Six Sunsets by Maria Alberto

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narrated by Bob Eccles

First sunrise

When the sun finally ventured beyond the horizon, he was waiting. Using the first red-gold light of a new day to illuminate his enterprise, he dipped his fingers into the palm of his hand, pinched a bit of sugar, and sprinkled it carefully over the window pane. He repeated the maneuver again, and again, taking the greatest care not to spill a grain of the precious substance. When the sugar in his hand was gone, he crept away from the window and over to the tray on which his breakfast had been brought. He scraped the remainder of the sugar from the top of the coarse oatmeal before returning to the window.

“Renfield, what are you doing?” The voice came from behind him, sudden and unexpected.

He spun around quickly—perhaps it had been another of those voices that was never there when he looked, but best to be safe. Curses, the voice was still there. More curses, it belonged to the Bringer.

He shuddered and cowered against the wall, spilling the remainder of the sugar as his hands rose to protect his face. “Nothing.”

“You must be doing something, otherwise you would not be afraid.” The Bringer always sounded kindly, but it was not to be trusted under any circumstances. Whenever he tried to explain his actions, or grew angry at it, the Bringer conjured thunder and voices and monsters to its side. No, best not to tell it anything.

“Why won’t you tell me?” the Bringer coaxed. “Perhaps I could help.”

Well . . . he hadn’t considered this possibility. Indeed, sometimes the Bringer’s voices did not bring confinement or noise, only food or sleep. Perhaps they could bring him other good things too. “Need sugar.”

The Bringer crossed over to the window, where the full morning sunshine now beat down on the sill’s pitiful offering. “So I see. What is it for?”

He braced himself. Maybe this would be one of those answers that infuriated the incomprehensible Bringer. “Feed flies,” he mumbled.

“Flies?” the Bringer repeated. It didn’t sound angry. Not yet.

He nodded, the whimper in his throat trying to form itself into a ‘yes’.

“What are the flies for, though?”

“Me,” he whispered.

He didn’t look up. He didn’t want to see the Thing that the Bringer would summon, see it bind his arms to his sides and his self to the floor. He felt the Bringer brush past him, heard him stop at the door, braced himself to feel the Thing clamp its teeth around him, tight to its mouth . . .

“Very well,” the Bringer said cheerfully. “You shall have your sugar.” The cell door clanged shut, the lock bolted, and the Bringer was gone before Renfield could muster the courage to look up and remind it that the sugar was for the flies.

 

First sunset

The flies were already coming to the window when the Bringer returned. It held a small brown bag out to him. “Your sugar, Renfield.” It settled itself comfortably on his cot. “Can you explain to me what you are trying to do?”

He had not expected this much help, so his plans had actually been altered. Perhaps he need not stop at flies after all! Of course, he could not tell the Bringer that. “Catch flies,” he mumbled.

“So I might reasonably assume,” the Bringer said patiently. “To what purpose, though?”

“Need them.” The sun was falling to its deathbed in the sea, and he needed the Bringer to leave now, right now, before the light went out. Didn’t it understand that without light he was nothing?

“But what do you need them for?” the Bringer pressed.

He struggled to check the growing anger. Nights in the maw of the Thing were the worst. “Just need them,” he repeated.

“There is a reason for everything,” the Bringer said patiently. “For instance, there is a reason why you are insane, and I am not; there is also some reason you fear the dark, and I do not. And there must be a reason why you need these flies.”

He lost the struggle. His frustration mastered him and sent him flying at the Bringer, trying to shove those maddening words and reasons back down the pit they came from. The Bringer narrowly evaded the attack and fled to the corridor, where it performed its cursed summonings. “Help! Guards! And bring a straitcoat!”

No! No! Not the Thing! He would behave, he would promise, if they would not feed him to

the Thing!

Too late. The Bringer’s voices surrounded him, crowing, and when he was dizzy with their madness, the Thing came and sunk its teeth into his chest.

 

Second sunrise

The new gold sun was a relief after the eternal night. He dragged the Thing’s carcass with him as he hauled himself to the window—it never survived long after the sun’s rebirth, and the voices usually came to remove its dead weight from his.

Wearily, he basked in the light and dozed. He hadn’t rested during the dark, kept in perpetual shock by the Thing grinding its teeth as it had savored his flesh. He would never get used to the ordeal, the cold brightness of the Thing’s shining fangs warming at the touch of his arms. But it was dead now, happily. Until another night.

He was roused by the creaking of the door as the Bringer and some of its voices entered. The voices immediately surrounded him and began peeling the dead Thing from him, and the Bringer stood by watching, watching, forever watching. When they had done, it addressed him.

“Are you feeling better today, Renfield?”

A ridiculous question. A monster had died and the sun had been reborn – how could anyone not feel better? Still, he held both peace and pose.

“I will take that to mean yes.” The Bringer lowered itself to crouch on his cot. “What are your plans for this fine morning?”

He said nothing. Let it come to its own conclusions. He would stay silent from now on, for words were the Bringer’s own unfathomable trap – one moment making it grin, the next bringing the Thing down upon him . . .

The Bringer got up. “Very well, sulk all you like. I will come and see you again later.” It stalked from the room, twitching the lock shut as it left.

He smiled happily as he turned to the window, stretching his arms through the bars to feel the warmth of the sun, exorcizing even his memories of last night’s feeding. His fingers disturbed a few of the flies that were already congregating there, which reminded him. Stretching his arms back reluctantly, he retrieved a little box from under his mattress and began to catch the flies.

 

Second sunset

This time, he was ready when the Bringer returned. “Need more sugar.”

“Supplies dwindling already?” The Bringer sounded as if it was in a fine mood, and it scratched away at a small pad of paper.

He nodded, and gingerly proffered the empty brown bag.

The Bringer accepted the offering with some puzzlement. “Where are the flies, Renfield? I don’t see them anymore.”

He suppressed a triumphant smile as he held up the box. Let the Bringer trump that, if it could!

The Bringer looked inside, and frowned. “You’re feeding them to a spider? I thought you wanted them as pets.”

He shook his head. Trust the Bringer not to understand. But that simplicity was the beauty of his plan! He had worried that flies were not big enough, but spiders were bigger. There were larger creatures yet, but he was working on that part. The world was his to utilize!

The Bringer was still trying to puzzle through its initial revelation. “What will you do when you run out of flies?”

“Sugar,” he reminded it, pointing at the bag.

“Yes of course, how silly of me,” the Bringer said indulgently. “Will you need anything else?”

He could think of many things he needed, not least of which was the chance to get out of this place, with its mad voices and the Thing and the Bringer and the dark. But he kept his request simple. “Sleep.”

The Bringer laughed. “So the professor lectures the doctor. Very well, I will leave you to your sleep.”

As soon as the door was shut, he hunkered down next to the cot and pulled the blanket over him. Best go to sleep while a sliver of the sun was still visible, while its dwindling power could still protect him.

 

Third sunrise

The Bringer seemed preoccupied when it next came to see him. Its concern made it irritable.

“For heaven’s sake, Renfield! What is with all these flies?” It waved its arms about its head in frustration, trying to keep the flies away. “I thought you were into spiders now!”

He was worried. The Bringer seemed to have forgotten its promise of help, and now his flies were annoying it. It would summon the Thing if he was not careful. He edged toward the window and busied himself away from its gleaming eyes.

The Bringer watched him spread sugar on the sill, listened to him humming to himself, an old song he had forgotten he knew. “I envy you sometimes,” it said finally.

He imagined that he didn’t hear or couldn’t understand.

“Your days are so simple. You tend to your pets, but that is all. You have no connections, no responsibilities, no cares.”

What a ludicrous idea. Of course he had cares! He needed to supply enough sugar to attract more flies, needed to catch enough flies to feed the spiders, needed to enact the next logical progression – all the while keeping this Bringer happy so it wouldn’t call its demons down upon him. The responsibilities heaped upon his shoulders grew heavier as he finally acknowledged them.

The Bringer came out of its reflection with a sigh. “I suppose that is the price of sanity, eh, my friend?”

He didn’t know who the Bringer could be talking to. He certainly wasn’t its friend, and he doubted that the flies or the spiders were, either. Maybe it was going mad; fine recompense for leveling that same accusation at him!

Of a sudden, the Bringer sprang to its feet and charged upon him. He gave a little cry and shielded his head, but its fury wasn’t focused on him. Instead, it sprang towards the window, brandishing its arms at a sparrow that had alighted there. The pretty little bird took off in alarm, and he felt his hopes recede into the clouds with it.

“Noooooo!” The cry wrenched itself from deep within his heart.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” the Bringer soothed, stepping away from the window and brushing its hands with self-satisfaction. “I’m sorry I startled you, but I saw that sparrow trying to eat one of your pet spiders. You really should keep their box off the sill, you know.”

He couldn’t listen to this. He rushed to the window, snatching up the spider box and counting the inhabitants. One of them had been eaten — he had been on the right track! And now the Bringer had scared the bird away! His plans were ruined, his life destroyed!

The Bringer watched with concern as he collapsed on the floor. “Don’t worry, Renfield. I’m sure you can find a different spider to replace it.” It seemed ashamed somehow, and it closed the cell door quietly, leaving him to his heartfelt sobs.

 

 

Third sunset

He was in the middle of the whole sad business when the Bringer returned that evening. “Renfield, there is someone who wants to meet you. Would you like to –“ the Bringer stopped short in the doorway. “What in heaven’s name are you doing, man?”

What did it look like he was doing? He was consuming the flies, that’s what he was doing! And the spiders were next, and then he was done for – it was all the Bringer’s fault, for scaring away the sparrow! He had been left with no other choice.

The Bringer was shaking its head. “She can’t see you like this. Stop that, this instance! Can you be decent or not?”

She? The faintest of memories stirred in his mind: frail, but potent enough that he uncapped his hands to release the flies. The insects, free once more, bumbled right back to the window to resume their buzzing about the sugar.

The Bringer sighed. “I guess that is the best we can hope for, isn’t it? Very well.” It turned and called down the corridor.

He winced, but the summons was not for the voices or for the Thing. He had never heard this summons before. “Mrs. Harker? You may see him now.” As the denizen appeared, the Bringer’s attention wavered between the two. “Renfield, this is Mina Harker. Mrs. Harker, this is the patient Renfield.”

“Mr. Renfield, I am pleased to meet you. Dr. Seward has told us so much about you.” The apparition had a nice voice, but he bolted upright and scuttled away to the farthest corner of his cell as fast as his terror permitted. Danger positively stalked the newcomer.

In a way, perhaps that was a good thing. Peril, true peril, always made his mind clearer, bringing back sundry modes of address that otherwise moldered forgotten. Unconsciously, his back straightened and his eye brightened.

“Mrs. Harker? I am most delighted to meet you. Please leave at once.”

The Bringer startled and peered at him strangely, and the creature Mrs. Harker inclined its head to one side with a look of amusement.

“Pardon? Why may I not stay?”

He struggled over how best, how persuasively, to explain. “This place is unsafe, especially after nightfall. All places are, but this one more so than most. If you value your self, you will leave.”

“I think he means that an asylum is not a nice place for a lady,” the Bringer hastened to say.

“It is not a nice place for anyone.” He made the correction sternly. “Demons lurk in its corners and appear unannounced. Life is drained away.”

“Whose life?” The Mrs. Harker seemed genuinely curious.

“Mine, and I must replace it at the cost of others.” He would have showed the Mrs. Harker the box of spiders and the flies, but oh, how the Bringer would rage.

Indeed, it seemed on the verge now. “That’s quite enough, Renfield.” To the Mrs. Harker, it said, “Do you see?”

“I do, and I pity the poor creature. Thank you for letting me see him.” To him, the

Mrs. Harker said, “Good-bye, Mr. Renfield. I hope to see you again.”

“Good-bye,” he said quietly. “I pray I will never see you again.” A prayer, he remembered, was the most powerful aid one could bestow, aside from a miracle. Sadly, he couldn’t remember how miracles were usually performed, and the Mrs. Harker would need all the assistance it could receive.

“Well, that was a nice way to treat a lady inquiring after you!” the Bringer fumed when it returned later, alone.

He didn’t say so aloud, but he agreed. Warning the Mrs. Harker was the nicest thing he could have done.

 

Fourth sunrise

“Renfield! You have sparrows now?”

He smiled proudly, defiantly. Yes, he had sparrows now, no thanks to the Bringer! He had been so worried when it had scared the first one away, but it was a smart little bird, and when the threat was gone, it had returned. He had made a quiet fuss over it, feeding it spiders until it allowed itself to be petted, then petting it until it flew away again. That had been another scare, and he had spent an especially miserable night fretting over it. The next day, though, the little bird had returned, and this time with another sparrow in tow.

The Bringer looked astonished at this luck, and scrutinized him narrowly. He shuddered a little under its gaze, wondering if it was going to take away his last hope of deliverance. Instead, the Bringer switched to another track entirely. “Whatever did you mean when you said all those things to Mrs. Harker? She and her husband and some friends will be staying here – I wouldn’t want you frightening them away.”

Of course he wanted the poor Mrs. Harker to go away! Who wouldn’t? He shook his head, trying to dislodge the confusion.

The Bringer pressed its interrogation. “Why did you say that this place drains life?”

Why should he clarify that? What purpose could be served by futile explanation? The Bringer never listened, anyway.

But the Bringer spoke to an invisible companion now. “Perhaps it is a simile for his insanity – the idea that he is compelled to remain apart from society, and therefore any chance of a ‘normal’ lifestyle is denied. Hmmm. I shall have to look further into this. Ambient allegorizing.” It concluded with a smile directed at him and not at its unseen conversant. “What do you think of that, Renfield? How would you like a psychological anomaly to be named for you?”

He wanted no more names, thank you. Names were chains. But he did want something else.

He dared to lay a trembling hand on the Bringer’s shoulder as it walked out of his cell. For a brief, terrible second, the Bringer looked angered by this familiarity; happily, its rage quickly melted into geniality. “You are rather bold today, my friend. Perhaps that signifies a clarification in your mind, eh? What do you want?”

He was terrified to discover that he didn’t know the name of his desire. In desperation, he attempted to pantomime. He licked his hand twice and rubbed it over his face.

“A bath? No – imagine the ruckus if the Board heard rumors. I am sorry, Renfield, we cannot afford accusations of maltreatment.”

He didn’t want water or rumors, curse it; not that he had ever gotten either in this dismal place. What he needed was . . . was . . .

“I’m sorry to disappoint you.” The Bringer stepped through the door and clicked it closed.

He flung himself against the bars of his cage with a wordless cry, but the Bringer had gone. He was left to mourn his best hope as dead, useless because he didn’t know its name.

 

Fourth sunset

“A cat,” he said excitedly.

He had remembered the title after the Bringer’s earlier departure, and, in fear lest he forget it again, had spent the entire afternoon pacing up and down the length of his cell, repeating the glorious word to himself as he tracked the self-destructive path of the sun.

The Bringer regarded him with the disgust of sudden understanding. “So that you could feed the sparrows to it, no doubt.”

He nodded enthusiastically, excited that the Bringer had finally caught on. The flies were for the spiders, so that the spiders would receive more life. Then the spiders were for the sparrows, who would also gain a concentration of life. Then, if only the Bringer would give him a cat . . .

“What does the poor creature want today?”

The Bringer spun around. “Mrs. Harker! What – what are you doing here?”

The reappearance of the apparition brought back everything. “Why are you still here?”

The Mrs. Harker looked from one interrogator to the other in amusement. “I thought I would visit him,” she told the Bringer. “Are you still so eager for my departure, Mr. Renfield?” she asked him.

 

He began to speak before the Bringer could have him silenced. “This place is dangerous yet, and the peril will only increase as the nights continue.”

“Enough, Renfield!” If it had been alone, the Bringer might have struck him. It certainly seemed angered enough. “Mrs. Harker, I would be honored if you would return to the house with me.”

As the Bringer made its way past him, it said in a smothered voice, “And no, you may not have a cat.”

He knew he didn’t have the energy left to scream, and he crumpled to the floor as the merciless darkness overtook him.

Fifth sunrise

He didn’t hear the footsteps. Neither did he hear the door open, nor the Bringer’s greeting die suddenly in mid-speech. He was too absorbed in his grim work to notice.

“Good heavens.” The Bringer backed out of the cell and slammed the door. “Guards!” it called. “The straitcoat, and in heaven’s name, quickly!’

He heard the summons, but he paid it no mind. And when the Thing came to consume him, he had to accept the inevitable justice of the proceedings – after all, he had just done the same to his beloved birds. He surrendered his wings quietly to the bloody maw of the beast.

 

Fifth sunset

The voices left after they pried the Thing off him. It had still been alive, and he had heard its jaws still lunging at him.

He shuddered at his narrow escape, and huddled in the farthest corner of his cell, wincing as he rubbed blood back into his arms. He could feel the dried blood on his face. He liked to imagine the different bloods now mingled with his – maybe the birds’ or the flies’ would enable him to grow wings and fly away from this place, and the spiders’ would make him quiet in his escape. The thought aroused a cry of anticipation and hope, as the sun’s untimely demise then inspired a cry of fear. He knew he would be entertaining nightmares this night.

The unexpected sound made him bolt upright. “Good evening, my friend.” A Stranger stood outside the window.

He shot to his feet and scrambled away, pressing futilely against the bars, as far away from the window as he could get. This, then, was what the Mrs. Harker was threatened by? Terror of terrors, the fear of the night personified, an abject life-eater like himself!

The knowledge set him shivering uncontrollably. But perhaps the Stranger saw in him a fellow spirit, for it did not come through the window and consume him.

“I am in need of assistance,” it told him. “This is a beautiful place, and many of my friends are within. I have arrived late, and could not advise them of my arrival. Will you not invite me in?”

He managed to shake his head. No. He could not.

The Stranger’s eyes shone. “How may I tempt you to see my position? Is there not something you want? Something dear, that the wretched Doctor will not provide?”

His eyes widened, and involuntarily he crept closer. Would the Stranger indeed grant him such a thing?

The Stranger smiled—a long, lazy smile that reflected the moonlight. “Surely you want something.”

Compunction was edged out by desire. He nodded, madly, and gestured out the window.

“The world? Ambitious. I do not promise.”

No, no, no! He yanked his arm back inside to insert it within his poor empty mouth.

The Stranger’s lazy smirk stretched into the predatory grin of a wolf. “You hunger? As do I! My friend, if only you will help me, I will give you all these!”

A horde of creatures poured down the street beneath the shadow of the Stranger’s outstretched arm. Rats and feral cats and russet foxes and squeaking bats and tawny owls . . .

At a second gesture, the animals halted right there in the street, twitching with suppressed fire. Great beautiful creatures one and all, so full of life. The Stranger leaned forward, breathed its command in his face. “Invite me in.”

He felt himself overcome. He recognized some of the emotions – hunger and need and an irrational nameless fear. Wordlessly, he beckoned the Stranger in, and it came.

 

Interlude

He stood in the Stranger’s way and attempted a frown. Where had the Stranger been? Why had it been gone so long? Where was the life that he had been promised?

“What is it, imbecile? Move! I must be away before the sun!”

He shook under the Stranger’s menacing scowl, but he managed to croak, “Cats?”

“Ah, the beasts.” The Stranger settled its stained cloak a little tighter and chuckled, a horrid snarling sound. Sliding a cold white finger under his chin, it raised his trembling head to examine his tear-stricken face. “Little one, you are all as those animals to me. Though I did give my word, did I not? Very well. I promise, you will get what is coming to you.” With that, the Stranger flung him aside as if he was weightless, and with a great bound through the window, it was gone.

 

Sixth sunrise

Well after the sun had made its protective entrance, the Bringer came to see him. He was surprised to see it looked upset—he had seen it angered or maddened many times, but never distressed before.

It slumped into his cell and took a heavy seat upon his cot. After a few moments of silence – never again would he initiate a conversation with the Bringer – it spoke. “It was all for naught, Renfield. We are undone!”

Did that mean he could have a cat then? Even after all its talk, the Stranger hadn’t given him one, either.

“We thought that by moving her here, the monster would be discouraged from further encroachments. He would be unable to find her or unwilling to come so far, and certainly he was supposed to have been unable to enter. But he has proven more tenacious than we hoped, and she is done for!”

She? The Mrs. Harker? She was the source of the Stranger’s assimilation?

He stumbled back, utterly shocked. Using a creature similar to one’s self as a source of life – he had never dreamed of such a possibility. But – but – that was an abomination, surely! Sparrows cared for other sparrows, he had seen it many times. Why had the Stranger done such a thing?

He looked at the Bringer, entreating, but it seemed to be in shock as well, its face buried in its hands. He looked to the sun, entreating, but it was silent and gave no answer. He looked to the cell door, entreating – and noticed it was open. In its distress, the Bringer had left it ajar.

He crept to the door, nudging it farther apart. The Bringer gave no sign of observation. He pushed it further and crept through its gates. Still no sign of perception from the Bringer. He was out! He was free! He ran out towards the sun and the light and the day . . .

“Here’s someone, thank God! Man, will you help us?” Arms seized him and dragged him back towards the interior.

He struggled, and the voice said despairingly, “Help us, for the love of God! She will die unless we get blood in her, and every man here has already given some!”

They would kill him, the demons! He cried out as the lone voice wrestled him into the darkness.

“Dr. Van Helsing, Seward was nowhere to be found, but this man can help. Please, can we start now?”

A second voice came over and looked him over. “Yes, yes, he vill do. Get him on that bed, Mr. Harker, and ve shall begin the transfusion.”

Proboscises were thrust up his arms, and their clear walls ran red with the blood of his veins, that which was his own as well as that which he had stolen. The world was going dark when he finally saw the recipient of his life – the Mrs. Harker, lying pale and still some distance away. The struggle to live died out of him as he saw the justice of it. Sparrows supported other sparrows when the cat came. He would have chosen the same path, had he known.

Then she opened her eyes. And the drain stopped.

 

Sixth sunset

When the fluttering outside his window resolved into footsteps, he almost lost his nerve. The blood remaining in his veins pounded as he reminded himself why.

This wasn’t for the Bringer, certainly. It had taunted and maimed him for nights and nights, and when it had found him helping the Mrs. Harker, it had summoned its minions and dragged him back here, over the protests of the other voices.

This wasn’t for those other voices, either. They would have killed him, but for the Mrs. Harker. Not that he didn’t understand their motive, but still . . .

This was for the Mrs. Harker. His blood belonged to her by the right she had won yesterday, yet she hadn’t sapped him of it. She had let him live, and she was dying for her choice. Justice wasn’t everything, he mused. Some small portion was also Choice.

The Stranger stepped through the window, and he rose from his cot to meet it. He vowed that he would never fear the sunset again.
BIO: Conversations can spark stories. It happens more often than you would think, and Maria needs to find a better way to disguise her triumph at this occurrence. She suffers a swelled head enough as it is, due to having four stories published. Maria lives in a scenic part of Ohio where everything is within biking distance. She has previously lived in Japan, Florida, and Utah.