Horror & Dark Fantasy

Madame Howell's Book of Very Bad Things: A Baker's Dozen of Frightful Fairy Tales

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Fiction

See You on a Dark Night

W— went to the vampire club a couple of nights after E—’s death. It was on M— Street, in an oddly-shaped bar. When W— gazed at it from the outside, when he stared through the dirty windows and advertisements, the old stools and tables looked like the rotten teeth in a giant’s mouth.

The bar was struggling. W— hadn’t seen more than two or three people in it for months. In an attempt to bring people in, the owner had begun to organise events. He’d put flyers around the neighbourhood advertising trivia nights, happy hours, ladies nights, and more. The flyer that appeared outside W—’s brownstone was for the vampire club. When W— saw it, he tore it off the pole and took it home to show E—. The sick man lay in his bed, a collection of thin lines beneath a heavy blanket. He would die early in the morning, but when W— sat down next to him that night and showed him the flyer, E— laughed. It was a shallow, wheezy laugh. He told W— he should go, and W— laughed as well.

W— didn’t plan on going. On the night E— died, W— was two hundred and thirteen years of age. He had seen a lot of people die. None of those deaths were as exhausting as E—’s.

W— had been his carer for just over a decade, but it was only in the last three years that he had been forced to change the bedclothes, help him to the bathroom, and sit him in the shower and wash him. He spent every night of those three years in a chair beside E— watching old TV shows that he ordered for the sick man. In the nights that followed E—’s death, W— found himself walking to E—’s bedroom at set times, to continue the routine the two had given birth to.

Before W— arrived at the bar, before he shook the hand of the man who owned it, he’d tried to break the routine by reading. The book was one that he’d owned for years. He thought highly of the author. But he couldn’t focus. The words were just words. W— could find no joy in them. They were dull. Everything was dull. He thought he should be watching the last handful of episodes of the show he and E— had been watching, even though he disliked it. But then, with nothing to prompt the thought, nothing whatsoever, W— remembered the vampire club. He remembered what E— said. Before he had time to stop himself, he was standing outside in the gently falling snow. Then he was inside, shaking the owner’s hand.

There were no vampires. W— knew that immediately. There were only ten people in the bar. Most of them were students. He felt out of place, but didn’t look it, fortunately. The bar’s owner was a fleshy white man with a beard in search of his chest hair. He had a t-shirt advertising a vampire film released a few years ago. W— hadn’t liked the film, but he was grateful that the man wasn’t wearing fake teeth, or a robe, or a cloak, or sitting on a casket. Of course, all of that was exactly why E— said he should go. It was the cheap horror of the situation that had made E— laugh. Still, the owner had a fake accent he thought sounded vampiric. He used it when he introduced the film of the night. The vampire club, it turned out, was not a club for people who wanted to be vampires, but a film club.

W— had seen the film they ran that night, but stayed anyhow. The movie played on a portable screen in the back of the bar and was better than he remembered. At one stage, a vampire named P— talked about how he was nearly human because he had learned to control his lust for blood. He had learned to sleep. He ate food and drank wine. He used the toilet. He had a job. The dedication to humanity struck a chord with W—. He saw a lot of E— in the character on the screen. He was, personally, nothing like the vampire P—. W— had no desire to be nearly human. But he heard again all the things E— said about responsibility, about the world, and W—’s memories of the dead man carried him through the film.

After it finished, he went up to the bar. There was a big mirror on the back wall, but bottles hid most of it, and he considered himself pretty safe from anything but the most determined stare. Even if he hadn’t been, he supposed he would’ve ordered a beer in memory of E— anyhow.

A girl came up next to him while it was poured. She had brown skin. She had short hair that was dyed blue and green. She was slim and pretty and she was young. W— was surprised by the last thought. After all, everyone was young compared to him. The girl was very young, though. He wasn’t sure she was old enough to order the beer she did. Not in this country, anyhow.

Her name was Z—. She held out her hand after she introduced herself and he took it. “Did you like the film?” she asked.

“Yes.” He could still feel her pulse after he let go. “I’d seen it before, but I liked it more this time.”

“It was my choice.” She smiled. “No one else had heard of it in the last meeting we had. We’re going to vote on the next film tonight. You’re welcome to vote on it if you plan to come again.”

“I might. I didn’t realise it was a film club before I came here. I thought, well, I thought people would be dressed up like—”

“Wankers?”

He smiled. “That’s not a word I hear very often around here.”

“I had a boyfriend who used it.” Z— picked up her beer, motioned to a free table at the back of the bar. “I thought you had a similar accent.”

She wore skinny black jeans and a red hooded jacket that that ended above her ass. He tried not to stare.

“I’m a bit of mongrel these days, I’m afraid,” W— said after they sat. “My father and I travelled a lot when I was young. I’m not sure my accent fits anywhere anymore. He would have hated the film, by the way. He hated all vampire films.”

“I have friends like that. I guess they don’t understand the attraction. There’s just something about such an immortality that’s very romantic.”

“It sounds tiring. Have you ever noticed that in a lot of films, being a vampire means overcoming your monstrosity, or giving into it? Their life is one of constant struggle, of years and years of control until they can no longer resist the horror that is in them. It’s a strange, beautiful tragedy, I guess. Living it must wear you down.”

“I agree with you about the films, but don’t you think, if they were real, that they could grow instead? That they would find endless education and culture? That they would reach an understanding of life that far exceeds those of us mortals?”

“I’m sure some would strive towards that, but then I think about my father.” He said it before he realised what he had said. “When my father was old, he became cruel. He made no attempt to do any of the things you just mentioned.”

“I’m not a therapist, you know,” Z— said.

“I’m sorry?”

“All this talk about your father. If you’ve got issues with him, I can’t solve them here in this bar. Not with one drink, at any rate.”

He gave an embarrassed laugh. “I’m sorry. A friend of mine died not long ago. I’d been looking after him. This is the first night I’ve been out since it happened.”

“And you decided to come to a vampire club? One that you didn’t even know was going to play a film?”

“Grief is a terrible thing. It’s my only explanation.”

Z— laughed. She had a lovely laugh, the kind of laugh W— could’ve listened to all night. He was pleased when he heard it a second and third time. Because of it, he stayed and voted for the next film, the film Z— wanted, though he knew by then that he wouldn’t return to the club. Z—’s film didn’t win. Another one, one that starred a recently deceased actor, did. Z— bought W— a beer to thank him for his part, and they talked at the back of the bar until it closed. It was still snowing when they stepped out. Two of the lamp posts on the other side of the road were out and the darkness seemed to bloom around them. W— gave his number to Z—. He didn’t ask for hers. He could have. He could have made her give it to him, as well. She wouldn’t have been able to deny him. But he didn’t.

E—, he knew, would have approved.

• • • •

A week passed before W— heard from Z— again. She called and asked if he wanted to go to a gig. “Sure,” he said, though he’d never heard of the band.

A lot of people hadn’t. The tickets were cheap and the bar they played in was only half full. W— thought he recognised the drummer when she walked out on stage, but once she began to play, he wasn’t sure. Besides, what did it matter? She wasn’t like him. She had nothing he could see deep inside her, nothing that hinted at a dark majesty that linked two worlds, a dark majesty that he himself hadn’t felt for months. In the end, he decided she must have been a local. He must’ve seen her somewhere on the street, or in a store. Or maybe she just looked like someone he had seen fifty years ago.

E— had said he was constantly mistaking one person for another. It was one of the experiences of being old. He described it as a very human experience. He said that well before he moved into W—’s brownstone. When E— moved in, he was seventy-two. He used a cane but still struggled with the stairs. On the first day, W— told him that they were good for him. A week later, he had a railing put in because he didn’t want E— to fall. He’d already fallen twice in his old flat. That was why he moved in with W—.

He should never have let E— stay there for as long as he did, anyhow. He had a tiny pension. He could barely afford his medication, much less food. W— could still remember the day he stepped into E—’s flat to help him move. The other man had two suitcases of clothes and one box of items to bring with him. The rest of his life was rented, broken, or simply absent. That first night, after E— went to bed, W— opened the box he had carried over. He found an unloaded pistol. A family photograph. An old Bible. A collection of children’s books. A doll without hair. Loose ammunition made from silver. W— closed it before he reached the bottom. Even after E—’s death, he hadn’t opened it again. He simply put the box in the closet, beneath the clothes that would no longer be worn.

At the gig, Z— wore the same skinny black jeans from the week before. She wore a different t-shirt, a red t-shirt advertising a radio station he’d never heard of, and a black jacket. Half way through the set, W— found his hands resting under her jacket. More than once, his white hands touched her brown skin under the shirt. If Z— thought his touch was cold, she didn’t say anything. In fact, Z— said very little to him. She simply moved with the music and he moved with her. By the time the band finished, they’d kissed twice. She tasted of whisky and beer. He hoped that he didn’t taste stale. After they left the bar, they went to a small diner and ate. W— hadn’t eaten properly for two days for no real reason. The burger he had didn’t help. It wasn’t bloody and it had a rotten, awful taste, but he worked through it for appearances. He told himself that he’d eat properly when he got home. When Z— suggested that they go back to his place after, he hesitated briefly because of that. In the end, he thought it would be fine and said yes.

He worried that the smell of death lingered inside the brownstone. At the diner, Z— told him she was a medical student. If she brought it up, W— would tell her that E— had been bedridden in his final months. It was still winter and difficult to air everything out. Also, he hadn’t expected to bring anyone back. He’d stopped bringing people back to his home when E— started to deteriorate. If Z— smelt anything, though, she didn’t say. She just smiled at him after she stepped through the door. She took off her heavy jacket and put it on the hook. She took her lighter jacket off and laid it across one of his fraying chairs. It was in the front room, where the bookshelves were. When she approached them, he went into the kitchen and poured a glass of wine for them both.

When W— returned, he found Z— sitting on one of his couches with a book. It was a collection of stories, one of which was a very early vampire story, written before the most famous of all vampire stories. It was a curious choice. A small part of him, a hungry part of him, whispered a warning, but W— ignored it. He placed the glass of wine down beside her and asked her if she liked it.

“This book is over a hundred years old,” she said. “It’s not a first edition, but it still must have cost some.”

“I inherited most of what you see. My father—”

“Was a vampire.”

“I guess you’d say that emotionally, sure.”

“No, I meant literally. Really. He was a vampire. Just like you are.”

He sat across from her. The hungry part of him wasn’t so easy to ignore now. “I only ever went to the one vampire club once. I saw a film. Nothing in it looked like this.”

“There was a mirror behind the bar. You didn’t appear in it.”

He made a small sound. It was somewhere between a laugh and a sigh.

“I’m sorry,” Z— said.

“No, don’t be.” He wanted to grab her, but he didn’t. He kept himself calm. “I didn’t think anyone would notice. There were a lot of bottles.”

“No one did. No one but me.”

“Yet you called.”

“I did.”

“And how do you think this goes now?”

She lifted a finger to him, then herself. “This?”

“Yes, this.”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

She came to him then. He wasn’t afraid. He had no reason to be afraid. Yet, when she sank down onto his lap, his hands trembled.

“I don’t want to be hurt, either,” she murmured. “I know what it’s like to be hurt.”

Her lips were moist. He thought, in the middle of the kiss, how E—’s earlier approval would have become disapproval by now. The two had met after W— left a woman’s house, sixty-two years before. The woman wasn’t dead, but E— didn’t know that. He placed the gun to the back of W—’s after he stepped out of the door. He said, There are silver bullets here. They’ll not kill a monster like you, but they’ll hurt you. Hurt you enough for me to kill you.

E— had been so sure. His kind were always so sure. W— took the gun off him quickly. He knocked E— to the ground and stunned him with the force of his blow. He crouched beside him. You need a new job, he said. You need a real trade. But of course, the young man had a real trade. He had a teacher who had filled him with truth and lies and skills that had no practical use outside hunting monsters like him. Yet, even after all the years that followed, after all the misconceptions were fixed on both their sides, E— would never have approved of what W— and Z— were doing.

Z— approved. That was clear. Her pulse was rising. She was pushing into W—. His thoughts of E— faded beneath her body. It reached out to him, the pulse of her youth, her wellness, her fitness, her newness. It reached out to him, to his hunger, and soon he was intoxicated by it. He pulled at the buttons of her jeans and she stepped off him. She smiled, grinned really, and pulled her pants off. Her underwear came off as well. When she came back to him, he grabbed her by the waist and pushed her back into the chair, kissed her as he did. Then he kissed her legs. Then her cunt. He let his tongue lead him through her wetness. He had to leash a part of his desire, the part that had begun to mingle with his hunger. He wanted to bite her. He wanted to latch on to her thigh. He wanted to tear the skin. He wanted to drink. But he knew he couldn’t. He didn’t want to be rough with her. He might be later, but only later. When he had better control of himself. When he’d eaten. He could—no, no. He picked her up suddenly and carried her up the stairs to his bedroom, to his bed. By the time he was there, he was back in control. He sank into her. Later, she sank onto him. He lost track of time. He lost himself. It was the first time he had since E— died. When he came aware of himself again, Z— was lying next to him.

He went downstairs while she slept. His hand shook when he opened the fridge. He pulled out one of his silver containers and drank. Every need, every sharp edge, every desire to hurt, slipped away from him. He felt everything inside him settle. The majesty he hadn’t seen in his life for a so long returned just briefly. Just for a moment. He saw a giant’s skeleton shackled on a shoreline. When he closed his eyes, he thought he could touch it.

“Are there many like you?” Z— asked. She stood at the bottom of the stairs in one of his t-shirts, nothing else. She had watched him drink. “Out there in the world, that is?”

“No.”

“Just you?”

“There’s maybe a dozen of us.”

“Why so few? Are you like animals who’ve lost their natural habitat? Or have people hunted you?”

“Some have, but they’ve never been a real threat. And this is my natural habitat.” W— motioned to the kitchen table. “You don’t have to stand there.”

She took one seat, he the other. “What do you mean?” she asked. “How are there so few if the people who hunt you aren’t a threat?”

“They’re not a threat to me.” He smiled. Blood still stained his teeth, but he didn’t care. “To others, yes. To those not like me they are a threat. You see, they think, that is, the hunters think that I don’t come from their world, but I do. Another world shadows this world, and that is where many of their monsters live, but not me. I’m banned from that world. I’m an abomination it its eyes. A half-breed. I can see it, I can travel it, I can even live in it. But I am not born in it. I come from this world. This is my home. No matter what others tell you, sunlight doesn’t burn me. Crosses mean nothing. Silver bullets are as useless as normal ones. The only threat to me in this world is myself.”

“You mean you and the other vampires kill each other?”

“No. I mean we kill ourselves.”

She stared at him.

He shouldn’t have said that, but he was languid, happy. It was the blood, yes, but it was her as well. It was Z—. The very smell of her filled him. The smell of him and her.

“My father made me to take his place in this world,” W— said. “I didn’t understand that, not at the start. I remember when I first woke, when I was first given my new life, my father was my idol. He was a warrior. He was a scholar. When I was old enough, he took me to the other world. He travelled it fearlessly. He taught me the languages and customs of it. He told me this world hated us. He showed me giants and dragons and more that defies this language the two of us share right now. He made sure I knew how dangerous it was. Then, later, he became crueller and more dangerous than it. He was over five hundred years old. He became cruel towards me on purpose. He wanted to make me kill him.”

A breath escaped Z—. A low breath, an amazed breath. “I didn’t expect that. But then, I haven’t known what to expect from you since I met you.”

W— smiled.

“You could have drank from me. If you wanted.” He knew what she thought she was offering. She thought she knew him. “I wouldn’t have—I mean, I wouldn’t have been disappointed if you had.”

“I would have,” he said. “It’s not what you think it is. It’s not like the movies. It’s not a pretty scar that’s left afterwards. But more importantly, I have no need. I have blood. I can get it easily in this day and age. I don’t have to hurt you.”

“My ex-boyfriend used to say that.” She looked at him when she said that. She held his gaze. She wouldn’t turn away from him, not now. “He would say it after he hit me.”

“The one with the accent?”

She nodded.

“I’ll not kill him for you.”

“I wasn’t—”

“You were,” he said, but not angrily, gently. “If you want him dead, if he’s still around, if he still bothers you, you should kill him. Don’t let him be your horror. Be it yourself.”

• • • •

W— said too much that night. He wasn’t ashamed of what he said and he wasn’t sorry, but he didn’t expect to hear from Z— again. The next night, when he was alone, he laughed at himself for what had happened. He was such a fool. He needed to remember who he was. If E— had been alive, he would’ve laughed until he cried. A girl seduced him. A girl seduced him in hopes that he would murder her ex-boyfriend. It was funnier than the vampire club when you thought about it.

When Z— called W— two nights later he was surprised and said so. She asked to come over. She came with a gift, a book she’d found in a second hand store, an apology. Was she truly sorry? W— didn’t know. That night, after they had sex, Z— ran her fingers along his scars. They were on the inside of his leg, a mess of brutal lines made by W—’s father when he created his son. She said nothing about them and he let her keep her hand there. Three nights later, she introduced him to two of her friends. Afterwards, W— wondered what E— would’ve said now.

He probably would have called him a fool. E—’s voice asked a series of small, nagging questions over the next two weeks. The main one, the one that collected the others, was how long W— planned to keep this relationship with Z— going? It was short term. W— wasn’t going to be her partner. Not in any serious way. He wasn’t going to watch her grow old. He wasn’t going to sit by her side and watch bad TV with her. He wasn’t going to collect her medicine and pretend to be a grandson or something similar at the pharmacist. He’d done that already. Such an event was years away, but he was exhausted at the thought. W— knew he was overthinking it, that a few nights out with a girl, a few nights in with her, wasn’t anything serious. But he remembered what he said to Z— that night, when he was full of blood, about not letting another person become your horror. He’d been talking about himself. He knew that. Maybe he’d even known it then. To W—, Z— was her youth, the smoothness of her skin, the bend of her back, the flexibility of her legs. She was the steady beat of her pulse. He didn’t care what she studied, who she admired, or what she wanted from her life.

She was just part of his grief.

Then, one night, she called him in tears and asked him to come to her house.

• • • •

Z— lived in a series of near-identical flats whose windows were peppered with old, square air conditioning units. W— stepped out of the subway a block away shortly after the snow stopped. Most of the lights in the building were out and the few that were on failed to pierce the night sky. The front door didn’t have a lock. The elevator took him to the sixth floor without question. It rattled unpleasantly the entire way. Outside it, the hallway was empty and quiet. He didn’t have to knock on Z—’s door. She opened it for him.

She had bruises and cuts on her face. It was the first thing W— saw. Her right hand was bandaged as well. After she closed the door, she hugged him hard. He hugged her back, but gently because she looked so small and so frail. It didn’t help that her flat stretched out behind her, filled with overturned furniture.

After he let her go, W— said, “Where is he?”

“In the kitchen.” She hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

“What are you apologising for?”

“You shouldn’t have to see this.”

W— had seen worse. The ex-boyfriend was a bloody mess in the corner. He had a dozen stab wounds in the chest. The knife was in the last of them. It was just an average kitchen knife.

W— tilted the ex-boyfriend’s head around to look at it. He was white, dark-haired and clean shaven. He wore expensive clothes.

“He told me he had a couple of things he wanted to collect,” she said while he knelt. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have said yes. I just didn’t think it would—I didn’t know one of my friends told him about us. It was one of the friends you met. He said something mean to her and to get revenge she told him about us. About you. But I didn’t know. He was so angry after I let him in. He wouldn’t leave. He just wouldn’t. He took my phone off me. When I tried to get it back, he hit me. He started throwing everything around. I didn’t know what to do. I just remembered what you said and I picked up the knife. Once I did that I couldn’t stop. It was just—” She stopped. She met W—’s gaze. “It was just so easy.”

“It always is,” he said.

“I don’t know what to do now. I don’t want to go to jail. Not for him.”

“I called a friend on my way over. He’s an undertaker. He makes bodies disappear all the time. He’ll make this one disappear for you.”

She tried to thank him, but she started to cry. W— supposed that they were tears of relief. He had never cried such tears himself.

Quietly, he made her tea. E— had loved tea. He drank it from a straw when he couldn’t lift a cup easily. At his brownstone, W— had a dozen boxes of different kinds. Z— had half a loose dozen bags in the cupboard.

Z— was half way through her first cup when the undertaker arrived. She jumped when he knocked on the door. W— let him in. He was a short, greying man, somewhere in his sixties. His assistant was a dark-haired young woman who looked familiar. It wasn’t until she bent down to lift the ex-boyfriend’s body that W— recognised the drummer from a few weeks ago. He must have seen her when the two came to pick up E—. If the drummer recognised him, she made no mention of it. The undertaker did what little talking took place. In response to his one question, W— told him that he would settle the bill.

Once they were alone, Z— asked him to stay. He accepted. He hadn’t planned to leave, anyway. Z— spread out blankets on the living room floor and he slipped under them with her. Unsurprisingly, she just wanted to be held.

After a while, he began to speak. “My friend, the one who died, was called E—.” The room around the pair of them was dark and W—’s voice was soft. “When I met him, he thought I was monster. He had been taught all about monsters, you see. He had been raised on the stories of them. A monster acted this way, or that way. A monster had this physical attribute, or that. Later, he told me, the organisation he worked for had a book that explained it all. I was amazed. I couldn’t imagine such a book. When he finally showed it to me, I was shocked to see that it was only three hundred pages long. I had expected it to be this great, massive series of books, but it was just this one small book.

“E— told me that for a long time he had believed in everything written in this book. He believed in it completely. But after I didn’t kill him, he began to question it. For a while, we met in bars and restaurants to talk about it. He wanted to know how a monster could show mercy, but how someone who was human could not? I didn’t know the answer. I went to the meetings initially because I thought they were funny. I didn’t want to make him question anything, or doubt his beliefs. I was quite capable of monstrous acts. He asked if I thought of myself as a monster and I said I didn’t, but for the times I did. It was difficult to explain.

“Yet, I found myself enjoying our conversations about the nature of people, no matter who they were. E— was a smart man. A creative man. After a while, I started to look forward to these meetings. I found that I enjoyed his company. To my surprise, we had a lot in common. We became friends. I had never had a friend like him before. When he became old, I became his carer. His family were dead by then. All he had left were his monsters like me. When he died, I realised that I didn’t even have that.”

“And now?” Z— asked.

He looked down at her. “Now?”

“Now you’re not so alone, are you?”

Yes, he was.

Z— cried out when W— rolled her over, but she did not cry out in fear. W— did not know what she thought would happen. Would he take a little of her blood? Would he leave a scar? Would it be as intimate as when he penetrated her weeks before? She whispered, “Promise you won’t hurt me,” and he lied and told her that he wouldn’t.

No, he wouldn’t hurt her straight away. Not this night. Not when he tore open her thigh, the way his father had. No, he wouldn’t hurt her. He would show her the two worlds before he hurt her. He would show her the shadowed world and this world and he would teach her all that he knew about both. Then, he would show Z— how to be a monster, the way W—’s father had. He would show her that E— had not been wrong when he first met him. It was just that W—’s monstrosity, W—’s cruelty, could not be fully explained by a single book, or any of the acts he performed. In fact, at times, W— thought the worst of the things he did were when he was the kindest. He would show Z— that as well.

For he knew that the only person who could understand the labyrinth of a true monster was the one who had survived it.

Ben Peek

Ben Peek lives in Sydney. He is the author of The Godless, Leviathan’s Blood, The Eternal Kingdom, Twenty-Six Lies/One Truth, Black Sheep, and the collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories.