Vampires of Queens
My mother buzzes me in. I cross the dim lobby with its red tile floor, its fake electric torches and threadbare, medieval furniture, and there it is, open, humming, as if waiting just for me. I hesitate. I stalk ghosts through the hallways of this building, track assassins with my disc gun in the basement, fight off hordes with spinning kung fu leaps on the stairways, three perfect scratches on my chest like Bruce Lee in the posters on my walls, but I’m not allowed to ride the elevator alone. It tends to get stuck between floors. Still, seeing it there, with no one looking, I walk toward it slowly, dawdling, planting a foot in the center of each tile, almost hoping it will close and roll up past the window in the door, but it doesn’t, it waits and, as though climbing aboard a ship in bad seas, I step on, one foot at a time. The door slides shut behind me. It’s only then that I see him there, in the corner, the old blind man who lives on the top floor. He’s wrapped in the wings of his black overcoat, with the high collar and the burn holes and the crusted egg yolk on the sleeve. One white hand folds over the other on top of his white cane, and in the pocket, I see the neck of a brown, flat bottle with a pink paper seal on the cap. His chalk head faces nothing, the skin like old wallpaper peeling from his skull. A veined egg. I hold my breath and freeze as the cage begins to rise, turning the arrow above the door. He turns to me and shows his dog teeth and says, “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.”
As soon as he smiles, I know what he is.
That night it snows and, as if in celebration, my family goes out for Chinese food. Fat as petals, white as clouds, the silent flakes come parachuting in. You’d think heaven had finally invaded the earth. By tomorrow, all this will be gray slush and icy wind. But tonight it is a comforter spread by the sky, softening every sound, brightening every light, pillowing each mailbox and water tower and frosting every wire. Round, padded figures, barely recognizable as our neighbors, lumber about in mittens and hats, thumping and sliding, like furry, awkward creatures, newly made, and just learning to walk on the slick ground, to catch rich flakes on their tongues. The lines between street and sidewalk, lamppost and tree, erase themselves like the line between horizon and sky. The stars flicker down like moths. They dance in the haloed lamps.
Later, at the restaurant, I toss a penny in the fake stone fountain of candy-colored lights and make a solemn wish that I am, even now, forbidden to utter. But fate answers, and before my soup is gone, sitting in the red booth, my hands begin to itch. Tiny pink spots form like lichen, and the more I scratch them, the larger they grow. Burning pins jump across my arms, twitching and biting like wires.
By the time we get home, hives have risen on my face and my mother sends me to bed. The pink eruptions unfold in my skin like crushed flowers. Roses clog my throat. Electricity crackles over the surface of my body. I get lost in the living room and can’t reach my door. A menacing brown couch blocks my way. The carpet sways like a field of wheat. When they find me, I’m burning up. All my features are blown up to twice their regular size. I’m a cartoon. I feel a black hand in my chest, squeezing my lungs. A skeleton hand, tight in a black leather glove. The air sings through my windpipe and fever eats holes in my mind, like salt burning through the ice. The doctor appears, wearing pajamas under his gray pinstriped suit. White hair wings his pink skull and he has slippers on his feet. The needle stings going in and I smell something burning, like birthday candles melting in cake. Outside my window, as frost grows on the glass, and the world retreats into whiteness, a vast sky opens like a furnace above us, a black heart consuming stars and grinding them into embers.
I guess I’m allergic to the world or something. Invisible enemies inflame my eyes and skin. Microscopic mold spores in the air clog my chest. Bronchial asthma, some doctors claim. Others say asthmatic bronchitis. I can’t have corn or cucumbers or eggs. And for the first time, I realize how much I love these things that I’ve always been indifferent to.
“I want eggs, I want eggs,” I moan over juice and toast. Milk is phlegm-producing, so I have to watch dairy, too. Twice a week I go to the doctor’s office for injections. He takes the steel needles from the sterilizing machine and pushes them through the rubber seal on the little bottles of clear fluid. It burns a little, but I don’t care. It’s a small price to pay for the miracle he has bestowed: a note, permanently excusing me from gym. Finally, I am delivered from that hell they call phys ed. Awkward, weak, and timid, I can’t shoot or dribble or hit. Balls thrown at me bounce off my hands, if I’m lucky. My eyes flame up in the light, and I can’t see well enough to swing a bat. So my parents buy me mirrored sunglasses to shield my red, raw eyes, and during gym I sit on the sidelines with my book or chat with Bill, the epileptic kid.
On the weekends, I stay in and read. Then, as day ends, I am let out to play for an hour or two in the twilight. Sometimes, as I wheel my bike through the lobby, I see the blind man, sprawled and snoring in the tall, tattered armchair that commands a regal view of the mailboxes. My mother clucks and tells my father that she saw him passed out drunk again, but I know what he is really doing. I picked out my dark glasses to be like his. I go out when everyone else comes in. He is waiting for dark, when he is free and everyone else is blind.
Everyone feels sorry for me, but secretly I’m thrilled. Without the pressure of having to take part in something, do something, be something, I pass whole days without fear or boredom. Who could get tired of reading? I carry a book at all times and at any moment, on the train, in a store, at Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by shouting relatives, I can open the cover like an escape hatch and drop through. I read to disappear and carry books like spies carry cyanide in their teeth. Real readers poison themselves with words. They close each book as though climbing, reborn, from a tomb.
After school, Christine and I stop along Northern Boulevard and build a fort. The snow along the street is streaked with soot and shit, but pure flakes spiral in to shawl our shoulders. The plows have thrown up huge drifts, bristling with unearthed trash. Ducking low behind the wall, we pack the snow into dozens of hard bombs. It will be days before reinforcements arrive and we have to hold them off ourselves, sniping at the enemy supply line. Christine’s gold hair has never been cut. Her eyes are a frozen blue. The wind whips her hair around her hat and her tiny ears, and the tip of her small nose turns red.
“Fire!” We launch an attack on a truck going down the avenue. A snowball echoes loudly as it whacks the side of the truck. Direct hit. A bus comes along.
“Fire!” We stand and take careful aim at the windows. It’s an express bus and not allowed to stop, so the driver can’t get us even though he glances over just as I open up. The snowballs stick where they hit. A car comes next. This time we shoot too early, and a snowball thumps the hood. The car skids, lurching across the ice, and stops. The driver pops out, a big man with a beard.
“Hey you little shits!”
“Retreat!” We run down the alley behind Woolworth’s and jump on garbage cans to clamber over the wall. We come out on the other side of the block and slip into a basement window I know is never locked. We flatten ourselves to the pocked concrete wall, breathing hard, while my eyes adjust to the dark.
“Do you think he followed us,” Christine gasps, chest heaving.
“Shh . . .” I listen hard, trying to pick out the sound of a bearded pursuer from the landscape of crunching snow and hissing tires above. Now I can see the piled cartons and spiderwebs around us. In the corner where we’re crouching, white cigarette butts and an empty bottle glow in the snowlight, covered in a lifetime’s dust. I see a plastic cap like the ones from the needles the doctor sticks me with. I pick it up and put it in my pocket for evidence.
Holding my breath, I stand on a box and peek over the windowsill. Suddenly, it’s evening and the streetlights are on outside, burning white in the blue air, with a swarm of pinpoint snowflakes clouding each lamp like static. Legs go by. Cars bounce through potholes full of tiny black icebergs.
“I don’t think he saw us,” I report. “But we better hide here awhile. He might still be out there looking.” We sit on the floor and pull off our wet gloves. My pants are soaked, and I’ve lost another scarf. I must have left it at the fort, but I can’t go back there now. Christine takes a bag of M&M’s from her coat pocket.
“Do you know what I do sometimes?” she asks, sorting the M&M’s by color and giving me half the reds. “I hide candy under my pillow, and then in bed, after I’ve brushed my teeth and said my prayers and everything, I eat it.” Prayers? I brushed my teeth but didn’t say prayers.
“Why do you say prayers?”
“So that God doesn’t kill you while you’re sleeping. Otherwise you could die while you’re sleeping and never even know you were dead.” I suck an M&M until the chocolate bleeds through the shell. Christine finishes counting the yellows and looks up at me.
“What sign are you?”
I search my mind for a clue.
“We don’t have signs. We’re Jewish.”
“Oh,” she says, seemingly satisfied with that answer. Maybe, I think, that’s why I don’t pray either. God won’t kill Jews. Although, according to my mother, almost everyone else will.
“Do you know how to kiss?”
I shrug. I don’t.
“Me either.” We sit in silence. I hear the blood booming in my ears, as if I were slipping over a waterfall. I want to say something, but I can’t.
“Should we try it?” Christine asks. I nod. We bring our faces close, and I feel her breath like a flower brushing my cheeks, like a warm snowflake feathering down. Carefully, we press our lips together. Her mouth is soft and tastes like chocolate. It’s good, so we try it again. She wraps her arms around my shoulders. I can’t believe this is happening, so I kiss her cheeks. She seems to like it. I kiss her neck. It is even whiter and smoother than her cheek, the pale chill touched with rose, warm beneath the skin, like burning snow.
“Elliot, stop it. That hurt.” I pull back. There are tears in her eyes. “Why did you bite me?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s late. I have to go.”
Outside, the sky is a black cloak. The stars are tears, through which a little light leaks in, from the world beyond. I bend my head beneath it and run home as fast as I can.
That night at dinner, I can’t eat a thing. My lungs are full of ice crystals that ache and blaze when I breathe. Snowdrifts block my chest. When my mother presses her lips to my forehead, she says I have a fever and puts me to bed, propped up with three pillows so I can breathe and sleep sitting up. On a snack table by my bed, the humidifier steams, its mouth slathered with Vicks VapoRub. Straining at the shadows on the ceiling, my mind reels with bats, screaming in blind circles. I pray deliriously not to die while I sleep. I pray to the vampire upstairs.
Past midnight, a skull smiles. Its eyes sparkle like sugar. A hand crosses the windowsill, bloodless as the flat moon, each long finger bound in a different ring, the skull, the eye, the rose, the star. Fog hisses from the machine, reeking of menthol. The shadow of great wings spreads against the wall. He wraps his cloak about my shoulders. Everything daylight hides, blinding us with false colors and the illusion of visibility, is dissolved and rendered clear now in the dark. He takes my hand, and we sail out over the city. He shows me what he sees.
What can I say about this night? That Queens rolls over like a snoring fat lady, in a shift of crumbling lace, and lays herself wide open, weeping in the arms of her dreams? Anyone could walk right in for a free show. The rooftops glow beneath us, pillows dusted in white. Roads curl up and draw their sheets over their heads. The white city is a bed brushed smooth by the sky, which rushes overhead in a river, moon and cloudy stars tossing on currents of wind. Every water tower, every ledge or sill or branch, every clothesline and antenna and each power wire is sugared with the same bright ice.
A man stands in a phone booth on a corner, pleading his case. He clutches the receiver in both hands, cupping it, afraid she’ll let go of her end and cast him adrift in the waves. He is completely exposed in that glass box, like a lighthouse on the farthest point. Up the street, two men trade punches. Too drunk to duck or dodge, they just stand eye to eye like dance partners, hitting each other in the face as hard as they can. They lean into the blows. Blood puddles between them. All that’s holding them up is the support of a friend’s fist. An ambulance cruises by, slowing while the driver considers the damage, shrugs, and speeds off. From the doorway of the neon-lit bar a woman watches in silence. Her face is bathed in glory, pink and blue.
I could tell you that the skinny trees have all gone python silver and black, that the buildings sway over their alleys, that the snow got dizzy and passed out in a vacant lot. But what then of the ice caves dripping under the bridges, and the crying train and the rats? The rats move through a city of their own, of dented steel garbage cans and dark mountains of plastic bags that tremble, as something we discarded, but that isn’t really dead at all, only sleeping, stirs. It’s like muscles jumping and chirping under skin. Like eggs outgrowing their shells.
Tonight, we all dream the same dream under the same cold blanket, like we will one day in the grave. We lie stacked in buildings, like books on shelves, and behind each closed door, we combine the same letters, talking to ourselves in our sleep. Even those dreamers who do wake up, and feel their way down the hall toward the bathroom, have to cross miles of drifting sleep, like blind men lost in libraries with blank books in their hands. The vampire watches. The vampire turns the page. He sighs and his lips move in silence, sounding out the words in your head, the ones you’ve never heard spoken, like when you opened the big dictionary in the reference room, the one with the cracked black spine, and looked up pudenda or viscera or groin.
He turns on Northern Boulevard, then left down Christine’s block and spots her walking home alone from gymnastics. She is scared, but he is not. He is the vampire. He has the strength of ten men. He takes the form of a wolf and follows, his paws in her footprints, her scent in the fog of his breath. Now the night is like a forest that she must cross to get home, where the only sound is her boots crunching snow, and the only moonlight that falls this far is on the flakes winding through the trees. When she finally reaches her building and climbs upstairs to her room, although she doesn’t want to, she will leave the window open for him. She cannot resist. She will get into bed, say her prayers, and pull the covers up to her neck.
He drifts past the windows of her apartment. Her parents are grappling in bed together, the headboard clacking on the wall. Both their eyes are shut tight, each clenched in their darkness within the darkened room. The covers slide off, and I see Christine’s father, a sweaty back and hairy thighs climbing up her mother’s doughy rump. Her nails pull the sheet off the corner of the mattress, and she wrings it in her hands, as though trying to twist out a stain.
Down the hall, Christine turns restlessly in her sleep. Her deer legs kick, straight and snappable as twigs, her thin arms folding and unfolding. In the wall behind her bed, a Virgin Mary night-light of luminous plastic is plugged into the socket, casting a holy glow. Her eyes open, and for a moment I panic, until I remember that I am invisible in his wings. She sits up, golden hair sifting, and reaches under her pillow, pulling out a Nestle’s Thousand Dollar Bar, a Pixy Stix and a pack of Bubble Yum. She tears into the candy, breathing hard as she bites into the chocolate and draws the strands of caramel through her teeth. She rips open a straw and pours the purple sugar into her mouth, dyeing her tongue and lips as it melts. Behind the wall, her father grunts as he shuts the bathroom door and Christine dives under the covers. She buries the candy in her blanket and lays her head on the pillow, baring her white throat. There’s a smear of purple, like spilled wine, staining the skin around her mouth. Her tongue darts out to pluck the chocolate crumbs clinging to the creases of her greedy and shamelessly parted lips.
As soon as Mrs. Tannenbaum calls on me, I know I’m shit out of luck. When the papers are handed back, I am quick to hide my A, stuffing it into my loose-leaf, ashamed both of the high grade that marks me as a brainiac and also that it’s not an A+. But when she announces that she will punish the authors of the best poems by forcing them to read aloud and calls me to the front of the class, I know there is no place left to hide. I take the long walk to the scaffold, past Ronald Scuznick, who mutters “dickbreath,” and Terry O’Flynn, who hisses “lunger” and flicks snot off his fingertips at me. I arrive at the blackboard and stare at the page in my shaking hands as though it had rewritten itself in Chinese. I manage to mumble: “O Winter Wind / Blowing so cold / Who knows if you / Are young or old?” and so on; and as my classmates applaud, I glance up to catch the disgust in their eyes. I make it back to my seat without fainting or tripping over the feet that are sticking out and sit down, my heart beating on its coffin lid like a buried soul, to await the tolling of the recess bell, when I know my life will end.
In the school yard, the boys slip off their jackets and backpacks in one shrug, dumping them still entwined in a pile near the fence, and run to play handball or stickball, the air filling with a constant roar. The snow has been plowed up into one dirty mountain over which they scramble and fight like goats in the bright winter sun. The girls gather in circles to jump rope or unpack Barbies and lipsticks and other mysterious artifacts. I slink along the building, hoping to go unnoticed, lingering near the huge, truck-sized dumpsters, with their sour tang of trash, their open wounds of rust, bleeding into the snow. These are the worst times: play, lunch, gym, before and after school, whenever the lack of assigned places reveals that I have no place. I am never lonely alone. It is in the crowd, among all those who are supposedly like me, that my absolute strangeness is exposed. Somehow the shame of joining in is too much for me to bear. I can never get lost the way others can, in mid-flight with a ball in the air, in mid-song with a fist in the air, or, God forbid, dancing, but am always my self, aware of myself, hearing the endless monologue in my head, unless that voice is stopped by another voice in a book.
And what is poetry, that thing in my chest, the heart’s sudden, upward swim to the light and air at the top of the skull? Each set of lines is called a stanza. It doesn’t have to rhyme. Poetry is anything you read out loud alone. At first, of course, I immerse myself in the classics: horror, sci-fi, westerns, and kung fu. Early efforts include “The Tell-Tale Fart,” about a fat man who killed for a bowl of beans; “The Oriental Art of Death,” in which a master demonstrates how to rip an enemy’s limbs off, and the self-explanatory “Godzilla vs. Frankenstein”; but already I am mysteriously susceptible to the temptation of certain phrases in old books I barely understand, the power of certain words in my ear, their look on the page, knowing more than they say. I recognize the scattered clues, a cooling of the forehead, a clearing in the eye. A sudden wind rushes up and lifts my chest like a leaf. I step into the world behind the world. Here, alone in my labyrinth with the garbage and the sun and the gorgeous rust, I know the secret name of things. I hold the thread.
Then Ronald Scuznick appears around the dumpster with Terry O’Flynn, flanking to prevent flight. A cluster of boys follows, and behind them the girls, gathering to watch. I see Christine among them.
“Oh winter wind,” Terry intones with an Irish lilt, “You smell like shit / Why don’t you suck / Your mama’s tit?” The response from the crowd is uproarious. Clearly this work is much better received than my own offering and, frankly, I’m inclined to agree. I even laugh along with the others, but this just seems to annoy Scuznick more.
“What’re you laughing at, douche bag?”
“Nothing,” I mumble, the smile drying on my lips.
Ronald closes in, shoving my shoulders, and I stagger back. Ronald punches me, sounding my head like a gong, and I hear cheers through the hum. As he pummels me, I do my best to hit back, swinging wildly, but it’s hard to aim with your eyes shut tight in terror. I can’t bear to see what’s happening to me. I pray only that unconsciousness will be swift and soft and that I am not permanently disfigured. I even entertain a brief image of Christine smoothing my brow in the hospital. My throat tightens and I forget to breathe. It sounds like a leaf is caught in the spokes of my chest.
“You better watch out,” Terry taunts from the sidelines as I sputter and heave. “The lunger might cough on you!”
Everyone laughs again, but through the haze of fear an idea takes shape in my mind. “That’s right,” I manage to warble. “I’m contagious. You’ll end up like me.”
Scuznick closes in for the kill. Thinking fast, I plunge my mucus-clogged pipes, and just as he raises his fists, I lean my head back and spit.
Now maybe I can’t fight, or catch, or hit a ball with a bat, but if there’s one thing a bronchial asthmatic can do, it’s hawk loogies. I bring up a beauty, gray slime flecked with yellow like a bad oyster, and rearing like Pegasus, I send it arcing perfectly through the air, splat onto Scuznick’s ugly mug. It’s everywhere—his hair, his shirt. He’s like a villain caught in Spiderman’s web. Scuznick screams, “Oh Jesus, get it off me,” and takes off running like he’s on fire. The crowd of onlookers panics, trampling each other to get away as he wails among them, howling and rending his garments. I cough hard, loading up more ammo, and turn to O’Flynn, but he backs off. Scuznick runs over to Mr. Alpaca, who’s on duty, reading the paper by the door.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, looking up as Scuznick runs over, hysterical.
“Well don’t get it on me,” Mr. Alpaca says, batting him away with his newspaper. “It’s disgusting. Go see the nurse. Or ask the janitor to hose you off.”
This gets a huge laugh from the kids, and as Ronald rushes inside, they trail along, laughing and skipping and jeering happily. I can’t believe it—I’ve won a fight, sort of. Or at least I haven’t lost it. It’s the crowning moment of my life. But surprisingly no one seems to be flocking around to cheer and clap my back or lift me on their shoulders as they do with other victors. Instead they cluster in little groups, staring at me and whispering. Christine is among them, wide-eyed and pale. When I take a step toward her, she turns away, then changes her mind and, glancing over her shoulder, runs over. Is she racing to me, blonde hair streaming, cheeks flushed, to finally confess her love, now that I am a schoolyard hero? This thought makes it all seem worth it. Maybe we can run away together, take a raft down the river or live in a cave in the woods.
“How could you?” she asks.
“Hi,” I say.
“How could you kiss me when you’re infected? What if I have your disease now?”
“No,” I stammer. “It’s not really like that.”
“I hate you,” she says, eyes tearing. “Don’t ever talk to me again. And don’t you dare tell anyone we kissed.”
I can’t sleep, but still dreams come to haunt me. I throw the covers off. I’m slick with sweat. I can’t stand it any longer. Whatever the cost, I have to speak to him. I creep down the hall and listen at the door of my parents’ room. They are asleep. I go to my window and silently lift it. I put a bare foot on the cold slats of the fire escape. Below me the street is empty. The wind makes my eyes water, and as I climb the ladder, the skin on the bottom of my feet sticks to the rusty iron. On the fourth floor, I look in the window. There is the Spanish lady sleeping with her face in the pillow, black hair fanning out. I keep on climbing, hoping the vampire isn’t there.
The light in his room is off, but the TV is playing. I can see if I creep up to the window. It is a large room, the same as my parents’. All the walls are covered with books except for one space, where a painting of a nude woman hangs. The floor is bare. On a night table, crowded with jars and pill bottles, a cigarette is burning in an ashtray. On a narrow bed like mine, not a grown-up bed at all, the vampire lies, eyes closed. An old hand goes out and picks the cigarette from the tray. He brings it to his lips, then stubs it out, exhaling a fog of smoke that spreads to fill the room.
I tell myself to knock. I tell myself to go back. So I hold still, shivering. My breath clouds the window. My teeth chatter. There is a cramp in my legs. I have to move. I unbend my limbs, shifting the weight, and something falls, a pebble, maybe, or a paint chip. It clanks from floor to floor. I freeze. The vampire sits up. His eyes are wide open, revealing two floating, clouded blue marbles. I want to scream. I know there is no point in taking off; he’ll only find me. He reaches out and turns on a light.
“Come on in, boy. You’ll catch your death out there.”
I hold my breath.
“I said come in. It’s not locked.”
I slide the window open and climb inside where it’s warm.
“Close that window. My blood’s thinner than yours.”
My eyes widen at this, but I turn and shut the window.
“Now then.” The vampire reaches for his cigarette pack. “What’s your name, boy?”
The vampire rummages through the litter on his night table, cigarette hanging from his lip. He turns to me, dead eyes rolling like Gobstoppers.
“No, you wouldn’t have any.” He lifts the lamp, and his hand finds some matches. The shadows on the wall grow and change. “Ah, here we are. Now we can get down to business.”
I wish I were in my bed asleep. But I’m not. This is real.
“Tell me, Elliot,” he asks. “Why are you here?” The bony hands strike a match and lift it to the cigarette. I don’t know what to say.
“I, I have to ask you something.”
The vampire runs a hand over the ridges on his scalp.
“I’m waiting.” He grins. The points of his teeth gleam yellow.
“Are you,” I swallow, “a vampire?”
The old man starts laughing like an engine trying to start. I blush while he laughs and wipes the tears from his eyes. I didn’t know blind eyes could cry. Then he starts coughing. He sits up, pounding on his chest, and leans over to spit on the floor. I stare at the gray lump. I notice some dry splotches in the same area. The vampire leans back against the pillows.
“Yes,” he says, “I am.”
My hand goes up to the collar of my pajamas. The blush fades from my face. I’m right, but I wish I were wrong.
“Yes, I have been for years. For longer than you’ve been alive. Since before your grandparents were born. And I’ve been all over the world. Europe, Asia, Africa. You name it, I been there.”
My fingers wrapped around my throat. “And you really drink blood?”
He draws on his cigarette.
“Sure. I have to. But not just any blood. It’s got to be pure.”
“But you can fly? And change into a bat or a wolf?”
“Yeah, all that. But it’s not an easy life. Wherever I go, I’m hounded. Sooner or later they find me.”
“The vampire hunters. They come while I’m sleeping and try to hammer stakes into my heart. The last time, just as they were about to kill me, the sun set and I woke up. There were five of them.”
He shrugs. “I broke their necks. And then I came here. I thought I could rest here. But now that you’ve found me, I guess you’ll tell everyone.”
“No, no, I won’t.” I rush to the side of his bed. “I came because I want to be like you.” For the first time I look up at him, meeting the blank eyes that I’m sure can see me somehow. Now there’s no turning back. The vampire is still for a moment. Then he bursts out laughing again.
“So you want to be a vampire, huh? Can’t blame you. Tell me something, though. What tipped you off?”
Now I smile. “Your teeth.” I can picture myself with fangs like those. The vampire puts out his cigarette and reaches into his mouth. He pulls out his teeth. I gasp and jump back. He laughs.
“Don’t worry. They’re not going to bite you.” He slips them back into place. “Come here, there’s something else I want you to see.”
I lean forward, ready to run. The vampire pulls back his robe. There is a thick, lumpy scar running all across his frail chest.
“A doctor did this to me.”
I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s red against the milky skin, and I can see where the stitches had been.
“What’s more, I paid him to do it,” he says. “I had this thing in me, see. A tumor. It was eating me up. They took it out. The damn thing had hair on it. And a couple of teeth too. Now that’s what I call a vampire.”
He laughs again, quietly. “Now you go back to where you came from. And don’t tell no one you were here.”
I open the window. Then I turn back.
“Go on I said. Scram.”
I climb out the window and back down the fire escape. I get into bed and pull the covers over my head. I curl into a ball and shut my eyes tight.
My mother and I watch the arrow above the elevator move from number to number. We’ve been shopping and she holds a bag of groceries in each arm. The elevator door slides back.
“Step aside please.” A large man in coveralls says, backing out. He’s holding one end of a gurney. A black cloth covers the shape of a body.
“Oh, that poor old blind man from 6C,” my mother says as the wheels squeak by. “He’s finally passed on.”
“Maybe he’s just sleeping,” I say. The sun isn’t down yet.
“Yes dear, it’s like he’s sleeping. Only he won’t wake up anymore.”
I think about the time I woke up and found a long blond hair that wasn’t mine in my mouth and about the soreness in my chest sometimes that burns like a tooth when I breathe. We pass the torn velvet throne where he once held dominion, alone in the dark majesty of his night. Somewhere, close by, I can feel my life, lying in wait. I say the word to myself: Tumor.