More of this nonsense. Now featuring a Vampire Visigoth, kitty issues, iron bullets.
The rest of his shift–the night shift, of course–passed uneventfully. John got the stockroom in some kind of order, turned the radio on, sold a few sodas and packs of cigarettes. He mopped up the blood in the alley and returned the lockbox to its spot under Marlene’s desk. He whistled along to ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Under the Boardwalk’ on the muzak with centuries-long disregard for tune or pitch.
When no one was around, he poked the hole in his chest idly. He could feel the bullet rattling around in his lung like the last gumball in a fleshy vending machine.
It was awfully irritating. It would be, he decided, his first order of business upon returning home to remove it.
Which is why, with dawn looming on the horizon, the vampire John Fowler could be found in the bathroom of his basement apartment with a thin magnetic grabber he usually used for retrieving awkwardly dropped car keys, a pair of flat-nose pliers, and the roll of duct tape he’d borrowed from the store laid out on the hideous green formica countertop in front of him.
Doing self-surgery as a vampire, he’d discovered, was more like playing the board game Operation than it was like undergoing an actual operation. There were little pieces, irritatingly shaped, rattling around inside you. They tickled you a little when they brushed up against something that still moved. They had to be fetched out with a painstaking amount of care–not because it hurt if you did it wrong, mind, but because the holes were so damn small, and one’s inner organs were actually surprisingly large.
He wondered what his lungs looked like, at this point. He’d seen human lungs, of course–in almost a hundred years of draining the blood from people, you saw some shit. Weird blobby things, filled with funny little nodules that reminded him of baby’s breath.
He tried to picture his own, and couldn’t. All he could imagine was paper bags. Paper bags and dead flowers, dried and preserved for some special occasion.
He shrugged off his work shirt, tossed it onto the toilet seat. He looked, out of habit, into the mirror, but there was nothing there, and of course there wasn’t. He hadn’t had a reflection for ninety-nine years.
Which just made this that much more difficult.
You could sleep on it, John’s inner voice wheedled. You’re a vampire, it’s not like it’s going to kill you. You’ve got the night off tomorrow. Plenty of time to mess with it then.
Except he didn’t want to use his day off fishing a bullet out of his own lung.
Sighing, he picked up the magnetic strip and began feeding it into the hole in his chest.
He fed it a little deeper, wiggled it around some.
There it was.
He readied the pliers in his other hand, squinting down at his own chest until he was almost cross-eyed with the short focus effort.
The hole was pretty big. What kind of gun had the thief been using, anyway? This wasn’t the typical .45 hole, or the petite little puncture of a .22. He could almost wiggle the bullet out without the pliers.
He gave it a try, heard the telltale rustly thump of the bullet disconnecting from the strip. He picked it back up, tried to wiggle the pliers in around it lefthanded.
The bullet fell again.
He left the pliers jammed in his chest and wiggled the magnetic strip. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. Catch.
There it was.
He tried to force another quarter inch of open space from the pliers.
Did it hurt? A little. Pain was no surprise, these days. It was just another feeling.
Someone knocked on the door.
“Shit,” said John. He called out: “one minute.”
He gave made one last attempt at fishing out the bullet. It clattered off the magnetic strip and back into the lifeless tissue of his lung.
Sighing, he removed the pliers and shrugged on a t-shirt. He could feel the bullet rattling around inside him with every movement.
He answered the door.
“Hi,” said the vision outside. “Um. I’m your new upstairs neighbor. Is this…is this your cat?”
John had never, in the roughly one hundred and thirty years of his existence, owned a cat. He didn’t like cats. He didn’t like their aloof ways, their claws, the necessary litterbox and the miasma it created. John, in his delicate undead condition, was sensitive to odors, and a litterbox, well. It was an odor.
He especially didn’t like this cat. Cats were, in general, unclean–John felt sometimes like the only person on the planet who understood that licking a paw a few times did not a clean creature make–but this one was downright scuzzy.
Matted fur, heavy hanging belly, twin runnels of black goo leaking down from watery eyes.
It meowed at him, pinned against the sizeable breasts of John’s new upstairs neighbor. It probably had some sort of contagious kitty condition, John decided. Even its meow sounded broken.
However, John’s new neighbor–John’s incredible looking new neighbor–was holding this no-doubt-heartworm-positive lump of mange out with an expression of such fetching relief and happiness that John could not, could not, say no.
“Yep,” John said. “That’s my cat.”
The cat–miserable ball of whinge that it was–meowed piteously, as though to corroborate his story.
“He’s a sweet little guy,” said the visionary neighbor. She giggled. “Where should I put him?”
John gestured, aimlessly, to the wood-paneled musty space that served him as a living room. He kept it pretty neat–he was a neat creature–but he wished he’d had time to dust, or something. “Anywhere you like.”
The vision entered, brightening up his space with beach blonde hair and smooth tanned skin and that almost imperceptible glow that accompanies the extremely healthy. She bent down, placing the mangy cat on John’s beaten brown sofa. The cat, after turning around a few times, promptly began to pee on a throw pillow.
“Erm,” said John. But the girl, turning around to face him, hadn’t noticed.
God, she was beautiful. Smooth skin, a petite upturned nose, thick-lashed movie starlet eyes. She smiled at him, revealing small white teeth.
John’s heart, which hadn’t beaten for almost a hundred years, let out a single uneven ka-thunk.
“Thanks for inviting me in,” she said. Which seemed like a funny thing to say.
Or did it?
Her face was a little too perfect. A little too starletesque. Could have, in fact, been the face on the cover of a magazine or on a movie poster.
“Dammit, Aleric,” John said.
The beautiful visage in front of him lengthened, broadened, rippled and shimmered. The body lengthened and broadened also, the waist and shoulders thickening, legs lengthening. The luxurious blonde curls retracted some distance…
“Heh,” said the girl. “Hahaheh. Hee. Oh my God, John. Your face. Your fucking face, man.”
For the girl was no longer a girl. Was certainly no longer terribly attractive. Was, in fact, now a man in the first flush of his youth, some Germanic ideal of old–broad-shouldered and firm-jawed, hair brushing his shoulders in old-fashioned ringlets. This was a face John knew well–it belonged to Aleric Ulrich, messenger vampire of the Blood Reckoning coven, John’s assigned Brethren Watcher, and, he supposed, by default, his best friend.
This ancient tribesman, this vampire Visigoth, continued to chuckle. He was wearing a Slayer t-shirt. His long powerful feet, the pride nine hundred years ago of a hard-walking warrior, were encased in grungy leather flip-flops shiny with long wear. One of his toenails, for some incomprehensible reason, was painted purple.
“Meow,” said Aleric, picking up the motheaten cat and waltzing it around. “Me-ooooow.”
John, who generally tried to look on the bright side of things, said: “So I don’t have to keep the cat.”
“Hell, no. Have it for dinner, if you like.” Aleric made what John supposed was a cat-face, scrunching up his nose and pawing imaginary ears with one white hand.
“Whose face was that?”
Aleric shrugged, collapsing neatly back onto the couch. “I don’t know. She was on the cover of Cosmo last month. Thought she’d appeal to you. You like the beachy ones.” He winked, and for a moment the lost vision’s beautiful features were visible, superimposed over his own. “Gotcha!”
“Very funny.” John crossed his arms. “Why’re you here, Al?”
“You know why I’m here.”
John saw the other vampire’s eyes flicker over to the television set and sighed. The coven of the Blood Reckoning wouldn’t pay for cable, and didn’t want to bother learning how to install flatscreens in the underground crypt system they called home. As a result, John had spent more nights than he cared to admit hosting Aleric, and had seen more episodes of Friends than was altogether good for whatever remained of his soul.
But, apparently, this wasn’t the reason for Aleric’s visit. He shook his head slowly.
“As much as I want to find out whether Ross and Rachel finally get together,” he said, “I think I’ve gotta do my messenger stuff first.”
Which meant he was here on coven business. Which was never a good sign.
“As you probably know,” Aleric said, “you’re coming to the end of the first hundred years of your life as a vampire.”
John was aware. He was well aware. Had thought, for that matter, of very little else for the past year or so. The coven masters called what he was in a ‘fledgling state’, a time when a vampire wasn’t quite grown into his full powers, or over those nasty human habits like eating occasionally, drinking, and giving a shit. The official reason for this state was that it took a hundred years, give or take, for the body to truly die, and the blood that had kept him sustained as a human man to leave it. The real reason, John suspected, was actually to give the coven a big fat margin of error, so they could kill him if they felt they’d made a mistake.
Many fledglings, Al had told him cheerfully in between episodes of Iron Chef America, chose not to take the plunge into full-fledged vampiredom. Sixty percent, he guessed, maybe more. Why? Well, it wasn’t for everybody, being a vampire.
Not even the people the coven had hand-picked for their high vampire likelihood.
Why did so many choose to die the final death? In spite of immortality and awe-inspiring powers, it was a lonely eternal life. And one with little promise of release–not much could permanently kill a full-fledged vampire. Even sunlight, which would turn a fledgling like John into a small strawberry-jamlike explosion wherever he stood, was only a mild annoyance. Those coven members who wished to die had to work for it, and work hard.
Then there was the little matter of the Blood Price. But that–Aleric shrugged every time it was mentioned and went back to the T.V.
That, he’d say. You got used to it.
“The coven is still awaiting your decision, John.”
“I know,” John muttered. “Hey. Before we get into this, could I at least fish this bullet out of my…”
Aleric sighed. “Christ, John. D’you need help?”
Before John could even say no, Aleric waved a desultory hand. John’s stagnant respiratory system suddenly felt a good deal more comfortable.
Aleric opened his fist, dropped the bullet onto the counter. “There y’go,” he said. He examined the bullet for a minute, the powdery black remains of John’s blood covering his fingers as he turned it. “That’s…interesting,” he murmured. “An iron bullet. That’d wreck hell on most gun barrels. Did you have some crazies after you, or something?”
“No. Some kid tried to hold up Marlene at the store tonight. I got lucky, came out in time to stop it.”
“And he shot you with an iron bullet.”
Aleric squinted at the bullet again, the dark casing grooved and glinting. After a minute, he raised an eyebrow and slipped it in his pocket.
John supposed he shouldn’t ask. After all, it wasn’t like it was his bullet. It’d just lived inside him for a while.
But he couldn’t help it.
“Is that not what bullets are usually made of?”
“No,” Al said. And then–oddly enough, for Al–he didn’t say anything more about it.
“You know,” he said instead, “If you paid the Blood Price and joined the coven, you could do stuff like that too. Move fast and take bullets out of people.”
The two vampires looked at each other. The mangy cat, making itself at home, climbed on top of the kitchen counter and began to shed there.
“They’re serious,” Aleric said. “You’re almost out of time.”
“How long do I have?”
“A month. Maybe a month and a half. But they’ll come for you before that. And if you don’t make the decision, they’ll make it.”
“And it won’t be in a way I like.”
“And it won’t be in a way you like,” Aleric agreed. He pulled out one of the bar stools John had beside the counter and sat down on it. He shooed the cat away. “John. Buddy. What can I do to help you? I’ve given you all the time in the world, told you everything I can to help you make a decision. What’s the problem here? What’s giving you so much trouble?”
“Really? It’s the rest of my life. And, I mean, come on. My choices are eternal nothingness or eternal…everything. Ness. Die finally or live forever. How is that an easy choice?”
“It isn’t,” Aleric said quietly. “That’s why they give you a hundred years to make it.”
“How’d you make it?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you.” Aleric looked left and right, looked back at John. “But if you really want to know–I didn’t.”
“They made it for you?”
“They did.” And John saw something in his face–a flicker of something mysterious, some ancient and terrible sadness. He usually found Aleric a little ridiculous–certainly no more the stereotypical vampire than he was–but for just a moment, looking at the frown on his friend’s ageless face, he believed it. Believed, utterly, that this sloppy creature in a Slayer t-shirt and Birkenstocks was over a thousand years old, and had been, by his own admittance, a tribal prince.
“Trust me,” Al said. “Don’t let them choose for you.”
John pulled out the second bar stool and sat on it. He had bled a little, he noticed, with the removal of the bullet–two small drops of dark blood, drying even as he touched them.
How many more drops of blood, he wondered, did he have inside him? A tiny number, he was certain. Maybe a one digit number. And every drop he shed–every drop was gone from him forever. There would be no more blood. And, when the last drop was shed–there would be a choice.
From this point on, there was only death and decay.
Death or decay, he reminded himself bitterly. And the death bit was sort of a given.
“This is the last time it’ll be me asking you, John,” Al said. “Next time, it’ll be the High Master. And after that–well. If you’re lucky, I’d say you have three weeks until they take you.”
“I know. You think I don’t know this?”
“I think you don’t care. At least, not yet. Not as much as you should.” He sighed. “I only want to help you, before it’s too late. It’s a tough choice, yes. But the only thing less pleasant than making it is having the coven make it for you.”
“Then sleep on it.” Aleric glanced out the window. “You’ve got about thirty minutes to get to sleep before sunrise, anyway. You shouldn’t be up this early. Don’t worry. I’ll be back tomorrow to watch TV.”
“Great,” John said darkly. Al touched his shoulder.
“If you decide–when you decide. Call on me. Whether you believe it or not right now, John–I am your friend. And, should you choose the long death, I’d. Well. I’d miss having you around.”
“I know,” John said, for the third time. “I’ll make the decision. I promise. Okay?”
“By the way,” Al said, grinning. “You really do have a new upstairs neighbor. I saw the lights on when I walked up.”
And with those words, he disappeared.
And even though sudden mysterious disappearances were pretty much Al’s calling card–his favorite part, he often confessed, of having full vampire powers–John still wasn’t expecting it. Nor was he expecting him to leave the mangy cat sprawled out on the sofa.
The cat looked up at him and gave a single little mew, soft and piteous. The thing was wall-eyed, John realized. He didn’t know there could be such a thing as a wall-eyed cat.
He debated eating it. However, it looked like it would taste pretty horrible, and who knew? It might belong to someone.
Sighing, he went to fish a can of tuna out of the pantry.
That day, mangy cat curling up on his chest, John Fowler dreamed of iron bullets.