Thanks to Kalimando and Alby Mangroves for the beta work.
Renee laughed at she stood in the doorway of the open garage door. Charlie was kneeling on the floor, various camping supplies scattered around him. Muttered curses escaped his lips as he searched through the pile of lanterns, sleeping bags, and other gear. As he heard the echo of her tinkling laugh filtering through the small space, he turned and gave her a bashful smile.
"Missing something?" she asked, noting the delicate pink that flushed on her husband's cheeks, an endearing trait that their daughter had also inherited.
"There was a set of lures I bought just for this trip and now I can't find them. They were those new medium crankbaits I ordered from tv—"
"Honey, you might as well be speaking Greek," she interrupted, "because I have no idea what you're talking about. Were they in a box or something? What color are they?"
"They're all brightly-colored, in a clear case."
Renee laughed again. "The clear case that you put in your truck a few days ago, so that you wouldn't forget your new lures?"
The delicate pink flush that had previously stained Charlie's cheeks deepened to a furious red. "Yeah, I guess those would be the ones."
He moved from his position on the floor, walking over to give his wife a kiss on the cheek. Everyone had told them they were too young to get married, that things would fall apart, but ten years later, they were just as happy as they had always been. Renee was still as flighty as ever, moving through jobs and hobbies faster than the blink of an eye, yet that was one of the things Charlie loved most about her. She was spontaneous and fun, never letting the hassles of everyday life get her down.
Renee had never imagined she'd end up with someone like Charlie, yet she'd come to realize that what she had wanted wasn't what she needed. Looking at him now, she could still remember the shy young man that had been her partner in biology, the one that rarely opened up unless someone asked him about fishing or his desire to grow up and be a cop just like his father. He was still that same boy deep down, still honest and quiet, but there was a determined strength beneath the surface, a strength she relied upon to keep her grounded.
Charlie kissed her cheek and then her lips, his mustache rubbing against her face, scraping against her smooth skin. She reached up and gently squeezed his cheeks.
"That mustache has got to go!"
"You don't like it?" he asked, rubbing his palm across the stubble on his cheek. "All the other women do. You know me, famous ladies' man."
"Oh, dear Lord," Renee replied, reaching out to gingerly swat at him.
As they laughed together, Bella came running into the garage. At seven years old, she was all knees and elbows, a skinny tomboy with long brown hair and eyes that matched her father's. Her face was red, likely from running around in the dry desert heat with her best friend, Collin. Her knees were both scraped, the result of an unfortunate incident from two days prior when she'd tripped over her own feet; she had definitely inherited her mother's grace.
"Brady's here!" she exclaimed before turning and running back out the door. Her shrieks and giggles could be heard only moments later as she returned to playing whatever game she and Collin were engaged in.
Charlie grabbed the rest of his camping gear and stepped out to throw it into the back of his truck. He and Brady were taking advantage of a long weekend, heading out to Lake Pleasant for camping and fishing. It was a favorite pastime of the two men that had been friends since they were children, but with Charlie's job as a police officer, they rarely had time to get away for more than a stolen afternoon at the local lake. A recent string of murders had the city under high alert, forcing Charlie to put in long hours. He had considered himself lucky when he got one day off, much less an entire long weekend.
In recent months, Brady had also been afflicted with a mysterious illness. He had grown taller and bulked up in muscle, leaving Charlie very confused. Brady had explained that it was a rare growth disorder that had lain dormant in his system since birth. It had been triggered by changes to his environment, the onset signaled by a raging fever.
During this time, Brady had locked himself away and refused visitors, though he assured Charlie his illness wasn't contagious. Renee had tried to send over meals and offered to care for him, but he assured her he would be just fine. Charlie had been shocked when he had called out of the blue, claiming that his illness was now under control.
The whole incident had caused Charlie's cop instincts to kick into overdrive. He researched on the internet, even picked up a couple of books at the local library, but there were no clear cut answers to what had happened with Brady. He remained suspicious, but once Brady came out of hiding, he seemed fine. Still yet, Charlie felt like there were essential pieces of the puzzle that he was missing. He hoped that the weekend would give him the opportunity to get some answers.
Brady was an interesting man and Renee had liked him immediately, always enthralled by the myths and stories he was fond of sharing. His father was Quileute, a member of a Native American tribe from western Washington. Going against tradition, however, he had married a "pale face," a choice which left him shunned, especially as he was poised to someday become the tribe's chief. Unable to endure the ridicule and not wanting his children to grow up in a hostile environment, the family relocated to Phoenix where his new wife's family resided. Though Brady had never lived on the reservation, his father had still instilled in him the deep, rich history of his tribe.
Charlie and Brady quickly loaded the remainder of their gear into the truck, anxious to get on the road. Charlie hugged and kissed his wife goodbye, promising to have fun and be safe. He walked across the yard towards Bella; she was laughing loudly as she chased Collin around, pelting him with water from her enormous water gun.
Sneaking up behind her, Charlie reached around and grabbed the gun from her hands, turning her own weapon upon her. She shrieked loudly and held up her hands, trying to deflect the cold stream of water that was aimed directly at her. Once she was thoroughly soaked, Charlie reached out and yanked one of her braids, delighted to see her snaggletoothed grin.
Without waiting for an invitation, Bella jumped into her father's embrace, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. She giggled as he grunted, pretending that her squeezes were causing him pain.
"Are you leaving now, Daddy?" she asked, poking out her bottom lip as she feigned immense sadness.
"Yeah, baby, we need to get there in time to set up camp before it gets dark."
"Since I can't go this time, will you promise to bring back some fish? And buy me a new pink fishing pole, the one that lights up?"
"I can't make any promises about the fish, but if you promise to keep an eye on your mom while I'm gone, I can make good on the fishing pole."
She threw her arms around his neck once more, squeezing him tightly.
"I promise, Daddy. I love you."
"I love you, too, baby girl. I'll see you in a couple of days."
Brady and Charlie sat around the campfire, the once-bright flames slowly dying down to just a pile of burning embers. They'd arrived at Lake Pleasant in plenty of time to get their campsite up and running. Charlie had even found time to run by the bait and tackle shop, picking up the fishing pole Bella had requested. They'd set up their tents, got their fishing gear ready for the early morning that was sure to sneak upon them, and settled in for an evening of relaxing and drinking.
Charlie had wanted to inquire more about Brady's illness, but the opportunity never presented he was intensely curious, he didn't want to put a damper on the entire weekend. He assumed there would be plenty of time to get answers to his queries.
Morning dawned bright and early. The pair spent the day out on the lake in a rented boat, catching quite a few fish. Though the atmosphere was relaxed, Charlie noticed that on several instances, Brady would become very tense, his shoulders stiffening as he appeared to sniff the air.
"Is everything alright there, buddy? You seem distracted." Charlie reached over and smacked his friend on the back. "Damn, what have you been eating? It's like slapping a concrete wall."
Charlie let out a good-natured laugh and Brady struggled to force a smile onto his face. Though Charlie was content and having a good time, Brady sensed that there was something wrong. An ominous presence seemed to hang over them and he couldn't escape the pungent odor that permeated the air.
That evening, after enjoying a dinner of cornbread and cowboy stew, the men once again found themselves sitting around the campfire, planning to enjoy a six-pack before turning in for the night. The moon shone above them in the cloudless sky, the stars twinkling brightly. The only sounds that filtered through the air were the sounds of the crackling fire and the occasional song of an unruly cricket.
Suddenly, Brady grew very tense, his back stiffening as his eyes darted around frantically.
"Run, Charlie!" he yelled, but before Charlie could react, he felt ice cold hands around his throat. He trembled in fear as he looked up to meet the dark crimson eyes of his captor. His feet dangled in the air as the man held him with only one hand. Charlie used his hands to push against the man's chest, but his efforts were in vain. The man did not budge, did not even seem to register Charlie's futile attempts at escape.
Charlie looked over the man, his police training kicking in. If he somehow survived this attack, he wanted to be able to identify his assailant. The man's skin was a chalky pallor, his clothes reminiscent of another time and place. He was dirty, his hair filled with leaves and twigs, as if he was some sort of nomad traveling through the woods alone.
As Charlie mentally catalogued the man's appearance, he leaned forward, placing his nose beneath Charlie's ear, sniffing loudly. His cold hands dug painfully into Charlie's throat, causing him to choke and gag as he struggled to pull air into his lungs.
"You are so…mouthwatering," the man stated, continuing to sniff and run his nose along the shell of Charlie's ear. Charlie felt a cold, wet tongue peek out to taste his skin, sending a violent shiver down his spine. As he looked into the cold, dark eyes of his captor, he knew that he would not escape.
Charlie Swan was going to die.
The man moved back to examine Charlie once more before opening his mouth to show off his razor sharp teeth. They were pearly white, glinting beneath the golden glow of the moon. He snarled, a growl rumbling from deep within his chest, before lunging forward once more, plunging his canines into the tender flesh of Charlie's neck.
The pain was immediate, a sickening, burning feeling that quickly raced like fire through Charlie's veins. As the blood poured from his wound, he could feel his life escaping from his body. Though he continued to scratch and flail, he realized his efforts were in vain. Just as his eyes began to close without his permission, a violent, animal-like snarl erupted from somewhere behind him and within seconds, he was released from the crimson-eyed man's grip.
As he lay on the cold, unforgiving ground, he tried to stay awake, to make sense of what had just happened—what was still happening right in front of him. His eyes were wet, his vision blurry, but there was no mistaking the tussle between the two strong, fast beings that raged a battle near the dying campfire.
A giant, brown wolf was snapping and snarling at the strange man that had attacked him. Brady's words echoed through his mind, the stories of the legends and tales of his father's tribe.
…descended from wolves…
…the cold ones are the natural enemies of the wolf…
The words ran through Charlie's mind on a constant loop as the white-hot fire spread from the gaping wound on his neck to the very tips of his toes. Injured and afraid, he crawled away from the campsite, hiding himself deep within underbrush. Just before the darkness overtook him, one word stood out from all the others: vampire.
Charlie heard birds singing from high up in the trees, insects buzzing nearby, the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze, and though it seemed impossible, he swore he could hear the fish swimming in the nearby stream. He no longer felt the fiery flames that had engulfed his body and he wondered how he hadn't been burned to cinders.
The fire had flared and scorched throughout his body, and he was sure that he had been dying. The pain was excruciating and it was nearly impossible not to scream and flail. It wouldn't have mattered; there was no one nearby to hear his pleas.
With achingly slow moments, he crawled from beneath the bush where he had been hiding, finding no lingering stiffness in his back, no soreness in his body. He wasn't sure how long he'd lain there, but he sensed that it had been several days. As he stood, he was surprised by the quickness with which his body responded, his movements lithe like a cat about to strike.
His vision had also changed, as Charlie could see things much more clearly from a further distance. He realized he probably would no longer need to glasses he sometimes used when reading. Charlie noticed the dust floating in the air, the bits of dew on the greenery nearby, and he could almost count the grains of sand beneath his feet.
Stopping to examine himself, he realized that his complexion had changed, his skin now pale and milky. His clothes were tattered and torn, yet no wounds were visible on his body. He placed his hand against his throat, on the place where the man had bitten him, expecting to find a scabby wound; instead, he felt the raised indention of a teeth-shaped scar.
Walking towards the campsite, he found that everything had been destroyed. Their supplies were strewn about, their tents mangled and torn. As he approached the fire pit, he smelled the unmistakable aroma of decaying flesh and another sickeningly sweet aroma he couldn't name. Stepping closer, he saw a bit of the crimson-eyed man's shirt in the ashes, its edges tattered and singed. Though he had no proof, somehow he knew that man—the vampire—had died in that fire.
He approached his old truck cautiously, looking at the dented door and broken glass. Taking a deep breath, he picked up the mirror that dangled precariously from the door, gasping loudly as he took in his own reflection. His dark red eyes stood in deep contrast to his snow white skin. Filled with shock and anger, he squeezed the mirror tightly, watching the pieces crumble in his hand. The jagged bits didn't cut into his flesh.
A flash of dark, shiny hair caught his eye and he moved in the direction of where the tents had once stood. There, on the cold and unforgiving ground, lay the body of his best friend. Brady was naked and bloated, burns and deep gashes marring his russet skin. On his neck, he carried a wound that matched Charlie's.
Not wanting his friend to be found this way, Charlie searched through the mess to find garments to cover his friend's exposed flesh. He dressed him carefully, hoping to leave him with at least some of his dignity intact, trying to ignore the stench of death that permeated the air. It helped that Brady's body was so mangled, making it easier for Charlie to pretend it was someone else.
A cacophony of voices soon entered Charlie's mind and he turned rapidly in their direction. His throat began to burn, much like the flames that had once consumed his entire body. His feet began to move without his permission, guiding him in the direction of the voices. Charlie looked upon the rescue team, taking note of the men in police uniforms much like the one he used to wear. He felt liquid pooling in his mouth, the urge to strike overwhelming him. Something seemed to snap him out of his trance, however, as he fought against giving into what he had become.
With fierce determination, he turned and ran back into the woods, once again crawling into the underbrush. He sat there as still as a statue, listening to the rescuers as they catalogued the scene, determined that there had been some sort of animal attack. Charlie watched as they loaded his best friend's body—hidden in a thick, black bag—into the back of the ambulance. He eyes burned with the urge to cry, yet no tears would come.
Charlie wasn't sure why, but instinct told him to remain hidden. He knew he was more powerful that the rescue workers that had descended in the area, but he also knew that he could lose control and hurt them. He didn't want to do that, and he somehow knew he needed to keep his survival a secret.
Sitting in the greenery, he attempted to remember the things that Brady had told him about his history. Though there were some things he could recall with ease, other memories were hazy and muddled. Things that had happened right before their trip, the moments they'd spent camping, were clearer, but as he tried to recall older memories, like his wedding and the birth of his daughter, he struggled.
He stayed hidden until darkness descended, waiting for his opportunity. When the team of police officers sent to investigate had dramatically decreased, he made his move, stalking through the campsite to grab a few precious items before retreating towards home.
The family-friendly neighborhood where Charlie and Renee had chosen to start their life together was practically deserted when he made it there. Running was easy, exhilarating, but he was cautious, taking the longer route to avoid human contact. The urge to strike—to bite—was always there and he didn't trust his control. His throat burned hot and wild like a forest fire when in the presence of humans and he knew that it wouldn't take much to give into the sensation, to find a way to squelch the burn.
Hiding in an unoccupied house near his family's home, Charlie watched as people filtered in and out, carrying covered dishes and bringing their condolences. Though his body had not been found, he knew that he was considered dead, the police deducing that he had been dragged into the woods by a black bear or some wild animal. There was so much blood; the police wouldn't take the time to make sure some of it belonged to him.
Charlie could hear the conversations from inside the house, his wife's voice the easiest to pinpoint. He could hear the anguish as she spoke, the soft sniffles as she tried to remain strong, thanking the attendees for their care and concern. He searched in vain for Bella, unable to figure out where she was. Hours passed without a word from her.
When darkness descended and the visitors all departed, Charlie moved closer to the house, wanting to see his family one last time. In the driveway, he smiled as he admired the images drawn in chalk on the concrete—the house, the sunshine, and the happy, smiling family. He stood outside of Bella's window, peeking inside to find her bed completely empty. Panic gripped his no-longer-beating heart and he fought the urge to rush inside, to search for his beloved daughter.
Creeping around to the other end of the house, he peered inside of the window of the bedroom he once shared with his wife. Bella was on the bed with her mother, rigid and stiff. She'd always been a happy child, full of laughter and life, but the light was gone from her eyes. She looked stoic and angry, much more weathered and jaded than a little girl should.
Renee was holding her tightly, sobbing as she begged Bella to do something, say anything. But she didn't move, just continued to lie there, her eyes glassy and vacant. Charlie stood there until they were both asleep, listening to their breathing even out. With one final glance, he turned and walked away.
Bright and early the next morning, Renee opened the door to retrieve the newspaper, trying to retain some semblance of normalcy in her life. Her husband's absence had squeezed the life out of her, but she would continue to try to go on living, if only for the sake of her daughter. Though she knew it was unlikely, she was still holding onto some glimmer of hope, desperately wanting to believe that Charlie had somehow escaped. She had begged the police to continue their search, but they refused to listen to her pleading, brushing her concerns off as the irrational musings of a grieving widow.
As she stepped out onto the stoop to pick up the paper, not paying attention to where she was going, she stubbed her toes on the tiny cooler that was sitting there. It was the one Charlie used to pack his lunch for a day out on the lake. The smell of fresh fish assaulted her senses as she opened the lid. And when she saw the bright pink fishing pole propped against the side of the house, she collapsed onto the ground, unable to control the broken sobs that wracked her body.
Reviews are appreciated.