“The Beast Within” by Nicole Tersigni
Nicole has the distinction of being the last person to volunteer for the Lazarus taxon Project, and being the last story published. She’s one of the most passionate writers I’ve had the privilege to know, and “The Beast Within” is the perfect example of that. In a way, the story feels like “the cryptid Narnia.” It’s a novel waiting to happen. The best thing about it is how Nicole’s personality shows through. She’s one of the funniest people on Twitter, especially the conversations she has with fellow taxoner R Scott Whitley. You will be thoroughly amazed by what you read here. You can follow her on Twitter @nicsigni.
The featured creature, Mokèlé-mbèmbé, is a staple of the Congo River Basin. It is believed to be a sauropod of some kind, who’s name means “one who stops the flow of rivers.” The first documented sightings go back to 1776 by French missionary Abbé Lievain Bonaventure. Since then, countless expeditions have been founded to find the creature, led by the Smithsonian Institute, and countless others by Roy P. MacKal, who would later write a book on the creature that is extremely hard to come by these days. The creature has been featured on many television programs, including Monsterquest, Destination Truth, and Beast Hunter.
And now “The Beast Within” by Nicole Tersigni:
I arched my back a little, to make my boobs look bigger.
“Why do you look so weird? Are you farting on my towel?” Mia, my best friend in the whole world and the most embarrassing person I know, climbed out of the river and stood over me.
I scooted over to give her room on her bright purple Disney towel. She plopped directly on Mickey’s face.
“No. God.” I checked to make sure Drew hadn’t heard her, but he was still swimming. Not paying any attention to us. Of course.
“Drew thinks you’re hot, don’t worry,” she said.
“How do you know? He hasn’t even looked at me.” I adjusted my bikini top. “Maybe if I had boobs like Jill.” We both looked across the river where Jill Sanderson and the biggest set of cans in school were lounging on the bank.
“I don’t know,” Mia said. “Having big tits is probably exhausting. Back problems and whatever. Your body is fine.”
“My boobs are nonexistent. Practically concave.”
She shrugged. “Yeah, but your face is gorge. And your hair is awesome.”
That was true. My hair was awesome – a black bob with a streak of purple. I sighed and relaxed. I knew I was good looking, even without the great rack. But the past couple weeks I’d been trying to get the attention of Drew Hayes, the cute new neighbor, and I wasn’t having any luck.
“I have to go anyway. My mom’s…” I trailed off as Drew climbed out of the water.
Mia looked at me over her sunglasses. “Your mom’s what? Going to murder you? Got a present for you? Pregnant?” I wasn’t listening. I was laser focused on a particular pair of glistening shoulders.
“I thought you had to go.” Mia poked me and I blinked myself back to reality. Sadly. I stood up and stretched.
“See you tomorrow?” I asked.
“Tomorrow,” agreed Mia. She laid down and closed her eyes.
I was halfway to my bike when I heard footsteps behind me.
“Hey, Sarah. Wait up,” Drew called. I looked around. Sarah, me?
“Uh…yeah?” I said when he caught up. Smooth.
“I’ll ride home with you.” Still shirtless, he straddled his bike. I could feel my face getting red and cursed teenage hormones.
“Okay,” I said with a shrug. Inside my belly there were butterflies, but outside I was cool as a cucumber. Except the splotchy red skin. And the fact that I almost rode into a tree when he laughed at something his friends shouted. But in my defense, it was a great laugh.
“I didn’t see you in the water,” he said.
“Oh, I don’t swim.” I quickly changed the subject, hoping he wouldn’t ask any more questions about the water. I didn’t really feel like getting into the weird, recurring nightmare that had plagued me since…forever. The one where I die in the water. Each time I feel myself drown and I wake up covered in sweat. It was enough to put a person off swimming for life.
“I don’t see your parents around much.” Actually, I’d never seen them.
“Yeah, they don’t get out much.”
“I guess they don’t need to. You guys always have so many visitors.”
“What?” He looked startled.
“I mean, whenever I look at your house out my window there’s at least three or four cars in the driveway.” I realized I was beginning to sound creepy. “I don’t like, stare at your house or anything.” Nope, no way to recover from that. Change the subject.
“So what do you think of the neighborhood?” I winced at how lame that was. Better than sounding like a stalker though. Probably.
I managed to keep up the small talk until I got to my driveway.
“Okay, well. See ya,” I said, giving him a little wave. Because of course, I’d spent the whole day trying to get him to notice me, and once he does I don’t even make a move.
He smiled, showing off a really cute dimple.
“Do you want to hang out tonight?” I blurted.
“Sure,” he said, tossing the hair out of his eyes. “That’d be cool. I’ll meet you at the river?”
“Yeah. Like 8 o’clock. We should be done with dinner by then. It’ll be an easy dish night because we’re just ordering pizza. And it will give me time to shower and get cute.” I winced. God. One half naked boy with dimples and I turned into rambling weirdo.
“You’re already cute,” he said, dimple winking.
“Right. Well. I’d better…” I trailed off as the oldest woman in the history of the world came walking briskly down the sidewalk. She stopped directly in front of me and peered up at my face.
“Can I help you…?”
She stared for another second, then reached up and pulled a strand of hair out of my head.
“Ouch! What the hell?” I normally don’t swear at old people but seriously, what the hell?
She didn’t answer, just walked away.
“Who was that?” asked Drew.
“I have no idea,” I said. “Maybe I should call the cops.”
“What would you tell them?”
“I don’t know. Random old lady just stole my DNA, possibly for cloning?” He laughed. I laughed too, so he would think I was in on the joke.
“I guess you’re right. Still, that was super weird.”
There was an awkward pause.
“I should go inside,” I said finally.
“Right. See ya.”
I watched him ride the very short distance between our houses. He got off his bike, looked over and waved. Shit. Yep, caught me staring. No big deal, just a normal wave between neighbors. You’re waving too long. He probably thinks you’re going to murder him now. Stop waving. Seriously. This is the longest amount of time anyone has ever waved. You are an idiot.
I bolted to my room after dinner. I had an hour before I met up with Drew. He might think I was already cute, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t put on a little lipgloss. And change into my pink tank top that made me look extra tan. And do something with my hair. Without looking like I had put any extra effort into what I looked like, obviously. Jesus. Being a girl is tough.
I opened my closet door and reached in the back where my tanks were hanging. Instead of soft fabric, my hand met soft skin.
I screamed and stumbled back.
“Oh, stop that,” said the weirdo old woman from earlier, stepping out of my closet. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“What the fuck are you doing in my closet?” I really and truly don’t normally swear at old people but what the fuck? I yelled for my mom and turned to run.
My foot met dirt and my shout disappeared into the trees.
I was outside.
Not just outside, I realized. I was in a completely different world.
There were plants and trees everywhere, but not like any plants or trees I’d ever seen. Everything was so big and green. I could feel the wildlife teeming around me.
It was some kind of jungle.
“Correct. The Congo River Basin, to be exact,” said a voice from behind me. I turned to see the old lady standing there. And a few feet behind her, the biggest river I had ever seen.
I felt a strange, gravity-like force pulling me toward the water, so I took several giant steps back.
“What’s going on? Why are we in the jungle? How did we get here? And can you read my thoughts?” I wasn’t sure which was the most disturbing.
“Yes.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry, they aren’t nearly as exciting as you think.”
I told myself to keep my mind perfectly blank, but for some reason a clown with penises for feet popped into my head. The harder I tried not to think about it, the more penis limbs he grew.
The old woman stared at me like I was the one with dicks sprouting all over my body. “What is wrong with you, girl?” She shook her head in disgust.
I was almost embarrassed, but then I remembered I wasn’t the one pervving on someone’s private – albeit slightly disturbing – thoughts.
“What’s wrong with me? I’m not the one who broke into someone’s room and teleported them or whatever to some scary jungle where they’ll probably get eaten by a lion!” I tried taking a deep, calming breath, but I was too worked up. “Tell me what is going on right now.”
“All right, don’t give yourself a heart attack,” she said, eyeing me warily. “Does any of this look familiar to you?” She gestured to our surroundings.
“No,” I said, despite the fact that for some reason it felt very familiar. I probably read about it in a text book or something.
She walked over to stand at the water’s edge. “Are you familiar with the legends of The Loch Ness Monster? Bigfoot? Chupacabra?”
“Yeah. So?” I wanted to see what she was looking at, but I wasn’t ready to get closer to the river.
“Those stories are real. Those creatures exist. Just…not the way you might expect.”
Ohhhhhh great. She was insane. Probably going to chop me up and use me as Bigfoot bait.
“Okay. This is really exciting and I’m having a super time, but maybe we should get back to my room now.” And get you back to whatever home for magical old ladies you escaped from.
She shot me a look. Right, the mind reading thing. Sorry.
“Come here.” She held out a hand. I stayed where I was. She sighed.
“Look, the sooner we get through this, the sooner I can get you back home.”
I slowly walked to stand beside her. I peeked into the water. A massive dark shadow swam by, just below the surface. Instead of screaming and running away like I would normally do, I was drawn to it. I wanted to touch it. Whatever it was. I held out my hand as it swam past again. When my fingers broke the surface of the water, the shadow disappeared.
I stepped back from the edge.
“What was it?” I whispered.
“Mokèlé-mbèmbé. River Monster.” She sat on the bank of the river and motioned for me to sit beside her.
“A long time ago, the creatures of the stories were free to do as they pleased, including Mokele-mbembe. They lived in harmony with early man.”
A short distance from the bank, the river monster broke the water’s surface in a happy little flip. The splash almost reached us. I smiled, feeling relaxed and peaceful.
“But that harmony didn’t last.”
Clouds began to roll in, bringing darkness and cold with them. I shivered as goosebumps popped up along my bare arms and legs.
“Humans learned to be afraid of the creatures, as they’re afraid of anything different, anything they don’t understand. They began to hunt them.” She looked out across the water, nostrils flaring. “Fortunately, they were poorly organized, and the creatures had skills of their own. But the humans were clever and began to work together. An informal society formed. A group with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing the creatures.”
She gestured down the bank where a group of people were huddled around a fire.
“Stupid sons of bitches,” she spat, glaring at them. “They really piss me off.”
I couldn’t say why, but I was suddenly angry too. Just picking up on her vibes, I told myself.
“Over time, they grew more organized. More prepared. The creatures had no choice,” she continued. “They were able to draw on what was within them, and change forms. They chose humans, of all things.” She stopped, probably to get my reaction, but I was too wrapped up in what she was saying, and all the things I was feeling for any coherent thoughts.
“Every time their human form dies, they take another. And when they are born again, their Guardian,” she pointed to herself, “shows up to show them the ropes.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked, surprised at the hoarseness of my voice.
She looked at me and smiled a little. “I would have been here sooner, but I got some mixed signals. You’re not always easy to track down. Last time you were a Vietnamese man.”
I started shaking my head. “No. I don’t know what you’re saying.” My brain was screaming this was bullshit, but something inside of me was nodding along like everything made perfect sense.
“Sarah. You are Mokèlé-mbèmbé.” She gave a small bow. “You are the River Monster.”
“River Monster?” I nodded hysterically. “Sure that makes sense. I hate the water and can’t swim. Yep, I’m definitely part water creature.”
She put a hand on my arm. “Shh. It’s happening.”
“What’s happening?” I looked around nervously. The group on the beach were climbing into a boat. “What are they doing? Stop them. You have to stop them.” I couldn’t explain the panic that was suddenly choking me.
“You have to see.” She looked into my eyes. “You have to know.”
I watched from the bank as the boat came to a stop. Several of the people were holding torches, but a few more were holding spears. Large ones. And a net.
There was shouting as they heaved their spears into the water. And horrible, inhuman screams from the water. I watched, tears rolling down my cheeks as the water churned red and the people cheered and cast their net.
I felt a hand on my arm once again, and I closed my eyes as sensations and images washed over me. Fear. Unbearable pain. Chanting. Pain. Running. Stumbling. Pain. Fire. Shouting. Tired. Crying.
And through it all, a symbol that sent fear and adrenaline coursing through my veins. A flaming spear piercing a heart.
I opened my eyes. We were back in my room. I could feel the carpet beneath my feet. I could hear my sister watching cartoons in the next room. It all felt as real to me as what I had just seen on the banks of the Congo.
I collapsed on my bed, closing my eyes. It was all a nightmare. A hallucination.
I opened one eye, and there she stood. Rolling her eyes at me.
“Now what?” I asked.
She smiled a little. “We get you ready to fight.”
“Fight?” I came up onto my elbows, incredulous. “I can’t fight. I have no upper body strength, and I cry when my feelings get hurt.”
She sighed hugely. “We just have to train you so you can be prepared. The War hasn’t come yet, and it might not even come during your span.” She stared at my motivational kitten poster, her eyes unfocused. “Something’s coming though. Soon.”
“Oh, well, that doesn’t sound ominous at all.”
She shook herself a little. “You’ll be fine. Let’s go.” She started toward the window.
“Now? I can’t go now.” I looked at the time on my phone. It felt like we had been gone for hours, but it had only been a few minutes. “I have to — I have a thing in like thirty minutes.”
She stared at me. “Everything I’ve shown you and you’re worried about some boy?” She sighed. And how did she know about Drew? Stupid question. Magical old ladies who can teleport people around the world probably have ESP or something.
“We’ll be quick. First lesson. Let’s go.”
We climbed out my window. It was a lot harder to keep up with her than I had anticipated. By the time we got to the ground, I was breathing heavy. Oh yeah. I would definitely be an asset in whatever war was brewing.
I had to run to keep pace with her, wondering where she was taking me now.
“I can’t,” I said for the seven thousandth time. We were standing at the edge of the regular old New Bedford river, and the looney toons old lady wanted me to turn into a sea monster and swim away.
She said concentrate. I concentrated.
She said envision yourself as Mokèlé-mbèmbé. I tried super hard.
She said jump in the river. I refused. I couldn’t even swim for god’s sake. At least not in “this form” or whatever. If I suddenly turned into a scary water beast, sure, I’d take the plunge. But I wasn’t about to trust that this old lady was CPR certified.
“Sarah. You have to try harder,” she said for the seven thousand and first time. I glared at her. She glared back. I sighed and tried so hard I thought a vein in my head was going to burst.
“Look, maybe you’ve got the wrong girl.”
“I haven’t got the wrong girl,” she snapped.
“Well, I don’t really want my date to show up and see me standing here with the crypt keeper, looking like I’m trying to take a dump beside the river. So…let’s just call it a night and we’ll try again tomorrow okay?”
She frowned. “It’s never been this hard before.”
“Guess I’m just special,” I said, looking around for Drew. “See you tomorrow.”
I really thought for a minute she was just going to stand there all night. Or maybe shove me in the river. But then she turned around and stalked off into the trees. Did she live in the wild? Probably. Wouldn’t surprise me.
I checked my watch and realized I had about one minute to mentally prepare myself for Drew. Forget river monsters, I told myself. I tried to ignore the nagging sense of disappointment that I hadn’t been able to change. And the sad feeling that maybe she really had the wrong girl. Wait, why was I sad? Being a river monster would make senior year like a thousand times harder.
Pushing all of that aside, I sat down in the moonlight to wait. And think. And mope.
“Hey,” said Drew, plopping down beside me ten minutes later.
“Hey.” Relax. Be cool. No thinking about monsters.
I smiled at him, and he smiled back. There. Butterflies. Focus on those.
“Sorry I’m late. I had to talk to my dad,” he said.
“That’s okay. I got here a little early to…do some thinking.” Nice save, ace. “What’d your dad want to talk to you about?” I cringed. “Sorry, that’s really personal.”
“No, it’s okay.” He shrugged. “He just wanted to talk about my future and stuff. The family business.”
“Oh. What’s the business?”
“Ah, taxidermy. I’d rather not talk about it, honestly.” He smiled apologetically.
“Sure, I get it.” Though I had a thousand taxidermy questions I never knew I wanted to know all of a sudden. How do they stuff the animals? Where do they get them? What’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever taxidermied? “So…how do you like New Bedford?”
“It’s a lot different than Boston, that’s for sure.”
We chatted about life in a small town, school, our friends…anything that came to mind. Eventually, I was able to relax.
Then he leaned in.
The butterflies in my belly started doing somersaults when his lips touched mine, just for a minute. Then he leaned back and smiled.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object. He started twirling it through his fingers.
“What’s that?” I asked, trying to play it cool. Yeah, cute boys kiss me in the moonlight all the time, no big deal.
“This?” He held out his hand, a coin laying face up in his palm. “Family heirloom. I mess with it sometimes when I’m nervous.”
The symbol on the coin was one I’d seen before. A flaming spear piercing a heart. Drew was saying something else, but all I could hear was the roaring in my ears. The screaming of the beast within me. And I jerked back.
“What’s wrong? What…” He trailed off as he stared at me in surprise.
“It’s you?” He whispered, incredulous.
“You’re one of them.” It wasn’t a question. I knew he was. One of those people on that river bank. In that boat throwing spears into the water. A murderer.
“You’re a monster,” we said in unison.
The fear and anger swelled inside of me until I could barely breathe.
“I have to go.” I turned away but he grabbed my arm.
“I can’t let you.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sarah. I really am. But…” We both looked at the coin in his hand. It was glowing red. “They’re coming. They’re all coming. There’s no way out of this for you. I’m sorry,” he said again. I couldn’t tell if he meant it or not, and I didn’t care.
“Let go of me.” With the strength of all my rage and terror, I shoved him. He stumbled back, tripping over a rock. Before he could regain his balance I ran.
I could hear tires squeal, doors slam, and feet running. But I felt the river calling me, felt it flowing through me, and I ran to it. As fast as my legs could carry me.
I stopped at the water’s edge, but not in fear. Not this time. I stopped and looked over my shoulder at the angry swarm of hate behind me.
My eyes met Drew’s panicked ones and I grinned.
Then I dove into the water.
I was home.