It’s all true. Well … most of it, anyway. Stoker, Le Fanu, and the others must have had some knowledge of my kind, though they embellished certain aspects and totally fabricated others. Literary license I suppose, but their vulgar, degrading labels felt to me like the ethnic slurs which summon up such strong emotions today. You know the ones I mean.
It was after the April 26th surrender, General Johnston, looking splendid in his finest gray uniform, dismissed us with a speech of great eloquence. I shall never forget it. The men clapped and cheered until weariness overtook them. Most faced a long walk home, hundreds of miles for many. I was one of the lucky ones. The homestead lay only a day and a half away. I departed from camp the following morning.
The unseasonably warm day, more like July than April, soaked my clothes with sweat. Dust and pollen drifted in the languid air, sticking to my exposed face and arms. Around sunset, dark clouds moved in, promising relief. The first drops produced a cleansing joy, but before long the storm exploded with thunder and torrents of rain. I sought shelter in an old barn.
I was just stripping off my wet clothes when a blow from behind knocked me to my knees. Before I could rise, my assailant pinned my arms to my side, sank his fangs into my neck, and took my blood. His grip grew stronger; I grew weaker. My consciousness slipped away and then my life.
Later, the rain stopped. A damp chill hung in the air, but I wasn’t cold. The difference between what I had been and what I had become did not fill me with any great anxiety or regret. Instead, I embraced a heightened sense of self-knowledge and a serene acceptance of my new state of being.
I dressed, though my clothes were still soggy, and went out. Despite the cloud cover obscuring the moon and stars, I could see with an astonishing clarity. I reveled in this new ability, running wildly across the fields and into the woods. Speeding among the trees, I covered miles in a matter of minutes without so much as grazing a single branch.
Before long, I came across the wide path of a railroad track cutting through the woods. Far down the line the round headlight of an approaching train glimmered through the darkness. As it neared, I leapt onto the track and raced ahead of it, staying just out of the reach of its light. It was too easy. Slowing my pace, I allowed myself to be seen. The sudden scream of the whistle and the squeal of brakes ripped through the night. I dove into the weeds alongside the track, laughing as the train screeched by.
My euphoria faded, replaced by a growing restlessness. I prowled among the trees, searching for something to sate a hunger that food would not satisfy. My suddenly acute hearing amplified the soft footfalls of another creature of the night. A fox, intent on tracking a small rodent, crossed my path. He never sensed my presence. His desperate struggles were no match for my newfound strength. My fangs extended, and I bit him between his shoulders, savoring the taste of his wild blood. When I was done, I cast the carcass aside, knowing the soulless creature would not return as I had.
With my increased speed and energy, I could have easily arrived home before morning, but I tarried. Though my plan to farm the homestead vanished with my transformation, the longing for home and family remained strong. While I walked, lost deep in thought, the sky began to lighten, and the sun peeked over the horizon. Even under the fresh green canopy the morning light produced an unsettling sensation.
I reached the edge of the woods. A field of new tobacco, just beginning to sprout, lay before me. Without the protection of trees, I became dizzy, and my head began to ache. I staggered across the field and made an awkward effort at climbing over a split rail fence, falling heavily on the other side. A tall, stately oak offered salvation, and I made for it. Its deep shade comforted me. Beyond its shadow the landscape blurred into a washed-out whiteness. I rested there all morning. My eyes eventually adjusted to the brightness, yet my headache persisted.
By mid-afternoon I decided to make a push for the homestead. My speed of the previous night was greatly diminished by the light of day. I found a discarded blue cap alongside the road. Its insignia galled me, but its bill eased the effects of the sun.
I arrived at dusk. Tossing aside the repellant cap, I headed toward the house where smoke rose from the chimney. The barn still stood, and the fields were intact. It was as if the war swept by without stopping to wreak the destruction I had seen in many places. Then I noticed the tiny graveyard. Two plots, with crudely chiseled headstones, lay there. The inscriptions read “Captain Joshua T. Wilkins, C.S.A.” and “Emma Mae Wilkins.” Footsteps approached from behind.
“Hello, Jake. Welcome home.”
I turned and hugged Billy. He buried his face against my chest and began sobbing. For long minutes, we stood there until the last light faded from the sky. Finally, we separated, and he spoke in a low, sorrowful voice.
“Dad’s not really there, you know. The army sent a letter. He fell at Chickamauga. After Mom died, I put up a marker for him, too. I think she would have wanted it that way. Anyway, having it there seemed right to me.”
We went inside and sat at a little table, illuminated by an oil lamp. Billy offered to heat up a plate of beans.
“No thanks. I’m not hungry tonight.”
“You okay, Jake? You look kinda thin. And pale, too.”
“Just tired. War is …” I began, but words failed me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“Well, I’m glad you’re back.” Billy exhaled a sigh of relief. “There’s lots of work that needs doing around here. I’m barely getting it done by myself.”
I looked him in the eye. “I can’t do it. The war has changed me. My life has been unsettled. I think I’ll go down to Atlanta and see what’s left of it. After that …”
“But, Jake, half the place is yours.”
“No. It’s all yours, Billy. I’ll bet you’re a better farmer now than I’ll ever be.”
“Stay,” he pleaded. “It’s too much for one person.”
“You were not much more than a kid when I left. Now look at you. You’ve grown into a man. You can handle it. Find yourself a good woman and raise a family. You’ll have the life Mom and Dad should have had if it hadn’t been for that damned war.”
When Billy started to respond, I raised my hand and shook my head. He gave a reluctant nod. We talked for a while of our friends and neighbors, many of whose lives had been claimed by the war. Shortly, the restless hunger began to well up inside me again. I made the excuse of going for a walk before retiring.
In the cool, spring night the exhilaration of the previous evening returned, though it was tinged with sadness. I recalled childhood memories of this home I would never see again. Beyond our cornfield, I found an ex-soldier sleeping in a makeshift tent. No doubt, he was on his own homeward journey. Pushing aside a twinge of guilt I took what I needed, careful to leave some life in him. I had no desire to create another of my kind in Billy’s backyard. That would be an unpleasant parting gift.
I stayed out all night and slept most of the next day. Billy insisted on cooking a last meal for me. I ate a little, out of politeness, though I no longer needed that kind of sustenance. After dinner I took my leave, despite Billy’s concerns about the dangers of traveling at night. Departing that evening, I left the only home I had ever known. Emotions overcame me, and tears filled my eyes. It would be more than a century before I cried again.
After my transformation, it became clear my body would not age. Nineteen forever! How many times have I heard others wish for it? There were drawbacks, though. My perpetual youth would eventually attract attention. Suspicion and trouble were bound to follow, so I gravitated to large cities where I faded into the masses. I became familiar with the other denizens of the urban night – the drunkards, the addicts, the mentally ill, and sometimes the poets. Even in the company of those fringe characters, I did not linger. Always I kept moving.
For a while, I exchanged letters with Billy. He married Cynthia, a young woman from a nearby farm. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. In time, our contact grew less frequent. His last letters expressed contentment with life. When Billy died at the ripe old age of seventy, his oldest son wrote. I reflected upon his passing but experienced no deep sadness. He had lived a long, happy life. May everyone be so lucky.
When you are blessed, or cursed, with immortality, you have time to learn a lot. I took to reading. It helped to pass the lonely, interminable days and nights. Since my elusiveness allowed me to pilfer almost anything I needed or wanted, I stole books until I discovered libraries.
The 1930s were an especially memorable time for me. Lugosi’s movie gave rise to popular myths which produced absurd notions about my kind, like being able to transform into bats or wolves or having no reflection in mirrors. It was all nonsense. The advent of the social security number in 1935 made it harder for me to find the odd jobs I sometimes took to pass the time. The mass production of sunglasses turned out to be the greatest advance of the decade. I finally got some relief from the sun-induced headaches which had plagued me for nearly seventy years.
A long existence gives you a real appreciation of history. I saw the power of the industrial revolution, the despair of the great depression, the chaos of two world wars, and the changes brought by the sweeping social movements of the 1960s. All in all, I wouldn’t have missed any of it. When the twenty-first century rolled around, I decided it was time to return home.
The small, rural community of my youth had grown into a sizable city with a great university, both built on the economics of tobacco. I took an upstairs room in a house near campus. My landlady, Mrs. Potts, a widow in her seventies, laid down her ground rules with a strong sense of propriety. Her deceased husband had been a professor in the cultural anthropology department. I told her I worked nights.
To pay the rent, I stole. I chose my victims from the criminal class. Enormous amounts cash could be had in a drug deal, and those hoodlums weren’t about to report the theft to the police. They usually blamed each other and often destroyed themselves in the violent aftermath of suspicion and accusation. I came to think of my actions in this regard as a public service.
To sate my nightly hunger, I preyed on local church groups. They were an active bunch, with services or meetings virtually every night of the week, and their blood was less likely than that of the college kids to be awash in drugs or alcohol. I cycled through the various denominations just as we rotated crops back on the family farm, always leaving enough life so they would recuperate.
I enjoyed mingling with the students in their local night spots. These young men and women I found to be bright, quick, and engaging. They, in turn, were amazed at the depth and breadth of my accumulated knowledge. I became close with Rick, a grad student writing his dissertation on Conrad. We spent many hours dissecting the labyrinth of Nostromo.
And then there were the women. They, more keenly than men, sensed the power residing in me after my transformation. My sexual urges were not great, so an occasional tryst satisfied my needs. The coeds provided enough opportunities, though I never brought them to my room. I feared the disapproval of Mrs. Potts.
On a summer afternoon, about a year after my arrival, Rick and I were standing in the express checkout line of a grocery. A young, blonde woman in the line turned and looked past us as if recalling a forgotten item. Her eyes met mine, and she fainted without warning. She lay on the floor at my feet among a scattered assortment of vegetables.
I knelt and took her hand. When I touched her, a physical shock coursed through my body. For a moment, all went silent. Her eyelids fluttered and slowly opened, but a glazed expression lingered.
“Back up. Give her some air.” Rick’s deep baritone cut through the silence. The shoppers edged backwards.
The grocery manager, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, elbowed through the knot of onlookers. He propelled his short, chubby body into a blur of self-important motion, directing his customers to another checkout line. Someone brought a chair, and we helped her into it. The manager announced he had called 911 and help would be arriving soon. He pushed us aside, muttering a few words of thanks. I felt strangely compelled to stay with her, despite the eerie sensation brought on by the encounter.
“Wait,” she said as I turned to go. “Who are you? I mean …” Her voice wavered. “You, uh … You look like my brother.”
“It’s a case of mistaken identity. I have no sister.” I smiled, though my breathing quickened, and I glanced toward the exit.
“I know … I mean my brother’s dead, but you sure look like … I thought you were him … for a second. What’s your name?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rick at the next register paying for the groceries.
“Jake. Jake Wilkins.” I started to edge away, but she followed up.
“Wilkins … There were some Wilkinses on my father’s side. We must be related.”
“Not likely. I’m from Atlanta,” I lied, now desperate to escape. “I’ve only been here a year or so.” She tilted her head and rubbed the back of her neck. “Get some rest,” I advised. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Rick finally approached and nudged me. I slipped on my sunglasses, and we left. I sensed her eyes following us through the door.
“Powerful effect you have on women.” Rick gave me a friendly shove. “They literally fall at your feet, don’t they?”
“I get no complaints,” I replied with my best male bravado.
A couple of days passed, and the young woman continued to occupy my thoughts. It wasn’t that she was beautiful. Her features were rather plain, though she did have the slender body which passed for a measure of sex appeal in the twenty-first century. I preferred women with more curves.
In my heart, I knew she was family. I had lost track of Billy’s sons and daughter after he died. Some of his descendants probably still resided in the area. I didn’t expect to run into any of them. What were the odds? And I never thought a family resemblance might persist for nearly a hundred and fifty years.
A week later I returned to the grocery and spoke to the manager, inquiring about the health of the young woman.
“She’s been pestering me about you.” He rubbed his bald head as he spoke. “Thinks you practically saved her life. I told her I didn’t know anything about you. If you want to jot down your phone number, I’ll try to remember to give it to her next time she’s here.” I declined, having no phone of my own, and I certainly didn’t want to leave Mrs. Potts’ number.
For the next week, I loitered around the area, hoping to bump into her, eventually spotting her exiting a drug store. Still unsure of how to approach her, I followed closely while remaining unseen, a skill I had thoroughly mastered.
She passed through poor, trash-ridden neighborhoods whose population was mostly black, though whites and Latinos were present as well. It was remarkable to me how much the races mixed now, however divisions were still apparent. The war, which had been fought so fiercely a hundred and fifty years ago, seemed like a waste, rather than a noble struggle for what appeared at the time to be a principled cause. I once thought of history as a stable, unchanging thing. Now, I understand that it is in constant flux from one generation to the next.
The young woman resided in a block which fared better than most. It was free of litter, though some of the houses were in need of repair. She lived in the back half of a brick duplex. When she entered, I heard a male voice call out a greeting. I turned away with some satisfaction in learning where she lived but disappointed by the presence of a boyfriend, or possibly a husband.
Jealousy wheedled its way into my heart, yet I knew virtually nothing about her, not even her name. The war and my transformation had robbed me of the teenage libido that grows stronger in each generation, but she aroused in me a physical attraction stronger than any I had ever known. My fervor, however, was mitigated with tenderness. I hoped she was happy, and her relationship was a good one. Through the decades I’ve seen how precious true partnerships are. I put my desires aside in favor of not disrupting her life, though our paths were destined to cross again.
It happened on a late summer evening. I had just slipped off my sunglasses and was mulling over which church to visit that night. The Baptists, who were having revival services all week, seemed like a good choice.
“Hey!” She approached rapidly along the sidewalk. “I’ve been looking for you. I want to thank you for helping me at the grocery that day.” She eyed me closely, reached out, and put her hand on my arm. “You sure look like my brother.”
“I was glad to help. It was nothing really.” Her presence brought a certain amount of undefined discomfort, yet at the same time I wanted to touch her. “I’m sorry to have brought up sad memories for you. How did your brother die?”
“Will had cancer. It was a slow, difficult death.” She turned her head, and bit her lip. After a few moments, she collected herself. “You’re Jake, right? I’m Cindy,” she said making a valiant effort to sound cheerful.
“That’s a lovely name.” The tension in her face eased a bit.
“It’s been in the family for eons.”
She launched into a succession of questions about my past in an attempt to link us together. I had become good at improvising my personal history on short notice and blocked her at every turn. The specifics of her questions confirmed beyond doubt she was one of Billy’s descendants,
but I deemed it unwise to allow her to discover the truth. Finally, she exhausted the interrogation.
“Shoot! I was sure we were related.” She made no effort to hide her disappointment. After a moment, she continued. “Then again, maybe it’s for the best.”
She dragged me to a nearby sandwich shop where she poured out her life story. Her parents had toiled in the tobacco factories. They both passed away just after she completed high school. Then her brother was diagnosed with cancer, and she cared for him until he died about a year ago. Now, in her early twenties, she attended a community college at night, working toward an accounting degree. Her student loan debt was piling up, but she had hopes of eventually passing the CPA exam and landing a decent job. I wanted to help her, though I couldn’t exactly hand over a suitcase full of stolen currency. A bank account was impossible for me without a social security number and various modern IDs.
She glanced at her watch. “I’ve got to go. What’s your cell phone number?”
“I don’t have one.” She looked at me with raised eyebrows but did not pursue it.
“Okay, I wait tables at Sam’s Diner on the weekends. I get off around ten.”
She gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek before departing. My emotions were stirred by her vulnerability, and I admired her determination to overcome the hand life had dealt her. At the moment, however, I had my own needs. I pushed thoughts of her from my mind and went hunting for Baptists.
Over the next few weeks, I often met Cindy at the diner and walked her home, always watching her travel the last block alone. She told me of her boyfriend, Dale, a mechanic prone to bouts of jealousy. His screaming fits were usually followed by a few days of amorous attention. It was a less than ideal relationship.
My affection for Cindy deepened, and I felt hers for me growing. I remember the first time I put my arm around her shoulders and the night she took my hand in hers, but when she pressed her body against mine for a kiss, I pulled away. We could have found a way to consummate our relationship, but I was reluctant, having grown accustomed to one-night stands. Besides, it was unfair to embark on a long-term relationship without revealing my true nature. I couldn’t see how to break the news to her.
I wondered how my resemblance to her brother affected her feelings for me. It disturbed me at first, but she rarely mentioned him, and in time I thought less about it. After all, I was not him.
I watched over her when she was unaware, once preventing a mugger from robbing her. I whisked away her would-be assailant and deposited him in a nearby alley, nursing a broken arm. Due to my carelessness, he managed to inflict a deep gash in my right forearm. I stood there, rolled up my sleeve, and watched the flow of blood cease and the cut begin to heal. The process never failed to fascinate me. I gave the startled thug a thoroughly evil snarl and flew down the alley faster than his eyes could follow.
Dale turned out to be a short, wiry guy with a thin mustache. I tracked him many nights, discovering that he supplemented his income by trafficking in illegal drugs. He operated on a rather small scale but hungered for bigger things. Trouble seemed only a matter of time. He would bear watching.
Fall came, and on the night of November 4, 2008, Rick and I stood in a bar with a throng of students watching the historic events unfolding on TV. Though I had no interest in politics, I marveled at how far African-Americans had come, but only needed to walk a few blocks to see how far they had yet to go.
After the holidays, the January weather turned bitter. The chilly temperatures drew Cindy closer than ever when I walked her home. Our conversation grew less, each finding comfort in the nearness of the other. I fought back my desire, and for a while she accepted our platonic friendship. One night while walking home from the diner she finally made her move.
“I’m taking care of my friend’s cat while she’s visiting her folks.”
“That’s nice,” I said, naively unaware of where the conversation was going. “I don’t really get along with cats.”
“Well … maybe you could come with me anyway. I’ve got the key to her apartment, and we could be together there.”
Lust and panic are an odd combination, but I felt both keenly. When I tried to pull away, she held me tightly.
“Come with me,” she pleaded, her face pressed against my chest. Using my strength, I pushed her from me. “Why?” she asked, searching my face for the response she desired. I looked away.
I had no answer. The truth would give her cause to doubt my sanity. I resisted the cowardly impulse to simply bolt from the scene.
“Don’t deny your feelings.” Her voiced quaked. Tears began to gather in the corners of her eyes.
What a fool I was to have inserted myself into her life. Her unhappiness was entirely my doing. I had to remove myself from her world. A quick break would be less painful than a protracted one. The right words eluded me.
“I don’t understand you.” She fought back the tears. “You care for me. I just know it.”
It may have been wrong of me, but I shook my head. “Come,” I said gently. “Let me take you home.”
“You’re trying to get rid of me!” Her voice was rising.
“No, Cindy, it’s not that.”
“What then?” Again, I had no explanation that would be credible to her.
“Go to hell!” she shouted and marched off in the direction of her apartment. I suppressed the impulse to chase after her, though I followed at a distance to see her safely home.
That night, I wept alone in my room. I almost didn’t hear the timid tapping on my door. Drying my eyes, I slowly opened the door, hoping for Cindy but finding Mrs. Potts.
“Are you okay, Mr. Wilkins?”
“Uh … yes … I mean I’ll be okay.”
“Can I get you anything?”
“No thanks. I … I just have to work out a few things.”
“Sounds like affairs of the heart,” she mused. Something in my expression must have confirmed her guess. At that moment, I came closer to telling my story than I ever have or likely ever will. “Ah … I see I’m right. Well, Mr. Wilkins, if you want someone to talk to, I’m right downstairs. Don’t hesitate if you need me.”
She took my hand and gave it a soft squeeze before withdrawing. For a few minutes I stood there, unable to think of anything except her kindness. Why couldn’t I do as much for Cindy? What an ass I was.
Things done could not be undone. The way forward presented a dilemma. An apology might make a good start if she would even allow me to speak to her. Should I tell her everything? Would she believe me? Even if she did, how could we make a life together? She would age and I wouldn’t. Then the only solution came to me – transformation. The choice would have to be hers. What her answer would be, I couldn’t guess.
Two evenings later, I stood under the awning of an abandoned store while a cold rain fell through the wintry night. Across the street, wet students hurried to their classes at the community college. I recognized her pale-blue umbrella, bobbing in time with her familiar gait. Someone held the door for her to enter the main building. While I waited for her class to end, I imagined various scenarios playing out – some good, some bad.
When she exited the building a few minutes later, I was taken off-guard. I used my quickness to position myself a few blocks ahead in her path. A couple of minutes later she appeared, walking rapidly under her umbrella. She came to an abrupt halt about ten paces away.
“Cindy …” I spoke softly, taking a step toward her. She stared back with weary eyes.
“Don’t,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I want to explain.”
“There’s nothing to say.”
“Please leave, Jake. Don’t make me cry again.”
“Give me just a few minutes, Cindy. I don’t deserve it, but …”
“It’s okay. It’s my fault, too.” She trembled slightly and looked away. “I let myself think … I mean you never promised anything. I’ve been foolish.”
“Let’s talk this out. I have things to tell you.”
“Go home, Jake. You’ll catch your death in this weather. My class has been canceled. I just want to go home, too.” She stepped around me and trudged off into the cold, rainy night.
I followed, watching over her as I had done so many times before. She couldn’t have seen me, though I hoped she sensed my presence. I stood in the shadows while she covered the final block to her apartment.
I had just turned back when three loud pops of gunfire shook me to my core. Several more rounds reverberated as I raced down the street, the rain stinging my face. The scene was chaotic. Three men were firing handguns at close range in the yard. Another lay unmoving on the ground. I broke Dale’s neck without a second thought. The largest of the remaining pair rushed toward me, firing his weapon wildly. It was the last thing he ever did. By then the final gunman had fled.
Cindy lay in a pool of blood by the door. I sank to the ground cradling her head in my lap. I spoke to her, but her life was slipping away rapidly. With no time for thought, I sought her jugular and took her life before she bled to death from the gunshot. I threw my head back and howled with rage. Perhaps an element of lupine nature lurked within me after all.
Her transformation would take a few minutes. I left her there and picked up the scent of the escaped gunman. They all had to pay. I found him a few blocks away sitting alone in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, his trembling hands laying out a line of cocaine on the dashboard. After dispatching him, I returned for Cindy. The police and ambulance were just arriving, the falling rain shimmering in their flashing lights, but she was gone. I wasn’t worried. She was more than capable of taking care of herself, now.
The morning newspaper detailed a predictably lurid account of the events – a cocaine deal gone bad. Amazingly, the police correctly deduced Cindy’s unexpected arrival had set off a panic among the conspirators and violence erupted. The authorities were searching for her. They would never find her. I stayed for a few months, hoping she would come to me, though I didn’t know whether to expect love or fury.
Eventually, my restless nature stirred as it always does. It was time to move on. Before I departed, I visited Billy’s grave which had been moved to a modern cemetery some decades ago and finally paid my long overdue last respects. I shook hands with Rick and wished him luck on his dissertation. Mrs. Potts gave me a heartfelt hug and some advice on the nature of romance. Wherever I travel, I keep watching and waiting for Cindy, not knowing what she feels for me, but I’m certain our paths will cross again. After all, eternity is a long time.