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Gasping in horror and revulsion, Zev Wolpin stumbled away from St. Anthony's Church. He stretched his arms before him, reaching into the dark for something, anything, to support him before he fell.
Leaves slapped his face, twigs tugged at his graying beard as he plowed into foliage. His bike…where was his bike? He thought he'd left it in a clump of bushes, but obviously not this clump. Had to find it, had to get away from this place. But the dark made him disoriented…the dark, and what he'd just witnessed.
He'd heard whispers, stories he couldn't, wouldn't, believe, so he'd come to see for himself, to prove them wrong. Instead…
Zev bent at the waist and retched. Nothing but a bubble of bile and acid came up, searing the back of his throat.
The whispers were only partly true. The truth was worse. The truth was unspeakable.
He straightened and looked around in the darkness. Wan light from the crescent moon in the cloud-streaked sky made the shadows deeper, and Zev feared the shadows. Then he spotted a curving glint of light from the chrome on his bike's front wheel. He ran to it, yanked it by the handlebars from its hiding place, and hopped on.
His aging knees protested as he pedaled away along dark and silent streets lined with dark and silent houses, heading south when he should have been going west, but away was all that mattered now.
Lakewood was a small town, maybe ten miles from the Atlantic Ocean; a place where the Rockefeller family was said to have vacationed. So it didn't matter much if he headed south or north, he wouldn't be far from the place he now called home. The town was once home to fifty thousand or more before the undead came. Now he'd be surprised if there were a thousand left. He'd heard it was the same all up and down the East Coast.
The exertion helped clear his mind. He had to be careful. Prudent he hadn't been. In fact, he'd been downright reckless tonight, venturing out after sundown and sneaking up on St. Anthony's. Schmuck! What had he been thinking? He prayed he didn't pay for it with his life. Or worse.
He shuddered at the thought of ending up the victim in a ceremony like the one he'd witnessed tonight. He had to find temporary shelter until dawn. Even then he wouldn't be safe, but at least there wouldn't be so many shadows.
The blue serge suit coat that had once fit rather snugly now hung loose on his half-starved frame and flapped behind him as he rode. He'd had to punch new holes in his belt to hold up the pants. He'd complained so often about not being able to lose weight. Nothing to it, really. Simply don't eat.
His ever-hungry stomach rumbled. How could it think of food after what he'd just seen?
A shadow passed over him.
A blast of cold dread banished any concern about his next meal. His aging neck protested as he glanced up at the sky, praying to see a cloud near the moon. But the glowing crescent sat alone in a clear patch of night.
No! Please! He increased his speed, his legs working like pistons against the pedals. Not a flying one!
Zev heard something like a laugh above and behind him. He ducked, all but pressing his face to the handlebars. Something swooped by, clawing at the back of his coat as it passed. Its grip slipped but the glancing impact was enough to disrupt Zev's balance. His front wheel wobbled, the bike tipped to the left and hit the curb, sending him flying.
Zev landed hard on his left shoulder, his lungs emptying with a grunt. His momentum carried him onto his back. What he saw circling above him made him forget his pain. He rolled over and struggled to his feet. He instinctively checked the yarmulke clipped to his thinning gray hair, then gripped the cross dangling from a string around his neck. That might save him in close quarters, but not from a creature that could swoop down from any angle. He felt like a field mouse under the cold gaze of a hawk.
He started running. He didn't know where he was going but knew he had to move. The bike was no good. He needed a tight space where his back was protected and he could use the cross to keep his attacker at bay. One of these houses, maybe. A basement, even a sewer drain--anyplace but out here in the open where--
"Here! Over here!"
A woman's voice, calling in a stage whisper to his left. Zev looked across an overgrown lawn, saw only a large tree, a pine of some sort with branches almost brushing the ground.
"Quick! In the tree!"
A trap maybe. A team this could be--a winged one driving prey into the arms of another on the ground. He'd never heard of anything like it, but that meant nothing.
A glance over his shoulder showed him that the creature had half folded its wings and was diving his way from above. No choice now. Zev veered left for the tree and whatever waited within its shadowed branches.
He was almost there when the woman's voice shouted, "Down!"
Zev obeyed, diving for the grass. He heard a hiss of rage, felt the wind from the creature's wings as it hurtled past no more than a foot or two above him. He lurched back to his feet and staggered forward. Pale hands reached from the branches and pulled him into the shadows.
"Are you all right?" the woman said.
He couldn't see her--she was a shadow among the shadows--but her voice sounded young.
"Yes. No. If you mean am I hurt, No."
But all right? No, he was not all right. Never again would he be all right.
"Good." She grabbed his hands and pressed them against a tree limb. "Hold on to this branch. Steady it while I try to break it. Quick, before it makes another pass."
The dead branch sat chest high and felt about half an inch in diameter. With Zev steadying it, the woman threw her weight hard against it. The wood snapped with a loud crack.
"What are you--?"
She shushed him. "It's coming back."
She moved to the edge of the trees, carrying the branch with her. Zev watched her, silhouetted against the moonlit lawn. Average height, short dark hair were all he gained about her looks. He saw her crouch, then hurl her branch like a spear at the creature as it swooped by on another pass. She missed and high-pitched derisive laughter trailed into the sky.
She returned to Zev, stopped on the other side of the broken branch, and patted the front of his shirt. She pulled him close and whispered in his ear.
"Your cross--tuck it away."
"No! It will--"
"Do as I say. They can see in the dark. And try to look frightened."
Try? Who had to try?
She put an arm around him to hold him close, keeping the branch between them.
Another whisper: "Pull out that cross when I tell you."
Zev had no idea what she was up to but had nowhere else to turn, so…
Her grip on him tightened. "Here it comes. Ready…"
Zev could see it now, a dark splotch among the shadows of the branches, wings spread, gliding in low, arms stretched out before it.
Suddenly it folded its wings and shot at them like a missile.
As Zev pulled out the cross he felt the woman shove him away. He lost his balance and tumbled back, saw her fall in the other direction, felt a clawed hand grip his shoulder, heard the creature's screech of triumph rise into a wail of shock and agony as it slammed against the trunk of the tree.
Zev regained his feet amid the frantic and furious struggling of the hissing creature. Its charging attack had opened a passage through the branches, lightening the shadows. As he ducked its thrashing wings he realized it had impaled itself on the broken branch. It flopped back and forth like a speared fish, then pushed away from the trunk, trying to dislodge itself from the wood that had pierced its chest.
Zev turned to run. Now was his chance to get away from this thing. But what of the woman? He couldn't abandon her.
He spotted her standing behind the creature. She'd hiked up her already short skirt and kicked at the thing's back, shoving it further onto the branch. The creature howled and thrashed, and in its struggles broke the branch off the trunk with a gunshot crack.
Free now, it whirled and staggered out into the moonlight. Its wings flapped but couldn't seem to lift it. Perhaps ten feet beyond the branches it dropped to its knees. The woman was right behind it, giving it another kick. It rolled onto its back, clawing at the wooden shaft that jutted two or three feet from its chest. Its movements were weaker now, its wings lay crumpled beneath it. Howling and writhing in agony, it gripped the branch and started to slide it out of its chest.
"No, you don't!" the woman cried.
She gripped the upper end, shoving it back down and leaning on it to hold it in place.
"This is for Bern!" she screamed, naked fury rawing her voice. "This is what you made me do to her! How does it feel? How does it feel?"
For an instant Zev wondered who was more frightening, this screeching woman or the struggling monster she held pinned to the earth.
The creature clawed and kicked at her, almost knocking her over. He had to help. If that thing got free…
Mouth dry, heart pounding, Zev forced himself from the shadows and added his own weight to the branch. He felt it punch deeper into the thing's chest. Then a sickening scrape as it thrust past ribs and into the ground beneath.
The creature's struggles became abruptly feebler. He saw now that it was a female. It might have been beautiful once, but the sickly pallor and the bared fangs robbed it of any attractiveness.
Finally it shuddered and lay still. Zev watched in amazement as its wings shriveled and disappeared.
"Gevalt!" he whispered, although he didn't know why. "You did it! You killed one!"
He'd heard they could be killed--all the old folk tales said they could be--but he'd never actually seen one die, never even met anyone who had.
It was good to know they could be killed.
"We did." She finally released her grip on the branch but her gaze remained locked on the creature. "If you have a soul," she said, "may God have mercy on it."
What was this? Like a harpy, she screeches, then she blesses the thing. A madwoman, this was.
She faced him. "I'm sorry for my outburst. I…it's just…" She seemed to lose her train of thought, as if something had distracted her. "Anyway, thank you for the help."
"You saved my life, young lady. It's me who should be thanking."
She was staring at him. "You're Rabbi Wolpin, aren't you."
Shock stole his voice for a few heartbeats. She knew him?
"Why…yes. But I don't recognize…"
She laughed. A bitter sound. "Please, God, I hope not."
He could see her now. Nothing familiar about her features, no particular style to her short dark hair. He noticed a tiny crescent scar on the right side of her chin. Heavy on the eye makeup--very heavy. A tight red sweater and even tighter short black skirt hid little of her slim body. And were those fishnet stockings?
A prostitute? In these times? Such a thing he never would have dreamed. But then he remembered hearing of women selling themselves to get food and favors.
"So, you know me how?"
She shrugged. "I used to see you with Father Cahill."
"Joe Cahill," Zev said, feeling a burst of warmth at the mention of his friend's name. "I was just over at his church. I saw…" The words choked off.
"I know. I've--" She waved her hand before her face. "She's starting to stink already. Must be an older one."
Zev looked down and saw that the creature was already in an advanced state of rot.
"We'd better get out of here," the woman said, backing away. "They seem to know when one of their kind dies. Get your bike and meet me by the tree."
Zev continued to stare at the corpse. "Are they always so hard to kill?"
"I don't think the branch went all the way through the heart at first."
"Nu? You've done this before?"
Her expression was bleak as she looked at him. "Let's not talk about it."
When Zev wheeled his bike back to the tree he found her standing beside a child's red wagon, an old-fashioned Radio Flyer. A book bag emblazoned with St. Anthony's School lay in the wagon. He hadn't noticed either earlier. She must have had them hidden among the branches.
She said, "You mentioned you were at St. Anthony's. Why?"
"To see if what I'd heard was true." The urge to retch gripped Zev again. "To think that was Father Cahill's church."
"He wasn't the pastor."
"Not in name, maybe, but they were his flock. He was the glue that held them together. Someone should tell him what's going on."
yes. That would be wonderful. But nobody knows where he is, or if he's even alive."
Her hand shot out and gripped his arm, squeezing. "He's alive?"
"Yes," Zev said, taken aback by her intensity. "At least I think so."
Her grip tightened. "Where?"
He wondered if he'd made a mistake telling her. He tried not to sound evasive. "A retreat house. Have I been there? No. But it's near the beach, I'm told."
True enough, and he knew the address. After Joe had been moved out of St. Anthony's rectory to the retreat house, he and Zev still shared many phone conversations. At least until the creatures came. Then the phones stopped working and Zev's time became devoted more to survival than to keeping up with old friends.
"You've got to find him! You've got to tell him! He'll come back when he finds out and he'll make them pay!"
"A mensch, he is, I agree, but only one man."
"No! Many of his parishioners are still alive, but they're afraid. They're defeated. But if Father Joe came back, they'd have hope. They'd see that it wasn't over. They'd regain the will to fight."
"I'm different," she said, the fervor slipping from her voice. "I never lost the will to fight. But my circumstances are special."
"It's not important. I'm not important. But Father Joe is. Find him, Rabbi Wolpin. Don't put it off. Find him tomorrow and tell him. When he hears what they've done to his church he'll come back and teach them a lesson they'll never forget!"
Zev didn't know about that, but it would be good to see his young friend again. Searching him out would be a mitzvah for St. Anthony's, but might be good for Zev as well. It might offer some shape to his life…a life that had devolved to mere existence, an endless, mind-numbing round of searching for food and shelter while avoiding the creatures by night and the human slime who did their bidding during the day.
"All right," Zev said. "I'll try to find him. I won't promise to bring him back, because such a decision will not be mine to make. But I promise to look for him."
"First light. And who should I say sent me?"
The woman turned away and shook her head. "No one."
"You won't tell me your name?"
"It's not important."
"But you seem to know him."
"Once, yes." Her voice grew thick. "But he wouldn't recognize me now."
"You can be so sure?"
She nodded. "I've fallen too far away. There's no coming back for me, I'm afraid."
She'd been through something terrible, this one. So had everyone who was still alive, including Zev, but her experience, whatever it was, had made her a little meshugeh. More than a little, maybe.
She started walking away, looking almost silly dragging that little red wagon behind her.
"Just find him," she said without turning. "And don't mention me."
She stepped into the shadows and was gone from sight, with only the squeaks of the wagon wheels as proof that she hadn't evaporated.
Father Joe Cahill and a prostitute? Zev couldn't believe it. But even if it were true, it was far less serious than what Joe had been accused of.
Maybe she hadn't sold herself in the old days. Maybe it was something she had to do to survive in these new and terrible times. Whatever the truth, he blessed her for being here to help him tonight.
But who is she? he wondered. Or perhaps more important, who was she.
Carole hid the red wagon behind the bushes along the side of the house, then climbed the rickety stairs to the front porch, unlocked the door, and stepped inside. That was when the voice spoke. It had been silent the whole long walk home. Now it started in again.
<Home sweet home. Is that what you're after thinking now, Carole? And don't be thinking that the good deed you did tonight will be offsetting the mortal sins you committed earlier this evening. It won't. Not by a long shot!>
"Quiet," Carole muttered. "I need to listen."
She'd been in this house two weeks now, and she'd made it as secure as possible. As secure as anything could be since her world ended last month.
Last month? Yes…six weeks this coming Friday. It seemed a lifetime ago. She never would have believed everything could fall apart so fast. But it had.
Despite her security measures, she held her breath, listening for the sound of someone--or something--else in the house besides her. She heard nothing but the breeze stirring the curtains in the upstairs bedroom. It had been warm when she'd left but the night had grown chilly. May was such an untrustworthy month.
She fished the flashlight out of her shoulder bag and turned it on, then off again--just long enough to orient herself. She wasn't worried about the light being seen from outside--the blankets draped over the windows would prevent that. She wanted to save her batteries, a rare and precious commodity. When she reached the stairs she flicked the light on again so she could step over the broken first tread. She noticed little splatters of blood on the banister and newel post. She'd clean them up in the morning, when she could use natural light.
When she reached the bedroom she closed the window and quickly undressed.
<Sure and you may be able to remove those whore clothes, Carole, but you can't remove the stain of what you did in them.>
Carole had no illusions about that. She pulled on a baggy gray sweatsuit and slipped beneath the covers, praying the voice would let her sleep tonight. The night's labors had exhausted her.
She thought of Rabbi Wolpin, and that made her think of Father Cahill, and that led to thoughts of St. Anthony's and the school where she'd taught, and the convent where she'd lived…
She thought of her last nights there, less than six weeks ago, just days before Easter, when everything had been so different…
"The Holy Father says there are no such things as vampires," Sister Bernadette Gileen said.
Sister Carole Hanarty glanced up from the pile of chemistry tests on her lap--tests she might never be able to return to her sophomore students--and watched Bernadette as she drove through town, working the shift on the old Datsun like a long-haul trucker. Her dear friend and fellow Sister of Mercy was thin, almost painfully so, with large blue eyes and short red hair showing around the white band of her wimple. As she peered through the windshield, the glow of the setting sun ruddied the clear, smooth skin of her round face.
Sister Carole shrugged. "If His Holiness said it, then we must believe it. But we haven't heard anything from him in so long. I hope…"
Bernadette turned toward her, eyes wide with alarm.
"Oh, you wouldn't be thinking anything's happened to His Holiness now, would you, Carole?" she said, the lilt of her native Ireland elbowing its way into her voice. "They wouldn't dare!"
Momentarily at a loss as to what to say, Carole gazed out the side window at the budding trees sliding past. The sidewalks of this little Jersey Shore town were empty, and hardly any other cars were on the road. She and Bernadette had had to try three grocery stores before finding one with anything to sell. Between the hoarders and delayed or canceled shipments, food was getting scarce.
Everybody sensed it. How did that saying go? By the pricking in my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…
Or something like that.
She rubbed her cold hands together and thought about Bernadette, younger than she by five years--only twenty-six--with such a good mind, such a clear thinker in so many ways. But her faith was almost childlike.
She'd come to the convent at St. Anthony's two years ago and the pair of them had established instant rapport. They shared so much. Not just a common Irish heritage, but a certain isolation as well. Carole's parents had died years ago, and Bernadette's were back on the Auld Sod. So they became sisters in a sense that went beyond their sisterhood in the order. Carole was the big sister, Bernadette the little one. They prayed together, laughed together, walked together. They took over the convent kitchen and did all the food shopping together. Carole could only hope that she had enriched Bernadette's life half as much as the younger woman had enriched hers.
Bernadette was such an innocent. She seemed to assume that since the Pope was infallible when he spoke on matters of faith or morals he somehow must be invincible too.
Carole hadn't told Bernadette, but she'd decided not to believe the Pope on the matter of the undead. After all, their existence was not a matter of faith or morals. Either they existed or they didn't. And all the news out of Europe last year had left little doubt that vampires were real.
And that they were on the march.
Somehow they had got themselves organized. Not only did they exist, but more of them had been hiding in Eastern Europe than even the most superstitious peasant could have imagined. And when the communist bloc crumbled, when all the former client states and Russia were in disarray, grabbing for land, slaughtering in the name of nation and race and religion, the undead took advantage of the power vacuum and struck.
They struck high, they struck low, and before the rest of the world could react, they controlled all Eastern Europe.
If they had merely killed, they might have been containable. But because each kill was a conversion, their numbers increased in a geometric progression. Sister Carole understood geometric progressions better than most. Hadn't she spent years demonstrating them to her chemistry class by dropping a seed crystal into a beaker of supersaturated solution? That one crystal became two, which became four, which became eight, which became sixteen, and so on. You could watch the lattices forming, slowly at first, then bridging through the solution with increasing speed until the liquid contents of the beaker became a solid crystalline mass.
That was how it had gone in Eastern Europe and Russia, then spreading into the Middle East and India, then China. And last fall, into Western Europe.
The undead became unstoppable.
All of Europe had been silent for months. Officially, at least. But a couple of the students at St. Anthony's High who had shortwave radios had told Carole of faint transmissions filtering through the transatlantic night recounting ghastly horrors all across Europe under undead rule.
But the Pope had declared there were no vampires. He'd said it, but shortly thereafter he and the Vatican had fallen silent along with the rest of the continent.
Washington had played down the immediate threat, saying the Atlantic Ocean formed a natural barrier against the undead. Europe was quarantined. America was safe.
Then had come reports, disputed at first, and still officially denied, of undead in Washington, DC, running rampant through the Pentagon, the legislators' posh neighborhoods, the White House itself. Then New York City. The New York TV and radio stations had stopped transmitting. And now…
"You can't really believe vampires are coming to the Jersey Shore, can you?" Bernadette said. "I mean, that is, if there were such things."
"It is hard to believe, isn't it?" Carole said, hiding a smile. "Especially since no one comes to Jersey unless they have to."
"Oh, don't you be having on with me now. This is serious."
Bernadette was right. It was serious. "Well, it fits the pattern my students have heard from Europe."
"But dear God, 'tis Holy Week! 'Tis Good Friday, it is! How could they dare?"
"It's the perfect time, if you think about it. There will be no Mass said until the first Easter Mass on Sunday morning. What other time of the year is daily mass suspended?"
Bernadette shook her head. "None."
"Exactly." Carole looked down at her cold hands and felt the chill crawl all the way up her arms.
The car suddenly lurched to a halt and she heard Bernadette cry out. "Dear Jesus! They're already here!"
Half a dozen black-clad forms clustered on the corner ahead, staring at them.
"Got to get out of here!" Bernadette said and hit the gas.
The old car coughed and died.
"Oh, no!" Bernadette wailed, frantically pumping the gas pedal and turning the key as the dark forms glided toward them. "No!"
"Easy, dear," Carole said, laying a gentle hand on her arm. "It's all right. They're just kids."
Perhaps "kids" was not entirely correct. Two males and four females who looked to be in their late teens and early twenties, but carried any number of adult lifetimes behind their heavily made-up eyes. Grinning, leering, they gathered around the car, four on Bernadette's side and two on Carole's. Sallow faces made paler by a layer of white powder, kohl-crusted eyelids, and black lipstick. Black fingernails, rings in their ears and eyebrows and nostrils, chrome studs piercing cheeks and lips. Their hair ranged the color spectrum, from dead white through burgundy to crankcase black. Bare hairless chests on the boys under their leather jackets, almost-bare chests on the girls in their black push-up bras and bustiers. Boots of shiny leather or vinyl, fishnet stockings, layer upon layer of lace, and everything black, black, black.
"Hey, look!" one of the boys said. A spiked leather collar girded his throat; acne lumps bulged under his whiteface. "Nuns!"
"Penguins!" someone else said.
Apparently this was deemed hilarious. The six of them screamed with laughter.
We're not penguins, Carole thought. She hadn't worn a full habit in years. Only the headpiece.
"Shit, are they gonna be in for a surprise tomorrow morning!" said a buxom girl wearing a silk top hat.
Another roar of laughter by all except one. A tall slim girl with three large black tears tattooed down one cheek, and blond roots peeking from under her black-dyed hair, hung back, looking uncomfortable. Carole stared at her. Something familiar there…
She rolled down her window. "Rosita? Rosita Hernandez, is that you?'
More laughter. "'Rosita'?" someone cried. "That's Wicky!"
The girl stepped forward and looked Carole in the eye. "Yes, Sister. That used to be my name. But I'm not Rosita anymore."
"I can see that."
She remembered Rosita. A sweet girl, extremely bright, but so quiet. A voracious reader who never seemed to fit in with the rest of the kids. Her grades plummeted as a junior. She never returned for her senior year. When Carole had called her parents, she was told that Rosita had left home. She'd been unable to learn anything more.
"You've changed a bit since I last saw you. What is it--three years now?"
"You talk about change?" said the top-hatter girl, sticking her face in the window. "Wait'll tonight. Then you'll really see her change!" She brayed a laugh that revealed a chrome stud in her tongue.
"Butt out, Carmilla!" Rosita said.
Carmilla ignored her. "They're coming tonight, you know. The Lords of the Night will be arriving after sunset, and that'll spell the death of your world and the birth of ours. We will present ourselves to them, we will bare our throats and let them drain us, and we'll join them. Then we'll rule the night with them!"
It sounded like a canned speech, one she must have delivered time and again to her black-clad troupe.
Carole looked past Carmilla to Rosita. "Is that what you believe? Is that what you really want?"
The girl shrugged her high thin shoulders. "Beats anything else I got going."
Finally the old Datsun shuddered to life. Carole heard Bernadette working the shift. She touched her arm and said, "Wait. Just one more moment, please."
She was about to speak to Rosita when Carmilla jabbed her finger at Carole's face, shouting.
"Then you bitches and the candy-ass god you whore for will be fucking extinct!"
With a surprising show of strength, Rosita yanked Carmilla away from the window.
"Better go, Sister Carole," Rosita said.
The Datsun started to move.
"What the fuck's with you, Wicky?" Carole heard Carmilla scream as the car eased away from the dark cluster. "Getting religion or something? Should we start callin you Sister Rosita now?"
"She was one of the few people who was ever straight with me," Rosita said. "So fuck off, Carmilla."
By then the car had traveled too far to hear more.
"What awful creatures they were!" Bernadette said, staring out the window in Carole's convent room. She hadn't been able to stop talking about the incident on the street. "Almost my age, they were, and such horrible language!"
The room was little more than a ten-by-ten-foot plaster box with cracks in the walls and the latest coat of paint beginning to flake off the ancient embossed tin ceiling. She had one window and, for furnishings, a crucifix, a dresser and mirror, a work table and chair, a bed, and a night stand. Not much, but she gladly called it home. She took her vow of poverty seriously.
"Perhaps we should pray for them."
"They need more than prayer, I'd think. Believe me you, they're heading for a bad end." Bernadette removed the oversized rosary she wore looped around her neck, gathering the beads and its attached crucifix in her hand. "Maybe we could offer them some crosses for protection?"
Carole couldn't resist a smile. "That's a sweet thought, Bern, but I don't think they're looking for protection."
"Sure, and lookit after what I'm saying," Bernadette said, her own smile rueful. "No, of course they wouldn't."
"But we'll pray for them," Carole said.
Bernadette dropped into a chair, stayed there for no more than a heart-beat, then was up again, moving about, pacing the confines of Carole's room. She couldn't seem to sit still. She wandered out into the hall and came back almost immediately, rubbing her hands together as if washing them.
"It's so quiet," she said. "So empty."
"I certainly hope so," Carole said. "We're the only two who are supposed to be here."
The little convent was half empty even when all its residents were present. And now, with St. Anthony's School closed for the coming week, the rest of the nuns had gone home to spend Easter Week with brothers and sisters and parents. Even those who might have stayed around the convent in past years had heard the rumors that the undead might be moving this way, so they'd scattered. Carole's only living relative was an aunt, her mother's sister Joyce, who lived in Harrisburg and usually invited her to spend Easter and the following week with her; but she hadn't invited her this year, and wasn't answering her phone. She had a son in California; maybe she'd gone to stay with him. Lots of people were leaving the East Coast.
Bernadette hadn't heard from her family in Ireland for months. Carole feared she never would.
So that left just the two of them to hold the fort, as it were. The convent was part of a complex consisting of the church itself, the rectory, the grammar school and high school buildings, the tiny cemetery, and the sturdy old two-story rooming house that was now the convent. She and Bernadette had taken second-floor rooms, leaving the first floor to the older nuns.
Carole wasn't afraid. She knew they'd be safe here at St. Anthony's, although she wished there were more people left in the complex than just Bernadette, herself, and Father Palmeri.
"I don't understand Father Palmeri," Bernadette said. "Locking up the church and keeping his parishioners from making the stations of the cross on Good Friday. Who's ever heard of such a thing, I ask you? I just don't understand it."
Carole thought she understood. She suspected that Father Alberto Palmeri was afraid. Sometime this morning he'd locked up the rectory, barred the door to St. Anthony's, and hidden himself in the church basement.
God forgive her for thinking it, but to Sister Carole's mind Father Palmeri was a coward.
"Oh, I do wish he'd open the church, just for a little while," Bernadette said. "I need to be in there, Carole. I need it."
Carole knew how Bern felt. Who had said religion was an opiate of the people? Marx? Whoever it was, he hadn't been completely wrong. For Carole, sitting in the cool, peaceful quiet beneath St. Anthony's gothic arches, praying, meditating, and feeling the presence of the Lord were like a daily dose of an addictive drug. A dose she and Bern had been denied today. Bern's withdrawal pangs seemed worse than Carole's.
The younger nun paused as she passed the window, then pointed down to the street.
"And now who in God's name would they be?"
Carole rose and stepped to Bernadette's side. Passing on the street below was a cavalcade of shiny new cars--Mercedes Benzes, BMW's, Jaguars, Lincolns, Cadillacs--all with New York plates, all cruising from the direction of the Parkway.
The sight of them in the dusk tightened a knot in Carole's stomach. The lupine faces she spied through the windows looked brutish, and the way they drove their gleaming luxury cars down the center line…as if they owned the road.
A Cadillac convertible with its top down passed below; four scruffy occupants lounged on the seats. The driver wore a cowboy hat, a woman in leather sat next to him. Both were drinking beer. When Carol saw the driver glance up and look their way, she tugged on Bern's sleeve.
"Stand back! Don't let them see you!"
"Why not? Who are they?"
"I'm not sure, but I've heard of bands of men who do the vampires' dirty work during the daytime, who've traded their souls for the promise of immortality later on, and for…other things now."
"Sure and you're joking, Carole!"
Carole shook her head. "I wish I were."
"Oh, dear God, and now the sun's down." She turned frightened blue eyes toward Carole. "Do you think maybe we should…?"
"Lock up? Most certainly. I know what His Holiness said about there not being any such things as vampires, but maybe he's changed his mind since then and just can't get word to us."
"Sure and you're probably right. You close these and I'll check down the hall." She hurried out, her voice trailing behind her. "Oh, I do wish Father Palmeri hadn't locked the church. I'd dearly love to say a few prayers there."
Sister Carole glanced out the window again. The fancy new cars were gone, but rumbling in their wake was a convoy of trucks--big, eighteen-wheel semis, lumbering down the center line. What were they for? What did they carry? What were they delivering to town?
Suddenly a dog began to bark, and then another, and more and more until it seemed as if every dog in town was giving voice.
To fight the unease rising like a flood tide within her, Sister Carole concentrated on the simple manual tasks of closing and locking her window and drawing the curtains.
But the dread remained, a sick, cold certainty that the world was falling into darkness, that the creeping hem of shadow had reached her corner of the globe, and that without some miracle, without some direct intervention by a wrathful God, the coming night hours would wreak an irrevocable change on her life.
She began to pray for that miracle.
Carole and Bernadette had decided to leave the convent of St. Anthony's dark tonight.
And they decided to spend the night together in Carole's room. They dragged in Bernadette's mattress, locked the door, and doubled-draped the window with the bedspread. They lit the room with a single candle and prayed together.
Yet the music of the night filtered through the walls and the doors and the drapes, the muted moan of sirens singing antiphon to their hymns, the muffled pops of gunfire punctuating their psalms, reaching a crescendo shortly after midnight, then tapering off to…silence.
Carole could see that Bernadette was having an especially rough time of it. She cringed with every siren wail, jumped at every shot. Carole shared Bern's terror, but she buried it, hid it deep within for her friend's sake. After all, Carole was older, and she knew she was made of sterner stuff. Bernadette was an innocent, too sensitive even for yesterday's world, the world before the undead. How would she survive in the world as it would be after tonight? She'd need help. Carole would provide as much as she could.
But for all the imagined horrors conjured by the night noises, the silence was worse. No human wails of pain and horror had penetrated their sanctum, but imagined cries of human suffering echoed through their minds in the ensuing stillness.
"Dear God, what's happening out there?" Bernadette said after they'd finished reading aloud the Twenty-third Psalm.
She huddled on her mattress, a blanket thrown over her shoulders. The candle's flame reflected in her frightened eyes and cast her shadow, high, hunched, and wavering, on the wall behind her.
Carole sat cross-legged on her bed. She leaned back against the wall and fought to keep her eyes open. Exhaustion was a weight on her shoulders, a cloud over her brain, but she knew sleep was out of the question. Not now, not tonight, not until the sun was up. And maybe not even then.
"Easy, Bern--" Carole began, then stopped.
From below, on the first floor of the convent, a faint thumping noise.
"What's that?" Bernadette said, voice hushed, eyes wide.
"I don't know."
Carole grabbed her robe and stepped out into the hall for a better listen.
"Don't you be leaving me alone, now!" Bernadette said, running after her with the blanket still wrapped around her shoulders.
"Hush," Carole said. "Listen. It's the front door. Someone's knocking. I'm going down to see."
She hurried down the wide, oak-railed stairway to the front foyer. The knocking was louder here, but still sounded weak. Carole put her eye to the peephole, peered through the sidelights, but saw no one.
But the knocking, weaker still, continued.
"Wh-who's there?" she said, her words cracking with fear.
"Sister Carole," came a faint voice through the door. "It's me…Rosita. I'm hurt."
Instinctively, Carole reached for the handle, but Bernadette grabbed her arm.
"Wait! It could be a trick!"
She's right, Carole thought. Then she glanced down and saw blood leaking across the threshold from the other side.
She gasped and pointed at the crimson puddle. "That's no trick."
She unlocked the door and pulled it open. Rosita huddled on the welcome mat in a pool of blood.
"Dear sweet Jesus!" Carole cried. "Help me, Bern!"
"What if she's a vampire?" Bernadette said, standing frozen. "They can't cross the threshold unless you ask them in."
"Stop that silliness! She's hurt!"
Bernadette's good heart won out over her fear. She threw off the blanket, revealing a faded blue, ankle-length flannel nightgown that swirled just above the floppy slippers she wore. Together they dragged Rosita inside. Bernadette closed and relocked the door immediately.
"Call 9-1-1!" Carole told her.
Bernadette hurried down the hall to the phone.
Rosita lay moaning on her side on the foyer tiles, clutching her bleeding abdomen. Carole saw a piece of metal, coated with rust and blood, protruding from the area of her navel. From the faint fecal smell of the gore Carole guessed that her intestines had been pierced.
"Oh, you poor child!" Carole knelt beside her and cradled her head in her lap. She arranged Bernadette's blanket over Rosita's trembling body. "Who did this to you?"
"Accident," Rosita gasped. Real tears had run her black eye makeup over her tattooed tears. "I was running…fell."
"Running from what?"
"From them. God…terrible. We searched for them, Carmilla's Lords of the Night. Just after sundown we found one. Looked just like we always knew he would…you know, tall and regal and graceful and seductive and cool. Standing by one of those big trailers that came through town. My friends approached him but I sorta stayed back. Wasn't too sure I was really into having my blood sucked. But Carmilla goes right up to him, pulling off her top and baring her throat, offering herself to him."
Rosita coughed and groaned as a spasm of pain shook her.
"Don't talk," Carole said. "Save your strength."
"No," she said in a weaker voice when it eased. "You got to know. This Lord guy just smiles at Carmilla, then he signals his helpers who pull open the back doors of the trailer." Rosita sobbed. "Horrible! Truck's filled with these…things! Look human but they're dirty and naked and act like beasts. They like pour out the truck and right off a bunch of them jump Carmilla. They start biting and ripping at her throat. I see her go down and hear her screaming and I start backing up. My other friends try to run but they're pulled down too. And then I see one of the things hold up Carmilla's head and hear the Lord guy say, 'That's right, children. Take their heads. Always take their heads. There are enough of us now.' And that's when I turned and ran. I was running through a vacant lot when I fell on…this."
Bernadette rushed back into the foyer. Her face was drawn with fear. "911 doesn't answer! I can't raise anyone!"
"They're all over town." Rosita said after another spasm of coughing. Carole could barely hear her. She touched her throat--so cold. "They've been setting fires and attacking the cops and firemen when they arrive. Their human helpers break into houses and drive the people outside where they're attacked. And after the things drain the blood, they rip the heads off."
"Dear God, why?" Bernadette said, crouching beside Carole.
"My guess…don't want any more undead. Maybe only so much blood to go around and--"
She moaned with another spasm, then lay still. Carole patted her cheeks and called her name, but Rosita Hernandez's dull, staring eyes told it all.
"Is she…?" Bernadette said.
Carole nodded as tears filled her eyes. You poor misguided child, she thought, closing Rosita's eyelids.
"She's died in sin," Bernadette said. "She needs anointing immediately! I'll get Father."
"No, Bern," Carole said. "Father Palmeri won't come."
"Of course he will. He's a priest and this poor lost soul needs him."
"Trust me. He won't leave that church basement for anything."
"But he must!" she said almost childishly, her voice rising. "He's a priest."
"Just be calm, Bernadette, and we'll pray for her ourselves."
"We can't do what a priest can do," she said, springing to her feet. "It's not the same."
"Where are you going?"
"To…to get a robe. It's cold."
My poor, dear, frightened Bernadette, Carole thought as she watched her scurry up the steps. I know exactly how you feel.
"Bring my prayer book back with you," she called after her.
Carole pulled the blanket over Rosita's face and gently lowered her head to the floor.
She waited for Bernadette to return…and waited. What was taking her so long? She called her name but got no answer.
Uneasy, Carole returned to the second floor. The hallway was empty and dark except for a pale shaft of moonlight slanting through the window at its far end. Carole hurried to Bern's room. The door was closed. She knocked.
"Bern? Bern, are you in there?"
Carole opened the door and peered inside. More moonlight, more emptiness.
Down on the first floor, almost directly under Carole's feet, the convent's back door slammed. How could that be? Carole had locked it herself--dead-bolted it at sunset.
Unless Bernadette had gone down the back stairs and…
She darted to the window and stared down at the grassy area between the convent and the church. The high, bright moon had made a black-and-white photo of the world outside, bleaching the lawn below with its stark glow, etching deep ebony wells around the shrubs and foundation plantings. It glared from St. Anthony's slate roof, stretching a long wedge of night behind its Gothic spire.
And scurrying across the lawn toward the church was a slim figure wrapped in a long raincoat, the moon picking out the white band of her wimple, its black veil a fluttering shadow along her neck and upper back--Bernadette was too old-country to approach the church with her head uncovered.
"Oh, Bern," Carole whispered, pressing her face against the glass. "Bern, don't!"
She watched as Bernadette ran up to St. Anthony's side entrance and began clanking the heavy brass knocker against the thick oak door. Her high, clear voice filtered faintly through the window glass.
"Father! Father Palmeri! Please open up! There's dead girl in the convent who needs anointing!"
She kept banging, kept calling, but the door never opened. Carole thought she saw Father Palmeri's pale face float into view to Bern's right through the glass of one of the church's few unstained windows. It hovered there for a few seconds, then disappeared.
But the door remained closed.
That didn't seem to faze Bern. She only increased the force of her blows with the knocker, and raised her voice even higher until it echoed off the stone walls and reverberated through the night.
Carole's heart went out to her. She shared Bern's need, if not her desperation.
Why doesn't Father Palmeri at least let her in? she thought. The poor thing's making enough racket to wake the dead.
Sudden terror tightened along the back of Carole's neck.
…wake the dead…
Bern was too loud. She thought only of attracting the attention of Father Palmeri, but what if she attracted…others?
Even as the thought crawled across her mind, Carole saw a dark, rangy figure creep onto the lawn from the street side, slinking from shadow to shadow, closing in on her unsuspecting friend.
"Oh, dear God!" she cried, and fumbled with the window lock. She twisted it open and yanked up the sash.
Carole screamed into the night. "Bernadette! Behind you! There's someone coming! Get back here now, Bernadette! NOW!"
Bernadette turned and looked up toward Carole, then stared around her. The approaching figure had dissolved into the shadows at the sound of the shouted warnings. But Bernadette must have sensed something in Carole's voice, for she started back toward the convent.
She didn't get far--ten paces, maybe--before the shadowy form caught up to her.
"NO!" Carole screamed as she saw it leap upon her friend.
She stood frozen at the window, her fingers clawing the molding on each side as Bernadette's high wail of terror and pain cut the night.
For the span of an endless, helpless, paralyzed heartbeat, Carole watched the form drag her down to the silver lawn, tear open her raincoat, and fall upon her, watched her arms and legs flail wildly, frantically in the moonlight, and all the while her screams, oh, dear God in Heaven, her screams for help were slim, white-hot nails driven into Carole's ears.
And then, out of the corner of her eye, Carole saw the pale face appear again at the window of St. Anthony's, watch for a moment, then once more fade into the inner darkness.
With a low moan of horror, fear, and desperation, Carole pushed herself away
from the window and stumbled toward the hall. Someone had to help. along the way she snatched the foot-long wooden crucifix from Bernadette's wall and clutched it against her chest with both hands. As she picked up speed, graduating from a lurch to a walk to a loping run, she began to scream--not a wail of fear, but a long, seamless ululation of rage.
Something was killing her friend.
The rage was good. It shredded the fear and the horror and the loathing that had paralyzed her. It allowed her to move, to keep moving. She embraced the rage.
Carole hurtled down the stairs and burst onto the moonlit lawn--
And stopped, disoriented for an instant. She didn't see Bern. Where was she? Where was her attacker?
And then she saw a patch of writhing shadow on the grass ahead of her near one of the shrubs.
Clutching the crucifix, Carole ran for the spot, and as she neared she realized it was indeed Bernadette, sprawled face down, but not alone. Another shadow sat astride her, hissing like a reptile, gnashing its teeth, its fingers curved into talons that tugged at Bernadette's head as if trying to tear it off.
Carole reacted without thinking. Screaming, she launched herself at the creature, ramming the big crucifix against its exposed back. Light flashed and sizzled and thick black smoke shot upward in oily swirls from where cross met flesh. The thing arched its back and howled, writhing beneath the cruciform brand, thrashing wildly as it tried to wriggle out from under the fiery weight.
But Carole stayed with it, following its slithering crawl on her knees, pressing the flashing cross deeper and deeper into its steaming, boiling flesh, down to the spine, into the vertebrae. Its cries became almost piteous as it weakened, and Carole gagged on the thick black smoke that fumed around her, but her rage would not allow her to slack off. She kept up the pressure, pushed the wooden crucifix deeper and deeper in the creature's back until it penetrated the chest cavity and seared into its heart. Suddenly the thing gagged and shuddered and then was still.
The flashes faded. The final wisps of smoke trailed away on the breeze.
Carole abruptly released the shaft of the crucifix as if it had shocked her. She ran back to Bernadette, dropped to her knees beside the still form, and turned her over onto her back.
"Oh, no!" she screamed when she saw Bernadette's torn throat, her wide, glazed, sightless eyes, and the blood, so much blood smeared all over the front of her.
Oh no. Oh, dear God, please no! This can't be! This can't be real!
A sob burst from her. "No, Bern! Nooooo!"
Somewhere nearby, a dog howled in answer.
Or was it a dog?
Carole realized she was defenseless now. She had to get back to the convent. She leaped to her feet and looked around. Nothing moving. A dozen feet away she saw the crucifix still buried in the dead thing.
She hurried over to retrieve it, but recoiled from touching the creature. She could see now that it was a man--a naked man, or something that very much resembled one. But not quite. Some indefinable quality was missing.
Was it one of them?
This must be one of the undead Rosita had warned about. But could this…this thing…be a vampire? It had acted like little more than a rabid dog in human form.
Whatever it was, it had mauled and murdered Bernadette. Rage bloomed again within Carole like a virulent, rampant virus, spreading through her bloodstream, invading her nervous system, threatening to take over. She fought the urge to batter the corpse.
She choked back the bile rising in her throat and stared at the inert form prone before her. This once had been a man, someone with a family, perhaps. Surely he hadn't asked to become this vicious night thing.
"Whoever you were," Carole whispered, "you're free now. Free to return to God."
She gripped the shaft of the crucifix to remove it but found it fixed in the seared flesh like a steel rod set in concrete.
Something howled again. Closer.
She had to get back inside, but she couldn't leave Bern out here.
Swiftly she returned to Bernadette's side, worked her hands through the grass under her back and knees, and lifted her into her arms. She staggered under the weight. Dear Lord, for such a thin woman she was heavy.
Carole carried Bernadette back to the convent as fast as her rubbery legs would allow. Once inside, she bolted the door, then tried to carry her up the steep stairway. She stopped on the third step. She'd intended to take Bern's body back to her room, but who knew when the poor girl would be buried? Might be days. And the second floor got warm during the day. Better to lay her out in the cellar where it was cooler.
With Bernadette in her arms she struggled down the narrow stairwell to the cellar, almost falling twice along the way. She stretched her out on an old couch. She straightened Bern's thin legs, crossed her hands over her blood-splattered chest, and arranged her torn nightgown and raincoat around her as best she could. She adjusted the wimple on her head. Then she ran up to Bernadette's room and returned with her bedspread. She draped her from head to toe, then knelt beside her.
Looking down at that still form under the quilt she had helped Bernadette make, Carole sagged against the couch and began to cry. She tried to say a requiem prayer but her grief-racked mind had lost the words. So she sobbed aloud and asked God why? How could He let this happen to a dear, sweet innocent who had wished only to spend her life serving Him? WHY?
But no answer came.
When Carole finally controlled her tears, she forced herself to her weary feet and made her way back to the main floor. When she saw the light on in the front foyer, she knew she should turn it off. She stepped over the still form of Rosita under the blood-soaked blanket. Two violent deaths here on the church grounds, a place devoted to God. How many more beyond these grounds?
She knew she should carry Rosita to the basement as well, but lacked the strength--of either will or body.
Tomorrow…first thing tomorrow morning, Rosita. I promise.
She turned off the light and raced through the dark back up to her own room where she huddled shivering in her bed.
Carole awoke in a cold sweat. Good Friday again. How many times must she relive that night?
She pushed herself up from the mattress and stumbled to the bathroom. She poured an inch of water from the tap into a glass and drank it down. Didn't want to risk drinking too much without boiling it first.
At least the water was still running. Was that the vampires' doing? Carole wouldn't be surprised. Water was one of the necessities of life. It seemed to her the vampires wanted a certain number of the living to survive, but not to communicate. Which would explain why the electricity and the telephones went out that first weekend. Keep people isolated and insulated from any message of hope.
She found her way back to the bed and buried her head under the pillow. She needed sleep--dreamless sleep that would allow her to wake up refreshed instead of exhausted. She didn't want to dream of Good Friday again, or worse, the following day…the worst day of her life.
Carole awoke to the wail of sirens. She sat up in bed, blinking in the morning light.
A dream…please, God, show me that last night was all a dream.
But her throat tightened at the sight of Bernadette's empty mattress on the floor beside her bed. No…not a dream. A living nightmare.
She'd stayed up till dawn, then she'd pulled the bedspread from the window and fallen into exhausted sleep.
The sirens…closer now. She crept to the window and peeked at the street below. Two police cars, red and blue lights flashing, roared past the front of the convent and made squealing turns into the church parking lot.
The police! They've come!
Carole rose and hurried across the hall to Bern's room in time to see them slow to a stop before the church.
Thank you, God, she thought. All is not lost. The police are still on the job.
Before pushing away from the window she searched the lawn to the left of the church for the remains of the vampire she'd killed last night. A bright, clear, unconscionably beautiful morning, with a high trail of brown smoke drifting from the east. She couldn't find the vampire, but she spotted Bernadette's wooden cross lying in a man-shaped puddle of brown ooze on the grass. Could that be all that remained of--?
Can't worry about that now, she thought as she dashed back into the hall and down the rear stairs. She had to get to the police, tell them about Bernadette. They'd take her to a morgue or a funeral home where Carole could arrange for a proper burial.
She reached the rear door and had just turned back the deadbolt when she glanced through the glass. The sight of a lean, wolfish man, all in denim, uncoiling from the front passenger seat of the first car froze her heart. He settled a cowboy hat over his long brown hair and looked around, smirking as if he owned the world. A tattooed blond woman in a leather vest got out of the driver seat while two more men in rough clothes slithered from the second car. The first wore his long black hair in a single braid down the middle of his back; the second was sandy haired and balding, wearing a scraggly beard to compensate for what he'd lost on his scalp. All four wore wraparound sunglasses and had silvery earrings dangling from their right lobes.
Carole ducked away from the door and jammed her hands against her mouth. She'd seen these people before, last night, leading the caravan of trucks carrying the undead into town. It seemed so long ago, a lifetime. But this could only mean that the police had lost. The undead and their caretakers were in control now.
But what were they doing here at St. Anthony's?
She crept away from the door and down the hall toward the kitchen. The windows over the sink looked out toward the church. She could watch from there and see without being seen. She needed to know what they were up to. She leaned over the big double sink and cranked the window open an inch or two, just enough to hear what they were saying.
She sniffed the air that wafted through the opening. Something burning somewhere…smelled like some sort of meat. She glanced at the brown smoke trailing across the sky. Could that be--?
A car door slammed. She watched the one in the cowboy hat heft a crowbar as he walked from his police car to the side door of the church. Swinging it like a baseball bat he started bashing the hooked end against the doorknob. The clang of metal on metal echoed like a church bell through the eerie silence of the morning. Then he reversed his grip and rammed the tip of the long end between the door and the frame. A few hard yanks and the door popped open.
The woman and the two other men ran inside while the cowboy returned to the police car. He leaned against the fender and lit a cigarette; he carelessly bounced the crowbar against the hood, denting it with every bounce.
A few minutes later the two other men emerged, dragging Father Palmeri between them. The priest had a bloody nose and was blubbering in fear, begging them to let him go.
The sandy-haired man laughed. "Found him hiding in the basement! Lookit him! Peed his pants!"
Carole shook her head in dismay when she saw the darker stain on Father Palmeri's black cassock. God forgive her, she'd never liked the man, and after last night when he could have saved Bernadette simply by letting her into the church, well, she liked him even less. He was a man of God. He was supposed to set an example.
Then the woman appeared. She'd draped herself in Father Palmeri's long white chasuble and came out dancing and skipping behind the whimpering priest.
Carole felt her anger begin to boil. How dare this…this tramp sully holy vestments like that. It was sacrilege.
"You like basements, priest?" the cowboy said, grinning. "Good. 'Cause you're gonna be seeing a lot of them from now on."
Carole's stomach dropped. What did that mean? Were they going to turn him into a vampire? Oh, no. They couldn't do that. Not to a priest.
She had to help him, but what could she do? She was one woman and there were four of them. She watched as they locked Father Palmeri in the caged rear compartment of one of the cars. Then they started toward the convent, the cowboy in the lead, the crowbar on his shoulder.
No! Not here! Not now! And she'd unlocked the door.
Hide! The basement? No. She had to pass the rear door to reach it. They'd see her for sure. She could make it to the second floor but couldn't think of anyplace to hide up there.
She did a quick turn and her gaze came to rest on the big institutional-size oven to her left. She yanked down the door and looked inside. Could she fit? Maybe, maybe not. But even if she did fit, the plate glass window in the door would give her away. But no. A closer look showed that it was fogged with baked-on grease. Bless old Sister Mary Margaret's bad eyes. Last week was her turn to clean the oven. She never did a good job, for which Carole was now grateful.
Moving as quickly as she could without causing a racket, she slid out the two metal racks and slipped them between the oven and the neighboring cabinet. She pulled a long-handled metal spatula from the wall rack and bent the end into an acute angle. Then she sidled into the close space, her flannel nightgown sticking to the grease-splattered surfaces, and tucked her knees against her chest.
She fit. Barely. Now to get the door closed. She reached out with the spatula, hooked its bent end around the upper edge of the oven door, and pulled. It barely budged. These old oven doors were heavy. Straining her muscles, she managed to pull it a quarter of the way closed when the spatula slipped off. The door fell back with a clank.
She felt her heart kick into a higher gear as she tried again. The cowboy and his gang would be walking in any--
She heard the back door slam open and a woman's voice say, "Nice of them to leave the place unlocked."
"Probably means it's empty," said a voice she recognized as the cowboy's. "Check it out anyway. See if we can put a nun on Gregor's plate, too"
The woman snickered. "Yeah! A priest-and-nun combo platter!"
"A three-way!" someone else said.
Lots of laughter at that. But for Carole, only terror clawing at her gut. She had to close this door. Now.
She stretched out and again hooked the spatula end over the edge. The handle slipped in her sweaty palm. She tightened her grip and began to pull.
"I'll take this floor," said the cowboy's voice. "Al, you and Kenny check out upstairs. Jackie, you take the basement."
Carole heard feet moving, some away, some pounding up the stairs, and one set moving closer, toward the kitchen. The oven door was a third of the way up now. Her arm was aching. If only she could use both hands. She set her teeth and gave the door a yank. To her shock it snapped toward her once it passed the halfway mark and she had to release the spatula to keep it from slamming shut. She eased it closed just as someone walked into the room.
Carole closed her eyes and shuddered with relief, but that vanished when she opened them again and saw the spatula still hooked on the door.
She stifled a bleat of terror. The business end was sticking outside.
She looked through the grimy glass and saw a pair of denim-clad legs enter the kitchen and stop directly before the oven. The cowboy--had he spotted the spatula?
Sweet Jesus, don't let him see it!
Carole almost wept when the legs moved on.
"Let's see what we got here," she heard him say.
She heard cabinet doors swing open, heard their contents hit the floor, heard drawers pulled from their slots and dropped. He couldn't be looking for a person--not in those spaces. What was he after?
"Ay, here we go."
More footsteps. Father Palmeri's white chasuble stopped in front of the oven. The woman.
"Whatcha got there, Stan?"
"First, whatcha find in the basement?"
"Dead nun. Least I'm pretty sure she's a nun. She's wearin a tore-up nightie and a raincoat, but she's got one of those veil hats on her head. And she was bit."
"And she still got her head?"
"Yeah. Think she ran into that dead feral outside?"
"Dunno, but someone sure kicked his ass, huh?"
"True that." The woman moved out of view of the oven glass. "So whatcha got there?"
"Homemade chocolate chip cookies. Still fresh."
Carole bit back a sob. She and Bernadette had baked those yesterday afternoon, and now these human slime were eating them.
"Yo, Stan," said a male voice. "Nobody upstairs but we got a dead goth chick in the front hall."
"Was she bit?"
"Nah. Some kinda steel pipe stickin from her gut."
"Whoa! What kinda weird shit went down here last night? Sounds like my kinda party."
They laughed and then went silent. Stuffing their faces with her cookies, Carole supposed.
Finally the cowboy said, "All right. The priest house is next. We'll take these with us. Somebody remind me we gotta come back for the bit one. We should toss her on the pile before sunset."
With that they shuffled out, leaving Carole alone and cramped and sweating in the oven. She closed her eyes and pretended she was sitting on a pew in the cool open spaces of St. Anthony's, savoring the peaceful air as she waited for mass to begin.
Carole waited more than an hour before she dared to leave the oven. After slowly straightening her cramped back, the first thing she did was peek through the kitchen window. She sagged against the sink with relief when she saw the police cars gone.
Next she ran up to her room and exchanged her grease-spotted nightgown for a plaid blouse and khaki slacks. Usually she'd wear a skirt, but not today.
She looked around. Now…what?
She couldn't stay here in the convent. She had to move somewhere else. But where? And how could she leave Bernadette here to be hauled off by those human animals so they could "toss her on the pile," whatever that meant?
Carole knew she had to do something. But what?
Since joining the convent a dozen years ago, straight out of high school, all important decisions had been taken out of her hands. The Sisters of Mercy had put her through college at Georgian Court where she'd earned her teaching degree. All along she'd followed the instructions of Sister Superior. A calm, contemplative existence of poverty, chastity, and obedience, devoted to prayer and study and doing the Lord's work.
Now she had to decide. She wanted to hide Bernadette's body, but couldn't think of a single safe place. She wanted to move Rosita's body down to the basement but didn't dare: The cowboy would know someone was here.
So she spent the day in a state of mental and emotional paralysis. She prayed for guidance, she walked the halls, she sat on her bed and stared out the window, watching for the cowboy and his gang, dreading the moment they returned.
The only decision she made was to hide under her bed when they did.
But they didn't return. The afternoon dragged into evening, and then the sun was down. Carole allowed herself the faint hope that they'd forgotten about Bernadette or had become involved in more pressing matters.
She draped her window, lit a candle, and began to pray.
She didn't know what time the power went out. She had no idea how long she'd been kneeling beside her bed when she glanced at the digital alarm clock on her night table and saw that its face had gone dark.
Not that a power failure mattered. She noticed barely an inch of the candle left. She held her watch face near the flame. Only 2 A.M. Would this night ever end?
She was tempted to lift the bedspread draped over the window and peek outside, but was afraid of what she might see.
How long until dawn? she wondered, rubbing her eyes. Last night had seemed endless, but this--
Beyond her locked door, a faint creak came from somewhere along the hall. It could have been anything--the wind in the attic, the old building settling--but it had sounded like floorboards creaking.
And then she heard it again.
Carole froze, still on her knees, hands still folded in prayer, elbows resting on the bed, and listened. More creaks, closer, and something else…a rhythmic shuffle…in the hall…approaching her door…
With her heart punching frantically against the wall of her chest, Carole leaped to her feet and stepped close to the door, listening with her ear almost touching the wood. Yes. Footsteps. Slow. And soft, like bare feet scuffing the floor. Coming this way. Closer. Right outside the door now.
Carole felt a sudden chill, as if a wave of icy air had penetrated the wood, but the footsteps didn't pause. They passed her door, moving on.
And then they stopped.
Carole had her ear pressed against the wood now. She could hear her pulse pounding through her head as she strained for the next sound. And then it came, more shuffling outside in the hall, almost confused at first, and then the footsteps began again.
This time they stopped directly outside Carole's door. The cold was back again, a damp, penetrating chill that reached for her bones. Carole backed away from it.
And then the nob turned. Slowly. The door creaked with the weight of a body leaning against it from the other side, but Carole's bolt held.
Then a voice. Hoarse. A single whispered word, barely audible, but a shout could not have startled her more.
Carole didn't reply--couldn't reply.
"Carole, it's me. Bern. Let me in."
Against her will, a low moan escaped Carole. No, no, no, this couldn't be Bernadette. Bernadette was dead. Carole had left her cooling body lying in the basement. This was some horrible joke…
Or was it? Maybe Bernadette had become one of them, one of the very things that had killed her.
But the voice on the other side of the door was not that of some ravenous beast…
"Please let me in, Carole. I'm frightened out here alone."
Maybe Bern is alive, Carole thought, her mind racing, ranging for an answer. I'm no doctor. I could have been wrong about her being dead. Maybe she survived…
She stood trembling, torn between the desperate, aching need to see her friend alive, and the wary terror of being tricked by whatever creature Bernadette might have become.
Carole wished for a peephole in the door, or at the very least a chain lock, but she had neither, and she had to do something. She couldn't stand here like this and listen to that plaintive voice any longer without going mad. She had to know. Without giving herself any more time to think, she snapped back the bolt and pulled the door open, ready to face whatever awaited her in the hall.
She gasped. "Bernadette!"
Her friend stood just beyond the threshold, swaying, stark naked.
Not completely naked. She still wore her wimple, although it was askew on her head, and a strip of cloth had been layered around her neck to dress her throat wound. In the wan, flickering candlelight that leaked from Carole's room, she saw that the blood that had splattered her was gone. Carole had never seen Bernadette unclothed before. She'd never realized how thin she was. Her ribs rippled beneath the skin of her chest, disappearing only beneath the scant padding of her small breasts with their erect nipples; the bones of her hips and pelvis bulged around her flat belly. Her normally fair skin was almost blue white. The only other colors were the dark pools of her eyes and the orange splotches of hair on her head and her pubes.
"Carole," she said weakly. "Why did you leave me?"
The sight of Bernadette standing before her, alive, speaking, had drained most of Carole's strength; the added weight of guilt from her words nearly drove her to her knees. She sagged against the door frame.
"Bern…" Carole's voice failed her. She swallowed and tried again. "I--I thought you were dead. And…what happened to your clothes?"
Bernadette raised her hand to her throat. "I tore up my nightgown for a bandage. Can I come in?"
Carole straightened and opened the door further. "Oh, Lord, yes. Come in. Sit down. I'll get you a blanket."
Bernadette shuffled into the room, head down, eyes fixed on the floor. She moved like someone on drugs. But then, after losing so much blood, it was a wonder she could walk at all.
"Don't want a blanket," Bern said. "Too hot. Aren't you hot?"
She backed herself stiffly onto Carole's bed, then lifted her ankles and sat cross-legged, facing her. Mentally, Carole explained the casual, blatant way she exposed herself by the fact that Bernadette was still recovering from a horrific trauma, but that made it no less discomfiting.
Carole glanced at the crucifix on the wall over her bed, above and behind Bernadette. For moment, as Bernadette had seated herself beneath it, she thought she had seen it glow. It must have been reflected candlelight. She turned away and retrieved a spare blanket from the closet. She unfolded it and wrapped it around Bernadette's shoulders and over her spread knees, covering her.
"I'm thirsty, Carole. Could you get me some water?"
Her voice was strange. Lower pitched and hoarse, yes, as might be expected after the throat wound she'd suffered. But something else had changed in her voice, something Carole could not pin down.
"Of course. You'll need fluids. Lots of fluids."
The bathroom was only two doors down. She took her water pitcher, lit a second candle, and left Bernadette on the bed, looking like an Indian draped in a serape.
When she returned with the full pitcher, she was startled to find the bed empty. She spied Bernadette by the window. She hadn't opened it, but she'd pulled off the bedspread drape and raised the shade. She stood there, staring out at the night. And she was naked again.
Carole looked around for the blanket and found it…hanging on the wall over her bed…
Covering the crucifix.
Part of Carole screamed at her to run, to flee down the hall and not look back. But another part of her insisted she stay. This was her friend. Something terrible had happened to Bernadette and she needed Carole now, probably more than she'd needed anyone in her entire life. And if someone was going to help her, it was Carole. Only Carole.
She placed the pitcher on the nightstand.
"Bernadette," she said, her mouth as dry as the timbers in these old walls, "the blanket…"
"I was hot," Bernadette said without turning.
"I brought you the water. I'll pour--"
"I'll drink it later. Come and watch the night."
"I don't want to see the night. It frightens me."
Bernadette turned, a faint smile on her lips. "But the darkness is so beautiful."
She stepped closer and stretched her arms toward Carole, laying a hand on each shoulder and gently massaging the terror-tightened muscles there. A sweet lethargy began to seep through Carole. Her eyelids began to drift closed…so tired…so long since she'd had any sleep…
She forced her eyes open and gripped Bernadette's cold hands, pulling them from her shoulders. She pressed the palms together and clasped them between her own.
"Let's pray, Bern. With me: Hail Mary, full of grace…"
"…the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou…"
Her friend's face twisted in rage. "I said, NO, damn you!"
Carole struggled to keep a grip on Bernadette's hands but she was too strong.
And suddenly Bernadette's struggles ceased. Her face relaxed, her eyes cleared, even her voiced changed, still hoarse, but higher in pitch, lighter in tone as she took up the words of the prayer.
"And Blessed is the fruit of thy womb…" Bernadette struggled with the next word, unable to say it. Instead she gripped Carole's hands with painful intensity and loosed a torrent of her own words. "Carole, get out! Get out, oh, please, for the love of God, get out now! There's not much of me left in here, and soon I'll be like the ones that killed me and I'll be after killing you! So run, Carole! Hide! Lock yourself in the chapel downstairs but get away from me now!"
Carole knew now what had been missing from Bernadette's voice--her brogue. But now it was back. This was the real Bernadette speaking. She was back! Her friend, her sister was back! Carole bit back a sob.
"Oh, Bern, I can help! I can--"
Bernadette pushed her toward the door. "No one can help me, Carole!" She ripped the makeshift bandage from her neck, exposing the jagged, partially healed wound and the ragged ends of the torn blood vessels within it. "It's too late for me, but not for you. They're a bad lot and I'll be one of them again soon, so get out while you--"
Suddenly Bernadette stiffened and her features shifted. Carole knew immediately that the brief respite her friend had stolen from the horror that gripped her was over. Something else was back in command.
Carole turned and ran.
But the Bernadette-thing was astonishingly swift. Carole had barely reached the threshold when a steel-fingered hand gripped her upper arm and yanked her back, nearly dislocating her shoulder. She cried out in pain and terror as she was spun about and flung across the room. Her hip struck hard against the rickety old spindle chair by her desk, knocking it over as she landed in a heap beside it.
Carole groaned with the pain. As she shook her head to clear it, she saw Bernadette approaching, her movements swift, more assured now, her teeth bared--so many teeth, and so much longer than the old Bernadette's--her fingers curved, reaching for Carole's throat. With each passing second there was less and less of Bernadette about her.
Carole tried to back away, her frantic hands and feet slipping on the floor as she pressed her spine against the wall. She had nowhere to go. She pulled the fallen chair atop her and held it as a shield against the Bernadette-thing. The face that had once belonged to her dearest friend grimaced with contempt as she swung her hand at the chair. It scythed through the spindles, splintering them like matchsticks, sending the carved headpiece flying. A second blow cracked the seat in two. A third and fourth sent the remnants of the chair hurtling to opposite sides of the room.
Carole was helpless now. All she could do was pray.
"Our Father, who art--"
"Too late for that to help you now, Carole!" she rasped, spitting her name.
"…hallowed by Thy Name…" Carole said, quaking in terror as frigid undead fingers closed on her throat.
And then the Bernadette-thing froze, listening. Carole heard it too. An insistent tapping. On the window. The creature turned to look, and Carole followed her gaze.
A face was peering through the glass.
Carole blinked but it didn't go away. This was the second floor! How--?
And then a second face appeared, this one upside down, looking in from the top of the window. And then a third, and a fourth, each more bestial than the last. And as each appeared it began to tap its fingers and knuckles on the window glass.
"NO!" the Bernadette-thing screamed at them. "You can't come in! She's mine! No one touches her but me!"
She turned back to Carole and smiled, showing those teeth that had never fit in Bernadette's mouth. "They can't cross a threshold unless invited in by one who lives there. I live here--or at least I did. And I'm not sharing you, Carole."
She turned again and raked a clawlike hand at the window. "Go a WAY! She's MINE!"
Carole glanced to her left. The bed was only a few feet away. And above it--the blanket-shrouded crucifix. If she could reach it…
She didn't hesitate. With the mad tapping tattoo from the window echoing around her, Carole gathered her feet beneath her and sprang for the bed. She scrambled across the sheets, one hand outstretched, reaching for the blanket--
A manacle of icy flesh closed around her calf and roughly dragged her back.
"Oh, no, bitch," said the hoarse, unaccented voice of the Bernadette thing. "Don't even think about it!"
It grabbed two fistfuls of fabric at the back of Carole's blouse and hurled her across the room as if she weighed no more than a pillow. The wind whooshed out of Carole as she slammed against the far wall. She heard ribs crack. She fell among the splintered ruins of the chair, pain lancing through her right flank. The room wavered and blurred. But through the roaring in her ears she still heard that insistent tapping on the window.
As her vision cleared she saw the Bernadette-thing's naked form gesturing again to the creatures at the window, now a mass of salivating mouths and tapping fingers.
"Watch!" she hissed. "Watch me!"
With that, she loosed a long, howling scream and lunged, arms curved before her, body arcing toward Carole in a flying leap. The scream, the tapping, the faces at the window, the dear friend who now wanted only to slaughter her--it all was suddenly too much for Carole. She wanted to roll away but couldn't get her body to move. Her hand found the broken seat of the chair by her hip. Instinctively she pulled it closer. She closed her eyes as she raised it between herself and the horror hurtling toward her.
The impact drove the wood of the seat against Carole's chest; she groaned as new stabs of pain shot through her ribs. But the Bernadette-thing's triumphant feeding cry cut off abruptly and devolved into a coughing gurgle.
Suddenly the weight was released from Carole's chest, and the chair seat with it.
And the tapping at the window ceased.
Carole opened her eyes to see the naked Bernadette-thing standing above her, straddling her, holding the chair seat before her, choking and gagging as she struggled with it.
At first Carole didn't understand. She drew her legs back and inched away along the wall. And then she saw what had happened.
Three splintered spindles had remained fixed in that half of the broken seat, and those spindles were now firmly and deeply embedded in the center of the Bernadette-thing's chest. She wrenched wildly at the chair seat, trying to dislodge the oak daggers but succeeded only in breaking them off at skin level. She dropped the remnant of the seat and swayed like a tree in a storm, her mouth working spasmodically as her hands fluttered ineffectually over the bloodless wounds between her ribs and the slim wooden stakes out of reach within them.
Abruptly she dropped to her knees with a dull thud. Then, only inches from Carole, she slumped into a splay-legged squat. The agony faded from her face and she closed her eyes. She fell forward against Carole.
Carole threw her arms around her friend and gathered her close.
"Oh Bern, oh Bern, oh Bern," she moaned. "I'm so sorry. If only I'd got there sooner!"
Bernadette's eyes fluttered open and the darkness was gone. Only her own spring-sky blue remained, clear, grateful. Her lips began to curve upward but made it only halfway to a smile, then she was gone.
Carole hugged the limp cold body closer and moaned in boundless grief and anguish to the unfeeling walls. She saw the leering faces begin to crawl away from the window and she shouted at them though her tears.
"Go! That's it! Run away and hide! Soon it'll be light and then I'll come looking for you! For all of you! And woe to any of you that I find!"
She cried over Bernadette's body a long time. And then she wrapped it in a sheet and held and rocked her dead friend in her arms until sunrise on Easter Sunday.
The voice yanked her from sleep, the voice that sounded like Bernadette's but robbed of all her sweetness and compassion.
<That was when you turned your back on the Lord, Carole. That was when you began your life of sin.>
After the horrors of Easter weekend had come loneliness. Carole had begun talking to herself in her head--just for company of sorts--to ease her through the long empty hours. But the voice had taken on a life of its own, becoming Bernadette's. In a way, then, Bern was still alive.
"Yes," Carole said, sitting up on the side of the bed and peering out the window at the lightening sky. "I suppose that was when it began."
She'd walked out of the tomb of St. Anthony's convent on Easter morning and left the old Sister Carole Hanarty behind. That gentle soul, happy to spend her days and nights in the service of the Lord, praying, fasting, teaching chemistry to reluctant adolescents, and holding to her vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, was dead.
In her place was a new Sister Carole, tempered in the forge of that night and recast into someone relentlessly vengeful and fearless to the point of recklessness.
And perhaps, she admitted with no shame or regret, more than a little mad.
She'd departed St. Anthony's and begun her hunt. She'd been hunting ever since.
Carole stretched and glanced around the room. The walls had been decked with family pictures of weddings and children when she'd moved herself in. She'd removed those and lain the ones on the bureau and dresser face down. All those smiling children…she couldn't bear their eyes watching her.
She knew their names. The Bennetts--Kevin, Marie, and their twin girls. She hadn't known them before, but Carole felt she knew them now. She'd seen their family photos, seen the twins' bedroom.
She knew from the state of the empty house when she'd found it that the owners hadn't moved out. They'd been driven out. She hoped for the sake of their souls that they were dead now. Truly dead.
<It's not too late to be turning back. You can start following the rules again. You can become a good person again and go back to doing the Lord's work.>
"But the rules have changed," Carole whispered.
Being a good person meant something different than it had then. And doing the Lord's work…well, it was an entirely different sort of work now.
Copyright © 2004 by F. Paul Wilson