid that was around that age. As I headed back home, I resolved to try to reach out to Clarence more often, starting the next day.

I never did. That night me and the rest of the neighbors woke up to Florence’s bloodcurdling screams.

I ran over without even putting my shoes on. I didn’t even try to make sure Hamlet stayed indoors, so he ended up running outside with me. I just about ran into their door when Tim whipped it open, his face white as a sheet.

He only got out the word ‘Harry’ before he collapsed in my arms, nearly sending us both toppling over- Tim’s a big fucking dude. I helped him to the bench in the front porch before I burst into the house, unsure of what I would find.

I found Florence, still screaming in her child’s bedroom. The window was open, letting in a cool breeze, and Harry’s bed was empty.

I couldn’t get a lick of sense out of the hysterical Florence, so I stumbled back out to Tim, who was still white and was now trembling. I quietly sat down next to him and asked, “What happened?”

“… We put him down around seven. Florence only wanted to take a quick look at him when she was up and he was… gone. He’s not in the house. Where’s my boy?”

I didn’t even consciously think about it. I just remembered Clarence’s face in the park earlier that day, the look of tragic loss, and how it was now plastered across the face of my friend.

I still didn’t stop to get my shoes on. I bolted across lawns and down the street, Hamlet galloping after me as I ran to that quiet house on the corner. Clarence’s house. It looked somehow even more uninhabited than ever, the lights all dark and the lawn unkempt. Sometime since he’d arrived the front window had been broken and all he’d done was tape some cardboard over it.

Tragedy can make a man do some really messed up things, and I found that out the moment I entered the house.

Hamlet started snarling the moment I forced open the door. Hamlet rarely growls, he’s a pretty laid back dog. But he could pick up the wrong before I did. I heard the jangling of a dog’s tags down the hall and I turned on my phone’s light as I stepped further into the house. The place was still filled with unpacked boxes, nothing in any sort of order.

I almost reached the kitchen when out poked the head of a chocolate lab. A chocolate lab I only knew too well.

I froze. Cooper stopped only for a second, his head lolling to one side before he looked up at me. I panned my light over the rest of him, my hands shaking as I saw he was cleanly split down the middle, the back end of him taller than his front end and with short black fur contrasting with Cooper’s soft brown coat.

I dropped my phone, I heard the screen smash on the way down but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Hamlet barked, the hair on the back of his neck standing straight as his hackles raised. Cooper didn’t really respond, just meandered his way back into the kitchen and plopping down by the sink, next to a cat… a Frankenstein’s monster of a cat. I picked up my phone and panned the light over to see there was no less than four different cats sewn together to be one single feline, its glazed blue eye looking at me while its just as milky amber twin was permanently tilted towards the ceiling. Cooper, well, half Cooper and half Rocky just huffed while the Frankenstein’s cat groomed his ears.

I was shaking so bad as I made my way back to the living room. I collapsed on the couch, Hamlet whining and pressing his nose into my hand as I continued to tremble. It looked so wrong in a way I can’t even put my finger on, but I guess the closest feeling would be to compare it to uncanny valley- it was still a cat and still a dog, but at the same time it wasn’t.

Another cold nose, this one dry, rubbed against my ankle and I hauled my foot up to see another cat… well, half a cat.

I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically or scream and cry at the sight of the two headed animal at my feet. One head was of an orange tabby with ripped up ears and the other head was a bichon frise that I recognized from a missing poster that was plastered on the corkboard at the grocery across town. The heads and shoulders were sewn together clumsily to the body of another animal that wasn’t dog or cat- the best I could guess from the bushy orange tail it was a fox.

That disturbing chimera stared at me with all four eyes before he clumsily clambered back into an empty box.

I forced myself to get up, fearing even more for Harry. I was leaving the living room with full intent to go get Tim and the rest of the goddamn police force… but that’s when I quite literally bumped into Clarence leaving his basement.

I just froze, staring back at the nonplussed Clarence. My new neighbor eyed the growling Hamlet, then looked back at me. Nudging up his glasses, he smiled. “I didn’t know you wanted to come over, Bobby. But I thought I heard you up here. Are you here for Harry?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Come, follow me. He’s downstairs.”

I don’t know why I followed Clarence when I should’ve bashed his head in against the wall and made a run for it, but I did. I told Hamlet to sit and stay, and for once the dog listened to me as I followed Clarence into the basement. The basement reeked, smelling so metallic I could almost taste it, and Clarence turned on the light to a horror show.

Blood and gore caked the area around a worktable in the center of the room, bloody needles and thread stacked up next to it along with a bin full of innards and bits of hide. Beside it, the front half of a raccoon attached to the back end of a dachshund was leisurely chewing on a piece of intestine. A murky tank of water was up against the far wall, its surface occasionally disturbed by whatever was inside. I nearly collapsed with relief when I saw Harry, unharmed, sitting on a couch and clutching a stuffed rabbit I knew wasn’t his.

“Rogue taxidermy. Have you heard of it?”

I nodded while Clarence took a seat next to Harry, patting the boy’s hair while Harry’s bottom lip quivered. “Like jackalopes. Not really my thing. Clarence, why is Harry here?”

“First things first.” Clarence nodded to the murky tank. “Take a look at my newest creation. Not every one worked out, but I feel this one looks the best.”

Deciding that just going along with what the potentially crazy and murderous guy wanted was the best course of action, I headed over to the tank. I nearly set my fingers on the side when Clarence cleared his throat. “Uh, maybe don’t… do that. Just wait a moment.”

So I did. In a moment, the water stirred and out popped the head of a goat. I jumped backwards with probably quite the yell, much to Clarence’s amusement as I heard him quietly chuckle.

The goat glowered at me before it flicked its tail above the water… its fish tail. As it swum circles around the tank, its lips twitched to show its flat molars had been replaced with what I could only assume were the teeth of various dogs, all janky and twisted.

“I spent a long time getting all the fish I needed for its tail. I needed them fresh, you see, so I couldn’t just go to any fish market and expect the freshness required.”

I turned back around, hiding my shaking hands behind my back. “What the actual fuck, Clarence?” I said, my jaw clenched so tight it was borderline painful.

Clarence tutted his tongue and covered Harry’s ears. “Small ears listen, Bobby,” He gently scolded.

“Not apologizing. What is that?!” I asked, gesturing to the goat monstrosity swimming in its tank. “What is… what is all of this?!”

Clarence got to his feet, putting himself between me and Harry, who was still cuddling the rabbit and clearly struggling not to cry. “You get a lot from a family, you know. Inherit so many things.” In this basement that stunk of death, Clarence had gone from the shaky nerdy fellow to a man confident and dare I say it, proud of his work. “I’ve inherited my talents, and of course the instructions, to fake life.” He nodded towards the dog-raccoon combo. “It’s not really alive, or it doesn’t have its soul from before. It’s running off muscle memory, which probably is why that goat is so poorly behaved.”

Before I could get it out, Clarence answered it for me. “And as for why, well, my ancestors have been playing with the dead for almost seven generations.” He nodded towards the work bench. “Go on, take a look.”

It took me a second to realize he was gesturing to a book, thicker than most dictionaries and bound with old, cracked leather. Still trying to keep Clarence at the corner of my vision, I picked up the book and flipped it open. The writing near the beginning was faded and written in such old English I could barely understand it, but as I flipped through the pages the words became darker and the language began to modernize. At the end of each section was a signature.

“My mother was the most recent author. I was her only child. Luckily for me, I lived long enough to inherit the book.” Clarence’s jaw clenched so tight it looked painful. “But I’ve not been so lucky.

“Trudy?” I asked.

Clarence took a deep shuddering breath before he nodded. “It was all my fault, you know,” A tear slipped out of the corner of his eye, “I’d been working far too hard. My wife, bless her, told me I needed to take it easy, but I wanted to- I guess I just wanted to make a mark somewhere other than the book, which would only be seen by family. I fell asleep at the wheel of my car when Tr… Trudy was sleeping in the backseat. We were heading home from a father daughter date, because I f-finally promised to take the time to spend time with her. I thought I’d have a hundred more nights like that, never even thought for a moment how it’d be the final time.”

He looked at Harry, eyes filled with grief. “No, he doesn’t look like Trudy. Not a bit. Trudy… my Trudy looked like her mother. Ginger hair and hazel eyes, had a beautiful smile. But this boy, it’s his soul that reminds me of Trudy. Good. Just… just so good. I promise, no animal in here suffered. I managed to procure some pentobarbital to help them go easy and quietly. Except for the goat, unfortunately that one had to be fought with a bit more. Quite an ornery creature, but I wanted to see if I could pull off making a seagoat. And I did, didn’t I? No one else in that book has succeeded in making separate parts work as a whole. It’s been tried of course, Mary Shelley was quite an inspiring woman, but I was the one to figure it out. I have to pass it on to someone, don’t I?”

The conviction he spoke with during his speech, I almost understood him. Almost.

I set the book back down and carefully approached Clarence. “But you can’t pass it onto Harry. You know he’s not your son. We can make this better, Clarence. You don’t want to hurt Harry, right?” I said, trying to speak in a calm voice and not with the fury I felt for the sake of this little guy.

Clarence’s face contorted in horror. “Of course I wouldn’t!” He said.

“Can’t you see how scared he is then?” I gestured to the little boy. “Was that Trudy’s bunny? He seems to like it.”

Clarence swallowed audibly. “She named it Rosie,” He said.

“You don’t want to hurt Harry, but his dad? He’s in agony right now. Just like you were when you lost Trudy.” I took another careful step towards Harry, trying to gesture for the little boy to come to me but he seemed about glued to his seat. “You don’t want to hurt someone like you were hurt. You didn’t even want to hurt these animals, you just wanted to create something new, and you did. It’s… it’s beautiful, Clarence. You’ve really done something incredible.” My stomach turned at the lie, but I was just trying to calm this guy down as I inched closer to Harry. “Let’s go to Tim and return Harry. We can get you some help. I’ll be with you every step of the way. It’s not too late to make things right.” I was now right up next to Clarence, who was staring at his hands. “We can make this right?” I asked. He didn’t respond, just staying still. I took that as a sign of acceptance, so I reached for Harry.

My first mistake was assuming Clarence’s stillness was a sign of surrender. My second mistake was assuming that Clarence wasn’t as wimpy as he looked.

He moved like lightning, one second I was reaching for Harry and the next I was flat on my ass with stars exploding in front of my eyes and my head screaming in pain.

Clarence stood, his face a careful mask as he patted Harry’s head. “I’m sorry, Bobby. But I know there’s no returning from what I’ve done.” He leaned down to look at me, smiling that friendly smile that now made my skin crawl. “I won’t kill you. You can tell Tim and Florence I’ll take great care of Harry. He won’t even miss them, with all the things he’ll be able to learn from me.”

With not many options, I did probably one of the lowest things I could’ve done.

I smacked Clarence’s left leg out from under him. It hurt like hell to whack his prosthetic, but it had the desired effect. Clarence immediately lost his balance and he tumbled to the ground. My head still swimming with pain, I scrambled to get up and scooped Harry up, who finally began to wail as I held him in my arms. I tried to head for the stairs, but by then Clarence had gotten back up and limped his way in front of me, cutting off my mistake. He was still so calm, not at all mad about my retaliatory attack.

“You’re not leaving with Harry,” Clarence said. “I won’t kill you, I promised and I don’t break promises, but I will hurt you if it means I’ll have him.”

I backed away, now not at all sure of what Clarence was capable of now. Sure, he said he wouldn’t kill me, but would him killing me count if he could just bring me back right after?

I kept stepping backwards until I nearly bumped into the tank. I heard the gnashing of the seagoat’s teeth behind me and it occurred to me that not all of Clarence’s creations were happy to just chill and eat their own guts.

I bolted behind the tank and with one strong kick, I knocked that tank over.

The tank’s water spilled across the floor and the seagoat flopped about, trying to find balance with only two legs and a fish tail. Its strange yellow eyes rolled back towards me for a second and I briefly panicked, thinking it might be come for me, but it thankfully its murderous gaze focused back on Clarence.

With a watery bleat, the seagoat lunged at Clarence, who screamed as he was tackled to the floor. While Clarence tried to hold that thing back and prevent it from biting his nose off, I bolted for those stairs.

Hamlet was still waiting upstairs, thank god, and we ran out of that house while Harry bawled and held onto my neck so tightly I couldn’t breathe. I ran back down the street where the cop cars had now surrounded Tim’s place.

Even if my head was absolutely killing me and the horrors of that house were still making my stomach churn, it was all worth it when I burst into the house with Harry in my arms and seeing both Tim and Florence’s expressions of despair turn to pure joy.

People are still calling me a hero, which I will admit feels pretty nice. Walter says I get free use of his taxidermy space for the rest of his life, which would sound pretty neat but he never charged me before, so it’s mostly a joke. I don’t think Tim has let a day go by without thanking me, and Harry is still my little buddy. He’s bounced back pretty well, a doctor’s visit confirmed he was perfectly unharmed and he was always a pretty happy go lucky tyke.

Of course, people called for Clarence to be drawn and quartered, but the bastard got the last laugh. It wasn’t even an hour until the cops were breaking down his door, and although they did find a few sewn together animal corpses, Clarence was nowhere to be found… and neither was his book or the damn seagoat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *