The Dark-Haired Stranger
Copyright © 2012 By Michael Litzky
The dark-haired woman looked blank for a second after Sally finished whispering, then understood. They’d heard the dying scream of a Home Runner caught by the crowd of vampires. Trying to cross Main Street like Sally had almost done?
“C’mere, siddown,” the woman said. Sally sank into a chair and put her head in her hands. She felt strong hands on her shoulders and gave in for a moment to their comfort.
“Fuck you doin’ anyway, kid?” the stranger eventually asked. “What could be worth it?” Sally looked up into a pair of blazing violet eyes, felt again the high voltage coming off this person. And Sally, who had resisted the kindly tone of the old man, found herself pouring out her secrets to this gruff-voiced older woman.
“My sister. She’s involved with this guy, he’s, he’s, I guess it’s a sex thing.” Even as she said it, she knew she was wrong. It was more than a sex thing somehow. But she continued, “KerriAnne, she’s like, she’ll do anything, I think she’s got a habit she’s feeding but now she’s trapped. She came to me, she told me about these Runs. Begged me to Run. He sent her, he wanted me in the race, gives him prestige I guess. I’ve been training to join the vampire hunter squads, so I’m pretty good at this. Anyway, I win this Home Run, he gives me the key that unlocks this, this thing he has on her.” She still shuddered as she remembered Kerri touching that tight, ugly metal band around her neck, explaining what it did. “She says it’s got these tiny knives, if he presses a button or if anyone messes with it and doesn’t enter the right unlock code, these knife things, they slice their way in, ugh…”
Her voice trailed off. After a minute of sympathetic silence, the woman asked, “So you win this race nobody but him ever wins and he smiles and hands you whatever key and says have a great day. You trust him?”
“No,” she answered without hesitation. “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. He made the race longer at the last minute. I should’ve just dropped out, that’s what someone else was smart enough to do. But I love my sister in spite of everything and it was a big challenge and I’ve done great so far, but I’m, I’m clueless now. I thought I could shoot a line across the street but it’s awfully wide and before I got halfway across, there’d be twenty of them hanging off me, I’d never make it. Damn it, I did so good, I guess I thought I’d be rewarded with an answer!”
But as she spoke, she felt that there was an answer, staring her in the face, just like in detective novels. She’d seen enough to have a clue as to how she could go the remaining two blocks without leaving a home. It was something she’d seen in this room but just like the hopping business, it wouldn’t quite come. The woman took her hand and Sally felt a jolt go through her. “Talk to me, kid. You’re thinking something. Maybe I can help.”
Sally almost took refuge in toughness, almost snarled, “Why should you want to help me? I’m a stranger who broke into your apartment!” But she saw the kindly old man she had cursed at and made herself say quietly, “I’m trying to think of the way across this main street. It’s like I know. I saw… something, just before you came in.” The thing she’d seen in the street wasn’t it, but she talked about that, hoping the other thing would come. “It was like a tent walking down the street, with vampires all around. That can’t have been what it really was but still…”
But the woman figured it out instantly. “A tent’s a home, if you’re really gonna live in it. Maybe one of your runners was carrying his home with him!”
Sally knew instantly that she was right. If you had lived in the tent before and intended to make it your home for the night, you could carry it draped around you and it was a home. Was it still a home if you cut out holes for your feet? But maybe that explained the scream: maybe the vampires had figured out that it wasn’t a home if you mutilated it like that.
It would work much better with something that could really be a traveling home. Something like – she saw it in a flash: the pictures on the wall! The hippies and the VW van! If only—
This magic woman got it instantly. “I used to live in my van. I still got it. C’mon. We’re goin’ down the garage. You’re welcome in my home, babe. I’ll take care ‘a ya.”
“Jesus, thank you! Why –?”
But the woman grabbed her face in both hands and glared intently into her eyes. “Shuddup. Wait here just a minute, then I’ll take care ya.” In a few minutes she was back, dressed in jeans and a black shirt under a leather jacket. An emblem of a crow was hand-stitched on the dark brown leather. “C’mon, kid.”
Sally Yan floated, glowing, out into the hall and down the stairs behind the magic stranger. She hadn’t felt this good since she couldn’t remember when. Just before the woman opened the heavy door into the building’s garage, Sally put a hand on her arm. “What’s your name?”
The woman put her hands on her hips. “Lavinia. You got a problem with that?”
“It’s the most beautiful name in the world,” Sally said devoutly.
Lavinia looked at her in the dim light, arched an eyebrow. “You got rocks in your head, kid. C’mon.”
The garage was dingy, moldy, hard and echoing. They walked a line of cars and SUVs and trucks and came to a blue-green camper van, greyish white in the deadly yellow of the mercury lamps. Lavinia walked around to the passenger side, opened the door and climbed in. Only then did Sally see that the steering wheel was on the passenger side.
“It’s not a VW,” Lavinia explained, seeing Sally’s question. “Better’n that, it’s a Commer Camper. My girlfriend and me, we bought it in England in 67, 68 –” Sally felt her heart leap as Lavinia mentioned a girlfriend “– and when we split up, I still loved it so much I brought it back with me. Best camper ever made. These assholes with their campers like fucking busses and hauling fucking SUVs behind them…” She shook her head. “Anyway, I lived in this thing for almost two years and I’ve camped in it on and off for forty more, I think it qualifies as a home. So kid, welcome to my home. Come on in.” She swung open the door on the left and patted the seat.
Gingerly, Sally climbed in. Half of the seat cushions had some kind of leopard spot covering; the others were just wrapped in brown felt. Stiff dirty-green curtains separated the driver’s area from the back. Lavinia swept the curtains aside, muttering “Can’t see fuck,” revealing a central space neatly lined with cupboards and cabinets. No stove or sink, unless they were under some of the wood panels. “Cozy,” Sally ventured.
“Got a pop top, gives you just space to stand, but yeah, cozy. Alright kid, we gonna do this thing?” Lavinia pulled her door shut, clunk.
Sally put a hand on her arm. “Lavinia.” As the blazing violet eyes turned on her, she wasn’t sure which of many things she was going to say. Who are you, why are you risking your existence for me, will you marry me? But she stuck with practicality. “For the vampires to respect it as a home, you or I have to live in it now.” The words hung, an invitation she hadn’t realized she intended. “I think that’s how it works,” she added lamely.
Vampire eyes are supposed to hypnotize. But, studied intently by this woman who had to be twenty years older than she was, Sally couldn’t have moved if a vampire was about to seize her. She felt her heart hammering, her throat tingling, her loins rich and aching for the first time in months. But she held perfectly still.
Lavinia smiled slowly, as if pleased by what she saw. But she withheld the words Sally needed to hear, turned forward, slipped the key into the ignition. Sally fought down panic. Lavinia turned the key, the excellent old engine roared into gas-rich life and the ancient camper rolled smoothly out of its slot and down the squealing concrete. She said nothing and Sally said nothing, looked grimly ahead at the approaching garage gate. Lavinia pressed a button and the gate wheezed itself to the left. The ramp to the street was open. It was quickly clogged with vampires.
Slowly building speed, the old camper closed the last 20 feet, passed through the open gate and struck the crowd, which melted and reformed itself around the van. Dead faces pressed with slavering menace against every window as they crawled up the incline to the street. Dozens of faces blocked the front windshield. The van came to a helpless stop with layers of vampires pressing deeper and deeper against every surface. Their presence was so palpably evil that Sally’s stomach rolled and Lavinia breathed hard. Claws scratched against the paint.
Never one to turn from danger, Sally faced the evil and waited for them to smash the windows into rainbows of flying glass.