It was night and he had two beers and six pretzels left. Eli was not a man who dealt well with food shortages. He had been without food before, just not very comfortably. Images of the college years, with their suffocating cell bills and clingy girls were starting to flood back to him. The sun had gone down three hours before. He had never noticed that in July, it took an interminable eternity for the darkness to arrive. Not that he was exactly looking for it to arrive. And now that it had, all he could think about was how long it was going to be until he could safely hit a grocery store.
The most inconvenient thing about a vampire apocalypse was how long the nights were. He couldn’t stop thinking about drinking those beers to the dregs. With six pretzels, his drinking experience wouldn’t be the most satisfying one, but beer, wonderful beer, how he would gorge himself if he could justify it.
Not for the first time, he wished he weren’t at home alone. This would make drinking marginally more justifiable. He wasn’t the esteemed vampire killer in this catastrophe. That honor went to his brother, Bremery, who was out kicking undead butt at this very moment. Eli had never been the aggressive one in the family. He wasn’t jealous, but Brem’s inconvenient absences, which grew longer and longer as the vampire hoards retaliated, left Eli here in the basement of their parents mid-century modern house, alone, hungry and equal parts bored and tense.
How hard would it be to kill a vampire alone? he wondered. Hopefully, it would never come to that, but he had been forced to admit that it could. Afraid, he had gone to Brem for advice. His older sibling had broken it to him gently. There was only one super important rule: don’t let them in. Everything else was trivial.
“Not letting them in sounds simple, right?” Older Bro had said. “But it’s not. They have a thousand different ways of tricking you into making it happen, because until it does, they’re SOL for a quick kill and feeding opportunity. Yes, vampires sometimes play very subtle mind games. They are the most sly and crafty tricksters you will ever meet. It’s their survival. It’s their means of continuing on. And this batch is hungry. They’ve been waiting a long time for this assault and they’re not going to waste one second of it.”
“That garbage bag you forgot to take out? That sudden urge you feel, that have to do it now panic? That’s them. They’ve gotten inside your head and are using whatever they find there to get you to Open. That. Door. Then they’ve got you.”
“Obsessive compulsive rituals and routines are most dangerous, because that’s a natural state of mind for them. Keep all those thoughts out of your head for as long as you can. In fact, avoid routines all together because they have about a billion of them, too. It makes it easier for them if your brain is already in the groove they’re most accustomed to.”
Brem was prattling off this list of Vampire Apocalypse dos and don’ts while showering off the grime from his nightly crusade. It was mostly dirt and grass stains, a lot of dust piled up over his clothing, a little blood. Eli had seen him come home covered in red.
“Where did you acquire this fount of information? I thought you guys were so busy slashing and running you didn’t have time to share tactics.”
“Observation,” Brem had said sharply. “It’s a learn on your feet kind of experience. Plus, after we got back one night, this old guy who said he’d lived through six Apocalypses, including a bad one in, like, 1979 or something, decided to tell us everything he’d learned. But that praying-on-the-OCD thing I just told you about? That was from watching people who have been dead asleep in bed simply get up, go downstairs and fucking open the front door like we’re not fighting for our lives here. The only thing the bloodsuckers have to do to get ‘em to open it is stand in the yard for an hour. Thinking. Thinking at their victims. That’s all they have to do. It’s mind control, man. Telepathy and shit. It’s not a joke, don’t fuck around.”
All this was said in a hearty rush as Brem was hastily scrubbing himself down in the shower. As if Eli had any intention of growing complacent. Their parents house, isolated and out of the way on the back lot of an exclusive cul-de-sac, was quiet and lonely, for the most part. It was also the last house on the block that hadn’t been pounced on and emptied by vampires. The only escapees had been their mom and dad and the one family who’d bolted when the first suspicious news reports had started to circulate. Eli figured the only reason the Johnson house hadn’t been pulverized like the other is because of Bremery’s reputation as a real life Vampire Slayer.
No, he would never slide into complacency. Not after what had happened to Hortense.
Hortense had been going to school with the Johnson boys since they were in kindergarten. She had been the skinny girl, the tall, blonde geek, almost smart enough to skip a grade if her parents had been willing to allow that. She was still the only girl who wasn’t so full of herself in their upmarket suburb that she was actually willing to talk to Eli, and sometimes Brem, if he was around. Brem’s social life had always been more active than his younger brother’s, and because of this, the rift between the two of them was never easy to overlook or ignore. Eli had always been afraid Brem would steal Hortense away from him, but she had too much integrity, or Brem did, to let that happen.
Hortense was in a hospital somewhere. The next town over supposedly. The hospital in Martinette had been overrun early with vampire half-kills, and its staff decimated by those they couldn’t “save” coming alive again and attacking their doctors and nurses. Hortense had been semi-drained by vampires two weeks ago. Her father had died trying to save his family, but all of them save for Hortense had gone down as a midnight snack for that evil vulture.
The doctors were trying to help the victims through one of three key strategies, the most important of which was something involving draining the victim of the rest of her blood supply while replacing it with transfusions. Allegedly, this was the treatment Hortense was receiving, but the last report Brem had been able to get from his fellow vampire killers indicated she was still unconscious. Sometimes, Eli wondered if this story was true, or if Brem fed him a bunch of lines to keep him calm before he broke the news of Hortense’s death…or resurrection.
Just don’t let them in. Don’t let them in your mind. Don’t let them in anywhere.
Eli sat in the basement, staring at the refrigerator, its two beers. The six pretzels on the counter. It had taken him a while to figure it out, but this space wasn’t so much a basement as it was a bomb shelter. Built sometime in the sixties, it was a place the home’s first owners had installed to protect themselves from nuclear war. How appropriate, Eli thought, they were sitting here trying to survive the rough equivalent of a nuclear war now. The house and its basement (bomb shelter, his mind remembered ruefully) were finally being used for their original purpose.
He had never even gotten to kiss Hortense. He’d had the whole thing planned out in his mind for months, maybe even years, maybe even since fifth grade. He would take her to the tree stump in his parents’ backyard, under the pretense of showing her something romantic. Then, while showing off a daisy he would have picked in advance, he would delicately brush aside her golden blonde hair and move in to seal the deal.
He hated thinking like that now. She was in the hospital, either dead or going there. Or to a state worse than death. He shouldn’t be thinking about her in that way, given her condition. Plus, his language bothered him, even silent and unheard in his mind. Move in to seal the deal. He might as well have thought Move in for the kill. Like a vampire. Like the monsters they were struggling to eliminate in their quest to not become monsters.
He wanted Hortense to be all right, but knew in his heart her chances were low. Maybe everyone’s chances were low. He hadn’t bothered to ask Brem how the wars were going. If the pesky humans were making any headway, it stood to reason Bremery and his gang of followers would have less and less to do each night, and Eli could tell that was far from the case. Sometimes, Brem only got five or six hours sleep before he would have to go out again. And stay out. All night. Last night he hadn’t come home at all.
Eli wondered where Brem slept when he did that. In a barn somewhere? They didn’t have that many barns left in their part of Illinois, but there were a few.
Was Hortense okay? Eli had a hard time thinking about anything else (besides the beer.) Except what was it like to kill a vampire? Bremery said it wasn’t so bad once you got used to it. Kind of like taking that first tackle in football practice. The sports metaphor wasn’t something Eli could really understand, but he was willing to take Brem’s word for it. Brem didn’t exactly go into a lot of detail after that. Eli knew there was a lot Brem wasn’t saying about what was really going on in the world beyond the basement. Most of the time, except when pondering how he would beat back any vampires who tried to get in here, Eli didn’t want to know.
There wasn’t anything to do in the basement. But Eli was getting a weird feeling. He stood up and began to pace around. He looked at the clock. 9:15. It was going to be an agonizingly long night.
Eventually, looking for wooden items that could be made into stakes, he scooped up a spare baseball bat lingering against the Fußball table. Brem and his vampire killing pals had emptied the shelves of anything and everything that could be used for stakes or other weapons, but somehow they’d overlooked this. Maybe Brem had not yet been willing to part with his favorite Louisville Slugger. Too much leftover nostalgia for his varsity days, maybe. Lazily, Eli began to toggle the bat from hand to hand. Something told him there wouldn’t be that much in the way of sports in either of their futures.
Increasingly antsy, he slowly made his way up the stairs. The kitchen called balefully, though he knew there were no more beers in the main refrigerator, either. The bat twirled so easily. He might have missed his calling.
At first, he barely noticed them, stumbling up the steps alone. Brem, carrying a thick looking bundle. On closer inspection, Eli realized it was a person. With gold hair dangling down his right arm.
“Eli, open up! It’s me, hurry.” There was an odd insistence to his brother’s voice.
Not thinking, Eli glided elegantly to the door, unlocked its triple bolts, then opened it. Brem sauntered in, Hortense in his arms.
“Hey! Look who I found,” Brem smiled. He hadn’t been in a mood this good in a while.
Eli had been expecting the worst, but Hortense lifted her head and smiled.
“Surprise!” she said.
“Yeah,” Eli agreed. He was so relieved to see her he forgot to be upset or paranoid.
“Actually,” said Hortense as Brem set her on her feet, “he didn’t find me, I found him. And now we’ve got you.”
“What?” was the last word Eli managed to utter before they pounced upon him.