Damp gravel crunched beneath the soles of a shuffling set of ragged New Balance running shoes. The upturned collar of his denim jacket did nothing to keep the constant drizzle from crawling down his neck, biting him with an unaccustomed chill.
There was a time when his eyes would have burned in this near darkness with unparalleled clarity. Not now. Now he squinted like a feeble myopic old wretch, struggling to focus on his hands eighteen inches from his face.
They were ghastly, skeletal things, his hands. Gaunt and pallid, the skin hanging from his long, brittle fingers glistening in the drizzle like the belly of a frog. He tried to steady them, but they trembled and with each tremble, each stuttering tremor, he could feel his life slipping away.
Oh, he’d known hunger. Many times. Hunger and Ray were age old acquaintances. He well knew the gnawing, persistent ache, the yearning in his jaw, the burning of his throat, the coiled tension in the pit of his stomach. These he knew well and could deal with.
But starvation… Starving was another beast entirely.
Ray touched his face, his fingertips navigating an alien landscape. His eyes were sunken into pits with harsh, sharp edges. His cheekbones were a pair of mountains that descended into valleys etched deep into the sides of his face. Beneath cracked lips, he could feel receding gums set against a wall of loosening teeth.
This can’t be how it ends.
Ray looked up. To his left stood a wooden post crowned by a white mailbox. Stenciled in black paint: “A and B. W. Smith”.
He peered down the driveway into inky blackness. He caught a pang of something down that darkened drive that was both compelling and forbidding. He breathed deeply through his nose, exhaled a staccato whimper and made a decision.
At the end of the driveway stood a neat, well cared for house with white siding and black trim. Ray’s gaze drifted to the porch steps, then higher to the unadorned front door. He tilted his head and sniffed the night air.
No dogs, he thought, and then looked above the door. No sentry lights, either.
Expending a staggering amount of effort, Ray climbed the three steps onto the covered front porch. He began to run his fingers through his matted hair, abandoning the effort when he encountered hopeless tangles.
Gaunt, bony knuckles rapped against the wooden door.
He heard a host of sounds from within the house: A rustling, the snap of newsprint being briskly folded, the scrape of a chair against the floor. There were footfalls beyond the door, then a click; the porch light sprung to life. Ray winced, turning his face away from the dim illumination. Beyond the door, Ray heard a man clear his throat. A deadbolt shifted and the doorknob turned.
The man framed in the doorway looked Ray up and down, then opened the door completely. “You don’t look too well,” he said. “In fact, no offence, you look like shit. What can I do for you tonight?”
Ray sniffed, rubbed his face, and then spoke in a raspy voice. “I guess…I guess I’m here to beg.”
The man closed his eyes and gave his head a gentle shake. He raised his left hand. Ray saw that he held a long, metal flashlight.
“Two things, friend,” the man said in a voice sounding older than he looked. “First—I’m not going to need this, am I?” He inclined his head toward the flashlight.
Ray shook his head, his eyes darting from the flashlight to the man’s face. “No… No, sir.”
“Good. I am really, really glad to hear that. Second—I’ll have no one beg on my doorstep. If you’re so inclined, I’ll invite you in out of the cold. Then we can talk about what you need.”
Ray hesitated. He looked down at the threshold, then back at the man.
“My name is Barry, by the way,” he said, extending his right hand. Ray, dumbstruck, shook it. “I know what you are, but I don’t know who you are. How about you come in so we can both find out?”
Ray stepped through the door. As his foot lighted on the rubber “Welcome” mat, he noticed that Barry’s gaze had drifted to Ray’s filthy shoes.
“Can you do me a favor and slip your shoes off by the door?” Barry said. “They’re looking a bit muddy.”
Ray kicked off his runners, regarded his equally dirty socksand peeled them off, too. Barry held out his hand.
“Pass me your jacket. I’ll hang it here to dry.”
Ray snaked out of the soaked denim. Barry’s eyes registered the line of ribs beneath the white cotton of Ray’s threadbare t-shirt; they looked like a strip of corrugated roofing. He grimaced at the emaciated state of his guest’s arms, but, carefully keeping his voice neutral, simply tilted his head and said, “Kitchen’s this way. It’s warmer in there.”
Ray followed his host along a short hallway. Hanging along the wall were framed photographs. One showed a teenage girl holding a Holstein cow by a lead, a ribbon affixed to the halter. Another photo showed a much younger-looking Barry standing next to a massive tractor. Yet another showed Barry, the girl and an older woman, presumably his wife. All smiles. All looking carefree.
Ray looked ahead. Barry’s shoulders were slumped. His gait was that of a broken old man. He glanced back at the photo. The man who had invited him in was a washed-out shadow of the happy family man, the proud tractor owner. The photos were clearly pre-Pandemic.
The Pandemic had changed everything for everyone. Ray could hardly believe it had been less than two years since humanity was devastated by the most virulent flu the species had ever encountered. The death toll was staggering. The planet reeled, mourned, and then took precautions for the future.
Thermal imaging began in a nightclub in Singapore. Cameras mounted at the entrance measured body temperature in order to keep out patrons running a fever. Soon, Public Thermal Imaging was installed in airports, shopping malls, everywhere.
A security person routinely scanning a line up at a Frankfurt nightclub pulled a woman out of the line. He had noticed that she was a full eleven degrees centigrade below normal. As she attempted to flee, she was apprehended, held until morning when someone from public health could assess her. During the night, she paced the cell, rattling the bars and begging to be released, her agitation mounting with each passing hour. As the first rays of daylight spilled through the barred windows, she momentarily glittered, then burst into flame. It was all captured on closed-circuit television, the graininess of the image somehow making the scene all the more horrific. The footage went viral on YouTube before lunchtime.
Humanity now knew without a doubt that there was another enormous problem to contend with—vampires. In the course of a single day, vampires had lost their greatest predatory attribute— they could no longer blend seamlessly among their prey.
Barry walked into the kitchen and crossed to a round oak table surrounded by four matching chairs. His footsteps skirted a cut out patch in the linoleum; a rectangle measuring three feet by four framed with a greasy black stain marring the exposed floorboards.
“Mind your step there,” he said as he pulled one of the chairs out and turned it invitingly toward Ray. “Take a load off.”
“Thank-you,” Ray whispered as he sank into the chair.
Occupying the table was a half-empty cup of black coffee and a stack of neatly piled daily newspapers. A news section lay on its own, folded in front of Barry’s usual chair. Barry placed his flashlight on top of the stack of newspapers, retrieved a silver percolator pot from the stovetop and filled his cup.
“I’d offer you some coffee,” Barry said, “or something to eat, but the papers tell me that regular food and drink just pass right through you folks. Can make you sick, too. Is that true?”
Ray’s eyes lingered on the flashlight.
It had taken all of two days after the YouTube video saturated the internet before someone had seen what a UV flashlight could do to vampiric flesh. At that point, Ultraviolet flashlights had been relatively weak, the tools and playthings of miners, gemologists and crime scene investigators. It took little time for engineers to increase the wavelengths and efficiencies and for manufacturers to move to production. Vampire Protection Kits flew off the shelves.
Barry noticed where Ray’s attention was focused.
“You’re wondering why I would just put it down like that?”
“There’s a few reasons. Let’s face it—if you were going to go for my throat, I imagine it would’ve happened while I had my back to you in the hallway. Besides, it’s been my experience that someone hell-bent on murder doesn’t knock politely at the door.” Barry slid into his chair opposite Ray with a sigh. “So, how much do you need?”
Ray’s gaze moved from the flashlight to Barry. “How much?”
“Listen. It doesn’t take a genius to see that you’re hurting. And I don’t think I’d be too far wrong to say it looks like you’re starving. Am I right?”
Ray’s eyes dropped and his head gave the slightest of nods.
“The way I was raised, if you see someone in need and it’s within your means to help…well, you lend a hand. You’re obviously in need. How much, you know, to take the edge off?”
Ray’s tongue crept out to moisten his parched lips. “Very little, really.” His voice sounded like a rusted hinge. “A teaspoon or two would be a banquet to me.”
“Honestly? So little? Would that really be enough?” Barry leaned forward, his elbow on the table, his chin in the palm of his hand. “No offense, but from the way you look, I would’ve thought you’d need a lot.”
Ray answered by way of a quick little shake of his head.
As Barry sipped his coffee, he let his fingertips wander across the bristles on his chin. He rose from his chair and walked over to the white-painted cupboard over the stove. Opening the door, he took out a cream-colored eggcup.
“I could use a shave,” he said as he walked past Ray to the hallway. “I always bleed like a son-of-a-bitch whenever I get rid of my whiskers. Excuse me for a few minutes, will you. Make yourself at home.”
Ray listened as the stairs squeaked with each step Barry took. A door above clicked shut and the sound of running water surged through the house’s pipes.
He looked again at the forgotten flashlight perched on the stack of newspapers and shuddered. Something so innocuous to them, yet so gruesomely lethal to his kind. And how easily the humans wielded them—the flashlights and, worse yet, the automatic sentry lights fitted with UV bulbs. Silent killers lurking beneath the eaves for the unfortunate or incautious vampire who strayed close enough to trigger them.
His eyes drifted from the flashlight and newspapers to something he hadn’t noticed before. Casually leaning against a cupboard, its shortened barrel nestled in the slot between two doors, was what Ray assumed to be a shotgun. Ray started to rise to take a better look at the gun, but his thighs trembled and his strength deserted him. He settled back down.
A scent reached Ray’s nostrils and he shuddered: the delicious coppery scent of blood mixed with a hint of iron-infused well water. His eyes brimmed with tears and his tongue swept longingly around the inside of his mouth. The sound of running water ended, accompanied by the spin of a toilet paper roll. The upstairs bathroom door creaked open. Each stair announced that Barry was drawing closer to the kitchen and with him fresh blood.
Barry, sporting three folded over tabs of toilet paper on his face, each with a crimson blossom spreading to its edges, walked into the kitchen carrying the eggcup in one hand and a stack of clothing and a towel in the other. He watched Ray’s eyes track each scrap of bloodied toilet paper, finally settling on the eggcup.
“Well, I told you I bleed like a bastard when I shave,” Barry said. He placed the eggcup in front of Ray. “I figure there’s a little over a teaspoon there.” He crossed to the stove and made a production of fiddling with the coffeepot with his back to Ray. “Let me know when you’re finished.”
Ray glanced furtively from Barry to the eggcup. Pooling in the bottom was the difference between life and death. His nostrils flared. His fingertips trembled as they found the edge of the porcelain. He looked from the blood to Barry, back at the blood and sobbed.
“Everything alright?” Barry didn’t turn around. “It’s okay, isn’t it? Is it enough?”
“It…” Ray shuddered and exhaled. “No one…no one has ever offered it freely.”
Barry shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“Like I said—simple hospitality. Drink up,” he said, “then we can talk.”
Ray’s gaze dipped to the eggcup. It didn’t look like much, that shallow layer of crimson pooled at the bottom, but to him it was everything. As far gone as Ray was, the offering in the cup wasn’t just a meal. The cooling, congealing mass oozed with potential vitality. It would sustain him, make him whole.
Ray looked up at the worn-down, slumped shoulders of the total stranger who had just handed him back his life. The tired, broken farmer who had opened his door and let him in out of the cold and the rain. Wasted, trembling fingers raised the cup to his lips. The scent filled his sinuses. His head spun. The blood slipped between his lips, along his tongue, cascading down his throat. Lifeforce rolled through him. Atrophied muscles sprang to life. He gasped, a drowning man breaching the surface for a second chance at life.
“Are you okay?” Barry asked, not turning around.
“I’m…much better, thanks,” Ray said. “I’m…I’m finished now. And thank you for not watching.”
Barry turned with the coffee pot in his hand and topped up his cup. He lowered himself into the chair. His eyes widened.
“Wow. The change is…well, it’s extraordinary. And about turning my back… I figured it was the decent thing to do. I figured…you know…feeding might be a private thing for you.”
“It is a private thing.”
Barry took a sip of coffee. “No one’s ever offered you blood freely before?”
Ray buried his face in his hands. He shook his head.
“Then…how do you get what you need? I mean, I read a lot of newspapers and listen to the radio and TV but there’s not a lot of mention about how a vampire leads his day to day life. Well, I guess in your cases it would be night to night. Do you usually take what you need by force?”
Ray’s eyes were moist when they met Barry’s. He nodded.
“The worst possible force. You must understand. We’re no stronger than you are and not really any faster. Our greatest advantage is our senses. We see and hear and feel and smell and taste so much more than you do. And we have another, beyond your five.”
“Like what? Some kind of ESP? Can you read my thoughts?”
“No. Something much more basic…more primal. We…we are able to feel your emotions, especially your fear. And… when we get one of you alone…we can amplify your fear…until you’re paralyzed.”
Barry shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Paralyzed with fear? Well, I guess that would certainly get the blood pumping.”
“Please understand. Most of us take only the small amount we need. A miniscule minority give us all a bad name.”
“Does it cause trauma, this fear your people can project?”
Ray looked away. “Very much so. Our donors are so traumatized that the truth of our feeding is often repressed and misinterpreted as something mundane, easily explained or understandable.”
Barry tilted his head. “I try not to judge, but I think ‘donor’ is a pretty liberal euphemism. I think a more accurate word might be ‘victim’. No offence.”
“I think…” Ray said. “I think the manner of our feeding might be why we have no reflection.”
Barry looked over at the kitchen window, then back at Ray.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I can see your reflection in the window just fine.”
Ray nodded. “But I can’t. I think it must be some kind of defense mechanism. If you had to terrify and traumatize someone every time you had to eat, you wouldn’t be able to look at yourself in a mirror, either.”
“So you really can’t see yourself?”
Barry took another sip of coffee. “You know, you’re not the first vampire I’ve encountered.”
“A couple of weeks back. It was around this time of night. Chores were all finished and I was going through the papers like I always do. We dairy farmers are by necessity creatures of habit. Anyway, I’d picked up that flashlight there from the hardware store with a few other things the previous week. I don’t really know why. I guess the stuff I read in the paper. Hardly a day goes by that there isn’t a story about some poor bastard with his throat torn out and not a drop of blood to be found.”
“As I said,” Ray said, one hand raised defensively, “those monsters represent a tiny minority of my kind.”
“And I believe you. You wouldn’t have known it, though, from the man who came running through that front door over there, fangs bared and growling like an animal. Everything was pure instinct. The flashlight was sitting next to my coffee cup. It was in my hand and turned on before I really knew what was happening. The man skittered to a halt just there—” Barry gestured with his cup toward the patch of removed linoleum. “—and he flamed and blistered and melted.”
“You can’t be blamed for defending yourself,” Ray said, catching the grief in Barry’s voice.
“No. And if it happened again, I figure it would end the same way. You notice I answered the door tonight with the damn flashlight in my hand. No—it wasn’t killing him that upsets me, though that in itself was upsetting. What really bothers me is what happened after.”
“I called the police and told them what happened. You know what they said? ‘So why are you calling us?’ That’s what they said. They claimed I hadn’t killed a person, I’d exterminated a pest. I told them he certainly screamed like a person. They said it wasn’t their concern. I asked them who I should contact regarding the charred remains on my kitchen floor and how the body would be disposed of. The cop on the phone told me once more it wasn’t a police matter and most people were depositing remains in garbage bags and dropping them off at the dump. The dump, for Christ’s sake. I told her I had never been more ashamed to be a human being. She hung up on me.”
“Hell, no. I did need to cut the linoleum to…well, to get him off the floor but, no—I didn’t take him to the dump. He’s buried in the side yard. I planted a tree over his grave. There was no ID or anything, no name to put to the man. I had no idea if he had a religion or not, what kind of a marker would be appropriate. I figure you can’t do much better than a tree as a grave marker. Universally non-offensive, a tree.”
Barry took another sip of coffee.
“We’ve all changed, you know,” he said, “since the Pandemic. We’ve grown mean and petty and lost any sense of what it’s like to be a good neighbor.”
Ray tilted his chin toward the cupboards by the sink. “Is that what the shotgun is for? In case some of your fellow humans are less than neighborly?”
Barry’s answer was all too matter of fact. “The shotgun is for me.”
“Every night I come in here after milking and chores. I make a pot of coffee and read the papers. I read all four, cover to cover. I try to make sense of what’s happened to our world. Everything’s so hopeless. The world is this giant mess. Then we—humanity—discover we’re co-existing with another intelligent species and what do we do? We make lethal flashlights, UV Laser pointers and sentry lights called Vamp Zappers that you can buy at your local Wal-Mart for $32.99. And that, compounded on everything else that happened, is why the shotgun sits loaded by my sink.” Barry reached back, grabbed the gun and laid it across the table between them.
“I took a hacksaw to the barrel,” he said, sliding his fingertip along it. “Now it’s the perfect length to wedge against the seat of my chair between my legs so that it nestles firmly under my chin. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt that rough sawn edge under my jaw.”
“Jesus…” Ray whispered.
“And the only thing that keeps me from pulling the trigger, the only thing that keeps my brains from being splattered all over the ceiling is my goddamn cows.”
“Goddamn cows need to be milked. Nowadays the milk truck only comes every three days. Cows can’t skip a milking. If I’m not there to take care of them it could be three days—six milkings—before the truck comes and the driver discovers me sitting in here. Do you have any idea the agony a Holstein would endure if she missed six milkings? So, as I’m sitting here, thumb on the trigger, shotgun under my chin, I think if I just let the cows loose in the barnyard one of my neighbors will notice and take care of things. And that’s true. But, by the time I get to that point, the despair is so bleak I just can’t muster the will to go all the way out to the barn and turn them out. So the shotgun slides out from under my chin, gets put back by the counter and I slink over to the daybed and cry myself to sleep.”
“And yet,” said Ray, “even with a despair that I could sense at the end of your driveway—even with all that you’ve personally lost—even after you’ve been attacked in your own home by one of my kind—you open your house and your…hospitality—” He lifted the empty eggcup. “—to a stranger. To a vampire.”
Barry shrugged. “It’s the way I was raised. What can I say? I guess I look upon vampirism in the same way I view homosexuality or vegetarianism.”
Ray laughed. “How’s that?”
“I don’t really understand any of them. But, just because I don’t understand them, that doesn’t really give me a right to judge, does it? They’re all just different ways of getting by in the world.”
“And that’s what it’s all about nowadays, isn’t it? Getting by? For your people…and for my kind.”
Barry looked into the bottom of his empty coffee cup. “You know,” he said, “until that vampire came running through my front door, I never really gave your kind much thought. Afterwards…well, I got to thinking on how difficult it must be…how desperate your people must be getting. And how unfriendly it is out there for you.”
“Is that why you let me in?”
Barry considered this for a moment. “Nah. You had the decency to knock. You needed help. Really, what else could I have done? How are you feeling, by the way?”
Ray’s hands came up from the table and he turned them. They had lost some of their pallor. The skin seemed less loose. His fingers no longer shook. “I don’t know what to say. You’ve given me my life back. How can I repay something like that?”
“You can’t and you don’t have to. I had a little something you needed and it didn’t hurt me any to give it up.”
Ray sat contemplating as an awkward silence filled the room. Finally, glad to feel that strength had returned to his legs, he rose to his feet. “Will you let me try to repay you for everything you’ve done?”
“There’s no need.”
“Do I have your permission to try?”
“I suppose. What do you have in mind?”
Ray moved to Barry’s side of the table.
“Should I get up?” Barry asked.
“No,” Ray said. “Seated is better, I think. Remember what I told you about how we can dial up someone’s fear.”
“Yeah,” Barry said with a hint of uncertainty.
“Well, I’ve never tried this before. I doubt anyone ever has, but as I sat there across the table, I got to thinking: What if I could dial it back?”
“But I’m not afraid.”
“You’re telling me. You don’t have a hint of fear about you. I suppose after the worst thing imaginable has already happened, there’s not a lot left to fear. But I’m not talking about fear.”
“Your despair. You have so much. What if I could take some of it away, even if for just a little while?”
“I’d be a fool to say no.”
Ray lifted his left hand. “I’ll need to touch your face.” Barry nodded. “Remember, I don’t know if this will work.”
Ray’s fingertips came to rest on Barry’s cheek. At first Barry felt them as icy yet clammy, but after a few seconds they seemed to warm. Ray breathed deeply and concentrated. Instead of projecting a wave of anxiety, he focused on Barry’s overwhelming despair. For just an instant Ray felt the entirety of Barry’s loss, the sum of his suffering, the depth of his loneliness. His knees grew weak until finally he broke the contact and staggered back to his chair.
“Jesus,” Ray whispered. “How do you cope?”
Barry gave his head a shake. “Most days, not very well.”
Ray waded through the lingering effects of Barry’s grief, rubbing his hands over his face, and then said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
With a crestfallen shrug, Barry nodded at the bundle of clothes he’d brought down after shaving.
“You look about my size.” he said. “There’s a bathroom and shower just off the living room if you’d care to get cleaned up. I need to say goodnight. It’s getting late and 5:30 is chore time. I don’t know if you’re planning to move on tonight, but you’re welcome to spend the day here in safety. I’ve got a root cellar and a sleeping bag. It’s not much, but it’ll be dark.”
“I am in your debt.”
“Think nothing of it. You may not have been able to siphon off any of my sadness, but I am genuinely glad to have made your acquaintance. Which reminds me…I never did catch your name.”
The vampire extended his hand.
“My name is Ray.”
“And I’m Barry,” said the farmer. “I’m really pleased you stopped by.”