As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time. so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…
(You can find Benjamin in Shades of Gray. This particular story takes place in 1972)
The Roockwood Inn was a roadside motel. The town around it had once been vibrant, but was looking forward to its demise. Somehow, the occupants hadn’t caught on yet, and still thought they had a corner on the tourist market. Even Benjamin seemed to think so.
The motel office was newly retiled, but no one had bothered to repaint. Behind the counter stood a doorway, closed off by a tatty blanket that served as a curtain. The smell of whisky and stale cigar smoke oozed out around the edges and left the office ceiling stained a permanent brown.
Through that door was a room as disheveled as its occupant. Though Benjamin called it his “living space” it was really a jumbled, windowless room with a dusty bathroom off to one side. There actually were windows, but they were hidden behind layers of cardboard, newspaper and masking tape. He was planning to renovate as soon as he got the money saved up, and when he did, the windows were going. Mei, the Chinese girl who looked after the place in the daytime and served as a part time housekeeping, couldn’t understand why he wanted rid of them. She argued more than once to save them, but he only shook his head and said the sun was bad for his complexion.
Benjamin sat in his usual spot. The ratty arm chair smelled like it should have been left on the curb, and looked like maybe it had been. The TV was as close to his lap as he could get it without having to hold it, so that he had one foot propped up on the table on either side of it. He watched the screen with an absorption born of years of television viewing and didn’t even seem to hear the first knock.
“Goodnight, John Boy. Goodnight, Grandpa. Goodnight-“
Benjamin clicked the knob and the television went off with a hiss and fizz of static. He cocked his head to one side and listened. The knocking was repeated.
“Who the hell is that?” he demanded, but the stale air didn’t answer him. There was only one way to find out. Using obscenities like booster fuel, he heaved his bulk from the chair and shuffled towards the side door. He had to stop and kick boxes of empty whisky bottles out of the way. No one used this door anymore, or at least no one was supposed to.
They knocked again and he grumbled a loud, “yeah, yeah,” as he unbolted the locks and jerked the door open. The outside light was burnt out, but he could still see the two figures, their expressions carefully neutral. The one in the front had short, cropped hair and dark skin, while his companion was a slender, willowy male with a reddish auburn mane. Benjamin surveyed them both and then demanded, “Eh? What do you want? Can’t you read that sign?”
“What sign?” asked the dark one.
“The one that says ‘use office door’!” Benjamin barked. “You want a room, you go around!”
“We’re not here for a room,” the visitor purred. Then, he smiled, flashing a pair of silvery fangs. Benjamin drew back a step, and the visitor took advantage of it and was quickly inside, his companion on his heels. “You know what we came for.”
Benjamin met the dark vampire’s eyes. They stared at one another; a contest of wills, and then Benjamin declared, “Look here, poker night’s Thursdays, Des.”
There was a moments silence and then Des rolled his eyes. “It is Thursday, old man. Check your calendar.”
They stepped smoothly around their baffled host and headed for the couch. Des tossed a week’s worth of mail out of the way and took its place. Benjamin trailed after them, ticking off the days of the week in his head. Thursday? It’s not Thursday – wait. The Waltons was on. Damn. The son of a bitch is right.
The bell over the office door tinkled, and with a few healthy curses Benjamin diverted himself in that direction. It wasn’t customers though, just Herrick and a bald guy that Benjamin didn’t recognize. Two strangers in one night. Ah well, their money spends the same.
He led them through the blanketed door and pointed in the general direction of the couch and some folding chairs. They seated themselves while he set up the card table and gathered up the cards, an overflowing ashtray, half a bottle of whisky and a beat up metal bucket that smelled like alcohol. Finally, he tugged his tatty chair into place and dropped into it. “We ready to play, or is there anyone else comin’ I should know about?”
“Nah, this is it.” Des shuffled the cards with a little too much expertise. “By the way, this is Marcellus. I said last week that I was bringing him.”
Herrick nodded, but Benjamin just shrugged. “Eh. If you say so.” His eyes landed on Herrick’s companion; a bald vampire who had a tattoo down one side of his face. “And who’s this?”
“Micah,” Herrick explained, as if the name meant something. “He’s what you’d call a new recruit.”
Benjamin lit a cigar and blew put a cloud of thick smoke. “That’s just what we need.”
“You’re not so far past new recruit yourself there, old man.” Des commented.
Benjamin snorted an answer and took a healthy swig of whisky. He swooshed the amber liquid around his mouth thoughtfully. He’d been one of them for damn near two years, now. That was enough time to lose the new recruit status as far as he was concerned.
Des dealt the cards and Benjamin spat the whisky noisily into the bucket. Marcellus cringed visibly, and Des shrugged. “I warned you he has some pretty bad habits.”
“Just because I can’t drink don’t mean I can’t still taste it,” Benjamin grumbled. “You got a problem with it…” he left the sentence unfinished, but the meaning was clear and it went something like “get the hell out, then.”
Micah fanned his cards casually. “I wondered how you planned on drinkin’ that. I learned the hard way that doesn’t work out.”
“Got sick, did you?” That was a mistake they said most newbie vampires made. Hell, he’d made it himself. You could get the stuff down, but you couldn’t keep it down. It was the same as when a kid swallowed something out of the cleaning cabinet. Your body knew it wasn’t good for you and sent it back where it came from.
“Fuck, yeah.” Micah offered a toothy grin. “That was one helluva night, though. A couple of ladies, a bottle of scotch and a jar of honey.”
Herrick surveyed his cards, his brow wrinkled. “Honey? What was the honey for?”
Micah’s grin widened. “If I gotta tell ya’, then it takes the fun out of it.”
“For the girls,” Benjamin explained. “But sounds full a shit to me. This loser couldn’t get two chicks if he waved money in front of their faces.”
Micah cocked an eyebrow. “How would you know? Bet the last time you even saw a chick was in 1965.”
Benjamin ignored him and went on. “I get losers like him in here all the time. They show up on the make with a couple of stoned out girls and act all macho. Nine times outta ten they pass out in a puddle of their own puke in the john.”
Micah opened his mouth to argue, but Marcellus held up his hand. “Is an evening of negativity necessary? Let’s just play cards.”
“Negativity?” Micah snorted. “You sound like one of those dali-lama-guru Buddha heads. We here to play poker or talk about the meaning of the universe?”
“We could do both,” Herrick suggested. “As long as someone else deals.” He glared at Des who only snickered. Knowing him, he’d dealt the cards on that way on purpose.
But, Benjamin’s hand wasn’t half bad. He traded in two cards and quipped, “There’s no meaning to the universe. It just is.”
“I disagree.” Marcellus fished a wad of money out of his pocket and counted out the opening bet. Benjamin tried to mentally calculate how much he had on him, but he wasn’t fast enough before the money was stuffed back into his pocket. “There must be meaning, or else there wouldn’t be organization.”
“You see any organization around here?” Micah waved his arm to indicate the room. “It’s just like us. There’s no order, or reason, it’s just chaos and you pretend there’s a plan behind it to keep yourself sane.”
“Us?” Des asked, as he counted out his own money under the edge of the table.
“Yeah, us. You know, vampires.” Micah rolled his eyes. “If nothing else, we’re proof that it’s all just random shit.”
“I disagree,” Marcellus said again. “Our very existence proves that there is order beyond the seeming insanity of the cosmos. You can’t imagine that we, as a species, just appeared by accident? We were crafted for a particular purpose.”
Micah folded his cards, the game momentarily forgotten. “What, like the next evolutionary step? You don’t buy into all that monkey crap?”
Des glanced up from his cash. “How can you argue against both evolution and intelligent design?”
“Because I ain’t from no ape. You can be if you want to-”
Marcellus cut him off. “No, we’re not the next evolutionary step. Vampires have been in existence since the dawn of creation. As old as man, if not older. And that is the proof of the design, and the proof against the chaotic evolution theory. If it was all an accident that hurtled forth from chimpanzees to modern man, then why has the vampire not changed, too?”
“Maybe they have?” Herrick suggested. “It isn’t like there’s anyone from that time left.”
“And how do we know that? Because you haven’t seen one?” Marcellus eyes shone with some kind of victory and he folded his cards as though settling in for a long discussion. “When was the last time you saw the sun? But you still know it exists.”
Benjamin didn’t bother to comment or interrupt. He just took an impatient swig of whisky, swished it around his mouth, and spit it loudly into the bucket. It failed to get their attention.
“That’s different. I’ve seen the sun,” Herrick argued.
“When? How do you know you really saw it and don’t just think that you did?”
“And how do you know that any of us are real?” Des added, amused. “Maybe we’re all just figments of a hamster’s imagination. Enough existential stuff, huh? Whose bet is it?”
“I bet I can prove who’s real,” Micah said with a broad grin. “Gimme your arm and we’ll see if you feel this.” He snapped his teeth together in imitation of a savage bite.
Marcellus smiled tolerantly, but made no move to return to the game. “Pain is only an illusion and proves nothing.”
“It can prove that your god damn foot’s been cut off!”
“No. First there is the pain and then you look and see that your foot is cut off, so the pain proves nothing, only draws your attention. However, there’s no evidence that what you see is real beyond your own experience, or that your reality and mine are the same experience at all.”
“Memories are like that,” Herrick agreed slowly, drawn in despite himself. “One person may remember that it rained, while another says ‘no, no, the sun shone’.”
“Exactly.” Marcellus tapped his cards on the table. “Each has a separate reality that is just as true to them as the opposite is to the other. If reality is not to be trusted to the eyes or the senses, then that leaves us with only the emotion.”
“Ah, but emotion is nothing but an illusion, too,” Herrick argued, getting into the swing of things. “It is true that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. However, your actions don’t necessarily correspond to their feelings. If I pick up this bucket.” He seized the bucket and Benjamin made a low, warning noise in his throat. “-and I toss it out the door, you may feel relieved to be get a break from the alcohol regurgitation, however, Benjamin will be mad enough to break my nose. To him, my actions are evil, but to you they were merciful. Meanwhile, the reality is that I neither planned to make him angry, or spare you, I simply acted.”
Benjamin jerked the bucket away and snarled. “Yeah, yeah. And there’s no ‘I’ in team. Can we get on with this, or should I kick the whole bunch of you out?”
“Your friend doesn’t like a thought provoking discussion?” Marcellus asked Des, half joking.
“No,” Benjamin answered for him. “I don’t. I like to watch TV, which is what I was doing before I got interrupted by a bunch of idiots who wanted to play poker. Only, we haven’t done much playing yet! So either get with it or I’m gonna go watch Ironside.”
The conversation died down after that. The cards were dealt, the bets were placed and by two am they were all sick of each other’s company. Micah and Herrick made their excuses first, followed shortly by Marcellus. Alone, they counted their money, and then Benjamin moved the furniture back while Des lounged on the couch.
“I assume you didn’t like Marcellus?”
Benjamin kicked an argumentative folding chair and shrugged. “Eh. I don’t care either way. He loses pretty good. So long as he shuts up and plays his cards.”
Des nodded and they lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Finally, he broke it. “You don’t suppose there really is some intelligent design behind everything? That there’s some kind of fate that made us all what we are?”
Benjamin rolled his eyes and plopped into his armchair, now restored to its rightful home in front of the television. “How should I know? It was a trucker woman with eyes like coal and nails as red as blood that made me what I am.” He glanced to the darker skinned vampire. “And I can’t say what made you the way you are, now, but I doubt it was God.”
“No,” Des agreed. “It was my mother.” He fell silent again, and Benjamin turned the television on. The stations were off for the night, so there was nothing but static. They sat there, lit eerily by the light from the television, both lost in their own worlds until Des snapped himself back to the present. “It’s been fun. See you next Thursday, old man.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Benjamin waved him off, and the dark vampire disappeared out the door. Benjamin stared at the television screen and watched the static bounce around, like ant races, some said. It never looked like ants to him. More like a blizzard. It was the same kinda blizzard that had brought that trucker gal into the motel. With her red nails and her black eyes. She’d been wearing skin tight jeans and been so full of pent up energy that she looked like she’d burst right out of ‘em. That had been one helluva night.
“And I didn’t even need any honey,” Benjamin commented aloud. He took a swig of whisky and spat it into the bucket. “Amateur.”