Rick was twenty-five and twenty-five is a shit age to be. Not young enough to escape responsibility and not old enough to garner anyone's respect. It's the age of entry-levels, efficiency kitchens, and evenings when no one calls. The girls are old enough to know better and the bankers laugh at you because you're not. Money becomes real, finite and distant. So do your friendships. And your hairline. Drinking loses its sex appeal and hangovers get comfortable enough to spend the night and leave their toothbrush at your place. Your car stops being a vessel of freedom and discovery and becomes an expensive, cumbersome, broken-down tool . Your car just stops. Your parents shapeshift into actual, relatable, crushingly depressing human beings. You see yourself in them so you go to bars alone. Everyone you went to high school with is doing better than you. Even the ones the counselors swore would be fat and miserable when they finally grew out of shitting on you. Now they sell real estate and marry minor celebrities. They see you behind a counter and shake their head. You see kids drinking and vandalizing and being obnoxious and it bothers you. You see yourself in them so you keep your distance and try not to make eye contact. Twenty-five is when the Future and all its careers and success and promise seem lifetimes away. It's when the Future is looming over you so close you can smell its acrid breath as it whispers, I'm almost here and what have you got to show for it? Everyone is watching. You see yourself going the wrong direction so you stop to check your watch and turn around, hoping no one noticed. They didn't. Why would anyone be looking at you? The mirror in the bathroom has lately taken to pointing out your every flaw. You see yourself in it and you don't know who you are anymore. Twenty-five is the age of knowledge of good and evil. The Serpent wears a banker's tweed suit and asks you if you're hungry. You are. Ramen has lost its flavor. Everything else is still expensive. There's a Document hanging on your wall that says you are certified to Be Whatever You Want to Be. Just like your parents told you. Just like your teachers told you. Just like the TV shows told you. It's their fucking mantra. Twenty-five is the age when you finally grow a bullshit detector. By then you've already bought the Document, but you sure as hell haven't paid it off. And the Tweed Serpent laughs.
Rick was twenty-five and he was going to be twenty-five for the rest of his life. Or whatever you'd call it. Rick was twenty-five and he worked at a Motel 6. The night audit. And that wasn't the worst of his troubles. Rick wished more than anything that he weren't twenty-five. It could have been any other age and sure, fine, whatever. But it had to be twenty-five. Twenty-five until the day he died. If he even could. And the Serpent laughed.
Rick was thumbing through someone's abandoned issue of Reader's Digest when the chime on the front door rang. He didn't put a lot of effort into correcting his posture and even less into faking a smile, but it was probably enough to keep his job and that's what mattered. Rick bit his tongue to keep from laughing. Oh, yes. This job. That’s what mattered.
A blast of cold air shot through the door, whipping past the woman who had opened it--not even thanking her for the courtesy--and slapped Rick in the face like ice water. The only thing Rick hated more than customers was the door that let them in.
The woman made her way to the counter slowly, almost feebly. It annoyed the everliving shit out of Rick, people moving slowly. He remembered just then how hungry he was.
"I need a room, please." The woman was middle-aged--the kind of middle-aged where specific numbers didn't apply. She could have been sixty or forty or whatever, he couldn't tell. Mom Age. The kind of woman you see at the grocery store and immediately forget. A sexless, lifeless creature that haggles over five-cent coupons at the drug store while you wait in line for cigarettes. The kind who probably has some rat-faced insurance salesman for a husband. The kind who is too busy saying "Yes, Dear" to kill himself. They, the two of them, existed in a world Rick couldn't comprehend. It ran parallel to ours yet always seemed right on top of it. A ghost realm where sexless, ageless shades collect coupons and yearn for nothing beyond middle management and bake sale gossip. They walk among us.
"Just for the night?" Rick kept his smile going. For people like her, calling a customer service line to complain was the highlight of their day. People like her wrote seven hundred word internet reviews of a McDonald's parking lot. Two out of five stars. Manager was Middle Eastern and seemed to be in a hurry. Medium fries were a little smaller than usual. Would not recommend. Rick was suddenly feeling very hungry.
"Yes. Just the night. Do you need my credit card? I don't like giving away my credit card number. I'm sure there's something else you can do. If not, I'll need to speak with a manager." Very, very hungry.
"It's not a problem, ma'am. If you pay up-front in cash, we can skip the card." All smiles.
"Fine. But if there's any problem with the room, I expect a full refund." The kind of person that sighs loudly in Post Office lines just to make sure everyone knows how discontent she is with waiting. The kind of person that turns off your reading light on the airplane without asking, just so she can sleep and keep you from getting to the lavatory. The kind of person who complains incessantly because no one wants to listen to her complaints. The kind of person everyone despises. The kind of person who deserves to die.
"Of course, ma'am." He told her the total and she counted out every cent one at a time, digging angrily though her gaudy mauve purse and muttering bitterly because the world was just so fucking against her. "Here's your key. Number 22. Just go down that hallway a bit and it's on the right." Now his smile was genuine. She took the keys without looking at him or saying anything and hobbled off.
Rick pocketed the desperately-needed cash and quietly left the front desk to follow her.
She moved slowly, cursing the fates with every step. All the fates could do was shrug. Shit, lady. Give us a break! We don't even know you!
When the wretched old ghost finally made it a shuffle past the fire exit door, Rick pounced. He grabbed her by her hideous mauve overcoat and pulled her through the door before she even had a chance to scream.
The alarm on that door had been broken for years. No one ever noticed, but Rick kept track of those kinds of things. It led to an alley between two of the motel's walls. No windows, no people. It wasn't his favorite restaurant, so to speak, but he was starving.
He held his hand over her mouth and looked into her wide eyes. Even now, attacked and vulnerable and alone, those eyes were more bitchy than they were scared. Those eyes weren't saying Please God, let me go! They were saying I want to speak to your manager! Rick smiled. When those eyes saw his teeth--two very sharp teeth in particular--they finally shut the fuck up.
"I'm sorry," he said to her. It was genuine. He always felt bad about it, even when it was a crone like this. No, he didn't just feel bad. He absolutely loathed the whole damn thing. It was a curse. A real shit sandwich. Teen girls these days and their bullshit stroke books! Do you really want to be twenty-five forever? To never eat a serious fucking breakfast ever again? Do you have any idea what I'm about to put my mouth on? You can keep it, sister. I've got student loans to pay. You think that shit just disappears when you grow a pair of fangs? You think the Tweed Serpent just pats you on the pale-white ass and sends you off to wank werewolves in the Pacific Northwest? You've got another thing coming. "I'm so honestly, very, very sorry."
He pulled the woman's head to the side and bit deep into her throat. Warm blood jetted into his mouth so fast that it caught his gag reflex and he dropped her, choking. Her veins kept pumping as she lay there stunned, spraying his shirt and face and everything else with her sexless ghost blood.
"Fuck!" He spit and wiped his face and gave the witch a sneaker to the gut. "Oh God, I'm so sorry! I didn't... Sorry!" The spurts of hot mess were becoming shorter and less frequent. It was now or never.
He got down on his knees next to the dying woman and desperately tried to catch some of the sprays in his mouth. He eventually settled for lapping it off her neck like a dog, alternately gulping and apologizing to her for being such a fuck-up. I've just got a lot on my mind right now, that's all. I'm going through a rough patch. A twenty-five year rough patch, sure, but I swear I'll get my shit together sometime in the next eternity. I should have gone to technical school. I need to call my mom sometime this week. Is it Thursday?
The woman died and it made him feel the kind of shame he usually reserved for masturbating at work, so he gave up licking that horrid, wrinkled skin flap that dangled from her throat like a turkey's waddle and sat down against the wall. Fuck. This was one of his last decent shirts.
Rick stared at a puddle of the ageless monster's blood and thought about her weakling, insurance-selling husband. Short. Bald. Routinely wearing sweaters, wrongly believing that they struck the perfect balance between Professional and Slimming. He'd even wear one to her funeral. The funeral, sparsely attended. A few acquaintances, maybe a sibling. All of them there out of guilt, not love or caring. All of them secretly wished her gone anyway, at least a little. All of them except her pathetic, friendless, listless husband. He knew she had faults. He'd been to the drugstore line with her before, embarrassed but silent, wishing he had enough money to please her. To make it so she didn't have to be this way, saving every penny and being kind of a cunt to any kid in a nametag with the misfortune of being forced to smile at her and say "Yes, ma'am." Yes, Dear. He loved her, and maybe it was because he had no one else--could get no one else--but he loved her. And Rick took her from him. Bled her out in the service alley of a Motel 6. Kicked her in the guts as she lay dying. Feasted on her blood, cursed her, licked her creepy waddle. His creepy waddle.
Rick sat against the wall and cried until he knew he had no more time to spare. What if someone came in while he was gone? He slowly got to his feet, picked up the woman's gaudy mauve purse, and robbed her of every dollar she had because the Tweed Serpent couldn't give a good goddamn about an insurance salesman who never had a hobby or a friend, just a nasty, old wife who might have been both.
Rick carefully snuck back in through the fire exit door and sprinted to the lobby bathroom, sick and miserable and cursed. Luckily he had brought a change of clothes.
The bathroom was empty. So was most of the motel, so that wasn't much a sign of luck. He took off his shirt, wadded it up, wrapped it in wet paper towels and shoved it deep inside the trash can. He threw in a few more crumpled towels on top and spit a nice, frothy hunk of mucus-y blood on it, just to make sure nobody went digging.
His pants looked alright. Only a few drop that no one would notice. They might even come clean if he could get some vinegar on them before too long.
Rick grasped the edges of a sink too filthy to describe and stared at himself in the mirror. He often wished that the old legends were true. He didn't want to have to see himself. The gaunt, splotchy, bloodsoaked skeleton that returned his gaze haunted him every day and, worse, it was unknown to him. Unknowable. This stranger, this thing, that stared at him with hollow, hungover eyes was something other than himself. Those eyes were sad. Unbelievably sad. Rick wasn't sad.
He turned on the water and began scrubbing the old woman mess off his face and arms. He would need a pretty serious clean-up plan for the scene in the alley. Gotta bus the table. There were a lot of benefits to working the night audit. Few customers, no boss. He could slip out for half an hour at a time and the worst thing that could happen was a pissed-off hooker or a...
Rick's mind turned briefly to the mundane lives of insurance salesmen and at that, the hollow, alien eyes in the mirror finally looked away. He cracked the door and peeked around the corner into the lobby. Not a soul. He hurried to the desk to find his spare shirt. Was there such a thing as a soul anyway? God?
Rick slipped on his unflattering back-up shirt and collapsed into his desk chair. Souls? Maybe he should write a letter to Santa while he's at it. If nothing else, to keep up good rapport. But really if he--Rick--existed, what else did? Giants? Zombies? Why not? Hell, he'd killed a ghost tonight after all. And it tasted like Wet Naps and gas station perfume. No, there was no God. If there were, then he, Rick, wouldn't exist. If he was wrong then the Big Man could go fuck himself. As far as Rick could reckon, Hell couldn't be any worse than licking old women to death outside a Motel 6. And Hell might be the only place the bankers couldn't find him. At least 'til they bit it themselves, that is. And the Tweed Serpent laughed nervously, secretly second-guessing his life decisions.
Rick sighed and shut his eyes. He could afford to take a short break. Nobody was going to find the mess in the alley at this time of night. His body ached. He was still hungry. Most of his dinner had ended up everywhere but his mouth. What was it his mom used to say? Take your time, Ricky. Sensible bites. He missed the days when there was such a thing. He really needed to call her. Not at 3AM, of course. He made a note to do it as soon as he woke up tomorrow. First thing in the... dusk.
He tried to think about pleasant things, trivial things, any things other than, well, everything. He couldn't so much as take a shit without one of those everythings storming its way onto the mainstage of his mind, putting on a taunting minstrel show. If it wasn't the money, it was his condition. His job. The fact that he hadn't been with a woman since...
And there it was. Tonight's headliner, enter stage left. Her. That bitch. The Bitch. Rick had never been very good at time management--if he wasn't working, he often had no idea what day it was--but if he had to break it down, itemize it, he'd estimate that he spent about 30% of every day imagining new, inventive ways to murder The Bitch. The sadism and horror he reserved for those fantasies made the alleyway bloodbath look like Looney Tunes. That Bitch. Seriously, is it Thursday? Will Mom be at work tomorrow? Is she happy?
The front door chimed and Rick nearly fell out of his chair. The cold air, ever the opportunist, swept through the lobby to suckerpunch Rick and run, just because it could. For a moment Rick thought he understood the corpse in the alley. The fates, man. Fuck the fates.
The man in the doorway looked like a high school science teacher. Tall, stooped, frumpy, too beaten down to remember what it was like to have dignity. He looked like a man that feeds the ducks in the park because he has no children. He looked like a man that took out a loan for a few of the Serpent's precious Documents and emerged into the world full of hope and excitement, ready to share his knowledge, only to discover that hope and excitement were nothing more than cheap knock-off toys given to children by their jaded, miserable, fatalistic parents. The parents that look just like you. But this man wasn't a drinker. He looked like he hummed to himself while he cooked a lovely dinner for one. He looked like he stopped humming once he sat down at a candlelit table to share the details of his day with an empty chair. He looked like he went to bed early because the people on TV seemed too happy. He looked like he had set foot in the realm of ghosts and knew it. Not like the dead woman in the alley. Not like the soon-to-be bereaved insurance salesman who had just been robbed of his daylight in a way not even Rick could understand yet all the same caused. This man looked like he woke up on a Saturday morning in an otherwise empty bed, looked at the stranger in the goddamn mirror and pleaded with it. I don't belong here. I'm not dead yet.
The man caught Rick's gaze and his face changed. The man who collected souvenir cups from novelty restaurants, the man who listened to motivational books on tape in his ‘96 Honda Civic, the man who went to afternoon matinees so that no one would judge him for being alone--that man was gone. In his place was a hollow man. A man who would be a corpse if not for his one Great Task. That burning flame in his soul--or whatever--that kept his legs moving and his will to live intact. This new man was a man on a Mission. And when It was done, so was he. He dreaded the End though he sought it obsessively. He dreaded it because when the Great Task had been accomplished, a corpse he would be. And nothing more. The man--this new man--was the most terrifying person Rick had ever seen.
The hollow man approached the front desk without breaking his stare.
"Hello there, sir. How are you tonight?" Rick's voice sounded tinny and thin. The flame that charred the man's nonexistent soul was bright enough to blind him, so he turned his attention to the ledger on the desk.
"I need a room for the night." It wasn't the man talking. Not the biology teacher who was weighing the pros and cons of getting into model trains. It was his eyes that spoke. The Burning. And the words came out like knives.
"No problem, sir. I just need to see a major credit card and your driver's license, please." For the first time in his depressingly long tenure at the Motel 6, the ledger was truly captivating.
"I can't provide that," said the Burning.
"You can't? Okay, well-"
The man dropped a roll of bills on the counter.
"I think this will suffice."
Rick was in no mood to argue. This guy was a goddamn crazy person and Rick had no time for crazy. He had a body to dispose of.
"Sure." Rick handed him a key. "Number 46. Take a left at the bathroom and you'll see a staircase. Second floor, should be on the right."
The man's burning eyes took a long time to leave Rick's alone. When they and the man attached to them--the man who joined a mail-order CD club just so the mailbox wouldn't be empty--had disappeared, Rick collapsed into his chair. Fuck.
No more breaks. No more thinking about everything. About her. Fuck.
He pulled himself out of the chair and took a deep breath. Garbage bags. Bleach. Sponge. What else? Even in death, the old crone really knew how to fuck up a guy's workday. And he was still hungry.
Disposing of a body was a lot easier than they made it look in the movies. No incinerators. No barrels of acid. Rick just stuffed his leftovers into a large, black garbage bag, poured some bleach inside to cover the smell and ward off animals, and tossed it in the dumpster. The trash truck came every other day and, as far as he knew, no humans ever touched the bags. The bodies just rotted in the landfill along with everything else. Maybe it was a little reckless, but this had been his method for three years and Rick was still a free man. Well, free-ish. Man-ish...
Three years was a long time to be twenty-five. And there she was again. Called back onto the stage for an encore. Waving to the crowd. Blowing kisses. Rubbing it in his face and laughing, always laughing. The Bitch.
Rick got on his hands and knees and soaked up the old woman's blood with paper towels. The motel kept close tabs on the real towels. Cheap fucks. Can't soak it all, of course, so he poured motor oil and paint on the stains. Good enough. No one would ever notice. And so what if they did? Jail? Beats the hell out of eight bucks an hour. And the bankers couldn't get to him in the pen. It would be like Hell but with cable TV and a gym. He could do worse.
He could hear her laughing in his head. He tried desperately to drag her off his mind's stage. Get the cane around her neck and pull. He tried to imagine her head in a vice while he tore her face off with his fingernails, chunk by chunk. He tried to picture himself peeling those two lower arm bones apart like a wishbone while she screamed. It was no use. She wouldn't budge. She just laughed at him, always. He didn't try to picture her naked. She was naked. Fuck. The blood was mostly gone. Good enough. He dug through the old woman's purse and found her keys. The rest of it went in the garbage. She was laughing. Naked. He headed to the parking lot. Where ya goin', big boy? Don't you like what ya see? Laugh laugh laugh...
The parking lot was mostly empty. Rick found the car key on the ring—somewhere between the drugstore discount card and the stupid plastic dangle-y thing—and tried to make out the logo in the dark. You would think that being a "creature of the night" would give you better eyesight... He squinted and made a mental note to add more carrots to his diet. Blood was ridiculously lacking in vitamin K. He hated carrots. Buick. Of course it would be a fucking Buick.
He found the car easily. Eighties model. Of course. Maroon. Of course. Interior reeking of perfume and Virginia Slims. He dug through the glove box and console and under the seats for a pack of smokes. Nothing. He pried open the ashtray and pulled out a butt that still had a little length to it. The lipstick stain on the filter made him think about the wide-eyed naivety of twenty-five and the best way to sever fingers from the hand of someone who only wore bright-red lipstick because it gave her spent Camels “a little sex.” He pressed in the cigarette lighter with his fist and waited. Three years of darkness. Three years of murder. He hated that word. What he did wasn't murder. He couldn't help it. A guy's gotta eat. And somewhere, someplace, an insurance salesman tried his damnedest not to enjoy his rare time alone. The quiet. The brief reprieve from the nagging and complaining. Because he loved her and Rick would never know what that meant. What it felt like. He thought he might have found someone who could teach him. It didn't work out. She turned out to be a real bloodsucking bitch. Rimshot. Am I right, guys, or am I right? The lighter popped and Rick tried to savor the burning filter fumes of a Virginia Slim Light for what it was worth. Why did anyone smoke these things? It was like trying to suck oatmeal through a stirring straw. Darkness. Who thought cigarette butts were sexy anyway? His stomach grumbled. He tried to think of carrots. Naked. Maybe vegetarians weren't so shitty after all. Maybe they had a point. Was he at the top of the food chain? Was that a free pass? A hunting permit? Was he even human?
Rick strained to pull a decent drag from the stupid ladystick and gave up. He would buy a pack tonight. Fuck it. Six bucks was just a drop in the bucket. What's an hour of your life worth anyway if it isn't punctuated by a good smoke? Everyone needs something to look forward to and those were hard to come by these days. Could vampires get cancer? He shrugged it off and started the car. What did it matter? He needed to hurry. The hookers could be filling out some very pointed Comment Cards in the lobby, huffing and sighing like sexless, old ghosts in a Post Office line.
There was a strip of fast food restaurants a few blocks from the motel. Eeny meeny miny moe. Which one will call in the tow? Rick pulled into the Taco Bell parking lot, wiped down the steering wheel with his shirt, tossed the keys in a storm drain and started the walk back. There was a gas station on the way. Something to look forward to.
He smoked two Marlboros to the filter before returning to his post. The lobby was devoid of malcontent hookers--thank Whatever—but out of the corner of his eye, Rick noticed a dark shape at the end of the West hall. He looked up startled and froze. The man with the burning eyes was just standing there, staring. That look... knives, man. He saw nothing but the Mission. The corpse of a high school teacher with an affinity for World War Two commemorative plates was little more than the puppet of the Great Task. The Great Cause. A shell. A vessel. After the longest couple of seconds of Rick's life—or whatever you'd call it—the fiery hand of the Cause, firmly planted in the man's ass, pulled his puppet strings, and the hollow man disappeared into the stairwell.
What the fuck? That man--the man who talked to his own toenails like babies while he clipped them--was crazy as shit. And dangerous. Those eyes... He looked like the kind of man who might do something horrible. He looked like the kind of man who might kill someone. Rick threw himself into his chair and massaged his temples. Should he call the police? Seemed like a bad idea, all things considered. But that man—the man who ordered Cape Cods at the bar alone because he never did like the taste of beer—scared the shit out of him. There was murder in those eyes. And the Bitch, basking in the stagelights and breathing deep the crowd's undying adoration and applause, laughed. Always.
He had met her at a bowling alley, of all places. He hadn't even gone there to bowl. He never understood the appeal. It was the sport of fat, old men whose friendships had, by some stroke of luck, survived their marriages. Rick came for the one-dollar PBR deal on Wednesdays. It wasn't so bad. They had a bar to sit at, alone, and he could smoke inside. He went there every week and watched the old men relish the lifelong friendships he himself would never know. For a few short and precious hours every week, these men—men who would sneak in a half-hour at Hooters after work and blame it on traffic—were not miserable. Not imprisoned. They were not fat or bald or boring. They were no longer the Assistant Supervisor of the Stock Room of the Accessories Division of a company no one ever heard of. They became something else. They transformed the moment they walked through those off-kilter sliding doors and let the wave of stale smoke caress their double-chins. Lover, where have you been all my life? They ceased to be Bill from Personnel and became HungDude or MrBig or TuffStuf, their name in lights hanging high for all to see. Their reserved spot on the “300 Club” wall waiting patiently for that one special night when the stars align and the beer sits just right. They drank Coors pitchers with abandon and smoked cigars, the smell of which they would later blame on one another when the wife inquired. They felt free. They were free.
Rick had just stubbed out his millionth cigarette when She appeared. She didn't walk past the corn dog counter. She glided past the corn dog counter. Like a fallen angel. Like a displaced spirit with all the best intentions. Her hair was short, flipping out at the bottom in tiny, pointed clumps that smoked quirk and shit whimsy. The way her tight bluejeans hugged her thighs. Her black shirt with the neckline that straddled the fence of cute and trashy. Her bright-red lips making a burlesque show of that Camel Light. Her eyes blacker than sin. She. Her. Her everything. And she walked right up to the bar, alone, and glided her way into a stool only two seats down from Rick. He could feel her warmth. He could feel her.
She ordered a vodka tonic. She didn't use the straw. Her bright-red lipstick on the glass. Her false modesty. Her tongue gently and purposefully sliding across her lip, teasing the glass 'til it couldn't fucking take it anymore.
“Hi,” said the Impossibility. The word floated through the smoke and corn dogs and fat man farts just as sweetly and smoothly as she walked. It made its way to Rick's face and hung in the air, come hither, and he was struck dumb. He knew the word he was supposed to say. It was right there on the tip of his tongue. But it was just as nervous and self-conscious and drunk as he was. It came all the way to the edge, looked out at the magnificent sight before it, and choked.
“Hi-lo.” A cough. A clearing of the throat. A smile on her part. An Impossibility. Right there. Right here.
The clattering of the ice machine's daily work brought Rick back to the present. Fuck. Why wouldn't she just go away? Why did she have to be right there? Right here? Naked. Fuck.
He got up and fumbled in his pocket for a smoke. If he didn't eat something soon, he was gonna go apeshit. Could vampires starve to death? Would it hurt? He pushed open the front door and the cold air mockingly said, “Hi-lo.”
He lit his smoke and contemplated ordering a pizza from the late-night place up the road. It wouldn't give him what he needed, but at least he'd finally have a decent shit. He wanted to write a public service announcement for every thirteen-year-old girl who ever thought this condition was something to be desired or fantasized about. The Bathroom Consequences of a Sanguinary Liquid Diet. That would stop the trend dead in its tracks. Dead. Was he dead? Undead? What did that even mean? He didn't remember dying. That would have been nice.
She could have killed him that night at the bowling alley. After he paid her tab with money he didn’t have. After she took hold of his hand and let him glide with her past the corn dog counter and through the off-kilter sliding doors into the moonlight. After she leaned close to him and let those deep red lips gently brush his cheek. She could have led him behind the building and he wouldn’t have thought twice about it. She could have led him anywhere. She could have thrown him up against the wall and told him how sorry she was. She could have made it quick. He wouldn’t have minded. Those lips on his neck. Her embrace. To feel something, anything. She could have set him free. But she, that Impossibility in Bluejeans, was not so generous. Instead she had led him by the hand out into the night and invited herself into the twin-size bed in his efficiency apartment with its empty refrigerator and the bathroom he wished to God—or Whatever—he had cleaned the day before. He fell asleep with her in his arms, the mainstage of his mind a circus of lights and color and possibilities. The Greatest Show on Earth. When he awoke, she was gone. The stubbed-out Camels in the ashtray immortalized her kiss in streaks of sultry red. He couldn’t bring himself to throw them away. He thought about her and nothing but her all that day. His work shift was a blur of colorful shadows, ethereal people. The realm of ghosts swirled around him, twisting, morphing, fading as they passed in and out of his world, moving through him as though he were not there at all. The world she had made for him. His words were only those of habit. They fell from his tongue without a thought. He had no thoughts to spare. Good afternoon, sir. How was your stay? The Wraiths of Everyday spoke to him but he could not hear. Her voice drowned it all. And when he finally floated his way home that night, there she was, waiting. An Impossibility. She smiled and laughed. He loved the way she laughed, always. She took him by the hand and he knew then that he belonged to her. They sat together under an oak tree in the park and watched the stars. She said she’d never met anyone like him before. She said they were destined to be together. It’s fate, sugar. Me and you. She kissed him there under the tree. And the Serpent laughed.
Rick tossed the cigarette on the ground. His stomach grumbled and churned and nagged him. He couldn’t ignore it. He remembered what hunger used to feel like before all this. Before her. It was different. Easier to ignore. A few cups of coffee could stave it off, at least for a little while. This hunger was like a wicked withdrawal. Like going two days without a smoke because you had to make a student loan payment. Like the sickness you didn’t want to admit plagued you late at night, jabbing you in the ribs and reminding you how long it had been since your last drink. It tore at him. He could feel it in his teeth. Though it didn’t entirely make sense to him, he couldn’t help but liken it to the discomfort one might feel if they were locked in a casket and buried alive. There was no place to go. No way to get comfortable. Everything was closing in. But there was a way out, if he would have it. He had to eat.
The stories always romanticized people like him—people?—and granted them some kind of hypnotic power. Some kind of magic spell that lulled their dinner into a trance, made them want to have their throat ripped out. They said it made the act somehow sensual and pleasurable. In his first few months of Darkness, Rick cursed the Bitch for tricking him. For using her unholy vampire sex powers to lead him into a trap and leave him powerless to see things how they really were. After mulling it over in his mind—over and over, hour after hour, for weeks on end—Rick finally came to the depressing conclusion that there had been no supernatural spell or enchantment. It was just a power all women naturally possessed, human or otherwise. He could blame no one but himself. That BITCH.
There was no way to make throat-ripping sexy. There was no easy way to just go and grab a bite to eat. They always fought. They always screamed and thrashed and begged and cried and felt every bit of pain. Sometimes they convulsed. Sometimes blood shot out of their mouth as they choked on it. Sometimes he missed the vein. Sometimes it was torture. And he was always sorry. So honestly very, very sorry.
His stomach turned, and a relaxing yet fleeting image flashed through his head of the Bitch tied up and torn into quarters by the Budweiser Clydesdale horses. But it wasn’t enough. He had to eat. And then he remembered the puppet with the burning eyes. The man who always stopped for fundraiser car washes hosted by high school cheerleaders even though he felt guilty about it. The man who would name a cat Mr. Mittens if he weren’t so allergic to cats. The man who was no longer a man but probably some kind of homicidal wingnut on a Mission to rid the world of the Reptiloid shapeshifters that had infiltrated every level of government. Or some shit. Maybe that absurdity wasn’t all that absurd when you really thought about it. How many vampires were there representing districts in Congress? The President? Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ?
The man of the Great Cause was the ideal victim. Victim… He’d never used that term before, and catching himself doing it made him feel ill. Rick didn’t have victims. Murderers had victims. And if something wasn’t done about it soon, so would the man on a Mission. Rick’s heart--which seemed to beat just the same as it did before a certain Impossibility so callously ripped it out--had reservations about the whole thing. But then again, it always did. It was the stomach that screamed JUSTIFICATION! and Rick, feeling the coffin walls growing ever tighter around him, tended to agree. He grabbed the spare key for Number 46 and made his way to the stairs.
It occurred to him that he’d never done it this way before. It had always been a chance encounter or some kind of lucky situation where things just fell into place. There was the time he picked up the hitchhiker. And the time he waited outside the scummy bar on 6th around last call, fiending in more ways than one, hoping to catch a buzz from the blood-alcohol content of some stumbling Kindred Spirit of the Solitary Barstool. But this was something completely different. He had lurked and sneaked and hid and waited, but never hunted. It was immoral. Predatory. It was murder.
Rick stopped on the first landing and sat down against the concrete wall. What was he doing? Hunting. Feeding. Exercising his rightful command of the food chain. And so what? Who was he trying to impress? God? Santa? Mom? To what moral authority did he owe this bullshit Theatre of Conscience? This guilt? All vampires go to Hell. Maximum security. General population. The Devil doesn’t reduce your sentence for good behavior. But that wasn’t the truth and he knew it. There was no Hell. No gods, no devils. No consequences. No commandments. No reward or punishment. Everyone just died. Some sooner than others. He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
There was no guidebook for his condition. No hotline he could call for help. Everything on the internet was nonsense drivel about garlic and crosses written by lonely women who pretended to be witches and spent half their income on kitty litter. It didn’t come naturally. There were no instincts to follow. Just the hunger. That claustrophobic, electric sting radiating from the roots of his teeth and always closing in. After his discharge from the hospital, he only made it five days before he killed a man. He fought it as long as he could. It didn’t make sense to him. The cravings were irrational. Insane. He called the hospital and asked them just what the fuck they had done to him. What drugs they had given him. What drugs had the known side-effects of depression, nausea, unusual tooth growth, and the uncontrollable urge to cut the throats of strangers and drink them dry. None that they knew of, of course. Thanks for calling. Get well soon! Was he losing his mind? What had the Bitch done to him? The first person he killed was a homeless man in the alley behind a Texaco. It took an hour for him to die. An hour of listening to the poor guy straining to scream and only managing these quiet, sickening gurgles. Rick was disgusted by the sight of the blood. And the taste. It was like runny syrup that had been used to soak pennies in a jar for decades. He never got used to it. He still hated it. But he had to have it. He was a junkie. That Bitch had made him a goddamn junkie. There weren’t recovery centers for vampires. There probably wasn’t a cure. Except maybe death. And even that might've been beyond him now. The night he watched the homeless man die alone and terrified in the shadow of a gas station dumpster, Rick went back to his apartment, got in the bathtub and cut his wrists open with a razor blade. He bled—whose blood?—and it hurt. Badly. The feeling was indescribable. Horrible. He felt weak and woozy and ill. He felt a mix of regret and anticipation and fear swallowing him whole. He watched the blood pour over his hands and the finality of it was too much to bear. No takeseys-backseys! This was it. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so honestly very, very sorry. Darkness. He woke up a few hours later in a pool of blood and vomit without so much as a scar on his wrists to let the world know just how fucking far down his personal abyss could go. The only feeling worse than that which drove a man to suicide was the feeling of utter helplessness when it failed. Rick was twenty-five and there was no escape. Darkness, always.
The Marlboro had gone out on its own, nothing more than a cigarette-shaped stick of ash clinging to the filter. A ghost. Rick tossed it aside and put his head in his hands. His stomach felt like it was trying to tear its way out of his gut to go kill the man itself. If you won’t then I will, pussy. He staggered to his feet. Every joint in his body ached. His head pounded. This man—the man who may not have a lover or a child or a pet, but probably had a widowed mother whom he spent the day with every other week—wouldn’t be missed. The man who may not get invited to Happy Hour but was considered a real asset and generally decent guy by his coworkers; his death would mean nothing. Everyone had connections and acquaintances and favorite bartenders and neighbors who would wave when they walked by. And everyone dies. It meant nothing. The man meant nothing. Murder meant nothing. Rick put his foot on the top step and thought about his mother. Fuck.
His stomach churned so hard that he doubled-over and dry-heaved. It was too late. This was it. No fucking takeseys-backseys. Rick caught his breath and headed down the hall to the door marked 46.
His hand trembled as he held the key to the lock. He couldn't tell if it was the fear or the hunger that shook him so, but he had to use both hands to carefully and quietly slide the key into the hole. No time to think about it. If he thought about it, he would choke. He could turn around right now. Go back down to the front desk, thumb through someone's abandoned Reader's Digest and finish out his shift just like anyone else. Like a human. Turn the key now or don't turn it at all. He could order a pizza. Meat Lover's. His stomach growled so loudly he was afraid the puppet man might hear. He wouldn't want to startle his prey. Murderer. How was this different? He had followed the old woman down the hall and pulled her to the ground like a lion on a gazelle. Like he had done to so many others before. Junkie. He could drive himself to the hospital. Make something up. Beg for morphine. Numb the hunger away. Forget everything, if just for a little while. Drunk. Selfish, myopic, drunk. It's never going to get better. It's all downhill from here! Killer. Loser. Failure. Coward. What's next? Who? He could stalk the bankers. Tear their flesh to shreds, one by one, until every fucking one of them was an unrecognizable pile of meat and bone. His boss. The asshole at the Texaco who wouldn't sell him a tallboy because he was too drunk to count money. Everyone dies. The sooner the better. But then the high would begin to fade. His tolerance would build and the hunger would get worse. It would gnaw at him even while he slept. He'd seek out teachers, charity workers and grandmas who loved crossword puzzles and fresh-made sweet tea. Then children. Deaf children. He'd snatch babies from their cribs and bleed them like cattle. Murderer. Monster. Human. Turn the key now or don't turn it at all.
The tumbler lock clicked and Rick threw open the door. The lights were off. There was no startled cry or threatening yell. There was nothing.
He peeked into the darkened bathroom and saw no one. The bed was still made and there were no bags or belongings in sight. Shit. Was it the wrong room? It was the wrong damn room. He wanted to laugh but his stomach wouldn't allow it. He threw himself onto the bed and relief flooded over him. Relief with a tinge of disappointment. And hunger. Maybe pizza wouldn't be so bad.
The man of the Great Cause, the man on a Mission, the man with the burning eyes that spoke in blades, the man who would love to vote for his favorite American Idol but couldn't justify the text message charge; that man was on top of Rick before he even had a chance to scream. Like a lion on a gazelle. Like a murderer.
“I knew you'd come eventually. I've been waiting.” The man's forearm crushed Rick's throat, pinning him down. “Your kind is a scourge. And I am your end.”
Rick struggled to make words through his compressed windpipe. “You're... fucking... crazy... dude...” He tried to grab the man, fight back, but he could barely breathe and the hunger made his whole body burn like fire.
The Cause pulled the right strings and the man who went to varsity volleyball games because strip clubs were too seedy and intimidating dug in his coat with his free hand and pulled out a giant, sharp something.
“Tonight you die, incubus! I will not rest until the world is cleansed of your wretched kind! Demon! Abomination!” Drunk. Loser. Failure.
The man raised the sharp something into Rick's field of view and he saw that it was a wooden stake. Just like the fucking movies. The corniness of it all was pretty funny, objectively speaking. The guy probably practiced all this in the mirror a dozen times. He probably had quite a few conversations with the mirror over the years. Don't let them get to you, John. They're only seventh-graders. You're not a 'lame jerk-off.' You're NOT! No matter what anyone says!
“Fuck... you... jerk-off...” Rick tried to spit in his face but he couldn't muster enough saliva. Loser. Fuck.
The man's self-satisfied face of practiced triumph devolved into a scowl. He brought the stake down fast and Rick used every ounce of his remaining strength to catch it before it struck the ribcage.
“Don't resist, bloodsucker! Your reign of terror ends now!”
“Suck... my... dick...” He stared at the business end of the stake inches from his heart and she—the Bitch, the Liar, the girl with the quirky hair and sexed-up Camels who once made him believe, however briefly, that the Shit Sandwich of Life might not be so bad if only he had someone to share it with—strutted out onto the mainstage for the big, final curtain call.
They were together every night for three months, five days, six hours (and change) since that night under the oak tree. He never questioned why she declined his offers to buy her lunch. He never questioned her about anything. She had an unusual work schedule. She needed space. He was flexible. He didn't sleep much back then. He didn't mind. She was worth it. Worth everything. She was one of those fantastical, mythical things that you dreamed about every night but never really believed could be real. Like winning the lottery. Like a career right out of college. Like retirement security for you mother. Like happiness without intoxication. Like a reason not to hang yourself in a motel room closet. Like God. Yet there she was. Right there. Right here.
He still couldn't understand it. Even now, in the Darkness of the jagged rock-bottom abyss, it remained a mystery to him. The unattainable dream—the Impossibility—somehow, sometime, for whatever reason, decided it was better—easier?--to damn him than it was to love him. And he would never forgive her.
They were taking a walk through the park. The one with the oak tree. Their own special place that no one else could truly know or appreciate the way they did. There was no moon that night. He remembered because they were both disappointed. He remembered because he remembered everything when she was with him. They were talking about something trivial, not seeking answers or advice or philosophy, just talking for the sake of hearing the other's voice. He bathed in it. Her methodical pacing that backlit her intelligence with the soft glow of insecurity. The cute way she said “expecially” even though she knew better. The way she laughed, always. Despite her affectionate nature, she didn't look so well that night. Something was off. She seemed to be in pain. He thought it was her period so he didn't ask. He just squeezed her hand a little tighter and tried to make her smile. And she did, for a while. He wouldn't know for some time—after months of confusion and fear, wandering alone in the Darkness—what she was going through. The pain. The desperation. The hunger. She was suffering and he didn't know it. He would have tried to help her, if only she'd told him. It would have been a shock, sure, but they could have worked through it. Together. But she kept her secrets. They were on their way back to the car. He couldn't wait to get back to the twin-sized bed in his (now consistently clean) efficiency apartment and hold her. She was beautiful. She was a dream. An Impossibility. And the coffin walls were closing in. She stopped and he asked what's wrong. She didn't say anything. Not even “Nothing.” He would have done anything to hear a “Nothing.” Instead she looked at him with those eyes—blacker than sin—and showed him what she really was. He didn't scream. He didn't do anything but lay there and bleed. He caught glimpses of her face while she fed. There was no love in it. It was the face of an animal. To that face, death meant nothing. He meant nothing. A cop just happened to be doing a quick sweep of the park at the time. The flashlight put his love in full view. Her lips such a deep, deep red... She snarled at the cop like a rabid dog and disappeared without so much as a glance back. He would never see her again. Rick, sprawled out on the soft grass of the special place that only they could know, prayed to God, the Great Unreal and Wrong, that he would die right there. Right here. Please, please, please, let me die. But God, in all His might and majesty, looked down upon a man abandoned, betrayed and broken, and said Fuck You.
He couldn't keep up the fight for much longer. The man who pretended to like football just so he could be a part of the conversation was going to kill him. Or try, at least. Maybe wooden stakes didn't work. Maybe he'd wake up in a few hours covered in his own sick, worried about nothing more than what some pissed-off hookers were going to tell his manager. But something told him that wasn't going to be the case. Maybe the instincts were finally kicking in. Stay away from wooden stakes. A lot of good that did him now.
“Your efforts are futile, demon! Death is upon you!” He might have been right. He was weak but determined. This was his Great Cause. His only purpose. This pathetic embarrassment of a man—a man who brought those shitty hard candies in the strawberry wrappers to his church's Trunk-or-Treat because Halloween made him uncomfortable—was winning the fight. Rick could feel the sharp tip of the stake grazing his sternum. The hunger was making him delirious. He couldn't feel the hands that were straining to hold death mere inches away, and he couldn't remember why they were even doing it in the first place. What were they fighting so hard to protect? A shit job as the night auditor at a Motel 6 in a shit town with nothing more exhilarating to offer than a Putt-Putt mini-golf? His shit apartment in a shit neighborhood that was lit like a low-rent mausoleum? His eternal debt to the vicious Tweed Serpent that made federal prison sound like an all-inclusive stay in Shangri La? His loneliness? His self-loathing? One-dollar PBR's? He was a murderer. A junkie. A drunk. A loser. He was damned though there was no Hell. He had no place in the quiet and complacent realm of ghosts and coupons. He woke up every night disappointed that he had. She haunted him. The Bitch. The perfect, lucky, impossible love. He would never find her. He would never kill her. He was never going to anyway. Because he loved her and Rick finally knew what that meant. The pressure of the stake was starting to hurt. He was going to die and it only seemed right to pray. To give his thanks and speak his peace and pray forgiveness, because his death did mean something. I'm sorry, Mom. I'm so honestly, very, very sorry.
And he let go.
There was no Heaven, no Hell. No gods, no devils. No pain or pleasure, punishment or reward. There was only darkness, always.