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Now or Forever
By Carter Nipper
“C’mon, Dave, you’ve got to get out of the house. We’re worried about you being cooped up in here all the time.”
The sky outside Dave Giles’s kitchen window glowed April blue, and the sun shined as brightly as the day he had buried his wife.
“I know I don’t get out much,” Dave said. “I’m just not ready to start dating again. I don’t want to. I like being cooped up in here. This is where Caroline is.”
Eighteen months had not dimmed the sight of clay as red as the blood seeping from his heart, the sharp, bright pain of his loss as they turned away from her grave.
“That’s what I mean, man. Caroline’s gone. She’s gone, man, but you’re still here. You’re dying in here. You’re wasting a good life, and Kat and me, we hate to see it. It hurts us.”
Tony and his wife Kathy were about the only friends Dave had left. He had become very much a hermit since Caroline had…his hands twisted and his stomach sweated, or was it the other way around?
“I don’t know, Tony. This girl, Rachel. I don’t want her to think…I don’t know. It feels like a date to me.”
Dave’s best friend sighed and crushed his empty beer can in his hands.
“It’s not a date. Just some friends having a beer or two after work, that’s all. She’s just going to tag along. C’mon, man.”
The dogwood Dave and Caroline had planted the day they moved in quivered in the spring breeze. Caroline had been heartbreakingly beautiful with her short auburn hair sweat-plastered to her head. The memory of her laughter as bright as a crystal bell cut him to the bone.
“It’s not right. It would feel like cheating, like I’m seeing somebody behind her back. I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”
Tony tossed the mangled can into the recycle bin next to the kitchen table where they sat.
“You know Kat’s gonna be pissed.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll have to deal with that. I can’t. I won’t.”
Tony rose and put his hand on Dave’s shoulder.
“It’s your funeral, man.”
The screen door creaked as Tony left the room. Moments later, his pickup truck roared to life and squeaked and rattled out of the driveway.
Dave laid his head on the table. The wood cooled his cheek, and his tears ran hot and wet even as dust blew through his soul.
Dave opened his front door to a tornado. All five-foot-nothing of Kathy Taylor blew into his living room.
“David Giles! After all I went through to set this up, you are going out with us. Tonight! Now get your ass in the shower.”
“Kat my ass! Get going!”
“I told Tony–”
“I know what you told Tony. Did you think that would be the end of it? I busted my ass to get Rachel to agree to go out with us for a beer. I’ll bust yours if you don’t!”
Dave glanced at Caroline’s picture on the mantel. Was she laughing?
“I can’t. I told Tony. I just can’t.”
“You will, whether you want to or not. Are you going to take a shower or are you going all dirty and sweaty like that?”
Kat planted her hands on her hips and glared.
“Damn it, Kat!”
She did not move. Dave backed up a step. That lamp was within her reach and she had been known to throw things. She leaned forward slightly.
He did not have to look at the mantel to know that Caroline was not laughing now. He felt dirtier than he actually was as he walked down the hall to his bathroom.
The jukebox blared and beer signs glared from the walls. Dave shifted in his seat and wiped his hands on his pants again. The fluorescent lights over the bar made it an eye-hurting island in the murky room. He could barely keep up with the conversation through the noise.
Rachel looked at him and her lips moved. He strained to hear.
He had heard Tony mention a local band, so he decided to take a chance. Who cared if she thought he was a moron, anyway? He only wanted to go home.
“Mostly classic rock. Clapton, Hendrix, The Doors, stuff like that.”
He shouted so she could hear.
“Really? How did you get interested in that?”
The echoes and music in the low-ceilinged room overwhelmed any chance he had of hearing clearly, but by focusing on her lips, he could make out enough to understand what she was saying. He discovered that he liked looking at her lips.
“My parents are from that generation, and they played that a lot when I was growing up. I just got to liking it, too,”
Rachel’s face glowed, her pale skin contrasting with her long, wavy black hair. Pointed chin and thin lips gave her an elfin look that he found exotic. Dave remembered clear green eyes from their meeting outside. He had always been a sucker for beautiful eyes. Caroline’s had been clear gray. They had always seen right into him. He shivered and felt like throwing up.
Dave jumped when the phone rang. He had been so nervous at work that he had dropped his hammer a couple of times. Once on his foot. Thank God for steel-toed boots. He looked at the phone like it was a snake. It rang again, and he almost ran out of the room. He didn’t know what was going on with himself today. He picked up the phone and almost dropped it when it rang the third time. He punched the “Talk” button.
“Dave? It’s Rachel. How are you?”
Her voice was slightly hoarse. He almost hung up. A tingle ran through him.
“Uh…fine, fine. How about you?”
He wanted to beat the phone against his head. How lame could a guy get? Why did he care?
“I’m fine. I had a good time last night.”
Why are you calling so soon? He didn’t ask, but he could guess. He also didn’t want to know.
“Yeah, me too.”
“Well, I just–I was–I called to see if you might want to go out some time? Maybe to a movie?”
He didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but how could he go out on a real date? He couldn’t betray Caroline like that.
“Kathy told me you don’t like to go out much, but I was just thinking, you know? If you don’t, it’s OK.”
Damn. There it was. He couldn’t hurt her feelings, and Kat would rip him a fresh one. Would Caroline understand? Damn.
“Uh…yeah. A movie would be fun.”
“An Affair to Remember is on at that little retro theater downtown. You know, the Three-Reel Circus? It’s the version with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I don’t know if you like old movies.”
He liked listening to her talk.
“I’ve never been a big movie buff, but I’ve at least heard of that one.”
“Is tonight OK? The show starts at 7:30. I know it’s short notice. Or maybe tomorrow?”
“Tonight’s fine,” he said. Might as well get it over with. “I’m actually within walking distance. Meet you there at 7:15?”
“That’s great. 7:15. Thanks, Dave. I know it’s sudden and all.”
“I’ll see you there. Bye.”
He punched the “Off” button and laid the phone on the counter. What had just happened here? He glanced at the door to the living room. He couldn’t see her picture. He didn’t want to. He felt dirty again.
“I’m sorry, Caroline, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing. She just caught me by surprise. I won’t see her again after tonight. I promise.”
The silence amplified his voice and the lie it carried.
Rachel’s hand filled Dave’s, soft and warm. Their fingers fit together as if made for each other. He could not remember when they had begun holding hands. As they approached his front door, he did not want to stop. His arm pressed against hers.
They stopped at his door. Her forehead was at his mouth’s level, and he wanted to kiss it. She lifted her chin, and he kissed her mouth instead. Their hands untwined, and they wrapped each other in an embrace.
Her lips burned against his. He had forgotten. It had been so long. He had forgotten how a woman felt, how her lips pressed against his, how her breasts pressed against his chest, how her arms tightened around him, how her hands felt small but strong on his back.
They broke their kiss but did not move away from each other. Her eyes searched his with small, quick movements. He fumbled for his keys as their mouths moved against each other again.
He woke in the dark and felt her soft and warm beside him in the bed. His mind lay as quiet as the dark hours of the morning. He barely heard her breathing. The sound filled his heart with a quiet love, and his eyes with gentle tears. He reached for her and twined his fingers in the hair that spread across her pillow.
His body turned to stone, and a cold steel spring unwound inside him. Caroline had always worn her hair short, around her ears. For as long as he had known her, anyway. Fear turned his guts to ice, and his fingers trembled.
She shifted and her voice pushed the darkness aside.
“What is it?”
Her voice was low and slightly hoarse, a voice that might have come from deep within the grave.
“Dave? Is something wrong? Why are you shaking?”
Not Caroline. Never Caroline ever again. Rachel. The tears in his eyes turned to fire and etched scars down his cheeks, Never Caroline ever again.
Coffee steamed in his cup, forgotten as he stared at the picture on the mantel. Her face was round and freckled, her auburn hair cut just above her ears, longer in the back, her smile a slash of sunshine.
“How dare you,” she cried. “Another woman! A stranger! In my bed!”
Emptiness filled him. His vows lay in shards. He deserved her wrath, her scorn. He had nothing to say, no defense.
The memory of last night tickled his mind, and he grinned in spite of himself. Sex with Caroline had always been slow, gentle, like waves on a moonlit beach, a long, loving caress. Last night was different.
A blazing brush fire had swept all reason before it, a holocaust of heat and sweat, a fury of love-making. This morning, he ached in places he had forgotten existed. It had been a long time.
Beside Caroline, the clock ticked over to 7:30. Dave surged up out of the chair and yelped as hot coffee drenched his lap. Sardonic laughter echoed through the dark recesses of his mind. Late again! Derkins was going to dock him an hour’s pay. Prick.
Sea-green eyes looked right through him. Rachel sat up straight in a wing chair in his living room and stared calmly as Dave paced and stuttered.
“Listen…I mean…just…Listen, Rachel, I just can’t. I just can’t see you anymore.”
She just sat and looked at him. She might as well have been made of stone. No help there.
“It’s just…I’m not ready, you know? I just can’t handle this…closeness…right now.”
No response. Those eyes. He wanted to fall on his knees and kiss them. He ripped his gaze away. Caroline smiled down on him. He looked away. Surrounded. No help.
“Damn it! Rachel, I don’t want to do this. These last few weeks have been…I don’t know how to say it. I think you might have saved my life, and I can never repay you for that. I care for you. Deeply care. But I just…I can’t explain it.”
“It’s her, isn’t it? Caroline.”
An electric shock jerked through him.
She smiled from the mantel, bright as sunshine. He nodded.
“I won’t share you, David.” A single tear slid down Rachel’s cheek. Dave desperately wanted to kiss it away, to take it all back, beg her to stay. But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
Caroline shined like the sun, smiled from her place in his heart. She owned him. He reached feebly toward Rachel as she walked by. She paused, and her hand whispered across his sleeve.
And she was gone, and he was alone. With Caroline. With his thoughts. With his heartbreak.
“What the fuck did you do?” Kat burst past him and whirled, hands on hips. “What did you do to her?”
“Kat my hairy ass! She hasn’t been at work for two days. Two days! When I called her, all she could do was cry. What happened?”
“I can’t see her anymore.”
“What? Why the Hell not?”
He glanced toward the picture.
“Oh no! You’re not going there. Dave, Caroline’s gone. She’s gone. She’s not coming back. You have to let her go.”
“You can, you have to.” Kat took his hand. “Dave, you have to. You can’t waste your life mourning.”
He twisted away so she couldn’t see his tears.
“Wouldn’t Caroline want you to be happy?”
He shrugged and gasped. Caroline!
“She would, and you know it. We all know it. You have to move on, Dave. Just because you’re happy doesn’t mean you don’t love her any more. Just because you love Rachel doesn’t mean you don’t love Caroline. Can’t you love them both?”
There. She said it. Love. The word he would not even let himself think. Love. The word that had been gone from his life for so long. The word that had died when Caroline…Caroline. Gone. He collapsed onto the sofa and sobbed. Kat’s hand was soft on his shoulder.
“Let her go, Dave. Let her rest in peace. She wanted only the best for you. Let her have what she wanted.”
Gone. Her smile glowed through his tears. He had to see her again, talk to her. He couldn’t stay away.
The stone at his feet, gray granite polished bright, bore the words “Caroline Giles” and “Beloved Wife”. His beloved. His wife. The space next to hers was empty. His space. He would lie there one day, and they would be together again. Forever.
He came to visit her often, at least once a week. Usually, he brought flowers; this time, he brought a problem.
The ancient oak tree spread its limbs overhead in benediction and scratched its bare fingers against a lowering slate sky. The perfect day for goodbyes.
“Help me,” he said. Pleaded. She remained silent. “You know I love you, Caroline. I always will. You know that.”
He paused. The rustle of wind in the tree gave him his only answer.
“But I love her, too. I don’t know what to do.” Cold, silent stone and dead grass were her reply. She refused to bail him out this time. He hung his head. Now or then. Now or forever.
“Goodbye, Caroline.” His tears were ice and fire.
He woke in the dark and felt her soft and warm against him. Not Caroline. Never Caroline ever again. Rachel. Rachel now and forever. He snuggled closer and put his arm around her. She snuggled closer but didn’t wake. He smiled in the darkness, warm and glad.
Copyright (c) Carter Nipper. All rights reserved.
Though Your Sins be as Scarlet
by Carter Nipper
“Good evening, Brother Morrow.”
Jim Morrow jumped and looked around, almost dropping his Bible. The hair on his arms and the back of his neck bristled, and he realized just how isolated Bethany Christian Church was on its lonely mountainside. No one lived within shouting distance. Or even screaming distance, for that matter.
“I’m sorry I startled you, Preacher. Could I speak to you for a moment?” A man stepped away from the large oak tree in the middle of the church’s lawn. The dim blue glow of the security light showed Morrow a tall, thin man wearing blue jeans and a blue chambray work shirt that was too big for him. On his head he wore a ball cap, and his sneakers showed many hard miles.
Great. Another alky. Just what I need. A petty thought, Morrow knew, but the burden of dealing with lost sheep sometimes lay heavy on him. Even this far from town, the church drew them with the chance of a soft touch for their next bottle of MD 20-20 and, maybe, a bowl of soup. “That’s all right,” he said. “You know how it is when it’s dark and you think you’re all alone.”
The stranger chuckled. It was more a growl than a laugh. “I know that feeling very well. Very well indeed.”
Morrow grasped the proffered hand, expecting the usual dead-fish wino handshake, but the stranger’s strong grip surprised him. Skin as tough and stiff as dry leather covered the bony hand and gaunt face.
“Larry Lascomb,” the man said. “And I already know you’re Preacher Morrow. I’ve heard you preach a lot over the past couple of months.”
“I don’t remember seeing you at the services, Mr. Lascomb.”
Lascomb growled his chuckle again, and Morrow shivered. Danger lived in that laugh, primal violence barely controlled. “Call me Larry, please. I listened from outside. There are…reasons…why I can’t come in.”
Morrow decided he didn’t really want to know about that. This man already gave him the creeps.
“I need some advice, Preacher, and I hope you’ll hear me out.”
“I’ll help any way I can, Mister–”
“Uh, Larry. Come on in.” Morrow turned toward the door, keys jangling in his hand.
“If you don’t mind, we can sit right here on the steps. It’s a nice night.”
Oh, yeah, his “reasons”, Morrow thought. At least he’s not after money. Not yet, anyway. Advice is cheap, and I have plenty to spare. He eased down onto the concrete steps and leaned back against the pillar on one side of the steps. Lascomb took a seat against the pillar on the far side, about ten feet away.
“What’s the problem, Larry?” Morrow hoped this wouldn’t take too long. He really needed a bath.
“Well, they say it’s always better to start at the beginning…”
“Do you love me?” God help him, he did. Gabrielle was the best thing in his life in a long, long time. “Will you love me forever?”
Larry Lascomb’s forty-third birthday had been very difficult for him. Only two years until forty-five, then fifty, then sixty, seventy, eighty in an accelerating slide to decrepitude and death. “Mid-life crisis” did not even come close to what he felt. His wife, Janet, tried to cheer him up, God bless her for that, but he still felt old and tired.
He looked back on wasted years. So little to show for them. He looked ahead toward failing health and bitter regret. A crisis? Rather a calamity of Biblical proportions.
Then he met Gabrielle. Her youthful spirit scattered the cobwebs of his tired marriage and mediocre life. Her beauty still gave him an electric shock when he looked at her. What did she see in him? He didn’t know, didn’t care. With her, he was alive again.
“Forever’s a long time, baby,” he said.
“Time has no meaning, my love; it’s only an illusion. There is only an eternal now.”
“Very Zen. I wish I could see it that way, but I’ve got to go to work, pay the bills. I get older every day. My life’s slipping away.”
“That’s just your old human way of thinking. Let me take you away from that. Let me show you Eternity. We’ll live and love each other
He propped up on his elbow. Light from the hall sneaked in through the barely-open door and highlighted her long, fine hair spread across the pillow. He stroked her arm, savoring the smoothness of her skin. Her eyes looked gray in the twilit room, but he knew they were radiant blue and deep, a startling contrast to her pale skin and strawberry-blond hair. She smiled her quirky lips-closed smile that always made him ache to kiss her. So he did.
A few moments later, he pushed himself up, gasping. Her kisses literally took his breath away.
“I can’t, baby, you know that. As much as I’d love to be with you, I can’t just walk out on Janet and the kids. Hell, we’ve been married for twenty-three years! And I do still love her. I think. I’m not real sure of anything these days.”
His head sagged. He felt the weight of the world pressing him down inexorably into the earth. Six feet down.
“And what about Larry Junior, and Melissa, and Troy? I can’t just abandon them. They’re a part of me. An important part. God, Gabrielle, I can’t just walk away from my whole life!” He flopped onto his back. “Besides, Janet would make my life a living Hell. You don’t know her. She wouldn’t quit until I was broke and homeless, living out of a shopping bag in an alley somewhere.”
Gabrielle rose up on her elbow, looking down at him. Her fingers traced feather-light circles on his chest. “It wouldn’t really be like that, love. Your kids are almost grown, and they and Janet would be taken care of financially. Your life insurance, you know.”
His stomach clenched. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Think about it, Larry. We’ve known each other four months now. Have you ever seen me, except after dark? We’ve never gone out to eat. You know I don’t even keep food in the apartment.”
“Yeah, well, we all have our little quirks. I thought you just liked the sex.” He grinned. She didn’t.
“I’m serious. Think about it.”
“I hope you’re not telling me you’re one of–there were some Goths in that bar, but I didn’t think…”
She opened her mouth wide, and he fell out of the bed, scrambling even before he hit the floor. The carpet burned his butt as he scooted away, but he barely noticed. His back slammed against the wall, but he kept pushing, trying to get that extra smidgen of distance that might mean the difference between death and deliverance.
Seconds passed like the tolling of a great iron bell. Shock and terror froze him as he stared at his lover sitting naked on the bed. She was smiling. He saw all of her teeth. All of them. Especially the fangs.
He forced a small laugh. “Ha ha. You really got me then. Those teeth look real. Scared the shit out of me.” He pressed hard against the wall.
“They are real. Come feel of them.”
“Joke’s over, right? OK? No more tricks? I don’t know how much more my old heart can take.”
“No jokes, my love. Come back to bed, and let’s talk.”
He crawled back to the bed, wary and watchful, pulled himself up onto the edge, and looked at her teeth. She gaped accommodatingly. They looked real. He poked one of the elongated canines with his finger. It felt real. He gripped it and tugged. It didn’t move. He looked down and eased away, but she grabbed his wrists. He tugged, trying to pull free, but her grip cinched solid and unbreakable. He never would have guessed that someone as delicate as Gabrielle would be so strong.
“Look at me, Larry.”
Her voice was low and steady, but there was a plea in it he could not ignore. Her eyes were wide and her lips trembled. His fears eased as he saw her vulnerability.
“It’s–Gabrielle–I just–it can’t be. That’s not real! It’s just stories!”
“I’m real. You know I am.”
“I–I know. But…it can’t be!”
“Let me say it first, love, then it will be easier for you. Larry, I am a vampire.”
“No. No. You Goths just like to play like–”
Fire encircled his wrists. Her fingers felt like handcuffs put on way too tight. He gasped, and tears ran down his cheeks as his wrist bones creaked under the pressure.
Her voice spiked his ears, cold and hard. Her eyebrows drew together, and sparks of red glowed deep within her eyes. With a cold rush of fear, he knew it was true. His brain finally accepted what his eyes had been telling it. His mistress, his beloved, his Gabrielle, was a monster, a vampire, an evil, soulless nightmare. To her, he was nothing more than an evening meal.
I’ve been screwing this…this thing! he thought. I’ve kissed it, held it, slept beside it! I loved it!
“I know what you’re thinking, Larry.” Her voice was gentle again. “It’s not like that at all. I love you! I want to be your love. I want us to be together forever! Please, darling, it’s me. It’s Gabrielle! I beg you, my love, I beg you to remember all that we have had, all that we mean to each other. I beg you to remember that you love me, too!”
Her breath hitched in a hard sob, and the sound of it ripped at his heart. No tears flowed, but the heartbreak was real. He knew her well enough to tell.
I do know her! The realization flooded his mind. I know her! Her…not “it”, her, Gabrielle! I know her and I love her. Dear God help me, I do love her!
His tears dripped into his lap. She released his wrists and opened her arms to him. They embraced gently and kissed. This time, she let his tongue into her mouth.
Later, much later, they lay in each other’s arms gasping.
“God, baby, that was the best ever,” he managed to get out.
“You don’t sound too thrilled. What’s wrong?”
“It’s getting late. Dawn will be here soon.”
“Dawn, yes. Oh, shit! I forgot! Dawn!”
“Yes. Dawn.” They lay for a few more moments before she spoke again. “We’ve been through a lot tonight, my love. We’ve both said a lot, and we’ve learned a lot about each other.”
“Yeah, it’s been a Hell of a night, all right. But don’t worry, baby, it’ll all work out.”
“You don’t understand.” She rolled over and faced him nose-to-nose. “There are…inevitabilities now, things we can’t avoid, hard choices that we have to make. Right now.”
“Huh? What choices?”
“I offered you eternal life, my love. I offered to be yours forever, and I meant it. Figuratively and literally, I meant every word. But now you have to decide, and quickly. I must have your answer right now.”
“Now? What’s the rush? I mean, this is a big step, Gabrielle. I do love you with all my heart, and I do want to be with you forever, but it’s such a big step. I mean…all the implications.”
“Yes. All the implications. But you have to decide quickly, Larry. Time is short. You must decide before sunrise.”
“Why so suddenly? What’s the rush?”
“You know too much, now. You cannot leave here alive.”
“What?” He snapped upright. “What the Hell?”
“I don’t like it very much, either. I let my love for you get in the way of my common sense, and now we’re both in mortal danger. I can’t let you leave, now. It’s far too dangerous. What if you change your mind?”
“Change my mind? Not a chance! I love you, my darling! I love you with all of my heart, soul, mind, and spirit. Now and forever. Changing my mind about that is not an option.”
“That’s easy to say right now. But what about your wife and children? Your human wife and children? What about them? Things look different in the sunlight, Larry. I can’t take that chance.”
“So I have to choose. What are my options? Becoming a vampire or…”
“Or. Eternal life as one of us or eternal death as one of them.”
“God, Gabrielle, I can’t just jump into this! I have to have some time, a little space. I have to think!” He looked around, hoping to see something he could use as a weapon. Christ! Why bother? Vampires don’t leave crosses or wooden stakes lying around their apartments.
She stroked his cheek, then gently but oh-so-very firmly grasped his chin. “There is no time, my love. You must choose. Dawn is coming soon. If you don’t decide, I will have to decide for you.”
Larry closed his eyes. What a mess! Janet, Larry, Melissa, Troy. How could he just walk away? Janet. Twenty-three years. “For richer, for poorer. For better, for worse. ‘Til Death…”
Opening his eyes, falling into the heavenly depths of hers, he knew he really had no choice at all. Their kiss was slow and deep, a kiss from the soul, a kiss to banish thought, a kiss to seal the bargain. Forever.
Morrow shifted, not sure what to think. Sitting in the dark listening to a stranger say those things made him nervous. What kind of psycho might this guy be? What was the tag line from that movie? “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The same goes for an isolated church in the woods.
“So you became a…,” he let the sentence trail off, wanting to hear the man say the word himself.
“Vampire. Yes. I know it’s hard for you to believe. It was for me, too. Ultimately, though, I had no choice. I was less afraid of being a monster than of dying. Known versus unknown, I guess.”
Morrow noticed he was dry-washing his hands and picked up his Bible to keep them still. He thought hard. This was a sensitive business.
“Mister…uh…Larry, I don’t really think I’m the one to help you with this. I’m in over my head, here. Let me give you a phone number. A friend of mine–”
Lascomb’s bark of laughter exploded like a gunshot. Morrow jumped, dropping his Bible. It tumbled down the steps and landed on the sidewalk.
“A doctor, huh? A shrink for poor, deluded Larry.” His voice descended into a snarl.
Suddenly, the man was right in front of Morrow. He seized the preacher’s neck with one bony hand, and pulled Morrow’s face close to his own.
“You value truth, don’t you, Preacher? ‘The truth shall set you free.’ You preached on that two weeks ago. Let me share some truth with you.”
Morrow stared at the teeth gleaming in the dim blue light. The fangs were long, sharp, and impossibly real. The vampire closed his mouth, and Morrow stared into eyes that glowed with infernal fire. With icy assurance, Jim Morrow knew the truth. Urine dowsed his pants and ran down his legs. He would have screamed, but he couldn’t breathe. Lascomb set him down gently, turned, and looked out across the lawn. Morrow shivered uncontrollably, and his lap and legs grew cold in the summer breeze.
“There are things in this world that you can’t even imagine, Preacher. You should thank God for keeping you ignorant.” Lascomb’s voice was calm, thoughtful.
Morrow reviewed his options. Running for it was out. He would die before he took two steps. He looked at the Bible lying lonely on the sidewalk below. The same consideration applied. After exploring the matter with all due diligence, he decided that salvation lay in God. He began a silent, heartfelt prayer.
Lascomb spoke again, his voice a whisper. “Everything was good, at first. We really loved each other, you know. I never loved anyone the way I loved Gabrielle. Completely and unconditionally. Even the feeding didn’t bother me after a while. You can get used to anything, I suppose, but forever is a long, long time…”
Larry found that vampires had a real advantage over other predators. Hunting was easy when his prey thought he was one of them. They never saw him coming, never knew what hit them.
He glanced around the room as he buttoned his shirt. A typical college student apartment. Couple of rock star posters on the wall. Stuffed animals strewn across the floor–they hadn’t bothered to move them before they had yanked the covers off the bed. Yard sale furniture and a general air of not-quite-disorder completed the picture. After tucking his shirt in and pulling his boots on, he glanced at the bed.
Her head had flopped to one side, exposing the raw, ragged wound in her throat. She stared at him, blue marbles in a paper-white face. Her mouth hung open, asking an eternal “Huh?” The sight of her young body, firm but soft in the right places, filled him with satisfaction. She’d been good. Not very experienced, maybe, but athletic and enthusiastic. Almost a pity.
He went through his usual ritual, hacking her throat savagely to obscure his tracks. As always, he had been carefully sloppy and spread a lot of blood around. As far as he knew, no one had ever noticed how much was missing. Satisfied that he had done a thorough job, he looked around one last time.
A picture on the dresser drew his attention. A silver filigree frame surrounded a family scene–mother, father, and her, the daughter. Her white graduation gown glowed in the sunlight, but the father really captured Lascomb’s attention. His hand rested gently on his daughter’s shoulder; his face shone with pride.
Melissa. The thought was completely involuntary. He had kept her memory buried for over ten years. He had not been there for her high school graduation–he had “died” less than six weeks before that–never knew if she had married, had children. The same with Little Larry and Troy. He had left no room for his former family in his new life.
He shook his head. Got to get out of here, he thought. Melissa’s face filled his mind, laughing and alive. Then the face changed. Dead blue marble eyes, a silent question. He clenched his hands and shook his head again, but the vision remained, solid and real. He ran from the apartment.
He ran, and he ran, and he ran. But no matter how desperately he tried to escape, she would not be denied. She haunted his days and nights. She would not be forgotten.
“She’s been with me for two years.” Lascomb choked. When he spoke again, his voice quivered. “It’s hard. It’s real hard when your food suddenly becomes people. They have family, friends, parents, sisters, brothers, lives. It’s all different when it’s murder.”
Morrow thought about that. The inhuman monster by his side became all too human. “That’s bad, Larry. That’s really bad, to have that on your conscience,” he shook his head at the enormity of the thought. “But what can I do for you?”
“Give me answers. I need to know.”
“Forgiveness. You know a lot about sin and redemption and salvation and forgiveness. I mean, it’s your job, right?”
“I guess it is.”
Lascomb sat quietly for a few moments. Morrow knew that silence was sometimes the best reaction, and waited for the man to speak.
“If you repent your sins, really repent in your heart, God will forgive you, won’t He? Isn’t that the deal?”
“That’s what Jesus promised, and I believe it. He died on the Cross to provide that path to salvation for us.”
“That’s OK for people, Preacher, for humans like you, but what about me? What about the inhuman monsters in the world, the soulless horrors? Is there a creature so profoundly evil that God cannot forgive it, even if it repents? Is there a mountain of sin so big that even God can’t forgive it away?”
“The Unforgivable Sin. People have been debating that for two thousand years. It’s a tough question, Larry, real tough, but who can know the mind of God?”
“That’s not good enough this time, Preacher. I need to know. I need an answer.”
Uh-oh. Think, Morrow, think! If you mess this up, you won’t live to regret it. He hoped his voice didn’t shake.
“The way I see it, God is the Master of Creation. He created everything. That includes vampires. You couldn’t exist without God’s knowledge and permission. Now the God of the Old Testament would likely send you straight to Hell, but Jesus taught a different God, a merciful Father of us all Who takes pleasure in forgiving our sins and Who welcomes us home when our time on Earth is over. That’s the God I believe in, Larry, and that God has room in His heart for everyone. Including you.”
“So you think God can forgive me?”
“I can forgive you, Larry.” Her soft voice shocked both men to their feet. She was standing at the edge of the gravel. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and Morrow knew it was strawberry blonde, though he couldn’t tell for sure in the dim blue light from the security light. Her lightly freckled face and wide eyes gave her a look of child-like innocence. He was not fooled.
Lascomb sighed, and his shoulders slumped. “I really wish you hadn’t followed me, Gabrielle.”
“I won’t let you just walk away, Larry. I can’t.”
“I know, but I did hope…”
Tension froze them all for a moment. Morrow’s mind raced in panic. Why don’t Protestants carry crucifixes? I sure could use a couple right now. Or a couple dozen. Wonder if I can convert… Hysteria bubbled in his chest.
Gabrielle clasped her hands in front of her. In her right hand, hidden behind her leg until now, she carried a sharpened length of dowel about two feet long and a couple of inches in diameter.
“We had this conversation before, Larry. Remember?”
Lascomb’s voice was calm. His shoulders straightened. “Pray for me Preacher. Pray for my soul.”
“Your soul?” Her laughter was clear and bright, crystal bells ringing through the night. “Your soul? You’re a monster, Larry, a creature of evil! You don’t have a soul! We are the cast-offs of creation, the Forgotten of God. We are the very embodiment of evil. God has no time for such as us, Larry. He doesn’t care. He made us this way and cast us out. Face it, my love, you are doomed. Just like me. Just like all of our kind. You can live in your own Hell on this Earth, or you can die and live in your God’s Hell. He doesn’t care either way.”
“You’re wrong, Gabrielle. You’re wrong. God does care. He will forgive me.” Lascomb walked slowly down the steps and out onto the grass. Dew had begun to form, and small drops twinkled like tiny stars around his feet. “You were born in a different time. Life was cheap. Your chieftain thought nothing of killing people just for sport, and neither did you. You still don’t. I’m not like that. I have a conscience; I value human life.”
He drew a deep breath, and his eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare. “They haunt me, Gabrielle. Their faces. They’re always with me, even now. Their eyes accuse me. Their eyes…”
Gabrielle grinned. Her teeth gleamed white against her face. Her eyes glowed with coals from the deepest furnace of Hell. Morrow prayed.
Her voice was low and husky. “You’re weak, Larry. Too weak. I made a mistake, and I must repair it. You know I can’t take the chance.” She sighed deeply. “Please, Larry, please don’t make me do this. I love you. Please come back.”
He shook his head. “I can’t…I can’t. I can’t live like this any longer. I refuse to be an instrument of evil any more. I’m sorry. I love you, Gabrielle. I love you forever.”
“Forever, my love.”
She moved so fast that Morrow saw only a blur. Lascomb leaped to meet her, and a whirlwind of arms, legs, and bodies rolled across the church’s lawn.
Morrow acted without thought, moved by a power beyond his control. In one smooth motion, he leaped to the bottom of the steps, scooped up his worn Bible, and pitched the best fastball of his life right into the middle of the melee.
Gabrielle shrieked, and Morrow clapped his hands to his ears to block out the piercing sound. She backed away, wide-eyed, hands shielding her face.
Lascomb knelt on the grass staring at the Bible lying open right in front of him. His lips moved slightly. He trembled, shook himself like a wet dog, and grabbed Gabrielle’s abandoned stake. For the barest fraction of a second, he paused, focused on the open book, then leaped to his feet and charged.
Over the crack and crunch of breaking ribs, her shriek rose into a scream so loud and wild it stunned Morrow. He dropped to his knees, unable to look away. The crimson fountain that erupted from her chest splashed over Lascomb’s face, chest, and hands. He reeled back, covering his smoking face with smoking hands.
Gabrielle stood for a moment, clawing at the spear with withering hands, her mouth gaping impossibly wide. She sank slowly to her knees, skin peeling and scaling, flaking off in a hideous blizzard. The scream faded and died as her body slowly collapsed in on itself until all that remained was a heap of blood-soaked clothing and a round piece of wood about eight inches long, a remnant of the stake protected from her blood by her killer’s hands. A swirl of dust twisted away across the parking lot and dispersed on the gentle breeze.
A loud moan roused the preacher from his shock. He ran to Lascomb, who rocked on his knees clutching his face. Morrow knelt beside him, unsure what to do. Gathering what was left of his courage, he grasped the vampire’s wrists and pulled his hands away from his face.
The preacher gasped and lunged to the side, heaving. When he regained control, he checked to make sure none of his internal organs had come out.
He turned back to the man he had come to fear and to care for as another of God’s children and braced himself for another look. Large flaps of charred skin had peeled off Lascomb’s face, stuck to his hands. Cheekbone stood out white against crispy black skin and roasted muscle. His lips now resembled fried pork rinds, and his eyes were white and solid, hard-boiled in their sockets.
Lascomb rocked back and forth, moaning. His lips moved again and again, repeating the same pattern. Morrow leaned close, trying to hear, but the only sound coming from the ruined mouth was agonized moaning. Morrow finally realized what he was saying.
Over and over Lascomb strained to utter the one word that summed up his tragedy and his triumph, the single word that encompassed his sin, his love, his death, his life, his pain, his Hell.
“The sun will be up soon.”
“Can you see the light, Larry?”
“No. I hear birds singing. I haven’t heard that in a long time.”
The two men sat on the grass facing the faded pinks and oranges of the sunrise. In minutes, the sun would peek over the trees and bathe them in light and warmth.
“Are you sure you want to do this, Larry?”
Morrow glanced at his friend. Scar tissue covered Lascomb’s face, and his eyes were still a shocking solid white. Apparently, not even a vampire’s healing powers could fix the damage done by the power of another vampire’s blood.
“I have to. My life is over, Preacher. I have nothing left.” Only moments remained. “Besides, He made me a promise tonight. I know it’s true, now.”
“What promise? What’s true?”
“There’s a place for me, Preacher. God forgives me.”
“How do you know? Did He speak to you?”
“In a way. When your Bible landed right under my nose, a verse caught my eye, and I knew. The words burned onto my mind; they’re the only things I can still see: ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.'”
“Isaiah 1:18. That’s a powerful promise, Larry.”
“I have faith, Preacher. I’m going home. Here at the end, though, I do have one regret.”
“What’s that, Larry?”
“I’ve lived in the darkness for so long–so very, very long–and now I won’t even get to see the sunlight one last time.”
(c) Copyright Carter Nipper. All rights reserved.
I just noticed that my contact form is broken. I really don’t have the time or inclination to fix it right now. You are welcome to drop me a note at carter at carternipper. com.
My doctor and I are battling to bring me back out of a long depression. Depression sucks. Bi-polar depression sucks a lot worse. We are making progress, but I am still not back to the point of being able to write. I will post some more of my backlog here soon.
Due to the excessive number of spam registrations, I have had to disable that feature. If you would like to register so you can post comments, please use the contact form to let me know.
It really is a damned shame that so many people are so selfish and self-absorbed that they are compelled to make asses of themselves by interfering in everybody else’s business.
I will one day begin to post again. I promise. Right now, I just simply have nothing to say.
It seems that everybody is so enthused about the movie Sharknado on the Syfy Channel, so I sat down to watch it last night.
What I saw was a very mediocre and very typical Syfy Channel movie. I mean, let’s face it, “Tara Reid with a shotgun” is not a premise that can carry an entire movie. The plot was predictable and forgettable and the acting was really bad. Had they chosen to play it for laughs, as Syfy sometimes does with the more ridiculous of their movies, it might have been worth my while. As it was, I turned it off after the first half.
Come on, people! Get a clue, get a brain, get a life!
Sorry once again about the long silence. I have been having trouble with a reaction to changes in my medications. My new doctor and I are working on untangling the mess. I am slowly coming back to life.
I recently had another story rejected. The editor forwarded the reviewer’s comments to me. I found a couple of valid concerns in them, but also some other types of concerns.
The biggest problem here is that the two reviewers found different reasons for rejecting the story. One loved the magic as portrayed, the other focused on that as his/her main reason for recommending rejection. The basic flaw they found in that regard is that they did not understand exactly how the magic works. My contention is that magic is, in fact, magic. It is somewhat mysterious by nature. In a short story, there is not enough time to be explicit about the inner mechanisms at work here. I am disappointed that a slush reader for a fantasy magazine does not realize this.
The other reviewer thought that a couple of transitions were too sudden. One in particular has the protagonist suddenly struck down. The suddenness of this episode is an essential part of the plot, in my estimation.
Thus, the quandary continues. To revise or not to revise. On these two points, I have to decide not to revise. I do think they are essential to the story. Other points raised will be incorporated into some changes in the wording in a couple of places to address them.
All in all, I think that this illustrates the dangers inherent in submitting stories. Slush readers have many other concerns than picking out subtle points in the story. They just don’t have time to deal with that. Their tastes also differ from one to another. Contradictory opinions are just part of the process that we have to accept.
I like to include a certain amount of subtlety in my stories. I think it enriches them. Making everything explicit and explained in great detail just damages the story. I do not like stories that do that. Leave something to my imagination, for Heaven’s sake.
I guess I will just keep submitting the story, with some revision, until I find an editor or slush reader that appreciates it.
A friend of mine over at Forward Motion offered some sage advice. “The story is going to have your name on it forever,” she said. Thanks, Dawn! That is something I had kind of lost sight of in all my dithering and insecurity. It IS my story, and I have to take ownership of it. Any changes to it need to conform to my vision of the story.
I submitted it to a new market over the weekend. Unchanged. It will live and die on its own, as it should.
In other news, I got a good start on my ghost story. Some interesting developments cropped up along the way to 1,063 words. I think the whole business of it being set on another planet will have to go. That would not contribute anything to the story except as window dressing. It’s going to be a good story without all that getting in the way. Got to get back to work on that.
Moving day for the Library is officially set for May 8. Pray for us. It’s going to be real but not very much fun. The outcome will be well worth it, though.
I recently got a rejection on my short story “Sea Change” with a comment about why it was rejected. The editor said that the first and last scenes had a mystical feel, but the rest of the story was realistic. They thought that was too distracting. The problem with that is that that is exactly the effect I was trying for. Thus, a dilemma: revise to fit this editor’s comments or stick with my own vision.
This story has a long history, including an almost-acceptance. I got a revision request from one market, a very rare situation for a short story. Unfortunately, that market went under before I got the revision done. It has drawn rejections from 8 other markets besides that one and the latest. 10 rejections for a short story is certainly not unusual, and I believe in this story enough to keep it in circulation.
But, the dilemma. I have not yet decided what I am going to do about this. I am leaning toward not revising in order to preserve my vision of the story. On the other hand, would revising it in this way make it more marketable? Which is more important?
While I decide, I have 2 other stories in the garage in need of help. I also have the latest story ideas rolling around and slowly becoming clearer in my mind. No lack of work here.