It was a little after one in the afternoon when we pulled up to a brick ranch in the middle of nowhere. The house was huge and well kempt. It was bordered with tidy flower beds and neat little bushes. Some distance from the house horses were grazing placidly in a lush paddock. The lawn was freshly trimmed. There was a pond not too far from their stables. Further still was an old cement grain silo being swallowed by flowering vines. The place looked like a painting.
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One other car was there in the drive- a shiny old black Charger with Michigan plates hitched to a plain little trailer. Dad pulled in beside it and then sat there, tense, seemingly unwilling to cut the engine. Mom looked at him and patted his arm. He hesitated a moment longer before finally turning off the car.
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Mom was the first to speak. She turned in her seat a bit to look at me. "This is your aunt Maggy's house. We're going to be staying the night. I want you to stay close, but you should be OK to socialize with whoever is here."
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Dad was staring at the car beside ours. "Why don't we actually see who's around before we make that call?"
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"Aunt Maggy is Scott's mom, right?" I asked.
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Mom nodded as she unbuckled and got out of the car. Dad was still glued in place. His knuckles were white from how tight he was holding onto the steering wheel. I followed Mom hesitantly.
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We were greeted by the sounds of braying dogs as Mom and I got to the front door. I could see their heads popping up repeatedly at the bay window beside us. They were bigger and much more energetic than Vicious and there were at least three of them. They didn't calm down a bit when Mom rang the doorbell. She didn't seem at all intimidated by them. I, on the other hand, was thoroughly intimidated. They reminded me too much of my dog getting ready to go after Mr. Gotmaschine. The dogs disappeared from the window a moment later and all of their racket ceased.
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The interior door opened to reveal a woman in her early forties. My Aunt Maggy was the first real confirmation I got that I took after the women on Dad's side of the family. They were all around average height, sturdy framed with broad hips and the endowments to be balanced out. The ladies in the family were by no means stunning beauties, but they weren't hard on the eyes either. Seeing her at least gave me some hope of actually looking like a woman someday. She had her hair tied up neatly. It was the same dirty blonde as mine and Dad's. Her skin was more freckles than tan, just like me. She was a head shorter than Mom, but even before she opened her mouth she made up for the size difference in presence alone. There was something big and loud and joyous about her.
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Her face lit up when she recognized Mom. She threw the storm door open wide and descended on her with an exuberant pounce. The dogs took the opportunity to escape into the yard around up. Mom and my aunt were laughing as they embraced oblivious the them. I hadn't heard Mom laugh like that before, and I'd certainly never seen her allow for such an aggressive show of affection.
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In the split second it took me to see where the dogs went, I was picked up clean off the ground in a crushing hug. My aunt was squeezing the air out of me, squealing that she'd waited so long to meet me. Dad came around the corner with the raucous accompaniment of hounds in time to save me from suffocating.
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Maggy and Dad stared at one another in silence. Aunt Maggy was the first to make a move. She closed their distance, reared back and punched my father straight in the gut. The blow forced to put down the bags he was carrying to recoup. Mom seized my arm before I could run to his defense. Dad's response to the hit was to pick up Maggy as she'd done to me. Maggy was crying happily. Dad was grumbling something to her. I caught the glint of a tear on his cheek before Mom ushered me inside to give them some privacy.
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The door opened on a huge living room. There was seating enough for a small army. Despite its size, there was a coziness to it. Along the far wall were floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with a built in television. Rather than books on the shelves, there were photographs, memorabilia and trophies. I stared at it all in awe. I didn't know any of the faces at first, but there was something familiar in them.
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After some searching I found a picture that I suspected was Mom and Dad when they were much younger. The woman who seemed like my mother had long hair, carefully braided, spilling over one shoulder as she flashed a peace sign at the photographer. She didn't smile. She was dressed in a long, bright skirt and a fluffy white blouse. She was barefoot, holding a beer as she sat on the wooden stoop of what might have been a log cabin. Behind her, a man in aviators that I suspected was my father stood, leaning against the railing. He wore a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His hair was much longer than it was today and his beard had been cut back to mutton chops and a mustache. A cigarette rested in the corner of his familiar self-satisfied grin. I glanced from the photograph, to my mother who was looking for something in her purse, and back. It was definitely her and Dad.
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Other photographs featured people with whom my father shared an unmistakable family resemblance. There were graduation photos of people I guessed were my cousins. Several military portraits dotted the collect. Then there was a cluster of wedding photos. The most prominent of these was very old featuring a stern-looking young man and his doe eyed, round faced bride. She looked so happy and beautiful, with generous curls and flowers in her hair. I guessed this was grandma and grandpa. I could see my Dad's smile and freckles in the woman and the man's features were echoed in the faces of nearly every picture on the shelves.
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Scott appeared from somewhere beyond the living room and greeted Mom. The two of them spoke for a few moments before she drifted over to join me. She placed a small but fancy frame on a shelf near several other group portraits. The photo in it was a few years old, taken on a trip to Mammoth Caves. Mom sighed when she spotted the picture of her and Dad. "I do not miss your father's awful mutton chops"
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"I thought that was you! Is this Grandpa and Grandma Milharn?" I asked, pointing to the wedding portrait.
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"It is." She scoured the photos for a moment and retrieved one from the top shelf to show me. An older version of the man in the wedding shot sat beside Mr. Gotmaschine, an exotic-looking younger man with unruly dark waves, and a man with slicked-back black hair and a bar handle mustache. She pointed at the mustachioed man, "And that is your Grandpa VonDreher." I studied him carefully. I had never met him. I knew I was named after him. I could see the resemblance to Mom. He wasn't particularly delicate, but he had the tawny skin and dark hair that she did. Where her preferred stoicism was though, he looked mischievous. He reminded me of a villain in an old western.
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It dawned on me that our alleged vampiric visitor was fully visible in the shot. Every ounce of lore I'd been taught by popular media said that was wrong. "So wait.... Vampires show up in pictures?"
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Mom laughed a little and nodded, "And mirrors, too." She pointed at the younger man in the shot, "That's Joseph. Judging from the kegs in the dining room he's around here somewhere. You have my permission to speak to him, even if your father says no."
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"Who am I saying no to?" my father grumbled as he came in. The dogs rushed in around him, as did Maggy. His gaze must have fallen on the kegs Mom was talking about. He immediately sighed. "Nope. She's staying away from Joseph."
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Mom rolled her eyes in response. She whispered, "Don't listen to him. Just make sure me or your dad is around and it's fine," as she put the photograph back. "Maggy, is he the only one here?"
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Dad muttered something about bad influences and being too damn friendly before looking resigned to his fate.
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My aunt smiled brightly. "Yes. He's downstairs resting. No one else will be staying over tonight. Did you guys eat yet?"
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I sat through an awkward lunch. My aunt and my parents muddled through the details of the next day. I could tell Dad was getting anxious by how little he talked. After that, Maggy gave us a quick tour of the house. The place was built to house many more people than the two actually living there. The ground floor had three bedrooms and two baths. Most of the basement was a den with enough seating for a pro sports team. The basement also contained four more guest rooms, each pair sharing a bathroom between them.
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We were given a pair of guest rooms to use in the basement. My aunt had intended to let Mom and Dad use the spare bedroom upstairs, but Dad became defensive when she mentioned Joseph was in the room caddy-corner from mine. He insisted that they would stay in one of the basement rooms as well. Mom stopped him before he said I would just share their room. I got my own which connected via the bath with theirs.
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The accommodations were nice but there was a weird smell in the basement. It reminded me of roadkill. It wasn't strong, but it was everywhere in that cluster of guest rooms. I was all too glad to get back to the ground floor away from it once we'd dropped off our bags. I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to sleep if I was going to be breathing that odor all night. I didn't want to be rude so I didn't say anything. I did wonder how the other house guest managed to sleep through the smell on top of how loud Dad and Maggy were being while we were downstairs. Nevertheless, there hadn't been a peep from the bedroom he was occupying.
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Mom and Dad said they needed to make some calls to get ready for the next day, so I spent the rest of the afternoon with my aunt in the barn. She asked me reems of questions about my life and the things I liked. She was also the first person actually happy to answer questions, though I shied away from asking about the weirder stuff. She told me all about her siblings and my cousins. She told me about Dad as a kid, and some about Mom, too. Maggy really did seem overjoyed about us being there. She actually teared up a little at one point because she'd wanted to be in our lives. From the sounds of it, Dad and Maggy had been very close growing up as the youngest of the siblings. I gathered she took our absence especially hard when her husband passed.
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At first it seemed like she was totally normal. There was no talk of vampires or freaks or magic. Everything was about family or her horses and dogs. She led me into the storage of the stables to get a saddle, and that's when I was reminded that it wasn't just my parents who were weird. I had never ridden a horse before and she had a "very easy going" one she wanted me to try out. I didn't think much of the fact the tack room was locked until I got a look inside. As we entered the room, I was dumbfounded by the sheer volume of ammunition in it. Boxes upon boxes upon cases of rounds for various calibers were stacked to one side. There were several ammo boxes that bore no indication of their contents. Beside that about fifteen locked gun cases sat on a fold-up table. Some of them were handgun sized, while a few might have been rifles or shotguns. Two in particular were custom cases that were larger than any I'd ever seen. Every gun case had a logo on it- a white sword cutting a red banner. There was a big roll of targets leaned against the table. The open bag on the floor contained protective earmuffs and glasses. I'd never in my life seen so much weaponry in one place, and that was saying something given Dad's collection. "W-what's all this for?"
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Maggy looked up from the equipment she was collecting and shrugged like there wasn't enough firepower for a militia just sitting out. "Joseph brought it over. Your dad and him used to shoot whenever he visited, so I expect he'll try and get your dad out tonight. Pretty sure it's all Covenant stuff. He likes to show off his toys."
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Maggy gave me a strange look and then frowned slightly. "Ask your parents," she responded, interjecting, "Do you mind?" and handing me some of the riding gear to carry for her. That was the end of that discussion.
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I found out I was a terrible horseback rider. I'm not sure who was more freaked out-me or it. The second time I got thrown from the "nice" horse I decided to call it a day. Maggy said it was odd he was being spooky and we could try again tomorrow after the funeral. I was pretty much over trying not to get stomped on by 800 pound animals with metal shoes. I took my bruises and dirty clothes inside where it was safe.
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