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"Old and In the Way"

by Wayne Faust


2016 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved


November is a cruel month in the valley. The bright leaves of October turn to brown mulch underfoot. Fog invades with deathlike fingers, covering rockrose and stitchwort alike with hoary frost. When you can see it at all, the sun barely hovers above the dark, looming mountains.

In a chilly bedroom on the second floor of a moribund manor house lay a very old man. He was sprawled upon an ancient feather bed, his granite face illuminated by the light of a single, flickering candle. His eyes were shut and his breath came in rasps. His body was crushed by threadbare blankets, torn sheets, and the weight of ninety-three years of hard living. Those years had contained more adventures than most mortals experience in a hundred lifetimes. But all of that was past and forgotten. Forgotten by everyone but him. Ten years ago he had still been amazingly vital, defying decay in all its forms. But now it was November and decay had settled in for good.

"Wake up, Uncle," a woman said, shaking him. "I brought you tea."

He opened his rheumy eyes. He knew that voice. It was his grandniece, named after...whom? His daughter? No, he had had only one child, a son, long dead. His wife? No, she was dead as well after years in an asylum from grief over their son's death.

She spoke again. "Lord knows, I should be the one who sleeps all the time with what I have to do to take care of you. Listening to your crazy stories, the same ones, over and over and over. Or should I call them fairy tales? Because that's what they are. And then having to wipe your arse every day and night. And for what? It's not like you'll ever get well."

And then he remembered her name and whom she had been named after. "Mina!" he croaked. His eyes darted towards the window where the fog outside was swirling in an opaque, gray mass. "Almost dark!" he exclaimed, trying to sit up.

Mina stifled a yawn and eased him back down. "Yes, yes, Uncle, it's almost dark. And you're afraid of the dark. Just like a little boy. But I'm already raising two little boys and I don't need a third. Besides, we have electricity these days, unlike when you were young and they needed torches and lanterns."

Through the floor the old man heard the sound of running feet and the clomping of wooden toys from the parlor below. "How long have I been out?" he pleaded.

She sighed heavily. "I don't know. Three or four days this time."

"Three or four days?" He again tried to sit up but his emaciated arms had no strength. "What is the date?" he asked.

Mina clucked. "Always the same question when you wake up. What is the date? As if that should make any difference to you. All you do is lie here day after day. Well, if you must know, it's the 18th of November."

"Mein Gott," the old man muttered. He knew the calendar and phases of the moon better than anyone alive. "The boys!" he said quickly. "Send them up here! You are all in great danger!"

"We're always in great danger," hissed Mina. "Every time you wake up. I should have let you sleep this time."

For the cold, hard fact was, Mina had finally reached her limit. The old man had simply become too much. Too many bedpans. Too many sleepless nights. Too many men in her life scared away by her responsibilities to this old fool.

"Here's what I'm going to do, Uncle," she said firmly. "I'm going to do nothing this time. No more hanging garlic. No more crucifixes in the windows. No more all-night vigils. Maybe I'll even leave the windows cracked open so you can hear the creatures of the night as you call them. And you know what's going to happen then? Nothing. Not a single, solitary thing. And tomorrow morning the sun will come up over the mountains and you'll realize what a senile old fool you are. Maybe your heart won't be able to stand the stress and it will finally stop beating. And at long last, I'll have a life."

The old man gaped. Mina had been talking like this for a while now, but clearly she was serious this time and he was more afraid than he had ever been. Not for himself but for the two little boys playing downstairs. Gerhard, ten years old, and little Ben. He loved them dearly, and they still believed. Either one of them could carry on the work if only given more time to learn. But his work was not for little boys. He simply had to stay alive long enough to teach them. They carried his blood in their veins after all.

"Mina, please," the old man pleaded, his face growing beet red as he again tried to raise himself up. But Mina simply laughed as she pushed him down again, a little harder this time. "I'm glad I took Karl's name," she declared, her eyes flashing defiance. "Even though he walked out on us after you scared him off. I'm a Zimmerman now. I'll never be a Van Helsing again! Once you're gone, that name will vanish forever into old and moldy books of scary stories."

Before the old man could sputter a reply, she stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. He heard whispers from outside the window. He had been at this long enough to know that there were things out there. And they had begun to move. Or were they waiting, still frightened of him? Did they know how weak he had become?

He felt a wild thumping in his chest and a fierce pain, radiating into his left arm. He clutched his arms tightly to himself. "No!" he gasped. In his mind he was already downstairs protecting the house. Protecting the children, they way he had done for so many over his long years. He had fought a solitary crusade, overcoming bone crushing weariness, skepticism, and the enemy, always the enemy. Creatures unimaginable except in your worst nightmares. But these were not nightmares. They were real as...flesh and blood. Undead flesh and undead blood. Preying on innocents like the precious boys downstairs...

He sensed the night coming on and the full moon rising. It motivated him to use his last ounce of fading energy. He rolled out from beneath the covers and tried to swing his legs around. Instead, he tumbled out of bed and onto the wooden floor with a thud. All the air left his lungs but he still managed to start crawling towards the door, eyes wide, drool beginning to leak from one side of his mouth, skeletal fingers scraping against old planking. He pulled himself forward, one agonizing inch at a time, head up, eyes focused on the sliver of light at the bottom of the door to the hallway. He had fought so many battles. So many. Surely he could do this just one more time. Surely he could overcome his own frailties. The lives of those two boys depended on him making it downstairs.

But it was not to be. This time his breath simply ran out. His head flopped down to the floor. His eyes closed. His hands were still poised on the floorboards like claws but they were no longer pulling him forward. He let out one final wheeze and his chest went rigid. A tendril of mist trickled past his now dead lips and ascended up towards the ceiling. His skin quickly began to grow cold and hard as granite.

Outside the manor house, the fog swirled round and round, blocking out stars and electric lights alike. As the night fell hard upon the land, a whole symphony of beastly sounds could be heard in the high, dark mountains. Moments later, an army of long-frustrated creatures crept forward into the valley, unopposed at last.




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