By K. Edwin Fritz
Not everyone knows it, but perpetual motion is possible. And to manage the feat you need only follow the five simple steps detailed below. But before you read on, be forewarned. Venturing into a world that defies the laws of known reality cannot be undone. It is enormous, this thing. Like an infection that never runs dry of food.
STEP ONE: GET DIRTY. You probably fell into the tar pits thinking you actually jumped. You didn’t. Nobody does. And nobody is prepared for what’s in store when that vile, viscous blackness covers you from head to toe and then gets inside. You’re probably surprised at how immediate the sickness invades you. But you’re even more surprised at how much you like it now that you’ve begun your actual journey into perpetual motion. And that’s what it is, isn’t it? A thing that produces more than it costs? A thing that grows with each passing day and will never, ever end? And since you didn’t want this, weren’t even convinced it was really possible despite the rumors you’ve heard, you sit there with the fresh infection burning inside you and wonder how long you have to live and if there’s a way to avoid the inevitable. Or at least delay it.
Benjamin Acevedos rubbed the side of his neck as he traversed the many sidewalk squares, looking for a place he only hoped existed. His tainted life had begun just a few days before, and though he didn’t realize it just then, he was already well into the second step of becoming perpetual.
He couldn’t help rubbing his neck. The damned thing itched something mad and he didn’t care that the skin there reddened more as the minutes passed. But that wasn’t the contagion. That was just his fingers and palm irritating the surface, and the surface was not the problem.
His eyes flicked quickly from storefront to storefront, studying each one in the millisecond he allotted it, seeing nothing of value and growing ever-more frustrated. His gait had been just as quick and fluid when he left his apartment more than an hour before, but now it was slowing, appearing almost casual despite his little limp. There had simply been too many blocks, too many windows, too many names to read without any coming close to matching the one he had written on the slip of paper in his pocket. He was coming to think he had passed the place and would have to go home. Or that it didn’t exist. Either way, if he didn’t find it soon he’d end up searching again tomorrow. And the next day as well. And probably the rest of his life.
“Damn,” he mumbled as he rubbed his neck and looked up again to the next storefront. No good. Another Chinese restaurant, that was all.
Not that he had any idea what kind of an establishment the so-called Bombardier’s would be. Would pretend to be, he told himself. Though he had no address and only a guess as to the street, there was one thing about Bombardier’s that Ben was absolutely certain. Whatever it looked like from the outside, on the inside there was something else entirely. Almost like a body laced with infection.
There was a steady pressured spike in his hip now and if he went much further the limp would be more pronounced. He decided to go another two blocks. Just to 50th street, he told himself. His instinct proved a good one because with less than an eyeful of doors left to examine, he found it.
Bombardier’s turned out to be a very simple, very old-looking little bar and grill with a humble, dark green door just like any of a hundred others. “Damn,” he said again. But this time with his voice full of disbelief.
Through the window he could see the people inside that he’d been seeking with such passion. There were close to a dozen of them, and they didn’t look any different than any other bar flies. They smoked. They drank. They watched sports highlights on the little TV in one corner. But he knew what they really were. Infected and dying, just like him. All that Average Joe stuff was just more painting of details on the façade that was Bombardier’s Bar and Grill.
And how good they were at it! They really did look perfectly healthy. Perfectly content, albeit in a late-afternoon-at-the-bar kind of way. Or was that why a bar had been chosen as their front? Because their deep-set misery could be passed off so easily as Average Joe trying to drown his Average Sorrows? Ben thought about this and decided this was not only accurate, but deviously brilliant.
He stood on the sidewalk looking in like that, afraid he would end up hating the place and he’d be truly alone, unaware that, again, he was rubbing at his neck. His eyes watched the bar flies, but soon he wasn’t seeing them anymore. Instead he remembered a large span of slate-black water. The lake from his nightmares. Too still, that water, even for the middle of the night. Too cold as well, even for late November. And far above was the thin slice of crescent moon with the screaming girl below—
He quickly shook the vision away. He couldn’t deal with that now. Instead he took a breath and stepped toward Bombardier’s green front door. “Damn,” he whispered as his left hand reached up toward the door. Meanwhile his right was … well, where else? Rubbing the side of his neck, trying to clean the dirt. Trying to stop perpetual motion.
STEP TWO: GET SCRATCHING. Once the infection has found and attacked the first of your blood cells, it’s going to be there for a while. Forever, really, and once you realize the war has begun and your body is the battlefield, it’s best to sit back and enjoy the show. You can’t do much anyway. There’s no medicine for this kind of thing. And as you revel in that deep itch that feels so much like a whole slew of inch-deep worms, you tell yourself that an itch is still a feeling associated with being alive. And since life as you’ve always known it is over now, every true life experience should be appreciated. It’ll remind you how food now tastes like mold, music now sounds like distant hollows, and colors are now varying shades of gray … but that itch will be real, and that’s something. Real feelings will be harder and harder to come by. And the itch of perpetual motion is the strongest of what’s left. It won’t be fun, but at least it’ll be living.
Ben knew immediately that he had the right place from the smell alone. It was weak, that smell, but wrong for a bar of the Average Joe. Average Joe bars didn’t smell dank and moist and perhaps a little fetid in the deeper corners. Average Joe bars smelled like hops and peanuts and sweat, but that was all. Bombardier’s smelled old and deeply humid, like jungle captured in a jar.
But even if the smell hadn’t given the place away, the bar flies did. They turned as one when he entered. Their many eyes sized him up instantly, looking for the intruder that he wasn’t and somehow seeing the reciprocal disease that he was. One of Us, those eyes said, and most went immediately back to their beers, their show, or their low-key conversations. A few gazes lingered a moment, daring Ben to come forward with his stuck tongue and get the preliminaries out of the way. But when he only stood those extra two seconds, even these turned back to their former sullen distractions. Only the bartender seemed to have the right to keep staring, and Ben didn’t mind.
Instead of the traditional mirror, a giant antique airplane propeller stretched across the wall behind her. Somehow the thick layers of lacquer covering the wood shone prominently in the overall gloom, and he liked it instantly. He felt drawn to it, as he supposed it was meant to do. He stepped toward the barmaid, making a point to drop his hand from his neck and keep his eyes firmly on hers.
“Beer?” she asked. Ben straddled a stool but neglected to nod. He hadn’t heard her. Here was one of his own, the very people who likely had the answers he craved, and he didn’t know how to proceed. The musty odor grew in the moments after the door had closed and seemed to envelop him. Again, he liked it instantly.
“I was just…” he started. But the next words that came to mind were ridiculous, of course, so he had cut himself off and tried to think of another way. “My name is Ben,” he said, and that felt fine, so he tried some more. “I’ve been looking … for a…” but again there was nothing rational. Damn! He looked at the bartender’s patient eyes. He felt the dozen other patrons taking a mild but bored interest in him now. He thought about the screaming girl from his dream and the flat, black water that she had been drowning in. Enjoy the itch, he thought, and reached back up to his neck and rubbed.
“I’ve been … bitten,” he said. “Please tell me this place has people like me. I … I need…” and here again he found himself floundering. But he saw the bartender hadn’t laughed or winced in confusion. She’d only gone on listening, an absolute pro if there ever was one. “I don’t want to be alone,” he said finally.
Then the bartender gave him a little smirk from the left side of her mouth and a gentle hitch from her belly that could only be restrained laughter. She turned her head and pulled the elastic collar of her shirt away from her neck. The two dots of pinkish red looked as fresh as his own, though Ben was sure hers had been there for weeks, if not months. “It’s alright, Sweets,” the bartender cooed as she released the collar and gave him a soft smile again. “You got the right place.”
Ben exhaled a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding and the bartender poured him a thick, dark beer. “This one’s on me,” she said, and Ben nodded his thanks. He pulled it to his face and inhaled. It was heady. Deep and nearly robust. One might say it was slightly dank. It was perfect. The exact drink he had been longing for.
Well, not ‘exact’, he thought. But close. Close enough.
Ben closed his eyes and took a hard sip. It tasted like jungle, almost thick enough to chew and teeming with life. “Daaaamn,” Ben breathed, and the bartender laughed.
“Tastes like blood, doesn’t it?” she asked. Her smirk and lifted eyebrows were laced with cockiness which he somehow didn’t mind.
“No,” he said, but then suddenly the aftertaste did, and he found himself licking his lips and holding off the need to gulp the rest in five or six long hard swallows. “Well, yeah. A little.”
“My own concoction,” she said. “Takes the edge off.”
Ben smirked back. “Sure does,” he said, and poured back a long drink of the beer that tasted like life itself.
STEP THREE: GET CRANKED. This infection is like a drug. At first you hate it, but then you start wanting it because you don’t know anything else. It consumes you. So you go get more. Lots more. Of course, the danger is that you’ll be that much closer to death too, but perpetual motion rolls only forward, you understand? Some will try to hold off this next step, thinking they can withstand the need of it. But they can’t. Not forever. Eventually, every one of them will break and go get their fix. And not one of them will say they regret it the next day. And that’s where you are now. Your soul is slipping away and you care less every day, so eventually you just give in and indulge. It’s perpetual motion, after all. And you’ve come to accept that it strengthens each day even as you weaken.
“Ben…” Ben said, pointing to himself. Then he pointed to the bartender and lifted his brows.
“Miranda,” she said, and offered her hand. He shook it, pulled again from his bottled jungle, and rubbed the two pinholes in his neck for the thousandth time.
“How long since you, uh…?” he began.
“Six months,” Miranda said, and not without some pride. “Only one here any longer is the Jedi over there.” She pointed her eyes to a corner table that sat deep in shadows.
“Jedi?” he said. The man sitting there looked anything but the physical prowess one would associate with science fiction heroes. He was old with grayed hair long enough to need more than just a trim. His head hung low over a beer that looked as tepid as the room. He didn’t move at Miranda’s mention of him.
“Says he’s ‘At One’ with it,” she said. “Not that he ever explains. He … doesn’t talk much. Probably he is, though. Got his over two years ago,” she said. Ben’s mind did a low whistle of appreciation, though his lips didn’t actually move. He was thinking about how miserable he’d been for the three days he’d dealt with the itch at the skin on his neck.
Under the skin, he corrected.
He thought about how the itch had grown deeper even in that time. How his nights were filled with the black-water memory repeated over and over no matter how many times he woke from it dripping with sweat and on the verge of screaming aloud.
Was it really sweat? he wondered. Or was that still the lake water?
He thought about how he already felt the sweet need for the second bite … how he’d already contemplated asking for it. Two years of this hell was something he couldn’t conceive. Two weeks would be tough. Two months would be an accomplishment.
“That’s amazing,” he finally said.
“Yeah. We’re all pretty much in awe. He gives us hope. Best I can figure, he’s trying to die of natural causes. Not that we’re sure it’s even possible. But, that would be something, wouldn’t it?” Miranda topped off his beer and poured herself one of the same.
“And he doesn’t say how he does it?” Ben asked.
“Nope. I don’t think he can. Uses all his strength just to fight it. It wouldn’t matter anyway. I doubt it’s something that could be transferred with just a few words of advice. He’s got something strong in him, that’s all. Something special.”
“Like a Jedi,” Ben said.
Miranda smiled. “Yeah. You got it now.”
Ben looked around at the bar’s décor. Along with the propeller were a plethora of other aviation paraphernalia. Goggles. Two compasses in a boxed frame. Yellowed maps of various sizes and condition. At least twenty black and white photos of old planes and their suited pilots and gunners squinting mightily at the unseen sun. And biggest of all in one shadowed corner, bigger even than the life-sized propeller, was an enormous bomb. Ben gaped at it, wondering how in the world he hadn’t seen the thing when he first walked in. Easily eight feet tall, it rested nose down in an iron tripod with its three giant fins nearly touching the ceiling. Once mustard yellow, the exposed iron under the flaking paint was now a dull black covered in red-brown rust.
“Jesus,” Ben murmured.
“Yeah, that’s Bessie,” Miranda said. “She’s a thousand-pounder, or would have been when she was filled. She’s hollow now, but that doesn’t make her any less imposing. They’ve got one just like her in the Air and Space Museum. Nobody’s been able to track down what plane she’s from, though. We just tell the people who come in here it’s a replica. Makes ‘em feel better, but she’s real all right. When it gets real quiet, you can almost hear her whispering her story in a little sing-song.”
“People?” Ben asked. “You mean … humans?”
“Yeah, they stop in from time to time, though they don’t stay long. Don’t think they like it here. Some say it smells funny. They never come back.”
Ben looked back at Bessie and listened for her song of submission but felt only her imposing presence instead. “I can see why,” he commented. Looking back to Miranda, he realized the rest of the bar flies were quiet now, not looking over, but probably listening in. It was strange, but he felt honored rather than violated. “So where are you from?” he asked. “You know … before?”
“Georgia,” Miranda said with yet another grin.
Ben’s swallow of jungle beer almost caught in his throat. “What are you doing so far north?”
The thirty-something woman put her glass down and leaned forward on one elbow. “Just how many places like this you think there are, Sweets? We come from all over. Other countries even. It’s not like I could find my own down in Savannah?”
Ben smiled back. He liked her. Liked the whole bar, actually. The Jedi, too. Just having someone still sitting there over an untouched beer two years into the making … it was a good thing. “You call everyone ‘Sweets’, or are you just being nice?”
“Just the newbies,” she said, and leaned forward a little again. “Because it’s true. I can smell it. You’re still mostly human. It’s like cotton candy to a veteran like me.”
Ben swallowed an empty throat. “You mean … my blood?” The idea scared him. He was already afraid of what the worms in his neck were doing after just one bite. He hadn’t considered what would happen after six months of having them wriggle all throughout his body.
Miranda didn’t say. She just stood tall and stared him down.
“Jesus,” Ben murmured again. “Are you…” but he didn’t know how to ask what had come to mind.
“Am I what, Sweets?”
Ben dipped his head in sheepish guilt but asked anyway. “Done? You know … changing?”
Miranda did laugh now. “Hell no,” she said. “Every day it seems I can do a little more. I figure it’s like perpetual motion. Bigger every day. I bet the Jedi probably knew you were coming before you did. ‘Course … the real changes will start after the second bite, won’t they?” Ben’s eye widened. “Yeah, you can tell that already. ‘Course you can. Why do you think we’re in so many stories in so many cultures? The power, Ben. It’s real.”
Ben stared into the mirrorless wall behind the bar and sipped the warm beer. The worms warred together in his neck and he fought the need to scratch it.
“In any case,” Miranda said, “welcome.” She gave him a crooked smile, and Ben wasn’t sure if she meant the free drink or that she was giving him acceptance to joining their crowd. He decided it didn’t matter. This place was better than anything he’d had for three days. Already it was helping, even if the prognosis wasn’t good. Being around others like himself was good. Was … well, not healing, but it was pouring molasses to the wheel of things. Perpetual motion might exist, but it didn’t have to go at warp speed. He thought if he came here every day, two months wouldn’t be so impossible after all.
Then he looked behind him to the table where the Jedi sat hunched so low that his hair tickled his glass of beer, and he fought the sudden urge to cry. He bested it by sipping at his thick beer and savoring the faint flavor of blood as it washed down the back of his throat.
STEP FOUR: GET LOST. It’s time to say goodbye. Once you’re cranked you’ve only got a few hours left. You’re barely human anymore, and those who are see it in your eyes and distrust you on sight. So be it. And because there is no tomorrow it’s time to tell off your boss, hit on that old crush, visit that favorite view. Problem is, the fuel that started perpetual motion was who you once were, and that’s long gone. You’re too busy rolling downhill, and now you can see that the hill in the distance goes on forever. You’re already feeling the wind speed through your hair and your humanity, and you don’t even care. You’re too close to producing more than you consume. And yet a handful of moments will shine through. Seconds only, perhaps, within that storm of anarchy. And when they do the only thing left is to carpe that diem and indulge in your old whims. From the look of you, everyone will assume you’re fully gone, but you’re not. Not quite. But it feels that way all the time now. So you might as well pander to your final living essence while it still exists.
Another patron entered the bar and all eyes — but not the Jedi, mind you … the Jedi never moved an inch — glanced over. The guy at the door was young and full of smiles and immediately Ben didn’t like him, though he didn’t have a clue why he felt so strongly about a complete stranger. He looked around at the various bar flies and saw his new instincts were again right. One man by the TV furrowed his eyebrows and mouthed a curse before turning back to his friend and smacking him on the shoulder. The friend shook free of his mini trance, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his red checkered shirt and turned slowly back to the TV. Nobody else moved.
“Hell of a day, folks!” the intruder nearly shouted. “Hell. Of. A. Day!” And now Ben realized he could suddenly see what was wrong. The guy was infected, of course, that was abundantly clear, but there was more. Ben was surprised to realize he could know so much with such surety, but then the deep itch in his neck flared and he actually smiled. He realized his kind didn’t look like anything in particular. There was no strength in the frame or glint in the eye, but it was visible just the same. The guy at the door had … resonance. The air around him seemed crisper and easier to view him through. The colors of his clothes were more honest, less gray than the rest of the world. His hair was somehow more pure in its reality than in the passersby outside in the real world. A week ago, Ben would have thought the guy looked like any other Average Joe, but his true status was obvious to those who shared it.
And then there was that other thing. The thing that made the checkered shirt man wince. This young stud before them all had recently gotten his second bite. And he was loving it. In fact, he was reveling in it. In fact, he had already decided to get his third and final bite tonight when the sun went down. These were his last hours in daylight. Everyone knew this, and they also knew why he had chosen to spend them in Bombardier’s. Ben dug deeper into his new power, letting the worms dig past his neck and into his collarbone, and he suddenly knew something else. Checkered-shirt man was jealous.
The Two-Biter stepped quickly to the bar, slapped a rigid hand hard on Ben’s back, and flopped on the stool with enough violence to creak its bolted base. “New guy!” he shouted. “Give the man a whiskey and an Alka Seltzer, Miranda! Johnny’s making a new friend!”
“Alright, Johnny,” Miranda said. “Just calm down. We’re a low-key crowd here. You know that.”
“I KNOW!” Johnny yelled. “It’s atrocious! All this pending strength and we just sit around and shuffle our feet like a bunch of timid little nerds! What the hell, people?! Let’s live a little, huh?”
“Shhhhhh…” The voice came from behind them, and it was weak. So weak. Ben knew it was the Jedi even as Miranda’s jaw stretched open and her feet kicked into reverse.
Johnny Two-Bite laughed and turned to face him. “What’s it to you, old man? Going to teach me a thing or two, are you? Going to save sickly sweet Ben here like you keep trying to save the rest of these punks? Just can it, Sam. I’m past all that, and I’m in way too good a mood for your quackery today.”
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhh…” the Jedi said, even slower and lower this time. He didn’t look up from his glass. So far as Ben could tell, he didn’t even breathe. It was entirely possible he didn’t.
Then Johnny Two-Bite was abruptly standing by the Jedi’s table, and the move to get there had been wickedly fast. Ben actually heard the creak of the stool after he saw the guy standing above the old man. The itch in his neck suddenly flared and he rubbed at it. A second later he opted for a full-on scratch with his nails.
“You want me to leave?” Johnny asked. The Jedi didn’t even moan a response. Then Johnny’s height seemed to slowly stretch as he leaned over the old wooden chair. His shoulders and back seemed to broaden. His very existence seemed to gain mass. Very possibly, it did. Ben hated watching it, hated Johnny implicitly, but felt that new urge rise within him nevertheless. He wanted that power. He wanted more, the full metamorphosis. He wanted to drink and fly and rage with all the abandon of—
Miranda’s gentle hand touched his forearm and Ben came back to himself. When he looked, the flat black lake was in her eyes. The screaming girl was there too. Suddenly the pain in his hip flared instead of the one in his neck.
“What—” he started, but she shushed him with a quick shake of her head. She was watching the Jedi. Everyone was. Ben watched too. And though these were strangers to him, one and all, he knew with certainty this place was his new home. Knew that he’d spend every day there until he finally succumbed to his need. Knew that they all spent all day in the bar and all night wishing to return to it. It was real hell they were in, each of them. Johnny wasn’t any different just because he’d betrayed the support system the Bombardier’s had become. He was simply their own futures come to say hello.
“Come on,” Johnny was saying. His voice was soft now. Gentle. “You can’t fight it forever, Sam. You’re just torturing yourself.” He was hovered over the immobile man, his shoulders and back curled like a crescent moon. “Go get your next bite. You have to eventually.” And here Johnny actually touched the old man on the back of the head. “You’ll be at peace. You’ll be alive! Just ask, and he’ll come. You know that’s the way.”
“No…” the Jedi said, but it was a mere whisper in the hushed Bombardier’s. It carried no weight. It was a lie. Ben sensed the hatred for Johnny melt from the room as they all felt their desires suddenly build. Such moments were inevitable, and this was only one more in a long procession of days filled exactly like it. Even Miranda longed for sharpened fangs, soft flesh, and pulsing veins. Ben could feel this without even looking at her.
“No,” the Jedi said again, this time with more conviction. His voice was like grinding rocks. Ben wondered if this was from disuse, from a million pre-bite cigarettes, or from the energy he’d consumed in his constant fight. “I won’t today,” he continued. He breathed into his beer and rippled the dark surface there. But no monster rose from its depths. If the old man was drowning in it, Ben could not see.
“Not today,” he said in that awful, grating tone. “Not today.” His voice was so weak, his breath half-spent with the unseen effort. “Can hold off … another day,” he said. “I can. Just go, John. Leave us. We aren’t … your prey. Please. For us. For we that love life … more than you. You owe us that.”
Silence came but did not linger. Soon another voice came from the corner. “I’ll ask,” a man said. “I want it.” All heads turned. All but the Jedi, who didn’t move at all. It was the man with the red checkered shirt. His friend was lowering his head. Shame wafted from him and across the room.
“I want the bite,” red shirt said. “I want to feel my flesh punctured and his mouth sucking my hot blood. I want…” he looked around and Ben saw others averting their eyes. He locked onto Ben’s and Ben saw the insane look of greed there and understood why. “I want to be cold,” he said. “I can’t fight anymore. I need this wretched warmth drained from me, can’t you see that?”
“I know,” said Ben. And that was all any of them said.
A moment later Johnny turned from the Jedi and walked slowly to his new ally. He clapped a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Come,” he said. “Tonight we shall be vessels. Tomorrow we shall be gods.”
And just like that they left. They went quickly and without commotion, which was good of them both. In their wake the Bombardier’s walls seemed to exhale a lungful of poison, but Ben and the others each felt all the more infected despite the purge.
Ben stared deep into the stilled darkness of his drink. It was the black lake again, and it consumed him. The nightmare come during the day. He heard the screaming girl and this time welcomed it. The worms in his neck spread slowly toward his heart.
STEP FIVE: GET MOVING. You’ve arrived. Perpetual motion is here and you are at the full mercy of your curse. You are no longer human, no longer alive, and you’ll stay that way forever. But there is another thing, as well. The machine is running now and it was built to do but one thing: feed. There’s never been a menu like this. Every drop is candy. Every meal savage war. Yet who can battle such strength, such power? The human world is so weak, such easy fodder. And that’s the best part. They are here for you alone, and you can feed any time you want. And each time you do you may decide to tempt another human to join your ranks, to beg with eyes and soul for that infection you yourself thought you didn’t want. And you will set in motion another perpetual machine.
“You’re thinking about your bite,” Miranda said. It wasn’t a question.
“How long ago?”
“Only this past weekend. Three days,” Ben said. “And I’m already going insane. How do you do this? How does he—?”
Miranda looked at the Jedi whose somber, pale eyes the exact color of a crescent moon were yet unknown to Ben. “I don’t know.”
“But I want to live!” he suddenly screamed. The bar flies smiled, one and all. Not with their mouths, for Ben was looking at none of them, but with their hearts. He felt its intensity and drank in the pride that surged through him because of it.
“We all do,” Miranda said.
“But it isn’t fair!”
“He lured me like a … like a stupid fish to a worm!”
Ben looked at her, feeling the tears welling up and threatening to topple down his cheeks. It had been only three days for him, but it had been three days of hell. Three days of thinking he was crazy, that he was alone, and waking to the same nightmare with only that stupid, archaic word, ‘Bombardier’ trailing off at the very end.
“I don’t know what to do,” Ben said. He was quieter now, his childish rant over. The swell of love in the room was dissipating, but it was still there. They had all been him not long ago, after all. They all wanted to scream like children too, and they were happy to live vicariously through him, if even for only a few seconds.
“Well,” Miranda said. “I’m a bartender. Tell me what happened.”
Ben laughed in spite of himself and thought immediately of the flat black water. He scratched at his neck and then yanked the hand away, ashamed. He thought of the screaming girl and decided to start there.
“I was biking,” he said, “through the woods. There’s this five-mile trail upstate. It’s my weekend thing. Was my weekend thing.” He paused and felt the pain course through the room. “I knew I should have gone back to the car. The sun was almost down, but…” he trailed off. “Stupid,” he finally admitted. “So I pressed on. ‘One more circuit’ I told myself, but before I even got halfway I heard her. A little girl screaming in the middle of the woods. She was far away, maybe a mile. But I didn’t even think, I just … went.”
“Off the trail,” Miranda said, and Ben realized she was seeing what he was remembering and that the others were starting to key in.
“Yes,” he said. “Straight through the woods. My tire hit a big root. Threw me. I left it and ran.” He could feel Miranda — and through her the others — borrowing his memory. They were living it even as he retold it.
“You found a small lake,” Miranda said.
“I never knew it was there. Just sitting in the middle of the woods like that all alone. Untouched by man but for a single old dock by the water’s edge, and so peaceful. So still. ‘Smooth as glass’ they say, and it was. The whole thing … it was beautiful.”
“But it smelled like jungle.”
“Yes,” Ben said, and suddenly the pungent aromas of the bar overcame him and he forced a long, gasping breath which didn’t help.
“The girl was drowning,” Miranda said.
“I thought so,” Ben explained. “She was fifty yards out. Slapping at the water. Screaming bloody murder. It was—”
“The worst thing you’ve ever heard,” Miranda finished. And in their ears they all heard the scream he’d heard that day.
“I only paused to take off my shoes. Then I dove in.”
“You were always a good swimmer.”
“I got there in seconds, really. The adrenaline, you know?”
“But she wasn’t there.”
“No. She was further out than I thought. A hundred maybe. I had only gone half the distance. When I looked her head went under, it—”
“It scared you worse than when you where six and you got lost at the mall.”
“But then I realized it was all wrong. The lake. The girl. Everything.”
“Why?” Miranda asked, and Ben couldn’t tell if it was because she honestly couldn’t read him or that she thought he had to be the one to say it.
“How could she scream aloud if she was drowning?” he asked. “How could she splash for her very life and not make the water so much as ripple? I knew it then. I felt him. I didn’t know what he was, of course, but I felt him there. Somewhere.”
“Yes,” Miranda said, and from all corners of the room the bar flies were thinking about their own first encounters. Images flew into Ben’s mind, each with the same man in the same clothes, but in different places and times. In all of them the thick stench of jungle accosted his nose.
“I tried to go back. The girl wasn’t real. She was a mirage or a ghost. Something put there only to lure me. But then…”
“He rose from the water!” Miranda gasped. She was feeling the power of the moment. She was loving the memory of her own encounter.
“He stood on the surface of the water like some kind of god,” Ben said. “And he told me I had been chosen. Not as prey, but as kin.”
“Your spirit was pure.”
“My spirit was pure, he said. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded so good. I was so proud to be worthy.”
“Then he offered you a choice,” Miranda continued.
“A choice to forget or to remember. I chose to remember … and who wouldn’t? I’m only human,” Ben admitted. “I couldn’t stand the thought of having part of my life removed. But to remember meant he would bite me. One bite.”
“One bite,” the entire room said. Ben thought he may have heard even the Jedi’s rocky snarl whisper it too.
“A bite that would dirty you,” Miranda said.
“Infect you,” added the man by the TV.
“Change you,” a woman at a table by the door finished.
“Yes,” Ben agreed. “But only a partial change. One bite would only change me a little.”
“One bite,” the room whispered again.
“And then he bit,” Miranda said.
“Yes,” Ben said. His eyes were still staring into the last three inches of dark beer, and he began to feel the memory of the twin fangs puncture his neck. “He lifted me from the water and bit down.”
Then the memory exploded, flooding through them all, and their individual memories flooded back and shot from person to person in a whirlwind of chaotic bliss. Each one was laced with ice and pain and wonderful, giving love as their blood flowed out and into their captor.
In a single motion, they all reached slowly to their necks and rubbed at the red punctures still fresh on their skins.
Ben shook his vision and went on, though his hand remained at his neck, the fingernails digging and scratching there until fresh blood finally began to weep from the wound. “Then he took me, floating across the black lake like a … lost balloon. That’s how I felt. So lost. So helpless.”
“He returned you to the dock,” Miranda said.
“Yeah. And on the way he whispered in my ear. He told me if I wanted more, if I wanted the second and then the third bite that would complete the transformation, I could have it any time I wanted.”
“You need only ask,” Miranda said. “Say his name. That’s all.”
“And then he’d come,” Ben finished. “I’d find him waiting for me that night. When the sun had gone down.”
“And his name,” said an old woman by the door, “was one he chose when he had been changed.”
“Way back in 1914,” the man by the TV picked up.
“In The Great War,” the old woman. “The ‘War to End All Wars,’ they called it.”
“And his choice, Miranda said, “had been his rank.”
“The same as a little bar somewhere in some city where other people who had been bitten sometimes went,” Ben finished. “A bar I’d probably find if I really wanted to.”
And though they were all thinking it, nobody said the name aloud. They didn’t dare. Ben felt the sudden hatred of the word. Felt the cruel taunt of it brandished above the door they walked through each day and in the hundred décor items surrounding them. He felt the disgust each bar fly felt in loving the sound of it in their minds. He even felt, from deep inside the distant psyche of the Jedi, the siren-like song that Bessie, the thousand pound bomb, might actually be singing. It was the name, of course. His name. All they needed to end their torture. All they needed to end their lives.
Ben inhaled deeply and shook his head once more, trying to rid the world of evil and falling eons short. He looked up from his warming, thickening beer to finish his story, though he already understood the details were irrelevant. All their stories were essentially the same, which is why they found such easy kinship.
“He dropped me on the dock,” he said. “Hard, like I was some kind of discarded bag of meat, which is pretty close to the truth I guess. Landed on my hip. The damned thing’s been killing me ever since. I swear when I see him again…” But the emptiness of the threat was so laughable that none of the bar flies bothered to smile.
“The pain of it brought me back, though,” Ben continued. “I hadn’t even realized I had been dreaming, you know? Such a ridiculous dream. It was so real. Almost like there really had been a screaming girl and a man who rose out of the water.”
“But that was all a dream,” Miranda said. “It had to be.”
“Had to be,” Ben agreed. “But I turned to see him anyway, to … authenticate it somehow.”
“But he was gone,” Miranda whispered. Her voice was eerily like the Jedi’s now, filled with effort and pain.
“He was gone,” Ben confirmed.
And then silence, real silence, dripped and then flowed through the bar. Nobody spoke. Nobody shifted. Nobody breathed, even. They spent the rest of the day like this, just waiting for the sun to retire and for another day to begin.
Shortly after the sun did finally go down, one subtle sound finally leaked across the sullen bar. A sound which no one acknowledged but they all heard and felt with perfect, kindred harmony. It was the soft whine of the Jedi as he cried salty tears into his pungent drink.
Keith Edwin Fritz entered this world on Halloween. The year, 1974, was the same as when Stephen Edwin King published his first novel. Keith prefers to think neither the date nor their middle names were a coincidence. Today he teaches 7th Grade Language Arts and writes Thrillers, Dark Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and sometimes Y.A. Fiction all to his heart’s content during his “spare time”. The best of these moments are nearly always by moonlight. The worst of them are also by moonlight. As ‘K. Edwin Fritz’, he has self-published three books and been published on Drabblecast.org, in “Spaceports & Spidersilk” magazine, and in “Ascent Magazine”. Keith lives with his wife, Corina, in Hillsborough, NJ.