My step dad could own a private island if he wanted, but he’s still here in our musty old house. If I went upstairs to where the bedrooms are, mine would probably still be exactly as I left it all those years ago.
We were together in the gloomy old parlor with the huge fireplace and cobwebbed waterfall chandelier. He had just paid my bail, and I had driven over once I’d gotten out. Thanks would have been in order, but I skipped that and went right to asking him why, exactly, he’d done that.
My stepfather was now a faded version of the man I had last seen eighteen years ago. The oxygen tank and wheelchair had practically become part of his anatomy.
“Ben, why would you do that?” I asked, “I mean, you’ve been watching the news, right? You know what it is I’ve been accused of?”
“‘Accused,’ you say,” Ben replied between puffs on his oxygen mask.
“Yes, Ben, ‘accused,’” I replied shortly.
Then I asked, “Ben, why am I here?”
“You were always a total disappointment to me,” Ben said,”I loved your mother. I wanted to be a father to you. But you refused everything I taught you. You’re a fabricator, a flimflam artist and, yes I have been reading the news, it looks like it has finally caught up with you.”
I turned to leave.
“Don’t!” he shouted loudly enough to startle me, then started coughing.
“Don’t, Larry,” he said more calmly this time after the coughing stopped, “Wait. Do not leave. Hear me out.”
“Why should I?”
“Money. Considerable amounts, if you just do something for me.”
This made me turn around.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I need your help,” he said, and took another long draw on the oxygen.
“You’ve got like a million employees,” I said, “Pay a cronie.”
“No, this is too important. It is too important to me. I need someone I can trust.”
I feigned doubling over with laughter.
“You just got done saying…”
“I know what I just said!” Ben rasped, then took another hit of oxygen, “There’s trust and then there’s trust. I don’t trust anyone to be trustworthy. But I trust you always to be ruled by your laziness, myopia, and greed.”
“Ben, I don’t have to take this from you, you know?”
“Name a price,” Ben said, “Think of what it will cost to actually get you out of every mess you’ve put yourself in, then double it, and that is what I will pay you for one hour of your time in this house.”
This gave me pause.
“What do you want me to do, Ben?”
“You know what it is I do, don’t you? You know what my company does?”
“Sure I do, Ben. Biochemical something or other.”
“All my life,” Ben said, but speaking like he was speaking to someone in the corner now instead of to me, “All of my one, single, wretched life, all I have tried to do is render one positive change to the underlying equations of this woeful, gray world.”
“Haven’t you done that,” I asked, “ I mean, aren’t you a…”
“What the hell good does all that money do for me?” Ben said, “I can’t even breathe properly!”
I tried to come up with an answer while Ben took more drags on his oxygen, but couldn’t think of any way to respond.
“There’s been a side project,” Ben continued, “that I have kept quiet about and funded for the last twenty years. Only my two most trusted people ever worked on it with me. They both died. Suddenly. Unfortunately. But their great work was complete before that happened. Now I can finally see the fruition of what I started.”
“Died? How did they die?” I asked.
Ben did not answer that.
Instead, he went on, “We will never truly understand what electricity is, yet we have hijacked its outward manifestations successfully for the last hundred or so years. We will never really truly understand gravity, yet even now we are creating new technologies that harness gravity waves. Likewise, we will never really know and understand biology, not at its most root levels. Yet we can study it, study what happens when things go wrong and it breaks, and gain insights from that.”
“What kind of insights?” I asked.
Ben became aware of my presence again, looked up, and locked eyes with me.
“Indefinite, repeatable youth,” he said flatly, “Full reset.”
“What?” I asked, stunned, “How?”
Ben held eye contact and said, “Vampirism. You have to induce vampirism in a person, and then you reverse it. That’s how it works.”
I shoved my hands into my pockets and drew in a breath.
“Okay, Ben,” I said, “Thanks for your time. All the best. I’m gonna go now.”
“Now wait just one second,” Ben said harshly, “I’m the one that’s spent a lifetime studying this stuff. Certainly you can hear me out.”
“OK, Ben, go ahead. What in the world is it that you’re talking about.”
“Everything,” said Ben, “About us, about humans as an organism, our beginning at one point, functioning over time, and then dying, all of it is driven by an underlying biochronology that’s deeply tied to the laws of the physical universe.”
“Human biochronology, it’s like an hourglass that has been super-glued to the table,” Ben went on, “What vampirism does, it shatters the hourglass. Obliterates it.”
I was too stunned at what I was hearing to protest or interject, so he went on.
“You reverse vampirism,” Ben said, his eyes gleaming a bit as he did so, “by rebuilding the hourglass. Thing is, when you do that, you can set the chronology to any period in the person’s biological history you want.”
I said nothing.
“You think I’m out of my tree, don’t you?” he asked.
“Ben, absolutely,” I replied, “I believe that you are completely bonkers. Either that or you are getting some kind of kick by messing with me. Goodbye.”
“The money’s real,” he said as I began to turn, and that stopped me.
“The money is very real,” he said, “Even if I am just a delusional old man having one last chuckle before he dies, the money is very real.”
I turned back around and faced him again.
“What do you want, Ben?”
Ben beckoned me closer. I stepped up to his wheelchair.
He grunted slightly as he fished into the left pocket of his robe, then he held out to me a small envelope like what they give you cash in at the bank.
I took it from him.
“Careful!” Ben said, ‘Absolutely do not drop what’s in there.”
I gently tipped the envelope so that its contents rolled into my hand. Three pills of an unearthly green hue.
“OK, now put those back. Carefully,” he said. “And put it in your pocket,”
“What are they for?” I asked.
“They reverse vampirism and reset the person’s chronobiology back to certain stages.”
“I’m not a vampire,” I said.
“Of course you’re not a vampire!” Ben hissed, “You are the bait. You take the pills, give them a minute to dissolve, then you let the vampire bite you. When the vampire drinks your blood, their chronology gets restored. Reset. They’re human again, at whatever age you want them to be!”
At that I genuinely laughed.
“Ben, what the actual hell are you talking about?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake!” Ben exclaimed, tossing up his hands and then gripping the arms of the wheelchair. For the first time what I saw before me was not Ben The Powerful who I had grown up under, but a very tired and discouraged old person who was sick, run down, and stuck in a wheelchair.
“Stop thinking,” he growled up at me, “If you want the damned money, stop thinking. Your thinking is absolutely no good to anybody. Stop it.”
“OK, Ben, calm down. Just tell me what it is you want me to do.”
“Look,” he said, “When they attack a victim for the first time, they never bite at the neck. That is for…at the end. When they wanna kill them or turn them into another vampire. The first couple times, the vampire always just takes blood from the ankle or the wrist. They feed on your bit and then they go away. This’ll be your first encounter with the vampire. She’ll just bite your wrist. You’ll be fine. But you will have taken the pills already, they will be in your bloodstream. That’s a necessary step in the chemistry. Then the vampire drinks some of your blood and that leads to a reset.”
“You want me to take these crazy pills then let some wacko bite me?”
Ben rubbed his pale sunken face with emaciated hands. Then he looked up at me.
‘You want the money?”
I let out a long sigh.
“OK, Ben,” I said, “Where is this person? You said it was a she. Is she here, in the house?”
Ben turned away from me and looked at the hallway. Across the hallway from the wide entry of the parlor, the ancient wallpaper was interrupted by a narrow door that led to the basement stairs.
“I got her in the basement,” Ben said.
I was completely shocked when Ben said this..
“What?” I yelled, “Dammit, Ben! I’m already facing charges and you tell me you got a woman locked up in your basement??”
Ben’s hands came up, pleading and placating.
“Stop. Just, stop, Larry. You don’t have any true idea what’s going on here.”
“Oh, yeah?” I spat back, “That one’s not too hard to figure out, Ben! You think you can do anything you want, and now you’ve got a lady locked up in your basement!”
He told me that was absolutely not true.
“Oh, OK,” I yelled, “So if you don’t have her tied up or something, call her up here. Ben. Call her up here right now so I can see that she’s fine!”
Then Ben said “1882.”
I stopped. Now what in the world was he talking about?
“1882, Larry. She was born in 1882.”
“How’s that possible?” I asked.
“She served as a volunteer nurse, International Brigades, fascist Spain, 1937.”
“What? Who? The lady you got locked up in the basement?”
“Indeed,” Ben replied, “She was turned while helping fight a war in old, ancient Spain. Came back home on a hospital ship while she suffered through the conversion. Doctors all thought she had asymptomatic bubonic plague. She disappeared as soon as the ship made port in Boston.”
“What are you telling me, Ben?”
“I had her tracked down. It cost me millions. Eighteen people died in the process.”
“Eighteen people? Who killed eighteen people?”
Ben rotated one hand down and then extended an index finger towards the floorboards.
“This,” I said, “this is insane, Ben. I am leaving.”
“I’ll let her out!” Ben exclaimed, “I let her out, right now. How’s that sound to you?”
“Yes, Ben,” I replied, “If you’ve got someone locked up anywhere in this house, you need to let them go absa-damn-lutely right now.”
“OK,” Ben said, lowering his hands, “OK, we’re getting somewhere.”
Then he said, “You take two of the pills you have in your pocket. Just two. Then you come down into the basement with me, and I’ll let her out. But only take two! If you take all three pills and she bites you, it will reset her way too far back. She wouldn’t be viable outside of a womb.”
I hesitated when Ben turned his chair in the direction of the kitchen.
“Larry, let’s go,” he said, “Come on. You’re about to make a lot of -”
Ben grimaced, burped, grabbed his stomach, groaned loudly, and lurched forward in his wheelchair.
“Ben!” I cried and ran over to him.
Ben was clammy to the touch and not breathing.
Cursing and praying, I tore out my cell phone and dialed emergency services.
A few hours later, I was standing by Ben’s hospital bed. The old man was nothing more than a lifeless, deflated body under a sheet. Naturally, I felt bad for him. My alcoholic mother had been a total monster towards him their whole marriage, and he just took it silently. I would have left. Hell, I did leave.
Ben’s foot moved. I saw the summit of his big toe rotate towards me under the sheet.
I stood frozen and waited for that foot to move again.
A growl came out of Ben that was so low and the cadence so slow that it sounded almost like a gurgle. It made my skin crawl to listen to. It petrified me.
I heard a nurse quietly pad in, then come up to me and say “I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Amherst.”
I could barely respond, and only in a whispery squeak, “It’s Agemian. My step dad is Mr. Amherst.”
“Oh,” she replied, “I’m so sorry, Mr. Agemian.”
“Hey,” I whispered to her without moving or turning my head, “Hey.”
“Yes, Mr. Agemian?”
“His foot moved.”
“Oh, Mr. Agemian!” she cried, “Oh, you poor man. I am so sorry!”
She walked around to the other side of Ben’s bed and checked the monitor.
“I am so sorry, Mr. Agemian. That’s not what you think. Involuntary muscle spasms happen all the time, this soon after someone passes. No, I am sorry sir. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“OK,” I said, “Sorry. Thanks.”
She assured me that if there was anything she could do, she would be right outside at the nurses’ station, and to take as much time as I needed.
She left and, slowly, I resumed my composure.
I stood just breathing for a few minutes. Then that growling started up again.
Perplexed, I leaned forward, very slowly, and with one hand very gingerly lifted Ben’s upper lip away from his teeth. Ben’s canines were several millimeters longer than they had been earlier in the day, of that I am absolutely certain. I snatched my hand away.
Perhaps I was in a fugue state after what I had just seen and heard. I wandered like a zombie out into the hospital hallway. An orderly accidentally struck my shoe with a laundry cart, and that helped snap me back to reality. He apologized profusely but I was not listening. I was gazing intently over at the nurses’ station. A state trooper in full uniform was speaking to one of the nurses. I recognized him as one of the officers involved in the case against me. This was not someone I wanted to run into right now, so I turned away and quickly took a circuitous route through the hospital ward until I came upon an elevator lobby.
I made it to my car and left the hospital parking lot. I stopped at a discount grocery store and picked up a six pack. I drank and drove back to the old house. There was not much time. Pretty soon someone from Ben’s company would get word of what happened and send their people to the house.
I parked my car and went in through the front door I’d left unlocked when I went to the hospital, following the ambulance that had taken Ben away. Nobody was there. First, I went to his study on the top floor. I rifled through every drawer and cabinet that was not locked. I did the same with the bedroom. My efforts were met with mixed results. There was no cash anywhere. There were no scraps of papers with combinations or passwords written on them. But I did find a loaded handgun. A Colt Diamondback. Might be worth three grand if I could move it.
When I went downstairs. I meant to continue my search but could not keep from standing at the top of the basement steps and looking down into the darkness below. I took one step down, and then another, then reached up and flicked on the light. Without really knowing why, I continued all the way down.
All I saw at first was the old boiler and a couple of antique chairs. I turned to go, and I heard a woman’s voice call my name.
The voice was so clear it was like the person was standing right beside me, quavering yet very articulate.
“Mr. Agemian, please help me!”
“Who’s there?” I called out.
“Go around the boiler,” the person said.
I peaked around the boiler and saw a large, industrial sized screwjack bolted to the floor. Its shaft was attached to a spot on the far wall.
“Please, Mr. Agemian. Mr. Amherst has me trapped. There’s a trap door in the wall. You have to turn the screwjack to open it!”
“Oh, OK!” I cried and ran over to the screwjack. I put both hands on the wheel and started to turn it.
“Hey,” I said, “ Hey, I had nothing to do with this, you understand?”
“Oh, I understand, Mr. Agemian,” the person assured me in a sweet, understanding voice, “Mr. Amherst trapped me in here. Please, please let me out. I’ve been stuck here for days.”
As I turned the wheel on the screwjack. There was a barely audible scraping sound as the shaft rotated and an eight foot section started to pull away from the rest of the wall.
The woman called out, “Please hurry. I’ve been trapped here so long. I am so, so hungry.”
That gave me pause. I stepped away from the wheel and walked up to the partially open door. I put my ear up against the cold concrete and tentatively ran my fingertips along the edge of the massive door.
“You…you’re not going to hurt me, are you?” I asked.
“Oh, dear me, no!” the voice responded, “I harbor no ill will towards you at all. I just want to be released from this prison!”
I returned to the wheel and continued cranking the door open.
“I haven’t taken a sip nor nip of food in, gosh, I dunno how long,” she was saying as I labored to get the door further and further open.
Something moved at the edge of my vision. I looked up at the door and froze. What looked like the black, quivering tips of four giant spider legs were emerging at about shoulder height from behind the massive door. I squeezed my eyes closed, shook my head violently, and opened them. A hand had now appeared from around the edge of the door. From the bony wrist to the ebony fingers to the tips of the blackened, rotted fingernails, that hand was freakishly long.
“Keep turning,” said the high sweet voice.
I was suddenly covered in cold sweat. I let go of the wheel and stumbled backwards.
“Keep turning,” said the voice again, a lot lower this time. I intended to get up the basement stairs as fast as I could and out of the house.
“Keep turning, miserable chattel!” the voice roared like flames swallowing a building.
I ran. As I took to the stairs, I heard a grisly, ripping sound like the tearing of cloth and flesh coming from the partly opened door.
As I charged up the steps, I could tell I was being pursued. The hungry panting I heard closing in on me from behind sounded human, but the clicking and clattering sounded like the footfall of a gigantic spider. Not able to bring myself to look back, I put everything into reaching the top.
It overcame me. It was not taking the stair steps like I was. It was running along the ceiling over my head.
It came down in front of me in a crash as I reached the hallway at the top of the stairs. I covered my eyes. I absolutely did not want to look at it.
There was no sound, just my desperate and ragged heaving, and its avid and hungry panting.
I dared open my eyes. The face that stared back at me through tattered locks or iron gray hair looked like one of the damned, pulled straight from hell. The skin was cracked and blasted, like rolls of papyrus from a pharaoh’s tomb, blackened and desiccated by nothing but time. The eyes were drops of poisonous yellow with frigid white pupils. The expression on that face was one of sick, wicked amusement and diabolical desire.
A sudden swoon came over me, everything went black, and I tipped backwards. One iron hand grabbed the cloth of the front of my coat and shirt with an iron grip that ripped several of my chest hairs loose with it. The pain brought me back.
“Oopsie!” the voice said, “Can’t lose you like that just yet.”
I could not look this horror in the face. I remember forcing my gaze down, away from that face, at the print on its torn dress, glimpses of ancient and fetid looking skin beneath it.
“Why, don’t you think I am just a dish?” its creaking voice cackled at me, “Aren’t I beautiful?”
I think I was squeezing my eyes shut at that point. Anyway, the abomination flung me like a limp toy into the living room. I landed on the hearth of the old fireplace, falling heavily in a heap and groaning in pain from the impact. This elicited a mirthless, chittering laugh from the fiend. I saw its ghastly, translucent bare feet begin to step over the toppled furniture towards me. Terror stricken, I still managed to fish out the Colt Diamondback. Emboldened once it was in my hand, I got partially up and aimed it at the beast.
“Get back!” I yelled, “I’ll shoot you.”
It did not even pause. Instead, it kept walking towards me across the aubusson rug, leathery lips parting in a cynical grin ,displaying long, sharp teeth.
“Oh, so apt and gallant,” it replied, “Well, my stalwart protector, I certainly hope you loaded it with silver bullets!”
I fired. Two shots into its chest. Then two into its stomach. No effect. The smile got broader, showing more teeth.
“Zombie,” my terror-addled brain thought, “Gotta go for the head.”
I fired my second to last shot and it hit home. This caused the head and upper body to rock backwards from the force of the bullet’s impact, but then the gruesome head counterbalanced and whipped back towards me. In an instant my hand, gun and all, was being crushed in the gnarled hand of the monster. The pain that shot all the way up to my shoulder was tectonic. I shrieked, although I knew perfectly well the isolation of my step father’s house made that a futile act. I tried with my other hand to wrestle free, but I might as well have been wrestling with a grinning, demented, marble statue. To my horror, I saw the bullet hole in its forehead seal shut in a matter of seconds.
“Fun, fun, fun, that’s the cat’s pajamas!” the abomination croaked, then shook the gun loose and bit off my right index finger.
I howled in shock and pain, and collapsed back onto the floor, clutching my mauled hand to my chest.
It had its head tilted back. It was letting out a moaning sigh of relief as it sucked the blood from the severed finger. I took that chance to grab the envelope Ben had given me, and swallowed all three pills.
There was a loud, sudden click, and the creature was staring down at me.
“Chattel,” it said, “Oh, chattel, what have you done?”
As fast as you can blink, it was sitting on my stomach, with one hand pressing on my chest. The damned thing was the size of a small woman but I felt like a car was sitting on top of me.
It struck me across the face with its free hand.
It struck me backhandedly this time.
It went as if to strike me a third time but I convulsed. One bright green pill appeared protruding from between my lips.
“Ahhh,” the fiend said, plucking up the pill in its sepulcherous fingers, “What’s this? Trying to escape me again, are you?”
With a withered, beaked nose, it sniffed at the pill. Then it shrugged nonchalantly and tossed the pill away into a corner. Before I knew what was happening, my neck was being crushed and torn in its jaws.
I could feel my own blood scatter out all over my shirt and all over the face and chest of the monster, who giggled and burped even as it held me clamped in its jaws, sucking out my blood in great gobs.
Then the beast suddenly released me. It let out a terrible shriek, then a tremendous vomiting groan. Still straddling me on the floor, it started whipping its hair and arms above its head in a super-human frenzy. I could hear the bones crack in its neck, arms, and jaw as it did this. It sprang off of me, landed supine on the floor and went rigid like someone having a seizure. Then it rolled over, screaming and wailing, and started crawling around in a circle on all fours like a burn victim maddened from the pain. Black goo pooled up in its eyes and dripped in thick, shiny strings onto the floor.
Finally, all motion finally ceased. It was sitting on its shins with its back to me, its matted hair plastered to its back between delicate looking shoulder blades. I lay there, too scared to move or make a sound. Suddenly, it lept to its feet, took a running leap at a door at the end of the parlor that led into a kitchen, and crashed through it. I heard drawers being ripped open and objects spilling on the floor. Then I could hear the sound of frantic, wet chewing.
I got up and stumbled up to the doorway of the kitchen. She heard me. She stopped gorging for a moment and looked up at me with an expression of utter helplessness. The black goo had stopped flowing. It had left massive streaks down her face like mascara. But beneath that, beneath all of my blood coating her face and her shirt, beneath the skinned knees and skinned elbow, beneath the bread and donut crusts coating her lips and her now very human teeth, I saw someone in the full bloom of her early twenties.
Ben, you beautiful, brilliant bastard.
Blood was still leaking between my fingers where I held my good hand compressing the wound on my neck. I was starting to lose the feeling in my hands and feet. Beginning to panic, barely able to use my injured right hand, I managed to pull out my phone and started trying to call the emergency services number. Then I stopped. I wheeled back my arm and threw the phone against the kitchen wall so hard it knocked loose some plaster from the wall and shattered.
Still clutching the side of my neck, I stumbled back into the living room. Getting down on my knees, I clawed around with my free hand in the dust and cobwebs that had collected near the baseboards. Filth caked the still bleeding stump where my index finger used to be, but I kept clawing until I found what I sought after.
The third pill was still intact. I held it before me in my ruined, broken hand. It seemed to glow with a spectral green light. I placed it carefully in my shirt pocket.
If I can just get this bleeding to stop, I’m gonna be so stinking rich.