“And here,’ said the docent, ‘we come to
In death, the
Eustreptospondylus was a treacherous thing. Her head was horse-like, and her
teeth were sharpest: knife-like and serrated, pitting jaw against jaw until
they split her skull in a scissors grin. Her body was bone, and her spine
was a skeletal hangar: appendages hung limp, hammered in place by iron and
metal joints. Here a leg snaked to the ground, guileless and undeceiving until
you spotted the talons piercing through. Here an arm mistook itself for a twig,
dwarflike and arrested in growth, attempting offshoot at an awkward angle.
Whatever tail that had once possessed her was long gone: bone clutched at bone,
and in the light of the hall, she looked feline and avuncular, crouched in a
pose startlingly familiar – like a jungle cat feigning civilization.
dabbed at the sweat across his brow. It was sweltering in Jurassic Hall.
It was a dream
that was worrying him: a recurrent dream, the kind that had you waking up in a
cold sweat night after night after night, wrapping its rhymes around you until
you were no longer sure of the difference between night and living day. For
weeks now, he had seen these monsters stir. For months now, he had trembled in
fear, quivered in corridors as colossal shadows lengthened, tautened, roared.
Every night, he watched the fossils move.
said the father of a family of four politely, clutching a curious toddler by
the hand. ‘But I’m afraid the yoo-strepdododylus wasn’t what we were looking
for. My daughter wanted to see the fish.’
he said testily. ‘And you don’t mean fish, you mean the plesiosaurs. They’re
down the hall.’
Of course, he
had told no one of his dreams. For one thing, he was not sure of them himself:
his mind was a sieve, sifting detail through detail until they jumbled and
blurred into pale pastel waterworks; until the bat that swooped down from the
ceiling was a pterodactyl no longer; until the calculating amber eyes that
pinned him in place lacked a face, multiplied in teeth, dwindled in shape. For
another, he was sure they meant nothing. He was twenty-three, after all, very
smart, about to graduate summa cum laude,
almost certainly going to be engaged in a brief while, well on his way up in
the world. Someone had told him dreams were nothing more than elaborate wishes:
there was nothing he could wish for. And in his world, no one wished for
they troubled him. Always, they would happen in the same way. He would find
himself deserted in one of the museum halls, in the dread hours of a deadened
morning. He would hear a click and a rustle, and he would turn, and there,
behind him, there would be nothing but thin air, and a shadow he was sure had
not been there before. Was the darkness darker? Did it press slightly more
oppressively? Did he hear – could he hear – the sound of a rattled breath, sucked hungrily through narrow lungs, ever so softly in the murk?
So he ran, and
then his memory become mazelike, and woven through by holes no expert
seamstress would have left behind. But he remembered the ending. He remembered
the taste of ivory teeth, and the tap-tap of claws on marble floors. He
remembered the stench, and the hot musky breath that blew through his hair and
warmed his cheeks. He remembered being eaten, very slowly, recollecting in
excruciating detail as every limb was gnawed off, scarfed down and swallowed
piece by piece till only his head remained, wide-eyed and frozen in an
expression of permanent horror. He remembered the choking, deafening quiet, and
the last sight he ever saw by the sliver of moon that chanced through the
window, ominous and forbidding as he read the words scrawled metallically over
Why had he led
them here? He wondered, as he watched the family of four walk away. Of all the
places in the world, what had drawn him back again to this one?
And he thought
he saw the diplodocus swivel its head to look at him.
real. He told himself this as he stared at the diplodocus, daring it to move,
holding his breath. Dreams weren’t real.
diplodocus stayed where it was, and he let out his breath, relief suffusing his
limbs. He rubbed his eyes. Sleep was a fickle mistress, he decided. Sometimes
she slept with you. Sometimes she stayed away. He was beginning to see things
where he shouldn’t. Tomorrow he was going to ask for a day off, he thought, and
pop a pill for sleep. Really, this was no way to live.
He was turning
away when his sleeve caught at something, and a tear ran up his uniform’s arm
to end at his elbow. Mentally, he cursed. The museum charged for uniforms, and
he was scrounging up every penny he could to buy that exquisite engagement ring
Claire had wanted. It was not until he looked to see where it had snagged that
his blood ran cold, and the hair on his neck stood on end. Many days later, he
would still not believe it, and in the end his wife would take him to a
psychiatrist, where he would gabble, incoherently, about what he swore had
somehow, impossibly, improbably, happened.
There, on the
teeth of the Eustreptospondylus, dangled a piece of the docent’s clothing. Her
eyesockets glinted: pale, malevolent amber, in the light of the afternoon sun.