The Remover

March 28, 2015 at 12:00 AM

The estimated reading time for this post is 128 minutes, 18 seconds

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Author Note: Written by Kenneth Kohl (kowale). This is a long read that began as a single short story (Part 1). More parts of the series were provided and it was eventually combined into one large work. The Remover has gathered a considerable fan base since its original posting, and has since been incorporated into a full-length novel of the same name. What follows are the original posts that appeared on Creepypasta Wiki.

Admin Note: As this is a longer-than-usual story, I’ll be creating an index to aid those of you who may want to read this story in smaller portions.

Also, if you are reading this from an index page, please click the ‘read more’ button. For the sake of not stretching out the archives, main page, category pages, etc, this story will display only until the end of chapter one. Beyond that, you’ll need to visit the individual pasta page, which can be found here, or by simply clicking ‘read more’.

INDEX

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Comment Section

Part 1

When I left my office, I already had a premonition that something awful was going to happen that evening. I’m not psychic. I am quite perceptive, though, and the signs were easy to read. I had worked late – nine o’clock and already dark – and my ordinarily enjoyable walk to the parking lot struck me as a little bit menacing. I parked in a lot that was about a ten minute walk from my office. In the early evening on a crisp autumn day it’s a pleasure to stroll there and take in the sights of downtown Indianapolis. Occasionally I’d take a detour and walk along the canal, checking out the street art. This was past nightfall, though, and right in the middle of a hot and humid August. There were only two sorts of people in downtown Indy that night – those who had to be, and those who had no place else to go.

My walks always took me past the Wheeler Mission. There was a flashing neon sign reminding me that “Jesus Saves” every ten seconds. The mission was a magnet for the homeless. A lot of my sort of people ended up there, but some others as well. Addicts, mentals, criminals on the run and looking for a meal and a place to stay. According to the mission’s rules felons were usually turned in, so the police visited regularly. None of the city’s finest sitting outside that night; just a collection of bums waiting to scam some loose change off of whoever happened to be out on this humid night.

One of the panhandlers called out to me. “Hey! Can I talk to you sir? Can I ask you a question? Are you afraid of homeless people?” He was young, maybe pushing thirty. He was clean-shaven and had a number of tattoos running up his arms and neck and ending just shy of the bottom of his dirty red baseball hat. The design hinted at a former stay in prison.

Every one of them always has a story. It’s typically well practiced and smooth. A bum tells his story so many times that he begins to believe it himself. He gets into his character and will debate at length on the subject of why he needs money. The stories can get quite elaborate and sometimes amusing, if you have the time. But unless you want to be followed all the way back to your car or to the door of your office it’s best to just say “No” or “Sorry.” That night, I was feeling antsy and just wanted the conversation to end quickly, so I opted for “Fuck you.”

Red Hat responded in kind. At first he stopped in his tracks, looking sort of stunned. Then he started following me. “You think you’re better than me? Don’t you walk away from me.” Then he grabbed at the back of my shirt. That’s when I knew for sure that things were going to end badly.

I shrugged him off. I could have easily outrun him at that point, but I didn’t. I don’t know if it was pride or arrogance; or if it was due to the fact that I was tired, irritable and in an excessively bad mood. I did start walking faster, though. I hoped that he would tire of the game and go back to his roost outside the mission. I hoped that the situation wouldn’t go any further.

Then I saw a chance to end the game. There were two routes to my car – one being along a well lit, albeit virtually deserted street and the other a slightly shorter route through a small alley behind the Robertson Parks church. I aimed myself toward the alley. I could still hear Red Hat shouting behind me, but I was doing my best to ignore him. “Where you going man? Stop! I want to talk to you,” he said. I had a pretty good idea that when he saw me heading towards the alley, he thought that he had me beat. How stupid did he think I was? I knew that once we were alone, I’d have the upper hand. I could either disappear into the shadows or, if necessary, kick his ass. What I didn’t know, however, was that he had a couple of friends waiting for him.

They must have seen us head off and circled around the block. It’s like they were expecting me to walk through that alley. For them, it was the perfect place for an ambush. I’ll have to admit that I was startled when I first saw them. I had allowed myself to get too distracted. Not only by Red Hat, but by the anxiety that I’d been experiencing since leaving my office. The two buddies, dressed similarly and tattooed like Red Hat, stood at the far end of the alley. In addition to seeing their silhouettes I could smell them from where I stood. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw them. Red Hat closed the distance behind me and pushed me further into the alley. Then the other two approached and boxed me in.

One of them pushed me and laughed. “What now, Chris?”

“Now we teach this little shit how to respect people,” Red Hat replied.

I had backed up against the wall of the church. “Trust me guys. Bad idea,” I said.

The one who had previously been quiet came forward and shoved me – hard – back into the wall. I remember feeling the back of my head bounce off the brick. Then he punched me in the stomach. As he drew back his arm to get ready for another swing, my arm flew out and I grabbed his head, palming his face like a basketball. I pushed backward and twisted his head as he fell. That’s when I saw Red Hat’s knife.

Red Hat had drawn his arm back as if he were going to pitch a softball underhand. He had the point of the knife aimed at me. He lunged, but I managed to grab his wrist and deflect his thrust. At this point I could no longer see the first of his two buddies – the first to punch me – but the other one landed another blow directly to my nose. That diverted my attention long enough for Red Hat to bring his knife around for another attempt. A thousand thoughts were racing through my mind. How could I have let myself get drawn into that situation? Why did they pick me? Why that night? How was it going to end? How was I going to handle the cleanup after it was over?

Between all of the distractions and the surprise punch to the face, I must have missed seeing the knife until the last moment. It sunk deep into me. Low, directly below my ribs and angled upward into the place where a normal man would keep his liver. The guy had been in fights before. He was a pro. I felt pressure, but not any actual pain.

Then I felt myself becoming very hot and my vision faded to white.

When the numbness went away, I surveyed the scene in the alley. One of the guys – the one who managed to land a punch on my face – was running around the corner of the church screaming. Around me, there was blood all over the ground and even sprayed up onto the wall of the church. The guy whose face I had grabbed was lying prone nearby, his head cocked at an unnatural angle. His neck was clearly broken. It was Red Hat who surprised me most. He was lying at my feet eyes open, mouth frozen in a perverse smile, and throat ripped open. He looked like he’d had a date gone bad with a table saw.

And all I could think of was how long it had been since I’d last eaten.

Part 2

Dear R.,

I can no longer trust my own decisions. As you hear my story you will understand why. Right now, it will be enough to say that I can’t focus, my thoughts are racing, and my emotions are taking over. I’m in no condition to make the sort of decision that’s necessary, and so I’m asking for your help.

I’m putting my unconditional trust in you. In order for that to happen you have to trust me entirely – and the only way that can happen is if you know the truth.

At this point I have no doubt that you believe I’m insane and you might be right, to a point I believe that you’ll hear me out, though; if for no other reason than to find out how far gone I am. I sincerely believe that by the time I’ve said what I have to say, you’ll believe me – if not before then.

Since others are involved, I’m putting their lives in your hands, too. You must never repeat this to anyone. I’m laying a great burden on your shoulders; but you owe me. I don’t need to remind you why.

Just about every form of life begins in an embryonic stage. Interestingly, when we are in our embryonic stage we have two hearts. Two hearts! Can you believe that? This heart primordia, as it’s called, eventually fuses together into one heart with four chambers. Embryologists at the University of Indiana performed an experiment in the 1930s in which they kept the heart primordia from fusing in embryonic frogs. Amazingly, the frogs grew up with two hearts. They had extensive genetic damage, though, and didn’t live very long.

But imagine for a moment that the same thing happened in nature, with greater success. Imagine that the heart primordia never fused in the embryo of an otherwise ordinary man. He could theoretically develop two hearts. Not that farfetched – humans have many redundant organs: two lungs, two kidneys, two eyes.

Are you with me so far?

The body is a system and that system normally runs at full capacity, so the addition of a second heart alone wouldn’t make much of a difference. But there is an added potential. Suppose that this new creature (and I call it that because now we’ve taken a leap of faith and are no longer talking about your unremarkable homo sapiens) also develops a system that can exploit this additional power plant, much in the same way that an athlete can train his body to function at higher levels. It would require larger lungs, or perhaps even a third lung to provide additional oxygen. Other organs might be affected, altered, enhanced or even eliminated. The end result would be a creature possessing unimaginable strength, speed and endurance.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Such creatures do exist. This is as much of a fact as the sky is blue. I not only believe it, but I can prove it – will prove it – to you, in due time.

I wish that I was there with you now, so that I can more accurately gauge your reaction. I’ll have to rely on your inquisitive nature and assume that you’ll continue reading. Since I’ve told you this much already, I may as well elaborate further.

God, in all his goodness, had gone so far as to create these beings. Then Mother Nature threw in her own cruel little trick. You see, that second heart needs a way to get vital oxygen and nutrients to cells; and that way is through blood. Plasma to carry nutrients and red cells to carry oxygen. Blood is produced in bone marrow and spleen. An average, healthy man is blessed with just enough blood-producing tissue to sustain him. These creatures, however, being approximately the same size don’t have the ability to produce any more blood cells than a normal man. Yet their two hearts continue to feed their bodies in overdrive. Left in that state they would literally starve or suffocate.

Nature is also forgiving. Taking advantage of their physical mutation, they have the ability to absorb plasma and red cells from the ingestion of the blood of other living creatures. The mechanism by which this works is too specific to go into. It wouldn’t interest you anyway. Not at this point.

And so these pseudo-men have evolved, exploiting their superhuman strength and abilities to become the perfect hunter – after all, other living creatures aren’t too keen on the idea of donating their own blood to sustain the lives of these things. I call them things because that’s what “normal” men consider them to be. Fiends. Monsters.

I’m certain that you know what these creatures are. This fabulous, complex, species; homo sanguineous; no less God’s children than their human brothers; hated; abhorred… have come to be called vampires.

But they are real. And I can prove it.

Part 3

There comes a time in every vampire’s seemingly endless life when he reaches an age at which he begins to question his choices, doubt his past actions, wonder what mistakes he will continue to make in his future. Call it a midlife crisis. At this point one of two things usually happens. A vampire can accept who and what he is, or he can go insane. The latter more often than not ends in some form of suicide.

Vampires are not truly immortal. I think that a more appropriate term would be un-mortal, if there were such a word. Immortal suggests that they live forever, and that’s just one of many myths about vampires. They are not graced – or perhaps I should say cursed – with eternal life. But they do live a very, very long time. And that leads to the especially worst aspect of being a vampire. They are almost guaranteed to outlive every one they love – the human ones anyway. Think about it: having to experience the death of all of your friends, making new friends, and seeing them die also over and over and over again.

It’s right around the time that they begin to lose their second generation of friends that they realize what’s happened, and worse, that it will happen again. Think about that for a moment, and take my word for it that no matter how many funerals you’ve been to it doesn’t ever get any easier. It helps to believe that there’s an afterlife.

Having your friends die off is only one of the things that a vampire will think of when he hits this age. He begins to think of all the things he’s missed out on. Sometimes he’ll choose to never enter a relationship with a human because he fears what will eventually happen. Then he’ll wonder if he made a mistake by deciding on following that path.

And then he thinks about what he is – what he truly is. What his base instinct and purpose in life is. He feels cheated that he’s had to hide his true self for all of the years he’s been alive and that he’ll have to continue hiding it. He feels resentful that he’ll never be able to do what he really craves, what he hungers after – to hunt – without restraint.

Fulfilling one’s purpose in life is of ultimate importance to every man: vampire and human alike. A person with no aspirations has no reason to go on living. So what is a vampire to do? His core desire, his meaning of life, is considered morally repulsive. Isn’t it? After living amongst humans for most of his life he takes on their values and most vampires agree with acceptable human opinion. How is it that older vampires can hunt so easily with no heaviness on their consciences? It’s during this midlife crisis that they begin to sort things out.

Most vampires, like most mortals, can eventually come to grips with whom and what they are. Some turn to religion. Sometimes it takes a good psychiatrist or regular sessions with a therapist to help them out. For most vampires, this means that they must abandon their empathy with mortals’ ideas of morality. (Not implying that vampires do not have their own set of moral standards.) This greatly increases the contentment with which they can live out the rest of their lives.

The bulk of the remainder can never come to terms with what they are and can never accept what they need to do to achieve peace of mind. All of the inner turmoil eventually takes a toll on them body and soul. It breaks them. There are a lucky few that can recover after a breakdown but the rest end up in institutions or commit suicide. Even among those who are institutionalized some eventually end up killing themselves when they grasp the fact that a natural death and end to the pain is going to come very slowly.

And so the world ends up with a whole bunch of vampires who are either happy or dead. It might sound callous, but the truth is that only elder vampires are happy ones; and while the idea of a bunch of happy vampires living amongst them might not make humans feel completely at ease, it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.

You see… every once in a while, one slips through the cracks. A vampire who goes mad but somehow ends up running loose like a kid in a candy shop. The most dangerous type of vampire that exists – perhaps even more feared than the Nosferatu – is a rogue.

So, how does one deal with a rogue? He must be disposed of. The question is “How do you go about hunting the most perfect hunter that nature has ever produced?”

“You’re certain it was a total blackout?”

“Yes. Completely. One minute I was walking through an alley and the next, I… I realized that I was somewhere else. And I don’t remember how I got there.” I said, appreciating the fact that I almost said something I’d regret. Dr. Shelton knows that I have problems, but as far as she’s concerned they’re related to a fairly common mental disorder – a diagnosis of rapid cycling bipolar disorder with mixed episodes. “This can be a dangerous combination,” she once said.

She shifted in her seat. “Have you had any other psychotic episodes?”

“Never.”

That topic has always been a favorite of mine. First, you should understand that the word “psychotic” isn’t really as bad as it sounds. Many people associate it with crazed killers and wild eyed maniacs. It means nothing of the sort. “Psychotic” thinking merely refers to episodes that consist of a break with reality. Hearing voices, having hallucinations, lost time. I say it’s a favorite topic but it’s actually more of a pet peeve, because the good doctor always starts her sessions with questions like “Have you been seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there?” It’s become cliché to reply with “Um, doc, if I’m seeing and hearing them how would I know if they’re not really there?”

“Now, you know that’s not true,” she said. “You’ve had plenty of blackouts and lost days preceding some of your hospitalizations. That’s why I ask. If there’s a psychotic break coming, we might be able to head it off.”

I had to choose my words carefully. “I meant, never like this one. It wasn’t just hazy, it was a total blackout. I… I did things that couldn’t remember.”

“You said that you were alone. How is it that you know what you did during your blackout? Friends? Witnesses?” Now she was writing. Writing is bad.

I gave up. “I… don’t know doctor. Don’t pay attention to anything I say. I don’t even trust myself lately. Maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep.” I took off my sunglasses. Even though I always wore them inside her office, she never questioned them. Probably chalked it up to an eccentricity. I’m sure many of her patients had quirky habits. Now she saw the dilated and irregularly shaped pupils that I’m always trying to hide.

She seemed startled. “Whoa… Sorry for being frank, but I’ve never seen anything like that before. What’s up with your eyes?” She leaned forward to get a better look.

“It’s a genetic condition. Makes my eyes really sensitive to light, that’s why I wear the glasses,” I explained. “What I’m trying to show you is the dark circles under my eyes. Lack of sleep, right?”

I could tell that she was still fascinated by my eyes, but she feigned interest in our previous subject matter. “Yes. Well, I’ll get you some samples of Seroquel. It’s an antipsychotic, so it may prevent further episodes as well as help you sleep.”

When she left the room to get the samples, I let out a sigh. What had I hoped to achieve by visiting my psychiatrist? After what had happened in the alley that night, the only thing that had any possibility of helping would be talking to someone I could be entirely honest with. Someone in the same boat as me – well, sort of. I decided that the best person to approach for advice was my friend Johnny. There’s a long history there, but suffice to say that he understands my plight in more ways than one. It looked like it was about time for a trip back to Ohio, where I’d grown up.

Dr. Shelton returned with the promised sample. I could tell from her sidelong glances that she was still questioning my attempt to divert attention from the appearance of my eyes. “Here are some packets of Seroquel. These are 100 mg tablets, but you can take two or three at a time if you feel it’s necessary. I’d start off with one until you know what effect they have on you.”

“Thanks doctor. Three months, right?”

“Sure. Unless something else like this comes up before then. If that happens, I want to hear about it pronto.”

I was halfway out of her office door when I heard her take a deep breath. I should have just kept on walking and pretend that I didn’t hear her, but I stopped and waited.

“Oh, hang on. I wanted to talk to you about something out of the ordinary in your last blood work…” she began.

Those are four words that I hate to hear: “Out of the ordinary.” There’s very little about me that is ordinary. Particularly to a human. Every time someone – especially doctors and police officers – utters those words I cringe, expecting to have to invent some wild rationalization of why whatever they think is “out of the ordinary” really has a simple explanation. Sometimes the explanations aren’t good enough. There have been times when my explanation was so pitiful that it required me to move on to another city or town earlier than I had planned.

This time, it wasn’t so bad. “Your liver enzymes look fine, but you have got one hell of a vitamin D deficiency, Christian. Don’t you ever get out in the sun?”

I found that so funny that I may have actually let out a little laugh. “No, not so much.”

“I’ll give you a scrip for a mega-dose, once a week for a couple of months. I suggest following up with your GP. Get a physical. It can’t hurt.”

Take a wild guess about what the number one leading cause of death in vampires is. It’s not a stake through the heart. It’s old age. Living in a culture so full of fictitious myths and legends, you might think of that as funny. It’s important to separate the myths from the truth, though. Probably one of the biggest fabrications is that vampires live forever. Vampires certainly live much longer than humans, but far from forever.

Even the finest and strongest machines eventually break down. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, cataract, osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension and even Alzheimer’s – when a vampire is afflicted by these diseases, he can’t hunt. If he can’t hunt, then he can’t feed. And if he doesn’t feed, then he can’t survive for very long. You won’t find many nursing homes for aging vampires.

So it’s pretty important to take care of yourself. The vitamin D deficiency that my doctor mentioned isn’t something to be dismissed. Sunlight helps humans’ bodies create vitamin D naturally. It doesn’t work that way for vampires. Why not? Perhaps it was nature’s form of population control. Modern medicine has allowed us to subvert that. While we don’t burst into flames, like in the movies and stories, sunlight is very damaging to our bodies. Our skin and particularly our eyes are extremely sensitive to UV rays. We get sunburned easily and, despite our ability to recover from injuries quickly, skin damage is the most painful injury that I can think of. Aside from that being in the sun for too long makes us sick. Sick to our stomachs. Nauseous. Humans can experience the same thing and they call it sun poisoning, but with our sensitivity it hits harder and faster. It can cause fever, dizziness and electrolytic imbalance. It can be incapacitating, and that’s not good. Long story short: it’s better for us to get our vitamin D in pill form.

So how do you kill a vampire besides waiting for him to get old? Well… the same way that you would kill anything. We’re just a little more durable. I’m certainly not a biologist, but as I understand it our cells are rapidly reproducing. A deep cut that would require weeks to heal for a human may scar over within hours and completely disappear within a day. A punctured lung – perhaps impossible to repair in a mortal – may take a week.

What is usually the deciding factor in whether or not an animal – be it a vampire, a human or some lower life form – lives or dies is if it’s heart can withstand whatever trauma has been inflicted on it’s body and continue it’s job of pumping blood to nourish the body and brain. We have a slight advantage there. Even damage to one of our hearts, provided it’s not too severe, can heal fairly quickly. It’s nice to have a backup.

So I suppose that it’s pretty ironic that while arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, drowning or massive trauma are all things that can kill a vampire… a simple stake through the heart is one thing that will probably not.

Enough with the biology lesson. And so after a lengthy digression, Dr. Shelton’s comment about getting a physical exam struck me as funny in two ways. One being that I don’t ordinarily like people poking around inside me. (A human doctor would most definitely not find what he was expecting.) And I was treating myself for a host of diseases and maladies already. In addition to the psychotropic medications that Dr. Shelton had me on for treatment of bipolar disorder, I was taking another 13 different meds every day – including some for high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, other vitamin deficiencies, and a drug to halt the progression of rheumatoid arthritis: a potentially fatal disease for me.

When I was younger, years after discovering what I was, I was going through a difficult time. None of my friends knew that I was a vampire and I wasn’t about to tell them. The one thing that I knew for sure was that human friends should never be told the truth about what I was. I’d learned that the hard way on more than one occasion. Usually I was just written off as a joker or even a truly insane kid. But there was one time when some of the locals got wind of my bragging about being a vampire – early on, I though that it was cool. Turns out that one or two of them really believed me and tied my family to some strange affairs going on about the village. We were literally run out of town after receiving threats of physical harm. I think that people were looking for a scapegoat and we provided a convenient one, but I shudder to think what may have happened if things had progressed further.

During my adolescent years, I finally couldn’t keep it bottled up any longer. I wrote a long letter to one of my friends and pleaded for his secrecy. I told Johnny everything. I mean everything! I’d delivered the letter and waited. Days went by, giving me enough time to regret my rash decision. Just when I thought he’d written me off as a fool, Johnny called me.

“Are you stupid? Nuts? What the hell are you telling all of this to me for?” he said.

I held the receiver of the phone away from my face while I took a deep breath. “Listen… I was, uh… I was going through a rough time and I’d been a little drunk, and…”

“Cut the shit, dude. I know that what you said is true. But why are you telling me? Why are you telling anyone?”

“Um,” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Like I said, I was a little desperate and… the truth? You believed me?” I hadn’t been prepared for this situation.

“Of course I believed you. I could smell it on you.”

“No, wait… Are we talking about alcohol now?”

I could imagine Johnny raising his eyebrows right about then. “No, bud. You’re a vampire. I know it. I could smell it. Sunglasses or not, I could see it in your eyes. If that’s not enough, I could just feel it. It’s been obvious since day one.”

“So… Are you..?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“So why didn’t I know? Why can’t I smell it? Why can’t I feel it?”

I could picture him shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “’Cuz you’re so young kemosabe. You haven’t gone through the change yet. Once you go through the change your senses will quicken, your strength will grow… Hell, maybe your IQ will go up a few points.

“You guys are so funny. All of you think that you’re alone – one little lonely vampire surrounded by a sea of humans who just. Don’t. Understand.” He faked a pout.

I was getting a little pissed off at his patronizing, but then I did a double-take. “All of us? All of us who? Who else Johnny?”

“Rob, Debbi, Gale, Patrick, Paul (no surprise there), Mikey… Ooh, Mike doesn’t know yet, so keep that under your hat. I mean, he knows that he’s a vampire; he just doesn’t know that we know. Ya’ know?”

I was speechless.

“Yeah. Let that soak in, bud. Just know this. We seek each other out. Whether you realize it or not, you will be drawn to others like you – friend or foe. It’s instinct.” He paused, as if waiting for my response. “What? Didn’t our group strike you as ‘weird’ in any way?”

It was like a fog lifting. Just like that, everything I’d experienced the last fifteen years made sense.

So Johnny became pretty much my closest friend. He and I shared other problems, also. We are both bipolar. Johnny got saddled with a few other mental disorders too. I considered him a mentor also, because of his advanced age and experiences. He was the oldest in our group and – perhaps due to his unusual mind – had a special gift for seeing things that others couldn’t. He was better than any trained therapist I’d ever seen. That was the reason that I’d went to him with my latest problem. I didn’t think that Dr. Shelton or any therapist that she recommended could have been as helpful as Johnny. In addition to his unique insight, I could be completely honest with him. If I’d ever tried to explain the whole vampire thing to a doctor or therapist we’d never make it past “Tell me about your mother,” before I ended up in a psych ward. He or she would assume that I was delusional. It had happened before.

Despite Johnny’s consideration, I had some unease approaching him about this particular problem. I was sort of embarrassed to admit what was happening. Lord knows that I’ve done a lot of things that deserved more shame; nevertheless that was how I felt. All the same, I attempted to put that aside and dove into my story.

Johnny was short and compact, yet very muscular. He built himself up being a drummer for the last who-knows-how-many years. He wasn’t the troll he was made out to be by some, but he wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes either. On the day I visited, he was dressed in shorts and a tank top – pretty much standard uniform for him. At least he was wearing pants. Johnny is a legend in his own time for not wearing pants. We met in his one-room flat in Streetsboro. He reclined on a mattress on the floor, arms behind his head, trying unsuccessfully to refrain from smartass comments while I spilled my guts.

“So here’s how it is, bud. I’ve got this problem.”

“You got that right,” he laughed. I did say that he was trying unsuccessfully.

“Seriously, man. There’s been this ‘thing’ going on. More than one thing. I don’t know… It’s been driving me nuts and now it’s starting to scare me.”

He sat up and actually looked concerned. “Scare you? Scare you? What’s up?”

And so I went into it from the beginning – at least from the time I first noticed it. About six months prior, I remember sitting at home watching the news on television. I was in an especially sour mood that day. The talking heads were going on about some bonehead gangbanger who showed up at a wedding uninvited and started shooting into a crowd. He hit a four year old kid in the head – didn’t kill her, thank God. I hate to hear about kids getting hurt. It’s a real sore spot for me. I got so annoyed, angry, pissed off, that I began shaking. I remember thinking “Stupid animals! They all get what they deserve! They’re not anything like us. They’re nothing more than cattle!” That was really unlike me. I had collected a good sized set of morals in the decade of Catholic education that I’d been given. I was very sympathetic toward humans, unlike some vampires.

Vampires, like humans, are typically divided by region and race. The Vourdalak, for example, regard themselves as cultured and refined beyond what they consider to be their more animalistic brothers and sisters. They comprise most of the royal lineage in Romania. The Strigoiu of Moldavia are mostly gifted artists. The Liugat of Albania and Nachtzehrer of Bavaria go through life much the same as humans. All of these races generally respect the lives of humans and consider them equals. They rarely feed on unwilling humans and when they do it’s discreet and practical. I make a point of saying “unwilling humans” because there are those who are aware of the existence of vampires and – for one reason or another – choose to willingly provide blood.

There are others though, who have a complete disregard for humans. Vampires who consider the human race a lower life form – much like livestock, whose sole existence is meant to provide nourishment for them. The Krvopijac – or unholy – of Bulgaria are one such race. They are strictly nightbreed, never appearing in daylight. The Brukolak originating in Greece are a particularly nasty sort. They are considered excommunicate and shunned by most other vampires. They are emotionally and mentally unstable.

And then there’s the Nosferatu. The old ones. A true embodiment of some of the stereotypes attributed to vampires. They may be truly immortal. At least no one can think of a Nosferatu ever being born or ever dying. They are monsters; evil incarnate.

And yet even these spiteful creatures are very careful with their feeding habits. Letting humans become aware of their existence would be detrimental to survival in many ways. They would be sought out, they would reveal the existence of other vampires, humans would be more alert to their existence, and ultimately it would have damaging consequences on the species as a whole. Because of these reasons, to be careless when hunting may well bring down the wrath of other vampires as well as humans.

Being a descendant of both Vourdalak and Brukolak lineage, I’ve always been careful to watch for signs of the instability inherent with my more animalistic bloodline. I believe, however, that one’s behavior is a product of their upbringing and circumstances, not something determined solely by genetics. So you can understand why the sort of outburst of rage that day concerned me.

Johnny rolled his eyes. “Pfft. So what’s the big deal? We all get angry sometimes.”

“Not me. Not like this.”

“You sure it’s not just a bipolar thing? You still taking your meds?”

“Johnny, you more than anyone should know about ‘bipolar things.’ And yes – I’m taking my meds and they’ve been working great.”

He pondered that for a bit, then said “Okay then. Chalk it up to a bad day and forget about it.”

“J, what about the whiteout? And… It wasn’t just a bad day. That wasn’t the only time it’s happened.”

That grabbed his attention. I told him about some of the other times, ending with my experience in the alley with the homeless guys. Just remembering the episode made my stomach feel uneasy. And yet, it stirred some other feelings in me. Something dark.

“Peas and rice, man! Sounds like those dudes had it coming. CJ, how old are you anyway?”

“I don’t really know,” I lied. A lot of vampires didn’t, but I knew the exact date I was born. I was 243 years, eight weeks and seven days old. “Around 240, I guess.”

Johnny started nodding; smiling like he’d just solved the riddle of the sphinx. “Yep. Yep. You’re going through ‘the change.’”

“’The change.’ I thought that was menopause.”

“Ha ha. No. Yeah. Your senses are sharpening, you’re growing stronger, and your hunger is increasing. ‘The change.’ Sort of like going over the hill. You’re becoming less like a human and more like a vampire.”

I’d heard about it. I knew it would come one day, but it seemed so far off. I was kind of in shock. “So what happens now?” I sighed.

“Go with it, dude. You can’t stop it, so let it happen. Just be careful. You know? You’re…” He trailed off, obviously embarrassed.

“Yeah, yeah. Brukolak. I get it.” Seems like people always see me as Brukolak, even though I’m not – not entirely.

“I can’t explain the white-outs; but everyone is different. Maybe that’s just the way it is with you half-breeds.” Johnny looked surprised that he’d let that slip out: “Half-breeds.” I knew that he didn’t mean it in a bad way, though. “Umm…”

“S’okay.”

“Just don’t get sloppy. I know you’re careful. You cleaned up after the thing with the homeless guys, right?” He took my hesitancy as a bad sign. “Right?”

I was kind of embarrassed, and it seemed like the words just wouldn’t come out. “One got away.”

“Jesus!” He slapped his thigh. “You know how it works! Don’t tell me that you couldn’t catch him.”

“He was running away. I can’t hunt down an innocent human.”

“But he wasn’t innocent. You said so yourself.”

“Yeah. But still…”

He shook his head. “It’s time for you to toughen up, man. You’re not gonna’ make it with an attitude like that.”

“I am what I am, Johnny. I can’t just go around killing whoever – whenever it suits my needs.”

“Dude. God made you what you are. He will understand. He’ll forgive you.”

“It’s not that. It’s…”

But maybe it was that. Like I said, I went through ten years of Catholic upbringing. Those Ten Commandments are driven into you. Thou shall not kill – that was a biggie. Yeah, I know that might sound surprising: a Catholic vampire. Vampires being the minions of Satan and all – just another stereotype. I mean, if the stories about Lilith were true, then perhaps… But all that aside, vampires can have religion. Why not? We are ultimately mortal creatures (in an organic sense), just like humans. We are born and we die. The process is just a bit slower. The prospect of an afterlife sounds pretty good to me.

If that surprises you, it’ll knock your socks off to know that there are clergymen who are vampires, too. Not really a shock to me, but it definitely crushes any thoughts of satanic ties that one may have.

Johnny waved me off. “No biggie, man. Just think about it. Keep it in mind the next time something like this happens. And if this guy makes trouble for you, you’ve gotta’ take care of him. ‘kay?”

“Yes, O wise one. Not that I don’t enjoy our time together, but I gotta’ jet. I’m stopping by to visit someone… someone special before I head back home.”

I hadn’t been visiting her as often as I’d have liked to, so I always made the most of my visits back to my old haunt. I was just about out of the door when Johnny said something that stopped me dead in my tracks.

“Oh, hey. Have you heard anything about that serial killer?”

“The what?”

“Serial killer. Indianapolis. Know anything about it?”

For some reason, I felt as if he were accusing me. I knew he wasn’t, but that’s how it came across to me. And then – even though I was surprised to hear the news – I faked surprise. I mean obviously faked it. I don’t know how to describe it. I guess I just went a little over the top in reacting to this bombshell.

“No way. No way! I would have heard something about it.”

“It’s all happened over the last couple of days. I know you. You can go for weeks without turning on the television.”

Knitting my eyebrows, I said “It’s possible. So don’t keep me in suspense. What’s up?”

Johnny sat down again. “I know what you’re thinking. I highly doubt that it’s one of us. Not you and me… us. One of our kind. They’re not your average kills and there was no apparent motive – feeding or otherwise. Nasty business. The police just started using the term ‘serial killer’ after they found the third victim. I just wondered if you could fill me in on anything the news isn’t covering. I guess the police aren’t releasing all of the details until they have a suspect.”

“Nasty? How nasty?” Not that I really wanted to know.

“Two women and then just yesterday… are you sure you want to hear this?”

I nodded nervously. I actually had butterflies in my stomach.

“Yesterday they found a kid. Hard to tell how old yet, but pretty obviously a kid.”

“Hard to tell?”

“Yeah. Arms and head were… Other…” his Adam’s apple bobbed, “Pieces ripped out. All the same. It’s like they were torn apart. Like someone just went psycho on them. They considered an animal attack but nothing’s been missing in any of the cases. All body parts accounted for, just not in the right places. Know what I mean?”

“Shit.”

“Yeah! Be careful when you go back there, bud. I know that you’re a night person. Don’t be walking the streets in the wee hours.”

“Deal.” There wasn’t much else to say. Once again… a kid. Not something I wanted to think about. I’d have to check it out, obviously. Johnny had a flair for the dramatic but I had a feeling that he was pretty much spot on with his description of the attacks. No death should be dismissed lightly, and especially not one so horrendous. But after 243 years – much more so for Johnny – a guy’s experienced pretty much everything. He’s had the chance to see the ugliest side of the world. So we weren’t dismissing the issue that easily. But it wasn’t anything to marvel at. I gave Johnny a knowing look and with a hug, a hand bump and a peace sign I excused myself.

Johnny shot me a sympathetic look. “Give her my best, man.”

“I will, Johnny. I will.”

Part 4

As I drove south on the shady two lane road alongside the canal, the memories began to flood back. A few were bitter but most were good. I found myself wishing that it were autumn. That would have made it just perfect. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just “the valley” to me, is always beautiful. Every season puts its own decoration on it but autumn is my personal favorite. It’s my favorite time of year. Not just the colors of the autumn leaves, but the smells, the cool air, and the memories all of it brings back.

I had just passed the aqueduct, which carries the canal over Tinker’s Creek. That was my usual landmark. The cemetery was becoming more and more difficult to find, especially since the national park service took over what was formerly called the Valley Natural Recreation Area. Much of the area was returning to its original state, signs of civilization disappearing. I pulled the car over as close to the guardrail as I could get and began looking for the small bridge over the canal. It wasn’t in very good condition, but venturing it was a better option than wading through the four foot deep brackish water. They’d closed off the feeder chutes to the canal, so fresh river water from the Cuyahoga wasn’t replenishing the murky canal water regularly. Most of the year it remained that way, gathering silt and algae. They only opened the chutes twice a year to top off the canal water since it seeps out over time. The last of those occasions was in the spring so the water had been stagnant for almost six months.

The bridge was a little overgrown with vegetation, but easily passable on foot. Once I crossed the canal the path was easy enough to find. The doubtless constant trips by children and teenagers searching for the legendary “haunted cemetery” had kept the plant life from growing along the trail. I was soon standing at the base of the hill leading up to the graveyard. It was a steep hill and a long walk, a little too long for some. It should have been no trouble for me. Nevertheless my legs felt weak on the way up. I spoke about memories earlier. There were no good memories along this path or at the cemetery. But that fact never deterred me from making the trip.

An Ottawa tribe originally occupied the land at the top of the hill. In the late 1700s they moved from the area. They may have been driven off by other tribes or perhaps it was the influence of the arriving white settlers. In the spring of 1786, Moravian missionaries came upon the abandoned settlement and decided to make it their temporary home while they regrouped and accumulated supplies before continuing their journey west. They named the settlement Pilgerruh, which is German for “pilgrim’s rest.” The Moravians planted crops, built cabins and even raised a church. Something strange happened, though, because only ten months later, without warning, they gathered at the banks of a nearby creek and walked away leaving everything behind.

Ten years later, the land was purchased by the Connecticut Western Reserve Land Company and prepared for settlement by the influx of English and European pioneers leaving New England. I suppose it was sometime during this period that my parents arrived there.

And so the pioneers continued to lay their dead to rest in the same place where the Moravians buried theirs, and likely the same place that the Ottawa used before that. The cemetery has had many names: Terra Vista, Hillside, Tinker’s Creek cemetery. But growing up there I’d heard its original name of Pilgerruh, and that’s what it’s been to me ever since.

Before long I had reached the top of the hill. I crossed an open field toward a small grove of trees. Before the trees lay 24 tombstones in various states of disrepair. Some had been desecrated by disrespecting teenagers and others by time. An assessment of the stones would reveal 35 names. In these old pioneer cemeteries one always has to assume, though, that some stones have sunk into the ground and others may have been taken by some misguided sort of “collector.” Still, the town historian would estimate the number of dead as no more than 50. I know differently. After all, I had been visiting this place regularly for almost 200 years. I know that the site had also been used as a mass grave for Irish immigrants who were killed or had died throughout the construction of the Ohio Canal. No one thought that their grave was important enough for even one small marker.

As I passed between the stones I read many familiar names. There was the familiar broken stone that marked the final resting place of Roger Comstock. He was the first white man buried at Pilgerruh. Died in 1810 at the age of 40. His stone reads:

“Adieu, to all things here below,

Vain world, I leave thy fleeting toys.

Adieu to sin, fear, pain and woe,

And welcome bright eternal joys.”

In a way, it makes me angry that a person can imagine such comforting thoughts, when I am incapable of it. The concept of death is alien to me, and the concept of an afterlife continues to elude me. After seeing what I have seen, experiencing what I have experienced in my long life I’ve lost the faith in God that I had when I was a child. Perhaps I can discover it again someday.

And so it was, with these thoughts going through my head that I came upon the object marking the purpose of my visit. It was dirty gray in color with chipped edges and a missing corner. It had once been white – bright, shiny white – marble and cost a good deal of money. The text on it is eroded, but still readable after all of these years:

Mary Frances Gillenwater-Carmack 1771 – 1813

Christian Jonathan Carmack 1766 –

Every time I look at it – and I’ve looked at it many times – the first thought that comes into my mind is “Do people wonder what happened to Christian? Did someone forget to chisel in the date of his death? Or is he buried elsewhere? Or did he abandon her?” And every time I come to the same conclusion. Though it may not make much sense I reason that yes, he had abandoned her. If not in life then in death. I abandoned her.

Mary Frances was 14 years old when we first became friends, 17 when we married. I had been 22 years old at the time. Really 22. I say that because after reaching maturity my ageing had slowed significantly. I would end up having to pass myself off as being in my twenties for the next sixty-odd years.

Mary was my first human friend, my first love, my first wife, and regrettably the first loved one that death had taken away from me. Mary Frances passed away at the age of 42, afflicted by rheumatic fever. In some twisted way I had always considered her lucky. While she knew the truth about me and what I was, it remained a secret to others. Soon it would have become harder for her to explain away her husband’s youthful looks.

I imagine that it must have been difficult for her. I told Mary the truth about myself years before we married. It took almost six months before she truly believed me. There was the matter of “fangs” of course. Where were they? After listening to all of the folklore about vampires, people had imagined us to have two-inch long teeth that we’d use to pierce the throats of our victims. In reality my canine teeth – barely one quarter of an inch longer than the others – weren’t as convincing. Others had always assumed that the slightly pronounced, slightly sharper canines on both top and bottom were an ordinary trait in people from our portion of the Eurasian Steppe – whichever portion that may be.

Over time she learned all of the truths about me, and over the 25 years of our marriage she learned just about everything that I knew. Remember that I myself was still “growing up.” She discovered how vampires live at the same time that I did. Mary Frances never pointed out any of my differences or compared me to humans at any time. Life for us was completely ordinary as if nature had intended it to be that way. If all humans and vampires could get along that way we wouldn’t have to hide our identities and mortals could dispel their fears.

I looked down at her grave. If I could trade, I would – happily. At least that way I would know that (if there were an afterlife) we would be together soon. As it is I’d be destined to walk the earth for at least another 450 years. Close enough to an eternity. Would she even remember me? Well, all theology and semantics aside that’s a ridiculous question.

And so, as it had been for the past 196 years, I began our one-sided conversation.

“Hello again Mary Frances. My Love.” I was morose, but after this long there were no more tears left. “I’m in a real pickle this time. Johnny says that it’s a mid-life crisis but I’m just not so convinced. I think there may be something wrong with me… I mean, more wrong with me. God knows that there’s already enough about me that’s wide off the mark.

“But this time I’m worried. Not worried about my physical health but my mental health. Well, not even that really. I’ve been dealing with mental health issues all of my life too. Maybe it’s better to say ‘emotional’ health.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Am I a good person? I mean really, decently, morally good? I killed two men a few days ago. It’s not the first time it’s happened and I realize that sometimes there’s no choice, but this time… this time it was like I wasn’t even in control. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It must have been instinct. Johnny said that we change as we get older. Our true nature begins revealing itself. We begin acting more instinctually. I’m not so sure that I’m comfortable with that.

“I don’t know. I thought of moving on – leaving Indy. Maybe coming home, but… wherever I go, there I am.” I sighed. “I think I’ll stay in town for a while, though. Catch up with old friends. Visit some of the old places. You know, stuff that’ll depress me more.” I laughed to myself. But if you saw the look on my face, you would have known that I was only half joking.

I lay down on the grass, put my arms behind my head and closed my eyes. The sun was already at the horizon, so I could afford to spend some more time outside. “Mind if I hang out here a while longer?”

A cemetery is probably the last place that most people would want to spend the night. But for some reason, being here – next to her – was so comforting. In less than ten minutes I had fallen asleep.

I dreamt about flies. Big, black flies swarming around a carcass of some deceased animal. Disgusting, really. I always awoke from these dreams with a feeling of sadness. And not your average run-of-the-mill melancholy. Unless you are afflicted with manic depressive disorder I don’t think that you could ever really understand the wretchedness of it. When I got into a mood like this it could take me days before I could bring myself to function normally again.

It’s always the feeling of the futility of life that’s the worst part. I can ask the everlasting question: “What is the meaning of life?” But I think I already know the answer. There is no meaning. I am no different from any other animal on earth. I survive only because there is no other choice. I’m part of the life cycle of the planet. I waste space and resources for my given time and then I die, decay, and return to the earth.

What’s the point? While I can admit that my life is worthless, I still do not want to die. Especially in my current absence of belief in God or an afterlife. Couple that with the fact that I’m still jealous of those mortals around me who do believe in God and who do live “normal” lives – living and dying along with their friends and loved ones, instead of watching them come and go.

The thought of it is overwhelming. It makes me want to lie down and stop… stop thinking, stop doing… just stop.

I can appreciate the thinking of suicide victims. While it has never struck me to attempt killing myself there are times when I would do just about anything to make thoughts like these stop racing through my head.

And people wonder why I’m depressed.

I woke up in a panic, flailing at my left ear. A fly had crawled in and was buzzing and jigging its way around trying to get out. Bugs give me the creeps. The fly found its way out and buzzed away – probably crossing its little fly heart with its little fly leg whilst thanking its own little fly god. Forgive the sarcasm.

I felt wetness in my hair. I assumed it was from the damp grass but it also felt sticky. As I drew my hand back and it came into focus I discovered what had attracted the fly in the first place. Blood. Half congealed and diluted with the morning dew by now, I couldn’t really tell how fresh it was – or where it had come from. If it had been my own I would certainly have been able to smell it. I couldn’t tell, though, if it was human or not. It couldn’t be, could it?

I stood up and assessed myself. My shirt was torn. It and my pants had blood on them, not an obscene amount, but still unexpected. I was dazed – still in the cemetery. I must have spent the night there. Or most of the night anyway. Obviously I had gone somewhere. Where had the blood come from?

My heart pounding, I began walking toward the path leading away from the cemetery. Halfway there, I noticed a crumpled form lying on the ground ahead. As I moved closer, I discovered that it was a coyote. Or rather, the remains of a coyote. I finally had a reasonable explanation for the blood and condition of my clothes.

Coyotes don’t usually travel in packs, but they sometimes form small families of four to six. Stumbling upon a lone or injured animal while hunting, they’ll circle and work together to bring it down. Granted, they won’t usually go after something the size of a full grown man. But if I seemed to be lame and they were hungry enough then the possibility existed that they would seize the opportunity. With the diminishing area of wilderness in the valley, the animals were forced to choose between a more challenging hunt or excursions into urban areas.

My pulse slowed and my head began to clear. The fact that I had no memory of what happened during the night was disturbing, but at least I had reason to believe that I hadn’t done anything more terrible than defend myself.

I dusted myself off and arranged my torn shirt as best as I could, then headed for the rise marking the top of the hill. The walk down should be easier than the walk up – always is. I glanced at my cell phone to see what time it was – a little after 6am – and was startled when it began to ring. Johnny’s name was on the screen.

“Hey bud! Made it home safe, I hope.”

I yawned and stretched. “Actually, I haven’t left yet. You’ll never believe what happened.”

“You heard?” he said excitedly.

“Heard what? I was there. Here. Uh, long story. What are you talking about?”

“Another attack. A dude and his dog. Same modus operandi.” He stretched out those last two words.

“Another one! When? I probably would have heard by now if I’d gotten back in time.”

“Umm… no, man. It didn’t happen in Indy. It happened here.”

I stopped walking. My heart skipped a beat and my mouth went so dry that I couldn’t swallow. Fortunately, he didn’t wait for an answer.

“Yeah. Right down by the canal, on the towpath. The police are guessing the guy was out walking his dog around dusk last night. If you were still up there visiting Mary Frances you might have run into him yourself.”

I couldn’t help but think that he was accusing me. If so, was he right? What the hell was going on?

“Dude, you can tell me to go pound salt if you want and I’ll leave this be, but… I think we need to talk.”

“I’ll head over right after I clean up.”

“Clean u… oh. Okay, see ya’ when I see ya’.”

It looked like I would be staying in Ohio for a while longer.”

Driving back to the hotel, I was tempted to turn right and stop where the action was occurring. I slowed down as I drove by the scene. Slow enough to get a peek, but not so slow that someone would notice my appearance.

Five police cars, an ambulance, the coroner and two unmarked police cars (which I assumed to be detectives) had gathered in the parking lot near the trailhead at Lock 39. There was also a crowd of people gathered – rubberneckers who’d come to see the carnage. Although I disliked people who made asses of themselves and had no respect for the dead, this time I was tempted to join them. Had I not been covered in mud and gore I probably would have.

My curiosity did get the best of me, however, and I turned around at the nearest cross street and doubled back. I passed the scene again, still not getting any better of a look than the first time. But I continued on down the road to the next trailhead. When I got there and after a quick look around to make sure that no one saw me, I made a dash for the marsh on the other side of the towpath. My plan was to make my way back to Lock 39 hidden from view.

I got back to the crime scene within minutes. I had expected something gruesome, but from my excellent vantage point I had a sharp view of something far more horrific than I had imagined. There were still pieces of flesh distributed on and around the path, and there were two officers standing in the canal with nets attempting to sieve out any more evidence that may have fallen in. They’d have to drain the canal soon to continue with the investigation. Quickly too, or the catfish that I know inhabit the canal would be stealing it away literally by the mouthful.

It was almost impossible to tell what I was looking at. Were it not for the clothing still wrapped around some mangled limbs I wouldn’t have recognized it as a man. From the looks of it – and a distinct smell – the man’s dog had been included in the attack. Even though it may sound callous, I felt more sympathy for the dog than the man. Humans communicate, they deliberate, and they make choices. But dogs just follow along blindly trusting their entire lives to their masters. It’s hard to explain. It ticked me off, though. Killing dogs is taboo to our kind. Even the Brukolak avoid harming dogs.

The police would probably eventually pass this incident off as some sort of bizarre animal attack. There were black bear repopulating the area – supposedly, though none had been seen yet. But in their hearts, people would know that even a bear would not be capable of this degree of a massacre. It would provide a convenient excuse, though. And even when something cannot be explained, peoples need a sense of closure will allow them to accept even the lamest of theories. I knew better, though. This was clearly a display of violence that could easily be attributed to a really pissed off vampire.

Part 5

I had to clean up, but where? I could not go to a motel or hotel looking like I did. I knew that I could trust Johnny, but for some reason I could not bring myself to go there. I didn’t want the questions right now.

Fortunately, my father lived nearby. I hadn’t seen him in a while. Although he was a Brukolak, he was a quiet man. He kept to himself. After my mother died he sort of holed up. He took care of himself, but he never searched for another love. As a Brukolak, he should have been an intense man – at his age killing without regard – but he was not. He lived a solemn life. I cannot imagine how at this point in time, but perhaps it will come to me with age.

I had taken advantage of my long life and invested in stocks and bonds which gave me a comfortable living, but my father had not. He owned a modest double home in Garfield Heights, a suburb of Cleveland not far from the valley. Normally a ten minute drive, it took me closer to half an hour as I stuck to the back roads and side streets. All I needed was to be delayed at a stop light and have someone look over at me. It seems like everyone has a cell phone these days, and if spotted it wouldn’t be long before I would be explaining myself to the law.

When I arrived at my father’s house, I rang the bell at the side door. No answer… but his knees had been bothering him recently and I wasn’t surprised if it took him a while to get to the door. He usually left it unlocked, but it was not at this time. After several tries at the bell, I knocked at the door. I waited what seemed like an appropriate amount of time and then decided to let myself in rather than linger in the driveway waiting for a curious neighbor to see me.

I knew from previous experience that my father kept a key hidden behind a joist under the rear porch. I pulled aside the wood lattice covering the crawlspace, reached under the eave, and fumbled around for a bit before feeling the cool metal. I retrieved the key and used it to unlock the door, then returned it to its hiding place, replacing the lattice afterward.

When I entered the house I called out but received no response. After a quick search I gathered that he was not home. He was probably either out doing his grocery shopping or he had gone to the cemetery to visit with my mother. Possibly both. Using a wall-mounted button inside the doorway, I opened the garage door and quickly pulled my vehicle inside. Again, I didn’t want to invite the prying neighbors to wonder about the strange car in the drive; especially as they probably knew that my father had gone out. Sure enough, when the garage door opened I noticed that my father’s vehicle was missing. I pulled my car into the garage. Cleaning it up would have to wait. In the interim, a spare blanket taken from the utility shelf and thrown over the seat would have to do. I guess that the extra cost for Scotchguarding the upholstery was money well spent. I closed the garage door and headed back inside, locking the door to the house behind me.

As I mentioned, the house was a duplex. It consisted of four stories: a fairly large attic space, an upper apartment that was currently unoccupied, a lower apartment where my father lived, and a finished basement where he had his workshop. He fills his time now with woodworking. All of the floors were accessible from the back stairwell. I knew that there was a laundry room and shower in the basement, so in order to leave as little mess as possible I headed down the steps.

I removed my boots and stripped off my blood-stained clothes. The boots were pretty much a lost cause. A shame, since the only place that I’ve been able to get them is a shop down in San Marcos, Texas. I have to order them and have them shipped, meaning that it could take a while before I got another pair. Then there’s the breaking-in period. What an inconvenience. The clothes got thrown in my father’s washing machine. I loaded up the detergent, set the machine for “sanitize,” and hit start.

While waiting for my clothes to finish washing, I hit the bathroom. Grabbing a towel from the linen closet, I set off for the shower. I turned up the water until it was the hottest I could handle. The water felt good on my aching body. I had been so distracted by the events of the morning that I hadn’t even noticed the dull ache in my back caused by sleeping on the ground all night – or doing whatever else I had done while apparently sleepwalking. The water sluiced off all of the blood and gore, and it felt especially good to get the stickiness out of my hair. The spot in my scalp where I had been cut stung, but was healing already and felt like more of a scratch.

I dried off and wrapped the towel around my waist. By now the laundry was ready for the drier. How long had I been in the shower? After transferring the wet clothes to the drier and starting it up, I decided to give my boots a try in the washtub next to the laundry room; and I managed to get them passably clean. Then, anticipating a wait on the clothes, I laid down on an old couch in the basement’s rec room and allowed myself a short nap.

I must have dropped off pretty quickly, as the next thing I remember was waking up to the sound of the drier’s alarm indicating that my clothes were ready. I reached up and felt the back of my head. Sure enough, the wound had healed up completely. It must not have been too bad.

I dressed and climbed the stairs to my father’s apartment, only to find that he had still not arrived home. I helped myself to some food from his fridge. I was famished. Just as a side note, even if I had “fed” on blood during the night it didn’t provide much nourishment. In a healthy vampire, ingested blood is immediately absorbed in his stomach in order to augment the body’s lymphatic system. Granted, a small amount eventually ends up in the digestive tract, it certainly isn’t enough to be very filling.

Still carrying the third ham and cheese sandwich that I had thrown together, I walked to the living room and flicked on the television. It was around noon and the local news had just come on. Sure enough, the top story concerned what had been discovered down by the canal the previous evening. Although I had seen it in person, I still had a desire to pay attention to what the talking heads had to say about it. Turns out that they knew even less than I did. I tried a few more channels with no luck and then turned the television off.

I thought it over and I wasn’t ready to face Johnny just yet. I needed some time to clear my head, and I knew just the place to do it. A hike in Hocking Hills would do the trick. One of my favorite places to visit, it was about a three hour drive from Garfield Heights. Some time spent in the car would be a welcome respite, also.

My father still hadn’t arrived home, so I left a note on his kitchen table explaining that I had been by and used his facilities. The shower stall was probably still wet and there was a used towel on the drying rack in the bathroom, not to mention the missing food from the refrigerator. The note would spare him from imagining a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” scenario. As a last minute thought, I also called Johnny and begged off our visit, promising him that I’d see him the next day.

Still feeling a bit fatigued, I stopped off at a coffee shop near the freeway entrance on my way. I had been there before. It wasn’t exactly a café on an Italian piazza but the espresso was good. I ordered a double shot to go and got back in the car. With a song by Imagine Dragons on the radio, I headed out. As soon as the song finished I turned the radio off and began parsing the week’s events in my head.

By the time I reached the Hocking Hills state park, dusk was quickly drawing near. It was humid, and there was a thickening fog settling close to the forest floor. Nevertheless, I parked at the picnic area near the upper rim trail of Cedar Falls.

If one were to venture down the lower gorge of Old Man’s Creek, you would eventually enter the picturesque valley of Queer Creek. At the point where Old Man’s Creek merges with Queer Creek, the trail takes an abrupt turn east and enters this new valley. The trail leading to Cedar Falls passes through the most austere area in Hocking Hills. This remote, primitive chasm is laden with hemlock and bound by steep rock walls and their accompanying grottos and waterfalls. It is a wild and lonely but spectacularly beautiful place.

Cedar Falls itself is the largest waterfall in terms of volume in the Hocking region. Queer Creek tumbles over the face of the Blackhand sandstone displaying the awesome force of water power. Cedar Falls was misnamed by early white settlers who mistook the stately hemlocks for cedars.

Despite the rapidly approaching twilight and the fog, there was a full moon, so I set off down the rim trail toward the top of the falls. I soon left the trail and walked through the trees. There was little chance of meeting any sightseers nearby, as the park had closed an hour before sunset, but I didn’t want to take any chances of running into a stray tourist or park ranger.

After about a quarter of an hour the voices in my head had finally begun to quiet. The sound of water bubbling over river rocks made me conscious of the fact that I was near the creek. From my previous visits, I knew that the creek ran close to the rim of the gorge and I would have to be careful of the almost invisible edge of the cliffs. Many a visitor – usually two or three per season – walked too close to the edge and had unwittingly fallen to their death. I didn’t know if it would kill me, but a forty foot fall onto the rocks below would surely spoil an otherwise relaxing evening.

The moonlight filtering through the trees gave me a field of vision extending barely beyond fifteen feet, and I could swear that I caught a glimpse of something out of the ordinary just shy of that distance. When I glanced over I saw nothing but trees, and yet every time I returned my eyes to the ground in front of me, the apparition reappeared. I finally looked over and caught sight of her: a young girl, perhaps thirteen years old. She was very pale except for her vivid blue eyes. Her almost platinum colored hair hung spread untidily about her shoulders. She wore a somewhat threadbare white dress and was not wearing shoes.

“Hey,” I called out softly, so as not to startle her. “What are you doing out here at this time of night? Are your parents nearby?”

She just stared at me, mute.

“The park is closed you know. Are you lost? I can take you back to the parking lot – find your family or a ranger. I’m sure that someone must be looking for you.”

Still no answer.

“Can you hear me?”

She spoke so softly, it was barely audible over the sound of the creek. “Like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned ’round walks on, and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.”

“Uh… yeah. Rime of the Ancient Mariner, right? Are you lost?” I repeated.

“A drop of blood can be so intriguing. It can pull at the heartstrings or create butterflies in your stomach.”

“Okay honey, you’re creeping me out. Do you have a name?”

“I want to die, but he cursed me to live. He whispered in my ear and took my pain. My soul I did offer him to take, but instead he sat me atop his knee and said ‘You will live forever for what you have done.’”

A nauseating revelation came to me. “Are you a vampire?”

She looked unreservedly saddened by the accusation. “If you call me such a beast, then a beast I shall be. For I have no soul.”

“I don’t think that vampires are beasts, nor are they soul-less.”

“You must think that a monster cannot be loved but that is far from true. But… only a demon could possibly love a sinner.”

“I don’t think…”

“I breathed my last so long ago but human I must remain, for human thoughts are never far.”

Was I dreaming? Hallucinating? Were the voices in my head finally taking on a corporeal form? “Are you a specter?”

“Yes, but the blood still calls to me. I desire to satisfy my thirst.”

“Why are you here?”

“The things and memories that happened here can never be forgotten, or forgiven. So I must remain.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head as if I could clear her image from my mind, but when I opened them she was still there. “I can’t say that I have ever seen the ghost of a vampire before. What happened to you? You look so young.”

“Am I really so unusual that I deserve such prejudice from you who acts as king?”

“Acts as king?”

“Look at yourself, so noble and wise,” she spat. “An emperor so bold as to slay your own kin without thought. I tell you, king; all things that live must end!”

What was she accusing me of? “’Slay my own kin?’ I’ve never… Vampires don’t kill other vampires. It’s just not done.”

“I have said enough for now but I leave you a parting gift. A curse given both foul and fair.”

“Wait. I have questions.”

For the first time, she showed some hint of emotion. She smiled. “Do you find the view atop a cliff to be picturesque? Then stand and spread your arms, breathe in deeply, and take just one step.” And with that, she rushed towards me.

Maybe I just thought that she pushed me. I don’t remember actually being touched; just feeling a cold wind. All the same, I stumbled backward and fell over the edge of the embankment which I had unsuspectingly come close to while talking to the girl. I tumbled into the creek. It wasn’t very deep, but the creek bed was slick with algae and I couldn’t find purchase among the rocks. I skated along the smooth sandstone, driven forward by the rushing water, and within seconds quietly slipped over the edge of the falls.

I awoke to the sound of rushing water. It was much louder than the creek’s peaceful bubbling sound. I forced my eyelids open and saw that I was now at the bottom of the falls, and the sound was coming from the water plunging down the cliff face into a deep pool at the base of the falls. I spat out a mouthful of sand. I was not in the water, but laying face down on a sandbar between the pool and a rivulet of Old Man’s Creek. I stood up, dusted myself off, and took in my surroundings.

It was morning. I could tell by the sun’s position low in the eastern sky. I didn’t know the exact time, because my watch was apparently not as waterproof as had been advertised. I was certain that the park should have been bustling with visitors by then, as it opened at dawn, but the viewing platform half way up the cliff was empty. There were no children splashing in the creek and no tourists snapping pictures from the banks. I thought it odd, but perhaps it was for the best. I can only imagine what they would have thought when they saw me laying in the sand.

I inventoried myself and was pleased to find that my clothes were clean this time. Wet, but free of blood – which I considered to be a good sign after waking up in a strange place with a lot of lost time having passed. Moreover, I had no visible injuries. I cracked my back, rinsed the sand out of my boots, and began squishing my way up the bank.

There were two ways up to the rim trail: multiple tiers of stone steps, and a longer gently sloping switchback trail. I opted to take the trail up to the rim since that would put me closer to the parking lot. I trudged up the trail, knowing that it would be a long hike. It was already getting hot out and with my wet clothes I wouldn’t be able to sweat much. It wasn’t going to be a fun hike.

I was about a half mile up the trail when I noticed a group of people a ways up the hill. As I drew closer, I was able to make out that some of them were wearing uniforms – police and park ranger uniforms. There were some other men who were not in uniform but I could tell from their animated exchanges with the others that they were involved in whatever operation was going on.

Before I got close enough to ask any questions, one of the rangers walked down the switchback and held up his hand, palm facing out. “Hold on there, sir. You’ll have to turn around. Trail’s closed.”

“I’m just heading to the parking lot.”

“Sorry, but you’ll have to backtrack and take the steps up. Can’t go through this way.”

It was then that I caught sight of what had the group’s attention. A bloodstained sheet lay on the ground in the center of the crowd, apparently with something underneath. My heart began beating faster and my mind started racing again. What had happened? The ranger must have noticed the flush in my face. He followed my gaze up the hill towards the sheet.

“Say… you wouldn’t happened to have seen or heard anything strange this morning, did you?”

“No sir. Why? What’s going on?”

He looked back towards the group again, as if to make sure that no one was looking over at us. Like he was about to divulge a secret. “Woman was killed up on the trail this morning.”

“Are you certain that it was this morning, and not last night?” I asked, instantly wincing and regretting the way I had phrased the question.

“Hmm. Could have been last night, I suppose. You sure that you didn’t hear anything?”

“No sir. I mean yes, sir. Yes, I am sure that I didn’t hear anything. Or see anything.” I could tell that the flush was coming back. “I just got here myself.”

It wasn’t until then that he took in my wet clothes. “Been swimming, have you?”

“Er, just slipped on some rocks crossing the creek. I’m headed back to my car now.”

He looked me over one more time and must have decided to dismiss me. “Alright. Sorry about the detour. I know it’s hot out and climbing those steps isn’t fun – even on a cool day – but it’s a mess up there on the trail. Trust me; I’m saving you from a lot of sleepless nights by sending you the long way ‘round.”

Shit. It sounded as if it was as bad as I had suspected. I thanked him and started on my way back down the trail. I was about fifty yards away when the ranger had a thought.

“Oh, hey! Why don’t I give you a number where you can reach me in case you remember anything that might be helpful!” he called out. I pretended not to hear him and kept walking, not daring to glance back.

“ Well then just ring up the Hocking County Sheriff’s Department if you remember anything! ‘kay?”

It didn’t sound like he was following me. Must not have been that important. He obviously didn’t consider me to be a suspect. When I found out the details of what had happened in the news the next day, I understood why. The culprit was clearly not a man – or a woman for that matter. No human could have been responsible for what happened. It was obviously another “bear attack.”

Part 6

The next morning, I headed out for Johnny’s place. On the way, I picked up a newspaper and stopped at the coffee shop again. I ordered an espresso and sat down at a small table in the far corner of the shop, as far out of the way of the other customers as I could get. I unfolded the newspaper and began to search for the account of the incident in Hocking Hills. I didn’t need to look very far. It had made the front page. “Serial killer?” it questioned. Well, the press jumped to that assumption pretty quickly. At least now they were being realistic and not attempting to blame these atrocities on wild animals. Maybe the detectives thought that they could get further in their investigation if they were honest with the public.

I scanned through the article. There was not much to go on at that point except for conjecture. I finished my espresso and dropped the newspaper onto an empty table on my way out of the shop. It was time to head to Johnny’s and face the music.

I let myself in at Johnny’s flat. He was seated at his desk, working on his latest novel. I could see that he still used a pencil, shunning the practice of using the laptop computer placed alongside him. My friend is a fantastic writer. “Have a seat dude. I’ll be with you in a sec,” he said without turning around. I cleared some well-worn composition pads from a chair and sat down.

When Johnny finally turned around after what seemed like forever, he had a concerned and sober look on his face. I related the story of the mysterious girl that I had met on the trail the day before and then steeled myself for what I would tell him next.

“There’s something else, Johnny.”

“You didn’t do it, man,” he responded before I could even finish. “I heard it on the news this morning, and I’ll tell you right now that you didn’t do it.”

I was incredulous. “Surely I’m in a better position to speculate about this than you are.”

“No. You’re too close to the subject. I know you better than you know yourself. Take it from an outsider and a good friend. I am confident that you didn’t kill that woman. I’m pretty sure that you weren’t involved with any of the other murders, either.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, first of all – and perhaps the most important – is that I know you. I know what you are like; what you have been like ever since I met you. Even in a blackout, you wouldn’t be capable of killing an innocent. Think back to what happened in Indy. You couldn’t even bring yourself to stop that guy who tried to mug you, and he was far from innocent.”

I took a moment to process that. “But…”

“…and if that’s not enough to convince you,” Johnny continued, “then consider this: I’ve been doing some research on the dillio. You know, the “inter web thingy.” These murders started long before you first noticed them. In the past year there have been eleven others, each instance coming closer and closer to where you’ve been. And since the incident in Indy, they have been coinciding with wherever you go.”

“But why?”

“That I do not know, my friend. But I get the feeling that it’s very important that we find out. The sooner the better – before someone puts two and two together and starts jumping to the wrong conclusion. I mean, you’re already starting to question yourself. Just think about the consequences if the authorities were to catch wind of the coincidences.”

I did think about it, and he was right. There was a trail of credit card receipts putting me in close proximity to the last three murder scenes within a short period of time. It wouldn’t take a genius to identify a pattern.

I snapped back into the present. “So what do I do?”

“Well,” Johnny said, “ordinarily I would be tempted to tell you to put as much distance as you can between these crime scenes and yourself. But my gut feeling tells me that’s not going to be possible. I think that somehow, you’ve picked up an admirer.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“Well, let’s think about this for a minute. I guess the next step would be to get some advice from someone who’s been around the block a few times.”

“More than you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re the oldest vampire I know, Johnny. Who else is there?”

He paused, as if he was unsure of whether to continue. He finally spoke. “Moredechai. We need Mordechai’s advice.”

“Where can I find this Mordechai?”

Johnny paused again. I could tell that he was hesitant about whether or not to go on. “First off, you’re not going alone. I’ll come with you.”

“Fine. Where is he?”

“In their nest,” he almost whispered.

“What? Who’s ne…”

“The Nosferatu.”

The Erie Street Cemetery is Cleveland’s oldest existing cemetery. When the land was first acquired by the Village of Cleaveland in 1826, it was considered far enough from the center of town that it wouldn’t get in the way of new construction. Occupants of the more centrally-located Ontario Street Cemetery were exhumed and reburied there. Today, downtown Cleveland towers all around this spacious, shady piece of land; the city has grown and expanded over the decades, but the graveyard has remained essentially unchanged for more than 175 years.

The Nosferatu have been around a lot longer than the cemetery. Occasionally, they are obliged to relocate if their nest is disturbed or discovered by humans. As I’ve explained before, they – as do most vampires – prefer to keep their interactions with humans discreet.

Johnny explained that this particular colony of Nosferatu had come to the cemetery sometime during the 19th century. They formed their lair in an underground chapel located below a vacant crypt. The doors of the crypt were locked from the inside, and no one inconvenienced the inhabitants afterward.

No one, at least no one I have ever met, knows where the Nosferatu come from. There has never been a record of one being born or of one dying. That being said, a colony usually maintains its size over time. I have no clue how members of a colony are chosen, and Johnny was unable to enlighten me on that topic. The nest under Erie Street Cemetery was home to a dozen of the creatures. One of them was Mordechai, whom Johnny argued could be trusted. That still left eleven Nosferatu that needed to be avoided.

Johnny made an attempt to calm my nerves. “Don’t worry, dude. They sleep most of the time. Sleep like the dead. No pun intended. It’s almost impossible to wake them unless they are hungry.”

“What if they’re hungry?”

“Then we’re fucked. Just try to be quiet and don’t touch anything.”

We reached the door and then realized that we had forgotten about it being locked. A wave of relief washed over me as I grasped the fact that we couldn’t get in. “Well, so much for our adventure.”

“No way, dude. We’ve come this far,” said Johnny as he threw himself against the door. It didn’t budge, so he repeated throwing his shoulder into the large, cast bronze door. After a few more tries, it burst open with a squeal of long neglected hinges. As the door reached the end of its travel, it crashed against the stones of the inner wall.

“What happened to being quiet?”

“Sorry man, I forgot.” Johnny was apologetic, but he seemed anxious. He appeared manic. That did not bode well.

The inside of the crypt was fairly well lit due to a series of transom windows running along the tops of the walls. Most of the glass was long gone, welcoming the elements inside. Although our eyes worked well in low light, we had brought flashlights because the underground chapel was likely to be in total darkness. There were two stone burial vaults in the center of the small room, one with its lid cracked and half removed. It was empty, and we assumed that the other was, too. There was a thick layer of dust on the floor. I was the first to notice the disturbing marks in the dust. Not footprints, but obviously a sign that something had walked over the floor. Even those prints were partially filled in with another thinner deposit of powder, indicating that no one (or no thing) had been through this way in a while.

I allowed my eyes to follow the trail of prints to the back of the crypt and a very small door. It was about four feet square and made of wood banded together with iron straps. Fortunately for us, there were no locks on this door; just an iron ring in the center.

“Let’s try to be quiet this time, okay Johnny?”

“Gotcha’.”

This time, I took the lead and eased open the door as gently as I could. It opened with very little effort to reveal a set of stone steps leading down into inky darkness. The steps were mostly clear of dirt and dust, but I could still make out faint imprints matching those on the floor of the crypt. I clicked on my flashlight and we began making our way down into the shadows.

The stone staircase was much longer than I had anticipated. We were moving deep underground. We finally reached what I assumed to be the chapel floor, but I was only able to make a guess at that point because as I searched with my flashlight, the beam of light disappeared into the darkness before reaching any walls. The chapel was far bigger than the actual crypt, and must have extended at least fifty yards in every direction. I could see that the ceiling was composed of vaults and arches soaring high over the floor. It was opulently adorned with paintings and plaster ornaments, both showing signs of age.

“So, where to now?” I asked.

“Dunno’. Just start walking until we reach a wall, and then we’ll work our way around until we find Mordechai.”

“And how will we know Mordechai from the rest of them?”

Johnny thought for a moment, and then said “He’ll be the one who doesn’t try to kill us. I hope.”

The flashlights clearly weren’t doing the trick. I flashed the beam around as I began to walk, to no avail. Then it lit upon a chandelier in the ceiling, holding the stubs of twelve pillar candles.

“Johnny, check it out.”

“Just what we needed,” he replied as he reached in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette lighter.”

“I thought you gave up smoking.”

“Well, I did… cigarettes, anyway.”

Ah. Old habits die hard.

He tried to justify it. “It’s solely a spiritual thing, man.”

Johnny reached up and began lighting the candles. As my eyes adjusted to the light, which now seemed to fill the room, I peered around the chapel.

“Oh shit. Johnny…”

Still focused on the remaining candles, he replied “Just a sec, bud,” “Johnny. Take a look,” I repeated, tapping him on the shoulder.

He lit the last candle and turned around. Then he continued turning, taking in the scene that we stood in the center of. “Holy…”

“There’s absolutely nothing holy about it, dude.”

Directly below us, the marble floor of the chapel was inlaid with a highly ornate compass rose – an eight pointed star shape of different colored marble. Following the fleurs-de-lis at the four largest points of the star led to the four walls of the square room. The walls were built of of stacked stone, and each wall had four built-in niches horizontal to the floor. Eleven of these niches were occupied by, to all outward appearances sleeping, bizarre creatures.

Each Nosferatu was disfigured in a unique way, all equally awful. Some had strange serrated proboscises, some with near translucent skin, and others whose disfigurements were similar to those of leprosis.

We spent a few moments taking it all in. I was the first to perceive the significance of what we were looking at. “Johnny,” I said, “I thought you said that there were twelve.”

“Yeah man, I can count. Eleven. Ain’t that a pity.”

“So, which one is Mordechai?” I questioned.

“Mmm… that one. I think.”

“You think? I thought you knew him.”

“I know of him. Pshht. What do you think I am? A Nosferatu expert?”

“Well, then what makes you think that’s him?”

Johnny started to speak, and then halted. He thought it over for a few seconds, and then said “He’s definitely the ugliest. And he’s supposed to be the elder. So the elder should be the ugliest, right?”

“Damn it, let’s just get this over with.” I started to traipse off toward the creature that we assumed was Mordechai, but Johnny grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back into the center of the compass rose.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there quick-draw. You don’t just go waking up a Nosferatu. You have to, er… prepare or something.”

“Need I ask how?”

“Watch and learn, bud. Watch and learn.”

Johnny faced one of the walls, lining himself up with one of the fleurs-de-lis. He took a wad of paper from his pocket, smoothed it out, and studied it for a minute. Then he closed his eyes and said “Hail Chichiri, great One of the East, whose airy eyes see all in the Element of Air! I do summon you here to protect and defend us.” He turned ninety degrees. “Hail Tamahome, great One of the North, whose green eyes see all in the Element of Earth! I do summon you here to protect and defend us.” Again he turned. “Hail Hotohori, great One of the West, whose liquid eyes see all in the Element of Water! I do summon you here to protect and defend us.” He turned a final time and said “Hail Tasuki, great One of the South, whose bright eyes see all in the Element of Fire! I do summon you here to protect and defend us.”

His eyes popped open and he gave me one of his goofy grins. “Okay pal, let’s go.”

“Seriously? That’s preparing?”

“Yeah.”

“A spell!” I scoffed. “Since when do you believe in magic?”

He looked wounded. “It’s more like voodoo, dude.”

“Whatever. Can we go now?” Then another thought occurred to me. “How did you know?”

“Know what?” he replied.

“How did you know that you were facing in the right direction?”

“Huh!” he exclaimed, raising his eyebrows. “I didn’t even think about it.”

He marched toward the creature that we were assuming was Mordechai. He walked slower and more carefully so that his footsteps no longer echoed in the great room. We stopped within a few feet of the niche. A little too close for comfort but if all I’d heard about the Nosferatu was true, a thousand feet was likely too close for comfort. I asked if there were any other “preparations” we had to make.

“Glad you asked brother. As a matter of fact, there are.” He pulled out the scrap of paper and began to read again. “I call upon the Ancient One from the great abyss to do my bidding. I invoke the creatures of the underworld to hear me now.”

“Now?” I asked.

“Now.”

Before we could make a move to wake him, Mordechai stirred. In a gravelly voice he asked “Who is it that tries to invoke a hopeless spell beside me?”

I gave Johnny the evil eye. “See!” I hissed. “Voodoo my ass.”

Mordechai spoke again. “Shall I kill you now or do you have anything intelligent to say first? I sense that you are a vampire. Do you not know that it was unwise to wake me?”

“We came seeking knowledge, Ancient One. It’s a very important matter to us. It could turn out to be important to many. One of our kind is invoking the wrath of the humans and it could jeopardize the way of life for all of us.”

The Nosferatu narrowed his eyes and stared at us. “Who is this one?” I took a turn speaking, thinking it wiser than letting Johnny continue. “We don’t know. That is why we came seeking your advice.”

“Tell me,” he said.

I spent the next hour recounting the events of late, and the story about the girl in the park. Mordechai showed no emotion during most of it, but he seemed a little ill at ease when I relayed some of the girl’s odd riddles. When I finished he spoke in a measured tone.

“How did you get past the guardian?” he asked, sounding a bit perturbed.

I looked over at Johnny and he just shrugged his shoulders. “What guardian?”

“Don’t concern yourself. It seems that it does not matter.” He pursed his shriveled lips. “Are you certain that the specter called you a king and accused you of slaying your own kin?”

“Oh yes. I’ll never forget that.”

“Those were her exact words?”

“To the letter.”

“All things that live must end…” the Nosferatu mused. He seemed to ponder the idea for a bit in silence. The minutes went by as if they were hours. He finally spoke.

“Leave now, and never return. I have grown tired of you.

“Wha..?”

“Be gone, pretender! My brothers and I shall allow you to live. Be joyful that we are sparing you, and do not inconvenience us again!”

Feeling despondent, Johnny and I decided to make a quick exit before Mordechai could change his mind. He hadn’t exactly been whispering when he admonished us, and some of the other Nosferatu stirred. Johnny and I began to hurriedly make our way toward the stairs. As we crossed the floor Johnny grabbed me and dragged me back into the compass rose.

“I know that it’s superstitious, but humor me!” he pleaded.

Again, he extracted his piece of paper and read it – more rapidly this time. Then he shut his eyes and began speaking in short bursts. “Farewell Chichiri! My thanks for your protection and defense. Depart in peace, blessed be!” Turn. “Farewell Tamahome! My thanks for your protection and defense. Depart in peace, blessed be!” Turn. “Farewell Hotohori! My thanks for your protection and defense. Depart in peace, blessed be!” Turn. “Farewell Tasuki! My thanks for your protection and defense. Depart in peace, blessed be!” Then he raised his arms and said “My thanks to all who have helped here this night. Depart in peace, blessed be!”

Satisfied that he was done, I said “Alright, let’s get out of here while we still can.” We climbed the stairs and exited the chapel through the small wooden door, closing it tightly behind us and wishing now that it had a lock. Once back in the well lit crypt, we paused to catch our breath. I stared at the burial vaults that we had noticed on our way in. The empty one on the right with the cracked lid, and the closed one that we had assumed was empty.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m not saying that I believe in all that hooey, but what if you were facing in the wrong direction?”

“Um,” he paused. “Nah! I had it right.”

“Because you weren’t facing the same way as you were when we entered the chapel.”

I had barely spoken the words when the stone lid of the vault – the vault that I was now praying was empty – shot into the air. A creature so unimaginably horrible exploded out of the vault. It was the twelfth Nosferatu. The one that was missing from his niche in the chapel. It was obvious that he… it was the guardian.

It clawed its way towards us with inconceivable speed, snarling and showing off rows upon rows of needle-like teeth. It attacked Johnny first. Not one to waste time, it went right for his throat. It wrapped its fingers around his neck. Each of them was like a knife. I could see blood welling up under them, and it didn’t even appear to be applying pressure yet. It twisted Johnny’s head and bent it backwards, exposing his throat for a fatal assault by its bristling mouth.

I sprang into action, unsure of what to do. The first thing that came to mind was to grab one half of the cracked stone slab that had covered the empty burial vault. I swung it at the back of the Nosferatu’s skull as hard as I could. The lid was made of soapstone, largely composed of the mineral talc. It is commonly used for carving because of its relative softness. Unfortunately, soapstone is not the best choice for bludgeoning an undead creature from Hell. The vault lid virtually disintegrated as it struck the guardian, and it didn’t appear to faze him at all.

I frantically looked around the crypt for something else to use as a weapon, but it was sparsely furnished. Aside from the burial vaults, the only other features in the room were two stone benches – built into the walls and probably also made of the useless soapstone – and the doors leading into and out of the crypt. My eyes came to rest upon the small wooden door. On its iron bands in particular. I reached for it and, once opened, tore it from its hinges. I smashed the door against the corner of one of the vaults, splitting the wood. A few more strikes against the stone reduced the wooden part of the door to splinters, freeing the iron bands. I pulled one loose and shifted my attention back to the creature and my friend.

I wrapped the strip of iron around the Nosferatu’s neck and pulled with all of my strength, bracing my foot against its back. I prayed that the aged and rusty iron was still pliable and wouldn’t shatter like the brittle soapstone. The band bent, encircling the creature’s throat, but it held without snapping. I continued applying pressure to my makeshift garrote until it cut into the guardian’s throat. I could see the wound opening up, the flesh parting, but no blood came from it. It must have caused the creature some pain, though, because after a few seconds it released Johnny from its death grip and clawed at the bar, ripping it out of my hands and drawing blood from my fingers.

I was more than pleased with myself until the beast turned its attention to me. It whipped its head around and gave me a close up of its frightening maw. I could smell its cold, fetid breath. Johnny had sunk to the floor and was gasping for air. He wasn’t going to be able to come to my aid as I did for him.

The Nosferatu lunged at me and again, pure instinct led my actions. I extended my arms toward it, intending to halt its advance, but instead was surprised when both hands entered his chest. They seemed to pass through his leathery skin and spread his ribs as easily as parting a pair of curtains. This seemed to shock him as much as it did me. Continuing on my course of action, I could feel my hands close around his two hearts. Like the stone, they also exhibited signs of excessive age. They were hard and felt more like gristle than flesh. Yet, due to their pumping motion I sensed that they were indeed the life-giving engines that were driving this seemingly unstoppable creature.

I withdrew my arms from its chest, leaving two open wounds that also did not bleed. In my hands I held the two hearts, still beating feebly. The guardian gave me a piercing look, as if it were gazing into my very soul. I was doubtful that it was capable of any emotion save for hatred, but I could swear that there was a sadness in its eyes. Or perhaps it was relief – a lifting of the curse of eternal life. Without uttering a sound, it silently dropped to the ground. When it hit the stone floor of the crypt the creature’s body literally shattered into pieces.

I looked over at Johnny and saw him staring back at me. He looked dumbfounded by what he had just witnessed. He was still catching his breath and rubbing his neck, noticing the blood on his hand when he drew it back.

“Dude,” he croaked, “What have you done?”

“I think that I just saved your life, brother.”

“Yeah, but… you just killed a Nosferatu. I didn’t even think that was possible.”

I sat down heavily on one of the stone benches, trying to take it all in. It had been over so quickly.

“Are you the king?” a voice hissed out of the darkness beyond where the wooden door had hung.

“What?” I answered.

“Are you the king?” said Mordechai as he slipped out of the shadows and entered the crypt.

“I told you, I have no idea what the specter was talking about! None of it made any sense to me! I’ve never slain my own…” And then it hit me.

Mordechai stepped closer to me. He leaned in and whispered into my ear. “You are the king. You have slain your own kin. ‘All things that live must end.’”

It was all I could do not to speak. I wanted to contradict him. I wanted to ask questions. I wanted to deny everything, but I knew that nothing would change the circumstances. So I just sat there quietly and waited for the Nosferatu to speak again.

“Surely you have heard the rhyme that mothers tell their children when they misbehave. ‘The Remover is coming to clean up the frail. The monsters and demons, the sick and the pale… As with most children’s’ fairy tales, it is rooted in truth. There is a prophecy that one will come to purge the weak from our kindred. Both the physically weak, and the spiritually weak.

You have taken the life of our Guardian. He was weak. He was very old, but too stubborn to die – as we all are. Still, for one such as you to slay a Nosferatu is unheard of. I refused to believe it, but you have fulfilled the prophecy.” Mordechai paused and cocked his head. “My brothers are awakening. You must leave. Even one such as you cannot fend off ten Nosferatu.”

I was in no position to argue with him. I wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. I helped Johnny to his feet. Both of us were startled at the scratching sounds and murmuring that we could hear emanating from the small doorway. Johnny, having come as close to death as he had ever been before, began to look panicked.

I had one more question. “So what does this mean, Ancient One?” “You are the one sent to fulfill the prophecy. The rogue responsible for the murders you told me of has been drawn to you, as will others like him be drawn to you. You were destined to be the one to cleanse the race of them. Do you not see the light now? You are the Remover.”

Those were the final words he spoke to us. With that he turned, lifting his arms, and tried to block the small doorway. “Leave them be, brothers!” But it was a futile effort on his part. Within seconds, the other Nosferatu came pouring through the opening. I put my arm around Johnny and supported him the best I could, and we ran for the bronze crypt doors. Once through, I pulled them shut behind us. The Nosferatu did not follow. It had been a day filled with close calls which we had somehow survived. I had the feeling that the future would hold a lot more.

Part 7

Dear R.,

So, I am certain that you’ve Googled everything by now. The study done at IU, the names, the places, the events… And you know that I haven’t been lying to you. So you must think that I’m either crazy or a murderer. Possibly both. I ask you to indulge me for a bit longer, though. Lord knows that I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

I’m sure that you’ve realized it by now, but if you want me to admit it to you in not so many words then I will. I am one of the creatures that I spoke of, and because of it my life is in danger. More importantly, so are the lives of all those I hold dear.

Of course, you are still skeptical. I can’t say that I blame you. But consider this: Have you ever asked me about my past? Where I came from? Where I went to school? What I did for a living? We’ve known each other for… must be going on fifteen years now and you have never once asked about any of those things. Not to criticize, but you have put on some weight. You’ve lost some hair. You take just a little while longer to get out of bed in the morning and go to sleep a little earlier each night. Yet, am I to believe that you really haven’t noticed that I haven’t changed? It’s not due to eating celery and jogging every morning.

I imagine that I’ve piqued your interest by now, so allow me to fill you in.

Over the last 250 years I have seen more than my share of wars; assassinations; and the outright lack of respect that human beings hold for each other. Don’t get me wrong, they have contributed much beauty to the world also, but it’s far outweighed by the tragedies. By comparison, those of my species live relatively peaceful lives. Yes, we hunt and kill, but rarely out of hatred. Although there are exceptions to every rule, for the most part any acts of violence that we commit are born of necessity.

Prior to Mary Frances’ death, I had taken work at Benjamin Taylor Fitch’s chair factory near the top of Brandywine Falls, at the rim of the Cuyahoga Valley. After her passing, I could not bear to remain in our village of Bedford. There were too many memories – good memories, which can be worse than bad ones. They are reminders of happy times that one will never experience again. One benefit of war is that it’s good for the economy and jobs are not usually scarce. The Great War of 1812 was raging on the Great Lakes, and there was work to be found along the Ohio Canal, ferrying armaments from the foundries up toward Lake Erie. After a time, I was taken on as a sailor aboard Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence. Caught up in the fight, I could begin to understand how easy it was to fall prey to the furor that is war. Before long, though, the Lawrence was obliterated during the battle of Put-In-Bay. Practically every officer and sailor aboard was killed or severely wounded. Among all of the carnage, it was effortless for me to slip away, coming to the decision that combat was not favorable to my character.

After my duty in the war, I took work in the trenches of the Erie Canal. It was another link in the supply chain begun with the Ohio canal. The Erie Canal, with its 39 locks, provided a waterway connecting the Great Lakes to New York and subsequently the Atlantic Ocean. The work was a good deal more taxing on the body, even for me, but the result was far better than anything achieved during the war.

A short time later, I made my way overseas to Europe and ultimately the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where my ancestors had come from. In an effort to avoid the Civil War in the states, I had inadvertently fallen into the middle of another conflict. In January of 1863 the Poles, tired of being exploited by the Russian Empire, rose up to fight for their rights of freedom. A worthwhile effort, they were severely outnumbered. I would have fought by their sides, but I was conscripted by the Imperial Russian Army. My lack of enthusiasm to fight against my own people – for even the humans shared my ancestry – earned me a deportation to Siberia, where I remained in exile until the late 1890s. Fortunately, that did help me achieve my goal of avoiding America’s Civil War, as well as a lot of bloodshed in the western states – for whatever that’s worth.

Returning west, I settled outside the town of Pest in Austria. It wasn’t long before unrest arrived there, also. This time, they called it the “war to end all wars.” In retrospect, I find myself laughing at so grim a subject.

Determined not to fight in another folly of humankind, I made my way to Moldavia and took up with my Vourdalak cousins. Dukes and duchesses, barons and baronesses… they were immune to conscription into the various militias taking up arms around the European theater. I rode out the next few years in the countryside with them. Aside from having to put up with their petty squabbles, it was far more preferable than combat.

In 1918, peace returned to most of Europe. The Russians were being cloaked in the shroud of communism, but I had learned my lesson and avoided becoming involved. The interwar period ended as abruptly as it had begun, though, with the invasion of Poland in 1939. It was the beginning of what was perhaps the darkest period in human history.

It was time when Germany’s National Socialist Party came to a decision to restore honor and purity to their “master race.” They attempted to enslave the Slavic people of the vassal states and deemed Jews to be untermenschen, or subhuman. Their leader, Adolph Hitler, began his lightning war against the people of Europe. As if war isn’t bad enough, because of Hitler’s estimation of the worthiness (or rather unworthiness) of other races, horrible atrocities took place in the name of cleansing the planet of contamination.

History attributes these evil acts to Hitler alone, insinuating that he was solely responsible for the attitudes and acts that destroyed countries and families. This, of course, is not true. No one man, no matter his position in power, could possibly be held accountable for the criminal devastation inflicted on the world. No. Hitler merely provided men a reasonable excuse to perform the evil acts that lay in their hearts from birth. If it weren’t Adolph Hitler, someone else would have come along. Tension had been building, humans needed an outlet, and one was presented to them.

Humans have long worked toward common goals alongside vampires, both knowingly and unknowingly. In an attempt to win their favor, the Nazis came to an understanding with the Krvopijac clan. I mentioned them earlier. They are vampires who have no respect for human life. Humans are no better than cattle to them. And the Nazis provided them with an almost endless supply of food in the stockyards that they called concentration camps. Jews, Slavs, mental defectives, and enemies of the state were “relocated” to camps like these. Most never returned to their homes.

History explained it away as mass extermination by the Nazis in an effort to cleanse the race, but in reality it was much worse. Imagine being crammed into a pen along with your family, friends and neighbors; kept there while listening to the wailing of women and cries of the children; and then, as night fell, witnessing dozens of creatures – the likes of which you have never seen before – pounce upon those around you and begin ripping their throats out. A nightmare come true.

I don’t know why the Nazis did it. Perhaps they were trying to appease the Krvopijac and win their favor. Perhaps they were hoping that by providing the Krvopijac sustenance, they would ensure their own safety (something that did not happen, when all was said and done). Or perhaps it was just pure hatred. We’ll never know for sure. The last of the people responsible are now long gone – the human ones, anyway. And be assured that the Krvopijac are not talking about it. No. They are waiting for the next time.

Nearing the end of the war, when I thought that it was safe and I could avoid conscription, I settled in Prague. At the time, I was honestly uncertain if it was Czechoslovakia, Bohemia and Moravia – as the occupying Germans once called it – or the Czech Republic. After the German surrender at the end of the war, the Czechs took their revenge and slaughtered their former masters. As before, another excuse to commit murder on a mass scale. This time, it was just different people at the business end of the guns.

Melancholy settled in and I began to miss Mary Frances. Oh, I know. Her soul had left this earth long ago, but I still felt comfort in being near her. I moved back to America and settled near the last place we had spent our living years together. Wars came and went, diseases struck, society advanced. I, however, kept to myself on some property I had purchased in the valley. I no longer needed to work. I had amassed enough money from investments by that time to provide me with more than was necessary for what happiness I could obtain.

I kept an apartment in the city. In Cleveland, that is. I’d grown used to living in populated areas and social centers and occasionally needed interaction with others. While I grew some food on my small farm and was able to hunt on a regular basis, I sometimes needed to enter the city for “special” occasions. Having lived in some of the larger cities in Europe, I had learned how to seek out where these occasions took place, usually some underground club or another, and it was at one of these that I had first met Johnny. I made other friends, too. Some were acquaintances that I had made through Johnny and others I had met on my own. As Johnny informed me later, though, it was no surprise when I eventually found out that most were like me.

There were others – humans – who regularly visited the clubs also. One would find the rare normal visitor. Just someone looking for a good time, someone attracted to the everyday party routine. Typically, though, you could find one of two classes of humans who would commonly frequent the clubs.

The first, and most welcome, were the donors. Donors are the name given to people who willingly cut or pierce themselves to provide blood for vampires. Within civilized society, vampires and donor humans are considered equal, yet most donors were eager to be subservient to vampires. Perhaps out of some perverse sense of pleasure. I don’t really know. I can’t imagine that it’s because they are charitable humanitarians. At the same time though, donors are difficult to find, and for that reason vampires are not accustomed to abusing them. With blood borne viruses being a major concern for vampires, tests are regularly performed on donors. Donors will often publicize their good health by wearing black jelly bracelets. Yes, you’ve seen them. Now you know their secret.

The second, and undesirable, humans who attempt to grace us with their presence are the poseurs. A poseur is a person who pretends to be what he or she is not. The vampire lifestyle or vampire subculture is an alternative way of life, based on the modern perception of vampires in popular fiction. The vampire subculture has stemmed largely from the Goth subculture, but also incorporates some elements of sadomasochism. We can thank the internet for the prevalent forum it provides for these people.

Many of these self-professed vampires actively resent the term “lifestylers,” as this tends to carry the connotation that vampirism is not real. Some vampires actually use the term as a deprecating slur for these role-players. Some lifestylers go so far as to consume blood. But it ends there. These men and women share only the compulsion to drink blood reminiscent of the vampires of myth and legend. The human body of course cannot digest blood, and it is excreted in the urine and feces of the person who ingests it; so there is no physical reason that a human must drink blood. If you were to ask a vampire he or she would say that the need to consume blood is not psychosomatic, but it is a real craving that must be satisfied.

Needless to say, the lifestylers are unwanted at the clubs and can be quite annoying. They are usually quietly asked to leave our private parties, so as not to embarrass them. Occasionally though, when the hosts’ patience has come to an end, things tend to get violent. In keeping with our desire to remain non-confrontational and stay hidden from everyday human culture, this has a propensity to get messy. It can really ruin an otherwise good time.

It was an encounter with a group of these poseurs that led me to my first intentional human kill. To be honest, I must hold myself responsible for my own actions, but they incurred a blinding hatred in me and I allowed my anger to outlet itself. It was not a planned murder, but an act performed in the heat of the moment. I knew exactly what I was doing, though. The entire event is painful to recount – not just because of the murder, but because of the incident preceding it and the feelings that came afterward.

It had been a lazy summer day. I had spent most of the summer on the farm, having had no contact with anyone for weeks. Feeling lonely, I decided on a walk down the canal towpath. Although dusk was approaching, I thought that perhaps I would still run into someone to chat with. Crossing the canal at an abandoned railroad trestle, I began absentmindedly walking south. While I may not have deliberately chosen my destination, my body – maybe out of habit – had fixed on my goal. It wasn’t long before I had reached the base of the hill leading up to Pilgerruh. Well then… I stretched and cracked my aching back, and set off up the trail.

I heard voices and shouts, but couldn’t immediately tell where they were coming from. It sounded like someone may have been cooking out or having a party. The strange thing was that the closer I got to the top of the hill, the louder the sounds became. I cringed. As I have mentioned before, teenagers and kids often came there looking for the “haunted cemetery.” It was aggravating, but mostly harmless. I peeked through the trees to get a look at what was going on before I walked into the middle of their fun. Occasionally, the kids were genuinely interested in the history of the area and were there to look at the old gravestones, or even do rubbings of them. If that was the case, I’d leave them be and return home – let them have their fun. I had all the time in the world, didn’t I? But instead of curious children or fun-loving teens, what I saw infuriated me.

There were thirteen of them. Poseurs. Lifestylers. Pretenders. And they were desecrating the graveyard. Their mere presence would have been insult enough, but they were defiling consecrated ground. One of them was pissing… actually pissing on a gravestone! Can you believe it? Some were sitting on other stones with their stinking, fat asses. Two others had a grip on the sides of another stone and were wiggling it, most likely in an attempt to pull it up from the ground. I’d heard stories of “collectors” like these.

“Here dumbasses, let me take a look. You aren’t going to get it out that way.” A boy – no, a man – in his early twenties approached with a chisel and a rock hammer. “You have to chip it away from the base.”

“Don’t break it, man. I’m taking this one home. He has my name: Caleb.”

“Oh, I thought your mom named you Dick, after your dad.” He snickered at his own lame joke.

He knelt down and wedged the chisel under the edge of the stone at its base. It only took him a couple of hard whacks to realize that the stone wasn’t going anywhere, tonight or anytime soon. I thanked God for the laziness of this generation. Then, I became quite literally sick to my stomach as he turned and fixed his eyes on another prize.

“Let’s try this one over here.”

“Mary Frances Gillen-something,” read one of the little shits.

No! I burst out of the woods, running at them and screaming. Most acted surprised, some scared. The kid with the hammer, though, stood his ground.

“What the fuck, dude? How long have you been watching us? What are you doing, jacking off in the woods?”

“Get out,” I whispered.

“What?”

“Get out of here… now.” I shifted my head from side to side, and cracked my neck. I was ready for a fight, whether he was looking for one or not.

“I’ll leave when I’m through. I’m taking this with me.” He set his chisel in the groove between the stone and the base and raised his hammer.

“Stop! Please!”

He did stop. Still kneeling, he slowly turned and looked at me. “Waaait a sec.” He knew that he had me – that for some reason, this particular grave was important to me. “This your grandmother or something?” he said with a big shit-eating grin on his face.

“Maybe she’s his girrrlfriend,” chimed in a fat kid sitting on one of the gravestones.

“I’ll give you until I count to three.” It wasn’t an idle threat.

“And I’ll save you the time,” he said. He swung the hammer and hit the gravestone, skipping off of the corner chipping it, exposing gleaming white marble beneath it.

I exploded and leaped upon him; clawing, scratching, biting. He was no doubt dead within seconds, but I kept going. I didn’t want to stop. The rational part of my mind knew that it was insane to take a life over a piece of stone, no matter how much sentimental value it had. But I was so enraged that I couldn’t help myself.

I awoke to daylight. My friend lay next to me. Well, pieces of him anyway. Our only company was a murder of crows laughing at us from the tree branches above. The man’s friends had run off. Thankfully, they were probably so loaded up with illegal substances that none of them even bothered going to the police.

I glanced over at Mary Frances’ gravestone. The corner was still chipped. It wasn’t a dream. Now it was wet with blood, also. Who really defiled her grave? The lifestyler or me? I lay down next to the stone, hugging it, and I began to cry.

The remains were discovered a day later, but they were so unrecognizable, it was difficult to make out whether or not they were even human. The coyotes, crows, and other scavengers had done their part in helping out, too. Nevertheless, I was still on edge for a long while. I was Raskolnikov, ridding the world of useless vermin and then attempting to rationalize it within my own mind, all the while worrying obsessively about the consequences that would ultimately come knocking on my door.

The next few weeks were filled with a mix of feelings: anger, remorse, embarrassment, and depression. I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t told any of my friends – Johnny included – about who and what I was yet, so I couldn’t really come clean about the whole story to anyone. I began making trips to the library and checking out books about guilt, dealing with loss, grieving, and depression. After realizing that I may not be capable of dealing with the situation on my own, I sought out a doctor. After previous experience, I was leery of physicians. I figured that a psychiatrist wouldn’t ask too many embarrassing questions, though, or send me for lab tests that could expose what I was.

Anyone who has tried to find a psychiatrist knows that it’s not a matter of calling one up and making and appointment for later in the week. Head doctors are usually not wanting for patients. It helped my case that I would be paying cash, though, and not going through an insurance company. I found a doctor who was more than willing to squeeze me in, with a minimal amount of effort.

I suppose that I had been expecting a quick diagnosis of depression and given a handful of pills, but it required several visits before the doctor unquestionably concluded that I had bipolar disorder.

Everyone has their ups and downs, but with bipolar disorder, the peaks and valleys are more severe. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can hurt your job and school performance, damage your relationships, and disrupt your daily life. Although it’s treatable, many people don’t recognize the warning signs and get the help they need. I suppose that I had been dealing with them long enough that I assumed they were part of whom and what I was. I presumed that all vampires felt the way I felt.

Sometimes called manic depression, bipolar disorder causes serious shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behavior – from the highs of mania on one extreme, to the lows of depression on the other. More than just a fleeting good or bad mood, the cycles of bipolar disorder last for days, weeks, or months. Unlike ordinary mood swings, the mood changes of bipolar disorder are so intense that they interfere with the victim’s ability to function.

During a manic episode, a person might make impulsive decisions, charge up huge amounts on credit cards, or feel rested after sleeping two hours. During a depressive episode, the same person might be too tired to get out of bed at all, and full of self-loathing and hopelessness.

Bipolar disorder does not only affect your moods. It also affects your energy level, judgment, memory, concentration, appetite, sleep patterns, sex drive, and self-esteem. Additionally, bipolar disorder has been linked to anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and high blood pressure.

In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, feelings of heightened energy, creativity, and euphoria are common. People experiencing a manic episode often talk a mile a minute, sleep very little, and are hyperactive. They may also feel like they’re all-powerful, invincible, or destined for greatness.

While mania feels good at first, it has a tendency to spiral out of control. People often behave recklessly during a manic episode: engaging in inappropriate sexual activity or making foolish decisions. They may also become angry, irritable, and aggressive – picking fights, lashing out when others don’t go along with their plans, and blaming anyone who criticizes their behavior. Some people even become delusional or start hearing voices.

Depression comes at the other end of the spectrum. In the past, bipolar depression was lumped in with regular depression, but there are significant differences between the two. Most people with bipolar depression are not helped by antidepressants. In fact, there is a risk that antidepressants can make bipolar disorder worse – triggering mania or hypomania, causing rapid cycling between mood states, or interfering with other mood stabilizing drugs.

Despite many similarities, certain symptoms are more common in bipolar depression than in regular depression. For example, bipolar depression is more likely to involve irritability, guilt, unpredictable mood swings, and feelings of restlessness. People with bipolar depression also tend to move and speak slowly, sleep a lot, and have low energy. In addition, they are more likely to develop psychotic depression – a condition in which they’ve lost contact with reality – and to experience major disability in social functioning.

Once all the signs were pointed out to me, I could see that I certainly qualified for the diagnosis that I had received. In fact, I was doubly “blessed” with what the doctor called mixed episodes, featuring symptoms of both mania and depression. Common signs of a mixed episode include depression combined with agitation, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, distractibility, and racing thoughts. This combination of high energy and low mood makes for a particularly high risk of suicide. I don’t suppose that I had reached that point yet, but the only future that I could imagine for myself spiraled downwards.

Unfortunately, there was no quick fix to be had. No single pill seemed to work out great. So I began trying out mixtures of different medications. I was taking what seemed like buckets and buckets of pills every day, and becoming more depressed when none of them seemed to be working. After years of trying, my doctor and I finally came up with a cocktail that worked for me: just the right mixture of antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics; and at just the correct dosages to hold the symptoms at bay. I don’t doubt that my unique physical structure made for a difficult time in finding the right cure. My doctor remarked on the fact that I was tolerating amounts far beyond the normal therapeutic dosages which worked for most “people.”

Despite the end result, it’s hard to believe the depths that I had reached at my bottom. I believe it was during that time that I lost my faith in God and the redemption of man. Nevertheless, I regained my ability to function in society again. I even left the farm and moved into the city on a full time basis, spending more time with my friends. Although I certainly missed being close to her, I had to agree that the amount of time I had been devoting to spending at Mary Frances’ grave was unhealthy both mentally and physically.

With the assistance of the same people who had helped me find the clubs and parties I had been frequenting, I was also able to find support groups. That’s right; I said support groups… for vampires, believe it or not. It was comforting to hear that others were dealing with the same feelings that I was. I was even able to help out fellow vampires who were struggling with the same feelings that had once crippled me. I came to know a new freedom and a new happiness. My feelings of uselessness and self-pity disappeared, and I came to know peace.

Until now, that is.

Part 8

For at least a week after our encounter with the Nosferatu, Johnny was in rare form. Normally happy when he was feeling manic, getting out of that jam with all of his vital organs in the right places seemed to have pushed him into a state of pure euphoria.

“…and my bud here was like ‘Bam!’” Johnny slapped me on the back as he bragged to our friends Pat and Dave. “He was all like ‘Eat this, you ugly son of a…’”

“Johnny!” I interrupted, “All I remember saying was ‘Oh shit, we’re gonna’ die.’”

“No no, dude. You were in the heat of the moment. You just don’t remember. It was probably one of your whiteouts.”

Damn it. Why did he have to run his mouth like that? I wished that he would just shut up already. And I hoped that the guys didn’t catch that last remark. That turned out to be false hope, though.

Pat’s eyes widened. “Whiteouts? What’s he talking about, man?” He must have given a second thought to asking me, realizing that he had a better chance at getting an answer from Johnny. “What’re you talking about, man?”

“Oh, wow. I know what’s going on. It’s the Bru…” Dave started to interject, but was interrupted when I punched him in the face.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, wiping the blood that began trickling from his nose. “Stupid thing to say.”

“Even if it’s true,” added Pat.

That seemed to sober Johnny up a bit.

“Not cool guys, not cool. All I’m saying is that Christian here saved my life. Aaaand he killed a Nosferatu in the process.”

“Yeah,” jeered Dave, sitting up now but still on the ground. “I’m having a little trouble believing that.”

“So am I. Look, Johnny is obviously a little jacked up right now. I’d better get him home and pour some Jack Daniels down his throat to calm him down.” I extended a hand to help Dave get up. “Sorry dude, I overreacted. But you know I don’t like being called that.”

“Yeah, I know. It slipped out. Stupid me.”

“No offense taken.”

Pat put an arm around Dave’s shoulder and started to lead him away. “Speaking of J.D., we’ve got a little drinking of our own to do. You guys should meet us at the Circus later. I hear they got this new girl, from France. The girls there don’t shave. Just your type, Johnny.”

“Yeah, yeah. Eat me. But ya’ know,” Johnny stroked his chin, “You’re absolutely right. We just might see you there after all.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “We might.” But I knew that we wouldn’t. I could tell that the little tiff had cleared Johnny’s head, perhaps bringing him out of the reverie of the experience in the crypt for good. The wheels were starting to turn. I perceived that his mind was returning to the question at hand. Or should I say questions? Who was responsible for the recent murders, and what did it have to do with me? And now there were more mysteries. The ghost-girl, her premonition, and Mordechai’s words: “You are the Remover.”

It was as if Johnny read my thoughts.

“C’mon dude. We’ve got work to do.”

Johnny was the epitome of, as Winston Churchill once said, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. He claimed to be of Strigoiu descent, a race of Moldavian artists, but I had never seen or recognized any proof of that. If you were to ask me, I would have pegged him as one of the older breeds. One thing I did suspect, though, was that Johnny was a Mamzer, or “polluted one.” There’s a certain disgrace that goes with the name, although I can’t imagine being more stigmatized than being a vampire and having a mental disorder. Perhaps I couldn’t imagine it because it wasn’t me. In the same way I’ll never know what it feels like to be short, I cannot guess whether or not short people are self-conscious of their stature.

What I did know about Mamzer, however, was that no matter how they felt about themselves, they were typically outcasts of both the human and vampire races. That’s because they were neither one nor the other. They were half-breeds.

Typically, since vampires and humans are of different species, they should not be able to reproduce sexually. I’m not saying that they cannot perform the act of sex, just that they cannot successfully produce offspring. As with anything in nature, there are anomalies that pop up every once and a while. Mamzer are among that class.

I don’t claim to know much about Mamzer. I do know that there have been no cases where a human male and a vampire female have been able to reproduce – only the other way around. All Mamzer are the product of a male vampire and a human mother. And in every case, no exceptions, the human mother dies before childbirth.

So it’s hard to determine where the humiliation lies in that. Is it because the Mamzer are neither fully human nor fully vampire? Is it because they are bastards, having in most cases been abandoned by their fathers and orphaned by their dead mothers? Or perhaps it’s because of their very first act in life. Since their mothers die before giving birth, Mamzer are forced to tear themselves from their mothers’ wombs and, possessing no knowledge other than the instinct to live, take their first meal from the corpse of their very own maker. I’m assuming the disgrace stems from that last one.

How can one fault an innocent creature for doing what instinct tells it is right? It’s not as if a sentient being is consciously making a choice to perform an act of barbarism. It’s simply a force of nature.

Nonetheless, some ignorant people have a prejudice against Mamzer. And so it follows that Mamzer usually go through life embarrassed and ashamed of who they are. There are a few who embrace their birthright – you can’t fault a peach for being a peach, after all – but more than not go to every length to hide the ugly truth.

I’d never met Johnny’s family, nor heard much about them. He claimed that he was an only child and told a few anecdotes about “fun times” spent with his parents in his youth, but the stories sounded forced and well-rehearsed. One thing I’ve learned is that you can usually recognize a lie by the airtight story that backs it up. Life on life’s terms is not airtight. Nothing is as perfect as a practiced story. After all we’d been through together, and all of the struggles that we shared, I wish that he could have been honest with me. I wouldn’t have judged him.

Johnny always put on a game face, though. In public, anyway. Like me, when he fell into depressions he tended to disappear for a while. As I mentioned, Johnny also shared some of my mental disorders, but he chose to forgo the medications that helped me to be functional. Like many people with bipolar disorder, he felt that the medications “dulled” his creativity, intellectual prowess, and high energy levels. The depressions were just a price he had to pay in exchange for the highs. It made sense in a way, I suppose, but it was not the kind of life that I felt was right for me.

I wondered what emotional battle was going on in his head as we were driving south, toward Hocking Hills. We figured that since going back to Mordechai for information was out of the question, our best bet was to follow up on my encounter with the girl in the woods. We had rented a cabin, planning on spending a significant length of time in the Hocking Hills area. Thinking ahead, we’d used Johnny’s credit card for both the cabin and supplies that we had loaded up on. I had managed to get through the previous week without hearing about another attack by our suspect. I figured that by lying low I could avoid having him (her, it?) tag along behind me. At the very least, even if my stalker did manage to find me and commit another gruesome murder in my wake, there would be no paper trail for the authorities to place me in the vicinity. I felt like I was defending myself on two fronts now: the rogue on one side, and the law on the other.

It was already after dark by the time we pulled into the parking lot of the Riley Ridge cabins near Old Man’s Cave. The office was closed and we had to retrieve the key from a drop box outside. Finding the correct cabin in the dark proved difficult, but not impossible. After helping Johnny carry the supplies in, I left him to start a fire and begin warming up some food. He wasn’t a good cook or anything, but it’s hard to mess up beans and weenies. I felt an urgency to get outside and on the trail to Old Man’s Cave. Following the trail north would take me along the top of the cliffs toward Cedar Falls, where I’d first seen the specter. I didn’t fully expect to see her so soon after arriving, but nevertheless I was eager to get to the spot where I’d met her.

Giving it careful thought for the first time since heading to the Hills, I began to panic at the thought that it was very possible – even probable – that seeing her was a fluke. I might never see her again. It was all I had to hope for though, so I tried to push any negative thoughts from my mind. About a half hour into the hike, I could make out the sound of the creek running ahead of me. My hearts began beating faster. The spiteful anxiety was overtaking me. I reached the top of the falls and stood still, listening, as if I would hear her footsteps. I knew that was a ridiculous idea. After a few minutes, I dropped to my knees and let out a deep breath, feeling the anxiety go with it. The release of tension was replaced by a wave of despair. I didn’t know what I had been thinking – hoping to see her that very first night. Then…

The first time, I had seen her through the fog. This night was clear, and yet she still seemed to fade in a short distance from me. Instead of walking, she was sitting on the forest floor, bare legs tucked underneath her. She stared at me, or through me, with those piercing blue eyes. It was as if I was the ghost, and she could not see me.

“Who is there, that I called, who dares disturb a peaceful prominence?”

“Me again. My name is Christian. Can you remember me?” Just saying it aloud made me wonder whether or not she was even capable of remembering me, or remembering anything for that matter.

“It’s a Magician and I am a girl. We met on a path next to a school hall. I wasn’t there for him. He said hello, and something was off. What was he seeking?”

“I suppose that I’m seeking answers. Who are you? What can I call you?”

“I am vulgar and I am decadent. I now consist of rot and decay and I can’t handle it. Call me monster; quite horrific. The world hates me and cast me out; living damnation.”

Wow – I know that low self esteem is a problem for a lot of teenage girls, but this little lass took the cake. “Why do you say things like that about yourself? What happened to you?”

“I tried to fight off my accusers but it made me more of a villain. I am as a wounded animal lashing out to the hand that tries and help me up, because hate and pain is all I know. It is all I have been given.”

If I believed it possible, I would have thought that she was even more morose than the last time I had seen her. “Why are you here?” I wondered aloud.

A single, glistening tear rolled down the side of her pale face. It would never hit the ground, as it was as insubstantial as the eye it came from. “I am lost and alone. Can you hear the vicious beating in my heart from beneath my altar of stone? I was supposed to save a family but instead I was just an accident. God damn to the depths everyone who comes near me!”

“How do you know me?”

“I see a lonely man. That is what you are, for you have no enemies, and to me no enemies means no friends.”

I was becoming impatient and blurted out the question that I needed an answer to. “You called me the king. A man… a creature named Mordechai, called me the Remover. What does that mean?”

“The fate of destiny rests in the palm of your hands. An utterance so bitter, alas no one understands. A situate so perplexing thy mentality shall seize; only the mind of the judicious shall forever succeed.”

“Damn it! Why do you talk in riddles? It’s so infuriating!”

“I am breaking down, screams of chaotic poison echo between every sound. The beating of my heart is faltering. The end draws near. My life was forfeit long ago but you gave me hope. You gave me a wretched vulgar hope that in the end things would be as I had dreamed. You lied.”

Without another word, she vanished as silently as she had appeared. A feeling of dread washed over me. That was it. My last hope. It was over.

Johnny was really worked up when he heard what I had to say.

“No shit, dude? Already? It’s like she was waiting for you. What did she say?”

“She is one seriously depressed chick. Hmm… she just babbled more of that damned nonsense talk and then basically told me to – and I’m paraphrasing here – ‘Fuck off.’”

“She’s not babbling, brother. She’s trying to communicate as best she can. But she’s a ghost, ya’ know. They’re like Speak ‘n Spells. They can’t say much in the way of original thought.”

I knitted my eyebrows, perplexed. “What? What do you mean?”

And so Johnny went on to explain it to me. When a person – or any living thing, for that matter – dies, there are two types of remains: physical remains and the remains of its life force. Physical remains are just what they sound like. They consist of the body, the corpse, flesh and blood. The empty husk left over after what’s inside has been used up. The life force is made up of pure energy. Some call it the soul. Most of this “soul” disappears. I don’t know where it goes. Johnny didn’t know where it goes. There are millions of people, both religious and atheist, who don’t know where it goes. Some residual energy lingers for a while, though.

The soul moves on, but like the afterimage of a light bulb after being turned off, a tiny amount of energy is left behind. The magnitude of the remaining portion depends on the circumstances behind the death of the creature. If it was sudden, unexpected, or traumatic; the energy may feel lost, abandoned, and lonely.

I realize that must sound ridiculous when given fleeting consideration, but upon closer examination it makes quite a bit of sense. The term “immortality” is itself somewhat puzzling since it seems to imply an absolute time beyond what is obvious to the mind, human and vampire alike. According to all appearances, our ability to understand abstract concepts exceeds those of dogs, monkeys, and other animals. I wonder whether it is possible to imagine a conceptualizing ability exceeding our own in the same way as ours exceeds the ones of dogs and monkeys. To answer “no” would be highly presumptuous. We are thus left with no alternative that there is no absurdity in evoking the idea of “something” that we cannot conceptualize. So we give names to these things: soul, God, ghost, eternity, infinity. We feel the need to express these concepts in a way that our simple minds can comprehend.

Take a circle as one of the simplest examples. A “perfect circle” does not, and cannot, exist in the physical world. We cannot draw one, create a model of one, none exists in nature that we are aware of. A perfect circle can only exist mathematically, and even then we can only conceptualize it to a finite point. Last I’ve heard, a pair of Pi lovers named Alexander J. Yee and Shigeru Kondo have calculated the mathematical constant out to 10 trillion digits. It took over a year – 371 days – on Kondo’s desktop computer to accomplish the feat, and it wasn’t easy getting there. Kondo battled multiple hard drive failures, and each time a drive would go belly up, he would have to roll back the computation to a previous checkpoint. Calculating Pi to 10 trillion places also required about 44TB of disk space to perform the computation and another 7.6TB to store the compressed output of decimal and hexadecimal digits. As for the last digit? It was 5, in case you’re wondering.

So the reason that the girl spoke in verse was because, as Johnny said, she was very much like a virtual Speak ‘n Spell. She was only able to communicate via thoughts that she had fashioned when she was alive. She was incapable of expressing anything original. She was a shadow, much like other ghosts who materialize as apparitions seen performing simple tasks over and over. Turning on lights, walking certain halls, slamming doors; until the energy fades away permanently. Our girl was a bit more sophisticated. Perhaps it was because she had been a vampire, or perhaps because she had died in a particularly violent way.

I was incensed. “Why didn’t you tell me that before?!”

“You never asked,” answered Johnny, looking at me like I was the village idiot. “I figured that you knew.”

I tried again the next night, but she wasn’t there. I wondered if I had seen her for the last time. What if, like Johnny said, her energy had faded and she was gone for good? She had mentioned “breaking down” and the “end drawing near.” Was that intended to be her way of saying goodbye forever?

On the third day, Johnny and I decided to look around the Hocking Hills area. Not that we expected to sight the girl during daylight – although, for all I knew that wasn’t out of the question. We simply thought that there might be some clues as to who she was and what had brought her to the area; or perhaps why she knew so much about me. We really had no idea what we were looking for, but we intended to make the best of the time we had. There was no set schedule for our return and, as I said, I felt like I was beyond the reach of my stalker.

Sometimes together, and sometimes apart, we explored other natural features in the area. Old Man’s Cave, Ash Cave, Rock Bridge, and Conkle’s Hollow. If the girl was anywhere other than Cedar Falls, Conkle’s Hollow would have been perfect, in my humble opinion. Confined on both sides by two hundred foot high cliffs, the deep gorge, which is only one hundred feet wide in places and is considered by some to be the deepest in Ohio, has numerous waterfalls cascading over its sandstone cliffs. It was the darkest, most secluded place in the Hills. One almost expected to see ghosts in its nether regions. No luck there, though. At least it was a peaceful and relaxing time.

I began to wonder if I even needed to go back home, to Cleveland or Indianapolis or anywhere else I had lived. The “old man” of Hocking Hills was the hermit Richard Rowe who lived in the large recess cave of the gorge. His family moved to the Ohio River Valley around 1796 from the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee to establish a trading post. He and his two dogs traveled through Ohio along the Scioto River in search of game. On one side trip up Salt Creek, he found the Hocking Region. Rowe lived out his life in the area and is buried beneath the ledge of the main recess cave. I could easily imagine doing the same; not near any of the tourist attractions, mind you; but there were a plethora of other secluded places in the Hills. If I was safe here, then why should I bother to care if some rogue was running wild among the human population. Either they or other vampires would eventually find and kill him. I didn’t care if I was this King, or Remover of legend. Why should I feel it necessary to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders? At least, that would be my therapist’s advice.

One more place that I definitely wanted to visit, without a doubt my favorite spot in the Hills, was Rock House. I felt that I unquestionably had to take Johnny with me, as he had never seen it. Rock House is unique in the Hocking Hills region, as it is the only true cave in the park. It is a tunnel-like corridor situated midway up a 150-foot cliff of Blackhand sandstone. This cave has a ceiling twenty-five feet high while the main corridor is two hundred feet long and twenty to thirty feet wide. The cavern was eroded out of the softer, middle zone of a sandstone cliff.

As one might imagine, Rock house was used for shelter by past visitors. Hominy holes, small recesses in the rear wall of Rock House, served as baking ovens for Native Americans using the cave. By building a fire in the small recesses, the rock became heated on all sides, and food could be baked in this crude manner. Further evidence of past use is evident by the presence of chiseled out troughs found in the stone floor. When rainfall is abundant, springs of water permeate through the porous sandstone and flow into these troughs fashioned by man and, when full, continue across the floor and out of the “windows” in the cliff face. In this way, residents were able to maintain a small water supply in Rock House. According to local folklore, other not so welcome visitors frequented Rock House. Robbers, horse thieves, murderers and even bootleggers earned Rock House its nickname as Robbers Roost.

Numerous dated carvings in the rock bear evidence of this area’s long-standing popularity. One such carving in the form of a book bears the letters: ITFBRAR – ITFFAWMTAW which means, “In the fall, Buck Run bananas are ripe – in the frost fall, a wise man takes a wife.” Buck Run banana is local slang for the fruit of the pawpaw tree.

After being given this short description, it didn’t take long to convince Johnny that it was something he had to see. In fact, since I had pretty much resolved myself to the fact that I might never see the girl again, I suggested that we take along our bedrolls and some food and spend the night in the cave. It would be dark by the time we reached it, and climbing back down the cliff face was difficult enough in daylight.

Although there were steps chiseled into the back, sloping face of the hillside which allowed access to a section of the cave, Johnny and I chose to scale the west face, which was a nearly vertical cliff. We enjoyed the challenge, in addition to the fact that there were a couple of other cave-like niches to explore on the way up. As we neared the large opening to Rock House itself, we heard voices and peals of laughter from inside. I prayed that it wasn’t more partiers. That’s all I needed right then. The climb had been enough of a diversion to work the tension out of my shoulders and I was beginning to relax and put recent events out of mind, if only for a night. Coming closer still to the fissure in the cliff face, I could discern that the voices sounded as if they were coming from people older than teenagers, probably belonging to a group in their mid- to late twenties. There was also a sweet, if somewhat skunky odor wafting through the cool night air. Johnny would have said it smelled like peace, love, and good happiness stuff; but I could tell that it was marijuana. I called ahead so as not to startle them. “Ahoy there! Two climbers coming in.”

“Howdy strangers!” called the noticeably happier of two women.

The women did appear to be in their mid-twenties, and were accompanied by two men of approximately the same age. Seemed like nice respectable kids, too.

Noticing our backpacks, one of the men said “Planning to spend the night?”

“Yeah. Hope you don’t mind if we join you. We can move on to another hole in the wall if y’all are, um… busy.”

“No, not at all,” said the less-happy woman. Suddenly animated, she stood and came over to shake our hands. “I’m Amy. These are my friends Rob, Betsy, and Matt.”

“Pleased to meet you, Amy. I’m Christian and this is my best bud, Johnny.”

“Christian. Cool name,” she said coyly. “Can I call you Chris?”

“I’d rather you didn’t. All my friends call me Christian.”

“Except me,” piped in Johnny. “I call him…”

I coughed loudly and interrupted him.

“Then Christian it is. Come on over and join us.” Amy led us over to the small fire they had made in one of the trough-like depressions in the cave floor.

I immediately noticed the shiny ring on Betsy’s finger, obviously new. The diamond was small, but nicely cut. Nicer than the plain silver ring that I had presented to Mary Frances a long time ago. I could tell that the starry looks in Rob and Betsy’s eyes weren’t only caused by the stuff they were smoking. It was evident that they had recently got engaged.

“Celebrating something?” I said as I flicked my index finger toward Betsy’s hand.

She blushed and grabbed Rob’s hand, pulling it close to her chest. “He proposed under the waterfall at Ash Cave! Isn’t that romantic?”

Johnny and I both offered our congratulations. I turned toward Amy and Matt, who had taken seats on the rocky floor opposite the happy couple, but not very close together.

“How about you two? Any similar plans in the future?” I could already sense from their body language that there weren’t.

Amy giggled. “Nooo. We’re just friends.”

Ouch. The dreaded “F” word. I could almost see Matt cringe. Hell, I cringed for him. Johnny cringed. Even Rob and Betsy cringed.

Johnny did his best to excuse us from the awkwardness of the moment.

“Well, we’ll leave you guys be. Go about your business. We’ll just bed down at the other end of the cave. You won’t hear a peep out of us.”

“No, no,” said Amy, jumping to her feet again. “Stay! Hang out for a while. Heck, you can stay here all night.”

“Beer?” asked Rob, extending a dripping bottle that he had extracted from a cooler nearby.

Johnny and I both declined. Alcohol wasn’t something that we tolerated well. Due to our fast metabolisms, we processed it quickly meaning that we became very drunk, very rapidly and then lost our buzzes just as fast. I stayed away from it mostly because of my meds, too. Johnny, although he chose not to treat his mental disorders with medications, declined for other reasons. I could see him eying up the smoldering pipe sitting on a rock next to Matt.

Apparently, Matt noticed his stare too. “Would you like to partake, my friend?”

Johnny accepted, taking a seat next to Matt, and both men seemed more content. I also took a seat and Amy scooted closer to me. Uncomfortably close, for me. I could tell that she was interested, and she was a pretty girl, but I had given up on those kinds of relationships a long time ago. So I started in with some small talk and, with the aid of alcohol and THC, everyone was talking and laughing before long.

After we all quieted down for a bit, Betsy shook Rob’s arm. “Tell them that story you told me, Rob.”

“What story?”

“The ghost story. About the Pale Girl of Ash Cave.”

Johnny and I locked eyes. I could tell that adrenaline had immediately sobered him up.

“Yeah, a ghost story!” Amy squealed, again scooting even closer and wrapping her arm around mine. “I love scary stories. It’s my favorite part about going camping.”

All of my attention was now focused on Rob. Johnny was fixed upon him, too. Rob leaned over to get a few small pieces of wood from a pile behind him, added them to the fire, and reclined a little.

“Alrighty, then. Picture this, if you will… Since the late 1940s, hikers around here have peered into the forest and among the huge rock formations, taking in the beauty of the park. They pass the bridge over the lower falls, strolling along the trail, once in a while catching a glimpse of a deer nibbling on the grass nearby. Once in a while, one or two will note a girl walking slowly behind them seemingly unaware of the world around her. Strangely, she is pale and wears the outdated clothes of early 1920s Appalachia. If it isn’t the peculiarity of her dress that forces the hikers to take a second glance, it might be the fact that she suddenly fades into the tree line. Then, the Pale Girl of Ash Cave is gone, leaving the hikers blinking in disbelief and wondering if they had imagined her.

“She is seen mostly in the evening hours,” he continued, “and has been noticed following hikers on the park’s Lantern Tour and other nightly walks. Who is this pale girl? No one seems to know. But because of the large number of dangerous cliffs in this area, she could have been a lonely girl who fell to her death from above. Or… she could be someone who was murdered nearby, her body secretly buried in one of the caves, never to be found.”

I could tell that he was serious. It wasn’t just a story he had made up. He was retelling a local legend. Johnny and I exchanged knowing glances again. Everyone stayed still for a few minutes and soaked in the silence.

Amy tightened her grip. “Whoa. I’m not going to be able to sleep alone tonight. I’m gonna’ have to find someone willing to share their sleeping bag.”

The smile dropped off of Matt’s face, and he gave her a sidelong glare. I barely noticed, though, because I was focusing intently on the sounds I heard coming from outside the cave entrance. Pebbles cascading down the cliff face and heavy breathing.

Johnny looked nauseous. “Does anyone smell that?”

“Smell wha…”

We all followed Johnny’s gaze toward the mouth of the cave. A large shadow blocked most of the moonlight that had previously been filtering in. As the creature moved slowly closer to our group and the fire, the shadow faded and something hideous took shape before our eyes.

He stood around six foot six, having the advantage of a couple of inches on me. Unlike my meager two-hundred and change, he must have tipped the scales at over three hundred pounds. Not one ounce of fat, though. He was all muscle. He seemed a little overdressed for hiking, wearing a once-white button down shirt, black slacks, and leather loafers. All of his clothes were torn and filthy, though. Hands the size of dinner plates, it was obvious that he hadn’t had a manicure in quite a while.

His face, though… my God, his face. His pallid, grayish skin matched that of his hands, but more obvious since it was relatively free of the grime covering the rest of him. Small bits of stringy hair did little to hide an enormous forehead, hovering over a prominent brow. His eyes bulged from deep pits formed by the skeletal outcroppings of his cheekbones. He had almost no nose to speak of. Despite the gaunt look of his face overall, it seemed to have retracted into his skull, as if the cartilage in it had all but disappeared. He was missing a few teeth, and the remaining ones were yellowed with age and deeply fissured. Two extremely large canine teeth barely fit into his mouth. They were visible even when his lips were closed, as they were between laps of his thick gray tongue.

I could smell it now – what Johnny had smelled. A wave of sorrow and sadness washed over me as I realized what it was.

Amy was the first to scream. Rob and Matt didn’t even make an effort to look brave. All of our new friends ran to the back of the cave with no prompting from us. When you stare true evil in the face, you don’t need to be told. You just “know.”

Instant realization set in. In a fraction of a second, Johnny launched himself at the rogue, snarling and baring his teeth. Johnny was infinitely entertaining at times, but he could be as serious as a heart attack when threatened. He hit the rogue square on. Although dwarfed by its size, he struck the creature hard and both of them flew out of the cave’s entrance and into the darkness.

“What the fuck?!” screamed Betsy, her voice trembling. “What. The. Fuck?!”

I could hear scrabbling and rocks falling outside, and I shouted for the four kids to get back. Run for the exit at the far end of the cave, if they could. In a short time, Johnny climbed up through the opening in the rock that he had fallen out of a few seconds earlier. He was followed immediately by the rogue, who grabbed him and pitched him aside like a rag doll. Then, ignoring Johnny and I altogether, he moved toward the humans. They had run away from the fire and into the darker recesses of the cave, where it was more difficult for them to see. I knew that the creature would have no problem seeing them, though.

From Matt’s scream, I could tell that he was the first to be overtaken. I’ve been around the block, but the cracking sound as his rib cage was squashed sickened me. Amy came flying toward us. Johnny and I lunged ahead in an attempt to catch her, but it was of no use. She was dashed against the rock wall to our left, her pretty face dissolving into a spray of blood, bone, and gray matter. The smell of ichor hung heavily in the air along with the stench of voided bowels. Disoriented by the sights, sounds and smells, I hadn’t noticed that the screams had stopped, and the cold reality hit me that the happy couple was no longer with us, either. Four dead. Less than a minute had passed.

The rogue turned toward us. He didn’t make a move to attack. He just stared, breath rattling in his chest as before. Johnny shrieked and threw himself forward again. Enraged, I joined him and we both rushed headlong at the beast. If I was this King, or Remover, or whatever; then I would have nothing to worry about. If not, we were probably as good as dead already. Johnny slashed at him and I clung, biting at the back of his neck. We drew blood, but it didn’t seem as if we were making any headway. He waved his rippling, muscled arms about and shook us off like a drenched dog shedding water. Then he ran toward the cave entrance. I couldn’t understand why he was running from us. He could plainly have overpowered us. Nevertheless he did, so we gave chase. He reached the mouth of the cave and leaped out into the night.

Johnny and I reached the edge and stopped. We could see him at the base of the cliff, standing in the knee high water of the creek below. He looked up at us a final time and then ran off into the trees. How he could have fallen from that height into shallow water and remain able to run off without even a pause was anyone’s guess.

As I stood there surprised, confused, and saddened Johnny eased over and draped an arm around my neck.

“You smelled it, too. Didn’t you?”

“Yeah, brother. I did.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about, Johnny.”

Johnny tore his eyes from the place where the rogue had fallen and stared out into the night. “You have my sympathies, then. I wish that he wasn’t…”

“But he is. He’s Brukolak. My own kin.”

Clearly, we couldn’t leave the cave in its current condition. That would have been too much for the authorities and the public to process. Four ghastly murders? Surely it couldn’t have been the work of any one human, or any animal for that matter. There would be a witch hunt. We didn’t think that we could hide it forever, but we could at least stall an investigation. We spent the night trying our best to clean up the scene. With as much reverence as possible, we transported the bodies down to the cliff base, and then downstream on Queer Creek until we reached a part deep enough to carry away the corpses. When they were found, undoubtedly before the next sunset, first glance might indicate that they had drowned and been battered on the rocks. A closer investigation would prove otherwise, but at least it would buy us a little time. I needed to see the Pale Girl again.

As Johnny and I were cleaning up in the creek, I dropped back on my haunches and turned to him. “I gotta’ be honest, Johnny. I was about ready to give up. Say ‘F’ it all and just go on about my business. But he’s not going to let that happen, is he? He’s going to follow me to the ends of the earth.”

“Not if we get to him first. And we will, Christian. I’m in this until the end.”

“How can you be so confident?”

“A monster like him… he’s not going to be able to resist killing again”

“I was hoping to avoid that.”

Johnny stood, looked at the ground, and slowly shook his head.

“You’re too soft, bud. If you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.”

“Not if I can help it.” Then, my thoughts ran in a different direction. “I don’t know why, but I get the feeling that the girl must have something to do with all this. You heard that kid’s story. She was murdered nearby; buried in a cave.”

“Okay, dude. Numero uno: It was a story. A legend. Numero, uh… two-oh: He said murdered or fell off a cliff. Admit it. You’re just hearing what you want to hear. I understand you want to make sense of it all, but some things just don’t make sense.”

“Whatever, Johnny. I’m still going to keep searching for her.”

“Then I’ll be right behind you, man.”

There was something gnawing at me. Something that was in the back of my mind. Like pieces of a puzzle that I was holding on to and trying to figure out how they went together.

“Hang on. The kid called her the ‘Pale Girl of Ash Cave,’ didn’t he? Not Pale Girl of Hocking Hills or just Pale Girl. I’ve seen her in different places, and from his story it sounds like she’s been spotted just about everywhere in the park. So why is she called the Pale Girl of Ash Cave? Why that specific location?” It was starting to come together. “And what she said to me… it makes more sense now. ‘beneath my altar of stone.’ I know where to find her!”

Ash Cave can be found in the southernmost reaches of Hocking Hills. It is without a doubt the most spectacular feature of the entire park. Ash Cave is the largest, most impressive recess cave in the state.

The trail to Ash Cave winds its way through a narrow gorge lined with stately hemlock trees. The gorge is approximately one-fourth of a mile in length and gives way to the massive overhanging ledge and cave with surprising suddenness. The cave is massive; measuring 700 feet from end to end, 100 feet deep from the rear cave wall to its front edge with the rim rising 90 feet high. A small tributary of Queer Creek cascades over the rim into a small plunge pool below.

Due to the astounding spectacle of the cave itself, many of the other features in its vicinity are often overlooked. One of these is Pulpit Rock, the largest slump block at the cave’s entrance, which served as the pulpit for the local peoples’ Sunday worship service until a church could be built. The cave’s colossal size made it a perfect gather place, possessing incredible acoustic qualities. In fact, two spots under the recess have the qualities of a “whispering gallery,” a hemispherical enclosure in which whispers can be heard clearly in other parts of the gallery – such as the Ear of Dionysius in Syracuse on the island of Sicily.

I explained my revelation to Johnny.

“We’d better get there quick,” he replied. “It’s nearly dawn. Park visitors will be showing up soon. It’ll be easier to have a look see if we have some privacy.”

We set off at a fast pace; at least as fast as we could after a long night. It was just about five miles down Queer Creek from Rock House to Ash Cave, and that would put us at the upper rim. We’d still have to scale down the cliff or make our way around and down. It took nearly a half an hour before we were standing at the base of Pulpit Rock. I didn’t know what we’d been hoping for. I had no clue what to do, and neither did Johnny.

“Now what?”

“Dig.”

“Where? This place is humungous.” Johnny threw his arms up, voice echoing off the roof of the cave.

“She said ‘beneath the altar.’ Beneath the altar, Johnny!”

He started on one side of the huge block of stone, and I started exactly one hundred-eighty degrees around the other side. The soil consisted almost entirely of sand that had eroded from the cliff face. It was literally like a beach in the middle of the forest. The sand came away easily from the rock’s base. We scrambled around, pulling out handfuls here and there, eager to get a quick look before tourists started showing up. The sun had risen in the eastern sky but because of the deep and narrow valley, the cave was still in darkness. We had time, but precious little of it.

Our first attempts yielded no results and we began a second tour around the rock. Then a third, digging deeper each time. The sandy soil kept sliding back into the trench though, making our task even more difficult. Then, I heard the sweet words that I had been waiting for.

“Dude! I found something!”

It could have been anything. When I got around to his side of the rock, I saw what he had discovered. It was a shoe, more like a boot with laces, and from the size of it I would have guessed that it belonged to a child. It looked old, too. But it wasn’t difficult to imagine that a child had lost it. Millions of people came through this area every year, and the sand could easily have pulled the shoe off of someone’s foot. I expressed this thought to Johnny.

“True, my friend, true. Losing a shoe is easy enough to picture, but I doubt that anyone would leave without this.”

He held up the boot for me to see, and I recoiled back when I saw the desiccated skin and bit of a small shin bone still tied securely into it. Looking at each other in an almost comical sense, reminiscent of Scooby Doo and Shaggy, we returned to digging feverishly. We finally had something, and now we were racing the light beginning to filter into the valley. Working our way up from the shoe, I pulled out the hem of a dress – white, not surprisingly – and when I tugged on it, it gave way to expose more of the withered remains of a young girl. Continuing on, I finally began feeling my fingers becoming tangled in a tussle of long hair. I was staring at the back of her head. She’d been buried face-down, and I wanted to leave her that way. I had no desire to look into what was left of her innocent features, but I had come this far and knew that I had no choice.

I placed my hands on her scrawny shoulders and gently rolled her over. To my surprise, the dry sand and cool cave air had performed a sort of natural mummification process. The skin of her face was waxy, but otherwise retained the freshness of a living person. More to the point, though, was that she looked exactly like the girl I had been talking to in the woods.

She was still clutching something tightly in her arms. It seemed to be a five inch by seven inch pad of paper bound at the top with metal buttons. Like her body, the dry sand had preserved it very well. I carefully slid it from between her crossed arms and turned it over in my hands. I opened it to the first page. In beautiful script, she had written the words “Afternoon at Cedar Falls,” and below was a hand drawn sketch of said falls. I turned to the next page and found the words “The Old Mill,” over another sketch of a grist mill. From the surroundings, it appeared to be in the area of the upper falls of Old Man’s Creek. The next page yielded a drawing of Ash Cave with the inscription “Wildflowers at Ash Cave.” It was the next and final page that caused my chest to tighten and my body to go numb. The inscription read “He is Watching,” and below it… was a drawing of him.

Credit To – Kenneth Kohl