Something tumbled off in the distance. Not too distant, the hold wasn’t immense, but it didn’t feel immediately close. Then again, the echoes of the chamber were deceptive with regards to noise.
“Mr. Mo?” Jim tried to shout, but found that his words were coming out in a feeble whisper.
He heard a clank, like something metal or wood striking the deck, followed immediately by a squishy sound like a bag of peeled oranges being dragged across the floor. Jim shrank to the deck like a turtle retreating into its shell. The noise recurred. He was not alone in the hold.
“Captain?” Tuan Jim said, a little louder this time, “Mr. Mo? Anybody?”
His voice sounded pitiably small in the dark chamber, but it was certainly loud enough to draw the attention of…whatever. A clank followed a squish, then again. Step. Drag. Step. Drag.
Slowly, pressing his hand to the wall, Jim forced himself to his feet. He pressed his back to the bulkhead and backed away from the sound (or what he perceived to be away from it…who could tell?) and snuck along the wall taking special care not to step hard.
Step. Drag. Step. Drag.
Tuan Jim paused mid-step and listened to the empty silence so hard he could feel his ears flaring. In a way, he almost wanted to hear that telltale moan pierce the air so he would at least know what he was dealing with. A little tiny part of him held out hope that it was an animal or one of the regular crewmembers pulling a hazing prank on him. Not enough that his hackles were lowered any, but enough that he had a distant outside hope in his heart that he might not be about to be devoured by some infernal man-devil.
But there was no moan. No sound of breathing, labored or otherwise. No scratching or pecking of an animal. Just that infernal step followed by that endless drag. Step. Drag.
Jim decided there was nothing for it. He plunged his hand into his pocket and fumbled around until he came out with a small cardboard box of matches, the windproof/waterproof type that cost a little extra but always turned out to be worth it when a squall was blowing out everybody else’s pipes and cigarettes. He only had three matches left. He didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to signal his invisible enemy, couldn’t, knew it was death to do it, a guaranteed death sentence from anything that wasn’t a hoax, but he had to know, it was eating at him, gnawing at him, he couldn’t die without knowing, he’d rather know and die than anything else and suddenly he struck the match.
Two tiny glittering green eyes reflected the matchlight deep in the black of its pupils. Jim was mesmerized by those eyes, but they weren’t the dull, gray, empty abscesses of a walking corpse. In fact, they were bare centimeters from the ground and…
“Shit!” Jim shouted and jumped back, although the rat darted off in the opposite direction.
So it wasn’t rabid. Thank God for small favors. It did drop the morsel it was feasting on, though. A human trachea. Jim wouldn’t have recognized the tube for anything more than an organ if a bit of a skin wasn’t still attached revealing an Adam’s Apple, like the whole throat had been gnawed away and ripped out together. Jim bent over and, with a shaking hand, plucked the gruesome vermin delicacy from the floor. The dried, rotting skin still bore a recognizable tattoo, a butterfly.
“Mr. Papillon?” Jim said.
A puff of air on the back of his neck alerted him to the presence of the creature. He did a quarter of a somersault away and saw Papi, his throat gouged out and teeth outlined with dripping ichor, desperately and violently attempting to groan in triumph without a throat. In the same instant, the flame reached his finger.
“Ahh!” Jim shouted, dropping the match and waving his arm wildly in the air to ward off the pain.
The blackness closed back in like the ocean claiming a castaway. Jim felt Papi reach out and clutch at his clothes. He fell almost totally backwards, and grunted as he fell on his coccyx. Then the horrible sound of the step-drag began again, and for the first time Tuan Jim knew what it was: the Papi-thing throwing his crutches forward and then dragging his desiccated leg along with it. Without a leg, the creature was incapable of regular ambulation, or even of Papi’s crippled movement, but it had found its own brutish way of pursuing what prey was down there. And right now that prey was the poor swabbie Tuan Jim.
Jim felt the thing’s hands, stronger even than Papi’s had been in life, scrabbling and clawing at him. It caught a good lock of his hair and began to pull. At first Jim began to shout, but thought better of it, deciding it wasn’t a dignified way to die, even for a simple swabbie like himself. Breathing deeply he reached out, felt the twisted bamboo of the former Papi’s crutches and with a swift kick knocked the crutches out from under it.
It was the worst pain he had ever felt in his life. The creature fell with the full weight of its carcass, but it refused to let go of Papi’s hair. He reached up and felt his scalp bleeding, a big chunk missing. No time to worry about that now, except inasmuch as the trail of blood would no doubt attract the creature. And the rats. But, then again, the creature was fully hobbled now and would be easier to deal with.
Jim took a few steps in what he assumed was a safe direction and lit another match. The Papi-thing was on the floor, lunging like a swimmer trying to use one leg to kick itself forward, and pulling itself with its arms. It continued to gnash its teeth and attempt to hiss, but no noise emerged from its empty palate. Finally watching how much was left of his match, Jim looked around, trying to survey the situation.
Just outside of the circle of light his match was generating, dozens of little eyes glowed. Jim shuddered at the thought of all those rats feasting on the meager stores they had gathered from the island before leaving and fishing since. They were going to starve because of these unwanted stowaways. And speaking of unwanted stowaways, Papi seemed to have given up on his theories of a sunbaked island paradise and snuck aboard.
As the match began to flicker, Jim chocked up on the shaft (if choking up was the right word for a shaft so tiny) and began to look around for something to use. There was hardly anything except their long term stores. Nothing really headsmash-worthy. Mostly tropical fruits, some edible grasses and salted fish and crab. He was actually standing next to the last of the canned stores from the Sulaco.
The match went out. All but silent, Papi was still scrabbling along the floor. Jim sighed deeply. His next match was the last. He took in a long breath, knew his composure would be fine, and lit it. Papi was scrabbling at his shoe. He grabbed a jar of peanut butter out of the last of the Sulaco’s stores and scooped about half of it out onto Papi’s head and into his gnawing mouth and along his missing neck. He glanced at the rats.
“All right,” he said, “He’s all yours.”