The vampire woke with a crick in his back, not surprising given he was more than a century old and stood at over six feet tall, but mostly because he’d slept on a blanket atop hard sand. Scrubbing his talons through his shortly cropped blond hair, Niles Gule sat up with a yawn and oriented himself. He lay under a starry sky growing pink in the east. The deadly day star was threatening to poison him yet again.
With a scramble of arms and legs, he rose, brushed sand off the sweats he’d worn to sleep in and considered his surroundings. To the left pounded the Atlantic surf. To the right whispered salt grass waving in the breeze. Off in the bushes, something about the size of a dog rustled. But Niles didn’t fear it. Gumby the jumbie had decided to unexpectedly appear. The mischievous sprite, invisible to everyone but Niles, was already trying to start trouble by throwing sand on a nearby tent. Meanwhile, beneath Niles’ feet snored his companion, Walter Cooksey, still bundled against the chill in a worn sleeping bag.
Niles nudged Cooksey with a toe. “Wake up, Walter. This vacation was your idea.”
Cooksey startled awake with a snort. He blinked in fear at the vampire looming over him.
“Don’t eat me,” he pleaded.
Niles kicked sand at him. “I’ve swore off eating humans, Walter. Get up. You were the one who wanted an early start on crabbing.”
Cooksey blinked a few more times, then his eyes focused on the glowing sky over the ocean. “Oh crap!” He tore himself out of his bag and clambered to his feet. “Thanks for waking me.”
Niles ventured to his pack and fished out a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt. Turning his back on Cooksey, he quickly stripped and dressed for a day of crabbing on the Delaware River.
He and Cooksey had taken a long weekend to drive from Baltimore to Delaware for a vacation away from the city. Why Cooksey, a man who viewed his coworker as a gay, lizard alien out to defeat humanity, desired to spend his vacation with said vampire remained something of a mystery. Why Niles had agreed to the trip was less so. He worked with Cooksey on a daily basis and needed the shy, not very bright, little man to stop viewing him as a reptilian. Cooksey had wandered down a deep rabbit hole created by some woman on the internet. For the past year, Cooksey had lived in terror of the vampire he worked with, and that was growing tiresome. Niles hoped spending some quality time engaging in Cooksey’s hobbies might reverse the damage the Shriner website had caused. Thus, he’d agreed to join Cooksey on a trip to Delaware for some crabbing and quality bonding.
Gumby waddled past, kicking up sand and humming to himself. He found an unguarded cooler near someone else’s tent, opened it, and rummaged gleefully through it. Bags of chips and a couple of sandwiches in foil went flying.
Cooksey stuffed his camping gear into his rucksack and tugged that onto his shoulders. He rattled his car keys. “Let’s get to crabbing!”
As Niles followed his friend across the sand to the parking area, he frowned. “Aren’t we crabbing here?”
Cooksey scowled. He tossed his rucksack into the back of his Toyota Rav4 then snatched Niles’ bag and threw that in too. “Of course not. Assateague is a federal park. You can’t crab here.”
“Then where will we be crabbing on this fine day?” Niles peered at the eastern horizon where the day star was minutes away from appearing. After he clambered into the Rav4, he slathered sunscreen over his face and hands, the only parts of his skin the sun would touch, then tamped an Australian cattleman’s hat onto his head and thrust wrap-around sunglasses over his eyes.
“I’ve got a special place,” Cooksey chortled.
“Of course you do.” Niles settled in the passenger seat. He sensed rather than saw Gumby pop into the back seat. The imp crooned, an indication he was growing hungry.
“Hit it, Walter,” Niles said, looking out at the mess Gumby had created of their neighbor’s campsite. “Before anyone wakes up.”
Cooksey grinned, fired up the engine, and set off along the flat, straight road down the spine of Assateague Island.
The island was unique in that it was a national park for its entire length. It was, furthermore, home to a herd of wild ponies, the ancestors of which swum ashore when a Spanish galleon foundered many centuries before. The tough little horses still called the island home, finding lush grazing in the salt marshes and haven from the mosquitoes on the windward beaches. The horses ranged the island unimpeded. Humans must give way to them.
Cooksey drove slowly, ever alert for the ponies or the small deer that also populated the island. Then they made the curve for the causeway, and they returned to the Delmarva peninsula.
“Where is this secret crabbing place?” Niles asked. He stared at the window as the sun rose sparkling over the Atlantic. Gumby crooned louder.
“If I told you, it wouldn’t be a secret.”
They turned north onto Route 1 which ran the entire length of the peninsula. Soon the Toyota was humming happily even as Gumby complained.
“Stop at a grocery store when we pass one,” Niles said.
Cooksey squeaked in protest. “We’ll miss the best crabbing!”
“I’ll have an irate jumbie if we don’t find him food,” Niles retorted.
Cooksey’s face set in mutinous lines. “I’ll see what I can find.”
The little man obviously didn’t try very hard because for the next hour they sped along the four-lane highway amongst light traffic. Most folks were headed south towards the beaches on the opposite side of the road.
Cooksey exited Smyrna, but instead of turning inland towards the small city, he zoomed east towards the river. Niles growled low in his throat but by then they were coasting along Route 6 due east into the rising sun. Niles squinted against the glare even behind his sunglasses. Gumby crooned some more.
The countryside smoothed out into long, flat fields of corn and soybeans. Here and there sprinkled forest land, but much of Delaware was engaged in farming. Niles pressed his hand against his forehead and hoped Gumby could hold on until they reached the end of the ride. If they were lucky, Niles would find a small grocery store somewhere near Cooksey’s crabbing spot. Gumby only ate milk and bananas. When he became hungry, he also grew cranky. And a cranky jumbie was an unpleasant jumbie.
Cooksey stopped at a lone stop sign at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. Niles frowned at the fancy pole just beyond the stop that held two yellow flashing lights. A sign on the pole stated: “Road flooded ahead when lights flashing.”
“Someone must have forgotten to turn that off,” he commented when Cooksey drove past it. “We’ve been in a drought for the past month. Can’t be high water on the road today.”
Cooksey shrugged. “We did see thunderstorms north of us last night. Maybe they received a ton of rain here.”
Judging by the paltry, burnt corn stalks whizzing past, Niles doubted it, but he kept his own council.
The farmland abruptly ended. The road shot directly straight into a swamp. Instead of crops, a sea of cattails and grasses swayed in the early morning breeze. It stretched off almost to the horizon, broken only occasionally by stands of trees on higher plots of land. After a gentle bend, the road straightened alongside a water course. From his vantage point in the passenger seat, Niles could look on the ruffled surface of the water mere inches below the road.
“What idiot built a road so close to sea level?” he complained. In a few places the breeze sent small ripples of water onto the edges of the road.
“It’s a manmade causeway,” Cooksey explained. “They dug out the swamp to run this road through it.” He pointed to the water on either side of the road. “Those are the channels created by the dredging.”
“They should have made this causeway higher,” Niles commented, noting another spot where the water nearly touched the road. “This is a might too close for comfort.”
Cooksey shrugged and drove on.
Another five minutes of driving brought them to the shore of the Delaware. Here the land rose again enough for a small village of houses to cluster next to the banks. Cooksey pulled into an empty public parking area and shut off the engine.
“End of the road!” he sang. He popped out of the Rav4 and grabbed his crabbing gear from the back seat.
More slowly, Niles slid from the vehicle. A warm breeze ruffled his hair as he stood gazing at the expanse of the Delaware. At this point, the river was so wide he could barely make out the far side as a fringe of green on the horizon. Dark, murky water glistened in the sun.
Cooksey perambulated with his assorted equipment onto the long metal pier that thrust out over the water. Enjoying the view but not much else, Niles sauntered after him. Gumby hopped out of the Rav4 and trundled around the parking lot, seeking mayhem but not finding much because Cooksey and Niles were the first visitors that day.
With a contented sigh, Cooksey settled at the end of the pier, baited three fishing poles, and flung the lines out deep into the water.
“I thought you crabbed with crab traps,” Niles said, taking a seat beside him.
“In shallow water, I do,” his little buddy explained, never taking his eyes off his lines. “But out here the biggest, best crabs are in deep water. You can’t catch them with a trap.”
Niles humphed and settled down to wait. He nervously watched the shoreline where Gumby was trundling along the surf and playing with seashells.
“Maybe if I’m lucky, he’ll drown,” Niles muttered.
“Huh?” Cooksey twisted to see what his companion was complaining about.
“My jumbie,” Niles said. “Maybe he’ll fall in the river and drown.”
“I don’t think jumbies drown,” Cooksey said prosaically.
Niles planted his chin on his fist and heaved a heavy sigh.
With a cry of delight, Cooksey sprang up when the end of one of his fishing poles bobbed. Carefully, he reeled it in. Niles watched the battle between man and beast continue for almost ten minutes. He figured Cooksey knew what he was doing but he questioned the need for such caution. Finally, from the depths of the murk appeared a large, white shape.
Cooksey hustled to grab a net on a long pole. Then he carefully raised the fishing pole. The object on the end was a huge blue crab with its claw gripping a chicken neck.
“Gotta do it just right,” he murmured, maneuvering rod and pole to bring the net under the crab. “If I jerk him around too much, he’ll release, and I’ll lose him.”
Niles curiously watched while Cooksey eased the crab into the net. Then, with a cry of triumph, he pulled the crab in. A few minutes of disentangling the crab from the net and freeing the chicken neck ended with a large, blue crab scuttling about in the bottom of a bucket of water.
“Good job,” Niles said.
Cooksey beamed. He returned his line to the water and the wait began again.
A woman shrieked.
Stiffening, Niles squinted at the parking lot. He saw a woman dancing around and swatting at something. She continued to cry out in fear.
“Damn that jumbie!” Niles swore. He leaped to his feet and ran along the pier towards the woman.
As soon as his feet hit sand, the woman stopped screaming. She whirled around as if certain she’d be attacked again. Instead, Niles felt a sharp pain like rat’s teeth in his ankle. He cried out in surprise and danced on one foot while he tried to kick the invisible jumbie loose. Gumby, however, had his teeth firmly embedded in his master’s leg and like the crab, he wasn’t letting go. Niles danced around, swearing, while Gumby gnawed on his leg.
“You’re hungry. I get it,” Niles complained. “Let’s find you food.”
The woman had staggered away.
“Is there a grocery store near here?” Niles shouted.
The woman continued to backpedal. “Not here in Woodland. Closest one is in Smyrna,” she said. She turned tail and powerwalked into the small village.
That left Niles to deal with his jumbie alone. He tried to outrun it, but a jumbie didn’t travel through time and space like baryonic matter. He simply reappeared when Niles slowed to a walk. And the moment his vampire did so, Gumby clamped on again, demanding to be fed.
This continued for another hour. Niles escaped only to have Gumby find him and bite some more. Finally, Niles couldn’t take it anymore. He charged back up the pier and confronted Cooksey.
“We’ve got to head back to Smyrna,” he stated. “Before Gumby eats through my leg.”
Cooksey considered his haul of blue crabs. About ten big, juicy ones squirmed in his bucket. “Ok,” he sighed. “I guess I can call this a success.” He handed Niles his equipment. “Help me stow my stuff.”
Niles was more than happy to do so. He hastily collected Cooksey’s gear, and with full arms, half hopping one leg as he danced down the pier, he returned everything to the car. Cooksey followed with his crabs which he carefully stowed in the back seat foot well.
Niles drew a breath of relief when they were on the road out of Woodland. Seeming to know they were heading towards food, Gumby stopped gnawing on Niles and began playing with the crabs. He pulled one completely out of the bucket and allowed it to pitch Niles’ ear with his claw.
“Dammit!” Niles complained, swatting the jumbie.
Cooksey slammed on the brakes. Niles jerked forward. The crab’s claw wretched a bit of flesh from the vampire’s ear.
“What the hell!” Niles shouted. “What are you doing, Walter?”
Cooksey sat peering out the front windshield at the road ahead. “Um, Ghoul… we’ve got a problem.”
Niles turned forward, holding his ear to stop the clear ooze from running down his neck. He found himself staring not at a ribbon of asphalt shooting off into the marsh. Instead he was looking at a sea of gently rippling water.
“What the hell?” he repeated. “Where did that water come from?”
Cooksey grimaced. “Um… remember the flashing lights?”
Niles glared at him and the offending water.
“High tide,” he breathed in final understanding. “What idiot builds a road that floods at high tide?”
“The Delaware DOT apparently.”
“Did you not know about this?”
Cooksey shrugged. “I guess I came during low tide the last time.”
Still holding his ear with one hand, Niles fetched his phone and searched for water meters on Woodland Road, Delaware. There he found it. A complete website dedicated to the water levels on that stretch of road.
“For the love of God,” he moaned. “Says here its maximum depth is almost four feet deep.”
Cooksey stared at the water. “For how long?”
“Another two hours,” Niles growled.
His gaze filled with dread, Cooksey blinked at his vampire companion. “I guess we’re stuck.”
“Ya think?” Niles glared.
Deciding that sitting there in the middle of a flooded road didn’t make much sense, Cooksey backed up to a pull off that led to a boat landing for the estuary. A group of fishermen were settled along the banks of the flooding swamp with their lines in the water.
“Might as well make something of the day,” Cooksey chirped. He grabbed a pole and climbed out of the car.
Grumbling, Niles could only follow him. Gumby trailed behind, crooning his hunger.
While Cooksey greeted his fellow fishermen, Niles trolled around the small parking area, trying to stay one step ahead of his jumbie. Gumby, finding something new to torment, trundled over to the fishermen and began rooting through their gear. No one noticed until he started throwing bobbers into the water. Then shouts of protest followed by nervous complaint flowed when the fishermen realized something invisible was messing with their stuff. The five, heavyset men milled around, unwilling to approach the spirit ruining their picnic.
With a chortle of glee, Gumby retrieved a lone banana from one of the coolers. Cooing happily, he wandered off, munching on his find.
Niles rubbed his hand gratefully across his brow. Only then could he take a seat beside Cooksey. The other fishermen, seeing that whatever had been in their gear had vanished, stood mumbling about ghosts.
Serene, Cooksey simply fished through it all. He’d landed his catch of blue crabs. All was right with the world.
Niles could only sit and stew.
Friendships, he muttered. Their only purpose was to kill a vampire.
© 2022 Newmin
Niles comments: True story, as always. Be careful when visiting Woodland Beach to time your travels accordingly. Twice a day, the only road in or out is submerged by the Duck Creek. If you miss your crossing, you’re stuck. Trust me on this one. Pay attention to the flashing sign.