The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 2, No. 1

A Trick of the Light

by Pinckney Benedict

CURTIS and LIDA LEE are holed up in a cheap motel room in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Their clothes are scattered on the floor. CURTIS lies in bed, an arm flung across his eyes. He is skinny and muscular, his biceps covered in blue prison tattoos. He wears boxer shorts and an undershirt. LIDA LEE--small, soft, very pretty, dressed in a long T-shirt--rises.

LIDA LEE: Curtis? Are you awake? I'm opening up the window curtains.

LIDA LEE throws open the curtains. A shaft of harsh daylight pours into the room. CURTIS squints against it, groaning, and covers his eyes again. He searches the bedside table with an outstretched hand.

CURTIS: I need some sunglasses. Have you got my glasses? I can't find them.

LIDA LEE: You left them. They're back in the Montego, the car we had yesterday.

CURTIS: You saw me leave them?

LIDA LEE: Sure. You clipped them to the visor, and they were there when we got out of the car. Just sitting in their case.

CURTIS: Damn it, Lida Lee. Why didn't you say something? They could probably trace those things some way. It's that kind of oversight that always trips up the fugitives on TV.

LIDA LEE: They weren't my glasses. I didn't need them. I figure if you can't remember to take along something that belongs to you, it isn't up to me to remind you. I'm not your mommy.

CURTIS: You should of said something. You know I can't see for the glare.

LIDA LEE: I never needed sunglasses. Even when I was little, all I wanted to do was stare up into the sun, but people wouldn't let me. They would always stop me. I couldn't believe it would hurt me.

CURTIS: Well, don't do it now.

LIDA LEE: Why not?

CURTIS: It'll blind you.

LIDA LEE: I don't mind. I could be blind and still be perfectly happy. Would you make yourself blind, if I did it?

CURTIS: I'm making myself blind right now.

LIDA LEE: Now that would be an indicator of love.

CURTIS: I'm going to have to close the curtains if you don't find me some glasses.

LIDA LEE: If you stare into the sun long enough, that's what you see forever. It imprints itself on your eye, and nothing else is ever bright enough to overcome it. We would know that we were always seeing the same thing.

CURTIS: Nothing.

LIDA LEE: We would have that last specter of the sun. We'd have the persistence of our vision.

CURTIS: I need you to shut the curtains now, Lida Lee. We can go blind later on if you want.

LIDA LEE closes the curtains.

LIDA LEE: Man, that trucker who picked us up yesterday really wanted me, didn't he?

CURTIS: He was warm for your form.

LIDA LEE: He needed me.

CURTIS: He thought he was going to get you.

LIDA LEE: He didn't even know what was up when I put the pistol against his side. He thought I was playing some kind of a game with him.

CURTIS: "Hey baby, not so rough." That's what he said.

LIDA LEE fishes a small matte-finish .380 automatic from beneath her pillow. She jabs it playfully into CURTIS's ribs.

LIDA LEE: You do that good. Say it again.

CURTIS's imitation is flawed this time.

CURTIS: "Hey baby, not so rough."

LIDA LEE: And I said to him, "Look down, you idiot. It's a gun I've got against you now."

CURTIS: Put that thing away. It makes me nervous.

LIDA LEE: He didn't say that.

CURTIS: That's not him saying it. That's me.

LIDA LEE: He really lost his nerve, didn't he? Started babbling. I think he had heard about us. He even apologized for ogling me and pressing up against me. He wanted me to know his regret was sincere.

CURTIS (frightened): Put the gun away.

LIDA LEE: When he started telling me about his wife and kids, I put a bullet in him. It went between his ribs. Hydrostatic shock stopped his heart.

CURTIS: I said, put the gun away.

LIDA LEE: Sometimes you're such a ninny.

She slips the gun back under the pillow.

CURTIS: You wouldn't want me holding a gun on you that way.

LIDA LEE: I wouldn't mind. You wouldn't shoot me.

CURTIS: How do you know that?

LIDA LEE: You think you love me.

CURTIS: Well, thousands of folks loved people, and shot them anyhow. It happens every day.

LIDA LEE: True enough.

CURTIS pulls LIDA LEE to him on the bed. He begins to kiss her, to fondle her. She resists him, rising.

LIDA LEE: These men that pick us up think they'll live forever no matter what they do. They get tied up in knots when they see a woman beside the road, and they never even think to look for you in the bushes. They mistake me for something else. They mistake me for their own lust. God, it's funny.

CURTIS: The police are looking for us, you know. They'll kill us if they find us.

LIDA LEE: They'll find us. And they'll kill us. It's axiomatic.

CURTIS: We're outlaws. We're outside their system. We've got nobody but each other now.

LIDA LEE: And your sister.

CURTIS: You're right. There's my sister.

LIDA LEE: You think she'll take us in, but she won't. She'll turn us from her door like we're a couple of animals.

CURTIS: She doesn't know anything. She can't imagine what it is that we do.

LIDA LEE: If we make it to her place, she'll take one look at us and she'll know. She'll say, "Curtis, what? You've been killing people. They pick you up in their car and you snuff them. I heard about it in the news and I suspected it was you. Now I'm sure." She'll know it from looking. It's written on us. It's there in your face.

CURTIS: She won't see it. She lives on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. It's like a resort. People there don't have any idea about us. They're rich. They're innocents.

LIDA LEE: Not so innocent. You watch.

CURTIS: She told me about a thing that happened to her. She had a dog that she took on long walks with her all the time. They'd walk out on these golf courses that they have around her house, great flat sandy stretches. She'd walk that dog on roads that run along the canals. The roads are paved with crushed seashells.

LIDA LEE: This is going to turn out bad. I feel terrible for that little dog already.

CURTIS: Not a little dog. It was a Doberman, a great big toothy sucker. It ran down in the canals and splashed while she walked on the road above. It played in the water, sported with it like it was a live thing. It always came back from the walks wet as a sponge, with algae between its toes. It marked the thick white carpets in her condo with its footprints, crisscrossing the floor. The prints got fainter as it went, till they were like ghosts.

LIDA LEE: I think I heard this before.

CURTIS: One day she heard a loud splash from the canal. No yelp or anything, but just a slapping sound, like a giant palm on the water. She was looking away at the time.

LIDA LEE: And when she looked back, the dog was gone.

CURTIS: She couldn't find it anywhere. Just the shallow water down there, thick and dark as beef gravy. It had little ripples moving in it, and they went still as she watched. She searched for a while, and then she headed home without the dog. When she came back the next day, an old man and his grandson were sitting on the bank of the canal. They had fishing poles, and lines with corks on them out floating in the scummy water.

LIDA LEE: Did she tell them about the dog?

CURTIS: She said, "I lost a dog here yesterday. I think an alligator might of eaten it." They just looked at her, this handsome rich old man and his grandson. Their corks bobbed in the water. They looked at her as if they had never heard of a thing like that. They looked at her like no such thing could ever happen at their fishing hole.

LIDA LEE: That boy was probably no bigger than the dog.

CURTIS: That's just what she thought. She didn't want him to get grabbed by a gator and dragged down under. She meant to tell them that. But he was innocent. And so was his grandfather. They didn't know about anything bad, and so they thought nothing bad could happen to them. They went back to their fishing after a while.

LIDA LEE: I'd of gotten out of there, and fast too.

CURTIS: They turned their backs and acted like she wasn't even there. She just went back to her house. They almost made her believe it never happened, the way they stared at her. She didn't know if it was real or not till she saw the dog's faded prints on her carpet. She won't walk along the canals anymore, even if you ask her to.

LIDA LEE: I won't ask her.

CURTIS: That's how they are on Hilton Head Island. That's why we're headed there.

LIDA LEE: To dwell among the alligators.

CURTIS: It's not so bad. She might not even be at home, and we'll just stay at her place, the two of us. We'll swim in the ocean. We'll lie in the sun. We can go out for dinner every night of the week if you want. You'll never have to cook on Hilton Head Island.

LIDA LEE: I get tired of eating out all the time. Listen, I've got to go to the little girl's room. After that we'll grab a ride and go, okay?

LIDA LEE takes up her clothing and goes into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. CURTIS switches on the bedside radio. He tunes in a ball game, a song, a commercial, and lingers for a moment on a news station promo.

NEWS READER: The Supreme Court delivers a blow to conservatives on the Hill with a landmark decision concerning Title Ten funding for abortion clinics. The Governor denies reports linking him romantically with the girlfriend of a reputed mobster. Another in a series of bizarre motorist slayings in the Appalachians. And the Cards drop another one.

CURTIS spins the dial again, moving through the stations. He lands on a talk show.

CALLER: So this guy has butchered his family, right? He killed his wife and his kids and then he was walking to the police station to turn himself in. His brother was taking him there, walking with him, talking to him, you know, keep him calm. And when they get to the police station, the guy pulls a knife he's got on him and stabs his brother right in the chest. Stabs him right in the chest. The brother keels over dead in the street. And when the police come out, the guy surrenders to them. He's got tears in his eyes. And you know what he says?

HOST: No, caller. What did he say?

CALLER: He looks up at them and he goes, "I bet you fellows are wondering just what kind of a son of a bitch I am."

HOST: Mm hm. And what did they say?

CALLER: Pardon me?

HOST: Did they tell him? What kind of a son of a bitch they thought he was?

CALLER: Unfortunately, I can't tell you that. The account I read doesn't record their response.

CURTIS is growing impatient. He begins throwing on his clothes. He raps gently against the bathroom door but receives no response.

HOST: Of course not. And that's one of the problems with your kind of story, isn't it? It records the words of the madman and precious little else.

CALLER: My kind of story?

HOST: You use the killer's statement as a punch line. You make the violence ironic.

CALLER: Listen, I didn't make this thing up.

HOST: Didn't you, caller? Didn't you? Isn't this really your story you're telling us now? What you did or what you wish you did? Remember, caller, America's listening.

CURTIS turns the radio down. He stands and walks to the window, parts the curtains. Looking out, he becomes alarmed.

CURTIS: Lida Lee? Where are you going? Lida Lee?

He struggles to open the window, which refuses to budge.

CURTIS: Lida Lee! Come back here! Who is that?

LIDA LEE emerges from the bathroom. She is dressed in her hitchhiking gear: a tight pair of cut-off jeans and a revealing halter top.

LIDA LEE: Who are you yelling at? Christ, you said you wanted to be inconspicuous.

CURTIS: I thought you were going off someplace. I thought you had climbed out the bathroom window. That woman in the parking lot--she looks just like you. She moves the way you move. Dresses the way you dress. She was on the arm of some fellow.

LIDA LEE glances out the window.

LIDA LEE: Who, that skinny one there? She doesn't look a thing like me. You don't have the vaguest notion what I look like, do you?

CURTIS: Of course I do. I look at you all day long.

LIDA LEE: Looking's one thing. Knowing's another. (Her attention returns to the scene outside the window.) They're getting into that slick Thunderbird. That's a good-looking car. We haven't had a classic in quite a while.

CURTIS: Not since the GTO.

LIDA LEE: Yeah. That one put me off the old cars for a while. I hated to scrag that guy. Listen, I got the little soaps and shampoos out of the bathroom. I'm taking the shower cap. You want the sewing kit?

CURTIS (taking the proffered kit): Haid. That was his name, the GTO guy. Lonnie Haid.

LIDA LEE: That's it. He sure did like that big car he had.

CURTIS: He was a nice guy. Still, we had to do it. You can't let one of them go just because you like him. It destroys the pattern.

LIDA LEE: Kind of like breaking a chain letter. Bad luck all around.

CURTIS: What did he say to you, there at the end?

LIDA LEE: Say to me? Nothing special, that I recall. Nothing much.

CURTIS: You took him off in the scrub at the side of the road. He must of said something.

LIDA LEE: There were tears in his eyes. He said that he loved me.

CURTIS: He loved you.

LIDA LEE: Even though he knew I was going to shoot him. He loved me anyway.

CURTIS: A nutcase.

LIDA LEE: He said that you don't just love someone for what they do or don't do. You love them even if you can't condone their actions. He said he hoped I would let him hug me good-bye.

CURTIS: He just wanted to get at the gun. He wanted to waste you.

LIDA LEE: I don't believe so. He put his arms around me and pulled me tight to him. I could feel him trembling.

CURTIS: I thought you might be planning to run off with him, when you marched him off like that where I couldn't see. You never did that before.

LIDA LEE: He was still clutching me when I shot him. I put the bullet into his left temple. He went straight from being alive to being dead as we stood there.

CURTIS: I was just starting out after you when I heard the shot.

LIDA LEE: He fell down, flat on his back. He laid there and I waited for him to open his eyes, but he didn't. I was crying by that time.

CURTIS: I recall the tears on your cheeks.

LIDA LEE: I almost wish I didn't kill him sometimes, but I've got the memory that proves I did.

They are silent for a couple of moments, gathering the last of their things.

LIDA LEE: Listen. Do you believe in vampires?

CURTIS: Pardon?

LIDA LEE: Vampires. They come from the line of Cain.

CURTIS: You mean like Dracula?

LIDA LEE: Sure. The undead. The reason I ask, there's a slogan written on the wall in the bathroom. It says in big block letters ARE YOU A VAMPIRE? There's an arrow drawn to the mirror over the sink.

CURTIS: Are you a vampire. Well? Did you look in the mirror?

LIDA LEE: I was going to. I went over to it, but then at the last minute I couldn't bear to look. I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye when I turned to leave though. It might of just been my clothes. Empty clothes passing through the bathroom.

CURTIS hooks a finger into the front of LIDA LEE's halter top and draws her toward him.

CURTIS: They don't look empty to me.

LIDA LEE: That's what we are, you know. We're vampires. We stalk the living.

CURTIS: You're not a vampire. You like the sun. You don't burn up when you come out in the day.

LIDA LEE: Maybe the sun part's a myth.

CURTIS: Maybe it's all a myth. Maybe we're all of us vampires and it's just nobody can tell.

LIDA LEE: I saw a vampire once. A real one. When I was a dancer in a bar in Mount Nebo.

CURTIS: What were you doing in Mount Nebo?

LIDA LEE: I needed some cash, so I got a job dancing nights at a topless joint. There were mirrors on the wall behind me, and mirrors stuck to the ceiling overhead. There was even a mirror on the stage under me. They had it covered with a big piece of clear acrylic so it wouldn't break, but still the owner told us to be careful how hard we jumped.

CURTIS: And one night, when you were dancing, you saw it wasn't you in the mirrors anymore. It was just an empty G-string up there whirling around by itself. And a couple of pasties.

LIDA LEE: We didn't wear pasties in this club. And I was always in the mirror. (Her voice grows dreamy and she begins to move slowly, languorously, as though to an inaudible beat.) They had a strobe light, and when they turned it on, the effect was pretty amazing. All those girls: fronts, backs, upside down, right-side up, moving like a dream while the strobe popped. And they were all me. (Returning to reality.) Whenever my set was done, I had to wipe my own sweat off the mirrors. They had a spray bottle of Windex up there on the stage, and a big roll of Bounty paper towels.

CURTIS: So the vampire was one of the other dancers.

LIDA LEE: Not them either. It was this guy that came into the bar all the time. He was a little guy in a madras jacket. He came in one day, about suppertime, and he always brought lots of five-dollar bills. He would get up in front of the stage and tuck the fives into your G-string. A lot of the guys got up there with just ones, but this fellow was a big spender.

CURTIS: And he didn't show up in the mirror.

LIDA LEE: I was up there in front of him, and he was grinning. I kicked my leg over his head, and I slipped in the sweat and about fell down. I caught myself against the mirror in back, and I saw that he wasn't there. When I turned back, he was still standing at the stage, big as life, in that ugly madras jacket. And he tucked the five into my G like always and went back to his seat and sat down. He was drinking a beer.

CURTIS: So what happened?

LIDA LEE: Happened? Nothing happened. I asked the other girls about it, and they said no, he never showed up in the mirror. They thought it was just a trick of the light.

CURTIS: He didn't come for you? He didn't hover outside your window and croon all his dirty secrets in to you? (He cuddles LIDA LEE obscenely.) Did he change into a bat? Did he grow fangs and try to bite your neck?

LIDA LEE works her way free of CURTIS's embrace.

LIDA LEE: I was only in town a little while. I scraped up a few bucks and headed out. I got a postcard from a girl that kept on working there. She said two or three of the dancers had disappeared.

CURTIS: The man in the madras jacket came and got them. He dragged them off to his darkened house, and he did unspeakable things to them. He drank their blood. He wallowed in it. Then he came back for more.

LIDA LEE: She didn't say anything about that. She just said the girls were gone, and the owner said not to expect them back.

CURTIS: Just as well eaten by a vampire bat as working at a Mount Nebo whorehouse.

LIDA LEE: It was a topless bar.

CURTIS: Of course it was. So how did you become a vampire? If he never bit you.

LIDA LEE: It could be they don't have to bite you. Maybe it happens some other way. Maybe if a vampire yearns for you, you become one.

CURTIS: You got a point.

A police siren wails outside the motel room. Tires shriek. Blue lights strobe. A bullhorn blats.

UNSEEN COP: You in there. Room 137. This is Sergeant J. W. Daws of the West Virginia State Police. We know you're in there. We've got the place surrounded.

LIDA LEE goes to the window, tweaks the curtains, looks out.

LIDA LEE: Man, that's a mess of troopers.

CURTIS: Get away from there! They'll shoot you.

LIDA LEE: I knew this was coming. I knew it was going to happen to us.

CURTIS: Those damn glasses.

LIDA LEE: It wasn't the glasses.

CURTIS: It might of been. You don't know.

LIDA LEE: There's no escape. Surrender now and nobody gets hurt.

CURTIS: I wonder if they've got wooden stakes. And mallets to pound them in.

UNSEEN COP: I'll give you to the count of three. Then we're coming in.

LIDA LEE: They'll have to cut our heads off and turn them around backwards. That's how it works, I understand. They'll lay us in a coffin filled with rose petals.

CURTIS: That part doesn't sound so bad.

LIDA LEE: Which part?


CURTIS: The rose petals.

LIDA LEE: They'll stuff our mouths with unbroken cloves of garlic. They'll say prayers over us and incinerate our corpses. They'll bury the ashes in unmarked graves in unhallowed ground.


CURTIS (retrieving a cut-down scattergun from under the bed): Gee. I wonder what they'll do when even that won't keep us down.

LIDA LEE slips her pistol from beneath the pillow, and CURTIS racks the shotgun. They rush the door together.


Black out, and an impossible fusillade of gunfire. When it dies down, we hear the soft, grainy sound of Emmylou Harris singing "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" on the bedside radio.