Thirty Seven Men
By Zachary Shiffman
There it stood, large and permanent — the ornate colonial house with alabaster pillars supporting the portico, rising parallel to the gutters. White windowsills jutted out across the façade, mortar brick steps introduced the front door, and below the windows were gardens, where tomatoes and raspberries huddled. The fruits rotted as the stems holding them wrinkled and darkened.
The house’s windows, locked tight, provided a view into the home of Nathaniel Curt and his wife, Jennifer. The two had been married for eleven years — a marriage filled with pleasant memories, inside jokes, and an eight-year-old child named Samantha, who clutched a stuffed rhinoceros to her chest on the second floor and trembled beneath the stances of her parents.
Thirty seven men stood outside the house. Thirty seven men stared into the windows, each careful to not blink. Thirty seven men stood motionless in the street, spilling onto the freshly mowed lawn of the Curt family. Thirty seven men inhaled and exhaled in sync, like a single animal. They wouldn’t want It getting mad because of any incongruity among them. Certainly not.
Nathaniel peered out the window. The men hadn’t moved in some time, and shadows writhed over their tranquil faces. Nathaniel glanced up, catching a look at the stars which glowered like eyes across the void. The wane of the moon grinned over them and cast a light over the house, turning the white paint into a ghoulish gray.
Beside him, Jennifer Curt squeezed Samantha, her chin nuzzled into the child’s glossy brown hair. Samantha didn’t understand why she was up at this hour of the night; she didn’t understand why the night-light in her room — adorned with bug-eyed cartoon caterpillars and ladybugs — had flicked off suddenly, or why her parents had stumbled into her room and picked her up by her armpits, carrying her like an infant to the stairwell. She didn’t know why there were so many men outside watching them, and she didn’t know why her father had that pale look on his face.
Fruitlessly, Nathaniel reached for the ornate lamp beside the window and attempted to turn it on. Nothing. Nathaniel analyzed the other houses and found that every single light was off, including the streetlamps. With the exception of the moon’s rays, the Curts’ neighborhood had been plunged into an ominous black.
Jennifer said, “We have to call the police.” But Nathaniel had already discovered, with a lurch in his gut, that the phone lines were dead.
“Don’t worry,” he said. The thirty seven men didn’t seem to be aggressive, nor did they have murder or malevolence in their eyes, and Nathaniel told his family this. Although, if he had looked closer, he might have seen that there was very little left in their eyes.
Among the thirty seven men were fathers and sons, husbands and bachelors, short stocky men and tall lanky men. They were men with ratty hats adorned with logos of their preferred brands or sports teams. They were men with well-worn jackets, zipped up to their neck or gently flowing in the occasional breeze. They were men with bushy beards and eyebrows and they were clean-shaven men. They were white men and black men, Asian men and brown men.
“I’ll go out,” said Nathaniel, his shirt sticking to his back. “I’ll get to the bottom of this.” I’ll march out there, he thought, and ask them what this is all about. After all, these men have no right to be gathered like that at this time of the night. Families were sleeping! Children had school in the morning! And they were scaring Samantha.
Nathaniel ignored the pit in his stomach, his childlike instinct to run away and lock every door in the immediate vicinity. He paid no mind to the protests of his wife, paid no mind to the cries of little Samantha for her Pa to stay inside with her. No, he paid no mind to any of that. Instead, Nathaniel shifted his attention to his plot of defense, which entailed stepping outside, approaching the thirty seven men, and demanding justification for their breach of established social constructs and manners. That is what he would do.
Nathaniel descended the remaining maplewood stairs and exited the house. Despite the warm air Nathaniel’s skin chilled, and he shivered as he approached the thirty seven men. He suddenly found it difficult to breathe.
“Now, what do you all think you’re doing?” cried Nathaniel, in a voice he had intended to sound imposing. To his question there was no answer except a dull, melancholy stare. Seventy four eyes bore into Nathaniel, and in the silence he took a tentative step back.
It was then that Nathaniel received his first whiff of the smell, and instantly he retched and squeezed his nostrils shut. It seemed to be coming from every direction, as if God Himself had flooded the Earth with a miserable stench in lieu of a second flood. Nathaniel breathed through his mouth, stifling multiple gags and gaining a horrific, hot taste on the back of his tongue. It was then, as he scanned his neighborhood desperately for a source of the odious smell, that he noticed the open windows and the open doors, the picket fences plucked from the ground and tossed aside in piles like white firewood. It was then that Nathaniel Curt realized that the smell was coming from his neighbors’ houses — every single one of them. And it was then that it dawned on Nathaniel that, as the moonlight shifted, he knew the thirty seven men. There was Robert Malcolm, who lived just down the street, near the streetlamp that had been broken and fixed too many times to count. There was Larry Cavill, who lived further — two blocks away. Samantha visited Larry once to say hello to his cats. And there was Jimmy Carter Worthington, who insisted you use his middle name too, in honor of the ex-president. And on and on it went. Thirty seven men, thirty seven familiar faces from the Curts’ neighborhood and those surrounding it.
Thirty seven houses whence that putrid stench drifted.
“Jimmy Carter! Robert! Larry, my friend! What is this?” Nathaniel’s tongue dried as the men didn’t respond. Blink, for God’s sake, one of you, blink! But none did, for Jimmy Carter wasn’t Jimmy Carter, and Larry wasn’t Larry, and his cats had met abhorrent ends after they had purred themselves to sleep that night.
The civil war of courage and cowardice inside Nathaniel’s brain came to a sudden head, and he turned and sprinted back to his house, back to the mirage of safety and warmth stitched from the eleven years of mundane purity. He slammed the front door. Jennifer and Samantha watched him, their eyes widening in terror. Jennifer’s mouth parted, but she said nothing. For in all her time in the quiet paradise of the neighborhood, all her time in the luxurious embrace of humdrum suburbia, she had never been faced with a situation like this. Not nearly.
We’re leaving, decided Nathaniel silently. His instincts overrode his practicality, and he dashed up the stairs with an intensity that temporarily frightened Jennifer and Samantha. He grabbed his wife’s icy wrist and placed his hand gently on Samantha’s back, moving them downstairs to the back door.
“Come, my loves,” pleaded Nathaniel. We must go, go away from the thirty seven men. And his loves — Jennifer in her nightgown and young Samantha with her rhinoceros — obeyed. The air tickled the family like mist as they strode through the slick roads of the neighborhood, the ghastly smell assaulting each of their nostrils. They headed for their car, which Nathaniel had parked down the street.
Then Nathaniel stopped.
Jennifer and Samantha stopped too. “Nathaniel?” But Nathaniel didn’t answer; he didn’t feel the desperate tug on his arm by Samantha; he didn’t hear the rising panic in his wife’s voice.
He looked back at the thirty seven men. The thirty seven men stared back.
A cold hand seized Jennifer’s entrails and squeezed. Blink, my love, she thought, taking her daughter’s hand. Blink!
Jennifer softly took Samantha’s hand from Nathaniel’s. He didn’t react.
“Come,” murmured Jessica. “Let’s go… we’ll get ice cream… your father will meet us…”
Then the whispers came. From where, neither of them could say, but in moments they filled the air — relentless susurrations of raspy, eldritch voices. Jennifer and Samantha covered their ears, but it did nothing to dull the noise.
Then the whispers stopped as suddenly as they started and Nathaniel’s sight broke from the thirty seven men, returning to his wife and daughter. Jennifer met his gaze but didn’t recognize it. She watched as her husband, moving faster than she thought possible, lunged and scooped something off the ground. Her throat clenched. It was a shard of glass.
Jennifer grabbed her daughter by the arm, unintentionally pinching her skin so tightly that it left behind a pink mark when Samantha instinctively yanked free of her mother’s grasp. Her stuffed rhinoceros dropped to the pavement.
Nathaniel stepped forward, once, twice, closing the distance before Jennifer could properly react. How was he so fast? was Jennifer’s thought as he slashed at her with the shard and tore her open at the neck. She cried and gurgled and descended to the road, covered all over in blood and urine, and then her eyes turned to glass.
Samantha, meanwhile, had turned and ran. She ran and ran; one of her slippers came off and yet she continued to run, arms flailing, her vision blurred. Little Samantha ran until she tripped, as if a force had appeared and swept her legs out from under her. And when Samantha, her knees and elbows scraped and trickling blood, rose on unstable legs and turned around she found her father upon her, his eyes cavernous, his mouth a tight line.
“Stop, Pa, stop!” cried Samantha. I love you, she thought, I love you, and I’m so scared. I just want to go home. I want my rhino back.
Nathaniel grabbed his daughter by her pajama shirt. She shrieked, but Nathaniel didn’t hesitate as he brought the shard down. Why would he? He had to follow Its will. Doing anything else would be absurd.
Now Jennifer and Samantha Curt were sprawled dead on the street, just outside that gorgeous colonial house they had loved so much, the house with the blackening garden and back door swinging hauntingly open. The scent of their bodies — previously that of flowery soaps and, in Jennifer’s case, a light layer of cinnamon after having baked desserts for Samantha’s school — was now a hideous smell that homogenized with the odors drifting from the rest of the neighborhood.
Nathaniel dropped the glass and walked down the street, towards the staring mass. There was not a speck of blood on him.
Then the whispers in the air returned, buzzing like static, and suddenly Its face appeared into Nathaniel’s mind and the minds of the thirty seven men. They knew that what they saw was merely a diminutive and diminished appropriation of It— a vague impression of the true thing, like a sheet draped over a skull, changed to accommodate them. Yet still It rioted against the boundaries of their sanities, scratching at the edges like claws, because Its countenance told the truth of It, and the truth was this: It was not of this world or this time; It was beyond the vocabulary and conditions of humanity; It was the impetus of trillions of extinctions across time and realm; It was a whispering, living night and void alike whose dreams pried open seams across all metaphysical surfaces of lucidity; It was a thing of pure cacodaemoniacal madness, one whose bulbous, cephalopodic feelers could bridge stars and whose billions of eyes could blink planets asunder like dinner plates.
It was large. It was eternal. It was there. And It darkly blazed like negative flames behind the eyes of the thirty eight men as they walked — quiet, blinkless, and arranged — to the next house.