I would call her beauty “otherworldly,” but that doesn’t really describe her cheekbones like scalpels, the ice that rimes the bird’s nest knots of her hair, or her ghost-cold touch when she visits me. “Beauty beyond description” or “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen” just means the viewer, personally, finds her pleasing. What does a description like that tell you about the bored, dark dip of her eyes, the curve of her lip, and the forward thrust of her nose? What does it say of her many, small, pointed teeth that hang over her blue lips, darker than the bruise-purple undertones of her skin? I’m pale, too, but in a worm-white sort of way. Not like her. She is not me. I’m a mess, a being of meat and sweat and desire. I don’t know her name or if she has one or if a human tongue can wrap around it. I just know I hunger for her.
When she climbs in through my bedroom window—second floor, nothing nearby but a tree branch to tap on the glass—her lips are so cold, they burn. She won’t come anywhere near my mouth. Her frost kisses are for my throat and then a trail between my breasts. Where she grazes me with her fingers, I feel the pain one gets from trying to hold onto an ice cube too long.
Her bites aren’t as cold, but they hurt more. She has teeth like razor wire mounted in her indigo gums. She always reopens the same wound on my thigh, nursing from a knotted, scabbed mess of flesh. The blood she takes from me splashes red on her chin, falls in drops on her naked breasts and white, gleaming, rounded stomach. She’s not a vampire, because vampires bother to seduce people.
“I wrote you a poem,” I tell her. “Do you want to see it?” I reach over the edge of my bed for my laptop, which sits on the wooden floorboards that I haven’t swept.
“Do you think you are worth anything to me but that which I can devour from you?” she demands. She presses two fingers beneath my chin and tilts my face upward. “Do you think that I worship you the way you sweat and simper over me, Tara?”
I shiver with pleasure to have her full attention, to have her say my name. She asked me what it was the second time she came to visit and that was the first and last thing she wanted to know about me.
At least I know what I give to her is worthwhile. Her face is a little more flushed every time she visits. Her stomach was once concave with ribs sticking out like she was an underfed puppy. Now, she has a belly that becomes more distended after she drinks from me. I know this because when she grudgingly allows me to kiss her, afterward, I get to squeeze that curved stomach. It’s a little softer and it makes me want her again. I’ve offered her to feed on me as much as she likes, but she says, “No. I won’t have my food dead from blood loss. It takes far too long to find one of you who’s willing.”
When she leaves, patches of frost bloom on the floor with every bare footstep and then melt into droplets. She pushes the window up, then the screen, and finds the tree branch. Her weight is a real, solid thing when she’s on top of me, but the branch never groans under her.
Afterward, I go to the bathroom. I hiss as I tend the wound, cleaning and bandaging it over. I feel a little weak for an hour afterward or so, but when I sleep, it’s deep and peaceful. I wake up happy, or as close to happy as I’ve been.
She reminds me of when I used to go to synagogue as a child. I would skip Torah study and sneak away to the library. There, I read a story, a sort of midrash, a Jewish folktale. It was about angels and how their essence was of fire. This was as opposed to humans, who were, at the end of the day, something God made from dirt. Angels used to walk among humans and co-mingled, which I suspect means they fucked, and had children who were “monstrous in aspect.” I would say that that’s who I think the woman is, but she drinks blood like a vampire. I think she’s more of a creature of air and ice than fire mixed with earth. She’s not molten and wild, but cold and sure.
She visits, abuses me with words, and drinks. It’s terrifying. It’s almost like love, but without the mundane ordinariness of cohabitating. I don’t have to tell her about the dullness of entering data at my tech firm job or what podcasts I like to listen to over the course of long, tired days. I don’t have to tell her to turn off the lights before she goes to bed or ask her to help me unload the dishwasher.
As a phantom lover, she is perfect. I’m satisfied with this, I tell myself. It’s a sweet lie that only becomes bitter when I admit it really is a lie. When I say, however, I deserve this, that feels more true. That’s the correct answer. I’m a potato lump of a human, worthy only as livestock for such a perfect being. Her visits are the most exciting thing about me nowadays.
My friend, Denny, is the only one I feel like I can talk to about any of this, but even then, I can’t go into much detail. I want her to be my secret. I tell him I have a casual thing with a girl. That’s all he needs to know.
The only reason I can talk to him at all is because we both used to drink so much back in the day together. We both survived a rough time. He came to the United States from Lancaster when he was a “young wanker” touring with his band. They kicked him out when he kept getting drunk instead of showing up for practice. Like me, he’s obsessive, doesn’t like leaving the house, and thinks humans are the worst thing to happen to the planet.
“If we had any sense, dogs would be in charge,” I tell him in the park. We meet on a bench and drink coffee from paper cups.
Denny laughs with his whole, gangly body, shaking like an underfed horse. “Absolutely. Might be ‘ruff,’ though. Get it? Rough?”
I squint at him. “No,” I say as dryly as I can. “I don’t get it. Can you explain it to me?”
Denny laughs it off, as usual. He thinks I’m aloof and sterile, free of mess, which is funny to me. I don’t want to ruin this clean image he has. “Things not going well with the girl you like, huh?”
“I can’t say I can read her that well.”
“Well, follow your heart, and all that. Tell her how you really feel. True love will guide you. Or something.” He sips his coffee. Then he looks around and, like we’re in some sort of PSA about not drinking, he takes out a flask from his coat pocket. He pops the cap and tips it over into his cup.
I huff. “Are you serious?”
“Vodka is always serious. It’s Russian, and they’re all serious, right?” He giggles and his face, for a moment, looks as young and brave and stupid as when I first met him.
Something about him reminds me of my aunt, Rose, and the sweetness of her face after she drank down some wine. I then remember how awful things were with her near the end. It makes me ache inside.
“Don’t you have to get back to work?”
“Exactly.” He grins. “Makes the day easier. I don’t have any big meetings, anyway. Want some?”
I sigh. “Sure. If she visits again tonight, it will be like liquid courage. Then I can tell her.”
“She doesn’t call ahead? Rude.” He tips a little into my coffee.
He’s right. It does make the rest of the day easier, so I decide to take Denny’s other advice, too. She thinks I’m a worm, anyway, so what do I have to lose?
When she comes into my window, her long nails crusted with dirt and ice that isn’t anywhere on the ground, I take her hand and pull her right into my bed. I kiss her and her lips are hot ice.
She gives a hiss like a feral cat and then rolls on top of me. She pins my wrists to the pillow and snarls in my face. I kissed her too soon.
“Sorry,” I murmur, blood thudding in my skull. “I just wanted you.”
“Of course you want me,” she spits. “I’m so much more than a creature like you could ever hope to be.”
“Yes,” I whisper. I can feel every nerve in me light up. “I like you. A lot.”
She smiles in the light of my bedside lamp. It catches the curve of her lip and the uneven, jangled mess of her teeth. “Of course you do.” When she bows her head and bites, I shiver. Then she drinks from me.
“Oh God,” I murmur. “Thank you. Yes. Thank you so much.”
I feel my thigh vibrate as she laughs.
This is good, I tell myself.
When she sits up on her knees, there’s blood across her lips and printed on her chin. She wipes her mouth messily and runs her fingers into that knotted hair of hers. Some of the blood sticks there.
“I used to drink a lot,” I blurt. “I don’t as much, anymore.”
She tilts her head and touches her mouth, smearing some of the blood onto her fingers and then sucking it away like it’s jam. “Haven’t met a human who drinks blood.”
“Not blood.” I sit up, too, feeling shy. “Vodka, usually. Or gin.”
Her lip curls. “I’ve met many humans who drink those. I can taste it in the blood. It makes it warm.”
My face gets hot with anger. Of course, logically, I knew there had to be others, but I don’t like to hear it. “Would you want me to drink some, too, then?”
She shrugs one shoulder. “If you like.” She turns away and I see that her hair is a little smoother, less knotted. Did she comb it out for me, I wonder?
That thought makes me glow.
I pull her back toward me to see better, which makes her wince. She thinks I want to kiss her again. With a withering sigh, she presses that bloody mouth to my temple and pulls away.
She leaves. Her icy footprints on the floor catch the low haze of my bedside lamp. I wonder, horribly, if at some point she’ll leave and won’t come back.
I go to the bar the next day with some coworkers. I text Denny to say I’m there to socialize and assure him I won’t drink too much. He texts back to say he’s proud of me for getting out of the house. A few minutes later, the bartender puts a second gin and tonic down in front of me. Then a third. The word he wrote, “proud,” now has a sting to it.
I swallow it down too quickly. Then I order another.
At nine, because it’s a work night, my co-workers and I all call a Lyft. We laugh together. I make them laugh harder when I pull up my top and bra to flash cars. They squeal with horror and joy. “You’re so fun!”
I glow. Yes, I remember this. I remember being fun.
The Lyft drops me off first and I wind my way into my house.
When she climbs in through my window, I’m waiting for her in nothing but black underwear. I take hold of her hair and pull her in for a kiss, hot and spit-slick.
I’ve caught her off guard. It takes her a moment to kiss back, and when she does, I open my eyes a little to see she hasn’t shut hers.
“Come here,” I say. “Drink me.”
“Yes,” she says, quietly. She crawls down and obliges me.
When she opens the cut up on my thigh, I wrap my legs around her head and keep her there until she struggles and slaps my leg.
Strange, I think. I always thought she was stronger than I was.
The ice maiden sits back on her haunches, panting. She seems distressed. “Are you sick?”
“You’re different.” One corner of her mouth lifts in a sneer, but there’s no humor in it. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I drank a little,” I say. “Like you asked. Didn’t you taste it?”
“Yes, but I didn’t ask.”
“You might as well have,” I snap. “Now, go ahead. Have another drink.”
She glances toward the window, still open a crack, and then back at me.
I smile at her. “It really must be hard to find someone willing, right? It must be so hard for you.” With more bravery I feel than when I’m sober, I reach out, and squeeze her blue hand.
When she casts her eyes down, in what might be embarrassment or shame, her lashes are beautiful. I know that when I get hungry, I feel less substantial. What must it be like to only drink blood maybe once a day? She must be hungry all the time.
“Come here,” I say.
She crawls to me.
“My little lamprey,” I say to her, and I know this must be love, or at least something close to it.
When I wake up, it’s morning, and of course, she’s gone. My head throbs and I feel grim and angry. There’s also a text on my phone from Denny asking me how the bar went.
I decide I’ll reply later. I take the day off work to get over my hangover and, when my head’s clear enough, start planning some redecoration. I’m lucky enough to have a small house with a finished basement. There’s carpeting, perfect for someone who literally has cold feet. I move a futon down there and check the mini bar, which hasn’t been full for a long time, so I head to the liquor store.
When she arrives that evening, I’m in the bedroom again. I’ve already polished off a box of wine by myself and everything has a warm glow. “Hey,” I whisper.
“Good evening,” she says without inflection, as if it’s a chore to speak to me. She proceeds to crawl beneath the blanket.
I stop her. “Come here.”
She huffs. “Fine,” she says.
I kiss her, messily, and hope she doesn’t mind the fact I taste like cheap wine. “I want to show you something.”
A line appears between her eyebrows. “Why?”
“It’s a surprise,” I say. “Come on.”
I pull her down the stairs. Watching her negotiate the steps is like watching a deer try to figure out an escalator. When we manage to get down there, I’m satisfied to have her cling to my arm as she looks around. She squints at the mirror on the wall in my living room. Her blue reflection squints back. Then she touches it, nervously, and I realize she’s from a world that doesn’t have much to do with mirrors.
I take her down a second flight of stairs to the basement. There, I show her the futon.
“Ta-da,” I say. My cheeks hurt from the force of my grin.
She scowls at it. “What’s wrong with your own bed?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I just think that this could be your room.”
She goggles and falls back against the wall, arms outstretched. “You’re not going to keep me here,” she says, quickly. “I refuse.”
“Alright.” I keep my hands raised in front of me to show I don’t want to hurt her. “Calm down.”
“You can strip the earth of its gold and wall me in, but I’ll tunnel out.” Spittle shines on her teeth and at the corner of her mouth.
“It was just a suggestion!” I grab her icy shoulders.
She doesn’t fight me. Like I saw yesterday, she’s weaker than I thought she was. She hisses at me and I stop.
“I sleep where I like,” she says, haughtily. “I won’t be trapped again. Before you, the man—I never asked his name—he kept me in his garage.” I watch her jaw tighten as she clenches her teeth. “I had to break a window.” She rubs her knuckles and, because the basement is brighter than my bedroom, I finally see the tracery of pale scars there.
“You don’t have to break any windows now,” I say to her. “Come here.” I cup her cheek.
She deigns to give me a kiss in all her queenly glory. Usually, I think about the way her mouth tastes when we kiss, and try to document the undulations of her tongue. Today, my senses blunted with wine, I just focus on massaging her shoulder.
To my surprise, she begins to relax. I can feel her back soften.
We lay together on the futon. I ask her again to drink my blood twice.
I don’t pass out because the euphoria turns my vision into a luminescent fog. I wonder if her saliva has some sort of sedative and I’ve become addicted to it, but I’m not sure.
Evidently, her stomach is more full than usual—two days in a row drinking twice as much as she normally does. She lingers in the mess of sheets, gets comfortable, and lets her eyes shut. I wrap my arms around her to cuddle, but even unconscious, she squirms away.
Annoying, I think.
I think back to what the ice woman said about gold. She seemed to think I knew that it did something to her. I began to think about werewolves and silver.
Feeling much more sober, I go upstairs to check my phone. Denny’s sent me another text, one that fights to be casual when I bet, in real life, he’s panicked. I always return my texts quickly. Once, I went on a week-long bender and didn’t respond to him at all. He found me on the floor of my house and cleaned me up. He’s never asked to be thanked for that.
My aunt Rose drank a lot, too. She took care of me when my mom died, and my dad couldn’t keep it together. She was moody, sometimes, but drinking just made her hazy, confused, and warm. She watched the Home Shopping Network when she did that. That’s how she blew through her savings and then most of mine ordering necklaces and rings off of the TV. “Twenty-four carat,” she would say happily after she got off the phone. When the package with the jewelry actually turned up, she always looked surprised. “Guess I bought myself a present,” she said before packing it into her jewelry box.
After I learned about her using my savings when I was eighteen, I didn’t yell at Rose or anything. I just moved out. She called me sometimes to cry and apologize, but I never called back. It seemed easier that way. I get lonely when I think of her, because I did love her. I just didn’t trust her anymore. When she died, she must have had me in the will, because that box of jewelry came right to me. I would sell it, but gold’s not worth very much.
I find it in the hallway closet and start to pick through. Gold chain after gold chain, necklaces dappled with small diamonds, and bracelets touched with rhinestones.
I go back downstairs and stare at the woman. Don’t leave, I think to myself. I’m nothing and no one, but please don’t leave. I think it so hard that I hope she doesn’t wake up with the force of the thought.
When she wakes, it’s hours later. The sun is coming down from the stairway and stretching a window of light across the floor. I watch her stir.
She does the most human thing I’ve ever seen her do: she wakes up foggily. She looks around, confused, and then seems to remember where she is. She finds my eyes. “I’m leaving, now. Thank you for the bed.”
“Stay,” I say softly. “Please. You can sleep and eat here.” I point at my bare thigh.
She shakes her head. “It’s better if I don’t stay. I don’t think like one of you.” She looks up at me with her cat eyes. “I’m not one of you.”
“I know,” I say and open the box. During the last few hours, I connected each necklace, each bracelet, into a long, winding chain of gold.
When she sees the heap, she screams. “Get that away from me!” She scrambles away like a spider.
She’s quicker than me, like a fox running from a trap, but I’m human, a creature made of heavy earth. I fall on her and she can’t get up.
I take her hand, just to make sure. My fingers have the gold rings on them. She rolls her eyes back and screams, the sound splitting my ears, but I don’t let go. I watch in wonder as her own hand blackens where the gold touches it. Smoke rises from her skin like steam.
When I release her, I start to laugh. “You have to stay, now,” I say, tears in my eyes. “I won’t be able to keep you otherwise, but now I can.”
She’s in tears, too, but they run from her eyes in green streaks. She cries a sort of slime the color of emeralds. I reach out, run my finger down her face, and am delighted to watch her flinch away.
I pull the finger toward me, the tip slippery with green, and taste. Like the smell of evergreen, something forested and strange, just like the rest of her.
She watches me, shaking her head. Instead of words, she lets out a low, animal growl.
I wrap the golden chain over the door and leave her locked downstairs. She howls when I close it. Lucky me, the noises from the basement are indiscernible to the neighbors. If someone asked, I’d say I have a television down there and like to watch horror movies.
I don’t go down there every night. If I feed her too little, she gets desperate; too much and she gets too strong too quickly. Instead, I let her go hungry for a few days before I come back. She’s gentle when I do this, almost sweet.
I make sure to bring her a gift once in a while. A dress that looks beautiful on her but that she wears uncomfortably. A comb for her knotted hair. A book, so she isn’t too bored, though more often than not, I find she’s torn it apart page by page. Slowly, she becomes more domesticated. She’s breaking. Something about that fills me with the same kind of warmth as a finger of whiskey.
Whenever I let her drink from me, she looks up at me like I’m giving her mana from heaven.
“I love you,” she whispers one evening.
“Good,” I say, before standing and pulling my jeans back up. “What do you say?”
She wipes her mouth and demurs. “Thank you,” she says, and offers her mouth for a kiss.
I sigh, luxuriating in her obedience, and return it. Of course, I’m afraid that she’ll eventually find a way out. She’ll tolerate the touch of gold long enough to break the chain. Something. The important thing is that she continues to want more, always, and that she stays right here.
The thing is, though, I can’t be home all the time. She may be able to satisfy herself with blood, but I can’t. I have to go out to get groceries and more liquor. Now that my job has let me go for showing up to work drunk, money is tighter, and I can’t get it delivered anymore.
One day, I come back with my arms full of wheat bread, scratch off tickets, frozen dinners, and bottles of vodka, gin, and wine. Nothing seems off, at first, and I go through the front door like usual and unload my bags in the kitchen. It’s only when I go back through the front room that I hear him say my name: “Tara.” It’s a terrible, gurgling whisper.
On the floor is Denny, his throat torn open. Red turns his white shirt pink. His eyes are wide and wet. He lays, spread eagle, in front of the basement door, which is open, now, with all the chains perfectly in place.
He came to check on me when I didn’t answer his texts. Because of course he did. Maybe he felt guilty for giving me the sip of vodka that changed the course of my days. Maybe he remembered finding me where he is now, laying on the floor and trying not to choke on my own vomit.
Denny must have heard her screams from the basement.
I sit beside him as his breath slows and he stills. It’s too late to call an ambulance, I tell myself. Maybe it isn’t, but I’ve never been as kind as Denny. I mostly wonder what I should do with his body.
Why did she choose to kill him but not me? She had all the chances in the world. Yes, I wore gold rings, but she was quick. She could have slit my jugular with her long, sharp nails.
I wonder if she did love me in her own, strange way. She said she didn’t think like humans think, after all. Or maybe she just didn’t think I was worth it, and that her beauty, in its perfection, would be better, more pristine, if it were not tarnished by her being the last thing I saw before I died. Instead, I live with her memory, burning cold in the back of my brain, frozen, un-aging, otherworldly in her beauty, and only for me.