Letters to the Void

Writing about Writing YA

As you wish

Prom sucked.

I could tell you about how I spent way too much on my dress (basically two months of shitty drive thru Dunkin Donuts wages from this summer), or about how my shoes pinched, or about how Ted bought a corsage that totally clashed with my dress and I had to suck it up and wear the stupid thing anyway. I could tell you about how I burned my finger on my curling iron, or about how many times I tried to put on the stupid fake eyelashes before I threw them down in disgust and trampled them beneath my (uncomfortable) shoes.

Because that all happened. Also, Ted did not get a limo. Which would have been fine if he had borrowed his dad’s car like he could probably have done if he’d thought it through. And even showing up in his car would have been fine if only he had cleaned it out sometime in the last, oh, I don’t know, TWO GODDAMN YEARS? So it was either cram into the front seat in my midnight blue dress possessed of a nearly gargantuan tulle skirt and just pray to whoever was listening that I didn’t:

A) Crush the hell out of it and ruin my entrance, or:

B) Become caked in the crumbs and dust of pizzas past, not to speak of the grime of dirty pennies dug from pockets, leakage from sports drinks, and god forbid, bodily fluids.

I did not hold out a lot of hope for that scenario, so I tactfully explained to Ted that we were going to drive my 1990 Jetta instead. Ok, so it was dodgy and not that pretty, and yes, the transmission had been acting up. But it was clean.

“Come on, Lottie, I can’t drive stick. How’s it going to look if I have to help you out of the driver’s side?”

“A hell of a lot better than it’s going to look if I get Reeses’ Pieces adhered to my ass. Get in.”

So actually, I guess I wasn’t that tactful, but you know that whole Bridezilla thing? Well Promzilla happens too, and it especially happens when everyone’s been making a big deal about how this was going to be Carver High’s best prom ever, and when your mom has been clipping pictures of prom dresses since last year, and you happen to be dating the hottest guy on the basketball team right after said team has just swiped States’. Even if he IS colorblind.

Because midnight and pastel blue are not the same color. Even a little.

“Fine, if it’s what you want,” Ted said, getting in the passenger side of Dylan, which is what I named my car after the Charlie’s Angel that I wish I was most like.

Even though I know the one I’m actually most like is Natalie, because I am a giant dork, and also because I really don’t carry red hair well. At least I’m not clumsy, but that’s about all I have to be grateful for, and it’s not much, though given the nature of my shoes tonight maybe it is.

“What I want is to have my one perfect night in my whole high school career, and it was supposed to start with a limo and flowers and soft moonlight or something.”

Ted didn’t say anything to that, but I could tell out of the corner of my eye that he was making a face. It was a distinctive face that happened every time I did something that he decided was high maintenance, like ask him to be on time for something, or expect him to remember to pick up the snacks on the way to a party, or when I hinted that maybe he should compliment me on my new jean skirt that I only spent forty bucks and five hours to get. All I can say is, it’s a good thing he’s good looking.

Or maybe it’s bad, I don’t know. Maybe good-looking people don’t have to learn how to be good people? That wasn’t fair. Ted wasn’t a bad guy at all. He totally didn’t torture his little brother and sister as much as he could, and he talked to his parents with polite (if mostly monosyllabic) language, and he usually got the door for me. Ted was a good teammate and a pretty good friend. If you were on the basketball team. If you were pretty.

Not that he was a jerk to other people really. He just didn’t notice them.

Sometimes I wondered why we were together, both because his tendency to ignore anyone who wasn’t exactly like him annoyed me, and also because said tendency should probably have ruled me out. I think.

Ted seemed not to agree, because here we were, parking outside the hotel where prom was happening, and he was helping me out of Dylan. I froofed my skirts and unobtrusively yanked the sparkly strapless bodice up so it wouldn’t create an unfortunate nipple incident. Well, unfortunate for me. It would probably amuse the mouth-breathers endlessly.

“You look great,” Ted said, but he sounded impatient and mechanical, like he knew it was what he was supposed to say, and he was glad it was out of the way now.

“Thanks.”

I guess I didn’t sound much better.

We walked into the hotel lobby, and followed the signs to the room where most of the junior and senior class was congregated in their formal glory. Or something like that. The DJ was playing something popular and peppy, which was not really what I wanted to dance to, and the trend in colors was tipping more toward frosting-y pastels, and I started to feel out of place in my dark, dramatic dress. I was starting to feel much more out of place when Ted’s basketball buddies crowded around, their girlfriends trailing off into their own subgroup.

This was the thing I really hated about dating Ted.

Because here was me, in a pricey ball gown and painful strappy sandals, smiling through my lip gloss like I had Vaseline on my gums, but I had to work for it. I had to work for it all. The dress. The smile. The made up face that made believe that I was one of the group.

There they all were, in peach and lemon and powdery confectionary colors, with slim-cut skirts, and I felt like an idiot. None of them had burns on their hands from stupid curling irons, because all of them had gone somewhere to get their hair done. By someone who knew what they were doing. None of them had mismatched corsages, because they were used to telling boyfriends (or their boyfriends’ moms) what flowers to get.

After extended minutes rowdy game-speech and dude-bro back-clapping or whatever was going on while I slowly edged into the shadows of the dance floor, a slow song finally came on, and people realized that whatever else it was, prom was a dance. Couples and groups of friends fed into the center of the ballroom, swaying under the red and gold balloons of the “Night in Paris” theme as imagined by Courtney Weaver based on watching Moulin Rouge.

It wasn’t half lame, but the fact that when Ted finally found me, he smelled like back alley pot and someone’s flask? That was pretty lame. He got handsy, and it’s not that I mind, because it’s not like he doesn’t know his way around, but it was kind of embarrassing, and anyway, pot and peppermint schapps (because someone thought it would be clever if their booze smelled like breath mints because no teacher ever has seen that trick) just don’t smell good. He was also slowly pulling the top of my dress down, and I had to fight to hold it up. Seriously, nipples stay inside.

“God, will you get off?” I said, pushing him and his slobbery mouth off my neck.

“What’s your problem?” he snapped, and I got the feeling he’d been wanting to say that a long time.

“You. You’re ruining this for me!”

Ted looked like I had just slapped him, which I kind of wanted to, but my hand wasn’t tingling, so I hadn’t. Yes, I had to think about it for a second.

I’m ruining this for you? Sorry, who’s the one sulking in the corner?”

“I’m not sulking,” I said, though I was, except is it sulking if you have reasons? “I’m waiting for you to be done with practice time and actually come be with your girlfriend. On prom night.”

“Is that what you are? Because I thought you were pretty clear that I was just an escort for you.”

Not. Fair. Completely not at all fair.

“What, because I didn’t want to spend the night in a hotel room with you? That means I don’t want to be your girlfriend all of a sudden?”

“Kinda, yeah.”

“Well then, I guess I don’t. Ask one of your boyfriends for a ride home.”

So, like I said, prom sucked. I didn’t have any friends to commiserate with, not really. Mainly because they were doing things that were more fun. Leo was at a Dungeons and Dragons tournament, and Beth was a town over visiting her sick grandmother, which admittedly didn’t sound awesome, but it still beat getting broken up with and storming out of prom without anyone having the decency to notice your grand, melodramatic and frankly classic high school exit.

Except for the doorman.

“Hey, are you ok?”

I couldn’t tell if it was just tears on my face, or makeup too, but when I looked up at him, he made a grimace of solidarity and handed me the pressed handkerchief from his uniform pocket.

“Thanks,” I quavered, dabbing at my lower eyelids and bringing the starched white fabric away streaky.

“Go ahead and keep it. Wish someone had given me one on my prom night.”

“Why, what happened?”

I kept my eyes on him as I grappled to get my stupid torture shoes off my feet. In the process of which I broke one of my nails. Damn it, I spent hours on that manicure. Hours of my life. Wasted hours now.

“Oh, I got drunk and then I got busted. Dad was really pissed when he bailed me out.”

“That does sound pretty shitty.”

“It was. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t been getting drunk because my girlfriend had just broken up with me. Publicly. Really, really publicly,” he said, wincing, because going by how he looked, it couldn’t have been so long ago. I still hoped I wasn’t mad about tonight as long as that, but hope was clearly not my best friend right now.

“Did drinking help?” At least I knew where I could find some booze. A new life would be a little harder.

“What do you think?”

“Any suggestions?” I asked. Sure, maybe he was just the guy at the door, but he was the most decent person I’d talked to since Mom left for her late shift bartending and promised it would be a night to remember.

Well, she wasn’t wrong.

“Got a car?”

I nodded.

“Drive out to somewhere nice and secluded, and scream your guts out.”

“Well, I don’t know if that’ll help, but it’s something I can do.”

“Take care.”

“You, too.”

I cranked up the noise in Dylan the second her engine turned over (not without protest, but I ignored that). Joan Jett was wailing and I was yelling along with her, the kind of thing Ted never listened to or let me play when he was in the car with me. I threw it on every chance I got though, hoping some of her fuck you attitude would rub off on me, and I could stop being so nice all the time.

Being nice got me a lame boyfriend who just wanted some eye candy and seven minutes in heaven in a sleazy hotel room. Being nice lost me said boyfriend. And worst of all? Being nice meant I stormed off without slapping his all-American square-jawed face.

If nice guys finished last, then nice girls just got finished.

There were lots of places in Carver where a girl might go to scream her head off. We had plenty of woods, and even if they were all liberally posted with NO TRESPASSING signs, I figured as long as I wasn’t doing any off-season deer hunting, they were unlikely to take punitive action.

All I had to do was figure out where was the most deserted of all of the woods and all of the roads in town, and head straight for it. Ted and most of his friends lived in the big houses close to town, or else in the new row of Barbie McMansions that had sprung up just beyond the limits to accommodate all the people who mistakenly believed Carver was a “good place to raise the kids”.

Yeah, sure. Just look at us.

Anyway, I lived out further, about six miles from Carver High, and about fifteen from the hotel, and I knew about all the back roads. Dylan was pretty good about handling them, especially when I was in the mood to really drive. Which, right now, was probably not my mood, since I was too distracted and distraught, but it was something to at least try to focus on.

Where I would’ve wound up had I actually chosen, I really don’t know. It would be pointless to think it through now.

Because Dylan was sputtering and squealing, her back wheels fishtailing through mucky spring ruts. My heart raced as I fought her and rolled with her in equal measure, doing my all to make sure we didn’t wind up in the ditch. We did anyway, but it was at a crawl instead of a sprint.

I tried the key in the ignition and got nothing but a high-pitched whine and a few coughs out of the engine.

“God damn it!” I yelled, pounding the dash with the heel of my hand.

I don’t know how Dylan felt about it, but my palm got sore, so I stopped.

So, despite the gentrification going on in town, there weren’t a whole lot of lights in Carver, so when it’s dark, it’s pretty freaking dark. That’s awesome when you’re stargazing or trying to figure out if the moon is waxing or waning or whatever, but it’s not great at all when your car breaks down and you are a teary monstrosity in a mess of tulle and you’re barefoot with bursting blisters.

In the dark.

This was not how I’d imagined my night going, but then, thinking back to the boozy smelling guys and the girls who giggled over their inside jokes in public, maybe I wasn’t doing so badly. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d been looking forward to tonight for months. It was a thing. I thought, sure, high school wasn’t great, and I didn’t have that many friends, just a few decent ones, but this year was supposed to be better. I was supposed to be leaving on a high note.

Yeah, I was standing in the middle of a deserted road next to a broken down car, barefoot in a prom dress. Look this situation up in the thesaurus and “high note” is not going to be a synonym.

At least I could take off the ugly corsage now. I dragged it off my wrist and chucked it into the woods as far as my one season of softball in sixth grade had prepared me for.

“FUCK!” I yelled after it.

I would’ve kicked Dylan, except my toes would have gotten the short end of that stick, and I was no engineer, but I guessed that kicking your vehicle was unlikely to make it go. So I fell back against her in a huff, and cursed that I had no cell phone.

Possibly I should have bought one with the money I spent on my dress, which would have been the better choice on two counts at least. Because seriously, May is not as warm a month as you might think, not when you live in New Hampshire, and my strapless dress was not bought with practicality in the forefront of my mind. Clearly. Well, I had learned my lesson, and the next time I tried to social climb my way into one decent high school experience, or, you know, whatever the adult equivalent was, I made a mental note to rent some movies and order in instead.

I tried to start Dylan about six times before I gave up, and figured all I could do was walk toward home until either I got picked up by someone who didn’t look like they would murder me and make a purse out of my skin, of I would at least wind up at home. Eventually. With very dirty feet.

The best thing I could say for my plan, if you’re being generous and allow me to call it that instead of what it was, which was an unmitigated disaster, anyway, the best thing about it was at least I could kind of see. Now that I had no choice, I had some pretty good night vision going on, and the stars were really pretty if you cared about that kind of thing.

Which I totally would have, if I had spent the last hour dancing with Ted, and he had maybe casually taken me outside and pointed out the constellations he would just happen to know, and then we would kiss and it would be better than all the other kisses we’d had which now I thought about it had been mediocre at best. So, maybe Ted being here wouldn’t actually improve either my mood or the appearance of the stars and dammit, dammit, dammit!

“Hello, Charlotte,” said a low voice behind me, and a hand brushed my shoulder.

My naked shoulder.

I screamed.

“Now, now. That’s no way to greet someone who wants to help you.”

“Help me do what, exactly? I don’t see you driving a tow truck.”

Actually, I couldn’t really see him at all, which was way worse than the lack of tow truck. I mean, I could make out the vague shape of him in the dark, enough to know that he seemed to have a lot of hair and he was showing a lot of skin for a dude, but like I was one to judge right now? So not one to judge right now.

However, I could totally judge him for basically jumping out at me in the middle of nowhere.

“I was going to give you the night you’ve been dreaming of, actually.”

Well, didn’t he just have a pair? I snorted.

“Wow, do you trot out that line for all the girls, or am I meant to feel special?”

“I do not make such an offer to just anyone, no.”

“Maybe that’s because no one else is standing out here like…like…some kind of sitting duck,” I finished, lamely, I admit, but I had no way out of this situation, and I desperately needed out, and that was consuming the part of my brain that might’ve ordinarily furnished me with a better retort.

“Most likely that is because you cannot do both of those things at the same time.”

I glared at him, but in the dark, it didn’t matter. It wouldn’t anyway, since my makeup was in streaks down my face, and I felt about as good as the doorman’s handkerchief looked right about now. Which was untidy and damp, and a bit like I’d been in someone’s pocket for several hours.

“Allow me to begin from the beginning, this will all make more sense that way. I am Prince Bradan of the Far Woods. You called me, and I am here to grant your wish.”

“You’re not in a tow truck, ergo, wish not granted.”

The man sighed, which at least made me feel somewhat less uncomfortable talking to a stranger when I was completely alone and unable to get further than my legs would carry me. The fact that he had referred to himself as a prince clearly implied that he was crazy pants, but it seemed like the kind of crazy pants that played video games in his mom’s basement, and not the kind that went around with an axe in his back pocket.

“You wished for a night that you would remember always, for a dance and a glimpse at the finery you so clearly lack in this…place,” he said, the emphasis on place making it sound like it left a trail of acrid slime down his tongue. He could keep his slime. I’d had enough with dances and parties for the next, oh, decade or so.

“Look, dude, I just want to go home. Maybe a dance would’ve been great, like, a week ago? But now I’ve had it about up to here with them, and my dress is pretty much ruined, and so is my night, so who the hell ever you are, just leave me alone, ok?”

Then, to top it all off, the guy took my hand, pulling me into his own personal space, which, by the way, definitely violated mine.

“A dance, my lady, is always in order.”

With my hand in his, he placed his other on my waist, twirled me around, and before I could blink, I had fallen straight through the dark and out the other side into a strange and glittering world.

The space felt massive, the way you can just feel emptiness stretching on either side of you when you’re in a field, like you could just sprint in any direction and not hit anyone or anything for a minute at least. Except this place was that kind of big while being packed. If it hadn’t been for the guy’s hand on my waist, deftly steering me away from collisions, I’d already have an egg-sized bruise on my forehead and a lot of stepped on toes.

But he whisked me around, pulling me into the music, which was not like anything I’d heard on the radio. It was music that had gone feral, but was dressed up for the occaision.

Because, oh boy, was it an occasion. I was pretty sure this is how Mom thought prom was going to be when she spent so much time helping me pick a dress and shoes and talked hair and makeup.

Mom didn’t really have a prom, and I wanted it pretty bad. Who doesn’t? Glitz and glam, pretending for a night that you were basically royalty? Sure, I’ll take that. Except that it turned out, even with a hot date and a dress, no one forgets what you really are. Hint: I am not a princess.

Don’t I just wish?

“You see? Do not tell me that this isn’t what you wanted,” said Bradan (I had decided I couldn’t call him Prince anything).

“Well, it’s pretty nice,” I hedged, falling into the rhythm of his dance, and actually starting to enjoy it.

I mean, stranger danger and all, but, come on. It was beautiful. Glitter was falling from the ceiling like snow, and the dancers around us wore dresses and suits that could’ve come from any time in the last couple hundred years, or all of them at once, who knew?

“’Pretty nice?’ This is a royal ball, you know. While I may be used to such things,” he placed a hand over his heart, before taking my hand again, “I hardly would have imagined you would be so used to it.”

“Oh, sorry, you thought you’d come to the middle of nowhere and we’d all be hicks? I’ve seen TV. I know what glamour looks like.”

And until tonight, I thought I wanted it. Maybe because I’d never had it that much, and then suddenly I did. I got to live the dream, but like most dreams, when you try to tell someone what it was about or why the hell it was so great? It doesn’t work.

No that there wasn’t a certain magic at work, dancing with Bradan, brushing past dresses like snowflakes, or like cascades of moss, or even one woman who seemed to look like the inside of a geode, full of sharp edged glitter. I had pictured prom this way, and the disappointment I had when it was so, so much less was at least partially being made up for here.

“May I offer you a drink?” asked Bradan, gesturing his long-fingered hand to the table laid out by the wall.

I was thirsty, but I shook my head.

Rule one of being somewhere unfamiliar: do not eat the food or drink the drinks. Rule number one of boys: don’t drink anything they give you. Bradan might be a bit weird as boys went, since in the light it was clear the thing he wore looked like a military uniform from the mid eighteenth century except for the glam rock hair and the fact that I was quite sure his trousers were leather. But weird didn’t mean trustworthy.

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m not taking anything you’re offering.”

His lips curled into a tight smile that I was worried might snap back at me, like a very well coiled bullwhip. Now I thought of it, there was an intensity about his eyes, like they were liquid tension, and it was putting me off my stride. Unfortunate, given that we were dancing, and I got my toes stepped on.

Have you ever had your toes stepped on after they’ve already been pinched into awful points by your shoes? It hurts like something that small has no right to hurt, and I yelped. It was the sound of a distressed puppy, and the blood rushed straight to my cheeks, where it made a further mess of my face.

“My lady, are you hurt?”

“Did you seriously just call me ‘my lady’? I think I may have a brain tumor or something,” I said, hobbling out of the throng of dancers, and taking Bradan’s arm. I wasn’t proud. Stupid heels. They really ought to be burned. Men wearing shiny boots to dance with barefoot girls probably should be banned too.

“Come, sit.”

Bradan waved his hand, and suddenly roots sprung from the ground, weaving themselves into a bench-like configuration. He sat, and pulled me to sit next to him. The party continued in full swing around us, apparently not noticing that there were two people sitting in the middle of it all.

“I suppose I should confess that I did not bring you here simply to grant your wish.”

“Obviously. My wish was for Dylan to start.”

Bradan cocked his head at me, clearly not understanding my meaning, but he waved his hand as if to dismiss his confusion, and carried on.

“It was propitious, but I took advantage of the situation for entirely selfish motives. My kingdom, you see, is in a bit of an uproar,” he said, and glanced around at the frills and frivolity that I thought kind of contradicted his statement, “yes, yes, it all looks rather lovely, but remember, I’ve put on this show for your benefit. It is merely a pretty mirage, and the underneath is nothing but a riotous mess.”

“That has to do with me how, exactly?”

“I am meant to be the king of the Far Woods, but my leadership cannot stand without a queen. And just when I despaired of finding one, I heard you, hoping. Wishing.”

“Pretty sure I wasn’t wishing for you.”

I sounded brash, but he had a point. I’d been cutting out dresses and dreaming fantasies of fairy lights and romantic princes sweeping me off my feet. I’d wished for the kind of power that came with beauty, at least in the movies. And here it was, at my feet. Or, at my side, anyway.

The question was, did I really want that? Or had I just decided that I did because girls are supposed to want to be princesses when they grew up?

Prince Bradan put his index finger under my chin and softly turned my head so that I had to twist and face him. He was otherworldly looking, beautiful, but strange. Completely unlike any of the idiot boys I had spent all year stupidly trying to impress just so I could bring my paper fantasy to life. And look how well that had gone.

“Oh, not by name, my lady, but believe me, your voice was quite loud.”

I bit my lip. He was right.

“What about my mom? What about school?”

“I’m not a monster. Visit your mother, by all means. There is a precedent for such things, you know.”

“Ok. Ok, but what if it doesn’t work out? I mean, let’s say your people don’t like me, or maybe I don’t like you. Like, what if you got me the wrong color corsage, and forgot about the limo, and maybe you’ll think I’m not all that interesting, and here I am, in the middle of some crazy party where I don’t really know anybody. What about that?”

On the bench, next to my hand, a single flower sprouted. It was deep blue, almost black, and its petals were rimed in dew so that it sparkled in the light. The exact color of my dress. I didn’t recognize it, but it was exotic and magical.

“I’ll take that drink now,” I said.

I knew what it meant.

Prince Bradan smiled, showing just enough of his teeth that I could tell they were strange and pointed. I took his arm and let him lead me to a fountain which sprinkled wine into a crystal cup, which I let him press to my lips.

“My queen,” he said.

I could get used to that. I smiled at him, and felt the points of my teeth sharp on my lips.

Stay off the tracks, no matter what

We went down to the tracks to prove the stories wrong. Not that anyone really believed them, because the people to start the stories were all the kinds of people you didn’t listen to. Laborers, drifters, foreigners. But even those were so long ago, you just couldn’t trust it.

Or maybe we went down to the tracks because no one would look for us there. It was a pretty good bet they would, if they tried, but they didn’t, and that was good enough.

The story went like this: back in the mists of time, when your granddaddy had to walk to school through the snow for five miles, uphill both ways, there was a girl. It always starts with a girl, because girls are trouble. Anyway, she was the daughter of the mayor, and she was beautiful. One of the men contracted to work on the railroad fell in love with her. Probably all of them did, if they saw her at least.

Beauty can turn your head, and if you’re not careful, it’ll turn it all the way around. If you’re not careful, it’ll break your neck.

So of course, being the mayor’s daughter, she shouldn’t have fallen for some dirty, sweaty guy who spent all day swinging a sledge hammer, but on the other hand, that guy definitely had better muscles than whatever pansy type guy her dad had picked out for her. He had something, anyway, because she fell in love with him too.

They started to meet. Late at night, when her father was asleep, the girl would sneak out her window, climb down the trellis, and run off to the edges of the camp, where the railroad men slept. They’d walk under the moonlight and cuddle by the unfinished tracks, away from the campfires, where no one would find them.

You can’t go sneaking off every night without someone noticing, though, and maybe her legit boyfriend came to throw stones at her window some night and caught her sneaking back in or something, because he caught on to their game. The pansy guy followed her one night to see what she was up to and who she was meeting.

Naturally, he was kind of pissed off, and even someone who doesn’t spend all day hitting railroad spikes with a giant hammer can do some damage if he brings a knife. Which he did. He knows he won’t do that well if he tries to approach in the light, from the front, so he pulls a real weasel move and sneaks up on the couple.

But you see, it’s dark, way too far from the town and the camp for him to see much more than their shapes. Still, he’s pretty sure he can pick out the big shadow from the little one, and he lunges for it, stabbing over and over and over until he’s sure the guy must be dead.

Well, he’s got to be, because there isn’t any noise. Then he realizes that there should be noise. His girlfriend should be screaming. She isn’t. No one is. So he pulls out a book of matches, lights one, and sees that he’s gone and killed them both.

Anyway, so people sometimes say they see her ghost, walking back and forth over the tracks, crying for her dead lover.

We figured it was a stupid story. I mean, for starters, how come it’s just her ghost that you see? Wouldn’t they both be there? And anyway, no one actually believes in ghosts. They might say they do, but they’re probably just lying. Or drunk.

Even though we stole Marcus’s mom’s shitty bottom-shelf vodka, and were very nearly drunk, we still didn’t believe in ghosts, so the guys who told stories in the pub were probably just liars. Whatever, you can’t trust old guys. They’re always spinning a yarn just to watch you fall for it so they can yell, “gotcha!”

“Man, this shit is going straight through me. I’m gonna go take a piss,” Marcus says, stumbling up and heading off toward the tree line.

“Watch out for dead chicks!” I yell after him.

He doesn’t say anything, but I imagine his free hand is flipping me off.

I take a sip of the vodka, and I’m still not drunk enough to not notice how bad it tastes, but it’s the kind of thing his mom won’t notice is missing, so it’s the kind of thing we take. Actually, I’ll bet she knows we take it, but at ten bucks for a fifth, I guess she doesn’t mind indulging him. That’s how she figures he’ll learn responsible drinking, and she’s not wrong. Neither of us ever wrapped a car around a tree like Josh did last week, driving with a beer bottle between his legs. We just drink our swill down by the railroad where no trains go.

“Hey, can I have a sip of that?”

I startle and look up. There’s a girl standing in the glow of our solar lantern. I didn’t see her approach, but duh, it’s dark. Of course I didn’t. She’s gorgeous, with long black hair and big eyes in a delicate, pale face. I can’t see what color they are in the low light, but I gesture to the grass next to me and pass the vodka over to her.

“Sure, but it tastes like shit.”

“Thanks, I think I’ll risk it.”

She swigs, and I am impressed. She doesn’t even pull a face. Honestly, I still pull a face. Not because of the alcoholic content, but because really, it’s nasty. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. This girl can hold her liquor though, and since she isn’t some bottom-feeding barfly, it’s kind of hot.

“Do you live around here? I’ve never seen you around.”

“I keep to myself, mostly. My name’s Annabell,” she says, passing back the vodka.

“I’m Logan.”

We sit in silence, and I start to wonder how long it takes to take a piss, and if I should’ve offered to hold Marcus’s hand or something. But then, it means I’m the one sitting with the beautiful girl, our hands almost touching on the grass.

“Will you come for a walk with me? I feel like walking,” Annabell says, standing in a fluid motion that makes her look like a dancer, like gravity doesn’t rule over her the way it does us petty mortals.

Ok, I’m kind of drunk by now.

“Yeah, sure. As long as you’re not afraid of the ghost,” I say.

With the glow of the lantern hitting the underside of her face, making deep shadows hang under her eyes and the outside of her cheekbones, she smiles. It’s both uncomfortably creepy and very attractive at the same time.

“Oh, I’m not afraid. I’ll have you to protect me.”

“Exactly.”

I’m sure I sound confident, but I have to walk slower and a lot more deliberately to appear sober. She puts a hand through my elbow and rests her fingertips on my biceps. Even though I’m wearing a long sleeve shirt, I can feel how cold her hands are. Probably because she’s wearing a short-sleeve dress, all gauzy like something girls sleep in in Dracula or Gone with the Wind or something. It’s old-fashioned, and a little weird, but it looks so right on her, I didn’t even notice.

“So, are you like, homeschooled or something?” I ask, for conversational filler. My sparkling wit must be out taking a piss with Marcus.

“Something.”

She stops walking suddenly, and I trip up a little before my feet figure out that they’re supposed to quit moving forward. Then she moves so that she’s facing me, or as close to facing me as she can be, with the top of her head just reaching my nose.

“Have you ever kissed anyone under the stars like this?” she asks, both of her hands reaching up my shoulders.

I don’t know what to do with my hands. I’d like to touch her, but I hardly know her, and my heart is racing with the thought of kissing her, and wondering if she’s just fucking with me, because she’s so beautiful and no one like her has ever been this close to my face.

“Can’t say I have,” I say, wondering if I sound nonchalant, or if the knot in my stomach and the tightness in my throat is as audible as I’m afraid it is.

Her lips find mine, and they’re cold too, but it’s cold like a slushie or the first ice cream cone of summer. Sweet and melting, her tongue yielding to mine. My hands have figured out what to do, and I reach for her waist. She’s so small and soft, the fabric of her dress silky on my palms. I push my fingers up, exploring the curve of her, inching up her ribs and seeking more softness.

Instead they find…wetness. All the bits of her skin I felt were freezing cold, but suddenly my hands are swimming in something hot and wet and wrong. I take a step back and look down. The moon is bright, and my eyes are used to the dark by now, but I still squint, because I must be wrong. I have to be wrong.

Because my hands are covered in blood. From my fingertips to my palms, streaking over my wrists and up my forearms is a sheath of blood. It’s sticky and warm, drying in the chilly breeze. Her dress isn’t white anymore, either. The top of it is soaked through, from her breasts to her hips, a deep well of blackish red ooze springing from the center of her.

“Jesus!” I yell.

She’s smiling again, only this time, her beauty is terrible and ghastly, and I just want to get the hell away. My feet scrabble on the loose rocks by the railroad, and I jolt awkwardly forward. But soon I’m running, and my heart is pounding a hell of a lot faster than it was when she started kissing me.

“Where are you going?” she calls after me, a lilt in her voice that’s part mocking and part flirting, but all hollow.

Only–her voice isn’t behind me. It’s in front of me. She’s in front of me, and I slam straight into her. But she’s a ghost. She’s a ghost, so how the hell is she so solid? I try to push past her, but no matter which direction I move toward, there she is. It’s like she’s reading my mind, like she knows where my feet will be before I do.

“Don’t leave me, we were just starting to have fun,” Anaabell says, her hands on my chest, her fingers gripping my shirt.

They sink into my chest, claws ripping through my skin and pushing between my ribs, and I’m screaming so loud I can’t even hear it. I scream as my blood pours out onto my chest and runs in rivers down my stomach. Annabell is kissing my jaw while her hand finds my heart and squeezes.

I fall to my knees, and she comes with me, buried to her arms in my chest.

My whole world is pain, except for the things I can’t feel at all, anymore. I’m losing consciousness, and I hope that death comes soon. The last thing I see is a pair of dark eyes. I still don’t know what color they are.

I guess sometimes the stories are true, after all.

So there’s a story behind the title, and there’s a story behind the story, and both are humorous, so sorry I’m not sorry, but there’s more to read still. The title I stole from the most fascist children’s book that ever accidentally made it into my house (though I am certain that many fascists have written much worse children’s indoctrination, I was spared that pain). It was about a train that liked frolicking in fields of wildflowers, rather than adhering to the rigid tracks and time schedules expected of his kind. It had lovely pictures, but when Mum read it to me, it turned out that the refrain was: “Stay on the tracks, no matter what!” After finishing the book, it was unanimously rejected by all parties.

The story behind the story is this: I wrote it quite late at night, which was fine. Nothing wrong with writing a horror story at night. I mean, there isn’t even a door on my closet, nothing’s going to hide there. We live in the modern age when electric lights can mimic the strength of daylight enough to still the thundering hearts of even the most cowardly lion and wussie bunny. However, JUST at the point where I was writing the reveal, where all the SCARY SHIT goes down, my light bulb blew. BAM, dark! IN MY FACE, ALL THE DARK! It’s shocking enough when that happens, and honestly, I scare easy, but fuck you very much, universe, for your incredibly apposite timing.

Luckily, when incandescent light bulbs were banned, my dad bought MANY MANY boxes. MANY. Which is why I am still alive to blog this short story for your enjoyment and hopefully, you’ll be just as terrified in the reading of it as I was in the writing. But I doubt it.

Just two letters

“If I were everything I appear to be, you would be dead. If you were only what you appear to be, I would be bored.”

That’s what he said on our first date. Later, I would learn that bored was also a synonym for ‘you would be dead”, but at the time, I thought he was just being witty.

“That may be the meanest compliment anyone’s ever paid me.”

“I am not accustomed to paying them.”

“Stick around, I’ll give you a reason to practice.”

I smiled, and he smiled back. It was pure bravado, the whole thing. That’s the thing about wine. A glass or two and suddenly you’re three inches taller and twenty IQ points smarter. Well, I was three inches taller, but that was the heels. And I probably wasn’t any smarter, but I was definitely playing with a full deck.

Or at least, I thought I was. But the thing is, I was on a date, and I shouldn’t have been. Not because there’s anything wrong with dates, generally. I hear people enjoy them. Sometimes enough to want to go on another, which is a little shocking, frankly, given the awkwardness of the vast majority of dates. What I shouldn’t have been was on a date with him.
My friends tried to warn me, lovely, well-meaning people that they are. I did not listen.

“So tell me, then, what else are you that stops you ripping out my throat and having me for dinner instead of that steak?” I asked him, leaning forward even though the smell of the charred flesh was more than a little bit nauseating, and even my salad was unappetizing, like it had been tainted in the pink blood puddling on his plate.

He set down his knife with a slight clink and gave me a slow, smoldering gaze. I say smoldering in the literal sense, because as I looked into his dark eyes, I could see flames. Maybe it was just from the fireplace behind me, but they seemed to emanate from deep within.

“Mostly,” he said, in a voice that was low and rough around the edges, “because it is a very good steak.”

“I’ll have to send my compliments to the chef for saving my life, then.”

“Oh, if I were you, I’d just ask him to make sure dessert is as good as this. I get a craving for sweet things after a good meal.”

We met in a very conventional way, all things considered. A friend of a friend knew some guy and brought him around to Elana’s party. That was a week ago, and normally, although Elana and I are close, I wouldn’t have been there at all. I’m not a fan of parties in general, and that one was pretty large for a girl with a one-bedroom apartment to throw.

So I was there, having been coaxed into wearing a dress, but I stayed in a corner, avoiding the huddles by the snack table and the stereo. I had no desire for potato chips, beer, or substandard electronica. Instead, I picked around Elana’s shelf for a book, and ignored everyone.

Until I heard a cough that was much too deliberate to indicate illness, and I looked up. There was a man, tall, dark-skinned, with strangely bottomless eyes. The trend in the room seemed to be for bright colors and shiny fabrics, but he was wearing all black, like I was.

“If we found someone else in black, we could start our own murder of crows,” I said, and stood up.

He had cocked his head, like he didn’t get it. That wouldn’t be the first time a guy gave me that look, and I was about to explain myself when he cut in.

“Murder is a serious business. Crows are just silly.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you’d seen them eating the eyes out of roadkill.”

“I have seen them eating the eyes out of dead men. But they don’t kill the men first.”

It occurred to me that while I wore black because it’s cool, and you don’t have to worry about it matching, he might be wearing black so the stains didn’t show. That probably should’ve stopped me, but we all know it didn’t.

“You must have some interesting hobbies. I’m Hester, by the way.”

I held out my hand. He took it in his, and kissed the top of it, just barely brushing his lips over the skin. I got shivers down my spine despite myself.

“My name is irrelevant.”

So when a man won’t tell you his name, and all you know about him is that he has seen carrion birds peck out dead men’s eyes, and then he asks you out on a date, it only makes sense to go. Clearly. I told that to Elana while she picked out my outfit and talked me into the lipstick, and she had said, “this is a terrible idea, and for god’s sake, please don’t go, and if you do bring mace,” but did I listen?

Nope.

Because curiosity is my tragic flaw. Or it would be, if I thought of it as a flaw.

Back in the restaurant, he was chewing with deep appreciation, his heavy eyelids falling almost closed. My stomach flipped over and sloshed the wine around. I picked at my salad and thought about cows lying in fields, dead and covered in maggots, oily black crows perched on their skulls and picking at whatever they could get.

“You’ve hardly touched your salad. Is it inadequate?”

“It’s fine. I’m just…not hungry.”

It’s a terrible thing to imagine a cow being eaten away by scavengers when you know exactly how it looks in actuality. Let me just say, after growing up on the ranch, there is a reason that I don’t eat meat.

Which makes it even more improbable that I’d be out with the man across from me, but just like the time I found the carcass in the field, I can’t look away. Not even when he saws down on the seared flesh and paints his steak knife red.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“What do I do when what?”

“What?”

“It’s an incomplete statement. I can’t answer you accurately if you don’t finish the question.”

“I’d almost guess you were a lawyer.” I said.

The man laughed, but he kept his mouth closed.

“Just very aware of the importance of words. What do you do for employment, Hester?”

“I shelve books.”

“So you are also aware of the importance of words.”

“Kind of the opposite. No one ever seems to take them off the shelves once they’re there. But yeah, words are important. So tell me, Mr. Irrelevant, what is it that you do in order to make a living?”

“I get revenge for people. Mainly by killing other people. How does that make you feel?” he said, in a decent impersonation of a TV shrink that was probably accidental.

“Curious.”

“Not…frightened?” he pressed. Slice, slice, slice went his knife.

“I’m not an idiot. It gives me pause. But you’ve had plenty of opportunities not to kill me, so I’ll trust my luck for a little longer.”

 

My luck held all night and into the next morning. As the dawn emerged greyly through the windows, I stretched out on blood red sheets and looked at the sleeping man next to me. I didn’t know his name, still, and that should’ve bothered me. It should’ve bothered me that there was a curved and thirsty looking scimitar hanging over the faux fireplace that flickers with gas-fed flames.

But there was something about him, I guess, that made me think that whatever danger he possessed (lots, I was sure), it wasn’t aimed at me. Really, there was only one thing I didn’t understand, and when he shifted, half awake, and asked, “what are you thinking?” I put it in words.

“Why me?”

“Because you’re very good at saying no.”

I looked at my clothes on the floor, the breadcrumb trail of my heels and purse curving around the doorway and into the hall. I looked back at the man, eyebrows cocked.

“Apparently not.”

Slowly, one of his dark hands rose up from the sheet and tapped my temple.

“You know how to say no when you want to. I want you to teach me how.”

“I’ll teach you that,” I said, “if you’ll tell me your name.”

He looked at me with inscrutable black eyes.

“No.”

 

Happy Fucking Valentine’s Day

 

Valentine’s Day isn’t a good day to be single.

It isn’t about pity, or a lack of chocolate and wine and fucking that I’m talking about, either. St. Valentine wasn’t a very nice man, it turns out. Oh, sure, lovers hail him as a patron saint and splash his name in clashing red and pink across Hallmark cards today, but back in the day, he was an (excuse the pun) unholy terror.

The way he died would leave anyone a little twisted up, literally. Saints don’t become saints until after they die, and mostly they die hard. Valentine was tortured and beaten raw and beheaded, so he had enough death to spread around. Which is what he does. One of his minor miracles was curing a girl of her blindness, and yeah, that sounds nice. Only now, he takes eyes. He used to heal hearts. Now he cuts out hearts.

But he only does it to the lonely. To the sad fuckers sitting by themselves eating remaindered Whitman’s samplers in their underwear. I guess he thinks he’s doing us a favor.

Look, it’s not like he kills us all. But on Valentine’s Day, he could come for any of us.

Since I’m in my living room half-dressed (and no, no one did the honors for me, or I wouldn’t be telling you any of this), a supreme pizza and a bottle of Bud on my coffee table, shitty TV on in the background, I’m a little worried.

But hey, man, you gotta go, you may as well go out drowning in carbs, booze, and laughter in the dark.

There’s a noise from down the hall, and I half leap out of my skin. See, the thing is, everyone knows about Saint Valentine prowling our allies, looking for our eyes and ready with a saw to take your heart. We’re less clear on how he gets to you. Does he sneak up quietly? Does he ram through the door and take you on face to face? Does he come down the chimney? What? Anyone in a position to know is very dead.

I get up and pull my jeans higher on my waist. If it is him, I don’t want to die with my ass hanging out. I may not have a girlfriend, but I have my dignity. Ok, well, I don’t really have that either, considering.

The noise comes again, from the back of the apartment. My room, in fact. I hold my beer tight in my hand, just in case I can smash it over the fucker’s head. It won’t do a lot of good if he’s as insubstantial as someone who’s been dead for centuries should be, but I feel better. Kind of.

The door to my room is ajar, and I stick my foot out, pushing it all the way open.

My pulse is louder than the TV in the next room, and I hold my breath good and tight in case it’s my last.

It’s definitely going to be my last, but it’s not Saint Valentine behind my door. It’s Krista. My next door neighbor.

She’s in a red dress, and she’s soaking wet, her hair sticking to her neck, mascara running down her cheeks, remains of her lipstick staining the corners of her mouth. She’s a fucking mess, and I just want to lick it off. I want to rub her dry, preferably without a towel.

I’ve been in love with Krista for the last six months. Which is exactly when she moved in.

“Hey,” I say, leaning against my door frame.

“Hi.”

She’s shaking, and I approach her slowly. My window is open, and it’s raining out. I wasn’t paying attention to it before, but with a cold and shivering girl in my room, it’s suddenly a lot more relevant. I pass Krista and shut the window. Maybe now I’m not technically alone, it’ll keep out the rain and Saint Valentine both.

“Are you…what happened?” I ask, stopping myself before I say something as retarded as are you ok, because duh, she is not ok.

“Brad broke up with me. I’m sorry, fuck, I didn’t know where else to go and I didn’t, you know…”

She’s in a fucking red dress, all made up and smoking hot, and that dick broke up with her. Krista rubs her arms, looking small and lost.

“I’m sorry. Jesus, what a douche,” I put an arm around her and lead her to the bathroom. She follows without question, her bare skin sticking on mine, and although I swear I’m only getting her a towel, my mind wanders to stripping off her dress and getting in the shower with her. A hot shower would do a lot to warm her up.

“He said I was too clingy, you know? That he was just tired of someone who needed him to be around all the time and…whatever,” she bites off the end of her sentence between her perfect teeth. I want to lick them.

Any decent guy would at least wait until the danger was over. Breaking up with a girl on Valentine’s Day is practically a death sentence.

“So, I only have the one towel. Um, do you want, like, some sweats or something?”

“That would be great.”

I leave her alone with my towel.

The towel I’m going to use tomorrow morning. With her makeup streaks and her perfume all rubbed into the fibers.

Even though there’s a girl in my apartment, I don’t relish going through the hall and into my room. It still feels eerily empty, as if it could be invaded (you know, again) at any moment. I find a pair of drawstring sweats and a flannel shirt, and knock on the bathroom door. She sticks an arm out to grab the bundle, and I try to sneak a look at her.

There’s exactly enough flesh to make my heart skip a beat, and not close to enough to be satisfying.

After a couple minutes, she comes out in my clothes, rubbing the towel through her long hair. Her face is clean now, but her eyes are red-rimmed and a little puffy from crying. Brad is not worth crying about, but I guess some things you just have to do.

“So…you want a beer?”

She makes a face at the label on my bottle.

“Do you have something else?”

“There’s a bottle of tequila on the top of my fridge,” I offer.

We walk to the kitchen together. It’s a small apartment, so the kitchen is basically the half of the living room that has linoleum tile instead of carpet, and I reach up for the bottle.

“I don’t actually own shot glasses.”

“I wasn’t planning on doing a shot.”

“Well, ok, then.”

I pour the tequila into tumblers and pass her one. She downs it. Which means that I have no choice but to follow suit, and if possible, drink it faster.

“Moritori te salutamus,” she says, bitterly.

“Happy fucking Valentine’s Day,” I add.

Well, it wasn’t. An hour ago, I figured I would be bleeding out on my muddy brown carpet with a crust of pizza still in my hand and a puddle of beer around my head, and frankly, it was the bleakest damn image of myself I ever saw, and this from someone who spent a summer working at Walmart.

Now, there’s Krista in my shirt, which is four times too big for her and looks adorable, the sleeves pushed up but drooping down her arms, the pockets not in any way concealing the shape of her boobs and their eminent touchability. There’s Krista in my kitchen, her hair still damp and drying in messy waves that look like they were made for fingers to wind through.

There’s Krista, who doesn’t move away when I step toward her.

I put my hand on the back of her neck and pull her in, and her hands reach up to my shoulders, like she’s been waiting for this as long as I have. It doesn’t matter that Brad the Douche has been kissing her lips, now they taste like rain and my towel and my tequila and I’m the one kissing them.

We wind up tangled in each other for a long time, her hands running over my bare chest, mine sneaking under the hem of her shirt and finding the soft skin underneath. It’s still a little cold, but the more we kiss, the more of her I touch, the warmer she gets. I pick her up, and her legs wrap around me.

I take her into the bedroom, and this time, I have no fear about what I find there.

When we wake up we’re still pressed together, the blankets twisted through our legs and tugged in awkward ways so neither of us are really covered all the way and neither of us are really responsible for the state of things.

There’s no more rain. It’s ten, and the sun is bright on her skin, making it look as soft as butter and twice as good to eat.

I forgot to turn off the TV last night, and over the light sound of Krista’s breath, I hear the announcer say, “a local man, Brad Stockton, lost his life late last night. His heart was missing and both of his eyes had apparently been gouged out. Authorities have declared it a Valentine’s Day killing…”

Even douche bags shouldn’t have to die, but Krista moves against me, her hair trailing across my arm, and honestly? I just don’t feel that bad for him.

Demon lover

Demons are terrible lovers.

They’re selfish, they’re voracious, and their kinks are more than ordinarily kinky.

But if you want to freak out your parents when you bring a boy home for Christmas, there’s no better way.

It’s not all that hard, if you go to a certain kind of liberal arts college, to find a boy who will shock a certain kind of parent. But this one was something else. He drove a car that was old and reckless and loud. He had a lot of tattoos, and he didn’t have to get naked for you to see them, either, although that wasn’t too bad a view in my opinion.

His name was Malphas, but he agreed to let me call him Mal when I explained how weird Malphas sounded to normal people. Of course, when I called Mom about coming home for Christmas, I said, “do you think I could bring Malphas along?”

And she said, “oh, honey, I didn’t know they let you have dogs on campus, I’m not sure Rover–“

“Mom, Malphas is my boyfriend.”

There wasn’t any noise on the other side of the phone, which I took to mean that she hadn’t fainted. Yet.

“That…sounds like a very traditional name. Is he Jewish?”

Mom was really careful about how she said “Jewish”, sort of like how you’d hold something very fragile that you were eager to put down but hadn’t found a place for. It wasn’t so much that she was bigoted or anything. Just she and Dad hadn’t actually met someone who didn’t live within ten miles of them and go to the same handful of churches as they did in about twenty years.

“No. He might be an atheist. Or, not, that’s not quite right. He’s an anti-theist, I think.”

“A what, dear?”

“Well, he knows there’s a god, but he doesn’t like him.”

“Oh. Does he eat meat?”

I looked across the room at Malphas, shirtless and covered in brutal, black tattoos that shifted and altered if I stared too hard, like snapping jaws or poisonous roots, ready to entrap me.

“I’d say it’s a safe bet.”

Just before I clicked off the phone, he walked up behind me and sunk his teeth into the skin of my shoulder blade, almost deep enough to draw blood, but not quite.

 

So we loaded up his car, which just meant I threw in a few pairs of jeans, and he snuck in a full set of knives which were, he said, “for slaying beasts of the field and the forest. I have read about Vermont. You have beasts there.”

I said, “well, mostly we have Catholics and Congregationalists.”

“Same thing,” he said, and smiled.

Demons, in addition to having rather sharp teeth, have very white ones.

It was a pleasant drive, and by pleasant, I mean that my eardrums were bleeding after the fiftieth time we listened to “Highway to Hell” and my body was shaking from the cold air rushing in through the open windows. Malphas controlled the tape deck and the windows at all times. He was kind of a sadistic bastard, actually, but he kind of knew I liked it.

“I have never celebrated Christmas. What sorts of things do you do?” he asked me, about an hour before we got to my house.

“Oh, you know. We put shiny things on a tree, buy things for each other, and eat a lot of chocolate.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean? Because it’s fun, I guess.”

“I mean, in what way does this resemble a mass for the birth of Christ?”

Malphas looked at me, his face greenish in the dash lights, the shadows deeper where confusion furrowed his brow. I had expected my parents to be the ones wearing that look. The “oh, god, why couldn’t we have had a lesbian like the Bensons did?” kind of look. Instead, I found that Malphas was trying to understand how my world worked, which was a little shocking. It suggested that he intended to remain there.

“What, so you’re a Catholic now?” I teased, dodging the theological bullet as quickly as I could.

“No. This Christmas of yours confuses me, and I don’t like to be confused. Tell me, why does a fat man cram himself down a chimney?”

My shoulders slumped forward. I was beaten already. There’s just no way you can explain Santa to a demon. No way.

“It’ll make sense when the time comes.” I said.

 

Dad opened the door to us and his face froze in a car-salesman smile that must’ve hurt his cheeks. He held out his hand to shake Malphas’s, and his eyes watered when the demon took it and clasped it in his long fingers. He forgot to do the shaking part, but Dad pulled away before I could remind him about meeting new people.

“Hi, honey,” Dad said to me, and gave me a hug.

Mom came into the room, wearing an apron and a lot of flour.

“You made it!”

She looked up at Malphas and blinked several times. It’s true, when you first see him, that you expect him to turn into a pillar of smoke or maybe a dragon. It’s something about the way that he stands so still, but his eyes never stop glowing and flickering.

“I bet you like cookies,” she said, “and I just happened to make some. They’re Kelsey’s favorite.”

“I have not tasted cookies before. How are they made?”

“You bake them,” Mom said.

“Ah. Like the souls of thieves, then.”

“Not really. More like sugar.”

“So…philanderers?” Malphas looked down at Mom and she looked up at him, and then she said:

“How about I bring a plate into the living room, and you can try them, and tell me what you think.”

We filed into the living room, and Dad cued up Rudolph: The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Malphas pulled me onto his lap, and Dad coughed awkwardly. I didn’t move. It’s like sitting on a radiator, when a demon holds you, and the snow was started to fall outside.

Mom set the cookies down where Malphas could reach them, and he took one. I could hear him chewing in my ear while Dad pressed play and Mom took out her crochet basket, and started on something suspiciously pastel.

“I like this thing,” Malphas said.

“Shh, watch the movie,” I told him.

 

We did. Malphas consumed the entire plate of cookies, and Mom gave him more. When the movie was over, he looked around at my parents, and the tree, hung with white lights and a rainbow of ornaments.

“Is this Christmas?”

“Christmas is tomorrow. That’s when we do presents,” Dad said, patiently.

“I have not bought presents. But I can offer my services. Do you have any enemies that you would like to be ritualistically tortured and then fed to wild dogs?”

“Well, Dave’s been lording it over me at work a lot lately, him and his yacht and his vintage Firebird…”

Dad trailed off when he saw Mom glaring.

“Would you like me to put an end to him?”

“No!” Mom and I said, at the same time.

“How about you just help me shovel the drive.”

 

The next morning, we distributed presents. I gave Malphas a ring with a sharp spike sticking out. He smiled, and slid it on the middle finger of his right hand. It was good of me, he said, to worry that his fists would blister during the bi-weekly bar brawls he managed to get himself into. Mom and Dad gave him a tie with tiny snowmen on it, and he put that on, too. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that it clashed with his shredded grey T-shirt.

Mom gave me a sweater, and Malphas said, “that is a nice thing. It will show off your breasts quite well, I fancy.”

Dad choked on a piece of candy cane, and looked away. Then he gave me a scarf.

“Don’t want you getting cold,” he said.

Malphas shoveled the drive.

He then helped Mom make a new batch of cookies, covering both his T-shirt and himself in flour dust. When Mom rolled out the dough, he cut them fastidiously into the shape of dancing imps with a knife he whipped out from somewhere in his boot.

“They’re very…artistic,” Mom said, weakly, “Kelsey, would you get the broom, please?”

 

 

“This Christmas pleases me. I think I would like to have another.” Malphas said, when we finally left, and my parents waved from the doorway.

“It happens yearly.”

“I mean I would like to have another with you, Kelsey,” he said.

On the drive back, he left the windows rolled up, and he let me pick the radio station for a whole half of an hour before he switched it back to AC/DC.

Dad called later that week to tell me that Dave had come into work looking pale and harassed, and later had to clean out his desk. The IRS had apparently found some kind of tax fraud, and his house and yacht were being repossessed. Mom won the town bake-off, and she mailed me a clipping of the newspaper with her picture in it. It showed her holding up a cookie, cut in the shape of a demon, and the caption read, Devilishly Good Cookies. It snowed six times, but the driveway stayed clear.

“So, when are you bringing Malphas up again?” Mom asked me.

I told her sometime after exams, maybe.

 

When is enough

Once upon a time, there was a prince. There was nothing special about that. Most lands have their princes, and most princes are alike. This prince, however, was a restless one. He was impatient to become king, and to extend his rule beyond the bounds that his soon-to-be kingdom occupied.

When he spoke of this to his father, who was in fact ailing, and near to passing the kingdom on, the older man urged caution. He said to his son, “this land is ours. There are bigger kingdoms in the world, but this is a place that has treated us well. We have enough water to drink, and to irrigate our crops. We have enough clay to make our bricks. We have enough friends to scare away the larger enemies, and we have enough troops to keep out the bandits. Be satisfied, my son, with what we have.”

The prince squeezed his father’s outstretched hand and nodded, but he didn’t listen.

When the old king died, the prince held a grand funeral, inviting all of his people to honor their fallen leader by taking a day of rest and mourning. The bier holding his father’s body was carried through all of the largest streets, past crowds of people, there to bid farewell to a king who had guided them with great wisdom and honor.

But the next day, the prince was already plotting how he might expand his kingdom. If he ruled with justice as his father had, surely other lands would welcome him as their king. And if they did not, he was sure that he’d find a way to deal with them.

Not far from the kingdom, there was a country well known for its precious metals. Their temples were finer than any others, and their jewelry was much sought after. The prince gathered his generals to make a plan of attack. All men under the age of forty and over the age of sixteen were compelled to join his army, and within a week of the king’s death, they were on the march.

Battle after battle, the prince won, and his sense of accomplishment grew, exceeded only by his desire. Because once he had tasted success, he sought more. His realm became the largest kingdom that anyone had ever seen, but all success comes at a cost.

When he returned home, the prince made camp near a farm. His men were tired and homesick, and starving, besides, having run out of nearly all their provisions the day before. Thinking to obtain further supplies, the prince approached the farmer’s house. The door was opened by a woman, old, but not as old as his father, and brittle, but not weak.

“Good woman, my troops and I are weary after too many days of marching. Do you have anything to spare for us to eat? I can happily pay whatever you ask.”

The woman’s mouth turned down at the sight of the prince reaching for his money.

“Save it. Look at these fields. Do you see any crops growing? The army has already stripped the land bare of everything we grew, and the ground is tired. If you wish for something to chew on, then chew on this. Your country is worn thin and your people starve while your soldiers conquer foreign lands for greed. Rather than enrich us, you’ve made beggars and thieves of us all.”

The prince was taken aback, shocked that she had recognized him, but since she had, even more shocked at her words.

“But I have made our country great. We control more land and trade routes than any other nation. We have goods that non can rival, and our temples are a glory to our gods.”

“Humph. What do the gods care for the glory of men? It is nothing to them but a speck on the horizon.”

“How can the people fail to see that I have done this in their name?”

“You can’t expect them to thank you for empty beds and full graves. If you really wish to know how your people fare, then walk among them.”

This made the prince nervous. If this old woman had recognized him, then others would, too. And if they were truly as angry as she said they were, he could hardly feel safe out in the open.

“I can see you hesitate. I have a solution.”

The witch (because who else would dare to address the prince so honestly) snapped her fingers and a black mist descended over the prince’s face. He sneezed, but breathed it in anyway. It stung his nose and made his throat burn.

As the sun went down, the prince felt his bones stretch and change, his skin itch and ripple. In a howl of pain and terror, he fell to the earth, thinking that he would shortly join his father in the world of the dead, and all his achievements would come to nothing. But the pain eased, and when he looked down, he saw that instead of hands, he had enormous black paws.

He flexed his paws and saw the deadly glint of razor-sharp claws extend.

The prince had no idea what to do with his own body. It had a power all its own, and didn’t know how to direct it. The first step he took, he nearly fell over, and scrambled up, glaring at the witch, who, of course, was laughing at him. His tail switched of its own accord.

“Every sundown, from now until you learn your lesson, you will become a beast. When the sun is in the sky, you will be a man again.”

The word beast made him angry, and the prince snarled.

“Well, get on with you. If you want to break the curse, you’re going to have to work at it.” And with that, she slammed the door in his face.

 

For days, weeks, and months, the prince roamed his kingdom as a jaguar, keeping to the shadows and padding softly, lest he be taken for a threat, and killed on sight. Living with the fear of death didn’t come easily to him. Even on the battlefield, surety in his own armor and weapons, not to speak of the protection of his foot soldiers, had insulated him from a true understanding of his mortality.

His kingdom looked different, now.

Whether it was his eyes, in their new form, or the fact that he hadn’t walked the streets at night in so long, or that the witch was right, he wasn’t sure. There seemed to be more alleys, and the larger roads that wound through shops and expensive houses were dirtier than he remembered, and more pitted.

Once, the kingdom had been busy enough that markets stayed open well past twilight, hanging lanterns as the sun went down, and hawking goods and bartering or haggling until traders lost their voices, and wares sold out. Or until the tavern got to be too much temptation.

Now, everything seemed shuttered up or locked down, empty and ghostly under the moon’s glow. Gardens were picked over and scraggly. Walls were in ill repair. This was not the way a city should look, when it was rich and thriving. Except some quarters of the city, the ones close to the palace, still brimmed over with lush greenery and bubbled with fountains and chatter until late in the night, and the prince thought, well, that’s all right then. He thought that in his absence, people had simply grown undisciplined and unruly. I will show them how to become strong again.

During the day, the prince met with diplomats and traders from his new territories, collecting payments from them, and rewarding his generals for their faithful service with land and wealth. They had led well in battle, they could hardly fail to lead a pack of peasants back into prosperity.

Fields turned green again, as his generals hired hands to till and tend them. In the hours of sunlight, the markets bustled with foreigners and subjects alike, and many fine things were displayed. Few were bought, however, and in his night-time wandering, the prince still found pitted streets and darkened windows, and a dearth of merriment.

One night, he spotted a shadow darting by where he had been huddled, waiting, as he so often did, for the sun to rise and free him. It was unusual to see life so late, when even the mansions on the hill went dark and quiet. Whatever it was, it sprang swiftly up and over one of the high walls that enclosed an especially rich merchant’s house.

He prowled the edges of the wall, waiting to see whether the shadow would come back. By the time it did, the moon had sunk low in the horizon, and he knew the sun was set to rise soon. The figure slid back down the wall, grappling at hand holds almost impossible to see, and landing lightly on its feet, with no noise at all but a slight clink.

Jaguar eyes are better in the dark than some men’s eyes are in the light, and with them, the prince could tell that the shadow was, in fact, a girl. She moved quickly, and her dark clothes and hair might have made her no more than a smudge among the other shadows, but she was the first interesting thing the prince had seen a long while.

He padded after her silently.

The girl cut through alleys and hopped fences, moving downhill to where the houses were lower to the ground, and the people more so. If it weren’t for the clinking, he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to follow her at all. After all his nights wandering the city, it was obvious he still didn’t know it half as well as she did. Before he could see what she was carrying, or what she was going to do with it, the first rays of the sun streamed out through the clouds, and he raced back to the palace as fast as he could.

Night after night, the prince started to watch out for the slithering shadow of the girl. He never caught sight of her face, but the way she moved was distinctive enough, and in any case, almost no one else was around so late. It became clear that she was thieving from the big houses with the lush gardens, places where the prince’s allies and friends lived. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to stop her. He was too curious.

Curious enough that he did discover what she did with her ill-gotten gains.

She snuck into churches and threw gold pieces in the poor box.

She slunk by orphanages and left gemstones in empty coffers.

She slithered through tiny windows that belonged to laborers and left coins in bare cupboards.

Despite himself, the prince admired her.

One night, just as the girl had spilled back into the street, a group of much larger figures walked toward her. They didn’t try to disguise themselves, or hug the shadows as she did. They didn’t have to, because they were city guards. Their leader drew his sword, followed by his three subordinates.

The girl was backed against a wall, much too high even for her to scale, and she wasn’t likely to turn her back to the guards anyway. It would be a good way to get stuck through with one of their gleaming swords. She stayed very still, but he saw a flash as a tiny blade snuck out from her shirtsleeve.

As the guardsmen lunged her way, she ducked and somersaulted on the pavement. The captain stumbled momentarily as the girl flew right between his legs. Before any of the men had gotten their bearings, she was behind them and running full tilt down the street.

They followed her.

The prince followed them.

The girl was slight and fast, but the men had longer legs, and they caught her up. She threw her knife out in front of herself, watching the captain’s eyes, readying for his strike. His blade sliced through the air between them, and she dodged it narrowly, coming in close to his body and stabbing his sword arm with a movement almost too fast to see. He howled at his men, who fell in, caging the girl.

She thrashed, managing to kick one in the groin and headbutt another behind her at the same time. Still, she was outnumbered and outmaneuvered. One of the guards had her arm in his hand, and he was squeezing hard. In the moonlight, the prince saw her eyes flash wide with fear.

He roared.

One of the guards dropped his sword and took off in the opposite direction. The captain yelled after him, but from the way he bounded backward from the source of the noise, he had the same impulse. The prince advanced out of his hiding place in the lee of a nearby house, and stalked toward the captain, who trembled, holding his sword out in front of him with shaking hands. He lunged at the captain, his roar turning into a low, menacing growl, and his teeth bared for a fight. As the captain brought his sword down, the prince reared on his hind legs and knocked the man to the ground.

He did not want to kill him, but neither did he want the girl hurt. He surprised himself by hoping she wouldn’t be locked up, either.

The girl seemed completely unfazed by the jaguar’s massive growl. She twirled, slashing her dagger down the remaining guard’s face. His grip loosened, and she wrenched free, nodding once at the jaguar, and holding his gaze for a moment before scampering off into the night, twisting down obscure paths and climbing over walls until she was completely untraceable. He held the image of her deep blue eyes for a long time after.

 

In his days, the prince found himself thinking of the girl often, and of her efforts to right his uneasy city. He thought, too, of the trade routes that required guarding, and his holdings that required troops to maintain. All of it was draining on the kingdom’s coffers, and stretching its stores of grain to the breaking point. Even the income of his newly acquired territories was unable to cover the expenses. Meanwhile, traders flaunted their wealth more and more blatantly, as proof of their loyalty to the crown and the cause of their country.

He found that being the king of such a large country was both a headache, and a heartache.

Then, one day, a girl was brought to the foot of his throne. She was small, but she fought the guards on either side of her tooth and nail.

“Sire, we found this in the palace treasury. What would you like us to do with her?”

The girl twisted and squirmed, letting out a hiss that sounded almost catlike. The prince stood and approached her, motioning to the guards to let her go. They hesitated.

“Let her go. I wish to speak with her.”

“Sire–“

He threw a glare at the guard who’d spoken. Spending his nights as a jaguar had honed the prince’s stare to a cutting edge. Left alone with the girl, he was suddenly at a loss for words. She, on the other hand, was not.

“I won’t apologize. I did what I had to do. What someone has to do.”

“I wasn’t going to ask for an apology.”

This did quiet her, for a moment.

“Then what do you want?”

“Show me what you were going to do with the money.”

Wary, cautious, the girl regarded him. Her eyes were much bluer in the light, and the prince found it hard to look away.

“Fine. You want to see what your city’s become? I’ll show you.”

She did.

He saw streets made of mud where there used to be bricks, and fields that were fallow, and fields that were full of laborers, but full, too, of overseers and whips. He saw soldiers guarding what used to be open space for people to speak and air grievances. He saw what his city had become in the day, as well as at night. She showed him his hungry citizens, living in view of his fattened advisors.

At the bottom of the hill, as far from his palace as he could get without leaving the original city bounds, he sunk to his knees, his palms pressed to the earth. He felt for the city he’d grown up in, and hoped to rule one day. He tried to remember what he’d learned of justice, and of wisdom.

“Help me.” He said.

“You don’t need the help. They do. Help them.”

The prince looked up at the girl. There was a depth of sorrow in her expression, and he didn’t know if any of it was for him, but he was sure that most of it was because of him.

It took a long time.

He sent for the men stationed far away, and told them to return. Some of them were killed, a retribution for the crimes he made them commit. The prince held funerals for them, and compensated their families from the royal treasury. He sent emissaries with peace treaties and returned the wealth he had plundered. It meant stripping it from his generals, often, and dissatisfaction simmered in their ranks.

They quieted somewhat when the girl led rank upon rank of former farmers and current laborers and returned soldiers to very politely take these things away. The fields were cut up and distributed. No parcel too small to yield sustenance, and none so large that a man and his family could not work it themselves. At long last, the borders of the nation were restored.

That night, the moon rose while the prince and the thief watched from the roof of the palace. He did not change again. She took his hand and squeezed.

“And now what do you see below?” She asked.

“Enough.” Said the prince.

And it was.

Bespectacled, bothered, and bewildered

I’m just going to come out and say it. Glasses are sexy.

Glasses are cool, motherfucker. They’re smart. And you know what? I like them. On me, on others, in movies, books, and TV….OH WAIT. Glasses are very rarely depicted in popular culture. I’m not saying never, and I am about to MASSIVELY qualify that statement, but bear with me here.

Glasses are almost always reserved for sidekicks, authority figures (cause old people wear glasses, right?), and hopeless nerds. Look, 64% of Americans need glasses or contacts. And what do we get for it? Not a whole fucking lot, actually. Let’s do a run down of mega famous movie leads in glasses: Clark Kent. FAKER. Austin Powers. NOT A ROLE MODEL…at least I hope not, for your sake, and that of all who come into contact with you. Peter Parker. GROWS OUT OF THEM (because radioactive spider, so I GUESS he gets a pass). Woody Allen. CLASSIC STEREOTYPICAL EXAMPLE. Harry Potter. FUCKING FINALLY!

Now, that list is problematic as it IS. Clark Kent uses glasses to make himself appear meek and human and to…somehow disguise himself (seriously, this is an even sadder secret identity than Batman’s, where at least in his superhero guise he has half a mask and talks like he’s been smoking three packs a day for a few years). Austin Powers is plainly a figure of ridicule, even if he’s a loveable one. Woody Allen’s oeuvre confirms so many goddamn stereotypes I am not even going there (my advance apologies to those who like him, I’M NOT JUDGING YOU). Harry remains the sole example of a classic hero trope who has specs and DOES NOT leave them behind once he reaches the stage of his life where he can maybe do something about that crush on Cho Chang he nurses from book one. But let me ask you this: Is ANYONE on that list a GIRL? Nope.

I happen to think that both genders have been ill-served on the glasses front. We get made fun of for having them, we get pressured to get contacts, and we rarely see positive evidence that others will find us appealing in them (never mind BECAUSE of them). But it’s even worse for girls.

I watched Pitch Perfect a while ago, and it was reasonably funny and not altogether full of suck or anything, but there’s this moment early on when the boy love interest turns to the “outcast” main character and says, “So, what’s your deal? Are you one of those girls who’s all dark and mysterious, then she takes off her glasses and that amazingly scary ear spike and you realize that, you know, she was beautiful the whole time?”

From which we bespectacled girls are to inference that no, we are not beautiful unless and until we take off the damn glasses. Now, I don’t want to SHOCK you all with my lack of propriety here, but I have kissed people, and I well know that on occasion, the glasses just have to come off. It’s simple physics. Or geometry. Or something like that. But I shouldn’t have to take them off to make someone WANT to kiss me. Let’s go a step further and say, maybe someone will want to kiss me because they LIKE that I wear glasses.

Stranger fucking things, people. Stranger things.

Literally everyone who is upright and breathing has some kind of insecurity. Most of us PROBABLY experienced some form of bullying or teasing. Hell, even bullies probably did (where do you figure they learned how?). But can we, as a society, stop telling, OH I DON’T KNOW, 64 FUCKING % of the country that they must wear contacts so that they can pretend to be like the other 36 FUCKING %?

Please, pretty please, can we tell ourselves, and future generations that glasses are cool, glasses are sexy, and yes, actually, if you wear them, people will still want to kiss you.

 

The Spickwicket Man

Everyone’s heard of the Spickwicket Man.

Well, everyone has around here, anyway. The Spickwicket Man is a story parents tell their children, to keep them home when the sun wanes and the light makes long shadows out of streetlights and dark pools out of gorges. He’s an old man, they say, with thick knobby fingers and grey hair the color of dying tree bark. The Spickwicket man carries a sack made of burlap, but no one can agree whether there’s anything in it or not. If you stay out too late, or you wander off alone, he’ll catch you and put you in it, and I guess then you’d find out if he keeps skulls there like Matty says, or if it’s river stones like Joanne told me.

Mom says he keeps the bodies of all the children he’s eaten in the sack and they just keep going and going down forever, but the sack never gets any heavier.

The woods are grasping hands. Trees crowd close together, their roots fighting for space in the earth and tangling over each other. Branches swoop low, covered in brown creeper and shadows dart in the corners of my eyes any which way I look. It’s getting dark and I’m trying to get home, but Matty ran ahead and Joanne is at a friend’s house. I’m all alone.

Long, spidery fingertips graze my shoulders and gnarled roots trip up my feet. I spin around, but there’s nothing behind me. Only an old tree with thousands of tiny branch-tips, naked and stripped of leaves. A chilly wind shakes through the forest and I wish I had a jacket, and I wish Matty would come back and take my hand and take me out of here. I can’t remember which way is home.

“Matt? Matty? Where are you?”

My voice is as thin as the air is in my throat, all cold and tight and full of the sterile smell of snow. Of course. It’s going to get dark and cold, and colder, and it’s going to snow, and the Spickwicket man will come with his sack.

I trip on a half-buried foundation, falling on my knees and skinning my palms on the hard ground. My jeans catch on the remnants of a barbed wire fence. Blood wells up and soaks into the denim and tears are hot in the corners of my eyes, but I am not going to cry. I’m not.

If I don’t cry, then Matty will come back.

If I don’t cry I’ll figure out which way to turn to get home, and I’ll just get a scolding and hot dinner and the Spickwicket man won’t gobble me up or throw me in his sack.

When I try to stand up, the scratch in my thigh stings and my knees are sore from the fall. The light is failing, the sun no longer visible at all. It’s just the lemon traces of its path left in the lavender sky, and gloom is growing like gorse, clinging to the trunks of the trees.

My eyes are full of darting, shifting shades, and I swear I can hear something rustling behind me. Maybe it’s just the wind, or a deer. Maybe it’s nothing.

I keep walking, adjusting my glasses, like that’ll make the shadows stop. But they don’t go away, I can still see them at the corners of my eyes. Something clunks close by, and my heart leaps to my throat.

“Is that you Matt?”

I get no answer, and I start to run.

The noise behind me is louder, or maybe it’s my heart racing, but I’m running too fast to look behind me, and even if I could, I don’t want to see something there. A branch whips against my cheek and stings. More of them seem to grab my arms and my wrists, or pull at my hair. I can’t even breathe, my chest is clenching, and I still can’t see the lights of the house at all. Something behind me moans low and threatening, and it’s like the whole ground is pounding up through the soles of my shoes.

No way out, is all I can think. The Spickwicket Man is behind me, and when I run out of breath or I trip again, he is going to catch me.

Ahead of me, it looks like the trees clear out, and for the first time since Matty left me out here, I feel a surge of hope. I can make it that far. I squeeze out a last burst of speed, thrashing my arms against the tearing tree branches and shoving them out of my way. They slap into the fresh abrasions on my palms, but I don’t care. I just need to get out of this forest and find my way home and I am going to kick Matty’s ass no matter what Mom says.

Finally, I hit the edge and leap over the gorse bracket that blocks off the clearing.

Only it isn’t home, or any of the houses nearby, and it’s not the road.

It’s a stone house, or maybe cabin is a better word. It’s half covered in lichen and dead ivy, and I bet the roof leaks, but someone lives there. There’s a light on in one of the windows. Wood is piled up under the eaves, an ax partway buried in the stump of a recently cut tree.

Mom says don’t talk to strangers, and I know she’s right, but it’s really dark now, the first stars coming out in the deep azure sky, and all the sunset leeched away. I have no choice but to go up, and knock on the door.

Now that I can see a little, with the light from the window casting a slight glow, and my feet at rest, I look around and behind me. There’s nothing there at all. Inside the house, there’s the shuffling noise of a chair being pushed back, and footsteps coming to the door.

I don’t see any telephone poles and I wonder how I’ll call Mom from here. What if I still have to run all the way home and whatever kind of hermit who lives out here will just point me in the right direction? I don’t want to run in the dark anymore.

“Hello, young lady. Can I help you?”

The man in the doorway is old, with a scruff of yellow-grey beard and kind of wispy bits of the same color on his head. His eyes are deep set and dark, and I try not to feel intimidated by how tall and rangy he is.

Then I look down at his hand on the door knob.

His knuckles are big and gnarly like the tree roots that tripped me up, and his fingers are long. His smile doesn’t hit his eyes, but it shows a lot of teeth.

I don’t know if the Spickwicket Man carries a sack, and I don’t know what he puts in it. But as he drags me inside, I can see the bones of the other children he’s taken, hung from the low rafters on long strings of suet. The biggest bones are at the top, the femurs and humorouses all the way down to tiny little pinky bones. Skulls stare out at me from shelves built into the wall, and the top of the mantelpiece, and I’m trying not to count how many there are, but it’s a lot.

Outside, somewhere in the distance, I think I can hear Matty calling, “Eliza! Eliza?”

But he’s too late.

 

Anthropomancy*

*Telling the future by means of inspecting human entrails

 

There’s a lot of ways to tell the story of how I wound up in this basement, but I don’t like any of them, because every single one ends with me. Here. In the basement.

Also I should say I don’t like beginnings. The thing about beginnings is they’re inevitable disappointments. I mean, think about it. There’s being born, for starters. What’s terrible about waking up to this vastly fascinating world of ours, with all its complexity and enormity and all manner of bullshit, basically. What’s wrong with it is I still end up in a goddamn basement.

What’s wrong with getting a scholarship to a prestigious private school with ivy-covered buildings and an allowance for tailored uniforms and books and rulers? Again, I say, basement. What’s so wrong with your father getting given a cushy sinecure with a corner office and a secretary? One word: basement.

The thing about beginnings, or all my beginnings, is that at the end of each of those shiny goddamn yellow brick roads is that for fuck’s sake, you’d think at least one of them would not have contributed to the decidedly basementy aspect of my current life. It goes like this: I was born to parents who apparently did not know an awful hell of a lot about birth control, because they had way too many kids. As in, I have six older siblings. Six. I don’t know, maybe they just got a thrill out of bulk buying cheerios and diapers or whatever. So anyway, we had no money by the time little old last of the litter (me) comes around.

But boy, did they try.

Reading aloud and scrounging for dance lessons and making sure I did all my homework, and you know, it all paid off.

Dad got that job, I got that scholarship, and out of nowhere, bam, we were in business. Mom could quit her job bartending at Jimmy’s, and my older siblings were all also doing inexplicably well, and it was like we’d scored big and everyone could eat cake every fucking day if they wanted.

We should’ve known you don’t get a free lunch, even when someone else is picking up the tab. No, wait. Especially when someone else is picking up the tab. Because you see, this is where you meet Dominic Jerome. He’s kind of famous for inventing this clever computer chip that the government puts in all its employees now that records pretty much all of their conversations. Yeah, it’s legal. Dominic is also kind of a big-deal guy in lobbyist circles. He has a lot of friends.

Well, lately, we’ve been his friends, and it’s hard to complain about that. Even if you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. Well, probably they install the chip on your wrist or something, but come on, you’ve got to laugh at the darkness.

It’s really, really dark in here.

Did I mention I’m afraid of the dark?

So anyway, I guess I don’t like middles a whole lot better than I like beginnings. Because here’s how the middle goes. Anastasia (Hi, that’s me. See what I mean, I didn’t even remember to introduce myself at the beginning) goes to school on that suspiciously excellent scholarship and gets suspiciously perfect grades and is all around in a very sketchy position without realizing it, because everything just looks so damn nice. I mean, so, I worked for those grades. I worked to get into that school in the first place. How was I to know it was all just one big fat lie?

The story gets better, I swear to God. Sister Agatha informs me that one ought not to swear to God, but if he knows everything, Sister Agatha, then he knows I’m swearing even if I don’t fucking say it, so goddamn it, God. If he knows everything, doesn’t he know I’m in this basement, and strapped to a chair with those plastic ties that cut into your skin every time you move, and duct tape across my mouth? And if he’s all-powerful, why in the goddamn fuck am I still fucking here? Why, Sister Agatha?

Carrying on, so, in my senior year, when I was only just eighteen, Dominic shows up at our house, right? The old dinner with the boss routine, like we were living Leave it to Beaver or something, and Mom gets all in a craze and cleans everything and invites all her spawn, but most especially me, since lots of them are out in the world and having their own babies and jobs with bosses who come to dinner and whatnot, and she even makes me go shopping to get a new dress.

I was pretty used to the whole thing about skirts what with going to All Soul’s, so whatever.

That night the dinner was all kinds of fancy and Mom and Dad were so lovey and sweet that it really was like I had woken up to a Leave it to Beaver episode where my life had been, and you know? I should’ve run then. As far and as fast as those goddamn kitten heels would take me, and never come back.

Look, lobbyists get what they want, and it’s not all down to the cash. If it were like that, why the hell would they ever show up in DC, anyway? They wouldn’t. They would cruise the Caribbean or snort coke from very fancy sinks in pounding clubs in Eastern Europe or, I don’t know, eat the candied livers of endangered animals from diamond-encrusted forks held by Nicole Kidman, and they would just buy politicians by the planeful.

No, though, they actually have all this charisma, if they’re any good, and Dominic was very good, and he looked sharp in his grey pinstripe suit, and Dad seemed to like him, and I was sitting there all got up like a Bush daughter in pearls and a conservative navy sheath dress that I had no part of selecting for myself.

Why didn’t you just put me in sacrificial white then, Mom, huh? That’s what it was all about anyway.

Well, maybe because we were eating, if I recall correctly, steak, and one does not wear white when one is consuming a bleeding piece of meat. In fact, I wasn’t consuming anything because watching everyone else cut theirs and seeing the spurt of pink that oozed to the sides of their knives and ran into the oily juice of butter and cow fat was frankly sickening. I stabbed at my salad once or twice, but mostly, I ignored dinner and spent the whole time kind of enraptured, watching Dominic do what he does best.

Yes, now I know what an error I made, but I was young, and impressionable, and if I’m going to be fully honest, which, why not since I’m going to be dead soon enough, he was hot and I was lonely. An all girl’s school will do that to you.

Fuck you, All Soul’s. Fuck. Every. Last. One. Of you. And you’d like it, too, because I’ll bet it gets to you, too, being stuck in a pen of estrogen five days a week, or six if it’s your turn to babysit the brats through the weekend.

I’m sure you all are very curious to know what steak and private school has to do with why my wrists are bleeding from my utterly wasted efforts at escape, and my tongue is covered disgustingly in the adhesive they use on duct tape that tastes like the bottom of a sneaker running on hot tar in July.

Dominic and I got married.

It’s weird, I know. But, see, it was just, there was all this pressure, and then all this excitement, and may I reiterate that bit about being young and impressionable, and also about how we had all hit the jackpot, but we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop and Dad may or may not have taken me aside and said something to the effect of if you don’t get married I will never speak to you again.

Yes. Yes, he said that.

I hope to fuck you’re regretting that now, you motherfucker.

The wedding could not have been prettier, and neither could I, and basically it was all storybooks and roses and primrose merry goddamn paths. Until we get to his mansion, and he hands me these keys and says, but don’t go to the room at the top of the stairs, because I work there and I don’t like to be disturbed.

There’s no reason to go into a room like that when you have a whole house suddenly, and you don’t have to share with your parents or brothers or sisters or hamsters and dogs and whatever. But the one thing All Soul’s just never beat out of me, I mean, aside from swearing, was curiosity.

Tell me not to do a thing, and I want to know why, and I will climb every last stairway and poke my head through every doorway and by the end of it, I may be tired and dizzy and way irritated that there wasn’t anything worth finding, but at least I will know for sure. Well. Of course, I did sneak into the room where he works.

You’re not going to believe the next bit.

I mean, I am telling you this story as I gag on my own vomit, which I think is a sideeffect of the muscle relaxant or whatever the fuck was in that syringe, and I am telling you from a goddamn basement, and you are still. Not. Going. To. Believe.

There’s this travelling exhibit of people that have had all their fluids and icky bits drained, and then replaced with plastic, and then they’re posed, not like a skeleton meant to teach school kids what bone’s connected to the funny bone and what bone’s connected to the thigh bone. Well, this is like that. Well, a lot like that. Well, not all that much like that, really.

Because, you see, all the bodies (all women, and naked) were posed in what I could only assume were their final postures pre-death, with a nice representation of the manner of their deaths. One of them was laying down, her skin gashed and jagged over her entire ribcage, left as if it had been rent only five minutes ago, except for how it glistened with the plastic shellac under the museum lighting. Another was on her knees, hands raised to the sky, another of the lost daughters of Eve that God didn’t spare the time to spare. Her neck was slashed, the drips of blood preserved as if they’d been painted on.

The gallery of dead girls wasn’t large–I mean, unless you have a basic problem with killing even one, and are therefore a bit shocked by see five. A woman was suspended in a tank, apparently unharmed, except for the purple skin around her neck. Another other woman’s body was draped across a chair, her skull gory with brain and blood. The last girl was suspended from the ceiling like some kind of macabre chandelier, noose tight at her throat.

Every girl had a ring on her finger.

Just like mine.

You’ll never guess who was standing behind me when I turned to leave.

Oh, go on. Take a shot.

Dominic.

When you marry a man who literally made his fortune on surveiling people’s entire lives, do what he says. Really, don’t go even within three feet of a twisted fuck like that if ever you can help it. But for God’s sake, do not do not do not do the exact opposite of what he said to do. Because he will find out. And if you’re lucky, he will even smile when he sticks the tranquilizer in your neck.

In fairness, it was a very nice smile, because Dominic has excellent dental hygiene.

So. The basement. I’m pretty good at endings, and I can see where this one’s headed. There’s a whole room above me that’s pretty clear about the future, in fact. I wonder if there’s some way I could try to swallow my tongue or hold my breath really, really hard, so I can die before I give Dominic the satisfaction of killing me. Sure, killing yourself sends you to Hell, or so says Sister Agatha and by now we all trust her unflinching dogma very the fuck much, don’t we? But what fear does Hell have, next to becoming the next statue in that mortuarial gallery of souls, huh?

I may have terrible taste in men, but I’ll take the Devil over Dominic Jerome any day.

Which probably will be today.

It might be tonight, actually. There’s no window, and all I’ve seen since waking has been blackness anyway. I will have no idea what time I died, unless Death carries around some big old timepiece and I’m guessing he doesn’t, because it seems to me that Death always knows what time it is. Time to say goodbye is what.

Dominic is back now. I can hear his feet coming down the stairs, dapper wingtips clicking on the way. The light comes on and it’s bright and my eyes hurt like I’ve sprung the shutters open and it’s a sunny January day. He has a knife in his hand, and I want to close my eyes, but even wincing from the dark, that blade holds my gaze and no way am I shutting my lids.

Because Jesus fucking Christ, I have so little time left here, and I’d hate to go to the dark even a minute before I have to.

“I warned you, sweetness,” Dominic says, “but I can’t say I won’t enjoy this.”

“No, you really won’t.”

The thing about surveillance is, well…it can be hacked. My brother, Kevin is standing at the top of the stairs. He’s never looked so angry before, and I’ve never been so happy to see him.

Kevin pounds down the stairs, training a gun on Dominic, and my husband is just standing there like some kind of stuck pig, and I’d like to smile, except for how the duct tape is holding my mouth in place.

“Move, and I’ll blow your fucking brains out.” Kevin says, as he cuts through my wrist restraints, and I rip the tape off my mouth immediately.

“Holy fucking God, you cock-sucking sadistic piece of motherfucking shit.” Well don’t look at me like that, how would you feel if you’d been tethered and tied and prepared to die in the dark. You would feel like swearing, is how. Yes, even you, Sister Agatha, and you know what? If God can hear me, and if he knows anything at all, I guarantee he understands.

“Listen, I…I can give you however much you want…” Dominic says, dropping the knife with a clang and holding his hands up in surrender.

“You can’t pay this off.” Kevin says.

Kevin backs Dominic up against a wall, so close that if he fired, the wound would be huge and full of fragmented bone and blasted strings of sinew. I wonder how he’d look, stood like that next to his wives, and I hunch down, pick up the knife, and feel its hungry edge against the tip of my thumb. It’s a beautiful piece, really. Not something I’d choose to, you know, end my life or anything.

“Kevin, do you think I could have a moment?” I say.

Dominic’s eyes are rolling in fear, and they pivot toward me. They’re a cool green, usually, but right now they look sickly yellow. How did I ever stare into those? How did I look at them and say I do and take his ring and how in the Hell did I get here?

“Anastasia, are you sure…?”

“Someone really should’ve asked me that in the church. Too late now.”

Knife poised in my hand, I look Dominic full in the face, and I smile.

In fairness, it’s a very nice smile. I have always had excellent dental hygiene.

Well, Sister Agatha, I probably am going to Hell, but you know what? I’m not going today. And I dunno if anybody up there likes me, but there’s five girls upstairs who would.

Why can’t I get just one fuck?

Vampires can’t get it up.

It’s a problem, because vampires are excellent at seducing. They can walk into any bar the world over, lean up against a wall and look mysterious and in five minutes flat, they’re practically swimming in pussy.

And it’s a small matter of a finger twirling a girl’s hair, or tracing her clavicle to the top of her dress, and any one of the millions of beautiful women in the world will happily follow him home. Vampires are innately stylish bastards, replete with fancy furniture and sumptuous sheets to drape fine figures of American, Armenian, Argentinian or what-ever-the-fuckian womanhood across to finish the job.

And oh, those heaving bosoms and long legs, those sharp nails and suck-me-fuck-me lips, is all of it ready for the picking. Only once he’s there, all he can do is suck. For centuries, vampires have been trying to solve this vexatious problem to everyone’s…satisfaction, but thus far, the results had been less than phenomenal.

First, Antonius Gryphus had believed that biting the victim directly before attempting to copulate with them would fill the vampire’s body with living blood, and thus provide the necessary impetus for attaining an erection. He was incorrect. The esophagus, as it turns out, does not feed directly into veins or arteries. Gryphus was in his workshop, testing his theory on a blue-eyed virgin when the townspeople razed his castle to the ground. He was understandably prevented from further experimentation by reason of premature death.

After Gryphus, vampiric scientists got to be a bit better about concealing their behavior. They could be rather clever, as well as devastatingly handsome and alluring. Jan van Norman believed that the trouble was the balance of humors in the vampire’s body–an excess of viscous black melancholia would kill the lovemaking instinct deader than he was already. He therefore devised a system of cupping, leeching, and bleeding directly prior to engaging in carnalities. All he succeeded in was achieving a bruised pallor and the nearest thing to hemophilia that an animated corpse is capable of having. Van Norman did at least live long enough to see the existence of humors disproven, after which he became so despondent that he flung himself onto a cemetery gate.

Draco Carpathius had the bright idea of injecting himself with living blood, first to his arm, which did very little, and then later, directly above the penis. He tried various sizes of syringe, with results that differed slightly, but just enough to give him the vain hope that one day, he would find the combination that would work. He did not. Carpathius had a particular fondness for visiting whorehouses. No fainting virgins for him. The only man more protective of a woman than her brothers/father/husband, however, turned out to be the man whose profit motive relied on his women appearing unmolested for the other customers. Carpathius got one final glimpse up one last skirt before his head was parted from his torso, and he became a pile of ash on the floor.

These were, naturally, the most enlightened of vampires. The rest simply fed their desires with masses of blood. They responded to long, outstretched necks in the only way they knew how–with their teeth. Sexual frustration was the direct cause of anywhere from a quarter to a third of female deaths in any given year, and a substantial number of male deaths, as well.

Vampires women, although unable to secret any kind of lubricant, were at least able to make due with widely available products. For this reason, female vampires killed much less often, escaped human detection with far greater regularity, and were, in general, happier than their brooding counterparts. Female vampires exuded that kind of calm and collected coolness that someone suffering from a century or more of limp dick just couldn’t approach. They were, therefore, much maligned by their brethren.

They gave absolutely no fucks about this, but then, vampire men wouldn’t have been able to take any fucks, so that was alright.

It did lead to some of the more unpleasantly sexist attitudes throughout the centuries. Human men and women might have got on very much better had vampire advisers been whispering nasty unkind things about the ladies of the species.

In fact, it was the serial murders of several vampire women in Germany, conducted by one especially old and angry vampire named Franz Druring which led to a spate of so-called witch burning. The women were having altogether too much fun, and it wasn’t fair. Lacking saliva, even cunnilingus was off the table, and vampires were therefore only capable of the finger-bang, at which some of them were known to excel. This did nothing for their own enjoyment, however, and neither did the extensive (and expensive) dabbling in the sex toy industry.

For the most part, male vampires either made their peace with a celibate life, or they committed suicide by going on elaborate killing sprees until someone noticed and did something about it. Sometimes, this took quite a long time, which is why the human population, particularly in Eastern Europe, is no longer on the rise.

The breakthrough finally came when Thaddeus Fordham had the bright notion of cutting into his chest and inserting a mechanical pump that he could then fill with blood. The human body–at least the six-foot plus, hundred and eighty odd pound frame of Thaddeus Fordham required quarts upon quarts of blood for optimal functionality. Hospitals notice when more than a pint or two of their blood bags disappear, and Thaddeus considered either hitting multiple hospitals, or even using porcine blood, but neither option panned out. The hospital blood was too cool, and felt stale in his veins. As for using pig blood, well, the mere thought was repulsive. Naturally, Thaddeus tried taking the blood from his victims, but their blood was dead on arrival, and did him no good at all.

Instead, he turned to a black-market doctor, who found a few people willing to part with their blood in exchange for cold, hard cash. Humans, it turns out, will do anything for a bit of wonga. vampires, it seemed, just wanted to get lucky. Neither of them necessarily had their priorities straight.

Thaddeus Fordham’s pumping mechanism was complex, designed with great care, and made from the best materials to hand. on the day he had arranged the transfusion, he tweaked all the settings and calibrated the dials so that he’d be able to adjust the speed of blood flow with enough precision to achieve an erection, without pumping so fast that he’d explode. Thaddeus had been involuntarily celibate for two hundred and seventy nine years and he was not going to go one more night without boning someone until skin was raw and headboards broken and basically, he was a virgin all over again, except this time he knew what he was missing.

Arriving at the doctor’s, Thaddeus was a jangled ball of nervous excitement, because the thing of it was, he would be the first vampire in the history of the species to have actual vaginal penetration with a working member. This was history. It was science. It was going to be one hell of a party. By which of course he meant it was going to advance things for the species, and possibly ease relations with both humankind and also vampire women, who, on the whole, were not speaking to their menfolk.

He was doing the world a service by getting serviced.

Dr. Helprin attached the three donors’ IVs to a single tube, which he affixed to a valve set into Thaddeus Fordham’s chest, which would feed directly to the pump inside. It took some time for the blood to reach a sufficient quantity, and Thaddeus perused a copy of GQ while he waited for his desiccated chest cavity to fill. He left, fuller than he’d felt in a long time, even if his wallet was considerably lighter.

That night, in a blood red shirt and a pair of dark wash jeans, Thaddeus leaned seductively against the bar at a select club, frequented by a captivating coterie of starlets and harlots and designer boys dip-dyed and made to order for girlfriends’ arms. He ordered a dry martini that he did not drink, and waited.

Before very long, he spotted her. She was slender and dark-haired, and her eyes were a little bit red. He knew the signs, and he could see that if she had come here with someone else, she was no longer so attached.

“You shouldn’t come to a place like this alone,” he said, coming to stand beside her, “you never know what some people will try.”

The girl looked over at him, assessing either his threat level or his dateship potential, and she did not skirt away from him.

“Well, if you buy me a drink, I won’t be alone, now, will I?”

Her voice shook, although it sounded like she was trying to keep it under control. This was perfect. He was a new man with a pumping heart, and here was an emotionally vulnerable girl in a tight dress. It was as if fate itself was playing Thaddeus’s wing man.

“Tell me your name, and I’ll buy you any drink you like.”

“Martha.”

“Thaddeus.”

They shook hands.

They drank some drinks.

Within the hour, he had gotten her back to his apartment, a minimalist achromatic lair in a factory that used to produce glue. Sometimes, in the summer, it still smelled like burning horse hair, but Thaddeus liked the size and the proximity to good restaurants where he could always snag a well fed person to snack on when he got peckish.

Thaddeus shut the door behind them with a kick and pushed Martha up against the wall, pinning her between his hands and kissing her hard. His mouth was dry, but hers was not, and they met in the middle. Her fingers worked at his buttons, but then, alcohol had been consumed in too much quantity for adequate manual dexterity, so she just ripped it off him.

The round intake tube and the control dial for Thaddeus’s heart pump was right there, in front of her face, but Martha didn’t seem to care. There was, in fairness, a sizeable trend toward body modification these days.

Buckles and straps and snaps and things all fell away, and Thaddeus lifted Martha up and carried her to his bed.

As he walked, he twiddled the dial on his chest.

After many centuries of erectile dysfunction, at last at least one vampire had achieved an erection. Thaddeus made history while he and Martha made time, and it was the best night of his very long life after death.

 

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