JUST BEHIND THE EAR • by Owen Rapine

Carter probably shouldn’t have taken it. Better judgment, reason, instinct — hell, even conscience had all told him no, that grabbing this wasn’t worth the trouble, that the fence wouldn’t even be able to move it.

Of course, Carter took it.

Everybody’s got an itch, somewhere on their body between their tingling spine and the skin of their teeth, that gets them in trouble. Some people scratch it with coke or slots. If they’re really out of luck, they scratch it with more nuanced nails like self-sabotage or inferiority complexes. Carter’s itch fell somewhere in the middle: every now and then he’d see a painting or a jewel that set him right off. And while some people learned how to ignore it, breathe through the burn and go about their day, Carter went at it with the hopeless abandon of a mutt digging at fleas behind its ear.

So when Carter saw the piece in the museum — a twelve thousand year old, twenty-nine inch long proboscidean Mastodon femur, or so said the accompanying plaque, he inhaled sharply as he felt the familiar pulse of the itch.

Tall and rail-thin, with subtle features bespeaking a faint Inuit heritage, Carter was a meticulous guy — an indispensable trait for a proper professional. Over the next few days he figured out angles, calculated sensor specifications, and even fashioned a carrier to bring it out intact. In fact, his eye only missed one easy detail: the tiny, faded scrimshaw writing of a long-dead language along the piece’s shaft, that shone with an almost imperceptible blue glow when the moon’s rays touched it through the skylight.

***

Between the discordant crash of the door flying open before him and the sibilant shriek of claws rending linoleum behind him, Carter squealed again, clutched the femur closer to his chest and ran like hell, urine trickling down his leg in an unchecked flow.

The grab actually went pretty well. He’d crouched in a blind spot, the pressure plate was cut, and the guards were due back in a generous twelve minutes. As his clamp picked the glass up, his hand grasped the bone — something not done under a full moon by one of the tribe since roughly 13,000 BCE — and slid it into the stiff black casing. As he strode down the hall, the brightness of the carvings’ arctic blue light would have stung his eyes were the case clear.

He’d rounded a corner and came face to face with a hulking mass of muscle and patchy fur, most of its body concealed in unnatural shadows. Its glowing red eyes flashed; its slavering, outsized fangs gated an unfathomable maw that issued a primeval growl of warning he felt in his breastbone. With predatory slowness it put one of its four massive paws before the other, daring this gaunt sack of meat before it to run, run as fast and as far as it could.

This was around when Carter’s plan fell apart.

He turned tail and ran. Some part of his mind — the elusive, basic one responsible for gut feelings and road rage — told him to duck, and he hunched as a blurred shadow reeking of rotting meat and fresh blood soared over him in a savage lunge, crashing through the gift shop windows. The heady note of alarm klaxons joined his incoherent wails like a hell-bound opera. Gates began lowering and sirens bathed the shadows in the pulsing, visceral red.

Carter stumbled under a dropping mesh barrier and fell through an untempered plate glass door, shards sinking into his arms. He checked the case, clambered to his feet, and staggered moaning into the hot summer night.

He heard metal screech behind him, and knew the mesh gate was gone. Next came the basso thumps of heavy paws pounding into the asphalt. A guttural roar split the night and a vivid image of barbecue ribs at last week’s Fourth of July cookout entered unbidden into his mind, of ripping one rib from another and picking every bit of meat until nothing remained but a pile of bones on his plate.

Lost in such pleasant final memories as he was, he failed to notice the curb until it snagged his foot.

He fell hard but his cry had nothing to do with his severely broken nose; as his weight met the ground with a meaty thud, the sleek black case flew from his reaching arms. He watched as his prize flew through the air and bounced once, the black case bursting open and disgorging the bone. It landed in the grass and rolled.

All light abruptly disappeared in a looming shadow. Prone and helpless, Carter cradled his bleeding head, hoping only for a swift death.

A rush of wind went by and he looked up.

Its enormous jaws clutched the bone, blazing with white light. Its enormous body circled once and lay down, depositing its ancient prize between its claws and looking up at Carter with a mixture of triumph and jealous hate. Its upright ears flicked once, and it rubbed the bone affectionately with its muzzle. Its fur was translucent and fading, and the sound of its warning growl lowered to a distant echo. After the white light of the bone the primeval hound’s eyes were the last thing to fade, deep crimson pools that flickered off like candles dying in the wind.

***

Subway ads had sprung the itch once or twice before; the real nice exhibits usually got a billboard. Today was one of those times.

Carter’s left eye was still swollen shut, but his right looked on the blown-up image of a gold-cased Victorian pearl necklace as the train pulled to a stop and immediately wanted nothing else. It was even in the Antiquities section — he knew those cameras like a dance.

Carter thought and thought hard. With a deep breath he made himself relax, and he pointedly looked elsewhere.


Owen Rapine is a Philadelphia-based traveler, firefighter, and athlete who writes when nothing is on fire. He enjoys running, reading, and playing the transcendent jazz sounds of Charles Mingus at unacceptable noise levels.


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