Friedrich looked in the mirror. He had no reflection, of course, but he looked anyway. He ran his hands over his face, tracing the deep lines, feeling the papery flesh, outlining the hooked nose and wide brow, all the features he knew were there even though he could not see them. How did I get so old, he thought; I was supposed to live forever?
"No one lives forever," said a voice in his ear.
"Certainly not us," said another, on the other side. Two figures, both women, appeared in the mirror behind him, though Friedrich knew that if he turned around he would not see them. They were only ever in the mirror.
Friedrich sighed and sat down. The room was dark, and filthy, and full of dust. The windows and doors were barricaded, and everything smelled of decay. How long had he been here? He barely remembered now. He was dying one inch at a time. He picked at the moth-eaten tatters of his dressing gown, feeling as if the moths ate holes through him too. "I want to die," he said.
"Die? Oh no, not die, that's not what you do," said one of the women, still visible only in the mirror.
"You kill,” said the other.
"You killed me," said the woman on his left; she was rawboned but genteel, in her way. Her throat was torn, and blood covered the front of her. A gold ring glimmered on her finger. "I was your wife for twelve years, and you killed me the night you became a monster."
"I know," said Friedrich.
"And you killed me," said the other voice, and the second woman came forward, delicate-looking with her dark hair coiled on top of her head. One of her wrists was cut so deep that the hand was barely attached. She, too, had a ring. "I was willing to love you even though you were a monster, but you killed me anyway. Why?"
"I could not help myself," said Friedrich. He wiped at tears that weren't there. “You were all I lived for. Now you two are the only reason I know I'm not dead yet. Only because I have you to compare myself to do I know the difference between life and death anymore."
The women's images vanished, but he knew they were still there. They were always there, in the glass, watching.
Friedrich sat in the rotting easy chair, staring at nothing. There had once been a clock in this room, but it wound down years ago. Occasionally he still thought he heard it ticking. The house died around him. It was an old house now, a shunned house, and people said it was haunted, but they were wrong. The house isn't haunted, thought Friedrich, I am.
It started as a night like any other. Friedrich did nothing, the house settled, occasionally there was a sound from outside, a siren or a low-flying plane or a pedestrian who wandered too close. Sometimes Friedrich was hungry, but for the most part he'd moved beyond hunger long ago. He’d not had a drop of blood in decades. He’d expected to die, to starve, but instead he grew old. Now there was just emptiness, an emptiness different from hunger, because hunger could be satisfied but this feeling of having nothing, being nothing, would last for eternity, because nothing could fill nothing. It just went on and on, and Friedrich sat, and waited for nothing and no one, forever.
It started as a night like any other, but tonight something changed. It began with the smallest of sounds, just the slightest settling of the floorboards downstairs. Only Friedrich, his ear practiced at decades of listening to perfect silence, could have detected it. He assumed from the lightness of the step that it was a stray cat, but eventually he decided that the intruder was moving too gently even for a cat. It could only be a child. He stirred. Had one of the neighbor children come into the old, haunted house on a dare? And what was that he heard now? Was it the sound of a tiny little voice crying, sobbing even, right below him? He sat up. It had been ages since anyone had cried in this house. It felt just like old times.
Slowly, very slowly, his aged limbs aching, Friedrich stood and went to the bedroom door, locking it behind him with the old, rusty key from his dressing gown pocket. His footsteps on the stairs were lighter even than those of the child (though the soles had long since worn out of his velvet slippers), and although the house was a cauldron of gloom he could see perfectly. Friedrich followed the pitiful wailing to the tumbledown remains of the kitchen, and there he saw her, a golden-haired angel crying into the red-checked pleats of her favorite dress, little round legs drawn up under her, like a marionette trying to sit down. She could be no more than six years old.
Stiff as he’d grown in twenty years without feeding, Friedrich was still stealthy enough to approach without notice. Only when the papery flesh of his finger wiped a tear from her cheek did the little girl see him, looking up with watery blue eyes. He expected her to scream at the sight of such an old monster, but instead she jumped up, threw her arms around his bony legs, and hugged him for dear life. He ran a gnarled claw through her golden locks, making soothing noises. "There, there," he said. "What happened, little one? Are you lost?"
"I can't find my mother," said the girl.
"Oh dear," said Friedrich.
"Can you help me?"
"Can I? Ah..." he said, and then, very gently, so as not to alarm her, he put his hand on her head and looked at her memories...
She walks down the street with her mother. She is holding a balloon, and then a gust of wind blows it away and she runs after it. Her mother calls out to her but she does not listen, and her mother cannot move through the crowd as quickly as she. When the girl looks up again she is alone, and the night is waning, and she crawls into the old, abandoned house to cry...
Friedrich took his hand away and looked at the little girl again. "What is your name?" he said.
"Mary," said the girl, sniveling.
"Well of course it is," said Friedrich. "Little Mary, I have such sad news; your poor mother is dead."
"She is?" said Mary, and she began to wail again. Friedrich continued to stroke her hair.
"I'm afraid she is," said Friedrich. "I saw it happen myself. And with her very last breath she sent me to find you."
"Who's...gonna...take care of me...now?" said Mary, hiccupping between sobs.
"No need to worry about that," said Friedrich. "I'll look after you."
"You will?" said Mary, eyes still watery.
"Oh yes," he said. "I need a pretty little girl like you to help me anyway. You see, I'm a very old man, and very sick, and I can never go out during the day."
The girl stopped sobbing as she pondered this.
"If you promise to look after the house for me while I'm asleep, I'll take good care of you, and always watch over you, and love you for the sake of your poor, dead mama."
He smiled, and the girl hugged him. She felt hot and alive in his arms. He allowed himself to remember, for the first time in decades, how a tiny human life felt as it fluttered and died in his arms, filling him with its richness and vivacity. He had kept himself from feeding for decades, but now a sweet meal had walked right into his embrace, and he could not just let her go. Friedrich leaned in until the girl’s tiny, soft neck was within reach of his fangs…
"Go ahead, Friedrich," said one of the women.
"What are you waiting for?" said the other.
He looked up; in the smudged, dirty glass of the broken windows, he saw them, staring, watching him.
"Her blood will make you young again," said one.
"Young, and strong," said the other.
"Go ahead, Friedrich. We'll look after her when you're done. We'll be mothers to her."
"Much better than the mother who lost her."
"We want her. Give her to us, Friedrich."
"Give her to us."
He stopped, and leaned away.
"What are you doing?" said one of the women, growing angry, but Friedrich ignored them. If Mary could hear them, she did nothing to indicate it. He made sure to face her away from the window, and their reflections in it.
"It's all right, little dove," he said. "It will all be all right. Do you have any family, without your poor mother?"
Mary shook her head.
"I have no family either. That makes us both orphans. It's lucky that we have each other, now."
She grabbed at his hand and said, "I'm hungry."
"Ah dear," he said, "so am I. Very hungry." The air between them was thick with the scent of her pulsing blood. He watched her lower lip tremble with the effort of restrained weeping. She wanted food then, did she? Of course, he had none. Money wasn't a problem, but he couldn't send her out for food alone, nor could he very well go himself...
Taking Mary by the hand, Friedrich went to the old parlor on the second floor (her steps kicking up clouds of dust on the faded carpet, his leaving it undisturbed), leading her through the twisting halls and decaying rooms, past old paintings with their vacant eyes and ancient furniture under tattered sheets, like corpses with their shrouds. In the parlor they found the tarnished mirror over the mantle. Mary was not tall enough to see that he cast no reflection in the ruined glass, but she watched, fascinated, as he pulled the mirror down and opened the safe concealed behind it. Reaching in, he took out a gold bracelet set with three small diamonds. Inside there were more things like it, many more, glittering in the dark. He closed the safe and put the mirror back, then dangled the bracelet from his thin, chalk-white fingers. "Pretty," he said. Mary giggled.
Together they went to the back door, opening into the blackened remains of the garden and the street, and he sent her off to look for someone. He gave a deion of the sort of person to find, and cautioned her against talking to anyone else she met along the way. "Especially a policeman," he said. She nodded earnestly and scampered away. Watching her go, he worried that she might escape, but in a few minutes' time she came back leading a bewildered-looking young man. Not a man at all, really, Friedrich saw, but a boy, barely a teenager, with the lean and desperate look of someone who knew hunger, and need. Perfect.
Keeping to the shadows, Friedrich cleared his throat, and the boy jumped. Mary ran to his side and hid behind his legs. Friedrich held out the bracelet. "There once was a shop near here that bought pawned goods," he said. His accent sounded thick and guttural. It was a cold night, but his breath did not fog the air. He hoped the boy wouldn't notice.
The boy scratched the peach fuzz on his jaw, thinking. "Yeah, Ivan's," he said. "Been there for years." The boy squinted, trying to make out Friedrich's face in the shadows. Nearby, the whine of a car's tires passed.
"Go there," said Friedrich, handing the bracelet to the boy. "Sell that, and keep half the money for yourself. With the other half, bring me the things written on this list." He handed over a yellowed sheet of paper filled with the spider-like crawl of his handwriting. "If you do this well, there'll be more for you to do, every night, and more money to be made. If you cheat me, or if you tell anyone who sent you, that will be all you'll get. The choice is yours."
The boy looked at the list, then at Friedrich, and then at Mary, and his eyes looked hollow and frightened. But he took the list and the bracelet, and he left without a word, and Friedrich knew he would do as he was told. Now the girl would be accommodated, yes. He watched her as she explored the crumbling garden walls, skipping between the cracked stones surrounding the barren flowerbeds. In her excitement, she had forgotten her grief.
Friedrich felt a prickle on the back of his neck, and knew that if he looked he would see the faces of his dead wives in the glass of the attic window overhead. But he did not look. Let them wait, he thought. I'll take as long with this one as I want. Yes, I'll wait until tomorrow, or perhaps the night after that, or the night after that? I have all the time in the world. It's been so long since a tasty morsel has fallen into my hands like this, why spoil it all at once? Mary ran up to him and smiled, her teeth brilliantly white in the gloom. Yes, he thought, all the time in the world.
Later, after Mary was fed and given clean clothes, Friedrich lit the stub of a candle and led her to an unused bedroom, fitting the bed with the new sheets that the boy had brought. He tucked Mary in, singing under his breath while he did, old Turkish lullabies in a dialect no one else knew anymore. He kissed her forehead, and though she flinched under his cold lips she smiled at him.
"Good night, sweet Mary, or good day, perhaps. I'm a very sick man, and the sun is bad for me, so I must sleep during the day, and so must you."
She nodded, accepting this, but as he went to put out the candle he saw a glint of fear in her eyes, and she clutched his arm. He frowned. "What's wrong?" he said.
"I saw them, over there, in the mirror!” she pointed.
"Two women," she said. "They were standing by the bed, on this side, watching me. I don't want them standing there while I sleep."
"Ah, Mary," said Friedrich, looking at the mirror, "those were just ghosts. Ghosts can't hurt you."
"Why not?" said Mary.
"Because they don't love you," said Friedrich, stroking her hair. "Now go to sleep."
He snuffed the candle, and in the dark he watched her settle down and drift off. On the opposite wall the mirror moved, just a little, as if touched by an unseen hand. Friedrich ignored it. He closed the door as quietly as he could and padded down the hall to his own room, lying down in his coffin. Outside, behind the boarded windows, the sun would just be creeping over the horizon.
His last thought before falling into sleep was that the old flower bed where Mary had played would be an excellent place to hide her body.
It was just after sundown when he pried his coffin open again, one pale hand scuttling out from under the lid. His joints were even stiffer than usual, and his eyes had trouble adjusting to the darkness. Something seemed strange? Where was he? What room was this?
Gradually he realized that it was the same room he always slept in, but now it was changed, radically changed: the moldering carpet was gone, and the floor underneath was clean and polished. The peeling wallpaper had all been torn away or painted over, and most of the rickety furnishings replaced by new, sturdy-looking ones. Only the heavy curtains over the windows remained recognizable, though they appeared to have been thoroughly dusted.
Friedrich sat up, astonished. How had his bedchamber become so altered overnight? He saw that he was wearing a comfortable new dressing gown, and that new slippers sat by his coffin. Even his coffin was new, the black wood polished to a sheen. He was even more astonished when someone tapped lightly on the door and let herself in, a beautiful, smiling, beatific teenage girl. "Good morning, Grandfather," she said, coming to him and kissing him on the cheek. Her full lips brushed audibly against his papery flesh. "Do you need help getting up?"
He blinked, dumbfounded. "Do I need help?"
"Yes?" she said, sounding chipper.
He put up his hands, helpless. "Who are you?"
The girl frowned, her smooth, stainless brow momentarily furrowed. "Grandfather, don't you recognize me? It's Mary."
Friedrich's mind reeled. The little girl? What had happened to her? How had she grown so much in just a single day's sleep, and how had his abode transformed along with her? What was going on? Seeing his confusion, Mary squeezed his hand and brushed his few, wispy white hairs out of his face. "Oh Grandfather, are you confused again?"
"Yes," he muttered. "Confused, confused, so confused..." He repeated the word again and again, like a charm to make sense of the world.
"Grandfather, it's a night like any other; the sun has gone down, and you're awake, and I'm here to help you, just like always. Do you remember, you wanted to go for a walk in the garden tonight to see if the gladiolas you had me plant are coming along?"
"The garden?" he said. That old flowerbed, yes, he had meant to plant something there...
"And then you were going to finish the new painting."
"The new painting? Yes...yes, I remember," said Friedrich, sitting up straighter and ceasing to squint. Yes, he remembered, it had not been one night since Mary came to him, it had been ten years! She was a young woman now, and in ten years he had grown older and older still, and senility was creeping along the corridors of his mind, making him forget the time between. So hard to remember now, those nights since Mary came to him, so hard to remember the years that he'd spent as her teacher and protector, and she his caregiver in turn. So easy to forget everything, if only for a moment. He watched her as she closed the lid of his coffin and wiped away some of the dust that had settled on it, singing under her breath (Turkish lullabies so old she did not understand the lyrics, only the tune). They grow up so fast, he thought.
He let her lead him to the kitchen, which had been repaired and refurbished and was now full of dishes and food and other human amenities. They no longer had to sell the old jewelry through go-betweens with pawnbrokers to afford such things. Mary found reputable dealers to help sell her "grandfather's" antiques now. Friedrich sat at the kitchen table and watched as she danced her way through preparing "breakfast" for both of them. He never ate, of course, but she enjoyed cooking for two.
"Did you sleep well?" she said.
"Well enough," said Friedrich. "I feel like there's something missing from my dreams of late."
"I thought you never dream?"
"Not while I'm asleep." A thought struck him. "Mary, do you ever see the ghosts anymore?"
"Ghosts?" she said, turning her head. "What a silly thing to ask about."
Friedrich sighed. Yes, silly.
These had been happy years, his years with Mary (those he remembered, at least). Each night, of course, he thought about killing her, but always he decided it could wait another night, maybe two. Had it really been ten years now, ten long years, such a long time in the life of a young girl? Where had the time gone? How could he have waited so long? Not that it matters, he reminded himself. He had all the time in the world, still, just like always. What was time to a man who would never die?
But ah, he realized, she doesn't have that much time! He examined her profile; she was no longer a girl but very much a woman, and how much longer could he keep her here? Why, even, had she stayed this long? Surely he would wake one night soon to find her gone, and what would he do then? How would he find her? What would he do without her? His hands began to tremble, a palsied shaking, as he thought about it. She smiled and sang and danced around the kitchen, unaware.
He couldn't let her leave him. She couldn't be allowed to leave, ever. It was time to finally do it then, Friedrich decided. Yes, right now, before he had anymore second thoughts. Hunger stirred in his decrepit veins. Yes, he thought, kill her now. He crept up behind her. Kill her while she's distracted, so fast she'll never know what happened. He licked his fangs, dull from thirty years of disuse. His eyes lingered on the creamy white skin of her neck. So soft, she looked, so delicate, so easy to take in his arms and crush against him until there was not a drop of life left in her, to leave her a withered shell, never again to smile or laugh or sing or --
"Grandfather," said Mary, turning around.
"Yes?" said Friedrich. He moved back to his seat at the table so fast that she did not see him. His old joints ached. "What is it, child?"
Mary wrung her apron in her hands over and over. "Do you know what tonight is?"
Something tickled Friedrich's memory, but he could not grasp it. He shook his head.
"That's all right," said Mary, sitting across from him with a plate of unpalatable mortal food. "I know how hard it is for you to remember things sometimes. It's my birthday today, Grandfather. I'm sixteen."
Friedrich felt his face twitch into a smile. "Of course it is. Happy birthday, my darling. Sweet sixteen, yes. So very sweet."
"Since it's a special occasion," she said, "I hoped I could go out. I'll still help you with everything like I said I would, but then I want to go celebrate with my friends."
"Whatever you want, darling," said Friedrich. His hunger bated a bit. It wouldn't do to kill her on such a night. It felt...improper.
"I don't understand why you never go out and see these friends of yours during the day, though," he added.
"I like to be here during the day, in case something happens. I know you can't be awake, because of your illness."
Friedrich paused. His illness? Yes, that's what he'd always called it, and she, poor, stupid, naive child that she'd been, had believed him. But that was then, surely she couldn't still believe such a shallow lie? He watched her chew a piece of toast, lost in her own thoughts, and then smile at him. What was she thinking, really? He wished he could read her mind as easily as her memories. Why did she continue to humor him? Perhaps this is what it means when your children love you, he thought. They do not throw your lies back in your face when they grow too old for them.
As he pondered this, Friedrich glanced at the window. The ghostly face of a woman flickered into view. He started, but when he looked again it was gone. "Grandfather?" said Mary. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Friedrich. Somewhere in the house, hinges creaked and footsteps fell deftly on old floors, so soft that only he could hear them.
"Just my imagination," he said. "You know how it is when you're a very old man. Afraid of the dark."
It was true that Friedrich did not dream while he was asleep, but he did sometimes dream while awake. That night, after Mary had gone, he sat in the parlor, staring at the fresh flowers she'd brought in from the garden, and as he sat he dreamed. In his dream, he stood at the mirror and saw his own reflection again, saw himself as a young man, a young, living man, with a living, virile body, really a man and no longer a monster. He wept for joy.
Turning, he saw Mary, but not Mary as she was today, a girl of sixteen who looked like an apple growing heavy on the branch, but Mary as she might look in ten years still, a Mary whose beauty had matured and turned into something grander. He saw her lying down to sleep, and he crept up to her bedside just as he had done so many times in those bright and dangerous hours just before dawn, those many nights he'd hovered, unseen, by her bedside, waiting to kill her. But now that he was alive again there would never be need to kill at all.
In his dream, Friedrich sat and ran his fingers through Mary’s golden curls. He stared, rapt, at his own hands, no longer the cold, pallid claws that he’d scrabbled with for hundreds of years, but real human hands capable of really feeling. Mary’s hair was as soft as corn silk; he was so taken with it that he did not at first realize he’d woken her up. She batted her eyes at him and smiled, then sat up (the thin sheets sliding down her body, accentuating the lines of it, revealing tempting naked flesh) and threw her arms around his neck. He hesitated before kissing her, thinking still of his dry, pale, corpselike lips and threatening fangs, but as her mouth came to his he remembered that all of that was in the past now, and no sooner was the kiss complete than he forgot everything about his old life, his non-life, and knew only the present, and the feeling of being truly alive.
Mary pulled him down next to her, her limbs wrapping around him, her soft fingers stroking the back of his neck and the line of his collarbone. She murmured his name one syllable at a time, and pressed a tiny kiss against his cheek each time she said it. Friedrich lied on his back, keeping his eyes on the ceiling, afraid to look at her for some reason, until she swung one leg over his body and slid herself over him, mounting him, leaning down over him and smiling, her hair falling around his face like a curtain. He kissed her, and he kissed her, and he kissed her, and he forgot who she was at all. There was some ghost of a recollection, like the faint residue of a dream, but the heat of her lips blasted it away. Now she was just the girl -the woman- who was here with him now.
Friedrich was amazed to feel his own breaths, warm and gentle, and to feel Mary giggle and squirm as they tickled her. He marveled at how his hands moved so gently over her body, his skin and hers feeling alike, his touch as soft and yielding as her flesh. His mouth was warm and wet and she did not flinch from it but instead pressed against him harder as they kissed, her little pink tongue grazing his. She trembled in his arms like a baby bird, heart fluttering. She whispered in his ear, love songs in Turkish, songs so old that even the dust of the man who wrote them must have withered away. And then little Mary nibbled the ridge of his ear, and giggled at his surprise. She pushed him down under her, hands on his shoulders, squeezing his body between her thighs. There was a gleam in her eye.
Mary slid down Friedrich’s body as her mouth opened, kissing his chin and the line of his jaw, then his neck, then the hard sinews of his bare chest. She slid further down, grinding, her legs still splayed around him. Friedrich felt unfamiliar sensations, things not felt nor even remembered in countless decades; the quickening of his pulse, the warming of his flesh, the stirring of desire. He was torn between the urge to seize the girl and curiosity about what she would do if left to her own devices. When he found her positioning herself over him, and when he discovered at the same time as she the eager rigidness of his sex, he barely had time to draw in a breath before she pushed down, impaling herself on him. He heard her gasp and watched her shake, and he was shocked by the sight of blood staining her naked thighs, trickling down. The contrast of crimson on white stirred bad memories, but the hot confines of Mary’s sex pushed them away again.
Mary closed her eyes, bracing herself against him, raising her hips up slowly and holding herself taut above him; she shook all over, but remained in place for a few more seconds before dropping back down. Friedrich gasped and tried to sit up, but Mary pushed him down again; she was stronger than he would have thought. She raised herself up and dropped back down once more. Her brow furrowed and she bit her lip as she flexed her legs and thighs, moving up and down, sliding on him. The heat from the friction of their bodies chafed. Friedrich pushed up against her as she came down, and their movements collided, bodies tangling.
Mary’s small, perfect breasts bounced with the rise and fall of her, and Friedrich, no longer able to contain himself, sat up, fighting off her attempts to push him down, taking them in both hands and squeezing. She moaned, and he watched the muscles of her throat twitch up and down. He kissed the underside of one, amazed at how soft and pliant the flesh was, then smothered it with his mouth, sucking the taut pink nipple between his teeth, daring to bite down, just once, making Mary squeal.
Her whole body was slick with sweat and writhing with exertion, twisting and bucking in response to his every touch. He pulsed inside of her, and the muscles of her sex gripped him back, an unspoken language unifying their movements against and inside one another. She raked her nails across his back, then wrapped her fingers in the long, lustrous black tangle of his hair. The light overhead silhouetted her so that she seemed to glow, or even burn, first gold and then white-hot. He heard the ragged edge on her moans, knowing that the raw, panting breaths she drew were taking their toll on her. He fondled her soft, pliant body, even as she continued to move, almost mechanically, up and down on him, relentless. Finally he seized her by her hair and pulled her back; her neck and back arched, and she cried out again. He pushed her down and off of him, and when she landed he splayed her legs, pressing his mouth between them.
He found the center of her wet and warm, the slightly acrid taste of her body undercut by the intensity of the heat pent up inside of her. She twitched and writhed, almost rolling over, voice thick with lust as Turkish whispers filled the dark corners of the room. His tongue ran up and down the length of her once, then stabbed in, parting her, tasting her, licking back up and finding the sensitive, aching spot that he remembered, dimly, from his time as a young man, back when he was still alive. He flicked it and listened to her shriek, and then he curved his tongue around it, tickling, then flicking harder, then placing the tip forcefully against it and swimming in a circle over its surface. Mary collapsed into fitful little moans and gasps, and Friedrich was rewarded with a chorus of helpless, pleasure-filled cries, the sort he had not heard since…
Since he’d been married. Since his first wife…or was it his second? His wives…where were --?
"Do you love her, Friedrich?" said a woman's voice. He froze; his blood turned to ice.
"Do you love her, Friedrich?" said the other voice. Friedrich stammered, but could not reply. Mary seemed to hear them. Friedrich dared look up, and there, at the bedside, was the ghostly, flickering images of the two women, their eyes wide and unblinking, their bare skin smeared with blood.
"Do you love her?" said one.
"Do you love her?" said the other.
“Well, do you?”
"Do you love her, Friedrich?"
“Do you love her?”
“Do you love her?”
Their voices echoed, chasing themselves and each other down the corridors of the house. "Yes!" Friedrich said, almost screaming. "I love her, I love her, I love her!"
"Then she's doomed," said one of the women.
“And so are you,” said the other, shaking her head.
Something changed; the woman in Friedrich’s arms no longer felt the same. He looked at Mary and saw what had become of her, saw that with his back turned she had grown old, turning into a pallid, withered thing, a monster hag who clung to him. As he tried to pull away she bared her sharp white fangs and sank them into his neck. Hot blood spurted. He tried to scream, but could only produce a wet gurgle. Mary's pale, corpselike lips swallowed the red flow, drinking him dry. He fell back and she fell with him, arms locked around him. The room spun and his mind reeled, and the women laughed, and he felt himself growing weak. She was taking too much. She was taking it all. I can't die now, he thought, I've just begun to live again.
He tried to fight, but he was tired now, so tired he could barely move, and she was so much stronger than he was. When she pulled away he saw that she was young again, again his soft, sweet, beautiful Mary, but her mouth was full of blood, and blood was splashed across her naked breasts and thighs, and he knew that he was old again, old and withered and weak. "Kill him, Mary," said the ghostly women. "Kill him for us, so that we can have him again. Have him forever."
"No," he said, mumbling, crying, barely able to form words. "No, please, please don't, I'll be good, I promise, I won't hurt anyone, I'll never hurt anyone again, please, please, please --"
He realized that he was awake, and alone, and crying to himself, mumbling "Please!" over and over. He was in the parlor, and Mary was nowhere to be seen. He saw that he had broken the arms off of the easy chair, and that his fingers were still embedded in the upholstery. He let them drop. He was all right. Well, no, he wasn't all right, but he was no worse off than normal. It had all been a dream. Just a dream. A dream.
He went to the mirror again, a useless gesture he had never outgrown. He ran his hands over his face; it felt the same as always. Still a death mask.
He paused, listening; where was Mary? Not at home. Still out celebrating her birthday, no doubt. He recoiled at the thought of her return home, then chastised himself. As if Mary was anything to be afraid of. But what was he afraid of, then? "Time," he mumbled, almost not hearing himself. What time was it? He checked the clock. Mary would be home soon. In fact, if he leaned his head a little and listened closely, he could hear her voice, and her laugh, carried on the wind from somewhere nearby. Yes, that was Mary, Mary and...someone else?
Pulling the heavy curtains aside, Friedrich opened the window and scrambled down the exterior wall, following the sounds of voices to the end of the gravel driveway. There he saw the polished black frame of a big motorcycle, and in the yellow light of its single headlamp Mary was silhouetted alongside an anonymous young man. She'd flung her arms around his neck and was kissing him, at the same time (playfully) pushing his hands away from her hips. Keeping to the shadows, Friedrich watched.
Something about the young man puzzled Friedrich. He was some six or eight years older than Mary, but there was still something of a boy about his features. Friedrich was startled to realize that he recognized him; it was the same boy who used to bring their jewelry to the pawnbroker when Mary was a child, the one she'd found the very night she came to live at the house!
The two whispered ridiculous things to each other for a bit, and then the boy climbed onto his black motorcycle and roared off. Mary watched him go, then followed the gravel path to the house, walking right by Friedrich without seeing him. Friedrich watched the retreating vehicle and considered catching up to and killing the boy right then and there...but no, the sun would be up in just a few minutes, and besides, this added a new wrinkle to his plans. He needed time to consider what it all meant.
Instead, he followed Mary as she slipped back into the house. She went upstairs, pausing to look in at his coffin where she no doubt believed he would already be asleep. She smiled, then went to her own room. When the door closed Friedrich heard the click of an interior lock, which surprised him, as he'd never known Mary to have such a key. He listened at the verge, waiting for the sound of bedsprings creaking and the steady, rhythmic breathing of sleep. Tired as she was after a long night, it wouldn't take long. When he was satisfied by what he heard, Friedrich slid through the cracks between the door and frame, reforming on the other side, and went to Mary's bedside.
He was shocked to see that she had taken the curtains off of her windows. Outside, the sky was already showing the grey that precluded blue. Moving fast, he placed a hand on Mary's forehead and, just as he'd done when she was a child, looked into her memories...
Mary licked her lips once and parted them, taking the boy’s stiff cock into her mouth almost experimentally, teasing, running her tongue over the head and leaving it glistening when she backed away, giggling and fluttering her lashes. He moaned, impatient, and grabbed for her, but she fended him off. “Now, now,” she said. “I’m the birthday girl, shouldn’t I get my way?”
The boy made another impatient sound. She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a man,” she said, but she smiled as she said it, and she took him in again, her soft tongue bathing the length of his --
Friedrich jerked his hand back. Mary turned over in her sleep. He blinked, trying to clear the remains of the vision from his eyes. Cautious, he put his hand to her head again, and saw:
Mary took him all the way in, opening wider, relaxing. She let him hold her still as he pushed in, and suppressed the urge to gag as best she could. She lashed her tongue up and down his cock as it slid inside her mouth, and when her mouth was completely full she just moaned, letting the sound of it vibrate up and down him. She knew he liked that. She pulled his pants further down as she did this, leaving them around his ankles. He took off his jacked and shirt, throwing them away. Her own clothes were folded neatly on the dresser nearby…
Friedrich looked away. He bit his lip and fretted. Finally, after a moment’s more hesitation, he put both hands to her head, and a kaleidoscope of images, merging and overlapping, fell over him, blinding him, burying him in the immediacy of her recollections:
-- Mary lay back, the sheets cool against her naked body, nodding, mostly to herself, in the dark. “I’m ready,” she said. “I’m sure.”
“I didn’t ask,” said the boy. He was positioned on top of her.
“Ass,” she said, and swatted him shoulder, but he smiled (visible even in the dark), and she forgave him instantly…
--his calloused hands kneading the soft flesh of her breasts, squeezing, the pad of his thumb and fingers pinching her erect nipples. She cried out, squirming, thrashing her head from side to side, pausing just short of telling him to stop, but pushing through. He fondled her, and she felt molded by his touch, sculpted into a shape corresponding to his --
-- the intensity of the wetness surprised her. He made a crude comment, but it barely registered, as she felt a kind of hazy barrier between herself and --
-- Her hands crawled down his naked back, testing the rippling muscles there one at a time. She felt his whole body flex with the force of his exertion, felt him bend like a bow as he pushed in, and then the almost reflexive snapback as he came out, and she felt herself bend to that force as well. Try as she might, she could not escape the impression of pliancy underneath him. It made her feel sad and ashamed, but she savored it, tasting it, drawing it out, loving it, even loving the shame, in a way, reminding her of the long nights (or days, she corrected herself) she’d spent awake, thinking about this, thinking about the moment when he would finally --
-- “I’m ready,” she said, wincing. “Just do it.”
“I’m about to.”
“I don’t feel…”
“Wait, you will.”
“There’s still -- ahhh!”
“It’s okay, you’re okay.”
“Is there blood?”
--”Is there blood?”
--”Is there blood?”
-- she winced as his stubble grazed her bare skin. His mouth on her neck made her shiver, and as he continued down to her shoulder she began to nod in a barely perceptible way along with his movements. He was crouched over her, half on top of her, and as hard as she tried to relax she went rigid as steel every time he went in. She gasped at the back of her throat, head swimming and --
-- “Just let me feel it.”
“You can feel it.”
“No, but just stay still for one second and let me really feel it. I’ve never felt…” --
-- even in the dark she saw the blue of his eyes staring down at her, looking through her. She was crying out, meaningless screams punctuated by the word “Yes!” whispered under her breath. He grunting in a low, guttural way, animal-like, and she tried to imagine the kind of feeling that would create that noise, that look, that feel of his body, in him. Was it the same thing she was feeling? Were they feeling the same thing? Had they ever, always, or was it just now, just these seconds, for the first time?
The sheets under them were drenched --
-- A series of increasingly lurid, revolting words cycled through her mind: hard, thick, swollen, throbbing, engorged. It did not feel as she’d expected it to, and she was confused but fascinated by the combination of its unbending rigidity and its soft, organic texture. She realized that she thought of it as separate from him because it made him seem vulnerable, in a way she was not --
-- she scratched his back as hard as she could, and he swore, and she giggled and did it again. He retaliated by squeezing her throat, choking her lightly, and at first her heart welled up in a sense of panic, but after a moment she (secret shame and all) found she wanted him to do it again. She pulled him in as if for a kiss, but bit him as hard as she could on the side of the neck at the last second. She was surprised to briefly taste blood --
-- taste blood --
-- taste blood --
-- her vision even blurred a bit as his hands wrapped around her throat, and she was open to him, to the ceaseless thrusting, pounding, grinding of his body. He seemed to be losing control, and she was shocked that she, so passively, could drive him to this, and she wondered how much further she could make him go, and whether this, finally, was what it was like to --
-- she could feel it. “I’m going to…”
“Hold on, I’m not there yet.”
She threw her head back, screamed, smothered herself with a pillow, but pulled it away and screamed again. “Oh God, oh God, oh fucking God, I’m going to, to, to…!” --
Friedrich jerked his hands away once more and returned to the present. For a moment he trembled, taut with rage, and he very nearly ripped her throat out then and there, but he stopped himself. Mary, unaware, smiled in her sleep, murmuring and rolling to her side. She gathered a pile of blankets against her body, cuddling it. Friedrich watched her sleep for a few moments more, then retreated from the arrival of the sun.
As he shut himself in his coffin, his anger subsided. This was all to be expected sooner or later. After all, she wasn't a little girl anymore, now was she? It would have been better if she'd told him, but then, how could she? And the boy himself, well, she ought to have better taste, but she was young, and she would make mistakes. Perhaps Friedrich could do her the favor of getting rid him...
No. Better to let the affair play its course. She would learn her lesson in short order, and he'd be there to comfort her, and then in the future --
Wait, the future? Friedrich blinked. Yes, Mary had a future, didn't she? He knew now that he would not kill her after all. He couldn't, even if he wanted to. He had wanted to kill the girl Mary, the sweet, naive, unassuming little creature as pure as driven snow, but she wasn't that little girl anymore. She was a woman, her own woman. She would surely leave him soon, as children did when they were grown, but that was fine. Yes, it was almost time for the nest to be empty.
And Friedrich? He would never be young again now, not if he did not kill. But so what? He was old enough, and he could only grow so much older. Soon his mind would go completely, and he almost relished the idea of that sweet, senseless oblivion of permanent senility, almost the match of sleep, or death. Content, he closed his eyes and sank away. If he could just dream while asleep, he would have happy dreams, his first in longer than he could remember...
Friedrich awoke to a nameless pain and a feeling of being trapped. It was the next night, and his coffin was open, but when he tried to sit up he realized something was holding him down. He waited for his panic to subside, and then he perceived the cause of his predicament, a thick piece of wood, sawed from a table or chair and whittled to a point, piercing his chest. Someone had run him through in his sleep. The shaft had missed his heart, but the length of it pinned him against the bottom of the box.
Slowly, very slowly, Friedrich worked the stake out. He felt no pain now, and in fact hadn't all along, having merely imagined the ghost of how he knew pain should feel. Instead there was only a mild discomfort, which was alleviated as soon as the obstruction was free. He dropped it to the floor with a thud, then sat up gingerly, trying not to exacerbate his wound; the edges of it were dry, and rather than blood only a thin trickle of dust flowed from the rent flesh. He frowned, stroking his chin. Who could have tried to kill him as he slept?
But of course, there could be only one answer.
He listened, and from elsewhere in the house there came a banging and a crashing and the sound of whispers. Creeping along the walls like a spider, he followed the racket to the old drawing room, where Mary and the boy stood at the mantle, looking at the mirror, he appearing sullen and she confused. Keeping to the shadows, Friedrich went unnoticed.
"Are you sure this is it?" said the boy. He was tugging at the mirror but was unable to remove it from the wall.
"I'm sure," said Mary. "It's always that one."
"Well how does he open it?" said the boy.
"I don't know," said Mary. "It just opens." She hugged her bare arms. “We should leave. The sun is down. I don’t want to be here.”
The boy did not turn around, intent on his work. He had cracked the mirror with a small hammer and was prying loose some of the glass shards, hoping they would reveal the mechanism. “We’re okay, he’s dead. I’m sure of it.”
So intent were they on the task that neither noticed Friedrich approach. Naturally, he cast no reflection for them to notice either.
“I’m not. We should have opened the curtains and let the light in.”
“But what if that started a fire?” said the boy. “We don’t know. I promise we’ll burn this whole place down when we leave, but first we need to find the money. Besides, he’s got to be dead, I mean, did you see that thing?”
“But he always looks like that,” said Mary. Her voice trembled. “Do you know what it was like, living here my entire life, knowing that just down the hall that thing was waiting, that any night now it might decide to…to…”
She seemed about to cry, and the boy put his arms around her, and it was then that they saw Friedrich. "Grandfather!" said Mary. The boy jumped, swallowing a scream, pushing Mary behind him as if to protect her, though his legs lurched toward the door and he stopped just halfway toward bolting.
"Grandfather,“ said Mary again, backing away, affecting a smile and a cheerful tone as best she could. “You're awake."
"Oh yes," said Friedrich, taking a step forward. "It's so very hard, isn't it, to find the heart if you've never tried before?" The boy blanched.
"I'm glad you're up," said Mary. "There are so many things I want to talk to you about."
"I'm sure there are," said Friedrich and, moving faster than they could see, he sprang at them. He went for Mary but the boy was in the way, and the two of them fell, tangled in a heap. Friedrich was stronger but the boy caught him off guard, grabbing two handfuls of Friedrich’s white hair and smashing his forehead into Friedrich’s face. The boy’s nose broke and blood splashed both of them. A few drops spattered Friedrich’s dry lips and his hands came up, seeking to crush the boy’s throat.
“Mary!” the boy screamed. “Run!”
Mary ran, but got only as far as the hall. Where to go? Where could she possibly be safe? She bolted for her room and locked herself inside. She went to the window, but hesitated before climbing out; it would be a long drop…
She heard a thump on the other side of the door. Her legs were jelly but she forced herself to stand, reaching under the bed, grabbing something, standing in the middle of the room, just in front of the doorway. “Grandfather!” she said.
A pause. “Yes?” his voice was deeper than usual, not so frail and uncertain.
"Please,” she said, "let me explain. I did it for you.”
Another pause. “Ehn?”
"I knew you needed it," said Mary. "To kill, I mean. And I knew you wouldn't do it unless I helped you. And it worked, didn‘t it? Don‘t you feel better now?” Her arms were raised back over her head. She would only get one chance for this…
“Oh yes,” said Friedrich, voice muffled through the door. “So much better. But I find that now I’m in the mood for more substantial fare.”
A thump at the door again and a strange sound, like air escaping a balloon.
"Wait!” said Mary. “Please, don’t do this. I…I love you!”
“Do you?” said Friedrich’s voice, seemingly from nowhere. “Well, that settles the matter.”
She saw just the outline of his body, reforming out of mist in front of her, a kind of hazy, half-idea of a person, and as soon as she saw that she brought the axe down, aiming for the place where the neck met the shoulder. If she was even a half second too early the axe head would pass through nothing at all and bury itself in the floor, and a half second too late and it would simply glance off of his skin, but if she timed it just right…
There was a wet thunk, and Friedrich’s eyes went wide, and she saw his mouth open in a shocked O, face frozen in a look of confusion and terror. Wetness splattered the carpet and ran down his body. Mary’s arms hurt, and she let go of the axe, and it remained stuck, cleaving Friedrich’s body halfway. He tried to pull it out, but fell to his knees instead. He tried to speak, but gargled blood. He looked strange to her; not quite young, but not old anymore either. His hair was black, and his skin was ruddy. So much blood came out, pouring from him. It pooled at her feet.
She watched him grow weak, no longer groping at the handle of the axe. He swayed a bit on his knees, and his eyes closed halfway. He made a sound a bit like a sigh. Mary got on her knees, to look him in the eye. She wiped away tears. “I’m sorry,” she said. He seemed to nod. “I’m sorry,” she said again. When he seemed too weak to move she went to hug him one last time, and then --
Friedrich’s hand shot forward and ripped her throat out.
Mary gasped -- no, she tried to gasp, but could not. Her head swam with the intensity of shock. Friedrich collapsed, facedown, in front of her, his body already dwindling away bit by bit, but she could only just see it. Everything in the room looked gray, and now it looked far away. She realized that something warm and wet was spilling down the front of her and she wondered, absently, how she would ever get the stain out of her dress…
She was on her side now. She did not remember lying down, but here she was. She was eye to eye with Friedrich, though there was little left of his face now but bits of dry, crumbling flesh flaking away from the worn remains of a skull. Blood still pooled under him, soaking the carpet. The smell of it, hot and vile, stung her nostrils. It crept closer, spreading, drenching everything in the room. She felt it on her cheek. She felt a drop on her lips. She felt…
In the mirror, in the corner of the room, she saw the reflection of the two women, saw their bright eyes and bloodstained skin. Who were they, she wondered? They had never told her. They had come to her in the night, years ago and warned her, telling her the truth about her “grandfather.” Now they pointed, in the mirror, to Friedrich’s body, and the blood spilling everywhere. One of them made a gesture, placing cupped hands to her lips, and Mary knew what she was being told to do: Drink.
So she drank.
Mary looked into the bathroom mirror and saw nothing. She marveled, running her hands over her face, feeling her features. Do I look different now, she thought? But she would never know.
She went back to the bedroom. There was nothing left of the body on the floor but a stain on the carpet and a few old bones tangled up in a dressing down. She kicked them out of the way. She stripped her ruined, bloodstained clothes off and then went to her closet, but found nothing in there that appealed to her. She fingered the fabric of the pleated dresses, shaking her head. She went to the parlor instead.
There she found the other body, crushed and withered. She sighed to see it. She thought she was crying, but found she was not, and then found she couldn’t. This gave her pause, but she pushed it aside. She picked the body up and looked it over; it was about right. There was blood only on the undershirt. She stripped the corpse and dressed herself in its clothes. In the pocket of the leather jacket she found keys to the motorcycle. She jingled them as she walked downstairs (hand sliding, one last time, over the familiar banister), the black boots on her feet making a heavy sound with each step.
Mary paused at the front door, looking back. She no longer cast a reflection in any of the windows, but she thought she saw, dimly, the reflected images of two women, and now of a man too, and also of something that might have been a little girl, with blond curls and a pleated dress. Who was that? She looked so familiar…
But then they were gone.
She found the motorcycle parked in the alley, caressing the black steel frame before swinging one leg over it, straddling the machine and feeling it roar to life under her. It responded to her every touch, and it felt good. She sped away from the house, and the reflections, and the memories, off into the night. She had no idea where she was going, or what she would do when she got there, but it didn’t matter.