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It was a storm to end the world.
Verdigris hung thick and dense like fog in a valley upon the forest of bronze soldiers frozen for time immemorial in some titanic struggle in the vast lawn-space resting at the foot of Mark Wringler’s imposing mansion. Rain roared down like fire belched from the throat of some ravening dragon, searing the large statues with its thundering might. The apples trees thrashed about in rage, shaking gnarled branches at the heavens for smiting them with such a hellish downpour. Lightning rent the sky asunder, crackling amidst the clouds and throwing sparks among piles of dry lives as casually as a child discards a toy whose minutes-old novelty has already been stolen away by the passing time.
Mark Wringler himself observed the apocalyptic scene from behind the safety of rich fabric curtains and heavy panes of glass, but still trembled with every rumbling peal of thunder which shook the house. The sound of the rain on the roof above was like the marching of a thousand, million uncoordinated feet, stampeding with grisly purpose.
Suddenly the courtyard was lit up by a streak of electric light, and he fancied that he saw indistinct shapes flitting among the grey-green bronze soldiers. But no. A moment later, the place was still, save for the tiny streams running through the stones in the cobbled pathway leading up to his house, and the turbulent surface of the pond set in one corner of the massive lot. Mark shook his round head, rubbing deep-set, dark eyes, ringed with circles of fatigue, and stretched short, chubby fingers before his eyes in the half-light. He sighed. There was nothing wrong. Just the storm getting to him.
Still, a sense of unease which he couldn’t seem to shrug had stolen over the man, corrupting every shadowy corner with visions of wicked abominations, stealing out of the darkness, questing for-
The grim thoughts were dispelled momentarily by a loud rap upon the mansion’s high double-doors, only to flood back more powerfully than ever by the implications of such a sound.
Who the devil could be visiting at this hour, unannounced, and in the middle of such an awful storm?
Rather childishly, he shrunk back from his vigil at the window into one of the broad atrium’s dark corners. Though not fat, Mr. Wringler was plump enough, and old enough to appear rather ludicrous in such a pose. After a moment’s indecision, he gathered his bearings and moved cautiously towards the door.
His hand rested gingerly on the knob for what seemed like an eternity while thunder crashed and boomed without and the wind howled about, shaking the rafters.
What in the world has come over you, Mark? Scared stiff by a little evening visit? Albeit in the pouring rain. And the wicked wind. Even still, It’s probably some tramp, looking for a place to sleep.
This thought gave him another moment’s pause. What if it was a tramp? Should he put them up, or throw them out? The house was large enough to provide bed and board for the entire neighboring village, but still. Perhaps it would be better not to answer at all, and spare himself from the moral conundrum?
Thud. Thud. Thud. The drum-roll of booming knocks jarred him to the bone, carrying with it an air of foreboding. Nevertheless, he drew up his wrist, conjured up his courage, thrust aside all dark fantasies and flung wide the door.
He would’ve screamed, but some indefinable force constricted his throat, trapping sound as surely as he was trapped by the firm brick walls and shingled roof, as surely as that sprawling villa set into the side of the hill had become his cage.
The figure in the doorway was only a little taller than he was, but seemed to tower over him, his handsome, alien countenance obscured by the flickering lights from without. The rain seemed deflected by his very bearing, and though violent gusts swept rain-drenched leaves and flecks of water across the lavishly decorated room, he did not so much as sway.
“If I may....?” The gentle voice was like claws of ice clambering through his veins, crushing his wildly struggling heart. The slim, elegant man- though he hesitated to call it such- seemed as in place within the whirling chaos of the storm as Mark did in the plush sitting room, his voice reminiscent of footsteps running over damp earth.
He was dressed strangely; in leather buskins laced up over dark silks, his shirt’s tall collar a pitch backdrop for his lurid features. And the face.... elongated, shapely, yet so startlingly inhuman.
It was the eyes, above all else. Pale, blank eyes, devoid of pupil or iris; just a milky swirl set deep within hollow sockets. Mark shuddered suddenly, struck by the hideous realization that those awful empty eyes were watching him.
The Stranger swept into the room, making not so much as a whisper as his feet whisked along the carpet, then slammed shut the door behind him. Suddenly, the gods’ altercation without was hushed to a whisper.
The figure turned again on his trembling host, curling back his upper lip in a twisted grin. As his mouth widened, Mark’s attention was called to a pair of long, sharp fangs, hanging like stalactites from the creature’s looming maw.
“A drink. The strongest you’ve got. Also a fire would not be unwelcome, at least for aesthetic purposes.”
Dazedly, Mark murmured:
“There’s a fire in the sitting room. Just through here,” And the pair slowly made off into the wide room Wringler had occupied just before the Stranger’s appearance. While his unexpected guest sat rigidly in one of the over-stuffed chairs near the fire, Mark moved off to a shelf on the far side of the room, scanning the labels on a dozen or so neatly ordered bottles. His shaky hands fumbled briefly amidst the jugs, located the correct one, and withdrew.
There were two chairs evenly spaced on either side of the field-stone fireplace in the sitting-room’s center, with a table tucked unobtrusively between them. Mr. Wringler set down two glasses, the bottle of gin he had recovered, then poured a sizable portion for himself and a moderate one for the Stranger. Slowly, he leaned back into the unoccupied chair, pressing himself as far from the other as the decorations deemed feasible.
For what felt like a decade, the house was silent save for the storm without and the gentle crepitation of the fire; then the creature broke it, just as it had broken all his happy quiet delusions simply by walking through his door.
“I really do have quite a lot to say, so why don’t we get through the sadly necessarily formalities,” here a perfectly measured pause, “now.”
Mark stared at him, took a steady sip of gin.
“Ask the most obvious question, or state the most obvious statement. Whichever.” Mark was silent. The thing lipped its soft, white lips, absentmindedly bared long, sharp fangs. “Very well. I will help. I am a vampire.”
Mark gulped down his entire glass of gin and moved to pour another.
“Our time is rather short; we have only a couple hours before sunrise and I should like to be safely away an hour before dawn. However, this is a rather... unconventional arrangement and I will need some cooperation on your part.”
“You’re.... you’re a vampire,” Mark whispered, wiping a few stray drops from his dry lips.
“Yes, we have already established that.” His voice had dwindled away to a hiss, almost lost at times amidst the soft growling of the fire. The pale gauzy skin seemed stretched impossibly thin across the long skull, which seemed likely to tear right through around the eyes. In the ruddy glow emanating from the hearth, he could almost make out the corpse-like grin beneath the colorless lips.
“I am here, I suppose, to apologize.”
“A-a-apologize? What-whatever for?” Mark nervously smoothed down his lavish garb and began to refill his glass, then stopped, noticing that the Stranger’s remained untouched. He gestured towards it:
“Do you mind...?”
“Not at all,” The vampire waved a hand. “I try not to indulge, except on rare occasions.” The smile flashed at him was difficult to read. Mark consumed the drink hastily.
“As I was saying, I am here to apologize. For the death of your father.” Wringler gagged, and stared up in astonishment at the vampire.
“He died not long ago. Tragic accident. I believe that was the official wording. That was, in a way, quite true.”
“My... father.” Contemplation swallowed up Mark Wringler like a plague of locusts. It had been some time since he had thought about his father, and now that he was devoting some remembrance to the man it was almost too easy.
A tragic accident. Yes, it had been something of the sort. Mark had never been close to his father, that or too close for comfort. To the grizzled and calculating Kyle Wringler, his son was just another tool of business. He provided the finest education he could for the boy, spoiled him with material wealth, but never displayed more than a vague attachment to him. He had displayed him like a golf trophy, just another way his obscene wealth trickled through. He had pushed the somewhat less than brilliant boy into MIT, calling in favors in a heated frenzy. Throughout college Mark had stretched the neck which had chafed for so long in whatever way he could and squandered his fat monthly checks from home on alcohol and sex. Years After his graduation, the elder Wringler had a wife pushed on him and in an astounding twist of irony, Mark and the sprightly Matilda fell passionately in love. For two years, Mark had a shield against his father’s cynicism. Two glorious short years until she would die delivering Kyle the grandson he had so long pressed them for.
Mark tried his best to be good to his son, but perhaps because the boy carried a heavy memory of loss about him like a disease, or perhaps because he had never known exactly what a good father was, he failed. Mark’s father had always been away, drawing money from the most unlikely and desolate spots. He had made millions dealing in the oil industry; could have drowned an army in black gold or hired several.
He had spent further millions, too, bought the lavish estate now occupied by his only son and much of the small town at its foot. He was a self-made man. A legend. Yet Mark had loathed him. The aloof Mr. Wringler stole his dignity by showcasing him, broke his spirit by forcing him to perform beyond his ability, had robbed him of his individuality and taken his future in those cold, conniving hands.
Then Mark Wringler came to understand the final cruelty of his infinitely faceted doom. His father was an outstanding figure in society, a two-faced coward who presented the world a handsome, successful front to hide his hideous half. But no one saw that. They saw only the proud businessman and diligent father who wanted only the best for his sadly noncompliant child. Mark could never forge his own path, build his own life. His hands were forever shackled to his father’s legacy.
And so it had always been, and so it would always be. “Kyle Wringler’s Son” had more than he could conscientiously want or need; he was a boy of liquid bronze from the moment of his birth, his free form pressed into an unyielding mold till he was as silent and immobile as the statues littering his own lawn.
“None of us want to be monsters; sometimes it is not our choice to make. And so I came here... to apologize.” Mark laughed, derisive and chilling. His fear drowned in drink, more complex emotions began to surface.
“Apologize for what? Dying was the only thing I have to thank the man for.”
“But he was your father.”
“My father! Ha. What a sick joke. The bastard never cared any more for me than he did for anyone. He had eyes for nothing but--”
“He brought you into this world. He gave you your life.”
“And he damn well took it away. I’m a slave!” Mark’s eyes were frenzied, his life’s pains finally bursting the floodgates of his heart, spurred on by the gin and the very weirdness of the scene. “He never cared for me. He didn’t teach me to love, he didn’t read to me, like a father should. Did your father read to you?”
The words, thrown like an accusation though not even Mark could say who he was accusing, made the Stranger blink suddenly, and a curious look came over those chilling white eyes.
“He gave me money that decency forbade me to use! He gave me luxury and it’s misery! He gave me Matilda... oh god. He gave me a life of hell, and I know that there is nothing better waiting for me. I’m a monster! I never learned to love. They say that’s just a part of you, love, but it’s not. It’s something you get taught. Honestly, you did me a favor. Look around you!” Mark rose. “Look at this place! I’m better off now than I ever was under his thumb. You set me free. Free of that man. I just wish you could have killed his ghost.”
“Nevertheless, I am sorry. It’s a shame that our morals are so.... commonplace. They’re like hot coals beneath your feet. For a while, it bites and burns, but soon the skin is so torn.... there is nothing left to feel.”
“He’s the one who should be sorry!”
“But fate deprived him of that chance. I will not make the same mistakes.”
“SHUT UP!” Mark screamed. The ludicrous idea of his talking in such a way to such a creature drove him on further, fueling his rage. “Who do you think you are? You are an evil- evil- thing. Why did you really come here? To kill me too?”
“I told you why I am here. I don’t leave things up to chance.”
“There is no chance! There is no fate! Maybe I was born after the fork in the road, maybe I never had the—No. I don’t need to explain myself to you or anyone.”
“Maybe you do.”
“My father loathed me and I loathed him! You gave me this life of luxury by killing the bastard, and now you want to take any satisfaction from his death by regretting it? Well regret alone. You’re the same as him. You think you can just do evil and shed a tear over it and redeem yourself. Well I know better! The past is solid and unchangeable and the future is already set out for us, determined long before our time. The past is gone, it’s over. I will live in the present and not worry over what could have been.”
“Before I die, I want to change things.”
“You’re just a coward. What, afraid to be judged on what you did?”
“No. You are the coward. You are afraid to remember the past. Yes, the past determines our future, but only in that we have the choice to look back.... to remember. And to make things better. How else do you plan to learn from your mistakes?”
“Don’t you dare lecture me! You’re the killer! If you want to apologize, save it for my father. I’m sure you’ll see him in hell, you monst--” the words were stolen from his throat by a sudden impact on the side of his head. Stars showered across the room and danced before his eyes. Hand gently rising to inspect his bruising cheek, he stared up at the vampire. The blow had knocked him clean off his feet to the floor.
“That’s right. Prove me right. You think you’re some kind of saint? You’re just as pathetic as the rest of us. Good thoughts count for nothing in this world. Thoughts are the unheard whimpers of destitute souls manacled to wretched walking husks that care for nothing but themselves!”
The vampire walked slowly forward, his previously white eyes slowly filling with red caramel swirls. Mark Wringler felt a sharp stinging and allowed his hand to gently slide down his face to his neck. When he brought it away, it was sticky with blood. The arm fell limply down into a pool of gin and a pile of wickedly sharp broken shards from his shattered glass.
“I’m a monster?”
Mark struggled to rise, clutching his wound, but succeeded only in crawling back a few feet.
“I’m a monster?”
The vampire’s boots crushed down upon the glass, reducing it to powder. Steadily, he advanced upon the man. His eyes shone in the dark light, his fangs glinted and the hungry fire seemed to roar its approval.
“I’m a monster.” Insensible, eyes rolling, Mark felt two icy hands clasp around his shirt-front, felt himself lifted easily off his feet.
“Oh god no. No, please.” Two sharp points pressed the skin of his neck, the detruding nose sniffed the blood.
“I’m a monster? Well tell me, what would a monster do?” Pain lancing up his back, his neck throbbing, Mark gasped. There was no air around him yet still his mouth bit and his hands made claws at scratched at the empty space. Lights flickered around his vision and fireworks exploded in his skull, then a room slid into view, distorting and unraveling as though he were seeing it through a thin film of water.
It was his sitting room, shadows emerging to prance and play bit by bit as the fire ebbed and died, spluttering in the hearth. He was lying on his back, his body aching as though it had just been dropped. As though of their own accord, his fingers were reaching along the wound on his neck. He felt a gash, deep and spitting blood thickly, but no other injuries; no small punctures, small points where the fangs had done more than graze his skin. His shoulders limply rolled to the side, his face resting amid the broken drinking glass. Inches in front of him was an undamaged piece of glass, removed slightly from its misshapen brethren, one end stained red as a breaking dawn. The very sliver that had slit his throat.
“Not your fault. No,” He coughed slightly, and felt a trickle of liquid escape between his lips. “You didn’t.... didn’t mean to, did you? Not your choice. Just my stupidity.”
He laughed weekly. Staring out of the windows at the final gasps and gusts of the titanic storm as it spent the scant remains of its fury, he felt a curious calm which he had not known for a long time. The sky was clouded, but the clouds were golden and luminous in the twilight of dawn. The terrible pain in his neck subsided to a throbbing ache, and in the absence of pain thought eased its way into his mind.
He was dying. The blood that constituted the very foundation of his life was gushing out of him with every pulse of his heart. What a silly way to die. What would the papers say? ‘A tragic accident.’
What an awful way to die. How had his father died? Did it really matter now that he was dead? What had he thought about as his life trickled away like grains in an hourglass? Had he ever thought of his son, ever wished that he could have loved him better, or at least apologized for all the wrongs he had wrought to him? What had he done as he realized that some words would have to remain unsaid, unknown, lost to time save when they were reborn in imagination?
The storm had been reduced to a heavy rain, slowly wearing itself out. Already cracks were splitting the veil of clouds, stars appearing then winking out as light overwhelmed their tiny glow.
Mark stared out at the world, watching details fade to a blur as something almost strangely familiar, as though rooted deep within his instincts, or perhaps within his very soul, ate away at the corners of his vision.
And as some seemingly almighty being wept more freely than befit his status, heavenly tears rusting away the youthful luster on each bold bronze soldier’s back, Mark Wringler remembered, and wept with him.
Walking down the cobblestone path, the vampire looked back, imagining the man dying inside. He felt a sudden urge to do something drastic, heroic! But the blood-lust was still gnawing at his insides, and he dared not tempt it further. He had called for an ambulance; it was presumably already on its way. He strode past the soldiers, through the grove of apple trees. On reaching the tall iron gate leading marking the estate grounds, he paused. Tiny rivers were streaming through the gate’s spokes, and a small round shape being carried down one’s berth caught his eye. He bent to scoop it from the water. It was an apple, born swiftly away from its tree. He looked back at the grove, apple still in hand, and paused for a long while in silent contemplation. Then a ray of light broke through the cover of clouds and caught his hand in its scorching shaft, and he dropped the fruit, swung wide the gate, and ran swift and silent into the ascending night.