I called him Bubba, but it was just an ironic moniker for the annual Grist Mill Festival.
You see, we don’t have Bubbas around here. They’re a creation of another place, and maybe even another time. “Bubba” is a southern nickname, and this ain’t the South. It’s just that the tourists who come down for the Festival don’t know diddly about us here, and for some reason they think we’re in the South.
Let me tell you: when you perform for tips, you learn real soon that it don’t pay to tell your audience that they’re wrong about the local culture. That’s why Al became “Bubba” and I became “Coy” for the little vaudeville-style show we put on every year.
I guess the show’s over now.
It was a good run while it lasted. Live theater in the open air of the Ozarks was magical, and it gave all of us aspiring hillbilly thespians something to do for at least a few autumn evenings. For Al and I, it was a chance to escape the day-to-day drudgery of selling insurance in a small town. Somehow, over the years we’d become the most popular act, so we got to close out the show under the light of the harvest full moon—augmented, of course, by temporary stage lights.
As Coy the Revenue Man, I wore suspenders and trousers that were too short for me to emphasize my lanky frame. I overacted sneaking through the woods looking for Bubba the Moonshiner’s hideout in “Bloody Crick Holler.” As Bubba, Al wore a straw hat and bib overalls a size too small that accentuated his paunch. Bubba bumbled as he tended the still, but whenever Coy got close to catching him something would get in the way of the arrest. For the grand finale, Bubba would disguise his jugs of shine by labeling them “stump water.” Then as Coy was sidling up to the still through the underbrush, I would clutch my heel and declare, “Lordy, I done been bit by one o’ dem dare copperheads! I do declare, I’m a-goin’ to perish if’n I don’t get the proper medication!” Then Coy would drink a quart of the moonshine thinking it was stump water with potent healing properties. When Coy fell into a drunken stupor, Bubba escaped once again, and the show ended to laughter and uproarious applause.
It was all bullshit, of course. Our people’ve never talked like that, and you don’t use stump water to treat snakebites. The tourists didn’t know any better, though. They ate that shit up and stuffed money into Bubba’s straw hat when the show was over. We grinned like idiots and made sure to drawl a little extra when we said, “Thank ya” and “Mighty obliged” to folks.
I don’t want to give the impression that Bubba—I mean, Al—and I were perverting Ozark culture just for the money. We were also doing it for the groupies.
It was the damnedest thing. Maybe it was something wafting in over the river, but every single night of the Festival there’d be women lined up after the show to meet “Bubba” and “Coy.” I can’t for the life of me understand why pretty ladies would want to spend a night with small town actors who portrayed a pair of addled hillbillies, but they sure did. To the vast annoyance of Steven, the part-time pastor who worked as the Festival Director, Al and I would have a new lady friend every night of the Festival.
This year, Bubba’s biggest fan was a little vague on where she was from, but her accent was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Carmilla—that’s what she said her name was—had slithered up to the stage that first night, squeezing through the tiny gaps between people in the crowd. She was tugging a little wisp of a woman behind her, and the poor thing kept getting bumped and jostled by the folks left in Carmilla’s wake. When she got to the edge of the stage, she climbed right up on it and stared Bubba in the eye.
“My girlfriend and I will entertain you this night,” she told him with a voice that purred mighty sweet even if it sounded a lot older than the 25 I judged her to be.
Al probably should have been scared off by the way Carmilla just announced what was going to happen without the least pretense of flirtation. I probably should have realized something was wrong and warned him. But we were only ordinary men, and straight guys at that. Festival Manager Steven’s disapproving stare from the edge of the stage was potent, but it stood no chance of stopping our libidos. When we looked at the pair of beautiful women, irrational desire overwhelmed whatever fear we ought to have felt.
Both the women were fair skinned to the point of being pale, but, other than their complexions, the two looked like total opposites. Carmilla’s hair was as dark as the river behind our stage was at night. Just like the river, her hair tumbled and churned along a rushing course. She was tall, only an inch shorter than me. She wore a low-cut velvet dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at an opera. She wore the evening gown well, but it certainly would’ve looked wrong on a lesser beauty out there on the riverbank beside the oldest functional grist mill in the Ozarks.
Laura, as I later learned her name was, had blond hair bobbed short. Despite the chill of the autumn evening, she wore a yellow sundress over her frail frame without so much as a shiver. She was fragile, somehow, like a timid sorority pledge who didn’t know what she was getting into. At first I thought she was younger than Carmilla, but then I noticed the lines around her eyes and wondered. Laura’s was a cold beauty that reflected the glowing inferno Carmilla gave off.
Bubba—I mean, Al—took Carmilla up on their offer. I’d harbored hopes that Laura would wind up with me, there being two of the ladies and two of us fellows, but the three of them disappeared into the night before I’d even finished talking to the fans after our show. I figured that I’d give Al hell about taking all the women for himself the next morning, along with ribbing him about how I didn’t think he was man enough two handle to ladies at the same time.
I took a red-headed girl from Potosi back to my house in town that night, and I did my best to keep her from feeling like a consolation prize.
On the second day of the Festival, Al was late. Really, really late. It was near sundown, and Steven was powerful worried when I told him Al hadn’t turned up and wasn’t answering my calls or texts. Fortunately, before Steven had to change the evening’s program, Al staggered in dressed like Bubba the Moonshiner and looking like death warmed over. Steven gave us both a disapproving glare and stalked off to shoo some cloggers off the stage.
“Dude, you’re looking mighty rough,” I said to my friend.
He nodded, and I could see that beads of sweat were rolling down his pasty cheeks and disappearing into the heavy beard he’d grown for the Festival. Then he answered me in little more than a whisper.
“Those women . . . did something to me last night.”
“Oh, I bet they did,” I answered. “Do you need a doctor? Or are you just . . . exhausted?”
He shook his head.
“No, I’ll be alright. It was just . . . weird.” Then he summoned a wan smile and added, “The show must go on, right?”
I nodded and got into costume.
The show did go on that night, but only barely. Al’s timing was off bad. Half our corny jokes didn’t land, yielding silence instead of the usual guffaws. The tips were slim that night, but we still made out okay. We also didn’t have the usual crush of admirers after, but I did make the acquaintance of a pretty blond woman named Felicia who’d come down for the show from Ashland. It being so long a drive home, she naturally needed a place to spend the night.
As I was working out co-lodging arrangements with my new companion, I saw Al standing still and all alone at the foot stairs down from the stage. Then Steven turned off the lights, and it took a few moments for my eyes to adjust enough to the darkness. Fortunately, the moon was just shy of full, and the night was clear. As I led Felicia to my car, I saw a movement at the edge of the woods around the makeshift amphitheater where we performed.
There stood Carmilla, shining in the moonlight. Behind her stood Laura, stark as a moonbeam. Both wore the same dresses I’d seen them in the night before. My heart caught in my throat as the pale woman in black velvet raised her hand and pointed at my friend. She gestured, and Bubba the Moonshiner shambled towards her in the moonlight.
The final night of the festival was a disaster. Al wasn’t as late as he had been the day before, but he was still far from on time. When I asked him what the hell was wrong, he just mumbled something about the teeth of a big cat, which didn’t make any sense to me.
The crowd started shuffling out before we’d even finished our show. If our antics’d been real, Coy the Revenue Man could’ve caught Bubba the Moonshiner mighty easy that night, even if Coy was riding a box turtle into Bloody Crick Holler while yodeling at the top of his lungs, because Al mostly just stood in the center of the stage sweating and oblivious to what I said and did as Coy. I knew that we weren’t going to be invited back next year.
After the show, I still had a handful of female fans, but didn’t have eyes for them. I was only interested in lighting into Al. He just stood there blinking at me while I yelled at him as Steven shut off the lights on a disappointing evening.
After I’d blown off a little steam, I felt terrible about losing my temper. Something was obviously wrong with my best friend. I stopped in mid-holler.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you’re sick, Al. How can I help?”
He stood sweating and swaying beside me under the full moon.
“Al!” I hollered at him.
Then, finally, “Al?”
His eyes focused on me for half a second, and he asked, “Who’s Al?”
Then a shadow blotted out the moon, and he bolted into the woods with a sudden burst of energy. I started to chase after him, but the trail vanished amongst the trees. I hollered and I called, but I never got a response other than a screech that I hoped was a paint, not a howler or worse.
Finally, around about two in the morning, I gave up and went home.
It was Steven that brought me the news on Sunday morning. I appreciated that about the man. He didn’t approve of me and my buddy womanizing, but, even though he had a sermon to give later in the morning, he didn’t want the sheriff to be the one to tell me. Al had been found out in the woods, face down in one of the creeks that feed into the river we’d been performing in front of. Steven offered to pray with me, and I even let him, on account of I didn’t know what else to do.
He’d just said “Amen” and left when the police car pulled up. The deputy had a lot of questions for me. I didn’t have any good answers about where I’d been the night before, at least not after I’d yelled at my buddy in front of God and everyone and then chased him into the woods.
The sheriff’s deputy took it all down in a little notepad. When I volunteered that I thought that strange woman he’d been seeing had something to do with whatever’d happened to him, the fellow perked up.
“This woman and her friend, did Al tell you anything about their . . .” the poor guy looked almost embarrassed as he trailed off. Then he gathered his strength and finished, “sexual interests?”
“Not really,” I answered. “He just said it was ‘weird,’ that they did something and that it was weird. He wouldn’t tell me anything more than that.”
The officer shifted back and forth as he tried to look at me without meeting my eyes. Then he asked, “Did your buddy have . . . strange interests himself? Did he ever talk about—“
He gagged and sobbed a little bit. After a few deep breaths, he continued.
“Did he ever talk about really heavy . . . abuse? With blood and stuff?”
I gulped a little and shook my head.
“No, I knew him pretty good, and I don’t think he was into anything like that.”
I sat quiet for a few seconds as the officer looked at me in an uncomfortable silence. Then I added, “The thing is, what me and Al both liked most of all was the chase. If anything, his kink was to always have a new girl every night, and it’s hard to bust out crazy shit that’ll make a person bleed with a woman the first time you’re with her, you know?”
The deputy blushed and nodded at me.
“I understand,” he told me. “Thank you for your time. And your honesty.”
Then he got back into his cruiser and drove away.
That night I dreamed of Al.
I need to be real clear about something here. Even though it sounds like a sit-com punchline, Al and I were best friends, not gay lovers—not that there’s anything wrong with being gay lovers, of course.
So I don’t know why I dreamed of making love with Al. Or maybe it was Bubba, because he was in bib overalls and wore a straw hat on his head. Only, in my dream sometimes it was Bubba, and sometimes it was a giant black cat, like a paint only even larger and heavier. When I woke up in my dream, it stopped being lovemaking that we were doing and became something worse.
He was on top of me, pinning me down. I screamed at him to get off of me, but when I did he became more cat and less man. Then he threw his mouth open and screeched in that horrible, high-pitched way the big cats do, only order and longer, higher and harder. The sound of it was still cutting the night air clean in two over me when he sank his cat-teeth into my chest, just below my collar bone on the left side.
I felt something wet on my chest, and in my dream I passed out.
When I awoke for real, I felt like I had the mother of all hangovers even though I hadn’t touched a drop the night before. It was Monday morning, so I took a shower to get ready to return to the drab world of selling insurance.
As I leaned against the side of the shower and hoped that the hot water would clear my head, I noticed that the water flowing down the drain was tinged a dull red. I inspected myself as best as I could, and I found two holes in my chest, just below my collar bone, trickling blood down my exposed body.
Steven wasn’t interrupting anything when he burst into my office Monday morning like a ball of fire, because I felt too much like shit to be doing any work that he could interrupt.
“It’s worse than I feared,” he told me before the door to my office had even swung all the way shut.
I looked at him and tried to make sense of what he was talking about.
“What’s worse?” I asked, realizing as I spoke that I was slurring the words.
At the sound of my voice, Steven froze with his mouth dangling open. He sat down on the chair I keep for clients to use as I explain the benefits of whole life insurance after they’ve agreed to buy the auto policy from me. Then he pulled one of those little Bibles out of his shirt pocket and looked me square in the eye.
“It came to you, didn’t it?” he said. “That’s much worse than I feared.”
I looked at Steven with bleary eyes, too confused to watch my language around a preacher.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Steven’s eyes were full of concern.
“I came here because Al’s body disappeared from the morgue last night, and that means you’re in danger.”
“Uhn-huh.” I wasn’t at my most articulate.
“But from the look of you, it’s clear that the danger has already found you.”
“Mmmph,” I said as I slid out of my chair and oozed underneath my desk. The world went dark.
I woke up in the back of Steven’s car as it pulled into my driveway. Then the next thing I knew he and some guy dressed like a paramedic were gently pulling me from the car.
“Whhhatsh go-een on?” I asked.
“Good, you’re awake,” Steven said. “We don’t have to break in.” Then he added, “This is Bill.”
The paramedic nodded at me. “Just relax, and we’ll take care of you,” he told me.
One supported me on each side as the drug me up the driveway. When we got to the front door, I was able to fish my house key out of my pants pocket in just three tries. Once we were inside, the two men laid me on the couch and Bill ducked back outside. Steven pulled a chair up beside my head.
“Al came to you last night, didn’t he?”
“Did he . . . ?”
An unexpected tear trickled down my cheek. I blinked furiously as I nodded again, “I thought it was a dream.”
Steven put a hand on mine. “I’m afraid it wasn’t a dream. It was all too real.”
“I just want you to know,” I struggled to figure out how explain that, no matter what had happened to me, I wasn’t gay. Somehow, this preacher I barely knew was taking care of me, and I was pretty sure that me being gay would be a deal breaker for any preacher I’d ever met.
Before I could get the words out, the front door opened again and Bill entered carrying a medical kit and a small cooler.
“I’m liable to get fired for this, babe,” he said as he gave Steven a quick kiss on the lips. “Are you sure it was one of them?”
Steven looked up at Bill with a tenderness I’d never seen on his face in all his years of managing the Festival.
“I’m all but sure, and we’ll be certain once we examine him.”
Before I could object, Bill had unbuttoned my shirt and spread it open, exposing my chest. Both Steven and Bill sucked in their breath when they saw the two puncture wounds below my collarbone. Bill put a hand on Steven’s shoulder.
“Oh my God,” Bill gasped.
“We need to pray,” Steven announced.
The blood felt strange going in, but it helped a lot.
After Steven had finished praying that I would be delivered from the Evil that Stalked me, which was a sentiment I could very much get behind, Bill asked me if I knew my blood type.
“O negative,” I told him.
“Good thing, that’s what I borrowed from the ambulance,” he answered. He took a bag of blood and an IV kit out of the cooler he’d brought into the house, and in the blink of an eye I had cold, fresh blood trickling into my arm.
As I shivered on the couch, Steven set to work on the wounds on my chest. Instead of using anything in the medical kit, he went back out to the car and brought a bag of groceries in. He pulled out an enormous jar of minced garlic, opened it, and started to spoon heaping mounds of it onto my chest.
“Whoa, wait a minute here,” I tried to holler as I raised a weak hand to stop him. “What exactly is going on here?”
Steven pushed my hand out of the way and slathered bits of garlic on my chest.
“You’ve been victimized by a creature that’s more or less a vampire. The garlic will draw out the venom that remains in your system and help repel future attacks.”
I gaped at him.
“I think I’m going to need you to start with something a little more basic.”
Satisfied with the garlic he’d spackled onto me, Steven was beginning to soak a dishrag with olive oil.
“What’s a more basic thing you would like me to begin with?” he asked as he began to dab the garlic with the olive oil.
I took a deep breath and realized that between the fresh blood and the garlic I was feeling a little less terrible than before. I jerked a thumb at Bill.
“Like, who’s he?” I asked.
“A paramedic,” Bill answered for himself.
“And my husband,” Steven added.
“Excuse me? You’re gay? Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Your fixation on me being married to another man rather than your near fatal attack by an Old Evil One makes it very clear that I was correct to keep my orientation to myself.”
“No, man, it’s fine . . . “ I struggled to answer him. Was it fine? I thought it was fine, but a gay Ozark preacher was still a shock.
“I’m sorry,” I added as my mind raced. “It’s just that, I think that my brain was fixated on the surprising detail instead of the impossible detail.”
Steven felt my forehead like he was checking me for a fever.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Jesus forgives, and so do I. Unfortunately, the Old Evil One’s are very real. I knew they were in North America, but I’d never dreamed that they’d come this far.”
Bill came and stood behind Steven. The paramedic put a hand on his husband’s shoulder.
“So, Preacher Man,” he said, “what are we going to do now?”
It turned out that what we were going to do was to use me as bait. I didn’t like the idea one bit, but Steven seemed to know a hell of a lot more about the monster we were facing than I did.
“You can’t run,” he told me. “Al was your best friend in his mortal life, and a welcome guest in your home. Because of that connection to you, the demon that has taken him will find you wherever you go.”
“So, what do we do?” I asked him.
“We stand and fight.”
I went to bed more or less like usual, only Steven and Bill were hiding in my closet. Despite being bone-tired, I couldn’t begin to go to sleep with two dudes armed with stakes, crosses, and Bibles watching me and what sure seemed to be an honest to God vampire stalking me.
Still, I tried to do the best I could to at least feign sleep. Sometime around midnight, a mist began to ooze in around the window sill in my bedroom. At first it was too fine to be sure it was there, but before long the moonbeam streaming in showed a cloud, then a vague shape, then a dark cat, and finally Bubba the Moonshiner in bib overalls and a straw hat.
He sniffed the air and hissed as he climbed on top of me. There was a wave of cold throbbing off of him into the air of my bedroom. Suddenly, I could see my breath as it fogged in the air.
A tongue far too long for a human shot out of Bubba’s mouth and licked for my stomach. I cringed and yelled, but Bubba expanded to block out all light and all reason over me. He lowered himself onto me with a feline, sensuous pounce. I almost wanted him to have me, but I was glad when I heard Steven’s shout from behind him.
Bubba hissed as something pointed and wooden erupted from his chest. Black liquid dripped onto me and began to smoke holes into my sheets.
The monster whirled, a cat now, screeching into the night. It took a swipe with a paw and tossed Bill across the room. Then the big cat leapt for the closed window as Steven leapt after it.
The cat seemed to just slip through the glass somehow, but Steven shattered it as he hit it. As the shards flew everywhere, Steven plunged another stake into the back of the beast. They landed together in a yowling heap in the bush under my window. Bill scrambled through the broken glass, and I mustered my energy to stagger after him.
There in the yard, Steven was beating the creature with his tiny pocket Bible. The cat was shifting back and forth from mist to man to cat, until finally it became Bubba again. The man collapsed toward the street, but he was screeching like a cat.
Then Steven declared, “In the name of God, be gone!”
There was a gust of wind. The moon winked out, and I collapsed beneath my sweet gum tree.
I stayed the rest of that night with Steven and Bill. The next few days, too. They patched me up as best they could, but I’m not anywhere close to better. I’m not okay.
I reckon that I’m as good as I’m going to get, though, so I’d best be off. Steven says that “Vengeance is the Lord’s,” or some such shit. Steven knows a lot, but there’s something that I know, too.
That bitch is out there somewhere, and she’s gonna pay.