top of page

Breath & Shadow

Fall 2020 - Vol. 17, Issue 4

"The Beast Between Us"

written by

Shiloh Simmons

None of us thought that it would end the way it did; slow and smoldering. It was supposed to be all loud trumpets, fire and brimstone. Not this slow dying thing or whatever this is.

I said I’d meet you at the train station. I was supposed to leave work at half-past four but I got held after, forgot to text you. I got on the train at Crystal City around five and took the yellow line to Greenbelt, but I was going to get off at Fort Totten and transfer to Silver Spring and you knew that. You had told me you were going to the grocery store to pick up fruits and vegetables for those smoothies you like to make for us. You would put a tablespoon of that spirulina shit in the blender and blend it up with mangos and strawberries and almonds and you couldn’t even taste that seaweed shit. Those healthy smoothies went along with you wanting me to go to the gym. So I could be healthy with you.

None of that mattered but I still wish I would have gone to the gym for you. You would have told me that you wanted me to go for me, for me to want to be better for myself. I would have told you it was for me, but really, it would have been all for you. I would lie to you like that sometimes. You hate liars, deeply, but I never felt like those were the kind of lies that liars tell.

I got off at Fort Totten like I always do. This time I remembered to text you. The iMessage was green so I knew that one of us didn’t have reception, probably me. When I looked around I saw everybody was messing with their phones like they didn’t have reception either, waving their phones, holding them higher in the air, trying to get a signal.

That’s when the Beast appeared. One minute I was looking out over the train tracks seeing the northeast part of the city and then it was gone, replaced with what looked like a mountain of flesh. The skin was rough, rubbery. And whatever it belonged to, it was big and you could see the whorls and patterns running through the integument.

I didn’t know what to think.

It was like one minute the city was there, a skyline of mid-rises and that ocean of white marble federal buildings. The next thing I knew I was looking at no city; just the Beast. I don’t think anybody knew what to make of it at first but everybody seemed to accept it. There just wasn’t as much panic and hysteria as you would think there would be. I mean, obviously a large number of people had perished when that thing landed on the city. There were apartment buildings and townhouses with people in them. Families in line to pick up lunch at Horace and Dickey’s. Young writers typing away at their laptops inside of Starbucks, packed with customers and the smell of burnt artisan bread. All of that, gone. I mean, it had to be right? From wherever you were when it happened, you’d have seen it too. The Beast just landed on top of all of that. Not really landed. Because if you saw it happen then you know it just appeared there out of nowhere and that whole part of the city was replaced with whatever it is.

I heard some people say they heard a sound like the sky cracking open, whatever that means. Say they saw the sky split open, rip through like construction paper and then, boom, the Beast was there. I can only tell you that it made no sound. I missed whatever happened because I had started smoking again. I know, a damn shame. I know it. But I had turned around to light a cigarette, putting my back to the wind, and when I turned back around all of the residential area surrounding the Fort Totten Metro Station was covered in a mountain of beige flesh. And that shit looked wrinkled and seasoned like somebody’s grandfather’s sack, like some colossal detached scrotum stretching across Riggs Road all the way to South Dakota Avenue.

Now I admit I have a propensity towards exaggeration but this thing, this monstrous creature, it was so big when it arrived that it changed my understanding of what big actually is. Let me put it this way: when the Beast first moved - and this wasn’t some big movement - the whole world shook. The thing moved what looked like a tail or tentacle, maybe a few feet or so. Just kind of shrugged that arm or extension of its body or whatever it was. Just kind of shrugged it to the side a bit but the movement set off what sounded like every car alarm in the city. Pipes burst, power went out, glass shattered. I swear I heard one or two car accidents. You know when you hear a car accident from far away because first you hear the screech of the car sliding and then you are waiting for the crunchy, plastic and metal thump of the impact as it connects with something solid. I heard those sounds and plenty more melodies in this cacophony of destruction that played throughout Michigan Park.

That’s another thing. How you knew who was a tourist and who wasn’t. See, people around me, they were talking to each other, talking about how the Beast had completely wiped out Fort Totten.

One of them was all--do you see that thing? It’s gotta be thirty or forty stories high, it’s bigger than Fort Totten what the fuck man? and I was all in my head like only a tourist would call this part of town Fort Totten. See, you’re from Baltimore so you wouldn’t get it but the neighborhood the Beast had crushed - or swallowed up, take your pick - is called Michigan Park. But you would only know that if you were from the city. Only if you had grown up here.

You have an excuse, being from Baltimore and all, but these people, they were from the city, or at least living and working in it, and you would hope they would know enough to show some respect for it. If you knew better, you’d do better I suppose. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t mind it if the Beast crushed or swallowed them up, these tiresome tourists who clog the left side of the escalator and stand in the passing lane. The ones who call the area north of Massachusetts Avenue “NoMa” and the same ones who never attended Howard University but for some reason think it’s acceptable to walk their Cockapoos across the historic campus grounds. Those kinds of people.

Then I remember thinking that you wouldn’t be proud of me for thinking like that. You’re all about the power of positive thinking and speaking things into existence. You would tell me not to wish that kind of negativity on other people and I would say you’re right baby.

Now I’m not saying that nobody cared or nobody did anything about the Beast. It’s not like people just went on with their day. People definitely took notice of the big mountain of flesh that stretched for miles over the city into the horizon. But they were all waving their phones around trying to get reception, trying to go live on Facebook and take pictures and videos.

The metro employees were the only ones who didn’t have their phones out but they just kind of stood there, slapping their hands together and blowing warm breath into their locked fists, talking shit about what the Beast could or couldn’t be. I overheard a couple of them talking to each other by the fare gate.

One of them, a middle-aged man said shit and pointed his thumb in the direction of what used to be Michigan Park. “You know Sheila is from Michigan Park. I hope her and the babies are good. Lord willing.”

“Sheila don’t live in no Michigan Park,” the other metro employee said. He was younger and looked like Infa, but his complexion was a shade or two darker. Had the same hair though and the same crazy smile. At the time I remember thinking to myself I wonder how Infa and his babies made out? but then I remembered that Infa lived on the southside and even the Beast wasn’t that big. As far as I knew, the Beast was the only beast and as long as my friends and family were away from the northeast part of the city - which they were - then they were safe.

Yeah she do,” the older man insisted, spat on the platform.

“Nah,” the man who looked like Infa stated, all matter of fact. “She don’t. Sheila live in Riggs Park. Not Michigan.”

“Shit you right.”

“I know it.”

Then their eyes turned back to look at the Beast and I followed their gaze and turned to look at it too. And there it was, still there. Still completely out of place. A larger than life-sized Cascade Range of skin stretched taut over throbbing musculature. An Appalachian mountain system of flesh, pulsing to the beat of a heart buried somewhere underneath all that pink meat.

Like I said, I didn’t know what to think.

I don’t think anybody did. First the firemen and paramedics came in a tornado of screaming sirens and flashing lights and then different parts of the Beast were bathed in that special shade of emergency red glow. Then the media descended on the Beast like flies on rancid meat. The bulbs of their cameras flashed in the fading light like lightning bugs in the summer. Insert additional pretty language about how it all looked like the exploding colors of a kaleidoscope and how chaos always starts to look like that eventually.

I couldn’t get anywhere. I know I said I’d meet you at the station but that was Silver Spring and I was stuck at Fort Totten. And let me tell you, the metro station on Galloway street might as well have been the island of Mauritius because I was just as isolated, equally distant. I wanted to be with you. Your smile and those beautiful brown eyes. The way the light accentuated the angle of your cheek. Your perfect bone structure.

You should be sculpted.

The national guard or the marines or the army or some kind of Blackwater mercenary super soldiers showed up in all black and fatigue colors, bringing the metallic smell of heavy artillery and oil with them.

And then came the F-22 Raptors by Lockheed Martin with their clipped delta wings with reverse trailing edge sweep and the leading edge extensions running to the upper outboard corner of the inlets. The sky filled with the roar of the dual Pratt & Whitney augmented turbofan engines as the fighter jets circled above the Beast like carrion birds.

I saw at least four of those Raptors, each one with six LAU-142/A launchers in the main bay for beyond-visual-range missiles and each side bay with a launcher for short-range missiles. Trust me, I know. You know how I love to read about everything.

Those F-22’s, those fuckers can carry air-to-surface weapons and each one is equipped with an internally mounted M61A2 Vulcan 20mm rotary embedded in the airplane's right wing-root with the muzzle covered by a retractable door to maintain stealth.

I watched all four - or maybe it was five - of those jets unleash the wrath of God on that mountain range of an organism. I saw the missiles and bullets tear apart the flesh mountain but the scream is what I heard first. Bump that, the screams. When the Beast cried out in pain it was the cry of a thousand voices, a million brothers and sisters, screaming in agony. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same because I heard that sound. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again because I heard that sound is what I mean to say. Look, that shit was something else. To hear so many different voices all moan as one. That shit was awful.

Let me go back to that big mountain of flesh, that sail-shaped meat structure. The flesh ripped open and blood just like ours sprayed and oozed. Blood as red as yours and mine leaked out and made rivers out of First place, pooled in the streets, flooded Riggs road.

After the clouds and oceans of blood cleared or spread or sank, the structure changed. The Beast changed. Cylindrical shaped polyps came out of the mangled integument. It was like this: the aboral ends were attached to the substrate by these disc-shaped things which I guess were surrounded by a circlet of...tentacles? Ridiculous, I know. Like some low budget nineties sci-fi movie with Usher and Jessica Biel and Jessica Alba and all the Jessicas that would be in a movie like that. Unreal.

Jellyfish have a hydrostatic skeleton called a mesoglea. The mesoglea is all water and fibrous proteins like collagen; muscle bundles and nerve fibers. Other nerve and muscle cells lie just under the epithelial layers. All those thick and chewy adjectives and descriptive words; that’s what the Beast looked like.

There was silence after the scream though. I heard a voice come through one of those super solider’s walkie-talkies and say a word that sounded like abiogenesis and I was all like what the fuck? I had never heard that word before and it sounded extra science fiction. Look, you know I know words. Look at all that shit I just wrote about jellyfish. I didn’t know that word though.

The new circlets of tentacles and tubular polyps quivered like jello. If I haven’t made myself clear, the Beast was the size of a mountain range so as far as these polyps and tentacles, they were big. This thing was way-bigger-than-me-and-you-big and I could see all this wild crazy shit from my position on the platform.

Obviously I hadn’t left the platform and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything left outside of the train station. Just miles of skin and tentacles and circular flesh discs.

Flesh blocked out the sky and the horizon was sarcoline. The streets ran red with blood, the air haematic and thick.

And there I was, standing on the platform thinking about how I had bought you flowers at Whole Foods and left them at work. How I would never get to give them to you because the Beast had surely made the orange line to Arlington inaccessible. And that’s assuming the Beast was the only beast.

I hope you get this email. Maybe when the satellites come back on, if they ever do.

So what had happened was, right down the street was the Fort Totten Solid Waste Disposal Station and on every first Thursday preceding the first Saturday of the month, the place became a dumping ground for hazardous material. Maybe that’s what this thing was. Some putrid amalgamation of toxic sludge and radioactive human waste. Maybe the Beast was all plastics destroying the ocean and us burning the ozone layer into Swiss cheese. Maybe not that.

So what had happened was, a fifteen-minute walk in the other direction and you were on Michigan Ave at the Basilica. The shrine is the largest Catholic church in North America with its Romanesque Revival architecture and Trinity Dome mosaic. All that masonry and reinforced concrete and stone. All that steel and Pewabic pottery tile. Large ceramic medallions. Those crazy Catholic priests were probably in the inner sanctum, chanting in that creepy-end of days-way that only Catholics can. Deep in the penetralium, those shady priests are trying to contain an outbreak of Antichrist proportions. Screams of some young child possessed by some demon - maybe Azazel, maybe Baal - come from the dark depths of the Basilica. Yeah, that’s where the Beast came from. And if it hadn’t, I suppose you have a better explanation? None of us did when it happened and none of us know any more now than we did before.

So what had happened was, was that nobody really knew what had happened. But I know that I love you and I know that I’m going to search for you. I know that I need you and that I need to find you. And that need surpasses any need this global warming, futuristic, space-age, alien, flesh-monster needs.

I’m going to find you in all this and we can figure it out together. I’m going to get off the platform and make my way north to Silver Spring. I’m going to fight through whatever chaos I have to fight through to get to you, to make sure you’re alright. I’m going to send this email and then I’m going to find you. Because I love you and just because the world is falling apart doesn’t mean that we have to too.

Shiloh Simmons was born in Washington, D.C. during the crack epidemic and spent his childhood within the juvenile justice system in various institutions and holding facilities. His work has been praised by D. Harlan Wilson, Brian Evenson and Snoop Dogg. He has been featured in the Washington Post, Don Diva Magazine and the Washington City Paper.

bottom of page