The room that housed Doc Austin’s collection was kept cool throughout the year, the air-conditioning maintaining a steady ten degrees centigrade at all times. Ted tried to count the cats, but he was never in the room alone, and it was hard to concentrate while chatting with Doc. Once he’d reached 86 or 87, but then he was interrupted. He recognized a few of the animals from when they were alive and wandering through the neighbourhood, although he didn’t know their names. Doc didn’t bother with plaques or anything like that.
“The domesticated ones were supposed to be incinerated, but once their people leave them at the clinic who’s to know?”
Doc poured white wine into both their glasses. The vintage was from Argentina, and the bottle was golden with a hint of olive to it.
“I know, Doc.”
“Of course, Ted. But you won’t tell anyone, because you’re my friend.” That was true. Ted and Doc were friends, even though Ted was only a gangly fourteen-year-old too aware of his lack of grace and his poor sense of style and fashion, while Doc was a tall, sophisticated man approaching sixty.
Doc held his glass up to his nose and sniffed the wine. He sighed contentedly and gestured for Ted to pick up his drink. The two friends gently knocked their glasses together. Doc said, “To friendship,” and Ted grinned. A flush of warmth spread through the boy as the cool liquid slid down his throat.
Ted earned his spending money by doing odd jobs for Doc: mowing the lawn, painting the porch, washing windows. Doc lived next door, and Ted’s mother was always trying to impress the older man, dressing up and painting her face and sitting on the porch when she knew he’d be coming home from work – that kind of thing. She was the one who’d volunteered Ted’s services – without consulting him. At first, Ted had been embarrassed and angered by his mom’s behaviour, but Doc had explained about loneliness and said that he was flattered by the attentions of Ted’s mother, even if he didn’t reciprocate her feelings.
To be neighbourly and to sustain his friendship with Ted, Doc consented to sharing a home-cooked dinner with Ted and his mother every Sunday. Soon, Doc turned these events into potlucks, despite Justine’s protests, because, as he confided in Ted, her cooking was hopelessly bland.
Ted, who didn’t make friends in school, enjoyed his solitude. Nevertheless, he was happy to have Doc as a friend. He’d never really known what it was like to have that kind of companionship, and he liked it. It gave him pleasure and satisfaction, a sense of belonging he had never known could be possible.
For example, he liked it when Doc invited him to watch while he prepared a new cat for his collection. Sometimes, Doc would take in sick or wounded strays. He taught Ted how to kill them so they’d feel no pain. Some of them were too damaged for Doc’s collection – Doc liked the cats to look beautiful. Ted learned how to take apart the damaged ones.
“In my biology textbook, there are pictures of people’s insides. Cats aren’t that different from people.” Ted’s gloved hands were covered in blood. He wore one of those surgeon’s cloth masks to cover his mouth and nose, but he had come to love the stink of dying flesh, of the insides of bodies, and if Doc weren’t watching he’d take off the mask so he could better smell those odours.
“That’s right, Ted. Most mammals are very much alike. Same organs. Same number of limbs. Similar nervous systems. Similar proportions.”
While Doc spoke, Ted scrutinized the dead, dissected cat. Amid all the blood and gore, the animal’s left front paw retained the elegance the stray cat had no doubt possessed in life. Almost by reflex, Ted cut off the appendage with the surgical saw.
Ted took off his gloves and held the severed paw in the palms of his hands. In that moment, it became the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His hands trembled slightly.
Ted suddenly remembered that Doc was in the basement with him, and he blushed, embarrassed. He stammered but finally asked, “Can I keep this?”
It was decided that Ted would keep his collection at Doc’s house. Neither of them wanted Ted’s mother to discover Ted’s new passion.
Although at first Doc betrayed a hint of disappointment that his young friend’s interests focused on something other than taxidermy per se, he patiently taught Ted how to preserve the items Ted harvested for his collection. Ted’s collection was more modest than the veterinarian’s. So far, he’d accumulated two front paws (left and right), a liver, a heart, a right ear, and a tail.
Ted discovered that he never coveted the same body part twice. Or almost never. He’d replaced the first tail that he’d collected with a better one – the correct one. He learned an important lesson then.
He hadn’t really wanted the first tail. That time, there was no part of the dissected cat that he’d truly desired, but he’d felt it would be a waste not to take something. Never again, he decided. He must trust his instincts, his desires. If a cat had nothing he yearned for, so be it.
On his way home from school, Ted noticed the ambulance that turned off his street, heading toward downtown. A police car was parked in Doc Austin’s driveway.
Ted’s mother was on their porch, looking even more nervous than usual. Ted didn’t like what was happening. His imagination raced too quickly, thinking up macabre and lurid scenarios, most of which ended with him in jail. He would be blamed for whatever had happened. He felt it in his bones.
He’d barely started up the wooden steps to their house before his mother lunged at him and wrapped her arms around his back.
“Mom, let go. What is it? What happened? Is Doc okay?”
Justine tried to speak, but she collapsed in a fit of tears and sobs instead. Ted rolled his eyes, raced up to his room, locked the door, and looked out the window at Doc’s house, waiting for something to happen.
Doc died of a heart attack, his mother finally told Ted when he emerged from his bedroom after the police had gone.
That night, after he was certain his mother was asleep, Ted snuck out and slipped into Doc’s house using the spare key in the flowerpot next to the back door.
Ted found his collection intact. He had amassed nineteen items, including a spine, a face, one eye, and a stomach. He still hadn’t found the right skull or rib cage or tongue. Other parts were missing, too. He briefly considered moving the still incomplete collection into his room, but his mom would be sure to discover it. Also, with Doc gone, Ted realized he no longer cared to continue or maintain it.
For the first time, Ted wandered through Doc’s collection without Doc in the room. He finally counted the cats. There were 239 of them.
When he finished counting, Ted discovered tears running down his cheeks. He didn’t remember beginning to cry. He would miss his friend. His best friend. But everything came to an end. Friendships. Life. Everything. He understood that.
Ted’s hand was closing on the handle to his own back door when he decided to return one last time to Doc’s house. He went down to the basement and found the kit of surgical tools Doc had taught him to work with. He located the bottles with the chemicals he had used. Doc would have wanted him to keep all that. He would find a way to hide his friend’s legacy.
Ted didn’t have to worry about money for his education: Doc had left a trust managed by a lawyer who was instructed to defray all of Ted’s school and basic living expenses for up to ten years, as of the date Ted enrolled in college. Upon graduation, or after a decade had passed, whichever came first, whatever was left of the fund would be bequeathed to a local cat shelter.
In college, for Introduction to Anthropology, the students were asked to pair up to research and write a paper on any contemporary subculture, using the terms and theories they’d been learning in class. Ted didn’t know anyone, but a girl called Nicole approached him and asked if he’d be her partner. Nicole looked like an average girl: conservative clothing, trendy leather sneakers with matching purse, medium-length auburn hair with a slight bounce, only a hint of makeup.
She already had an idea for a topic. In her dorm room she asked him, “Have you ever heard of devotees?”
Ted just shrugged, and Nicole began explaining about people who were sexually attracted to amputees. They had websites, newsgroups – there was even a small club downtown, although it didn’t advertise and it didn’t have a sign or anything. You had to know.
“How did you find out about it?”
Nicole’s expression changed. She smiled coquettishly, which made Ted uncomfortable. “You have to promise you won’t tell anyone.”
“I picked you because I felt you might understand. I can tell you’re not like all the others in class. There’s a darkness about you. I can trust that.” While she spoke, Nicole untied the shoelace of her right foot.
She hesitated. “I can trust you, right?”
Now that Nicole was nervous, Ted relaxed. “Yes. I’m good with secrets.”
Nicole slipped off her sneaker and peeled off the white sock beneath.
She extended her naked foot toward him.
“You can touch, if you want.” She averted her gaze.
There were only four toes on her right foot. The big toe was missing.
“When I was twelve, I cut it off with a big steak knife. I hated the way it looked. It made my foot ugly. I looted my mom’s liquor cabinet and drank myself silly to dull the pain. But I’ve blocked it out – the pain. I can’t remember it. I wish I could.” Nicole bit her lip. “We had a dog, this really powerful boxer with jaws of steel, and I fed him the toe after I severed it – before I passed out. My mom tells me that when she came home the dog was licking my wound. At first she thought he’d eaten my toe, but then she saw the bloody knife.”
Ted touched the spot with the missing toe. It was so smooth, despite the scar.
“I go to that club downtown, take off my shoe, and men kiss me there. Sometimes, if they—” Nicole shut up abruptly and pulled her foot back. “You probably think I’m a freak.”
“I’m not shocked, you know. In fact, I’m relieved that you’re not as normal as you look.”
There was light in her eyes when she asked, “Tell me your dark secret.”
“I don’t have one,” he lied.
The next time they met in her dorm room to work on the paper, Ted asked Nicole to bare her foot. He enjoyed looking at her naked skin, and that seemed to be the most naked part of her.
“I think you’re secretly a devotee. You should come to the club with me. Anyway, you have to come to research the paper.”
“I’ll go with you, but I don’t think I’m a devotee. It’s just that I’m comfortable around you, and I like it that you’re comfortable around me.” Ted held her foot while he talked to her. He bent down and gently kissed the tops of the four toes.
Ted suddenly realized what he’d done. It was the first time he’d kissed a girl, anywhere. He wasn’t comfortable anymore. He felt trapped.
Almost violently, he got up to leave.
“Stay.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper.
He looked down at her, hugging herself on her bed. She looked fragile, vulnerable.
He felt dizzy and sweaty, but he sat next to her anyway.
She ran her hands under his T-shirt. It calmed and excited him at the same time.
Nicole fell asleep, but Ted was too fidgety. His skin burned with the new sensations of sex. He looked at her asleep and felt a deep tenderness toward her. It was a new emotion, tenderness. It felt good, letting that emotion warm his heart. In the moonlight, he admired her naked body, whole save for that one missing big toe.
But it was the other big toe, the one he was now seeing for the first time, that was responsible for the strongest surge of desire he had yet experienced.
Ted knew, then, that he would have to collect it.
The club was called Devotion. The amputees were mostly women. Among the men, he noticed only two whose bodies were incomplete. An old man missing his right leg sat in a wheelchair nursing a drink and a scowl. A loud thirtysomething guy in an even louder silk shirt held court at a table in the middle of the bar, a clown who made the two women and three men who sat with him laugh. He had a nervous tick: he kept wiping his mouth with the stump of his right wrist; the foam from his beer had made a damp spot on his sleeve.
Men and women greeted Nicole like they knew her well. The bartender greeted her by name, and Nicole responded in kind. “Hi, Germ.”
Ted whispered, “Germ?”
“Short for Jeremy. I started calling him that. Now everyone does.” Nicole answered a bit too loudly for Ted’s comfort. He was already nervous being here. And she wasn’t doing anything to make it easier for him by calling attention to them.
None of the women were whole, but most of the men were. The women dressed to emphasize their deformities, their missing feet, hands, fingers, legs. Only Nicole’s was invisible.
Although everyone was clothed and nothing kinky was overtly going on, Ted, who was still not fully comfortable with either the reality or the idea of sex, was keenly aware of the thick aura of sexual tension in the place.
In particular, the lustful glances both men and women threw Nicole’s way made Ted awkward, as if he’d been sat in the middle of a high-stakes card game with no knowledge of the rules. As if losing would expose him as a fraud.
He felt sweat pool in his armpits, dribble down his back, dampen his temples.
Nicole sat at the bar and started taking her right shoe off. A dozen people, mostly men, ogled her every movement as she did so.
Ted whispered, “I thought we were here to interview people.”
“Relax. Let me get cozy.” Her foot was naked now. Ted saw a few of the men lick their lips.
Ted felt his face redden. He left without another word.
Outside, he waited thirty minutes, hoping that Nicole would come find him. She didn’t.
Ted opened the door, and there was Nicole standing outside his apartment. He hadn’t seen her in two weeks.
“I handed in the paper today. I put both our names on it, even though I did all the work.”
Ted had nothing to say – he no longer knew how to interact with Nicole, if he ever really had – so he kept quiet.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
Ted sighed; it came out sharper than he’d intended. He stepped back and nodded her inside.
With her finger, Nicole traced the edge of his bookshelf, which was filled with tomes on anatomy, biology, medicine, surgery, taxidermy, dissection. She repeated the same thing she’d said the only other time she’d been here: “You know, it’s weird that you don’t have any music. Or any novels. Or even porn. But it’s okay. Weird’s good.”
Ted could barely look at her. He wanted her to leave.
“You didn’t have to stop coming to class. You could have called me. Something.”
Ted regretted letting her in.
“Ted! Look at me!” Nicole rushed up to him and grabbed his chin in her hand. She turned his head so their eyes met.
Ted expected to see anger, or disappointment, or ... he wasn’t sure what, but he was disarmed by the fragility in Nicole’s gaze.
“I lied to you.” The words burst out of him, with a will of their own. “I do have a secret. I guess it’s a dark one, but I don’t see it that way.”
Nicole whispered, almost to herself, “I knew it.” Ted could hear the grin in her tone.
He told her about Doc, and Doc’s collection, and what Doc had taught him, and his own abandoned collection.
“Wow.” Nicole squeezed his hands.
Somehow they’d wound up sitting on his bed. Ted didn’t remember getting there.
“I thought it was over. Just a phase I’d gone through.”
Nicole filled the silence with “But...”
“But I realize now it was only preparation for the real thing.”
This time, Nicole let the silence linger while Ted gathered his courage.
Ted bent down and grabbed her left foot, the whole one, and, with a roughness that startled both of them, took off her shoe and sock. He bit the big toe at the joint, almost crunching the bones with his teeth.
Nicole winced and swallowed hard. Her breath sped up.
“I want your toe, Nicole. This one.”
She bit her lip. “Will it hurt?”
“I think so. I have some anesthetic, but—”
She put her hand over his mouth.
“No. Don’t use any. I want to feel it.”
Ted’s heart was beating so hard, as if it would burst through his rib cage.
She asked, “Can you do it now?”
Ted reached under the bed for his instruments.
Neither Ted nor Nicole ever called the other again the whole time they were in school together. Ted figured they’d both gotten what they wanted, and that was that. Sometimes, he woke in the middle of the night, remembering the tenderness he had felt toward Nicole that once – after they’d had sex. In the darkness, he craved that emotion.
A left arm. Ten toes – one of each. Two ears: one, big and brown and hairy; the other, small and pink and smooth. A uterus. One of each hand. A right foreleg. Ted had sawed that one off his most recent donor, a homeless man who’d already lost a foot to frostbite. Ted had promised him money, but instead he killed him. That man had nothing to live for, anyway. All he could look forward to was a life of misery. Ted had done him a favour.
They had driven to Ted’s house. Inside, Ted put him under with chloroform, tied him down, and asphyxiated him with a plastic bag. Then he’d cut off the foreleg. Later, around 3 a.m., he’d dumped the man – he never knew his name – back in the alley where he’d found him.
Ted identified his donors at first sight. He was drawn to them. Always, they were damaged souls, regardless of how flawless they appeared to those who couldn’t see or didn’t know how to look. Invariably, they trusted him. In Ted’s desires, they found a comfort, a refuge, from the darkness that gnawed at them.
In the case of his mother, though, it had taken him years to recognize his desire. Perhaps because it had been masked by their bond as mother and son. Sometimes, he had doubts that his mother had really intended for him to take her uterus. She had been so drunk that night (the last night of her life) and depressed at having been dumped by a co-worker after less than three weeks of dating. But his instincts had always been true, and the urge was so powerful that night as she sobbed and spewed her sorrow and loneliness, sitting across from him on her ratty old couch.
His ratty old couch, now.
Still, in the darkness, when sleep would not come, Ted found himself remembering Nicole’s naked body as she slept after sex. For brief moments, he relished the tenderness that accompanied the memory.
Sometimes, his donors – both women and men – wanted to have sex with him. He often complied, but never again did he feel that tenderness toward anyone.
To soothe his ache, he recalled all those beautiful body parts he kept in the basement and the intensity of the attraction that had compelled him to collect them. Summoning his desire for the items in his collection aroused him. He masturbated then and, after ejaculation, slipped into sleep.
Ted was having a restless night when the doorbell rang at 2:15 a.m. It was getting harder and harder for him to sleep.
He barked “What is it!” as he opened the front door, dressed in his pyjamas.
Even in her thirties, she could grin coquettishly.
With an awe that surprised him, Ted said her name: “Nicole.”
He had talked to her about his collection for two hours before she interrupted him. Instantly, Ted was seized by both an insight and a realization. The realization: he had not even asked Nicole why she was here. The insight: what he missed was complicity. Only two people had ever offered him that: Doc ... and Nicole.
He’d been stupid not to cultivate a relationship with her. The years he’d wasted!
“Are you even listening to me?”
Ted had missed her first few sentences. “I’m sorry. It’s a shock seeing you. A good shock, though.”
She blushed, and then regrouped: “Ted, I need you. I need you to do this.”
“Take it. Take my whole right leg. You have to do it.”
“But...” Ted didn’t want to disappoint her.
“But what? I was right! You’re still collecting. Collect my leg. Please.”
“But I only collect when I feel the urge, the desire. It has to feel right. Necessary.”
“So what? This isn’t for you. It’s for me. I need this. And you can do it. Do this for me. I can pay you. My husband is rich. We could hire anyone to do it, but I want it – I need it – to be you.”
There it was, the complicity. But – “Husband?” He blurted the word out as a disdainful question. Immediately, he regretted it.
“Yes. But it doesn’t matter who he is. I told him about us, and he agreed that you should be the one to do it. We need this. It’s not enough anymore, just the toes. We need more. Please.”
There was a terrible feeling in the pit of Ted’s stomach while he mouthed the words of his acquiescence.
She really did pay him. Or, rather, her husband did. One week after the amputation, a fifty-thousand-dollar cheque came by courier.
Still, Ted felt impoverished. He knew he would never see Nicole again. But that was the lesser of his two losses.
On the floor of his basement, he laid out the items in his collection. (Nicole’s leg was not among them.) He had amassed more than half a whole human body. He was still missing a head, a torso, a neck, and several internal organs. But he had a brain, two lungs, both arms, a stomach, an eye ... and so much else.
He rearranged the items. He stared at them. Focused on them.
He had feared this, yet he had given in to Nicole’s desire, like a lovesick teenager.
Today was the anniversary of Nicole’s unexpected reappearance. One year since that amputation. More than one year since he had been drawn to anyone’s darkness and felt the urge to harvest a part of their body.
He no longer understood what it was that he had desired. These body parts, they were nothing more than dead organic matter. Scrutinizing these dead things he had coveted with such love and had cared for with such devotion, he yearned to feel something for them. Anything.
This story originally appeared in The Seventh Black Book of Horror (2010), edited by Charles Black.Follow
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