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Christopher Csejthe doesn't believe in vampires--until he becomes one. He doesn't believe in witches or werewolves, either. Then they make him an offer he can't refuse.
I cracked an eyelid and peered blearily at the offending clock-radio. Snippets of thought began to daisy-chain into coherent memory.
Time to rise and shine.
The music became more insistent: Sedaka, Elton John; duet. I moaned, lifting a sleep-numbed arm as they chorused: "... Bad blood! Talkin' 'bout bad blood...."
My hand closed on the clock's plastic case, ignoring the off and snooze buttons.
Neil Sedaka belted: "Bad!"
"Ba-ad!" echoed Elton John.
"Blood!" wailed Neil.
Elton never got the chance to follow through as the clock-radio arced across the bedroom to a termination point against the far wall. Whatever course the disease might be taking, it had yet to affect my reflexes. I groaned out of bed, shrugged into my robe, and began the evening rounds and rituals.
The house was a split-level arrangement with the downstairs rec room serving as my present sleeping quarters. After opening the heavy curtains to the pale remnants of fading sunlight, I started up the stairs for the kitchen.
Halfway up, I did postal calisthenics, retrieving a spill of mail beneath the brass-flapped slot in the front door. Out of a dozen pieces only three were properly addressed to Mr. Christopher L. Csejthe. One was from the insurance company, and the name was probably the only detail they'd managed to get right in the past year. The rest employed a variety of creative misspellings including one designated for "ocupant" on a dot-matrixed label. So much for computerized spell-checking.
I resisted the urge to lay the envelopes out on the dining room table like a tarot reading-I see a tall, dark bill collector in your future-tossed the junk mail aside, and carried the rest into the kitchen. Turned on the radio and began filling the teakettle with tap water.
The graveyard shift makes it easy to disconnect. You sleep while the rest of the world works, plays, lives. Then you rise and go forth while everyone else is in bed, dead to the world. The nightly newscast was my daily ritual for reconnecting. Plus, keeping tabs on the competition is de rigueur, when you work in radio.
I set the kettle on the stove to boil, thumbed through the envelopes that obviously contained bills and then, believing you start with the bad news first, opened the one from the insurance company. I expected an argument over last month's billing for lab tests and blood work. Instead, there were two checks inside, both made payable to me: one for twenty-five thousand dollars, the other for ten thousand.
It had taken almost a full year, but they had finally gotten around to rewarding me for killing my wife and daughter.
The tiled bathroom walls amplified the rattlesnake clatter of the shower, smothering the best efforts of the radio just outside the bathroom door. Muffled music gave way to mumbled talk. By the time I reached for my towel, the newscast was five minutes along.
I hadn't missed much; the lead story was the national economy. Again. Congress still hadn't figured out that it was fiscal madness to spend more money than it was taking in every year.
I brushed my teeth as world and national events gave way to regional and local news.
New reports of cattle mutilations a couple of counties to the north. And, between there and here, a couple of people had disappeared in Linn and Bourbon counties. Any day now the local news outlets would start running a short series on UFOs or Satanists. Oboy.
Tonight's icing on the cake: a mysterious murder just across the Missouri state line but considerably closer to home. An orderly had turned up murdered on the night-shift at St. Peter's Regional Medical Center. The Joplin copshop was tight-lipped (as usual) but rumors were circulating that the remains were found "filed" in various parts of the hospital records room.
The news ended with the announcer observing that while no motive or suspects had been established, yet, last night was the first night of the full moon.
Well, actually, it wasn't that facetious a sign-off. The Midwest seems relatively benign to most of the big-city Coasters, but we make up for our lack of urban angst and high crime rates by occasionally producing monsters that make Dave Berkowitz and Jeff Dahmer look like the Hardy Boys. Come to think of it, Dahmer was one of ours as well.
Southeast Kansas has a particularly ghoulish history with more than its share of bloodbaths, hauntings, and just plain weirdness. They run the gamut from the Marais des Cygnes massacre to the Bloody Benders of the pioneer days to the purported hauntings of the Lightning Creek bridge, the ghost in Pitt State's McCray Hall, and the stories that linger amid the crumbled remains of the old Greenbush church. Even today those big, empty fields by day aren't always so empty by night. Nope, when the news ends with unusual and unexplained death, the observation of lunar phenomena, and the exhortation to lock your doors and windows, you'd better listen up, friends and neighbors; it's a good night to stay indoors and clean and oil your guns. And listen to Yours Truly on the radio.
Shaving was never the high point of my evening ablutions and, lately, it had become a major nuisance. In spite of slamming 150 watters into the bathroom fixtures, it was getting harder and harder to see what I was doing with the razor. I'd heard of the wasting effect of certain illnesses but, with each passing day, my own reflection seemed to fade before my own eyes.
"To be or not to be," I murmured, peering into the uncooperative mirror. What else had the Bard penned? O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew....
Hamlet was a butthead.
Tonight I decided "hell with it" and made the three-day-old beard official. Additional UV protection, I figured. I wouldn't miss my face in the mirror. Dark hair, dark eyes, a slight Slavic caste to otherwise bland features: it was not the kind of face that distinguished its owner in any definable way. Why Jenny had ever given me a second look-
I threw my razor across the bathroom and stalked back into the bedroom. It was shaping up into a good night for throwing things.
Questions, I coached myself, staggering into a pair of white chinos and a tan short sleeve shirt: Is my eyesight affected? Will I eventually go blind? Is it treatable?
Is it terminal?
I pulled on a pair of white canvas deck shoes.
Oh hell, let's cut to the chase: have I got AIDS, Doc?
The mirror might play tricks on me, but there was no problem in reading the bathroom scales: I was still losing weight. Which wasn't hard to figure. Since my appetite had deserted me, I'd managed a dozen meals over the past two weeks.
What are you hungry for when you don't know what you're hungry for?
Nothing on a Ritz.
* * *
After dark it's only a fifteen-minute drive from one end of Pittsburg, Kansas, to the other.
The population sign boasts 30,000, but the downtown area is condensed into a couple of miles of main street that fronts about eighty percent of the city's shops and stores. The old façades reflect the central European culture from the boomtown coal mining days of nearly a century ago. Today, aside from some manufacturing and a dog track north of town, most of the local economy is tied to agriculture and Pittsburg State University. The mines have long since played out.
The main drag runs north and south. Homes sprawl for miles in all directions but, once you've gone more than four blocks, either east or west, the houses disperse like boxy children in a wide-ranging game of rural hide-and-seek.
So getting from one end of the town proper to the other is relatively quick and simple. Especially after eight p.m. when they roll up the sidewalks.
This particular night, however, the trip to the hospital seemed interminable. Marsh's voice on my answering machine had promised "some answers," but his tone sounded just as bewildered as when he had run the first batch of tests nearly three months ago.
I glanced over at the three books stacked beside me on the passenger seat: Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, and Jung's Man and His Symbols.
How much time, Doc?
Maybe I should have picked up something from the Reader's Digest Book Club, instead.
I checked my watch in the Mount Horeb Hospital parking lot: close to an hour before I was due at the radio station. Time enough for "some answers."
But enough time for the answer I dreaded most? And the one that loomed right behind it: will my insurance cover the treatments?
Total your car and your insurance agent consults the Blue Book like it was holy writ. Not so simple when you total a seven-year-old girl and her mother. Some asshole behind a desk at the home office wanted to dither over revised actuarial tables and adjust the compensatory payout schedule. Did he think I was going to cut a special deal with the coroner? Maybe fake a funeral while I took them down to some arcane body shop and got them up and running, again? Jesus.
So what kind of investment are they going to see in spending tens of thousands of dollars on dead-end treatments for moi that would probably just delay the inevitable for a few more months?
I walked across the parking lot, empty and empty-handed; nothing left to throw.
The emergency room was as silent as a tomb.
Whoa, scratch that allusion....
Besides, there was a faint whisper of background noise, muffled sounds that put one in mind of a high-tech fish tank. Aging fluorescents added to the aquarium effect, but the waiting room was empty, as if some giant ichthyologist had netted it out preemptory to a water change. The lone receptionist surfaced from her computer terminal just long enough to direct me down the corridor with a desultory wave, then submerged again without a single word being spoken. I walked the length of the corridor, feeling my feet drag as if encased in a deep-sea diver's leaden boots.
Dr. Donald Marsh, third-year resident, was waiting for me at the second treatment station. Fair of skin, the only contrast to his green-bleached-to-white surgical scrubs was his buzz-cut orange hair and a dusting of freckles. Picture the Pillsbury Doughboy sprinkled with cinnamon.
I didn't recognize the short, broad-faced woman standing on the other side of the treatment table. Her white lab coat was a sharper contrast to her nut-brown face and hands. Her black hair was braided, curving around and dropping down across her right shoulder like spun obsidian.
Don smiled as I approached. The woman didn't, glanced down at a clipboard. Looked back up at me.
"Chris ..." Marsh's firm hand enveloped mine, didn't squeeze. "... how're you feeling?"
"Like I've got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel," I said, trying for the light touch. It almost came off.
Marsh looked uncomfortable. With each examination I had watched that look move across his features like lengthening shadows on an old sundial. Now I studied his face for new shadings but saw nothing beyond fresh uncertainty in his eyes.
"You still don't know." Logic followed on the heels of disappointment: "It's not AIDS, then?"
Marsh shook his head. "We know that much."
"So what else do we know?"
"We know you haven't been taking sulfanilamide or any other drugs known to produce photosensitivity as a side effect," he said. "The blood tests have ruled out eosin, rose bengal, hematoporphyrin, phylloerythrin, and other known photodynamic substances in your bloodstream. And I'm pretty damn sure you haven't been ingesting plants with photoreactive pigments like Hypericum, geeldikkop, and buckwheat."
"In extreme situations it can cause fagopyrism. But I've never heard of a case in humans and what you have is nothing like fagopyrism."
I'd grown weary of asking Marsh to stop speaking in tongues. "So what is it like?"
"Porphyria," the woman answered unexpectedly.
Marsh cleared his throat. "I promised you results on the last batch of tests we ran. Well. I guess you might say the main result is Dr. Mooncloud."
She smiled suddenly and extended a small, brown hand. "Taj Mooncloud, Mr. Csejthe." My surname came out sounding like a sneeze.
"My father was a Native American," she explained as if I'd voiced the question, "my mother, East Indian."
Interesting. I took her hand across the gurney. "Pleased," I said. "My great-great grandfather was Rumanian: it's pronounced 'Chey-tay.' "
"Do forgive me."
"No offense taken," I said, patiently two-stepping the dance of etiquette. "You were saying something about my condition?"
"Ah, yes." The businesslike demeanor was back. "I have an interest in certain types of blood disorders and I've arranged for most of the major labs to flag my computer when something unusual comes in for testing. Your blood samples hold a particular interest for me."
"Let's see. Christopher L. Csejthe: Caucasian, male, thirty-two years of age," she read from the clipboard. "No significant history of disease in either personal or family medical records. Military records are curiously incomplete...."
Which meant that she had the edited version. And she shouldn't have had even that.
"Marital blood tests registered no anomalies as of nine years ago."
I glanced down at the white band of flesh circling the base of my ring finger. Almost a year, now, and still refusing to tan....
"Could I have picked something up while I was in the service? Some exotic bug or exposure to chemical-"
Marsh glanced over Mooncloud's shoulder and shook his head. "That was over a decade ago, wasn't it? Even such diverse hazards as malaria or sand flies or Agent Orange have warning symptoms that kick in much sooner."
"How long have you been working in radio?" Mooncloud asked.
It was my turn to shake my head. "If you're wondering about exposure to RF radiation, Doc, it's a dead end. I didn't start my current profession until this thing-whatever it is-necessitated my taking night work. Before that I taught English Lit. Eight years. Exposure to radical ideas comes with the territory but I doubt that's the causative agent here."
Mooncloud consulted the second page on her clipboard: "Patient first complained of sensitivity to light eight months ago.
Excerpted from One Foot in the Grave by Wm. Mark Simmons Excerpted by permission.
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As his physical and mental conditions and emotional needs are deteriorating and other changes occur, Christopher Csejihe believes he suffers from a rare disease. Though he seeks a cure, Chris is more obsessed over learning who killed his wife and child even if that ugly incident seems tied to his current degenerating condition. However, Chris has other problems as two weird groups of individuals use him as the rope in a deadly tug of war. At the same time, the medical research community wants to turn him into a guinea pig. To survive, Chris must first understand and second accept that he has ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE and one foot in the world of the undead because his disease is actually the stages of a mortal transforming into a vampire. Two rival covens want him either to join them or die. ONE FOOT IN THE GRAVE is a very entertaining vampire tale that works because the cast (natural and supernatural) appears genuine. Thus, the audience accepts vampirism and other paranormal creatures as a sort of sixth kingdom with several genres and species. The story line is fast-paced, filled with growing tension and suspense, and a fabulous surprise of an ending. Still, it is the ironic narrating of Chris quoting the romanticists like Yeats, Sappho, and E. John that turns this horror novel into a wonderfully humorous satire that spoofs itself yet provides a serious classic horror style undertone. Wm. Mark Simmons has written a winner that will please the full spectrum of horror fans, who will realize that this is not Kansas anymore, just an excellent tale. Harriet Klausner