THE WORLD’S GREATEST LIFE INSURANCE SALESMAN
Upon waking his first discernible sensation was that his mouth was terribly dry. He felt the hardened cracks and grooves inside of his mouth with his parched, shriveled tongue. His mouth had never been this dry. Never.
A sense of panic raced through him and he sat up with a start. His heart raced wildly in his chest. His arms shot out to his sides seeking a solidity of any kind as a dizziness swept over him. His hands gripped the softness of a seat cushion. He could feel the heavy but comfortable fabric against his fingertips. A couch or lounge chair of some kind, maybe. The sense that he was sitting up in something comfortable relaxed him somewhat. He felt his muscles loosen and his heartbeat and breathing slowed a bit.
It was when he was considering these sensations that he became aware of a smell. A foul, noxious smell that assaulted his senses and brought bile to the back of his throat. The bile was immediately soaked up by his moisture-starved mouth, bringing some much needed moisture to starved tissue but it also activated his gag reflex. Before he could think about it, before he could stop himself, he vomited at his feet. His stomach heaved and more of whatever he had eaten earlier was discharged on the floor. He could feel the faint vibrations of the vomit hitting the floor through his feet.
He wiped his dripping mouth with a shaky hand and coughed uncontrollably, the bile still stinging the back of his mouth. At least his mouth wasn't dry anymore, he thought.
It was night time. Streaks of moonlight cascaded through an opened window across a sea of pitch black shadows. Through another window he could see the burnt yellow glow of a nearby gas light streaming through the thin slits of partially closed blinds. He could hear the soft splatter of rain against the roof above him and against the window panes and even thought he heard the sounds of an automobile driving through rain slicked streets.
Where was he? But more important; who was he? He had no memory. None. He could not think of his name. He did not know what he looked like. He did not know where he was or where he had been.
The panic rose in him again. What was he going to do? He wanted to run, just run, and maybe he could find his way home. Wherever that might be. But then he remembered the vomit at this feet and he thought better of it. He wanted to put his fist through something, to lash out at fate for dealing him this cruel hand.
Amnesia. It had to be amnesia.
But how could it have happened? And when? Had he hit his head on something?
He took stock of what he did know. He was sitting on a couch in what might be the living room of a home. That much was evident from what little light came through the curtains and blinds but it was still too dark to make out much else.
He choked back the pit of despair that was opening up inside of him. And tried to remain calm but the questions swirling in his head was relentless, like a hive of angry bees.
Suddenly he had to find out what he looked like. That might jog his memory and end this torture. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness somewhat so that he could see a few inches into the gloom in front of him.
He got up from the couch and stood in the darkness for a few moments. His head did not ache or hurt so he was relatively sure he had not injured it. Besides the fact that he had no idea who or where he was, physically, he felt relatively good.
He took a tentative step forward and heard the vomit, squish under his foot. When he didn't knock anything over or bump into anything, he took another step forward. This time he felt something small but hard crunch under his foot and it had the gritty quality of broken glass or something ceramic.
With his arms in front of him groping through the darkness, he twisted left and right, trying to touch, to grip anything, something; but he came away empty handed.
With every step deeper into the darkness, he stepped on things. Broken things. Plates? Dishes? Ceramic figurines? What had happened here?
Each footstep brought a loud,
crunching noise to his ears.
Had there been a robbery attempt? Was this his home that he was walking through? Were these his shattered belongings?
Finally his outstretched fingers detected a wall. He walked alongside it slowly with one hand out in front of his face.
He could tell that he was no longer in the same room as before. He must have been walking on carpet before. Now it sounded like hard-wood flooring.
The overpowering stench that had earlier made him vomit was not as strong now but still nauseating, powerful enough to make him hold his breath. It was a familiar stench; one that reminded him of road kill. A rotting possum on hot asphalt, innards exposed and glimmering with green flies. He shivered involuntarily as if that mental image had leapt at him from the shadows.
After what seemed like hours of stumbling in the dark, he found a light switch. This relieved his mounting anxiety but before he could bring himself to flick the switch, a disturbing question raised itself in his mind. Would turning on the light bring him any closer to finding his identity? That nasty smell could only mean something bad so what good would it do him to subject himself to potentially deeper despair? Did he really want to see what might be revealed by turning on the light?
No. But he had to know. No matter what it might do to him, he had to know. He sighed heavily as if he were not just merely turning on a light switch but pushing a button to launch nuclear missiles. His hand shook nervously. Beads of sweat dripped down his face in rivulets.
Finally he flicked the switch.
Searing white light cut through his eyelids and stabbed his optical nerves. He began to back peddle but hugged the wall to steady himself against the light's brilliance. Very slowly his vision came back to him but he still had to wince to see clearly. The fact that the light hurt his eyes so much told him that he must have been asleep or unconscious for an unusually long period of time.
He stood in a hallway. Photographs of unrecognizable people were framed and hung on either side of a narrow hallway with stained hard-wood floors. He scrutinized the pictures. The faces were bright and smiling but they were complete strangers to him.
The overhead light only illuminated the hallway and little else. Enough light from the hallway spilled out into the room he just left so that from his vantage point he could only discern a few vague shapes of what could be furniture pieces.
There was another room at the other end of the hallway but it was ensconced in foreboding shadows. He cringed at the thought of going back the way he came, back towards the smell. But it was better then facing those shadows. On quivering legs, he headed back the way he came.
Standing in the entranceway, he could make out the fuzzy, dark shapes of a coffee table, a pair of end tables, chairs, the couch he’d woken up on, shelves, a television and other odds and ends cloaked in semi-darkness. The furnishings were just as unrecognizable as the people in the pictures in the hallway.
With the faint illumination of the streetlights coming through the blinds and the soft phosphorescence of the hallway light, he could tell that the floor was littered with broken glass. It glittered on the ornate rug like jewels in black water.
But what happened? A domestic dispute turned ugly? Vandals? A tornado? Then he noticed the blinds swaying back in forth in the breeze that blew in from the broken window over the couch. But who or what broke the glass? And why? It was a wonder that he hadn’t cut himself when he’d passed through earlier.
The room was still too dark to make out specific details but the furnishings suggested that he was in a living room. But whose living room?
His silent questions continued to go unanswered compounding his confusion. What was worse was the feeling that something terrible had happened in this house. His amnesia, the vile stench, the broken window and the looming shadows all seemed to evoke some nameless horror deep within the pit of his stomach.
He remained rigid, standing amidst the broken glass, listening for any signs that the house was still occupied. His eyes adjusted further to the murky depths and to his right he saw the walls vanish into the impenetrable shadows of another room, another doorway.
He picked his way through the glass to the inky blackness of the doorway. Immediately upon reaching it, he could tell it was a much smaller room because he had the sensation that if he took a few more steps, he would bump into something hard and ultimately painful. He waited a few more moments before entering, letting his eyes adjust even further.
It was a bathroom. He felt along the wall for the light switch. Sure enough, there were two switches and he flicked the one closest to him. The bathroom instantly became flooded with blinding light. In the mirror above the sink, he saw a face staring back at back at him; his face. Even though it was spattered with blood and bits of gore, it looked like it belonged to a man in his late-thirties, the traces of creeping middle age subtly evident in the barely noticeable lines and wrinkles under the eyes and around the mouth. The hair was black, peppered with gray and cut short in a military fashion. The nose was angular and hawk-like. The chin was sharp and covered with short black and gray whiskers. And it was all covered in blood.
But it was the eyes that unnerved
He looked deep into those unrecognizable eyes as if he were staring into a swirling black abyss where his identity might be floating helplessly. But it was a stranger that gaped in shock at the face from the other side of the mirror. With the room beginning to spin sickeningly and his breath coming in ragged gasps, he caught a glimpse of another disturbing vision. His clothes! They were covered in blood. His flannel shirt was sticky with splashes of blood.
But whose blood?
Trembling hands ran themselves over his body instinctively, searching for cuts or wounds. When they found nothing, the trembling actually worsened with his realization that the blood was not his own.
What had he
He slumped down against the doorframe, his arms and legs going limp. Tears welled in his eyes. His pounding heart and quick breath were so loud to him that it seemed they echoed through the house like an unbalanced washing machine in a monastery.
He sat there feeling utterly alone, wondering why this was happening to him. He felt the house closing in around him, felt the shadows reaching for him with invisible fingers. It took an immense effort of will for him just to remain conscious as he silently endured the mind-numbing horror that burned at the back of his brain. It was as if he had fallen into a surrealist painting, a nightmare from which he could not escape.
It was when that familiar yet sickening stench reached him again that he stepped back from the black chasm that was quickly becoming his sanity. Where was it coming from? And for God's sake, what was it? Even though he thought he already knew the answer, it was the one thing that he could latch on to, the one thing that was familiar, the one thing that gave him some small sense of purpose. He felt desperate enough to think that the source of that nauseating yet fascinating smell might be just be the thing to jar his memory.
He got up slowly, painfully; every muscle in his body seemingly taxed from his terrifying ordeal. Leaving the bathroom light on, he swayed on unsteady feet and reentered the living room.
And immediately knew that something was wrong! Something had changed or had been moved somehow; some subtle change that he could not quite put his finger on. Maybe something he had missed on both occasions when he had walked through the living room.
With the bright light spilling from the bathroom, he saw what it was. The reclining chair next to the vomit covered couch. Someone was sitting in it! He cried out in alarm, unable to stifle himself.
He waited for some hint of acknowledgement from the seated figure cloaked in shadows. He stared at the figure for what seemed like hours, but his sense of time was as fragile and distorted as his slowly eroding state of mind.
Finally, he took an uncertain step toward the seated figure. When it did not react, he took another step in its direction. Again there was no movement. Not even the slightest indication of detection. He cocked his head like a curious dog and stared at it, daring it to get up, to move, to speak, to do something. But its indifference was as cold as the swirling shadows.
He spied a lamp sitting on an end table near the sofa. He kept his eyes riveted on the figure as he crept dangerously close to its veiled but penetrating gaze. He was right in front of the figure now. It was still featureless in the darkness but there was no doubt that the foul stench emanated from this stoic figure. The smell was so strong, so intense that his eyes started to water. He felt compelled to gag but to do so might draw unwanted attention from the mysterious thing in the chair even though it had still not moved an inch.
It was when he reached for the lamp that he realized he would have to take his eyes away from the thing in order to turn it on, a thought that sent waves of dread through the walls of his heart.
He swallowed hard, the fear
cresting in his chest and turned on the light with a loud “click”.
Holding his breath, he turned ever so slowly, ever so cautiously back to the lounge chair...
And instantly and involuntarily back-peddled away from what he beheld!
A horribly ravaged and mutilated face stared back at him. There were so many bloody gashes and so much flesh missing that it was totally unrecognizable. The scalp had been ripped from one side of the head and hung limply like over the one remaining ear. The left eye was torn from the socket and hung from the exposed optical nerve like a broken, raw egg. The right cheek was viciously lacerated and dangled like bloody ribbons so that he could see the teeth and gums through the gleaming wound.
Beard stubble caked with blood told him that it was a man. He clasped his hands to his temples and rubbed them vigorously in some futile attempt to produce some fragment of remembrance. He tried to picture what the man may have looked like without the dreadful injuries, tried to imagine the man alive, walking, talking. Maybe interacting pleasantly with the people in the pictures in the hall.
He strained, gritting his teeth as if
that useless effort might force a captive memory from his brain.
Still a blank.
But there was no dispelling the chilling feeling that this man, this terribly mutilated piece of dripping meat held some knowledge, some information as to his own elusive identity. It was obvious now that this was the source of the foul yet familiar scent that had plagued his nerves since his awakening. And what he first mistook to be the stench of rotting road kill was in fact, the sickening, sweet smell of raw blood and organs of the human body that were never meant to be exposed to the light of day.
Who was this man? His brother, father, neighbor? He paced nervously around the lounge chair, never taking his eyes off of the dead man. Who was he? Some thief that he had dispatched? Or was he the thief in this man's house?
The possibilities were endless and
dizzying in their magnitude.
And then an unwelcome thought formed in his mind; regardless of the dead man's identity, regardless of his own identity...was he capable of murder? Could he have done this?
On the other side of the lounge chair, nearer the couch a blood spattered telephone sat on coffee table. Without hesitation, he reached for it. He didn't know who he was going to call but it was something, a link to the outside world, a link to his past. He could call the operator and...
And realized in that split second, even as that faint ember of hope started to glow in the darkness of his mind that the phone line was dead. There was no dial tone. Nothing but the incessant, hollow clicking in the receiver. Like skeletal hands rapping the inside of a cheap pine coffin.
In a fit of rage he flung the lifeless phone across the room where it crashed into a china cabinet, breaking dishes and other knick knacks.
He felt so depleted, both mentally and physically that he flopped down on the sofa again, heedless of the shredded man beside him in the lounge chair. He did not care that he was sitting in his vomit again but he was thankful for the soft cushions at his back. He laid back, his head lolling to one side and looked at the dead man's torn and bloody face again. It seemed to smile back at him through the lacerated cheek and the dangling eye seemed to stare at him.
He smiled back at the corpse, a resigned smile, as if the dead man were a long, lost friend. Because as far as he knew, he just could be. But then again he could be anybody.
He sat up, reached out tentatively at first and then quickly took the dead man's hand in his own. He was surprised that it was not cold but luke warm. He patted the hand gingerly, as if trying to coax some fragment of remaining life force from the shredded body. He looked deep into that dangling eye, searching for something. Anything. Just one ounce of proof from the bloody thing that he had not been born into the world this very evening.
But the eye did not stir, did not blink, it was a glistening marble suspended by veined ganglia; blank. It told him nothing. It was just like the lipless grin; frozen in a scream forever silenced.
It was then that he let his eyes drift down to the man's neck. He had not noticed it before because he was too shaken by the ravaged face but the man's neck was torn completely open. The trachea and veins swelled from the neck as though some monstrous animal had ripped the throat apart with primordial fangs. He stared at the gaping wound, his eyes unable to escape the gruesome sight. Little spurts of blood still trickled through the flaccid, slashed carotid artery. Then came the shuddering realization that the atrocity must have occurred recently.
He recalled the sight of his own blood encrusted face in the mirror and an unwholesome thought seeped through the jellied layers of his brain like freezing motor oil…Had he done this? He tried to imaging himself tearing at the man's body but what he saw so filled him with revulsion that he closed his mind to the loathsome images. The very idea of holding the dead man's hand suddenly became abhorrent. He pushed it away where it flopped over the blood-soaked arm rest like limp spaghetti.
He felt a mixture of revulsion and hatred then. Even as he was repulsed by the possibility that he might be responsible for the man’s injuries he was angered by his seemingly helpless predicament and his inability to recall even the merest details about his identity. The two emotions seemed to wage an unseen battle within him. His mouth twisted in a grimace of horror and outrage. Nervous tremors raced up and down the length of his extremities, finally lodging as a quivering tick in the corner of his mouth.
Anger and frustration finally won
Driven by an impulse of pure, instinctual rage, he stood up and faced the shredded corpse.
"Who am I?" he yelled at the leaking figure, his fists shaking menacingly. A tidal wave of anger and adrenalin surged through his veins. His heart swelled then contracted in torrential, spasmodic beats. His fear subsided. His guilt faded. What remained was an indescribable hatred that burned through his body like snake venom.
His whole body shook as he screamed
again, "WHO AM I?"
But the man did nothing but ooze greasy fluids onto the chair. It was like the house and its dark corners and unfamiliar furnishings; it mocked his ignorance.
The utter madness of it all filled him with such an uncontrollable rage that he grabbed the coffee table and hoisted it above his head, intent on hurling it at the bleeding thing in the lounge chair and crushing what was left of its empty head.
And then, through a blood-red haze, with the table raised above his head, he caught sight of an unusually long patch of hair growing out of the crook of his elbow. He did not know who or where he was but he knew that patch of hair was anything but normal.
He let the coffee table drop to his
feet with a crash.
He was completely entranced by the odd hairs. Long and wild-looking. His rage was momentarily forgotten in light of this bizarre discovery. His gazed at the untamed hair as it caught a sliver of moonlight cascading through the living room blinds.
With his other hand, he reached out
to touch it...
And noticed another similar tuft of scraggly hair growing from his wrist!
This...this...was…not right. There was no way he could have missed the peculiarly long hair on his wrist when in the bathroom. No way. He would have caught it.
Inspecting the hair he found that it was coarse, rough to the touch, like that of an old junk yard dog. It was completely unlike the rest of the hair on his arms. And it was silver. Just like his Grandmother's.
Wait a minute! The color of
the tufts of hair reminded of his…his…Grandmother? And as soon as that
thought occurred, he knew that he did have a grandmother. And what was
more, he could visualize her clearly in his mind. Not just the idea or concept
of a grandmother but his Grandmother. He could picture what she looked
like in his mind’s eye and knew instinctively that she lived with her Irish
Son of a bitch! He could remember
He ran back to the bathroom mirror thinking that now he might remember who he was and why he was in this house. But the face staring back at him was still unrecognizable. Only now it had two patches of shaggy silver hair growing below his ears like side burns.
Then, before his eyes, another patch of hair sprouted from his chin. And just like that, more of the fibrous strands began popping out all over his face.
He tried to pull it out from his skin but it would not budge. "What's happening to me?" he screamed into the mirror.
He raised his hands to his face to cover his eyes but when he did, a shooting pain like liquid fire raced down his spine. He doubled over, the muscles in his back bunching and contracting with violent seizure-like twitches.
The pain was so intense that it drove him to the floor but not before he caught one last glimpse of himself in the mirror. For just a moment he had the distinct impression that his teeth were uncommonly large.
Pain, the likes of which no human mind could ever conceive seemed to reach out and twist every nerve in his body. He could not stifle the wet screams that rose in his throat.
He tried in vain to regain his feet, the mental image of his grandmother spurring him on. But even that priceless morsel of his past blurred against the almighty pain that sucked at his soul. He felt something ebbing from him, something indescribable but essential, something…human. Because as that filament of humanity withered and curled into some fetal position in the darkest, most remote areas of his brain, something else was emerging in its place. Something that wasn’t human by any stretch of the word.
With great effort he looked down the length of his body. Maybe it was his imagination, maybe his vision was blurred by tears, but he could have sworn that he had seen his skin ripple, as if beneath the folds of his skin, now covered in that silver hair, there writhed an army of slithering eels. He could even hear it. Ghastly popping and cracking sounds dribbled up to him. The wet twang of bone and muscle being re-formed beneath his skin. He had the vague sensation that he was growing, thickening, elongating; seemingly with every new tangle of hair that continued to sprout from his sweaty, quivering flesh.
Titanic drums pounded in his ears. The twin gods of pain and rage seemed rooted in every cell of his body, like he was lying in a nest of fire ants with barbed, metal pinchers dipped in flaming acid.
As he lay twitching on the bathroom floor, he could not help but think that he might never know his true identity, that he might die right there in the bathroom. He might never know who the man in the living room was. But those thoughts were like so much flying debris in the tornado of pain that screamed past his mind's eye.
And then the strangest thing happened. Amidst the seismic waves of pain and coursing fury, over the sickening sounds of his mutating body, he became aware of another sound. A rustling sound, like a cold wind through brittle leaves. A unbelievably compelling noise. It tugged at him, pulled at him as if with an unseen rope.
He heard it again only it was louder, more distinct; scintillating. He had to find out what it was, had to find its source. Why he felt this way he could not say but biting his lower lip, which felt very strange to him for some reason, he managed to crawl out of the bathroom. He considered attempting to stand, to look at himself in the mirror, to see what horrific changes his body had violently undergone but suddenly he didn't seem to care. When he made it into the living room, he pulled himself past the man in the chair without so much as backward glance.
The noise. It drew him like a moth to a flame. It was laced with promises and triggered something deep within him. Gritting his teeth against the blinding pain, he struggled to his feet and walked on wobbly legs that hardly felt like his own, desperate to find the source of that consuming intonation.
He passed the living room with its unfamiliar furniture and knickknacks. He passed the broken china cabinet with its smashed contents and felt no regret.
He walked back through the hallway with its framed pictures of smiling, unrecognizable people. But he could have cared less. He had to find the noise.
At the other end of the hall lay the other room, the one with the suffocating shadows that he had earlier avoided. He paused ever so slightly before entering, the archway to the other room looked like the dark, gaping maw of some nightmarish creature ready to swallow him. But the noise beyond it drew him in.
And when he stepped into the room, he realized immediately why initially it seemed to be cloaked with oppressive shadows; it was a small, recessed foyer leading to a very solid-looking, wooden door. There were no windows in the tiny room. There was a coat rack with a rain jacket hanging from it. Below that sat an umbrella stand and it was still glistening with droplets of water. Next to the umbrella stand was a muddy welcome mat.
A strange thought passed quickly through his mind; he should not be able to see these objects. The room was pitch-black yet he could see through the shadows as if the foyer were illuminated by flood lights.
But it was the door that held his attention now. The noise was coming from behind the door. It floated through the tiny keyhole and drifted up under the door so that it seemed to surround him, engulf him with its mysterious allure. And until now he had not noticed the grumbling sound that had been coming from his throat; the closer he came to the door, the louder his growling became. He was dimly aware that it was a crazed, savage sound but he could not seem to make himself stop.
For some unknown reason he felt certain that whatever lay on the other side of that door was meant for him. Once that door was opened, he would regain his memory. He would finally know who he was, he felt sure of it.
He reached out to grab the doorknob and saw an overly muscular, hairy forearm attached to a monstrous hand tipped with great curving nails. For a split second he wanted to pull his hand away to see if in fact that hairy arm was indeed his own but that thought faded like a dissipating mist.
What mattered was opening the door.
Then he turned the knob and opened the door with a creaking groan and walked outside.
He stood on the front stoop and looked up into a giant, silver moon overhead. It glowed with an uncanny radiance. It seemed three times its normal size. He could see every crater, every crevice. And it was beautiful.
In that instant, almost as if one of those brilliant moonbeams had shot out from its corona and struck him in the deepest tissues of his brain, he remembered who he was.
Or more appropriately, what he
His name was Duncan Cronauer.
The moon and all its tantalizing mystery and beauty seemed to fade away as he remembered how it had all started.
He had been watching television when he heard the doorbell ring. After it rang a second time he knew his wife would not be answering it so he got up off the couch and opened the door. A tall, well dressed man carrying a brief case was at the door.
He had introduced himself as Larry
Talbot. He said he was a traveling salesman. Said he sold life insurance.
What a joke.
He should have known right then but the man’s eyes were beguiling, like dancing cobras in fire light.
He let him into his home without a second thought.
And that was all the room that Larry had needed. In the blink of an eye, he wasn't Larry anymore. He was this big, slobbering, hairy thing with railroad spikes for teeth and straight razors for fingernails. And then it had ripped him open to within an inch of his life.
Be he didn't die.
Larry had meant for him to live all along.
And when midnight came around and the full moon was riding high in the sky like a gargantuan electric star atop a Christmas tree, his eyes miraculously opened and he stood up; not as Duncan Cronauer, out of work pipe fitter, but Duncan Cronauer, werewolf extraordinaire.
In the days and years that followed he became Lawrence Talbot's closest living friend. They had hunted together for years, first one victim at a time, sharing the kill together, feeding. Then once victim turned into two and three and four at a time until it became a game. To kill the most prey at one time with out getting caught. School rooms. Cub Scout meetings. AA meetings. Entire church congregations. Nothing was above their hunger. Or their rage. It was all about closing the deal and making the sale as Larry had put it.
Soon they began making others like themselves. Other werewolves. An enormous "sales force" as Larry had joked. And after a time they had created the largest, deadliest pack of wolves that had ever roamed the planet.
The pack became so large that it
would devour whole towns in a single night. Smaller towns at first until their
numbers had grown, then entire cities.
The rustling noise drifted up to him and broke his train of thought. He looked around the front of the small house and saw his brothers and sisters scurrying past him. Some growled, questioning his authority. Others stopped to sniff him and display their submissiveness before racing onward. Great hordes of howling black shapes streaked past him, trampling flower beds, smashing through fences, bounding over walls and overturned cars with amazing speed and agility.
All on their way to war. To feed.
To rage. On
He caught the eye of an exquisite, young female as she slowed to a trot in front of him. Her hind quarters swayed erotically left and right as she sauntered up the sidewalk towards him.
The body twitched and jerked.
The change had begun.
Another life insurance policy sold. Another sale closed. Because if it wasn’t life insurance they sold, what was the alternative? He laughed but it was a low, wet, growl that escaped his throat.
He lifted his hind leg and sprayed the statue of a pink flamingo with hot urine. And then he bounded up the sidewalk after the female.
And with that, the recently emerged psyche of Duncan Cronauer receded like murky bath water down a tub drain. What remained were the withering wisps of memories from a life only dreamed about by a man who became a wolf.
And the world’s greatest life insurance salesman.