Hoppy lay quiet on his bunk, cursing low in his throat. He did not scream: Too much noise would bring the guards and their unforgiving billy clubs. Crippled though he was, they did not mind beating him senseless and silent.
But as frightening as the guards were — as well as the other prisoners looming across the dim hallway — nothing scared Hoppy as much as the women clinging to the wall outside of his cell.
In the back of his mind — that part of consciousness that hides truths too bizarre to be let loose in the day-to-day thinking process — Hoppy knew that the woman was still alive. He knew that somehow, Anna Wright had survived beyond the night she murdered her husband and left with a pasty-white, snarling dog of a man.
Hoppy had never expected Anna to live beyond that day. The man with her, as she butchered her husband, was a predator — an animal. Hoppy could see it in his cold, black eyes.
Anna tried to tell him that night — a warning perhaps, but issued almost as an order: She was a vampire, now, a creature like the man beside her. Anna’s skin had always been pale white, her eyes dark and forbidding. But that night she nearly glowed, her skin as white as the flash of a blade in sunlight.
After ripping her husband’s head off, Anna left Hoppy and her daughter to face the police. Even after that, Hoppy never believed her vampire story. She killed her abusive husband, sure, but she was not a vampire.
Vampires are not real. They are nightmares and bad movies. Bela Lugosi and a cold sweat — that’s all.
They cannot exist. Not 15 years later, pale and naked, covered in grime, bits of blood and gore, hair matted and claws dug deep into the brick wall outside of his cell window.
Not whispering to him through the bars.
Someone else. Not Anna. She’s dead.
But the woman who hung two stories above the ground growled her name to him: “Diana Trees,” she said. “Anna is gone. Long gone.”
Hoppy could still see her, even though he curled into himself on the bed, sweating and crying softly, his eyes shut.
15 Years Earlier
“Maude? What are you up to? Where you off to this time of night?”
Maude stopped at the door and tugged at its handmade curtains. She looked back at her twin sister. “Just out to get some air, Jeannie. It’s hot in here — stuffy. I can’t breathe.”
A tea kettle whistled and Jeannie pulled it off the stove. “Don’t go by their windows, Maude. You know they don’t like it when you peer in their windows.”
Maude huffed. She waved a fat hand at her sister and narrowed her big, blue eyes. “I do not peer, Jeannie.” Maude stopped plucking at the curtain and swept gray hair behind her ear. “I heard screaming. I thought they might need some help.”
A tight smile creased Jeannie’s face. “Well, don’t help them none tonight. You know she said she’d call the law on you if she saw you out there again.”
Maude scuffed her heel against the floor and opened the door behind her. “She’d call the law down on me?” Maude snorted. “They ought to come get her — all that screaming she does. You’d think she’d get along with her husband by now.” Maude huffed again and slapped at a fly. “She knew what he was when she married him.”
Jeannie frowned and took a step toward her sister. “There ain’t no getting used to man like that,” she said. “He’s a drunk and a bastard.” Jeannie took a deep breath; the faded print dress Jeannie wore strained against her large breasts. “He ain’t no good, not for no woman. I heard stories about that man and what he’s done to women. He’s downright evil.”
The old Frigidaire hummed to life as Maude stood looking Jeannie up and down. She saw herself in her sister — an old woman stuffed into a cheap cotton dress with too much breeding and not enough good looks. After nearly 70 years, her skin hung in folds around her neck. Her neck had been graceful at one time. Now it was wrapped in wattles of fat. “A woman can get used to any man, Jeannie,” Maude said, rubbing her own neck. “You got used to that cripple, didn’t you?” Maude turned and was out of the door before her sister could reply. She snatched her cane from beside the porch railing and walked down the steps. Behind her, Maude heard the door jerked open.
“Hoppy’s a good man! You hear me, Maude? He’s a good man!”
Maude heard tears in her sister’s voice, but ignored them. Instead, she rapped the oak cane sharply on the path then braced against its stiff strength. The air was hot, stifling. “God, I hate this time of year,” she mumbled.
Maude stepped off again, tapping the cane lightly each time her right heel hit the hard dirt. Behind her, Jeannie slammed the door.
“She’s too damn old to be fooling around with that man,” Maude said aloud, rapping a trash can with her cane. “Ain’t no good going to come of it. No good at all.”
Stars shimmered in the night sky, and flies buzzed around Maude’s head. She felt comfortable at night. It was a time when she could see and not be seen. Though Maude told no one, not even Jeannie, she was ashamed of being an old maid of nearly 70 years.
It wasn’t that she had never had any suitors. There was Joe Billy, her first cousin, who proposed in a hay loft when she was sixteen. But that had only lasted the night, and the boy forgot his words of love and commitment soon after the sun rose.
And there was Tyler Grant, that country sheriff she left in Montgomery more than 40 years ago. Tyler had dated Maude through much of her twenties. But Maude had thought she could do better. Now, three months away from her 70th birthday, Maude realized she could not.
It was too late — too late for anything but watching others.
Maude made her way down the path by moonlight. Shotgun shacks and a cheap board house loomed in the darkness. Maude and Jeannie’s house was jammed into one corner of the dead end; trash cans littered the area. The sisters surrounded their house with azaleas, magnolias, centipede grass — anything they thought would grow. But the red clay claimed it all. What was left was scrub bushes and litter.
At the end of the path, two small houses squatted near a pile of garbage and junked cars. A toilet, ragweed growing from inside, glimmered in the moonlight.
Maude stepped off the path and into the mud that ran alongside. Shaking her feet after each step, Maude worked her way down to the first house. It belonged to Hoppy.
“Crooked little bastard,” she muttered into the darkness. “Gotta watch him every minute. Used to work the carnival. Can’t trust them people. They’ll steal you blind first chance they get.”
Using her cane, Maude slashed at the weeds surrounding the house, checking for snakes before she stood on tiptoe and peeked through a window. The curtains were drawn, and she twisted her body, trying to get a better view.
“Where is the little bastard?” she mumbled to herself. “He’s usually in there watching TV or stroking his damn–” Maude’s mumbling trailed off; she felt something wet on her leg.
“Maudey? Is that you?” The old man snickered. “Oh, Jesus, Maudey. I didn’t see you standing there. I’m really sorry.”
Maude let out a short yelp and spun around. With a crutch under each arm, Hoppy stood behind her grinning wickedly and fumbling with his zipper.
“The damn indoor toilet’s stopped up, Maudey. I just thought I’d step outside and — well. I’m real sorry. I just didn’t see you standing there.”
Maude opened her mouth: no sound came out. She dropped her cane and ran her hand over one hairy leg. “You…you!” Maude shook a dripping hand in Hoppy’s face. “You…my leg…my hand!”
“I got some on your dress, too, Maudey.” Hoppy laughed again. “Like I said, I’m real sorry.”
Standing half-in and half-out of the house’s light, Hoppy looked like a dwarfish, grinning toad. Patches of hair grew at random on his wide face and head, no more than an inch, sparse and wispy. His body was bent by a bone disease that had been arrested, but left him crippled.
“Come on in the house, Maudey. It’s not much, but at least I can clean you up and get you into some dry clothes.”
Maude backed away from Hoppy’s outstretched hand. “Get away from me you little bastard.” Maude bent and grabbed her cane. “I ought to kill you! I ought to kill you right here and now!”
“Come on now, Maudey.” Hoppy grinned; his teeth were ragged, but white. “Come on in the house and get out of that dress.” He squinted at the woman. “I used to run the girly show. You ain’t got nothing I ain’t seen before.”
Maude’s face twisted and she swung the cane one-handed, knocking one of Hoppy’s crutches from under his arm. The little man fell, his legs bending backward at the knees. “You little bastard!” Maude screamed, still wielding the cane. She struck him again, this time in the back. Hoppy howled in anger and pain.
“Maude! Stop! I didn’t mean it” Hoppy struggled with his other crutch, trying to get it between himself and Maude. “Damnit! Get off of me!”
“You worm,” Maude hissed. “You vile, evil-talking, little worm.” Maude hauled in a huge breath and swung her cane one more time. “God will punish you for what you did to me — for what you said to me. You’ll burn in hell for eternity. For vengeance is Mine-”
“Sayeth the Lord,” Hoppy spat out. “Not yours, Maude.” Hoppy struggled onto his back and stared at the woman straddling his legs. “The vengeance is God’s, not yours! Now get out of here and go look in someone else’s window!”
A thin, wailing scream cut through the night. Maude backed away from Hoppy and peered into the darkness. The cry came from the home next to Hoppy’s. It was high and piercing, driven by fear.
“It’s the child,” Hoppy cried out. “God help me, it’s the child!” Hoppy swung at Maude with one of his crutches. “Get off me you damn fool woman! Jesus Christ, the girl’s in trouble! Get off me!”
Maude swung her cane in Hoppy’s face her fat fingers tightly gripping its curved handle. “Don’t you go cursing me, you evil-tongued little bastard. I ain’t going to–”
Hoppy got his crutch under one arm and poked Maude in the stomach. She whooshed out some air, tottered for a moment, then sat down hard, crushing Hoppy’s useless legs under her huge buttocks.
“Damnit!” Hoppy howled and flailed at Maude’s head with his crutch. “Get off me!”
Maude closed her eyes and threw her cane up, trying to block Hoppy’s blows. In some small corner of her mind, Maude noticed that the grass was wet with dew, and she felt it soak through the thin material of her dress.
The screaming from the house down the path continued as Maude and Hoppy fought. It broke off at times, ragged and hoarse with sobs, then climbed again to wailing heights.
“Jesus, she’s hurt bad!” Hoppy threw his crutches away and clawed at his the side of his house. He found a loose piece of siding and hooked his fingers over it. His face, broken by fights during his carnival years, showed the strain as he tried to haul himself out from under Maude’s bulk.
Maude felt the movement, and noticed that Hoppy had stopped swinging at her. She opened her eyes. Though the screams surrounded her, Maude ignored them; Hoppy had his back to her.
The cane was hot and slick in Maude’s grasp. She touched its wooden curve, caressed its length and then grinned at Hoppy’s back. Digging the rubber tipped end into the ground, Maude pushed herself upright. “Well, you little bastard–” A scream cut through Maude’s sentence. She continued. “It’s time we settled this.”
Hoppy twisted his head, further distorting his features. “For God’s sake, Maude. The child!”
Maude grabbed the cane by its end. “You weren’t thinking of a child when you came to Jeannie, were you old man?” The screams died to a rasping sob. “You were thinking of yourself. You were thinking of your…of…your–.” Maude lifted the cane above her head.
“Maude, no!” Hoppy tried to twist himself away from the blow. He did not get far enough away. The cane clipped the back of his head and landed heavily on his left shoulder. The force of the blow tore him from the house’s side, ripping flesh from his fingers.
Hoppy howled and rolled onto his stomach, clutching his fingers to his chest. His sobs, his screams of rage matched those that had come from down the path.
Maude laughed and kicked at the little man’s head. “You defiled my sister,” she spat. “You and Jeannie…naked!” Maude kicked him again as he shook his head. “Don’t lie to me, you bastard. I saw you.” Maude raised the cane above her head. “I saw you!”
A sudden high wind seemed to slap Maude away from Hoppy. It lashed her face, cutting the old woman’s flesh white with its force. Maude fell back into the wet grass, losing her grip on the cane. She lay sprawled in in the grass and mud, shaking.
“Maude?” Hoppy’s rage slipped away. Maude was Jeannie’s sister, after all, and though he held no love for Maude, the look on the old woman’s scared him. “What is it, Maude?” Hoppy tried to pull himself upright again. “What was that wind, Maude? You okay?”
The old woman stared straight up into the night sky. “I saw something. Someone.”
“Help me up, Maude. The child is still new around here. Her parents–”
“Are dead,” Maude said. “They’re all dead.”
“Stop that talk, Maude. They ain’t dead.” Hoppy struggled to a sitting position, his hands curled and bloody. “Get me my crutches. We’re going down there.”
“A woman,” Maude murmured. “I saw a woman. Up there.” She raised a fat hand. “And she was flying.”
“The girl needs our help.” Hoppy flopped over and grabbed one of his crutches. “You coming?”
Maude sighed. “Her mother is dead, but she’ll be back.”