by Mike Sweeney
I have a feeling I once knew a great deal about churches and saints. But I don’t remember much about that now, nor really anything that came before the night she found me. As such, all I can tell you about St. James Catholic Church is that the steeple was Becca and mine’s favorite spot for picking out victims.
The church sat astride Broad Street, the main avenue of that great cultural oasis of Central Jersey known as Red Bank. Dotted with bistros and boutiques – all favorites of the wealthy locals from Rumson and Fair Haven and the visiting weekenders from New York – Broad Street never failed to provide us with appetizing choices for the evening.
Becca would stand at the tip of the steeple while I crouched next her, ready to pounce on whomever she instructed. I loved that moment before she gave the word: the light tapping of hearts beneath us, the crisp stillness of the night air, the rich leather scent of her Belstaff jacket, her hand on my shoulder.
Some nights I was her attack dog. Other nights, her wingman.
I miss her already.
I miss the sound of her biker boots clomping on the pavement beside me. I miss the way she used to wrap her arm around my neck and squeal after we’d killed together. Mostly I just miss talking to her.
Occasionally, we’d skip St. James and stroll down to Front Street to watch the Navesink roll by in the starlight. Becca liked watching the river even if she wouldn’t admit it. Sometimes she even let me hold her hand as we passed through the crowds, mentally marking kills for later.
In winter, there’d be time enough for us to browse at Jack’s Music Shoppe before it closed for the night. Jack’s was one of the last great independent record stores on the East Coast. They’d always open at midnight for a new Springsteen release and sometimes he’d stop by on his motorcycle to meet his fans and sign CDs.
Across the street from Jack’s is Kevin Smith’s comic book shop. We saw him one night, playing cards in the back with his friends.
It’s a whole lot of Jersey in one block.
Or at least it was before the sky fell.
The world ended on a Monday, but we didn’t see them till Tuesday.
We were back atop St. James, but instead of night it was ten o’clock in the morning. I was still too giddy from the thought of perpetual darkness to take the Newcomers seriously. They jerked and lumbered along, eating whatever had the misfortune to stumble into their path. I actually laughed at them. As always, Becca was thinking much further ahead.
“These things are going to taste like shit,” she said.
Five months later they ripped her to pieces in a shopping mall. Becca was smart and my best friend and a piece of ass to boot. She deserved a lot better than to be eviscerated in a burned out Anthropologie.
And in the end, she was only half right. The Newcomers didn’t just taste bad, they were bad – the human equivalent of spoiled milk. You could drain five of the things in one night and still be no closer to meeting your thirst.
It didn’t take long to realize that the Newcomers weren’t food; they were competition, a pestilence that consumed everything and anyone we could feed off.
We probably should have done something right away, while they were still in small packs.
Maybe if we had, things would be different now.
Maybe that emaciated beagle I ate earlier today wouldn’t have seemed as succulent and tasty as if I was biting into Eliza Dushku’s left butt cheek.
Maybe going three weeks without blood would’ve seemed like a bad dream, something you do on an insane bet, rather than the standard existence.
But blood drinkers aren’t generally known for their strategic planning – or their collective action.
Instead, we just went after the deer. Close to humans in weight, more readily available than one might think for a place like New Jersey, and not all that difficult to catch. And if you closed your eyes, they actually tasted just like people.
They didn’t last long though. No one will ever confuse a hungry population of blood drinkers with forest rangers when it comes to responsible culling practices. After about three months, it was no more Bambi.
Then it was whatever we could get our hands on. Wild Turkey. Opossum. Dogs. (Labs were surprisingly good.) It took us less than a month to run through them. And that was pretty much the end of regular food for us.
Eventually, the only thing that sustained me was the shared blood with Becca.
Before the sky fell, there was a place in Brooklyn called “Angel’s Sister.” It was run by this pair of blood drinkers who’d had a club going somewhere in New York since the late eighties. They named the first one, “Vlad’s Mom.” It was a play on “Dracula’s Daughter” from the Anne Rice books. The name was a send-up but the purpose was the same: a space for blood drinkers to gather peacefully with their own kind. It moved around the city every few years, changing names but keeping with the same in-joke. There was “Yorga’s Aunt” and “Lestat’s Niece” and my personal favorite, “Orloc’s Granny.”
By 2003, it was Angel’s Sister, and it was housed in an old diner in Wilmington. We met Nomar in the brick-lined back room. He claimed he was eighteen hundred and sixteen and had been the Emperor Nero’s personal secretary before being turned. I don’t think the math worked on that one, but I let it go. No one likes a smart ass. Besides, he was definitely older – and stronger – than me, so Becca and I sat and listened to him tell tales of the persecution that followed the great fire of 64 A.D.
“We went underground, to the catacombs,” he said, leaning in close to me and closer still to Becca.
“It was there the great nosferatu imperator Maximus Sanguineas showed us the blood circle.”
Yeah, “Maximus Sanguineas” set off my bullshit alarm too. But it was the way Nomar described the blood circle itself that made you believe in it, even if you didn’t buy the rest of his story.
In hushed, reverent tones, he described a cannibalistic feeding deep in the catacombs where blood drinkers would pair off with their most intimate comrade and one would drain the other within ounces of death. The point was to make half the coven strong enough to go out and find food which they would bring back to the others. Over time, the cycle would repeat, with the other partner taking his turn and becoming the hunter.
“You have to trust the fellow drinker, greatly, though,” he said and smiled at Becca.
“Trust,” he purred in his Eurotrash accent,“is what you need. Trust and knowing where to bite.”
He poked Becca gently in the thigh and every muscle in my body tensed.
He turned to me and smiled. “The neck, you see, is no good.”
Becca didn’t let me stay much beyond that.
She disappeared for a fortnight, twice as long as we’d ever been separated. When she showed up that night at Donovan’s, the first thing I noticed was that she was still wearing the same clothes. Becca stole from all the best boutiques and never wore the same outfit twice.
I knew she’d let him drink from her, had allowed herself to be kept by him. I wanted to hate her for it. But as she stumbled through the bar and grew close, rage was replaced by alarm. Her skin was ashen slate and her eyes were charcoal dots instead of their usual ice blue.
She didn’t say anything, maybe couldn’t. But I knew what she wanted. Within the hour we were both home, sipping on the sweet Goth girl from the end of the bar, the one who had insisted on ordering Pilsner Urquel while all her friends drank Coors Light’s. She was just Becca’s type.
When I rose the next night, the color had returned to Becca’s eyes and her skin was smooth ivory again. She sat primped and dressed for another evening out, a small smile playing on her lips as she watched me shake off the last of my sleep.
A dozen years as bloodmates and I’d never seen her naked. She always woke and dressed before me: a new expensive pair of jeans over the perfect curve of her hip, a just-in fashion top covering her small tomboy breasts.
She’d seen me constantly, of course, starting with the night she found me nude and feral down on Sandy Hook. She soothed me, took me in, fed me. Clothing me seemed to come last.
And each dusk she’d sit back and watch as I cleaned the dried blood off my chest and arms and dressed for the night. I don’t know what she got out of it. She just liked the power, I think, of her eyes on me. It served as further reminder to me that I was hers.
A few nights after she found me, I finally summoned the courage to ask her if I could still have sex, now that I was a blood drinker.
“Of course,” she said laughing.
“With you?” I added, almost without meaning to say the words out loud.
She went silent and looked at me for a long while. Then she took my arm in hers and said, “Let’s go out.”
That was the last we ever spoke of it.
It was before what would have been dawn if there still was a sunrise. We talked about nothing all night, maybe about how things were before the Newcomers. We spoke about that a lot towards the end.
After a while, Becca brought up the blood circle and that night at Angel’s Sister. There was no asking, just a decision for both of us, one she knew I’d agree to.
Calmly, precisely, she started telling me what to do. She lay back, wriggled out of her jeans, arched her back, and showed me where to bite. It was dark but her skin was nearly luminescent and my eyes lingered.
I moved my head forward and she grabbed a handful of my hair. Becca wasn’t angry, just firm.
“You’re just here to drink,” she said and let go of my head.
It was the best thing I ever tasted.
I said Becca was smart and I meant it. She knew others like us would start going after the humans’ stored blood supply. Riverview and Centra State would’ve been licked clean months ago, like most hospitals. But Becca had a gift for seeing the unobvious. New Jersey might be the Garden State but its most lucrative industry was pharmaceuticals. Drug testing and development meant the pharmaceutical companies needed their own large supplies of blood. Their labs usually had better back-ups and fail-safes for storage than the average hospital. Even five months after the end of civilization, their stocks might still be fresh and safe if we could just get to them.
The Johnson and Johnson facility by Rutgers was my first target.
I started out at the Home Depot on Route 9. We learned early that decapitation was the quickest, maybe only, way to put down the Newcomers. An axe and a small hatchet as back up and I was all set.
I headed north to New Brunswick.
New Jersey in the morning like a lunar landscape.
I think that was a Springsteen line.
What I saw as I hacked and sprinted along dead highways resembled less outer space and more mythology. Tartarus. Shoal. Hell. Everything seemed to burn. Dead trees lined the landscapes and empty cars – wrecked or just abandoned – jammed the thoroughfares like the getaway vehicles of a legion of ghosts.
The ground was a patchwork of blacks, grays, and browns, all of it dried and barren. The only things that moved other than me were the omnipresent, wandering, weaving bands of Newcomers.
I killed at least three dozen that first night. It was worth it for what I found in that one lab: forty-eight perfectly preserved whole units of O positive, over five people’s worth.
Becca hit a goldmine of AB negative during her first foray.
We knew eventually we’d exhaust the drug companies’ supplies too, but for a while things were better. We were drinking human blood again and I was closer to Becca than I ever could have hoped before the sky fell.
That was before either of us heard of Shotgun Annie or Eddie the Crazy Seven-Eleven Guy.
Humans always seemed like a spark in the dark to my kind. They didn’t know it, but people actually lit up our world. After a fashion, maybe the blood drinkers didn’t really know it either. With over six billion of them around, the sparks became ambient lighting, the preternatural equivalent of background noise.
At least that’s how it was before the sky fell. As the Newcomers consumed or converted what was left of humanity, the sparks returned. The last pockets of living people stood out like bonfires.
Shotgun Annie and Eddie the Crazy Seven-Eleven Guy.
They were the consistent sparks, the ones that were there each time we went out. Soon their names started floating to us on the wind. We never spoke them aloud, but we both knew who they were and, more importantly, that they were there – living, breathing people.
Annie was an assistant manager of a Gap at an open-air mall in Shrewsbury. She came home from work the day the sky fell to find that her seventy-year-old mother and two-year-old son were among the Newcomers’ first meals. And that was pretty much it for Annie’s sanity.
She looted a pair of shotguns from a local sporting goods store and duck-taped them together like the guy in that Phantasm movie. Then she filled her Kia with all the shotguns shells it and she could carry and went back to work. She opened the Gap like the world wasn’t dying and just waited. She even started a sale on outerwear.
While the big human safe havens were being sacked, Annie was stockpiling ammunition and gasoline and digging an escape tunnel. Occasionally, she took a break to try to sell reasonably priced denim goods to the survivors of the apocalypse. Since most humans who stumbled upon her store were seeking shelter not cargo jackets, Annie did what only seemed natural when they wouldn’t buy anything: she shot them and used them for food.
When the Newcomers finally came knocking, she was ready with barricades and long lines of sight set up over the mall’s wide-open parking lots. She shot as many as she could until the defenses were breached. Then she torched the Gap with the Newcomers inside before scurrying out her tunnel.
Afterwards she made herself manager of the Banana Republic a few doors down, started tunneling again, and waited for the next wave. By the time we picked up her scent, she was president and operating owner of an Anthropologie, having immolated over a hundred Newcomers in the Banana Republic, the Eddie Bauer, and the Brooks Brothers combined.
I still have no idea exactly what the fuck Anthropologie sold. The place was burned to a cinder when I went to recover Becca’s body.
As smart as Becca was, she could also be remarkably stupid – especially when there was something she wanted badly.
She didn’t tell me she was going for Annie, of course. But I could feel something wasn’t right as she drank from me. And she kissed me when she left. That in itself told me something was wrong.
About an hour later, I dimly saw her slip back into our lair, her arms cradling a scrawny and scared little thing. She set the skeletal beagle down beside me and left again. I knew she wasn’t coming back.
I wish I could say that I saw everything, that the blood circle put me there in her body, let me see through her eyes. But it doesn’t work that way. I just got flashes of feelings: exhilaration, disappointment, rage, and finally what I can only call surrender.
Annie didn’t make it out through her tunnel the last time the Newcomers came for her.
Becca must have known Annie was dead from a mile away, had to know the spark had been snuffed out, yet she went anyway. She didn’t run, didn’t come back to me. That’s what hurts most. Becca and the blood circle were all I needed, but it wasn’t the same for her.
But, then, it never was.
The blood from the beagle allowed me to walk, if barely. I stumbled out into the permanent night not really sure what I was doing. I couldn’t even carry my axe and just limped along with the small hatchet drooping from my hand.
It’s been a very bad year and I suppose I was entitled to a little luck.
It was black and lumpy and lying on the tattered asphalt.
A bear. A cub maybe? Not that big.
I was on my knees drinking from him before I even knew what I was doing. Only after did I realize that he was wounded, near dead. There were Newcomer bite marks cratered across the thing’s stomach. There was a foul aftertaste in my throat. Another hour and his blood would be useless to me. He would’ve turned completely.
Into precisely what I didn’t want to think about.
Then I saw the cub’s mother.
Twisted and lumbering, she fell at me, crimson foam spewing from her snout.
I think she was still trying to figure out post-mortem movement. If the herky-jerky gait was awkward in a human, it was positively spasmodic in something that once was a bear. She couldn’t quite walk – on two legs or four – and so just bounded, picking herself up and falling in lunges at me. I dodged her three times and, on the fourth lunge, leapt onto the bear’s back and followed her to the ground. One hatchet cut into the head made sure she wouldn’t get up soon; two more cuts across the neck and she was down for good.
As I stood back, I saw her left paw reaching out in the direction of her cub. Or maybe that’s just how I imagined it. Something about it made me angry.
I didn’t know if the drained cub could still turn but I made sure he wouldn’t. That was the world I was in now: where you thanked someone for saving your existence by making sure to lop off their head.
I knew the strength from the cub would fade quickly. I only had so much time to get to Becca. I wanted to be with her at the end. But I needed something more. I had to make a stop.
In truth, Eddie the Crazy Seven-Eleven Guy was unfairly named. He was actually quite level-headed and positively stable compared to the likes of Shotgun Annie.
Eddie had been the proprietor of an Army-Navy surplus store he inherited from his father. But Eddie was a people person. His secret ambition was to own a convenience store, the type of place where he would make coffee every morning for his regulars and run two-for-one specials on chili cheese dogs for dinner. He’d become a fixture of the neighborhood, the place everyone stopped by on Sunday morning for donuts and a paper. It was a nice dream. So Eddie saved his pennies and was six months away from getting his own WaWa franchise when the sky fell.
That first day, Eddie took the things from his surplus store he though he would most need – a couple of generators, lanterns, sleeping bags, dry food-stuffs – and packed up his Blazer. He also took his dad’s Vietnam-era M-16, a good deal of homemade ammunition, and the 128 back issues of Hustler he’d collected since his seventeenth birthday.
Somehow he wound up in the abandoned Seven-Eleven on Maple Avenue. Like Annie, he opened the place for business. But whereas she was insanely cannibalistic, Eddie actually wanted to help. He was, remember, a people person. Had the first survivor he let in not turned into a biting, twitching fiend in front of the Big Gulps, he might not have grown so paranoid.
After he dispatched the thing with his father’s rifle, Eddie started parking cars. Dozens of them. He hotwired every car in immediate walking distance and began crashing them in concentric circles around his store. After two days he had three rings of crushed steel to barricade his own personal paradise, complete with a Blu-Ray DVD player, the entire contents of the local Border’s video, and what was likely the last operating Slurpee machine in the world. There was also, of course, his porn collection, which he finally had time to index properly.
The Newcomers would mass and threaten outside his barricades but ultimately lacked the mobility to scramble over three rows of busted-up automobiles, at least not before Eddie could get a head shot in. Like a suburban Robert Neville, Eddie manned his fortress, going out for provisions when the Newcomers drifted off to another target.
I actually expected to find him behind his check-out counter watching I Am Legend that night. I was impressed to find that he had on Omega Man instead.
“They sure don’t make pictures like that anymore,” Charleton Heston was just saying as I rapped on the window from atop the pushed in hood of a Chevy Malibu.
I think Eddie knew there was something not quite right with me, even as he let me in, carefully undoing the locks on the glass door. He didn’t seem to mind too much though.
“Buy something,” he said.
Eddie fingered the barrel of his M-16, resting near the cash register. But he didn’t pick up the gun. He positioned himself squarely behind the register. Behind him, Heston was screaming that there were no telephones ringing.
“Just buy something,” Eddie said. “Please. I never got to sell anything to anyone.”
I nodded and began walking up and down the short aisles as Eddie switched off the DVD.
I stopped at the small section of cleaning supplies and picked up a canister of Comet scouring powder. It seemed like the type of thing that would still be good months after the end of the world. I read the back of the can for a few seconds then nodded and moved on to the refrigerated drink locker. All the sodas were gone. There was just questionable looking juice and some green tea drinks. I took a bottle of the latter and walked up to the register.
“I don’t have any money,” I said.
“That’s okay,” Eddie answered. He pressed some buttons on the register and handed me a ten dollar bill.
I shoved it into the front pocket of my grimy, tattered jeans.
“Will there be anything else?” he asked.
I thought for a moment and tapped the glass counter above the scratch-off lottery cards.
“One of those,” I said, pointing to the one with penguins and polar bears on it. For some reason, I thought Eddie would like that.
Eddie’s hands shook as he ripped off the card and placed it next to the Comet and green tea. He waved his hands over all three items and muttered to himself, adding in his head.
“Seven-seventy-five,” he said.
“Pretty reasonable,” I lied and handed him back the ten dollar bill.
“Look like rain out there?” Eddie asked as he counted out my change.
“Don’t think so,” I said.
“Are you going to kill me or make me like you?” he asked.
“You don’t want to be like me,” I said.
I didn’t kill him there, of course. I only took a third of his blood. I needed him alive as bait.
Eddie stirs a little as he dozes on the counter of the gutted Starbuck’s I’m sitting in now. We’re a few doors down from the Anthropologie and I’ve lit some new fires to make sure they know we’re here. What’s left of Becca is sitting next to me. I’ve only kissed her twice. I know I shouldn’t do anymore.
I can hear the distant shuffle of dead legs and I start to catch their smell, fetid and pungent, even amidst the charred cloud of death that hangs over this place.
When they get close I’ll finish draining Eddie. I want all the strength I can muster. I want to kill as many of them as I can.
When it’s over, I wonder if Becca and I will be able to talk again.
MIKE SWEENEY lives in Central New Jersey where he writes constantly but never quite enough.