Leeches and Men

by James Maddox

 

The vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday. And between you and me, it was a damn good strategy they had. Families. The nuclear kind with nine-to-five work schedules, house pets, and summer vacations to the beach: they weren’t prepared when the vamps made their move, and before we could say “Family fun night,” the war that really wasn’t a war was lost. Just fuckin’ lost. After all, a parent is much more prone to open that locked window or that bolted door when a son or daughter is on the other side, begging to be let in—and vice versa.

Damn good strategy.

We may act like we came out of that conflict as the holders of the reins, but the truth is, we’re just as scared now as we were during the siege, only we’re too systematic about things to know it. Gained too much false security.

There was a quote I read just before the war was officially ended—but damned if I can remember who said it… Probably a politician. Went like this:

“We approach a new era. Just like the transitions that occurred after Oppenheimer released his great fury, mankind must adjust itself to the coming changes of this new world: new technologies, new religions, new philosophies, and new hates and prejudices. Even in the shadow of this unveiled threat, adaptation will occur, and it will be bloody.”

Now, you ask me just exactly what that means, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you; but back then, it gave me hope that we still had a future to look forward to, you know? Keeping that perspective was just something to get me through the day.

Still is, I guess. Still will be.

Because despite what you may think, I am still and will remain human to my very core. And as a human, I’ll adapt and I’ll survive in a new environment before I roll over and die. That’s just what we do, and maybe that’s what we should really be afraid of.

*****

The vampire scratched at the window, creating a screech that human nails would have found difficult to withstand. Karen pried open her eyes, and as her vision was directed by the sound, she breathed long and slow: a yawn. Appearing to Karen in all its classic horror-movie bravado, the vampire scratched again. The monster fluttered its eyes and hovered just beyond the window frame.

“Steve,” Karen said. She nudged her sleeping husband, and when he simply hugged the covers tighter, Karen shook him by the shoulder. “We’ve got a leech outside. The cleaning service forgot to hang a new wreath of garlic.”

“Wha–?” Steve asked, still half asleep. He wiped at his eyes and slowly came to understand Karen’s complaint. Some grumbled muttering was lost to the gloom of the surrounding walls, but the creature outside the window, its ears didn’t miss a thing. The monster laughed, lewd and low. A vampire’s laugh.

Steve tossed back the covers and stepped out of bed. He stretched and walked out of the room. The house remained silent, save for the occasional attention-getting attempt from the vampire; Let me inside, Karen, its sweet voice called from inside the housewife’s mind. I want to touch you all over. Taste your sweetness. Karen felt a twinge of reaction shiver through her body. It had been a while since she’d had any reaction at all to a vampire’s wiles. This one was good, which made her slightly uncomfortable.

The doorway that led from their bedroom gaped from across the room. What was taking Steve so long?

He’s left you, Karen, the vampire breathed into her thoughts. Let me in. I can take care of you in ways he never would. Ways he never could.

A crash erupted from downstairs, traveling up to Karen’s ears like warning bells. An air raid siren in the dead of night. Karen surged forward, attentive and anticipating. The silence that refilled the room made her flesh tingle.

“Honey?” she called. “You okay?” She waited for a reply, any reply. No need to panic. Everything was fine: the security system was set, locks triple fastened… But there was the fact of the expired garlic wreath. What other precautions could be failing her at that very moment?

It’s over, Karen, the vampire hissed, voice excited, breaths deep and raspy in her head. No more relationship on autopilot. No more lazy, hazy little life. Your husband is dead, and they’re coming for you next. The villains! Terrible wretches! But not me. I’m so tender and caring. Let me in and I’ll be merciful. You’ll even enjoy it.

A gleam of tears began to coat her eyes.

Karen shifted under the covers, reassuring herself that everything was fine. Just fine. The vampire outside the window hissed and raked a single nail down the entire span of the window.

“Just go away,” Karen said, and again heard that low, lewd laugh. It made her want to scream, but before she could, Steve entered the bedroom carrying a new wreath at arm’s length, trying to keep the smell off him. He opened the window.

“I tripped over the coffee table,” he said in his half-sleep, then shooed away the vampire with a dismissive wave. It fled from the new cloves as the old wreath fell to the ground.

“No problem,” Karen said, and it wasn’t. There were no problems.

After closing the window and washing his hands, Steve returned to bed, and the house quieted. It remained silent until the morning’s sunshine filled the master bedroom.

*****

The next day began with familiar steps, but quickly diverged into uncustomary choices. Karen woke, prepared for her day, left the house, and met a friend for brunch. The friend had just been to the nicest gym with the nicest spa, and Karen just had to come drive into the city and see it for herself. Karen had made vague almost-commitments to attend a Chamber of Commerce gathering, but she quickly convinced herself that 1) she had been neglecting this particular friend for far too long, and 2) the Chamber meeting would not greatly miss her presence.

Most of all, although she couldn’t say why, Karen wanted to explore something new, to prove that she could experience something removed from the regular sights, sounds, and motives that frequented her days.

She needed a break, she decided. A break from her lazy, hazy little life—

The words had formed and taken hold before she could shake free of them. Her lazy, hazy little life. The vampire’s taunt hissed like deadly gas in her thoughts.

From that moment, until the onset of evening, Karen couldn’t slip the image of the vampire from her mind, couldn’t drown out the things it had said to her. Things your husband wouldn’t do. Couldn’t do. Somehow, a vile connection had been made with the creature.

Driving home now, she ground her slim fingers on the steering wheel. The leather creaked and groaned under her hold. She gulped at a bottle of water and tried to think about other subjects, but no matter what tangent she moved to, her thoughts always returned to the leech. Its undead eyes formed themselves perfectly in her imagination. Those eyes had stared greedily at her from beyond the windowpane, and now Karen wondered if hunger was the only desire that motivated it, or if there were other emotions: loss, love, jealousy, hate?

A rusted-out truck swerved into Karen’s lane, jarring her thoughts away from vampires and onto the rugged sound that bellowed from her tires as they ventured outside the interstate’s lined boundary. Karen laid on the horn and received an obligatory finger from the truck’s driver. She saw that the truck’s bed was filled with scrap appliances and other random bits of trash.

“And in other news,” a woman’s voice said from the radio speakers. The station she’d been playing to keep her company during her commute had switched to a news break. The voice brought her back inside her car, and back to a topic she had been happy to leave behind. “The vampire count has declined steadily with the setting-in of cooler temperatures. With any luck, vampire numbers will be at an all-time low by mid-winter. Good news, and just in time for the holiday season.”

Karen turned off the radio.

She breathed deep, slowly exhaled. As she tried to do so many times that day, Karen willed the thoughts of vampires from her mind, but that was a losing battle from the start. When she and Steve had first started dating in college, he had won her over with the confession that he couldn’t get Karen out of his mind.

“It’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant,” he’d said to her over the small table of a little outdoor café, his hair outgrown and hanging just above his eyes—hanging much differently from the style he’d fallen into and that had lasted for the past eight years. “You try not to think of a pink elephant, and the only thing you can think about from that moment on is a pink elephant.”

Karen had responded that she wasn’t fond of the comparison, but that she understood the intention. They had laughed. They had loved each other, or maybe they hadn’t. Maybe it was the future she had seen in him that she loved. The future of what the vampire had called her lazy, hazy little life. She became lost in this thought, meditating on it in a way she would never have admitted in public.

At the same time, the pickup truck that had cut off her just moments ago was jostled over a set of breaks in the pavement. The trash-filled truck bed shook and a scatter of debris showered the road, sending a particularly jagged pice of scrap metal to be lodged under Karen’s passenger-side front tire. There was a pop and a reeling moment of unbalance. Karen clenched her eyes and locked her brakes. Skid marks painted the pavement in long arching scribbles that stretched for yards. A cacophony of sound held itself as the only factor in her life for a single moment, and then everything stopped. Only the constant sound of her pulse beating out the passing seconds remained.

*****

Easy listening droned from the radio as the sundown traffic passed Karen and her broken-down car. Though she had reactivated the radio to help pass the time—Karen had a habit of relying on music to pass the time—she was now very close to turning it off again. On the UV-lit highway, no one stopped to help her. The cloud-covered moon peeked out from time to time like a giant headlight behind a passing train. Karen gazed at it while waiting along the highway. Behind her, headlights washed over a large yellow sign that read “Keep Moving: No Stopping for Any Reason!” A smaller sign positioned just underneath this command read “Next Service and Rest Stop 3.5 Mi.”

Damn phone, she thought. It hadn’t had a signal bar pop up since leaving the city. Hell of a lot of good AAA is when you can’t call them. She slapped the phone in her open palm and checked its display again. Nothing.

None of the other cars had stopped to give her assistance, mainly because they were afraid of encountering a loose vampire. Preposterous. Karen saw them all staring out their windows as they passed by her, wide-eyed and unbelieving. As they looked on, she had to remind herself that not everyone had the means to afford the kind of protection she had. Hopefully, one or two of them would at least call a patrolman once they cleared the dead zone.

“Why do these tragedies always happen to me?” Karen wondered aloud.

“Maybe you attract misfortune,” said a voice from behind her, a voice that seemed so close that she spun around expecting to see someone breathing down her neck; however, no one could be seen. A moment passed, and then a large woman appeared from the darkness just beyond the highway’s shoulder. Her ragged black hair hung in slashes and streaks.

“Oh, hello. My tire went out,” Karen explained to the stranger, but the woman didn’t seem to care. She just stood watching, her struggled breath coming out as though every exhale challenged her. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” she said, talking slowly. Deliberately. Menace filled the stranger’s eyes. “I’m doing just fine.”

Karen took a step back, toward her useless car. If she could get inside and lock the doors, maybe she would be all right. Maybe. She smiled weakly. A trembling lower lip betrayed any false signs of confidence.

“Alright, I’m going to wait in the car then. Have a pleasant night.”

Karen motioned to her car, but when she turned, the dark-haired lady was already standing in front of her, blocking Karen’s way with her stout figure and toothsome smile.

“Oh, thank god,” Karen said, relief washing over her. The monster paused, a questioning expression stuck to it’s face, but Karen felt her newfound ease was simple to understand: This wasn’t a human being. Not a her or a she at all; the vampire was an it. “I thought you were some kind of murderer or something.”

“Isn’t that exactly what I am?” the vampire asked and drew back its lips to reveal elongated incisors, glistening points that aimed at Karen like finely sharpened daggers. Then it sniffed the air and was taken aback by an odor.

“Not tonight,” Karen said. “Unless you care for a taste of the holy. Chanel Trip-Seven. Top of the line.”

The vampire tried to retreat, but was caught by the BMW’s windows. The monster released a scream and punched at the reflective window, but despite the power of the punch, the durable structure of the windows held. The vampire howled, grabbed its arm in pain, and dropped to one knee.

Karen winced at this display, almost felt sorry for it.

“Highly reflective, triple-reinforced windows, standard,” she noted. Passing the monster, she felt a brief urge to pat it on the shoulder as a kind of sympathetic gesture—she quickly pushed this compulsion aside. “I’m sorry that vampires don’t retain intelligence after the change.”

The creature looked up from its anguish.

“Fuck you, lady.”

Karen soured. “This is what I get for talking to a leech.”

“Typical human, thinking you’re more than food,” the vampire said, working and flexing the pain out of its fingers. “That drove us forward all those years ago. The delusions of humans. The world’s dominant species? Laughable. Then you defanged us in fiction, even portrayed us as sympathetic. Sympathetic to our prey!” The vampire scowled. “Insults can only be thrown so far.”

Karen tossed up a halting hand.

“Please, waste your ideology on someone who…” The rebuke tapered as an engine revved and broke the dialogue. Behind the vampire, lights were flashing on and off, high beams to low beams. The police, Karen thought. Now I can finally get out of here. The vampire spun and faced the approaching vehicle, and with one bound, the monster disappeared into the night clouds.

Karen saw then that the approaching car wasn’t the police. Instead of a shiny new cruiser, a brown Chevy station wagon, probably older than Karen herself, screeched to a halt. She winced at the dust cloud the wagon’s tires produced. The door to the vehicle was tossed open and an old man in a beaten Carhartt jacket hopped out. He held a cross over his head, as though a cross alone would prevent the vampire from descending.

The man’s shaggy white hair swayed as he made his way to Karen and then grabbed her, dragging her by the arm toward the rust-spotted car (was she the only person on this road who took care of her car?). The whole time, he kept his eyes to the sky.

“Come on, come on,” he rasped when Karen began putting up a fight. “I hate to pull you along like this, but it’ll back any minute.”

“Let go!”

“I’m sorry, miss. But this has to happen.” The man threw Karen over his shoulder and carried her the rest of the way. Once inside the wagon, his peeling tires put them back on the interstate; several cars had to swerve into the far lane to keep from hitting them.

“Are you insane?” Karen cried. “What are you doing?”

“What’m I doing? What’re you doing on the side of the road? At night?”

“My car blew a tire.”

So? Why were you standing outside?”

“I was trying to get a signal for my phone,” she said. “You don’t happen to have a phone on you, do you?” The old man shot a look at her, and she glanced again at the interior of the car. “No, I guess you wouldn’t.”

“My name is Richard, by the way, and you’re lucky I was out tonight. That thing could have killed you.”

“Are you serious?” she scoffed. “A leech? Kill me? I’ll have more to worry about with your driving.”

The old man opened his mouth to respond, but whatever was about to emerge was lost forever as Karen’s roadside vampire landed on the hood of the old wagon. Its feet dented the hood down to the engine block, and Karen watched as its skin burned in the UV spotlights that protected the highways from just such an attack. The vampire didn’t seem to notice; instead, it punched the windshield. A standard windshield. As the glass splintered into a web of tiny cracks, the car jutted from side to side; the vampire, however, remained fixed, like a grotesque hood ornament. The vampire’s second punch broke a hole through the windshield. Its fist opened, got a grip on the inside of the window, and tore it off completely, throwing the broken remains to the soft shoulder. A blast of rushing air filled the interior cab.

Through all this, a fear had gripped Karen with more intensity than it had during her earlier blowout. The events of the evening had partly stolen a sense of control that she’d been taking for granted over a span of at least two decades. In that instant, she wanted to scream and flail wildly to protect herself, but another part of her, some deep-seated part that still thought itself untouchable, muttered about trading car travel for bus travel from here on out. Maybe it was the shock talking, but that part of her mind still had hope.

Richard cried out and jerked the wheel left, bashing into the side of another car, and then right, veering onto the shoulder, before steering the station wagon off the road entirely.

Now, that muttering voice was growing dim, not half as sure as it had been seconds ago. Karen dug her fingertips into the vehicle’s armrest. The tires of the old car bounced and rattled, the motions tossing Karen and the old man savagely, to the point that fighting to keep control was no longer an option. The vampire continued riding the hood like a surfboard, until suddenly it jumped away and revealed that the car was on a crash course with the thick trunk of a tree. A last minute thought screamed inside Karen’s mind: That’s too solid to break through.

The world went black.

When Karen came to, she saw Richard on the hood of the car, his neck ripped open, a pool of blood gathered around him. Instinctively, she grasped at her own slender jugular. Nothing. Well, not nothing. The dull yet prevalent pain of whiplash clamped to her like Velcro, but nothing as bad as poor Richard’s wound.

She stumbled out of the car and looked to the distant road, which rested maybe a football field’s length away. The moon was completely covered by clouds now.

“Your protection is fading, Karen,” the vampire sang. She spun around and looked up the tree they’d collided with. In a thick of branches, the monster crouched. “I could have torn you apart already, but I’m a patient gal.”

“Go away,” Karen yelled, but the vamp just smirked, it’s psychotic cat eyes glowing among the shadows.

“I’m excited. Privileged blood is always the tastiest.” Karen glanced again to the road. Crickets counted the seconds with their chirps. “You won’t make it to the road.”

“Watch me,” she countered and turned to start back to the highway. Much to her expectations, the vampire stood in front of her. Good. Karen already had a hand in her now-tattered purse and wrapped around a small cylinder. She pulled the device out and held it to the vampire’s face.

“Mace?” the vampire asked. “Don’t believe I’ve ever had the opportunity to test myself against it.”

Karen pressed the button atop the cylinder. A flash delivered a quick UV blast into the surrounding darkness. The vampire wailed; its skin burned and charred before Karen’s eyes, just as the back label instructions said it would. “Sun Shock: Take Back the Night!”

Karen stepped around the vampire and continued briskly toward the road.

“It’s not that I mean to provoke you,” Karen said at normal volumes, knowing the thing could still hear her. “But we’ve found ways of protecting oursel—”

Before Karen could fully finish the sentence, the vampire again blocked her path, all its previous inflictions had vanished. The creature was disgustingly attractive and unscarred once again.

“What’s the battery’s lifespan?” the monster asked, seeming genuinely curious. “How many flashes does it carry? Ten? Twenty? The sensation’s not pleasant, I’ll give you that, but I can outlast it. I can outlast anything devised by a human.”

Karen’s mouth opened, but her voice was absent.

The vampire broke into laughter. “Amazing how your species gives itself up to technology. Trust me, Karen. When tech is your god, the best you can really hope for is a quick and tidy death. A systematic death.” The vampire studied the points of its nails. “Sadly, I’m of the old ways. Nothing tonight will be quick or tidy.”

Before she had the chance to fight, Karen’s nervous hand loosened and the small black canister of Sun Shock dropped to the ground, settling onto a tuft of grass. She began to cry, and any voices that might have whispered of security or entitlement or even hope were silent. For Karen, the future had dead-ended into the smiling face of a vampire.

“You don’t have to cry,” said the monster, “but I’m really hoping you will.”

*****

Becomin’ alive again was sweet terror. I saw blood spilled across the car’s hood and slowly came to realize that it had belonged to me. The first thought that swiped through my mind: Jesus, I’m too old to live forever.

It was the hunger that opened my eyes—I could feel it instantly and recognized it for what it was—but it was you that got me to my feet again, Karen. I could hear that woman, and I could hear you, but your thoughts simply mirrored hers. “You don’t have to cry,” she said, and you dropped the canister, tore open your blouse, all at her instruction. You bore your neck, and to me that all seemed perfectly acceptable. The only thing that nagged was that it wasn’t voluntary, and you hadn’t done a thing to warrant such an invasion.

Fucked up, isn’t it? I understand taking blood, but not by undue force.

Helluva leech I’m gonna make…

*****

Teeth. Karen couldn’t help but continue to stare at the vampire’s teeth. A great fatigue had weighed down her emotions; she was no longer able to fight the monster’s suggestive will, so she resigned herself to… What? Death? Undeath? Would the monster drain her and leave her to reanimate, or would it take the time to ensure Karen’s life was ended? With so many questions, Karen didn’t have the capacity to consider which fate she would have preferred if given the choice.

The vampire skimmed its teeth along Karen’s exposed neckline. She trembled. She wept. Her legs had gone numb, but wouldn’t collapse. They were stone pillars, holding her in place for the coming slaughter. The vampire would take its time. After all it had been through tonight to have her, it would make Karen’s final grisly moments last. In the distance, cars continued to pass along the freeway; they were too far away. Too far to see this undignified ending.

“Undignified?” the vampire asked as this last thought jumped between the two. “You think natural death would be as courteous? As meaningful? Life’s a dance, sweetie. A dance with no dignity. You end up where you end up, just like everyone else.”

“Natural death might not be as courteous, but it wouldn’t talk quite as much,” said Richard.

That was all the notice he afforded before the attack. Richard tackled the vampire to the ground and wrapped a thick and heavy hand around its neck. Squeezing, Richard imagined that he could pop the monster’s head off its shoulders, but the reality of achieving this goal was easier to visualize than to realize.

The vampire slipped away from Richard’s grasp. The initial surprise had worked to land a sucker punch, but now the vampire—who had presumably lived a very long time and had complete control of its facilities—seized the upper hand.

Three hits—kneecap, abdomen, nose—and Richard was down, his vision blurry. Deep, dark blood soaked into the cotton t-shirt that was already stained by a brighter shade of crusting red. A growing darkness bordered his vision, then his sight focused on a particular object. Life reentered the man’s eyes, an angry vitality that centered all its wrath on the monster. The old man (who was not looking or feeling so old anymore) charged again at the vampire, then quickly dropped to his aching knees before contact could be made. A hand reached out and claimed the fallen canister of Sun Shock.

The vampire was prepared for Richard’s attack, but withered at the sight of the recovered cylinder.

Richard held the bulb near the vampire’s face and placed a finger over the trigger.

“But you’ll—” was all the monster managed before the button was pushed and another blast of light bloomed on the field.

For a moment, Richard was transported to the surface of the sun, but before he could be conquered by the pain, he steeled himself, recovered his senses, and remembered exactly where the vampire had stood. Despite the blindness hiding his target, Richard’s hand surged forward and connected with the bridge of the vampire’s nose, and because the creature’s structure was made malleable by the blast, the charred skin and weakened bones collapsed under Richard’s force and coated his hand in gore. A solid hit made deadly. The vampire dropped lifeless to the ground.

Richard shook blood and bone off his knuckles. He had done it; killed the vampire, saved the damsel. What this victory had cost him would be another topic for another night, but he couldn’t completely shut it out, not with his face burning as it was. Then again, that would fade. Already, the searing heat of his burns were cooling. A hazy vision restored itself.

He turned to Karen, and saw both the flight in her eyes and the curious hope that held her in place. Scenes and still images radiated from her mind, vivid enough to study and dissect, conflicting emotions of victory over the conquered vampire, fear of what Richard had become, a persistent gloom from her loss of faith in securities and protections.

“Don’t worry,” he said. He sensed that the ease of his voice calmed her slightly. “It’s over. Come on, I’ll wait with you as long as I can, but I don’t know how great of company I’ll be.” Richard slid his arm into hers, and began walking her toward the roadside. He could smell her red scent drifting in the misty evening like a pleasant perfume.

“It’s funny,” Richard said as they reached the road and had a seat on the bank. “I’ve lived with the cold hard truth of vampires for the majority of my natural life, but I never thought I’d become one. I guess I should have considered it. After all, the vampires took over two days after my eleventh birthday…”

*****

“I’m sorry,” Karen said.

Richard had given her his Carhartt to help keep her warm. It smelled of spent cigarettes and singed hair, but Karen sank into the lining like it was made from fine silk. Tears had carved paths down her dirty cheeks. She had lost a shoe somewhere between the crash scene and the walk to the highway, but she had calmed down considerably since they’d arrived back at her car.

He was keeping her calm, and she was thankful for that. Still, the only words she could think to say anymore to Richard were “I’m sorry,” so she repeated them until they didn’t resemble meaningful words at all, just sounds that had no real definition.

“She was right, you know?” Richard said. “About the dance. Might have had a different view on it, but she certainly was dead on in the general sense. People do with what they got, dance with the floor and tunes they’re given.” Richard quieted himself, before adding: “The ones that don’t seem to dance toward a particular spot in the room tend to be the most fulfilled. You ever notice that?”

“I’m sorry,” Karen said again in her utterly collapsed voice.

“Yeah.” Richard looked up to the stars. “Me, too.”

He took Karen’s hand in his and lifted it to his lips. She let him kiss it without the slightest hint of unease. This man wasn’t a vampire. He wasn’t a leech. He had swung in, put himself in danger, and rescued her. Twice. Vampires didn’t do that.

She wrapped herself around Richard’s arm.

“I’m so sorry,” Karen repeated. What she really wanted to say was thank you, express her gratitude and offer him some recourse to the state he now found himself in (because of her), but she couldn’t bring the right words to mind. And whenever she reached for them, all that came to mind were variations on the same apology.

Richard half-grinned and gazed at the approaching red and blue flashers. Police sirens wailed into the night. They were coming to help, which meant that they’d kill him the moment they discovered what Richard had become—and for a moment, a briefly enticing moment, Richard considered letting them do their job. He shivered.

“I have to go,” Richard said and pulled his arm away from Karen. “It was nice meeting you, Karen.”

Karen opened her mouth, but closed it when Richard smiled down at her.

“I know: ‘You’re sorry,’” he said. “But as much as you may mean it, that’s not gonna change a thing.”

Then he was gone, and the siren lights were glowing on Karen’s damp cheeks and she was left somewhere new. Somewhere between the world of vampires and men.

 

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