Alexander Chirila 2013
Passing the Test
When I was a little kid, I was afraid of thunder. My elder brothers would force me outside, dragging me to the nearest electrical tower. I can remember screaming and wailing, looking up at that metal scaffolding in wide-eyed terror while my brothers laughed and hooted. I remember lying there in the rain and wet grass, that line of electrical towers tethered to one another by humming cables, marching in line towards some unseen end.
When I got older Theo and Hess quit their game, but they never could understand what it was about the thunder and lightning that terrified me so much. Maybe I knew, even then, that the storms around here brought bad things with them.
We lived on a farm house on the Eastern Shore. It was all flat land, crisscrossed by stretches of woods, local roads passing through small towns, and several highway arteries that branched off after the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and converged again near D.C. We lived near the Atlantic side, a few miles out from the shore.
There were three other farm houses in sight, and the same families had lived in them for generations. We were all kin out here; least we acted like it. In reality my brothers and I hated the poor Widow’s boys, tolerated the dim-witted twins down the way, and fought one another over the right to ask Kitty for her hand in marriage some day.
We knew all the local area boys, and by local I mean within a radius of about 50 miles. We’d see the ones far out maybe once a month during a game; but every kid who could get away from his folks would come through the shopping complex on the weekends. That was our spot, our social arena. That was where we watched the elder boys hook up with girls and play out the violence and passion of arrogant youth. That was where we mimicked their games and learned just how high the stakes were.
Ronny Calloway ran an old mom and pop joint up the road from the complex, which used to be a whole strip of mom and pops until they went under. Ronny kept on, the old survivor, and he’d keep on until every last old family in these parts died. Sometimes I’d leave my brothers and kin to their ruckus and walk over to Ronny’s after the Sunday-school crowd went home. He was an old soldier, from a long line of soldiers. He was our elder, our storyteller, and I still respected his role. Someone needed to hear his stories before they were lost, and he hadn’t any kids to do it. He wasn’t a boast, and he wasn’t a liar. Far as I could tell, Ronny told the straight truth and backed it up if he could. His stories cut right to it, and I appreciated them all the more because he didn’t spare any details. I might’ve been a little young to hear about some of it, but he just told me to keep my mouth and remember that ‘this world will never be anything but a wilderness.’
One night in mid October I remember sitting with my brothers in the pizza shop at the edge of the complex. The people who ran the shop were move-ins from New York; they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, damned Yankees, but they made one hell of a pizza pie and they were forgiven.
On this particular night I was feeling restless. We were all feeling restless.
Now, looking back, I know what it was: we were anxious for the test. All the boys were tested at some point, whether by fate or by the ancient social mechanisms that grind children into men. We had watched it happen to those before us. We all thought it would have something to do with sex, or graduation, or the first mistake you make driving your parent’s car. It was more complicated than that.
It had something to do with blood. That much we understood. The blood is the life, and the test was real when blood was at stake. Old Ronny had said it best, ‘Even money is meaningless until you bleed over it.’ That’s what we were all waiting for. We were scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time.
We were restless because we’d all been feeling it coming. That night had a charge to it.
‘Paul came through from Talbot County two nights ago,’ Theo said, bringing our wandering attention back to the table. ‘I heard him talking to dad about something that happened up that way.’ We waited patiently for him to continue. Theo was the firstborn. ‘You remember that storm a few nights back? Talbot caught the brunt of it. Paul’s a 911 responder, right? So he gets this call and there’s a woman on the line, says that someone’s been stalking her. She’s called before, the police never found anyone, no one believes her—says that she keeps seeing things following her on the street. Sometimes it’s a guy, sometimes it’s three black dogs.’
‘Three black dogs?’ Hess said. He used to dote on Theo when he was younger and I was still crawling on my hands and knees. When he got a little older, he started to realize how different he was from his older brother. Theo would thrive in this place; people would respect him, honor him. Even now the elders often took him hunting with them. Give him a few years to round out, they said, and he will be a man about this town. Hess’s ambitions were going to lead him elsewhere. I often imagined him roaming around the world in far-off, exotic places. He often said that he would take me with him.
‘That’s what she said,’ Theo replied. ‘So now Paul figures this woman’s a loon, right? Then she starts telling him that she’s made a terrible mistake. She tried to kill herself—took a razor to her wrists right up the street…’ Theo glanced at me. Sometimes he caught himself wondering whether I was still too young to hear about such things. He shrugged and went on. ‘She’s bleeding out in her living room, holding the phone and sobbing into the line; Paul’s listening to all this and trying to calm her down, telling her that EMS will be there soon. Only he knows that soon is not soon enough. Storm’s raging, the roads are cluttered with accidents, it’s raining so hard that no one can see more’n a few feet…no, he knew that nobody would get there in time.
‘Still, he keeps her on the phone. Then she starts talking about the dogs again. Says that she can see them outside her window. They’re coming towards her place. Paul figures she’s just hallucinating, you know, from all the blood loss; then he hears her screaming, and glass breaking, some kind of struggle on her end…then she hangs up,’ Theo slapped his palms against the table.
‘Then what happened?’ I asked.
‘Well, first responders get there and find the roof sheared clean off. They find her, dead on the floor from blood loss. Only here’s the thing…there wasn’t a drop of blood anywhere.’
Hess stared at Theo blankly. ‘Really?’ he asked in a deadpan voice. ‘I’m a little too old for ghost stories; I don’t about Jesse over here…’ he punched my shoulder. ‘I was hoping you heard something about what Caleb said the other night. You know, about what happened up at the Pines…’
Theo shrugged. ‘What? About Kitty’s cousin? What more is there to say? She was a meth head; she was always going up to the Pines. It was only a matter of time before she got herself killed, and worse.’
‘What’s worse?’ I asked.
Theo smiles. ‘A few things are worse. Anyway, that’s what happened. Now everybody’s waiting, ’cause you can be sure that Kitty’s older brother has already heard about it.’ He leaned forward over the table. ‘But I did hear about something going down tonight. You know that Russian kid? Sasha? He’s got friends who live by there and he told me that Kitty’s brother was on his way down from Wilmington. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if…’
We heard the screeching tires and turned; a familiar car ripped into the lot and slammed to a halt that nearly sent the back wheels off the ground. It was Kitty’s older brother Tom. He tore out of the car and took off down the lot on foot, his head snapping from side to side like he was looking for something. We all knew Tom—sort of. Sort of in that we only knew his last name and his little sister. No one talked about him, and last time he came by we were all too young to register more than a disturbance in the adult world. The only other things we knew were what we had heard: he worked in Wilmington, and he ran with the kind of people that eventually get you killed.
My brothers and I looked at one another. Theo was older than Hess by a year and me by two. We were watching Tom storm off when Theo said, ‘There’s someone else in the car.’ Sure enough, there was someone we didn’t recognize slumped over in the passenger seat. Theo got up and we followed him outside the pizza shop. On the far side of the lot, I saw Tom approaching some of the area boys. Theo and Hess peered into the car, muttering to one another. I heard snippets of what they were saying, but I was watching Tommy round up the boys.
‘Shit, he’s been shot!’ Theo exclaimed. The boy in the car—couldn’t have been more than nineteen—stirred and groaned. ‘He needs a hospital…’
That didn’t seem to be Tom’s priority. He jogged back to the car, pausing when he saw us clustered around it. He wasn’t going to spare us a word. He pulled open the door and Theo said, ‘You need to take him to a hospital.’ We all stared at him. What was he doing? We weren’t supposed to get mixed up in whatever this was!
Tom regarded our elder brother for a moment. ‘No hospitals,’ he said, ‘until we clear this up. Now get back inside,’ he nodded towards the pizza shop. I glanced behind to see everyone inside looking at us. Gigliani had the phone to his ear. Tom didn’t miss it. He cursed and slammed the top of the car. ‘You didn’t see anything, you understand? He’s just sleeping it off, ok?’ His eyes narrowed and we all understood what he meant.
‘But what happened?’ Theo said. We all stared at him again.
Tom shook his head, exasperated, and threw out two words before sliding into the car and slamming the door. ‘Goddamn meth heads,’ was what he said. He reversed out of the lot and drove away, followed by the older boys in our circle. They were going to the Pines.
Gigliani came out of the pizza shop. ‘You boys had better get back inside. Matty and the rest of them will be here any minute. They’ll handle it.’ Matty—Matthew Henderson—was the local law enforcement. Tom and the boys were likely going to wage war, and there would be a firefight. If Matty caught up to them, they’d get thrown in the can for a couple of days while the cops raided the Pines and scattered their enemies. Second chances for everyone. Tom knew this, and he didn’t give a damn about second chances.
I went to see Ronny. He poured me a glass of lemonade, added half a shot to it, and listened. When I finished, I expected him to dispense his usual wisdom and follow it up with a war story. Instead he said, ‘Now’s not a good time for this. Storm’s coming in. We don’t need any blood being shed now.’ I asked him what he meant.
‘This is old country,’ he said. ‘There were rituals here from long before. They weren’t just superstitions. What some people call savagery and barbarism was just survival—then as now. There was something that people used to do here, before they forgot. When the storms came in, they would call a stop to any kind of violence and bloodshed. No fighting, no warring, no hunting.’
‘No hunting. The watermen could go about their business, but everything else was off-limits. No bloodshed. Anyone who broke the rules would be dragged out to sea and left alone, hog-tied in a canoe. There’s a story someone told me; an old waterman from Tangier Island out in the bay. I could hardly understand a word of what this fellow was saying. Anyway, he said that this is an old story.
‘On the first day of the storm season, a waterman was coming in from a long day out on the open sea. Not two days before, the blood-taboo was declared. The waterman was gathering up his net on the beach when he looks up and sees them,’ he moved his hand horizontally, his eyes narrowed as if he were seeing this himself, ‘coming up out of the water. Some had been dead for years. They should have been bloated, or falling apart—but they walked up out of the surf looking as strong as they did when they were alive. Only their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy.
‘They came inland and overtook the village. They caught everyone unawares; trussed them up and nicked ’em on the neck,’ Ronny drew his thumb in a quick gesture across his neck. ‘Not enough so they’d bleed out; just enough.’
‘Just enough for what?’
Ronny smiled enigmatically. ‘Remember what I told you, kid. This world is nothing but a wilderness. Those boys got themselves into a serious fix. If this was back in the day, they would have been punished for shedding blood. They would’ve been hauled out in a canoe and left to the sea. But not today. Today, nobody remembers the old rituals. Nobody remembers how to survive. Let me tell you something: you can bet that our predator’s hasn’t forgotten how to hunt us…’
‘The hell, Ronny, I have no idea what you’re talking about…!’
I didn’t get a chance to press him for an interpretation. Theo and Hess found me and told me that Matty and the others were here—with our father. I groaned, glared at Ronny and his poorly concealed smirk, and left with my brothers.
I figured it was over. Some of the men went after Tommy and the other boys, calling ahead to cut them off before they made it to the Pines. Matty stayed with us, riding back in our car. ‘If things go south, and we don’t get to them before they cause trouble, Tommy’s going to try and make it back to his folks’ place. He’ll likely cut across the back way by your property. I’m sorry for the bother, Frank…’
Our father shook his head. ‘Pay no mind,’ he said.
‘What about the other guy?’ Theo demanded.
Matty looked into the rearview mirror. ‘You boys are the only ones who saw this other boy,’ he said. ‘You tell me he was shot. How do you know? Did you look at him that closely…?’
‘I looked at him close enough,’ Theo said defensively. ‘There was a lot of blood. It was obvious that he needed a hospital…’
Matty shook his head. ‘Well, Tommy’s not headed to the hospital.’
The storm followed on our heels all the way home. I kept thinking about Ronny’s story. I kept thinking that it was too late: that boy was just bleeding, spilling his short life into that car. I kept thinking that the boy had failed his test; he would never become a man. He would die a boy, just a foolish boy.
It started coming down and we dashed into the house. My brothers and I made it through the gauntlet of our mother’s worried chastisement, our father’s stern reprimand, and Matty’s friendly reminder to avoid associating with the wrong crowd. He never did specify what the right crowd was.
Eventually the call came. We listened to Matty’s clipped answers and pointed questions, watched his facial expressions and awaited his explanation. ‘They found the boys,’ he said after he was done, ‘at a gas station just off the state road. No sign of Tommy. He hasn’t shown up at the Pines, either.’ Matty glanced at Theo. ‘If your boy is right,’ he said to our father, ‘could be Tommy found himself with a dead body on his hands and decided to get rid of it.’
Our mother gasped. Matty put up his hands and chuckled. ‘Sorry ma’am, didn’t mean to be so blunt about it.’ All the same, he winked at us. I remembered why I liked Matty. ‘Listen, Frank, I’m going to go ahead and get going. I’ll be needing to keep an eye on the Tanners’ place; if Tommy makes it back, he’ll have some explaining to do. I’ll have a look over his car, too—blood’s not something that washes off so easy.’ He smirked at our mother and left.
The storm broke something fierce. The clouds unfurled over the sky like an angry mob pouring out of a side street, waving lightning and shouting thunder.
* * * *
This was a season of storms. Nothing ended up happening that night and we all thought it’d blown over. But the sky remained overcast and I couldn’t shake this feeling. I remembered the girl on the phone and what she said about being watched. I remembered Ronny’s story and wondered whether the blood-taboo would have been passed by now. Three days later, another storm was about to break.
I was standing in the kitchen when the power went out. I had been trying to see past my reflection in the glass door; the sudden darkness threw into sharp focus the silhouette of two figures walking across the property. I ran upstairs to call my brothers down. Quietly we skirted past our parents and out the back door.
The wind lashed my face with coils of icy rain. ‘Can you make out who they are?’ Hess asked.
‘Let me get the gun,’ Theo said. He returned a few minutes later with his 10 gauge Browning. He was especially proud of that gun; it was a gift from our uncle. He kept that weapon in impeccable condition and made real good use of it. He stood on the deck and peered out. ‘Can’t make them out,’ he muttered. ‘Let’s go see what they want.’
‘Maybe we should call dad,’ I said. Hess scowled at me.
Theo considered it for a moment, then shook his head. God, how eager he was to face his test! ‘We can handle it,’ I remember him saying. How wrong he was. ‘If it’s Tommy,’ Theo said, ‘he’s probably just looking to get home.’
It was Tommy, alright—and the other boy, the one who had been bleeding to death in the car. They were still about three hundred meters away, moving toward us. Theo called out, but the wind stole his voice and threw it somewhere behind us. He decided that body language might convey his message more effectively: he loaded the shotgun and leveled the barrel towards the approaching boys.
When they came closer, I saw their faces and remembered what Ronny had said: their skin was somehow different; it was like porcelain or fine china, smooth and cracked and glossy. I could see it. Tommy’s face looked like the face of a doll, animated by a surreal parody of expression. I looked at Theo; did he notice how different Tommy looked? Did he realize how wrong he was?
‘Look at you, all grown up,’ Tommy shouted. ‘Frank’s boys. I remember when you three used to chase my sister around. You still chasin’ Kitty around, boys? What are you aiming to do once you catch her?’
‘Matty’s looking for ya, Tommy,’ Theo called back. ‘Did you get your friend here fixed up?’
‘Something like that,’ Tommy said. He glanced at the boy next to him. ‘Listen, Theo, you know what they say about pointing a gun when you don’t mean it. Now we’re just passing through; why don’t you and your brothers step aside and let us be on our way?’
‘Nobody wants any trouble, Tommy,’ Theo says.
Tommy looks up as a heavier downpour of rain pelts across the field. There is something almost sorrowful in his dark eyes. ‘What nobody wants and what everybody gets are two different things, kid.’
I looked at my brother. I thought, he should shoot. Instead, Theo lowered the gun. I knew that it was a mistake as soon as he did it. A glint in Tommy’s eye gave him away. A massive thunder-clap disoriented by brother long enough for him to make his move. Fortunately, I listened to my instincts and tackled my elder brother to the ground. Tommy blurred past us, his arm extended with a knife in hand.
I turned in time to see the other boy dart forward towards Hess. He sliced my brother across his upraised forearm; Hess cried out and staggered away. Theo recovers himself and braces the shotgun on his knee. He had only to spare before Tommy assaulted him again; he took quick aim and fired. The shot caught the other boy in through the back, right where his heart should have been—but there was nothing there. It was like he’d been emptied out.
Tommy laughed. ‘Oh my! They’ve gone and figured it out. Too little too late, boys. The game is up!’ He raised his arms and threw his head back. ‘The amazing race for immortality has begun! And now for the host of our game this evening…’
The Vampire descended from the sky like a curtain of rain taking solid shape, alighting on the electrical tower. It was beautiful in its own way, the way something deadly is beautiful when it does what it does best. It was like sighting a rare predator in the wild.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw our father running towards us from the house. Hess was cradling his arm and crying. Theo was just sitting there, the shotgun in his lap, looking up at the thing on the tower. Tommy and the other boy were watching us, expressionless, all mimicry of human emotion erased from their features. ‘Looks like we got a volunteer,’ Tommy said, reaching inside his jacket and withdrawing a .38 pistol. He turned and fired; our father was thrown off his feet by the impact. He rolled away, howling and trying to keep the blood from spurting out of a fresh hole in his gut.
Behind him, standing on the back deck, our mother screamed and shouted our names.
Theo fired the shotgun a second time; the shot took half of Tommy’s face with it. He went down cursing. My eldest brother was already up and reloading the shotgun. Hess was running towards our father. I look up…
The Vampire’s face was neither grotesque nor monstrous, but somehow worse than both. It was so uncannily inhuman that it blurred, defying focus and certainty. Its eyes were opaque shadow, pools of inky blackness punctuated by twin pinpoints of reflected light. I felt myself pushed against the earth by its terrible gaze; the Vampire didn’t move, but those pinpoints of light grew larger and larger, pressing me down.
It spread its shroud, like a pair of immense raven wings stretching out over the field—then it collapsed like a fountain jet cut off at the base. It swarmed over the metal scaffolding of the electrical tower, clambering like an enormous millipede down the length of the structure. Theo and I backed away from the skittering monstrosity. It pooled into a shadow that stretched across the grass, snaking over the ground towards our father. He extended an arm towards our mother, shouting at her to go inside and call for help…but the storm crushed his words as soon as he uttered them.
Like a shark smelling blood in the water, the Vampire rose over our gasping father. Hess tried to strike it—what a brave soul he was! The blood drinker tossed him towards Tommy and the other boy as if it were tossing crumbs to a pair of obedient dogs. They closed in on him; Tommy fastened his lips over the wound in my Hess’s arm, his Adam’s apple bobbing and his cheeks sagging with each drought of Hess’s blood. Tommy’s face unraveled itself like a piece of crumpled paper straightening into place, the ghastly wound closing seamlessly. The other boy knelt down and made an incision in Hess’s leg, severing the femoral artery; he leaned forward, sticking his tongue out to catch the blood.
Theo yelled and discharged the shotgun. The shot took the other boy in the side, throwing his clear of Hess. Tommy, his white lips covered in gore, grinned and threw my brother down. His teeth flashed behind the blood and he stepped forward. ‘Not bad, kid,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry—in another time and place, this would’ve been the night you became a man. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? To prove yourself. How are you handling it, Theo? This is isn’t your test, you frail little bag of watered-down meat!
‘This is my test!’ he yelled, ‘and I’m about proving myself to a god!’
Theo fired the second shot, taking Tommy full in the chest. The bastard flew backwards laughing. My brother grabbed the knife Tommy had dropped in the grass. ‘This is it, little guy, this is what it’s all about,’ he said as he ran past me. Those were the last words I heard my brother speak.
The Vampire stooped over our father. Theo reached it, but the predator didn’t stand to be interrupted; it rose and turned as he drew near. Its shroud wavered like smoke and then rippled as if shaken by an unheard sonic explosion. Theo stopped and fell, as simple as that; when he struck the ground his head rolled back lifelessly, his eyes, nose, and mouth streaming blood. My father shouted his name. My mother collapsed on the back deck.
I wondered, how does a boy make peace with a God he will never know as a man?
The Vampire embraced my father, its fangs folding outward. Its head was strangely distorted, as if its skull were changing shape to accommodate the sickening blades that descended from the roof of its mouth. It lifted my father up over its head and stabbed its fangs into the gunshot wound in his abdomen. It burrowed its face into the blood, gnashing its teeth into my father’s body; he flailed and gurgled in the monster’s grip, his hands clutching at the Vampire’s snarling black shroud. His fingers closed over nothing but oily smoke.
I heard someone call my name. I looked towards our house to see Ronny running forward, a .45 hand-cannon in his hand. How had he known? He drew to a stop and fired at Tommy and the other boy. Two shots! They were blasted off their feet and sent sprawling away in broken heaps. Ronny shouted my name again and sprinted forward. He fired into the other boy’s crawling body and laid him out. He did the same to Tommy, a headless mess of white flesh and torn clothing.
I grabbed Ronny and yelled at him to help my father; I shouted at Theo, telling him to get up, just get up. Hess was lying immobile on the ground—I roared and started to charge forward. Ronny grabbed my arm so roughly that my legs nearly flew out from under me. ‘Let me go!’ I cried, ‘I need to help them!’
‘There are some tests you pass by surviving,’ Ronny said.
This was it. This was my test. I kicked Ronny in the shins and grabbed the .45 out of his stunned grip. I rolled away and pointed the gun at the Vampire, gorging on the blood of my father. As my finger found the trigger and pulled, I thanked Theo for teaching me how to shoot.
I fired; the Vampire dropped my father, turning its face to me. I fired again, and the shot struck it right in the face—I expected blood, pain, something—but the Vampire just kept coming.
Ronny leapt in front of me, pushing me away. He told me to run and I ran. I ran because my courage was exhausted. I ran because I could do nothing else. I ran because I was still a boy, and the test was unfair.
When I finally stopped and turned to look, I was already at the far edge of the Widow’s property. From that distance, I saw my house shake and break apart, planks of wood and rent fabric twisting into the fierce wind. The lightning flashed, turning the pieces of my life into so much flotsam caught in a torrent of rain and thunder.
I saw the Vampire ascend, its hunger sated, an awful black bird soaring into the charcoal pillars of cloud turning in the sky.
* * * *
I push the skiff into the surf and jump aboard. The waters of the Atlantic are choppy; it takes me a while to paddle out past the breakers. I timed the storm just right. It breaks over the open ocean; a crack of thunder and the clouds pour down rain like broken water jars.
Now’s as good a time as any.
I draw the knife across my palm, clenching my fist and teeth. I shake the blood over an old picture of my family. ‘I never did pass that test,’ I tell my brothers, ‘but I never did forget. This world will never be anything but a wilderness.’
I sit down and load my brother’s shotgun. I am a much better shot these days, but it won’t make a difference. I watch the sky, waiting. Then I see it.
The Vampire is coming in the storm.