Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Black-Eyed Susan

The Doomed—regard the Sunrise
With different Delight—
Because—when next
it burns abroad
They doubt to witness it—

--Emily Dickinson

I had trailed my prey to an old abandoned warehouse near the tracks, not more than a half hour before sunrise, as darkly purple clouds hung low in the paling eastern sky. I've seen the inside of too many old abandoned warehouses near the tracks. I expected this one to be no different from any of the others, and like many of the others, somewhere inside it was a thing I would have to kill, if it didn't kill me first. There were times when I didn't really care which happened. This time, though, I hoped I would live a little longer.

The old roof was falling in and weak moonlight slatted though a multitude of ragged rectangles where there had once been sheets of tin. Dry, faded weeds had somehow cracked through the concrete floor and stood drooping and scattered confusedly in the dim light, as if wondering how they had ever managed to grow there. Here was an empty shelf that might have once held lunch boxes, there a worn set of tracks leading to a large cargo door, permanently closed with a rusted chain. An open can, half filled with congealed paint. A radio with a broken antenna. A flattened soccer ball with a crushed face gaping up toward the moon. There was a conspicuous absence of graffiti. This was a place even taggers feared. I pulled the big pistol from its shoulder holster under my vest and stood, sniffing the air, looking for signs, listening for movement.

I found her hiding behind a makeshift shelter made of a stack of rotted wooden pallets and a few sacks of some kind of foodstuffs--flour or grain or something. The ancient, moldy sacks still lay scattered around like bloated dead bodies that refused to decay. Small noises rustled and skittered in the shadowy corners and a gray shaft of twilight fell across her eyes--her dead eyes. Eyes animated by something that was not life; eyes darkened with something that was not a soul. Eyes that told only of fear and hunger and terrible experience. She wore a filthy knee-length dress that must have once been the soft color of the morning sky, decorated with daisies. A tattered red ribbon was tied around her waist and I took a guess that she had once been less than ten years old.

"I won't do it anymore," she said plainly. For an instant I thought she was going to begin bargaining with me; I was sure she saw death in my eyes. I saw only grim resignation in hers. "I can't do it anymore," she spoke again.

Her once-blond hair was matted and filthy with dirt and blood and probably hadn't felt the comforting tug of a brush in decades. She had once been young--so young. Something broke inside of me. I put the gun away and asked her for her name.

"Susan," she said slowly, after a long pause. "I think it was Susan."

I was surprised into silence, and had no reply. She had referred to herself in the past tense. I had never heard one of her kind do that before.

"What's your name?"

I did something I rarely do. I told her my first name. "Paul," I said.

"Oh..." she began, and paused again. Then: "Like the one from the Bible."


"I remember going to Sunday school a long time ago."

"So do I." I said it without thinking.

"I miss the sunshine," she said suddenly. She fixed her dark eyes on mine. "You know that song, 'Walking On Sunshine'? That's my favorite song."

"I remember it," I answered. "But I haven't heard it in a long time."

"Really?" She seemed confused. "They've been playing it on the radio a lot." She looked away into the darkness again. "But maybe that...was a long time ago. It's hard to remember."

I couldn't think of anything to say. Just a girl, hiding in the dark, covered with filth and smelling of blood. I had never met such a child before. I don't know why some people become blood-eaters and others don't, but I had never seen one so young before. She must have become undead at least thirty years before.

"I want to see the sunshine again."

My throat closed and I gulped. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

"Sunshine will kill you," I said frankly.

"I know."

Silence closed in on us again, silence and the wet heat of the summer twilight. Sweat built up on my forehead and I wiped it off with my sleeve. A rat crept timidly out of the darkness and she sat up and glared at it with a moment of ferocious intent, then collapsed and said again, "I won't do it anymore."

Of all her kind that I had seen and brought to a final and full death, I had never seen one that refused their own hunger. My throat clenched again and I coughed to avoid sobbing.

"Do you know any stories?" she asked.

"Stories?" It seemed such an incongruous question.

"I'd like to hear a story about sunshine."

"I...sunshine...?" I couldn't think. "I don't know any stories."

"I wish you did."

"Well..." And then from somewhere there came a story. Maybe I had heard it as a child. I don't know.

"A long time ago, when the earth was young and things weren't quite sorted out all the way yet, the sun shone white."

I thought I saw the ghost of a questioning smile play through the hungry pain around her lips.

"White," I repeated. "Because the sun thought that white light would be the best thing to drive away the darkness of night. But it was a harsh light. It was too clear, too bright. It made hard shadows and hurt the eyes of the young things that played on the earth back then. The trees and the flowers tried to huddle away from it, because it hurt them."

I thought her smile had begun to fade.

"So the sun decided to change it's color," I continued. "So it turned blue. But this somehow seemed worse. It made the sky a sad, dark color that looked like it was always going to rain. The bluebonnets and the bluebells liked it, for a little while, until they realized that if everything was blue, they lost some of their beauty."

Her smile came back. A little. I thought.

"So then the sun turned red. It thought maybe the roses would like that, and roses are some of the most beautiful flowers there are. But the roses didn't care. They were always so somber and morose, and seemed to like the moonlight better anyway. The sky turned a strange color that frightened the other flowers and the people were afraid of the dark reddish shadows that followed them everywhere."

Her smile faded again. I thought my story was going to fail.

"But then the sun changed to yellow. The fields full of wild yellow flowers suddenly stood up straight and looked at the sun. They kept their faces turned toward it all day long and when the sun finally set, they drooped sadly until the next morning when the sun rose again. Then the wild yellow flowers turned their faces toward it again and kept looking at it all day as it traveled across the sky. The shadows were just the right kind of warm, friendly darkness, and the sky turned blue which pleased the bluebonnets and the bluebells. The trees stretched their leaves up toward the warm yellow light, and the sun knew that it had turned just the right color." I paused. "That's why sunflowers are called sunflowers, and that's why the sun shines yellow."

"That's a nice story." She smiled. Through all the pain and sadness and hunger and decades of living death, she smiled.

"I want to see the sunshine one more time," she continued weakly. I reminded her that it would mean her death. "Can you help me see it?" she went on as if I hadn't said anything. "I'm too weak to walk."

"Sure." And I lifted her in my arms. I think saying I was wary would be a gross understatement. I lifted a blood-eater in my arms. But I sensed no malice in her, only helplessness and sorrow.

Her frail body was well past the edge of starvation and so light and thin that she seemed to be made of paper. I carried her outside just a few minutes before sunrise and placed her on the ground gently--I was half-afraid she would crumple or tear if I didn't handle her carefully. She said nothing more, but grimaced once as the sunlight touched her and then smiled--a smile somehow full of the life that she had been cheated of. The smile of a little girl. No more hunger, no more fear, no more years of terrifying immortality. Just a smile. A few minutes after that, there was nothing left of her but a smear of dust on the ground.

I gathered up what was left of her and drove a few miles outside town where I scattered the dust of her body in a field of wild sunflowers. On the way home the sun seemed to shine a little brighter, but maybe that was only because I was thinking of her smile.


  1. I've looked forward to your next installment since the moment I finished the last one. Thank you.