Rush walked to school with his Walkman nearly deafening. He walked past the students who must’ve been looking and pointing at the kid who punched out Stony McKinney. Rush walked to his first period class and sat down, headphones still on.
The bell rang and Rush was just able to make it out over a Kirk Hammett solo.
Mrs. Davis was at the front of the classroom talking, calling roll.
Always calling roll, Rush thought.
Mrs. Davis’ lips moved and Rush despised her suddenly. Despised the school. The slaughterhouse rigmarole of it all. Sit down, shut up, speak when spoken to, hand up, hand down, head up, head down.
God, Rush thought.
He closed his eyes and mouthed the chorus of Metallica’s “One”:
Hold my breath as I wish for Death
Oh please God, Wake me.
When Rush opened his eyes again, everyone in the class was looking at him. Those in front had turned around awkwardly in their chairs and not a few were smiling as though at some inside joke.
Rush hit the pause button on the Walkman and slipped the headphones off his head.
“So good of you to join us, Mr. Walters,” Mrs. Davis said.
There were snickers around the room.
Rush blushed and hated his face for it. He stuffed the Walkman inside his backpack then pretended to be tending to something else in there. He felt Justina Perkins sitting in the classroom not ten feet away and couldn’t bear to lift his head until his Judas face had returned to normal.
The period passed slowly. Rush couldn’t concentrate. He’d already plowed through Beowulf and although he had enjoyed it, the class discussion of it was less than interesting. Besides, sometimes he wished Grendel would’ve won.
Rush occupied the time sneaking glances at Justina. She too seemed preoccupied. Her eyes were vacant, her face showed nothing. The book was open before her and she turned the page when Mrs. Davis directed the class to do so but Rush could tell she wasn’t there either.
She looked out the window in short snatches and Rush had the impression of a caged bird, Justina’s slender neck and frame furthering the image.
Justina turned quickly from the window and found Rush’s eyes and held them. Rush felt his heart stop. There was no noise. There was no classroom. No Mrs. Davis. No other students. Just Justina Perkins and himself.
She was there. He saw it in her blue green eyes. She was there but there was no emotion. No anger. No disgust. Nothing to indicate that she approved or disapproved of Rush’s sneaking peeks. She was cold. An ice queen. Somewhere in that beautiful, milk white castle.
Rush had to look away.
Moved by the “moment” they shared, Rush decided to talk to Justina. He stopped her in the hall outside their first period AP English class.
“Hey,” he said.
Justina turned towards him with those cold, knowing eyes.
She did not respond and this threw Rush off his game. He’d planned on apologizing for his stupid father’s harsh denial of her father’s loan. He was going to be both rueful and disgusted by his father’s callousness but all that went out the window.
“Uh,” he stammered.
The book in his hand was suddenly slippery with sweat.
He opened his mouth and resolved to say the first thing that popped into his head.
“Grendel,” he said, shocked that the man-eating monster was at the forefront of his mind. Rush shifted his thoughts to the story and needed a different angle, something Mrs. Davis and the sheep of the class didn’t touch on.
Justina looked on, unmoved, waiting.
“He didn’t want the crown and the riches and all that. Grendel just wanted to be left alone. Wanted things to be quiet, you know,” Rush said.
Still nothing from her.
What the hell’s wrong with me? Rush thought, cringing internally at himself. He had to stop talking. What would he say next? Grendel’s mother was a pretty, pretty mermaid?
“What do you think?” Rush asked.
Justina didn’t answer right away. Her eyes continued raging their ice storm into Rush’s then she replied, “Nothing. It’s just another assignment.”
With that Justina turned and headed down the hall, her long, white legs powering her past the unworthy sheep of Hillcrest High.
Several other times Justina caught Rush looking at her in class. Rush didn’t try to discuss Beowulf with her again. Rush decided to wait until he had Velutina back and maybe ask to take her for a drive or something of that sort. Rush wondered what the soundtrack of that drive would need to be?
From the pages of Velutina, Vampiress of the Great Black Swamp:
“I’m now 48 years old, Velutina,” the dialogue box above Sister Marie’s head said.
Velutina and the nun sat on the nun’s small cot in her sparse chambers.
And here we are. The moment of desertion. The casting out. I, Lucifer…
There were tears glistening on the nun’s cheeks. Velutina looked reserved to her fate.
Rush turned the page. It was a full page of Sister Marie’s flashback. Her dialogue bubbles floating above different scenes from Velutina’s past.
“You’ve never asked about your arrival here. That has always been a bit odd but then again you’ve been such a sickly child. I found you, you know, when I was a young woman. You were…bound by your hands and feet and hung from that black oak by a wooden stake.”
A small image of the bleeding, crying child and the shocked nun.
Rush noticed that there were two peering eyes from the darkness behind the tree. He quickly retrieved Velutina #1 and found that the eyes were there too. Small to the point of obscurity and well blended into the shadows.
“I know nothing of your birth family. Of your time before that moment. I know nothing of your mother, father, whether you have any brothers or sisters…No one has come forth to claim you. I raised you as my own. Here in God’s Light you grew, sickly yes, but you did grow. You grew slowly, God letting you live in childhood longer than most. I’m 48 now and you can’t be a day over 23. How is that if I found you when I was 18, if not for the divine Grace of God?
“I gave you your name. I brought you here and loved you. I still love you but things are out of my hands,” the nun’s head sank into her hands.
“It’s ok,” Velutina said, placing her hand on her surrogate mother’s shoulder.
“They won’t listen to me. They won’t listen to reason. They’re scared. Scared of the wind. Of the night. Of their shadows. Of fire. Of Hell and Satan and everything else. They think there’s something evil about you,” Sister Marie looked up and into Velutina’s eyes, wrinkles creased her face.
I wanted to tell her then. I wanted to tell her more than I wanted anything else in my life. Well, besides an end to the hunger, the bloodthirst. But I couldn’t. How do you tell the only person in the world that believes in you that you think you’re evil? That you think all those terrible things whispered about you are true after all? It would’ve destroyed the both of us.
The next panel showed one tear spill from Velutina’s beautifully dark eyes onto her pale skin.
“They want you gone, Velutina. They’re making you leave and I’m not sure how long I can hold them off. I told them if you leave then I leave too,” Sister Marie said.
Velutina shook her head.
“No,” she said. “This is your home. Besides, where would you go?”
“Where will you go,” the nun asked.
“I will find my place in this world,” Velutina said.
The nun pulled Velutina to her and held her sobbing, shaking lines showing her racked with grief.
“I’m so sorry, Velutina,” she gasped. “So sorry, child.”
So it was. So it went. As betrayed as I felt by the place I’d called home, had been my home for nearly my entire life, I knew I wasn’t destined to remain there. The Darkness growing in my soul would eventually put out the Light. I had to leave and I wouldn’t make it any harder on my only protector than it had to be.
The last panel of the scene showed Velutina looking off into the darkness of the night and the hanging pale moon through the nun’s open window. Her high set cheeks were dry and her full mouth set, a hint of fangs peeking beneath her upper lip.
There was a defiance in the look that Rush couldn’t help but smile at.
Rush closed the comic and picked up Velutina #1 again. He studied the eyes so carefully hidden in the murky Great Black Swamp that upon his initial reading he’d glossed right over them. He was attentive to details, they were one of the most alluring aspects of comics to him, but he had missed the eyes.
Rush put on the Cure’s Disintegration and pulled out all the Velutina comics. He went through each one slowly, looking for anything else he might have missed.
At the back of each issue of Velutina (starting with issue three) there was a reader write*in section entitled “Letters from the Fang Club.” Rush read through these the first few issues in which they appeared then stopped. They were moronic. Written ogling over the lack of Velutina’s breasts in her backstory or praise for a certain still or cover that showed just the right amount of skin. Others wanting more and more and more blood and violence. Not a few of the letters were written in a pseudo*technical tone finding fault with Velutina as “a vampire in the classical sense.”
It was worse than listening to Stony and Sweeney try to discuss Beowulf.
However, at the end of “Letters from the Fang Club” was a box that hinted on the happenings of the next issue. The portentous box was in the right-hand corner of the page and read:
Everybody remembers their first! In the next, blood drenched issue of Velutina, our beloved night stalker takes her first human life and drinks her first steaming drops of human blood!
Following the box, which Rush had to pause and mull over after reading, was a half*page shot of Velutina from the chest up. Nearly every inch of her was covered in blood. Rush noted that she appeared not to have any clothes on. The blood (just) covered her bare breasts, the tips of her nipples shining crimson. Velutina was looking out of the page directly into Rush’s eyes. There was a shrewd, knowing smile spread across her lips. Her mouth was parted slightly showing her soft tongue and gleaming fangs.
A quote bubble hanging beside Velutina’s blood covered head said, “Don’t miss this one, boys.”
It was hard to stay at the speed limit. Rush had the windows down and the music blaring. Every time he looked down at the speedometer he cringed, let off the accelerator and looked for any signs of a State Trooper. It seemed his foot was either gaining weight or had a mind of its own.
It fell that the last day of his ban from the school parking lot fell on the following Wednesday. Rush nearly ran the few blocks to his house. He threw his backpack onto his bed, grabbed the keys to Velutina and tore through town and onto the WK Parkway towards Grayson County.
The days were getting shorter. The afternoon light waned as Morrissey crooned and Velutina’s powerful engine purred. He pulled into Ray’s parking lot just as the sun was dipping behind a knob, the tops of a few early-turners, Judas trees, shining red and yellow.
It’ll be winter soon, Rush thought.
Winter with its snow and ice. His parents wouldn’t let him have the freedom to roam with Velutina like they did in the summer. The previous winter had been rough, with more snowstorms than Rush could remember experiencing before. He frowned but smiled as Morrissey, as if on cue, sang Rush’s exact feeling at that moment, “Tomorrow, does it have to come?”
The vampiress Velutina greeted him from the glass door. It was the half page image from the back page of the last week’s issue except that, like the first time he saw her peering from behind that door, it was a full sized Velutina that smiled out, covered in blood. Bits of her full white thighs shone through the crimson. She stood barefooted in a growing puddle, one foot rolled up onto its ball, the other flat footed on the damp grass. Next to Ray’s open sign a bleeding advertisement read: Everybody remembers their first!
Rush pushed open the door with its clanging bells and saw the store empty save Ray, who stood behind the counter reading an L. Ron Hubbard novel. On the cover, a shirtless, very ripped man held two space-age looking pistols before him. His waist was crisscrossed with two slings of ammunitions and across his neck was an animal pelt of some kind. The man’s face was determined but with a sense of glee in the violent undertaking he was engaging in.
Ray looked up from the science fiction novel and nodded a brief salutation before returning to his book.
The first thing Rush noticed was a price sticker, tackily placed between her breasts, on the hanging cardboard cutout of Velutina. She was for sale. Rush’s stomach clenched as he thought about some cretin taking her out of Ray’s under flabby, sweaty arms.
But where would I keep her? Rush thought.
He stood mulling the thing over when Ray called across the room.
“I’d make you a deal, special,” he said.
Rush turned and saw the fat man smiling at him, his finger resting on the place he’d stopped reading.
Rush hadn’t even looked at the price. That wasn’t the important thing.
$40, the tag read. Even Ray’s handwriting was sloppy.
Rush went about collecting his comics for the week. He didn’t offer a reply or turn to acknowledge the man. Rush knew he should’ve shown some sign of appreciation to the gesture, even though it had been offered tinged with deprecation, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Did the man even know her? Surely the owner of a comic book store, as Rush thought of the place even though comics were nowhere near the bulk of Ray’s business, kept up with at least the most involved, intricate and worthwhile storylines.
Surely, Rush thought.
He turned to head to the register, his purchases in tow, and saw Ray stuff his wet mouth with a handful of cheese balls. Crumbs caught in his goatee and dropped onto the counter.
He had to get her out of there. He dug his Swiss Army Knife out of his pocket, cut the string in which Velutina hung from and took her along with his comics to the counter.
Rush found that if he turned her sideways Velutina fit in the backseat. He could keep her there, covered by a blanket or a few sweaters or jackets, until he found a more suitable place to keep her.
At least she’ll be in good hands, he thought.
He started the car and looked back at her there. He adjusted the rearview mirror so that he could see her in it and pulled out of Ray’s Used Videos & More.
Rush pulled off the parkway onto Main and was nearly sideswiped by a Chevy Nova beater. Rush locked the brakes, sending Velutina screeching sideways to a halt. The Nova did not stop or slow. Instead, it pulled into the TB&G’s just down the road.
Asshole, Rush thought. Who taught you how to drive?
The Nova’s door opened and out stepped LJ Perkins. The man did not give Rush even a passing glance. He walked straight up and through the front doors. White smoke poured from the Nova’s exhaust and Rush could pick out the raspy sputter of the car’s running engine.
Rush pulled into the spot next to the Nova and found the car empty. Justina and her brother must be at home. Rush cut the engine and walked into the store.
Rush did not frequent TB&G’s. It was usually dirty and smelled of piss and disinfectant. The place sold beer though and was quite popular for this reason alone.
Rush found LJ Perkins with a case of High Life cans under his arms opening the glass door to the chilled pint sized liquor bottles.
“Mr. Perkins,” Rush said.
LJ Perkins grabbed a pint of Old Crow and let the cooler door slam shut. He turned to Rush with half slit red eyes.
“What?” he demanded.
There was a violence in the man’s movement, in his voice. Rush unconsciously took a step backwards.
Rush cleared his throat and feared he should’ve just driven on home. Then he thought of Justina riding in Velutina with the windows down, her blonde hair whipping like solar flares.
“My stupid father should’ve given you that goddamn loan,” Rush said, holding the man’s eyes.
A look of confusion spread across LJ Perkins’ face. Then it clicked.
“You’re that Walters’ boy?” LJ Perkins smiled.
Rush nodded solemnly; a murderer confessing to his past.
LJ Perkins snorted and walked past Rush to the register. He let the case drop onto the counter and set the sour mash bourbon beside it.
“Shoowee,” the gangly kid behind the register exclaimed. “Somebody is gonna have a hell of a Wednesday night.”
LJ Perkins gave the kid (who Rush recognized as pimple faced Alex Risner, who had graduated two or three years before) a look so hard that the Risner boy’s smile dissipated as if it’d never been there to start. Alex Risner quickly punched buttons at the register, took LJ Perkins’ wadded up cash and brown bagged the beer and bourbon separately. Rush stood beside LJ Perkins and felt like a lapdog but was determined to make a good impression.
“If it’d been up to me I would’ve given you that goddamn loan, Mr. Perkins,” Rush said, forcing his voice to sound deeper than it was.
LJ Perkins, not bothering with a reply, grabbed his bags of alcohol and walked to the door, Rush following at his heels.
“Really,” Rush said. “No questions asked. I know you’d be good for it.”
LJ Perkins turned and opened the door with his back, sneering at Rush.
“Well, if only we were gods or devils, Mother Teresa,” he spat.
LJ Perkins stepped out into the night and opened the Nova’s door, tossing the case of beer onto the passenger seat. He turned and leaned against the car, twisting the cap off the bourbon and taking two long swallows all the while staring straight into Rush’s eyes. He put the cap back on and tossed the brown bagged bottle beside the beer.
“Yeah, I guess you should win the Nobel Peace Prize or some shit,” he said.
This was a mistake, Rush thought.
Rush retrieved his keys from his jeans pocket and walked around LJ Perkins’ Nova to Velutina.
“That your car?” LJ Perkins asked over the hood of his own.
Rush stopped at the front bumper of his car.
“Yessir,” he said.
LJ Perkins looked the car up and down and nodded approvingly.
“Nice,” he said, coming around to give it a closer examination.
LJ Perkins walked around the Trans Am then reached into the Nova’s open passenger window and got the Old Crow for another drink. He peered into Velutina at the cracked leather interior, making clicking sounds of approval. LJ Perkins looked in the backseat of Rush’s car and saw her.
“What the fuck?” he said.
LJ Perkins opened the door to Rush’s car and pulled out the cardboard cutout of Velutina. He stood it up beside him and put his arm around the shoulders of the cutout, grinning like a fool.
“We make a good lookin’ couple, don’t we, Walters?” LJ Perkins laughed.
Rush cringed. The man shouldn’t be touching her.
“Where in God’s name did you get this thing?” LJ Perkins asked, leaning Velutina against the car that bore her name and appraising her up and down.
Rush didn’t answer and LJ Perkins didn’t seem to notice. He saw the price tag between the vampiress’ breasts. His eyes widened and he jerked his head back as if slapped.
“You paid forty bucks for this?” he exclaimed. “Jesus, you are a little rich kid, aren’t you?”
It was too much. Rush snatched Velutina and stuffed her back inside the car, avoiding LJ Perkins’ mocking eyes. The man stood there and cackled until he nearly choked himself. The laughter finally came to a sputtering stop and he coughed a deep, smoker’s cough and wiped the tears from his red eyes.
Rush slammed Velutina’s door shut behind him and fired up the engine. From the glass door of TB&G’s Rush saw Alex Risner smiling like a Cheshire cat. He threw Velutina in reverse and peeled out of the parking lot, a fresh bout of drunken laughter leaking through the open windows.
She showed no sign of having been informed of his brief conversation with her father. Justina was wearing a smooth, black blouse that clung to her as if it were soaked. Under the desk, Rush took in the tight white of her thighs, more than half exposed due to the shortness of her cutoffs.
Sensing his repeated stares, she turned her head and locked eyes with Rush. There it was again: that cold, unmoved but knowing look. To Rush it said, “You’re not worthy” and then “Prove me wrong.”
Justina turned back to the open book on her desk and turned the page.
God, Rush thought. I’d do anything…
His father was waiting for him in the kitchen when Rush got home from school.
“Dad? You’re home early,” Rush said.
Teddy Walters sat at the table with a cup of coffee between his small, delicate hands.
“Sit down, Rush,” he said.
Rush took off his backpack, sat it on the floor and sat down opposite his father.
“Jesse Risner came into the bank today,” Teddy Walters said.
He brought the coffee mug to his lips and slurped. His face was reddening.
Shit. Jesse Risner. As in Jesse Risner, Alex Risner’s dad, owner of TB&G’s.
Teddy Walters slammed the mug onto the table and a splatter of black coffee spilled onto the floral placemats.
“You think you’re so damn smart? You think you can run the bank? Decide who should get loans and why?” Teddy Walters face was reddening more and more with each word. “Or are you just sweet on that damn girl of his?”
Rush blushed and looked away out the kitchen window.
Teddy Walters sighed and twisted the mug on the mat.
“Rush,” he started. “That LJ Perkins is bad news. He’s shady and from what I hear an alcoholic. Not the kind of man you approach on a beer run.”
Through his embarrassment and anger a thought occurred to Rush: he hadn’t mentioned Velutina yet. Maybe he didn’t know about the cutout and at least she was still safe.
Teddy Walters’ voice softened a bit and he continued, “I know you’re growing up, Rush. I know you’re your own man with your own ideas and opinions. But when it comes to the bank, the bank that I grew, that puts a roof over this family, food on this table, you keep your opinions to yourself.”
The leaves were falling from the trees outside.
“You hear me?” Teddy Walters asked. “Look at me, Rush.”
Rush turned to his father and said, “Yessir.”
From the pages of Velutina, Vampiress of the Great Black Swamp:
They gave me a week. A week to “set my affairs in order.” A week to find a new place to live. A week to find a way to make a living. Start a new life. It was nearly overwhelming. I forced myself to, at the least, appear calm and collected. If they were making me leave I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing me leave in tears.
Velutina sat with a phone book in her lap and the phone to her ear.
I found a job. A place to live. Sr. Marie set it up to where the Sisters gave me enough money to cover my first month’s room and board.
Sister Marie was red faced and arguing with several other nuns.
Then I set about praying. Every second I had free I was praying.
Velutina was on her knees before the altar, her eyes clasped shut and her hands folded around her Rosary.
I prayed that I could control my urges. I prayed that I could survive living in the City of Men. The one we’d been warned of for as long as I could remember. The sinful nature of man. The sinful ways of the City of Men.
The days ticked off slowly, painfully. Everything seemed so endearing about the place now that I was leaving it. The stained-glass windows. The stone floor and walls. The large yard in front. The sheltering wall keeping the Great Black Swamp and the City of Men out. The long stretches of quiet. The murmur of soft, whispering prayers and the ticking off the beads on the Rosary.
Velutina sat up in her bed, her elbows on the window, looking out into the night.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t imagine what sleeping outside the dormitory was going to be like. Sleeping in a room to myself. On my own.
The next panel had Velutina striding along the Convent greens alongside the wall, looking into the sky at the waxing moon.
It was two days before I was to leave the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception when it happened.
A sloppy set of musical notes and snatches of lyrics came from outside the walls.
Velutina stopped walking and listened.
It was a man. Drunk and lost in the swamp. Drunk enough to not care or notice that he was lost. There was nothing this far out of the City of Men except more swamp and the Convent.
The next panel showed a close-up of Velutina’s face. It was determined, set. Solemn yet hinting at a wickedness already in motion.
It was then and there that I let go. I let it happen. Everything that controlled my every action and thought, every governing and protective measure, consciously and unconsciously set in place…I let them all go. If I were to be cast out into the night, I would become the Darkness.
Velutina leapt onto the wall and into the trees, disappearing into the shadows of the night. She followed the sounds of drunken reverie and curses until she was above the man. The panel showed her Rosary hanging from Velutina’s clasped right hand. Motion lines showed it swinging slowly from left to right, left to right.
The man was shin deep in a marshy pool of water.
“Splat, Splat” went each step.
“Martha, sweet, Martha,” the man sang, pushing a low lying bough out of his way. “I’m coming home to youuuuuu.”
She took the dangling end of the Rosary in her left hand, stopping its motion, then leapt from the tree.
Velutina landed directly behind the man, sending a sludge of swamp water onto the man’s back. He wheeled on his unsteady feet, lost his balance and plopped onto his back in the muck.
“Aarg!” he gasped.
Velutina was on him then. She tightened her grip on the Rosary and wrapped it around the man’s neck and pulled it taut, the twine and beads blanching white in the man’s rosacea. The man’s face was covered with mud, water and moss but his eyes were wide and terrified. His arms and legs flailed uselessly around him.
I knew what to do. The blood called to me with its siren song of satisfaction, knowing I’d have to answer the call. Answer it every time. Forevermore.
Velutina’s eyes blackened, not a hint of white left in them, and she sank her engorged fangs into the man’s neck. Blood spurted out from the corners of her mouth until she closed the space between her mouth and the man’s skin. The Rosary broke and the beads dropped into the swamp and floated uselessly in the waves.
“Can you believe that slut actually had the gall to sit through most of Sunday service?”
Rush overheard the group of church girls in the hall. He stopped, bent and pretended to be tying his shoe.
“Are you serious?”
“Did she burst into flames?”
Laughter. High pitched and tittering. Rush stopped himself from making a face.
“She came in just as Preacher Johnson was starting and sat down near the back.”
“Anybody come with her?”
“Nope. It was just like you said it was last week when she came to your church. All by her lonesome and dressed like a whore, per usual.”
A spatter of surly remarks and noises.
“Wretchedly Dressed Gretchen.”
More girly laughter.
“She sat through the whole thing and left just as the collection plate was making its way to the back.”
Several knowing “ah ha’s” were uttered and not a few humphs.
“She didn’t give nothing at our service neither. The plate came and she just passed it on to the person on the other side of the aisle.”
Tsking all around.
“Well, Preacher Johnson was making his closing remarks and the door opening and closing caught him off guard for a second. I don’t think anybody has ever left during one of his sermons. Anyone that wasn’t sick or something anyway. She was gone by the time we got outside.”
Rush stood and left the twittering church girls to their gossip.
Justina was attending church? More than one from the sounds of it. Maybe she’ll show up at Cecilburg Baptist this Sunday…Rush thought.
Due to his recent behavior, his parents’ normal lax policy on his church attendance had changed and he spent his Sundays there, for both the morning and the afternoon services. His mother had even gone so far as to volunteer him for what he believed to be “unpaid babysitting,” which was helping out with the Sunday school. He was given specific stories he was to study beforehand and teach to the little snot-nosed rugrats.
For the first time in his life, Rush was excited about going to church that coming Sunday.
From the pages of Velutina, Vampiress of the Great Black Swamp:
Try as I might I couldn’t stop the tears that came during morning prayer. I’d spent hours in the shower. Had left my clothes weighed under a rock in the swamp. I still felt the blood and the sin on me. I could feel them watching me but I couldn’t help it. The tears came and with them the only person that ever cared: Sister Marie.
Velutina was knelt before the altar, her Rosary conspicuously absent, sobbing. Several nuns and girls in the chapel watched her cry but did nothing to console her.
The next panel showed Sister Marie enter the chapel and shoot the others scowls as she made her way to Velutina. She drew her into her arms and led her from the chapel out into the fresh morning light. Despite her swollen eyes Velutina’s skin looked beautiful, shiny, smooth. Her lips looked plump, ripe. Her body blossoming under her clothes.
Dang, Rush couldn’t stop himself from thinking. The blood must’ve done her good.
Until this point, though beautiful, Velutina had yet achieved the look of the older, more knowledgeable and curvaceous Velutina from the covers and advertisements.
Rush allowed himself a cunning smile and made a mental note to check next week’s Fang Club to see how many of the idiots would put that together.
Sister Marie sat Velutina down on the steps and gave her a moment to compose herself. She stood a few steps below her so that they were eye to eye. She smiled that warm, maternal smile of hers and Velutina wiped her eyes dry.
“I know you’re leaving tomorrow but seeing how you’re having a rough morning I thought I’d go ahead and give you this,” Sister Marie said.
She reached into her habit and pulled out an amber Rosary. The sun hit the beads and they looked like little raindrops of fire.
I couldn’t help but smile. It was so beautiful. I knew I would miss Sister Marie so much but carrying a little bit of her with me would help ease the hurt.
“Child, you’re beautiful!” Sister Marie suddenly exclaimed. “I know you just got done crying but you look like you could break any man’s heart out there.”
Velutina blushed and this just strengthened the nun’s argument.
Sister Marie looked Velutina up and down as if for the first time and shook her head in amazement.
“Here you been sick since the day you got here,” she said. “And the day before you’re set to fly the coop you look healthy as an ox! God works in mysterious ways!”
Velutina sat on her bed looking out the open window. The stained glass filtered the moonlight to an unearthly purple, pale and nearly blue like broken veins. Beside the bed a battered leather valise sat at her feet.
I stuffed the few things I called my own, my worn Bible, equally worn hymnal and some clothes the Sisters got for me from Goodwill, into the shoddy suitcase that also came second hand. I would be leaving in the morning, leaving the only home I’d ever known besides the swamp, which was but a night place to me.
The next panel showed Velutina on her knees at the side of the bed, her eyes clenched shut and her hands clasped together in prayer.
Again, I prayed to God. Again, I begged him to help me. To save me. Keep me in His Light.
The moon in the open window moved to show the passing of the nighttime hours. Velutina remained on her knees in prayer. The amber Rosary clasped between her hands, draped over her wrists.
Through the open window a grumble of voices and hushed laughter floated. Velutina opened her eyes.
I heard them. Everyone else at the Convent had long since retired to a peaceful night’s sleep. I heard them and I got off my knees. I moved to the window and listened to be sure.
Velutina stood leaning out the open window, a look of concentration on her face. From somewhere beyond the panel there was more quiet talking and hushed laughter.
Rush turned the page and saw Velutina slink down the hall and out of the Convent doors as quietly as a breeze. She followed the sounds across the yard to the wall separating the Convent from the Great Black Swamp. The flicker of a flashlight momentarily shone on the trees hanging over the wall.
It was the first night of my feeding period. The moon wasn’t quite full but it was pregnant with expectation. I felt it. This was different. This was something new, something meant to be. Something I refused to acknowledge until that night. Hunting with a purpose.
Velutina topped the wall without a sound. Not fifteen feet away were three teenage boys. Several six-packs of beer and cans of spray paint surrounded them. One of the boys was spray painting the southern wall. Another stood behind him anxiously pacing and sipping from a bottle. The third was passed out drunk, one arm across his head to cover his eyes.
“People disappear out here, Jimmy,” the pacing boy said.
“That’s horseshit,” Jimmy replied, continuing with his work.
Velutina saw that the vandals had knocked over the fifth Station of the Cross; Jesus, the Cross and Simon of Cyrene were splintered on the dew dampened ground. The bench where Sister Marie and Velutina had sat and Sister Marie had consoled Velutina had been covered in red spray paint and turned on its back.
“No way, man,” the anxious boy said. “My dad said his dad knew people who went out in the swamps and never came back.”
The boy drained his beer and chucked it off into the swamp, which took it without a sound.
“Russell, you think a bunch of nuns are killing people and wearing their skins like cassocks?” Jimmy stopped spray painting and turned to his friend. A wicked smile of mockery spread across his face.
“Numb-nuts,” he concluded and returned to the wall.
“No. I’m just saying there seems to be something off with the place. That’s all,” Russell looked embarrassed and twisted the cap off another bottle of beer.
Jimmy stopped spray painting and stepped back from wall, appraising his work. He turned his head to the side for a better angle. He nodded in approval then reached down and drained the bottle of beer at his feet.
“Gotta take a leak,” Jimmy said, turning and tossing Russell the can of spray paint.
“Finish ‘er up,” he said, disappearing into the darkness of the swamp.
Velutina moved silently down the wall, away from the vandals. She stepped onto a limb of an old bur oak and from there to another tree, silently moving out into the swamp.
The next panel was nearly in complete darkness. There was a thin, steaming stream of yellow splashing and above it the floating face of Jimmy, his eyes closed and mouth open in relief. In the blackness above his head two gleaming, white fangs reflect the moonlight.
The next panel was a close-up shot of Velutina sinking her teeth into the teenagers neck, one of her white hands covering his mouth, the other pinning his arms to his torso. She brought the boy down to the ground and drained him, Velutina’s eyes closed in pleasure. When she was done, she leaned back on her knees, her face lifted towards the night sky, and sighed in ecstasy.
There was nothing like it. It was the first thing I’d ever done that and felt right. Right. Natural. Every tingling inch of my body screamed, “This is what is supposed to be! This is who you are! This is what you are!”
Velutina’s mouth opened wide, her tongue lapping at her bloody lips. Her eyes were closed, a few tears shining on her cheeks, and a soft “uhh” escaped her. She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging herself, then they moved over her chest, down her stomach onto her thighs and back again.
I shuddered and shuddered and moaned and hissed as that kid’s blood pumped through me. The world was alive and I was too. Alive for the first time. Two nights of sweet blood. The moonlight hit my skin and it felt like the breaths of angels.
Maybe this was the Light. Maybe everyone has their own and finding it can be a journey through the darkness. Or maybe my light was a black light. The light that only those accustomed to the darkness, one with it, of it, could truly see for all its glory.
Rush sat back on his bed and realized he was sweating. He wiped his forehead with his bed sheets and set the comic down and got up. The alarm clock said 2:45 am. There was no music coming from the stereo. Rush couldn’t even remember what he’d been listening to or when it had ended.
He wanted nothing more than to dive back into his bed and finish that issue of Velutina but he stopped himself. Rush forced himself to brush his teeth, wash his face and get his backpack together for the morning.
Good things come to those who wait, Rush told himself. And if that’s not the case, next Wednesday is too damn long to wait for whatever cliffhanger this one’s going to end on.
Rush slipped Velutina into the stack with the others and turned out the light.
He was just drifting off to sleep when he sat bolt upright in bed. Rush flipped on the lamp on his nightstand and rubbed his eyes in the blinding brightness.
The eyes. Were the eyes there?
Rush threw the sheets off him, he found the comforter much too hot to sleep under that night, and retrieved Velutina, Vampiress of the Great Black Swamp #13. Careful not to flip to a page beyond where he stopped reading earlier that evening, Rush found the last panel he had looked at and there in the blackness of the swamp, just barely visible in the stygian darkness were two watching eyes.
Rush turned the page and found the gutter of the entire page black. The first panel was from the vantage point directly behind Russell. The kid had nearly completed the sloppy, red pentagram. Velutina watched him from the safety of the swamps engulfing darkness as he finished the symbol then wrote the following just to the right of it, “Hail Satin.”
Russell stepped back from the wall, crossed his arms and nodded in approval.
The next panel was through the eyes of the kid, a close-up of the wall showing it to be an even shoddier job than it looked from just a few feet behind him.
A dialogue box in the lower left hand side of the panel was full of lowercase laughter, sinister in its font and red in color.
Russell jerked his head around and there she was, stepping out of the darkness into the bright but pale moonlight.
“Who…who…” Russell stuttered.
The smile on Velutina’s face was blood curdling. Her eyes gleamed with malicious intent and her bone white cheeks were spattered and smeared with glistening blood.
Russell retreated until his back was up against the freshly painted wall as Velutina slowly approached.
“Hail Satin,” Velutina whispered and laughed again, the font of the laughter indicating it was not a pleasant sound.
Velutina stopped just an arm’s length away from Russell and twirled the Rosary in her hand. The next panel, still from Russell’s POV, was splattered with blood slung from the drenched Rosary. He wiped and rubbed his eyes beginning to pant in hysteria.
“Who’s b-blood is that?” Russell stammered. “Where’s Jimmy?”
Velutina’s smile broadened and she looked demonic and beautiful.
For a second her face flashed so bright white that she looked like a ghost or some such nightmare. Then a crackle of thunder peeled open the quiet night and Russell dropped to his knees.
“Please,” he begged. “Please, please, oh God.”
From his knees, he turned to his snoring friend.
“Scotty! For God’s sake, Scotty. Wake Up!” he cried, tears blurring his vision.
Rush marveled at the artist’s technique in this section. The past scene had, thus far, been from the eyes of the beholder. This was the first time he’d read a first-person narrative as enthralling and well-crafted as this.
Scotty did not stir.
Another bolt of lightning and a moment later more booming thunder.
Velutina knelt down over the quaking kid and a peak of large breast peeked out.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Velutina whispered.
The page adjacent was a full page spread of the kill from above. Rain was just beginning to fall in plump pear drops. Beer bottles and spray cans surrounded the three people on the edge of the Great Black Swamp. ZZZ’s drifted from above Scotty’s head in triplets.
She had Russell up against the wall, her mouth around the right side of his throat. A single line of crimson ran the length of his neck onto his white Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.
Russell’s legs were held closely together by Velutina’s widened thighs. Russell’s right arm reached out into the nothingness over her shoulder, his fingers spread apart and rigid. His left arm was pinned awkwardly between the two of them, pushing Velutina’s right breast nearly to her throat. The thing wasn’t completely uncovered but only just barely. The amber Rosary gleamed in between.
Sweet Jesus, Rush thought.
Rush skipped the letters from the Fang Club and went directly to the small box preview of the coming issue of Velutina. It read:
The changing on the nunguard has finally brought about an end to Velutina’s time at the Convent for the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. In the next issue of Velutina, Vampiress of the Great Black Swamp, our beloved night stalker leaves the Light and enters the City of Men.