I meet him just outside of town. It’s late in the day, and the sun makes long shadows across the scrub grass and broken road. The asphalt here is snapped and melted, heat and stress having broken it to shards sinking into the rich loam. He’s standing by an old Ford pickup, red and white, rust on the panels, chrome dull in the setting sun. Rough and handsome in a farm boy way, a cigarette hangs from his lips, and a ballcap with “Ace Tractors” printed above the bill sits on his head. He nods when he sees me, pushes off the truck and comes over, cowboy boots clacking against rock and broken pavement.
I take his offered hand. It’s calloused and strong, and his handshake is firm.
“You Mark?” He asks. There’s a hint of the North Dakota accent there—not quite Minnesota, not quite Canada, not quite flat Midwesterner.
I nod and return his shake, then reach into my pocket and pull out a hundred. I pass it to him and he tucks it into his shirt pocket.
“Thanks,” he says. “Still think you’re crazy. Can’t imagine why anyone would want to see this old shithole.”
“For my job,” I explain again, as I had in the phone call.
“Shit job,” he says. “No offense.”
He laughs and leads me down the pavement to a hillock just outside of town. Even all these years later, it smells of petroleum and burnt rubber and meat. We climb a short way, the sun a half-disc on the horizon. It’s burning the prairie, or at least that’s what it looks like from where we stand, and I flinch a little.
“Goose walk over your grave?” He asks.
“Bad memories,” I say.
“Enough of those to go around.” He crushes out his cigarette. “What you want to know?”
“Tell me about the town.”
He snorts. “Used to be a town here, anyway.”
He points in the direction of the setting sun. It cuts into the horizon, bleeding more orange fire.
“Over there, Lender’s Donuts. Over there, The Kilt. Over there-” his hand is swinging now as he gets into the role of tour guide. His hand passes over a blackened clump of cinderblocks, stunted shrubs growing between the gaps in the stone. “Over there, the Five and Dime.” He pauses, lights another cigarette. “Used to be a town here, man.”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Didn’t you do your research? Burned down.” He says it like I might be stupid.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t add up. Big fire, gas station goes up, blows up the town. Ought to be a crater, no?”
He shrugs, turns in a slow circle. The prairie is threatening to creep back in. Already has in some places, tall grasses eating into ruin and foundation. A sunflower nods from a cracked bedroom window.
“Tell me about the dead,” I say.
He blows a plume of smoke into the sky. It’s white against the midnight blue above; occludes a star as it goes.
“You ain’t one of them weirdos, are you?” He asks.
“What kind of weirdo would that be?”
“Kind likes talking about dead things. Maybe hurts animals. Maybe lures a guy out at night and thinks he can hurt him.”
His eyes narrow and I see the bloodshot in his sclera. I raise my hands. “Just here for a story.”
Another drag from the cigarette, the ember like a firefly in the dark. Silence stretches out between us, and I start to think he’s going to walk away. Tension in his shoulders, and they rise slowly. Finally, he takes a breath, lets it out, and his shoulders shrink.
“Twenty-one in all. Found most of ‘em over there.” He points to a mound of ivy in the distance, what was probably the far end of town. “In the Lutheran Church.”
I squint, and can just barely make out the cross atop the fallen steeple. It’s covered with creeping vines, the brass tarnished. Shadows pool under the curtain of ivy. A light breeze kicks up, moving the vegetation, and something winks in the dark. I take an involuntary step back, and Andy catches me as my heel snags a rock.
“Whoa, there. You okay?”
I let a nervous laugh. “Yeah, fine, thanks. Thought I saw something moving down there.”
He snorts a laugh. “Nothin’ to worry about. Probably just a coyote or a raccoon or something. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
“Uh-huh.” I change the subject. “Why so many in the church?”
“Friday Mass, from what I hear.”
“Wasn’t much of a church guy.”
He shrugs, stomps the cigarette out. “Still not, I suppose. If there’s a God, he’s got a lot to answer for.”
Another silence between us. I push him gently. “So, most in the church. What about the others?”
He turns to the ruins. “Couple in the street. One or two in their homes. Everyone else got out, or died in the hospital.”
“Where were you?”
“Me? I was lucky. I was out checking my fences. Anything else you want to know?”
I stand there, staring into the dark. The town squats like a sore on the prairie. “No, don’t think so,” I say.
He’s still staring out at the town. “You know what’s weird?” He asks out of the blue.
“The paper said twenty-one dead. But I’ve been to the cemetery. They only buried nineteen of them.” He lights another cigarette, sighs. Smoke leaks from his lips. “I hate this place. Let’s get a drink.”
We walk down the hillock, back to his truck in the dark.
“You need a ride?” He asks.
“Yeah, took a cab out here.”
He shakes his head. “City boys.”
We climb in the cab of his truck and it coughs to life. With a plume of smoke, we leave the ruins of Wilson behind.
It’s an itch between her shoulder blades, like someone’s locked eyes on her and won’t stop staring. She turns and peers out the window over the kitchen sink, but the only thing beyond is her backyard, trimmed and slick with morning dew, still shrouded in night. Her hands rub over one another, making dry paper rasps as skin brushes skin. Mae’s old swing set creaks softly in the summer breeze. The house is dead still, like a corpse in its berth. Like the world is holding its breath. She stares a moment longer, whispers to herself.
She cracks the window, and the sere scent of burnt grass comes to her. Only for an instant. Only for a heartbeat. Just an illusion, a wayward synapse firing and dying. She shudders, shuts the window. It sticks, and slams into the sill. She jumps, lets a nervous laugh. Waits. The house remains quiet. Soft now. Soft. Like satin wrapped around a fist. She turns from the window and sits at the kitchen table.
“You want a coffee? Tea?” She asks.
I shake my head. “Tell me about Mae.”
She sighs. “She never was right since that night. The docs say it was PTSD, one of those letter diseases.”
“And you?” I ask.
She shrugs. “Place burned down. Kids see a lot of shit they shouldn’t. Maybe it’d be different if her dad was still around.”
She shrugs again, toys with a thread on her sweater. “Fucked off somewhere. Probably Chicago. He always talked about the place.”
“So, it’s just you and…”
“Just me and the silence,” she says.
The quiet closes in.
The bar is the color of day-old shit. Smells like it, too. The sign in neon is a bucket, perpetually tipping, never spilling. Like an orgasm that won’t come. Everything else is brown. The floors, the walls, the nicotine-stained ceiling. It smells of stale smoke, cheap beer, and cheaper perfume. Men and women troll the floor, looking for that one thing you can’t get in a bottle—a quick lay for the night; a warm body to prop up their ego.
Andy tips up a Bud and sucks at the mouth like a man reminiscing for a nipple. The cigarette in his hand sends out party streamers of smoke as he punctuates his sentences.
“See her?” He asks. “Knew her in high school. Town pump. Now she’s got six kids, welfare.” He loves his gossip. “The bald guy in the corner? High school quarterback. Doing miss pumps over there while his wife and kids keep their trailer up.”
“Tell me more about the town,” I say, interrupting his autobiography.
“Why you want to know so much about that shithole, anyway? Wasn’t nothing more than a spot where God dropped a turd and someone built a road through it.”
He sighs. Sucks down another mouthful. The air is filled with the stink of hops and conversation. He taps out a fat chunk of ash from the end of his smoke, takes another drag.
“You want to know about Wilson? Fine. Wilson was a hole. But I digress.” He shoots a grin. It might have been charming once. But these days, it looks like an erection on a dog. Sick. Sad. His eyes are rimmed in red, dark circles under. The smile slips. “Get me drunk, man.”
He crushes the cigarette out, lights another.
“Get me real drunk.”
The waitress brings a few stronger drinks. Something smelling of turpentine and hate. He chugs it all down. Man can hold his liquor. There’s a languor in his eyes after an hour. He taps a cigarette against the coaster. Thinks about lighting it. Taps it again. Peels the label from an empty beer bottle, slow and methodical. I’m starting to think he’s playing me. Just here for the free beer.
“Fine,” he finally breathes. “Wilson. Lissen here.”
His Ts have slipped, become sibilant. The only concession to the damage he’s done his liver.
I find her in a bus stop in Chicago, pale fluorescents washing the world out. She’s pale and skinny, track marks on the backs of scabby knees, on the insides of her elbows, between her fingers. Probably between her toes, too. I don’t ask. She’s wrapped in a white shawl, a cheap sundress clinging to her. She looks like a skeleton someone dressed for a spring sale. Birkenstocks on her feet, probably fished from a church donation bin. A cross dangles around her neck—the only thing of value she owns. Even her purse is a knockoff. Her eyes are deep-set and red-rimmed, above a pert nose and full lips. She sniffs and wipes her nose on her sleeve then gives me a wan smile.
“Allergies,” she lies.
It falls silent between us for a minute. Her throat bobs up and down like a bird looking for a worm. Finally, she asks, eyes wet.
I pass her the package wrapped in plastic and foil. She opens it, hands shaking, then looks up, guilty.
“Just a little, to get me even. You want any?”
I shake my head, and she leans over the armrest, crushes a piece of the rock out and snorts it. Expert, practised. She throws her head back and sniffs hard, twice, then makes a face and giggles.
“God, I hate post-nasal drip.”
She licks her gums. Her pupils are big now, almost as wide as her eyes. She nods.
“Yeah, that helps. What were you asking? You’re cute.”
She smiles, crosses one leg over the other. The dress shifts upward, exposing a pale bit of thigh. I ignore the last.
“Wilson. What happened?”
“Really? You want to talk about that?” She makes a face. “Seriously. We could go somewhere….”
“No offence, but I’m just trying to write a story.”
She stares, and I can tell she’s trying to decide if to take offence. Finally, she huffs a sigh, fishes a cigarette from her purse and lights it with a little silver torch. Sucks in the smoke, blows it into the sterile air of the station.
“Fine. Vampires happened to Wilson.”
She’s expecting a laugh. Maybe for me to get up and leave. I just nod.
“Go on,” I say.
“You ain’t gonna make fun of me?”
I shrug. “I’ve heard weirder.”
“Okay then.” Another sniff. “I remember them. Pale flesh and black eyes. The adults might have forgotten—it happened sixteen years ago, after all. But I’m not in denial. Not like her mother, standing in her kitchen, wondering where the time went. Thinking Wilson burned because of economic anxiety or a gas leak or some other lie they told themselves. The things in the night—they’d come in October. Of course, they’d come in October. The witching year, the witching month. The air smelled like wheat chaff and ice and they’d come. Hungry. Ruthless. No Edward here. No gods. Just… hungry.
“I remember, even if I say I don’t, because who might be listening? I remember. I have this dream… it’s of a desert with no night. It’s safe there. I crawl along the endless dunes, thirst tearing at my throat like a wolf. But they aren’t there.”
She takes a shuddering breath, stubs her cigarette out on the armrest of the bench.
“Anyway. You got a few dollars, mister? I wouldn’t ask, but you know…”
I open my wallet and give her a fifty. It’s the least I can do. Maybe the least I will do. It’s a hard world.
Later, she takes a bus to 43rd and buys a baggie of cocaine. She dies in a peeling hotel room on 57th, unloved, unremembered, dreaming of the wolf, but for her mother, fretting hours away at her window.
I meet Grace in a small club off Bleeker Street in San Francisco. Skin the color of mahogany, willowy limbs, liquid eyes. She’s drinking Manhattans and twitching her hips and shoulders to the beat the DJ’s pumping out. A vibrant whirlwind of color blazes on the parque floor, bodies writhing and twisting across it.
“Sure, I remember Wilson. Great place for a drink, little dance. They had this hall, what was it? The Gogo Boot. Dance all night, get a little drunk, maybe fuck if you found the right person.” She blushes. Her skin is smooth as silk. Her laugh, when she finds it, is light and somehow throaty at the same time. Grace, the goodtime girl. Grace the party girl.
She blushes again at the memory, and a frown crosses her face.
“You gotta understand. Wilson was just a bump on the road. You had to make your own fun. Fun is where you find it, grandmomma used to say, and I’d be damned if I let a hole like Wilson steal that from Me.”
She pauses, looks off onto the dance floor. Something bass-heavy and fast kicks into the sound system, and she blinks. Come dance, she says. I turn her down, and she shrugs. Finds her way onto the floor and cozies up to another woman. They grind, cozying up to one another, close like lovers, until the song is done. When it is, Grace comes back to me as if on a tether.
The next song kicks in, slow and melodic. I take her hand this time and she leads me to the dance floor. She’s liquid and lithe. Warm and real. She smells like cinnamon and alcohol. We dance for hours, until the booze blurs even my vision.
We stumble from the club, laughing and clinging to each other as rain begins to fall. The rest of the night passes in a blur. Lips and teeth and heat. Her breath comes faster and faster, her body moves in time to mine until we’re both spent, dancers in private.
I leave in the wee hours to catch a flight.
The next morning, they find her pale and staring in Bletchley Park, under the sycamores.
“They’d come like wolves.”
He was on his sixth beer. Begged off the whiskey, said it screwed with his thinking too much. He needed to be a little sharp to recall. More brave, fewer brains.
“The cold ones. The ones with the blank eyes and the whispering tongues. Cutting through the night like sharks. Had to burn. Most of the population—not more than a couple hundred—thought the place went down because Koch had set that fire on the edge of his property. Burning off late summer weeds. Bullshit. Wind was blowing the wrong way.”
“Why’d it burn, then?”
He grins. A savage, feral thing.
“I burned it.”
He sucks in a lungful of air. Looks out across the bar. It’s filling up now, patrons filing in from the grain elevators and train yards and fields. They wear the look of men whose lives are just one rut. Cattle herded into a corral.
“Why not, right? Something’s infected, you burn it out. The old docs, they knew that.”
“Were you a doctor?”
He scoffs. “Nah. Just an old farmhand. But it’s the same with the calves, right? They get a cut, you gotta seal it somehow. Little bit of fire, burn away the bad meat. Just… cook it right out.”
He falls silent, looks out at the bar. Winks at a woman who’s barely able to stand. Downs another drink, and lights a new cigarette. Blows on the end until the cinder glows.
“Thing about fire,” he says. “It always leaves the truth behind.”
“Which is what?”
“From ash we come, to ash we return.”
A little diner outside Austin. It’s raining, pissing down bullets that hammer into glass and sidewalk, leaving deep puddles in the gutters where the leaves have clotted the grates.
His hand is clammy. It shakes a little, and he fumbles with a pill case, pops a little white one out, swallows it dry.
“Wilson? Yeah, I remember Wilson. What a hole. Best thing that could have happened, that fire.”
“The town was hungry. You get that? It was swallowing us whole, devouring us piece by piece. Ain’t a thing to do or see in a place like that. You get into a rut. A routine that wears a groove in your soul. Small towns—they ain’t all 20/20 makes them to be. People get nasty in those towns. You know that saying about familiarity and contempt? Yeah, that.”
“So, you don’t miss it?”
“Fuck no.” He taps the pill container against the table. Tap tap tap. It rattles in time. “Got me a life here. A real life.” He looks out the diner window, at the passing traffic rendered in wavy lines from the water running down the pane. “Not that undead, creeping existence filled with bigots and idiots. A real life.”
His face screws up. “Besides, they ain’t there.”
“Who’s that?” I ask. His fidgeting makes me want a smoke, or maybe one of the Xanax from his little case.
“The bloodsuckers.” He laughs, a high-pitched bark. “Not that anyone believes that. Not that anyone believes me these days.” He shakes the pill container at me. “Thus, the cure.”
He stands. “We done?”
I nod, and he hustles off to the bathroom. I stare at my congealing eggs and bacon and wonder if I should’ve ordered the pancakes. When he doesn’t come back, I leave a few dollars on the table and leave.
They find him face-down in a puddle in the alley, pill-container clutched in his hand. If I were Toby, I’d start to think that town was cursed.
“Anyone get out?”
“Oh sure, a few people.” He names them one by one, and I take notes. Shouldn’t be too hard to track them down. People when they move go to one extreme or another—either as far away as possible, or a town over.
“Thanks,” I say.
He raises his beer. “Thanks to you. Hey, don’t you want to stick around, get more beer? Some ladies over there.”
I don’t. Still, I oblige him. He kicks the rungs of his stool, sends a few drinks to a girl with big hair and sad eyes.
“That’s the one.” He can tell, you know. The easy ones. He smells like fermented grain and lust, and I nod as he lights another cigarette.
Yeah, this one, I think.
This is the one.
“So, what’d you do?” Mal asks.
His feet dangle from the swing. Mae’s old swing. Did she tell me that? I don’t remember. Maybe it was something she spat out before the end, high off her tits on cocaine and meth, screaming her mother’s name.
It rocks and sways gently in the breeze, the chain creaking. Maybe someone else mentioned it. The dancer in San Fran. The neurotic in Austin. Does it matter? Would it matter if cattle could speak? What would men say to them? Would they understand why they must die?
“Offered him a ride home.”
“Ripped his throat out on his mother’s plastic-covered couch.”
“I found them. Repaired past mistakes.”
I lift my chin to the window in the house across from us. A face appears in it, fear writ large in the woman’s features. I stand.
“And,” I say.
What else needs to be said? From ash we come, to ash we return. In between, we are just part of the food chain. Animals, all. Predator and prey, meat and eater.
Hunger moves me. The hunger of a thousand years. Of teeth between the stars, of the wolf at the door.
The face disappears, and I start toward the house.
It is a relief to pretend no longer.