Youngstown, Ohio, April 1995
“What do you mean, you don’t have ‘The Chicken Dance’?”
The old man’s shout rang over The Offspring’s bouncing beat and driving guitar.
“I’m sorry, sir,” I told him. (I wasn’t.) “It’s on the bride and groom’s ‘Do Not Play’ list.” I showed him the blank side of a random sheet of paper—maybe the driving directions to the reception site, I don’t remember.
“But ‘The Chicken Dance’ is a family tradition.” He held up his half-empty tumbler of gin.
I shrugged and pointed at the bride, who was jamming and lurching on the dance floor with her friends. “Maybe her brother will play ‘The Chicken Dance’ at his wedding, and you can maintain the ritual then.”
“Watch your mouth, young man.” He shook a scaly pink finger at me. “You slackers will find yourselves on the street with that kind of attitude.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s been great chatting, but I have to get back to work now.” I turned away and switched to the next track, Elastica’s “Connection.”
The Chicken Man stalked over to the bride’s parents and proceeded to deride my performance, my profession, and possibly my entire generation with a series of wild hand gestures.
I checked the bride and groom—who had once been three years ahead of me in high school—to make sure they were having a good time. They were the ones who signed my check, after all, not their parents.
“Do you take requests?” said someone behind me.
“Depends.” I turned to face the speaker. “What do you…”
My voice crawled to a halt as I absorbed the sight of the strange woman. “Beautiful” was too feeble a word or even a concept. Everything about her was jet black—her hair, eyes, clothes, fingernails, even her lipstick. In the midst of the darkness, her pale skin seemed to have its own glow, like those fish that live in caves at the bottom of the sea.
My pulse surged, and my palms started to sweat like my blood sugar had just plummeted. I did a mental check of when I’d last eaten. No, I’d been good that day. It was her, not my pancreas, putting me on the verge of passing out.
Somehow she had crept behind my table, but I wasn’t about to tell her that area was off-limits. I wasn’t about to tell her anything except “Yes.”
“You should play Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding.'” She shifted her feet, making the hem of the black lace dress sway over the tops of her high-heeled combat boots. “It would be totally brill.”
I stared at her face, framed by a black veil, a longer version of the ones I used to see Hispanic ladies wearing at Mass. “Are you with the bride or groom?”
“I’m with the DJ, I hope.” She laughed and drew a thin brown cigarette to her lips. “I’m a crasher. I was passing by and I thought you were cute.” She batted her long lashes, then rolled her eyes. “Pathetic, huh?”
I took a step closer to this sublime mixture of Siouxsie Sioux and Susan Sarandon (I know, too many ‘s’, but I can’t help that it’s exactly who she looked like, and still does). “Isn’t ‘White Wedding’ a little dark for the occasion?”
She widened her eyes, which turned out to be deep brown instead of black. “It’s not dark. It’s about new beginnings. Remember the lyrics: ‘It’s a nice day to…start again!'” She raised her fist straight up.
I got that bitter gut-twinge, the one that felt like a door slamming in my soul.
Start again. As if.
They say depression’s in your head, meaning your brain. But it doesn’t feel like it. Okay, maybe a little around the edges of your face, at the corners of your eyes. But mostly it settles deep in your core, below the spot where your last ribs meet. It’s like a stone, but not solid. It grows and pulses whenever your thoughts stray to the future.
The only way to cope is to stay in the moment. Walk over here, flip that switch, speak this set of words this person expects. Function, function, function. Except when you can’t. Until the only solution left is the final one.
You either get it or you don’t. If you get it, I don’t need to explain the whole sordid backstory of why my life sucked or which medications weren’t working. If you don’t get it, you’ll judge no matter what, and my lame explanation would just give you more evidence to weigh.
Getting back to the girl…
Her shoulders eased into relief with the drag off her cigarette. “That’s so much better. I’ve been in a car with new leather for the last two hours. No smoking upon penalty of death.” She tilted her wrist to let the smoke drift away from her face. “I totally dare you.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“I mean the Billy Idol song.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners. “This crowd’ll love it. They grew up in the eighties like you, right?”
I wondered why she didn’t say ‘grew up in the eighties like us.’ She seemed about my age (twenty-seven).
“Already did the eighties portion of the reception. ‘White Wedding’ isn’t part of my collection, anyway.” I met her gaze full on. “But if you have another request, maybe I could oblige.”
She frowned, and I cursed myself for misreading what I thought was flirtation.
But then she glided forward, close enough to touch. “If you had the song, would you play it?”
“No.” I shoved my hands into my pockets to keep them off of her. “I’ve already gotten in trouble for showing independence in my set lists.”
“Ooh, a martyr for the music.” She shook her head, making the black silk of her veil caress her cheeks. “You hate this job, anyway. You’re dying to be freed from this life.”
Her words were like an icy finger on my spine. “What makes you say that?”
“This.” She thumbed one of the black-and-white buttons on my tuxedo. Her touch jolted my heart like a defibrillator (and yeah, I knew what one of those felt like). “It fits you like a straitjacket.” She slid her finger down the shirt’s center seam. “I can get you out of it.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to hold in a groan of desire. Before that moment, it had been easily three months since my last hard-on (various reasons).
I shifted my weight to ease the pressure, then kept shifting until I had taken a full step back. I grabbed the folded-up set list. “It’s time to cut the cake.”
“I don’t fancy cake anymore.” She turned away, swinging her veil in a wide black arc. “Bye!”
“Wait!” I started to follow her, but the song was fading. “What’s your name?” I called.
She held up a hand as she glided out the door.
I cued the next song, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Whatta Man,” in honor of the groom. Then I threw down the program and left my station. The cake could wait.
When I got to the door of the reception room, I looked up and down the long hallway. The chaotic, multi-colored pattern of the carpet made me feel motion-sick. Other than a pair of elderly ladies returning from the bathroom, and a couple of teenage guests making out in the far corner, the corridor was empty.
I darted through the hotel’s lobby and out the revolving door to the wet parking lot. Silent, shiny cars stretched in rows on either side, but no Mystery Girl.
I lifted my face into the night’s driving rain, letting its chill wash away my body’s last gasp of lust and frustration. Go back to numb, I ordered myself.
It took longer than I expected. By the time I’d lost the urge to roam the streets looking for her, my clothes were soaked, and I knew the song was nearing the end. I shoved the door open and entered the hotel. Water dripped from the ends of my hair and sleeves, soaking the hideous carpet as I shuffled across the lobby.
The song in the reception room was no longer Salt-n-Pepa’s funky praises of a mighty mighty good man. A creeping bass line gave way to a quick double-shot of sawing guitar. Billy Idol was about to declare it a nice day for a white wedding.
I stepped through the double doors of the reception hall to see all eyes fixed on the disc jockey station, a raised platform next to the hardwood dance floor.
“I am Regina, Mistress of the Music. Your regular DJ had to step out for some fresh air, so I’m here to take you to the dark side.”
From where I stood, I couldn’t see her face, hidden behind the lace edges of the long black veil. Instead of yelling for her to get off the stage, the guests just stared, mesmerized, the way I had when she first turned her eyes on me.
“Because when it comes to marriage,” she continued, “you have to take the good with the bad, you know? Some days you’ll snuggle up and talk about babies and puppies or whatever it is you plan to nurture, and other days…” She angled her chin to speak to the side of the crowd near my door. “Other days you’ll rip out each other’s throats.”
She looked at me then, stopping my breath. Her lips twitched up, but the smile only made her face seem sadder.
She pressed the mic close to her mouth. “But you can always start again.”
Regina turned off the microphone and cranked up the music. She had timed it perfectly to coincide with the beginning of the lyrics, using some extended-intro remix I’d never heard.
The spell broken, a few of the edgier looking members of the wedding party started to bob their heads, then dance to the haunting, ass-kicking tune.
The bride, however, was yelling at the groom and pointing at Regina, who was sifting through my CDs and tossing them into three piles.
He intercepted me on my way to the platform.
“This is a joke, right?” Mark gave me an uneasy smile. “I knew we shouldn’t have gotten married on April Fools’ Day.”
“Relax,” I said as I brushed past him, “I’ll take care of it.”
“So what, it’s not a joke?” He caught my arm. “What the hell, Shane? You’ve been like a zombie all night. You pronounced Becky’s sister’s name wrong, you forgot to introduce her dad for the toast, and now this?” He squeezed the end of my sleeve, wringing out the water. “And where were you just now?”
“Like she said, I needed fresh air.”
“We gave you a chance.” Mark stepped closer, clearly trying to look casual to the rest of the crowd. “We didn’t listen to the people who said you were an unreliable jagoff.”
“Who said that?”
“I heard you looked like crap at Krista Murphy’s reception last week.”
“I was sick.”
“You’ve been using again.”
I’d been clean for months (mostly), but no one believed me, so I’d stop trying to convince them. “It’s none of your business.”
“Bullshit it’s not.” His face was red from dancing and drinking and self-righteousing. “I don’t want you to end up like Stephen.”
That hurt. “Man, don’t bring him up now.”
“Like everyone isn’t thinking about him?” He pointed to the bridal table at the other end of the room. “It shoulda been my brother making that best man’s toast, not my idiot cousin Colin.”
“I know, I know.” I stared over his head—an easy thing to do, since he was only five-ten to my six-five. “The cake’s starting to melt. I gotta get back to work.”
Mark grabbed my arm again. “Shane, I know a good counselor who helped one of my students. Six months ago the kid was giving hand jobs for heroin money. Now he’s brought his grades up, and he’s even looking at college.”
The ‘C’ word. Never a way to get on my good side.
I patted Mark’s shoulder. “Call me after your honeymoon. We’ll talk.” I knew I’d be ten days dead when he and Becky got back from Barbados. It bummed me out that they wouldn’t be at my funeral.
“Great.” He shook my hand in that manly way that conveyed so much feeling. “Now go get that crazy bitch off the stage.”
I froze, his hand still in mine. A switch inside me flipped. “What’d you call her?”
“Heh. Sorry. She’s not your friend or anything, right? I know you used to be into punk and all, but she looks like something the Addams Family flushed down the toilet.”
I turned to Regina, who was nodding to the music and pumping her fist, a snarl curving her full dark burgundy lips. When the female background chorus swelled, she closed her eyes, opened her mouth, and raised her palms as if in worship.
Then she spun to face me and silently screamed with Billy Idol, “Start agaaaaaaain!”
I’d never seen anyone so alive.
“Hang on,” I told Mark as I stepped onto the platform. Avoiding the plugged-in equipment (I was still dripping wet), I grabbed a pair of CDs from the bottom of a pile Regina hadn’t cycloned yet, then carried them back to Mark. “I always have these for emergencies.”
He flipped the CD over and read the magic marker on the shiny surface. “Wedding compilation?”
“Stick it in and press play. Press stop when you want to talk.” I picked up my coat. “Your refund’ll be in tomorrow’s mail.”
“What?! You’re skipping out on my wedding?”
“Tell your mom and dad goodbye. They were always really cool to me.” I slipped on the long black raincoat. “But I gotta go.”
I reached for Regina’s hand. She ran across the platform and leaped into my arms, then slid down my body in a way that made it ache in every cell.
As we ran for the exit, I heard Mark shouting profanities over the shrieking guitar, culminating in “You’ll be sorry!”
* * *
We parked my now-empty van in a secluded spot across the river. Regina wanted to look at the dead steel plants—or at least their shadows, which was all we could see through the dark, wet windshield.
“They’re like giant rusty corpses.” Boots propped on the dash, she nodded her head to the driving beat of my Bikini Kill CD. “Must be like living next to a graveyard.”
“You’re not from around here?” I handed back her bottle of Jägermeister, resisting the urge to take another five gulps.
“I’m Canadian, but not that part.” She gestured due north, where I guess she meant Ontario. “You can tell because I don’t talk funny.” She chugged the Jäger, then wiped her mouth. “Guess which province?”
“Yes!” She rapped her heels against the glove compartment like a giddy little girl. “How’d you know?”
“Broadcasting 101, they taught us how to erase our dialects. They used Saskatchewan as the perfect nondescript newscasting accent.”
“Brilliant.” Regina tossed the bottle into the back of the van. “Come claim your prize.” She slipped between the seats and clambered after the bottle, almost kicking me in the face with her combat boots. I followed her.
The van’s carpet was thin and dusty. I rolled her on top of me for the sake of her bones’ comfort and her dress’s cleanliness. She kissed me with everything, grinding against me in instant urgency. Even though we were fully clothed, it seemed like I already knew each curve and angle of her body.
I slid her hips up over my stomach, then my chest, then farther, so I could reach her with my mouth.
The wind slipped through invisible cracks, casting chill drafts across my hands and her bare thighs as I shoved up her skirt. But she didn’t shiver, not until she came, and then she shuddered deep within, the vibrations meeting my tongue and lips in almost violent waves.
That should have told me she was different, but being young and stupid I thought her seismic orgasm was a result of my manly prowess.
She slipped down my body, and my head came out from under her skirt. The van’s ceiling hung in shreds from where she’d clawed it. Should’ve been another clue, but again—guy ego.
Regina unbuttoned my shirt with shaky hands. Her fingers caught, and she tore open the shirt, ripping off the last two buttons. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry.” I sat up to help her remove it. “I’m never wearing it again, anyway.”
“I know.” She pushed my chest to lay me flat on my back, then undid my pants. I groaned as her hand slid inside.
“Careful. Not too—” I couldn’t speak.
“Shane.” Regina stretched out beside me and pressed her lips to my neck. “Don’t fight me. Whatever you see, whatever I do. Just don’t fight, okay? Promise me.”
“Okay.” Right then, I would’ve promised her every moon in the solar system. I reached down to grasp her hand. “But you better stop before I—”
“Come,” she whispered. “Now.”
I did (not that I could not), too out of breath to utter more than a strangled gasp. Regina murmured against my neck, stroking me harder, upping the intensity until the pleasure verged on pain.
Then, nothing but pain. Spiking into my neck, shooting to every corner of my body, and bouncing back at double strength. My voice pitched higher, catching at the end of my breath. Her hand moved to my hip, and she held me down like she thought I’d try to escape.
But I just pulled her closer, clutching the lace of her dress. I’d spent my whole life hiding from pain, smothering it with whatever I could swallow, smoke, or shoot.
Now, it gave me what I needed most. A way away from me.
* * *
It was past midnight by the time Regina cleaned my wound and convinced me she was a vampire. I swore the retractable fangs were a trick, which pissed her off. She emptied the bottle of Jäger down her throat, then jumped out and smashed it against the pavement. Before I could stop her, she used the jagged edge to slice open her own arm. When it healed in ten seconds, I became a believer.
“So am I a vampire, too, now?” I touched the bandage on my neck.
“Of course not.” Sitting in the van again, Regina tapped her cigarette into the ash tray of the seat she was leaning against. “We’d never survive if we created our own competition every time we drank.” She rested her elbows on her knees and gestured with her hands back and forth. “To make you a vampire, I’d have to drink you and bring you back from the point of death by letting you drink me. It’s a very dodgy procedure.” She let her head fall back against the seat and stared at the ceiling. “It doesn’t always take.”
Her voice sounded suddenly soft and vulnerable, and the silence was more painful than her bite had been. I scrambled to change the subject.
“Next Wednesday,” I told her, “I’m going to kill myself.”
That got her attention. “How?”
“I bought a gun. I’ve tried slower methods, but I always seem to survive.”
“Your body fights back.”
I nodded. “Which is odd, because it’s not very strong. I suck at taking care of my diabetes. I drink too much, I don’t eat enough. They say I have the heart and kidneys of a fifty-year-old.”
“And all that heroin is probably against doctor’s orders.”
I folded my arms over my bare chest, as if she hadn’t already noticed the scars. “Actually, I quit last May.”
“Good for you.”
“No, it’s not. It gave me something to live for.” I rolled my eyes. “Wow, that sounds crazy.”
“Not really. I used to feel the same way about this.” She drew a fresh cigarette from her pack and lit it off her current one. “I became a vampire partly so I’d never have to quit smoking.”
I laughed, but she didn’t.
She stubbed out the old butt in the ashtray. “Is that what happened to Stephen? He offed himself?”
I blinked at her. “How do you know about him?”
“The groom and you were talking.” She tugged her earlobe. “Vampire hearing.”
I shook my head. “Steve’s my best friend. He’s in jail in Pennsylvania for dealing. He got twenty-five years, because it was his third strike, and this time some kid he sold to OD’d and died. Mark—the groom—that’s Steve’s big brother. I’m his pet project.” My fingers twitched, and I wish she hadn’t finished the Jäger. “He thinks if he can save me, it’ll be like saving Steve.”
“Does he know you tried to commit suicide?”
“No one knows except my mom, and she thinks it was only once.”
“Then why tell me?” She tapped her cigarette in the ashtray again. “So I could stop you?”
“No.” I looked her in the eye. “So you could help me.”
“Ugh.” She flipped out her palms. “I am not pulling the trigger. God, what is up with the American gun fetish?”
“I don’t mean for you to shoot me.” I rubbed the unbitten side of my neck. “You could drain me, drink what you can. At least then, my body wouldn’t be a total waste.”
She gave an exasperated sigh. “You want to be useful? Shoot yourself in the woods and let the crows eat your eyes.”
“Okay, forget it.” I picked up my shirt.
“The flies would lay eggs in your nose and mouth.” She spoke like she was describing the love scene from her favorite movie. “And then their babies would come out and dissolve you. That’s what maggots are.”
“I know.” I tried to jam my arm in my sleeve, but it was inside out.
“You’d do them a favor by dying naked.” She crawled toward me in a mock seductive pose. “Then they wouldn’t have to wait for your clothes to disintegrate before they start on your juicy bits.”
“I said, forget it. It was a dumb idea.”
I jerked back my head at the force of her voice.
“It’s not dumb at all,” she whispered, and took my face in her hands. “Who wants to die alone?”
I stared into her dark, liquid eyes. “Then you’ll help me?”
“I won’t help you die.” She gave me a wicked smile. “But for the next three nights, I’ll help you live.”
* * *
She took me to every Goth and punk club in Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania (who knew Erie had a scene? I didn’t). It was like a trip back in time, and I felt twenty-one again. I hadn’t even felt twenty-one when I actually was twenty-one.
We danced and raged, and drove home very, very fast each night, so that we could spend the last few hours before sunrise in my bed, kissing and stroking and bleeding and drinking.
The only thing we didn’t do was fuck. After she explained the damage a female vampire could do to a human male’s most valuable appendage, I didn’t argue. (Besides, I’d grown up dating Catholic girls and therefore had lots of experience with non-sex forms of sex.)
Through it all, Regina and I talked about music, craving each other’s thoughts as much as each other’s touch. I found myself pondering previously foreign concepts such as “next week.” When my subscription renewal notice for Spin came in the mail, I didn’t throw it away.
I woke up at noon on Tuesday—alone, of course, since my apartment wasn’t sunproof—and made a decision.
When Regina arrived that night, I pulled her inside my kitchen. “Before we go out, I have a surprise.”
Her face lit up as she heard the music blaring from my bedroom. “You found that Dream Syndicate import!”
“Yeah, but that’s not it.” I placed her in front of me and covered her eyes with my hand. “This way.”
I led her into the living room, where a large flat box sat on the coffee table, wrapped in silver paper. I took my hand off her face. “Behold. A small offering.”
Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What’s this for?”
“An early birthday present for you.”
She frowned. “Because you won’t be around next week?”
I kissed her quickly. “Open it and find out.”
Regina knelt on the floor between the coffee table and the ratty old sofa. She bit her lower lip as she slowly peeled off the wrap, then folded it carefully and tucked it into her bag.
She popped the lid off the box and snatched up the heavy black material. “My favorite color! How did you know? Is it a cape? I’ve never had a cape.” She held it up to her chest. “Wow, just like a movie vampire.”
“It’s not a cape.” I sat next to her and showed her the stitched edges. “They’re curtains.”
“Um, that’s sweet, but where I live there are no windows.” She fluttered her fingers beside her head. “Sun, vampire, spontaneous combustion?”
“They’re not for your place. They’re for mine.”
Regina glanced around my living room. “They certainly don’t clash with the bare walls and beige carpet.” Then her eyes widened and she grabbed my hand. “Shane, you’re decorating! That means you plan to live.”
“Thinking about it.” I squeezed her hand. “Look at the tag.”
She sifted through the mounds of material until she found the little white piece of cardboard. “Blackout curtains.” She swallowed hard and looked up. “You’re putting these up for me.”
My stomach froze at the flat dread in her voice. “It’d be safer, in case you got stuck here. Or if you wanted, you could stay during the day.”
“Well, yeah.” I held up a hand. “I’m not asking you to move in. But it’d be cool if you could, you know, not leave every morning.”
Regina lowered her chin. We stared at her thumb traveling around the corners of the tag as she turned it in her hand, over and over and over.
“Or,” I went on, though I knew I was digging my own grave, “we could move somewhere else—maybe Pittsburgh, or even Philadelphia. We could form a new DJ business. Like the song says, start again.” I raised my fist in a mock Billy Idol salute.
The whole time I was speaking, she just stared at her thin white hand against the thick black polyester. It lay flat, not clutching, fingers spread.
Finally she put the lid back on the box, then placed the square of folded wrapping paper in the center. “Take them back.”
“I can’t do this.”
“—you’ve made me want to live.”
“I can’t be your girlfriend. We can’t even screw.”
“I don’t care.” I tried to put my arm around her, but she shoved it off.
“One day you’ll care,” she snapped. “One day the novelty of me won’t be enough to live for, and you’ll want to die again.”
“That’s not true.”
“Then what if I get sick of you? If you live for me, then leaving you would be the same as killing you. I don’t want that burden.”
I closed my eyes and turned my head away, picturing her final goodbye. The image of her walking away cut so deep I couldn’t breathe.
She was right. My time with her was just a stay of execution, not a pardon. When we ended, I would die.
And here I was, bargaining with my life, the one thing I could control. I’d put it in her hands, and she’d shoved it away. Prickly hot shame spread up my neck and over my scalp.
“I’m sorry, Shane.” She stood quickly, dragging her hand out of mine. “This wasn’t what I wanted.”
“What did you want?”
She stopped halfway to the door.
“Besides the obvious,” I added.
“I have tons of donors,” she said over her shoulder. “I don’t need your blood. I told you, I thought you were cute. I thought we could have fun together.”
“Show the sad little boy one last good time.”
“Yeah, something like that.” She turned to me. “I’ve hurt a lot of people. It’s impossible for a vampire not to. Humans get attached, like their veins are wrapped around my fingers. But what my victims don’t understand, what you don’t understand—” She twisted her hand into the hem of her black Ramones T-shirt. “—is how much it hurts me, too, because I fall a little bit in love with each of them.” Her voice hushed to a whisper. “I fell a lot in love with you.”
This declaration should’ve made me feel glad, or worthy. Instead it just pissed me off.
“If you love me,” I said as I stood and crossed to stand in front of her, “then kill me.”
Regina’s face twisted. She grabbed my shirt in both fists. “You selfish little shit!” She shook me, rattling my skull. “Weren’t you listening? I can’t watch you die, much less make you die. It would kill me.” Her voice choked with anger. “Promise me you’ll live, Shane.” Her nails raked my chest through my shirt. “Promise me!”
“No.” I took her face in my hands and kissed her. She shoved against my chest, but with only a fraction of her strength. In the next two moments her arms wrapped around my neck, then her legs around my waist.
I dropped us to the floor right there, wanting to crush her beneath me, needing the illusion of control and power over this woman who could extinguish my life—or worse, my will to live.
I kissed her until she was panting with need, then drew back and looked at her face. She stared up into my eyes for a long, silent moment. Then her gaze traveled to my jaw and down my neck. Her fingertip followed the same path, all the way to my chest. She placed her nails in a circle around my heart, as if to rip it out.
I pressed my chest against her hand. “Go ahead,” I whispered. “Make it quick, if it’s easier for you.”
“It’s not.” Her eyes met mine. “I would make it slow. I would hold you.”
I waited, afraid to move or even breathe while she decided.
Finally she looked past my shoulder, up at the clock. “It’ll be Wednesday in an hour.”
Cold fear washed over me. “You want to do this tonight? I was going to see my family tomorrow.”
“Leave them a note. I’ll change my mind with half a chance.” She stroked my cheek with the back of her fingers. “Why is Wednesday so important?”
“It’s suicide, of course it’s stupid. Picking a special date is par for the course. Is it your birthday?”
I shook my head.
“What’s her name?”
“Not a ‘her.'” I rolled off of Regina to lie beside her, my head propped on my hand. “A year ago tomorrow, my favorite singer, my idol, shot himself.” I risked a glance at her face. “And you think you’re pathetic. I’ve got the Pathetic Olympics gold medal.”
She didn’t laugh at me or roll her eyes. “I remember when John Lennon died,” she said. “They handed me the announcement just as I was going on the air. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach—I could barely get through it without barfing.” She drew her finger over the top button of my shirt. “Everything seemed dimmer after that. Like a world that couldn’t hold him wasn’t worth saving.”
“So you get it.”
I leaned forward and kissed her, softly this time. I wondered, for far too few seconds, why she’d had a change of heart, why suddenly she wanted to help me die.
Did I mention I was an idiot?
* * *
Please know this isn’t your fault and that you couldn’t have stopped me. God knows you’ve tried. I just can’t live with this pain anymore.
Don’t feel sad for me. I’m happier at this moment than I can ever remember, because that thick, gray future is gone. The stone in my gut is gone. I’m free.
I love you very much. I’m sorry.
I crumpled the note into a tight ball and tossed it into the trash, completing a perfect backboard shot off the kitchen cabinet.
“It’s midnight.” Regina appeared in my bedroom doorway, her face an impassive mask. “Let’s get started.”
“Do me a favor.” I gestured to the scattered papers near the trash can. “After I’m gone, find the least lame version of my note, leave it out, and burn the rest.”
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “You’re Catholic, right? Wouldn’t it be easier on your family if they thought you’d been murdered?”
She had a point. “I don’t want the police to come after you.”
“They won’t be looking for a vampire. They’ll be looking for a thief who wanted a DJ’s expensive home stereo.” She reached into her boot and pulled out a switchblade. “A thief who cut a sleeping DJ’s throat.”
I stared at her, trying not to shudder.
She turned on her heel. “Come to bed,” she said, brusque and businesslike.
Paralyzed with fear, I watched her retreat into the bedroom. The U2 CD abruptly cut off.
After a few moments, she called out, “Do you want to die or not?”
I realized what was going on. She was trying to scare me into surviving. Either that, or she was as terrified as I was.
I went to join her.
The room was lit with every candle I owned—three, to be exact. The bed had been neatly made, with the covers up over the pillows. Regina tapped a button on my CD player, and the air swelled with the opening notes of The Cure’s Disintegration album.
“Wow.” I peeled off my shirt and tossed it in the usual corner. “I haven’t listened to that in years.”
“It’s a bit after my time, but it always called to me.” Her voice was softer now. “Anyway, it seemed appropriate.” She laid the knife on the nightstand and picked up my unopened bottle of scotch. “The police will wonder why you didn’t wake up or struggle, unless you’ve got this in your blood.”
Standing next to the bed, we took turns chugging the scotch like it was water. It burned my lips and throat, and in less than a minute my head was swimming.
She put the cap on the empty bottle and set it carefully on the nightstand. “Would it be weird if I asked for a last dance?”
I took her in my arms. We didn’t speak, just swayed like two kids at the prom. My hands were turning cold, as if the blood were already leaving, but other than that, I wasn’t afraid.
I was ready.
“Lie down,” she whispered at the end of the song. “It’s time.”
I slid off my jeans and let them fall by the bedside. When she lifted the covers, I reclined on my back with my head on the pillow, like any other night.
Suddenly the room pitched, and I started to shake and sweat all over. Hunger screamed through my belly, announcing the first familiar stages of a diabetic coma. If Regina didn’t kill me, the half bottle of scotch on an empty stomach would. Insurance.
I thought of Kurt Cobain, who’d shot enough heroin to kill a rhino just moments before pulling the trigger. Maybe he was afraid he’d lose his nerve. Or maybe he just wanted to spend his last few moments in the same place he’d spent the last few years. A warm safe place.
Regina lay on top of me and pulled the blankets to cover us both. The candlelight played over her pale face, turning her eyes into liquid shadows.
“Do you love me?” she whispered.
“Do you trust me?”
A fraction of a second, then, “Yes.”
She leaned in. “Then kiss me goodbye.”
I kissed her, forever, falling into her warmth and strength. I kissed her lips, her cheeks, her eyes. I tasted her tears, salty as blood.
We were still kissing when the blade pressed against my throat. Cold, until it moved, and then my skin was soaking hot. I hadn’t even felt the cut.
She moaned and pressed her mouth to my neck. I clutched her back with numb fingers, focusing on the thrumming bass guitar. Regina moved against me, kneading my shoulders like a cat as our pulses thudded together in a languid rhythm. My vision faded, so that when she drew back, her face was nothing but a pale, indistinct orb.
“That’s all I can drink. But I’ll stay until the end, I swear.”
“How long?” I managed to croak.
“I don’t know.” She cradled me in her arms. “I’ve never done this before.”
We lay together as my life seeped away. I felt myself move down a long, dark tunnel, and expected to see a light around the next corner, or the next. Maybe the next?
But there was nothing but darkness. No one greeted me, no God or St. Peter or Grandmom. It felt like I’d taken a wrong turn. A very wrong turn.
And yet, when that sudden warmth pressed against my mouth, hot liquid on my lips, I found the strength to resist.
“Shane, please.” Regina’s voice was garbled with tears. “I can’t lose you.”
I forced my mouth shut and tried to move faster down that tunnel. Light or no light, I did not want to go back, as a human or a vampire or anything that could feel pain.
“Then let me kiss you,” she said. “One more time. Please.”
I felt her breath against my lips. I trusted her.
A whiff of cold steel, and then she kissed me. Blood flowed into my mouth. Mine, hers, mingled in blinding white-hot magic.
My body screamed for the life my soul despised. Rage surged through me as my instinct to live battled my will to die.
She moaned, and her voice yanked me back through the tunnel to the world of my bed. I sucked greedily on her tongue, which she must have sliced with the knife.
Regina pulled her mouth from mine. “It’s too slow. I’ll make another cut.”
She drew a harsh breath through her teeth, then pushed my head down. I felt the curve of her breast against my lips, and then the blood. I drank.
“Yes.” She mewled, mixing sounds of ecstasy and agony. “Come back to me.”
My left hand locked on her hip while the right one clawed at the wound on her chest to quicken the flow.
As I swallowed, liquid flames coursed through my body, chasing out the cold numbness of death. Every inch of my skin felt the air and sweat and sheets against it. The music itself seemed to stretch its soft, supple fingers over my flesh.
The fire began to recede, and with it my hunger. I felt my heart beat slow and steady, and I could almost catch my breath again, enough to—
My muscles seemed to twist around my bones, dragging my tendons and ligaments with them. My throat tightened around a skull-popping scream.
Regina curled her arms around me. “I know it hurts. It’ll be over soon. Promise.”
It was like the worst heroin withdrawal times ten. My blood even itched, but I couldn’t move to scratch. So I just lay there and tried to turn my brain to other thoughts. And found I could remember nothing but the darkness of that tunnel. I longed for it—even if it was the road to Hell, at least it held oblivion.
Finally the aches in my bones and muscles eased, and I fell into a fitful sleep.
I dreamed of a sunny day in Idora Park. I was riding the Wild Cat roller coaster with my girlfriend Meagan, holding her hand as we inched up that first, terrifying hill.
But this was wrong, too, I realized. The amusement park had caught fire and closed a year before Meagan and I even met.
The sky darkened as we ascended, and by the time we crested the top, night had fallen. Idora Park began to burn around us.
We plummeted over the edge, the wind stealing our screams. The hill went on and on, and at the bottom lay nothing but fire. Meagan let go of my hand.
I woke, alone in my bed, to the buzz of the doorbell. I put a hand to my throat—no wound, no blood. Had I dreamed the whole thing?
“Come on up.” Regina’s voice slid from the kitchen, but I heard it as clearly as if she were standing next to me. There was the click of a button—the switch to unlock the front door of my apartment building.
Though only one candle was lit now, the room seemed brighter than before. Aching and weak, I tried to sit up. My hand sank into a cold, sticky puddle on the bed.
Regina opened the door. I shielded my eyes from the glare of the kitchen light.
“Sorry.” She came closer. “God, what a mess. I didn’t know one body could hold that much blood.”
“Who’s at the door?”
“Your first meal.” Regina sat on the edge of the bed, where I heard her light a cigarette. “I need to drink, too, after what I just did for you.”
“For me?” I snarled. “Don’t pretend it was a favor.”
“I know you’re pissed now, but one day you’ll thank me.” A knock came at the door. Regina took my hand. “Let’s go out to the living room so she doesn’t have to see the murder scene.”
“I won’t drink her.” I yanked my hand out of Regina’s grip—it was easy to do now—and lay face-down on the bed again. “I never wanted to be a vampire.”
She sighed. “I tried to kill you, I swear, but I couldn’t go through with it. You were slipping away, and it just seemed so wrong.” She stroked my hair. “I had to save you.”
“I wanted to die. If you can’t understand that, then you’ll never understand me.” My voice lowered to a growl. “Go. Away.”
The knock at the door came again, louder. Regina gave a harsh grunt. “I’m too thirsty to think straight. Just stay here.” She stomped out, leaving the door open and the room too bright for my new eyes.
I lay across the bed, the pillow crammed over my skull, feeling sorry for myself. The voices in the other room filtered through, but I couldn’t make out the words.
Then things got quiet. Slowly I took the pillow off, daring a deep breath.
The scent hit me like a baseball bat to the head. Trembling with need, I crawled off the end of the mattress and tumbled to the floor. My feet got under me somehow, and I lurched into the living room, led by my nose and mouth to the one thing I could no longer live without.
A small blond woman lay on the sofa, her arm extended to the side and her head thrown back in what looked like religious ecstasy. Regina knelt on the floor beside her, drinking from her wrist.
The woman’s eyes opened to meet mine. She smiled like an angel.
Regina turned and held out her hand to me. “Shane, please,” she whispered. “Live.”
I was lost.
* * *
An hour before sunrise, I hung the blackout curtains over my bedroom window, using a staple gun to seal them against the wall. Behind me, Regina changed the bedsheets. My hands had stopped shaking, and I felt almost normal. But I knew it was temporary. Blood was just my new fix.
The staple gun made a hollow thunk, telling me it was empty. I turned to leave the room. On my way out, I caught sight of the bare mattress.
It held no stain where I had laid my head. Among the pile of dirty blue sheets lay a pair of thick brown towels, soaked in blood.
I went to the kitchen for new staples, my mind turning over these odd housekeeping details. As I opened the drawer, their meaning clicked into place.
She’d hidden the towels under the sheets, to keep the mattress clean, so I wouldn’t have to replace it. Thinking ahead for me, knowing I would live.
Not something a homicidal burglar would do.
The stapler slipped out of my hand and clattered to the floor. To keep from screaming, I gripped the edge of the kitchen counter, so hard it cracked.
Regina had planned all along to bring me back as a vampire. It wasn’t a spontaneous spasm of sympathy, like she claimed. She’d lied.
Fury filled me so fast, I wanted to run. It was either that or kill her.
As I turned for the door, I saw the living room window. The world beyond the glass had changed from black to royal blue. Dawn was coming.
Fear quickened my pulse. I felt a revulsion deep in my gut at the thought of sunlight. It suddenly seemed as wrong and dangerous as blood-drinking would seem to a human.
I was trapped, in this body, in this new life.
I picked up the stapler and filled it, then returned to my room and quickly finished the curtain-hanging, blocking every inch of the edge where sunlight could seep through.
“The first few days are hard.” Regina tucked the clean fitted sheet over the last corner of the bed. “You need to sleep and drink a lot. I’ll get you some bank blood tonight. In a few days we’ll figure out where to go.”
She gave me a rueful look as she shook out the flat sheet. “You have to cut ties with your family and friends. Sooner the better.”
I closed the bedroom door, my throat too tight to speak.
“What?” she said. “You were happy to leave them all behind forever. Now you get to do it and go on living.”
“Regina,” I said quietly. “I didn’t want to go on living. You knew that.”
“Last night you didn’t. But things are better now.” She laid down the sheet, then came to me and touched my bare chest. “Your heart still beats. You still breathe. And you’ll never, ever grow old.” She slid her hand down to the front of my boxers. “And best of all, we can finally—”
“No.” I took her hand off of me and let go. “Never touch me again.”
Her brows pinched together, and her lips trembled. “Shane, I’m sorry.”
“Enough lies.” I went to my dresser on the other side of the room and opened the top drawer. “You’re not sorry, and you never will be.”
I exchanged the staple gun for the real thing, a Smith & Wesson .38 Special. I swung out the cylinder and checked the chambers. “What would happen if I did it now?”
She shrugged, a little too quickly. “It would feel like you’d blown a hole in your head, but you wouldn’t die.” She picked up one of the pillows from the floor. “At your age it would take months to heal. Long, painful months.”
She tucked the pillow under her chin while she drew the clean pillowcase over the other end. Her eyes flicked up to watch the gun.
“I don’t believe you.” I clicked the cylinder back into place. “Even a vampire must need a brain to function. At the very least, I’d be a vegetable.”
Regina gave a nervous laugh. “A vampire vegetable. Sounds like a spinoff of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Did you ever see that movie?”
I drew back the hammer with a loud click. She dropped the pillow.
I put the barrel in my mouth and pulled the trigger.
“No!” Her shriek covered the click of the empty chamber. She leaped across the bed and tackled me. The back of my head struck the dresser, in a blow that would’ve killed a human.
Regina wrestled me to the floor, rolling on top of my body. “You bastard!” She punched me in the jaw. “How could you do that to me?” She reached for the gun, still in my grip.
In one swift move, I shoved the barrel into her chest and recocked the hammer. She froze.
My voice didn’t shake. “Don’t ever. Hit me. Again.”
Her hands went up slowly, fingers spread. “Okay.”
“You never planned to kill me. You set me up.”
Her gaze wavered, shooting to the side. “Maybe. But it was for your own good.”
“I was a man, not a child.”
“And I wanted to die.”
“Did you?” Her gaze cut through me. “If you were so in love with death, then how come you were happy to live if I’d be your girlfriend?”
The familiar heat of shame swept over my face. “Shut up.”
“You’re not pissed because I didn’t kill you. You’re pissed that I made you want to live. You got what you wanted—a life with me. So don’t pull that ‘noble suicide’ bullshit. I’ll always know you’re a fraud.”
My other hand formed a fist, and I wanted so bad to smash in her face. But even in that moment of supreme rage, I couldn’t hit a girl.
“Get off me,” I said in a low, steady voice. “Now.”
She looked down at the gun. “It’s not loaded at all, is it?”
“What do you think? Are brand-new vampires crazy enough to play Russian Roulette?” With both hands, I raised the weapon to point at her forehead. “Am I crazy enough?”
Every emotion flickered through her eyes in the next few moments—fear, sadness, guilt, anger. Then she slowly stood and backed away, to the other side of the bed.
I uncocked the revolver, then got up, noticing the new fluidity of my muscles and motions. I shoved the weapon back into the drawer.
As I closed it, the adrenaline left me, replaced by a sudden fatigue. I had to sleep, and I had to sleep here, imprisoned by the sun. With her.
A click came from the CD player, and Disintegration began again, for the seventh time. Fucking thing had been on repeat since before I died. I punched the eject button.
Regina said, “We could listen to—”
“No.” I crumpled the Cure CD in my hands. The jagged edges sliced my palms, but I felt no pain. “If I’m going to wallow, it’ll be with my own music.”
I pulled out Nirvana’s In Utero, smearing blood all over the plastic CD case. On a whim, I hit the Shuffle button before thumbing Play.
Kurt Cobain cleared his throat before beginning the first verse of “Pennyroyal Tea.” When the wall of sound slammed forth on the chorus, I closed my eyes and let the music coat the inside of my mind like a balm.
Without looking at Regina, I went to the bed and slipped under the covers, lying on the place where I had once died.
“Go ahead and hate me,” she said.
“I did this because I love you.”
I believed her. She’d fallen in love the way someone falls in love with a pound puppy. She’d felt sorry for me, thought if she brought me home I would lick her face and give her my heart in gratitude. She had no idea—yet—what kind of pet I would make.
Regina crawled under the sheets. “I’ll always love you, Shane. I’ll never leave you.”
I lay there, too tired to sleep, and watched ten, twenty, thirty minutes tick by on the digital alarm clock. Numbers in red as bright as blood. Her words echoed in my mind, bouncing around like the CD changer from track to track.
My world had shrunk to nothing but this woman. I asked myself if, deep down, I’d known (or even hoped) she would make me a vampire.
To this day, I’m still not sure. But the silence at the end of the CD made me think of that dark tunnel with no light. What had she rescued me from? I wondered. When I met my final death, months or years from now, would the light be waiting then? Had she damned me or saved me?
The red numbers flicked to 7:04. Sunrise.
I turned over and drew what was left of my world into my arms. She sighed against me, warm as life, and told me we could start again.
Copyright © March 2009 Jeri Smith-Ready