Fiction

The Intoxicating Beverage – a spooky short story by Aaron Lockman

Art by Hsin-Yao Tseng

Diana had loved nightclubs. And now, they were gone.

The irony, of course, was that she had steered quite clear of nightclubs when she was alive. She had hated the near darkness, punctuated with blinding flashes. She had hated the loud music, and having to yell to make herself heard. She had never seen the point of dancing – at least this type of dancing, this random writhing without any precision or grace to it. Add to that her general distaste for both alcohol, and the creepy machinations of the sort of men who tend to hang out in nightclubs, and the whole arrangement seemed bizarre. Bizarre that nightclubs existed, bizarre that someone had even come up with the idea, and bizarre that people liked it.

But then, most humans did things that were incomprehensible to her. There comes a moment when one recognizes that one cannot possibly reconcile the vast majority of human behavior – that empathy, beautiful and necessary though it is, has a bend to it, and a breaking point. And so Diana had stayed in her lane, and sat at home, and drank tea, and read books, and rolled her eyes at her friends who saw fit to frequent such odd places.

After that cold, fateful night, however, something flipped. Many things flipped for Diana, of course. That which she previously had run from in terror now attracted and entranced her. She loved bugs now, for one thing. Where before, a single centipede was enough to send her headfirst into hyperventilation, now she would lie in open fields late at night, look up at the dark clouds, and let the ants climb over her, tickling her cold skin.

But another thing, and the relevant one to her story, was that she began to adore the loud noises and sweat-drenched atmospheres of nightclubs.

Here is what Diana would do on a typical evening out.

She never dressed up; she preferred to steal clothes that were casual yet fashionable. At nightclubs, attractiveness – that is, the particular set of shapes and sizes and wefts and brushstrokes that we, as a culture, have decided are beautiful on people – is an asset, and many mortals have learned to weaponize it well. But Diana did not need to. She had never possessed these arbitrary traits in life, nor did she in death. Yet, when most humans looked into her eyes (deep, shiny eyes, mostly black, with just a glisten of red), they saw what they most wished to see. They saw something deep inside themselves, down in the dark places where lie the desires you know you shouldn’t desire.

Anyway, she would arrive and dance for a few hours. Free drinks would be offered to her, and she would refuse every one. Then, she would stop dancing, and she would look. She looked hard, and thoroughly, her glossy black eyes narrowing to slits. She scrutinized every illicit activity: every hand casually slipped into places it had not the consent to go, every tiny packet of powder emptied into a drink when a back was turned. Depravity and cruelty and dishonesty – these things previously repulsed her. Now, she sought them out. It wasn’t that those traits appealed to her, exactly; it was that she was drawn to them. She wanted to drink the tangible evidence of evil, to suck it out of the world and into herself. One could make the argument that Diana consumed just as much evil as blood.

When she had found an appropriate man – and it was usually men, with some exceptions – she took him outside, and she stared into his eyes. She loved it when they tried to run. It happened sometimes; when the man finally got a good look at her eyes, he caught a glimpse of the swirling abyss beneath, and he would run down the alleyway, tripping into filthy puddles and knocking over recycling bins. And Diana would laugh, because she could always run faster. And when she had reeled him back in, she would calm him down. He would stand there, lost in her beautiful, terrible eyes, heartbeat slowing to a pleasant crawl, wondering idly why he was no longer able to run. And she would smile, revealing two very sharp teeth that he could swear hadn’t been there before. And she’d kiss his neck, and bite him, and drain him, slowly.

The average vampire needs about eight minutes to fully drain the average human of blood. And depending on the size of the human, a feeding typically quenches the vampire’s thirst for seven to ten days. Diana spent the time in between walking from town to town, city to city. She avoided large roads, and all forms of transportation (except for the occasional hitchhike). It was no trouble for her to walk across plains, and forests, and deserts, as long as she found cover during the day. In a week, she experienced more of the great outdoors then her living self had seen her entire life. The joy of it was gone, though; nature has no appeal for those who are distinctly unnatural. It was important to keep moving, to kill in a different place each week. Skilled though she was, Diana could still be contained by bars, and walls, and cinderblock.

She missed sleep, sometimes. There was something comforting about sleep, or at least the idea of it. That feeling of foam, of softness, of floating away somewhere nice and not caring where you went. Perhaps it was because she’d never got much good sleep alive, and now she never would – the potential, yanked away before it could truly ignite.

And so it was for decades. City to city, nightclub to nightclub. Trekking across this continent – this serene, sprawling, seething, misused, corrupted continent. Hiding beneath dirt or branches during the day. Lying in fields at night, looking at the stars or the clouds, whichever were out, and letting the ants crawl over her.

Until suddenly, one day, all the nightclubs were closed.

***

Late one chilly spring evening, she came to a mid-size city somewhere in the Midwest. The city was spread over several sloping hills, next to an enormous river. Diana arrived via a long pedestrian bridge over the water; it took her nearly an hour to cross, but she didn’t mind. The air was cool and wet, and the yellows and oranges of the city twinkled merrily as she drew closer. The cold did not bother her, nor did the walk. With a smirk, she thought of how severely her leg muscles might be hurting right now if she were human. Her body, it seemed, could not be worn from overuse. She could keep going, and going, and going.

She wandered the streets, passing in and out beneath white street lamps. Typically, she could locate nightclubs from afar. It wasn’t a smell, exactly; more like a directional, hazy feeling, illuming the way towards the horny people like a lighthouse.

But she detected nothing here. She wandered for hours. Nothing. She found nine locations that looked to be nightclubs, but were closed. Had she come on a slow night? But by her calculations, it was Friday.

This wouldn’t do. Diana’s hunger was growing, heightened now that she could feel the city, the concentration of living, pulsing bodies. She felt sometimes as if her hunger was its own entity, conscious and conniving and cruel, curled at the bottom of her stomach, whispering orders up to her ear. She continued to search.

Finally, the sun began to rise. Panicked, she camped out for the day in a dumpster, and when it was dark again she wandered some more. She found an electronics store that had a television playing the news. She hadn’t paid attention to the news in forty years; there had been no need. The anchor was talking about stay-at-home orders, and flattening the curve, and hospital capacities. Diana had no idea what any of this meant. It occurred to her, looking around, that there seemed to be fewer pedestrians on the streets.

Every nightclub she had found the night before was still shuttered. Finally, in a fit of frustration, she killed a man walking down a dark alleyway. He was wearing an expensive suit, carrying a briefcase, and shouting some very racist things about the Chinese into his Bluetooth, so she figured he was a safe bet in terms of immorality. And indeed he was – when she bit into him, the heavy, salty evil coursed down her throat in pleasurable waves. He tasted of cigars, and fine beef, and expensive wines, and just a hint of cocaine.

She went to another city.

***

Diana went north in the summer months, where the nights were longer and the cloud cover more comprehensive. Over the course of weeks, she surprised herself by exhibiting some tendencies which could be described as curious – inquisitive, even. She stopped at more televisions, and listened, and eavesdropped on various conversations. She began to piece together what was going on, although it brought her little concern; she could not get sick. She began to see more and more people covering their faces with cloth masks as they walked about. She stole one for herself, to blend in, but then found that she did not need it. Plenty of people, Diana observed, amused, were forgoing the masks completely. And those who did wear them only gave her withering, dirty looks, which she returned in kind. One flash of her eyes was enough to deter any sane soul from chastising her.

Fewer places were open at night, and people were more cautious than usual after dark (they were more cautious before dark too, of course, but this was not nearly as annoying to Diana). She grew angrier, and more reckless. One night, she killed a child. He wasn’t even that evil, a bully at most; but she was so hungry, and so tired. The blood of a child, even a monstrous one, is never nourishing – there is always the whiff of potential, the possibility of improvement. It tastes like copper, and rust, and shine.

It is a mistake to perceive Diana as an ally, as a badass, as a creature of the night taking down rapists and capitalists, destroying the system from the outside. She did not drink evil out of a desire to eradicate it. Indeed, how would she feed in a truly just world?

That being said, she thoroughly enjoyed killing those two cops.

In midsummer, she found herself in a large city, one of the largest she had ever been to, with tall, empty skyscrapers, and wide avenues laid out in wide grids. In the city’s center, many people were gathered. They were holding signs, and shouting, and marching. Diana knew vaguely what they were marching about; she watched the news now, after all. She had begun to like the news. Watching it was deliciously unpleasant; a distillation of all the bad things in the world, compressed, packaged, and beamed directly into her bottomless eyes.

Regardless, there were many cops there. And they were, if Diana was being truthful, far overdressed for the occasion, with machine guns and tear gas canisters and large plastic shields. Perhaps she was biased; she needed only one weapon, which she carried invisibly, discretely tucked away in her mouth, and this made her feel distinctly superior.

But oh, the scent of evil was strong that night, emanating from the phalanx of cops like smoke from a rack of barbecued ribs. Diana smiled when the fighting broke out: a wide, sharp smile. She tried to corner one of the cops, but there were too many of them, and they were too well armed.

It was a reckless idea anyway; bad to feed with so many people around. She began to walk through the protest and away from it, confidently strolling through the tear gas, unaffected by the no less than five rubber bullets the cops shot at her. She traipsed past the people running, and panicking; she saw the strife, and the chaos, and it bored her.

Again; a mistake, to empathize with Diana. She is not your friend, and she would kill you, if only you were a little worse.

She was hungry, but here the buffet was too well guarded. She walked north a few miles, and found two cops, sitting in a police SUV parked next to a cemetery. They were not as enticingly potent as the cops downtown; the scent of adrenaline and rage was faint. But they were jealous, which was good. Both of them were simmering in their hot desire to join their colleagues, to be where the action was.

Diana had drunk of only four cops in her many years of hunting. They were something of a delicacy in her mind, conditioned as they were to indulge their hate, to wage a nightly war against the poor, the disenfranchised, and the mentally ill. The hate poured off them in a thick, intoxicating mist, and their blood tasted like the juiciest, most voluptuous steak you’ve ever imagined.

But again, they were usually armed, which was an inconvenience. Not to mention, they had access to jail cells.

Diana made quick work of these two, however. They were distracted and neglectful, not expecting to see much action at the graveyard. Foolish, of course. As Diana knew quite well, there are many dangerous things that lurk in graveyards.

***

By October, Diana would have thrown herself heart-first onto a white picket fence if it meant she could spend one last night in a nightclub. It was becoming an itch, a tangible static disruption, tearing its way through her body every weekend without fail.

She had been to parties, of course. In the chilly northern forests through which she now traipsed, there were plenty of people still congregating despite medical recommendations – in back yards, on patios, in parks, and even in large, stately living rooms. She would wait until the party had begun, and she would emerge from the shadows and walk towards the light, be it campfire or electric. She would walk among the guests and look at them each in turn, and they would accept her without question, although they might feel a disgusting shiver up their spine, or else a slight tingle on the back of their neck.

And there were creeps and assholes among them, certainly, but overall these gatherings smelled not of evil, but of desperation. The whole country, in Diana’s admittedly limited observation, was a damp fuse, fizzling and wet. The frustration and anger was potent; it floated through the air like ash – but it was dampened by heavy mists of boredom, a feeling of stuck-ness and trapped-ness. And so, what else to do but gather? The people at these parties were not evil; they were simply exhausted, and lacked (or had lost) the ability to parse the consequences. A failing, certainly, but not evil – and indeed, their blood tasted of rubber and liquorish and tap water. Nothing could be further from the intoxicating beverage of a nightclub.

And of course, Diana could feel the accumulation of death, and loss, and despair. She steered clear of places with such heavy clouds about; not her thing, not her thing at all. But there was yet another smell in the air, growing stronger as the month drew to a close; an excitement, and a dread. The breathless anticipation that precedes a car driving full speed off a cliff – whether to soar through the air and land miraculously on the other side of the chasm, or to fall suddenly and quickly, dashing itself on the rocks below with a violent crunching screech.

Although. . . well. That particular metaphor lacks flexibility, as it implies the existence of a binary. The truth is, once those tires untouch the cliff, any number of things could happen to the car – each option as unpleasant as it is unpredictable. To say you are capable of knowing what those outcomes are, or even how many there are, is the height of arrogance. Furthermore, as with all metaphors, we are missing crucial details about this car. Who built this car? Is the car stolen? Who’s driving? Does this car deserve to arrive, safe and sound, at its destination?

And who plotted the route? This dismal, cruel, meandering route, that ends in a cliff?

These are not questions Diana was pondering, but they are questions I’d like you to ponder before you reach the end of my story. Because, you see, things are finally about to get interesting.

***

One night, Diana happened upon a small town much like any other. There was a gas station that was also a grocery store. There was a central street, with a bakery, and a police station, and a shop to buy useless knick-knacks. There were streetlamps – old, dull, creaking things, which sputtered sickly orange light onto the cracked pavement.

An ordinary small town in all respects. . . except here, there was a nightclub.

Diana felt it before she saw it – and to her it was like a pool of water in the desert, the flash of a lighthouse to a sinking sailor, the crackling of a radio to a lost astronaut. She ran down the central street at an inhuman speed, then stopped. There, nestled between a used bookstore and a Rite-Aid, was a door. From behind the door came a pulsating dubstep beat, and Diana could see flashing colored lights through the door’s fogged window. There was no line of people. There was only me, the bouncer, standing in front of the club, my hands clasped intimidatingly at my waist.

Diana approached me, slowly and confidently. That night, I was a tall man with wavy black hair and a thick, well-trimmed beard, partially obscured by a purple satin face mask. I wore an impeccably ironed purple button-down, a black pinstripe vest with matching trousers, and aviator sunglasses.

Diana only vaguely noticed the lack of a line of patrons. This should have been her first red flag – but she, like many of us, was tired and desperate and so, so hungry. She smiled at me, and aimed her perilous eyes at my sunglasses.

“I.D.?” I asked. My voice was deep and terse, only slightly muffled by the mask.

Diana paused. She had flashed her eyes at many bouncers, and they usually simply stood aside.

A momentary stab of panic. Then, a new tack; a razor-quick adaptation. Diana had not spoken out loud in a dozen years. But a voice is like a bicycle: you never really forget how to use it, although it may get somewhat rusty.

“Sorry,” she said, then coughed. “Sorry,” she said again. “I, uh. I must have forgot it at home. But. . .” And here she gave me a look that might have been an attempt at flirtation. “I really, really think you want to let me in.”

Doubtless, she had observed young women worm their way into nightclubs like this. I raised an eyebrow. It occurred to her that the eyebrows were my only visible facial feature at present, between the mask and the aviators. It gave my face a placid stillness to it. It did not occur to her to wonder why I was wearing sunglasses at night, or why those glasses were clear and clean, untouched by any condensation from my mask.

After a moment, the eyebrow came down. “Alright,” I said, stepping to the side. “Come on in.”

Diana stepped inside, face alive with ravenous excitement.

It was a normal nightclub. Flashy lights, loud music. The color scheme was violently, overwhelmingly purple – but this did not bother Diana. What did bother her was the complete lack of people. Everything appeared ready to receive patrons: tablecloths were draped elegantly over the few standing tables on the left. The dance floor was empty, but the DJ’s stand was blasting modern pop remixes – although it too was unmanned. The bar, to the right, appeared fully stocked and clean. But no bartender stood behind it.

I closed the door to the nightclub, and locked the deadbolt with a satisfying clunk. Then I turned around.

Diana turned around too, then, quickly. The panic had not quite reached her eyes, which were still red and black and swirly, trying to find something to latch onto behind my glasses. She could still feel the human feelings of the supposed nightclub patrons which had drawn her here: the fear, the lust, the abandon, the drunkenness. The paradox created by the conflicting evidence of her eyes was disorienting; she began to sway, dizzy.

“Now, now,” I said. “There’s absolutely no need for that. Why don’t I turn all this off, and we can chat.”

I clapped my hands. They were large hands, and emitted quite a loud clap – and when they did, several things stopped. The music stopped. The lights stopped flashing different colors and settled on a uniform, comforting purple. And the overwhelming sprawl of bacchanalian emotions immediately ceased. Relieved, Diana took a deep breath. She did not need to breathe, but it was still calming sometimes. She stood there, looking around, uncomfortable and unsure, as I walked past her into the room. She tried to focus on my emotions, but found nothing to latch onto.

“Here,” I said, pulling up two folding chairs and setting them up in the center of the dance floor. “Have a seat, have a drink.  I think some different music is in order, don’t you?” I clapped my hands, and Diana heard a solo piano playing something twinkly and calm and classical. Slowly, shakily, she sat in one of the chairs.

I sat down in the other chair and handed her a whiskey sour. She stared at the glass in her hand for a moment.

Finally she said, “I can’t drink this.”

Her voice was still creaky from disuse. I chuckled. “Neither can I,” I said, toasting her with the identical drink I held. “It’s just nice to have something to do with your hands. Now. . . may I ask your name?”

“No,” she said.

“I’ll find it out anyway,” I rallied back. “So you might as well tell me.”

She stared at me for a moment. “You’re not human,” she said.

“Well spotted.”

“What are you?”

I tilted my head back slightly, as if pondering. “You know,” I said, “that’s a very good question, and I’m afraid don’t quite have an answer. Humans don’t have words for me, the way they do for you and your kind. Because, you see. . .” Here I paused, waited a moment, and plucked her name out of the air: “. . . Diana, it is not the humans that I terrorize.”

A blank look from Diana, a look with some scorn, and some fear. She wore the fear awkwardly, like a too-small jacket. She had not been afraid of anything at all for a long, long time.

“Who do you terrorize,” she said.

“I think you know.”

“You are. . . a monster-slayer.”

I chuckled again. “That phrase connotes some kind of heroism, and hero I am not. You see, I’m somewhat like you in that I do not devour monsters as an altruistic gesture, but simply because I am hungry. But I am unlike you in many ways too, yes, very different indeed. Tell me, Diana, what do you think of all. . . this?”

On “this,” I gestured vaguely, to everything.

Diana stared at me blankly. Her gaze grew more hardened; anger began to creep in around the edges. “All what?” she said.

“All this. Everything that’s been going on these last – what is it, seven months? Eight?”

“It has made it. . . It has. . .” Diana’s voice still struggled to escape her throat. She stole a glance at the door, wondering idly why she hadn’t thought to run out it yet.

“Take your time,” I said.

Diana swallowed. “It has made it difficult. . . to find nightclubs.”

“Hah!” I said. “Yes, I suppose it must. You like nightclubs, don’t you? They must be your favorite place to kill.”

Diana nodded. The chair she sat on was beginning to feel strange and sharp and fuzzy – like when your leg falls asleep, or when you hit your funny bone.

I continued: “Yes, of course. That explains my shape this evening. I don’t always know why I take the shapes I do – until after the fact, that is. Yes, after the fact the meaning always becomes quite clear. Odd, though – I said ‘all this’, and you told me only of yourself. But that’s just like us, isn’t it, to think only of ourselves. We are not wired to care for others the way humans are. You should listen to them right now! It’s all Stay Home, Save Lives, and Band together so we can defeat the orange man! It’d be inspiring if it weren’t all so. . . well, futile feels like the wrong word. Small? Cute? Human?”

Diana was fully panicking now, although her panic was quite a different thing from yours. She had no heartbeat to quicken, no stress-release chemicals to douse her brain. Her panic was a heavy, ugly, stationary sort of affair, like a concrete brick. The unpleasant tingle on the back of her body, the part that touched the folding chair, was progressing forward now. Pins and needles began to savage her insides – every muscle, every bone, every disused organ. She looked toward the door again, and it was gone; there was only a wall of purple-painted cinderblock.

I kept talking. I was getting into the groove by now, really enjoying myself. “Yes, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel some affection for them. I do hope they turn things around, I suppose, in the same way you might root for an ant colony going through some troubles. And you, Diana. . . well, in this metaphor I suppose you’re the ant-eater. If left unchecked, you will massively cock up my afternoon entertainment.”

Diana turned her attention back to me. I was no longer a tall man in a purple shirt. I was a woman, briefly, in a purple cloak and a pointed hat – and then I was another woman, with a businesslike purple blouse and a large nose, and then an appallingly skinny teenage boy in a purple t-shirt, and then a whole slew of people, flashing by in quick succession – and then, something dark and massive and far away, with black scales and purple feathers and yellow teeth and gargantuan claws. It hurt to look at me. With each form I shone brighter and brighter, a blinding purple light that barreled straight down the chasm of Diana’s eyes, blinding her. She writhed in pain, but I took no notice.

“Ooh, this is interesting,” I said, though I knew she could no longer hear me. “You’ve got some great material rattling around in here, Diana, truly spellbinding. I do love vampires, you know. Everything’s about eating with you; good, evil, sex, politics, grief, suffering, it’s all the same damn thing in your eyes. The eternal push and pull of consumption. Eat, or be eaten. It’ll all make good material for the blog.”

And thus, my blinding purple light and I dismantled the vampire, bit by bit, thought by thought, impulse by impulse. I was singularly compelled by Diana’s plight in a way I hadn’t been in a while. Her struggle, to return to her old routine, her familiar and comfortable methods of killing, is the same struggle I see many of you weathering these days. I found some narrative satisfaction in the fact that following that impulse, tracing that string backwards to a past that no longer existed. . . well, in the end, it led her to me.

We will have nightclubs again, make no mistake. But Diana will not be around to enjoy them.

Don’t be Diana.

When I was done, I stepped outside and folded the nightclub into a small black leather briefcase; I was again the tall, bearded man with aviator sunglasses and a purple face mask. The dawn was a blue sliver on the horizon, and I smiled – a quiet, sad smile, one that was just for myself. I sealed the briefcase, picked it up, and walked briskly down the street. I felt good; energized, rejuvenated. I made my way to the town’s public library, and that’s where I am now, typing this on one of the computers, keys clacking merrily as the sun begins to flood the eastern windows with golden sheets of light. The masked librarians will be here soon. And so, I think I must sign off.

I think I’ll continue Diana’s route and head north. Must keep moving, after all: there is no going backwards or standing still in these times. Better to plunge forward into the waxing orange darkness.

I’m sure I will see you soon.

***
This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “The Intoxicating Beverage – a spooky short story by Aaron Lockman

  1. Absolutley Brilliant! Captures the zeitgeist, then gobbles it up and shoots ut back out in a steady stream to its inevitable target. Aaron writes in a clear, succinct voice that his uniquely his own, capturing our universal terror. Thank you Aaron.

    Liked by 1 person

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