Sunday, January 2, 2011

when leaves fall

part I
copyright 2019 john carlson

The rising full moon, still low on the horizon, already cast a silver light over the dark landscape. The stand of pines on the hilltop blocked the light from penetrating their bulk. Black walls in silhouette . But the deciduous trees nearer the cabin were helpless against the moon’’s charm. Twisted trunks made a latticework of gnarled hands clawing the air.

Pete loved being out here in the late fall, where the sky, when it was clear, was a mass of stars that couldn’t be seen from the city. His two weeks of vacation were barely enough for the profound solitude to soak through his up-tight body and racing mind. No TV or radio, only a cell phone for emergency -- but even that modern convenience showed ""no service"" up here in the foothills of the Cascades. He’d have to drive to Verlot -- a tiny cluster of houses with one small gas station/grocery -- twenty miles down the slopes. By this time of year only a few daring souls willing to brave the cold and isolation of the coming winter would be there.

Ginny was inside the cabin with a blazing fire. She was no doubt propped on the ancient quilt covered bed reading. When she came with him, she always brought a suitcase of books -- novels she had little time to read at home. She seemed content here. She hated the outhouse when they would visit for long weekends in the summer, but this time of year the flies were gone and the smell subdued by the cold.

He liked hiking with the dog during the days, but in the evenings relished sitting on the ramshackle porch -- rain or shine -- encircled by the peacefulness of nature. Yes, the cabin was rustic and not in the best of shape, nailed shut during most of the year, but he always made sure the steep pitched roof was in good repair. He hauled several cords of seasoned wood up during the year and stacked them neatly under a large lean-to a few feet from the house.

A fox and two half grown kits loped past on their way to who-knows-where and a few whitetail deer wandered past, made curious by his presence on the porch and the smell of the fire. He heard a mournful howling somewhere in the distance. Finally he stood up and stretched, reluctantly turning his back on the woods and entered the cabin.

""Did you hear the howling?"" Ginny asked.

""Mmm, sounded lonely,"" he said.

""I know Pete,"" there was concern in her voice. ""but I didn’t think their were wolves in the area.""

That was true, he thought, but . . . ""Maybe coyotes.""

""Pete, coyotes don’t howl. They yap and make those weird crying-barking sounds.""

""Maybe they’ve been reintroduced."" But he doubted that since it would have been all over the news.

""I don’t think so, Pete. Would it be possible for a pack to have somehow made it here on their own?""

""I don’t know, but . . . Ginny you’re starting to make me nervous now,"" he said. Maybe I’ll visit the ranger station tomorrow and ask."" He stripped for bed. Ginny scooted over so he could climb in. She put her book down and turned off the Coleman lamp. The room was lit only by the fireplace now. Shadows danced on the log walls.

""They were asleep in no time. Only the occasional snap of the fire interrupted the stillness. Nathanael was rudely awakened by Ginny’s elbow. He shrunk away but she kept poking him. She put her mouth against his ear -- ""Pete -- shhh, listen."" Waking to a warning or an urgent whisper is a frightening sensation. His heart was beating out of his chest as he strained to listen. ""You hear that?"" she asked.

He did hear a scratching at the door, slow and soft at first, then louder and faster and more forceful, as if paws were digging frantically to get in. They lay there frozen with fear as their imaginations ran amok. The dog, Gracie, had lost most of her hearing in the last couple of years, but even she lifted her head and gave a soft ""woof"". The sound stopped abruptly, but then they heard feet padding away, crackling against fallen leave, and fading into the distance.

"Shit!"" he said, throwing off the quilted comforter, ""what the hell was that?""

""Don’t go out there, Pete,"" Ginny warned in a scratchy whisper.

""Whatever it was is gone,"" he said, and he grabbed a flashlight.

He opened the door slowly and turned the beam on the porch and then the perimeter of the cabin. A fog had come in like a shroud and the light only penetrated a few feet. Then he trained the light on the door itself and saw the scratches, deep and splintered grooves high up. ""Ginny, look at this!""

She crept out and examined the marks. ""Holy . . . It must have been huge whatever it was. Pete I’m scared. Lets get out of here.""

He put his arm around her shoulder in a poor attempt at comforting reassurance. He, too, was totally freaked out. ""Gin, it’s the middle of the night. Whatever or whoever was at the door is long gone now. Besides we practically just arrived.""

""I guess you’re right,"" she said. But she went to fetch a hatchet from one of the boxes they’d lugged in. ""But I’m not going back to bed without protection!""

""He laughed despite his barely contained fear. ""You’re going to fight something off with that? A real ax murderer aren’t you,"" he teased.

""Well, at least keep your gun by the bed. Would you? I’ll rest easier.

""How about my crossbow?""

""Whatever. Something."" A moment passed and she asked, ""what did you mean whatever or whoever? A person couldn’t make those gouges in the door.""

Surprisingly they fell back to sleep. Toward morning both were snoring softly. By the time daylight invaded the room, Pete was beginning to stir. When both were awake, they found that the terror of last night had dissipated. When he opened the door, Gracie bounded out of the cabin and toward the woods to do her duty. When Pete returned from the outhouse, Gracie was whining. Her hackles were raised as she sniffed around the porch.

Ginny had eggs and bacon frying on the Coleman stove -- unhealthy food she would never fry, let alone eat, back home. Pete smiled and poured himself a cup of yesterday’s cold coffee. After eating he retrieved his camera and jacket, kissed Ginny, and headed out the door. Gracie happily ran ahead of him. He knew the trails in the area, he knew the land, no real surprises, but he loved the day hikes no matter how uneventful they may be. The morning was as clear and bright as it was cold and crisp.

He had schooled himself in tracking. He read everything he could find on the subject during the year. He’d learned more by actually doing it when he was in the wilderness. But when he noticed a couple shoeprints leading away from the cabin, he was puzzled and a little angry. But rather than trepidation, he felt excitement at the prospect of finding something out about last night’s intruder.

He followed the sporadic tracks, the trampled grasses and displaced leaves for nearly a mile until he reached the muddy banks of a swampy pond. The man’s big footprints were very clear in the soft mud. Strangely, they just ended -- stopped, disappeared. The tracks ended as if the person just stood in one place and vanished. Maybe he had jumped into the mucky water. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it so he decided to continue walking and forget about it.

*** *** ***
Part II

While Pete was out, Ginny decided she’d better go down to the stream and fetch more water for boiling. The sun was sinking and she was a little concerned that Pete wasn’t back. He was usually gone only until late afternoon but rarely wandered in this late.

The little creek wasn’t far from the cabin. She filled and carried two buckets to the porch, glancing uneasily toward the wooded ridge. Where was he? Next she went to the lean-to for the nights firewood. She was just bending over it when a low voice from behind her said; ""allow me to help you."" She screamed, turned and fell backward against the stacked wood.

A very tall man stared down at her, grinning. His grin frightened and angered her all at once. ""Who are you? And what the hell are you doing on this property?""

He had the nerve to chuckle. ""Sorry if I alarmed you,"" he said, smiling at her. ""I was only passing through and thought I’d help you out with the logs.""

""Passing through? Passing through! Nobody just ‘passes through’ here. We’re in the middle of the forest for heaven’s sake!""

""Well, I was actually trying to find the old Iron Ram mine trail. I think I’ve been walking in circles.""

""Ya?"" she said incredulously. ""You probably are walking in circles and you’re about twenty-five or thirty miles from it.""

He picked up an armload of wood. ""I guess that explains my luck then.""

The man was tall and muscular. His hair was a mass of curls, neither too long nor too short. He had strange gray eyes and a dimpled chin. When he smiled his teeth gleamed like he used too much tooth whitening gel and his canines were longer than most people’s. Ginny wasn’t sure what to do or how to react. Was he a danger, a potential friend or just a lost soul that needed to be hurried on his way? ""My husband will be back soon,"" she said, trying her best to keep calm. ""He’s been on a hike with our dog.""

""Shouldn’t he be back by now?"" He looked at his wide leather watchband. ""It’s after dark . . .nearly.""

""I suppose he should. And shouldn’t you be on your way as well?"" She really hoped he’d leave as suddenly as he came, but suspected he would linger. The small hairs on her neck and arms stood on end as she studied his eyes. They were eerie and too intense. His gray irises were ringed with dark which made the gray appear even lighter than it was. His black dilated pupils penetrated her like lasers.

""Your husband is late, I can not leave you here alone. That would be very ungentlemanly of me.""

She felt she needed to be firm with this guy or she would be stuck with unwanted company. ""I’m fine,"" she said. ""I’m not a child! You just go on now and leave me alone.""

Again he flashed that frighteningly beautiful smile and locked his eyes with hers. She felt a wave of calm wash over her. She felt sleepy. What a nice guy , she thought as she became even more relaxed. Then she jerked back to reality. What the hell was she thinking? He could be a serial killer for all she knew. She shook her head, trying to bring herself out of whatever spell she was under. ""Leave!"" she yelled.

His smile faltered for a moment then spread over his face again. ""You’re very strong."" She looked up at him. ""But,"" he continued, ""you are also very tired and sleepy, Ginny. We should go in.""

She nodded and turned to climb the porch steps. Just as she stepped over the threshold, her fear returned. ""How did you know my name?""

""Your name? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ginny."" They stood face to face for a moment. Neither uttered a word. Ginny backed slowly away into the cabin. ""Can I come in Ginny?""

""N-n-no,"" she stammered. A ridiculous but very terrible thought came to her. Vampire! Vampires have to be invited in. No, there is no such thing. But as she continued to stare at this handsome frightening stranger, she had the nightmarish certainty that he was exactly that. The very fact that this thought was in her mind absolutely terrified her.

""You know you’d like to invite me in. Why don’t you do that. It’ll be nice. We can talk, have a cup of coffee, wait for Pete."" Her legs abruptly felt weak. She thought she might pee. But she didn’t budge -- she couldn’t. His features tensed and his eyes seared into her. ""Let me in!"" he ordered.

Wisely, Ginny made a split second decision not to look at his eyes. Instead she focused on his hands. They were smooth and white. He wore a ring on his right index finger, but his nails! His nails were too long and thick and there was dirt all around the cuticles -- like he’d been gardening. The thought made her laugh. ""Mr. Gardener, the Vampire!""

""What,"" he asked in a puzzled voice.

She was laughing so hard now that she could barely speak. ""I’m not letting you in Mr. Gardener!"" She slammed the door and fell down on her hands and knees laughing. She had to stop it and try to think. What should she do in this situation?

* * * *

Pete awoke face down. He wasn’t sure where he was. He sat up and turned on the small flashlight attached to his belt. He shone it all around. He was on a trail, he could see that -- thick bushes and ferns all around him and of course the ubiquitous trees. What happened, how did he get here? Had he fallen? He felt good, great in fact. The flashlight sparked and dimmed then petered out. His eyes adjusted quickly and he found he could see perfectly well. He checked himself for wounds. Nothing. But the front of his shirt was damp and sticky. He felt his neck. It was wet too. He sniffed his wet hand. Blood. He could not feel the source of it at first, but then just under his chin he did feel something -- a small bump or two or a welt. What the . . . ?

He stood up and tried to remember which way he was going, got out his pocket compass and found his direction. He was amazed that he could read the little thing in the near darkness. He looked at the watch. It was late. Ginny would be worried. And Gracie! Where was Gracie?

He called the dog’s name. Then he saw her. ""Oh, no. Oh, no Gracie!"" He walked a few steps forward and knelt beside her crumpled body. He picked her up and cradled her dead body, tears streaming down his face. ""Oh, what happened to you, Girl? My good girl."" He laid her back down and rolled her over. Her neck was torn, ripped open, and the blood was still warm though no longer flowing. The coppery smell of it overwhelmed him suddenly. Before he could even register what he was doing, his mouth was on the dogs neck and he was drinking it.

He quickly pulled away. My God! What am I doing!

Gardener, or whoever he was, stood outside yelling. He kept screaming her name angrily. She put her hands over her ears but she could still hear him. He began to howl, and the sound sent chills through her. Then, abruptly, the yelling and screaming and howling stopped.

For a little while she sat in a corner hugging herself and rocking. What did the silence mean? She got up and got a knife and walked softly around the two small rooms of the cabin. When she reached the fireplace her eyes went to the wood. There was a stack of kindling. She picked up a fairly long piece of kindling and examined it, then began whittling on the end, forming a sharp point. Maybe a stake would work better against the Vamp than a knife. She heard footsteps outside. She held her breath listening. It was quiet again and after ten minutes had past, she got up. What should she do?

Where was Pete. Ginny dropped the stake and clutched the knife tighter. The room seemed lighter through the curtains, but the sun had not yet fully risen. She tiptoed to the window and carefully, slowly, pulled the corner of the curtain back so she could see outside. Her heart fell. It was snowing like crazy. Huge flakes were piling up. She sank to her knees. Then she lay down completely on the soft thick area carpet and let her eyes close.

* * * *

Pete stood above the dog’s body and stared. What had he just done? What in the world compelled him to do such a thing? The trail was becoming white before he realized it was snowing. He turned away from Gracie and began walking down the trail. He wasn’t sure how far away from the cabin her was, could be close but could be miles. He just couldn’t remember. He was so thirsty, but he couldn’t hear any water -- no river, no stream.

Everything was different somehow. He could smell the trees and the earth, he could see deeper into the woods than he normally could. He could here small stirrings around him; deer mice, ground squirrels, forest newts or frogs in the leaf mold and loam beneath that? It was weird. As he walked around a bend in the trail, he was all of a sudden aware of a heartbeat off the trail in the bush.

He stopped and listened. Yes, he heard it even more clearly and the rushing of blood being pumped through the body. He sensed it was a deer and had the overwhelming urge to find it. When he felt he was very close, the sleeping animal awoke and was on her feet in a flash. Pete closed in and the doe leapt and ran. Pete gave chase. He was on her trail running through the trees, leaping over fallen branches and moss covered boulders as if, he too, were a forest animal. He ran and ran and let no distance come between him and his prey.

They ran uphill then down a gorge. The deer crossed a small river in two graceful jumps. Pete vaulted over the water and easily onto the other side. The doe was tiring, growing less agile as they wove through the trees, but Pete felt fine -- even exhilarated. ""Enough,"" he thought -- and in two preternatural leaps he was on her. She was gasping and struggling to free herself from his grip. He threw her down and sat on her heaving side. It all seemed so natural as he tore into her neck and felt the hot gush of delicious blood.

The snow was deepening and he knew the daylight was fast approaching. He plunged his hands into the snow feeling the ground beneath. He started to dig, his hands easily snapping through strong roots in the soil. The earth moved almost as easy as the snow. His whole body was soon under the soil. The earth was warm, the smell comforting. Then his thoughts simply ceased.

* * * *

The snow continued to fall, heavily and soundlessly. The lonely cabin in the little clearing looked like the cover of a Christmas card. The silence was profound and to all appearances the cabin seemed serene and warm and beautiful.

Ginny woke with a start. It was so quiet and bright -- obviously daylight. She could see the clock across the room. Twelve o’clock! But . . .she couldn’t have slept so long! Then she remembered everything from the previous night and fear surged through her. The fire had gone out and she could see her own breath. Besides the fear, a deep sadness was upon her. Pete was lost and perhaps dead somewhere out in the woods. She couldn’t fool herself into believing anything but the worst.

I’ve got to get out of here, she thought. I’ll just grab a few things and drive the hell away. She put on her jacket, grabbed her keys and scooped up the knife and stake. When she opened the door however, she dropped everything on the floor and looked blankly at the scene. She’d forgotten the snow. Good Lord, it must have dumped three feet on the ground. There was no way in hell she could drive down that crooked bumpy dirt road leading to the highway. Nor would she get far walking, let alone walking the twenty miles to Verlot.

* * * *

Pete awoke to the darkness. He was still thirsty, but not uncontrollably. He began walking. He had to get home to Ginny. As he plodded through the snow, he saw a couple of raccoons. He caught one and drank it dry. He didn’t like the musky smell, but the blood was sweet. He knew for certain that something bad had happened to him, but he didn’t question it now. He just followed his instincts and continued toward his destination.

The snow had stopped falling and the moon was shining through, where the breaks in the sparse clouds allowed. He was very close now. He saw a movement at the edge of the trail ahead under some Cedars. A man stepped out wearing black levis and a black turtleneck ""Ahh, there you are my son."" The man was near Pete’s age.

""Son?"" Pete said. ""My dad is dead."" Strangely Pete felt no fear. It was as if he were talking to someone on the streets of Seattle.

The man laughed. ""I’m your maker and therefore you are my child."" He stood like a statue, barely moving. ""You are in need of new clothes, Pete.""

Pete looked down at his shirt. He was surprised but not appalled by the state of his clothing. His jacket was gone and his shirt was torn and tattered -- covered with reddish black stains. His jeans were not torn as badly, but they were caked with dirt -- probably from his sleep in the soil. He was most surprised to see that his shoes were gone. His feet were so pale that they were nearly indistinguishable from the snow. ""What have you done to me?""

The Vampire smiled again in a patient fatherly way. ""I’ve made you better. Given you a new life -- an eternal existence.""

""Get the hell away from me."" Pete said. ""I’ve got to check on my wife.""

""Yes, do that Pete. Be careful at the door though. Make sure she invites you in.""

""What are you talking about, you crazy bastard? It’s my wife. She in my cabin.""

""Not yours anymore, my child.""

""Screw you,"" Pete said, as he walked swiftly past the man.

""Be careful Pete,"" the man called after him laughingly. His laugh echoed through the trees.

* * * *

Ginny had spent the day collecting any and all weapons or potential weapons she could find; crossbow, pistol, knives, stakes, even a heavy cast iron frying pan. Between her fiddling with items of potential salvation, she sat and cried. She wept for her situation, she wept for her lost spouse and for Gracie. At one point during the day she carried loads of firewood inside. She didn’t know how long she might have to sustain a siege against the terrible Vampire. She had learned that he could not enter without her invitation, but what if he lit the cabin on fire to smoke her out?

She heard footsteps crunching in the snow outside. Her heart began beating wildly until she heard Pete’s voice. She let out a yelp of surprise and hope. She ran to the door and flung it open. He looked awful, almost unrecognizable. ""Oh my God, Pete!""

He climbed the steps smiling but stopped at the threshold with a puzzled look.

""Pete, what’s happened to you, why are you just standing there? Are you wounded? There’s blood all over you. Oh my God, Pete!"" Then it all started to click in her mind. He must have been attacked by the Vampire. That’s why he stood there. She had to ask him in. Suddenly, overcome with grief, she wished she were dead and asked him to come in.

He fell into the doorway and looked around. ""I’m not going to hurt you Ginny. You’re my wife. I love you. I don’t understand what happened to me, but I won’t hurt you."" His eyes, too, had changed. They were uncannily similar to the man that had wanted in last night.

""Oh, Pete! Don’t you see? You’re a vampire!""

He looked at her like she was crazy -- then sat down on the edge of their bed. ""Vampires are myths, Ginny.""

""Where did the blood come from, Pete?""

""Animals,"" he said as he studied his long thick fingernails. ""Animals. Maybe you’re right I’ve become a monster.""

She told him about the ordeal with the man the night before. ""Yes,"" he said. ""I met him. Apparently he did this to me-- and killed Gracie as well."" She buried her face in her hands and wept yet again.

Then the dreaded voice from outside. ""Pete. Ginny. Let me in.""

""Never, you devil!"" Pete yelled.

The Vamp snarled in answer and then the digging and scratching started -- just like they’d heard the first night. It was weird and haunting. Why did he do it? ""Pete,"" he bellowed. ""Let me in! I command you. I know how to feed from her for many years without turning her.""

""Bull shit,"" Pete yelled back. But he was inching toward the door. He felt compelled.

Finally unable to take it any longer, Ginny grabbed the crossbow and loaded it with double arrows. ""Let him in,"" she screamed. Pete stared at her. She looked away from Pete and called out. ""Come in, Mr. Gardener.""

The door immediately swung open and as it did she released the arrows. They sailed to their mark with enough power to knock him down , the monster. Wasting not a moment, she ran toward him with the stake in her hand and quickly buried it in his chest. The vamp hissed and squirmed and then lay still. She ran back for the hatchet, then ran back to the door and hacked at his neck until the head rolled off the porch.

Pete and Ginny talked the rest of the night about everything. He was able to assure her he would never lay a hand on her. When the sun began to light the morning sky, Pete became weak and sleepy. He crawled under the bed as Ginny looked on with sad eyes. She wasn’t sure what they would do, how they would live. Pete certainly couldn’t keep his current job. She lay down on the bed, her mind racing. But eventually she fell asleep from pure emotional exhaustion. When she awoke at three o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was shining through the window and onto the bed. She got up to close it and then stopped.

She moaned to herself. Then, with a quick movement, she bent beside the bed, grabbed Pete and pulled. He was heavy but she managed to get him moved far enough that only his head was still under the bed. She reached in and turned him so she could get hold of him under the arms. She took a deep breath and pulled as hard as she could toward the window and the square of light on the floor beside it. A god-awful smell hit her and she noticed Pete’s arms were darkening. Suddenly his eyes flashed open and he bit her wrist. She screamed and pulled her wrist away. He was in the light and he cried out, wide eyed, ""Gin help me!"" He struggled but he had become pathetically weak. She watched his skin bubble and smolder until all that was left was a pile of putrid smelling ash.

One year later

The rising moon cast a silvery light on the landscape and the little cabin in the clearing. All the windows were boarded up. The place looked abandoned. Then the door opened and a solitary woman, white as snow, exited. She closed the door behind her.

It was cold. She was in a flimsy shift and she was barefooted. She stretched and smiled . Then, silently, she glided like a ghost toward the wooded hills. She would return at daybreak to wash the blood from her body and disappear again into the lonely cabin.

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