Every life has turning points. In that moment, everything changes. The pre-existing pattern is shattered, and the pieces come together in a different shape. Afterwards, nothing is the same.
When I discovered my parents putting presents under the Christmas tree, the world suddenly became smaller. Santa Claus ceased to exist; Michael Farber (a kindergarten pest) was right after all. And with Santa went the Elves, the eight tiny reindeer, the Eastern Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and eventually, God. With the cutting of one string, the entire supernatural web encasing my innocence began to unravel.
The afternoon I lost my virginity, lying naked and sweaty next to Janet Elder in my summer bedroom, was the same. In a brief, explosive moment, my entire perception of the opposite sex had changed. That afternoon re-ordered all my adolescent priorities, and continued to color my relationships with women throughout my adult life. I learned what it was to desire.
And the death of my parents had taught me mortality. In twenty terrible seconds, death began to truly exist in my life. It was a reality, not some abstraction. It was real and it took people away…forever. And someday, the same would happen to me. I would cease to exist, snuffed out. All that I was would simply disappear.
The nineteenth of December, the year we moved in Mountain Hollow, turned out to be another turning point, a dangerous bend in the road that once rounded left no room for turning back.
I awoke face-down on the floor, a puddle of drool spreading under my chin.
Pushing myself up off the floor, my cheek peeled away from the wood like tape. A sharp pain shot through my neck from lying so long at so strange and angle. I felt disoriented, and couldn’t remember how I had gotten there, as if I had drank too much the night before. Dawn was seeping in through the windows, a weak glow barely struggling through the curtains. It was so early I could still see a single bright star winking in the sky.
The room was bitter cold, and I realized I was shaking. The fire was long dead, and the air smelled of old wood smoke. Outside, the snow was piled in a deep drift against the French doors, and frost had etched spider-web patterns on every pane of glass. I could see puffs of my own breath.
Sitting up, strange images began to surface in my mind. Pale faces. Swirling snow. I turned my head towards the sofa, and spent the next several seconds trying to figure out where the scream I was hearing was coming from.
It was coming from my own throat.
Denise was lying half naked across the sofa, her arm dangling towards the floor. The covers had been pulled down, heaped up in a mountain around her feet, and the cream color sweater I had gotten her for her birthday was lying on the floor. Her bra was discarded, leaving her torso exposed and pale. Blood was painted all across her naked breasts and belly, and her lips—slightly parted—were wet and crimson. She was struggling to breathe, a ragged wheezing in her throat.
I scrabbled up so quickly that I slammed my head against the piano bench, toppling it over. Simultaneously, pain shot through my skull, bringing tears to my eyes, and the bench fell open, spilling sheet music across the floor. I barely noticed either, almost racing on my knees to the sofa, a distance of three feet that felt like thirty miles.
I almost couldn’t touch her, wide-eyed and sick at the blood drying at her skin. There were no visible wounds on her body, and I had no idea where all the blood had come from. As I drew closer, I could see that the blood had been smeared over her body, dark circles of gore traced around her nipples and down her belly towards a slightly exposed pubic area. Insanely, it reminded me of finger painting. But no trace of blood was visible on her own fingers, which meant someone else had down this…had caressed her flesh with hands wet with blood. I choked on the vomit welling up in the back of my throat.
My face was wet with tears, but it was something closer to shock than despair that had brought them. I seized her bare shoulders, wincing inwardly at how cold she was, and shook her.
Her eyelids fluttered, but there was no other sign of consciousness returning. Her face looked sunken, her cheekbones rising in sharp peaks below the pits of her eyes. She had wasted away virtually overnight, looking like an escapee from a prison camp.
“Please, honey, please…”
Her eyes popped open, wide and glassy. She stared at me without recognition, and I felt sure at any moment she would scream.
Instead, she coughed, explosively, sending a spray of red droplets over my face and hands. The cough dissolved into wet, raw, gagging. It seemed to erupt from deep within her, shuddering through her body. And each gag brought up a fresh gout of blood. She kept coughing it up, spilling purple teaspoonfuls of semi-coagulated blood down her chin. At least I knew now where she was wounded. It was internal…and she was drowning in her own blood.
I rolled her over, tilting her face over the edge of the sofa, towards the floor. I kept hitting her back, between her shoulder blades, as hard as I dared. There were fresh scratches all over her back. I tried to ignore them.
The blood kept spilling out of her, spattering all over the floor. After awhile, the gagging stopped, and she was taking deep gulps of air. I helped her up into a sitting position, and she reacted with horror at the sight of her naked breasts.
She buried her face against my chest, sobbing. She felt like she was made of straw, light and dry.
“God, Denise…baby…we’ve got to get out of here.” I clasped her face in my hands, tilting her eyes into mine. “Do you understand me? Can you make it?”
Maybe I should have called an ambulance, gotten a doctor, but to be honest, I had crossed a turning point. Yesterday, I had woken up in a world that made sense. Physics had laws, human behavior could largely be reduced to electrical activity in the brain, and the dead did not get out of their graves. These were facts.
But this morning there was no doubt in my mind that some thing dead and buried more than eighty years ago had walked into my house the night before and assaulted my wife. Somehow, she now showed signs of the same consumption that destroyed the Schroeders eight decades before. And my only thought at the time was to get her as far from those graves beneath the oak as I could. This was the only thing that made sense to me; I did not believe that science, policemen, or doctors could help us any more. We were alone.
Denise whimpered, seeming to slip in and out of consciousness. “…my chest hurts…” she rasped. “…I can’t breathe…”
Gently, I lay her back on the sofa and tugged the blankets up around her. “We have to leave this house, Denise. I’ve got to get you out of here.”
She nodded slightly, but her eyes showed no sign that she understood what I was saying. Maybe it was shock from blood loss…or from what had happened in the dark. But I thought maybe I should be thankful for it, for the fact that she was not awake and alert enough to fully understand—as I did—what had happened to her.
I rushed into the kitchen and ran the hot water, soaking a cloth with it. Then I went back into the living room to clean the blood from her and get her dressed.
She wept the entire time, shaking. I tried to keep calm, to be strong, but terror and disbelief were waging war in my brain. “Please baby, please don’t cry.”
“…I dreamed…” she said in a harsh, mummy’s whisper. “…I dreamed I was with another man…not you. He was kissing me…so hard…so hard I couldn’t breathe. He was sucking all the air from my lungs…”
My hands were shaking, fingers nearly useless, as I pulled the sweater down around her. “Denise…did you have this dream before? The night before you got sick? When I found you out here on the sofa?”
She nodded. “…yes, but couldn’t…tell you. I felt, so ashamed…”
Her words broke up into gagging coughs, but this time, only a little blood flecked her lips.
Once she calmed down, I rushed to the bedroom, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in my head. I had hit it harder than I thought, and I felt dizzy. I packed a few things as quickly as possible, trying not to panic. I couldn’t think straight, and the only mantra circling my brain was to get out. My thoughts refused any attempt at order. Anarchy filled my brain.
I stopped back in the living room to check on her, and sat for a few minutes stroking her hair. “I need to go outside now and warm up the 4x4. There’s a lot of snow. Will you be alright?”
She gave a weak nod, barely moving her lips. I had to lean in close to hear what she was saying.
Tears filled my eyes. “I don’t know, baby, I just don’t know.”