Embrace Rejection

The following work is a transcript of the keynote speech for Rock Valley College’s 35th Annual Writing Awards Ceremony, delivered by WNIJ broadcaster and author Dan Klefstad (Shepherd & the Professor).


Congratulations in advance to the writers who will be recognized tonight. I look forward to reading your work and sharing the stage with you at future author events. And to those who don’t receive an award: Take heart, you will be recognized one day. And, one day, you might even get the publishing contract your novel, academic paper, or memoir deserves. But I think we should all prepare ourselves for an industry that is structured to say No to your work.  That’s the default. Your job is to be so brilliant you force publishers and agents to flip the switch when they encounter your words.

I’ve published many times, but I’ve also been rejected hundreds of times. In 2016, I got my first traditional contract for a novel – actually, a fictional memoir — about a woman who’s a veteran, cop, and single mother.  I realized I’d need some reviews, so I sent another round of query letters. The reviews couldn’t have been more varied. They ranged from “Unconventional and refreshing” to – quote — “It read like the ramblings of a crazy woman, and for a short amount of time that’s fine, but not for 267 pages!” Then she added: “Many thanks to the author for providing me a digital copy of this book.”

I am living proof that bad reviews and rejection letters will make you stronger…if you let them. One of the people who inspired me is not a writer, but a freelance I-T worker featured on NPR’s “Invisibilia” podcast. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. She found someone who was taller than he was and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go, and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?

“I’m afraid of rejection,” he realized.

So Comley resolved to get over his fear. He decided to make a game out of rejection, and this is what I recommend you do. He made a point of getting rejected at least once every day by someone. After a while, it felt good to get rejected all the time because, as Comley put it: “I disobeyed fear.”

Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it does. And it’s not like fear is the criminal justice system – it can’t lock you in prison if you disobey. There’s no enforcement mechanism! And if nobody can prosecute you for disobeying fear… then rejection is an empty threat.

So how does a writer play Comley’s rejection game?  You write something, you submit it to a publisher. Pick a publication you aspire to be in or an agent you want to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks” emails when they start coming in.

And remember: The publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might like it later. Or another publisher might take a chance with you.

It’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on all the times publishers got it wrong. They said No to authors who’d go on to be blockbusters. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter pitch was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself initially — He threw out the first chapters to, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got thirty rejections. The list goes on and on, so I’m guessing several people here could – eventually – land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to keep trying.

Some of you may have been studying the market for the type of writing you do. You have a pretty good idea how your manuscript will fit in, and you can tell an agent or publisher at least three titles that resemble your work. That’s a benefit because publishers would rather repeat someone else’s success than take a chance on something unfamiliar. If you take this route, I hope you make lots of money. There is no shame in playing it safe and cashing a check. It means one day you’ll have the freedom to take a risk, to experiment, to try to advance the craft in the way you think it should go. When you’re ready to do this, that’s the book I’ll read.

For those here who don’t care about the existing market and who insist on being original… you’re after my own heart. You’re the writer other writers will love – and maybe even give you a couch to sleep on when your meal ticket dumps you. One day, and it may take a really long time, enough of the reading public will catch up to you. They’ll like how you test the limits of their expectations – even their patience. They’ll appreciate how you helped them see the world differently. But for many years, all those risks you’re taking with form, character, and plot will be poison to publishers. And when you do finally publish, the reviewers will savage you.

Embrace their attacks. Any professional reviewer who takes the time to bash you in public has at least taken the time to read your work. You got under their skin and they will remember you.

(lean in) Send them another book. Let them shoot you full of arrows again. Someday, long after, they’ll encounter you at a writer conference or online chatroom, and they’ll see you survived them. You kept writing – despite their criticism – and managed to find an audience and build on it. They couldn’t keep you down. They will respect that.

A moment ago, I said “You managed to find an audience and build on it.” This is inevitable for any writer, or any artist, who has talent and keeps working to improve. Malcolm Gladwell writes about the theory that it takes 10-thousand hours to become a master of your craft. He explores this in his book Outlier. In one chapter, he calculates all the hours the Beatles rehearsed privately and played publicly before their landmark album Meet the Beatles came out in 1964. Ten thousand hours. In another chapter, Gladwell calculates all the hours Bill Gates wrote computer code – starting in high school — before co-founding Microsoft in 1975. Ten thousand hours.  I think it’s safe for you to expect a similar time investment. The Beatles were in their early 20s when they hit it big. Bill Gates was the same age.

How old are you?  Take a moment and think how many hours you have been writing and re-writing in class or on your own time. You might be closer to 10K than you realize.

At some point in your efforts to get published, you’ll walk into a bit of luck. I’m a big believer that people who strive make their own luck. The agents and publishers who have the power to keep you in obscurity just can’t help themselves when they see someone struggling to get their manuscript through the door. In my case, a handful of agents offered advice – They took precious moments from their day to write me an email saying why my manuscript wasn’t working for them and offered suggestions for improving it. If this happens to you, treat that advice like gold. Thank them, revise again, and then re-submit.

Speaking of submissions… Industry insiders will tell you they don’t like it when you submit to every publisher who handles science fiction or horror or literary criticism. They do have a point when they say “Hey, we invested valuable time reading your submission and then you went with this other publisher (or agent).” My thoughts on this are simple and direct: They have all the power. You are at a disadvantage. You need to do what’s best for your manuscript, so I recommend you don’t become too concerned when they complain about investing a little time in you. THAT’S THEIR JOB. Now, you can play fair and say in your query letter that you’re submitting to everyone and that you’ll inform them when you get an offer. Do this but know you don’t owe them anything more.

Let’s fast forward a few years. You have a brilliant manuscript and got a professional edit. You finally found a publisher who believes in your book or article and signed the contract. Congratulations — Welcome to the world of literary promotion!

You might know that each author must be the chief marketer of their work. Even large publishers with marketing staff can only do so much. Most publishers will give you resources and advice, but they don’t have the staff to sell your book. So how do you pick up their slack and start selling?

You can spend a lot of money paying for marketing services and, believe me, there are a lot of people out there who offer various packages and rates – and none of them can offer you any metrics on how successful their services are. Let’s be clear: marketing is an art not a science. With this in mind, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned through my own experience, and that begins with this: Never pay for promotion.

I’ve never paid a penny. But I have spent many more hours marketing my writing than actually writing. I still don’t know how I feel about that, and I cannot point to any metrics saying my marketing efforts are paying off. But I feel like I’m moving the ball forward and that’s got to mean something. I’m still in the game. I’m… here… after all, so I must be doing something right. So what did I do?

I looked up book bloggers. These are readers, just like you and me, except they maintain blogs containing their reviews plus other cute features like “First Line Friday” or “Short Story Sunday” or “Monday Memoir.” Each one has a TBR or “to be read” stack that’s a mile high and I wanted to see if they’d move my book up. So I pitched them with the following line: “Looking for extra content for your blog? How about an email Q & A?”  And a surprising number of bloggers jumped on this. They sent me a list of questions, I answered within a day or two, and – Voila – there’s my interview on their blog, plus my photo and a link to the Amazon “buy page” for my book.

It was the easiest thing I could do with my time, and now I have bloggers who are curious about me and my work. And it only takes one if they’re part of a network, so I recommend you focus on these. Many bloggers have agreements with other bloggers where they share posts on their websites, and then post the links on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. Let me give you an example:

Two years ago, Love Books Group reviewed four of my vampire stories that will be included in my next book. This Scottish blog gave me a good review, included a photo of me, and links to my other work available on Amazon. That’s not remarkable. Here’s what is:

18 UK-based bloggers shared it on their sites and tweeted it. Each member of this network averages 15,000 Twitter followers, and they’re also active on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

15,000 x 18 equals… I don’t care what the number is, THAT is a network that’s too important to ignore.

It includes blogs like Chat About Books, Keeper of Pages, Linda’s Book Blog, Between the Lines, Bits About Books, and Swirl & Thread. Each of them got to know me after I pitched an interview. Then I pitched my first vampire story “The Caretaker” and three of them gave enthusiastic reviews.

In my experience, when one of them likes you, you’re in. It’s not necessary for them to like everything you write. The blogger at Swirl & Thread, for example, doesn’t like vampires. Keeper of Pages loved my story “The Caretaker” but was not happy with my novel Shepherd & the Professor.  This experience taught me something about what works and what doesn’t with certain readers.

That’s how I got free publicity and laid the groundwork for sales of my forthcoming novel. If you write creative fiction, I recommend you get in this network or something similar. If you’re an academic writer, find a journal that gets quoted in popular media. And in both cases, be sure to let your local media know about the attention you’re getting — because reporters tend to chase the same stories and, depending on what else is going on in the news, you might be the story for one day.

It seems ridiculous to have to say this, because you’re all polite people, but being nice makes all the difference. Sadly, not everyone gets this, and I feel sorry for the writer who responds angrily to a bad review. The bloggers I know consider an attack on one an attack on all, and they will shut out any author who insults them.

When I saw this on Twitter, it resembled an excommunication. I felt certain the offending author’s writing would never again see the light of day, and he would die frozen and alone knowing it was his own damned fault. Which, of course, it was.

It doesn’t need to end this way. Don’t like that two-star rating? Suck it up and say “Sorry it wasn’t your cup of tea,” and thank them for their time. If the reviewer had a specific complaint, consider that when you write your next book or article. Then pitch them again.

It’s worth noting that amateur bloggers devote enormous amounts of time reading books and maintaining their sites. Ever wonder why? The ones I know don’t get paid for reviews, although they make a little money from selling ad space. They do it because they love books so much that they need to share their feelings about them — even to total strangers. They also enjoy getting to know authors. They really want to shout your name from the rooftops. All you have to do is give them a reason to do so.

Another way to promote your writing is through podcasts. Authors writing on any subject can reach new audiences by producing their own podcasts or getting invited on better-known ones. Any podcast that allows you to read an excerpt and talk about your work is worth investigating. A very well produced one lives on the Rockford Writers Guild website. Their “Guildy Pleasures” podcast features two Pushcart-prize winners, plus excellent emerging authors. I was the first guest, reading five of my vampire stories. Podcasts are great for authors because they’re sharable on social media, and you can track metrics like “full listens.” But the audience is getting more and more sophisticated so there’s less tolerance for schlocky production than, say, a decade ago. If you get invited to a podcast, make sure you do your part and rehearse the excerpt you want to read, and make sure you know exactly how you’ll answer basic interview questions like “What inspired you to write this book or article?” Nobody wants to listen to meandering answers, and nobody wants to hear an author stumble their way through a reading.

The same applies to bookstore or radio appearances. I can’t tell you how many times I attended events where an author showed up and it was clear they weren’t prepared. Or they stood, chin down, quietly reading their words without any emotion or emphasis. Remember: You have one chance to make a good impression on your audience – so knock ‘em dead.

I hope I made a good impression with you. One day when my career has stalled, and you’re headlining a publishing or academic conference, I might want to hitch my wagon to your rising star. In the meantime, I’ll do what I can to help your career. If you think it may help to drop my name, feel free to do so.

I gave you A LOT of things to remember tonight. The short version is: write your very best work, get a professional edit, get 100 agents to reject you, pay nothing for promotion, be nice, and rehearse.

Thank you for inviting me. And remember me when you’re famous!

Elevens (2001)

(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)

 

“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.

“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”

“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”

“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”

Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”

“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”

“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”

Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”

“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.

Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”

“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”

Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”

That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?

“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.

Me too.”

“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”

“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”

“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”

“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”

“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”

“That’a Texas-sized 10-4.”

Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”

Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”

“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”

“It’s been a while. I might come back.”

“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”

“So why do they call you Elevens?”

“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”

“Three Jacks.”

“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”

Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”

“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”

“Eleven in the Bible.”

“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”

“Let me hear.”

Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:

“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”

“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”

Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”

Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.

“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”

“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”

“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”

“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”

Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”

“The less you know, the safer we both are.”

“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”

“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”

“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”

“Let me worry about that.”

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.

Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”

Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”

“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”

“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”

“Identity?”

“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”

“What?”

“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”

Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.

“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”

Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”

“What’s the heading?”

“25 miles straight ahead.”

“Length?”

“What the mesa?”

“RUNWAY.”

“2,900 feet.”

Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”

Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.

Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”

“What?”

“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”

“4,700.”

Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”

“Correct.”

“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”

“Are you calm now?”

“Fuck you.”

Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.

“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”

“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”

“Pulling up.”

Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.

***

“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.

“Stop it.”

“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”

Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”

“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”

“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”

“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”

Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”

“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”

“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”

Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”

“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”

“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”

“Where is this new source?”

“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”

“All the planes are grounded.”

“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”

“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”

Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.

The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…

###

Venice In The Moment

By Dan Klefstad

Imagine painting a portrait of a uniquely beautiful person. Your model is nude, hiding nothing, displaying supple skin and curls of hair that absorb the light. As you sketch and fill in, the sun and shadows keep moving – revealing new details. Now you add tiny lines you didn’t notice around the eyes and mouth. As the sun begins descending, you become aware that the hair is two shades darker and seems to be uncurling. Now the flesh appears a little looser, and you realize: What you tried to capture at the start of this encounter no longer exists, and what existed five minutes ago also is gone. Your subject is still pleasing to look at, still distinctive, but when did this person begin… showing their age? Anxiety sets in as you imagine finishing your painting, not as a portrait, but a still life of ashes.

This is what it’s like looking everywhere in Venice, Italy. Sure, craftsmen constantly repair and replace the Byzantine facades and triumphal monuments. The bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica still looks like it did in 1514, even though it collapsed in 1902. The stone walls and walkways lack any sign of occupation by Napoleon’s and Hitler’s armies. But increasing floods from climate change scoff at all this restoration. As I write this, I’m looking at a day-old photo of people wading through knee-deep water near the Vallaresso Vaporetto stop. It looks bad, but other cities recover from floods, right? Well, yes, if they’re not sitting on saltwater. The moment the brine started seeping into her brick and timber bones, the Queen of the Adriatic was doomed.

That is, unless you count all the other times doom came, and stayed — all the way back to the Roman refugee who, fleeing barbarians, drove that first timber into the muddy lagoon a thousand years ago. Venezia has been dying longer than perhaps any other city.

This must be why artists and those who chase beauty obsess over her canals, bridges, and cathedrals. The main attractions, such as the Bridge of Sighs and Doges Palace, reveal some if you’re not hurried along by the crowd. But those who sit, and listen, might hear the walls whisper what I thought I heard two years ago:

Go ahead, gawk as I slowly sink, and my population shrinks. I’m aware the cost of preserving my 14th Century glory keeps going up. And, yes, the day will come when I won’t be worth saving anymore. Until then, watch, record each moment, and understand that beauty breaks the flow of time, compelling you to look now, and now, and now again – bearing witness to that fleeting space between what was and is.

If you hear this, and your heart breaks, you’ll be more than just a traveler. You’ll suffer the eternal disquiet of a conoscitore. Hopefully, I’ll be in a nearby café, ordering grappa for you and me to mourn in silence.


 

(Dan Klefstad is the author of the short story, “The Dead of Venice,” and the forthcoming novel Fiona’s Guardians. He writes in DeKalb, Illinois, and Williams Bay, Wisconsin).

 

 

A Siring

By Dan Klefstad


“I was starving, I couldn’t help it.” Camilla wipes blood from her chin and points. “He’s in the car.”

“How could you be starving?” I put my stump in one jacket sleeve while my left arm hurriedly finds the other hole. “You had at least six pints before you left the house.”

“Okay, then, he was delicious. What’s wrong with enjoying a meal?”

A Corvette convertible sits at the edge of the park, red finish partially lit by a perfect half-moon. I lower my voice. “Front or back seat?”

“I put him in the trunk.”

“Please say the interior isn’t white.”

“Okay. It’s some other color.”

“Don’t play with me.”

“You’re the one who’s playing.” Her bare feet make no sound on the grass. In contrast, my loafers seem to find every leaf that gave up the ghost during the recent drought. I shine a light on the driver’s seat. “It’s like Jackson Pollack was here. Fiona was never this messy.”

“You don’t work for her anymore.” She folds her arms. “And I like Jackson Pollack.”

“Did you forget our agreement? I raise money to buy blood and you don’t kill people. We don’t need police sniffing around.” I open the trunk and see a man in a polo shirt and plaid shorts. He looks 35, maybe 40.

Camilla leans against the fiberglass body and runs her hands over it. “I want this car.”

“We have to ditch it.” I reach into the man’s back pocket and take out his wallet.

“Oooh.” She sidles up. “Make it look like we robbed him. Clever.”

Camilla’s been watching a new police show. Maybe it’s an old one, those procedurals are all the same. One minute in, someone finds a body. After the first commercial detectives arrive, and five minutes later something threatens to derail the investigation which leads to the climax. A quick, pithy observation follows, and it ends at 22 minutes. The wallet opens and my thumb lands on metal. Oh God, no. Please, no. I put the flashlight between my teeth. “Fuck me.”

“That’s not in our agreement,” Camilla snaps back. Then she groans as her hands encircle her belly. “I’m too full anyway.”

“You killed a cop.”

“Okay.”

I stare at her, flashlight dangling from my teeth. Finally, I remove it. “Cops never stop looking when one of their own… Oh, Jesus Christ.” I slam the trunk and turn away, gathering my thoughts. Camilla is only six months old, but Fiona warned me she’d never learn caution. I can’t believe I signed up for four years of this.

“Is that what I think it is? Cool.”

It’s best if I hide the body several miles from the car, but I haven’t used a shovel since losing my arm. And Camilla? She’s allergic to manual labor. But, just now, I remember a secluded lake about a mile from here. Perhaps we could find weights to keep him down…

BANG

“What the fuck?” I whip around to see smoke curling up from a pistol. Camilla can’t stop laughing at the hole in her left hand. “I shot myself.” Her excited eyes meet mine. “Coppers back home don’t carry these.”

“Give it to me.”

“No, I’m gonna keep it.”

“You have no need for a gun.”

“We’re in America now.” She waves it in front of me. “Everyone needs a gun.”

“Camilla, I need you to give that to me.”

Her face moves right up to mine. “You’re not the boss.” I feel the barrel against my ribs. “I am, remember?”

“If you kill me, you’re on your own.” I stare back. “Think you can survive by yourself?”

Our standoff lasts several seconds. Finally, she grins. “You’re right.” She turns and walks away. “You’re always right.” She tosses the gun in the bushes. “Good luck with this mess.”

***

It’s after seven when I get home. Camilla’s been asleep since 5:30. Everyone else on our street is scurrying to work, or wherever normal people go in the morning. In the kitchen, I pour myself a scotch, then remember the final item on my list before waking at eleven to check our investments. I walk down the corridor and turn the handle to Camilla’s room to make sure it’s secure. I always order the bolt installed on the inside to protect my employer when they’re most vulnerable. To her credit, Camilla always locks it. So, there’s hope. When I return to the kitchen, I see a letter from Rome on thick, faded stationery.

Dear Daniel,

How’s life back in the States? Is Camilla behaving herself? Despite her wild ways, I have every confidence you’ll guide and protect my progeny during these difficult early years. I just hope she’s paying you enough. Speaking of money, please find the enclosed check which should help with surprise expenses. I do hope we work together again someday. My current guardian isn’t even close to your level.

All the best,

Fiona

 

The check is for $10,000, not much in our world. Still, it would be enough if I were to buy a one-way ticket to the Equator where the sun shines twelve hours every day. No doubt, a spurned Camilla would die pursuing her revenge. Fiona, ever more cautious, would send human assassins, but most working today have less experience than me. I could stay hidden for years thanks to secret deposit boxes filled with cash, false passports, and gold. I’m still calculating the exact number of years when I hear her voice:

“Hey.”

I turn and see her door slightly open. My eyes immediately go to the window shades to make sure they’re down. “Yeah?”

“Can you come here for a second?”

I walk to the entrance and see a teary eye staring out. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For being… difficult.”

“I’ll forgive you. Just give me a day or two.”

She sniffles. “It’s just that I feel so unprepared.” Her eyes roll. “That’s probably really obvious to you. But I’m finding it hard to adjust to… this.”

“I understand. Fiona said it took her a couple decades. Try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t.”

This is new; Fiona always slept through the day. “Want some B positive?”

“No. What are you drinking?”

“Whisky. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Can you sleep with me – just for a little while?”

“Umm…”

“I know it’s not part of our agreement.”

“I’ve never slept with…”

“A vampire?”

“Yeah.”

“I just need someone to hold me.” An icy hand takes mine. “Please?”

I follow her in and lock the door. We face each other for a few seconds — she in silk pajamas, me in slacks and a button-down shirt – before she lifts the covers and slides in. I remove my shoes and lay down next to her.

“Spoon me?”

The last time I did this, I had two arms and one grew numb. For the first time, I learn one arm can be a benefit. I press my chest against her back and immediately feel her relax.

“Please don’t leave.”

“You mean, stay all day with you?”

“No, you can go once I’m asleep. Just don’t take off permanently. I don’t know what I’d do on my own.” Both her hands press mine against her chest. “God, I hate being so dependent.”

“Everyone depends on someone.”

“Who do you depend on?”

“I left myself open for that. Touché.”

She turns to face me, eyes searching mine. “You know I’m here for you. I just need to know what you need.”

***

The next evening, I’m reading the news, swiping at my tablet, when something catches my eye: a story about a body, drained of blood, in an alley. Enraged, I push open her door and hold up the tablet. “You did it again.”

She’s in her closet, topless, sifting through dresses. “Hello, that door still means something. What do you want?”

I step in. “Someone sucked a body dry last night. It’s all over the news – we’re exposed.”

“I didn’t do that.”

“Then who did?”

She’s smiling when she faces me. “Congratulations!” She kisses my cheek. “We’re parents.”

“What?”

“It’s a miracle.” Still smiling, both of her hands take mine. “Remember that cop from two nights ago?”

“The one you killed, and I dumped in the lake?”

“I’m calling him Austin – hope you like the name. He’s alive and living nearby.”

My breathing becomes shallow as I extract my hand and grab her upper right arm. “Are you saying you sired that cop?”

“We sired him. We had sex and I gave Austin some of my blood…”

“His name was Officer Jared Brown and we had sex after you killed him.”

“I don’t remember the order — I don’t know how this works — but aren’t you happy? We have a son.” She tries to move, looks at my hand gripping her arm, and fixes her gaze on mine. “Let go of me.”

“Walk me through it. You were alone with him in the car, and you drained him. When did you give him your blood?”

“I can’t REMEMBER.” She yanks herself free. “Really, I thought you’d be happy – at least for me. I didn’t think I could sire someone.”

“Camilla, listen: You brought a being into this world that we can’t protect…”

We brought him into this world.”

“…and once the police catch him, they’ll start looking for others…”

“But you can teach him to survive – like you’re teaching me.”

“STOP ACTING LIKE I’M HIS FATHER.”

Blood pools in her eyes as her body shakes. She points toward the door. “Get. Out.”

I point at her before I leave. “We will talk about this tonight.”

“GET OUT OF THIS HOUSE.”

***

Finally, an order I agree with. Fiona’s check is still on the kitchen table. I pocket that and grab my tablet. Before leaving, I open my go-bag and feel all the way to the bottom. I pull out a pistol, a trophy from a battle that now seems ages ago. The magazine contains regular bullets. Reaching back inside, I find the other mag containing wood-tipped rounds. One through the heart is all that’s needed.

A moment later, I’m driving to the neighborhood where the latest body was found. I’m testing that TV trope that says a criminal always returns to the scene of his crime. It takes several minutes to find the alley, which still has pieces of yellow tape on the ground. I get out, put the gun behind my belt, and begin walking, occasionally looking through a thermal imager. It takes ten minutes to find him. He’s still wearing the polo and plaid shorts, although this time he’s 28 degrees and walking several paces behind a woman registering 98.6. He glances back once, briefly making eye contact. He knows I’m there for him. Still, inexperienced and consumed by hunger, the two-day-old continues his pursuit.

I quicken my pace, already thinking beyond the ultimate crime of rendering mortal what was supposed to be immortal. No doubt, Camilla will come after me for killing “our” child – for shattering the illusion that this creature would bind us forever. She’ll disregard her own safety, and the universe will act accordingly; there’s a reason most vampires die before their first year. Still, a longing has settled in, one that threatens to haunt me for the rest of my life. She certainly got to me with that fire in her eyes, and the smell of her hair. How each breast felt when I held it. How she tasted.

This is all my fault. I broke the first rule of guardianship, and the consequences couldn’t be clearer for all involved – including me. But perhaps I’ve been wrong all along. I’ve made a career out of helping others cheat death. Now, for the first time, I see mortality as a gift. It forgives, wipes the slate clean, and allows you to forget difficult memories. For this, Officer Jared or Austin or whatever you call yourself — You are welcome. Just stay dead.

###


You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.

 

The Caretaker

By Dan Klefstad


Dear Applicant,

Congratulations. Out of hundreds of applications, yours stood out for your “unwavering persistence to get the job done.” Well put! No doubt you will deserve the eight-figure salary and opulent benefits that come with this job. But I must warn you: The more you read, the more my employer will consider you a threat if you decline our offer. If you have no intentions of taking the job, delete this message now before reading further.

This is your final warning: Turn back if you’d rather not devote every day of your prime years to an employer who demands utter secrecy and loyalty. Take a moment to reflect on which is more important – a career that allows for family and vacations, or a mogul’s retirement. To be sure, the job is not all work. Right now, I’m enjoying a 1948 Graham’s port – a gift from my employer and one of the last such bottles in the world. I also have enough money to retire on my own Greek island. I hope you land in a similar place when your time comes. To get there, though, you’ll have to do more than drag your soul through the mud. Your hands will get dirty to the point where they’ll never get clean.

If you’ve read to this point, the job is yours. So, Dear Trainee, it’s time to meet the boss who will give final approval. Wear a suit and tie next Thursday just before midnight. Be courteous but not obsequious, and never say “That’s impossible” or “That goes against my beliefs.” Say this or something similar and everything will end. Abruptly.

I’d also advise you not to stare at her eyes, mouth, or any part of her body. If all goes well, I’ll train you for two weeks. If you’re wondering whether there’s a word for our profession, it’s Păzitor, Romanian for “guardian” or “caretaker.” The only other Romanian word you need to be aware of, but never say, is the peasant noun for our employer and her associates: strigoi. I’m saying it here, once, for instructional purposes. Uttering this could expose your employer to those familiar with Balkan folklore. Moreover, it’s an insult equal to the worst human slurs. Say it and expect a cruel death.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but you must also never say “Undead,” “Nosferatu” (meaning “not dead”), or, “Vampire.”

***

My first employer – not even a century old – lives in the apartment next door. It’s 1986, my sophomore year at college. I haven’t met him yet but see his “roommate” every night returning with a plastic cooler. Around 1:00 a.m., he walks by as I fold laundry downstairs. He never speaks but nods politely. Then one night, covered in blood, he asks when I’ll finish using the last available washer. “Someone tried to rob me but I fought him off. The blood is his,” he smiles. “I’m Ramon.”

Each night after, Ramon says, “Hi” as he walks by. Until the night before my final exams. As usual, I study downstairs while doing my girlfriend’s laundry; she works the night shift at the hospital. But I hate studying so I’m relieved when, an hour before dawn, a stranger enters the room. Wearing a tight vest and tie, he gazes at the period stain on one of Sarah’s panties. Then he hands me a cream-colored envelope that feels ancient. Inside is $300 plus a note and key. “Ramon’s dead. I need you to contact his family. Last name Valenzuela.”

I look up. “Why don’t you do it?”

He looks out the window. “If you don’t know the difference between Camus and Sartre by now, you never will. Am I right?”

“That depends. Are you a philosopher or dressed like one for Halloween?”

He looks like he’s about to rip my head off. Then he takes a deep breath and walks out. “You’re low on iron. Buy some red meat.”

I open the note:

Daniel,

Tell the funeral home to pick up Ramon tomorrow. You, and only you, will let them in. After they leave, lock the door behind you. I’ll collect the key tomorrow night. For this, I’ll pay an additional five hundred. I might even offer full-time work so you can stop pretending to be a student.

Søren Fillenius.

***

The apartment is filled with dark furniture and portraits of nobles. I pull back heavy curtains and tie them to boar’s tusks jutting from the wall. The books on the shelf are leather-bound with gold titles. Most are about the onetime rulers of Carpathian Mountain kingdoms.

A knock on the door. I realize I don’t know which room is Ramon’s, but then I see one of the bedrooms has a lock that bolts from the inside. The opposite door opens easily, and I show the men in. Ramon lies on the bed, arms folded. The nightstand has black-and-white photos of his family.

***

“Next time, make sure you draw the curtains when you leave.” Søren hands me the promised money.

“Does that mean I’m hired?”

“Once you take this job, there’s no quitting.”

“What is the job?”

“You clean the house, buy blood for me, and get two thousand dollars a month.”

The word “blood” would stop many people. But we, Dear Trainee, are a different breed. We focus on the money. “Where do I get this blood?”

“Hospitals mainly. Some are at least an hour away so you’ll take my car. There’s a pick-up schedule on the refrigerator.” Søren waves a bejeweled hand toward Ramon’s room. “You’ll sleep there.”

“I sleep with my girlfriend.”

“Sarah’s fucking a gynecologist. Believe me, you can’t compete.”

“How do you know?”

He frowns at me. I shift my weight to the other foot. “Standard week?”

“Pardon?”

“What days do I have off?”

He laughs and then glares at me. “I’ll tell you when I get a day off.”

***

Søren owns an ’81 Honda Accord which, at 250,000 miles, is nearing its end. While good on gas, it’s far less glamorous than James Mason’s ‘63 Cadillac in Salem’s Lot. For me, Mason is the archetypal caretaker with his bowler hat, silver tipped cane, and three-piece suit. He and his vampire, Kurt Barlow, buy and sell antiques, moving their shop to whatever hunting ground seems most promising:

Barlow & Straker Fine Antiques – Opening Soon

It gives me chills every time I remember it. Not that I completely enjoyed the movie because Straker dies while defending Barlow’s lair — Sorry for the spoiler. In fact, every caretaker in every vampire film dies violently. I think about each of them as I drive east to Chicago or north to Rockford. Søren never buys locally.

“Where’s Clarence?” I ask a stranger at Northwestern Memorial.

“Family emergency. I’m filling in.”

His lab coat has no ID. Clarence is supposed to page me when problems occur. “Who are you?”

“He said you’d be upset.” The stranger takes a case from the refrigerator and opens it. “Ten bags of O negative. That’ll be 15 hundred.”

“No,” I straighten. “I said ten bags of A positive for one thousand.”

“Fuck.” He looks at the bags. “She gets O negative.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Come back tomorrow.”

§

Fiona

“There’s been a mix-up,” I announce as I enter the apartment.

“I know,” a woman replies. As the door opens, I see her relaxing while Søren empties the remains of last night’s dinner into her glass.

Søren sets down the decanter. “You’ll have to go out again. Call our man at Rockford Memorial.”

“He’s tired, look at him.” Fiona extends her hand as she approaches. I never shook Søren’s so I’m surprised by her icy fingers. She holds on as I try to withdraw. Finally, I relax and look at her – black hair and eyes, red lips, purple gown with a long slit, smooth thigh, black pearls resting above the palest breasts I’ve ever seen. “It’s okay. I’ll get coffee on the road.”

***

I can’t stop thinking about her which is how I miss the classic signs of a dead alternator. The headlights dim before the dials go black. Standing on the shoulder, halfway to Rockford, I’m ready to chuck it in:

“Fuck you, Søren! If you want blood, fly out here and drain me. Here.” I tear open my collar and shout at the stars. “PUT ME OUT OF MY FUCKING MISERY.” A honk reminds me that I strayed into the road. I walk, zombie-like, toward the Amoco station a mile back. This truck stop is busy for a Monday with dozens of rigs parked in front.

“What’ll it be Honey?”

I stare at a menu, trying to look normal. “Just coffee.”

“Cream?”

“Sure.”

“I thought you might be here.” Fiona gathers her gown, exposing an entire thigh as she slides in next to me. I look to see if anyone else saw her come in. Everyone ignores her, even the waitress who reaches across her to deliver my coffee. Suddenly I’m hyper-aware: Here’s the most beautiful woman east of Hollywood, dressed to the nines, and no-one is looking at her. My eyes are still scanning when I finally speak. “It’s not fair if only one of us is visible.”

“You can see me. You can also see my driver who sabotaged tonight’s order.”

“Where?”

“Aston Martin. Center window.”

I see a hulking sports coupe with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a shadow behind it. I put a dollar on the table. “I’ll speak to her.”

“No.” Fiona hands me a foot-long scabbard covered with jewels. I slide out a blade shaped like a boomerang. When I slide it back, Fiona is gone.

***

“Who the fuck are you?” The woman gets out on the right-hand side. “And what are you doing with my Gurkha knife?” She looks into the window. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Fiona says you deliberately screwed up tonight’s order. She’s done with you.”

“Done with me?” She takes out a revolver and taps it against her chest. “You know what I did? I got cancer. That’s why she’s getting rid of me.”

“No Tanya,” Fiona steps through the door. “You’re trying to starve me.”

“Wow, you’re losing weight already.” Tanya aims the gun. “Time to lose some more.” A second later, the gun falls to the ground with a hand attached. Tanya looks at her bloody stump. “What the fffffuck?”

I swing again, cutting through her neck. As her headless body collapses, I stare at the blade, trying to comprehend. Fiona opens the left-side door. “Put her in the trunk and let’s go.”

***

“Watch your speed.”

I look at the dial. “It’s in kilometers.”

“88 and keep it there.” Fiona glances at the trunk and sniffs.

I hold up a flask. “I collected some.”

“She had cancer.”

“You mean, you don’t…”

“You wouldn’t eat meat from a diseased cow, would you?”

“I’m not sure I’d know.” I shift into third. “I’m not sure I know anything anymore.”

Fiona watches the moon over the surrounding farm land. “Harvest moon.” She laughs softly. “Not much of a harvest tonight. That was some fancy knife work.”

“That was a real sharp blade.”

“It’s yours.”

“This too?” I hold up the revolver.

“No. Open it.”

I release the cylinder and see it’s fully loaded. Fiona removes a bullet with her long nails. “Look.” She turns on a light and holds it in front of me.

“Is that wood?”

“Yep.” She tosses it in back.

“Does that… work?”

“I’m not going to find out. We have to ditch the car.”

“What year is this?”

“1969.”

“Now that’s a crime.” I ease off the highway while Fiona punches the cigarette lighter. We stop behind an abandoned barn and she turns her back to me. “Unzip.” I do as she says, exposing a crocheted bustier that looks centuries old.

“Undo me.”

It takes a few minutes to loosen the laces. She pulls the garment away from her as she exits the car. Then she rolls it tight, crushing it with her fingers, and stuffs it in the fuel port. I use the cigarette lighter. As the material ignites, I glance at her large breasts with dead-white nipples.

“Not what you expected, huh?”

I look away. “Sorry.”

“I meant me owning an Aston Martin.”

***

Fiona’s home has soft colors, curved furniture, and silk pillows. But the floor plan is the same as Søren’s: two bedrooms, one bath, small kitchen, large living room – all on the second floor. She stands at the edge of the hallway, wearing a pink kimono with a long-necked bird on one side. Her head rests on the wall.

I rise from the couch. “Do all of you own apartments?”

“We can’t maintain a yard and exterior.” She walks unsteadily toward the couch, accepting my outstretched hand. I sit next to her and notice wrinkles near her eyes and mouth. “How can I help?”

“You know the answer, Daniel.”

“Name the supplier and I’ll get it.”

“They’re not available, thanks to Tanya. We have to move.”

“Where?”

“First I need to eat. Now.”

“There’s a hospital in town.”

“Too risky.”

I pause. “Does it have to be human?”

She scolds me with a look. Chastened, I look at my right arm. “I could spare a pint. Maybe two.”

“I need ten.”

“I could… find a homeless person.”

She nods. “Park down the street when you’re ready.” Her voice is brittle. “I’ll come down.”

***

A woman looks up as I enter the tent village under the bridge. “Ten dollars will feed me and my baby. Can you spare it?”

I step closer. She looks forty but is probably half that, rocking back and forth, scratching bruised, scabby forearms. My eyes focus on a crucifix tattooed on her right hand between her thumb and forefinger. “Where’s your baby?”

“Sleeping. All it takes is twenty to feed a family.”

I point to her jacket. “Those Navy pins, are they yours?”

“Fuck that supposed to mean? Of course they’re mine.”

I point to a patch on her shoulder. “Corpsman?”

Rocking back and forth. “USS Virginia. CGN-38.”

“See any action?”

“October 23rd, 1983.”

“Huh?”

“October 23rd, 1983. Lebanon.”

A demolished building leaps from my memory to the forefront. “The bombing of the Marine barracks.” I pause. “You went ashore for the wounded?”

Rocking back and forth.

“Just curious.”

“YEAH I WENT ASHORE.” She continues rocking. “Tried to save one life and lost three.”

“Hmm.”

“Guy with rebar in his throat was a goner. Shoulda gave him morphine and moved on.”

“Hmm.”

“DO YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE OR DON’T YOU?”

I crouch down. “I’ll give you fifty if you take a ride with me.”

Her eyes narrow. “Where?”

“Not far.”

“You’re not a serial killer are you?”

I smile. “Do I look like a serial killer?”

She glances away. “What do you want?”

“What any man desires but can’t get at home.”

She notes the absence of a wedding ring and I can see her struggle. I offer her my other hand, but she bats it away. “Well, good night.” I start walking back.

“Fine. But no rough shit.”

§

Sex, Death & Dentistry

The stolen car is in a secluded lot. During our walk a battle rages in my mind:

“Killing her is a mercy because she’s a hopeless addict.”

“Killing a veteran – a homeless veteran — is the worst thing you could do. Except killing a child.”

“She said she had a child. She’s lying to get more sympathy.”

“If you don’t kill this woman Fiona could die.”

“She’s an addict who’ll never get clean, no matter how much society spends on her.”

“This woman gave her all for your freedom and now you want to take her life?”

“IF YOU DON’T KILL HER FIONA WILL DIE.”

“STOP IT!” I put my hands to my ears.

“You’re freaking me out.” She stands a few paces behind me, hands on hips, silhouetted against the setting sun.

I manage a smile as I open the door. “What’s your name again?”

“I didn’t say. What’s yours?”

***

The previous month, I read about human dentistry to see if we’re that different from vampires. Not much, it turns out. If you start with the upper jaw, the first tooth right of center is the right maxillary central incisor, followed by the right maxillary lateral incisor, followed by the right maxillary cuspid, or canine (right fang in vampires). Then the right maxillary 1st and 2nd  bicuspids.

When she takes me in her mouth, I can tell which ones are missing. She hums a tune which I find comforting as I pull the twine slowly from my right sleeve. With my left hand, I wind the string above her head. I stop when it’s about three feet long.

She stops too. “Is this going anywhere? I haven’t got all night.”

“Look at me.”

“I am but there ain’t much to look at here.”

“Look up here.”

Earlier, under the bridge, her eyes were cold and hard as flint. They’re softer now as she puts on a pout. “What’s a matter, baby?”

My left hand swoops twice around her neck before I pull the rope tight. She gasps as one hand scratches my face and the other scrapes the door. I turn to protect my eyes as she kicks toward the other door, feet reaching for the window. The twine digs deeper and deeper and I think her skin might break. The rope does instead.

The door opens and she spills out, coughing. She tries to scream, only croaks. As she stumbles away, I start the car and put it in reverse. Two seconds later I feel the impact. When I get out I see her crawling on her elbows, dragging her useless legs. “Son of a bitch,” she coughs. “You sick motherfucking son of a bitch.”

I stop next to her. “I’m sorry.”

She spits on my shoe but I’m focused on something she said. “Were you telling the truth about the baby?”

She’s still now, elbows in the gravel. “That’s something you’ll never know.”

I sigh. As I wrap a fresh length of twine around her neck, she starts to whisper:

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I wait to be sure she’s finished. Then I step on her back and pull the twine tight.

***

The adrenaline shakes my body as I drive back with Fiona’s dinner. I’m also starving. If an animal crossed my path I’d chase it down and eat it with my Gurkha. When I imagine this, I realize I experienced for the first time something Fiona hasn’t felt in years: the thrill of the kill. You probably don’t know this feeling. When it happens, you’ll understand what’s in Fiona’s dreams: the panicked breathing, the breaking skin, the hot gushing blood. It’s a distant memory for her, one she gave up at the dawn of modern policing. Your job, Dear Trainee, is to keep those longings in her past with a donated supply that never ends. If there’s a break in the chain, you’ll have to be the predator. It’s a guilt that’s not impossible to overcome. At least I hope so. Perhaps the Ionian Sea will wash away the blood of all my victims. Perhaps the sun will blind others to the monster among them. And maybe the wine will make me forget. This vision kept me going through all my years of service. You’d do well to find your own and cling to it.

I wish you well.

D.

###


 You can find Mr. Klefstad’s novel, Shepherd & The Professor, online, here.

Hauptsturmführer Fillenius (1944)

By Dan Klefstad


The Russians knew they had no chance; we surrounded them. They also knew we’d have no mercy, but they surrendered anyway. They gave up their weapons and helmets, hoping for cigarettes which we no longer had. Were they buying time? Somewhere across the drifting snow, their swine-kin prepared another attack, but we didn’t know when, or how many. So we tried beating the details out, smashing their fingers and noses with rifles. After burning precious calories, we huddled in our so-called “winter outfits” and stamped our feet to get the blood moving. Then we tried to strip their coats which covered neck-to-ankle with thick, coarse wool. I knew very little Russian but it was clear we’d have to shoot them first. That sealed their fate. I ordered my last surviving officer to line them up and empty our German guns into them; the captured ones work better when frozen, and we’d need those for the next assault.

A corporal limps toward me and salutes. “Herr Hauptsturmführer, shall we aim for the head? The coats would be intact then.”

“If you want pig brains on your collar, that’s your business.” I yank the magazine from my pistol and count the remaining ice-covered rounds. “I’ll take the three on the right.”

Up to now, I thought Der Führer might introduce a Super Weapon that would stop the Red Army from entering Germany, but when half our guns failed to perform a simple mass execution, I knew it was over. The war would go on for another fifteen months but this moment in Estonia is where the end began – for Germany and these mongrel fucks who surrendered everything but their coats. At least their weapons worked; my men were thrilled. I, however, counted every one of the eleven bullets they spent.

“Hauptsturmführer Fillenius!” Major Haas motions from a staff-car that must’ve arrived while we were firing. I walk quickly and salute, expecting a reprimand for wasting ammunition.

Haas ignores the bodies. “I’m going to Tallinn to prepare defenses there. Need I remind you of Der Führer’s directive?”

“Stand and fight. No retreat, no surrender.”

His driver, a lieutenant, salutes. “We know you’ll give your all for the Fatherland.”

I ignore him. “Can you send some food, cigarettes, bandages – anything?”

“I’ll assess the situation and let you know.” Haas motions to his driver who shifts into First. “Don’t let us down, Søren.”

His use of my Christian name is another sign that the “thousand-year Reich” will last little more than a decade. I salute once more as he drives toward the final sunset I expect to see. I try to savor it, but someone yells “Deckung!” and I jump into the nearest trench.

§

I’ve seen men hallucinate before they die, so I’m not surprised by the woman wearing a low-cut peasant-style dress. This moonlit vision is a lovely distraction from the gurgling in my throat and lungs. A sucking chest wound gets priority in any triage, but there’s no one left to plug the holes. Suffocating, I try to relax and enjoy this little film about an underdressed beauty walking toward me through white and crimson snow.

“You don’t look Russian,” I wheeze. “Estonian?”

She gathers the long fabric as she kneels, and I see blue veins in her large white breasts. Long fingernails like shell splinters descend toward me, and I wonder if she’ll gouge my eyes out. I close them as she brushes aside a stray forelock.

“Please.” My eyes reopen. “Just stay with me.”

“What a pity.” She says in English. “You look like an angel.” She fingers a pin on my uniform. “SS Nordland.” Then she frowns and grabs a handful of hair, lifting my face toward hers. “I could have used those prisoners you killed.”

I focus on her accent which is different from that of my language tutor in Copenhagen. “American?”

Her grip tightens. “You wasted them!”

Wasted. What did that mean? This was more than a war. It was a crusade against Slavs and other sub-humans, and Jewish bolshevism – a crusade I joined four years ago to help the Nazis take over my native Denmark. The fact that the Aryans failed means nothing matters anymore – nichts. Nearly defeated, I spend one of my remaining breaths on a question. “What do you want?”

“What do you want, Søren?”

Definitely a dream; even my dog-tags use an initial for my first name. But I consider her words. “Leave the war. Leave this fucking continent.”

Her eyes narrow as if preparing to divulge a secret. “I’m going to America.”

“Take me with you.”

Her fist tightens against my skull, eyes glow red, and lips part revealing two long canines. “You’re a monster,” she hisses. “Only a fellow hunter can go with me.”

“I… Who… What are you?”

Her mouth closes but her glowing eyes remain fixed on mine. Of all the things I expected to see while dying, I never imagined a seductive hellish creature calling me a monster. What does that make her? My frozen lips barely move: “Vampyr?”

She scowls. For a moment, she appears uncertain about what to do. Finally: “You’re useless now, nearly bloodless, but I can change you.” Her face is so close, our noses almost touch. “First, I’m going to give you something I never had: a choice.”

“Make me one of you.”

“You haven’t heard the terms.”

“I don’t want to die.”

“If I save you, the sun will be your mortal enemy. And your thirst will never end.”

“Please… ” I cough a final time as my lungs collapse.

Both her hands support my neck as she moves behind me. Then she rests my head in her lap and holds her right hand above my face. A nail slices her wrist and my head instinctively turns as blood rains down.

“Open.” Her fingers squeeze my jaw. The drops cover my face as I struggle for my last breath.

“Be still.”

§

When I awake, I hear a heart beating and know immediately who it belongs to. I sit up and hear his panicked breathing, but pause to take in the surroundings of a command bunker I visited once, now abandoned. Fiona relaxes in the Field Marshal’s former wing-chair, sipping from a glass of red liquid that I already know – I can smell it. And I want it.

“You can relax.” Fiona swallows. “It’s safe here.”

“Safe for whom?” He yells from across the room. “Hauptsturmführer Fillenius! Untie me and arrest this woman!”

“Sturmbannführer Haas,” I rise, noting the major’s civilian clothes. “Where did you go after you left our position?”

“To Tallinn – like I told you!”

“He’s lying.” Fiona examines her nails. “I found him at the Loksa Shipyard, arranging passage to neutral territory. He and his lieutenant – who’s delicious, by the way – had Swedish passports.”

I glare at him, sitting in a wooden chair, arms and legs bound. “Stand and fight, you said.” Then I see the passports on a nearby table, plus a dozen gold coins. “My men were killed – all of them – covering your rear.”

“Oh, I think Lieutenant Baumann covered his rear just fine, wouldn’t you say Major?” Fiona smiles as she takes another sip.

“Søren, listen.” Haas fixes his eyes on me. “She kidnapped us in Tallinn, planted that stuff on us, and killed Fritzi.”

“Don’t call me ‘Søren’ – I do not consort with cowards!”

Haas’s face wrinkles with disgust as he looks at Fiona. “Then, like an animal, she bit his neck and drank his blood.”

I inhale deeply, suddenly aware that my teeth are longer. Haas’s skin reveals a spider web of throbbing vessels, but I know which one to attack first. I glance at Fiona. “Can I take him now?”

Fiona looks amused as she leans back in the Field Marshal’s chair. “Permission granted, Hauptsturmführer.”

§

The Stockholm Palace looks stunning at night, yellow lights reflecting off the sandstone exterior. But the fact that a King lives there – plus the surrounding architecture, music, and fashions – reminds me that we’re still in Europe. I look at Fiona’s hands which rest on the wrought iron balcony, and place my right on her left. “I hear the war will be over soon.”

“Yes.”

“It should be safe to travel, no?”

“It’s never safe.” She looks at me. “The first leg, to England, is a small risk. We could take two or three passengers, but we’d have to share them. The second leg, though…”  She looks at the night sky. “That would be seven or eight – again, shared – so we’d still be starving. If we’re alive when we get to New York, the police will know something’s wrong and board the ship. All they need is a little luck and they’ll find our trunk.”

“Why not have separate trunks?”

“That doubles the chances they’ll find one. If they discover you or me, they’ll keep looking.”

“Remind me. Why are we doing this?”

She points west. “Because that’s where we’ll get dinner every night.” She waves toward the city. “They just had two devastating wars, and God knows if the Russians are finished marching. There aren’t enough people to hide behind while we make the others disappear.”

I gaze at the rising moon and imagine how it looks from New York, Boston, or Chicago. Then I lift my glass. “To America. May we thrive among her teeming multitudes.”

“To whoever controls the universe,” Fiona raises hers. “May she still need us enough to grant safe passage.”

###