THINGS GO BETTER
By Gretchen Rix
No one ever died because they didn’t have Coca-Cola in their constantly grumbling stainless steel refrigerator, not even when they’d been trapped for a friggin’ week in their snug two-room apartment because of a rare and indefatigable snowstorm battering them to hell and back. Nancy blessed her luck she had bottled water stashed in the kitchen pantry, but water was a poor substitute for the kick-ass jolt a swig of Coca-Cola gave a gal. She wasn’t sure she’d survive.
She craved the salty succulence of a blob of devilled ham on a cracker, but everything went better with Coke, and there were no Cokes. She pictured one of the famous red and white cans in her head, as if she could conjure one out of thin air. Didn’t work.
What she called a pantry was really just a closet that she’d moved a yellow, chest-high dresser into when she couldn’t find any other place to put it. The middle drawer that didn’t fit properly and had to be jerked out of its groove held all her cookies and candy (and my, didn’t the chocolate aroma rise to fill her nostrils), held the crackers and canned cheese spreads, and the peanut butter and jelly (boosted from the Waffle House down the street). The Cokes usually lived right in view on the dresser top, where the bottled water now stood.
Nancy had it better than the schmucks below her who had twelve-foot snowdrifts bury their doors and windows last night, but she was just as trapped as they were. Frigid winds cut right through her like a knife every time she pushed her door open a crack to peek at the second-floor landing. She’d touched her own snowflake-decorated windows earlier and felt her fingers freeze to the glass. Snow was mounting on her doorstep as well, looking every bit as scrumptious as a huge dash of powdered sugar.
She had no choice but to hunker down. Howling winds rattled the windows while she read on her e-reader, but every time the lamp lights flickered, she panicked. If the power went off and it lasted very long, the toilets wouldn’t flush. Her electric blanket wouldn’t work. She heard another heavy chunk of snow fall off the roof and land with a clump onto her balcony.
A woman would have to be damned silly to go out in a monstrous blizzard to get a carton of Cokes. Again.
Nancy jerked her eyes away from the e-reader and gaped in surprise, her heart in her throat, pounding like mad. Whoever had just said “hello” had to be right outside her door. Last she looked, the whole bottom section of her apartment complex was buried in snow. How could anyone be on her porch?
Usually she felt safe up here. And private. But her flimsy front door was a mere twelve feet from where she sat. One thin inch of pressed wood was all that separated her from the rest of the world.
“Hello! Open the door, it’s freezing out here!”
And then they pounded half-heartedly on the window that looked out to the parking lot. The short plaid and green curtain she’d rescued from the sidewalk trash fluttered as if a gust of wind had invaded the room. She winced. She was going to have to open the door to them. It was a law or something. When weather turned deadly, you didn’t let stranded people die on your own doorstep.
The words flew out of her mouth before she could control herself. “I’m coming! I’m coming! Stop banging on the window!”
After screaming that out, Nancy bookmarked her place in the e-reader and carefully set it down on the side table. All was temporarily silent outside. She was reluctant to leave the romance she was reading, but there was that law. Didn’t want the cold getting in. Didn’t want to have to stand up and walk to the door, either. Didn’t want to know what they wanted. So she played a game with herself.
If whoever it was on the other side of the door dared to pound their fists against her home even one more time before she got there, then she wouldn’t open it. Or she wouldn’t open it more than a crack. Or she--
Pound! Pound! Pound! Bang! Bang! Kick!
A sudden rage swept through Nancy’s veins and she charged the door, her own fists raised to knock the shit out of whoever was out there. Gnashing her teeth so hard she felt one begin to crack.
Before she knew it, she was at the door and grabbing the doorknob. Then she had a premonition. Maybe she wasn’t being very smart. The doorknob had been so frigid it burned her hand. It wasn’t normal.
She carefully backed away, and with great effort she slowed her breathing. Before, she’d sounded like a blown racehorse taking its final breath. Now she sounded like a dinosaur in heat.
Her heart still raced. Her mind was like a frightened animal crouching in the back of a cave. She couldn’t think straight. The sharp odor of a sudden sweat permeated her shirt around the armpits.
This was damned silly.
She was acting like a frightened woman alone at home with a stranger at the door. It was probably only one of the neighbors. Maybe all they wanted was to borrow a cup of sugar. Hah!
She didn’t have to open the door. They could yell back and forth through it. She didn’t have to let whoever it was out there in. She’d be stupid to.
But it was a law, right? Didn’t bad weather trump common sense about taking candy from strangers, getting into cars with men you didn’t know, all sorts of situations? She knew it did. Anyhow, sounded like they’d probably bust the door down if she didn’t open it pretty quickly.
Nancy jerked open the door, at the same time reaching to the side of it for the baseball bat she kept there. The rancid whiff of old blood came wafting through the crack, and along with it the smell of newly-fallen snow. One rank, one crisp. Not a good combination.
Nancy’s eyes teared up, and her nose ran with sniffles. She squinted and rubbed her eyes. She couldn’t see anyone for a few seconds.
And then the unmistakable scent of piña colada obliterated every other aroma. Her mouth dropped open.
Her visitor was the vampire from down the street.
He smelled like piña coladas.
He had a carton of Cokes in his arms.
Nancy had a moment’s dizziness, then a brief moment of clarity. Though she’d seen this vampire from a distance every once in a while, they’d never met. How’d he know about the Cokes? And it was daylight. How was a vampire outside during daylight hours?
“Let me in!”
Nancy heard a hitch in the vampire’s voice that nearly drowned out the last word. His weirdly-tinted red eyes seemed to entreat her, but even Nancy (who knew vampires only from the old movies she watched on TV) understood that vampires didn’t beg. It was a ruse.
Hell no she wasn’t going to let him in!
This was one of the vampires from down the street. At her door.
The animal part of her brain in the very back of her head wouldn’t let her deny that.
Her heart kicked into high gear once again, leaving her short of breath. And it was the oldest of the bunch out there. The one who had the platinum blond hair that went with age. And the implacably cold eyes of a born killer.
Or maybe an unborn killer. Born again killer?
He could only come inside if she invited him. It was the rule.
But he had a carton of Coca-Cola in his arms. And she’d run out of them a day ago. Was planning on an excursion to the corner store to restock her stash. Despite the snowstorm. Had to. Before her withdrawal symptoms became acute.
When the vampire smiled, it didn’t reach his eyes. Nancy was suddenly reminded of the Jaws shark from the film. The scene where you saw all the flesh caught in its teeth as it snapped its way to the doomed fisherman kicking at it with all his might.
The vampire snapped his mouth shut. His lips couldn’t completely conceal the incisors hanging down. Or his blood-covered teeth. He covered his mouth with his free hand and jiggled the canned soda water at her.
Nancy realized with a jolt that he’d just read her mind.
The vampire put his hand out in an unmistakable gesture meaning No, don’t do that just when she slammed the door in his face.
To her horror, the latch didn’t engage. The door bounced back from its frame and hit her hard on the right knee. The resulting jolt was like an icepick through her kneecap. Nancy would have fallen if the vampire hadn’t jerked her upright using the tail of her shirt.
With all her being, Nancy prayed the door hitting her hadn’t drawn blood. Please, please, no blood. The vampire would be all over her if he scented blood.
She kept her eyes closed, as if that ever did anyone any good. Didn’t realize half her shirt had disappeared with a sharp rip.
The vampire laughed.
As with any of the undead, there was naturally no exhalation of breath. But he did exude scent, and a lot of it went up Nancy’s nose just then.
Nancy sneezed, then sneezed again, suddenly realizing why the vampire could walk about in the sunlight, and why she’d been smelling piña coladas. It was so absurd that she forgot the pain in her knee.
Her neighbor had slavishly covered his face and neck with sun block. Piña colada scented sun block.
“And there are clouds covering the sun,” he interjected, holding her upright with one hand. “Not much sunlight getting through. And for emergencies, I’ve got this parasol.”
Nancy noticed the pastel pink and blue Japanese-style parasol that he’d leaned against her one living potted plant. Pansies most often survived snow storms, even pansies thoroughly frozen solid as hers were. That’s why she’d left them out on the porch. Not to prop up his pseudo-umbrella.
The vampire huffed, which Nancy took for disapproval.
“We can talk out here, then,” he conceded. “You’d be warmer in your own home, though, especially now that your shirt tore.”
Her shirt tore?
Nancy carefully took stock. Her whole back was exposed to the biting wind coming up from the lower block of her apartment building. She’d been shuddering from the cold the past few minutes but hadn’t realized it.
The front part of her shirt remained mostly intact, serving like a bib in a seafood restaurant. An ancient vampire had her in his arms trying to bribe her into doing something by dangling precious Coca-Cola in her face.
Then he jiggled the Coke carton at her again.
“These are going to freeze as well, Miss Popsicle. Though it’s fun watching the cans bloat, if that’s what you want to do, but they never taste right after they’re frozen. Don’t want to think what’s going to happen to you if you don’t warm up pretty soon.”
With his chilly tone and his amused stare, the prospect of that whole carton of Cokes at her doorstep wasn’t so seductive.
Or so Nancy told herself as she tried tearing her eyes off them.
She returned to studying her neighbor’s face. She wanted a Coke so badly she could taste it. But she couldn’t even imagine tasting one with the overwhelming piña colada smell in the air.
“Okay,” the old vampire told her. “Here, the Cokes are yours. Just for listening to us.” The Cokes had suddenly transferred from his arms to hers. Nancy stumbled.
Us? There was no us was there?
As with the Cokes, Nancy couldn’t control herself. She glanced behind her only to see her empty apartment bleeding heat through the open door. Looked to the side and saw no one, looked to the other side and saw a second vampire. A young woman. Licking her lips.
“Damn it, Mattie. You were supposed to stay home.”
“Saw she wouldn’t let you in, uncle. Let me touch her, just once. I’ll make her invite us in. It must be so cold out here for you.”
Nancy felt the vampire in front of her shudder. His eyes shone with amusement for a second time. Was he holding in laughter? He shook his head, ignoring the female vampire to address Nancy.
“We need your help, human. None of us is going to hurt you. But we can’t keep you from hurting yourself. If you choose to shiver out here in the snow, so be it.”
That was when Nancy heard the cries of the neighbors below her for the first time. She blanched as white as the snow. Some other vampire must be attacking the Franklin family! They were all dying, and she’d be next!
Her captor turned his attention back to the female vampire.
“Take care of it, Mattie. I’m tired of hearing them calling for help. Seems our heroine here likes to jump to lurid conclusions. Make sure you find a plastic shovel. Use the top of that trash can over there. Make a game of it. You’ll get your reward. I’ll give you to the count of ten.”
Nancy listened to the vampire count back to one from ten, never noticing the absence of the female vampire until she returned right when he uttered, “One!”
Nancy’s noisy neighbors from below fell out of their door and scrambled out into the parking lot as if they’d been trapped by the snow for a week. It had only been two days. Sheesh! She ventured a look at them from around the vampire’s shoulder. They looked the way they always did. No dripping blood. No puncture wounds.
She was surprised that they ran right back inside after looking up and glimpsing the old vampire holding court in front of her open door. The father of the family made a clumsy hex sign and aimed it her way. She thought it was the vampire he cursed. Surely he wasn’t giving her the stink eye. She’d have helped them eventually.
What had the female vampire done for them anyhow?
It was obvious when she took her eyes off the below-stairs neighbors and studied the parking lot.
Mattie the vampire had shoveled the snow away from their doors, windows, and the sidewalk leading to the parking lot. In ten seconds she’d left a neat lump of snow at the edge of the vacant field abutting the lot. Not showing even the slightest sign of exertion, either. And smacking gum in Nancy’s face as she repositioned herself alongside the older vampire.
The old vampire continued as if nothing had changed.
“We need your help, human. We’ve been watching you. You took great risks leaving the safety of your abode and crossing the snow and ice to reach the grocery store on the corner. For those Cokes, no less. Twice. No one else in the neighborhood has shown so much mettle.”
Nancy wondered if he’d said metal or mettle. It made a difference. She hadn’t wanted anyone to see all the concealed guns she’d taken along on those forays. That was why they were called concealed.
This was taking too much of her time. Her feet were freezing. She had goosebumps all over her back. Her knees had locked from standing in the same posture for too long.
She was getting bored.
Vampires should be vampires, not pushy neighbors.
Nancy was beginning to wish she had invited them inside. She intuited from the vampire’s tone that it was too late to remedy that.
What did they really want from her? Her blood? Or did they mean to make her go around to all the neighbors and trick them into coming out? Because she had too much mettle for them to digest?
She already knew herself well enough to realize she’d do a lot to save her own life. Some of it not so nice. But would she willingly sacrifice the people living below and to the back of her?
“Come out of the bushes, Mary.”
Nancy started. She’d fallen under some sort of spell.
Nancy stood in the cold, swaying back and forth between the vampires and her door like some sort of puppet.
A third vampire had already grasped Nancy’s ankle with her icy hand and anchored herself there before she had time for more than a token whine of distress.
Then Nancy calmed down. A child clutched her leg.
Okay. A vampire child clutched her leg.
This must be the little girl she saw from time to time. The one who routinely deadheaded all the flowers in the neighborhood with her long fingernails.
Mary wore an old green uniform that clashed unhealthily with her white skin. She smiled up at Nancy. Her teeth, too, had bits and pieces of what looked like clotted black blood stuck to them.
Vampires didn’t eat, did they? They only drank blood, right? As if that was any better.
“You were supposed to bring all the boxes with you, my dear.”
Mary gone. Mary back.
There was box after box after box stacked floor to ceiling on Nancy’s porch.
“We need them stored inside, good neighbor Nancy,” the old vampire explained. “The snow and ice will seep through in just a minute. You understand?”
“Give us permission to put everything in your abode, Nancy. You won’t be sorry.”
Without thinking, Nancy nodded a second time.
Stack after stack of small boxes filled her apartment. Nancy gaped at the what she could see through her front door. She was going to have a hard time fitting back inside.
“You see, we’ve had a quota to fill,” the oldest vampire told Nancy. “Now we have to deliver them. And get payment.”
He waved his two companions away. They walked to the bottom of the stairs and waited as he continued to instruct Nancy. Nancy continued to gape at her living room. She heard the old vampire as if he were far away.
“We have to deliver them,” he repeated. “But no one will take our calls. No one’s opening their doors. Not even when we’ve shoveled them out of the snow. We want you to be our representative. Everyone knows who you are. Mary, come back over here with your list of customers.”
With her mouth fully shut, little vampire Mary looked pert, cute, winsome even. Or else Mary was glamoring Nancy into thinking so, she realized. Trembling with cold, Nancy accepted the list and turned it to the light.
Even smudged with glops of piña colada-scented sun block, Nancy knew immediately what she was looking at. Had guessed as much from what she saw of the boxes.
Girl Scout Cookies! Her original bane before she’d gotten hooked on Coca-Cola.
Nancy braved a quick glance at the old vampire who candidly grinned at her. No doubt at all now that he could read her mind. It wasn’t clotted and browning blood she saw coating his very sharp teeth. It was that damned mint cookie everyone loved.
“But vampires don’t eat—” she blurted without thinking.
“This isn’t eating, my dear,” the old vampire explained. “It’s tasting. Goes nowhere toward sustaining us.”
“Just like your Coke,” Mattie the vampire observed, yelling up from the bottom of the stairs.
All M names. Nancy wondered what the old vampire’s name was.
Nancy looked behind her at all the boxes crowding her apartment. There wasn’t room for the dozens of cartons of Coke she wanted.
“We’ll help you deliver, Neighbor Nancy. We just have to stay out of view.” He dangled a second carton of Coke at her like it weighed nothing. She didn’t know where it had come from. He’d only had one when he arrived.
Nancy coveted this carton, too. More than she feared her new friends. She began weighing her options.
Most everyone in town was snowbound, she figured. Should make finding the customers easy enough. Collecting money might be a problem, though.
Vampire Mattie raced up the stairs with a roar. Then produced one of those little credit card slot machines that fit in your hand. “Cash, credit, or check,” she said.
Nancy couldn’t control her blinking.
The list was damned long. And all she’d be getting out of it was a carton of Coke? Or two.
“Hey, good neighbor. Things go better, right? You do us this favor, we’ll do you one.” Then the very old vampire gave her an intense once-over. “My name is Mordecai.”
Nancy nodded, fully aware she was saying yes.
Mordecai didn’t hesitate. The deal had been struck.
“Welcome to Team Mary. When you’re finished, we’ll have a little talk.”
For a second Nancy swayed from dizziness.
“Maybe next cookie selling season we’ll aim for two thousand boxes sold,” Nancy heard him tell Mattie. He sounded perversely proud of himself. And very far off.
The two older vampires had already vanished, leaving Nancy with just Mary to deal with.
Disappearing into thin air wasn’t normal.
Nancy wished they just walked from here to there like everyone else on the planet. But now she had a job to do.
With the credit card contraption in her jeans pocket, Nancy took Mary inside to exchange her ruined shirt for warmer clothes and to practice the exchange. There were so many boxes in their way they tripped dozens of times just moving about. Nancy was glad Mordecai was not witness to their ineptitude. It took them all morning to get it right.
They made their first delivery.
Nancy watched open mouthed with shock as Mary, with her mound of cookies, seemed to vanish in a streak of rainbow light. Then before she had time to close her mouth, Mary reappeared empty handed. And without the payment.
The boxes of cookies turned up fine wherever Nancy told Mary to send them because Mary never took more than she could hold to her spindly chest. But collecting payment seemed beyond the little vampire’s abilities. Nancy would have to go with her, and it was when Nancy tagged along that everything went amok.
It worked. Sort of.
But during the first delivery, when Mary took Nancy into her embrace in lieu of the cookies and dashed the both of them across town the same way as the cookies had gone, Nancy vomited over the both of them.
That was when Nancy mistakenly thought she was why the homeowner wouldn’t open the door to them. Mary knew otherwise and quickly embraced what had to be done.
Nancy knew what to expect now. Or thought she did.
The next trip, Nancy only vomited on her own shoes. And Mary disappeared herself into the background of the snow so the customers wouldn’t see her. It gave Nancy quite a start, but she mentally applauded the girl’s ingenuity.
Trip by trip, Nancy never stopped throwing up, though it became more ladylike. Sometimes just a dribble down her chest, like a baby’s burp. After a dozen or so more transactions, Nancy ran out of clean clothes and had to take a break.
The dizziness never abated.
But mostly it was the peripheral vision of Mary lurking in the background that had her constantly on edge.
Only the thought of Mordecai and what he’d do if she abandoned his ward kept her soldiering on. Sometimes she walked all the way while Mary shot herself across town and waited for her. And that did take forever.
By the end of the day there was only Nancy, a handful of cash, a few checks, and a blistering headache that didn’t go away. Mary had thanked her with a bloody smile and flashed away almost immediately when the last cookies were delivered.
Nancy’s reward for a job well done?
Two cartons of Cokes sitting on her deck.
All the snow shoveled out of her apartment’s driveways and sidewalks.
And the indelible memory of Vampire Mary showing off her favorite vampire trick.
The way vampires faded to invisibility in a snowy backdrop was so stupendously obvious that Nancy chortled and laughed herself almost into a heart attack just remembering Mary do it.
Lots and lots of sunscreen, naturally. Then lots of naked flesh.
Naked little vampire Mary was one thing.
Naked mature male vampire Mordecai would have been a whole other matter. Although Nancy couldn’t help wondering what he would look like with all that silver hair loosed about his naked shoulders.
We’ll have a little talk later he’d told her. Nancy shook her head in disgust. She’d better get her mind off naked vampires as soon as possible. She knew for a fact that he could read her mind.
Nancy grabbed the Coke cartons and walked into her cozy apartment to recover. Almost without thinking, she popped the tab on one of the cans and drank deeply. All the cookies boxes were gone, and her world had just changed. Forever.
All because she couldn’t resist the siren call of Coca-Cola.
Nancy stared accusingly at the red and white aluminum can that had caused her so much trouble. Then she shrugged.
She’d do it again, without regret. Now she had some new friends. Too bad they were vampires, but beggars couldn’t be choosers.
And a set of neighbors below who owed her bigtime.
Maybe next time she needed a cola fix she could just go downstairs and knock on their door.
She shrugged again, thinking things really did go better…
Copyright 2016 by Gretchen Rix
(P.S. This is one of my favorite short stories, and a good example of my writing)