Harrison Burke sat on a park bench at midnight with a sack of six Burgerito’s bacon double cheeseburgers and a giant alligator. Harrison had not been sleeping well lately. Or at all, really.
The streetlights were dim here, filtered through the trees. They said you had to watch out for muggers if you walked in the park after dark. Harrison had never encountered a problem. Probably because of the alligator.
Harrison was certain it was an alligator. He’d checked the Internet: U-shaped snout, teeth visible both directions when mouth was closed, broad and flat head. It was a mottled, ghostly white instead of muddy gray-green, but Harrison chalked that up to the exotic chemicals it was no doubt exposed to down in the sewers. Those also probably explained its size, or at least well enough for Harrison’s atrophied high-school biology knowledge. He called it Frank, short for Frankenstein, and was sometimes annoyed that he could not share this bit of cleverness with anyone else without first attempting to convince them of a car-sized albino alligator that lived in the sewers near Harrison’s apartment.
“Chemicals make mutants, right? What hath science wrought and whatever,” he said, tossing a burger into Frank’s maw. He did not take the time to unwrap it; Frank did not care about a little bit of paper, but he had strong opinions on the correct amount of time it should take to deliver a burger once it was visible.
“I wonder if you’re my fault. I worked at GlaxoSmithKlein for a bit there. Me and Chet. Who knows what they were flushing while we were out front making nice with the journos? They were into all kinds of weird medical research. Hormones or whatever. This batch failed, so down the toity and have the media relations guys do another spit-polish on our logo. So I might not have poured any test tubes, but they only got away with it because of me. I’d be like your daddy. Or god-parent, anyway.”
Frank’s jaws snapped shut a worryingly short distance from Harrison’s calf. He did not otherwise respond.
“I think I nailed the Childress thing,” Harrison said, fishing out and tossing another burger. Frank watched avidly. “Got some finance stuff, hooked it up to the e-mails we leaked. Makes him look like a complete asshole, and best of all it has absolutely nothing to do with science at all, so his study shouldn’t really even come up in the news coverage. McLeary will be thrilled.” He snorted. “It’s probably already on tonight’s blogs. I wish I’d lived when news happened once a week or so. Telephones and letters or whatever. You could probably sleep at some point back then.”
Frank’s nictitating membranes flicked briefly over his eyes, but he refrained from comment. Harrison gave him the rest of the burgers.
“I gotta work in a few hours, Frank. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night?”
Frank flared his nostrils. With a twitch of his tail, the massive reptile slithered around, slipped into the retaining pond and disappeared into the intake, leaving a ripple of reflected streetlights behind.
Harrison had tried to find Frank in the daytime before. In the morning, joggers in exercise clothes of varying levels of technological sophistication whizzed past the bench, occasionally stopping to re-tie a shoe; in the afternoon, there were only pigeons and the painfully lonely-looking old woman who fed them; by early evening, busy pedestrians taking shortcuts from work or to bars were the only passers-by. Harrison had lingered all day once, feigning heart palpitations and a hospital stay for Mr. McLeary’s sake, but not even a single idiotically burbling pigeon had been snapped up by a white alligator’s jaws. It was only in the long, slow hours of the night, when the fabled pulse of the city skipped a beat and Harrison’s bloodshot eyes snapped open for good, all hope of a restful sleep abandoned, that the alligator slithered from the sludge-dark water and quested for the smell of prey. Or burgers, which were presumably easier. Harrison understood taking the path of least resistance.
Harrison took it as a given that he was probably going insane, and only half-heartedly wondered what he actually did with all the burgers. He surely wasn’t eating them, judging by the way his ribs protruded these days. A bottle of purified water and a quick snort of coke was all the lunch he could ever stand, and forget about breakfast. But it made him feel better, somehow, to buy his nightly bag of burgers at the all-night neon glow of Burgerito and make his way down to the park. Harrison treasured the few comforts he had left to him.
“You’re getting fat, Frank,” Harrison admonished. “I’m up to a dozen burgers these days. The guy at the grill is making them in advance now.” He tossed another greasy packet into the pale pink gullet, where it disappeared with a ripple of muscular action. “You’re not listening, are you?”
Frank turned his head. The golden eye and its obsidian slit of a pupil regarded Harrison for a moment before the jaws cracked open again. Harrison sighed and readied the next burger.
“McLeary almost pissed himself laughing today,” Harrison told Frank. “We win. I don’t think I even know what kind of science Childress was doing, but he won’t be doing it much longer.” Something about plastics, Harrison did not say, chemicals leaching, hospitals, something about children. “McLeary told me I should relax after this one. He said to get a haircut. Asked why I was still single.” He shuddered and laughed mirthlessly. “I think he’s going to try and promote me, or else marry me off to one of his senator buddies’ daughters. Chet will probably have an aneurysm; he used to be a senior account executive when we were with GSK. All I need is for Childress to suddenly drop dead of a heart attack so he can’t counterpunch, and my golden record will be secure forever. His PR exec is Liz Gorzinsky, I think, so no worries there. She got her job with Leverage Partners on her assets if you know what I mean. You probably don’t. Lady alligators don’t have tits, I’m pretty sure.”
Harrison lapsed into silence.
“It’d be easier if Childress was dead, though. Dead men don’t fight back.”
The burgers ran out, and Frank perforce disappeared. Harrison watched him go. Then he lay back on the park bench and stared at the sky until he almost thought he could see the stars.
It was daytime, and the sunlight was disorienting. Harrison had never been in Burgerito’s while the sun was in the sky. The burly man behind the counter, sweat glistening on his burnt umber skin, stared at Harrison with the welcoming hostility of the very busy, and Harrison discovered that he did not know why he was here. It was barely past noon. Frank would not be in the park. Harrison was supposed to be at work. But he wasn’t.
He’d had to leave.
“One,” Harrison sputtered. “Just one today.”
The cook’s hostility took on a questioning tone.
“A cheeseburger. Bacon cheeseburger.” Harrison dredged his memory for appropriate cultural cues and managed a weak smile. “I usually order more. Later. I’m usually here later. There’s an old black cook. I mean. Uh. Older guy. With a… he wears a hat. He makes me bacon cheeseburgers.”
The cook nodded as though Harrison had made sense and went to work, hands moving like a concert pianist, grease and cow scraps flowing beneath his fingers and congealing into something like art. The line behind Harrison surged forward.
Harrison took his burger out to the park. The same automatic, insomniac pattern that had taken him to Burgerito’s led him to the bench beside the retaining pond. The old woman was feeding her pigeons again. She stared at Harrison with eyes just as red-rimmed and insane as her feathered charges, but said nothing as he settled at the far end of the bench and stared at the paper-wrapped incipient coronary that was turning the cuffs of his work shirt translucent.
“I’ve never actually eaten one of these before,” he said. He took a bite. His voice became muffled. “It’s good.”
The pigeon lady fled. The half-chewed burger sat on Harrison’s tongue like a wad of expanding foam insulation. He wasn’t hungry. He was never hungry.
He forced himself to swallow, then sat and regarded the burger for a while longer. A soft whine attracted his attention, and he became aware of a medium-size dog staring at him. Black fur, short and patchy. It had no collar, no leash. Its ribs were more prominent than Harrison’s. It was also staring at the burger.
“Here,” Harrison said. “All yours.” He tossed it to the ground. It disappeared nearly as quickly as when he threw them to Frank, but the dog didn’t flee when the food was gone. Instead, it sat up, panting happily and wagging its tail. Harrison held out a hand, and the dog approached cautiously to sniff it, licking the burger juices away. Then it nudged its wet nose under his fingers and indicated that ear scritches would be acceptable.
“You kind of smell, buddy,” Harrison told the dog. “You’re a lot softer than Frank, though.”
The dog made an approving noise in its throat.
“No, it’s fine. Frank isn’t really very good company. He leaves as soon as the food is gone.” Harrison’s eyes lost focus. “Also I think he’s killed someone. Recently, I mean. It makes sense he’d have eaten at least one person before; he has to eat something besides burgers, right? I mean, what did he do before I came along?”
The dog clambered halfway up onto the bench but wasn’t able to make it all the way. Harrison gave a boost to the scrabbling back paws with his patent leather shoe. The dog settled down beside him with a sigh, ensuring its head was close enough for more petting.
“That’s crazy, though, right?” Harrison asked, obliging the unstated request. “It’s crazy. McLeary comes to my office today, tells me Childress has disappeared. Poof. Vanished. McLeary is laughing because it’s perfect timing. Asks me if I had anything to do with it. Joking. He was probably joking.” Cold eyes in a web of smile wrinkles, pupils like obsidian. “There were traces of blood on the sidewalk outside Childress’ building. Right near the sewer entrance. Matched his blood type, waiting on DNA. Cloth ragged on the edges.” Blood by the sewers. Toothmarks. “But I didn’t even say anything last night. Not really. I wasn’t even thinking it.” Yes, you were. “Okay, maybe a little. But it’s insane. Frank couldn’t have killed him. He isn’t real.”
Harrison went quiet as an elderly couple walked by, neither of the men glancing his way. They both had hearing aids. They probably hadn’t heard anything.
“That’s why I came to the park today,” Harrison told the dog, which lifted its head and settled it, warm and stinking, on Harrison’s thigh. “I mean, not to the park. Specifically. Just. I couldn’t stay in the office. I told McLeary I was getting a full salon treatment. Manicure and all that. He kept laughing, clapped me on the shoulder. Like he knew. Like he knew I’d sent Frank. But I didn’t.” You did, you did, murderer. “Anyway, there aren’t… there aren’t really alligators in the sewers.”
The dog made a dismissive whuff sound and closed its eyes. Eventually, Harrison did the same.
Harrison dreamed that the bench came to life beneath him, the ridged and knotty wood turning to ghost-pale scaled hide, writhing and bucking like a roller-coaster. He was riding the alligator through the city streets like a parade float, and the jaws went snap-snap-snap, crowds fleeing, crowds cheering, and he was ten, twenty, fifty feet off the ground upon the leathery back, the alligator grew to the size of a monster movie, gulping entire cars and people by the dozen. One gold-and-obsidian eye rolled back toward him as he tumbled and clutched for handholds, a car alarm was going off and he knew what would happen if he fell, if he lost his grip and tumbled into the jaws that opened beneath him, skyscrapers like teeth closing in until the sky was black and all he could hear was the shrill, whining, terrifying sound of the car alarm going off somewhere in the darkness…
Night had fallen. The dog was barking. Not the throaty, rumbling sound of canine territorial instincts, but the piercing half-shriek of animal terror. Harrison lurched to his feet and tripped over something. A brown spotted tail curled across the front of the bench.
On the path, Frank was regarding the hysterical dog with the same bland disinterest he reserved for everything except meat. The dog was cornered, every bit of ragged fur standing on end. It danced on stiff legs like the ground was electrified, but every time it made a lunge for one direction, Frank moved with deceptive speed to cut it off. He seemed so slow, but he was everywhere. No way out. Harrison looked at Frank’s eyes glimmering metallic in the streetlights, and he tried to say, “No,” but found he couldn’t speak at all.
With a short, sharp snap, the dog’s cries ceased abruptly.
Bones crackled as Frank tossed the small carcass lightly in the air, catching it deeper in his mouth and swallowing it down. He turned back to Harrison, nostrils flaring. The jaws cracked open again, as though he were about to ask a question.
“I’ll get more burgers,” Harrison said, feeling oddly cold and distant. “But you aren’t that hungry tonight, are you?”
Frank blinked once and did not move. He might have been a statue, carved of rotten marble and doused in reeking sewer water.
“Let’s see how this works. How crazy I am.” Harrison met Frank’s gaze steadily. Bad idea this is a bad idea. “Wilder. Chet Wilder. He’s second place in the firm, gunning for first. He wants to take me down. He might succeed, if he keeps at it. I don’t even know how much I want to beat him. I mean, I want to beat him, because he’s an asshole. We’re all assholes. I just… don’t know. If he’s gone, I’m all McLeary has left. I win by default.” Should I tell him an address? Where’s the GPS setting on a mutant monster alligator? “If Chet is gone, I win. And winning is… important. I’m sure it is. It can’t not be.”
Frank didn’t seem even to be breathing, but his golden eye held Harrison fixed. He looked larger than ever, larger than was possible, larger than should be possible.
You have to say it this time, you have to mean it. “Go. Get him.”
The alligator turned and nosed its way into the pond. It seemed to take a quarter of an hour for all of that reptilian flesh to lumber past Harrison and into the water, as though he were on a train in an underground tunnel made of scales and claws. The ripples stilled again almost immediately.
You did it, you did it, good job. Harrison felt like he was crying, felt as though he was sobbing his heart out, but his eyes stayed dry.
Harrison kept away from the park for almost a week. By Wednesday, he’d given up pretending, even to himself, that Chet was ever going to return his friendly, coworkerly e-mails or phone calls. McLeary was in a stormy mood; several of Chet’s simmering projects had been about to come to a boil, and his unexpected absence was putting things in a precarious position. Harrison did not volunteer any theories and accepted the extra work without complaint.
The Childress case hadn’t yet been declared a homicide. Harrison wondered if his fingerprints would be found at the scene. No fingerprints, only scales, just white scales like mushrooms and one finger-length tooth. He found himself suppressing laughter at random inappropriate intervals. He went to the salon for real and listened to the stylist cluck her tongue over the state of his cuticles.
On Thursday, Harrison bought a Burgerito Combo Meal on the way home from work. He hid inside as the sun set and ate the whole thing, then, at midnight, threw up violently into his shining white toilet bowl.
On Friday, Harrison found a shredded tire on the stoop of his apartment building. He checked the parking garage and found that all four of his car’s wheels had been chewed up and spat out, leaving the expensive and almost unused vehicle sitting several inches lower than its neighbors. The security guard gave him a funny look when he asked her if anything unusual had shown up on the cameras the previous night. She said the files were all saved to a hard disk at a remote location and erased automatically after a week. Unless there had been some kind of incident…? No, Harrison assured her. Everything was fine.
He took the subway to work, like always. He did not look down any of the tunnels.
Every night, he turned on the television and shot the deadbolt on his door. Then he waited for dawn and turned the television off. Can keep this up forever, sure, been doing it for years. He added a shot of whiskey to his lunches, but he saved the coke for the nighttime hours.
McLeary told Harrison that he was meeting Senator Roland for lunch on Sunday and Harrison should try to swing by. The Senator’s daughter Rebecca would be there. McLeary told Harrison to dress nice, and he winked and patted his shoulder. McLeary told Harrison that he thought of Harrison almost like a son. Harrison had never noticed before that McLeary’s eyes were a tawny yellow, bright against the black of his pupil. And there was, he firmly told himself, nothing wrong with McLeary’s teeth, neither their spacing nor their… pointiness. Nothing wrong with anyone’s teeth at all around here. We have a great dental plan.
That night, Harrison opened his door and saw the puddle on the hardwood floor. Water, smelling stale with echoes of bleach. Harrison breathed deep. Toilet water, smells like pee. The trail led down the hall in splotches and lines. The bathroom light was on, yellow and welcoming in the dark apartment.
Harrison closed the door, a soft sound like a polite gunshot.
Frank’s head appeared around the corner, bigger even than the last time he’d seen it, so large it could barely fit through the bathroom door. In profile, Harrison couldn’t tell if Frank closed both eyes, or if he winked.
Harrison walked down the hall. The alligator’s hide was slick with damp, his tail disappearing down into the U-bend in the toilet. Harrison knelt down beside the head filled with dagger-like teeth, smelled sewer and rotten meat. The alligator was still again, as still as stone, as ancient as death, unchanged and unchanging since the primordial seas covered the earth. It seemed as though it would never leave.
Welcome, welcome home.
Frank opened his jaws, pink and black and white and white and white.
It was time for the ride to begin.