Agony and Empathy
The moon hung in a perfect black ocean. Not even the lights festooning the houses of the normals could drown its luminescence. It was mid December and Jacob Helsinga traced his finger through the ice growing on the inside of his bedroom window. A pile of research papers lay on his bed, the latest copy of ‘Brain‘ sat proudly on top. Downstairs he heard the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Mother was washing up after supper. A mundane beginning? Perhaps, but the journey Jacob was about to take would be anything but ordinary, even by his standards.
It was time to leave, and he embarked on the usual fruitless quest for his keys.
“Jacob” It was his mother's voice.
He turned and saw her standing in the kitchen doorway. The living room had been temporarily rescued from semi darkness by the light flooding in from behind her. She held out her hand. His keys sat nestled in her palm.
“You looking for these?”
She was smiling, and her face was for a moment young again. Jacob returned the favour. “Yeah where were they?” He knew what was coming, but he fed her the punch line anyway.
“Where you left them sunshine.” They laughed.
She closed her eyes and held out her arm, pointing at him. The keys hung off the end of her finger.
“Mum you don’t have to….” He rolled his eyes skyward.
“I can do it Jacob. I feel stronger today.” She opened her eyes and looked at him, as if pleading, puppy dog style. Jacob relented.
“Ok bring it on Mother.” What else was he going to do.
He cupped his hands together ready to receive. Again she closed her eyes, her face a study in concentration and sheer will. The keys remained motionless, and Jacob let out a small sigh. He thought it had escaped her attention, but he was wrong. With her free hand she wagged her finger at him, as if scolding him for his lack of faith. Her forehead wrinkled, and the creases in the corners of her eyes deepened.
Slowly the keys began to vibrate. It was subtle at first, but soon they were bouncing around on the end of her finger. Jacob willed her on. Her powers were waning fast of late, and she knew it. If she could have this one small win, she would surely sleep a little easier tonight. God knew she deserved that much at least.
They had stopped shaking now, and were hovering steadily around her finger. Beads of sweat had broken out on her forehead. The act was clearly costing her a lot in terms of brain function, but she persevered. She was duly rewarded and a little gasp of excitement escaped her, as they left her finger and embarked on a stuttering journey across the room. Jacob held his breath, not wanting anything he did to break her concentration. They drifted toward him, and he could barely stand the tension.
When he eventually felt the cold metal land in his hands, the relief in the room was palpable. “Gotcha!” He yelled. His mother opened her eyes, and her expression said she could hardly believe she had pulled it off. She clapped her hands together in excitement, and Jacob felt a lump of emotion well up in his throat. That such a faint echo of the power she once possessed could bring her such joy was heart breaking.
“You’ve still got it Ma’.”
“Well I don’t know about that.” She blushed, then added, “Where you off to anyway.”
She swept her hair away from her face. It was damp from the sweat, and her skin glistened in the light from the kitchen.
“Just out. No where special.” He lied.
His face was a picture of evasion, but she knew better than to push the issue, and graciously let it go. Jake knew this was a dance and was grateful she let him lead. He kissed her goodbye and left.
The air outside bit into his cheeks and fingers, and he tucked his hands deep into his pockets, searching out any vestige of warmth they could find. His coat was scant shield from the icy winter, but it was ‘better than nothing lad’. Somehow a memory had been triggered, and his father’s words brought comfort and sorrow in equal measure. They were welcome nonetheless.
He had been taken from them barely a year ago, and next week would be the anniversary of his death. It had been a brutal and unceremonious end to a great life. Jacob had hero worshipped his Dad, and the pain of his loss was immense at times, though he was certain it was much harder on his mother.
He had been taken by the Maldito, a gang of Vampires that hung around under the bridge in the nearby country park, and close to the old manor house. The Maldito had terrorised the estate for years. Although it hadn’t always been that way. It had once been a quiet community.
Jacob recalled the day in ’71 when they moved in with fondness. It had been a step up from the days of living life on the run. They had finally found a place to set up a home, and his Dad had desperately wanted them to blend in with the ‘normals’. He had grown so weary, of life, and knew they had to put down roots somewhere if he stood any chance of being able to protect his brood.
“You will both have the peace and safety, our kind have craved but never known. This is my promise to you.”
He made his pledge when Jacob was very young. He had also been clear there would be a price. Isn’t there always? They would have to hide their nature from those around them, and risk allowing their talents to atrophy. Of course there are no creatures living under the stars that can hide from themselves for too long. Self denial only increased their hunger. They each felt it burning inside, and there was a real danger it would spill out in ways they didn’t want and couldn’t control.
Jacob’s parents eventually found release, touring the bars and clubs as a magic act. Not surprisingly they were a roaring success. They allowed Jake an outlet too, but always behind closed doors, and not for long. They both feared him exposing them, and gave dire warnings against him using his skills in front of witnesses. It was never enough and Jacob would practice in secret in his bedroom. He had grown afraid of what may happen if he didn’t find an outlet.
After Frank’s passing, it felt to Elsie, Jacob’s mother, as if she had fallen into the bowels of hell. She could barely lift her head from the pillow most days let alone practice her craft. The effect was devastating on both her mind and body. Today she was barely a shell of the woman she once was, and she was still fading. Seeing her that way filled Jacob’s soul with a gnawing hatred, he couldn’t and wouldn’t shake.
Jacob had picked up his pace, the frost crunched underfoot, but he was actually warm now. He opened the zip on his coat a little, and immediately felt the cold air against his chest. A group of kids barked abuse at him as he passed the end of the road. He was too eager to get to the park to stop and respond. Besides they were irrelevant. His real enemies would be under that bridge.
That’s where they were every night. He knew because he had scouted them for weeks, watching them carefully, and learning their habits. They had never come close to seeing him. They were fundamentally complacent and lazy, full of bravado and an air of invincibility. They took risks, and that was their weakness. Their modus operandi was to hide in the shadows, and wait for the prey to come to them. Perhaps it would be a drunk taking a shortcut through the park, a couple of lovers looking for seclusion, or a hapless park ranger. It had been hard to watch at times, and Jacob could still hear their screams when he closed his eyes each night. However, his anger and hatred for the Maldito would eventually drown them out and usher in sleep.
There were a few occasions when they would leave the lair. Usually when the supply of victims dried up. Then they would venture onto the nearby housing estate in search of food. Jacob realised this is what must have happened the night his father was killed. Both he and his mother had thought it odd that they had taken him on the streets. The policemen who came to inform them of his death, had said he’d been killed by a pack of stray dogs, but Jake and Elsie both knew it wasn’t dogs.
What they didn’t know was why he hadn’t he used his power to defend himself. It made no sense to Jacob. His dad was strong, and he could have launched them into orbit if he wanted. Somehow though, they had overpowered him, and his family had never been able to reconcile that.
Jacob had been lost in his melancholy, and his feet had marched him down the lane leading him to the park gates. They had walked the route so many times before, they didn’t need him. The frost was heavy now, and the iron was ice cold on his skin. He pushed and they opened in true horror movie fashion, the grating noise destroying the quiet of the night. He was in the park once more, and he was acutely aware of his growing sense of anticipation. It was like a hunger.
Soon he would have vengeance. No not vengeance but justice. He would make them truly know pain. Vampires don’t know guilt, they are the sociopaths of the underworld. The world of the normal had no punishment befitting their crimes. Incarceration could never acquaint them with anything approaching remorse. Death only allowed them to leave life without paying for their affronts to civilisation. Jacob wasn’t a normal though, and tonight that was his strength. Perhaps only the extraordinary were able to dream up a sentence worthy of the Maldito’s murderous trespasses.
The lair was close now, he could see the bridge through the trees. He had been so used to hiding that it felt strange approaching it in the open. They were aware of him, he felt their eyes burn into his skin, but it didn’t matter. He was ready. Soon they would hurt as much as he and his mother did, maybe more so.
From his left he heard the padding of paws on the hard earth. He spun round. The animal came to a halt just a few feet from where he stood, growling. A fucking wolf, you kidding me? He thought.
“I didn’t know you kept pets.” Jacob screamed into the trees, feigning nonchalance, and knowing they were there waiting for the animal to leap on him. It was a pretty convincing act.
Thoughts of running surfaced momentarily, and he chastised himself for even that. Instead he stood firm, literally digging his heels into the frozen soil. Closing his eyes he began to concentrate. The animal seemed to get nervous, and broke its stare, looking anxiously at the trees.
Jacob could see the creature clearly in his mind, he could hear it breathe, and through that he felt the pounding of its heart. He imagined being under its fur, then beneath the skin its self before projecting himself deep inside the animal. The sensation was similar to diving into a warm pool and soon he was coursing through its vessels, submerged in its blood. He could taste the iron. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, knew exactly what he was looking for, and suddenly there it was.
There was a fairly large bulge in the animal aorta. Jacob felt a surge of adrenaline, and he honed in on the wall of the vessel. It seemed paper thin, and he imagined it wouldn’t be long before the pressure of the blood, pounding against it would cause a tear to form anyway. He wasn’t about to wait for that to happen, and with a swipe of his index finger he drew a slash across the surface of the vessel. It ballooned and stretched before it burst wide open, and allowed the life-force to flood through the gap.
The wolf began to gurgle and froth. Jacob watched it writhe. He felt sheer exhilaration, and his flesh tingled. Then came the bloody emesis, before violent convulsions took the animal to its after life. A crimson pool spread out in the frost around it as the last of the death throws subsided. Then stillness.
Jacob opened his eyes, and saw he was surrounded. They looked human enough, and he was hoping that at least part of them was. He was depending on it. The tallest of the group broke ranks and stepped forward. he was just a kid, clad in street apparel, hair slicked back from his forehead. His eyes were black and raging, windows on the thunderstorm of anger inside his mind.
“We’ve been waiting for you, freak!” He spat at the ground.
“That supposed to scare me? You filthy….”
He was cut short as the kid bared his fangs, hissing like a cat.
“Your Dad was all full of attitude too. Didn’t get him very far did it?” His voice oozed contempt.
Jacob felt a surge of rage, and pushed it down deep inside. If this thing wanted to waste time goading him, he would use that time wisely. There were twelve of them, and they had formed a circle around him. He would have to deal with pack, before taking on what must be the leader.
“So you admit it was you that killed my Dad?”
It smiled. Actually it was a sneer, and it painted a perfect picture of psychopathy.
“Yeah, I killed your Dad. At least I took the first bite. His blood was piss weak though so I threw him to my boys. They finished him off.”
There was laughter all around, and Jacob suppressed another urge to leap on it and keep punching until there was nothing left to hit. He knew that would be suicide, but the drive was powerful all the same. How had they managed to overpower his Dad? The question haunted him.
“Quite the magician, your old man wasn’t he?”
It started walking slowly around Jacob, its eyes fixed on him. He held still resisting the urge to hold eye contact. It was an attempt to disorientate and he saw right through it. Instead he closed his eyes and began to focus, ignoring the provocation.
“Yeah we went to see him and your ma’ a lot. Impressive stuff. Even caught your Dads solo act once.”
Jacob was aware of it passing behind, close enough that he could hear it drawing breath. It sniffed, drawing in his scent, and he sensed its heart rate quicken as it drew near. He thought about cranking up its pulse and throwing the vile thing into an arrhythmia, but death would be too simple. He had a far more fitting punishment in mind.
Undeterred by the fact he wasn’t getting the desired response, the Vampire went on.
“I was so impressed I bought him a drink. He didn’t want to at first, but I can be quite persuasive when I need to be.”
An attack was coming soon, and Jacob knew it. Talk of his father was just an attempt to disarm him, get him off guard. He wasn’t going to play, despite the anger fizzing and bubbling deep within, desperate to erupt.
“Good thing he took it though. Reckon it softened him up nicely.”
Jacob’s interest was peaked by this, and for the first time he could see how they may have gotten the better of his Dad. They had drugged him.
“Of course he tried some of his magic on us, when he realised what was coming that is, but the juice got him all messed up, and he couldn’t get it together.”
Jacob’s fists were clenched, but he maintained control. In his mind he was imaging the circle of vampires. He imprinted each face, and its features. He gauged their size and weight. Then he sensed the ground they were standing on, its density and composition. Beneath the frost the earth was still fairly soft and full of water. It had rained heavily the day before the current cold snap. In that moment he knew what he would do.
“He did manage to mess up one of my boys though.”
It was welcome news that Frank had at least taken one of the bastards with him, but Jacob refused to take the bait.
“He crushed the lads neck, just by looking at him. Scary shit that.”
It continued to pace.
“….but you see the drink was taking its toll. Your Dad just didn’t have enough about him to finish the job. So the kid just lay there gasping and wheezing. It was pitiful.”
“I had to put him down myself, and that my friend made me very, very mad. I might have let your dad be if that hadn’t happened. Really he brought it on himself.”
He droned on unaware for now, of the growing disquiet amongst his circle of Maldito brothers. The ground beneath their feet had started trembling, and the vibrations were getting heavier. Jacob was smiling. He felt like a great conductor. The earth and the elements were simply players in his orchestra. He could manipulate them simply by willing them to dance to his tune.
Great lumps of earth were breaking loose now, and a few members of the pack stumbled and landed on their backsides. The one who had been goading Jacob had lost his sneering confidence. It was now he who was off guard, bellowing at his troops to stand their ground. An impossible order from a compromised leader. Then in an instant his army was gone, vanished into a gaping wound carved out beneath their feet. Their cries faded away as they fell, disappearing into a great cavernous void.
Jacob opened his eyes. His body alive with what felt like a thousand volts of electricity. He felt truly plugged in to the universe, and felt its power in every cell. The surviving Maldito actually looked panicked. It was trying to back away from him. It would have fled, but Jacob held out his hand.
“Where do you think you are going?”
It stopped in its tracks, seeming to struggle against invisible bonds, but unable to break free. Then with a single flick of his hand Jacob cast the Vampire to the dirt. It fell hard and groaned.
“Now you will listen to me.” Jacobs voice was strong and full of menace. “You see I’ve been waiting for you Freak!”
The thing turned and spat in his direction, but it was more pitiful than intimidating.
“Steady now, That’s no way to treat a man who’s come to cure you is it?”
A look of bemusement flashed across the Maldito’s face. Jacob thought he saw a sliver of fear in that expression too.
“What the fuck you on about.”
Jacob welcomed the invitation.
“Let me explain. You see there are those who would simply write you off. They’d say you’re evil, a bad seed. Maybe they’d lock you away for good, maybe they’d put a wooden peg through your chest, or lop off your head. Or maybe they’d tie you to a tree and leave you to greet the morning sun.”
He kneeled down so that he was at eye level with the thing, and continued.
“Not me though mate. I see beneath the surface you see. I don’t really buy that there’s any such thing as evil. There’s no good either for that matter. There is only what’s convenient for those lucky enough to judge.”
The creature was becoming impatient with Jacobs game, and tried to get to his feet.
“Enough of this bullshit. Just kill me already. Or don’t you have the balls, like your old man.”
Jacob waved his hand, and once more it fell cursing to the ground.
“How can you be evil if you don’t really understand the pain you cause. How can you be truly guilty in the judicial sense if you can’t actually feel guilt in the emotional sense? Evil is knowing but not caring.”
It was ignoring what it saw as his babbling now, certain that death was coming and hoping it would be swift.
“You are what the normals would call a psychopath my friend, you are incapable of knowing the pain of others, no way of caring. It’s not because you don’t want to, it’s because you can’t you see. You have a disease in your head.”
It laughed out loud. “You forgetting something arsehole? In case you hadn’t noticed I am not a fucking human! Don’t judge me by their miserable standards.”
Jacob paused and thought for a moment.
“You know I see where you are coming from, and you could have a point. I have thought about that, and I admit all my research has involved the human brain. I guess there’s a chance yours is significantly different.”
He sat down on the icy earth. He was so pumped he barely noticed the cold frost bite into the seat of his pants.
“If you are right, then I guess what I am going to do will probably kill you. It’ll probably hurt too. A lot actually.”
For the first time he saw real terror in the eyes of his prisoner.
“Be calm now. I’m sure I’m not wrong. I think I know how to cure you, make you feel what the rest of us feel.”
He placed his hands on either side of its face, holding firm as it flinched and struggled to break free. Then he closed his eyes and in his head the world came into sharper focus. Once again he felt connected to everything around him. It was more than that though, and he intuitively knew he could move through the objects around him, meld with them, become them. He went deep into the vampires head. He was searching out a very special structure.
In the journals he had read, it was clear that this bundle of cells was the seat of conscience. It was what connected the brains of the normal to their kin. It helped them to feel, or at least empathise with each other. It was called the Amygdala and when the normal did something wrong, it made them feel guilty. The papers he had studied suggested that in the brains of “bad people” this thing was deformed or diseased. They just couldn’t feel empathy because they were in a very real way sick in the head. If he could find it in this monsters head, Jacob was going to fix it, and set the conscience free.
It took only a little time to find. It was conspicuous by its difference. The rest of the tissue he was looking at appeared uniform. He had no idea if it was healthy or not, but compared to the wizened and necrotic looking structure in front of him, it had to be. It was like a cancerous sore, malevolent and festering, but he knew could heal it, he was certain he could.
Jacob worked frantically, turning dead cells into healthy ones, literally rebuilding the Amygdala brick by brick. It grew, and as it did it formed roots, connecting its self to neighbouring tissue. Then it came alive, drawing in blood and oxygen. Bioelectric flashes went off everywhere around him, and feeling a little uncertain about his own safety, he sensed it was time to leave. In any case he had done what he came to do.
He let go of its face. The eyes were wide, and full of horror. There were tears rolling down the cheeks. Then it began to scream. Barely intelligible at times, but the emotion was unmistakably remorse. Each guttural utterance overflowed with regret and shame. Only occasionally did it manage meaningful sentences.
“Please don’t leave me like this. Kill me I don’t deserve to live.”
“I am sorry my friend. this is exactly the life you deserve.”
Jacob turned his back, and walked away, his face a picture of satisfaction. You see neither the human nor the inhuman can invent a greater punishment, than that which the truly guilty can inflict upon themselves.