The Beast of Stiltsville
Above the shallow, brackish waters of what was once a great sea, Reed poled his dinghy towards a rundown shack held up on stilts covered in irradiated barnacles. The setting sun behind it hid the details of its dilapidated sides and roof giving the structure a quiet beauty, like the antique postcards Reed’s mother kept. As he got closer, he saw there were faded shades of yellow and green paint coating the outside, leading to a rotted door. Moving diagonally across the door was a streak the color of dried blood.
Finally, he thought. Glad the last of my money wasn’t wasted. Gone too far to turn back.
He moored his boat to a short ladder that would bring him up to the door. He was about to knock, but thought better of it. Whatever’s inside already knows, he thought. His mind then flashed to scenes from town.
“There’s no sense in delaying the inevitable,” the governor would yell into his megaphone before the new moon sacrifices would begin. The speaker made his voice tinny and robotic, his other hand lay flat against his wide belly.
With no handle, Reed pushed open the door on its rusted hinges and bits of muck fell from the frame. Inside was dark save for where holes in the roof let in smokey streams of light. He stood in the doorway, waiting for his eyes to adjust when he heard a sound like boiling water coming from the shadows.
In the opposite corner, a pair of reptilian eyes the color of dying fire met his, freezing Reed in place. The eyes worked their way down his thin, tawny frame. An enormous paw then slapped down into one of the streams of light revealing long claws that began to carve grooves in the damp floor.
His eyes now focused, Reed could make out more of the creature’s full, deranged form. It’s outline took up most of the wall, was bulky and covered in thick fur. The face holding those eyes was both long and wide. The silhouette of a strong tail jostled back and forth against the wall behind it.
An amalgamation of all we’ve lost, Reed thought. Features of things known only to me and the other keepers. Things I’ve seen in the old books and film strips hidden away in hopes of preserving our past. The last time I saw a paw like that it was attached to a balding panther whose ribs poked out. The last of its kind being paraded through town as the governor’s pet.
Reed moved out of the doorway and positioned himself in the furthest corner from the beast. He was terrified of what this thing might do, but wouldn’t let fear stand in his way. Then it spoke.
The creature’s low growl gave way to a deep, raspy voice. “What do you want?” Its reptilian eyes blinked, seemingly for the first time. Then it continued letting each word linger in the searing heat of a burning world, “Why have you come here?”
Reed’s chest tightened, but he knew what was at stake. “I’ve come to ask a favor.”
The thing huffed, sending dried strands of seaweed tumbling towards Reed’s feet. “I don’t grant favors. I grant wishes, boy. Surely they told you thissss.” That sound, Reed thought. I know that sound, too.
It continued, “But for you, I’d be willing to form a partnership.”
“A partnership.” Reed repeated the word back slowly. He knew it’s sounds, but not the meaning.
Then the creature in the dark, this myth made real, began to move. The wood beneath them creaked and groaned as its body elongated and the outline of its head moved towards the ceiling. In his mind, Reed saw a bear rearing up on its hind legs, searching for something in the distance. Its top half then curled forward, enveloping Reed who had somehow moved closer without realizing.
“I’ll do something for you and you’ll do something for me — a partnership.” The open door let in glints of light bouncing off the water that highlighted the thing’s teeth. Glistening teeth, like thin knives, inches from Reed’s head. Animals don’t smile, he thought. They use teeth for one thing. He stepped back until he could feel the frayed wood of the wall behind him. Silence hung over the room. Reed could hear water lapping against his dinghy outside.
He took a deep breath, remembered what was at stake. “Fine. A partnership then.” Then he asked what he came here to ask: “I want you to save the town. Turn it back to the way it was before the skies turned red and the waters went away. All of it the way it was. Can you do that?”
The thing let out a deep, rich laugh that made Reed’s ears twitch. The wood began to moan again as the thing stepped forward. Reed squeezed himself into the corner and crouched down with his eyes squeezed shut. Even without seeing, he could feel it moving closer. He waited for it to strike, for the end. But when the end never came, he opened his eyes to find an old man looking down at him with a checkered smile on his face. His skin was the color of wet sand, deep wrinkles made trenches around his eyes. He let out a thin chuckle and stepped away from Reed, towards the door. He moved with a heavy limp and kept his arms stretched out towards the frame which he then used to balance in the doorway. He stared out into the dead waters.
“I’ll do this thing for you,” the man said once he’d settled. Still huddled in the corner, Reed could feel a tension behind his eyes release, his stomach calmed, but a wariness remained. Something in the man’s voice was leading. I was told The Beast of Stiltsville played tricks, Reed thought, but this is more than a trick. This is something else.
Reed began, “Thank y — ”
“But as I said, you will have to do something for me.” The old man looked back at Reed, those reptilian eyes from before flashed for just a moment, then went back. He continued, “Do we have a deal?”
Reed got to his feet, “What do you ask in return?” He was young, but not a fool. This world had hardened him as it did us all. There was recognition in the old man’s face, he realized this was a pure heart — possibly the last of its kind.
“In return you will become me.” said the old man, letting the words hang and grow like vines, each passing second giving them new meanings. Then he went on, “You will be the thing of the Stilts, the wish granter, the myth, the creature in shadow. You will take my post and watch the world unfold as it will.”
“It will be better, then? Like it was before?”
The old man’s face sagged and grew long. He turned back to stare out through the door once more. A heron with frail wings moved across the red-orange sun that just barely peeked above the horizon.
“What do you know about the way it was before? And before when? Before you were born when your parents were children? Are those the days you long for? Perhaps you’d like us to start over again from the very beginning. Is that the world you’ve come here begging for?
“Enough.” Reed regained the strength that had carried him so far from home. “Our world is dying. You know this. We are forgotten while the others with their great machines spew death all around us. All the creatures are gone. More of us starve and die everyday. I have come here seeking help. I do not beg. Will you help me or not?”
The old man made a defeated sound. “You know not what you ask, but you ask it all the same. You’re no different than the others. Pure heart or not.” A pause. “Well, are you ready?”
Reed moved across the old shack, the floor creaked once more. He met the strange old man, the creature in the doorway and gave a slight nod. There is no other way, he thought. We know that now. I do this for all the others.
The old man’s body began to fade, become translucent. He spread and became a nebulous cloud of flesh that surrounded Reed. The stubborn, special young man from the last town of the south, intent on saving a world long past saving, closed his eyes and accepted the offer. A sharp, wispy voice like dead leaves in wind said a final word: “Goodbye.” Then they were both gone.
The old shack out in the dead waters of Stiltsville stood silent, empty. Flocks of birds with colors unseen for generations, rich reds and blues, graced the skies. Then the shacks floor began to rumble as salty water gushed between the boards, swallowing it whole.
As the waters rose and the air’s oily sheen dissipated, another flock flew over head. This one was a fleet of hardy gulls that moved with purpose. One broke formation, swooped down and gracefully came to rest on a small dinghy that aimlessly floated along the great sea.