A bewitching, ominous pastoral comedy that draws you into the orbit of a cursed, embattled family…
by: Jeff Schneekloth
“I‘ve had it with these vampires,” said Grandpa.
A floppy sun hat sat low over his eyes as he toiled in the garden. An old denim shirt hung loosely on his thin frame, white hairs poking from his sunburned chest. His pants were pulled up past his waist and tied with a rope. Even though his gait had slowed, he shirked none of his duties. He was up before the roosters and worked until after twilight. His work was meticulous, not a wasted motion as he prowled his plants. These were his children. He bestowed more care upon them than his own flesh. One of his sons killed himself, another was a drunk, and another had just been fired from the city college for cohabiting with a student. But just look at how his tomato plants rose up in twisting arches of greens and reds, his cabbages couched in protective petals.
The sun hid behind a patch of clouds. The heat remained, the bloody blistering heat. Humphrey the mutt panted in the shade of the tool shed. Humphrey, Grandpa’s only friend. Especially since Grandma had taken up with one of the farmhands. She had complained to the sandy haired boy about an ache in her shoulder. They were up there now, Grandma’s moans echoing across the farm as the boy tended to her. Physical therapy, is what she called it.
The windmill spun despite the still summer heat. The windmill was powered by a gas generator, even as it in turn — so to speak — provided energy to the house. Grandpa liked the idea of old fashioned energy without the inconvenience. So he did not have to worry when he sat down each night with his plate of fried eggs and hash to watch the New Jersey Nets. They never won a game. Grandpa watched the Nets with a flat expression, chewing dispassionately as he sipped his nightly finger of malt scotch. Grandma was a basketball fan too. She hosted nightly workouts with some of the players from the high school team. Physical training, is what she called it.
Night was also when the vampires visited, as vampires tend to do. The animals in the barn didn’t make a sound, not even the two guard dogs whose duty it was to patrol the grounds, nor the tabby cat who caught mice, moles, and the occasional bird. The vampires never harmed the animals, as one might suspect. They left no footprints in the dewy grass and dirt paths. Grandpa knew that vampires could hover six to eight inches off the ground, with the ability to rise to a bedroom window like an arborist’s crane. They preferred young blood. So Grandma was safe, and otherwise occupied.
The only evidence they ever left was attached to the front door. The documents came in different colors, sometimes yellow and sometimes pink. Upon them were printed words of vampire language. Grandpa couldn’t speak vampire, no one on the farm could. Once they left a document on his truck, an old pickup with the “Proud Father Of Honor Roll Student” bumper sticker. The sticker was faded and scratched, because once Grandpa tried to scratch it off with a trowel before he realized that he was scratching the fender too. The bumper sticker had been for the son who was now a drunk. It was not that Grandpa was ashamed of that son, he just preferred not to think or be reminded of him at. But now the truck — bumper sticker and all — was gone. The vampires took it. Grandpa figured it must have required six or seven of them to lift the truck, the old Chevy which had half a pallet of cement bricks in the back. The vampires must have had a hell of a time flying it back to their nest.
They hadn’t touched Grandma’s car, a small Japanese hatchback. Grandpa had argued against that purchase and lost. Two trucks were always better than one, he figured, as the old adage goes. Now they had no truck. Unlike the farmhands, the vampires showed no interest in Grandma. They had a score to settle with Grandpa only. What for, he didn’t know. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a good man. Every morning his tools were neatly arranged in the main shed because at night he would clean and dry them. The tractor still ran faithfully due to weekly checkups and oil changings which left Grandpa’s denim shirt and his best rags stained brown. He often completed the work of the younger farmhands, who rose later and frittered away the day teasing the horses and stealing from hidden liquor bottles in the barn.
He went back again to the tilling. The soil had to be turned over every day, circling around the base of each plant. He checked carefully for insects and browning leaves. Though he took some pride in his daily duties, Grandpa’s face remained flat. He never expressed any joy, because he was cursed. He felt that way even before the vampires. Perhaps they could sense it too. Cursed blood is more nutritious to vampires, like those green drinks his youngest son drank. That was the one who’d just been fired. His name showed up in the newspaper with the headline, “Predator!” So maybe he was vampire too. Maybe that was how the vampires found Grandpa’s phone number. Because there was a time when they would call his house frequently. Then one day they must have chewed through the phone wires because those calls, in fact all calls, stopped. That was fine with Grandpa. He preferred to be left alone.
“How ya doin’ Humph?” said Grandpa.
The mutt’s ears moved just slightly. His sad face rested on his paws, his eyes half open. It was too hot for him to sleep. Humphrey was older than Grandpa in dog years. No one knew how they figured out the dog years equation, probably a scientist somewhere. Like his oldest son had been, the one who killed himself. He used to work on experiments down in his basement. He had shelves and shelves full of spare parts and bottles of liquids. Guns too. His wife and children were forbidden to go down there. When the police found his body, they had to call in a special bomb squad van. That son got his name in the newspaper too, with his own headline that included the phrase “Domestic Terrorist Suspect.”
“Vampires, o vampires, I’m just a-waitin’ for the vampires,” Grandpa sung.
He often sang to himself as he worked. He hovered somewhere near the right pitch, not what one would say was a good voice but he sang in a pleasant tone nonetheless. He didn’t know any real songs because he never cared for music. Grandma was the music fan in the family. Her favorite singer was named Prince. “Prince what?” Grandpa once asked. Just Prince. A prince couldn’t be a very good singer in Grandpa’s estimation. The only music he ever liked was what he remembered sung around campfires when he was a boy, or to himself while he worked. Princes didn’t ever have to work at all.
“Dehumanization” is not term a Grandpa would have recognized. Grandpa didn’t read many books. He had a book about World War II and he liked the pictures and illustrations. Mostly he liked the idea of sitting in a chair and turning its pages, pretending that he was reading. His youngest son, the one who’d just been fired, would have certainly recognized the term “dehumanization.” He taught sociology. That was all about the development of human society, some things gained but mostly things lost. Sociology often focused on history but his focus was the future. He believed that humans were turning into robots, cogs in a machine like the parts in Grandpa’s tractor. The pieces performed their duties and were replaced by new ones. “Don’t get any ideas,” Grandpa would sometimes say to the pieces that weren’t working properly. Humans weren’t meant to perform a single duty, to submit to life inside a machine. That was the thesis for presentation his youngest son was planning to give. Then he left his wife for one of his students, a seventeen-year-old named Gina. That was how he got his name in the newspaper. Don’t get any ideas.
Grandpa owned three guns, two Remingtons and his favorite, a Magnum. It was called a Timber Wolf. He’d shot it exactly four times. Two were at the gun shop where he purchased it, firing at tin cans in the junkyard behind it. The owner of the gun shop was a guy named Jerry, about ten years younger than Grandpa. He encouraged Grandpa to buy the gun, shepherding him through the transaction. He instructed him how to load, clean, and fire it. Cleaning, that’s what really interested Grandpa. He spent hours over the sinks in the garage, disassembling the pieces and scrubbing them individually. It was a good habit that pleased him. The other two shots were fired on the night coyotes got to one of the guard dogs, Mookie. Grandpa heard Mookie’s cries and watched with some horror as the coyotes surrounded him. “Get out!” he shouted. He fired twice at the coyotes but didn’t hit any of them. Mookie was left bloodied and whimpering. Grandpa had to hold his throat closed to put him out of his misery. The two of them locked eyes and Grandpa tried with what little emotion his face could muster to set the poor dog at ease. He buried him on a hill at the south side of the farm. He removed his sun hat and said a silent prayer. He was not a religious man. He thought no more of preachers than accountants or car salesmen. That is, not much.
Humphrey lifted his head from his paws. He was an inside dog, who sat on the floor at night while Grandpa watched basketball. Humphrey had a perpetually sad face, as if he’d accepted his fate to follow at the feet of the old man. They were both old now. Grandpa took good care of him. Things — dogs, tractors, people — don’t get old without good care. His head was up now, his ears pointed. Whatever sound he heard was up toward the twisting roads on the north side of the farm. This was the only road that led to Route 36, which one could follow for ten miles or so into town. Grandma’s car, the Japanese compact, could often be heard well before it appeared, the thumping rhythms of her favorite Prince.
Grandpa didn’t notice Humphrey’s ears. Because he heard the sound too. Low rumblings of tires, then rising clouds of dust over the horizon. A flock of black crows flew over the farmhouse. They saw everything, better than people.
“Here they come,” said Grandpa.
Yes, it was them. The vampires had changed their game plan. They’d acquired vehicles. Four in total were heading toward the farm. Three were police cars, one of them being the sheriff’s. So they’d gotten to Sheriff Waters. Grandpa had known him since they were boys, when they played cowboys and Indians down by the river. There were often arguments, as young Sheriff Waters had a penchant for calling “Time out!” and “Time in!” whenever he wanted. But that was cheating. Their relationship went on icily over the years. Mostly Sheriff Waters liked to talk about Grandma. He was greatly amused by all things Grandma. Which was odd, because Grandpa didn’t think she had much of a sense of humor. Neither did Grandpa. Neither did Sheriff Waters for that matter, but that didn’t stop his crooked smile.
Grandpa left his children to march to the tool shed. He picked up the Timber Wolf from its resting place. Then he grabbed Humphrey by the collar and led him into the barn. Humphrey went right over to his spot in the corner. This was an area of matted straw with his chew toys. Grandpa crouched down in another corner and put his finger to his lips. The mutt saw him and understood. Humphrey was Grandpa’s familiar. Grandpa would not recognize this term but his middle son, the one who’d made the honor roll and was now a drunk, would. He was a writer of fantasy novels. Wizards were said to have familiars, magical extensions of their souls in animal forms. If the middle son ever actually wrote a book it would have lots of wizards with familiars and elves and a grand quest against evil rulers. But he didn’t like to write as much as he liked to drink and eat pills. These were most exciting to him.
Grandpa heard the crunching of the cars in the front driveway. He heard voices, because sometimes vampires could assume the voices of men. He was not scared. There were five shots in the rifle. He had cleaned and reloaded it many times. It had been four summers since he’d fired at the coyotes but he still cleaned the gun faithfully. He noticed that one of the wheels on the tractor was muddy. The farmhands were supposed to clean it every day, but they’d neglected it. Grandpa never bothered to scold them anymore. He preferred to take care of things himself.
They were walking around the house, some probably floating. So he wouldn’t be able to hear them approaching. But he was ready. He knew all the old tales of garlic and crosses and all the ways you were supposed to deal with vampires. But he didn’t grow garlic on his farm and he was not a Christian so he had no access to a cross. He would have to make due with what he had. His floppy hat rested up on the top of his head so his face was visible. A tear fell down his cheek. But he was not sad. He was ready. Because the vampires can’t win, they can’t keep winning.