“We’re God’s beautiful creatures,” the vampire said, something like joy leaking into its voice for the first time since it had crawled under this house four days ago. “We’re the pinnacle of his art. If you believe in that kind of thing, anyway. That’s why the night is our time. He hangs jewels in the sky for us. People, they think we’re at some kinda disadvantage because we can’t go out in the sunlight. But who needs it. The day is small and cramped. You got your one lousy star.”
“You believe in God?” Joshua asked. The crawlspace beneath his house was close and hot; his body was coated in a dense sheen of sweat. A cockroach crawled over his fingers and he jerked his hand away. Late summer pressed onto this small Mississippi coastal town like the heel of a boot. The heat was an act of violence.
“I was raised Baptist. My thoughts on the matter are complicated.”
The crawlspace was contained partially by sheets of aluminum siding and partially by decaying wooden latticework. It was by this latter that Joshua crouched, hiding in the hot spears of sunlight which intruded into the shadows and made a protective cage around him.
“That’s why it’s so easy for us to seduce. God loves us, so the world does too. Seduction is your weapon, kid. You’re what—fifteen? You think seduction is pumping like a jackrabbit in your momma’s car. You don’t know anything. But you will soon enough.”
The vampire moved in the shadows, and abruptly the stink of burnt flesh and spoiled meat greased the air. It had opened a wound in itself, moving. Joshua knew that it tried to stay still as much as it could, to facilitate the healing, but the slowly shifting angles of the sunbeams made that impossible. He squinted his eyes, trying to make out a shape, but it was useless. He could sense it back there, though—a dark, fluttering presence. Something made of wings.
“Invite me in,” it said.
“Later,” Joshua said. “Not yet. After you finish changing me.”
The vampire coughed; it sounded like a snapping bone. Something wet hit the ground. “Well come here then, boy.” It moved again, this time closer to the amber light. Its face emerged from the shadows like something rising from deep water. It hunched on its hands and knees, swinging its head like a dog trying to catch a scent. Its face had been burnt off. Thin, parchment-strips of skin hung from blackened sinew and muscle. Its eyes were dark, hollow caves. Even in this wretched state, though, it seemed weirdly graceful. A dancer pretending to be a spider.
For the second time, Joshua laid himself on the soft earth, a-crawl with ants and cockroaches, centipedes and earthworms, positioning his upper body beyond the reach of the streaming sunlight. The light’s color was deepening, its angles rising until they were almost parallel to the ground. Evening was settling over the earth.
The vampire pressed the long fingers of one charred hand onto his chest, as delicately as a lover. Heat flushed Joshua’s body. Every nerve ending was a trembling candle flame. The vampire touched its lips to his throat; its tongue sought the jugular, the heavy river inside. It slid its teeth into his skin.
A sharp, lovely pain.
Joshua stared at the underside of his home: the rusted pipes, the duct tape, the yellow sheets of insulation. It looked so different from beneath. So ugly. He heard footsteps overhead as somebody he loved moved around inside it, attending to mysterious offices.
• • • •
Four days ago: he’d stood on the front porch of his home in the deep blue hollow of early morning, watching the waters of the Gulf roll onto the beach. It was his favorite time of the day: that sweet, lonesome hinge between darkness and daylight, when he could pretend he was alone in the world and free to take it on his own terms. In a few moments he would go inside and wake his five-year-old brother Michael, make him breakfast, and get them both ready for school, while their mother still slept in after her night shift at Red Lobster.
But this time belonged to him.
The vampire came from the direction of town, trailing black smoke and running hard across the no man’s land between his own house and the nearest standing building. There’d been a neighborhood there once, but the hurricane wiped it away a few years ago. What remained had looked like a mouthful of shattered teeth, until the state government came through and razed everything to the ground. Their own house had been badly damaged—the storm had scalped it of its top floor, depositing it somewhere out in the Gulf—but the rest had stood its ground, though it canted steeply to one side now, and on windy days you could feel it coming through the walls.
It was over that empty expanse the vampire fled, first billowing smoke like a diesel engine and then erupting into flame as the sun cracked the horizon.
The vampire ran directly for his house and launched itself at the opening to the crawlspace under the porch steps. Oily smoke eeled up through the wooden planks and dissipated into the lightening sky.
Joshua had remained frozen in place for the whole event, save the rising clamor in his heart.
• • • •
Their mother would be late getting home from work—and even later if she went out with that jackass Tyler again—so Joshua fed his little brother and directed him to his bedroom. They passed the stairwell on their way, which was capped now by sheets of plywood hammered over the place where it used to open onto the second floor.
“You want me to read you a story?” he asked, reaching for the copy of The Wind in the Willows by the bedside. Michael didn’t really understand the story, but he liked it when Joshua did the voices.
“No,” he said, leaping into his bed and pulling the covers over himself.
“No story? Are you sure?”
“I just wanna go to sleep tonight.”
“Okay,” Joshua said. He felt strangely bereft. He reached down and turned on Michael’s nightlight, then switched off the lamp.
“Will you cuddle with me, Josh?” he said.
“I won’t ‘cuddle’ with you, but I’ll lay down with you for a little bit.”
Cuddle was a word their dad used before he moved away, and it embarrassed him that Michael held onto it. He eased back on top of the covers and let Michael rest his head in the crook of his arm.
“Are you scared of anything, Josh?”
“What, like monsters?”
“I don’t know, I guess.”
“No, I’m not scared of monsters. I’m not scared of anything.”
Michael thought for a minute, then said, “I’m scared of storms.”
“That’s silly. It’s just a bunch of wind and rain.”
“ . . . I know.”
Michael drifted into silence. Joshua felt vaguely guilty about shutting him down like that, but he really didn’t have it in him to have the storm talk again. That was something Michael was going to have to get over on his own, since logic didn’t seem to have any effect on his thinking.
As he monitored his brother’s breathing, waiting for him to fall asleep, he found himself wondering about how he would feel toward his family once the transformation was complete. He was worried that he would lose all feeling for them. Or, worse, that he’d think of them as prey. He didn’t think that would happen; everything he’d ever read about vampires seemed to indicate that they kept all their memories and emotions from life. But the thought troubled him nonetheless.
That was why he wouldn’t let the vampire into his house until he became one, too; he wanted to be sure it went after the right person. It couldn’t have his family.
The question of love was tricky, anyway. He felt protective of his brother and his mom, but he had a hard time aligning that feeling with a word like love. Maybe it was the same thing; he honestly didn’t know. He tried to imagine how he’d feel if they were gone, and he didn’t come up with much.
That thought troubled him even more.
Maybe he would think of Michael and his mother as pets. The notion brightened his mood.
People loved their pets.
• • • •
Michael pretended to be asleep until Joshua left the room. He loved his older brother in the strong, uncomplicated way children loved anything; but recently he’d had become an expert in negotiating the emotional weather in his home, and Joshua’s moods had become more turbulent than ever. He got mad at strange things, like when Michael wanted to hold hands, or when Mom brought Tyler home. Michael thought Tyler was weird because he wouldn’t talk to them, but he didn’t understand why Joshua got so mad about it.
He listened as his brother’s footsteps receded down the hallway. He waited a few more minutes just to be sure. Then he slid down and scooted under the bed on his stomach, pressing his ear to the floor. The house swayed and creaked around him, filling the night with bizarre noises. He hated living here since the storm happened. He felt like he was living in the stomach of a monster.
After a few minutes of careful listening, he heard the voice.
• • • •
Joshua opened his window and waited. He didn’t even try to sleep anymore, even though he was constantly tired. The night was clear and cool, with a soft breeze coming in from the sea. The palm trees across the street rustled quietly to themselves, shaggy-haired giants sharing secrets.
After about half an hour, the vampire crawled from an opening near the back of the house, emerging just a few feet from his window. Joshua’s heart started to gallop. He felt the familiar, instinctive fear: the reaction of the herd animal to the lion.
The vampire stood upright, facing the sea. Most of its flesh had burnt away; the white round curve of its skull reflected moonlight. Its clothes were dark rags in the wind.
A car pulled into the driveway around front, its engine idling for a few moments before chuckling to a halt. Mom was home.
The vampire’s body seemed to coil, every muscle drawing taut at once. It lifted its nose, making tiny jerking motions, looking for the scent.
He heard his mother’s laughter, and a man’s voice. Tyler was with her.
The vampire took a step toward the front of the house, its joints too loose, as if they were hinged with liquid instead of bone and ligament. Even in its broken, half-dead state, it moved quickly and fluidly. He thought again of a dancer. He imagined how it would look in full health, letting the night fill its body like a kite. Moving through the air like an eel through water.
“Take him,” Joshua whispered.
The vampire turned its eyeless face head toward him.
Joshua was smiling. “Take him,” he said again.
“You know I can’t,” it said, rage riding high in its voice. “Why the hell don’t you let me in!”
“That’s not the deal,” he said. “Afterwards. Then you can come in. And you can have Tyler.”
He heard the front door open, and the voices moved inside. Mom and Tyler were in the living room, giggling and whispering. Half drunk already.
“He’s all I’ll need,” the vampire said. “Big country boy like that. Do me right up.”
Someone knocked on his bedroom door. His mother’s voice came through. “Josh? Are you on the phone in there? You’re supposed to be asleep!”
“Sorry Mom,” he said over his shoulder.
He heard Tyler’s muffled voice, and his mother started laughing. “Shhh!”
It made Joshua’s stomach turn. When he looked back outside, the vampire had already slid back under the house.
He sighed and leaned his head out, feeling the cool wind on his face. The night was vast above him. He imagined rising into it, through clouds piled like snowdrifts and into a wash of ice crystal stars, waiting for its boundary but not finding one. Just rising higher and higher into the dark and the cold.
• • • •
The school day passed in a long, punishing haze. His ability to concentrate was fading steadily. His body felt like it was made of lead. He’d never been so exhausted in his life, but every time he closed his eyes he was overcome with a manic energy, making him fidget in his chair. It took the whole force of his will not to get up and start pacing the classroom.
A fever simmered in his brain. He touched the back of his hand to his forehead and was astonished by the heat. Sounds splintered in his ear, and the light coming through the windows was sharp-edged. His gaze roved over the classroom, over his classmates hunched over their desks or whispering carelessly in the back rows or staring like farm animals into the empty air. He’d never been one of them, and that was okay. It was just how things were. He used to feel smaller than them, less significant, as if he’d been born without some essential gene to make him acceptable to other people.
But now he assessed them anew. They seemed different, suddenly. They looked like victims. Like little pink pigs, waiting for someone to slash their throats and fulfill their potential. He imagined the room bathed in blood, himself striding through it, a raven amongst the carcasses. Strutting like any carrion king.
• • • •
He was halfway into the crawlspace when nausea overwhelmed him and he dry heaved into the dirt, the muscles in his sides seizing in pain. He curled into a fetal position and pressed his face into the cool earth until it subsided, leaving him gasping in exhaustion. His throat was swollen and dry.
“I can’t sleep,” the vampire said from the shadows.
Joshua blinked and lifted his gaze, still not raising his head from the ground. He didn’t think he could summon the strength for it, even if he’d wanted to.
The vampire was somewhere in the far corner beneath the house, somewhere behind the bars of sunlight slanting through the latticework. “The light moves around too much down here,” it said, apparently oblivious to Joshua’s pain. “I can’t rest. I need to rest.”
Joshua was silent. He didn’t know what he was expected to say.
“Invite me in,” it said. “I can make it dark inside.”
“What’s happening to me?” Joshua asked. He had to force the air out of his lungs to speak. He could barely hear himself.
“You’re changing. You’re almost there.”
“I feel like I’m dying.”
“Heh, that’s funny.”
Joshua turned his face into the soil. He felt a small tickling movement crawling up his pant leg.
“I remember when I died. I was terrified. It’s okay to be scared, Joshua.”
That seemed like a funny thing to say. He blinked, staring into the place where the voice was coming from.
“I was in this barn. I was a hand on this farm that grew sugar cane. Me and a few others slept out there in the loft. One day this young fella turned up missing. We didn’t think too much about it. Good natured boy, worked hard, but he was kinda touched in the head, and we figured it was always a matter of time before he went and got himself into some trouble. We thought we’d wait for the weekend and then go off and look for him.
“But he came back before the weekend. Sailed in through the second floor window of the barn one night. I about pissed myself. Seemed like he walked in on a cloud. Before we could think of anything to say he laid into us. Butchered most of the boys like hogs. Three of us he left though. Maybe ‘cause we were nicer to him, I don’t know. He decided to make us like him. Who knows why. But see, he was too stupid to tell us what was going on. Didn’t know himself, I guess. But he just kept us up there night after night, feeding on us a little bit at a time. Our dead friends around us the whole time, growing flies.”
“Why didn’t you run when the sun came up?” Joshua had forgotten his pain. He sat up, edging closer to the ribbons of light, his head hunched below the underside of the house.
“Son of a bitch spiked our legs to the floor of the loft. Wrapped barbed wire around our arms. He was determined, I’ll give him that. And no one came from the house. Didn’t take a genius to figure out why.” The vampire paused, seemingly lost in the memory. “Well anyway, before too long we got up and started our new lives. He went off god knows where. So did the other two. Never seen them since.”
Joshua took it all in, feeling the shakes come upon him again. “I’m worried about my family,” he said. “I’m worried they won’t understand.”
“You won’t feel so sentimental, afterwards.”
This was too much to process. He decided he needed to sleep for a while. Let the fever abate, then approach it all with a fresh mind. “I’m gonna lay down,” he said, turning back toward the opening. The light there was like a boiling cauldron, but the thought of lying in his own bed was enough to push through.
“Wait!” the vampire said. “I need to feed first.”
Joshua decided to ignore it. He was already crawling out, and he didn’t have the energy to turn around.
He froze, and looked behind him. The vampire lunged forward, and its head passed into a sunbeam. The flesh hissed, emitting a thin coil of smoke. A candle flame flared around it, and the stench of ruined flesh rolled over him in a wave, as though a bag of rancid meat had been torn open.
The vampire pulled back, the blind sockets of his eyes seeming to float in the dim white bone. “Don’t play with me, boy.”
“I’m not,” Joshua said. “I’ll be back later.” And he crawled out into the jagged sunlight.
• • • •
He awoke to find his mother hovering over him. She was wearing her white Red Lobster shirt, with the nametag and the ridiculous tie. She had one hand on his forehead, simultaneously taking his temperature and pushing the hair out of his face.
“Hey honey,” she said.
“Mom?” He pulled his head away from her and passed a hand over his face. He was on the couch in the living room. Late afternoon light streamed in through the window. No more than an hour could have elapsed. “What are you doing home?”
“Mikey called me. He said you passed out.”
He noticed his brother sitting on the easy chair on the other side of the room. Michael regarded him solemnly, his little hands folded in his lap like he was in church.
“You’re white as a sheet,” his mother said. “How long have you been feeling bad?”
“I don’t know. Just today I guess.”
“I think we should get you to a hospital.”
“No!” He made an effort to sit up. “No, I’m fine. I just need to rest for a while.”
She straightened, and he could see her wrestling with the idea. He knew she didn’t want to go to the hospital any more than he did. They didn’t have any insurance, and here she was missing a shift at work besides.
“Really, I’m okay. Besides, we’d have to wait forever, and isn’t Tyler coming over tonight?”
His mother tensed. She looked at him searchingly, like she was trying the fathom his motive. She said, “Joshua, you’re more important to me than Tyler is. You do understand that, don’t you?”
He looked away. He felt his face flush, and he didn’t want her to see it. “I know,” he said.
“I know you don’t like him.”
“It’s not that,” he said, but of course it was that. Tyler had to be here so he could feed him to the vampire. He had a feeling that tonight was going to be the night. He didn’t know how he could go on much more, as weak as he was.
Michael piped up, his voice cautious yet hopeful: “It doesn’t matter anyway, ’cause Daddy’s coming back.”
His mother sighed and turned to look at him. Joshua could see all the years gathered in her face, and he felt a sudden and unexpected sympathy for her. “No, Mikey. He’s not.”
“Yes he is, Mom, he told me. He asked if it was okay.”
Her voice hardened, although she was obviously trying to hide it. “Has he been talking to you on the phone?” She looked to Joshua for confirmation.
“Not me,” Joshua said. It occurred to him that Dad may have been calling while he was under the house, talking to the vampire. He felt at once both guilty that he’d left his brother to deal with that alone, and outraged that he’d missed out on the calls.
“You tell him next time he calls that he can talk to me about that,” she said, not even bothering to hide her anger now. “In fact, don’t even talk to him. Hang up on him if he calls again. I’m going to get his number blocked, that son of a bitch.”
Tears piled in Michael’s eyes and he lowered his face. His body trembled as he tried to keep it all inside. A wild anger coursed through Joshua’s body, animating him despite the fever.
“Shut up!” he shouted. “Shut up about Dad! You think Tyler is better? He can’t even look at us! He’s a fucking retard!”
His mother looked at him in pained astonishment for a long moment. Then she put her hand over her mouth and stifled a sob. Aghast, Michael launched himself at her, a terrified little missile. He wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her chest. “It’s okay, Mom, it’s okay!”
Joshua unfolded himself from the couch and walked down the hall to his room. His face was alight with shame and rage. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to feel. He closed the door behind him, muffling the sounds of the others comforting each other. He threw himself onto his bed, pulling the pillow over his face. The only things he could hear now were the wooden groaning of the house as it shifted on its foundations, and the diminished sound of the blood pumping in his own head.
• • • •
Their father left right after the hurricane. He used to work on the oil rigs. He’d get on a helicopter and disappear for a few weeks, and money would show up in the bank account. Then he’d come home for a week, and they’d all have fun together. He’d fight with their mother sometimes, but he always went back out to sea before things had a chance to get bad.
After the hurricane, all that work dried up. The rigs were compromised and the Gulf Coast oil industry knocked back on its heels. Dad was stranded in the house. Suddenly there was no work to stop the fighting. He moved to California shortly thereafter, saying he’d send for them when he found another job. A week later their mother told them the truth.
Joshua still remembered the night of the storm. The four of them rode it out together in the house. It sounded like Hell itself had come unchained and was stalking the world right outside their window. But he felt safe inside. Even when the upper floor ripped away in a scream of metal and plaster and wood, revealing a black, twisting sky, he never felt like he was in any real danger. The unremarkable sky he’d always known had changed into something three dimensional and alive.
It was like watching the world break open, exposing its secret heart.
His father was crouched beside him. They stared at it together in amazement, grinning like a pair of blissed-out lunatics.
• • • •
Joshua heard a gentle rapping on his door.
“I’m going to the store,” his mother said. “I’m gonna get something for your fever. Is there anything you want for dinner?”
“I’m not hungry.”
He waited for her car to pull out of the driveway before he swung his legs out of bed and tried to stand. He could do it as long as he kept one hand on the wall. He couldn’t believe how tired he was. His whole body felt cold, and he couldn’t feel his fingers. It was coming tonight. The certainty of it inspired no excitement, no joy, no fear. His body was too numb to feel anything. He just wanted it to happen so he could get past this miserable stage.
He shuffled out of his room and down the hall. The vampire needed to feed on him once more, and he wanted to get down there before his mother got back.
As he passed by his brother’s door, though, he stopped short. Somebody was whispering on the other side.
He opened the door to find his little brother lying prone on the floor, half under the bed. Late afternoon shadows gathered in the corners. His face was a small moon in the dim light, one ear pressed to the hardwood. He was whispering urgently.
His brother’s body jerked in alarm, and he sat up quickly, staring guiltily back. Joshua flipped the light switch on.
“What are you doing?” Something cold was growing inside him.
“Talking to Daddy.”
“He’s living under the house. He wants us to let him back in. I was afraid to because Mom might get mad at me.”
“ . . . oh, Mikey.” His voice quavered. “That’s not Dad. That’s not Dad.”
He found himself moving down the hall again, quickly now, fired with renewed energy. He felt like a passenger in his body: he experienced a mild curiosity as he saw himself rummaging through the kitchen drawer until he found the claw hammer his mother kept there; a sense of fearful anticipation as he pushed the front door open and stumbled down the porch steps in the failing light, not even pausing to gather his strength before he hooked the claw into the nearest latticework and wrenched it away from the wall in a long segment.
“We had a deal!” he screamed, getting to work on another segment. “You son of a bitch! We had a deal!” He worked fast, alternately smashing wooden latticework to pieces and prying aluminum panels free from the house. “You lied to me! You lied!” Nails squealed as they were wrenched from their moorings. The sun was too low for the light to intrude beneath the house now, but tomorrow the vampire would find the crawlspace uninhabitable.
He saw the vampire, once, just beneath the lip of the house. It said nothing, but its face tracked him as he worked.
The sun was sliding down the sky, leaking its light into the ground and into the sea. Darkness swarmed from the east, spreading stars in its wake.
Joshua hurried inside, dropping the hammer on the floor and collapsing onto the couch, utterly spent. A feeling of profound loss hovered somewhere on the edge of his awareness. He had turned his back on something, on some grand possibility. He knew the pain would come later.
• • • •
Soon his mother returned, and he took some of the medicine she’d bought for him, though he didn’t expect it to do any good. He made a cursory attempt to eat some of the pizza she’d brought too, but his appetite was gone. She sat beside him on the couch and brushed the hair away from his forehead. They watched some TV, and Joshua slipped in and out of sleep. At one point he stared through the window over the couch. The moon traced a glittering arc through the sky. Constellations rotated above him and the planets rolled through the heavens. He felt a yearning that nearly pulled him out of his body.
He could see for billions of miles.
• • • •
At some point his mother roused him from the couch and guided him to his room. He cast a glance into Michael’s room when he passed it, and saw his brother fast asleep.
“You know I love you, Josh,” his mother said at his door.
He nodded. “I know Mom. I love you too.”
His body was in agony. He was pretty sure he was going to die, but he was too tired to care.
• • • •
A scream woke him. The heavy sound of running footsteps, followed by a crash.
Joshua tried to rouse himself. He felt like he’d lost control of his body. His eyelids fluttered open. He saw his brother standing in the doorway, tears streaming down his face.
“Oh no, Josh, oh no, oh no . . .”
He lost consciousness.
• • • •
The next morning he was able to move again. The fever had broken sometime during the night; his sheets were soaked with sweat.
He found his mother on the kitchen table. She had kicked some plates and silverware onto the floor in what had apparently been a brief struggle. Her head was hanging backward off the edge of the table, and she had been sloppily drained. Blood splashed the floor beneath her. Her eyes were open and glassy.
His brother was suspended upside down in the living room, his feet tied with a belt to the ceiling fan, which had come partially free from its anchor. He’d been drained too. He was still wearing his pajamas. On the floor a few feet away from him, where it had fluttered to rest, was a welcome home card he had made for their father.
The plywood covering the open stairwell had been wrenched free. The vampire stood on the top stair, looking into deep blue sky of early morning. Joshua stopped at the bottom stair, gazing up at it. Its burnt skin was covered in a clear coating of pus and lymphatic fluid, as its body started to heal. White masses filled its eye sockets like spiders’ eggs. Tufts of black hair stubbled its peeled head.
“I waited for you,” the vampire said.
Joshua’s lower lip trembled. He tried to say something but he couldn’t get his voice to work.
The vampire extended a hand. “Come up here. The sun’s almost up.”
Almost against his will, he ascended the stairs into the open air. The vampire wrapped its fingers around the back of his head and drew him close. Its lips grazed his neck. It touched its tongue to his skin.
“Thank you for your family,” it said.
“ . . . no . . .”
It sank its teeth into Joshua’s neck and drew from him one more time. A gorgeous heat seeped through his body, and he found himself being lowered gently to the top of the stair.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” the vampire said.
His head rolled to one side; he looked over the area where the second story used to be. There was his old room. There was Michael’s. And that’s where his parents slept. Now it was all just open air.
“This is my house now,” the vampire said, standing over him and surveying the land around them. “At least for a few more days.” It looked down at Joshua with its pale new eyes. “I’d appreciate it if you stayed out.”
The vampire descended the stairs.
A few minutes later, the sun came up, first as a pink stain, then as gash of light on the edge of the world. Joshua felt the heat rising in him again: a fierce, purging radiance starting from his belly and working rapidly outward. He smelled himself cooking, watched the smoke begin to pour out of him, crawling skyward.
And then the day swung its heavy lid over the sky. The ground baked hard as an anvil in the heat, and the sun hammered the color out of everything.