by Will Raven
In the spirit of the Halloween season, here’s a spooky tale about a vampire that haunts a small rural town.
A pale sun rose against the aging willows and hillside graves at Whitby Cemetery. The gloomy morning mist had not yet evaporated.
The view from my car window was murky, but not so much as to hide the yellow police tape. Less than 24 hours ago, a caretaker discovered grave robbers had snatched the bodies of Edwin Brooks III and Lucy Wheeler. They had been buried three days before.
I learned that much reading the wire story that crossed the assignment editor’s desk at The Providence Times. As the paper’s police reporter, I had witnessed disturbing events. But this happened in my hometown.
With dread, I read on. I feared that Hemlock was once again under the influence of a sinister force—a monster I believe murdered my mother.
I asked my editor for a few days off to tend to family matters. He kindly obliged. I packed up, topped the tank on my trusted Plymouth Duster, and departed for Hemlock that night, stopping only once to gas up again and grab a cheeseburger at an all-night diner off Interstate 95.
I rolled into Hemlock at about six o’clock in the morning. I hadn’t been home in nearly 20 years. There was no reason to come back. Everyone I knew or cared about in the Godforsaken town had already died.
I still remembered the way to Whitby. There was no gate at the cemetery as the locals believed that the dead always welcomed visitors.
I parked on the cemetery’s shady side, near Winslow Creek where my mother is buried. I never knew my father. He left us when I was two years old.
Exhausted, I rested my eyes, if only for a few minutes, while the 225 slant-six engine idled. Soon the quickening dawn cast its light, giving me a much needed energy burst. I rolled down the window and took in the cool October air. Oddly, the birds were eerily silent at this early hour and a breeze blew crisp autumn leaves up the grassy knoll toward the disturbed graves.
I got out and walked up the crest toward the vandalized sites. I didn’t expect to see much, but I had to start somewhere.
I passed rows of gray tombstones. Glancing at the names, it dawned on me how many generations had been buried in Hemlock.
By any measure, Hemlock, Maryland was a peculiar farm community. Since the 1800s, many deep-rooted superstitions had been passed down. In those days, stories circulated that farmers believed their relatives rose from the grave to feast on the living. The bodies of suspected vampires were exhumed, their heads removed, and reburied. Then there was 1957, the year Hemlock went to hell.
I know many townsfolk believe in the supernatural and occult. Sadly, I am among them. I have my reasons.
Before my mind could drift back to the abject horror that still haunts me today, I came upon the criminal act that had brought me back to Whitby. The disturbed graves were separated by a single row. Among the original town settlers, the Brooks and Wheeler families are buried next to each other.
To the right of each empty hole was a mound of loose soil and mangled roots. And to my surprise, a young women about my age sat on the grass with her feet dangling down one side of the Wheeler grave. She looked rather sadly into the empty plot.
Her wavy black hair partially covered a white dress that contrasted nicely with a tan sweater. She held a still fresh red rose in her left hand.
“Hello”, I said, in a friendly voice.
The woman looked up. Not startled, but not at ease either. Her eyes fixed on mine.
“Yes,” she said, faking a smile. It was obvious she had been crying.
“May I ask if you know anything about what happened here?
“My name is Henry Abbott. I grew up here in Hemlock,” I said, taking two steps closer.
The woman stared deeply into my face, as though I were some rare exhibit.
“Did you happen to attend Hope Elementary School?”
“Then we were in Mrs. Walker’s third-grade class together.”
I gazed again at the mysterious woman, trying to place her gentle face. I drew a blank.
“I’m Carmen Shaw,” she said in a drowsy way. Her brown, melancholy eyes widened.
Then it registered. It was the girl everyone called Creepy Carmen. I had always felt sorry for her. The school brats teased her constantly. They called her a witch. I never did. In my book, it was all too cruel.
I flashed back to a time when we were sitting around a small table. With no apparent reason, the pencil Carmen held in her left hand started shaking. The weird sensation frightened her.
Then, as though a strange force possessed her, Carmen began sketching a boy’s face with fine detail. All the while her eyes remained shut as her hand flowed about the page. Suddenly the creative impulse stopped.
Carmen’s eyes slowly opened. She lifted her pencil from the paper. With stunning detail, she had drawn Tommy Henson who sat at our table. The likeness was near perfect. It spooked Tommy so much he ran off. We were all shocked.
The next day a school bus struck and killed Tommy. Other sketches Carmen did foreshadowed death. No one wanted to be around “Creepy Carmen” fearing that she might doom them to a quick death.
“Carmen, yes, I do remember you,” I said. “I know those school days were rough for you.”
“Did you think I was some sort of freak too?”
“I honestly didn’t know what to think.”
“Well, I survived, mostly keeping to myself. I felt like a stray cat that nobody wanted.”
“So the stories were true. You could predict death.”
“My mom called them Deathsations. But it wasn’t something I could control. And the few episodes I did have were spread over many years. Most sketches I kept a secret.”
“Carmen, I don’t know what to say. You must have been lonely.”
“I didn’t have an episode for many years. But then last week it happened again.
“Is that why you’re here today?”
“Yes, I sketched Lucy Wheeler the night before she died. She was my best friend. Perhaps my only true friend.”
“How did she die?”
“The doctors said it was pernicious anemia. But how does a perfectly healthy young woman fall so quickly to such a rare blood disease?”
“You suspect foul play?”
“I believe a vampire hunts among us. Perhaps the same creature that put fear in our hearts when we were kids.”
“Did Lucy have any fang marks on her neck?” I asked.
“That’s the first thing I checked at the funeral. No puncture wounds.”
“Might the marks be covered with make-up?”
“A mortician’s beauty work to hide the truth,” Carmen said. “Perhaps I was fooled.”
“What about Edwin Brooks?”
“I never knew him, but he was only nineteen and he also died of so-called pernicious anemia.”
“So why did someone snatch the bodies, coffins too?” I asked.
“My theory is that Lucy and Mr. Brooks are now vampires,” Carmen said, dropping the crimson flower in the empty hole and getting on her feet.
“Sounds like you know a thing or two about the undead,” I said gravely.
Carmen nodded. “Say, why don’t you stop by Blackwell’s Bookstore later today. 150 Strauss Street. I have something to share with you.”
“A bookstore in Hemlock, now that’s news.”
“It opened about three months ago. I’m the store manager. All those years alone, I did lots of reading and the owner was impressed with my knowledge of literature. He hired me on the spot.”
“Got any vampire books?” I asked, half joking.
“Matter of fact we do,” she said, cracking a smile.
The more I looked into Carmen’s warm face, the more I liked it. She had soft ivory skin, a narrow nose, dark eyebrows, and full lips.
“Okay, I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon,” I said. “In the meantime, I need to speak to the sheriff.”
“Old Sheriff Mercer won’t tell you much,” Carman said.
“Thought he would have retired by now. Do you trust him?,” I asked.
“Look, Mercer’s basically an honest guy, but he doesn’t want to stir up any blood-thirsty rumors about vampires.”
Carmen and I walked back to the parking lot, continuing our conversation about strange happenings in Hemlock. By now the sun had mostly lifted the early morning mist. We climbed into our cars and drove off.
Driving into town, it struck me how much it hadn’t changed. As I turned onto Nelson street, I noticed Blackwell’s Bookstore, with a large window display that showcased a collection of trendy books. A vintage sign with gold lettering bearing the store name stood out against a black wooden facade.
Just down the street was the Sheriff’s Department housed in an old red-brick building that had stood for a hundred years. A beefy man in uniform wearing a peaked cap with a gold star exited the front door. It was Sheriff Thomas Mercer.
He had put on a few pounds and still walked with a slight limp. He got it in a gunfight with a serial killer who escaped the state prison and was holing up in Hemlock.
I quickly pulled into the driveway, hoping to catch Mercer who was in a hurry. I got out of my car and started up the sidewalk.
“Hello, Sheriff Mercer,” I said calmly. He looked back with a guarded look.
“Yes sir, how can I help you?”
“You probably don’t remember me. I was just a boy the last time you saw me in 1957. I’m Henry Abbott.”
“Sue Abbott’s boy?”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“So what brings you back?”
“What would you say if I believed Hemlock has got a vampire problem?” I asked.
“Why do you say that?” Mercer said, giving off a piercing look.
“Two young people in this town recently died of a so-called rare blood disease. Sound like a vampire to you?”
“Sounds like a coincidence.”
“Then tell me why we have two missing bodies over at Whitby Cemetery?” I asked, pressing the sheriff for a plausible answer.
“Why did Jack the Ripper kill those women in White Chapel? No one really knows,” Mercer said wryly and walked away.
The sheriff’s answer didn’t satisfy me. But I had no real evidence to back my claim. I felt drained and decided to catch some sleep at the Skylight Inn. I never stayed there before, but it had been around forever so it couldn’t be all that bad.
Exhausted, I slept soundly for six hours, waking at five o’clock in the afternoon. I grabbed a black cup of coffee and a chocolate doughnut in the lobby, trying to shake the feeling that my internal clock had been turned upside down.
Strauss Street was just a couple blocks away, so I walked to the bookstore. The moment I stepped in the sweet smell of books hit me. I immediately became impressed with the store’s carefully planned layout, with immaculate displays and cherry wood shelves filled with neatly arranged books. Near the back wall, I spotted Carmen unpacking a box of paperbacks.
I approached. Carmen saw me coming and smiled.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Welcome to Blackwell’s Bookstore,” she said, holding three new copies of Pride and Prejudice in her hand.
“This is quite a remarkable little bookshop,” I said.
“Thank you,” Carmen replied. “I put a lot of thought into the look and feel, but Blackwell put some big bucks into the rich décor.”
“Who is Blackwell?”
“Charles Blackwell is the owner, a rather strange, older man who walks with a cane. He pretty much lets me manage everything, even the ordering. He only comes in once a week to see how I’m doing and sign the checks.”
“Where’s he from? And why did he move to Hemlock?” I asked with a reporter’s curiosity.
“He used to own a independent book store in Boston, but got robbed at gunpoint one night. And so he wanted to get away to the peace and serenity of a small rural town.”
“You say he’s strange?”
“Just the way he talks as though he’s a character in a gothic novel.”
Carmen’s description reminded me of a high school English teacher I had who sounded like a walking Charles Dickens story.
“You mentioned that you had something to show me?” I asked.
“Come this way,” Carmen said, walking into the back storage room crammed wall-to-wall with overstock and returns. She grabbed her purse that hanged from an empty magazine rack. She opened it and pull out a folded, rather-worn sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s your mom. I sketched her the night before she died.”
I unfolded the paper and there was a lifelike portrait of my mother. Her gentle eyes. A slight nose. A sweet smile. Long flowing black hair.
“You had this all this time and never let anyone know?,” I asked, a bit bewildered.
“What was the point?” Carmen said. “It would only bring me heartache.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it in a negative way.”
Carmen took a deep breath. “It’s funny how I met your mom only once. She saw me fall off my bike outside school one day and helped me up.”
“That was my mom, a good and decent woman.”