Halloween Ghost Story Contest -- 2002
Adult Winners

Second Place

Our second place winner in the Adult category is Saugonian Stephen R. Wilk. Mr. Wilk has various prior publications including his book Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, and has won this contest before, both last year and way back in 1998.

The Strength of the Vampire...

Stephen R. Wilk

David Fallon was eleven years old, at the top of his sixth grade class, a Webelos scout on the cusp of becoming a Boy Scout, and a mature, level-headed boy. He was not given to flights of fancy in things that mattered, despite his love of Monster Movies, Role-Playing Games, and the Internet. When Bruce Enroy had slashed his thumb down to the bone in Craft class with the Exacto-Knife, David had coolly wrapped paper towels around it and applied pressure until Mr. Borin came to take over. So it was a matter of some concern to David that he was convinced that Mr. Belasco, his next-door neighbor, was a vampire, and that Mr. Belasco was slowly killing Mrs. Cooley down the street.

The street they lived on was a comfortable side road in the town of Saugus, Massachusetts, close enough to Boston to feel the hum of the city, but far enough not to hear it. Gothic blood-sucking monsters didn't belong in this wooded setting, with Route 1 not a mile away. Nevertheless, David knew what he saw, and it didn't admit of another explanation.

Mr. Belasco had come over from Eastern Europe -- but not from Translvania, of course -- a couple of years ago, and had moved into Mr. Polito's old house all by himself. Being from that part of the world, having a name that began with "Bela--", and being a recluse seemed to be his only qualifications for vampirehood. Mr. Belasco walked the streets in the daytime, didn't flinch when he walked by the churches, with their crosses atop the spires, and he cast reflections in the shop windows. He had been seen eating at the Venizia Restaurant, where they put garlic in the salt shakers. He didn't look at all like Bela Lugosi or Frank Langella or Christopher Lee or that guy in Shadow of the Vampire. He looked and acted like any ordinary human being. But he kept to himself in that dark house, so the kids at school told stories about him. They giggled about him when he wasn't around, but hushed up when he came by.

David didn't put any stock in the stories, but he knew what he saw. Like most boys his age, he has his hideaway, his knuckerhole, where he could be by himself and look out unseen on the world. In his case, it was the tree by the side of his house. Irregular growth had given it ripples that formed a natural staircase up the trunk, which his sneaker soles would just grab if he pulled himself up using the branches. Several feet up the main trunk broke into four great branches, leaving a natural nest that would comfortably hold a boy. Leaning against the most vertical bole, he could look out through the few breaks in the leafy covering and spy on the street.

He had seen the Police pull over and impound someone's car. He'd seen couples walking hand in hand, and with hands in each other's back pockets. One time he thought he saw a drug deal, amazed that such a thing could take place within sight of his house. And he saw Mr. Belasco with Mrs. Cooley.

At first they appeared to be simply talking, but after a while she seemed to get tired, or something, and Mr. Belasco put an arm around her and lead her into the bushes nearby. When they emerged, she went on her way, dazed and shaken, usually back to her own home. At first, he thought he'd seen an illicit affair. But something about it didn't seem right. Mrs. Cooley always looked lost and drained when she emerged. They never said goodbye. One time David had climbed down and run after her on the street. She was staring blankly off into space and moving mechanically.

Still, adults did strange things. He'd heard about how his parent's friends, the Pelsches, had broken up because one of them was seeing someone else. David took his father's high-power binoculars with him into the tree, and the next time he was lucky enough to see what went on. Mrs. Cooley seemed normal at first, but she became like a zombie when Mr. Belasco touched her. There was no one else in sight when he did so, and Mr. Belasco scanned the street before he took Mrs. Cooley in hand and went into the bushes. David was high enough to see beyond the screen of the bushes, to see what happened there through the binoculars. Mr. Belasco immediately opened his mouth and bit down on Mrs. Cooley's neck. There was no lovemaking in that bite -- it was an attack, pure and simple. Mr. Belasco's hands didn't wander, and Mrs. Cooley didn't respond. She was a rag doll until Mr. Belasco stopped and pulled her back upright again. She was rubbery on her legs , and he rubbed her back a bit, like they did at the Red Cross when his mom gave blood. And then, after Mr. Belasco glanced left and right, he propelled Mrs. Cooley out of the bushes toward her house.

David saw this happen several times, and couldn't believe his eyes. Was this some game they were playing? Did Mrs. Cooley like pretending she was being ravished by a vampire? He had looked at her neck after one of these attacks, but there were no punctures, not even a mark. Then, last week, an ambulance came for her, and took her to the hospital. Anemia, they said.

David was no fool. He knew that this sounded exactly like the way Dracula had bled Lucy Westenra dry, but he knew that these things didn't really happen. Mr. Belasco must be some kind of sex maniac. But he couldn't figure out how to tell his parents, or the police, so they'd believe him. "The strength of the vampire is that no one will believe in him," as von Helsing said in the movie.

And then he saw Mr. Belasco dragging Peter Grant's older sister into the bushes. Now that Mrs. Cooley was in the hospital...

He told Peter about it, leaving out the vampire parts. Peter told him he was crazy, and not to say those kind of things about his sister, and that was the end of that.

And now Mr. Belasco was coming over more often to ask questions or to borrow things. And always when David's mom was home alone. And that was when David realized he would have to do something.

You kill a vampire by driving a stake through its heart. He'd seen that in a lot of vampire movies. But they got it wrong. David had read Bram Stoker's book, and when he got to the part about driving a stake through Lucy's heart he had to stop and go back to see if he got it right. The stake wasn't the dainty tent peg they showed in the movies, it was a tree -- three inches in diameter and three feet long. He'd never get near Mr. Belasco with something that big. He'd even have a hard time pounding it in by himself.

Assuming that he even tried to do it. Convinced though he as that Mr. Belasco was a vampire, or something worse, there was still a nagging doubt at the back of his mind. What if he was wrong? David wasn't sure he could go through with it even if Belasco was a vampire.

He paced over it for days. He sat in the tree and contemplated Mr. Belasco's house, watching his routine. He heard about how Mrs. Cooley was doing in the hospital, and grew disgusted with himself for his inaction, then stopped himself when he considered the consequences. Something had to be done. It wouldn't get done if he didn't do it. Therefore, he had to do something.

He got the broken broom handle from downstairs and took it out back to the Stump. They'd cut the tree down five years ago, and the stump now served as a chopping block for the firewood. With his scout axe, he cut the stick into pieces eighteen inches long, then shaved each to as sharp a tip as he could manage, like giant pencils. According to the book, these should have been charred to harden the tips, but he couldn't light a fire without raising suspicion. He'd probably burn the stakes if he tried, anyway. Better to go with what he had. He got an old plumber's hammer, misshapen but with a heavy leaden head, to drive the stakes in.

Should he take anything else? Garlic and mirrors clearly wouldn't work, so he didn't think holy water or crucifixes would, either. But in the end he decided to loop a rosary around his neck, like a necklace, with the crucifix hanging down. He'd seen it in too many movies to leave it out. He decided to take a mini-maglite flashlight, too, and a pocketknife. Finally, he printed out three sheets using his computer. He folded up one and stuck it in an envelope on his bed. The other two he put in his pocket.

As for the time -- well, Mr. Belasco kept odd hours, and he always locked his doors. David had no intention of trying to get at him in the street. He'd get into his house, maybe while Belasco was in his bed (he had no illusions about coffins banked on Transylvanian earth hidden in the basement). That meant getting into the vampire's own house. At night.

David knew that he knew nothing about picking locks, and he shrank from the idea of breaking windows, even in so good a cause as this. Fortunately, he didn't have to. Tomorrow was trash day, and Mr. Belasco put out his trash the night before (even vampires like a clean house, he guessed). He went out the back door with the plastic garbage bag from the kitchen, went around the side of the house to drop it in the garbage can, then dragged this out to the curb. And all that time the back door, though closed, was unlocked. He'd seen it often enough from his tree. All he had to do was sneak in and hide, and be quiet about it.

It was getting into October, and it was getting dark earlier. A bit of wind had kicked up, too, and David was especially aware of it in his perch in the tree. Across the street the Halloween decorations flapped in the wind and threatened to come loose. Bedsheet ghosts and green-skinned witches with striped socks and pointy hats, hospital-bandage mummies and purple-skinned vampires with widow's peaks and opera capes. But vampires didn't look like that, didn't wear medals and diplomatic sashes and turn into bats. They looked like tired aging men, and they killed people. Slowly.

Mr. Belasco emerged from the back door, wearily juggling the overstuffed Hefty bag as if it contained the body of his latest victim. Once he got the door closed behind him he didn't even bother to carry it -- he just dragged it down the steps and through the yard, and around the corner to the garbage can.

David scrambled down from his nest , over the fence between their yards, and up the stairs as quietly as he could. The door pulled open with an audible creak, which he hoped Mr. Belasco hadn't heard, stepped inside, and pulled the door shut.

To his horror, the inside was brightly lit, and there was no place to hide. I've done it now, he thought. This is for real! Hide! There was a coat closet, and there were a few doors he could flatten himself behind. Not much else. Mr. Belasco was wearing a sweater when he went out -- he might hang it in the closet when he came back in. But he decided to risk it, anyway. Nothing else looked as good as a place of concealment.

There was the sound of the back door being yanked open, footsteps, and the door closing again. Mr. Belasco coughed, a wet cough, several times, then it sounded as if he was taking off his sweater. David held his breath, expecting the worst. But Mr. Belasco apparently hung it up somewhere else. The sound of one of the kitchen chairs being dragged across the floor away from the table. The creak of the chair as he settled in. The rustle of newspaper spread out on the table. There were long periods of nothing except the occasional cough or turning of a page. David began to get antsy. He had to move to keep from cramping and itching, but he didn't dare move in case the floor squeaked, or he bumped something. Couldn't Mr. Belasco go to the bathroom or something? And, of course, with that thought, David suddenly felt as if he had to go, too.

But Mr. Belasco just sat and read the newspaper, which seemed a very mundane activity for a vampire. David suffered in silence.

Eventually there came the sound of the chair being pushed back. Mr. Belasco got up, coughed again, and started up the stairs. As he approached the top, David relaxed. He wasn't aware of how tense he had been, and it felt as if he was melting. He breathed out, softly, in relief, and the lead-headed hammer that he'd thrust into his waistband got the slack it needed to slip through, down his pant leg, and hit the floor with an audible thump!

Belasco reacted instantly. The footsteps changed to a staccato tempo as he turned around and came back down the stairs. He stopped halfway down to listen.

"Who's there?" It was a confident threat, not a nervous plea.

Belasco continued down the stairs.

"Come out. I have a gun." That was a bluff. Nobody carries a gun to take out the garbage. But David was still shaking.

Mr. Belasco started going room to room, pulling open doors. David didn't want to move, because the handle of the hammer would fall to the floor, making a thump. But Belasco would get to the closet door, eventually. He was going down the hall now, evidently thinking there was a burglar in one of the rooms, so he bypassed the closet door. When he got to the furthest door, David would make his break.

He almost missed it. Mr. Belasco had already tried the last door in the corridor, and was coming back. David suddenly opened the closet door, and it shielded him from Mr. Belasco's view. He ran to the front door, and found that there was a deadbolt there -- the kind that needs a key to open. And it was locked. He pulled the door, anyway, but it was stuck fast.

He reversed his path, running past the stairs and through the living room to the kitchen, making a big circle around the center island of stairs and closet, where Mr. Belasco was still passing the closet door. Amazingly, because of the closet door, he still hadn't seen David. If David could get to the back door in time, he could still get away.

David reached the door and grabbed the handle. It still wasn't locked, but it was hard to open and he'd lost all his forward momentum stopping to open the door. Mr. Belasco, who had seemed so slow and so far away, was suddenly practically upon him.

His hammer was gone, but David still had the home-made stakes thrust into the left side of his waistband. He grabbed one with his right hand as he spun around and, holding it like a dagger, jabbed it at Mr. Belasco's chest.

If the tip had been properly sharpened, it might have done more damage. As it was, Mr. Belasco didn't suddenly become reduced to dust, like the vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The ragged point caught in Mr. Belasco's button-down shirt and deflected. The tip penetrated into the skin a little, but slid sideways as the impact twisted Mr. Belasco around. What would have been a puncture wound turned into a slash. The stake had slipped into the shirt until the shirt caught on David's hand, and the shirt then tore open down the front.

David had put all of his force into the blow, and his momentum now carried him forward and down. He fell and rolled, striking the kitchen table. Mr. Belasco twisted as he kept going toward the back door, and struck it with his right side, then dropped to the floor himself.

Confused, David tried to re-orient himself and get up, but couldn't seem to manage it. Mr. Belasco sat up, wide-eyed.

"VerDAMMT!" he snapped. David's mind was in a panic, but some small part of it registered surprise that Mr. Belasco's first oath had been in German, and not some Slavic tongue. Belasco pulled his shirt away from the wound and craned his neck to look at it. The cut started out as a middling deep hole near the center of the chest, just starting to bleed, and trailed away to a superficial scratch. He whipped the shirt off and balled it up in an almost instinctive move and held it against the injury with his right hand. His lips moved as he muttered something barely audible -- German, again, it seemed. He was staring at a point in midair a couple of feet in front of him.

David's brain was trying to overcome the lethargy of his body. Get out! He's gonna kill you! He thought to himself. But as he tried to get up, his feet kept slipping out from under him. How could he be so clumsy and uncoordinated at a time like this? He groped for another of the stakes, but they all seemed to be gone, strewn somewhere on the kitchen linoleum.

Belasco saw the motion and hissed at David "Sit!" (only it came out "Sst!", but David knew what he'd said). Mr. Belasco's now-naked upper torso looked odd. The hair was sparse, and he looked...knobby, somehow. Not muscular, but not flabby, but with weird knots of skin and muscle. David realized that he could not tell the man's age.

Mr. Belasco sat, breathing heavily and still muttering to himself in that alien tongue, still staring blankly ahead. After a while, he took the shirt away from the would an inspected it again. It seemed to be clotting. He looked at the stakes scattered on the floor, then over to David.

"So. You think I am this... vampire, hein?" There was a trace of accent, and one corner of his mouth curled up in an uneasy smile. David had thought that he was scared before, but now he stopped trembling, and felt his body go cold. Even though David had been sure enough to try and put a stake into him, to have it confirmed this way was literally chilling. He wished desperately that he was somewhere else. Real people who have been attacked by their next-door neighbors didn't act like this. They yelled and screamed and threatened. They cursed loudly or spouted obscenities or asked you what the hell you thought you were doing. Mr. Belasco was being quiet and conspiratorial, and acting like he had something to hide.

David tried to speak, but his throat was dry. It took a couple of tries, with swallowing in between, before he could get he words out.

"I saw you," he said, finally. "I saw you with Mrs. Cooley. In the bushes."

"We were kissing. It is a game adults play. You will..."

"You sucked something out of her. Every day. I saw it." Silence, as Mr. Belasco absorbed this. His eyes got the faraway look again. "Now she's in the hospital," David pressed on. "And I saw you with Megan Grant."

"I see. This is a fantasy you have. Just because I come from Eastern Europe, and some women like me. Do I disappear in mirrors? Do I care about that rosary on you? Do I burst into flames in the sunlight?"

"Megan Grant doesn't like old guys. She thinks you're weird. Her brother Peter told me. And you did something to Mrs. Cooley."

"If I did, then I can do it to you, as well."

In answer, David dug out the folded paper from his pocket and tossed it over to Belasco. He picked it up from the floor and unfolded it.

"It's a note," David explained. "It says that came over here and why. I left copies at home. If I don't come home, they'll find them." David struggled to keep his voice calm and even. This was his insurance policy, the one he'd hoped he wouldn't have to use. "I can scream, too. If I have to."

"Don't. Don't bother."

Mr. Belasco stared, concentrating once again. Suddenly he slammed a fist on the floor. "Dammt! Only two years! That's... that's nothing. No time at all, after all that effort."

"Do you now how old I am, boy?"

"Uuhhh... fifty?"

"Much, much older than that." He drew away the shirt again, and looked at the wound. It had stopped bleeding, so he put the shirt down. It didn't seem right, somehow. David looked closer, and saw that there were scars on Mr. Belasco's chest and arms. A lot of scars. "The world wasn't the same when I as a boy. I don't remember there being countries. There was the king, but he was far away. The Warlord ruled our lives. And nobody could read. Not even me. I couldn't tell you when it was or where it was. It was The World, and it was Then, and we were The People. That as all anyone knew. It was that way for a long time. Long time.

"I was different, you know? I'd get hurt, but I'd get better. I'd get sick, but it would wear off. I got older, but not weaker. But everyone around me got sick or hurt, and they died. I thought I was just better, or luckier. But I learned I had The Gift. I could touch someone and take the Life, the Spirit, the know the words élan vital?" David shook his head. "You know what I mean, though?" David nodded. "It gave me long life."

"So I had to move. People didn't like that someone should live as long as I did. So I changed my name and moved. Things were easier, then. No computer records, no registries. And people didn't live so long or know so much medicine. If someone found somebody dead with no marks, it was just the Hand of God. They didn't know heart attacks or aneurysms or food poisoning. It was just their time. So what did it matter if I fed, and there were a few more bodies? As long as I wasn't greedy, I could live well.

"Sometimes I even became a doctor, because I was the only one old enough to remember the herbs and the cures. And it worked out well for me. People expect the sick to be weak, so it doesn't seem odd that they sometimes took longer to heal when I was looking after them. But I only took enough to keep me going -- not to kill. In fact, without me they'd be dead. I saved more lives than I took, I think." He looked at his wound. There was no longer any blood or raw tissue showing.

"Now it's too hard. The police everywhere are too watchful. You need a license to be a doctor. The security services look into false identities. To become someone else these days, it costs. And to find the élan is almost impossible. You know where I have been? In the Yugoslav, the Balkan. In the middle of war no one notices a few extra bodies. It is an old trick I use, but it costs." He indicated his scar-crossed torso. The wound David had given him was almost completely healed now. "I was taking the last breaths of the dying. I was practically eating corpses, Boy!" He shot an angry glance at David. "I hate that thought as much as you. The fresh spirit has a flavor, a texture...and Mrs. Cooley was so young. She was full of Life. I drank too deeply of her. But after all that death in Europe, and then I was being so careful after I got here that I starved rather than bring attention. Feeding on her reminded me of the Old Days. People died young then, and what I took from them at the end was still vital. Now people die old, and it's not worth siphoning off."

"And Megan was younger..." thought David, aloud.

"Don't tempt me, Boy!" shouted Belasco. "You're very clever, but I might forget myself still. You have plenty of vital Spirit in you."

He calmed himself, and looked at the wound again. It was gone, except for the scar. Another scar among the many.

"Of course a stake in the heart would kill me," he said, matter-of-fact. "A stake in the heart would kill anyone."

He got slowly to his feet and threw the shirt into the empty garbage container. Then he took his sweater from the back of the kitchen chair and put it on.

"Come on," He said, I want to take you home. He extended a hand, but David looked at it, suspiciously. "Ah, I see. You don't trust me. I'll eep my distance. Get up!"

Mr. Belasco, dressed in his sweater, didn't seem so much like a vampire now. He walked around to the closet and got the lead hammer. "Your stakes, I keep. But this I'll give you back at your house."

Belasco continued on toward the front door, pulled out a key, and undid the dead bolt. The door swung easily open onto David's home street. "Come. You want to sleep in your own bed tonight, don't you?" David looked at him, still suspicious. "Come on, I will go first. No Tricks." David got up and followed him through the door. He felt a sense of release once they were outside. He was free of the vampire's house. He came up alongside Mr. Belasco.

So when the Trick came, David didn't suspect a thing.

As they were walking across Mr. Belasco's front yard, he suddenly shouted, very loud, "David! What are you doing. Come back!" David had no idea what was going on -- he was walking peacefully side by side with Belasco. Suddenly Belasco shoved him hard from behind. David had to take a few quick steps to keep from falling over. "David!" he yelled again, then threw the lead hammer through the middle of his front window. It shattered into a million pieces with a lot of noise. Lights went on all around, and Mr. Belasco chased David, who ran back to his house as fast as he could. He got to his front door, and was confronted by the closed door, just like back at Mr. Belasco's house. He turned to fend him off, but this time he had no stakes to stab with. He'd prepared himself for the worst when suddenly the front porch light came on and the door opened. David's father was there.

"What's going on here?" he asked. "David! I thought you were in your room!"

Mr. Belasco had grabbed David by his collar. "Your son threw a hammer through my window," explained Mr. Belasco, shaking David by the collar. "Five hundred and fifty dollars it cost me."

"David! Is this true?"

"No, dad, he's lying! He threw the hammer!"

"Listen to this! Why should I throw your hammer through my own window?"

David looked at his father to explain, and realized that he couldn't say a thing. He'd have to destroy that letter he left, if he didn't want to end up going to a psychiatrist.

"You wait right here," his father said. "I want your mother to hear this."

During the few seconds they had before David's father came back, Mr. Belasco whispered to David." That is to keep you busy for a little while, so I can leave. And to pay you back for making me move again. And remember, if you can't convince your father that you didn't break the window, how are you going to convince him about me being a vampire, hein?"

Continue to the 1st place story

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