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The Hunters

Fan Fiction by Adam Smith (USA)

Chapter 11


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Chapter XI

“So, you’re willing to have the echo, huh?”  Dr. Goodwin strode into the conference room, a rolled sheaf of papers sticking out of one pocket of his doctor’s coat, a freshly lit cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

He smiled, pumped Jed’s hand and gave him a pat on the back. “Howya doing, Jed?--no need to get up.  You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?”  Without waiting for an answer he stepped over to Eli, who had turned away from the window toward him, and shook his hand, too.  “Good to see you, kid.”

Without further ado he grabbed an empty cup off the credenza and sat down at the end of the table with a sigh.  “Ahh.  Busy, busy day today.  Lotta sick patients.”

Eli came and sat down next to Jed.  Tom quickly caught the somber mood, and his smile faded.

“So where’s the dynamic duo?  Did Bill get paged to see another patient?”

Jed spoke.  “No, Bill wasn’t paged.  We’re not really sure where they are.  He got upset about something Eli told him about himself.  And I reckon you ought to hear it too, doc.”

“Okay.  Well, I’m all ears.”

Eli opened his mouth to speak, but then looked at Jed, his eyes pleading.

“I’ll explain, Eli.”  Jed unbuttoned his shirt sleeve and rolled it up to his bicep.  Then he pulled the band-aid off and thrust his arm across the table toward Dr. Goodwin.  “You see this here cut?”

Tom leaned forward and peered over the top of his glasses at the crook of Jed’s arm; then he raised his eyebrows and looked at Jed. “Yes?”

“I let Eli drink about a liter of my blood last night.”

Tom coughed and took the cigarette out of his mouth.  “Say that again?”

“Eli needs human blood to live.  That’s the only thing he can eat.  I’m sorry we didn’t make that clear from the start.”

Tom cleared his throat and sat back in his chair.  When he had gotten himself under control, he spoke matter-of-factly.  “You’re not pulling my leg, are you.”

Eli’s eyes were lowered, and his voice was soft and quiet.  “No, we’re not.”

Tom began to laugh heartily and looked up at the ceiling.   Then he pushed his glasses up, took a long, ragged drag, and tipped a large piece of ash into his cup.  “So you’re a vampire.”

Eli looked at Jed.  “I hate that.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it.  I reckon you’re going to hear it quite a few times before all is said and done.”

“How could I be so blind?”  He looked once again at Eli.  “So that’s what got Bill upset?”

“Yeah.  He got really scared of me and ran out.”

“And Dave went after him to calm him down; is that it?”

“Yes.”

“All right.  Well, don’t worry.  They’ll be back in a few.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.  So--give me the story.”

“Like Jed said, I need human blood to live.”

Tom shook his head.  “You’re full of surprises, aren't you?”

“I wish I wasn’t.”

“Well, it shouldn’t be a problem.  How much, and how often?”

Eli frowned.  “I’ve never really measured it.  But I need it about once a week.”

“We’ll have to work some kinda deal with the hospital folks who manage the blood supply here.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Knock-knock.”  Dave’s voice, behind the door as he began to open it.  His head appeared in the jamb.  “Mind if we come in?”

Jed and Eli turned to look as Tom motioned with his hand.  “Dave, Bill—get in here, will you?  We need to discuss some things.”

The two physicians entered the room and sat down.  Bill closed the door and looked at Tom.  “How’d you know I was out there?”

Tom laughed softly.  “Because I know you, Bill.  And I know you’re too good a doctor to abandon your patients.

“Now, Jed and Eli have given me the story.  We’re discussing what to do about the blood issue.  By the way, are you fellas aware that Jed donated his own to Eli?”

“I didn’t tell them that.  I was fixin’ too, but . . . .”

Dave frowned.  “How’d you do that?”

Jed showed them his arm.  “Alcohol and a razor.  That’s about it.”

“How was it . . . taken out?”

Jed glanced at Eli, who again looked down at the table.  Jed shrugged.  “He just . . . licked it right off my arm, I guess you could say.  Pulled out what he needed.”

“And you didn’t feel anything afterwards?”

Eli sighed.  “He’s not infected.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but you know.  The thought does occur.”

“I know.”

Tom spoke.  “Okay.  So we were talking about a blood supply for Eli.  Why can’t we just say he needs regular transfusions?”

“That kind of blood makes me sick.”

“Kind of blood.  But it’s no different from regular blood.  Just that it’s been taken out and cooled, is all.  It’s whole blood.”

“I don’t know why, but I’m telling you, I’ve tried that already.  I’ve tried everything I know.  Animals.  Blood stolen from hospitals.  Starving myself.  None of it works.  That blood will just make me sick.  It’s a shitty rule, but I’m stuck with it.”

Bill spoke.  “So what you’re saying is, you need to get it from a living person.  Like Jed, here.”

“Yes.  But finding someone like Jed has been almost impossible.”

Dave leaned back in his chair.  “Now I’m beginning to understand why you ran away to that forest you mentioned.”

“Tiveden.”

“Yeah.”

Dave nodded.  “Like you said—it’s a curse.”

Eli looked him in the eye.  “You have no idea.”

“Eli, I don’t think you need to tell us anything about your past that you don’t want to.  Frankly, I’m thinking it might be better if you don’t.  But as doctors, we have obligations not only to you, but to others around here.  The hospital staff—the nurses, the technicians—and to other patients, too.  So we do need to know more about your need for blood.”

“What do you want to know?  I get hungry.  And then . . . things happen.”

Bill spoke.  “What sort of things?”

“I kill.”

Dave’s stomach tightened into a sickening knot.  He glanced at Tom, who had just taken a lungful of smoke; slowly he exhaled, the puff jetting out the side of his mouth.  Bill, to his right, looked pasty again.  He had to ask the question, because looking at Eli, who appeared harmless, he could not understand it.

“How do you kill?”

“Do you really want to know all of this?  I don’t want to tell you.”  Eli looked once again to Jed for support.

“Eli, if they feel it’s necessary, I . . . I think maybe you should.”

Eli thought for a moment, then stood.  “I don’t want to.”  He nodded toward Bill.  “He’ll just get scared again, and run out.  You’ll all get scared and leave.  And then I’ll be alone again.”

Tom extinguished his cigarette, then swallowed.  “No—no, we won’t, Eli.  I promise.”  He looked around the room.  “We won’t do that, will we, gentlemen?”

Bill and Dave both shook their heads, but only Dave answered.  “No.”

A look of resignation passed over Eli’s face.  Then he stepped behind Jed’s chair, leaned in to his ear and spoke softly.  “I don’t want you to see me.”

Jed looked back.  “Okay.  So . . .”

“Do you trust me?”

Jed hesitated only a fraction of a second.  “Yes, I do.”

“I won’t hurt you.  I promise.”

“Okay.”

Jed tried to relax.  He heard the soft sounds of Eli kicking her shoes off; then there was nothing.  He felt a terrible urge to turn his head and look, but didn’t.  He was too scared.  He saw the doctors’ eyes widen as they stiffened in their chairs, and looked down at the table lest their fear overcome him.

Clawed hands, light gray in color, curled themselves around his torso; one over his right shoulder, the other under his left arm.  Then he was hoisted bodily out of his chair and lifted to the ceiling.  The power in the arms was shocking, and his gut was compressed up into his lungs, making it very difficult to breathe.

Now he could not help but stare at their pale, upturned faces, their bodies frozen solid in their chairs.  Bill gasped and Dave grabbed his forearm.  Tom’s mouth was hanging wide open.

He felt Eli’s breath on the left side of his neck.  It grew more intense as his lips neared Jed’s flesh.  Then he felt the barest points of something sharp, dimpling his skin.  He wanted to thrash and squirm, to get away, but didn’t dare.  He didn’t move a muscle.  For a brief moment, nothing happened.  Then the points were gone, and Eli slowly lowered him into his chair.  Jed felt something move on his chest, and when he looked down, saw only Eli’s hands, withdrawing from him.

Then he felt a kiss.

Dr. Andrews stood on wobbly legs, his face a wooden mask of shock and fear.  “I’m sorry.”  He looked at Eli and Jed.  “I’m . . . terribly sorry.  I can’t stay here.”  With jerky footsteps he moved quickly to the door.  Dave got up.  “Bill . . . don’t.”

He paused with his hand on the doorknob; turned and looked at Dave.  “I’m sorry, Dave.  I can’t handle this.  I just can’t.”

Dave spoke, trying without success to keep his voice under control.  “It’s all right, Bill--I’ll call you later at home.  Okay?”

Bill nodded as he stepped into the hall, but did not look back.  He was incapable of looking at Eli, or of remaining in the room another moment.  The door closed and he was gone.  Dave sighed heavily, and returned to his chair. 

There was a snap of Tom’s lighter as he lit another cigarette with a shaking hand.  “Shit.”

Eli had resumed her seat next to Jed.  “I warned you.  Both of you can leave, too, if you want.  I know how I look.”

Dave ran a sweaty hand over his face.  “No.  No, I asked for it, and you showed me.”

Tom settled back in his chair, some of the stiffness leaving him.  “I think I need to change my underwear.”

Dave laughed.  “Me, too.”

Jed chuckled.  “You?  What about me?  I didn’t see it, but . . .”  Then he stopped and turned in his chair to Eli.  “Sorry, Eli.  I know you don’t want to be that way.”  He wanted to ruffle his hair and give him a hug, but somehow couldn’t just yet.  “Don’t worry.  Maybe Bill just needs some time away from all of this.  Tom and Dave will talk to him—he’ll be okay.”

Eli slumped forward onto the table and lowered his head to his arm, then tapped his fingers despondently on the laminated surface.  “No, he won’t.  He’s gone.”

“Eli, I’m sorry.  I knew how anxious Bill was, but I thought he’d pulled himself together.  I was wrong.  We should’ve figured out another way to do that.”

“I knew all of this would come out, sooner or later.  And that someone would want to see how it looks.”

“How did you do that—go up in the air like that?”

Eli glanced up at Dave.  “I just think it.  It’s like . . . reaching out to grab an apple off a tree.  You just do it.”

“And your hands—do they work the same way?”

“Yes, but that hurts a little.  Well, it doesn’t actually hurt, but it’s like . . . pins and needles.”

“A tingling sensation?”

“Yes.  In my hands as they change.”

“Can you change any other part of your body besides what you’ve shown us?”

“No.”

Tom spoke.  “Given what Jed has shown us, we know that you don’t actually have to hurt anyone, as long as the person is willing to donate.  Is that true?”

“Yes.”

“So what’s the longest that the blood can be outside someone before it becomes harmful?”

“An hour or so at most.”

“And what happens if you try to drink blood that’s older than that?”

“It’s like if I put a rotting piece of fruit in front of you and told you to eat it.  The smell, the taste, the way it looks—everything about it would tell you not to—and maybe make you gag and spit it out when you did it.  It’s the same thing.  Your body revolts.”

“Okay.  But it doesn’t have to be literally flowing out of someone’s veins for you to consume it, right?”

“Right.”

“Have you ever had a transfusion?”

“Meaning that the blood goes directly into my veins, instead of into my stomach.”

“Yes.”

“Yes, I have.  But that doesn’t make the hunger go away.”

“So that has been no help at all, is that what you’re saying?”

“Right.  I have to swallow it.”

Tom gave Dave a puzzled look.  “Where does all the blood go?  That’s what I don’t understand.  There’s no output, so what’s his body doing to it?”

“I don’t know.  Unless he’s just turning it straight into energy, with no waste products.  But that’s almost unheard of.” Suddenly a thought occurred to him—the pyloric stenosis.

“Eli, do you ever throw up after you’ve eaten?”

“It’s not really like throw-up.  I just . . .” he turned in embarrassment to stare out the window.  “I just cough up this gray stuff once in a while.  It’s like . . . well, I can’t describe it.  But there’s never very much.”

Tom spoke.  “The solution to Eli’s problem is obvious to me.”

Suddenly he had everyone’s attention—especially Eli’s.  “What’s that?”

“You just need a donor who’s willing to undergo regular transfusions of blood to replenish his or her volume.  From a technical standpoint, that’s not hard to do.  We could set up the donor with ports like we do for diabetics who need dialysis every week.  Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no risks.  Anyone getting regular transfusions of other people’s blood is always taking a chance that the donated blood might carry something bad—hepatitis, HIV, you name it.  But still, it would avoid you having to injure someone to get what you need.”

Jed spoke.  “Well, hell.  I’d be happy to do that for Eli.  How soon can we start?”

“Hold your horses.  There are several things to think about.”  He looked to Dave for support.  “First, there has to be a medical justification for giving you a transfusion.  Anemia is a common reason, and you’re probably anemic right now, depending on how much Eli took.  That’ll work for the moment, I suppose, and we shouldn’t have to involve another specialist if we’re just going to do everything through a peripheral IV.  But if we decide to go with a port for the long haul, then we will need a surgeon.  And in that case, some medical justification will be needed, because he or she’ll want to know why this device needs to be implanted.”

Tom removed his glasses and gestured with them as he continued.  “Now, let me just say one thing right now.  I’ve never falsified a medical record, and I’m not about to start.  I’m rather fond of my medical license, and I’m too old and fat to start digging ditches for a second career.  Ordering a few transfusions over the short term is one thing.  But anemia is a medical diagnosis, and any doctor treating such a patient would be expected to determine why the patient has it, especially if it’s chronic.  And we’ll all know that the reason isn’t because Jed can’t make red blood cells, or because he’s got cancer, or because of some other reason.  So, when we reach that point—and frankly, it’s not too far off—I’m going to have to chart why we really need the blood.  By that I mean, I’m going to have to put down that Jed’s anemic because he’s donating his blood to another patient.  And then we’ll have to explain why this other person needs blood.”

Eli stared at him with obvious concern.  “So you’re going to write down that I’m a vampire?”

“No, I’m not.  Being a vampire is obviously not a medical diagnosis.  You won’t find it in a medical textbook, or Medicare DRG code book.  But I will make an accurate record of our examinations, our findings, and the test results.  I’ve done that already, and I’ll continue to do so.  And when it’s established that you require human blood to live, I’ll include that, too.”

Jed spoke.  “Isn’t it clear already?  I told you what we did.”

Dave responded.  “Actually, no, Jed--it hasn’t been confirmed.  The history you’ve provided will need to be validated by observation when the time comes.”

“So, what . . . you’re just going to wait until Eli here gets hungry again, and then—”

“And then we will provide some of your blood to him, and see if he does, indeed, consume it.”

“Here’s the thing, though, you two,” Tom added.  “No one wants to ‘starve’ Eli.  When Eli says he’s feeling hungry, we’ll do it—it’s that simple.  But the point I’m trying to make is, it seems to me a big thing all of us need to consider is just how long we can keep Eli a secret.  And I, for one, think that there’s a lot to be said for honesty being the best policy.”

Eli sat back and crossed his arms.  “So you’re saying we should just tell everyone what I am?”

“That might ultimately be to your benefit.”

“That’s a terrible idea.  I’ll be hunted down like a rabid dog.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  I think much could depend on who you tell, and how the information is conveyed.  Are you a hapless victim of a terrible new disease, actively searching for a cure, or something else?  A medical record that provides a straightforward assessment of your condition and is not misleading in any way would go a long way toward the former, I would say.”

“But  I want you to cure me, so I won’t have to tell everyone what I am.”

Dave took a swig of coffee.  “That’s our goal, too, Eli.  We know that’s what you want, and we’re doing everything we can think of to find a cure.  But now we have this to deal with.  I can’t promise you that we’ll solve your problem in a week, two weeks, or even longer.  And I don’t mean to be critical, but your aversion to hospitals and anesthesia isn’t making our job any easier.  I think you need to think carefully about what Tom said.  Giving Jed ongoing transfusions is an excellent solution to your problem.  But he’s right—we shouldn’t lie to or mislead anyone about what we’re doing.”

“Why would we need a surgeon, anyway?  Can’t you just draw the blood and give it to Jed?”

“Yes, I could.  And that’s probably what we’ll do for the short term.  But if the transfusions are going to happen weekly, it’s not a good idea to keep sticking poor old Jed, here.  We’ll wear out his veins.  I’m exaggerating a bit, but it’s really not the best way to proceed.  So if the search for a cure takes longer than we hope, then getting a port implanted is probably the smart thing to do.  It’ll decrease the risk of infection, and make life for Jed much more bearable.  And neither Tom nor I are trained to do that—we’ll need a surgeon.”

Eli shifted uncomfortably in his chair.  He had known that finding a cure would be very hard, but discussing his problems with a room full of doctors who didn’t necessarily see things as he had anticipated, and being asked to make so many hard choices, was discouraging.  But he was not going to be selfish.

“I don’t want Jed to suffer.  So if it’s necessary, then I guess we should.  And if agreeing to be injected with stuff will speed things up, I’ll do it.  But I don’t want everyone to know what I am.  No way.  It’s too scary.”

“Aww, Eli, I don’t care if it comes out of my arm or some other place.  Look, doc, stick me all you want--it’ll be one less person who’ll have to be brought into this thing.”

Tom sighed and held up his hand.  “Listen, let’s just punt on this whole thing right now.  Eli, when you get to feeling hungry again, let us know and we’ll do it the old-fashioned way.”

“Okay.”

Dave nodded.  “And Eli, at least try to keep an open mind about the disclosure idea.  You never know—it might just work.  After all, you’re a very adorable child.  Except when you’re—you know.  Like that.  And speaking of which, I have a few more questions.”

“Okay.”

“Just how much control do you have over it?”

“Sometimes, a lot.  Other times . . . less.  It depends on how hungry I am.  Or on what’s going on around me.”

“Like . . .”

“Like, if you cut yourself right now and started bleeding.  I would have to get out of here right away.”

“It’s that attractive.”

“Yes.  As I’ve told Jed, it lives inside of me.  It’s there, all the time, even when I’ve just eaten.  I’m never free of it.  Sometimes it’s tied up, and sometimes it’s not.”

“So we need to keep you away from the Emergency Room.”

“Yes.  That would be a good idea.”

“And the operating rooms.”

“Yes.”

“Is anything a trigger besides blood?”

“Fear.  It senses fear and responds.”

“Okay.  Anything else?”

“Sometimes if I get really mad, it can take over.”

“So we’d be best off to keep you well fed and happy.”

Eli managed to smile.  “Yes.  But I don’t really mean it that way.”

Dave smiled back.  “I know.”  Then he grew serious.  “Can I . . . see your teeth again?  I want to see them change.”

“Why?”

Dave glanced at Tom, then shrugged.  “I don’t know—I just do.  I’ve never seen anything like that, and I want to see it again.”

Eli sighed.  “I suppose.”  He turned to Jed.

“Let me guess--you want me to step out.”  Eli nodded.

Jed rose.  “All right.  But come here, first.”

Eli stood and stepped over to him.  “What?”

Jed hugged him and spoke softly.  “Nothing you do is gonna change how I feel about you--I want you to remember that.  I know who you are on the inside.”

“Yes.”  Eli hugged him back.  “It’s just so scary right now.  I’ve never had the courage to do anything like this.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“I know, I know.  I’m trying.”

“I know ya are--and I’m proud of you.  And you know what you’ll always be to me.”

Eli nodded; then they separated.  Jed quietly stepped out and closed the door as the doctors came around the table and pulled up some chairs.  Eli sat down facing both of them.

Dave spoke.  “Are you sure you’re okay with this?  I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.”

Eli looked him in the eye, then Tom.  “I’m not going to tell you there’s no risk--I’d be lying.  Especially if either one of you gets really scared, like I said.”

“If you think you can keep control of things, I think it will help us.  At least, I think for me that knowledge will help me get over the fear.”

Tom cleared his throat.  “Agreed.”

“Okay.”

“Go ahead.”

Eli closed his eyes, slowly opened his mouth, and drew back his upper lip.  Then the enamel on his teeth bulged, expanded, and was transformed into the terrifying teeth of a predator.

Dave and Tom stared, fascinated, at Eli’s mouth.  Dave spoke.  “Damn.  How do you do that?”

Eli replied with his mouth open.  “I justh thinth it.”

“Can I touch?”

“Go aheah.”

Tentatively, Dave reached out and stroked the smooth, enameled surface of one long incisor.  “Sharp as hell.”

Eli closed his mouth a little.  “Can we stop now, please?”

“Sure.  You seen enough, Tom?”

“I saw enough ten minutes ago.”

“Sorry.  I just . . . . “

“It’s all right.”

The Versed had done its work, and now the patient lay in the hospital bed on his left side, quiet and still.  A thin, plastic tube disappeared between his lips, inserted down his esophagus to carry the signals from the compact transducer at its tip that had been positioned to transmit a wedge-shaped beam of high frequency sound waves into the patient’s heart.  To the untrained eye, the grainy, black and gray images that now flickered on the monitor would have been meaningless; black bubbles surrounded by gray.  But to Tom Goodwin, who had been interpreting such images for many years, the pictures were amazing.

A beautiful, perfectly formed heart beat slowly on the screen.  The tricuspid valve fluttered open as the left ventricle expanded, then closed with contraction, forcing blood out to the lungs; the mitral valve opened, allowing the right ventricle to receive blood from the right atrium, then closing so the blood could be ejected out of the heart and into the aorta, and thence to the body.

Yes, the interior chambers of the heart were youthful and pristine--as he was certain all of Eli’s vasculature was.  For, like the rest of him, it was immortal--preserved at the age of twelve for all eternity.

I’m looking at the beating heart of a vampire.  He shook his head, as if to make what he was doing more real.  Not for the first time that night was he glad that no residents were in attendance.  It would have been very difficult to answer their questions--like how someone whose heart beat so slowly could possibly be alive.  Just for starters.

For a moment he wished that his heart looked as good as Eli’s, could somehow have been magically preserved.  Then, surely, he could have avoided the need for a triple bypass four years ago.  And maybe, just maybe, he would not have felt that jolt of pain--that brief, extruciating constriction in his chest--when the eyes of the creature before him had changed and he had lifted a 250-pound man out of his chair like a pillow. 

His mind wandered from the images on the screen as he gave free rein to his musings.  What would happen if Eli were to infect him at his age?  Would his heart return to what it had been when he was a young man in medical school?  When his hair had been dark and he had been 50 pounds lighter?  When smoking had been an occasional thing, not a constant craving?  Or would he just have an immortal, yet diseased, atheriosclerotic ticker with three coronary artery grafts that five years ago had been happily residing in his leg?  An interesting question to answer from a medical standpoint, yes indeed; very interesting.  He could do a case study on himself and publish it in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.  Have a poster presentation with ultrasound pictures of his own heart at the next annual ACC meeting.  And if he got hungry?  Why, he’d just drag one of those arrogant, self-righteous pricks on the editorial review board into some bathroom stall and . . . .

Shit.  He smiled, then wondered if someone would have thought him crazy, had they seen it.  Probably.  Get a grip on yourself, you old fart.  

These were not the things he needed to see.  It was time to look at the pathology.  Feeling a twinge of sadness and unease, he reached over and carefully adjusted the catheter, altering the angle and elevation of the transducer inside the child’s throat.  The beam of sound moved from the base of the heart to the top.  What an amazing tool, the TEE; the images were so much clearer without the breastbone in the way.

The screen changed, and there it was: the tumor.  A silver-grayish mass, sitting above the black circle that was the superior vena cava, and adjacent to another black space that was the right atrium.  Attached to the outside of the heart, and not only to the heart, but also to the spine, its tendril-like projections clearly visible.  He checked the machine and made sure that the study was being captured on tape, then adjusted the transducer slightly to see it better.

Jack Marsden had been right:  it wasn’t just a tumor.  He could see now that the tendrils had a common source: a tube-like structure that looked like a tiny tail coming off the back of the mass, then sprouting branches that plugged themselves into the spinal cord via the neural foramina.  And the mass itself was . . . divided.  Divided into two hemispheres, their surfaces folded and irregular, like—

. . . cortical tissue.

A brain.  A tiny brain.

He felt lightheaded.  Someone could have knocked him over with a feather.

It lives inside of me.  It’s there, all the time . . . I’m never free of it.

Just as he had come to understand that Eli was magical, he suddenly knew that what he was seeing was evil: the dark heart of whatever had infected him.  If it were destroyed, the thing that lived inside Eli would die—he was quite sure of it.  But would it take Eli along with it?

In his mind’s eye an image suddenly appeared:  a young Peter Cushing using a mallet to drive a wooden stake through Lucy’s heart in one of those old Hammer films from the sixties.  Destroying the evil heart of the vampire, and thereby releasing its victim to a final, restful death.  What had he told Harker?  That the woman in the sepulchre was not really Lucy, but only a “shell”?  Believing this transformed the seemingly cruel act into a kindness, a mercy killing.  But there was no way he could look at Eli and believe that he was only a shell.  He had seen the boy’s love for Jed.

“Hello?”  At the crisp, lightly accented voice on the other end of the phone, Dave recalled the face of Dr. Shirazi Mazda, Bill’s roommate.  When had they first been introduced?  After a second or two it came to him--a fundraising dinner downtown, over two years ago.  A very bright and ambitious young neuropsychologist who had moved east from California to take a job in the Visual and Auditory Memory Clinic at NIH.  He had been impeccably dressed that evening in a midnight blue tuxedo, complete with formal waistcoat.  He and Bill had not concealed the fact that they were together.

“Hi.  Dr. Mazda, this is Dr. Dave Cook.  I’m trying to reach Bill.  I’m apologize for calling at this hour, but it’s important.”

“Oh--hi.”  He could tell from the uncertainty in Shirazi’s voice that he did not remember him.  And why would he?  Dave Cook, a lowly family practitioner out in the boonies west of Manassas, whose C.V. had no honorary degrees, research grants, international medical society memberships, or peer-reviewed research papers.  The quintessential proletariat clinician.

“No, I’m sorry, he’s not here.  He said he had to see a patient out in . . .”

“Culpeper.”

“Yes.  Culpeper, this evening, and maybe get him into his sleep clinic.”

“Right.  He and I are treating the same person.  He left here a little earlier, and I need to touch base with him about the patient.”

“Did you try his pager?”

“Yes I did.  He didn’t respond.”

“I can give you his cell phone.”

“I have that.  Tried it—no luck.”

“Yes.  Well, I don’t know where he is.  I haven’t seen him since this morning.”

“All right.  Could you take a message and have him call me on my cell as soon as he gets in?  I don’t care how late it is.”

“Yeah, sure.  Does he have your number?”

“I’m sure he does.”

“Okay.  I’ll tell him you called.”

“Thanks—I appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

Dave returned his cell phone to its belt clip.  No Bill.  Where had he gone?

He thought about what Tom had reported to him a few minutes ago; about the results of the TEE.  How would Bill react to the news?  He was still shaken up at how Bill had bolted out of the room after Eli had demonstrated his powers.  He should have anticipated what was coming and intervened, but Tom, with his usual brusqueness, had quickly reassured Eli that they would be fine.  And then the impossible had become reality, right in the middle of Room 402 of good old Culpeper Regional.  And then it had become apparent that they had seriously misjudged Bill.  That wild, panic-stricken look in his eyes just before he’d left . . .

He went down the hall and opened the door to the Heme/Onc waiting area and looked in on Jed.  The poor man was all alone, worn out and asleep in a chair near the corner, his legs splayed out in front of him, a beat up walking cast on one.  One hand lay on the armrest; the other dangled down onto the seat of an adjacent chair.  While Eli was with Tom, they had gotten him registered and had drawn a stat CBC.  When the test had established that his hemoglobin and hematocrit were indeed low, Dave had ordered a transfusion.  Everything had gone smoothly, and afterwards Jed had nodded off in the waiting area while Tom did the echo.

Dave came in and sat down next to Jed, wondering, not for the first time, how he was holding up under all of this.  To be sharing a roof with Eli.  To have fed the child himself by cutting open his arm.  He tried to picture it in his mind, what it must have been like in that dim, candlelit cabin, probably right there at his kitchen table.  Had Eli changed when he’d drank Jed’s blood?  Had those eyes grown feral?  Had his teeth turned sharp?  The guy must’ve been scared out of his mind . . . yet here he was tonight, ready and willing to donate even more as soon as Eli said he was hungry.

He frowned and rubbed his eyes.  Had he under-reacted to Eli’s demonstration?   No human being could do those things.  The hands becoming claws was almost as bad as the demonic eyes and teeth.  And the power he must possess . . . to be able to lift Jed straight up in the air like that.  He couldn’t really blame Bill for leaving.  Wouldn’t any sane person flee?  Shouldn’t he be reaching for a cross and holy water right now?  Go down to the echo suite and press a crucifix squarely onto the middle of Eli’s forehead?  Yet, while he had been frightened, the supernatural aspect of the whole thing had not really sunk in.  Eli was a child with a terrible disease; that was the only way he could look at the thing and remain sane.  If they only looked hard enough, they would find a medical reason for all of it. 

Or would they?

His pager went off.  Quickly he pressed the button to silence it before it woke up Jed.  It  was Becky.  He rose and once again stepped out into the hallway, then dialed the callback number.  After exchanging pleasantries, they got down to business.

“Dave, I wanted to let you know that I spoke with Dr. Presad’s fellow a little bit ago.  They’ve managed to make some progress on the skin cell evaluation with dark field microscopy.”

“Okay.  Well, um . . . it’s been awhile since my residency, Becky.  Can you refresh my memory a bit?”

“It’s an alternative technique for viewing microscopic samples that are unstained or alive.  The sample is illuminated by scattered light, not directly.  It’s sort of like how you can see the stars in the daytime when there’s a solar eclipse.”

“Gotcha.”

“They’ve been able to confirm that metabolic activity was, indeed, occurring within the cells after they were removed from Eli.”

“How’d they do that?”

“Well first of all, when they viewed the first sample under a darkfield, there were no damaged cells at the margins.  That’s unusual, because typically some cells are damaged when the sample is prepared.”

“Okay.  So . . .”

“So that suggested that the cells were able to repair themselves.”

He frowned.  “So did the cells divide and make new ones, or just—”

“They don’t know, because they were not able to repeat the process.  The first darkfield imaging was done at about five p.m.  But when  they repeated the study at eight using a new sample, the damaged cells at the margins were present and stayed that way.  And so they’re thinking now that the cells died.”

Dave tried to force his tired brain into gear.   “So you did the punch at what time?”

“A little over 24 hours ago.”

“So if they’re right, the cells lived a little over a day after they were removed.”

“Yes.”

Dave thought for a few moments, then spoke.  “Becky, ask Dr. Presad to mix a sample of the skin with Eli’s blood and then have another look.  Let me know if there’s any indication of metabolic activity.”

“Okay.  So you think that his blood plays a role in keeping his cells alive?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“All right.  I doubt anything will happen, but I’ll tell them.”

“Good.”  He sighed.  “Becky, an awful lot of things have happened here tonight.  Are you available tomorrow to meet?”

“Sure.  I’ve got the usual office schedule in the morning, but I could meet with you after two if you’re going to be at the hospital.”

“Great.  Give me a call when you’re finished seeing your clinic patients, and I’ll meet you over here.”

“Okay.  I’ll talk to you then.  You go home and get some rest.”

“I’m working on it.”

“Good.  ’Night, then.”

“Good night.”

Thursday, December 19, 2002 – 11:42 p.m.

The big Silverado slipped a little in the slush as they pulled out of the hospital lot and onto Sunset Lane.  Jed corrected into the skid, and the truck obediently straightened out.

He approached the intersection with Madison Road, and seeing that his fuel gauge stood at less than a quarter of a tank, pulled into a Shell station to their right. 

“I need a little gas.  That all right with you?”

“Sure.”

Contrary to his customary practice, he locked the pump handle and climbed back into the cab while the gas filled his tank.  Due to the lateness of the hour, there were only a handful of cars at the station.  With the engine off, it was very quiet and cold.  The sat in silence for a few moments, listening to the tick of the engine and the muted sound of the fuel running in.  Finally he spoke.

“How you feelin?”

“Still a little foggy, I guess.  And my mouth still feels weird.”

“Well, Dr. Goodwin said it shouldn’t last much longer.”

“Yeah.  I’ll be all right.”

Jed paused.  “I  came up with an idea today to deal with our sleeping arrangements.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I’ve been renting a self-storage place out by the airport for years.  It’s not very big ’cause I don’t have much stuff there—just some furniture and things I didn’t get rid of after my last divorce--but it’s big enough for us, and the truck will be off the road.  Plus, there’s a fence around it, it’s got a gate, it’s heated, there ain’t no windows, and we can come and go anytime we want.  I never thought I’d ever sleep there, but you know . . . we could probably get away with it for awhile.”

“I don’t want to make you do that, Jed.  I thought we agreed I’d just go out in the woods.”

“I don’t mind, Eli.  And I’d feel better, being with you.”

“It’s not necessary.”

“I know it’s not, but I just—I just don’t want to be apart from you right now.”

Eli sighed and was silent for a long time.  He knew that Jed would be upset with him if he refused.  And did he really want to be away from Jed?  At last, he relented.  “Okay.”

“Super.”

Jed used a plastic card in his wallet to open the chain-link gate to the facility.  It rattled back in its track and Jed motored on in, turned right, and proceeded down a driveway fronting a long, low building, passing a series of doors before reaching the end and turning left.  They went around the end of the building and approached another just like it.  Jed parked in the back along the fence, and then got some sleeping bags, a lantern, and some canvas sacks out of the back.

“This way.”  They went to a brown metal door that was guarded by a five-gallon plastic bucket filled with concrete.  Jed nodded to it as he looked for his key.  “Nice doorstop, huh?  Functional and cheap.”  Eli smiled wanly.

The door opened onto a wide hallway.  It had a bare, concrete floor and corrugated steel walls lined with garage doors. 

“Smaller rooms are on the inside.”  Jed pulled a flashlight out of his bag and turned it on once the door was closed behind them.  They went down the hall, turned left, and stopped at the first garage door on the right.  The number 206 was painted in white on the blue door.  “Here we are.”  He unlocked a padlock and pulled the door up with a clatter. 

Once they were inside and the door was shut behind them, he asked Eli to hold the flashlight while he got the lantern lit.  Then he pulled the biggest screwdriver Eli had ever seen out of one of the bags and jammed it through a hole in the track near the bottom, preventing the wheel on the door from moving up.  “Ain’t no other way to lock it from the inside.”

After a few minutes they had set up a makeshift camp in the ten by 15-foot room.  Jed moved a set of cherry dining room chairs aside and pulled the bed out of a sleeper sofa, upon which they put their blankets, sleeping bags and pillows.  Then Jed dragged one of the chairs over next to the sofa and placed the lantern on it.  Eli climbed into his sleeping bag and watched Jed as he sat on the edge of the pull-out bed and removed his boot.  When Jed had finished, he opened the biggest of the three bags he’d brought and pulled out Eli’s backpack.

“Thought you might want this.”

Eli’s eyes brightened.  “Thanks!  My bunny and puzzles.”

“Yup.  Here’s my cards, too, and of course, Thoreau.  And an extra flashlight for you, just in case you need something to read by.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“You’re welcome.  Now, one other thing.”  He reached in to the bottom of the bag and pulled out a large, black pistol.

“This here’s my M1911.  I bought it back in ’71 when I returned from Vietnam.  I just wanted to let you know that I brought it along.”

Eli frowned and put down Walden.  “Is it loaded?”

Jed slid a clip into the bottom of the handle.  “It is now.  But it won’t fire unless you pull the slide back and chamber a round.  Not that you need to worry about that, but—you know.”

“I don’t like it.”

Jed shrugged, then put it on the chair next to the lantern.  “Probably be so much dead weight.”

He put the pistol on the chair beside the lantern and turned the wick down so that the light was almost extinguished.  Then he unzipped his sleeping bag, slid in, and rolled onto his back as Eli put the things Jed had given him into his backpack and placed it on the floor next to the couch.  Then he pulled his bunny out and clutched it in his arms beneath the cover of his sleeping bag.

Jed sighed.  “Ah, man.  I’m beat.” 

They were quiet for a time, and in the silence they heard the snow softly falling on the steel roof above their heads.  Then the gentle sound was obscured by the noise of the building’s heater kicking in.

Jed turned and looked at Eli in the deep shadows of the gloomy little room.  “So what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About everything.”

“About what Dr. Goodwin said?”

“Yeah.”

He shrugged.  “It just confirms what I already knew.  I’ve always known it lives there.”

Jed grunted.  “But you didn’t know it looked like that, did you.”

“No.”

“Well, maybe they can figure out a way to cut the damn thing out.”

Eli nodded.  “Yes.  Then maybe I could be free of it.”

“That’ll be a major undertaking—you know that, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we’ll just haveta follow their lead on what to do.  It could be like the blind leading the blind, but they’re the doctors.”

“They don’t know what to do about me, Jed.”

“Maybe not yet, but don’t get impatient—they’ve only had a few days.  And I think you owe Dr. Goodwin a big thank-you for coming up with a way to keep you fed, don’t you?”

“Yes.  His was the best plan I’ve ever heard.”

“There you go.  So don’t get discouraged.”

“I’m trying not to.”

“Good.  And I know you’re worried about Bill, but don’t.  He’ll get his act together.”

“I’m not sure about that; he was really scared.  And so was Tom, although he tried to hide it.  Dave seemed the least scared of the three.”

“Dr. Cook’s a good guy.  He’s got his head on straight.  There’s alot to be said for that.”

“Yes.”

They were quiet for a time.  The heater cut off and the sound of the snow returned, broken by occasional gusts of wind.

“Eli.”

“Yes?”

“Just how bad was it?”

“Was what?”

“The worst thing you’ve ever had to do after you were bitten.”

Eli sighed.  “You don’t really want to know that, Jed.  And it would be hard for me to come up with one particular thing out of all the bad stuff.”

“I can handle it.  And I do want to know.”

“Why?”  Jed could hear the growing anxiety in Eli’s voice.

“Haven’t you ever thought that it might help you?  To talk about it?”

“No.  Have you?”

Jed paused.  “What do you mean?”

“Your secret.  The thing you hide from me.  And from yourself.”

Jed was quiet for what seemed like a long time.  Then he chuckled softly.  “You’re damn saavy for a 12-year-old, you know that?”

Eli did not reply; just continued to look steadily at him.  At last he sighed.  “All right—you got me.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I suppose.  But let me just say, if you really don’t want to tell me, then don’t.  I don’t want this to be something that will just cause pain without a purpose.”

Eli slid over closer to Jed.  “I don’t want to show you.  You’ll probably leave me if I do.”

“No.  No, I won’t.  I promise.”

“I’m afraid about this.”

“Me too.”  Without thinking, Jed reached over, found Eli’s hand, and took it into his.  “But I want to know you, Eli.  As much as you’ll show me, I want to know.  And I do think that if you tell me, it could help you.”

Eli looked down briefly; then squeezed his hand.  “All right.  But you go first.”

“Okay.”

Jed turned back over to stare at the ceiling; it was easier when he was not looking at Eli’s face.  “I told you a few days after you woke up that I was in home construction for years and years, and eventually I bought out my partner’s share of the business.  That was back in 1984.  Problem was that I didn’t have what he had when it came to managing the business or marketing, ’cause my job had always been project manager.  I hired someone to help me with the marketing, and we had a part-time gal helpin with the bookkeeping, but it was getting harder to compete on jobs because more and more often we were bidding against contractors who were using illegals for labor.”

“I don’t understand the last part.”

“Alot of contractors get into home construction using illegal aliens.  You know, people who’ll work for cheap, and won’t complain if  they don’t make minimum wage, don’t have worker’s comp, or don’t get other benefits.  We had always refused to do that, so these guys didn’t have to pay their workers as well as I did, and their overhead was lower.  So more and more often, I was getting underbid on jobs. 

“This kind of thing goes on a lot in home construction—contractors not lookin’ too hard at who they hire--a wink and a nod, that sort of thing.  And as for the homeowners, while some of them might think using illegals is wrong, it’s easy to take the moral high ground when it doesn’t cost you anything, but it’s a different story when it’s your own money.  Alot of people are lookin to save any way they can.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“So anyway, my revenue started droppin’ off.  I just wasn’t gettin the contracts like we’d been a few years earlier.  And so I started looking for ways to lower my overhead.  Cutting benefits, changing suppliers.  Christy was getting unhappy that my income was down.  So it was becoming a bad situation, all the way around.  And the more this went on, the more I started thinkin that if I couldn’t beat ’em, I’d join ’em.”

“Meaning . . .”

“Meaning that I started letting my more experienced people go.  Couldn’t afford to pay them.  And I started hiring guys who spoke very little English, if you know what I mean.  And I began cutting corners on projects.”

Eli nodded.

“So in May 1986 I got hired to build a deck on the back of a townhome in P.G. County.  Now, when you put a deck on a house, there are certain construction standards you gotta follow.  For safety, you know.  And that includes how you’re supposed to attach the deck to the side of the house if it’s not going to be a free-standing deck.  Which this one wasn’t.  The deck we built was attached with the correct hardware, but when we spec’ed the job we didn’t check the band board under the siding carefully.”

“We?”

He sighed.  “Me.  I didn’t.”

“Okay.”

“Well, this was an older home.  And it had suffered water damage at one time—they thought later there’d been an ice dam years before that’d caused water to run down the wall under the siding.  So that band board was rotten.”

“You knew it was rotten?”

He was quiet for a time; then he nodded.  “I suspected it might be.  I saw a little, and then didn’t look further.  Because I didn’t want to include the cost of repairing it in my contract.  We would’ve had to remove a lot of the siding.  And I was afraid I wouldn’t get the job.”

“So you built it, and then what?”

“Well, it passed inspection.  And the folks who owned the house put a hot tub on it.  They were an older couple, close to retirement.  Then about a year later, the guy’s wife had a stroke.  He sold it to a young family, and they retired to Florida.  The people who bought it were very nice.  The husband worked for the State Department, and they had two kids.  I didn’t know about any of this, of course.  I didn’t hear nothin more about it until it was on the news.”

“It fell down.”

“Yeah, it collapsed—right square in the middle of a birthday party they were throwin for their eight-year-old daughter.  There was 27 people on the deck at the time—mostly moms with their kids.  A bunch of them folks were hurt, and a toddler who was playin in the sandbox they’d put under the deck was killed.  A little boy--his mother had brought him along so she and his older sister could come to the party, you know.  The thing came right off the wall.  Because the soil wasn’t so good either, you see.”

“The soil?”

“Yeah.  It was too wet.  Unstable.”

“How could you’ve built it, then?”

“Oh, you can pour concrete into just about anything.  And we paid a soil engineer to test it and do a report, approving the soil.  Paid him quite a bit, in fact.”

“What do you mean?”

“I paid him to pass the footings.  Because we’d already bought the lumber and dug the holes when that problem cropped up.  And I’d heard from a friend that he’d take a bribe.”

Eli frowned.  “Did he get in trouble, too?”

“Everyone did.  The county inspector, the soil guy, me.  Even the folks who’d retired to Florida were sued.  I lost my Maryland contractor’s license.  Later, Virginia and D.C. reciprocated and yanked my licenses, too.  There were lawsuits; I had to file bankruptcy.  Christy divorced me.  And that was all she wrote.”

“How did you keep the mountain?”

“We had set the business up as a corporation, and I was always pretty careful to keep it running that way.  So there weren’t no personal liability back on me, ’cept for the fines I had to pay and a line of credit for the business that I’d guaranteed.  Of course, I went out of business.”

“Did you ever say you were sorry?  To the family?”

“After everything was over, I wrote letters to the owners, and to the mother whose son had died.  She was a divorced mom, working to take care of her two kids.  Her boy’s name was Ryan Nicholson—two years old.  But I never heard anything back.”

“So after all that, you came out here to your cabin.”

“Yeah.  Christy got our house in the divorce settlement.”

“Did moving out here help you?  To get over everything?”

“Oh, I guess you could say that.  I’d told God how sorry I was long before that, but of course, that wasn’t going to bring that little boy back.  And I just felt like I needed to retreat, to hide away from everyone--from society.  Because of the guilt, you know.  I didn’t want to show my face in public.

“So, yes, I think living out here has helped me get back to the person I’m supposed to be.  It’s certainly made me more honest about myself.  ’Cause maybe it’s only when you’ve lost everything that you really discover what kind of a person you are.  And when I’ve felt lonely or sad, I’ve just viewed it as a kind of self-imposed purgatory.  And I wonder why God chose to let me live, and allowed that little boy Ryan to die.  I know we’re not supposed to question His judgments, but I can’t help but wonder.  And now, I’m beginning to think maybe it was because of you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if that deck hadn’t collapsed, and my business hadn’t dried up and blown away, I never woulda come out to the cabin to live like I did.  Oh, that’s not to say I wouldn’t have been out from time to time to hunt’n so forth, but maybe if that’d been the case, I never would’ve found you.  And you would’ve just gone on to somewhere else.”

“So you think God wanted you to find me.”

Jed shrugged.  “Yeah—I think maybe He did.  Because if someone were to ask me whether I’d trade the last ten years of my life for the last 30 days that I’ve spent with you, I’d say no way.  As strange as you are, and as topsy-turvy as everything’s been, I can’t say I’ve been unhappy.  Scared quite a bit, uncertain about what the hell’s goin on alot, but I feel like I’m livin’ again--that life has some kinda meaning.  That’s how you make me feel.”

Eli smiled, then nodded.  “I’m glad I decided to tell you my name—that first night that I woke up.  Because I almost didn’t.”

“Really?  How come?”

“Because I was scared.  I didn’t know where I was, or who you were.  A part of me just wanted to jump up and run.  But when I saw your face, and how worried you were about me, I could tell you were okay.  So I took a chance.”

“And you don’t regret it.”

“You’ve given me nothing to regret.  You’ve helped me a lot—given me something to hope for.  A reason to live.  But now you want me to take another chance--do something I’ve never done before.  And I’m afraid it will ruin what we have.”

“All right—then don’t do it.  I won’t hold you to it.”

“No.  I want to, now.  You’ve made me want to.”

“Okay.  You’re sure.”

“Yes.”

There was a rustle of Eli’s sleeping bag and then Jed felt a small, cool hand on the side of his head, moving to the back.  Once there a slow yet firm pressure brought his face to Eli’s.  He felt Eli’s breath; and just before their lips met he heard the whisper.

“Please forgive me.”

Press and swish—the razor plunges down and without looking, Jed--now Eli--quickly sets it aside.  The dark redness welling forth is from his own vein and seeing it, smelling it, he feels the pull, the irresistible attraction.  He brings his mouth to the cut, the part of him that remains human resisting the wrongness of it, but the taste of the blood upon his tongue sweeps this aside--and not merely sweeps it aside, but destroys it utterly, cutting short its impotent voice.  Its attraction is an overwhelming darkness, snuffing out the solitary, fluttering flame of the rational mind.

The hunger rushes forward and after a few laps, the craving for more assumes control and he buries his face into the warm softness of the crook of his own arm, which he holds in place with a steadfast grip.  Must have more, faster.  His lips are now pressed firmly over the small flap of skin, and he sucks to hasten the transmission of the warm fluid into his mouth.  A mouthful is taken; then swallowed; taken, and swallowed--again and again, each bolus moving downward into the center of his being where its effect spreads outward, rejuvenating his flesh in a darkly mystic revival, a perverse parody of nature.

In confusion he feels his own hand on his forehead.  For a split second there is resistance; then the pressure ceases and the fingers begin to run through his hair.  The caresses are calming and pleasurable, but they cannot compete with what is happening in his mouth, and so they remain superficial.  Yet, as he slides to the floor and kneels before the chair to ease the process, the soft touches remind him that a human being is attached to the arm; that there is another person in this tableau, that his name is Jed, and that he loves him.  And it is this knowledge, and this knowledge alone, that prevents him from summoning his teeth into existence and biting the arm that is now his captive, biting so that the flow would become a torrent that he could claim as his own, taking all of it into himself until there is no more. 

Minutes pass; then, with the hunger’s modulation a new emotion comes to the fore.  As he stops sucking the slackening flow and begins to lick, his tongue moving about to catch the wayward streaks that in his initial enthusiasm were missed, he feels pathetic and ashamed.  Forced to lick blood from another person’s body, humiliated by his animal nature, he is now a disgusting and unlovable mongrel, kneeling in degradation to consume his Master. 

The scene shifts, dissolves; and when the darkness lifts he is in the cramped confines of a dimly lit tractor cabin.  He is crouched at one end of a narrow bed, the driver’s cab to his right, a padded wall to his left.  The initial sensation is an almost overwhelming body odor, too powerful to be successfully masked by a vanilla-scented car freshener hanging from a nearby knob on the dashboard.  The two form a nauseating mixture that causes his gorge to rise in his throat. 

A man’s legs stretch before him; his bottom rests lightly on the toes of the man’s greasy Redwing workboots.  The man is reclining on the bed, his pewter-colored, King of the Road belt buckle unfastened; his jeans unbuttoned.  He is hastening to pull his shirt off and so Jed cannot see his face, only the pale rolls of fat hanging over his beltline and the curly gray hair on his chest which runs down the damp, excited flesh to a small patch just above his bellybutton.  And at the moment that the shirt is pulled up to the man’s neck, the fabric catching at his ears and the wattles under his chin, he lunges forward, his mouth open wide, and sinks his teeth firmly into the man’s neck.

The man begins to struggle wildly.  He manages to get an arm free of the sweatshirt, and then a fist studded with a ruby-topped high school class ring strikes Jed hard, breaking his cheekbone and sending him sprawling onto the floor.  The back of his head hits a hard metal object behind him, and for a moment he is stunned, the pain radiating like a hammerblow throughout his skull. 

When he opens his eyes the man is scrambling to sit upright, his round face filled with anger and fear, one hand covering the side of his neck and pressing hard upon the open wound.  Then he sees Jed’s face and the anger dies, his mouth changing from a grimace to a round O of terror.  And seeing the trucker’s eyes widen and the color drain from his face, a face so recently flushed with the anticipation of having sex with a child, the thing within him surges forward and takes control.  Jed launches himself on top of the man with an inhuman barking noise.

Clawed fingers snap out and plunge directly into the trucker’s eyesockets.  Jed feels the orbs within them pop like a pair of grapes still fresh and firm off the vine, the rubbery ocular tissue squelching around the tips of his fingers.  The shattered orbs are then roughly evacuated when the claws are just as quickly withdrawn.  The man begins to scream, but the hand that has just blinded him now clamps itself firmly over his mouth.  With his left hand Jed punches through the thin layer of skin and muscle above the man’s right collarbone, destroying the network of blood vessels underneath.  A stream of bright red blood sprays out, splattering onto the wall’s navy blue vinyl padding, before Jed’s mouth closes over the torn, irregular contours of the wound. 

As Jed’s thighs tighten around the man’s bucking torso, he jerks the trucker’s head roughly to the side and brings the index finger of his left hand to the man’s ear.  The finger stiffens to bone-like rigidity and with supernatural strength the sharp tip is jammed in, plunging through the fragile auricular bones and into the brain; then it is flexed into a hook and twisted in a quarter-circle before being withdrawn.  Suddenly the man goes limp, his frantic movements ceasing. 

This time there is no pause, no let-up to the drinking.  It is all his, free for the taking.  But when the blood is gone, so too is the hot, driving anger; in its wake, there remains only dazed confusion.  When at last Jed sits up with a sigh of fulfillment and stares at what remains of the trucker’s dead face, he is revolted by his handiwork, and the confusion fades. 

Did I do this?  Eli?  Yes, it was me; this is who I am.  A tree is known by its fruit.

Jed looks up from the stinking charnel pit he has brought into existence.  He stares at the smooth, plastic ceiling and turns his thoughts to what lies beyond. 

How did I offend Thee?--I do not understand.  Please tell me, God: why me?  He searches his memory for what offense he might have given before his life ended, but the effort is in vain.  It is a question for which no answer has ever been given, or can even be imagined. 

With the inscrutable silence the anger comes, as it has innumerable times before. Great and marvellous are Thy works?  Just and true are Thy ways?  No, they are not.  I hate You.

Ever more rapidly the killings shutter past, one after another; some indistinct, some with startling clarity.  Many occur outside--in cemeteries, dimly lit alleys, and shadowy underpasses; wooded footpaths and weed-choked ditches along nameless highways; deep, moonlit forests.  Others take place indoors: nondescript apartment rooms; a darkened basement or an earthen root cellar; barns and stables; abandoned warehouses.

Most of the victims are strangers, adults who are attacked from behind or above without warning; they die quickly, and without understanding. Jed begins to grow conditioned to these when he attacks an impoverished, haggard-appearing woman huddled under a highway overpass, a thin, sickly infant at her breast.  After she dies Jed turns to leave, trying to ignore the wailing babe.  Then, impelled by a force he cannot understand, he slowly turns back and reaches out his claw-like hands to seize it.  The tattered blanket falls free and Jed realizes with growing horror that it is a newborn girl, the desiccated stub of an umbilical cord still on her belly.  He turns the infant over in his hands like a new puzzle, trying to find the best way to kill it, before settling on the tried and true method and bringing its neck to his mouth.  Jed moans and his broken leg twitches inside his sleeping bag, but Eli holds him fast.

 Others are people Eli knows, and the surreal nature of these slayings make them the hardest to endure. An old, wizened farmer takes Jed’s hand and leads him up a ladder to a haymow where he kneels before Jed, cocks his head to the side and says “take me.” Fifteen minutes later, his body begins to incinerate in the fire that Jed has started.

A beautiful, dark-haired woman wearing a chiffon nightgown hands Jed a goblet of her husband’s blood before lying down in a canopied bed next to his decapitated form.  His body hangs off the edge of the bed; his head lies on the floor.  Once the goblet has been emptied she slits her own wrist, oblivious to the pain, and offers it to Jed with a wide smile; then sighs and looks on patiently as her life is drained away. 

A thin young man in a richly furnished living room reclines nude in a Genevieve chair, his member erect and awaiting attention.  He embraces Jed and is proclaiming his love when Jed bites him deeply in the throat.  When his thrashing ceases, it is as if a deer has been field dressed on the silken upholstery.

Thousands of pale faces swim past: men and women, young and old, rich and poor.  With each killing the pattern is the same—an intense hunger, suddenly slackened by blood. And with each death comes an immense and crushing world-weariness, the fatalistic knowledge, reaffirmed week after week, year after year, decade upon decade, that he is trapped in an endless cycle of death from which there is no escape.

At last he is kneeling, immobile, in the stone room of an ancient castle; behind his back his arms are bound to his ankles.  A middle-aged man turns slowly before him in the candlelight, dangling upside down from ropes looped over a hook in the ceiling.  He, too, is bound.  The rope in the victim’s mouth prevents him from screaming as a dark shape sweeps past Eli and crouches before him.  There is a metallic clink as a golden bowl is placed on the floor.  A glint of light on a silver blade; then the body jerks once and grows slack to the soft patter of blood striking metal. 

After a few moments, the dark figure rises and turns.  A pair of ghostly white hands extending from black satin carry the bowl and its warm contents to Jed.

Jed looks down.  He cannot bring himself to look at the Master’s face.

“Drink.”

The odor is nearly irresistible, but Jed forces his tongue to retreat and clamps his mouth closed.

A soft, throaty chuckle, oddly kind.  “Drink, little stubborn one.”

Jed shakes his head furiously.

A pale finger dabbed in blood approaches his lips, seeking to touch.  Jed moans and jerks his head from side to side and the finger misses, smearing one cheek instead. 

This time there is no laughter.  His hair is roughly seized and his head is firmly pulled back until his nose points to the ceiling.  The force is irresistible, cannot be denied.  Yet still, he keeps his jaws clamped shut.

“Open your eyes.”

Jed slowly obeys. 

At the sight of the pale face and blue eyes a muscle in his groin spasms and Jed fears that he has wet himself; then he realizes that he can no longer pee.  The glittering edge of the bowl appears above his head, tips, and then the blood splashes out onto his face, over his lips and nose, down his chin, obliterating any further attempt at self-control.  With a whimper he opens his mouth to accept.  The warm goodness takes hold and within moments he cannot get enough.  He is like the baby bird in its nest, chirping for its worm--his mouth yawning wide, newborn fangs glistening, swallowing as quickly as he can. 

When the bowl is withdrawn there is immense disappointment.  He looks to see the Master drink as well, taking the final, modest portion.  Then the bowl is lowered and the Lord’s face returns. 

And when the kiss comes, Jed welcomes it.

His fluttering eyelids remained closed; his mouth hung slack.   His big hand remained limp on the blanket, making no effort to follow when Eli withdrew. 

Outside, the snow had stopped; how much time had passed, Eli did not know.  Ages.

“Jed.  Jed?” He softly stroked Jed’s cheek.

Jed flinched and pulled away.  But his eyes opened, and once open, they never left Eli’s face.  Were they the same as before, the eyes of the man who believed that God had wanted him to meet Eli?  Eli was not sure.  But they were different; some of the child-like innocence in Jed had died, he knew it.  His eyes were those of a tomcat who has seen a thousand mice turned inside out.

Jed had thought he had understood what Eli was, and what he had done.  But he hadn’t. 

Numbers were just numbers; the human mind could not truly grasp their meaning without context.  Sixty people killed by an earthquake in Peru.  A hundred people killed by a hurricane in Haiti; a thousand people killed in Iraq.  Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers killed in Vietnam—it was only when he had been to The Wall that Jed had begun to comprehend what that number meant, even though he had served in the conflict.  Only then had he begun to understand its magnitude—what it really meant, in terms of human loss, human suffering.  But this . . .

A single person.  So much violence.  And each death, up close and personal.  In ’Nam they had rarely seen the enemy, and that created its own kind of stress.  But the psychological stress of killing an enemy soldier at long distance with a gun was different from doing it hand-to-hand.  Men were changed by that kind of combat; it was a known fact.  And this little child . . .

The soft hands that could be so gentle and caring; so much blood had been on them. The small, round face, outwardly so innocent.  But my God, what Eli had seen and experienced, had been subjected to.  It was all so . . . he shook his head.  Depraved.  Perverted. The worst kind of human behavior imaginable.  And some of it, beyond imaginable.  Yet, it had happened; he was sure of it.  Eli had showed him his memories, not fantasies; they were too graphic to be anything else.  It was as if Jed had been there and done those things himself.  His skull, opened with a can opener and filled with a fat load of human excrement.

Eli looked down and squeezed his bunny closer to himself.  “I’m sorry.  I told you it would ruin everything.”

A long, rattling sigh released the tension in Jed’s chest.  He turned onto his back; maybe it would be easier to talk that way.  He searched for something to say.  How was he supposed to respond?  Nothing, absolutely nothing, in his life had prepared him for this.  He had been tearing himself up for years over that boy in the sandbox.  About his responsibility for the death of another person.  But to have gone through all of that—for 230 years--it made what he’d been carrying around seem like almost nothing.  He was an emotional piker compared to Eli.  How could he possibly . . .

His shocked mind raced, flitting ineffectually from one thought to the next.  Finally he began to focus, to grasp for the fundamentals.  For what was really important.

He turned back to Eli.  “Never again.  We have to commit to that--right here and now.  No more—not one, single person.  Will you?”

Eli stared at him briefly, then sniffed and looked away.  “I’ve done that so many times, Jed.  You don’t know how many times.  So many that now, they’re just words.”  He shook his head, then shrugged with jaundiced despair.  “They have no meaning.  What’s the point of making a promise that you know you won’t keep?”

Jed sat up and raised the wick on the lantern, then turned to look at Eli once more.  “No, they’re not.  You have to, Eli.  Because this is destroying you--eating you up from the inside.  You know that.  It’s like a cancer.  And now you’ve got me, and Dave and Tom; maybe Bill, I don’t know.  But we’re behind you.  It’s your chance to change everything.  The entire course of your life.”

Eli stared at the ceiling.  “I don’t want hurt anyone, Jed—you know that.  And I want to believe that it will all work out.  But it might not.  You might go away, and I might end up back at square one.  I’m not trying to be mean, but I don’t get any older, and you do.  And if that happens—”  his eyes grew wet and he swallowed hard—“I’ll have to eat.”

“Eli, look at me.” 

Jed slid closer and touched his face.  “As long as I have anything to say about it, you’ll never have to hurt another person again.  I swear that to you.  Whatever it takes.”

Eli began to knead his bunny.  “Jed, we talked about this.  You don’t understand how tired I am of living.  Of just . . . enduring.  Of having to live with what I am and what I’ve done.  It’s—” He shook his head, and his hands stopped.  “I’ve been . . . dying.  Dying inside.  And even if I were cured tomorrow, I’d still have to live with the knowledge of what I’ve done.  Of all the things I just showed you.”

“But Eli, even if the docs can’t cure you, you have a chance to get what you need without hurting anyone.  I don’t mind giving you mine—you know that.  In fact, it made me happy, knowing that you weren’t hungry for awhile.  I felt like I was taking care of you in a way that was, you know, really important.”  He searched for a word.  “Fundamental.  And I want to keep doing that as long as I can.  Because I love you, and I don’t want to see you suffer any more.  And maybe if you can live without hurting other people, we can come to terms with your past.”

Eli put his bunny aside and squeezed Jed’s hand.  “I know I was blessed to have Oskar—he was one in a million.  And I kept on living because of the love we shared, even though I had to kill to do it.  I guess in that way, I was being selfish—sacrificing the lives of other people so I could enjoy what we had.

“Then you came along, and now I realize that I’ve been doubly blessed.  And I feel like I did before—loving you makes me want to keep on living.  It’s the only thing that makes me want to.  But you’re right; I don’t want to do it, if it means I have to go on hurting other people.  And that’s what makes everything so scary.”

“I don’t want you to keep on living just for me.”

Eli looked at him, confused.  “What do you mean?  What’s wrong with that?  It’s how you make me feel.”

“Eli, what God gives, he takes away.  If you hitch your star to another person—I mean, if some other person is the only thing that makes you happy, you’re going to be very unhappy when that other person is gone.  Your happiness needs to come from inside.  And in my opinion, a big part of that is your relationship to God.”

“I have no relationship with God.”

Jed grunted.  “I think you do.  You may not want to admit it—you may think it’s a pile of shit--but you do.”

“Jed, I just showed you my life.  How could God have allowed this to happen to me?  And don’t just sit back and tell me that lots of bad things happen to good people.  We’re not talking about ordinary ‘bad things’ here.  You know that.”

“I agree that what was done to you was . . . well, I don’t have the words to say what I think of it.  It’s outside of anything that I can put my mind around.  But I know one thing: as long as you keep blamin’ God for what happened to you, you’ll never be happy.  Never.”

“Then maybe I’ll never be happy.”

“Would it help to talk to someone about how you feel?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know . . . a priest or a minister.  Someone who knows more about this sorta thing.  I’m not exactly an regular churchgoer.”

“Jed, there’s enough people who know about me already, what with all the doctors.  And what would they tell me?”

Jed paused.  He wasn’t prepared for this question, but he had to say something to make Eli think it would be worthwhile.  “I dunno.  I guess . . .” He looked away, suddenly embarrassed.  “I guess, maybe, to say that God allows evil in the world so that there’s an opportunity to love.  That he gave us the freedom to choose one over the other.”

Eli snorted, but Jed forged ahead, ignoring the small kernel of anger in his chest. 

“And that maybe you’re not beyond redemption.  Because to say that any person is beyond redemption would be to say that there’s a limit to what God can do.  That the only thing keeping you from God is you.”

Eli rolled abruptly away from Jed, the zipper on his sleeping bag jingling softly in the darkness.  “There, now you’ve said everything there is to say.  One less thing to worry about.”

“Eli . . .”  Jed reached for him, but before he touched, Eli spoke again.

“No.  The answer is, no.  I’m just not there yet.”

“Okay.”

There was silence for a time.  Rebuffed, Jed tried to think of something else to say.  Eli remained motionless in his sleeping bag with his back turned to Jed.

“If Bill resurfaces and wants to do the sleep study, are you still game?”

“Yeah,  guess so.”  His voice was soft, full of weary resignation.

“And if they want to get some sorta funky MRI study, you’re good with that, too?”

A few seconds passed before Eli responded.  “Mmm hmm.”

“Good.”

He paused for a few moments, trying to remember all the next steps the doctors had mentioned.

“How about that skin thing?”

Silence.

“Eli?” 

There was no reply.  Quietly, trying not to rustle his sleeping bag too much, he slid closer to Eli.  He peeked over Eli’s shoulder at his face.  He was asleep. 

Jed looked at his watch and was startled to see that it was 7:22 a.m.  He rolled over onto his back.  A draft of cool air touched his face.  Suddenly he felt very alone.

I’m lying on my pull-out bed in my fucking storage locker because I’m afraid to sleep in my own cabin.  I’ve got a loaded pistol to my right, and a vampire—no, make that a vampire-slash-mass murderer--to my left.

And he now knew exactly what Eli had done.  Thousands of deaths, so many that he could not possibly have counted them, even if he’d wanted to.

The shakes came, starting with his hands; an unvoluntary twitching that intensified as it moved up his arms, then up his legs and into his core.

Mobs of angry people armed with weapons of every kind, surrounding his cabin to purge the earth of the obscenity; the abomination.  With fire; yes, that was certainly what they would use.  He pictured how it would look—the dry old logs of his cabin ablaze, sending a plume of dark gray smoke up over the mountain.  With him, like a crazed homesteader from the 1840’s, blazing away at them with his hunting rifle through a broken window with Eli asleep on the floor by his side.

Standing before a stern-faced judge in a packed county courtroom over in Culpeper, wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands manacled behind his back, as he was indicted for aiding and abetting a known felon.  Because he was certain some of what he had seen—especially the trucker’s death—had taken place in the States, that could be him.  Could easily be him.  What would he plead?  Not guilty by reason of insanity?

He rolled onto his side and pulled his legs up toward his chest, trying to get his breathing under control.  He had never been so scared in his life.  Oh, he’d been scared in Vietnam.  But there, you expected to die; it was just something you had to live with.  But that had been years and years ago; now, he was just a guy again.  And he was scared shitless.

After a few minutes the shaking stopped, leaving an exhausted numbness.  He thought about getting up and running back out to the cabin, but decided against it.  He was just too damn tired; wiped out.  Better to get some sleep and go out this afternoon.

He turned over toward Eli and pulled the child to him, sleeping bag, bunny and all.  He kissed his head repeatedly; then began to weep.

 

Continued next week

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