A forlorn teenager’s monotonous life is interrupted when a stranger draws him into the hunt for a vampiric serial killer. He will learn that while monsters are much more real than he thought, there is no such thing as heroes.
I first saw him at Penny Anderson’s funeral, standing in the back of the chapel with his hat on. No one else seemed to notice him, they were too busy looking at the box Penny Anderson was in, or at Penny Anderson’s aunt who bawled so loudly that it was hard to hear Reverend Gary’s sermon, or at Penny Anderson’s mother and father who made no sounds at all. Penny Anderson would go into the ground the next day, and all of Loganville had turned out for the service; there were no seats left for the stranger.
“Terrible thing,” said Ms. Perkins after, as we filed past the body.
“Even in life . . .” said Ms. Farrow.
“She’s with God now,” said Ms. Perkins.
“So beautiful,” said Ms. Farrow.
Though I could only comment with confidence on the last. Penny Anderson looked just the same as she had at homecoming, might even have been wearing the same dress (the Andersons were not wealthy people). She was paler, but that had always been part of her charm. Some of the others said goodbye to her, but I did not.
When it was over the stranger was nowhere to be seen.
The Volvo was in the shop again and so we’d caught a ride to the funeral parlor with the Smiths, but they were going out to dinner on the way back and though my mom waited they did not invite us along. We took the bus and didn’t get home until after dark. My mother microwaved two meals and we sat down in front of the TV to eat.
“I’m sorry, Graham,” said my mom.
“I know the two of you were special friends,” said my mom.
Once upon a time when the neighborhood kids had existed as a sexless preadolescent mass, Penny Anderson and I had played tag and gone rambling and in winters sledded together down the big hill at the end of the development, but everyone used to do that and anyway it had stopped long ago. The last conversation I could remember having with Penny Anderson had been the previous spring, when she had seen me reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide during free period and called me a loser in front of Sally Lorne and Tim Abbot.
“Thanks,” I said again.
I still don’t know why I decided to bike back to the funeral parlor. It was a warm night and I liked taking my bike for long rides and I did not want to be in my house anymore, listening to the late-show monologue and my mother’s snoring. Penny had not been my special friend but she had sat by the window in English class, and sometimes when the sun broke on her she looked just like the girls in the books I read, or how I thought of those girls as looking.
I supposed I planned to mope around in the parking lot and feel sad for a while, about Penny and a lot of other things too, probably, but then I saw a light was still on and I thought maybe Penny’s parents were still inside, and that I could say something to them, although what would that have been? In any event they weren’t inside, it was just Penny, or I mean Penny’s coffin, alone in the center of the room.
I recognized the click from a thousand movies and TV shows and I responded accordingly, freezing wide-eyed and stiff.
The stranger appeared from a corner, gun in hand. “You one of his?”
I’d been hit before—sallow, bookish children often are—but not like that, one instant his hand at his side and the next I was on the ground, as if he had pulled some thread and unspooled me.
“No!” I gasped. “No!”
“You don’t look like it. What are you doing here, then?”
I probably couldn’t have explained that even if I hadn’t been wiggling on the floor. I had an air rifle, and my uncle had once let me shoot some cans with his shotgun, but I had never seen a pistol before. It seemed very small in the man’s hands, like the barrel was growing straight out from his palm.
“You aren’t thinking of doing anything to this girl, are you?”
I spluttered some denunciation and he laughed at me. He had a laugh like the kids in gym class.
“You’re going to have to stick around. He might come for a visit. Probably not, but . . . maybe.”
I did not know who this other He was and was too afraid to ask. The stranger lifted me up to my feet, and I got my first good look at him. His hair was short and his skin was very dark and his eyes were darker. Beneath his T-shirt his chest seemed all muscle but he was only a little taller than I was, and this was before I had hit my spurt. I noticed that then and remember it now but moment to moment I often forgot.
He turned the light off, then took me back to where he had been sitting, on the ground against the wall.
“Who was she to you?” he asked.
“Just a friend.” I had some of my breath back by then.
“You went to school together?”
“Tenth grade, yeah.”
“She with anyone?’
“Dating. She dating anyone?”
“She was dating Carl Stanford—he’s back-up QB, he’ll probably start next year—but I heard they broke up.”
“A month ago, maybe? After homecoming.”
The funeral parlor was right off the highway, you could hear the cars and the occasional eighteen-wheeler rumble past.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m the undertaker.”
“You don’t look like the undertaker,” I said. This reads braver than I intended it—I was often saying stupid things to people at that age (and other ages) but it was only because I didn’t (don’t) understand the way they sound until after I’ve said them.
Anyway, he didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t answer but he didn’t seem to mind. We sat in silence a bit longer and then he was up without any warning. “I’m going to go out for a smoke. Keep an eye on her.”
He was not a smoker. I know writing this here spoils the story some but it’s more important that I keep a clean record about everything and about him in particular. It was not just that he was lying then about having a cigarette, it was that he never smoked, nor drank. Occasionally I noticed him breathing.
A long time passed. I didn’t try to run; I thought he might be laying a trap, and also I was the sort of child who did the things that people told me to do. Mostly.
She was suddenly upright, holding a hand against her forehead.
“Jesus Christ, Penny!” I had read about this sort of thing; in Victorian times they’d put bells in the coffins in case they buried you too early. But what about the stranger? No, there was something more sinister at work here; a white slavery ring, with young, pretty girls rendered comatose, then whisked away to work in sex parlors in foreign countries.
“Graham?” Penny spoke in a strange rasp, some side effect of whatever drugs the man must have given her. “Is that you?”
Thank God I was here to save her. I hurried to help her out of the casket. “Penny, we have to go, there’s a man here who I think is going to—”
“It’s freezing,” said Penny, though it was warm for October and seemed hot as hell to me. Penny had strawberry blonde hair, which is the prettiest color of hair in the world, so pretty that even the name itself is pretty: strawberry blonde. Her skin was pale and the veins in her neck throbbed. When she had called me a loser her eyes had sparkled bright with wickedness but now they looked dead as burnt filament and her mouth was a tangled mess of canines broken glass torn aluminum dirty needles half-sharpened razor blades and I was a step from kissing her when she screamed, louder and shriller than anything I had ever heard before, a stern bit of steel between her perfect breasts, the sound so loud and the sight so horrible and then both came to a thankful end.
I awoke in the passenger seat of a car. The stranger was driving. The radio was off. All the time I spent in that car I never heard the radio.
“Your bike is in the trunk,” he said.
I was waiting for the next part—what had happened, why it had happened, what would happen next—but I didn’t get it.
“Where are we going?” I asked finally.
He didn’t answer that either, though I figured it out by the next turn.
“How do you know where I live?”
By then we were almost home, and I felt the usual shame at our unweeded garden and peeling paint, my embarrassment an anchor of familiarity amid the night’s madness. He stopped the car without coming into the driveway. Then he pulled my wallet out of the hollow of his side door and handed it to me. “Your name is Graham Isolde. You live at 344 Fett Street. You go to Logan High School. You have a Blockbuster membership. I can find you anytime I want to.”
“OK,” I said.
I got out and closed the door and took my bike out of the trunk and closed the trunk and went back to his window and said, “She wasn’t dead.”
“She was dead,” he said. Then he drove off.
No one noticed anything had happened. Probably that tells you everything you need to know about my life at the time. My mother cleaned offices and braided hair sometimes and was always very tired. My father was then in Indiana, I think, but he moved around a lot and I can’t remember for certain. I was not on any sports teams, the star of no musicals, lacked any role which might have drawn the attention of another adult. Perhaps I was quieter and more skittish than usual, but there was a general pall over Logan High that October; I would not care to guess how many late assignments the death of Penny Anderson excused.
Anyway, Erica was the only one I can remember asking about me, and that wasn’t until Thursday at lunch, when we were setting up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the Algebra II room on the third floor. “You sleep all right, Graham?”
In fact, the night before I had slept like the dead—like the honest dead—but only because I had not managed an hour in the three previous evenings. “Do I look tired?”
“No, you look really well-rested. I was going to ask for tips.”
Erica had moved from California before the start of the year. Her mother was originally from the area. She had braces and freckles. She had very brown eyes. She was Jewish. She liked Star Trek but not Star Wars. She had seen us playing earlier that fall and asked what we were doing and then asked if she could roll up a character. I was a little bit in love with her, as I would always be with any girl or woman who showed me even casual kindness.
“I don’t think I really have any,” I said.
“I’m just kidding, Graham, you look terrible. What’s up?”
I would likely have yielded my secrets—it would not have required a truncheon—but Donald and Barry came in just then, and we only had forty-five minutes to play, “barely enough time to belt up your buckler,” as Donald would put it, and we had to get started. Donald and Barry were the other three members of our Dungeons & Dragons quartet. Quartet is the sort of word you would know if you played Dungeons & Dragons, along with kobold, cantrip, and cockatrice.
The week before, our party had managed to convince the Wood Elves to show us a secret path through the Forest Dolorous which led to a back entrance in the Black Fort, where the Demilich Seran was closeted, poisoning the land with his baneful influence.
“Lord Evelywn slams shut the door just ahead of the furious zombie horde,” Donald said.
“I bar it,” said Erica.
“Dahlia bars the door. The wood is heavy and the iron strong, but you can hear the undead mass rage fierce against it.”
“Hit me with a cure heavy wounds,” I told Barry.
“I’ve only got two left,” said Barry. “Take a potion.”
“I’m our front-rank fighter! If I go down, what do you think will happen to the rest of you?”
“I’ve got your back,” said Erica.
Barry snickered. Erica played with us Mondays and Thursdays at lunch but her father wouldn’t let her come over for our weekend games so she lagged a few levels behind the rest of the party, waving about her Long Sword +2 while the rest of earned relics and minor artifacts. Also, Donald never gave her anything good; she was always opening trapped chests and falling prey to various withering curses.
“You have come to an ancient library, thousands upon thousands of moth-ridden tomes stacking up to a stained-glass ceiling high above. There are no obvious means of exit.”
“Do I sense any secret doors?” asked Erica. Erica was playing an elf, and elves can sense secret doors.
“No. And you do not need to ask, I automatically check.”
“I cast detect magic,” said Barry. Barry was multi-classing as a wizard/priest/thief, which was very Barry. Barry had to be better at everything than everyone.
“This deep inside the lich’s territory, there is such a plethora of sorcerous activity that your spell is of no effect.” Donald rattled off a d20. “The door is holding, but it will not for much longer.”
“Too many Pennys banging against the door?” Barry asked.
I snapped my head up.
“That’s disgusting,” said Erica.
“It’s just a joke.”
“It’s a disgusting joke,” said Erica. “She’s dead.”
“So what?” asked Donald. “Death is nothing of which to be afraid.” If Donald was not afraid of death, he was afraid of many other things: of having a ball thrown at him, of showering after gym, of Barry’s dog, which used to chase him all around Barry’s house. “Your conscious brain is eliminated, leaving nothing behind to feel pain.”
“Who knows?” Erica asked. “My grandmother used to say that after you die your soul can manifest any way it wants. She said when the wind blew through the maple trees, she could hear my aunt’s voice.”
“That’s facile,” said Donald, “when you’re dead, you’re dead.”
Donald was as certain of this as he was the Konami code, or that Two Towers preceded Return of the King.
When I saw the stranger waiting in the parking lot I thought I might be sick or run back into the school. I didn’t do either of those things, however. I just went over to where he sat in his car. He looked the same as he had when he’d dropped me off the previous Sunday, same coat, same hat, even the same shirt, I think, or a twin.
“Get in,” he said.
It was then I realized that part of what had kept me awake that week, mixed with the constant anxiety and the memory of Penny’s eyes, was the fear that something special had happened to me and never would again. I felt a strange sense of relief. I got in the car and he pulled out of the parking lot.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” I said.
“Of course you didn’t.”
“What do you want?”
“You’re going to do something for me.”
I admit it was a little disappointing to end up in front of the library, which as it happens was where I was going anyway, to drop off my copy of The Crystal Shard and pick up the next book in the series.
“What is this?”
“It’s the library.”
“I know what the fucking library is,” I said, but I squeaked a little on the curse. “Why are we here?”
“I need you to look something up for me.”
“Look something up for you?”
“They’ve got a registry in there? Of births and deaths in the town?”
“I want you to get it for me. You’ve got a library card.”
“You can’t get a library card?”
“Why would I need a library card? Why would I come to a shit town in the middle of nowhere and look at the local history section? You think that’s the kind of thing a person might remember?”
“Why did you come here? Who are you?” Then, lower; “What was she?”
“You should have figured out the last.”
I had. I guess you probably have to. But I didn’t want to say it out loud—either he would laugh at me, which was bad, or he wouldn’t, which was somehow worse.
“No,” I lied.
He grunted and shifted the car back into drive.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it.”
“Coming to the funeral parlor alone like that, I thought maybe you had some balls—but I should have known by the way you took that punch that you were just a little bitch.”
I had been called this and much worse by people driving past me in trucks, by varsity and JV athletes, by my father once before he left, but something about how the stranger said it made me want to prove him wrong. “How is checking a book out of the library going to show I’m not a bitch?”
“You think I came for that girl the other night? She wasn’t a target, she was a victim. Wasn’t the first, but if it’s up to me she’ll be the last. You want to help, or not?”
Here is the thing to understand—I was sort of expecting this. This did not seem to me a surprising event, or not exactly. How many tens of thousands of pages of this exact story had I read, a boy plucked from obscurity to realize his true destiny? Aren’t most of us on some level anticipating someone will someday leap out and tell us we’re special?
“There’s a town registry,” I said, “but they won’t let me check it out.”
“No. They’ll be in the local history section, it’s behind the desk. They don’t let you take it out of the library.”
“Can you make a copy?”
“For five cents a sheet.”
He handed me two crumpled fives. It was the first time I had ever seen a money clip.
I came back half an hour later. He looked at the papers long enough to make sure they were what he wanted, then shoved them into the glove compartment and drove me back to my house.
“How do I get in touch with you?” I asked.
“Why would you need to get in touch with me?”
“If I found something out.”
“I don’t know. Something about who killed Penny.”
“What killed Penny.”
“Who’s on first?”
He didn’t get it and I blushed in shame.
“I’ll find you if I need you,” he said.
“Shouldn’t I at least know your name?”
He smiled very rarely, and never with much kindness. “You think you’ll forget who I am?”
But then he told me it was Hercules.
I did not believe him at the time. I suppose it occurred to me that there might still be Greek people named Hercules as there are Spanish people named Jesus and Arab people named Mohammed, but whatever he was, Hercules was no Greek. It was his real name, however, I mean I never saw a birth certificate or anything but I’m sure it was. Hercules was not honest, but he never lied.
“Are you doing all right, Graham?” asked Mr. Adams.
Mr. Adams was my Algebra II teacher. It was his room we played Dungeons & Dragons in. He was short and thin and had less hair than he had the year before, when he had taught me Algebra I. On his desk were a Donatello action figure and a hacky sack he had earlier that day confiscated from Sam Wright, after he had thrown it at Donald’s head during a pop quiz.
“I’m fine, Mr. Adams,” I said.
“You’ve been quiet in class lately.”
“A lot of students are having trouble dealing with Penny’s passing,” Mr. Adams said. There was dandruff in the tonsure of fuzz that remained to him.
“Yes,” I said.
“Penny’s death is a tragedy. But death is a part of life, Graham. A terrible part of life, but one we have to accept. Bad things can happen to any of us, we have to make the most of our time on earth.”
“Bad things can happen to anyone,” I agreed.
After school Donald and I went to Barry’s house to spend the night. We always went to Barry’s house because Donald’s parents didn’t like having people over and I didn’t have the space. Barry’s mom had rented us copies of Predator and Predator II. I liked Barry’s mom. She would ask me questions about things and then the next time I saw her she would ask questions about the answers I’d given her to those questions. She would get us three different pizzas because I could not stand onions and Donald didn’t like anything but cheese. If I had lived in Barry’s house I’d have been fat as a pig, but Barry and his sister and his parents were trim and fit and always smiling.
We watched Predator II first, out of order because we wanted to save the good one with Arnold and Jesse the Body for later, and then we went back to exploring the Black Fort.
“From the window you can look out over the landscape below,” said Donald. “The zombie horde has only grown larger, as if all the sons and daughters born and died beneath the lich’s sway, generation after generation, have come to besiege you.”
Barry yawned. It was after midnight, and we were sluggish on starch and processed sugar. “Too bad Erica’s not here.”
“If you imagine a seventh-level ranger would be of any avail against so vast an army, I can assure you that—”
“You’re such a loser, Donald,” said Barry. “All you can think about is D&D.”
“You’re playing D&D,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but I do other things. All you guys do is roll dice and jack off.”
“I’m in a band,” I said.
“You’re in band,” Barry corrected, “it’s not the same thing. Anyway, I don’t want Erica here so she can help me chop up some zombies—it would just be a nice break from this sausage party.”
Barry had Frenched Jane Causwell on the fall trip to Hersheypark a few weeks earlier, and it had spurred in him the sort of pride which primitive man reserved for killing woolly mammoths.
“I will admit, she does seem fertile,” said Donald, eating a cold mozzarella stick.
“Yeah, she’s got a decent set. Not as nice as a Melanie Brewster, but…” Barry made as to squeeze Erica’s breasts, or maybe Melanie Brewster’s.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” I said. “Erica’s our friend.”
“You know you’re only a Paladin in the game,” Barry said.
“What does being her friend have to do with it?” Donald asked. “Males are programmed to sexually desire females—it’s part of our evolutionary imperative.” He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Now, can we get back to the game?”
Donald slept on the couch and I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag, and the next day Barry’s mother made us pancakes and drove Barry and I to driver’s ed class (Donald’s parents wouldn’t let him take it yet). We studied a diagram of a stick shift and watched a short film suggesting not to overtake tractor trailers. I turned sixteen in three months but had only a few hours of driving practice; even when our Volvo was working Mom didn’t have much energy to take me out. That night she tried to get me to watch the late movie and the next morning she tried to get me to go to church but I did neither and now regret both.
Late Sunday afternoon I looked outside my window and saw his car idling across the street.
“Going out?” my mother asked when I went to grab my coat.
“I’m going to bike over to Barry’s, we’re going to watch Predator.”
“I thought you watched it.”
“We’re going to watch it again.”
“Oh,” she said. “Have fun.”
We drove to a diner a few miles down the highway, Hercules silent until we were in a back booth and the waitress came by to take our order.
“Coffee,” he said, “and whatever the kid wants.”
I knew it would be cooler if I just ordered a coffee but it was kind of a treat for me to eat out in any restaurant that wasn’t fast food and so I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and French fries. I restrained myself from ordering a milkshake, however.
When the waitress left, Hercules unfolded three crumpled sheets of paper from his pocket and set them on the table. “It’s happened before,” he said.
The first sheet listed the town’s deaths from the fall of 1919. Three names were circled on it: Erin Smith, 17; Joyce Burns, 17; Sarah Araf, 15.
“Lots of dead bodies for one October,” said Hercules.
“These don’t mean anything. This was 1919.”
“So, 1919 there was this terrible flu—the Spanish flu, they called it—and it killed more people than died in all of World War I.”
He moved to the next sheet, 1955: Sally Matthews, 16; Jean Fallows, 18; Jane Anderson, 19.
“Was there a Spanish flu in 1955?”
“Not that I know of.”
He put another down: Elizabeth Smith, 15; Ida Fitzgerald, 19; Sarah Willoughby, 20.
“No,” I said. I was very, very excited.
“Thirty years, give or take,” said Hercules,
The waitress came back with our orders. The ketchup bottle was mostly empty, and I had to smack at the glass bottom to get anything onto my cheeseburger. “A month up to feed, and then it goes back to sleep,” Hercules said.
“Penny was the first. They’ll be two more—or there won’t be.”
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We wait. We watch. We try and figure out who the next one is. He likes them young. Teenagers or a bit older. Keep an eye out for any of your schoolmates getting sick or acting strange.”
“Strange like how?”
“Strange like strange,” said Hercules. Mostly I did not seem to annoy Hercules the way I often did other people, but not always. I realized I had gotten ketchup on the printouts. “Finish your food,” he said, and got up to pay.
“Have you done this a lot?” I asked as we drove home.
“How much is a lot?”
“Have you done this before?”
He smirked but didn’t answer. When we got to my house he handed me the copies of the records I had made him. “Keep them,” he said. “Look at the names. Think about if they mean anything.”
I shoved them into my backpack. I hadn’t unpacked it since going to Barry’s, and it was still full of campaign books.
“What are those?”
I am not very good at getting angry. It takes me a great long while to talk myself into it; I have to walk around and rant and rave and even then it goes away almost as soon as it comes. For Hercules it was like letting up a few inches of a window shade, or something rattling at the bars of a cage. “You think I don’t know what a book is?”
“It’s not a normal book,” I explained quickly, “it’s a game book—you take the mechanics and the characters and ideas inside, and then you use them to create your own stories.”
“What kind of stories?” He reached into my bag and pulled out the Monster Manual. I’d gotten it for Christmas the year before and a lot of the pages had come loose from the binding.
“Any kind you want. In our campaign right now, we’re trying to break the curse of the Demilich Seran, whose poison has infested the land. We were fighting to ascend to the top of the Black Fort, but we got caught in a pocket nightmare universe that we have to fight free of first.”
Hercules had the hardbound book open on his lap and he didn’t seem to be listening. He wasn’t reading the text—the light was off in the car—just looking at the pictures, running his blunt thumb against gray-green tentacles and ravening maws. “Who’s we?”
“Me, Erica, Barry. Donald’s our Dungeon Master. That means he makes up the story, basically, and then we all play characters.”
“Who are you?”
“In the game? I’m a paladin.”
“What’s a paladin?”
“It’s like a holy knight. They have special powers against evil, but they’re held to a higher moral standard than other classes.” I said this rather loftily.
“We obey a special code of honor: honesty, righteousness, piety.”
“You a hero then, huh?”
“Why not? If there are monsters, there have to be heroes to fight them.”
You could tell by the way he snapped the book shut what he thought of that, and I have already told you I did not like his laugh.
You will ask how I remember all of this, conversations and small details of events that happened decades ago. The answer is that though it was only after this last visit to Dr. Gold’s that I thought to actually write it down, I have been telling myself this story again and again for the last thirty years, taking it apart and unpacking it, examining each detail as I gather brokenhearted lovers do, though I have never had my heart broken and only rarely been a lover. You will say that remembering a story is not the same as remembering the thing itself. That, I do not have an answer for. Perhaps I am wrong about things. It would not surprise me.
There was another death. It was in the local paper the next week. Her name was Margaret Byer. I did not know her. Logan was a small town but not so small that a person couldn’t die in it without you knowing them. His car was parked outside my house that evening. I had grown used to checking the windows several times an hour, waking up in the middle of the night to peek through the blinds.
My mother had fallen asleep in front of Cheers, and I left a note saying I’d biked to the 7-Eleven for Doritos.
“Did you know her?” Hercules asked.
“Know anything about her?”
“Not really. She worked at a bar by the plant.” I had read this in the paper.
“I know where she worked,” said Hercules. “Did she have anything to do with Penny?”
“Nothing I know about.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Do that,” he said.
I was hoping we’d go to the diner, but he just took me around the block a few times and then dropped me back off. My mother was still asleep, and so I threw my note into the trash. It only then occurred to me that the Margaret Byer who I did not know was going to be buried the next morning, and so Hercules was then en route to the same bitter midnight vigil he had overseen for Penny Anderson.
I had to skip lunch the next day to retake an Algebra quiz I had failed. People often assumed I was good at math, but I was not. I was not good at anything particularly, not even English, despite all the books I read. Most of the teachers didn’t let you retake quizzes as a sophomore, but Mr. Adams did, he was nice like that. I know what they said later on, but back then people liked Mr. Adams.
The quiz was only a page long and he graded it while I waited.
“B-,” he said, “not so bad. You just need to bone up on your fractions, you’ll be OK for the test next week.”
“Thanks, Mr. Adams.”
“How you doing otherwise?”
“OK,” I said.
“You know, you can always come up to eat your lunch here, if the cafeteria gets too much for you.”
“I can remember what it was like, being in high school,” Mr. Adams said. I believed him; he still seemed somehow half-formed. “It’s tough to be a sensitive young man, in a world like this.”
“Why did he pick Penny?” I asked Hercules when I saw him that night.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“There must have been something about her, right? Something that drew his attention?”
Hercules never gave an unconsidered answer; if you said something and he thought it was worth thinking about he’d think about it as long as he needed, and you’d let him, sitting quietly until he was finished.
“Like a wolf, I guess,” said Hercules. “He could just smell her.”
After he dropped me back home I set aside the barbarian I was rolling up and made a list of everyone in town I thought might have known Penny and the waitress who had died. It was slow going. I did not really know very much about Peggy. She was on the cheerleading team. She might have had a part-time job. About the waitress I knew even less. After half an hour I realized I was just drawing doodles on graph paper and gave up. In a drawer beneath a trade paperback of Watchmen was a folder with the ketchup-stained printouts I had made for Hercules, to which I added my useless notes.
My mother was in her usual position on the sofa.
“How’s your homework?”
“Fine. I was wondering—did anyone ever die when you were in high school?”
“Still thinking about Penny, huh?”
“There was a car accident my Senior year. Bradley . . . Bradley Murrow? Marrow? Horrible thing.”
“What about Sarah Willoughby?”
“How did you know about that?”
“I heard something about it at school.”
“It was a sad business,” my mother said. She picked at the thread of her blanket. “Their parents owned the pharmacy that Mr. Struthers owns now. They moved away after.”
“She got sick and died. I don’t think I ever knew what it was. If I did, I can’t remember.”
“It was a long time ago. I didn’t know Sarah well, she was a little older than me. Her sister, Victoria, was in my grade, a nice girl, very pretty, we were in Scouts together. Once—you won’t believe this, but her and your father and some boy she was going with decided we would sneak into the old hospital. Not the old hospital, the old-old hospital, the one out by the Kmart, you know? Anyway, your father, he said we should . . . Graham? Are you listening?”
“Sorry, I got distracted.”
But by then the commercial was over. “That’s fine.”
“What if he can only feed from certain people?”
“He only feeds from women,” Hercules said. “Young women.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, what if there’s something else, something that connects Penny and the waitress?”
“What if they’re related? There was another Anderson on that list, remember?”
“A lot of white people named Anderson,” Hercules said.
“Maybe it’s like a curse. I have a comic book where a magician put a curse on a boy’s grandfather, and it turned the boy into this sort of berserk demon anytime he got angry, and so they had to send him to be trained at a—”
“If the girls are related,” Hercules interrupted, “maybe we can figure out who the next one will be.”
“The library won’t have marriage records, but town hall might. I’ll go by at lunch and see what I can find. We can meet tomorrow afternoon.”
“Thought through this, huh?”
I had done nothing but since the night before, barely slept, walked around school sucking it over like a hard candy. “What happens when we find him?”
“I’ll handle it.”
“Do you have, like, tools?”
“Same as the other night.”
“I mean stakes, or silver, or something.”
“None of that shit is real. Hasn’t been real yet, at least.”
“Have you ever killed one of these before?”
“I don’t know what it is yet. It’s not like in your book, Graham. They don’t come with instructions.”
“That’s what I’m saying. What if this one can’t be killed with bullets?”
After a moment he reached into his jacket and came back out with his revolver. It was the first time since the funeral parlor that I had seen it—he did not go around pawing at it. “This is a .45,” he said, breaking open the chamber, “and the bullets are hollow-point. Goes in a marble, come out a baseball. Everything that is, won’t be. That’s for certain. I know that. You know that. But the thing we’re looking for—it forgot. It thinks it’s special, it thinks it found an out.” Hercules snapped the revolver shut and put it back in his jacket. “It hasn’t.”
“I unsheathe my dagger.”
“Impossible, you are already holding a scroll.”
“You don’t need two hands to hold a scroll.”
“Not to hold it closed, but if you want to read it it needs to be open, and for that to happen—”
“Fine, fine, I’ll just prepare to cast fireball.”
“Dragmar the Infinite prepares to cast a fireball. Dahlia?”
The main upside to using Mr. Adams’s room was that it was all the way at the top of the school, and so there weren’t many kids passing by to gawk. Another was, in winter, at least, that it was warm, big steam heaters hissing along.
“I’ll attack,” said Erica. She dropped a d20 onto the table.
“Critical hit!” I pumped my fist.
She rolled for damage without enthusiasm.
We were back at the Specksburg diner. I was eating another bacon cheeseburger and watching Hercules read over our notes and thinking about what he’d have been if he was a character in the game. A human 12th-level fighter/undead hunter, 16 dexterity, 16 strength, 14 constitution, 7 in charisma. Double proficiency in knives, specialization in handguns. Chaotic good.
“Ida Fitzgerald’s mother was Ellen Fitzgerald, born Ellen Anderson, younger sister to Jane” said Hercules, stumping a finger against table. “That’s three.”
Usually Erica ate lunch with Lauren Simmons and some of the other theater girls but that Wednesday she was by herself in the far corner of the cafeteria, where I usually sat. She wasn’t sitting there to sit by me, it was just the best place to sit if you wanted to be alone.
“Hey,” she said listlessly.
“Did you see The Simpsons last night?”
“It’s the one with Sideshow Bob—not the first one with Sideshow Bob, the one where Sideshow Bob runs for mayor.”
“Oh.” Erica had not unpacked her lunch.
I had spent the better part of two weeks preparing for the next sentence, and still I bumbled it coming out. “So, I was . . . uhhhh . . . I was wondering if maybe we could go to the Fall Formal together. If you’re going to go.”
At first I thought she was considering it, but then I realized she was just taking a very long time to answer. “I don’t think so, Graham,” she said. “I don’t really like you like that.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s cool.”
“You get to the town hall?” Hercules asked.
“At lunch, but the clerk wasn’t there, and they’re closed after school.”
This was one of the times we didn’t go anywhere, just drove around my block for a few minutes.
“Do you have a girlfriend?” I asked.
He looked at me a while, and then he turned away.
“Baron Von Villiers begins to scream and tremble, his flesh grown waxy and bulbous. Like some blasphemous babe the endless heads of the Demilich Saren burst from his distended chest, bearing down on the three of you.”
“Sir Evelywn strikes with his broadsword.”
“I attack,” Erica said.
“Dahlia, driven to terror, fails to act.”
“I said I attack,” said Erica.
“You know the rule,” said Donald, “you have five seconds from the time I ask for your action to answer, after which—”
“That’s such bullshit,” said Erica. “I’m the only one you ever do this to. Barry went to the bathroom in the middle of a round last week.”
“I am sorry if you dislike the rules, Erica, but you agreed to abide by them, and if we cannot keep to the terms of a contract then—”
“You’re such a little prick, Donald,” Erica said, standing suddenly. Her wan face had turned fierce. “Don’t think I can’t see you’ve got a hard-on every time you look at me. I bet if I showed you my tits you’d give me anything I wanted. I bet I’d find a Holy Avenger on the next goblin.”
“As you are not a paladin, a Holy Avenger would hardly be of any use to you,” said Donald.
“Guys, let’s just—”
“Fuck off, Graham, you’re as bad as the rest of them, you’re just too much of a pussy to admit what you want. Losers, all of you. Fucking losers.”
“Everything all right?” Mr. Adams asked, coming in just as Erica stormed out.
“Hormones,” explained Donald, cleaning his glasses. “This is why women should not be allowed to hold public office.”
This would end up being our last session; Barry was already getting more interested in soccer than rolling dice and being alone with Donald was worse than being alone. When I got home I searched through our high school phone directory so I could call Erica and apologize for whatever it was I had done, discovering in the process that her parents were named John Feldman and Victoria Willoughby-Feldman.
Erica lived in one of the new developments to the north of town. Erica’s father was a lawyer, but he didn’t practice law, he did something else that made him a lot of money, I can’t remember what it was. Her house was much bigger than mine. You could have kept my house in Erica’s garage.
We were parked across the street.
“What’s she like?” Hercules said.
“She plays D&D with us. She’s a ranger. I asked her to the Fall Formal.”
“What did she say?”
“She said no.” This was before I had saved her life, however. “What happens next?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think will happen?”
“She’ll go to him. Or he’ll send someone.”
“What if he comes?”
“He won’t come.”
“Because him coming would save us the trouble of finding him.”
Eventually a pair of headlights turned on to Erica’s drive. Hercules slumped imperceptibly lower in his seat, and I joined him. A beat-to-shit Camaro pulled past us, driven by a nasty-looking man with a ponytail. It stopped outside of Erica’s house and she slipped inside—I hadn’t seen her leave, she must have used a side door or snuck out a back window.
“Bingo,” I said.
Hercules didn’t say anything. He let the car turn around and reach the main road before we followed after it.
“Is he the vampire?”
“No,” said Hercules, “I’ve seen him at Maxwell’s before.”
“The bar the last girl worked.” Hercules looked the same as ever, but I could tell he was excited because he hadn’t laughed when I said vampire.
“But he’s a servant?”
“Where is he taking her?”
“To the vampire?”
I was quiet for a while. We were on the main road heading north toward the river, the Camaro a hundred yards ahead of us. When I heard the sirens my first thought—silly as this sounds—was disappointment. All this work and now the cops were going to swoop in and save Erica, and we’d never get to be heroes.
Hercules didn’t think that. Hercules put his blinker on and pulled very deliberately off to the side.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Be cool,” he said. “Don’t say anything.”
The lights of the Camaro grew dimmer, then disappeared.
They’re getting away!”
His fingers found a spot in my shoulder and I gasped and went quiet. By the time the cop, in no great hurry, reached us, Hercules had rolled down the window.
“License and registration,” said the cop.
Did Hercules have a license? Did he have insurance? Did he have a home address, did he get circulars and junk mail and electric bills? He unclipped his documents from the visor and handed them over. The cop looked at them with his flashlight, then returned them Hercules, who put them in the pocket of his jacket and left his hand there.
“Something the matter, officer?” Hercules asked.
“What are the two of you doing out together?”
I didn’t know the cop, but he had probably gone to my high school a few years earlier, and when he had been there he had probably played linebacker or he was the second-best second basemen. He wore the predictable sneer and held his flashlight flush with Hercules’s unblinking eyes.
“He’s my chess teacher,” I said.
Hercules took the news with predictable stoicism, but the cop looked surprised.
“Your chess teacher?”
“Yeah, my chess teacher. I take chess lessons.”
The cop didn’t like that bit any more than anyone else would have. “You been drinking?”
“Not you, idiot, him.”
“I don’t drink,” said Hercules.
“No. I just don’t drink.”
Anyone could see that Hercules was sober. Even the cop could see that Hercules was sober.
“You were driving five miles over,” he said. “I won’t write you a ticket but be more careful in the future.”
“Thanks, officer,” I said.
“Thanks, officer,” said Hercules. His hand was still in his pocket. The cop went back into his car and drove off.
Third period was Algebra II and Erica’s seat was empty. We had a pop quiz—it wasn’t really a pop quiz, it was unannounced but we had one every Friday—and I don’t think I got a single question right. They had made an announcement when Penny Anderson died. I figured they’d do the same thing for Erica, but what if I was wrong, or what if her parents hadn’t found her body yet?
I had Honors English next, which was at the other end of the school, but I stayed behind to talk to Mr. Adams. He stood smiling by the door while the rest of the students trickled out. Then he closed it and came and sat down beside me.
“Is Erica OK?” I asked.
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Mr. Adams’s voice was whispery, and his breath smelled like his mustache. I’m not sure what his mustache smelled like. “Ms. Jenkins marked her down as sick.”
“But she’s OK, though?”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” said Mr. Adams. He had taken a seat at the desk next to me, but it was too small for him and his thigh spilled toward mine. “You’re a good friend, to be so worried about your her. It’s important to have friends. There’s nothing better in the world than a good friend.”
When Hercules got angry, which I only saw happen once or twice, he would bare his left canine and squint, ever so slightly. I had taken to practicing this motion in my bedroom mirror, puzzling out the muscles in my lip and how far down to draw my eye.
Strange the way things happen, or don’t.
I cut English and biked to Erica’s. It was the first time I ever skipped class, though it would become a habit in the years after. Erica’s mother opened the door.
“Hi, Mrs. Willoughby-Feldman. I’m Graham Isolde.”
“Oh?” She did not know who I was. It occurred to me that Erica had lots of other friends; she was on the swim team and danced and she and Sally Pendem were always in corners together, laughing and drawing pictures.
“I’m a friend of Erica’s from school,” I said. “We play D&D together.”
“Oh. Erica’s not feeling well today.”
“I know, she wasn’t in class.”
“She’s not feeling very well.” Erica’s mother didn’t seem to be feeling very well either; her face was red and her eyes clouded, the way my father’s had often been in the year before he had left.
“Do you think I could come in and check on her? Just for a minute?”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea, Graham. She’s not feeling very well today.”
I thought about throwing a rock against Erica’s window, but I was worried I might break the glass and anyway I didn’t know which was her room.
Hercules was in the parking lot when I got back to school. I locked up my bike and got into his car.
“You get high?” he asked as we drove away.
“You smoke pot?”
At first I thought he was offering, and I got nervous because I didn’t smoke pot but I didn’t want him to know I didn’t smoke pot. I figured I’d put the pipe or the cigarette or whatever to my mouth but not inhale.
Of course, Hercules wasn’t asking if I wanted to smoke pot, and anyway I’m sure he knew I didn’t. “No,” I admitted.
He drove south toward where the plant used to be. Now it is nothing but boarded doors and broken windows but back then it was still working at half-time, stacks smoking up the afternoon sky. We stopped at Maxwell’s, the bar where Margaret had worked. There was another bar in town that some of the seniors would sneak into, but no one I knew had ever gone into Maxwell’s. In the parking lot was the Camaro that we had seen the night before.
“That man who owns that car is named Jerry,” Hercules said. “He sells grass and a bit of powder.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know a lot of things.”
“What are we going to do?”
“You’re going to go inside and buy drugs from him.”
“I’m not twenty-one.”
“You don’t need to be twenty-one to buy marijuana,” Hercules said. He unpeeled two twenties and a ten and gave them to me.
“Will they let me into the bar?”
“Not if you walk in there looking to get thrown out. Act like you don’t give a fuck, and they won’t give a fuck neither. There’s no one in there this time of day, just sit next to Jerry and tell him what you want. He’ll take you out to his car.”
Maxwell’s had a scuzzy felt carpet and a snowy television and lots of Steelers paraphernalia on the walls. The bartender gave me a hard look but nothing else. Probably he wouldn’t have served me a drink, but I didn’t ask him. Jerry was in the back booth. He was skinny and scraggly. He had greasy brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and his skin looked like it had seen the business end of a cheese grater.
“Fuck do you want?” he asked. Then he sniffled.
“I want to buy some weed.”
“No fucking shit? What’s that got to do with me?”
“A kid at school gave me your name.”
“Trevor.” There were three Trevors in my school; Trevor Black, Trevor Calloughan, and Trevor Davidson. I didn’t know Trevor Calloughan, but Trevor Black was a prick and everyone called Trevor Davidson “T-Dog,” so I thought this was a pretty safe bet.
“Ain’t you kind of young to be getting high?” Jerry asked.
“A lot of kids smoke it in my grade,” I said. Then, “My money’s good.” I had read that somewhere.
He put his coat on and I followed him outside. I couldn’t see Hercules and I guess Jerry couldn’t see him either. We went over to the Camaro and Jerry popped the trunk.
“How much you want?” he asked.
It had not occurred to me that marijuana came in amounts. “Fifty . . . dollars’ worth,” I said.
He was getting suspicious, so it was just as well that Hercules came out from behind the dumpster then, hit Jerry once in the face, and shoved him into his open trunk. Then he hit Jerry in the face twice more and closed the trunk. Then he got into Jerry’s car and started up the ignition, I am not sure how.
I got in the passenger’s seat and we drove south. Every so often Jerry would kick the inside of the trunk or yell, but it did not seem to cause Hercules any bother. Some ways out of town there was a drive-in theater that had closed a few years back and Hercules pulled into the far corner of the parking lot, a long way from the road or anything else.
“Stay inside,” he said.
But I didn’t listen.
“Why did he do it?” I asked.
We were driving back toward town. Jerry was silent in the back trunk.
“How do you know?”
“It’s always money.”
“Maybe it had some kind of hold on him. Like hypnotism, or something.”
“So, maybe he didn’t deserve it.”
“Everyone gets what they deserve?”
We drove along in silence a while, the fading light falling on the flat of Hercules’s nose and against the dark crevices of his eyes.
“How did you learn to do this?” I asked.
“Why do you care? Why does it matter?”
“I want to know. You owe me something.”
He did that thing with his teeth that I had done to frighten off Mr. Adams. “For what?”
“No, we aren’t, I just let you follow me around.”
I knew this was true.
“I met something when I was young,” Hercules answered, finally. “Something like the thing we’re looking for.”
“And I killed it.”
That was it. That was as much as I got. A story should have a beginning and an end and a moral but mine doesn’t, mine is just some things that happened without any context or explanation and I never got more than that and so that is all I can give to you.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“We ditch the car.”
“Then what? Is Erica safe?”
“Probably not. He might have someone else running for him, or he might be able to get her to come on her own. Besides, if he doesn’t get her, he’ll move on to someone else, now or in another twenty years. It ends here.” We pulled into an Exxon and stopped beside a self-service pump. “Jerry left us an empty tank. I’ll top us off. Go inside and clean yourself up.”
“OK,” I said.
But he stopped me before I could get out of the car.
“It’s not on you,” he said.
“I set him up.”
“I set you up.”
This was true but did not make me feel any better.
I had to ask for the bathroom key and inside the toilet was rancid. Someone had drawn a dick on the mirror. It should be harder to kill a person. It shouldn’t be possible. We should be immortal, untouchable, beloved children of a just God. There is a flaw in the system. A mistake has been made. I threw some water on my face and returned the bathroom key.
When I went back outside the car was gone. Probably you were expecting this, but I was not.
It took me two hours to get home and every second was bliss, waiting in the cold for the first bus, waiting in the cold for the second, the long walk to my development. I did not need to be brave any longer. I did not need to fight the thing that killed Penny or even face it. I was impotent entirely to affect the outcome of the situation. I was free. There is nothing so free as a stone. “How was your day?” my mother asked when I came in.
“Did you play your game?”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah.”
“Did you get anything?”
“A new sword, or . . .”
“Oh. No. Not today.”
“Next time, maybe.”
“Yeah, next time.”
It was probably all over by now. Hercules had ditched the car, then gone to face the vampire. There was nothing I could do. There would have been nothing I could have done in any case. I had played my part in the thing, whatever small role it was. I went to my room and sat at my desk. On it were two out-of-order issues of Captain America, one where he fought the Serpent Society and one where he and Tony Stark fought the Kree, and a very dog-eared copy of the Queen of Sorcery, which I was skimming through for the best bits (Barry said it was for kids but I didn’t care, I still liked it), and the materials for my as-yet-uncompleted barbarian, a twenty-sided die and an eight-sided die and a sheet of paper to mark off all the things I wished that I could be.
I do not think I have ever met a truly brave person. If someone seems to be doing something brave it is usually only because they are trying to avoid something else of which they are more frightened—being left alone or thought a coward. The only person I ever met who this did not seem true of was Hercules, but still I would not go so far as to call him brave; it was more an insensibility of some kind, a sort of useful deafness.
After a few minutes alone I stole my mother’s keys from her purse and took off for the address Jerry had given us after Hercules had cut off his second finger.
Knowing if I got caught my speed wouldn’t matter, I floored our battered Volvo out of town and toward three figures, the frame shaking around me. Logan dwindled away into a forest of scrubby pines, bone white in the evening dim. I parked several blocks out from the house and crept through the woods as silently as I could manage. It was boarded up and the boards were rotted, the weeds waist high, the only sign of habitation Erica’s mother’s Land Rover. I didn’t see Hercules; he might be driving her home already or he might be dead or he might be caught up in the clutches of the thing right now, he and Erica both and me without a weapon or a plan but I would be brave all the same—
Then I was facedown against the overgrown lawn, Hercules pinning down my shoulder with his knee.
“Be cool, boy,” he said. “Be quiet.”
“It’s me,” I gasped, “it’s Graham.” Somehow I thought he didn’t know that.
“Can’t risk you going back home now, just stay down until it’s over.”
“What’s over? Isn’t he dead? Where’s Erica?” I remembered that first night when Hercules had gone out for a cigarette he didn’t smoke, and a bunch of other things also. “She’s inside, isn’t she?”
“They’re slower after they’ve fed,” he whispered. Then he did something with his knee, catching my screams in the palm of his hand. When I visited the doctor the next day he told me I had a broken arm, and he sent my mother into the hall and asked bluntly if she had done it.
After a while Hercules got up and went inside, but it was a long time before I could follow him. My arm did not work—you would not think this matters for walking, but it does. Still I stumbled up the steps and into the house, too late to be anything but witness. There are some who watch and some who do. It was perched atop Erica like a lecherous uncle or a bloated tic or a fat fed leech or a lamprey or a goiter or a brain tumor. It noticed me or it noticed Hercules who was coming up behind but it was slow with the weight of the life it had taken and Hercules was unburdened by fear or guilt or love. With the light from the first shot I could see a great fat chunk come out of the thing’s chest, then I heard a flutter or maybe I just felt the current in the air and then another shot and it crashed against the floorboards. It rolled about a bit but after two more it lay mostly still, leaking Erica’s blood onto the wood, mewling like a rain-soaked cat. Hercules said something to it, curse or boast, but my ears were ringing and I could not tell what it was. Then he shot the thing one final time.
It was like Hercules had said; everything dies.
“Off with you, now.” Hercules pulled out the long knife he had used on Penny and crouched over Erica’s corpse. “There’s work still left.”
From the driver’s seat of my mother’s car I watched him leave a few minutes later, the house already aflame, dry wood going up like matchsticks. He stood there a moment, illuminated by the growing blaze. He did not seem celebratory. He did not seem ashamed. He did not seem tired. He did not seem anything.
Of course I never saw him again.
At nineteen Erica would be an art history major at a liberal arts college; she’d smoke clove cigarettes and have short hair and paint on her jeans. At twenty-four she would be living in Philadelphia or maybe even New York (not Pittsburgh) and drawing a comic about her recent breakup, and some nights she would go out dancing and some nights she would just sit at home with the window open and the city streaming in. At thirty she and her lover would be beside a fire somewhere, the two of them making happy plans for their future. At forty some of these would have been realized, most of them, the failures serving only to keep her honest. It is a hobby of mine, imagining what Erica’s life would have been like, tinkering with different happy details, the stories uniform only in that I have no part.
Even in fantasy, I am not the hero.
“Baby Teeth” copyright © 2021 by Daniel Polansky
Art copyright © 2021 by Robert Hunt