I was on my knees, gathering through the windfall and hoping to find at least one a mature, unspoiled apple amongst the masses. I knew I was taking a risk simply venturing out this close to human habitation, but I was getting desperate for food; nothing had been caught in my traps for the last four days, and moisture had somehow gotten into my improvised pantry and introduced mold to all of my accumulated potatoes and turnips.
Because of what I was, I could not simply head down to the food market to fulfill my needs, even if I had money. In the past I had made some rather bold - and in my own opinion, successful - attempts at masking my horrendous countenance, but there was nothing I could so about my monstrous stature, and my body and its jagged, bulky movements always gave me away as OTHER. Things always ended the same way no matter what I tried, or where.
Fear. Violence. Rejection. So I had stopped trying. Showing up at night to dig through garbage remains people had thrown away was the path of least resistance for someone like me, a monster and an abomination, not fit for public view.
I knew he was different from the moment I laid eyes on him. The world of men had treated me with such savage cruelty and boundless contempt that it was only natural that my experiences would prompt me to expect similar if not worse treatment from this man, ergo my first instinct was to run. I possessed both strength and speed far out of bounds for any normal man, and I could not see a horse in my peripheral eyesight, which meant the stranger heading in my direction had indeed walked here. I also glimpsed a walking stick in his right hand and was reminded of the possibility that he might use it to attack me, so I steeled my body for impact, aware that he would be unlikely to inflict any real or lasting damage but wanting to avoid the pain and humiliation of being struck nonetheless.
I cowered, hoping he, a gentleman, would find a me - a miserable wretch doomed to searching through garbage to fill his aching stomach - an unworthy target and move on, but something about my person seemed to draw him in, and he approached me with light catlike steps, his movements liquid and his footfalls practically silent. Constantly on the lookout for dangers, my defenses went up and I prepared for either an imminent struggle or a hasty escape, and it startled me even further when I suddenly felt the stranger's hand on my shoulder. With my constitution I was able to maintain heat and shield myself from cold with surprising efficiency, and yet the coldness of the fingers against my body felt like ice.
"Are you finding anything of value, my friend?" the mysterious man asked in perfect French albeit with an intonation that revealed it was not his mother's tongue. My time in Chamonix had taught me to recognize a variety of different French accents, and yet his sounded foreign to my ear.
"No." I decided to be honest. The use of the word "ami" had suggested that his interest in me was devoid of hostile intent, but I had promised myself never to trust mankind again after all that had been done to me despite my best attempts to give unconditionally. That time was gone, never to return.
Victor Frankenstein had made sure of that through his rejection of me. Twice.
"My house is only a few streets away," the stranger said, his voice deep and mellifluous, and the hand he had planted on my shoulder tightened its grip. I recognized a peculiar sort of wiry strength in the man that belied his slender build, but I had no doubt that I could best him if it came to blows. I could best any man.
"Come with me, wretched wanderer, and let me feed and water you."
"I… I have no money," I managed to say, hating how my abnormal voice-box made my voice just as grotesque as the rest of me.
"That is no matter," the well-dressed stranger said with a wide, toothy smile which made the cold pale moonlight reflect eerily in his teeth. "I will demand no payment from you for this act of kindness." For the first time since he addressed me I turned to look directly at him. It was a risk exposing my face to anyone, that much I knew, but also I felt I could not properly evaluate his offer of food and shelter without evaluating him first with my own two eyes.
As I'd already seen from a glance, his build was tall and thin and he was dressed entirely in black save for a golden cravat pin decorated with a generously-sized ruby stone. In spite of lacking flamboyance in fabrics or cut, it was obvious that the clothes were meant to be worn by a man from the upper echelons of society. His eyes, deep-set and partially hidden under the brim of his top hat, were a queer mixture of hazel and maroon to the point of eerily appearing like both colors at the same time depending on the angle of the light that hit them. His eyes were unusual for sure, but not so much as his complexion. The stranger had the whitest skin I'd ever seen on anyone, man, woman or child, and this, I knew, was not a trick of the light, as his paleness remained the same even when the moon was temporarily obscured by a thick, dark cloud. Rain clouds. Soon there would be rain, and I would be left without a shelter.
I continued to study the enigmatic man's features as I contemplated his admittedly very generous proposal. His cheekbones were high and sharp, helping to accentuate the gauntness of his lower face; a feature complimented by and made even more prominent by his proud aquiline nose with its decidedly aristocratic bend. The feature which seemed out of place in his face were his lips, which were full, ruddy and lush, their shade of red so severe and unnatural that they appeared painted like those of a common harlot. I only saw a flash of the man's teeth, but what I did see did not calm my fears or answer any questions. For a moment I could have sworn he had elongated canines that were long and pointy enough to rest against his scarlet bottom lip.
"You don't trust me," the man correctly assumed, but there were no traces of hurt feelings behind the statement. "And you are wise not to. I can imagine mankind has not always treated you with fairness. But nevertheless I beg you to have faith in me and consider my offer."
I thought it strange at the time that he referred to mankind as an "other" that he himself did not belong with, but my head was already filled with so many strange thoughts that I paid no further heed to this particular detail.
"Who are you?" I asked instead, eyes seeking his to catch an untruth, if one was delivered.
Was the man perhaps a syndic, like the father of my loathed creator? A wave of repulsion passed through me at the thought, and it must have shown on my face, because the stranger withdrew his hand and entered a more guarded pose. I was seated on the ground with him crouching beside me, so it was possible that he did not know my full height until I rose onto my knees and he to his feet, bringing us almost to eye-level with one another.
At this revelation, I glimpsed a small sliver of hesitation if not outright intimidation, but it was gone almost as quickly as it had manifested, and his smile returned, bringing some much-needed warmth to his harsh, almost cruel countenance. I noted that there was no attempt on his part to conceal his teeth, which were indeed long and pointy far beyond the norm in humans.
He raised an eyebrow curiously, almost playfully, when I stood up to my full height, but there was no fear in his eyes, only amusement and something else that was almost akin to wonder. I had never observed a man have such a reaction to me, and it made me almost giddy with delight. Finally I had encountered someone who did not view me as an abomination to be feared or destroyed; finally someone would be willing to look past my monstrous exterior and engage with the person I was on the inside, beneath this hideous skin outfit.
"I go by many names," the charismatic stranger said, and it took my dizzy brain a moment to realize he was answering my question from earlier. "But you may call me Count Dracula. Or just Dracula, if that pleases you."
Dracula. Dra-cu-la. I mouthed the three rather uncomplicated syllables to myself a few times to get a taste of the name. In my boundless curiosity, I was tempted to ask him what it meant in his native language, but I feared such a question would be considered too forward in our early stages of acquaintance, and I did not want to offend my newfound friend or annoy him with superfluous questions, so I focused instead on the title he had given me.
Count. A nobleman, then. That much was obvious from the way he spoke and conducted himself, but I couldn't help feeling a nagging suspicion that there was something he had refrained from telling me. My somewhat ungenerous musings were interrupted by a loud and acute rumbling of thunder in the east, and as I had predicted minutes ago, rain soon followed, pelting down on the earth and everything situated upon it with a ferocity only Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom and cruelty was capable of.
The Count's generous smile remained, but it looked somewhat more strained now, and I realized the time had come to make up my mind about his offer and give a definitive answer.
"Yes," I said, trying my best despite my clumsy, gargantuan frame to manage a humble bow. "If your offer of hospitality still stands, my lord, I will accept."
"Excellent." There was a flicker of something wicked - I had no other word to describe it - in his eyes, and a small shadow of doubt emerged in my subconsciousness, but I was just as quick to brush it away, chastising myself for having thought it in the first place. Someone had finally extended their hand to me, completely unprompted, and I rewarded their generosity by thinking ill thoughts of them?
"Come," the man said and began to walk away, obviously counting on me to follow him. "My house is not far."
I wanted to ask if there was a carriage waiting for him somewhere close and if I was expected to ride in it with him; something I naturally dreaded, as horses seemed to have a very strong natural aversion toward me in general and also because my stature virtually made it impossible for me to fit comfortably in any space designed for men.
As if he'd read my mind, the Count spoke up to reassure me. "No horses," he said simply. "I walked. I enjoy walking. I also enjoy the company of beasts, and horses, whilst beasts themselves, do not always share my tastes."
It was an odd way of wording things, and I felt compelled to ask him to elaborate, but the moment passed quickly and it was too late for me to capitalize on it, so I followed him in silence, obediently trailing behind the Count at a distance of about five feet. We were alone and not watched by anyone save for a few circling magpies - drawn to the garbage left behind by the humans, no doubt, the same as myself - and yet I sensed he would not appreciate me taking any liberties or in any way impose on him.
Count Dracula. I knew his name now, but it was also the full extent of my knowledge of this man, and as I followed him I had to remind myself several times that he had offered to feed me - once - only, and that might very well be the full extent of his hospitality, but in my pitiful, wretched heart, I couldn't help but harbor wishes for extended companionship; something that had been so cruelly denied to me for reasons outside of my control. My yearning for acceptance was so strong it was practically a self-sustaining force, overtaking and muting other driving forces in my being and replacing them with the one singular wish to be accepted as I am, to have someone - even a single individual of the human race - look at me and see a creature worthy of love and friendship.
The rain beat down harder with each passing minute, and it did not take long for the wetness to soak through the crudely stitched leather hides that served as my clothing. I was briefly mortified to consider the possibility of bringing all this soaking wetness into my generous benefactor's residence and perhaps even ruin something which he valued dearly; a rug or a piece of furniture. That was my nature and my curse, I supposed, to ruin everything I came into contact with and soil it with my hideous presence.
Before my bleak thoughts could force me to interrupt our budding association and flee from the Count's presence, another realization struck me: the man had offered his name when prompted, but he had not asked me for mine in return, perhaps because he correctly intuited that I did not have one.
I couldn't help but feel that I had stumbled onto something profound and ominous, but my belly ached for sustenance nearly as badly as my heart ached for human company, and I was determined not to let my own prejudices squander my chances of having both of these needs met, if only on a short-term basis. So I lumbered after the man, covertly hoping he had not been lying about the close proximity of his house.
And that was how I met one Vladislas Draculea, the inhuman man who would come to reshape my destiny and complete my transformation into the monster I was fated to become.
To be continued...