Mr Verstergan came into town once a week. Paul said he had to be in his eighties but he was still a big man, with steel hair buzzed to stubble and eyes that were a type of blue it was difficult to look at for too long.
Paul passed me the joint. I took it from his fingers as he grinned at me, the kind of smile which ended up in broken windows and abrasive kisses which left me tingling for days afterwards. I was supposed to be going to college in the fall, and over the summer, we’d hooked up. My parents were fighting all the time, and Paul gave me a good reason to stay out of the house. He used to, but lately things felt like we were pretending to be okay. He would have these manic episodes where he wanted to go out and smash things up, poke around. We had broken into three houses and never taken anything. He gave me six orgasms in my high school teacher’s kitchen with his fingers against the counter and all we took was an ashtray.
‘I bet he’s a Nazi.’ he said.
I took a deep drag on the joint and rolled my eyes before sitting back and exhaling a plume of smoke. My thoughts were slow fish, roaming the bowl of my skull before I passed it back.
‘We should leave him alone.’
He grimaced and shook his head.
‘Nah, I watched this video on YouTube. Operation Paperclip, where they got all these Nazi scientists over here so we could put a rocket up before the Russians. Freaky shit, you know?’ he said.
I forced a chuckle but my head was humming as the weed made my thoughts slow.
Mr Verstergan did not look like a scientist.
He looked like a soldier.
Paul came over and put his arm around me. He smelled of sweat and leather, and the small ball of fear in my stomach eased a little, replaced by a slow, liquid warmth. Chase was fun and he knew how to fuck my pain away. I suggested we go to his, and he was already pulling me to my feet.
I hoped he’d forget about the idea.
I used to volunteer at the library. It consisted of putting books away and making endless cups of tea for Mrs Dollard, who critiqued me on its colour and flavour. She had gone out to collect the linens for the book club meeting which was taking place that afternoon.
He came in, looked around the library then stared at me. His square jaw sparkled with stubble, and the lines in his cheeks and foreheads were pronounced as he frowned at me.
‘Mrs Dollard?’ he said.
I shook my head, smiled and told him she had stepped out.
He grunted and looked past me at the desk.
‘She said my books had arrived. Can you get them for me please?’ he said.
His voice was dark and rhythmic, long like a dog barking.
I shook my head and pressed my palms together.
‘I’m not allowed to check books out, Mr Verstergan. She won’t be long if you can -‘
His nostrils flared and he clenched his massive hands into fists.
He swore under his breath and strode past me, looking behind the desk and opening drawers without acknowledging me at all. After a minute, he stood up and glared at me.
‘Where would she keep the reservations, madchen?’
I wanted to help him because he flared with frustration and despite his age, he looked at me and shook his head then walked past me without a word. The speed and ferocity of the encounter made me burst into tears and I heard the screech of his tires as he drove back to his farm. I wondered what he was like behind the wheel, in a closed space. I wondered if he let that anger out, or if he just sat with it, refining inside him.
Mrs Mellord turned pale when she came back, mouth open to ask me for my help in unloading the linens from the car before she stopped and asked me what happened. I explained, between sobs, about the books and she bit her lower lip.
‘I’m sorry, I left him a message but Earl said my delivery has been held up for a day or two. Mr Verstergan’s a prickly one but his bark is worse than his bite.’
I whispered that I wanted to go home and she agreed. I never went back, and every time I saw him afterwards, he would appraise me and find me wanting in some way. It unnerved me in a way I only acknowledged late at night, worrying about going away and whether I was strong enough to handle it all.
I should have told Paul about this. It wouldn’t have fit with the person I was pretending to be, the cool girlfriend for a perfect, nasty summer before I went off to college. I’d not have a boyfriend at home, but a few stories to hang onto like a security blanket.
We laid there on his bed, and he put his arm across my chest, gave me a liquid look which promised mischief and asked if I wanted to go for a drive.
I should have said no, but it wouldn’t have fit.
His eyes were dark as he drove, tapping on the steering wheel as he sang along with Slipknot.
‘Paul, can’t we just go back to yours and stay in bed? He’s an old man, not some fucking Nazi.’ I said.
He shook his head and gave a simian grin as he looked out through the windshield.
‘I’m bored, babes. You know how I get when I’m bored.’ he said.
Whining was not going to get through to him. I put my hand on his thigh, thinking he would respond but he shook his head.
‘I don’t like him. I want to fuck his shit up.’ he said.
He moved into this moods and I went along to a point, but as the summer had gone on, he exhibited a dark, restless tension like a thunderstorm was alive beneath his skin. He wasn’t drinking, but he had a joint the thickness of his thumb smouldering in the ashtray which he didn’t offer to me.
‘Let’s get something to eat then?’
I took a deep breath and felt my eyes prickle as the truth came up, burning my insides with an ugly fearful relief.
‘This isn’t fun anymore.’ I said.
My voice was sharp enough to cut him and he stopped the car. He stared at me as his eyes bulged in their sockets. I looked around at the corn, realising if I got out of the car, I was looking at a long time on foot.
There was never a good time for things to stop being fun.
‘What the fuck did you just say to me?’ he said.
I stared at him, letting the anger mask the pain.
‘I don’t want to break into people’s houses anymore, and especially not Mr Fucking Verstergan, ok? I like it when you’re nice to me, when we get high and I really like fucking you -‘
His hand came up and cracked me across the cheek. It rang in my head, and I unbuckled my seatbelt, animated by hurt and disbelief but underneath an old and capable need to survive, an anger at my failure to listen to myself made me get out of the fucking car.
I opened the door and got out. He sat behind the wheel as I walked away, arms wrapped around my chest as I sobbed with disgust at myself.I heard him open the car door and shouted for him to fuck off and leave me alone.
I heard him start to run and I sprinted from him, each breath like a hot wire in my chest as I turned and ran into the corn.
Paul spewed a litany of insults at me as I kept running until his need to catch me overrode his desire to share all the insights he’d kept hidden from me.
It would have been a lie to say I had not seen this coming, but it had been in slices, the way light reflected off pieces of broken glass.
I saw a light go on in the house.
We were at Mr Verstergan’s farm. A sob of horrified relief broke on my lips as I forced myself to run a little farther.
Behind me, Paul repeated I was a fucking bitch, like a mantra.
I ran past the barn towards the house. Paul was closing the distance, and he wheezed out a laugh.
I called out for Mr Verstergan with the breath I had left to spare. It wasn’t much, and my legs had turned hollow with fatigue.
The light in the hallway went on.
Paul’s hand touched my shoulder as the door opened and I spun away, falling from his grip as Mr Verstergan’s shadow fell on me.
I watched it change as Paul loomed over me.
Paul looked up and laughed. I got onto my knees and saw Mr Verstergan loping towards us. The light behind him hid most of the details but I saw him tearing at his chest with his hands, his thick, low voice turned into a bark and by the time he reached us, he was running on all fours and he did not look like a man at all.
Paul had lost interest in me. Something leapt past me, and landed on Paul, slamming him to the ground as it took his head between its massive jaws and bit down. He gave a strangled cry as his legs kicked out from under him before he lay still.
It was thick with muscle, covered in white fur except where Paul’s blood had stained its muzzle red.
The eyes were the same vicious shade of blue.
I put my hands up and backed away towards the house but it remained still.
It turned and started to ripple with transformation. Its massive shoulders contracted and folded in on themselves as its head and neck telescoped into its chest. The furred skin sagged and loosened before I saw a tear emerge between its shoulder blades. Mr Verstergan stood up, steam coming off his head and shoulders as he stared at me.
‘Turn away.’ he said.
I was lost to the roar of shock reverberating inside my head as I turned away.
There was a wet slow ripping sound and the soft thump of his feet against the ground as he walked past me.
‘I won’t hurt you, madchen.’ he said.
I cried and shook my head.
He walked into his house, naked and bloody as a newborn. I followed him into the house.
He told me to sit in the kitchen. I heard the hiss of the shower then his heavy footsteps from the bathroom and the creak of the stairs as he came in, changed into a sweater and jeans.
I had thought about seeing if there was a knife, but it seemed pointless.
He flled the stove top kettle and turned on the gas.
Paul and I had both been right. He made me tea.
He had volunteered for the Army as an act of patriotism. His ill health had denied him entry but he had been persistent and determined to serve his country in any way he could.
The doctor had come to see him at home. He asked the young man how determined he was to fight.
There were injections and treatments. He put on muscle mass and developed reflexes. He regenerated minor injuries and survived major ones.
Side effects had been accounted for, but when his first transformation ended in the death of three scientists and eight soldiers, it was decided to invest resources in an alternative program.
He ran, sometimes on foot, but mostly on all fours.
He surrendered to the highest ranking soldier available. Lieutenant Harold Kirkland of the 501st Airborne and from there, he was sat with an OSS agent, discussing what he had seen.
He lied about most of it. He said he participated in a program to improve his health, and some of the names he mentioned made the OSS agent twitch with pleasure but otherwise he hid the nature of himself.
It was enough to get him to America.
‘Then, I hid from the world. I had my Laura, and that was enough.’ he said.
‘Why are you telling me all this?’ I said.
He smiled and set his cup down on the table.
‘It has been a long time since I spoke to anyone. I have the episodes under control, but I saw you were in need of some help.’ he said.
I wiped my eyes and sat back in my chair.
‘You bit his head off.’ I said.
‘What was he going to do to you, madchen?’ he said.
I looked down and wept with shame. He stood up.
‘You are going away soon. Let this be something you leave behind.’ he said.
He looked out of the window and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
‘Well, two things.’ he said.
. He drove me into town, swaddled up in an old coat of his, and I looked at him as he drove.
‘What were the books you ordered?’ I said.
He did not look away from the road.
‘Poetry. Laura was losing her sight towards the end and she liked me to read to her.’
I looked away, struggling with emotions too large to contain as I stared at my reflection.
‘You were so angry.’ I said.
He sighed as he pulled the car to a stop.
‘No one loves like a monster, madchen. It is what redeemed me.’ he said.
I told people Paul and I had gotten in an argument and he had driven away. They never found him, of course, but people were relieved.
It was one of the hot, nasty stories I told people when I got to college.
I never saw Mr Verstergan again but I thought about what he said.
No one loved like a monster.