How does one drive across the United States in a 1944 Ford automobile only at night, sleep during the day and be assured the vehicle will be where you left it the next evening? It is not too difficult in 1945 in the lightly populated western states if you stop early enough. He has a driver’s license – Samuel Durand Music. In the leather satchel are: three books; a week’s change of underclothes and socks; two pairs of shoes, one brown, one black; two pairs of trousers; two long-sleeved cotton shirts; one long-sleeved knit shirt; and a kit containing a comb, a bar of soap, toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash. The latter is used to wash away any lingering smell of blood when and if he goes among humans. He does not need deodorant as he does not smell – bacteria don’t find him nourishing, and he seldom sweats or, as his mother would insist, perspires: animals sweat; women glow.
He must be careful to ingest enough blood to maintain the appearance of being mortal.
Two maps lay on the passenger seat; the one refolded to his current location is of Washington State. There are others in the glove compartment.
He turns on the radio and has the wild urge to sing along with Bing Crosby. “I would like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar . . . .” Why not? No one hears you sailing along US90 in the middle of the night.
This is too absurd. He laughs, the cold air blowing in the open window, left arm dangling, fingers spread, playing with the wind. Such a speech she made. She has no idea. They could drop one of those new atom bombs on the roof of this thing right now and it would be worth it, just for these last minutes. He has never felt so light, not even when the war ended. Not since he was a child. And the evening on the Butler veranda when Sara Butler had lifted her face to his and said, “Yes.”
He could go there now, to New Iberia.
No, no, no.
I am no longer human.
The first morning he winds down the eastern side of the Cascades and takes a smaller road north to find a place of rest for the day. In this semi-wilderness it is not difficult to find a small track through the pines to hide the car. He takes the the key and satchel with him. It has been a while since he has slept in rich, piney mulch, with all its crawlers and worms for company. He doesn’t mind them in the least, certainly not like he might have when alive. In the past sometimes mammals – moles, gophers, rabbits – have dug their tunnels too close when he was barely awake and hungry; they satisfied well enough for a snack. He may have to resort to something similar until he finds blood more suitable. It has been years since he has taken anything as large as a deer and not often then.
The next evening he finds a small stream big enough to splash himself clean. It is a pretty place. He would like to stay longer, but he is still too close to Washington and his most recent past. He has not felt the need to take blood every night since drinking from Senior Alexi, so he will not do so tonight, unless the opportunity reveals itself.
He drives another night without incident and without taking sustenance. The following night he stops for gas at a Texaco station in Spearfish, Wyoming. A hefty man who looks to be his own mortal age, in dress uniform and lugging a stuffed duffel over his right shoulder, ambles up to the driver’s side window and leans over. “Yuh headin’ east?”
“I would say so, since the car is pointing that direction.”
“Not from around here, huh?”
“Pretty obvious, is it?”
“Aside from yer Washington plates, yuh talk funny.”
“Observant of you.”
“If yer goin’ as far as Sturgis, I could use a lift.”
“I am heading that way.”
“Yes,” says Sam. Hot dog.
He leaves the fellow curled up and snoring on a park bench in Sturgis, South Dakota. Alexi’s blood is amazing. Sam had not needed sustenance for nearly four nights. He can see better, hear better, smell better. Last night in Montana he had run down an antelope just for the fun of it. Maybe he can do that anyway. Maybe. What if all his blood were Alexi’s? Dear God. He had thought to fight him. Had thought he understood what he was getting into.
The next evening in Sioux Falls begins a new pattern – stopping at any book store and searching for whatever he can find on old Russian royalty. The effort is likely meaningless, but it is something to do.
He enters more populated areas in Wisconsin, and leaves Route 90 for smaller side roads heading east toward Oshkosh and Lake Michigan, filling up (usually the Ford) where he can. The houses are lonely sentinels, mile after mile of tedious farmland and heavy, starless sky. It is more difficult to hide the car; he sleeps further from it, in case the Ford attracts attention. One night he hauls himself out of the cold ground to the soft flutter of snowflakes in his hair and on his face. Sam has never seen snow like this. He stands, transfixed, arms slightly raised and watches it gather on his palms. Turns his face up to see the exquisite, delicate forms approach and settle on his lashes, his nose, his tongue. His stomach jerks – a laugh. The flakes tickle his skin. He must break through a film of ice in the pond nearby before he can wash. Ice forms on him afterward. He stands naked and motionless and becomes an iceman covered with snow. He can feel the cold seep through his flesh and thicken and slow his blood. He could sleep like this if he wanted, just below consciousness, frozen like an ice cube. It is delicious to break free, make the ice tinkle and the snow pop in flashing flakes.
He has to lift the car from the snow and, after immobilizing the wheel with a piece of rope, pushes the vehicle to the top of a rise. This and the earlier playing around gets him a late start. He also finds that vehicles do not like to go on snowy roads. Snow is fun, but not when you have to go somewhere. He stops early, sits in the back seat, feet pulled up, and reads. Fortunately, he does not need light, for light would attract attention. Although there are few out on such a night. He likely could have gone further on his own two feet but, once the snow stops, he needs the car for faster travel. The Ford makes him appear more prosperous and less like a hobo, although he is not sure they are called that any longer. He has picked up several hitchhikers, most of them on their way home from the war. Two served as food. He has left every one alive and further toward their destinations – he could never kill a veteran, being one, himself. He has killed no one in years; it is not necessary.
When he rises the next night, the snow has melted into grey slush. The car needs gas and he feels hunger. By nine he has nearly despaired of finding anything when lights glow ahead. In town, such as it is, a few street lamps form circles on the wet pavement and make visible a feed store and post office. Last on the right is Willie’s Auto Repair with two pumps out front, its red metal sign lit from above by three arching, rusty lamps. Two small yellow windows manage to glow around all the stickers for oil and candy and beer plastered on the inside of the grimy panes.
There will be a gas station attendant. Sam smiles. One-stop shopping.
He waits patiently by one of the pumps. Maybe the fellow wants him to come in for beer, or maybe it is the cold night. Humans do not generally like the cold, he recalls.
The door opens, throwing a rectangle of yellow light onto the icy ground before the fellow who comes striding around the back of the car. He bends to the open window – young, unshaven, sour beer breath, grimy teeth . . . warm blood. From his gnarly fist the dark hole of a pistol barrel points at Sam’s face.
“Nice you come along just now. Join us inside for a spell.” He backs and pulls the car door open.
Sam would take him now, only how much would a bullet slow him down or for how long, or how many others are inside? Better to take this one without the bullet. Better to know the situation. The gravel crunches beneath their feet, and Sam wonders what lead would feel like coming through him from behind, what would happen if it hit his spine? A mini ball had gone through his arm in the War of Secession, but a modern weapon from so close?
He opens the door and walks into stifling heat glowing from a wood stove off to his right. Directly before him, a man in orange coveralls, the same as the first, is balanced on the back two legs of a wood chair, a shotgun across his lap, one leg pushed against a keg full of metal parts. To Sam’s left on the floor in front of a stained counter are a thin and frightened old man and woman, hands and feet tied with heavy rope. She is curled up, turned into the man, as though what she doesn’t see might not be there. From behind his raised, boney knees, the man’s eyes are wide open, reminding Sam of an owl. There is another man behind Sam, next to the door. Sam does not see him, but feels and smells him there. The room reeks of wood smoke, grease, beer, sweat and fear. And more warm blood than he has smelled in weeks.
He should have chanced taking the man outside. Hindsight. Can he get the three of them together, or separate them one at a time? Can it be done without harming the two old ones? Can he take the three of them before a bullet slows him down? The one with the shotgun first, which would be the worst, particularly at close quarters. He is pleased when he turns his head to see the third has no weapon aside from a jackknife he continually opens and closes with his thumb. All three wear the same filthy orange coveralls. All three are well muscled.
The last and biggest one with the knife, “Now ain’t he the sweetest thing I seen in forever. Better ‘n those two scrawny geezers fer sure.” He shoves the knife into a back pocket and shuffles closer.
The blond man raises the shotgun, points it right at Sam. “Cal, you go out there and fill that car up . . . and take that bag and put it in the trunk.”
“Been a long while, Del, come on.”
“Do as I say, then you can have all the fun you want.”
“Catch.” First guy tosses Cal the keys behind Sam’s back. Cal leaves, letting the door slam behind him. It’s two now, but that shotgun’s pointed right at him from six feet away, and Pistol’s off to Sam’s right, sitting on a stool. Can he move fast enough? Faster than their bullets? He turns a little, to see Pistol’s not pointed at him, but down a little.
“What is this? Who are you people?” If he can get them talking, maybe, using his softest, most polite drawl. Harmless, I am harmless. They should easily believe it, since both are bigger than he is and far more muscular.
“Who are we, Del?” Pistol man grins.
“Why, my name is Delbert Rawlins, most recently from Waupun, Wisconsin. This is my associate, Richard Oldway, Dick to his friends, same residence. And what might be your name, sweetheart?” He speaks in a teasing parody of Sam’s Louisiana Creole accent.
Sam looks Del in the eyes, lowers his voice even more, would like to be closer, but with the other one sitting right there, must be careful. “Samuel Durand Music from Louisiana, at your service, sir.” His voice drips with honey and something else even more desirable. Del is blinking back at him, breathing deep, and smiles.
“At my service, are you? I just might take you up on that. No broad’s been at my service for far too long. Where we been we don’t get much time with broads, do we Dick?
“Not in Waupun State Pen we don’t. But we do with what we got. Some of us, leastwise, like Cal out there, specially.”
“And you, Samuel from Louisiana, might do fine. I’ll just call you Sam. Come on over here a little, Sam.”
So, it is divide and conquer. He walks slowly toward Del, so as not to alarm either one of them, and purrs: “I cannot imagine why anyone would not want you, sir, that it should have been so long.”
Del has to pay close attention in order to hear him. The chair has dropped to all four legs, and he is leaning forward, unblinking, mouth open. Shotgun lowered.
“What the fuck?” It is Pistol Dick. Dick fires through the space where Sam no longer exists. Sam is already on Del. The shotgun blasts pellets pattersmack into the ceiling.
Dick sees Del on the floor, his head twisted at an impossible angle, the shotgun five feet away.
“Hello, Richard,” says a soft, cloying voice in Dick’s right ear. Somehow the guy got behind him, and he jabs with his left elbow prior to turning with the gun, only he must have cracked bone against a rock. The pistol is torn from his fingers. He is lifted off the ground, kicking.
“Fuck! fuck!” His head is hauled back by tremendous fingers, then pain at his neck so quick and shattering he can’t even scream, only gurgle.
Sam’s world is tinted red and the warm flood surges and spills. Something slams – a door? He spins so that the human in his arms takes most of the shotgun blast; the blood reek is stronger as he lets the carcass drop to the floor. Pellets sting terribly in his legs, under his hair and right ear; blood runs down his face. Cal, that is his name, throws the gun at him, now useless with both barrels empty. Cal backs up, crouching, the little knife in his hand. Sam nearly laughs. He is filled with blood lust, kill lust like he has never known, and this one will barely slake it. He reaches toward the absurd oversized mortal, holds out his hand, palm up.
“Here, strike if you will, try.”
The man will not, then he does, a quick jab, faster than most, but not nearly fast enough. Sam easily removes the knife and lifts the man by the hair with one hand, dangles him face-to-face. He does not even kick like the other.
“Do you still want to play, little man?”
“Please, please, please.”
“Please, yes?” Stop this, stop it now.
Such sobbing, nose running, drooling.
End it, end it. This is disgusting. You are disgusting. He snaps the neck.
He throws the body over one shoulder, picks up the other two and hauls all three outside and around back where he drains them. He does not need so much, but they deserved death, and he cannot resist. Look what they have made him do, what they made him become. He sits among their drained bodies, head in bloody hands, and considers the two old people still inside. Dare he go in there? Will he want them, as well? He has been trying so hard to be good, and all these years thought he was succeeding, killing no one. He is finally free of that woman, and this happens.
It was self-defense. Of course it was. Only he had enjoyed it so.