Subject: Poisoned and misguided
To whom it may concern,
I believe you corresponded with my parents in the past. If not, then you saw them on the news. Everyone did. The media dubbed them “The Cannibal Couple,” and while it’s true they did eat portions of their victims, the nickname is lazy and in bad taste (pun not intended). They are currently stuffed into straitjackets, while my older brother, Jordan, and I—he’s twenty and I’m eyeballing eighteen—still reside in the house in which eight innocent men and women were caged and killed.
Having read my mother’s diary cover to cover and launching my own private investigation, I am convinced that, although mistakes were made on their part, my parents were privy to a group of unsavory individuals that your website calls “a plague of festering evil.” I have devoted the “best years of my life” (whoever made up that lie about high school is a serious asshole with no real depth or personality) to uncovering the hiding place of these foul creatures. This has made me an outcast where I live—a tucked-away mountain town appropriately named Rainy Mood, Virginia.
I discovered your business card amongst my mother’s things. She needed your help, and now, as circumstance commands, I need it. I have slipped into her shoes—picked up her torch. In their honor, I will eradicate these moon-baked vermin. I am revenge.
You might advise me to fill my heart with love (your website labels you a religious organization), and while I enjoy the sentiment, I’ll leave love to the ignorant masses that stumble through life with their necks exposed. It is now my job to protect them. For the good of mankind. For my parents—poisoned and misguided by a plague of festering evil.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Paxton Hellswood’s dinner stood a few yards away, face to the stars, neck vulnerable—a cherry pie cooling in an open window. An unusual-looking young man, his features were slightly off-center, as if he’d been punched in the face as a baby causing everything to develop a micro-measurement to the left. His name was Derek Stabbers. She knew that because everyone knew that. His parents had once painted a gory trail through the streets of her tucked-away town of Rainy Mood. His blood contained the scents of garlic and aluminum.
She gripped the cinnamon-red bark of the river birch tree that concealed her. Tonight was her 100th birthday, and she’d made the decision to walk through Little Horn Woods rather than fly over it. The lush, green thickness made it easy to hide. The trees had twisted personalities—bending, curling, and grabbing—their roots unsatisfied living beneath the dirt, arching in and out of the earth like a sea serpent. A tangled mess to many, but beautiful and complex to Pax. Trees could be trusted; humans on the other hand…
Enamel daggers broke the seal of Pax’s lips and turned her sweet, awkward grin into something dangerous. She drowned out the world around her. The crickets, the wind, and the general hum of the universe all faded away as she focused on the rhythm of his heartbeat. Irregular. It would take a bit more time to feed on him due to his spastic pumper, which annoyed her.
Pax considered herself an indoor vampire. She would rather be spread out on her couch like a slug watching the Space Lion marathon on TV, but she had promised her family she’d put on non-pajama-type clothing and go out for the traditional birthday hunt—the one time of year they were allowed to drink directly from a human neck. She wasn’t afraid of the outside world, she just had no use for it. It had betrayed her plenty in the past. Her couch, however, had never once pretended to be something it was not, and more specifically, had never run a sword through her chest, leaving her to bleed out on a cobblestone street.
The broken images of her past distracted her, for when she refocused on her meal, it had disappeared.
“Where’d ya go, psycho?” she mumbled under her breath. “Just want enough of your fruit punch for a solid buzz.”
Pax breathed deep and caught the scent of his blood a few yards off the path—peppered ribeye and buttered asparagus. Her nose crinkled when a pair of invading scents pinched her nostrils—rotting bone and peroxide. She pushed them away, the bitter aromas not strong enough to distract from her goals: to eat, get home, and lounge on the couch until her 200th birthday rolled around.
Like a deadly ballerina with rocks in her slippers, she crept after her meal. Pax found him crouched low, watching a salamander wriggle under a large stone he had upturned. She dug her toes into the ground, ready to attack, drink, and flee. Derek would get lightheaded and blame a wild animal, and Pax would sleep with a belly full of crimson champagne.
She lowered her body in an attack stance, when a tiny chirp caught her ears. Her ravenous grin soured; her slate-gray eyes dropped their focus.
Shit, she mouthed and slowly turned her head.
Just behind her, propped up on its hindquarters, stood a fluffy, mocha-colored squirrel—its tiny claws clasped together. Pax hated squirrels. All vampires did. It was rumored—but never confirmed—that these delightful menaces were the trapped spirits of those murdered by the vampires’ hunger. Since the dawn of Pax’s kind, there had always been three things to avoid: the sun, beheading, and squirrels.
The intruder unhinged its cute little jaws and dug its adorable upper incisors deep into Pax’s ankle. The vampire shrieked; the squirrel went in for seconds. Pax flailed about like an air dancer at a car dealership as the squirrel crawled up her torso. The stiff, short hairs of the squirrel’s cheeks bristled her neck as it gnawed on her flesh. Was this how it would end for her—rolling around in the bushes in her Monday underwear on a Wednesday night? Who would get all her cool stuff? Who would even appreciate a hundred years of action figures and collectible lunch boxes?
As she contemplated her mental will and testament, the squirrel let out a shrill squeak, and a sharpened point pricked the surface of Pax’s chest. She cracked open her eyes and stared down at the worrisome visual of a wooden stake as it wobbled just above her heart and out the back of the very dead squirrel.
“What are you doing out here?”
The voice sounded irritated and far away. Pax wanted to look up, but the ink-black eyes of her dead nemesis had her paralyzed.
“The woods aren’t safe.”
A hand entered her field of vision and grabbed the stake. It yanked upward; the squirrel stuck to it like a shish kabob. Pax’s eyes followed the gored critter to the face of Derek Stabbers. He turned the squirrel over several times, studying it.
“Never seen a squirrel attack someone like that.”
Derek flicked his wrist with a sharp snap. The squirrel slid off the wood and cut through the air, a grotesque bend to its body, and landed with a soft thud behind a bush. Derek stepped toward Pax, stake out. She scurried back, bumping her head against a tree. Derek stopped. Pointed at her neck.
She felt the tiny puncture wounds on her neck, the moment drenched in irony. Derek Stabbers, her birthday dinner, had saved her from a throat-hungry creature. A thank-you would have been appropriate, but Pax’s embarrassment mixed with a combative nature took control of her tongue.
Her face twisted in disapproval. Before she could attempt a better sentence, Derek’s stakeless hand shot toward her, halting a foot away. She stared up at his short, dirt-smeared fingers and wondered what in God’s name he was doing out here this late—because Derek was right, the woods were not safe.
“Fine. Help yourself up.” He lowered his hand and turned to leave.
“You poked me,” she blurted, confused by her sudden need to keep his attention.
Derek paused, looked up at the moon. She could tell he thought he looked cool. He didn’t, but she allowed him to have his hero moment.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The stake.” Pax fanned two fingers over the tiny dot of blood on her top—just over her heart.
Derek shifted his gaze from the moon to her chest.
“It went through the squirrel’s belly and poked me a little. I’m fine, obviously.”
Another long, awkward silence floated around them.
“Just say thank you so I can move on.”
Pax listened to his muscles tighten around his creaking bones, his heart accelerate. She listened to his stomach squish and his toes brush up and down against each other inside his shoes. The things he said out loud were cold and mean, but the things his body communicated from within were scared and almost sweet.
Derek wiped the squirrel’s blood from his stake, placed it securely inside the pocket of his oversized trench coat, then wandered off into the woods. Pax let him go, her appetite suddenly lost to the rather strange encounter. Derek Stabbers had just lived up to his reputation as a chip off the ol’ psychotic block. She felt bad for him.
Pax rubbed the tiny mark on her chest, then breathed in long and deep, wanting to indulge in one final olfactory moment with the man who started off as her supper and ended up her savior.
Her eyes watered when a strong, non-Derek odor attacked her nose—the foul scent of wet mushrooms, bile, and halitosis. A rush of hot, rotten air pushed the vampire’s hair over her shoulders. Pax suddenly missed the squirrel as she turned to face an even more disgusting animal—a creature she had smelled all along but chose to ignore. Little Horn Woods had two hunters tonight.