STRAYS by Brendan Detzner

Just so there’s no confusion: Crosses are nothing. Garlic is obnoxious, but that’s all. Mirrors don’t work, cameras don’t notice. Sunlight hurts. Fire hurts. A wooden stake would presumably hurt. Dogs don’t like me. I’m a hundred and twenty years old and look forty. I looked thirty-five half a century ago.
All I need is about half a coffee mug’s worth a week and I’m fine. Anything more than that is just for fun.
But I like fun.
All set? Good. Let’s talk prom.

Prom itself is obviously a no go. I don’t like crowds. When it’s just you and one other person, they’ll meet you in the middle. I look like a bag lady and I’m smaller than most of the people I approach. If it’s just me and them, even if it’s me and them in the middle of a parking lot late at night, no problem. When it’s a couple of people, maybe the other one pulls on the first one’s sleeve and tells them hey, they don’t like this, something’s feels wrong, maybe we should just leave. When it’s three people, four people, they close ranks.
Also, I don’t like to be indoors.
The reason prom is good news is not that prom itself is good news, it’s that not everybody goes to prom, and even those that go don’t necessarily stay all night. Mike and Crystal have been on my radar for a while now. They cut out early. They’re juniors. They’ve been dating. They’ve been coming to the cemetery on Friday nights, just to talk. Mike is vegan and avoids processed sugar. Mike smells great. I want to drink Mike’s blood. I’ve been restraining myself. Things are better when you wait for them.
Crystal is just a bonus. It makes things a touch trickier, that there are two of them, but tonight they’re sure to be alone. The cops will be split between watching the school and patrolling all the local motels. Prom is a big deal in a small town.
There are three big trees in the middle of the cemetery. Mike and Crystal sit on the grass in between them, which is as close to real privacy they can get without breaking into a tomb. They’re making out. They’re not quite sure how this goes. They’re closing their eyes, trying to get into it.
I indulge myself. I let them see me coming, the real me. Fear makes the heart beat faster, warms the blood like chocolate syrup on a Sunday. They both notice me and both run. I let them go, just so that I’ll have the fun of chasing them.
They make it to the sidewalk that circles the edge of the cemetery. Mike hesitates when he reaches the fence. He’s thinking that maybe he can climb, and maybe he can squeeze through the bars, and he’s not sure what to do, so he just stands there in his suit and his blue silk tie. Crystal is smarter than he is, or at least more decisive. She just runs. A flower falls from her dress and lands on the sidewalk. The petals scatter on the concrete.
I stop everything else I’m doing, kneel down and start counting the petals. One petal, two petal, three, four, five. I make a little pile of the ones that I’ve already counted, so that I don’t repeat myself.
Mike and Crystal stop for long enough to convince themselves that I’m doing what I seem to be doing, and then they run back the way they came, through the trees to the exit. They’re out by the time I finish. I could chase them, but I see headlights.
I am still alive because I am careful. I let them go. I disappear.

Crystal comes back the following night, alone. Her dress was unusual. She’s a ripped jeans and band T-shirt girl, and that’s how she is when she returns to the cemetery.
I’m there. I sleep nearby, and she shows up just as the sun goes down. I’m hungry, and mad about what happened yesterday. I run at her. I am not subtle. No one is around except for the two of us. There’s a chance that a patrol car will swing by now that it is no longer prom, but it’s a slim chance.
She hears me, turns around, sees me, and drops a handful of pennies on the ground. I drop down and start counting, shaking in frustration.
I don’t need an invitation to come into your house. I don’t care if you are a virgin. Running water doesn’t bother me. But this is a problem. It is actually my main source of recreation, when I’m not hunting. I count streetlights, parked cars, cans of soup in twenty-four hour convenience stores.
But this is different. There are enough pennies that I can count them all easily before the sun comes up, but I’m still stuck out in the open with this person I don’t know, who’d been my prey.
She doesn’t say anything, she just watches me. She leaves when I’m about halfway through, and she doesn’t even bother to run. She’s still long gone by the time I’m done counting. Three dollars exactly.

She comes back a week later. I’m careful. I watch from a distance, from the dark where she can’t see, and when she turns her back I run at her as fast and as quiet as I can. I’m close. She sees me out of the corner of her eye, screams, and throws something on the ground.
Uncooked rice. I stop and crouch down. My teeth ache, I want to hurt her so badly. And I’m afraid. The pile of rice on the sidewalk is the size of my fist. I’m not going to finish before the sun comes up.
Stop counting, I tell myself. No, is the answer I get.
And again, Crystal watches.
She asks me about crosses and garlic and sunlight. I can sort of understand what she’s doing. It’s been a long time since I was curious about things that don’t matter to me. Since there was a difference between “things that don’t matter to me” and “things that don’t matter”. Since I was human.
I consider not saying anything. I consider lying. If she doesn’t do something about this endless pile of rice in front of me, I will probably die. I consider telling her the truth, just to see what happens. I consider begging. Pride is another thing I only dimly remember.
I don’t beg, and couldn’t say why. Maybe it’s been long enough that I’m not sure how to put the words together. I answer her questions. Sometimes I lie, and sometimes I tell the truth.
Before she leaves, she crouches down next to me and picks up most of the remaining rice with both hands. Her neck is right there. It’s hard not to go for it, but if I bite I know she’ll drop the rice again.
She wishes me goodnight as she leaves. The remaining pile is just small enough that I’m able to finish it just as the sun creeps up over the horizon. I run back to the place where I sleep. I drag the dirt on top of me as quickly as I can. I’m still hungry.

Next time, I don’t bother trying to sneak up on her. She comes to the cemetery. I show myself, once I know that we’re alone. I don’t want her to get in the habit of coming to look for me.
She’s holding something in her right hand, probably more rice. In her other hand, cradled against her body like a baby or a small pet, is a white plastic container. She puts it down, removes the lid, and steps away. It smells like blood. I get closer. It is blood, a fair bit of it. I drink until the container is dry, leaving two neat holes punched into the bottom. Crystal watches me drink. No questions tonight.
She probably got it from a butcher shop. Blood is blood, I don’t care. Human beings just happen to be the easiest to hunt.
When I’m done drinking, we have a moment. Maybe I could cross the open space between us and reach one of Crystal’s veins before the rice hit the ground.
But she just fed me. I don’t why. Maybe she’ll feed me again.
It’s confusing.
That’s what’s on my mind. I don’t know what was on her mind. I don’t know anything about that.

Crystal feeds me again a week later, and again a few days after that. I get in the habit of seeing if she’s there when I get up at night. I wonder how much it costs her to keep buying those little white containers. I wonder, because if it’s too expensive she might stop.
She talks while I drink. Mike broke up with her. He’s going into the army. She doesn’t seem too choked up about it. I get the sense that they were each a lot for the other to handle. Still, she’s sad because she’s worried she’ll never have another boyfriend. She also feels sad because she feels like her aunt doesn’t care about her. Crystal lives with her aunt. She doesn’t say anything about her parents.
She doesn’t ask my advice. I think she likes having someone to talk to who only listens.
It’d be easy to get the wrong idea about how I felt about her. Mostly, I want to eat. She fed me. That’s a big deal.
It didn’t go any further than that. But it did go that far.

I didn’t notice at first, when she stopped bringing the rice along with her. I didn’t feel too strongly about it one way or the other. It was a thing to know.
One night, late at night, she invites me to her house. Her aunt is out of town. We walk past rows of quiet front porches on a quiet sidewalk on a quiet street. She has the smile on her face young people have when they’re doing something stupid for it’s own sake, doing drugs out in the woods or jumping a fence.
Something tells me to run when the front door opens. But I’ve had so much to drink over the last few weeks. There could be blood in there. In the refrigerator, or wherever she’d keep it. I have only a dim picture in my mind of what a home refrigerator looks like, but it’s enough to make me salivate.
I go through the door. The door closes behind me. There’s a collection of Hummel figurines on a little table in the breezeway. I count them. There are shoes piled up near the back door. I count those. There’s a little stained glass window hanging near the back door from a little brass chain. The window is a set of stain glass fragments fitted together into a mosaic. I count each piece, and at that point I’m so far gone that I count the links of the chain.
This is why I don’t go into people’s houses. Outside, there’s less to filter out. Things aren’t so neat, they don’t stand out as much. You can try to count the clouds, but they just flow into one another and you give up, and eventually you learn not to try. Indoors, everything is corners and straight lines and little brightly colored things against white backgrounds.
I keep moving from one set to another. It doesn’t take long for Crystal to get bored. She stops talking and glares at me. She gives me the raw, unmediated teenager-who-thinks-this-is-stupid. It doesn’t make any difference to me until she tells me I have to leave. And even that only makes a very small difference. There’s a bookshelf, with books on it. Each of the books has pages. I can’t read any more— I’m not sure if I ever could— but there’s a number in the corner of each page, and that I recognize.
Crystal tries to put her hands on me. I backhand her without thinking and she bounces off the refrigerator. I see her looking around for something— a weapon, probably— and that’s enough to get me to look up for a little while.
I was hungry anyway.
It goes that way for a long time. The sun comes up, I pull the shades closed and keep counting. I get hungry, I drink. By the time the sun sets again, I’m tired and I’ve counted everything in the house. I don’t even know how long Crystal has been dead, only that she’s dry now.
Even the way I am, drunk and exhausted, I know that I don’t want to leave the house like this. People can’t ignore a crime scene. They will look, they will wonder who’s responsible. I have no idea when Crystal’s aunt will come home. I don’t know when the girl scouts will knock on the door to sell cookies, and notice the smell, and call the police.
Fire isn’t my favorite, but I can deal with it when I have to. I throw a copy of the newspaper and some other stuff in a heaping pile on top of the stove and light it up, then I leave the house right away.
I don’t wait around and watch it happen. I walk. I don’t walk so fast that I’d stand out, but I don’t stop.

Up until then I’d been doing what I had to do. I wasn’t thinking more than one or two steps ahead. Once I was done walking, out in the woods, far from any road marked with a sign, I started thinking.
She’d been feeding me. She’s dead now. She won’t be feeding me anymore.
I have to go a long way inside myself, to feel anything for another person. I remember my mother, the way she looked when I was very young, when she towered over me and had to wipe the corners of my mouth with a damp cloth.
In the dark, the silhouettes of the trees all blend together. There is foreground and background, nothing else. Nothing with a face.
Or almost nothing. The wind shifts, and I smell deer. Deer are fast, but not as fast as I am. And they don’t eat junk food.
I’ll stay out here for a while. Not forever. At least until the winter. When I start to dream about how things used to be, I’ll wait. I’ll savor the anticipation. I’ll let my memories break down into less complicated pieces. And when the pictures in my mind have become fat and ripe, I’ll come back to town.

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2 thoughts on “STRAYS by Brendan Detzner

  1. Pingback: Spirits of the Wind | Cloud Orchid Magazine

  2. Pingback: COP – Spirits of the Wind – KHR Arts

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