Tuesday, September 13, 2016

DON'T TURN AROUND

Genre: Horror




DON’T TURN AROUND
By Daniel Skye




As a musician, the rain did not disturb Jimmy. It hammered down on the tin roof of the barn, reminding him of a snare drum. He found it to be a soothing, mellow din. Nature’s lullaby, he called it.

The outside of the barn was painted dark green, not the traditional red, and Jimmy had almost missed it stumbling around in the dark without a flashlight.

            The barn wasn’t the Ritz. It wasn’t even the Marriott. But with no cars or houses in sight, it wasn’t as if Jimmy had his choice of lodging. The unremarkable accommodations of the rustic barn would have to suffice until the storm let up.

Jimmy was on his way to a solo gig when a flat tire left him stranded in Clarksville. But Jimmy’s gig wasn’t in Clarksville. In fact, Jimmy had never even heard of the place before. And it appeared to be a virtual ghost town. No houses, stores, or landmarks. Just an endless stretch of road.

With no spare in the trunk, and no cellular reception, Jimmy grabbed his satchel and guitar case and started walking. He walked for a mile and never saw a single car pass in either direction. That was around the time the rain starting pouring down.

It didn’t faze Jimmy at first, but when he heard the crackle of thunder and saw the sky light up, he knew he had to seek shelter. And that’s when luck decided to be on his side for once. That’s when Jimmy spotted the barn from the road.

Jimmy was drip-drying on a bale of hay as he strummed his guitar and adjusted the tuning pegs to reach the desired pitch. He never let that guitar out of his sight.

When Jimmy was onstage and held that guitar in his hands, he felt a surge of power and adrenaline that rivaled any drug he’d gotten his hands on over the years. Jimmy knew the drugs would catch up to him eventually. Drugs always take their toll, sooner or later.

            It was easy for Jimmy to lie to himself. A bump here, a snort there. Just enough to get me through the show, he’d say.

            Everything was peachy until he started craving more. Bumps turned into lines, lines turned into freebasing, freebasing turned into injections. If you could supply it, Jimmy would snort, smoke, shoot, or swallow it.

But Jimmy had been clean for the better part of a year. No more pills, no more coke, no more speed. He didn’t even drink anymore. He still smoked the occasional joint, but that was where he drew the line.

Now he relied on copious amounts of caffeine to carry him through each show. He had to fill the void with something, and Red Bull or Monster energy drinks seemed to do the trick.

On the outskirts of Clarksville, Jimmy had stopped off at a convenience store for his caffeine fix. But the coffee was old and stale and they had no energy drinks in stock. They didn’t even have name brand sodas like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. All they had were the cheap knockoff brands like Jazz Cola and Mr. Pepper.

            Jimmy had grabbed the last bottle of Jazz Cola on the shelf. The wraparound label boasted that the drink packed three times the caffeine of a regular soda. The label also clearly stated that the product and its statements had not been evaluated or approved by the FDA.

            Jimmy and the clerk were not alone in the store. There was another man, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. He stood by the magazine rack, pretending to read a newspaper. Jimmy could feel the man’s eyes on him the entire time he was in the store. And he didn’t care for the way the clerk was eyeing him up, either. But he simply assumed they didn’t take too kindly to outsiders around these parts. He shrugged it off, paid for his drink, and left the store in a hurry.

            Jimmy decided to give the guitar a rest. He gently placed the guitar back in its case and removed his phone from his satchel, trying to get a signal. He had to get in touch with his agent or the club he was supposed to be performing at. He didn’t want to burn any bridges or cost himself any future gigs.

            He got up and walked circles around the barn, holding the phone high above his head. But his phone refused to cooperate, leaving Jimmy stranded indefinitely.

“Shit,” a frustrated Jimmy shouted and kicked the side of the barn.

“Somebody in there?” a voice called from outside the barn.

            Oh crap, Jimmy thought. I’m technically trespassing. They could call the cops on me.

The barn doors were thrust open, and a man who was a few years younger than Jimmy, stepped in from the rain. He forced the doors shut behind him, which was quite a task with the heavy winds. But when he finally got them to close, he turned his attention to Jimmy. He wasn’t the least bit threatened by Jimmy’s presence, despite being outsized in both height and weight.

            “Well hello there,” the young man said. “Hell of a night, isn’t it?”

            “Indeed it is,” Jimmy agreed. “Look, before you say anything, I didn’t mean to trespass. I’ve had a hell of a night. My tire blew out and I got stuck in the rain. I just stopped to dry off and wait for the storm to pass.”

            The young man chuckled. “Relax, I’m not here to bust you. Besides, this property has been abandoned for years.”

            “Well, that’s a relief. What’s your name?”

            “Isaac. And who might you be?”

            “Jimmy Molson.”

            “Jimmy Molson…Hey, didn’t you used to play bass for The Hedgehogs?”

            “Yeah, and sometimes I’d play the drums at live gigs. Now I play guitar in a band called The Greasy Bandits. And I also play solo gigs. I was on my way to a show in Westfield when my tire blew.”

            “I take it you’ve never been to Clarksville before?”

            “Never,” Jimmy replied.

            “I wish I could drive you to the show, but I don’t even have a car. I was walking home from town when it started pouring down. I always use the farm as a short cut to get home. And sometimes I stop off here at the barn and smoke a joint.”

            “You wouldn’t happen to have a joint now, would you? I’ve been off the hard shit for a while. But I still smoke the occasional J.”

            “Afraid not,” Isaac sighed.

And Jimmy sighed in return. “No big deal,” he said, opening his satchel and taking out a bottle of Jazz Cola.

            Jimmy unscrewed the cap and chugged half the bottle. It had a bitter, acidic taste; like combining black coffee with soda. But Jimmy craved the caffeine, and forced himself to finish the rest of the bottle.

            “You should go easy on that stuff,” Isaac advised him. “Soda is bad for you.”

            “Ah, everything is bad for you nowadays. People ate bread for hundreds of years without a problem, and now all of a sudden everyone’s allergic to gluten.”

            “You don’t regret the damage you’re doing to your body?”

            “The only thing I regret was the Cowabunga tattoo I got when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were at the height of their popularity.”

            Jimmy’s stomach gurgled and he let out a loud belch. “Excuse me,” he said, cupping one hand over his mouth.

            “No biggie,” Isaac said, shrugging it off.

            “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to have a cell phone, would you? I’ve got no service and I really should call my agent and tell him I won’t be making this gig.”

            “Same problem. I’ve never had any cell phone reception in this part of town. I can barely get a signal at my house.”

            “Rats,” Jimmy said. “Well thanks anyway.”

            “I’ve got to say, I’m a big fan of your music. What made you decide to get into the business?”

“I got a drum set in high school and started playing in a garage band. Then I learned how to play guitar and bass. And I just got hooked on that rush that came with performing live. There’s nothing like it. I wound up dropping out of high school just to play in a band fulltime. My parents never approved of my musical aspirations. But they learned to accept my decision.”

            “My dad was the same. He always wanted more for me. He always demanded perfection. I remember when I got a 98 on my algebra test. Highest grade in the class. You know what he said to me when I showed it to him? He said, ‘what happened to the other two points?’ Fucking dick.”

            “Dads can be like that. Don’t let it get to you.”

            “Don’t turn around,” Isaac blurted out.

            Jimmy froze momentarily. “What is it?” he whispered. “Is there something behind me?”

            Isaac chuckled. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to freak you out. It’s carved on the wall behind you. ‘Don’t turn around.’ I forget who carved that. But it’s been there for years.”

            “Thank God,” Jimmy sighed. “For a second, I thought it was a big spider crawling up the side of the barn. I know it doesn’t sound tough coming from a guy, but I hate spiders. They give me the willies.”

            Jimmy glanced over his shoulders and saw the words carved deep into the side of the barn. “What does it mean?” he asked.

            “One town over, in Cherrywood, there’s a tunnel below an abandoned train trestle. It’s too narrow for any cars to fit through. But the tunnel is deep and stretches from one side of town to the other. They say if you ever find yourself in that tunnel, don’t turn around. You never stop walking and you never look behind you. Those are the rules.”

            “Is this like a local ghost story? What’s the tunnel supposed to be haunted?”

            “No ghosts involved, I’m afraid. I wish it were ghosts. Ghosts are just spirits trapped between life and death. That I could handle. No, something much worse dwells inside that tunnel.”

            “But it’s just a story, right?”

            “Is it?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. Jimmy couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or yanking his chain. “We all thought it was, at first. Until people started disappearing. Cherrywood, Clarksville, and a few other towns were nearly evacuated. We were afraid the creature would eventually abandon its home and go exploring. And that’s exactly what happened. But we found a way to keep it confined. We found a way to make sure it never leaves that tunnel.”

            “Excuse me,” Jimmy said, coughing. “I don’t feel very well. I feel…kind of…dizzy…”

           “See, I told you that soda is bad for you. Everyone around here knows not to drink Jazz Cola. Elliot, he brews that shit in his basement. Tastes almost like the real thing. But add a powerful sedative in there, it makes a hell of a knockout drug. Sweet dreams, Jimmy.”


* * *


            Jimmy dreamed of his first band practice. His friends had a garage band called Downcast Heart. Derek, the bass player, came up with the name. And none of them knew what it meant except for him. They all just seemed to go with it. Jimmy started out as a drummer, than filled in on guitar when their first guitarist dropped out of the band, citing creative differences.

            Jimmy knew what he was referring to. The lead singer, Jakob, was into grindcore, death metal, screamo, and that’s what he insisted on playing. It wasn’t long before Jimmy dropped out as well and pursued other options.

            But that wasn’t all Jimmy dreamed of. While he was unconscious in the bed of that truck, his mind was on a ride of its own. He dreamed of his first date, his graduation, his first concert, his first solo gig. And he dreamed of the two weeks he’d spent at community college before he decided to drop out and pursue his dreams. It was a montage of his life.

            A montage that was rudely cut short when Jimmy blinked up at the stars, slowly regaining consciousness. When the men realized he was starting to come around, Isaac opened the truck and grabbed the shotgun. He leaned over the side of the truck with the gun, burying the barrel in Jimmy’s cheek. There wasn’t much Jimmy could do to defend himself with his hand tied in front of him. And Isaac could’ve blown his face off in one clean shot.

            “I’m really sorry about all this,” Isaac told him. “I wasn’t lying before. I really am a fan of your music. But this has to be done. It’s the only way to keep this creature at bay.”

            “Quit your yapping and get them out of the van,” another man yelled.

            Them? Jimmy thought. He glanced to his side and saw a young woman in the same predicament as him, her hands bound with rope. They lifted them out of the truck and cut them loose. Jimmy got a look at their faces. There were three of them. Isaac, the clerk from the convenience store, and the man who was standing by the magazine rack.

            “I believe you already met Elliot and Ricky,” Isaac said, reintroducing them.

            “What is this?” Jimmy asked.

            “This is the end of the line,” Elliot, the clerk, told Jimmy.

            Jimmy turned and saw the gaping black mouth of the tunnel.

            “You and, uh, what’s your name again?” Ricky asked the terrified girl.

            “Gina,” the girl said, shivering.

            “You and Gina are going to take a little walk through this tunnel. If you make it from one end of the tunnel to the other in one piece, congratulations. You get to live. But if you don’t, then the sacrifice will be complete and we can all rest easy for a while.”

            “You’re insane,” Jimmy spat.

            “Don’t take it personal,” Isaac said. “If it wasn’t you two, it would’ve been somebody else. It’s just the harsh luck of the draw.”

            “Alright, enough of this shit,” Elliot said. He grabbed the shotgun from Isaac’s hands and nudged them both with it, moving them towards the mouth of the tunnel.

            As they approached the tunnel, Gina extended her hand. She was a short girl and she had to look up at Jimmy just to meet his eyes. “Please, hold my hand,” she begged.

            Jimmy took her hand and led the way. They walked through the dark tunnel with nothing to light their path.

            “Those bastards took my guitar,” Jimmy groaned. “And my cell phone.”

            “They took my phone too,” she said, letting go of his hand to feel through her pockets. “Wait a minute…”

            “What is it?”

            “They didn’t take my cigarettes.”

            “So? If you don’t have a lighter, what good does that do?”

            “No, I always tuck my lighter inside the cigarette pack when it’s almost empty. And I only had like five cigarettes left.” She opened the pack and took out her lighter, which was still tucked away with her smokes.

            The orange flame swayed from the wind that blew through the narrow passage. “It’s not much, but it will have to do.”

            They resumed walking, hand and hand, with Gina holding the lighter out in front of them. “How did you get tangled up with those three lunatics?”

            “I was just passing through town. Same as you, probably. I got two flat tires and was trying to call for help when those two creeps came out of nowhere and attacked me. They knocked me out, tied me up, and threw me in the back of their truck.”

            “Don’t worry, these people are delusional. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re going to make it out of here alive, and then we’re going straight to the police.”

            A horrible shriek echoed through the tunnel and Gina made the mistake of glancing over her shoulder.

            “Don’t turn around,” she whispered.

            “What is it?”

            “Just keep moving,” she said, barely audible.

            She had a death grip on his hand now and was practically dragging him along. Curiosity got the better of Jimmy and he peeked over his shoulder. That’s when he saw it skittering through the tunnel.

            Its skin was black and rough as shoe leather. Its gaping mouth was the size of the manhole cover, and its needle-like teeth looked like it could chew through a manhole cover.

            “Run!” he screamed. Gina dropped the lighter and they both started sprinting towards the end of the tunnel.

            It skittered down the path with ten long, angular legs, moving like the biggest spider Jimmy had ever seen in his life. But this was no spider. This was a monstrosity, something that by all means should not rightfully exist. This was a beast that defied nature.

            They reached the end, stopping dead in their trucks. Isaac, Ricky, and Elliot were waiting for them at the other side. Ricky had the shotgun propped over his shoulder like he was a villain posing in an action movie.

            “Well, I’ll be damned,” Ricky said. “They made it, and with all their pieces intact.”

            “Congratulations,” Isaac said.

            “But we still can’t let them go,” Elliot pointed out. “They know too much. And the creature still requires its sacrifice.”

            “We had a deal,” Jimmy shouted.

            “Deals were made to broken,” Ricky shrugged. “I promise I’ll make this quick.” He pumped the mechanism of the shotgun and pointed it in Jimmy’s direction.

            Gina glanced behind her again and screamed, “Down!” She pulled Jimmy down to the ground, and the creature, which had been gaining momentum, leapt over them and burst out of the tunnel. It lunged towards Isaac and took him down with ease.

            A forked tongue slithered in and out between its teeth, tasting the air around it. Sharp, talon-like claws pinned Isaac to the ground. Ricky fired one shot into its back, reloaded, pumped the shotgun, and fired again.

            Unfazed, the creature turned to him and snatched the gun from his hands, placing it between its teeth and snapping it in half with a single bite. Its long, forked tongue coiled around Ricky’s neck like a snake and pulled him in.

            Gina shielded her eyes, but she could not block out the unmistakable crunch of bone. All it took was one bite to sever Ricky’s head from the shoulders. Then the creature picked up where it left off with Isaac.

            Elliot, screaming like a baby, started running for his life. But as soon as the creature finished devouring Isaac, it turned its attention to him. The creature and Elliot both disappeared into the night, and Jimmy and Gina glanced back at the dark, cavernous tunnel in disbelief.

            “They were telling the truth,” Gina said, shuddering at the thought.

            “It doesn’t change the fact that they were assholes.”

            “No, it does not.”

            “I have a feeling this town is about to become an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

            “Then we should probably get the hell out of dodge if we don’t want to be added to the menu.”

            “We have to notify the authorities,” Jimmy said.

            “No we don’t. If these three guys knew about this thing, the whole town probably knows. The cops could be in on it. We go to the cops and we’re right back where we started. We need to go, now.”

            “Go where?”

            “Anywhere but here.”

            She climbed into the pickup truck and found the keys still in the ignition. “You coming or what?” she shouted from the now idling truck. Jimmy didn’t have to give it much thought. He hopped in the passenger seat and Gina sped away from the tunnel. She didn’t slow down until she found the main road.

            “What was that thing?” Jimmy asked rhetorically. But Gina still answered.

            “Something that shouldn’t exist,” she said.

            They passed a sign that said You Are Now Leaving Cherrywood, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then they came across the next sign. The sign that informed them they were Now Entering the Town of Clarksville.

            Gina gunned it and she didn’t stop once until they were three towns over and Clarksville was a distant memory.



AN EXCERPT FROM THE DAILY BUZZ:



            Thousands have been evacuated from the Long Island towns of Clarksville, Cherrywood, Fairview, and Dorchester. The local authorities contributed the mass evacuation to a leak at a nearby power plant. Though, the owners of the plant have been reached for comment and have denied such claims. And these allegations certainly do not explain the heavy military presence throughout Clarksville and Cherrywood, something the local authorities have refused to comment on.

DUSK

Genre: Horror




DUSK
By Daniel Skye




As the sun set and disappeared below the horizon, Lucius awoke from his diurnal slumber.

Contrary to popular belief, Lucius did not sleep in a coffin as it has been depicted in film and literature. Coffins were meant for the deceased, a category Lucius didn’t quite fall into.

Lucius found coffins to be cramped and confined, and he never understood where this myth had spawned from. Lucius wasn’t so different from you or me. He slept in a king-size bed every night…well, to be technical, every morning.

He sat up in bed and checked his pocket watch, a relic from the 19th century that he couldn’t bear to part with. Digital watches were abundant and inexpensive, but they could never replace his vintage pocket watch. As long as that watch kept ticking, it’d never leave his side.

The windows in his bedroom were boarded up from the inside, so Lucius went straight from the bedroom to the living room. He peeked out through the venetian blinds and watched as a fading twilight paved the way for a gloomy dusk.

Lucius released a sigh. But this was not a sigh of discontent. This was a sigh of relief, gratification. This was his favorite part of the evening. There was something so eerily satisfying about watching the darkness slowly creep in and envelop everything around it.

            The red brick fireplace was already stacked with cordwood. Lucius crumpled a few pages of an outdated newspaper and stuffed them into the fireplace, under the firewood, and lit it with a long match from a box on the mantle.

            Lucius could not feel the cold, nor the heat, for that matter. But every winter night, he made a fire and sat in his favorite chair, clutching a snifter of brandy with his thin, claw-like fingers. And this night was no exception.

            He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of brandy from a bottle he got from the cabinet under the sink, then he walked back to the living room and sat by the fire in a chair bound with red leather.

            Wind traveled down the chimney, causing the flames to dance and sway. His eyes perused the fire with a clear lack of enthusiasm. The fire did not intimidate him; it never did. But it didn’t stimulate him like it used to, either. He used to appreciate sitting in front of the fire with his brandy, but it had lost its charm. He’d grown bored with this ritual. Truth be told, he’d grown bored with life in general.

            He sipped his brandy and tried to keep the memories at bay. This constant isolation gave Lucius nothing but time to ponder his misdeeds. But he never asked for this life. He wasn’t born into it. He wasn’t a vampire by choice. He was like an untamed animal, loose in the wild, doing whatever it had to do in order to survive.

He finished his brandy, got up, and refilled the glass with a red, viscous liquid that he poured from a vial he’d taken from the freezer. There was just enough to fill the glass halfway.

            He took his seat again by the fireplace and stared lifelessly into the flames, contemplating his immortality. But immortality came at a heavy price. Low on blood, Lucius would have to hunt again soon in order to subsist.

He had survived war, famine, plagues, and pestilence. He had lived since the 18th century. Watched the times changes, watched the world perpetually reinvent itself, watched us evolve from primitive savages to sophisticated savages.

He wondered if he was getting greedy. Overstaying his welcome. All those innocent people that had to die for him to survive this long. But his avarice far exceeded his compassion for humanity. If society knew that monsters like Lucius walked among them, he’d be hunted down and killed. Or worse, the government would keep him alive to experiment on him.

Lucius had seen visions of his own demise. He’d envisioned an angry mob chasing him through the streets with torches like Frankenstein’s monster. He saw the mob lining up to plunge stakes through his heart or saw off his head. In these visions, not all the townsfolk had stakes. Some of them carried axes or pitchforks or baseball bats. Some of them were toting shotguns or wearing crosses around their neck. But all of these visions shared the same ending. It ended in Lucius’s death.

            Lucius could not see his own reflection in the mirror, but aside from his pallid complexion, he was virtually ageless in every other aspect. His jet-black hair was thick and full, and he always kept it slicked back. He wasn’t trying to impress; he just liked how it looked. His skin, though pale, was taut, not saggy or wrinkled. He hadn’t aged physically since the day he was turned.

            The snifter rested in his hand, the blood untouched. This evening, his mind was overwhelmed with thought. Something was nagging at him, something that refused to let up.

Lucius was a walking thesaurus. You don’t live over two hundred years without soaking up knowledge and language like a sponge. But one word had been plaguing him for years.

           He scanned the archives of his brain for every synonym he could conjure up. Malevolent. Sinister. Creepy. Baleful. Malicious. Wicked. Sinful. Vile. Vicious. Fiendish. Diabolical. But there was one word that truly summed it all up in four letters.

“Evil,” he said. The word rolled off his tongue and exited his mouth as a harsh whisper. “Am I truly evil?”

He stared into the fire for hours on end, until the wood was nothing but small chunks of glowing red embers, debating that question for half of the night. He tried to count the number of people who had suffered at his hands, but he lost track several times and inevitably stopped trying to figure it out.

The number was big enough to inspire guilt in even the coldest of hearts. And Lucius had the coldest heart of them all. But a small part of him was still capable of feeling regret. Arguably his biggest regret had been the Pickman incident.

Christmas 1997. Lucius was prowling the streets that night and his hunger had gotten the better of him. He did something he had never done before. A light was on in the upstairs bedroom of a house on Pickman Street.

Lucius had never learned her name, but her face stayed with him after all those years. Shoulder-length chestnut brown hair, light hazel eyes, with a scattering of golden brown freckles across her rosy cheeks.

The woman was getting ready for bed when Lucius crawled in through the window and gave her the fright of her life. Her son, only six years old at the time, heard the scuffle that ensued and thought it was Santa Claus coming down the chimney. He rushed into his mother’s room to tell her of Santa’s arrival. And what he saw that night would change his life forever.

The sheets and pillow cases were saturated with blood. Lucius saw the boy watching him and looked up, retracting his fangs from the mother’s neck. The boy stood at the threshold of the door, paralyzed with fear. Lucius could have taken that child’s life, but instead he slipped out through the window, and disappeared into the night.

Lucius never saw the boy again, but knew the mark he’d left on him. That boy would never be the same again. And he knew the boy would never forget his face, just as Lucius could never forget the face of his mother. And no amount of brandy or blood could ever wash away that lingering regret.

Lucius never did solve his internal debate. In the end, he simply couldn’t decide. Good? Evil? It all depended on the definition that society bestowed upon the words.

In the time that had passed, he hadn’t even touched his drink. The blood was warm now, but it made no difference to Lucius. Vampires can’t afford to be particular. It wasn’t like taking your pick at the buffet. He took whatever he could get.

He emptied the snifter and wiped the blood away from his lips. But it still wasn’t enough to quell his thirst. He craved fresh blood. And fresh blood he was going to get.


* * *


When his hunger flared up, Lucius took to Ravensville Park. The park wasn’t so much a park as it was a refuge for hobos, stray runaways, junkies, and denizens of the city. And no matter how many bodies piled up around Ravensville Park over the years, the cops didn’t bat an eye.

Most of the victims had no immediate family, no relatives or friends, nobody to mourn their loss. And the cops didn’t have the time or the resources to pursue these investigations with more pressing priorities at hand.

Lucius moved quietly through the park, his footsteps producing no sounds. The winters were cold in Ravensville, meaning a large number of the homeless population had sought refuge at actual shelters, where they had food and cots and heat. But Lucius eventually came across a park bench where a young man was resting.

The top of his head was covered by a wool cap, and the lower half of his face was covered by a gray scarf. All that was visible were his eyes. He wore a red parka, gloves, and boots, but even those didn’t help fend off the cold.

“What’s your name?” Lucius asked, startling the young man.

“Ra-Ra-Ray,” he stammered. “Raymond Kessler.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Kessler. I’m Lucius. And what is your story.”

“My story?”

“Yes, your story. Are you a junkie? You homeless?”

“I got kicked out by my foster parents. They don’t approve of my lifestyle choices.”

“Lifestyle choices?”

“I’m gay.”

“That’s alright. I don’t discriminate. You all taste the same to me.” Lucius grinned just to flash his razor-sharp fangs to Raymond.

Raymond recoiled at the sight. “Are you…are you Dracula?”

“Don’t be preposterous. Dracula is only a myth, a horror tale. Vampires do exist. But there’s no Dracula. No head vampire. Vampirism started as a genetic curse. There was no explanation for it. Some babies were born with no genetic defects. Other were born with fangs and a thirst for blood. It didn’t start spreading until they learned they could pass on the curse through their bites.”

“Is that what happened to you?”

Lucius yanked down his shirt collar to reveal the two bite marks that were still visible after all this time.

“Holy shit,” Raymond exclaimed.

“I’ve never understood that expression,” Lucius shrugged. “What is holy about shit?”

“It’s just an expression,” Raymond said, trying to keep the conversation going and buy himself some time.

“While you’re at it, can you explain to me why most people assume vampires sleep in coffins?”

“That’s usually what they show on TV and in movies.”

“And I suppose you think I was born in Transylvania or something?”

“Now that you mention it…”

“I was born in Italy before your great-great grandparents were even born. I’ve seen more than most people would ever wish to see. Horrors you could not imagine.”

“Then why would you want those horrors to continue? Why feed on the blood of the living?”

Lucius pondered his question; the same question he’d been pondering all night.

“Just let me go,” Raymond continued. “My parents are tough, but they’ll come around. They’ll learn to accept me as I am. But they can’t do that if I’m dead.”

“Who said I was going to kill you? I could just drain some of your blood and turn you if I wanted to.”

“God, please, no,” he cried. “I’d rather be dead.”

Lucius took no offense to his protests. In fact, he was starting to see it from Raymond’s point of view. If Raymond would rather be dead than be a vampire, what did that say about Lucius? It told him that he was a monster, plain and simple. It had brought closure to his endless debate. He truly was the personification of evil.

And looking down on this boy, trembling and on the verge of wetting his pants, Lucius felt something he hadn’t felt in the longest time. He felt pity.

He sat down on the bench beside Raymond and looked at him, looked past the fear in his eyes. He saw a young man who had his whole life ahead of him. And Lucius saw no reason to cut it short.

Raymond stared back at him, and Lucius saw the fear in his eyes had been replaced with something entirely different. The look Raymond gave him was a look of recollection.

“It’s you,” Raymond whispered. “I could never forget that face. You killed my mother. So, what? After all these years, you’ve come back to finish me off? Go ahead. Get it over with. Id’ rather die than be anything like you.”

Raymond had removed his cap and scarf so Lucius could get a better look at him. It took him a moment to recall his face, but there was no doubt in his mind. This was the same boy that had lived on Pickman Street back in 1997. And this revelation did more than persuade Lucius to let him go.

“Raymond Kessler, this is your lucky day. I’m going to spare your life, on one condition.”

“What condition?”

“You must wait here with me for the sun to rise.”

“But won’t you–”

“Yes, when the sun rises, it will destroy me. I will cease to exist. And the world will be a better place without me.”

“But why?"

“For years, it’s been gnawing away at me. But tonight helped put it all into perspective. I can’t deny it any longer. I am a monster. And monsters have no place among the living.”

In the hours that passed, Lucius regaled Raymond with stories of his past. He’d lived through it all, and he wanted to pass along some of the better memories before his time ran out. And seeing as how he wouldn’t be needing it anymore, he decided to pass along something else to Raymond.

“It still works,” Lucius said, taking the pocket watch from his coat and placing it in Raymond’s hand.

Raymond looked back at him with a hint of gratitude. “It’s almost morning,” he said.

“You should go,” Lucius told him.

“No, I promised I would stay to the end.”

“Then at least step away from me. Things are about to heat up, if you catch my drift.”

Raymond took his advice and got up, stepped away from the bench.

“The last time I saw the sun rise was 1758 in Ancient Rome,” Lucius shared. “Too bad I won’t live to remember this one.”

As the sun rose above the vast trees, Lucius felt a warm sensation overtake him. It was a sensation he was certain he had lost forever. And although that feeling signaled death, he embraced it.

The flames came gradually, sprouting up on his chest and back. Soon, his arms were swords of fire. It hurt more than Lucius had imagined. But pain was something he had long forgotten, something he thought he’d never feel again. And it was a surprisingly welcome change from a life of apathy.

The fire consumed his body, until all that remained was a pile of smoldering ash that was quickly swept away by the wind.

Raymond, still grasping the pocket watch, tucked it away in his parka. He put his wool cap back on, wrapped his scarf around his neck and the lower half of his face to shield himself from the cold. Then he started walking.

He had some cash on him, but he wasn’t hungry. And he wasn’t ready to face his foster parents again, not yet at least. Raymond had only one destination. The cemetery. He needed to see his mother’s grave.

Raymond often visited her grave with flowers. He’d sit and talk to her for hours. And there was certainly a lot he had to share with her that morning. When he got there, he planned to leave the pocket watch at her grave, as a sign of victory. The nightmare that had plagued him since childhood was finally over, and he believed his mother could finally rest easy.

On his quiet morning walk, he remembered what Lucius had said. About how he wasn’t the only vampire. He couldn’t help but wonder how many other monsters were out there, blending in with society. The thought would continue to haunt him for many years to come.