Toxic Reality by Katherine Tomlinson
When my husband and son came home early from a camping trip, hauling a big footlocker in the truck bed and grinning like fools, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one thing, Deke hadn’t called ahead to tell me they were coming home early so when I saw the 5150 pull into the drive my first thought was that something had happened to Andy.
I’d been upstairs when the truck pulled in and had practically levitated to the front door. Andy had launched himself into the house, throwing his arms around my knees and crowing, “We found a treasure mama.” I looked up at my husband and he nodded excitedly, his expression somewhere between ecstasy and fear. It was his O-face and I’d never seen it in broad daylight.
Deke brought the tarp into the living room and laid it down on the rug before humping the footlocker into the house. It was one of those olive-drab ones you see in war movies, rusting at the corners and the latches, the paint peeling off the metal. With the dirt and mold clinging to it, I couldn’t help but think that it looked a lot like a coffin.
“Open it, darlin’, go on,” my husband urged, and I felt a physical wave of revulsion. I didn’t want to touch it. I had the irrational thought that if I never touched it, I could deny the reality of it being in my living room, sitting there halfway between the sofa and the plasma television I’d bought Deke for Father’s Day.
Eager to show me what was inside, Andy darted forward and sprung the latches. He couldn’t quite manage the heavy lid, so Deke reached past him and pulled it open.
Inside the box was packed with small boxes and velvet pouches and bags and rolls of silk and satin. Deke grabbed the first sack and pulled it open, pouring the contents into my hand. Diamonds. Each one as big as a walnut. They were cool, like the earth they’d been buried in, but each one flashed with a fire that scalded me.
“They’re real,” Deke said. “We tested them.” He and Andy exchanged a conspiratorial giggle as they reached for more sacks, poured more jewelry onto the floor. One box held tangles of gold chain heavy enough to anchor a yacht. Another yielded what looked like a Celtic cloak pin.
“Look Mama,” Andy said, rummaging through the plunder and pulling items out willy-nilly. “A crown.” He put a bejeweled golden circlet on his head. It was so big it slipped down his head and over his eyes. Deke took it off him and put it on his own head. “You’re a king, daddy,” Andy said, laughing. Then he dived back into the sacks and boxes to see what else was there.
“Put it back,” I said. “You have to put this back.” I was almost in a panic. “Whoever this belongs to …” I couldn’t believe I had to put it into words. This was a dragon’s hoard, this was something so precious that it was worth its weight in blood.
“Don’t you want to see everything that’s in there?” Deke asked, sounding hurt.
I shook my head vehemently. I’d seen enough. The boys had left the bling strung out on the rug and it didn’t take an antique appraiser’s eye to see that the jewelry was a collection that had been put together over more than a few centuries. There was a diamond tiara that looked like one I’d seen in photographs of Tsarina Alexandra. There was a pair of emerald earrings that looked Roman, and not the Romeof La Dolce Vita. This was a museum-worthy collection of jewels and whoever had put it together and put it out in the woods was going to miss it. And when it was missed… well, that did not bode well for us at all.
“Finders keepers,” Deke said in answer to my protests. It took me all of the night and most of the next day to convince Deke to return the locker and the treasure to the place where he’d found it. He came back muddy and sullen and didn’t come to bed until long after I’d fallen asleep.
Three days later, there was a knock at the front door while I was cleaning up after dinner. I had a premonition then, but Deke had already opened the door and stepped back to let the visitor enter by the time I got to the living room.
The visitor was not a large man, but he filled the room with his presence.
“You have something of mine,” he said to Deke. “I want it back.” Then he smiled at Andy, who was sitting on the floor, playing with Legos.
“We have nothing of yours,” I said. “And you are not welcome here.”
“I was invited in,” he replied mildly. “And you are mistaken.”
I turned to Deke in horror. “Deke?” He didn’t reply, but the look on his face told me everything. “What did you keep?”
Deke’s face was ashen as he pulled an antique rose gold watch from his pocket. He held it out to the visitor in mute supplication.
“Deke!” My voice was so high it made Andy flinch. The visitor smiled again, not pleasantly.
“You’re welcome to the time-piece,” the visitor said to Deke. “I’ll take your boy in trade.”
Andy was frightened but he didn’t cry. He didn’t want to embarrass his daddy. He didn’t cry even when the vampire bit into his little neck and fed there. He didn’t cry even as he died.
When he was sated, the vampire tossed Andy’s little body aside as casually as a human might discard a chicken bone. “He won’t rise,” he promised, “I was too hungry to stop.”
The police suspected abuse when we called 911 but Andy didn’t have a mark on him except for the odd bite mark on his neck, a mark explained by our pet cat. In the end, his death was attributed to severe anemia and that saddest of phrases, “failure to thrive.”
I could have left Deke, I suppose. But what would be the point? Andy would still be dead, and without my husband there’d be no one who could really understand the nature of my pain.
Deke wears the watch every day in a perverse form of penance.
It keeps perfect time.
About Katherine Tomlinson
Katherine Tomlinson is a former journalist who prefers making things up. She is the author of Just Another Day in Paradise, L.A. Nocturne and the “Blood and Fire” chapter of the shared-world anthology Drunk on the Moon (coming from Trestle Press in March 2012). She and artist Mark Satchwill are the creators of NoHo Noir, a serial novel published weekly at http://nohonoir.blogspot.com/ and the upcoming graphic novel Soul Searchers. See more of her fiction on her blog kattomic energy http://kattomic-energy.blogspot.com/