“Misty, this is Officer Rockford, come in.”
“Hey there, Angus, are you there yet?”
“Misty, I thought we agreed to keep things official while I’m on duty.” Angus took out a yellow-stained handkerchief, pushed his hat up from his dusty forehead, and dabbed at the sweat there. He eased the old cruiser to a halt about thirty yards from the abandoned cars along the sides of the road. Angus tried to get a quick count of the disabled vehicles, but there were too many. Perhaps a dozen or more, at least from this distance.
“Officer Rockford,” Misty’s mimicry of his own voice made him cringe. This department was too small even for this burned-out old rail town.
“Have you arrived at the location?” He raised the car’s radio to his mouth and was surprised when nothing came out. Robert cleared his throat,
“That’s an affirmative, Misty.”
“And what do you see there?”
“Over a dozen disabled vehicles. Looks like that call wasn’t a hoax after all.” Angus flipped the air conditioning switch in his car aware that nothing would come out, but trying nonetheless. The hot July sun was unforgiving and the cruiser’s air conditioning hadn’t worked for at least three or four years. He scanned the horizon, watching the sun slink behind the valley’s hills. The Appalachian Mountains were deep emerald green this time of year. He checked the time on his watch, its digital face told him that it was nearly noon and he had only three more hours to go.
The road was the only one heading out of town besides the highway, which the locals dubbed “the new road.” Most of the older inhabitants of the town still used it, boycotting the highway in their own backwoods kind of way.
Angus inched his car forward looking from one side of the road to the next hoping to discover some useful tidbit that could point him in the direction of an answer. He followed the tree line with his eyes, peering beyond the green and yellow brush. As he closed in on the cars, he stopped again to radio Misty.
“Rockford here, I’m going to check out the cars. I’ll let you know what I find. Probably the DoT trying to scare the old folks into using the new road. I’ll be right back.” Angus slung the radio over the shotgun locked to the dash. He continued to roll his car towards the vehicles ahead, closing in on them slowly, still searching for that one clue.
As Angus got within a few yards of the first car, he noticed that the trees along the side of the road were not the lush, green maples and evergreens that lined the walls of their valley home; rather, they were yellowed, old and crooked trees. Twisted trees, their leaves dead or dying. A few still had leaves, but they looked to be a reddish-brown color. He followed the line of dead trees on his left side as they extended back into the forest; they almost created an arrow pointing to the factory up on the hill. After the downsizing of the rail industry, the town decided to sell the land cheap to developers in order to create more jobs. Eventually a few factories picked up the cheap land and began manufacturing all kinds of things. But the downside was the stream of thick, oozing material most of them dumped into the small creeks and streams, pronounced cricks and streams by the locals. Since the EPA was far from this town, and most likely, didn’t even know existed, they would continue getting away with it.
Angus began to make sense of the situation. The cars were disabled by some sort of chemical reaction due to the plants. Simple enough.
Angus drove his car closer to the nearest automobile. He saw that it was old Mrs. Brown’s car, a large jalopy left over from the 60s or 70s. It was a faded and rusted orange, a kind of color that they would never paint a vehicle anymore. He wondered what happened to Mrs. Brown. The last time he spoke with her was at the grocery store, she was gathering snacks to take with her on a visit to her daughter’s house upstate. She pushed her large-rimmed glasses back up her narrow nose, but they inevitably slid back down. That was three or four days ago. Angus picked up the radio again.
“Misty, this is Angus. Come in.”
“Misty here. I thought you said we were supposed to keep it professional?”
“Hey, listen, I have a situation here. I see Mrs. Brown’s car.”
“So? I’ve seen Mrs. Brown’s car since I was three. I’m sure even my daddy’s seen Mrs. Brown’s car.”
“No, I mean one of them cars here is Mrs. Brown’s. I spoke with her three or four days ago. She was supposed to be leaving town.”
Angus listed to the dead static.
He waited a moment and then called back. “You still there.”
Misty’s voice was tinny coming over the radio for the first time. “Yeah, Angus. What do you think that means?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” Angus replaced the radio over the shotgun and eased the car further in to the middle of the makeshift junkyard.
“Be careful Angus.”
Angus recognized more cars as he drove through the frightening mess of metal-Mr. Ragville’s car, a hulking classic 50′s Chevy; Mrs. Lovell’s car, a small Datsun; Mrs. Von Grafe’s large Lincoln; among others. “My God,” Angus breathed, the words heavy on his lips.
Angus felt a small vibration in his steering wheel, the gauges in his dash began to tip wildly to one side and then the other. The engine cut before he had time to hit the brakes and throw the car into reverse. Angus let the car drift until it came to a stop. He tried the ignition a few times, but there wasn’t sound. He figured it was something electrical, and his guess was that it happened to all the other cars here too. Angus tried the radio once, but knew that if he was having electrical problems, then it wouldn’t work either. He was right.
Angus got out of the car with a deep hmmph. Although he was thin, sometimes his joints felt like they were carrying the weight of the world. He looked around the area, trying to locate the source of all the problems. He thought it might be something chemical; he wasn’t even sure what they made in the factories in the town. He could see several red-ringed smokestacks over the tree line billowing thick gray clouds into the sky. He could smell something on the air, but he couldn’t put a finger on what it was: something familiar though.
The trees near the car were not dead like the trees he saw before, but they were not sprouting green leaves either. Rather, they wore dark crimson leaves like maples in the fall. Angus thought this odd, but concentrated mostly on his car for the moment. He reached in through the rolled down window and pulled on the hood release latch. The car groaned a rusty click and the hood bobbed for a moment. Angus walked around to the front of the police cruiser and lifted the hood. He checked the wires around the battery, wiggling them back and forth a few times to make sure there was still a connection. He got back into his car and tried the ignition, but the engine didn’t even turn over. His car was completely dead like the others that surrounded him.
Peering into the window of the nearest car, Angus didn’t find anything that suggested foul play. It seemed, more or less, that the car was abandoned, like the rest. What struck him as being the most out of place was that if these cars were here for four or more days, why hadn’t anyone noticed them before? He admittedly hadn’t left town for a few weeks himself. But most folks in the town had family elsewhere; in fact, most of the children from this town left to attend the local college about forty miles east. They never really came back, there was no future here. Turtle Bridge, for the most part, was a dying town, if not already dead. So there was no real reason for the lack of reporting. Those who may have reported it were probably gone by the looks of it to Angus.
After peering into a few other cars and finding nothing inside, except for a few where the keys were still in the ignition, Angus walked to the edge of the road facing away from the factory. Even here the trees had crimson leaves. Angus picked one off of a branch and held it close to his eyes. He traced the delicate surface of the leaf with the pad of his index finger, feeling the smooth texture of seasonal growth. He ran his finger down one of the thick centralized stem, studying the intricate patterns of vein-work spreading throughout the rest of the leaf. He held it closer to his face, unable to discern if what he was seeing was real or imagined. He touched the central stem again, closing his eyes and concentrating on what he could feel. It was beating. The leaf’s stem was beating, although the sense was fading.
Angus opened his eyes and held it close to his face, trying to see the beating for himself, but it was indistinguishable from the movement of the leaf with the wind. He dismissed it, letting the leaf fall from his fingers and glide gently to the ground. He looked down at it again, laying in the gravel, and appreciated its deep color against the gray and brown stone. Next to where the leaf landed, Angus glimpsed something catching the sun. It may have been a small shard of broken bottle, but somehow he had the feeling that it wasn’t a piece of glass. He bent over and grabbed hold of the small piece of metal he found. He slid it out from under a bed of red and brown leaves finding that it was a broken pair of glasses. The reading glasses had large, curved lenses that looked more liked they belonged in a pair of binoculars or a telescope than in a pair of glasses. They looked like his grandma’s glasses that she wore around her neck when she washed dishes or on her face when she read the papers on Sunday morning. He stuck a finger out, and let the glasses slid over his knuckle, as if his hand was wearing them for a moment.
Angus turned around wanting to return to his car to put the glasses inside when he heard a voice. It was soft, but not like a child’s voice. He wasn’t sure where it was coming from, maybe from all around him at once, or from inside his own head, he couldn’t tell.
“What?” He wasn’t sure if he said something out loud or to himself. This time the voice spoke louder, but still under the veil of secrecy.
Run into the woods.
Angus stood still staring forward towards the police cruiser. When he was a kid, he made up stories to scare his little brother when they used to play in the forest near here. He told his brother Henry that there was a witch who lived in the wood and she would sit on her rocking chair along one of the paths and sing until the kids would come. Then, he told Henry, she would eat them. But that was something he created to scare Henry, even enlisting a few of his friends to help him in his pranks on his brother and his brother’s friends. She wasn’t real.
Run into the woods, the voice spoke again, more urgent. It was too small to be his own voice, or his conscience. It had to be something more, something telling him to run into the woods. Run.
Angus turned around again, he thought the voice was behind him this time. He cocked his head a little, straining to hear, to pick it out from amongst all the sounds around him. Angus held his breath. He could hear the wind blowing the leaves backwards and forwards, singing its siren’s song through the bare branches; he could hear the minute creak of a car’s suspension as it settled; he could hear the cooling tinking sound of his own cruiser’s engine, a sign that it was once alive; and he could hear the faint whisper of a stream off in the distance. Suddenly from behind him a deep groaning sound had filled the air like a water pitcher under a rushing spigot. He looked over his shoulder to see if a tree was about to fall, or if one was swaying in the wind; instead, he found not a tree swaying, but rather a thick-trunk tree lifting its roots out of the ground.
Angus’s jaw went slack as he stared at the tree pulling itself up from the ground, the roots tilling the ground and sending up puffs of dry, brown dust. The tree struggled with a few of its larger roots, some as thick as Angus’s own wrist. One of the twigs snapped, a thick, dangerous sound like the crack of lightening super-heating the air. The bark on the trunk split horizontally, opening wide, and letting out a deep, pain-filled bellow. The tree gave another frustrated tug at its roots before finally slipping them free of the ground. The red leaves shook, hushing like a mother’s finger to her lips.
Angus stood by, not moving the whole time. He watched as the tree with crimson leaves took an unwieldy step forward towards him. And another. The tree once again opened the slit in its bark and growled in Angus’s direction. A sound that was both a comfort and horrifying all at once. Something familiar about it. something in that sound that Angus understood far better than he could ever imagine. He heard that voice, the quiet voice: possibly feminine, thought Angus, but he still wasn’t sure and didn’t want to spend the time thinking about it.
Run. Run into the woods.
Angus turned his back on the tree and bolted into the woods, quickly dodging the thick brush and low hanging branches that threatened to clothesline him if he wasn’t careful. He jumped over roots as they pushed up through the ground, more of the red-leaved trees uprooting themselves. The sound of splitting wood, growling, screeching filled his ears. Angus didn’t turn back, but he could hear the wretched groaning of dying, rotting wood and the wailing of the trees, some high-pitched like a child’s whine, and some like the deep growl of a hungry Doberman. All the voices grew together and filled the woods with a sadness, a lament like he had never heard before. He wasn’t sure when the glasses slipped from his fingers, but they were gone now, and Angus put his head down and pressed on, running as hard as he could.
Faster, the voice more insistent now, promising him safety. You are almost there.
Angus pressed on, dodging the red trees and their threatening his branches. He hopped over a large, thigh sized root and ducked beneath a branch. The angry tree wailed at him, grumbling its hatred from deep within its bowels.
“What do you want from me?” Angus yelled, his voice was lost in theirs-their deep-earth rumble, their painful cries. A root or a branch, Angus couldn’t tell, snuck up through the ground, between his legs. He dodged it easily, but that was not enough. It snagged onto his gun belt, stopping him instantly and pitching him forward towards the ground. He landed hard on his hands, skinning them raw. The blood welled up on his palms, dripping onto the brown leaves below. He pawed at the buckle on this belt, his fingers slipping off the metal wetted with his own blood. Other branches were snaking up around his boots, locking them to the ground. He finally slipped the belt off his hips, falling forward again, his face brushing the ground, the deep, decomposing smell of forest reaching up his nose. He pushed himself up with all his might and pulled his feet free from the branches.
He ran on.
Ahead, there was a clearing where the ground was beaten near clean with hundreds of years of animal trails. The clearing is where the animals would drink, lay, and take shade. There were more of the red-leaved trees on both sides of the small creek and they were all lifting their roots from the ground. Angus slid to a halt, wildly looking around for a route for escape. He spied a break in the tree line where a few dead trees, their limbs stripped of all living leaves, still stood like old soldiers on the battlefield. He was about to run when the voice broke into his head again.
“What? I … I don’t understand.” Angus looked around for the source of the voice, but couldn’t find it. “Are you the witch?” He didn’t know what else to say.
Witch? No. I simply am.
Angus stood for a moment thinking this over, but he was not going to wait for an explanation. He leaned forward, ready to set all of his weight and strength into a last-ditch gallop towards the break in the trees, before the red trees wrestles themselves free from the ground.
You have hurt me, scarred me. I will water my flowers with your blood, feed my children with your fluids, and take revenge on you who pain me so.
Animals started to gather in between the trees. Squirrels, deer, birds, snakes, anything that lived and thrived in the woods. They stood silently by, almost as judges in his trial, watching him with wide eyes and silent lips. Angus didn’t understand and at this point didn’t care to. He did only what his instincts told him to do: run. Angus leaned forward and sped out in a full run for the break in the trees. Sweat poured off his brow and down his shirt. His hat finally came loose and lifted off his head, drifting toward the stream. It landed nearly in the center and began to float off towards the famed Turtle Bridge after which the town was named.
Angus sprinted on, leaving the red trees behind, nearing a small hiking path before him. Almost there, he thought, almost-
A branch reached out and hit him across the chest making him fall flat on his back. He scrambled trying to get up, but more roots poked their bony fingers out of the ground and began to pull him down to the dark, gritty dirt. He screamed over and over again for help, but there was no one nearby. The wailing of the trees began again, a sound of mixed pain and triumph: a trumpet blast of near-pleasure. One of the red-leaved trees rose in front of him now, its bark spread wide open and a deep rumbling emerged from the lightless hole. One of its long roots wrapped around Angus’s leg and began to pull and tug. Angus thought his leg was going to be pulled right from his body, ripping the muscle and skin, the tissue and sinew. Instead, the roots holding him to the ground loosened and the red tree pulled him towards its gaping mouth. As Angus was pulled closer, more of the tree’s roots grabbed onto him.
Angus dug his fingers into the ground, scraping and clawing deeply into the dirt, but he was still being pulled. The tree dragged Angus, a scream frozen in his throat, a look of terror peeling his eyelids back to reveal glistening, ripe eyes. The tree clamped its bark down over the body of Angus, now absorbed into the near hollow trunk of the tree. For a few moments, as Angus was being digested by the tree, he could be heard knocking from the inside of the trunk, and a few stifled screams.
* * *
Although the sun was nearly down and the air took on the coolness of a clear summer night, Richard Gallentio and his son Sebastian were standing on Turtle Bridge looking over the wooden railing at the crisp water. Sebastian was throwing some stones into the stream, watching them sink to the bottom in their odd, refracted angles. A few lightening bugs emerged from their daytime homes to forever search out their mates, to further propagate the species, or, on a more sad note, be used by children as lanterns or smeared on their faces as some glow-in-the-dark war paint. It was a sometimes cruel fate, but much has to be sacrificed for the future of a species.
Sebastian threw another worn stone into the water. “How long do we have to stay, Dad? There’s nothing to do in this town and grandma keeps giving me all these weird gifts.”
Richard threw a rock of his own into the water, a thin stone that skipped once across the surface before sinking to the bottom. “Not long. We’re just stopping by a few days on the way to your mom’s.” Richard threw a bigger stone this time, a large plopping sound resulting.
They continued quietly throwing rocks into the small stream, listening to the wind blow through the trees and the water rushing around the rocks. Richard looked over at Sebastian, “Did you say something?”
“No.” Sebastian looked at his dad in an odd way that reminded Richard of his wife. Or rather, his ex-wife, as he had to continuously remind himself.
“I thought you said something. Must be the wind.”
“Must be. Did you ever catch turtles here when you were a kid?”
Richard laughed. “Of course. They didn’t name this ‘Turtle Bridge’ for nothing. Jimmy and me, you remember Jimmy, we used to come down here and catch buckets of them. We would sell them for a quarter each to the neighbor kids. They’d kill them within a few days and we would sell them more. It was a good business.”
“Where are the turtles now?”
“I figure they’re all gone now that they have those factories up the road. This water probably isn’t even safe to swim in anymore. In fact, look at all the trees, they’re all dead.”
“Yeah. It’s kinda sad.”
Richard nodded silently and threw his last rock into the water. “Let’s get going. It was a long drive, I think we both need our sleep.”
“Okay.” Sebastian dumped his rocks over the side of the railing where they splashed in the water.
Richard was nearly back to his car which was parked in the grass off the road when his son called to him. “Wait, Dad! I think I see something. Hold on.”
Richard jogged after him. “Don’t go down by the water, you don’t know what’s in it.”
When Richard reached the side of the stream, Sebastian was walking back up to meet him. He was holding something in his hand. “Look what I found.”
“Looks like somebody lost their hat.”
“Yeah. They must’ve been fishing up stream.” Sebastian gave the hat a shake.
“I doubt anyone was fishing here. Let’s get going.” Richard held out his arm and his son fell under it. They walked back to the car together, Richard with his arm around his son, and Sebastian with hat in hand.
(c) Matthew Masucci, All Rights Reserved
Tags: Bloodlust-UK, Dracula, Matthew Masucci, Short Story, Vampire, Vampire Earth, Vampire Fiction
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