Robert Earl Keen had it right – the road really does go on forever. But the party ended somewhere around the Nevada state line as I fell into an uneasy sleep greeted by nightmares. Fangs came at me like knives, carving out flesh and bringing forth Tarantino-esque fountains of blood. I woke to find us at a gas station off the highway somewhere west of Flagstaff. Bleary-eyed, I followed Elvis inside to search for a restroom.
The cracked, dirty mirror showed me the face of a crazy woman. “Vampires,” I whispered to my reflection. “What the hell?”
Elvis had a thing for junk food. Two bags of chips and not the snack size either, three candy bars, a six pack of Coke and a bag of ice. I took one of the sodas as he packed the rest into a small cooler kept behind the passenger seat. “So what’s the deal with the Gatlin brothers?”
He scratched one sideburn, looking at me through narrowed eyes. “The deal is they know who you are, probably because of your press pass.” He started the Camaro and drove onto the access road.
“Will they really come after me?”
“They’re crazy and they like killing women. I’d say yeah, they’ll come after you.” He ripped open a bag of Doritos. “Good thing I plan on killing them first.”
I reached into my messenger bag for the notepad and pen. “You said you’d been looking for them for a long time. Why?”
He cut a quick glance at the notepad before sliding on his sunglasses. “Flagstaff or Winslow?”
“We can stop for the night in either place. Winslow’s about an hour past Flagstaff. Just depends on how long you feel up to staying on the road.”
This might have been my strangest interview but it wasn’t my first difficult interview. Sometimes you need a hammer and chisel to get people to open up, especially when the image they’re trying so hard to project is vastly different from the truth. I’d learned to spot the signs and knew when to close the notepad and wait. It might take time to get Elvis Jones to answer my questions but I was prepared to be patient and earn his trust.
Besides, my palms were still too sore to do much writing. I made a point of examining the bandages, not having to fake my frustration with the pain. Grumbling, I shoved the notepad and pen back in the bag. “Winslow’s fine as long there’s a clean motel and a decent restaurant. That’s all I ask.”
Elvis nodded. “I’ll get us a double room. The Gatlins got a lot of friends and this car ain’t exactly inconspicuous.”
The idea of being attacked at night in a strange place didn’t appeal so I didn’t argue. Over the years I’d developed a good radar for detecting men I needed to be wary of and Elvis didn’t set off any of those alarms. “I’m willing to trust you but if you’re going to see me in my Marvin the Martian pajamas, you’re gonna have to answer some questions. Five, to be exact.”
He grinned. “Make it three and you’ve got a deal.”
Normally I would have bargained but something about that grin and the adorable dimples it deployed weakened me. “Deal. How long have you been hunting vampires?”
“Since I was twelve.”
If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have already known the answer to that question. He’d already told me his mother was killed by vampires when he was twelve. “Why the Gatlin brothers in particular?”
It took him a long time to answer. “All vampires are bad but they’re some of the worst. They need killin’.”
There was a rawness to his voice that scratched at my conscience like cat’s claws. He may have given me a truthful answer, but he hadn’t given me the whole answer. Did I want to know? Yes, I did. I always wanted to know, it was why I asked questions for a living. But should I know? Did I have a right to hold up this man’s pain to the light and turn it over for examination?
“What’s your favorite Elvis song from one of his movies?”
His grip on the steering wheel relaxed and the dimples returned. He answered by singing part of Love Me Tender, changing the lyrics a little just like the King would in concert.
I laughed, letting the honey caramel of his voice roll through me. Elvis Jones didn’t need Auto-Tune. Not one little bit.
That night I woke on my side of the double room, restless from more bad dreams full of blood and fangs. A cold drink of water might chase the images away, or maybe a little nip out of his non-holy water flask. Elvis lay sprawled across his bed, shirt unbuttoned, the flask and the TV remote to his right. I reached for the flask, pausing when I noticed the scars on his flesh. The white lines were faint in the low light of one lamp but they were unmistakable. Most appeared to be from knife wounds to my untrained eye but there was at least one that might have been caused by a bullet.
He made a noise in his sleep, body jerking. An inarticulate mumbling, full of pain and torment, came from him. I sank to the edge of the bed, putting my hands on his shoulders to shake him out of his nightmare. His eyes snapped open, glazed and unseeing.
I had no time to move. He wrapped one hand around my wrist in a crushing grip while the other withdrew a stake from under his pillow. The sharpened tip went through my cotton pajama top and sank into the skin above my heart.
I slapped Elvis with my free hand, pulling away as far as I could. Awareness came to him in a rush and he threw the stake to the floor. I found a quarter-sized spot of blood on my pajama top, the small puncture wound underneath throbbing. Elvis released my wrist and dove for his battered suitcase. I retreated to my own bed, not sure what to say or how to react. He’d been in the throes of a nightmare, I knew that. He hadn’t meant to hurt me, I knew that too, instinctively. But still…
He approached with a first aid kit. A storm raged in his eyes. The guilt on his face made me want to comfort him, a response that would have gotten a barnstormer of a lecture from my old Feminist Studies professor.
“I…I didn’t mean…”
“Elvis.” Unsure what I wanted to say, I reached for the first aid kit. He dropped it on the bed and fled the room. I heard the key turn in the lock and the pounding of his boots as he ran.
I slept fitfully the rest of the night, letting the TV keep me company when I occasionally woke. The pale light of a desert morning was just beginning to be visible around the motel curtains when Elvis finally returned.
Shirt torn, lip bloody, a nasty bruise blooming around his right eye, he looked a mess. I found the first aid kit and rose. “Glad you came back,” I said. “Still got a ton of questions for you.”
He grabbed the kit, throwing it to the bed. Hands on my shoulders, he shook me. “Get out!”
“What’s the matter?” Placating drunks was another skill I’d picked up while working for a music magazine.
“I figured you’d already be gone. You need to leave before things get bad.”
“A couple of psychobilly vampires are after me just for being in the room when you killed their brother. I think things are already bad.” Taking his hands, I tried to guide him to his bed. “Now sit down and let’s take care of your face.”
He shoved me away. “You need to leave! You’ll get hurt if you stay with me.”
I was no stranger to self-destructive tendencies and the likelihood of them gathering up bystanders in a black hole of pain, so I recognized where he was coming from. I already knew the smart thing to do would be to grab my stuff and find a way back to LA. So why didn’t I do the smart thing? How often does anybody do the smart thing? The logical, reasonable thing? In my experience, not often.
Elvis picked up his suitcase and threw it on his bed. “I need my pills. I shoulda taken ’em before.”
I had a hunch he wasn’t talking about illegal pills. “What do you take?”
He rummaged through his belongings. “The sleeping pills put me out too hard, I don’t like ’em. They stop the nightmares, though. I shoulda taken one but I wanted to be alert just in case.” Tossing clothes onto the bed, he upended the case and shook it. “Where’s the goddamn pills?”
“Are they with your bathroom stuff?”
He hurried past me to the small bathroom. I followed, careful not to get too close. Snatching up the bag he kept his toiletries in, he dumped everything out, items scattering across the sink, some falling to the floor. Along with the usual stuff were several pill bottles with prescription labels. He fumbled through them, tossing a couple of bottles aside before clutching tightly onto one. I tore the wrapper from one of the motel plastic cups and filled it with water. Elvis took the cup wordlessly, downing two pills and leaving the bottle behind as he left the bathroom.
Sometimes I’m too damn nosy. Cursing myself, I picked up the mess and used the act as an excuse to read the prescription labels. Sleeping pills, like he’d said, along with lithium, Valium, an anti-depressant I was familiar with, and a couple of things I wasn’t sure about. Anti-psychotics, maybe? I committed the names to memory so I could research them later.
Elvis sat on the edge of his bed, tunneling his fingers through his thick black hair. I sat beside him, silent and nervous, eventually placing one hand on his shoulder. The tension slowly eased out of his body, whether from the pills or my touch I couldn’t say.
It was inherently unfair to ask someone to open up to you without offering the same in return, but I did just that and got paid for it. There had been times, though, when I found myself inexplicably revealing pieces of myself to an interview subject. Usually it was an accident but this time I made the conscious decision to do so. I liked Elvis Jones. His voice had drawn me from the start, that first time I saw him perform in a Vegas lounge. By turns soulful and playful, bursting with passion and tinged at the edges with a twilight sadness, his singing had reached down into me and touched a place I tried to hide with a cynical professionalism. Vampires were only mildly interesting to me in comparison with that voice. I had to admit, at least to myself, that most of all what I wanted was to hear him sing. That voice was a golden gift from the gods but he kept it hidden in shadows. Did I entertain thoughts of introducing him to producers I knew, music business executives? You bet. But Elvis Jones had a darkness in him, born of night and blood and if my suspicions were correct, horrible death. His voice would never see the light of day.
Maybe that’s why I wanted to know his story so badly – because I was afraid if I didn’t, then there would be no record of it.
So I opened up to him. Not much, because the ugly details were more than I could stand to share. Just a little, because I had a weakness for my fellow motherless children.
A deep breath and a sip of whiskey from his flask helped. “My mother died when I was ten. My dad, he never really got over it.”
“What did she die of?”
“Cancer.” The lie came easily. I was willing to share parts of my personal nightmare, but not all. Never all.
Elvis watched me carefully from under a mop of disheveled hair. “Was it just you and your daddy or do you have brothers and sisters?”
It took me a moment to answer, not used to someone asking me questions. “Just me and my dad. I think we both just kind of shut down in a lot of ways. He traveled a lot for his job and traveled even more after she died, so I mostly lived with my grandparents. I was lucky to have them, but it wasn’t the same. I blew up at him about it once at a family Thanksgiving in front of a bunch of relatives. I think he felt guilty because for Christmas that year, he gave me a stereo and a hundred dollars to buy CDs.”
The agony of choosing what CDs to buy – the memory flared sharp, bringing with it the scent of patchouli incense burning in the music store, Nirvana on the speakers. The entirety of Nevermind played while I browsed and was one of the albums I left with. “I had a diary with a bunch of dumb teenage stuff in it.” Nervous energy put me on my feet. “It changed as I started buying more and more music.”
A ghost of a smile flitted across his face as he reached for the flask. “That when you started writing about music?”
I nodded. “I didn’t think much about it at first. I started reading music magazines, trying to emulate the way the articles and interviews were written. Then I found books about music. My first one is still my favorite.” The memory filled me with love. “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs.”
“I know that book.” Elvis smiled. “He wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone.”
“And he was awesomely uncool.” I still had the book, full of underlined passages and page corners turned down. After all these years it still represented everything I wanted to be. “That was the start of the life I have now. The start of who I am now.”
He took another drink from the flask. “Did it help? The music, the writing?”
“It did. I didn’t understand at the time, but it filled a hole I hadn’t even realized was there. I mean, I missed my mom but it was too big, you know? I couldn’t handle it so I shut parts of myself down and didn’t deal with it. I can’t say exactly how the music and the writing helped, but it did. I guess maybe it made me come into my own, made me stronger.” I took a breath, ready to redirect the conversation. “But I guess that’s nothing compared to what you’ve been through.”
Elvis stood, making his way to the window. He drew the curtain back, morning desert light blasting into the room. “You already figured it out, didn’t you?”
“You were twelve when vampires murdered her. Was it the Gatlins?” Pretty sure I already knew the answer.
It took him a long time to respond. “They made me watch.” His voice trembled, low and pained. “Everything they did, they made me watch.”
I couldn’t bring myself to ask for more detail. “How did you get away?”
He shook, then rubbed his face with his hands, the curtain falling closed. “After she was dead they got bored. Wanted another woman to hurt. Two of them left to find someone else and the one who stayed was so high, I was able to get past him. Hell if I know how. Somebody was surely watching out for me.”
“What happened to you after?”
“The usual. Group homes, foster care, juvenile detention.” He gestured toward the bathroom, at the jumble of pill bottles. “One diagnosis after another. One prescription after another. The world thinks I’m crazy, Nikki. But you know the truth.” He reached out, fingers skating through the air an inch from my cheek before dropping away. “Not many people do.”
Heart thudding, I had to take a step back before I did something stupid. “What got you started hunting vampires? I mean, I know the why. I’m curious about the how.”
Whiskey eyes watched me for a moment. “I was hustling pool in a Memphis bar when I found myself a vampire. I followed him out to the alley where he’d taken a girl. Before I had a chance to do anything, this old guy came out of the shadows and took that vampire’s head clean off with a samurai sword.”
He laughed. “Hell, yeah. I knew right then I had to get that old guy to teach me everything he knew.”
A thousand fresh questions erupted in my brain but there was one I had to know first. “Is Elvis your real name?”
He sat up straight, brushing the hair from his face. “Yes, ma’am. Mama was a big fan of the King’s.”
My heart ached for him and his poor mother. “What was her favorite song of his?”
“Oh, she couldn’t pick just one. But there’s one that always makes me think of her.”
He retrieved his guitar. My throat closed up, pulse pounding. I was about to hear that voice again and it thrilled me. Surprisingly, he was a little shy at first, but it didn’t last long. He sang Mama Liked The Roses with the fragile tenderness of a young child who missed their mother.
The desert heat must have irritated my eyes, or maybe it was a brief bout of allergies. I didn’t cry. Nikki McGraw does not cry.