Elijah didn’t come alone.
I opened the front door to find his mother standing beside him, a great round bulk of a woman with drooping cheeks and the bluest eyes. Her gaze flickered over my features in seconds, reading all that was written there.
I had told him very little on the telephone; only that something terrible had happened, and that Denise was very sick. I told him that she was refusing to leave the house.
Now, after I welcomed them in, Mrs. Conkley fixed me with a fearful look. “Where is she?”
“In the bedroom,” I whispered. She headed straight for it, and I limped after her, my hip still aching from the fall.
Both of them seemed momentarily stunned by the sight of her. I had laid her out on the bed, and now she was sleeping so deeply there was no waking her. Her skin looked pale and waxy, and there were purple shadows gathered around her eyes. The disease was working rapidly in her.
Mrs. Conkley sat on the edge of the bed, placing her palm on Denise’s forehead. She sighed, and her round body seemed to shrink ever so slightly. “Tell me what happened,” she said, turning her face towards me. Something in her expression told me she already knew what she would hear. “All of it, if you please.”
I eased into the chair across from her, with Elijah standing between us. His eyes darted between us as we spoke.
When I opened my mouth, I never expected the accident to come out, but it did. This time, as I told them about the death of my parents, I saw him clearly for the first time. A young man in a military uniform, ghastly pale, his clothes and face covered in mud, standing in the middle of the road. He was completely motionless, as if dazed, wearing a blank expression. But his eyes, there in the wash of the headlights, were twin pits of hell. My father had swerved to miss him, but in those seconds the stranger’s face never changed, never showed a trace of surprise or fear.
As I spoke, other memories fell into place. I remember the awful winter that Maria lingered, and the winter finally caught her. The weather had been so fine, so unseasonably warm, that my grandmother had loitered well into the first week of December. When Denise and I came up that weekend to help her pack up the house, we found her in her bedroom, slumped against the wall.
“The doctors said it was her heart, no doubt about the cause. But when I saw her face…her eyes had been bulging, and her mouth was wide open like a scream. She had been standing there,” I pointed to the space beside the bed, “facing the doorway. And all I could think when I saw her was that someone, something, had scared her to death.”
I closed my eyes, slowly lowering my head. “The doctors explained that the pain of a heart attack accounted for her features, and I believed them. I just brushed it aside.”
Mrs. Conkley nodded. “What happened here last night?”
I told them everything, every detail I could remember. I told them about my nightmares, about the way I found Denise in the morning. Everything. She listened quietly, her face looking gray, lips pressed tightly together. When I had finished, she opened her eyes again and turned towards Denise.
“It’s the sun,” she said simply.
“Excuse me? The sun?”
“She doesn’t want to go out into the sunlight.”
She took Denise’s hand. “I am so sorry, about this. I guess maybe I should have told this story to you when you first came up. But to tell you the truth, I only half believed it myself. My mother had a lot of old ghost stories she liked to tell, but I knew her fear of this place was the real thing. She always swore it wasn’t safe up here ‘…when the nights are long and the days short.’ Those were here words. As a matter of fact, she beat me with a switch once when I came too far up the road one winter to toboggan with a friend.”
She sighed. “You understand this was all well before I was born. I always knew my ma was afraid of the mountain, but she never told me why until the end. By that time, the cancer was eating her up, and a lot of what she said was nonsense. Part of me believed the story, though, because she always had been afraid.
“After the Great War and the Spanish Flu, the Schroeders had given their son up for dead. The government had notified them, in fact, that he had been lost somewhere in the woods of France and was believed to be deceased. His whole platoon, it seemed, had up and disappeared.
“But in December next, just before the snows, Stephan wandered up the hill. He’d lost almost half his weight, and was still wearing his military uniform. He come right up here to the old farmhouse one evening and started beating on the door.
“They said it was shell-shock. He never spoke no more, you see. Just stared at you. No one could get a word out of him. He spent most of the days sleeping, and wandered around the farm at night. My ma told me all the animals seemed shy of him.
“Now…not many people knew of this, but my mother was one of them, because she had been Agnes’ friend. Agnes was just a year or so younger than Stephan, and by all accounts she was a true beauty. Maybe too beautiful. But you know sometimes, especially back then, in those families away up in the hills unnatural things happened, young people being what they are and all. You hear tell of it on occasion today. Why, there’s a family just around the way from us where the teenage girl delivered her own father’s son a year back, and they still all live together…mother, father, daughter, and her own father’s child. As happy as can be.
“Well, between Agnes and Stephan there had been some fooling around. She told my ma that it was kissing at first, and later, when he got ready to go off to the War, they…well, I’m sure I don’t need to spell it all out for you.
“So then Stephan went off to the war, and while that happened, Agnes got herself a young man. He was a Fleischer, from over the other side of the hill. I don’t know why she decided to do it, but she wrote Stephan a letter to tell him about it.
“The letter she got back was not a sound one. Her brother told her that she was his, that she would always be his, and that no matter what happened, he would be back for her.”
Mrs. Conkley folded her hands between her knees, absent-mindedly twisting a ring on her finger. “I guess Agnes was terrified when Stephan came back, scared that everyone would learn what they done. But of course he said nothing, and she began to think maybe he didn’t even remember any of it clearly. He barely even seemed to know who she was.
“Then, round Christmas time, poor Agnes suddenly took sick. She had a terrible cough, and complained about trouble breathing. She said the sunlight hurt her eyes and made her skin sting. She started getting real pale, and after a few days was coughing up blood.
“Everyone was afraid of TB in those days. It had always been a problem in these parts. So a lot of the families around started to avoid the Schroeders and the hill. I think maybe only old Grandpa Conkley, being their closest neighbor, kept in touch with them. Suspicion fell on Stephan, of course…people said he brought it back from the war. But he had none of the symptoms. Sure, he was pale and thin from the war, but he didn’t seem to have the disease.
“And then…then they caught him. One night they found Stephan in her bedroom, lying on top of her while she slept. He was kissing her so hard that there was blood ob both their mouths.”
I shut my eyes at this, feeling like I was going to throw up. A mental picture of Denise, lying beneath this thing, filled my mind. “Jesus,” I whispered.
“They locked Stephan up in his room, and kept watch over him day and night. Word that he had attacked his sister got out and spread through town. But whatever he had done couldn’t be undone. The poor girl just kept wasting away.
“When the winter came it was a bad one. The road was blocked, and the snow kept falling. When the first thaw finally camp, Grandpa Conkley and some others went up the hill to see what had come of the Schroeders.”
She lowered her head, still wringing her hands. Elijah and I waited in silence, listening to the clock ticking out in the living room. Finally, Mrs. Conkley drew a deep breath.
“My mother told me that they found them dead…all of them. They found Stephan’s younger brother out in the yard, mostly buried in the snow. Looked to them as though he had choked to death on his own blood. The parents they found in the bedroom, wasted away to nothing and bled white. Their mouths were caked with dried blood, and their teeth were practically black with it. Grandpa Conkley said the bodies were as light as scarecrows made of straw.
“Stephan, now, well, he was harder to find. Seems that sometime during the winter, the Conkleys had ripped up some floorboards and nailed them over Stephan’s door and windows, boarding him up in his room. Someone had torn the Gospels out of the family Bible and plastered all them boards with them. All this scared the men so much they weren’t sure they wanted to see what was in the room, but they came up to find out and aimed to get the answer.
“Grandpa Conkley and the others tore them boards down, and broke into the room. They found Stephan there in his military uniform, stone cold dead on the floor. But while Stephan’s family had wasted away, he had put on weight over the winter, gotten plump. They say his skin was stretched out, tight as a drum, all swollen and pink. When they moved his body, it was unaturally heavy, and blood leaked freely from his mouth, nose, and eyes.
“This was before movies, you see. Long before, and round here, not many folk read a lot of books. Heck, I never even heard the name Dracula until Elijah here was a boy. So none of them there that day knew what to make of it. They just up and buried them all out there under the oak tree, and set the house on fire. No one came up here then until Maria, and even after that no one came in the winter. Never.”
I hadn’t thought that anything could be worse than the horrors I had witnessed that night, but I was wrong. This story, the images it conjured, was worse. Far worse.
He was kissing me…so hard…so hard I couldn’t breathe.
Denise’s words echoed in my brain, and I stared at her in horror. Not tuberculosis. Not ghosts. There was another word for this.
He was sucking all the air from my lungs
“Not air,” I whispered, closing my eyes. “Blood.”
Mrs. Conkley stared at me, clearly finished speaking, and now I felt more helpless than ever before.
“What should I do? Take her away? How far away?”
Mrs. Conkley shook her head. “I can’t tell you. I don’t rightly know. I do think that Stephan Schroeder died over there, somewhere, but came back like he had promised for Agnes. They had him locked in his room, watched over Agnes day and night, but somehow still he managed to steal the life from her. After that…after that I guess he just couldn’t rest. And I suppose he still can’t.”
“So even if I took her halfway across the country, he might still be able to kill her, now that he…that he’s done this?”
She spread her hands. “I don’t know, see? Before you came here, I thought it was just a bad story, a ghost story. It scared me, but it wasn’t real. Not like this.”
“Only in the winter,” I said, wringing my hands. “Maybe there’s something to do with the sun…it’s too strong the rest of the year, or something…”
Finally, Elijah spoke up. “Well it seems to me, if this is true…if Schroeder is lying restless, stealing blood…then maybe we need to do what they do in the movies.”
My eyes widened at this. “Christ, I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation. You mean we…what? Dig him up? Drive a piece of wood through his chest?”
“Do you have any other ideas?”
I stared helplessly at Denise, my mind spiraling down, a plane crash in my head. No, no I had no other ideas.
“Okay,” I said, feeling like I had lost my mind. “Let’s do that.”