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Once Bitten

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 7

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24 July 1983

John Christensen stretched and began to put away his pastels.  It was becoming too dark and windy to do any more work on his picture, and he was getting hungry, so it was time to call it quits.

He paused for a moment, his eyes moving back and forth between his sketch and the darkening waters of Stråisjön Lake.  He liked his work, so far.  He thought he had done a good job of capturing the blues and greens of the water and the trees.  But it needed some warmth.  Maybe tomorrow morning when the light was better, he’d add something with some red or orange in the foreground—flowers, perhaps, or a bird.

He couldn’t have picked a more beautiful spot, here in the midst of this primaeval forest.  And so close to Stockholm, too.  It made him envious; to think that one could work downtown, but go to a place like this with just a short train ride.  Amazing.

He was used to the beauty of nature, but Sweden, he had to admit, had the upper hand.  All his life he had loved hiking and spending time in the country.  And traveling around Europe over the last two weeks, he’d seen plenty of it.  But this—it was definitely hard to beat.

He folded up his easel and carefully stowed the artwork.  He’d spend tomorrow morning working on the picture some more, then pack up and take the trail back to the main park entrance.  He’d be back in Stockholm in time for a late lunch, then plan some more for his tour through Denmark later in the week.

The apple and the sandwich he’d brought along tasted good as he sat in front of his little tent, watching the final rays of the sun disappear behind the western horizon.  He drank some water out of his thermos and thought about how much he enjoyed having a simple meal out here in a place like this.  Nothing fancy, just the basics.  Well, he’d brought a little vodka to wash everything down.  But what the hell, why not?—he had no particular schedule to keep, or anyone to see.  He hadn’t bothered to shave today, nor comb his hair, which stood up in short, unruly reddish-blond tufts.  Who cared how he looked out here?

It was too bad that he hadn’t been able to bring Lauren along on his trip through Europe.  But naturally, Barbara had objected, pointing out that she had already signed Lauren up for an expensive summer day camp in Seattle; and of course, he didn’t have the visitation rights to force the issue.  Naturally, he had assumed Lauren would’ve enjoyed it, but looking back on it now, he wasn’t so sure.  She had never been crazy about camping—just like her mother—and lately, she’d been more interested in boys and shopping at the mall than in spending time with her old man.

Well, there was no point spoiling his evening with depressing thoughts about the implosion of his family life.  All of that was water under the bridge.  Tonight he had the beautiful forest wilderness, and Epictetus.  Who could ask for more?  He crawled into his tent, snapped on a battery-operated lantern, poured himself a little vodka, and clambered into his sleeping bag.  Once he was inside, he retrieved his dog-eared copy of Discourses from his backpack and settled in.

Who could read Epictetus and not love him?  A stoic philosopher from the First Century A.D. who had been born a slave somewhere up in Turkey, crippled for most of his life, and who owned nothing but an oil pot.  A clay one, too boot, lest an iron one be stolen.  His secret was understanding that there is only so much a man can control in this life; that everything, even one’s body, can be taken away, leaving you with what?  Only the ability to control how you will react to your circumstances.  Understanding that actually gave a fellow enormous freedom—freedom from anxiety and worry.  Yeah, maybe Bertrand had a point—that the mind really isn’t all that inviolate; that even someone’s thoughts can be manipulated with the right drugs, for example.  But still, you had to admire a guy who could let someone break his leg and have so great a control over himself that all he said was, “Did I not tell you that you would break it?”  Unbelievable.

Of course, he could never be like Epictetus.  He abhorred pain, and as a child, the sight of blood had made him faint when he’d cut his finger in the kitchen.  His older brother had never let him forget that incident.  But still . . . he could wish.

He was trying to get through a particularly dense passage in Chapter 7, something about divining viscera, when he began to feel drowsy.  His eyelids began to droop, his brain drifted into neutral, and soon he was reading the same sentence over and over.  Then he heard a sound.

A child, crying somewhere in the dark.

He frowned and turned his head to the right—it sounded like it was coming from over that way.  Then it stopped, and the only sound was the wind buffeting the side of his tent.  He waited, straining to hear it again, now fully alert.  There.  But fainter?  As if . . . . it was moving away.

What the hell.

He rolled over, fumbled for his big, aluminum Kel-Lite—it looked like a police baton, and held untold numbers of “D” cells—and switched it on.  Then he crawled out of his sleeping bag, popped his head out of his tent, and swung the light through the woods off in the direction he’d heard the sound.  He saw nothing; just the tall, ancient trees, their branches swaying softly in the wind.

Then he heard it again—softer this time.  Somewhere . . . he shined the light more to his left, but only saw more trees and underbrush.  Could it be a bird, maybe, or an animal?  He tried to imagine what sort of animal might make a sound like that, but drew a blank.  It had to be human.  Yes—someone’s kid, lost out here in the woods. He was only about four hundred meters from the trail, which ran quite close to the lake on this, its northeastern shore.  So it could be that some child had gotten separated from her parents earlier in the day and was wandering around, lost and alone.  But still, while there had been other folks out hiking earlier, he hadn’t seen or heard anyone since late afternoon.  So this kid must be seriously lost, to be out here now.

Well, there was nothing to do but try to find her—or him, or whoever it was.  He swore softly to himself as he ducked back inside the tent and pulled out his pants and the lantern.  He turned up the light as bright as it would go and set the lantern down by the tent flap, then hopped in a semicircle as he struggled to pull on his khakis after three shots of vodka.  Then he slipped into his boots without bothering to lace them, adjusted his trusty flashlight to its widest beam, and set off.

When he got to the edge of the little clearing he had chosen to pitch camp, he heard the crying again.  He stopped and gave a holler in Swedish, which he spoke pretty well since he’d been raised in Germany.  “Hello?  Who’s out there--are you okay?”  He paused, and then added, “Do you need help?”

His voice rang loudly in his ears as he stopped to listen.  There was no reply, but the crying was still there, more plaintive, perhaps?  Yep—a lost and lonely child, probably a girl—too scared to speak, but who maybe had heard his voice.  He called again, telling her to stay where she was, and that he was coming to  help her.

He began to move through the brush toward the sound.  Cripes, the stuff was thick!  He pushed his way past the brambles and climbed over fallen tree trunks.  Every little branch and root seemed intent on impeding his progress, and occasionally his boots squelched down into the muck and the mud tried to suck them off his feet.  The wind blew stronger, roaring through the leaves with an undulating groan, and thorns tore at his forearms.  He shivered, and wished he’d thrown his jacket on over his T-shirt.  Oh well—no time to worry about that now.

He had been trying to pay attention to any remarkable features of the terrain so he could find his way back, but wasn’t having much luck in the dark.  All the trees seemed to look the same; that big, overturned stump back there, maybe?  He figured that in the worst case scenario, he could always head toward the lake and follow the shoreline back.

He paused to listen again.  The crying was louder; he was definitely closer.  He could now hear the child’s softer sobs and sniffles.  He had no clear sense of how far he’d come, but figured he couldn’t be very far from his camp; less than a hundred meters, maybe.

Finally, in the beam of his flashlight he saw that the trees were thinning out into a small clearing, populated by younger, smaller trees.  The rotting remains of what once must have been a mighty big tree lay across the gap.  The darkness wasn’t quite as thick in the clearing as it had been under the trees, enabling him to see, next to the dark, enormous trunk, a child laying on its side, clutching an ankle.

The child looked up as he approached, and—yes, it was a girl.  A beautiful little girl with big, dark eyes set in a pale, round face framed with black hair.  Her expression changed from sadness and pain to hopeful relief when she saw him.  Then she rolled away from him and without saying anything, began to pull herself up by the tree trunk.

Something about the whole situation set off little alarm bells way down inside of him.  He felt uneasy, but it was a very vague sort of uneasiness that readily gave way to the happiness he felt at having found her.  He quickened his pace toward her and started to talk.  “Hey, hey, what’s going on?  Why are you out here?  Are you all right?”

She answered as she continued to get up, still facing away from him.  Her voice sounded much lower and more boyish than he had expected from the thin, sad crying he’d heard.  “I . . . I was with my parents and I got lost.  I was trying to find them, and then it got dark.  I got scared, started to run, then I . . . I fell and twisted my ankle.  It hurts really bad, and I couldn’t keep walking on it . . . .”

At this point, he had almost reached her.  From behind she looked very thin—she couldn’t weigh very much—and he figured he’d help her up and then sit her down on the trunk so he could take a look at her ankle.  So he put the flashlight down on a big branch jutting out from the fallen tree and said, “here, let me help you.  Don’t put any weight on it.”

As he got her seated on the tree, he noticed for the first time that she’d lost her shoes.  Her feet were muddy and sure enough, when he looked at her ankle, it did seem purple.  She hissed through her teeth and pulled away as he tried to examine it.

“Honey, where are your shoes?  . . . Well, it does look like you’ve twisted it pretty bad.  I don’t think you should walk on it.”  He smiled at her reassuringly.  “But I can carry you . . . how would you like a piggy-back ride to my tent?  Then we can try to find your folks.”  I can manage this, he thought.  Just have to go a little slower on the way back, that’s all.

She thanked him with a big smile.  Her dark eyes seemed to twinkle unnaturally in the glow of his flashlight as he turned around.  He stooped down and she climbed onto his back.  As he suspected, she weighed almost nothing, and he noticed as he straightened up and reached for his light that she wasn’t very warm, either.  Poor kid, she was probably getting hypothermic out here in the woods.  He’d have to get her into his sleeping bag as soon as they got back so she could warm up.  She wrapped her arms over  his shoulders and her thighs squeezed around his waist, and as he reached back to give a little boost to her rear end, he noticed that—

--her grip on him was tightening.

At first, he figured she was just a little nervous, maybe afraid that he might drop her.  So, he began to offer assurances that she had nothing to fear.  “Don’t worry, don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.  You can relax a—”

Jesus. She was still squeezing, still—what the hell?  His mind shifted from trying to settle her down for the ride back, to getting her off of him.  But this was an injured little girl, and he had to be gentle—he couldn’t hurt her. 

It dawned on him that his arms weren’t completely free any more.  Her grip on him had shifted down over his upper biceps, and now they were pinned firmly to his sides.  All he could flex were his elbows, and that wasn’t enough to get his hands on her.  At the same time, her legs had wrapped more firmly around him, and they were amazingly strong, too.  He staggered away from the dead tree, trying to draw a breath—Christ, what’s she doing to my ribs?—and started to spin around, saying “Hey!  Hey!  Stop that!  Please, it’s all right—let go a little!”

But she didn’t loosen up.  She just kept squeezing, and now he had the terrible feeling of being unable to draw a breath.  He couldn’t expand his lungs, and with their stillness he suddenly felt his heart thudding loudly in protest.  I’m . . . I’m suffocating—dear God, she’s squeezing me like a snake—must get her off, can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t--

Suddenly his legs felt weak, then gave way.  Bending at the knees, he went down and then toppled forward, face-first, onto the ground.  He wanted to scream, but couldn’t because he had no air.  Then everything went black.

He came to and found that he was lying on his side where he’d fallen.  A dull pain had spread across his chest, and he realized that the little girl was still on his back with her limbs wrapped tightly around him.  He was groggy and weak; had no strength to fight her. 

Then he realized someone else was crouched next to him—a young, lanky boy wearing a navy blue shirt and jeans.  His thin arms and face were just as white as the girl, and he had long, blond hair.  He seemed scared.

The girl spoke, her mouth directly behind his ear.   “Come on.  It’s time—you need to do this.”

“But Eli, I—”

Sshh!  I told you not to say my name!”

“Oh yeah.  Sorry.  But I just . . . I can’t—they’re not there, dammit!”

Oddly, the boy pointed to his mouth, then stood up and backed away a little.

“Oskar—oh—shit!”  John realized that the girl had just broken her own rule.  Who were these kids?  And what were they doing with him?  A stupid kind of righteous indignation flared in him—to be held captive by a couple of children.

“The hell with it.  Listen, Oskar, there’s only one way this is ever going to work.  At some point, you have to stop thinking of them as people, and do what needs to be done.”

Once these chilling words settled into John’s consciousness, he scanned Oskar fearfully, looking for a knife or weapon.  Stop thinking of them as people?  Do what needs to be done?

Oskar groaned in frustration.  “I know, Eli.   But they are people, and I--”

John interrupted, speaking with a weak wheeze; it hurt to talk.  “Yeah, kid—Oskar—I am a person.  Don’t listen to her!  Don’t do—“

One of the girl’s hands suddenly clamped firmly over his mouth, cutting him off.  Only it wasn’t a hand; it was a

(claw)

with sharp fingertips that dug painfully into the side of his cheek.

“Shut up, you!”  She (it?) hissed menacingly into his ear.  Then with incredible strength, it jerked his head back sharply, exposing his neck.

The fear expanded like molten lead in his chest.  Oh Jesus oh dear God What is she What the hell is going on I’m going to die—

The boy seemed to ignore what the girl had done and crouched once more by his side.  He seemed very unsure of himself.  Slowly, hesitantly, he began to talk.

“Sir . . . we’re really sorry to do this, but you see, we need . . . well, we need blood to live.  Human blood.  Could we just maybe have a little of yours?  If you promise not to tell anyone?”

Now the girl-thing behind him groaned in frustration.  Then she squeezed him harder, and suddenly bit him savagely in the neck.  A scream exploded from his chest, coming out as a muffled bellow from beneath whatever appendage was wrapped across his mouth.  Just as quickly as her teeth—my God they must be sharp!—were in his neck, they were out again, and a part of him was torn away.  Instantly he felt what must’ve been an enormous amount of blood burst from the wound.  And then he saw—

The apprehension in the boy’s face disappeared, and was replaced by—nothing.  Blankness.  His eyes changed; they seemed to grow bigger, and then the pupils—

No.  John’s rational mind suddenly declared defeat; I’m gone, it seemed to say.  The boy’s ghostly face grew larger as he knelt down even closer, and the last thing that John saw were his lips pull back to reveal large, white fangs.

They feasted.

Eli opened up the wound a little more and they both bent to the task, cheek to cheek, her on one side, him on the other.  He could feel her jaw and tongue working, right next to him, as they hungrily gulped down the blood; the sounds they made were the very essence of unrestrained feeding.  The man had long since stopped moving when they sensed the slackening flow, and without saying a word they worked harder to get what little was left.

At last there was no more.  Oskar could tell that the thing inside him was satiated and happy.  Its demands at last met, it cried out with pleasure; and as its host, he, too, felt contented with the abatement of its hunger.

Both of them pulled their mouths away from the dead man’s neck at the same time.  And as they looked up and into each other’s eyes in the moonlight, Oskar felt a powerful love for Eli.  He loved her because she had the strength of will to do what he could not: to kill.  To kill swiftly and without hestitation; to provide for his most basic needs, and thereby ensure that he could live.  All of the things that she had been telling him back at their apartment, about predators and the cycle of life, suddenly fell into place, made sense in a very real and concrete way as they crouched face to face over the cooling body. 

Eli would never have thought of it, but Oskar suddenly realized that she was like the goddess Artemis that he had read about in school.  Apollo’s twin; a beautiful and powerful huntress; reigning over the twilit forest with a silver bow to take down stags, boars—even men and women.  And he felt this realization so keenly that it swept away the anxiety, reluctance and remorse that he had felt just seconds before, as he had capitulated to participate in their feeding.  At this moment, in this being he knew as Eli, morality had no meaning.

His heart surged in his chest as his love for her seemed to come alive within him.  It was a love as raw, unrefined, and primordial as the forest around them.  In that moment Eli seemed to be Beauty itself: her slender, muscular body; her face, now flush with color; her eyes—dark, sparkling, and mysterious; her jet-black hair, framing her beautiful features in tangled and careless locks blowing in the wind.  Her blood-stained lips only added to her wild and unrestrained beauty, and coupled with his knowledge of her sexlessness and great strength, Oskar thought of her as otherworldly in the extreme.

He was suddenly in awe of her.  She could tell from his blank gaze and half-open mouth that something was going on inside of him.  Did she realize what it was?  He felt an overpowering and compulsive urge to kiss her, and thereby manifest his singing heart. 

It was almost an act of worship.

Their bloody lips met.  He reveled in the taste of her mouth upon his.  A floodgate opened inside his mind and a single thought poured out like a tidal wave, sweeping into her: 

You are everything to me: my life is yours.

He embraced her and began pushing her backwards as they kissed.  She could not remember him ever having behaved so forcefully, and she grasped that he was in the throes of some kind of intense yearning for her.  She allowed him to lower her to the ground, and raised her hands to caress his face.  But—

“Oskar . . . Oskar . . . .”

She didn’t want to, but as  gently as she could, she pulled his head away, breaking their kiss.  He made a soft noise, clearly frustrated, as he continued to run his hands through her hair.  “Oskar, we need to--”

She rolled slightly and turned her attention to the body.  “Wait, Oskar.  Wait.”

“What?  What’s wrong?”

“Can’t let this go, Oskar.  Never.”  She grasped the man’s head firmly, then twisted it violently one full rotation.  There was a revolting tearing, popping sound as the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the man’s neck gave way.

Oskar watched with an expression of profound disgust.  The diversion of their attention to this horrific task broke the spell over him.  The burning in his heart fled, and once again he felt confused and uncertain.  And as she turned back to him and gently took his hand, Eli was now just . . . Eli, a little kid; his best and only friend.

She looked at him with loving concern.  “What was that all about, Oskar?”

He now felt embarrassed at his unrestrained outpouring of emotion, and blushed.  He was at a loss for words.  How could he explain how he had felt, how he had seen her?  “I . . . I . . . well, for a minute there, you just seemed so—”  He wanted to say “beautiful,” but was that the right word?  “Terrifyingly beautiful”?  The sense that he wanted to give himself to her, to worship that amoral and god-like thing he’d seen in her, briefly rose again like an echo, making him feel weak and full of desire at the same time.  Then it vanished, leaving his mind to dwell on hard reality; leaving him in a place where night was night, and day was day.

He paused, swallowed, and looked at her. “I don’t know, Eli.  I just . . . I don’t know about any of this.  It’s all so—so hard for me to deal with.  It’s like I don’t even really know who, or what, I am anymore.”  He motioned to the man’s body as he continued.  “I mean, look at what we just did to this guy.  I saw the whole thing from the tree where you told me to hide.”  He nodded his head toward the branch of a large tree at the edge of the clearing.  “He was worried.  He was . . . my God, Eli, he was trying to help you.  And we just . . . .”  Again he paused, then looked back into her eyes.  “Is there a right or wrong any more, Eli?  With you?  With this . . . life?

“Come here.”  Her words were soft and gentle.  She drew him to her; held him closely in her arms.  She sighed and spoke tenderly in his ear.  “Oh, Oskar; Oskar.  I never wanted this for you.  Never wanted you to experience the things you’re going through right now.  I know I asked you that one time if you wanted to be like me, but you were right to say no.  I knew how bad it was when I asked you, but the selfish part of me just wanted to have you with me forever.  To never lose you.”

She loosened her hug so that she could look at him face to face.  “This is really, really hard to tell you, Oskar—because I know that I’m the one who’s responsible for what’s happened to you.  But there’s only one way out of our situation.  Only one way to avoid this.”  She gestured at the body lying next to them.  “Do you know what that is?”

His lip trembled and he looked down; then he nodded slowly.

“Yes.”  Her voice began to waver as she continued.  “That’s right—death is the only escape for us.  There is no other way.”  She looked away, stony-faced, and wiped her eyes.  “And I’m . . . so sorry—so very, very sorry, that I’m talking to you about killing yourself when you’re . . . ” she sobbed and began to cry in earnest—“barely 13 years old.  So if you can’t bear to do this kind of thing, then maybe that’s what we ought to do right now.  Because it’s not going to get any better.”

She looked away, sat down on the grass, put her face into her hands and continued to cry.  And Oskar began to cry too, but alone; by himself.

After a little while he stopped crying and looked up at her, his eyes red and wet.  He sniffed, wiped his nose, and said, “Are you sure there’s no other way, Eli?  I mean, there’s this great big whole world out there, and it can’t find a place for the two of us?”  She began to shake her head, but he continued.  “People need blood every day, Eli.  For surgeries, in emergency rooms—there must be gallons of it out there.  The hospitals are probably full of it.  Why can’t we--”

“It has to be fresh, Oskar.  From a living person.  Otherwise, it’ll just make you sick—trust me, I know.  I’ve been through it before.  I tried everything I could think of to avoid all of this.  But there is no other way.”

“But what if he had just let us have a little?  Would that have been so bad?  Maybe we could’ve convinced him--”

She looked at him as if he’d just announced that the world was flat.  “Oskar, come on.  Do you realize the risks that we’d be taking if we did that all the time?  Sure, they’d cooperate as long as they thought they’d die if they didn’t, but as soon as we let them go, what would happen?  They’d run to the police and report us.  They’d know what we looked like and everything.  Do you really think there’s someone out there who’d just be happy to give us a few liters of blood every week or so?  Even if it was just for money, no one could afford to lose that much blood and live.”

“Yes.  Yes, I suppose you’re right.  It’d be almost impossible to find someone that generous, that open-minded, and they’d need to give more than they could afford to lose.  But maybe if we had like a little . . . like a little club of people to help us, that would be . . . maybe . . . .”  He pictured a circle of grown-ups in a basement somewhere sitting on chairs, their arms extended, as he and Eli went from one to the next, lapping at their arms.  The image was ridiculous.

“Yeah, right.  Come on, Oskar.  Get real.”

“Well, what if we found a doctor somewhere to help us?  Maybe there’s a blood doctor in Stockholm who could give us what we need, if we agreed to let him study us.”

“They wouldn’t let us in the front door, Oskar.  What are you going to do—walk in and say, ‘Hi, I’m a vampire, I need to see doctor so-and-so for my blood problem?’  They’d think you were crazy.  Or playing some kind of sick joke.”

“But couldn’t we just show them?  Pop out our teeth?  Show them our hands?  Fly around?  That would convince them.”

“Oskar, do you know what would happen once news about us got out?   Have you thought about that?  The police would become very interested, believe me.  I’m sure there’s some very intelligent men out there right now, Oskar, trying to track me down.  No doctor is going to have the power to stop them from arresting me.  Or us.  Plus, there could be even worse things.”

“Worse than being arrested for murder?  Like what?”

“Oskar—have you ever thought how many people might want to be like us?”

“Like us?  To have to do this sort of thing?  Who’d want that?”

Eli snorted.  “Trust me, Oskar—some people would see this as a small price to pay for the ability to live forever.  Or to fly and change shape.  They’d take us away to some . . . some hospital or some government center, and lock us up forever so they could study us.  Take away our blood and experiment with it.  Inject it into other people to see what would happen.  Tie us to a table and cut us open to see what’s so different about us.  We’d be like Guinea pigs.  And they’d never let us go, you can believe me on that.”

“So there’s really no way out, is what you’re saying.”

“That’s the way I see it.”

Oskar was quiet for a long time, listening to the wind blow and staring at the body of John Christensen.  Then he said quietly, “I want to do something nice for someone.  Maybe for this guy’s family, if he has one.  Or if not, then someone else.  Some little thing.

“And I want to go see this castle.  The place where this guy lived who infected you.  Because I want answers.  I want to know . . . how this all started.  So maybe then I’ll know what I am.  And then I can figure out how to deal with all of this.  Maybe—who knows.  Maybe there’s some way to undo it.  A secret way, hidden somewhere, waiting for us to find it.”

Eli was tempted to laugh, to ridicule him for his ideas.  But then she remembered who had turned him into a vampire, and stopped.  She owed him so much.  Owed him everything.  And if these were things that he wanted to do, then she wouldn’t disagree, even if she thought them foolish—and scary.

“All right, Oskar.  Let’s take care of this guy’s body, then, and find his camp.”

More next week

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