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Frozen with a Stranger in the Park by J. D. Rummel
published in Volume 1, Issue 1 on January 15th, 1994

That year, autumn closed around the eyes of the Midwest like a dead man's hand, somehow relaxing its chilling grasp to allow sporadic glimpses of a warmer summer, a time long past.

He had never been here before. Larger urban centers, such as Chicago or the coastal Los Angeles or New York, suited his needs far better than here; as he wandered through the airport terminal these facts were not lost to him, and plainly he had no idea what he hoped to find in such a place.

He chose to stand outside, undisturbed by the brisk night air and its augury of a harsh winter. The dim electric light and utter lack of activity gave the loading zone a spectral, forlorn quality. There were only the three of them. Himself, tall, thin, dressed so fashionably and with such poise that he might have stepped from the pages of a magazine, and the two uniformed, commercial pilots he had seen inside who'd been assigned the task of hauling his baggage. Quietly, and with a deliberation reserved for the mentally impaired, they stacked his belongings.

From the south came a sudden rush of activity, disrupting the funereal atmosphere of the late evening; headlights pierced forward, washing the dapper figure in whiteness. A black stretch Cadillac jerked to an echoing halt, positioning its trunk so as to most efficiently receive a flow of luggage.

The driver jumped out with the same type of confused energy demonstrated by the limos's approach. He straightened his uniform and hurried around the vehicle. He was a rangy young man, whose gut was beginning to swell from too much beer and not enough sweat. Long brown hair and a thin moustache shaded his narrow face.

"Mr. Traven?" he asked, slightly touching his cap brim. It was a false gesture, carried out with awkwardness.

The perfectly dressed figure nodded and smiled. He motioned the pilots to begin loading his baggage into the Cadillac. The driver looked at this and then to Traven, a perplexed expression curling across his face. A face that said: airplane pilots don't do this.

Jed Traven formed an innocent grin, "Frequent Flyer perk," he said.

"Errr. . .My name is Ron, and I'll be your chauffeur," said the driver.

"It's nice to meet you, Ron;" Traven glanced down at an expensive watch, "a little late, though."

Ron swallowed, "I'm sorry about that. . .I, well, I didn't..."

Traven let out a gentle laugh, "No harm done, Ron. To be honest, I have all the time there is." He squeezed Ron's shoulder and the chauffeur relaxed-- the gesture conveying good will. "Let's go have some fun." He turned and waved the pilots away. "You may go now, gentlemen."

Ron watched them shuffle off, moving with a sluggishness that would explain any air disasters they might be involved in. He then opened the rear door of the limousine and Jed slid across the sumptuous velour seats. The interior was expansive and held every requested convenience. He opened an ice-cold can of soda and took a long drink. "You know, Ron, cold Squirt is one of man's greatest achievements. I wish we'd had it when I was younger."

Ron glanced at the rearview. Traven hadn't seemed that old when he looked at him earlier. The image that played back was unclear in the interior gloom of the car. He swung the vehicle out and toward the exit. "Oh, yeah, yeah, I like beer myself--Black and Tans--you ever have one?" It was apparently a rhetorical question as Ron never ceased speaking long enough for a reply to be issued. "It's Guinness an' Harp, the Guinness is too heavy to mix with the Harp so they stay separate." Ron looked again into the mirror, using it as a reference point for the conversation. He wiped at the muddy reflection with his sleeve. "So, where to?" he asked.

Traven let out a satisfied sigh as he finished the soda. Something was starting to tingle in his throat, like the onset of the flu. "What is the most expensive hotel in town?" he asked.

"Uh, there's a Red Lion downtown that used to be a Hilton. Do you have a reservation?"

Traven stared out the tinted window as the dark scenery rolled past. "I won't need a reservation." His voice had a confidence, as if sharing some easily verified statistic.

"Yeah, yeah, you're probably right. I can't imagine they'd be full. Listen, are you here for business or pleasure?"

"I can't say."

"Oh, yeah, yeah. Listen, sometimes I get to talking too much, you know? So if I do, just let me know, okay?"

Traven chuckled, "I like to talk, and I enjoy listening, so you and I should get along well. Tell me, Ron, where can a fellow meet ladies in this town?"

Ron pumped his head in a nod, "Yeah, yeah, I dunno. What're you looking for?"

"Any warm-blooded female will do," he said, wiggling his eyebrows.

And Ron replied, "Yeah, yeah."

Ron waited outside the bar with the engine idling, keeping the car warm. This guy he was driving around was something else. A mover and a shaker. He had to be some big-wig somewhere because the staff at the Red Lion had fallen all over themselves trying to please him. He reminded Ron of a rock star, the way things started happening when he appeared. But he wasn't stuck-up or anything. He laughed at all of Ron's jokes, so it didn't matter to Ron if the guy was a serial killer. And the guy did like to talk, just like he'd said. He talked about things like a man who'd been rescued from a deserted island. He seemed hungry for companionship.

Balls of light floated across the floor and the people. Monitors flashed images from the ceiling and walls; cartoons, dancers, weight lifters all blipped around on the multiple screens. On the gleaming, blinking dance floor men and women twisted and bounced to the pulsing music. Some moved with style, others stomped and jerked to an utterly private rhythm. The room flickered with a strobe light. White beams rushed out to illuminate a swirling haze of smoke, then withdrew just as rapidly. And the closeness of it all--heat curled around the room and squeezed droplets of sweat from the most sedentary figures, causing liquor to splash and flow over ice and down into mouths.

Traven tasted iron and salt in the thick air as he passed through the room. His presence turned heads, drew unconscious stares, generated whispers. Some saw him as taller than he was. If questioned, none would be able to agree on hair color or length, eye color, or build; they would only concur that he issued a siren call for attention.

In the terribly over-crowded bar, Traven cleared a section of an occupied table with snappy conversation that everyone heard despite the crashing music; he requested drinks for the entire table and entertained those seated around him with an infectious and charming humor that defied recounting. Everyone would remember the words and the evening differently.

But as successful as he was, Traven could not concentrate on the business at hand. As his newfound guests looked at him, expecting some engaging anecdote, he felt a long-denied past pushing at him for recognition. None of the people were his friends, none knew him. There was no Jonathan Rollins amongst them. How he had enjoyed sitting in the kitchen with Rollins, tossing back and forth opinion and observations--pretending that the concerns of such finite lives were important. Sometimes on Sunday afternoons, he and Parson Dale would play chess, treating each game as a learning experience. He missed such times more than he thought possible.

"Can I get you anything?" he heard someone say.

His vision focused on a nametag that read: Colleen. Reverie faded as his eyes trailed from the nameplate across the soft, swollen expanse of silk covered breasts. He directed his gaze higher, taking in the ringlet tresses of blonde, the smooth, powdered face and perfectly shaded blue eyes.

She smiled, "I said, can I get you anything?" Her voice was loud, working against the music, unaware of how keen his hearing was.

Jed returned her smile with fluid grace, insinuating his will at a spot just behind her electric blue eyes.

"Would you step outside with me?" his voice rolled across to her, clear and distinct, as if there were no music for it to compete with. She mustered a good natured grin, and held up her hand, wiggling the ring finger so that the wedding band caught the intermittent light.

His grasp around her hand was not startling. It seemed the way things should be. It was right, totally without threat, yet insistent. Standing, he gently tugged her toward the door. They stepped through the crowd, never seeming to touch anyone, parting the people as they moved. The group offered little notice of their passage. It seemed to Colleen that time had slowed, thickened like cold syrup. Reality was leaking out of the corners of the curiously tilted room. She thought if she could just open her eyelids wider everything would be normal, and she might find herself at home in bed.

Outside, the low hanging moon was too large in the sky, and though she saw clouds of her own breath, the cold was not apparent. In fact, Colleen tingled with warmth, perhaps because her heart was beating so noticeably, the blood flow booming and booming just below her ears.

The door of the Cadillac opened to a dark, somehow inviting interior.

In his hand, Colleen felt the ring sliding off her finger, not catching on the knuckle as usual, but flowing smoothly, as if the ring were many times too big.

He held the jewelry between their faces, the facets reflecting red from his carmine-colored eyes. "The man who gave you this has forgotten how a woman like you must be held, how you deserve to be touched," she heard.

And fingers like the touch of rabbit fur trailed down her cheek pausing briefly over the thickening veins of her neck, then curved under the hair and combed the loose strands outward. She drew closer to him. He tilted his head down and kissed her. She had no idea why she was doing this; it was wrong, but it was as if her conscience had been drugged and abandoned in some mental basement. It was true, she thought, her man had forgotten her, had treated her like some securely stored possession. She returned Traven's kiss now, along his cheek and ear, wanting to be closer.

She knew he was speaking to her, but the words seemed like warm, buttered things that melted and seeped under her flesh. She drifted backward into the shadows offered by the limo; she had a need to feel those hands on her skin. The clothing she had earlier tucked, buttoned and brushed so carefully seemed to dissolve from around her.

He knows you, Colleen, something whispered.

She guided his hands, saw him despite the darkness, and there was no mistaking that he cared about Colleen. When those fingertips brushed her, when his lips and tongue moistened her, she jolted at the pure contact he granted. An animal drug was glutting her veins, racking her with spasms and making her gasp. She welcomed the foreign chemistry, hoping it would stay longer, that the slow-time of before would stretch and stretch this moment. There was a will flowing into her now, an alien presence pumping across her senses, more than the sound of breath and muscular effort, more than smells of cologne and deodorant stirred by sweat, more than glimpses of flesh working in the blackness, more than the salty rich flavor against her tongue, even more than the animal touch that found her out; within her now was something beyond her past experience, outside her reasoning, but never far from her desires. For all the passion she knew she was safe, kept in a warm place by one who saw her innermost self and accepted it.

And as she floated somewhere with him she welcomed the breaking of the vein, never begrudging his own pleasure and taking. Because she recognized it all as a natural act--a meeting of mutual needs.

The sleep that came to him later was not the same as long ago, not like the rest of a man; in the unlit room, with sheets over his head and heavy cloths draping the windows, he lie in a semi-conscious state, aware of his surroundings but lacking energy or enthusiasm to deal with any changes that might occur.

Still, a part of him slipped away, seeking release from all the growing weight that squeezed him when he was mobile. The figures were all very clear to him.

Very clear. There was Kay, with her ember-red hair and intelligence; Lynn, whose wide, grey eyes moved him and made her shocking past so incredible; Anne, possessed of a spirit that eclipsed her ordinary features and drew him like a lodestone. Anne shone the brightest this time.

Because it was a dream, things happened that were not true. The sadness was not with him, and the night was bright and sunny. Rather than leaving her, he remained, spoke with her, learned that she was indeed everything he wanted her to be. Her smile and laughter surrounded him; her silences were mysterious and troubling; she held him in a soft, iron snare. The facts held no authority in this world, only what he wanted to take shape, did. Because it was a dream nothing went wrong and the two of them built a better place to be.

Because of the sun setting in the real world, because of what he was, the figures began to lose their definition, the better place started to recede and dim. For all the things he could make happen, he had no power to grasp the dream and make it stay. He could see it, but he could not touch it. And after a while, he could not see it, either.

The sun was down now. He knew it and his eyes opened. Movement became easy again. He cast the sheets off and showered. He was hungry.

Under the porte-cochere Ron sat in the Cadillac. Music thrummed from the expensive stereo making him twitch and shake. His eyes were closed and he was smiling, recalling the night before. That strung-out woman was wild. Whatever Traven gave her was some good stuff. He wondered if Traven was on the run, if he'd see his photo on one of those criminal call-in shows. He wondered what sort of reward there was for him, if any. A guy this smooth had to be illegal.

"Did the young lady get home safely, Ron?"

Ron jerked around so violently he heard a cracking noise from his neck. "Geez! I didn't hear you get in!" There was a startled anger as he spoke.

Traven ignored the tone, grinning. "I shouldn't wonder, the radio is a bit loud, don't you think?"

Ron swallowed, remembered that he was talking to a client, remembered that he couldn't afford to be fired again. "Yeah, yeah," he said, turning the volume down.

Traven asked again, "The young woman did arrive home without incident?"

Ron was surprised at the honest concern he heard. "Oh, yeah, yeah, she wasn't walkin' all that good, but I got her to the door."


Ron rubbed his neck where it was beginning to ache. "So, where to?"

Jed Traven made a face. "I hadn't really given it much thought."

Ron guided the car down the drive, glancing at the rearview as he spoke. The reflection was still blurred; he had forgotten to clean the damn thing. "It's too bad you don't have a costume, I know a couple parties where they're givin' away prizes for the best costume."

Traven opened a can of Squirt. "And to think I almost dressed up like a duck tonight."

Ron looked back over his shoulder. "Huh?"

"Why on earth would you expect me to wear a costume?"

"Well, Halloween, you know. . ."

Traven looked up through the polarized moonroof. "Tonight is Halloween?"

Ron wondered how out of touch this guy was. "Yeah, yeah, it's my favorite holiday, even though I don't do much for it anymore, y'know? I usually watch some bad movie, or one of the old Universal classics, maybe visit a haunted house. . ."

"Haunted house?"

"Yeah, yeah, y'know, people put 'em together--radio stations, charities-- they charge you to get in, then give the money to crippled kids, like."

"Do you know a good one?"

Ron caught the interest in Traven's question. "Oh, yeah, yeah, Spirit in the Night--like the Springsteen song, 'Like spirits in the night (all night) in the night (all night)'" Ron's singing was raspy, he performed a miniature concert, exhorting an invisible crowd.

"Ron, does your boss get a lot of comments on you?"

"Yeah, yeah, but I work cheap."

Traven smiled. "It has been a long time since I truly enjoyed myself. Do you think it would be fun?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"Do you need a costume?"

What ship dumped this guy off? Ron wondered. "Uhh, no."

Traven nodded, "Ron, let's go to a haunted house."

"Awright!" And Ron hit the gas.

A long line of people huddled in the cold outside a derelict office structure. A painted sign was illuminated by floodlights and girlish squeals emanated from the interior of the decaying building. In the parking lot a wolf-man jumped out from behind some cars and growled at newcomers and passers-by.

Ron looked at the pseudo-lycanthrope and said to Traven, "That guy's no Lon Chaney."

Traven examined the substantial crowd waiting before the entrance, "With such a group how do they expect to frighten anyone?"

Ron's voice dropped to a dejected register as he spied the line. "Aww man, we'll never get in."

Traven touched his forefinger to his chin. "I don't wish to go in such a crowd. We'll go in first, and have the others wait out here."

Ron slowly turned toward him. "You wanna cut a line that size? Maybe I better stay here."

"Nonsense. Do you see any girl you'd like to go in with?"

"Girl?" Ron asked.

"Certainly. Being frightened with a shrieking female appears to be the charm of this operation. What would be the point of being brave and bold for each other?"

Ron wondered if the man had been consuming his own drugs. "Uh, that blonde with the big guy near the front looks good." He said this not as a joke, but as a test, to call the bluff of someone over-reaching his ability.

For a moment Traven hesitated, and Ron felt a rush of triumph. "Well," Traven said, "she's wearing a lot of make-up, but it is Halloween, I suppose. Very well." He pointed at the line. "I like the one with the long black hair."

Ron followed at a discreet distance, prepared to watch a savage ass- kicking, and pick up the pieces. Moments later Traven returned with the two girls they had singled out, his arms draped over each.

"Ron," he said, "you are with Rebecca."

Ron nodded, taking only a glancing notice of the girl's groggy condition. "Hi. . .Rebecca." He faced Traven, "Y'know, up until now the best trick I ever saw was my cousin John juggling three apples and taking a bite out of one--I think this is better." And he put his arm around the girl.

"Just to make sure, later, I'll take a bite out of one," Traven said, winking. And Ron laughed a dirty, ignorant laugh.

They stepped up to the entrance. The line was halted, waiting for the signal for the next bunch to go ahead. Ron had no more doubts that Traven would have his way. At the ticket counter his faith was justified.

Traven spoke to a young woman and a uniformed security guard.

"We would like to go in now, just the four of us."

The girl making change shook her head and waved her hand like some annoying bug was in the air, then her eyes glazed over. "Sure," she said.

The security guard's eyebrows shot up so fast they threatened to leave his head, but when he looked at Traven her agreement seemed perfectly natural--the best of all possible options.

Traven looked away from the guard and spoke. "Incidentally, what charity does this benefit?"

The ticket girl tried to focus her eyes and replied numbly; "Uh, muscular dystrophy. . ." her words dropped off, as if she had forgotten her lines.

Jed pulled a roll of green bills from his pocket, cracked off several notes whose value far exceeded the fair toll, then strolled inside with his date.

In the cold outside, the crowd was angry; some muttered, some even shouted obscenities; even the two men who couldn't remember what happened to their dates were mad.

Tonight, Ron had broken probably half the company rules he'd promised to observe. Of course he didn't really care, this Jed Traven was just too much fun; the haunted house, dinner, dancing, it was the best date he'd ever been on, even if his girl did seem more interested in Traven, and more than a little out of it.

He thought about that as he lugged Traven's zombie-woman to her front door. Maybe all this guy did was drug-up his dates, but he had never seen any street action that worked like this. At the door she seemed to rally, just like the others, and go back to living with nothing but a pleasant memory that she could not detail.

Traven stared out the rear window. Although he saw Ron returning he could not lose the image of Ron carry-walking the female up the pavement. Nothing had changed. Had he really thought it would? Now that he was sated, objectivity returned. He had gone out and done what he always did. This time he gave a complete stranger a human toy to play with. How removed from humanity he was. It was always like this; first the hunger, with its utter disregard for the feelings of others, then the detached joy of needs being met. How predatory he was. Finally there was the sadness, the realization that he was no longer a man, just a shadow who lived on those of substance. This place was the same as everywhere else.

Ron got back into the car. "Okay, I got her inside."

He turned up the heater fan, put the limo in gear and started to drive the early morning streets. He reached into a sack, removed and then skillfully opened an imported beer. As he made a turn, several empties clinked on the floorboard. "So, where to?" he asked.

"Someplace quiet."

"If it wasn't so cold I'd. . ." --he cut loose a hollow belch-- "pardon me, I'd say the park."

Traven cocked an eyebrow. "The park will do nicely."

Ron shrugged and made a sharp turn, almost entering the wrong lane of traffic. "I s'pose you can keep us out of trouble if the Man shows up--it's way after hours and. . ." He held up the beer.

"You learn quickly."

"Oh, yeah, yeah. Hey, listen, I wanna tell ya, I been thinking, and man, you were right." Ron addressed the blurry reflection.

"How's that?"

"About Rebecca--she did have too much make-up on."

Ron thought he could make out Traven's eyes rolling back.

"The unexamined life is not worth leading, Ron."

"Oh, yeah, yeah," Ron replied.

Jed saw the park much better under the white moon than Ron did. The frosty lagoon sparkled like broken glass, and leaves drifted down in the breeze settling upon other leaves, forming a shifting, rustling carpet over the earth. The pair stepped across the brittle covering, each with a peculiar gait. Ron moved unsteadily, the beer flushing his motor centers, making his moves measured and uncertain. The beer also prevented him from noticing that Traven's steps, even in the leaves, were noiseless. He travelled like an early morning fog: visible, quiet, and disturbing nothing.

Ron looked around. "Gee, it's kinda nice; we shoulda kept the girls with us." The words slurred together ever so slightly, and something about the statement twisted a knot in Traven's skull.

"They would have come because I made them want to, not because they cared. Doesn't that bother you?"

The question had an intensity that intimidated Ron. He spoke hesitantly, the alcohol adding to his deliberation. "Uh, no, not really. It just felt good to have them along. Who cares why?"

Traven relaxed slightly, nodding. "Yes, it's like that, the feeling of power. But very quickly the reality of who you are slips away and before long they aren't people anymore..." Ron glanced sideways at the man, assessing him. He took a drink and spoke. "Man, what is wrong?"

Traven returned the look. "What?"

"Look. You ditched two, three, maybe more women. You got money, some style." He looked at Traven for an extended moment. "A lot of style. You could probably go anywhere in the world, an' here you are, standing in the park with a drunken stranger, freezing. There's something wrong with you."

Traven smiled. "That's the first insightful thing I've heard you say."

Ron shrugged, "It's the beer."

The two of them moved toward a picnic table and sat down on its top. Traven steepled his fingers and stared off. "I had a dream about an old friend named Anne."

Ron's lips made a smacking noise as he pulled the bottle away. "You were in love?"

Traven nodded, "Yes. But she's gone now."

Ron made a dull face and finished the beer. "Y'know I don't wanna make you mad, but yer better off. Sooner or later she'd let you down. Everybody lets ya down--men, women, friends, family."

"I'm sorry you feel that way. Surely you have someone in your life. A lover."

Ron straightened, as if accused of some unnatural act. "No, I don't... Well, y'know I don't... I sorta make women mad, y'know? It was really great tonight, having a girl do what I liked without wondering what she was thinkin' about, tryin' to figure out why she did something. Y'know?"

"My, I can't imagine any woman being mad at you."

Even through the beers Ron heard the sarcasm and bristled, "Yeah, well, not everybody's as smooth as you. If I could do the things you do..."

Traven halted him with a glance. "No. What I do is wrong, but I have to do it."

Ron waved him off. "Hey, I know what you mean. It's like, you gotta have it, but it's not fair that these other people have got it, and. . .ya gotta go through all this bullshit to get what you want. And what you want is lots simpler than what she wants."

Traven shook his head and blinked, "We are talking about two separate things."

Ron pulled a beer from his coat pocket, opened the bottle and spoke with less heat. "So tell me about Anne. She couldn't handle you always scammin' on the ladies?"

Traven's lips turned into a wistful smile. "No, I let her go. I never allowed myself too near, never took the chance."

Ron squinted, "I don't get it."

"What I mean is, when I saw that she could affect me, I left."

Ron curled his lip, nodded, "Smart move, when you know they can make you crazy--run away."

"But I ran too many times, too far. I found things on the edge..." He halted, considering his audience. "I was afraid that if I let someone close enough, even someone I wanted to be there, I would give that person..." He shook his head. "If you allow yourself to care, you give part of yourself..." Again he stopped. "In loving someone there is a chance for losing control, because you are trusting outside your field of authority. I could never do that, I had to have my control. Now of course, I have it, and I envy humans their capacity to give themselves over to another. To trust someone else is a wonderful thing."

He turned to Ron and asked, "Why are you wasting this opportunity?"


"You have this great potential for an adventure, an exhilarating experience, the chance of winning or losing, a marvelous gamble, but you too are freezing with a stranger in the park. Why?"

Ron squeezed his temples and sniffled in the cold. He looked at Traven with the glare of someone feeling cheated, then finally he spoke. "It's so complicated, y'know?" He considered the beer, then rested it between his knees. "Y'know, I watched my mom and dad, they didn't have an adventure. . ." He pursed his lips--tasting the words before he issued them. "It was work. Hard work. Everyday, y'know? I don't think I ever saw anything I wanted." Ron sniffled again, staring at his shoes. "If what they had is love, who needs it?"

"Are you loved, Ron? Certainly you'd be missed by people, you'd leave some hole, but the hole would close over. Would anyone refuse to let it close?"

"Nope," Ron said in an almost whisper, "you?"

"I wouldn't even leave a hole."

Ron gazed at Traven, deep into eyes he had seen squeeze the will out of strangers, pulp the conscious logic of so many people. Traven returned the moment, trying to dredge up some trace of a long-lost humanity. Ron took a swig of his beer and said: "I really gotta piss."

And both of them snorted and looked away, laughing at the scene they had built between them. Ron rose and stumbled to a tree, while Jed Traven wandered over to the pond, curious if it would freeze solid, or if it were deep enough to retain some softness underneath. The moonbeams broke into thousands of tiny twinkles on the surface making it hard to judge.

Ron drew abreast of him. "So, what are you doing here?"

Traven breathed a long, slow sigh and Ron distantly wondered why no steam issued forth in the cold. Finally, Traven spoke, "Every so often I try to run from what I am. I never make it."

Ron nodded, "Yeah, yeah," he said. "It's like this movie I saw. It had one good line, y'know how some movies are like that? Just one good thing? In it, this guy says: 'No matter where you go--there you are.' Y'know?"

"Yes, I think I do."

And the vampire listened as Ron told him the entire plot to the movie with one good thing, because there were so many hours until dawn and he really had nowhere else to go.

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