The warming baked the fields to dust, turned forests into stands of dead wood. And the vamp infection spread.
Among his other jobs, Damien tends the high school football field, one bit of green left in the small town of Elk Park.
He worked all day so he didn’t have to think about being alone, aching for someone to touch, to love.
Warning: Graphic content.
They had crucified another cheerleader on the home team’s goal post, the third of that hot August, which must set some kind of record for a town like Elk Park with two thousand people on a good day. But why’d they have to do it on the goal post, leaving it to him to clean up the mess? Damien pulled a stained handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his forehead. The day was already hot — even though the sun hadn’t actually risen yet.
The sun coming up was like a hot oven at his back. Ordinarily he got out earlier to take care of the field, that one solitary patch of green grass left in the whole town. They’d had a meeting on it and everything, when it turned out that denying a thing didn’t stop it from coming and baking the fields to dust, and turning forests into stands of dead wood. The town had voted to keep on watering the football field, so Damien kept his job and came out in the early morning to mow and trim, and lay out the chalk lines again each week and before each game. When he finished he went on to his job at the Thompson’s IGA grocery market until his evening shift over at the solar charging station. Three jobs to cover for his ex’s gambling debts. It wasn’t too bad, at least at the store and the station he got to work in air conditioned buildings, but at home with the broken air conditioner, lying on the sheets damp with his sweat, he ached for someone to hold again.
Damien looked up at the cheerleader hanging on the goal posts, arms stretched out along the bar between the uprights, strapped down with leather belts so tight that her flesh bulged around the leather, winced and checked his watch. Still ten minutes or so until the sun blasted above the horizon, not long after before the sun’s rays found the cheerleader and reduced her to salty black ashes. He took another peek, trying to figure out who it was, but they’d done a number on her all right. Gone at her with baseball bats or metal pipes.
Her face was all swollen black and purple, crusted with blood. Flies crawled thick across the puffy flesh, her eyes hidden deep in swollen folds. A blackened tongue stuck out between rows of shattered teeth. They had to go for the teeth, breaking off the fangs before she could do any damage. The rest of her didn’t look too bad. They hadn’t put a stake in heart, so they at least had the sense not to listen to everything from those old movies. The first time he found one of these cheerleaders crucified on the goal post he had puked his guts out on the grass. It still made him feel dizzy, but as long as he didn’t look at her face he felt steady enough.
Maybe he imagined it, but it seemed like the air was getting hotter. He turned and looked back, across the bright green grass of the field, the pale dirt of the running track surrounding it, out past the gray blocks of the school buildings. The horizon looked brighter. The sun was coming.
Cheerleaders were always the popular girls. Pretty and named things like Wendy or Brittany, with their pictures on the school website and features in the yearbook. No surprise that this one had a nice body, trim and youthful, with nice tits if you ignored the blood crusting her blue and gold uniform. Any closer and he could see right up her short skirt. He still couldn’t come up with her name.
Damien kicked at the grass and stuffed his hands deep in his pocket. A shame, the poor girl didn’t ask to get infected. It wasn’t like the government had done anything to stop the vamps from spreading, they just blamed it on the warming. No surprise that people took matters into their own hands.
Still, she had very nice legs. One of her sneakers had come off and it lay like a dog’s missing bone not far from the chalk line marking the back of the end zone. A couple spots of blood on it, he’d have to pick it up after. More blood had dried on the center post of the goal post and he had just given it a new coat of white paint last week to cover up all the declarations of love scratched into it, the obscenities and crude drawings. Whomever had done this had left it to him to clean off the blood, scrub off the char marks and repaint.
An idea came to mind. If he took her down before she burned up, then he wouldn’t have as much work to do to clean the goal post. He could put her out in the dirt on the other side of the track. She’d burn just the same. Thinking about touching her made him feel dizzy and a bit sick. No one would have to know if he moved her. What difference would it make? He checked his watch. Only a few minutes now, but time enough if he moved fast.
Even though he was turning forty next year, Damien stayed in shape. Partly because he was always working and never took the time to eat much. In any case he shimmied up the goal post just like he’d done back when he went to school, grabbed the part that curved forward to the field and swung his leg up over the top. His shoe kicked the back of her head.
He gagged and nearly let go. He pulled his foot back and got it over the bar, then managed to pull himself up so he was straddling the bar, but he was facing the wrong way. He shifted around, swinging his legs over and around until he had turned facing the field and her again.
Black blood clotted her hair into dense clumps crawling with flies. Damien’s gut lurched and he looked up, past her at the field. From up here he could see all the chalk lines, the places where they’d gotten smudged, marking off the yards on each side. On his right the stands rose up from the track like giant stairs made of steel and wood. He remembered when the long seats were made from aluminum but with the heat these days they couldn’t do that unless they wanted to cook the fans like roast chickens.
Speaking of cooking, he looked back at the cheerleader. He didn’t want to be close to her when she went up, that was for sure. He breathed through his mouth but that didn’t get rid of the stink of blood and meat. He reached out for the belt straps on her right arm and couldn’t reach.
Checking his watch, he only had a couple minutes left.
Looking without really paying attention he pulled himself forward until his legs hit the crossbar. Then he could reach the straps sunken into her swollen arms. He reached over and pulled on the first belt wrapping around the bar and her bicep, having to pull it tighter, her flesh squelching, to release the buckle. Flies took off and buzzed angrily around him. Then he had it off and threw it away to the grass. He leaned the other way to get the one on her left bicep off.
To get her up here like this must have taken at least five guys, he figured. She wasn’t that big, but to hold her in position it would have taken two guys sitting on the crossbars, and another where he was to fasten the belts, plus probably two to hold her legs and help hoist her up. Maybe four, but probably five guys that had beat her to a pulp and then crucified her on the goal post all because she caught the vamp infection. He felt a surge of anger and yanked hard on the belt holding her left wrist in place.
Damien felt dizzy again. He pulled the belt free and she flopped down, there was another loud cracking from her right wrist, and then her right hand slithered out of the remaining belt. She fell hard, with a sound like a sack of potatoes dumped off a roof.
“Shit!” Damien swung down from the goal post and dropped near her crumpled body.
The sun was coming. He could feel the temperature rising.
He heard a noise, like steam from a kettle. He stepped back thinking maybe she was already burning but there wasn’t any smoke.
Her tongue twitched and moved against her shattered teeth.
“Shit! Shit!” Damien danced back.
If he let her burn there she’d leave a scorched mark on the grass. Principal Wilkins wouldn’t like that, Mayor Naylor wouldn’t like it, and none of the people would like it. The town wanted a pristine field and if he couldn’t do it they’d find someone else.
Damien reached down and rolled her away from him so he didn’t have to look at her battered face. He reached down, under her armpits around her front and lifted her up. She couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds but she was limp and threatened to slipped his grasp. He had to pull her up close, his face close to her bloody hair. Her breasts pressed down against his arms, unexpectedly firm and soft all at the same time. She stank but the feel of holding her shocked him. His pulse hammered in his ears and his head spun.
The horizon looked brighter.
“Shit!” Damien started walking backwards as fast as he could, dragging her heels, her other shoe came off leaving her in tiny white socks and then he hit the dirt of the track.
He was halfway across when he realized that the feel of her breasts, of her bottom rubbing against him, had brought him erect. His face flushed and he felt ill. Tears stung his eyes. The last thing this poor girl needed was something like that in her last moments.
“Sorry!” He said. “Sorry! Sorry!”
Her heels bounced across the track and then he was in the dirt on the other side. Safe still, the sun wasn’t coming up but the rays hadn’t reached them yet.
Damien thought he imagined it. He started to lower her to the dirt.
“Please,” she said, hardly more than a gasp, but real and he heard it.
She was mostly on the ground. He could see her face. She couldn’t see through the swelling, couldn’t really talk. But he heard her. She sighed like a ball deflating. A few more seconds and the sun’s rays would wash over her, burning her to ash in a cleansing fire.
But he heard her.
Damien twisted around. The restrooms, a square little brown building made of cinderblocks squatted not more than twenty feet away, one side for women, the other for men. The keys clinked on his belt.
Not thinking now, Damien grabbed her wrists, felt broken bones grinding, and he ran backwards, dragging her, panting with the effort. The sun’s rays hit the top of the goal post at the other end of the field like to bright spot lights. The big racks of lights on the far side of the field gleamed in the morning sun.
He reached the women’s restroom and pulled her around the cinder block privacy barrier that blocked the view into the restroom. He dropped her on the concrete pad and staggered back until he hit the wall. He slid down it, gasping for air. The dirt outside turned golden in the sunlight, but they remained in the shadow.
When he finally felt like he could breathe again and his heart had steadied, he pushed himself up the wall and looked down at the cheerleader. She looked dead, smelled dead, but he’d heard about how vamps healed on the news. She might not really be dead. He used his key to unlock the bathroom door and dragged her inside, leaving her stretched out on the cool floor which would help her rest. Then he went back out and locked the door behind him.
What he’d just done felt too big, too impossible to believe. If he had any sense he’d throw her back out into the sunshine and watch her burn. If the guys that crucified her found out what he’d been done it might be him hanging from the goal post. And to top it off he still had to take care of the field, clean up the goal post and get her out of the restroom before he left.
Damien pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his eyes. Nothing to it but get busy and hope he got to the IGA market on time.
Damien’s bedroom was dark with the curtains drawn against the light from outside, plus the window faced east so by the time he had gotten back home the sun was already on the other side of the house and setting. Getting the cheerleader back home wrapped in a tarp in the back of the truck had been a nightmare between worrying if the Elk Park police were going to pull him over, or the tarp was going to come off and she was going to burn up him and his truck. There hadn’t been any time to do more than dump her on the bed before he had to leave to get to work at the IGA market.
Now he hovered in the bedroom doorway, letting his eyes adjust but also scared to go inside. He could smell the raw, bloody stink of her but she was only a dark shape on the bed. He could just make out the blue of the tarp. In his hands he held a plastic quart container of blood from the store butcher shop.
He tried to speak and nothing came out. He cleared his throat.
The tarp rustled. He got a sense of a small movement in the dark. He heard a gasping noise that went on and on. He didn’t recognize it at first, then it hit him. She was crying. Sobbing, gasping for air, but crying.
Damien’s feet came unstuck. He went to the bed and crouched down beside it. “Shhh, it’s okay. You’re safe. You’re safe.”
The crying went on.
He lifted the container of blood. “I got this, I don’t know if it’ll help. I thought it might.”
Damien peeled back the lid. The odor of blood grew stronger. He fought the urge to gag. Something brushed his hand and he almost screamed until he saw it was her hand, flopping on her broken wrist, against his.
Such an idiot! Damien’s face flushed. Like she could hold it with her broken wrists.
“It’s okay.” He stood up. The tarp rustled as she tried to move away. “Shhh, it’s okay. I’ll help you.”
He put the container down on the night stand, careful not to spill. From his back pocket he took the straw he had snagged in the deli section and peeled off the paper. Then he sat down, the tarp making more noise.
“See? I’ve got a straw. I’ll help you, just don’t be afraid.” She seemed very still, the tarp was quiet. He took the initiative and reached back to her legs. “I’ll help you sit up, don’t be afraid.”
Damien thought she would hear his heart pounding like he was out for a run. Even if she wasn’t terrified, he was, but he tried not to freak out. His hand touched her calf and it felt like any calf, smooth to the touch, slightly cool, but a leg. He felt the muscles jump and tense between his hand and he shivered. They sat like that for a few seconds, his hand resting on her leg, until he felt her muscles relax. Then gently, carefully he moved her leg. She didn’t resist. He brought both of her legs up alongside his. She wiggled closer to the edge of the bed on his own and that made him feel better.
She couldn’t sit up on her own. He slipped his arm around her waist, very conscious of how her slender waist felt beneath his arm but trying not to think about it, and helped her sit. She leaned against him, huddled against him, her head at his shoulder. The smell of her hair made him feel sick. He swallowed and ignored it.
“Okay, good. It’s okay.” He managed a nervous chuckle. “We’re both doing okay. Let me get this for you, and you’ll feel better.”
With his other hand he reached over and put the straw in the blood, then picked up the container and held it so that she could reach the straw. His eyes had adjusted enough that he could see the way her hands sat useless in her lap. She leaned forward and managed to take the straw in her mouth but then she started crying and her body shook against his.
“Shhh, I know it hurts, but you need to eat if you’re going to heal. I heard that va–, um, people with your condition, I’ve heard that you heal real well. If you eat it’ll get better.”
She took the straw again and this time he heard sucking noises. It made him feel sick again but her held her, focusing on the feel of her waist beneath his hand and her leg pressed against his. It was the closest he’d been to a woman in years, even years before the divorce. He found himself staring at the smooth curve of her thigh and looked away, his heart racing.
After she ate, finishing off almost half the container, she seemed to fall asleep and he laid her back on the tarp again. He stood up and could smell the stink of her on his clothes. It seemed wrong to leave her like that. He put the blood away in the fridge and came back to the bedroom again. He crossed his arms.
Should he try cleaning her up? She was caked in blood, that couldn’t be good. And she smelled. She was on the tarp which also couldn’t that comfortable. But maybe he should let her sleep? Damien couldn’t decide. He went into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. Late thirties, thin, tan showing a five o’clock shadow that was actually nine o’clock shadow now. Good-looking enough to date, but he hadn’t had time in years. His eyes looked dark and troubled. He looked down at his hands and saw the blood and dirt coating his hands just from helping her sit up and drink. He couldn’t leave her like that and expect her to get better. He didn’t know if she could get infections or not, but it couldn’t help her feel better.
How was he going to clean her up? He leaned on the sink and hung his head. It was like being in a hospital, that’s all. They had to take care of patients all the time. It was something you did when someone was sick. He’d take her to a hospital if they would take care of her, but once they knew she was a vamp she’d get a one-way trip to the incinerator. He’d already gone this far, he could do it.
Damien gathered up towels, soap, wash cloths and his two biggest bowls of water. He brought it all to the bedroom and put it beside the bed. When he turned on the light he thought she might wake up, maybe tell him if she wanted his help or not, but she didn’t stir.
In the bright light she looked horrible. He couldn’t tell if her battered face was any better, it was all swollen and in purple, red, black and yellow. Her lips were huge and split. Blood caked her face in scabs, pieces littered the tarp. Her hair was a solid mass of clotted blood. Her uniform was more streaked with blood and dirt than he remembered.
He cleared his throat. “Hey, hello?”
She didn’t move.
Damien crouched beside the bed. He wet one of the wash cloths, wrung it out and the hesitated again. “I hope this is okay, but we need to get you cleaned up. Okay?”
She was out of it. He reminded himself of the hospital. It was going to be okay.
He started with her legs, running the wet cloth up her legs, scrubbing off the blood. If she woke he thought she might be okay with that at least, but she didn’t stir. She didn’t move except to breathe. He took off her socks and stopped in surprise. Each of her perfect little toe nails was painted red. He put his head down on the bed for a second, and then took a breath and washed her feet.
When he finished with her legs up to the edge of her skirt Damien put down the wash cloth and walked away from the bed. His face burned. He enjoyed washing her legs. The thought made him feel dirty, but he only wanted to help. He wasn’t doing it to be a pervert. She needed his help, needed him to do what she couldn’t. Even if she was awake how was she going to get clean with broken wrists? Tears welled in his eyes and he wiped them away with the back of his arm. He could do it.
First he had to get the scissors from the kitchen drawer. He came back hoping that she was awake and would tell him if it was okay, but she wasn’t. He crouched down and started cutting her skirt up the front.
Damien rushed into his bathroom and shut the door. He went to the sink and washed his hands, scrubbing hard under hot water until his skin was pink and clean. Images of her naked and wet before him, the feel of her skin beneath his hands, paraded through his mind. He shoved the heels of his hands against his eyes but that didn’t stop the images or make his aching erection subside.
He lowered his hands and glared at his reflection. “You’re sick!”
It didn’t matter. He couldn’t stop thinking about how she looked, so long as he didn’t think about how her face looked, or the bruises on her arms and ribs. It had taken several bowls of water to get the blood out of her hair, which turned out dark and full. When he had finished bathing her he dressed her in one of his t-shirts and sweat pants. He got rid of the tarp and her ruined uniform and other clothes. He wanted to kiss each mark, each bruise and take away the pain. He didn’t understand how anyone could hurt something so beautiful.
With that last thought he opened his pants and masturbated, hot and quick in the sink. When he finished he sat down on the toilet, put his head on his arms and cried.
Much later Damien woke on the couch in his living room. Moonlight coming through the two open windows behind the television let him see enough of the room that he could see her standing on the other side of his coffee table watching him.
Damien swore and scrambled up into a sitting position. His heart pounded in his chest but he couldn’t move as she walked on silent bare feet around the coffee table. In his clothes, lit only in the moonlight, she looked beautiful, the shadows hiding her face from view. He didn’t know what she was going to do, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say. She came to the couch and kneeled beside it. Up close he could see the swelling had gone down some, enough for her to see, and her eyes searched his face.
When she didn’t say anything he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ariel,” she said softly. Then, “You saved me.”
“Yes,” he whispered.
Ariel stood and held out her hand, her wrist clearly not broken any longer. Her intent was clear. Damien hesitated but she didn’t. When he wouldn’t take her hand she reached down and took his, pulling him up with a strength that made him shiver. He didn’t resist when she led him back to the bedroom, but when she crawled onto the bed, still pulling him, he did stop.
“I shouldn’t –”
“Shhh,” she said, and tugged him into the bed.
Damien gave in and climbed into bed, slipping beneath the sheets. Anything more would be too hot. He rolled on his side to face away from her. Her arm slipped up under his. He felt her press against his back, a very female presence pressing through his shirt. Ariel didn’t do anything more and even though he doubted he could sleep he was out in seconds.
Damien left the next morning before she woke but he left a note on the counter by the fridge saying when he would return. He debated how to sign the note and settled on just signing his name.
At work in the IGA market he listened for anyone talking about another cheerleader vamp but nobody said anything. He caught himself staring off into space several times, remembering how it felt lying next to Ariel. He managed to get one of the other cashiers to cover for him so he could leave early and make a trip to the second hand clothing store on 4th where he bought clothes he thought might fit Ariel, telling the dour-faced gray-haired woman in the store that they were for his niece.
A problem with the converters kept him late at the charging station so the sun had set by the time he got home. He hurried inside, eager to show Ariel what he had bought. He dropped his keys on the small table in the hall beside the door.
“Ariel? I’m home.” Damien went into the living room and dropped the bags on the couch. He carried another container of blood into the kitchen and put it in the fridge. The old container was missing.
Starting to feel nervous he hurried back to the bedroom, flicking on the hall light as he went. “Ariel?”
She appeared in the doorway, stepping out gracefully, her bare feet didn’t make any noise. Damien froze, struck by how much she had changed.
The swelling was much reduced to small patches of deep yellow and fading purple. Her dark brown hair hung in thick waves past her shoulders. Although she still had healing to do he could see her face was fine featured, delicate with just the tiniest quirky tilt to her nose. Her lips twitched into a smirk.
“There you are, I thought you weren’t coming back at all.” She walked toward him, and even in his sweats the way she walked made his brain turn to jelly.
Before he knew it she was right in front of him, one hand pressing to his chest and her other gliding up the side of his jaw as she gazed up at him. “My hero.”
Damien tore his gaze away from her lips, lips he wanted to taste, and stepped back. He wasn’t going to think about that. He was late? “Right, um, converter problem at work. I thought about calling, but I didn’t really have a chance.”
Ariel reached out and touched his arm. “You don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt you.”
He laughed. “I know that. But come on, I’ve got something for you.”
“Oh goodie,” she did a little bounce that made him swallow and look away. “I like presents.”
Damien turned to escape into the other room but she caught his hand and held it as she followed. He liked the feel of her hand in his, both delicate and strong, but when he got to the living room he pulled free and picked up the first bag to hand it to her.
“I didn’t really know your size –”
Ariel looked up from the bag and smirked. “You should, you’ve seen me naked, run your hands all over my body.”
Damien flushed. He took a step back. She knew! She knew what he’d done afterwards.
She laughed, her voice clear and happy. “Oh, how cute! That’s so adorable. Damien, really, it’s okay.”
“There was so much blood.”
She pulled out a tiny sheer black blouse with lace around the collar and held it up against her chest. “Ohh, this is so pretty!” She looked at him and he saw a tiny dimple appear on her cheek when she smiled and pulled the sweat shirt right up off over her head.
His palms felt sweaty. Ariel stood in front him, naked from the waist up, her breasts as high, firm and perfect as he remembered, her nipples tiny dark rosebuds. His erection swelled as she raised the blouse and slipped it on, shaking it down into place. The front cut low enough to show her cleavage, the lace making a pretty pattern against her skin. He swallowed and looked away. He tried thinking of power converters instead.
He heard another piece of clothing hit the floor and caught a glimpse of his sweat pants pooling on the golden wood floor. He studied the ceiling which was white and texture and wouldn’t another color be better?
“You don’t have to look away,” Ariel said. “It isn’t like you haven’t seen it before, and even if you hadn’t I wouldn’t mind. I like the way you look at me.”
Sticking his fingers in his ears would probably look pretty silly. Damien bit his lip.
Her hand touched his arm, turning him. She grinned at him and stepped back, spreading her arms. “How do I look?”
She’d chosen a pair of stone washed jeans that hugged her hips to go with the top. Her hair was tucked behind her tiny ears and she rose up on her toes.
“You look beautiful,” he said, truthfully. “Absolutely beautiful.”
She beamed and took two bouncing steps to reach him. He didn’t realize what she was doing until she rose up on her toes and kissed him. Her lips had healed and felt perfect and soft, wonderful, but he pulled away and stepped back.
“We can’t do that,” he said, even though he wanted to do that and much more.
Ariel cocked her head to the side. “Why not?”
“You’re too young, for one thing. Plus you’re, well, you know?”
Ariel bit her lip and he noticed for the first time that her teeth were whole again. Her canines might look a little pointed, but not too much. She shook her head. “I’m old enough.”
“There’s a big age difference.”
“I don’t care. You saved me. It was hard enough hiding what had happened to me at the start, but with the right makeup and contacts it’s possible to get around without burning. Most people don’t go outside much during the day now anyway and everyone is wearing sun screen all the time. I thought I was careful. I never should have trusted the Mitch Goldman.”
Damien knew that name. “The quarterback?”
Ariel nodded. “Turns out him and the other guys have this little game hunting vamps.”
Damien felt furious. “That’s horrible! We should report them!”
“To the police? They don’t care, we’re monsters as far as anybody is concerned. Nobody cares.” Ariel came back to him, wrapping her arms around him before he could pull back. She pressed her body against his and his body responded. Part of him liked the feel of her. “Except you. You took me down, you took care of me.”
Her face turned up to him. “We should get out of here. The two of us. Go up to Canada. They’re protecting vamps there and it’s much nicer now that things are warmer. I read that they get lots of rain and cloudy days. Wouldn’t that be perfect?”
If it meant holding her for the rest of his life it would be perfect. But then he thought about their age difference and his face flushed again. It was wrong. He shouldn’t be thinking about her that way. He ran his hand through her hair, buried his face in the top of her head and inhaled the rich scent that was simply her and soap.
It had been so long since anyone wanted him, or held him or looked to him to protect them. That all felt good, and he wanted her too. Damien felt something loosen in his chest. If he sent her away he would always worry about her, wonder if she was okay. He couldn’t stand the thought of how he found her. He would do anything to stop that from happening again.
Damien kissed the top of her head. She looked up at him. He saw trust in her eyes, and the fading bruises still on her face.
“You’ll help me? You’ll take care of me?” she asked.
Damien kissed her and she eagerly kissed him back. He didn’t know how they’d make it work, but there had to be some place. Maybe Canada, or somewhere else. Wherever it was, they’d find it.
This story is the 43rd weekly short story release, written in June 2011, originally released under my pen name “Tennessee Hicks”. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my science fiction story The Wind of Rushing Trees.