"This way. It's not far." And though she knew, and though he had confessed, still she took his hand, as though leading him. She kept the umbrella over them both, as they made their way silently in the pattering dark.
It was wrong, to accept her hospitality this way, only to kill her. Wrong. But he walked with her anyway, toward what he imagined must be the house where she lived. Were there others there as well, he wondered. Would he end up murdering, feasting upon, an entire family?
And still he walked onward with her, under her umbrella; because he coveted the things that she had offered him. More even than the blood, he coveted the roof over his head, the real bath, with heated water, and soap, the dry, clean clothing, and a soft place to lay his head, once he had drunk his fill. Most of all, he coveted that all of these had been offered to him freely, not wrested or stolen from their owners by terror and blood. He coveted the gifts freely given, even though there would still be terror, and still be blood, before he was through.
They came to a bumpily paved road, and from there, at last, a farmstead emerged among trees and brush-hemmed fields. The house was sturdy enough, but the siding and shutters had seen better days, as had the barn and the fences. No lights gleamed in the windows, no dog barked, and he knew her to be alone.
Better this way, after all.
They stopped on the porch, and she put the umbrella down. Beside them, a rocking chair creaked softly, making distant dialogue with the windmill that stood, black and indistinguishable from the sky, behind the barn. She took off her galoshes, and he shed the army-issue boots he was wearing, too. He was glad to be out of them. Like the jacket, they didn't fit quite right. The door was not locked. Stocking-footed, he followed her in.
He jumped slightly, when she turned on the light. In the cities he was used to it by now, this instantaneous leap of light to fixtures hung on walls and ceilings; but not here, not in a farmhouse like this. He missed the softness, and the process, of candles and kerosene. Even though they smelled.
"This way." She was leading him by the hand again, up a turn of stairs, turning on another light as she went. The house was warm. Below, the parlor stove and its flue pipe glowed black, and made the air shimmer to his unnatural vision.
The girl, Christi, her name is Christi, led him into a bedroom, and he felt the tenor of her emotions change. She stopped in front of a wooden dresser, and began to pull clothing from it. Her grief was not new, but it stabbed him anyway. He could only wonder to whom the clothes had belonged. Shirt, trousers, underdrawers, which she tucked between the other clothes with a small blush, a pair of heavy woolen socks –
"Here. I think these will fit you."
He took the clothing silently from her hands.
"Tom was my brother." She bent to get an undershirt, and a set of broad-strapped suspenders. Grasping his hands again, "Oh. You're so cold. Come."
The bathroom was small. Sink, toilet and claw-foot tub all crowded nearly atop one another. There was a contraption at the faucet end of the tub, and he learned from her that it was for providing hot water. No waiting, no hauling a big kettle up from the stove. He felt pride and sorrow both from her, flowing together like the hot and cold water, as she showed him how to use the controls.
There was surely a story behind this, though he would never know what it was, nor how she had come to be living alone in this house, on this farm; or what was to become of it all, the barn and the fields, with no one to tend them.
"It's a new tank," she said kindly. "Use all the hot water you want."
"Thank you, Miss Christi," and his hand went up to touch the brim of a hat that he had lost, ever so long ago.
The girl ducked her head. "Here's towels and a washrag." She took them from a little cabinet in the wall. "I'll be getting about supper. Come down when you're ready."
And just like that, he let her go down the stairs, unharmed. There was no hurry except for his thirst. Every sense told him that she suspected nothing of what he was, and thought only to provide for his comfort and benefit.
He looked in the mirror. How strange to be a beast in something resembling a man's skin, something so resembling the skin that he had once called his own. But even a beast loves creature comforts, and so he took them, and took them at his leisure, as they had been offered.
When he was done, he tidied the pile of dead man's clothing that he had shed, and put on the set of another's. Mixed with the traces of rain and wool and her honeysuckle blood, he smelled, now, the odors of her cooking. Potatoes and milk and some sort of meat. It would all be wasted tonight.
His sock-clad feet made no sound on the stairs, and he felt her startle at his sudden appearance in the parlor. Even as it registered, the emotion changed, like quicksilver. Her gaze was on the clothes: her brother's shirt of soft cambric, the well-worn trousers, the suspenders.
He was at her side, and she seemed not to notice that he had crossed the room far more quickly than humanly possible. She fingered the lap of the shirt front tenderly.
"They fit you. I'm so glad. Tom … he would have wanted you to have them."
No he wouldn't.
The pangs that the girl felt were piercing him. "He never came back?" he asked.
"No, he did." A pause. "He signed up right after Pearl Harbor. All the fellows did." She looked down, and her voice became almost inaudible. "Mother had the cancer already, then. But she wouldn't tell anyone. Not even me or Father."
Her fingers still lingered on the shirt fabric, and though his mouth swam with venom, he forbore to interrupt her.
"It ate her up fast. She begged me … to keep writing to him for her, after she was gone. She didn't want him to lose heart."
The coals in the parlor stove settled as they burned, while, outside, the spring rain fell down in earnest.
"Surely he saw that the handwriting was different?"
"No. Mother couldn't read or write well. The words kept going backwards on her. She'd always had me write her letters for her."
Night seeped in at the windows, and coiled in the corners of the rooms.
"Tom came back in '44, after his tour was up. He was … he was angry. Said we shouldn't have kept it from him. A thing like that."
The girl's heart lay in his chest like a stone.
"He re-enlisted. Said he wanted to see it through."
He felt her realize that both her hands were now fiddling with the buttons on her brother's shirt. She became abashed and stopped. "I'm so sorry! I'm sure … I'm sure you've lost people, too."
"Yes, I have."
"Dinner's almost ready."
"What's … your hands are still cold! Why, you never used the hot water at all, did you?"
"I did, Miss Christi, honestly I did."
"We'll just have to get some warm food in you, then. That'll make it better."
And he couldn't bear it. It didn't matter whether he killed this one, or another. The deaths were all the same. His soothing only really worked at the beginning; gentling, luring; before he set his teeth into them. Not all his gift could completely blanket out the pain of rent flesh. He could hold it at bay, deaden, confuse. But as his prey felt the very life being pulled from their bodies, the fear and panic rose up. They struggled and squirmed. Some tried to fight him. Their bones were so fragile: even now he sometimes broke them, when his gift alone was not enough to restrain. The snapping and crunching shot through his own limbs, and ribs, and spine. Some soiled themselves, and he felt that helpless loosening too, though his body had nothing to release. They begged and pleaded. In the end they grieved and despaired. And he grieved and despaired with them. Knocking them unconscious did little good. The body itself hated to give up its river of life. Immersing himself in the overwhelming pleasure of the blood, projecting that back to the victim, was his last defense. It worked the best, but always left him feeling bewildered and tremulous when he was done – as though he had died in ecstasy eating his own flesh. Though it passed, it was a vulnerability he could not always afford.
He looked down at the girl in front of him. To carry her terror and pain with him for eternity, her kindness betrayed, it was too much, more than he could bear. He had already borne so much. He wanted instead the memory of her clasped to him on the bridge, with the umbrella between and above them. The hot water in the tub, the homemade soap scented with lavender flowers, her brother's clothing on his back: he would take these from her, and find another to slake his burning throat.
"I have to go, Miss Christi. I'm so sorry."
Her eyes widened. "But … why?"
"I can't stay here."
"Have I offended you?"
"It's night already. And raining … bound to all night. And it's cold. You're still cold."
His hands were still in hers, and he felt them, tugging, urging him to stay. He had to tell her some part of the truth.
"I'm not what you think I am, Miss Christi. I'm a murderer. A thousand times over. Not just men. Women too. Children. I've killed children. You can't even imagine the things that I've done."
Horror and sorrow swelled between them, and he was as thirsty as he could ever remember being.
"You were under orders. And being shot at, too."
"It's not like that! I wasn't …" He had to make her understand. "I wasn't … honorably discharged." He took a breath, her scent and his thirst filling his mouth, making his jaws ache for the sweet that was right within his grasp, that was still holding him by both his hands.
"I didn't stop killing when I left the field of battle," he whispered.
At last he felt real fear in her. Her hands trembled, but did not let him go.
"Where will you go, then? What … what will you do?"
"Please don't ask me that."
"No!" Her heart was racing now, pushing the tang of her distress through every vessel, and out into the air. "No! Stay here. Please stay. Don't go!"
"Miss Christi, if I stay here tonight, I promise you, you won't live to see morning."
She was afraid; there was no denying it. He could feel it swirling around him, trembling in the pit of her stomach, and in his. But something stronger rose up to meet it.
"Mr. Whitlock, you've seen for yourself … I'm alone in the world. My neighbors, they … they have families. They have children." Her voice faltered, as she offered herself in sacrifice; but her hands still gripped his tightly. "Please … if you must … don't go to them. Stay here. With me."
He could not recall ever being as miserable as he was in this moment. "You think because you're kind and good, that I'll spare you. But I won't."
And that is when he felt it. The casting out of her fear. It made no sense at all, given what he had just said, but there it was. Peace, resolve, and a tenderness that made him ache. For a moment it lay upon him even deeper than the thirst.
"Everyone that I love is … already on the other side. They'll be there to … to take me home. Please."
The reprieve from the thirst could not last long. He tried to use it to pull away, but she threw herself on him, wrapping her arms tightly around his waist, pressing her face against his breast.
"Please," she said into her brother's shirt. And when he did not move, "Eat something. You'll feel better."
With that he was losing the battle again: his back to the precipice, hemmed in on both flanks.
"I can't eat what you've cooked for me, Miss Christi."
"Why not? Are you Jewish?"
"No." Dear God. "I'm a vampire."
She stared at him blankly; even her hands let him go. He watched her eyes finally take it in, finally truly see his face in the light from the standing lamp by the reading chair. Even half shadowed, he was too pale, his skin too smooth.
A small gasp left her and she raised the back of her hand to her mouth. Palm outward, it was a fending gesture, the worst she could possibly make.
His eyes fastened instantly on the pulse in her wrist, and now no power on earth could sever the cables of scent and desire that bound him to it. His senses narrowed, as they always did, so that nothing existed but her heartbeat and rushing blood. Without a single word, he grabbed her forearm in a grip of iron, bruising muscle and bone, though she did not struggle at all.
The soup on the stove in the kitchen bubbled up past the lid, as he brought her wrist to his lips, and bit down. She cried out once, and the very real pain that she felt sliced through him. It didn't matter. He was long past stopping, even before her blood hit his tongue. It was beautiful when it did. Like a flower, blooming and filling his nose with delicate fragrances of a summer field, spilling its nectar all down his throat.
With his other arm, he crushed her tightly to him, feeling the heat of her body through the fabric of her blouse, and her brother's shirt. He sucked avidly on the wound he had made, pulling the life from her body – so red, so hot, so sweet, so good – making it his. Only her heart struggled, beating against his ribs, through hers.
Through his bliss, he felt her raise her free hand, to touch the black spectacles he wore. Gently, delicately, she pulled them off. Wide blue eyes met red, as her strength slowly failed. "Stay," she breathed. "Stay." The glasses dropped from her nerveless fingers, and it was only his grasp on her waist that held her up, pressed tightly to him.
They were on the bridge again, embracing again, her spirit holding him close and dear. He breathed and sucked in ragged sobs, as he lowered them both to the floor. There was no stopping, even as he heard her heartbeat soften and stumble. He lay sprawled on top of her, covering her, still holding her waist arched against him, still pulling on the ruined wrist. The wound beneath his mouth gaped open. Its edges against his lips, its depth under his tongue, horrified him. He sealed it shut with his venom and the last of her blood.
He felt for her and found nothing. No fear, no sorrow, no pleading, no solace, not even her resolute love. Only his own bereavement.
On the next farm over, a man remarked to his wife that some poor cur must have been hit by a car and left crippled on the road. It didn't sound like any of the neighbor dogs they knew. Still, they talked between themselves, if they should go out and find the poor brute, and put it out of its misery. But the rain was coming down heavy, and the night was very dark; and soon enough, the wailing stopped.
Thank you for reading. Reviews are welcome, of course.