This is a completely new story with a new character. It is my second response to the challenge to take Liam from the ‘Doc Salvages the Past’ and tell his story from his point-of-view. In this narration I let the characters take off and the story morphed. The Donner Memorial State Park remains the setting. The story is appropriate for October – I hope that you enjoy it!
I sit in Dad’s hospice room holding his hand. The room is cozy, more like a private home than an institution. There is even a photograph of Dad with us, his three sons, standing in front of the Donner Memorial State Park monument on his bedside table. Dad and I enjoy the room’s calm, until Vanya arrives. When she makes her uninvited, unexpected entrance I groan. She looks the same as usual, which is to say, ageless and dead-beat gorgeous. She is skinny and moves, or glides, with silent grace. As always, she reminds me of Grimm’s Snow White; hair as black as ebony, skin white as snow and those lips, yes, lips as red as blood. If I had a magic mirror and asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” I might easily get the response, “Vanya is the fairest of them all.” Every time that I see her, she is dressed unconventionally, and now, is no exception; a floaty thigh-length purple top, skinny black tights and purple platform shoes. She murmurs a greeting to me, and Dad stirs. He opens his eyes and sees her. He grins, the first smile that I’ve seen in days. No, that’s not exactly correct. It’s more than a smile, he beams at her, pleasure oozes from every pore. Obviously, unlike me, he is delighted to see her:
“Yes, I came!”
She reaches and takes his hand in hers. Her finger nails are unnaturally long and exquisitely manicured with red polish. She brushes my hand aside; her touch is electrifying but icy cold. A nurse enters the room. She takes Dad’s vitals, then beckons to me. We step outside.
“His vitals are much better. Earlier, as I told you, I thought that tonight would be his last. Right now, I think that I was wrong. Anyone can see that he is much better……….” Her voice trails off as though she is in deep thought, then she says, “Can it be that he is responding to her; and anyway, who is she?”
“An old friend.” I say, for I don’t know who she is. Is ‘an old friend’ a way to describe someone who we only meet when we take our annual 4th of July trip to The Donner Memorial State Park. Does it describe someone for whom we have no contact information. “Her name is Vanya” I add, as though this information might help.
I go back into the room and instantly get the impression that these two don’t want me with them. Vanya must sense my reaction, “I’ll spend the night with him. You may go home and sleep.” As she speaks I watch Dad’s face, he is nodding and smiling confirming that this is his desire.
The call came at dawn: “We are so sorry. Your Dad passed away during the night.”
I should have been there. I sigh and, full of sorrow, I drive to the Hospice. Vanya has vanished. Dad looks white. He is pale and shrunken, but his face is seraphic, incredibly happy. I sit beside his body letting my grief wrap around me as I mentally plan all the things which I must do. When I place my hand up to his face to stroke his cheek, I notice a spot of blood on his pajama collar and two red spots on his neck. I can’t be sure, but I know that I’ve seen these marks before. I don’t remember where, or when and decide not to say anything to the hospice staff; all I now wish to do is to follow Dad’s last instructions, cremation and ashes to be scattered at Donner Memorial State Park.
Vanya doesn’t come to the memorial service, but it is well attended. My two brothers are there together with our mother, who divorced him when I was five. Even my estranged wife makes it. Of course, Anna, my thirteen-year-old daughter, who has always lived with me, is also in attendance. She was especially fond of her grand-pa and is taking his death hard. I vow to myself to give her more of my time, after all I’m all she has. I invite anyone, who wishes, to join Anna and I on July 4th at the Donner Memorial State Park to scatter his ashes. Several days later, I drop by and the undertaker gives me Dad’s urn inscribed with his name in gold script. This is not what I requested. My instructions were something inexpensive, simple; this thing looks like a lidded version of one of the vases my mother filled with gladioli when she lived with us. Dad would have hated it; I accept it anyway because, obviously, Dad is past caring. I take it home and place it on my hall table in preparation for its final trip to the Park.
By the time that July 4th rolls around my grief has numbed; and there is a layer of dust on the outside of the urn. Anna and I decide to take our boat to enjoy the water, Dad would have wanted us to go on with our lives. I’ve booked our usual spot in the Splitrock campground. It is furthest from the visitor’s center and the location of the Donner Party’s fateful winter 1846/7 camp-site. I don’t want to be near the place where they starved and froze in the apocryphal blizzards of that winter. I hate even being near the place where they are reputed to have resorting to cannibalism to stay alive. In our more remote campsite we pitch our tents and turn-in early.
The next morning it’s there in the site next to ours. I stand in the dawn and stare, not at the distant shimmering lake but at Vanya’s camper. Just as in the past, she’s turned up during the night, and of course we didn’t hear anything. When Dad was alive, he’d hurry over to welcome her and so begin his hectic July 4th holiday. I remember how happy he always was but how tired he’d become and how it took several months at home for him to regain his strength. In those days, I assumed that it was because he would spend the days with us kids and then as soon as it was dusk he’d go over to Vanya’s and do whatever they did together. Now I come to think of it, I remember where I saw those two little spots before. It was on Dad’s neck as he drove us home from our holiday. I do not go over to Vanya’s, but Anna does. I wait ten minutes and then amble over to rescue my daughter. I am terse and rude but manage to invite Vanya to assist with the ashes.
We hike through the tall pines to a high overlook where Dad loved to come. The “we” is Anna, Vanya and I. The rest of the family and friends, including my two brothers, claimed other family commitments. I am annoyed but not surprised. For once I’m thankful for Vanya’s presence; she somehow makes the little ceremony more dignified. Although it is overcast Vanya wears dark glasses, a becoming hat, long-sleeved shirt and swirling long skirt. We say a few words and cast the light ashes into the wind. It amazes me that Dad has been reduced to this soft dust. I’d love to know how the undertaker does it.
In the afternoon Anna and a girl about her age from an adjacent camp site and I go surf-boarding. I drive, while they surf-board. Anna gives me the James Avery cross and chain that I gave her for her birthday entry into the teens. She tells me that she is frightened that it might get damaged or lost. I don’t have any pockets, and so I put it on.
That evening we make hot dogs over a camp fire. At sunset, Vanya joins us. I surprise myself by feeling a tinge of jealousy as she pays considerably more attention to Anna than to me. In the flickering firelight, Vanya looks like an unblemished teenager, one of Anna’s friends, although I know that she has to be over fifty. Some, like my ex-wife, for instance, might be tempted to kill to know her secret.
When it is time for Anna to turn in Vanya surprises me with an invitation to go for a short moonlit amble up the trail. I am so taken aback that I agree. The night is balmy, the moon full and bright, but I trip on a boulder. Vanya reaches for my hand, hers is cold but I take it rather enjoying the implied intimacy. I am becoming attracted to this enigmatic person and hate myself for doing so. We come to a patch of short grass in a clearing among the trees. Vanya, seemingly impulsive, suggests that we lie down and star gaze. I surprise myself by agreeing. Well, you can imagine the rest, one thing led to another and pretty soon we are in a tight embrace.
“Do you want to know why your Dad loved my company?” she hisses into my ear, her mouth so very close to my neck.
“Yes.” I murmur, for I am sure that she is about to show me.
She bites. I gasp in momentary pain but as my blood begins to flow I am raised to another realm. I am writhing in supreme ecstasy. As I twist and moan in pleasure, my shirt becomes loose and Anna’s little cross is exposed. I don’t know how Vanya sees it, but she does. She lets go, and the pleasure ceases.
“Why do you wear that? You mustn’t if we are to commune.” I reach to tear it off, but she restrains me, “You have had enough for now, maybe another day!”
I sit up and stare at her, “So you are a vampire?” I whisper, and she nods. So many questions run through my mind. I ask, “Do you always give such pleasure?” Again, she nods and I continue, “So that is why…….?” I don’t finish my question, as now I don’t need to.
We walk back to the camp-ground in silence but when we reach her camper, I ask another question.
“So why the interest in my daughter? You keep your lips off her, do you understand.”
She smiles her enigmatic smile, “Again, you have it all wrong. I mean her no harm. She is a virgin who hasn’t reached menses. I am near death for I am about a hundred and eighty years-old. I became what I am in this very place. Cannibalism, no, there was no human cannibalism but there were vampires they had to keep alive that winter. I was one of the Donner Party able to receive the vampire kiss and so here I am today. Before I die, I wish to prolong myself and transmit my characteristics to someone.”
I look at her searching her inscrutable face for a clue, “Convey what to her?”
“Convey her the gift of superior strength, the gift of immunity to human diseases, the gift of long life. I can do all this by one gentle nibble.”
“But” I stammer, “Won’t she become like you, a vampire, a lonely being thirsting for blood.”
“Like me, in exchange for blood, she will give pleasure beyond compare. She will pay her donors with a high. It is an experience which humans, like your father, will eventually wish to exchange their lives to repeat again and again. Think about it. Already you know that you will come back for more, and when you do I shall give you what you want, and you will give me what I want.”
The following morning Vanya’s camper was gone and the park was in uproar, apparently one of the campers took a midnight walk and fell into a cleft among the rocks. His body is mauled and a lot of blood lost. The park rangers speculate this to be the work of a bear or mountain lion. It rained in the early dawn, and footprints are obliterated. The police interview everyone, myself included. I do not share my concerns, they would surely ridicule such a strange story. It takes almost the whole day for things to return to normal by which time there is Vanya’s camper rolling back to its site next to our tents.
What next I wonder? It was easy to give the James Avery piece back to Anna and to tell her to wear it all the time, but I know that is not enough. I ponder deeply on the quotation attributed to 12-year-old, Elizabeth Kregan, in 1853. It is carved into a rock near the Donner Memorial statue. It reads:
“No one knows the strength of kindred love until it is tried.”
Is my kindred love being tried? Do I have the inner strength and love to save my daughter and forgo a repeat of the most unimaginable acutely addictive pleasure which Vanya gives?