Lucy used the spare key hidden on the porch light to get into his house. What she found was a disaster. Smashed furniture, the smell of rot, a shape curled up in the darkness. A long, low moan. “Nooooo.” As she swung the door open, that shape began trying to drag itself away. Away from the light.
Away from her.
“William?” Lucy said, afraid of the answer.
“Go,” the voice hissed. Then, in a pitiable whisper, “Just . . . just go.”
She looked at the debris scattered around her, saw the broken chair leg with its jagged point next to where she had first seen him. He had stopped trying to crawl away. Instead, from that misshapen mass, two eyes stared back at her. Dark and beady, Lucy could only catch the smallest glint of light reflected in them. Gradually, as her eyes adjusted, she began to make out more details: bony hands, clawed fingers, back twisted into a hunch, papery skin, sparse white hair in lank clumps. Fangs. They caught the light too, vicious, dangerous things.
“What . . . happened to you?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
The vampire answered anyway. “No blood,” he said. “I promised . . . for you. No more blood.”
Shana was reaching for her keys when the voice slithered out of the darkness. “Hungry,” it groaned. She paused, hand on the knob, and tried to ignore the void in the corner of her eye. “Huuuungryyy.”
She sighed. “I already fed you this morning.”
A thin, boney limb reached out of the shadows, clawing vaguely in Shana’s direction. “Hungry,” the creature growled again, more insistently. She could see the glint of jagged teeth and six glowering eyes reflected out of the darkness.
Shana folded her arms. “This is getting out of hand. I can’t keep going back and forth every time you want a snack.”
She wasn’t sure if the sound that came next was a growl or a hiss, but it made her flinch in spite of herself. Perhaps the creature could sense fear, or perhaps it finally lost its temper. Either way, it began thrashing wildly, beating against the furniture and walls, shouting “Hungry! Hungry! Huuuungrrrrryyyyy!”
But the fit was short-lived, soon replaced by a soft, pathetic whimper. Shana softened. “Wow. You really are hungry, aren’t you?”
Fifteen minutes later, she pulled up to the drive through. “Yeah, I’m going to need a dozen pumpkin spice lattes please.”
They would never think to look here, he thought. And he was right. None of them would ever stumble across the hiding place. In fact, no one would lay eyes on the box for the next century and a half until it would be discovered by some kids who had never heard of Flint McGee.
The sound of metal against stones clawed at his ears. It was annoyances like that which drove him to these extremes. Some of them could be put up with. Some, like this sound, had to be put up with. But others needed to be taken care of.
Just a little farther … it will be perfect. He was right. It would be ten feet by ten feet by ten feet. Overkill, certainly. But some efforts are necessary, he thought. Some things must be done properly.
It was that sound again. He was glad it would stop soon. Just like the other: that incessant whine he had silenced. But this one would stop more simply and gently than the last.
Finished. It was perfect. He climbed the ladder, pulling it up behind him and said his last farewell to Flint McGee.
They tell me this is nothing new. They tell me, “There have always been fires, but you were just too small to see them.” They tell me, “It will all blow over, just like the storm that strengthens your roots.”
I would like to believe them.
They have stood tall for centuries, patient and steady while the beasts of the earth dart around their trunks worrying through brief lives. “We grow from their graves,” they tell me, “and our roots are tangled in their bones. But we shall persist. We always persist.”
The air is dry. There is smoke on the horizon. Surely this is not normal. Surely this is worse than usual.
But they tell me it will pass. “There are bad times, yes. So grow your roots deep and your bark thick, and drink in the sun while you can. Soon the rain will come.”
I would like to believe them. I do not wish to burn.
The sun is dim. The sky is red. All around me, smoke billows. Wood splinters. The trees in whose shade I grew as a sapling writhe and burn and fall. All around me is the sound of splintering wood.
The wind was so strong. It reminded Tom of kite-flying as a boy with a kite as red as Rachel’s lips on their wedding day. They had met the summer he broke his arm. He had broken six bones in his life; the worst was his femur. He broke it falling off the roof while replacing shingles one summer.
A fall of all things …
Fall was his favourite season. It made him think of apple cider and the smoke of leaf burnings. He had burned his tongue drinking his coffee too quickly this morning. That always happened when he was running late for work. In high school, he prided himself on his speed. He even went to state for the 110 hurdles one year, but he fell and broke his ankle.
Tom Jr had broken his ankle at seven jumping off a swing. Rachel had been terrified. She blamed Tom for not watching closely enough. His watch—he should have taken it off.
The lights of the building were flying past like the shooting stars he and his first love saw that night in the mountains.
The wind was so strong. In a moment, he would never feel it again.
Sara’s fingers worked quickly, plucking the clusters of dark shapes from Maggie’s sweatshirt. “You’re sure there aren’t any ticks or anything, right?” Maggie asked.
“No, just some beggar’s lice.”
“Lice?” Maggie said in a panic, “Are you serious?”
“Oh—no it’s not—” Sara laughed. “They’re just stickseeds.”
“Seeds.” Sara held up a cluster of spikey brown kernels and leaned closer to Maggie. “They’ve got these little barbs that stick to clothes and hair and stuff. Pretty annoying.”
Maggie’s eyes darted distractedly between the seeds and Sara’s face, but all she said was, “Oh.”
“Yeah, you must’ve really charged right through them.”
“I guess so,” Maggie said with a brief, uncertain smile.
“You’ve never spent much time in nature, have you?” Sara asked. Maggie shook her head, but didn’t speak. Sara felt her smile fading. This wasn’t working. Better to cut things off, to tear away the barbs of hope she had let accumulate. “I guess you probably aren’t interested in any more hikes then.”
Maggie was picking absently at a line of seeds stuck to her jeans. “Actually,” she said, looking away as a blush rose to her cheeks. “I think I’d like to do it again some time.”
Don’t think I haven’t been faithful or even happy. Because I have. All I’m trying to say is that I’ve never been able to love my wife with my whole heart.
When I was eighteen, I went out into a field during the rain. I danced, splashing in the mud. There was a girl walking through the tall grass and singing a sad, slow song. And she kissed me once before going on her way. When the rain was gone, so was she.
I loved her.
But I never saw her again. A month later I met the woman who would be my wife. She came like a ray of sunshine and illuminated all of the dark recesses of my heart. It was in her that I first knew myself, and her warmth helped me accept all of the wild shadows I had never realized were inside of me. She was comfort and stability.
We were happy. We have always been happy together.
But whenever it rains, I remember that kiss beneath the clouds. I remember the taste and rhythm of untamed passion that fell into my life. And for a moment, my wife does not have all my love.
It was crowded, and louder than usual. A gust of cold wind hit him as one more soul was ushered into the tiny coffee house. The bell above the door tinkled. Another angel’s wings, he thought.
His attention returned to his tea: Irish Breakfast. He used to drink it with his grandmother, who was neither Irish nor ever ate breakfast. She just liked tea. “Tea is peace and comfort,” she would tell him. “A good pot of tea can make the worst enemies into friends.” She always used to say that. But that was almost forty years ago.
This was the best Irish Breakfast tea in town. Almost as good and Grammaw’s. “Excuse me …”
Steam and memory rose from his cup, and he looked through the mist at a stranger’s face.
“It’s pretty full here today. Would you mind if I sat with you … or are you expecting someone?”
The bell tinkled. Wind rushed in. He was silent a long moment, knowing nobody was coming for him. His eyes fell to his tea. It was getting cold.
“It’s alright. I’ll find somewhere else.” And the stranger was gone, lost to the bustling noise of the coffee house.
He recoils initially, then leans forward and sniffs. “Popcorn.”
She shakes her head, grinning slyly and takes back the paper. “No, it doesn’t.”
A shrug. “Well of course it doesn’t. It’s a sticker. How’s it supposed to smell like butter and salt and all that? It just smells like popcorn ‘cuz that’s the best they can do.”
“No,” she says again.
She leans forward conspiratorially, eyes bright. “You just think it smells like popcorn because there’s a picture of popcorn on the sticker, so you smell what you’re expecting. But it really smells like something else entirely. Try again.”
“It’s a scratch-n-sniff.”
“Close your eyes.”
A smack on the arm. “Just do it. Close your eyes.” He sighs, but does as instructed. “Clear your mind. Inhale.”
With a roll of his closed eyes, he breathes in, expecting nothing. He smells smoke. Wood smoke. Dirt and pine needles. Bug spray and sunscreen. Fish roasting over a campfire. Then he hears wind. Rustling branches and creaking trees. He feels mottled sunlight flickering over his eyes. There are footsteps approaching from behind.
He always let the phone ring twice before answering, just to be sure it was a real call.
“I hate you and I never want to see you,” a shrill voice rang out.
“Um … who is this?”
“Cheryl” the voice replied.
He paused a moment to reflect, his mind swimming through a sea of names and faces, but landed on nothing familiar. “I don’t know anyone named Cheryl.”
“Who is this?” “Matt. Matt Reinhart.”
There was a pause. A gasp. A click. And he walked away from the phone.
“I want you to know that I hate you, and I never want to see you.”
He sighed. “Cheryl, this is Matt again. Goodbye.” The phone was barely out of his hand when he heard it.
Was it … ?
Should he … ?
“Don’t hang up” the now familiar voice squeaked.
“Just let me explain …” He decided to let her. “Today has been very rough and filled with a lot of misdirected hostility. Then I heard your voice and your name, and something changed inside me. I knew. Matt Reinhart … do you believe it’s possible to hate someone you’ve never met?”