's 2016 Horror Write-off:

One-Upping Jeremy

Submitted by Alcy W.

Jeremy and I had some differences here and there. He always felt the need to one up other people. And he always was ahead of people in just the worst way. If you had a car you were proud of fixing up, he'd smile and talk about how an even older, rarer, car was getting loving care and affection under his hands. If you were struggling to get hired he'd toss his hair and tell you about how the interviewers at the firm hired him on the spot, first interview, right from the get go. If you agonized over choosing the right photo for your unloved online dating profile, he'd without fail drive up (in his shining refurbished mustang convertible or whatever that old rare car was) and wink and say, Oh, I met up with someone from that website-well, four or five people, actually, over the last week, some very passionate folks out there . . .


At first I thought he wasn't doing it on purpose. But he was. I know he was, for certain. he went out of his way to find you and tell you how much better off he was, make your own life and accomplishments feel worthless. He definitely meant to. So I and a few of his other 'friends' got together and discussed what we should do to make him stop. But our darker feelings ran through the murmuring, and pretty soon we'd given up on that idea and were aiming rather lower: if we couldn't stop him from one-upping us, then we'd make him one-down, so to speak. Like I said, he had to have been making us feel bad on purpose. I know it. We were sitting on Michael's porch, and it was dusk. Even with the anti-bug candles flickering in the cooling breeze, we could no longer see each other's faces. So I don't know who mentioned the Vampire first. I don't think it was me. The voice was cold and precise and deeper than mine, I'm pretty sure. And who listens to the sound of their own voice? Not me. Perhaps it was Juan or Reggie.


But somebody mentioned the Vampire.


It was unfortunate that, in order to warn us away from him, our parents had to tell us who and why. He was an old man who lived outside the neighborhood, in rooms with rotting planks of wood blocking the windows, over a lifeless tobacco store that maybe he'd run once, before people stopped smoking so much. There was still one of those racist Indian chief statues outside, but boys from our neighborhood had carved so many names into the face that it had crumbled, lost its shape. My name was on the Indian chief statue's face. Everyone's was that I knew. It was a test of courage: on Halloween when we were kids we'd sneak off of the parent-approved trick or treating route and run breathless through the dark lampless alleys until the tobacco shop was in sight across the road, lit only by a flickering red stop light up above. The Vampire never put on any lights that outsiders could see. And one by one we would sprint across the street, stab out our names on the face of the indian chief statue, inches from the glass door of the shop, then run back. The idea was that making noise or taking too long would give the Vampire time to notice you, to rush down the stairs and out from the shop, to grasp you in his long claws, yank you into the gloomy interior of his lair, never to be found save in scraps of skin and cracked teeth floating (our imaginations told us) down through the cryptlike sewers. Yes, we'd all done it. I remember misspelling my own name in my frantic attack on the statue, because the whole time I was staring through the front glass door, terrified of witnessing the Vampire's stuttery stop-motion speedwalk, mouth and claws spread wide. Nothing had happened back then, of course. I'd sprung away, Reggie and Felipe carved their names after me, and then we'd run back to our neighborhood, skipping a few candy houses so that there would be no delay for our parents to detect. All in good fun. I can't bring myself to feel sorry for defacing an unpleasant racial idol. But the danger was real. The Vampire was for real and for true a monster, though perhaps not the blood-drinking kind. He made posters, sometimes. Once or twice a year. No one ever saw him nailing them to the telephone poles. But they listed his address above the tobacco shop, and listed items for sale. And our parents were most afraid during this time, because the things the Vampire offered were always things that we all wanted with a burning desire. When we were in middle school my brother, who always wanted a pet snake, wordlessly pointed out a poster that listed, amongst radios, toy soldiers, corroded roman coins, and delicate china dolls, a terrarium, with living corn snake attached. His dream pet snake, with the exact coloring he preferred most.


We held hands hurrying home that afternoon for the first time in over a year.


There were stories about children too young to know better who had wanted things enough to have dared to knock on the tobacco shop door and wait for the Vampire to let them in. I do not know if any of them really existed. But of course it was said that those who entered the Vampire's apartment never came back out except as the aforementioned gruesome pieces in the sewers. The ghosts of these kids could be seen in the store window on moonless nights, facing away from the viewer, heads sunk forward over their chests, arms held out as if crucified . . . You would be cursed to die if they ever spun around and showed their mutilated faces, it was said.


In any case, we were young adults now, some of us just graduated from the local college, others already settling into jobs with parents or at the co-op. And we wanted to do something drastic with Jeremy. It was easy. Michael invited Jeremy and the rest of us to a small intimate party, starting at ten pm. The medicine crushed under the flat of a kitchen knife and sprinkled into Jeremy's beer to get him really woozy. The suggestion that we reenact our childhood adventures with the Indian Chief Statue. The brisk walk, dry leaves and plastic bags whipping round our legs, through the deserted streets. The scouting of the Vampire's place: still rotting, still without light. I went first, waiting for a single car, the only car on the road, to pass before crossing the street. The inside of the shop looked unchanged, save for some blackish-green mold stretching across the wall behind the counter. I sought my previous name efforts, but time and children had made all indistinguishable. I added my name for the last time, and it was immediately lost in the tangles of scrapes already made there. No one appeared on the stairs to spirit me away.


We all went save for Jeremy, and when his turn came he was raring to one up us. While carving he would hum, he said, sweating and grinning, the whole while. And it would be his full name, legibly spelled, not like you, eh? He said to me. Reggie suggested he do one better: sing out loud while carving. Phil chimed in to say that was nothing, it would be truly amazing to knock full force on the door and then race to complete his name and escape before the Vampire could make his way down the stairs. And someone in the darkness there went too far and said it would be the Ultimate not even to run away, but to finish the name and then confront the Vampire. A short pause, a shuffling of feet, and Jeremy piped up to say in a slurred voice that he was more than happy to knock on the door, finish his name, and run back to us before he could get caught. He did clarify that he would not write his full name, for that would be impossible unless the Vampire were a heavy sleeper undisturbed by the knocking. So we let him go.


We nodded and slapped his back, and then watched as he sauntered over to the tobacco shop's door. Like a maestro waiting for quiet from their orchestra, he raised his arms, turned his head back to us. I can assume only that he made a face or winked or whispered something-it was too dark for us to see his expression, he was only a silhouette to us. Jeremy then returned attention to the door. With his left fist he reared back and hammered so hard on the glass door I thought it would break. He then spun to the Indian chief statue and frantically carved away. And if he had had another ten or twenty seconds, our plan would have borne no fruit. He would have returned to us glowing with triumph, and we would have grumbled and headed to our respective homes, no doubt accepting our failure with ill grace.


From where we huddled we could hear a rapid tapping, like a woodpecker almost. Then there was a heavy slam, and we could see beyond Jeremy that a horrible shape had smacked flat against the glass door. It was perhaps a man, with arms outstretched like a moth flattened against a window, Even from where we stood we could see the dark splotch where the thing's mouth was cracked wide open. The noise of the impact startled Jeremy, and he dropped the knife he was working with. Then he turned to the Vampire. He did not run away, or collapse. He waited as the old man's long fingers explored their way to the lock. The barest click reached our ears. And then the Vampire opened the tobacco shop door.


We felt intense pressure. Later we all agreed we had wanted to run across the street and - perhaps defend Jeremy, but that something unnatural had infected the night air. None of us could move, only watch as Jeremy faced the Vampire and did nothing, said nothing we could hear. Perhaps he was whispering. The Vampire reached out with a limb and grasped Jeremy's left shoulder. Jeremy's head moved: I do not know if Jeremy turned to look at us, but he did look around one last time, it looked like. And then he walked into the dark of the tobacco shop, following the Vampire. The door remained open, hinges creaking slightly as the wind pushed at it. No other noises besides a distant dog barking. No lights but the red light. We did not walk over, not even to pick up Jeremy's dropped knife.


After returning to Michael's home, we drank. After that, we agreed that if Jeremy did not show up within the next day or so, that we would go to the police. After all, cops wouldn't believe our childhood legends: why risk further investigation if Jeremy returned unharmed soon, perhaps holding a box or something he'd negotiated away from the Vampire.


The next evening, we decided that perhaps a week's grace period would be better. That is what undid us, I think.


My bedroom is on the second floor of the house. My brother's bedroom is empty, the window cracked wider than the stops in its runners ought to allow, for safety reasons. My windows are currently covered with curtains and blocked by my upturned mattress. I cannot help but wonder if the Vampire offered Jeremy something that he really wanted, or perhaps Jeremy escaped from whatever the old man does to his visitors. Outside my window I glimpsed for a second my old neighborhood friend, dressed in light white scraps of cloth. His back was to me, his head sunken down onto his chest more than I would have thought possible. His broken arms are stretched out like bizarre hovering bird's wings. He was so still, and with nightmarish certainty I knew he was behind my brother's disappearance, and that in a second he would rotate around, too fast for my eyes to close in time, and that I would see his face up close and personal, pressed against the glass.


It's said that no one caught by the Vampire ever leaves his lair. I fear that Jeremy's one-upped us once again.