Anthony was nine years old the first time he saw the vampire. She was clinging to one of the top branches of the tree outside his window—that was what got his attention in the first place, since seeing a girl in a long black dress suddenly appear in the tree was a lot more interesting than his comic book. She scrambled for a better grip every time the wind shook the branches, shooting terrified glances at the ground.
Fascinated, Anthony moved to the window, pushed it open, and leaned out onto the windowsill. “Are you going to fall?” he asked, not bothering to hide his curiosity.
“I hope not,” said the vampire. Her eyes were wide and worried behind her heavy glasses. She made a small shrieking noise as the tree shook again, and clung more tightly to her branch.
“How did you get up there?”
“I don’t know!” Anthony noted with interest that he could see her fangs when she spoke. They were small, sharp, and very white. Almost as an afterthought, she added, “Please don’t scream.”
“Why would I want to do that?” asked Anthony.
“People usually do when they see vampires.”
“You are a vampire,” he said, pleased to have his guess confirmed. She didn’t look like the vampires in the movies: she was short and scrawny instead of elegant and thin, and her dishwater blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail rather than flowing mysteriously around her face and shoulders. He’d never seen a vampire with freckles before, either. She looked a lot like his know-it-all sister, who was fifteen and hated him with the casual ease of a teenage girl—only his sister didn’t wear grimy tennis shoes with black evening gowns that looked like something from the Salvation Army downtown.
Or have fangs.
“I really am a vampire,” she agreed. Her glasses slid down her nose, and she let go of the tree with one hand long enough to shove them back into place.
“If you fall, will you turn into a bat and fly away?” Anthony leaned out of the window until only his toes were on the bedroom floor, ignoring the queasy look on the vampire’s face. It was a long way from his third-floor bedroom to the ground, and she knew it, even if he didn’t. “I want to watch.”
“I hope not,” she said fervently. “I don’t know whether I could turn back into me again after.”
“Oh.” He settled back to the soles of his feet.
The vampire frowned. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”
“No. You’re just a vampire. That’s not scary.” He shrugged, secure in his absolute knowledge of the ways of the undead. “Everyone knows that vampires can’t get you unless you’re dumb enough to let them.”
“Oh,” she said, bemused. “I guess ‘everyone’ never told me that.”
“It’s okay. You know now.” He smiled at her. After a hesitant pause she smiled back, showing her sharp white fangs.
“I guess I do.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“Not really. I haven’t been cold since I became a vampire. Or maybe I’m cold all the time now, so I’ve stopped noticing.”
“Oh.” She looked so bewildered hanging there—and so unlike his bossy sister—that he realized he liked her, and pushed the window further open. “My name’s Anthony. Do you want to come in? It’s cold outside, even if you don’t feel it.”
The vampire was so startled she nearly fell out of the tree, and Anthony watched in fascination as she scrambled to catch herself. He sighed, disappointed, when she got her balance back without falling. “You’re inviting me in?” she squeaked.
“Yes,” he said. “I want to talk to you more, but I’m supposed to be in bed. If you come in, I can talk and be in bed at the same time.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be asleep?” Anthony waved a hand to indicate how little he cared about sleep; he’d been told to be in bed, not dreaming. The vampire frowned. “Aren’t you afraid I’ll hurt you?”
He fixed her with his best imitation of his mother’s glare, and said, “My parents say you have to be polite when you’re in other people’s homes.”
“Oh,” she said, mystified. “What does that have to do with me hurting you?”
“It means you can come in if you want to, but you can’t bite anyone.”
She looked at Anthony, and then down to the ground. It was very far away. “It’s a deal,” she said. “No biting. Can you move just a little bit to the side?”
He did as she asked, and the vampire flew through the window with a great flapping sound that was something like leather wings and something like dried leaves rustling in the wind. She stepped on her dress and stumbled as she landed, but Anthony didn’t care; he was too busy staring, amazed.
“Can you teach me how to do that?”
“I don’t think so,” said the vampire. Now that she was inside, she wasn’t sure what to do next. She knew how to hunt. She didn’t know how to deal with little boys who weren’t afraid of her. “I think you have to be a vampire before you can do that.”
“Oh,” said Anthony, disappointed. Then he asked, “If you can fly, why didn’t you fly out of the tree?”
She scuffed the toe of one battered sneaker against the floor. “I didn’t think of it. I’ve only been a vampire since the start of the summer, and I’m not very good at it yet.”
“That’s okay.” Anthony smiled. “It took me nine whole years to get to be this good at being a boy.”
After a moment, she smiled back. That was the beginning. For the rest of the summer, Anthony and the vampire were the best of friends. She came to his window every night. He would invite her in, and they would talk until it was almost dawn. He spent that summer in a daze, dreaming through the afternoons and laughing through the nights. She told him what it was like to drink blood and ride the wind and know she’d never see the sun again. He told her what it was like to watch cartoons and do chores and run after grasshoppers and laugh at nothing at all. She learned what it was to be a boy, just a little, and he learned what it was to be a vampire.
Just a little.
But she never told him her name, or why she’d been in the tree outside his window, and he never invited her in without making her promise to be a good guest.
One night at the end of summer the vampire drifted up to Anthony’s window and knocked, just like always. She clung to the wind and not the branches when she visited now, and her freckles were starting to fade; she was getting much, much better at being a vampire.
Anthony opened his window and looked out at her, just like always. “Hello, vampire,” he said.
“Hello, Anthony.” She’d learned to hunt before she came, and she was getting better; she arrived earlier every night, cheeks warm and red with stolen blood. He’d learned not to ask where she fed. She never answered, and a small, sickened part of him didn’t really want to know. “Can I come in?” She was already reaching for the windowsill.
Her fingers stopped at the window’s edge like they’d hit glass. She looked at Anthony, mystified. He shook his head. “No, vampire. You can’t.”
“What? Why not?”
“My mother says there’s no such things as vampires, and only little boys believe in them.” He looked at her calmly. His decision had been made. “I’ll be ten years old next month. That’s not a little boy anymore, and that means I can’t believe in you.”
“Anthony, you know I’m real!”
“I know. But that doesn’t mean I have to believe in you.”
“Oh, Anthony . . .” She held out her hands, still hovering. He could have reached out and taken them, if he’d wanted to. “Come with me—we’ll learn how to be vampires together. Please. You can be a little boy forever, and I’ll be—”
“No matter what I do, you’ll be a vampire forever. Won’t you?”
She paused. “Yes.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I want to grow up. I don’t want to be a little boy forever. I may go with you someday, vampire, but I won’t go with you tonight.”
“I see.” She dropped her hands, trying to look brave. “I’ll miss you, Anthony.”
“I’ll miss you too, vampire.”
They stayed that way for a while, a little boy standing on one side of a window and watching the pale girl in the too-tight dress and smudged glasses who hovered in the air outside. Finally, sadly, he said, “You have to go away now.”
“For a long time.”
The vampire sighed. “Good bye, Anthony.”
“Good bye, vampire.”
And he closed the window.
• • • •
It was five years before Anthony saw his vampire again.
It was late Friday night, and he was leaving the movie theater with a group of friends, his new girlfriend hanging off his arm. He didn’t love her—he wasn’t even sure he liked her very much—but she was pretty and popular, and all the other guys had girlfriends. That meant he needed to have one too. He’d learned a lot since the summer night when he closed the window on his vampire and decided to grow up. You did what everyone else did, you fit in, and you got by. Standing out just made you a target.
The vampire stood on the sidewalk just outside the light that spilled out of the lobby, watching people scatter into the bitter autumn night. Anthony didn’t recognize her at first. Her camouflage had improved in the last five years—the black dress was gone, replaced by jeans and a tight red blouse under a coat he knew she didn’t need. She was still thin, and wore contact lenses; her hair was still an ordinary shade of blonde, barely styled, but she didn’t look lost anymore. She watched the crowd like a hunter.
She’s learning to be a vampire, he thought, and was surprised to find that he was pleased.
He let go of his surprised girlfriend’s arm, murmuring excuses, and cut through the crowd to stop in front of the quiet figure on the sidewalk. “Hello, vampire.”
“Hello, Anthony.” There was no surprise in her voice. He supposed she’d already known he was there; it was hard to sneak up on a vampire. “Do you believe in me tonight?”
“I guess so.” He’d almost convinced himself that the long summer of nocturnal visits never happened; if she’d come to his window, he would’ve called her a dream and told her to go away. Here, in the reflected light of the lobby, she was as real as he was. He might forget her in the morning, but here and now, he believed again.
“Good. It’s hard to talk to you when you won’t believe in me.” She smiled, showing a brief flash of fangs. He didn’t smile back. “You’ve grown.”
He’d changed as much as she had, but in different ways. His hair had darkened from sandy blond to medium brown, and his freckles had faded, replaced by a crop of early pimples. While she’d learned to move with a hunter’s casual grace, he stood like he didn’t know his own skin anymore. He was leaving childhood behind, and she was sorry to see it go.
“You sound like one of my old aunts,” he said.
She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know what else to say. I know how to talk to you as a kid. I don’t know you know.”
“No one does.” Then he asked, because he felt he should, “How are you?”
“Forever,” she said, drawing the word out in a way neither would have understood five years before. He reddened and looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “Isn’t that what I offered you?”
“Maybe,” he said. The power in their relationship had shifted somehow, and he didn’t know how to move it back to where it belonged. Suddenly, she was the one in charge, not him, and he didn’t like it. “Have you been okay?”
“I’ve learned a lot of things about being a vampire since you stopped believing in me. I’ve forgotten a lot of things about being a girl. Maybe more than I meant to. So yes, I’ve been okay.”
“Good.” He wasn’t listening. The vampire sighed.
“What have you learned?” she asked. “You left me to be a man. Have you learned how yet?”
Anthony paused, thinking. About the rules, the classes, the unspoken things everyone did because everyone did them and no one wanted to be different. About the lies and tiny cruelties that slipped into his life when he closed the window on his vampire, the careless changes to the way things were that happened when no one was looking. That was his life, and it was the life he’d chosen when he refused to step out of his bedroom window into a vampire’s arms. He wasn’t a child anymore.
“I’ve learned how to be a real boy,” he said.
“Are you ready to come with me?”
He frowned and looked back towards the friends he’d left behind, in the light. They were making impatient “let’s go” gestures, and his pretty girlfriend—the one he didn’t even like—was glaring at him. That was his life, waiting for him; maybe it wasn’t much of a life, but it was his, and it didn’t belong to anyone else. He had plans to go out with his friends the next day. He’d promised to take his pretty girlfriend to the Homecoming dance.
Then he turned, and looked at the vampire. She’d changed on the surface, but underneath she was still the girl who came to his window, and that was who she’d be forever. She didn’t remind him of his sister anymore: Emily was twenty now, and was away at college, while his vampire was always going to be a teenager a little more than fifteen. She was his age now, and he could see his pretty girlfriend in her face, see the class outcasts and the beauty queens—all the pieces of his own cruel adolescence.
For the first time, he really wondered who she’d been before she became his vampire . . . and he wondered whether it had been her choice to be that girl forever. “No, vampire,” he said. “I’m not.”
“What else do you have to learn? I miss you. I’m lonely. Come with me.”
“I’m not ready for forever. I still have to learn how to be a man.”
“You need to learn how to be a vampire. I can teach you.”
“You’re not done learning. How can you teach me if you’re not done learning?”
“So we’ll learn together. Please, Anthony. Come with me.”
“I’m always going to be waiting for you. Even if you won’t go with me tonight, I’m still going to be watching you, and waiting.” She swallowed, and he saw the old uncertainty shining in her eyes. Knowing that he’d put that anxiety into her face excited him in a way he couldn’t define. The power was back where it belonged. She was the vampire, but he was in control. “I promise I’ll wait for you. Forever.”
“Are you sure you won’t come? You’re right, I’m not done learning; I have so much left to learn about being a vampire—we could learn so much of it together—”
“Forever is a long time.” He shrugged. “I’m not ready.” The pain in her eyes deepened, and he smiled.
“All right,” she said, and looked away. He’d hurt something that had forever stretching in front of it. That meant something he had done—something he had caused—would be forever.
It felt good. “Go away now, vampire. Come back later. But not tonight.”
“If that’s what you want. Good night, Anthony.”
And he walked away, leaving her to stare after him with hungry, hungry forever eyes. She could have taken him if she’d wanted to, but he knew she wouldn’t. She’d made him a promise. She would wait.
“Who was that?” asked his girlfriend, sliding her arm through his. Anthony realized without any real surprise that he was going to break up with her soon—maybe even before the dance—and that he didn’t really care. He would learn the things he needed to learn, and then he would go with his vampire, and they would have forever. He’d have forever to figure out why he liked to see that look in her eyes.
“Just someone I used to know,” he said.
“She’s pretty,” said one of his friends. “Did you used to go out with her?”
“No. She used to come around a lot when I was a kid.” Inwardly, he was staring. His vampire, pretty? He’d never thought of her that way. She was someone that came to his window and told him stories. She was someone grownups weren’t allowed to believe in, someone who always kept her promises.
She was just someone who would wait for him forever, if she had to. But pretty? That hadn’t ever mattered, and maybe it still didn’t. After all, pretty or not, she was his. He’d found her first, and she was his, forever. He bought her with a summer of stories, and with promises. She’d wait for him until the end of time, if he wanted her to.
“I don’t like her,” his girlfriend sniffed. “She was strange.”
“She’s always been strange,” said Anthony, who was learning how to be a man. He left his arm linked with his girlfriend’s, and they walked away into the night.
Behind them on the sidewalk, the vampire waited.
• • • •
Twelve years passed. Not slow or fast; they passed like years do, in the space between the days, and fall came again to find Anthony in the process of leaving his wife. He was only twenty-seven: too young, in his mother’s opinion, to have married at all. Maybe he’d loved her; maybe that was why he’d tumbled out of college and into marriage without slowing down. Now, as he packed the life he’d shared with her into boxes and prepared to close that door forever, he couldn’t remember whether he’d loved her or not, or whether it had mattered.
His wife ran out of the house when he told her he was leaving, crying as she got into her car and drove away. The front door was open, letting a chilly wind blow into the house. He looked at it, shook his head and kept packing. Let the wind blow if it wanted to. He could stand a little cold.
The next time he looked up, his vampire was standing there, leaning against the doorframe, watching him. He straightened, trying to fight the frantic pounding of his heart. Facts that were so clear to him when he was a child—vampires can only hurt you if you let them—seemed very far away. The fact that he’d seen her look at him like she was the one who needed to be afraid was very far away as well. He was just a man faced with something he didn’t understand anymore, and he stared, unsure of what to say.
“Hello, Anthony,” she said.
He swallowed, and fell back upon the familiar. “Hello, vampire.”
She was still a teenager, but she wasn’t lost anymore. Her jeans were tight, her shirt was thin, and her hair was loose and sleek and streaked with henna red. Careful touches of lipstick, rouge, and eye shadow made her look almost alive, but still dangerously lovely, like something that might kiss before it killed. In a way, that was exactly what she’d become.
She pulled a hand out of her pocket, indicating the boxes. Her nails were painted crimson, and filed sharp. “Moving?”
“So it didn’t work out with Diane?”
Anthony froze. “How do you know my wife’s name?”
“I’ve never been very far away from you,” the vampire said. “I’ve seen her, a time or two. She’s pretty, but not your type, I think. Too . . . superficial.”
“Go away,” he said, and turned his back on her.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“Why not?” There was a hint of the old uncertainty in her voice, and he turned towards it, finally recognizing her—and more importantly, finally recognizing the way to deal with her. Somehow, the uncertainty, the incomprehension . . . it reminded him of Diane, of what first attracted him to the woman that would be his wife.
His vampire was holding out both hands, pleading with him. “Please, Anthony. I’m lonely. I miss you. You’re the only friend I’ve had in so long . . . come with me. Let me in, and come with me.”
“I’m not ready yet.”
“What are you waiting for? You’ve learned how to be a man. Like your father. Like you wanted. You should come now. Time isn’t getting any longer, Anthony.” She dropped her hands, expression still pleading. “You’ve lived longer than I did. How much more is left for you to learn? Come with me.”
“But you can wait forever. Can’t you?” He folded his arms, watching her, and tried to figure out why he liked her so much better this way—why he only fully understood her when she was hurting. “What’s a few more years?”
“It’s lonely without you. And the things you’re learning, you’re learning without me, I don’t understand them . . .” He could see her slipping back in time second by second, running back towards the frightened, newly-dead girl in the tree outside his window. She was becoming his vampire again.
“You don’t have to understand them. It’s my life, it’s always been my life, and I’m not going with you until I’m ready. You need to wait. I’ll go with you, but not tonight.”
His vampire let her hands fall to her sides, looking at him bleakly. “What am I supposed to do without you, Anthony?”
“Wait for me. Hunt. Learn to be a better vampire. I’ll need you to teach me everything you’ve learned, someday.”
“A while longer.”
They stood there looking at each other, separated by the gulf the vampire was unable to close and he was so unwilling to let go of: without his permission, she couldn’t enter the room. She’d never been able to act without his permission.
Finally, the vampire shook her head and said, “I’ll be back, Anthony. I’ll be back to take you with me.” She turned and stepped off the porch, and he heard the sudden flap of leathery wings as she was gone. He rushed to the door, looking upwards, and saw a bat gliding away into the midnight sky.
Anthony shook his head, closed the door, and went back to packing.
• • • •
The death of Anthony’s mother didn’t come as a surprise. Her health had been failing for over a year, and with Emily married, with two children of her own, everyone agreed that Anthony made the most sense as a caretaker. He’d returned to his old room, and watched, helplessly, as his mother slipped away. Her memory went quickly, and it wasn’t long before Anthony found their roles reversed—now he was the parent, and she was the child.
Emily came around less and less as their mother faded; she attended the funeral with her children in tow, and didn’t meet his eyes. There was no reconciliation. Neither of them wanted it.
That night, he went into his room, opened the window, and leaned out on the sill. “Hello, vampire,” he said.
“Hello, Anthony,” said the vampire, without surprise. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
Anthony shrugged. “She was old. It was time.” She’d barely struggled when he pressed the pillow down over her face. No one asked any awkward questions about her death. That was good. He’d never quite worked out what he would say. It wouldn’t have been as interesting that way.
“That’s one less thing to hold you here.”
“Well?” The question didn’t need to be anything more than that; they both knew what it really meant. Was he ready? Was it time for him to go away with her, and leave the world of men, and boys, and mothers, behind?
“No, vampire. I’m not ready yet.”
“I said I’d wait, Anthony. I said I’d wait forever. But take care; forever is very rarely as long as you might think.” The vampire looked at him with something close to pity in her eyes. Anthony frowned. He didn’t like to think that she could look at him that way. “Call for me. I’m still waiting.”
But he was speaking to an empty oak tree, and to the night.
Anthony stood there for a long time, silent, before he closed the window and turned away. There was much to be done, now that the house was finally his, and time, as the vampire warned, was always short.
• • • •
Anthony’s second marriage took place at night, under the oak tree, its branches strung with lanterns. Elizabeth’s family thought it was strange, but Elizabeth herself was enchanted by the romance of it all. He kissed her in full sight of his bedroom window, waiting all the while.
His vampire didn’t come.
Elizabeth’s death was judged a freak accident. She was buried next to Anthony’s mother, so that someday, they could be together again. He didn’t tell her family that he was never intending to die. What would have been the point? They would have thought that he was crazy; they might have started asking questions. Questions were something Anthony could do without . . . and he still had so much left to learn.
He waited next to the grave of his second wife every night for a month, waiting for his vampire to come so that he could refuse her. He needed to refuse her. He needed to see the stricken hurt come back into her eyes, the way it had come into Elizabeth’s on the night he—
But his vampire didn’t come. His vampire still didn’t come, and Anthony, alone in the graveyard, began to wonder if something had gone wrong.
• • • •
In the end, it was his heart that gave out on him. He’d been on his way home from the store—seventy-five years old, and still proudly independent, if only because he couldn’t imagine finding a place to hide the bodies if he moved into a senior center—when a sudden, stabbing pain in his chest caused him to stagger, stop, and fall.
He woke up in a sterile white room, with wires and tubes attached to his face and arms, feeling as if all life had been sucked out of him. His vampire was standing at the foot of the bed, silent as the grave. He had grown old since they first met, but she, he saw, had grown timeless. Moonlight had bleached her hair to something pale as stars, driven the freckles from her cheeks, called the ages to her eyes.
She was beautiful and she was terrible, and for the first time, he looked at her and was afraid.
“I’m ready now, vampire,” he said. His voice shook. Shame, and anger, chased away his fear. How dare she see him like this, weak and wounded? She should have come sooner. She should have known he needed her.
The vampire looked at him, and said nothing.
“Well?” he demanded. “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry, Anthony,” she said. Her voice was firm, and filled with regret. “I can’t take you with me.”
“What do you mean, you can’t take me with you? I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. You have to. You promised.”
“I promised I would teach you how to be a vampire,” she said quietly. “I can’t teach you something that you already learned.”
Alone in his room, Anthony sat at the end of his life, and wept.