Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Carpenter and the Beast of Teeth

The carpenter was alone and living out of his truck. He had been out of work for a long time when he found an envelope in his post office box. The envelope was black and coarse as hair. Instead of a seam, it had a mouth. When the carpenter picked it up, the mouth bared iron teeth and told him that he was hired. It would be his job to go to old houses the bank owned, fix them up, and kill their monsters.

He held it carefully, keeping his fingers away from the rust-pitted teeth. The voice from the envelope made him feel cold. But he needed work, and the idea of making a run-down house beautiful, seeing new families move in and live their lives, seemed good to him. Maybe he’d find a place for himself, a home with a stove and bed and shower. He said yes. The envelope whispered an address.

That afternoon, he drove to a gray house with weathered paint crumbling off its wood. Tall grass ate the sidewalk. The windows were boarded up, the building washed in fading bands of graffiti. Everything looked dim, like it sat beneath water or smoke. The carpenter got out of his truck with his tool belt and flashlight. The walls were ripped open, the copper stolen. He headed down to the basement to see if there was still a fuse box. There, the carpenter met a group of fanged and furry things sitting together in the dark.

They were sizable, the monsters, about as big as a person. Hair covered their bodies, long and rag-mop gray, dusty and full of spider webs. Their feet and hands were broad with curling claws, and long teeth crossed their lips. There were monsters with eyestalks, with pseudopods instead of legs, with tentacles, wings, extra heads or arms or hands or eyes. It was his job to kill them. The bank’s envelope had been clear about that. He just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

“Are you monsters?” he asked.

“Are you?” they answered in their hoarse, monster-voices.

Every day, people did things they didn’t want to do, he told himself. People with jobs and houses and families, they did what they had to. This was the way the world worked. And after all, these were only monsters. He steeled himself and pulled a long screwdriver out of one pocket. The carpenter shoved it through a monster’s eye.

The monsters wailed and tore at the walls. Some ran at him with their maws open, but most scattered through the house. Panting and trying to explain that he was only doing his job, the carpenter chased them down with a roofing hatchet in one hand and a ball-peen hammer in the other. He smashed in monster faces until he broke the handles of his tools. He bludgeoned one to death with the flashlight, the beam winking on and off with every hit. The last monster fumbled with the window latch, and with nothing else handy, the carpenter wound his tape measure around its neck and strangled it.

When he was done, he had long scratches down his arms and across his chest, and the concrete floor of the basement was a pool of fur and blood. He sacked up the dismembered limbs of monsters along with broken boards, old sheetrock, and empty paint cans and left them out on the curb, the bags sharp and sloshing with sour bile. The carpenter wondered what the garbage men would think.

• • • •

More black envelopes came. They all had mouths, folds of cash clenched between their teeth. They spoke addresses, and the carpenter went to work. In the basement of every house, he found monsters sitting in the dark. Sometimes he walked in on them playing checkers or drinking soda. He shouted at them and waved his arms, trying to make himself big so they would run away. Some fought back, and the carpenter exterminated them with hammers and saws.

Afterward, he ordered pizza and showered in the houses he repaired, sleeping on the floors. At night, he listened for the sounds of monsters moving in the dark. He wondered if they had things to do, strange monster jobs like stealing pets or frightening children. Or if they had families, monster brothers and daughters. One of the black envelopes clapped its teeth together in the dark like a mousetrap snapping shut. The carpenter closed his eyes and tried to stop thinking about monsters and their lives.

• • • •

After he’d been working for a few weeks, he was sent to a crumbling brick house. The windows were covered in tinfoil. The carpenter tried the key that one of the envelopes had spat into his hand, but the door was locked from the inside with chains. The carpenter got bolt cutters and broke in.

Inside, he found a family of six, the parents on the couch and their four children sitting on the carpet. The house was in bad shape, but the family had repaired it: foam and caulk in the cracks, boards nailed up to patch holes in ceiling and floor. It was very clean, the carpenter noticed. From the kitchen, he could smell spaghetti sauce.

“Are you monsters?”

“Are you?” the mother asked.

The carpenter flinched. “You can’t stay here anymore.”

No one moved. The mother went into the kitchen and stirred the pot. The kids kept their eyes on the television. Their father stared at his feet, the socks gray and eaten with holes. A young girl walked up to the carpenter and asked him if he was hungry. She offered to make him a plate.

On the floor in the corner, a pile of black envelopes chattered their teeth. The bank was paying him. One way or another, this was a job he had to do.

The carpenter knocked the TV over, shattering the screen against the floor. He stormed into the kitchen and threw the pot of spaghetti against the wall. “I said, you have to go,” he told them, afraid of what he might have to do if they stayed.

The father stood and helped his children put on their shoes. The mother turned the pot back over, saving as much of the food as she could, and went outside. While the carpenter watched, the family packed things into their van. They wandered between piles of their belongings spread on the floor, trying to decide what they could live without. One of the children lingered in her room and hugged each of her stuffed animals individually before abandoning them. The family got in the van and drove away, the children looking back at the carpenter and their house through the back glass.

The carpenter sat down on the couch and stared at his shoes for a while. After a time, he heard voices. Monsters started coming up from the basement and looking around. When they saw him, they froze. “We saw people drive away,” a monster said. “This house is empty now, isn’t it? No harm in letting us have it.”

The carpenter charged them with the sharp triangle of his speed square raised in one fist, and the monsters scattered down into the basement. They forced themselves through a drainpipe and vanished. The carpenter stormed back upstairs and fell on the stuffed animal collection, ripping them to pieces. When he was done, he sat in the cotton stuffing littering the floor.

It took him two weeks to finish repairing and painting the house. While he finished the work, he slept in one of the beds the family had left behind. He used their soap when he showered. He ate cans of food out of their pantry. Being in the house made him feel sick, like he’d stolen someone else’s life. He hadn’t thought the job would be this way.

When he was done repairing the house and throwing away the family’s things, a “For Sale” sign appeared on the lawn. The carpenter locked the door and drove away, leaving it clean and empty of everything.

• • • •

The next envelope came, money in its mouth. It whispered an address. This house was badly damaged, the porch half-collapsed over the front door. Most of the windows were busted out, trash bags taped over them. The bags billowed in and out with the wind, like the old house was breathing.

Inside, the carpenter found the house full of children. They had blankets on the floors. Trash and broken toys were scattered everywhere. Their clothes were dirty, their hair hung in their faces, and their nails were long and yellow. They looked more like monsters than people.

“Go home,” the carpenter said. “You can’t play here anymore.”

“This is our home,” one of the kids told him.

The carpenter walked through the house to size it up. The water and power were shut off. When he went into the basement, something moved along the wall. He thought it might be a monster, but when he turned on his flashlight, it was only a cloud of roaches passing over the wall.

“There has to be somewhere better you can go,” he told the monstrous children.

“This is the safest place we have,” they said.

He took some of the money the bank had given him, dropped it on the floor, and went back to his truck.

The envelope rested on his dash, glossy in the sunlight.

“Is this what you hired me for?” the carpenter asked it. “Do you want me to kill children? Are they the same as monsters to you?”

The envelope only smiled its gray smile.

He couldn’t throw out the kids, so the carpenter drove around in his truck for a few days, wondering what to do. He checked his post office box, and every day a stack of envelopes came. Each time, they spoke the same address. On his passenger seat, a stack of them muttered in chorus.

He passed a leaning old house on the edge of the neighborhood. Curious, he called the courthouse and found that the bank owned this property, too. He parked and got out to take a look. The house was huge, sitting in the middle of a tree-covered lot. Between the trees leaned old gravestones with the names worn away. The house was four stories high with a reflecting pool skinned in green. The back end of the house was tilted, like it was sinking into the ground. The trees came right up to the windows. He imagined how it would look with the trees thinned, the grass cut, the headstones hauled away. Everything repaired and repainted. He looked in all the windows, finally satisfied that no one was living here. Surely one house was as good as another. He spent the last of his money ordering building supplies and gathered his tools. Piles of dark shit lay all over the forest, caking on the carpenter’s boots and breeding a fog of flies. There were going to be a lot of monsters in a place like this.

Inside, the house was lightless and smelled like mold. Wherever his flashlight beam crossed a wall, the blue shine of eyes winked in and out, crawling into holes they’d dug in the drywall and vanishing. The air in the house was hot and damp with monster breath. Their voices murmured a watery, Are you a monster? The words overlapped and echoed off the high ceilings.

Could he kill them all? It would take days. He imagined monster and stuffed animal and human limbs all mixed together, and the carpenter felt sick. Instead of venturing into the basement, he started by cleaning. When his lumber arrived, he patched rotten places in the floor. The monsters watched him from the dark.

He worked on the house for a week, sleeping on the floor in one of the old bedrooms. At night, he could hear monsters cavorting on the roof like a pride of cats. He dreamed of them, and in his dreams became familiar with every fanged and furry face. Maybe he could just let them have the basement. What need was there to kill them?

The doorbell rang. He’d only repaired it the day before. Covered in sawdust and dirt, the carpenter went to see who it was. From below, he heard monsters falling through the walls and piling into the basement in fear.

When he opened the door, a woman was waiting for him. Her long black hair reminded him of the envelopes. She was covered in small mouths. She had one on each shoulder, on each elbow, on each knee, and even had tiny mouths on each knuckle. Every mouth grinned with metal teeth, rust filling the crevices between them and leaking at the corners like drool.

The carpenter backed away from her, and the bank woman came inside. She walked through the house, studying the repairs he’d made.

“I didn’t think the bank would mind,” he said.

The woman turned to face him, and her body broke open in smiles. “Are you some kind of monster, too?” he asked.

She pressed him to the wall, her hundreds of teeth grazing his arms. “Are you?” she asked, her twenty voices blurring together like rain.

The carpenter didn’t know how to answer. He wanted to say, “I’m not a bad person,” or “I just want a job,” or “Please forgive me.” But he didn’t say those things. Instead he asked, “What does the bank need from me to make this right?”

Around the baseboards, blue eyes shined and words poured into the room. You should never have let her in, the monster voices said.

The woman pulled him close. Her body expanded and contracted as she breathed from twenty mouths. The carpenter dropped his flashlight. He thought of the girl hugging her stuffed animals and knew that he too was about to leave something behind.

She opened wide twenty mouths lined with twenty sets of iron teeth. She ripped twenty chunks of meat out of the carpenter’s body. He fell on the floor, and she left him there, her teeth locking together with rhythmic clicks, like the sound of a watch factory.

The carpenter lay in the light coming through the bay window, soaked through with his own blood. He knew that he would be dead in a few moments, but all he could think about was how this house wasn’t his. He didn’t even have a place to die. The bank woman left. Once she was gone, the monsters came for him.

“Will you eat me?” the carpenter wanted to ask, but he had lost the parts of himself he needed to ask questions.

Hard paws bore him up and carried him down to the basement.

“He’s broken,” a monster voice said.

“Yes,” said another. “But he’s made of the same stuff as everyone else. He’ll be easy to fix.”

• • • •

It was a long time before the carpenter could remember anything. He seemed to wake up and find himself running down the street at night in a line of monsters. They fanned out between buildings, staying low behind parked cars, and snatched pets out of yards and off window ledges. When a hairy monster with bat-ears and blood-shot eyes handed the carpenter a groaning cat, collar jingling and pissing itself in fear, the carpenter shoved it into his mouth and ate it like he was supposed to. Wiping his mouth with his new hands—one the flat blade of a saw and the other the smooth block of a hammer—the carpenter realized everything was very different now.

The cavity of his body was filled with crushed drywall and broken brick. Electrical wires wound through his limbs. His back was covered in shingles, making a peak along his spine. When he blinked his eyes, the carpenter could feel his eyelids sliding down over window glass. His toes ended in screwdriver tips. When he crouched on all fours and stayed very still, the carpenter felt like a house. A family of mice rooted in his chest, building their nest near his heart.

“Why did you help me?” he asked. “After everything I did?”

The monsters turned and waved for him to follow, into the dark on their monster errands.

• • • •

Each night, the monsters took the carpenter out and taught him how to be one of them. They set off car alarms all over town. They threw stones at windows and started dogs to barking. They climbed utility poles and slid their oversized jaws over blue streetlights. They sucked on the bulbs until the light died and their dark eyes crackled with electrical fire. They ran into yards and lay their paws on the sides of houses, feeling the wood grow black with mold under their touch.

The carpenter tried it, but his tool-hands were awkward. Whenever he pressed his body against a wall, he left behind a shadow of new white paint in the shape of a house. “I’m not a monster,” he said.

One of them patted the carpenter on the back. “You’re not a very good monster. But you’ll get the hang of it.”

• • • •

While tearing around the neighborhood at night, the monsters came upon a group of children sleeping in the woods. They were the same dirty bunch the carpenter had met before, finally driven out of their old house and living in the forest. The monsters held up their claws and compared them to the kids’ long, jagged fingernails.

“They’re like us,” one of the monsters said. “Let’s bring them home.”

On the way back to their old house, one of the kids kept staring at the carpenter. “Do I know you?” she asked.

He ducked his head under the overhang of shingles coming off his back, crossed his tool hands, and pretended not to hear.

That night, the kids lay down in a corner of the basement. The monsters gave the newcomers a fat, orange tabby to eat, but the kids only played with it. When day came and everyone slept, the carpenter rattled his heavy body around the house. The pile of building materials still sat in the yard, and he made trip after trip, reinforcing walls and strengthening floors, sweeping away trash.

One of the monsters came up and put a bear-like hand on the carpenter’s arm. “They’ll send someone to chase us away again. Best not get too attached.”

“No one came here for years before I did.” Whenever the carpenter spoke, sawdust and bent nails came falling out of his mouth. “Maybe they’ve forgotten this place.”

Night after night, the monsters went into town on their errands and brought back lumber and nails, stolen rolls of insulation, and new brass locks still in their packaging. The house straightened and squared. The floors and walls grew solid. The carpenter even repainted the outside, making it new and gleaming white.

The morning after he painted, the mailman came and dropped a letter onto the porch. It was hairy and black, its metal mouth repeating an address. It took the carpenter a moment to understand: The envelope wasn’t telling him to go somewhere; it was telling him that the bank was coming.

He buried the letter in the yard. Then he boarded up the windows and doors. He tried to make the house a fortress, but years of carpentry had taught him how much easier it was to destroy than preserve.

• • • •

The kids were wrestling with the monsters in the hallway when a knock came at the door.

“Time to go,” the monsters said.

“Shhh,” the carpenter said. “Wait for them to leave.”

The children, knowing when they were being run off, didn’t have to discuss it. They went to gather their things.

Outside, the woman from the bank walked around the house. She shook doorknobs and banged on the walls, looking for a way in. He could hear her twenty mouths gnashing, iron on iron.

Through a gap in the doorframe, the carpenter watched a stranger approach the house. It was a tall woman covered in dirt and drywall dust. She carried a sledgehammer over her shoulder. In her hand, she held a black envelope. The woman walked up to the door, her back straight and arms strong.

The carpenter shouted everything he needed to say out of his monster throat. “Don’t do this. It will change you. You’ll lose more than you think you have.”

The woman hesitated, but the bank lady was there, speaking with her legion of mouths. The two carpenters’ eyes met through the door crevice. He could tell that she was sorry, but he could also tell that she was here to do her job.

She raised her hammer in both hands and slammed it into the door. Its impact was heavy like an asteroid-crater, like a tectonic plate, like the word “extinction.”

The monsters and children pried at the boards covering the windows. They shouted for the carpenter to let them out, before the bank came to kill them all.

He pressed himself against the front door. When the hammer punched through, its head caved in the carpenter’s brick chest, and he felt mice die inside him like shattered lights. He spread his arms across the doorframe and stepped forward, making himself part of the wall. The woman raised her hammer again, and he waited to be brought to rubble.

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Micah Dean Hicks

A white man with a shaved head, glasses, and red goatee smiling in front of a forest of twisting branches, vines, and saw palmettos.

Micah Dean Hicks is the author of the novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones and the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, has been awarded the Calvino Prize, and is a two-time finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. His writing has appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The New York Times, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and elsewhere. Hicks grew up in rural southwest Arkansas and now lives in Houston.