Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Overcoat

by Michael Swanwick

Weed was hooked. He'd come to the Salvation Army outlet on Pechin Street because they were having a white-tag sale. It was the rump end of September, and the plaid synthetic-fiber lumberjack coat he'd bought five years ago at K mart was ripping apart at the seams. He needed a new coat. He was zinging the coats down the rod when he saw it: the beau ideal--no, make that the Holy goddamn Grail--of overcoats. The ultimate trench coat, the one Bogart wore in Casablanca. The standard emblem of manliness throughout the world. The single best overcoat ever made. A Burberry.
He caught his breath. It was in mint condition--every D ring and epaulet intact, the black-and-butterscotch liner unfaded, worth at least five hundred dollars in any vintage clothing store in town. And some idiot had priced it at ten dollars!
Hands trembling, he reached out and actually touched the cloth. It smelled faintly of mothballs. It must have been in somebody's attic for decades. A treasured reminder of younger, more adventurous days, locked away in a steamer trunk for decade after decade. Then a final heart attack when golfing, and after the funeral the family gathered around to clean out Dad's stuff, squabbling over this or that small memento and consigning the greater pile to the local Sally-Ann.
He felt the surety of this flow through his fingertips as he folded back the collar. There was a white rectangle of cloth:

Weed frowned. He remembered that. Paella was a tiny island south of Tierra del Fuego. He'd read about it in an old National Geographic. Hopkins had sent some archaeologists there, right after the Second World War. They'd found a ring of crude monoliths, the only remnants of a vanished people. All very mysterious.
He lifted the homemade tag, and underneath it was the original label. On it was the size: 42. His size.
It was fate! He scooped it up.
The woman at the register had a face like chipped flint. She sniffed, started to ring up the coat, then stopped and glared at him. "This isn't right."
"I--" Weed felt a wash of panic. She was going to take it away from him! He tensed, preparing to grab the coat and run.
"It's a white tag. That'll be five dollars. Thirty cents tax." Weed scrabbled out the money so fast he spilled his change across the counter and had to chase after it. Then he snatched the coat and fled.
"Don't you want a bag?" the woman called after him.
But he was already outside, tearing off his cruddy old K mart special and dropping it disdainfully on the sidewalk. He struggled into his Burberry.
It felt great. The moment he had it on, his frantic walk slowed to a determined stride. His back straightened. The very cut of the Burberry put him in control. He felt sure, determined--a man of destiny. But as he walked downhill, he realized that something was subtly out of kilter about the coat. It didn't quite hang right. He walked along, listening, feeling. Just past the chocolate factory, he realized that it was hanging a smidge low on the left side.
There was something in the left-hand pocket. Something heavy. Now that he was paying attention, he could feel it shift slightly with each step he took, like a pocket flask not quite full of mercury. Sometimes it jumped a little at the peak of his stride, as if alive. What could it be? He lifted open the pocket. It was dark down there. He imagined he could feel a slight susurration of warm air from the pocket, the faintest hint of something lurking within. Twin pinpricks of yellow light winked at him and were gone. Eyes? Could they be eyes, he wondered? Surely not eyes. But still he felt an odd disquiet.
He cut through the new vest-pocket park to the canal. That was where he always went to think. The boardwalk thumped reassuringly underfoot. The crumbling factory buildings were gray paper silhouettes in the fading light. The oily brown water of the canal shimmered with insects feeding. Beyond the boardwalk he followed the towpath into the scrub trees that hid the ruins of the locks. This was ridiculous. He couldn't go for the rest of his life not daring to look in his own pocket. Weed took a deep breath. He stuck in his hand.
And screamed. Whatever was in the pocket, it hadn't eaten in over four decades. And it was hungry. Very hungry.
Weed fell to the ground, his scream a high, ululating cry. But the trees muffled him--his agony didn't carry uphill and over the tracks, where the houses were. Nobody came. The thing in his pocket was warm and moist, with teeth that dug into his flesh like slivers of freshly broken glass. Weed yanked frantically at his arm, trying to pull free, but whatever was in there was strong. Inhumanly strong. First it chewed up his fingers. That was the easy part. By the time it had gotten halfway up his hand, Weed could no longer scream. His vocal chords had locked in hysteric paroxysm. He fell to the ground. Agonized, he grabbed a stone and smashed it against the pocket with all his strength.
The thing chuckled. Desperately Weed slammed his pocket until his thigh hurt as badly as his hand, and the rock fell from nerveless fingers. It had not the least effect on the creature in the overcoat.
The horrible thing was that despite his pain, he could still think. By the time the thing had reached his wrist, he realized that as long as he pulled his arm away, it could make no further progress. But the instant he eased up, however, slightly, it leaped forward to sink its teeth slightly higher up his arm. He resisted as best he could, but the pain was unimaginable. Like sticking your hand inside a garbage disposal and turning it on? No, much worse than that, he thought hysterically. Much worse.
By the time it reached his elbow, Weed was no longer human. He was a whimpering, sobbing thing that writhed wetly on the ground. His arm was so far gone that he was bent in an arc to accommodate the beast. The trench coat's arm was so far gone that he was bunched up around the pocket. he had a single awful flash of lucidity as he sank beneath the animal level of pain. He realized that there was no creature in the pocket, only a mouth and teeth. That the Burberry itself was the creature, or rather an adaptive morph it had taken on. He imagined the beast cunningly taking the place of the original coat. Waiting for the owner to carelessly slip a hand in the pocket in search of a pencil or a pack of Luckies.
But that had been the explorer's last day in Paella. The overcoat had been folded away in a trunk before it could feed, and there it had stayed for over forty years, imprisoned in alien form, and hungering.
It was working on Weed's upper arm when he finally, mercifully lost consciousness. Things went much faster then. Methodically it ground up and digested him. First the arm, and then the shoulder itself--macerated and squeezed like toothpaste through the armhole. His head flopped over as his chest was eaten away underneath it. Then it, too, was chewed in, chin first, and then the rest. The eyes fluttered open just before they were sucked down the sleeve. But the light in them was dull and idiotic, no longer awake. False dawn had just touched the sky when the last of Weed's right foot was pulled through the overcoat arm and into the pocket. There was a final crunch of bone, and then silence.
The jogger liked to put in a good five miles every morning before breakfast. He came pounding up the boardwalk, lifting his knees high and breathing deep. It was a beautiful morning, and he was making good time. He stopped when he saw the overcoat lying in a puddle by the path, and stooped curiously to touch it. Then he realized that the dark liquid he'd mistaken for water was nothing of the kind. The police, he thought wildly. Somebody had to go for the police. All that blood. The trees were suddenly dark and sinister. The body might be hidden under them, mere feet away. Or the murderer! He turned and ran.
He didn't see the Burberry burp.

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