FICTION | Shadow Holds the Shape

16/10/2019

The undead exist without shadow or reflection. Why is that?

 

I’ve often stood in front of reflecting surfaces and not seen myself and deeply wondered: Why?

 

In the display window of an antique shop on West 25th Street near 6th Avenue in Manhattan, there’s a horizontal, oval mirror in a gilt frame carved with wildwood nymphs and fauns. It once reflected a Bowery saloon of the 1890s.

 

The pavement before that shop window was my favorite place to stand in the city’s vague hours and reflect on why I don’t reflect. That antique mirror became my holy site, an intersection between inner and outer worlds. It was where I appeared visible to myself by being invisible.

 

I called it the reluctant mirror.

 

If I concentrated in the right way, my reflection temporarily returned.

 

Why?

 

Why anything, I suppose.

 

Why am I neither alive nor dead?

 

Why do I exist between presence and absence, in a middle realm without boundaries?

 

I’m writing this to find out. And also, to remember my humanity. Perhaps to create a new fate — for myself and for what I remember of being human.

 

Which is you. You’re human, yes? If I can write about my freaky vampyr experiences in a way that makes sense to you, then I haven’t entirely lost my humanity.

 

Right?

***

Darla? Cruz.

 

Hello, darling. Hello? There’s a lot of noise at your end. What is that?

 

Bone saws. I’m at work. Wholesale meat market.

 

Sounds busy.

 

Thursday night. Big restaurant orders for the weekend.

 

You’ve been good about calling in.

 

This is my second call, Darla.

 

You’d be astonished how many drop their sponsors after the first. How are you tonight?

 

Same as every night.

 

Hungry?

 

Craving. I’m really scared. I need to talk. But I got to work right now.

 

We should talk. You’ve heard my story. You know what EAT did for me. Now it’s time for you to open up about your craving. We’re not like AA. There’s nothing anonymous about us. We start off with general principles for the first couple meetings. Then we get really specific and personal about our eating habits.

 

I will. But my shift is starting. I wanted to check in like I promised.

 

You’re being good. I like good boys. Let’s sit down soon. We have a lot to discuss. Like why you’re working there of all places. A meat market? Cruz, you’re an addict.

 

That’s why I’m scared.

 

I used to weigh three hundred pounds, darling! I’m less than half that now. The twelve steps will work for you too. You just started. Give it time.

 

I got to go.

 

You’re coming tonight? I know we talked about you speaking for yourself, for your addiction. Are you still up for that?

 

You really think it will help?

 

Admitting your affliction is the first honest step to recovery.

 

My addiction is way weird, Darla. I’m going to repel everybody.

 

We’re food addicts, Beautiful. We understand each other. And we want to hear what your food problem is. Will you tell us?

 

I drink blood.

 

 

Darla?

 

Sorry. I’m here.

 

I told you. Repulsive.

 

No, darling, no. It’s unusual, that’s all. It is food. Of course. Black puddings, blutwurst, hagis come to mind…

 

I drink raw blood. I’m uncomfortable talking about it.

 

No need to be. Not with us. EAT has helped people with far more outlandish food addictions.

 

You know what people will think.

 

Vampires.

 

Yeah. Bloodsuckers.

 

That’s clichéd. You’re a caring young man, not a monster. And you’re an intellectual — a college student. You called yourself a critical theorist, right? Lawyers are bloodsuckers. Critical theorists aren’t. Look, we all want to hear about you tonight. And whatever you can share about your addiction. About craving…raw blood.

 

See you at the meeting.

 

Soon. Goodbye, Beautiful.

***

The full moon at midnight filled Manhattan’s bright streets with deeper shadows. Of course, as I crossed Stuyvesant at Tenth, I cast no shadow at all. I was a vampyr.

 

Well, I still am. But now I’m done mourning. I’m done feeling sorry for the humanity I lost.

 

My recovery from the living, which began on those luminous streets that very night, has allowed me to accept myself as a vampyr. Which I spell this odd way because craving human blood in the night isn’t like stories and movies tell it. That’s why I’m writing this. To record the real life of the undead.

 

That midnight, I didn’t understand much about real life, not even the real life of people, forget about vampyrs. I was nineteen and a new fugitive from the sun.

 

My parents, Ethan and Marcia Cross, both dentists, both atheists, had named me Jordan, for the river in the Bible that flows into the Dead Sea. They had conceived me on that river, during a holiday tour.

 

Since I became a vampyr, I’ve been calling myself Cruz. I didn’t want my family to find out what had happened to me.

 

Even then I knew there was nothing they could do to help. I had to save myself if I could — and Eva…Eva Evangeli. She died in the attack that had made me a vampyr. And her ghost followed me everywhere.

 

In those early days, I didn’t know how unusual that was. Everything about being a vampyr seemed unusual. And there was no one around to tell me otherwise.

 

The only vampyr I’d ever met was the one who had attacked us and killed Eva. And Eva’s ghost was good at sensing that creature as he moved around in the world. We stayed clear.

 

That’s how we turned up in Manhattan. And why we were on our way to a midnight session of a food addicts support group, EAT — Eating Afflictions Therapy.

 

I had found out about this group online after browsing blood craving help. Of all the 12-step groups in the city, the Manhattan chapter of EAT seemed the most discreet — and effective.

 

Several independent sites had reported remarkable recoveries at that chapter. Enduring rehabilitations. Of bizarre eating disorders, including a celebrity compelled to devour the eviscerated and throbbing hearts of small animals.

 

I’d been living on pig blood. I got it fresh during my night shift at Gansevoort Wholesale Meat, which operates a small custom slaughter shed for specialty orders. The idea of drinking pig blood came to me from vampire movies. Night Watch is my favorite.

 

But even drinking blood hot from a stuck pig’s veins wasn’t gratifying. If I didn’t get help soon, I knew I would succumb to my homicidal hunger. Then, I’d lose my soul — and Eva’s.

 

Survival requires focus. So, I was anxious to quiet Eva that midnight as we crossed Stuyvesant and Tenth on our way to our second EAT meeting. She got hysterical easily. I mean, she was a ghost! She had been dead only two months, and she still spooked herself.

 

Staying close to me was all that kept Eva from freaking and fading away. The cold emptiness pulling at her, and the whistling void she said she heard, made her crazy.

 

Only when I gave her my full attention did she ever stop whimpering. That’s what I was doing on that moonlit street at midnight.

 

Tall enough to look loosely put together, Eva appeared ungainly sometimes. And she had these far apart eyes that often seemed to be staring through you. No matter. She was lovely. With bold, serene features, like a younger sister of the Statue of Liberty.

 

Not that I ever told her that. She already didn’t like the way she looked. When she was alive, she used to hide behind her dark hair. That only made her more alluring. My friends thought she was haughty, until they got to know her and realized she was merely shy.

 

As a ghost, she appeared sullen — when she wasn’t frightened and weeping. She had a languid beauty, the same as those Pre-Raphaelite angels I had pretended she looked like, to flatter her in art class the first day we met.

 

Now she really did look ethereal. Hauntingly beautiful. And the more I concentrated on her, the less transparent she got. And the darker a shadow I cast. We were good together that way.

 

As we crossed the street, she floated alongside brightly torn as cigarette smoke.

As we crossed the street, she floated alongside brightly torn as cigarette smoke.

I stopped at the curb and let nostalgic images brim from the first time we made love. Just the vivid recollection of her tulip-curved nipples pulled all that loose smoke together.

 

She disappeared from the street-lit air under the trees on Tenth, and her reflection floated onto a parked limo’s tinted window.

 

She didn’t appear naked, though I had imagined her that way.

 

The hurt look in her soft eyes made me ache. She didn’t like me thinking of her naked, now that she had no body.

 

Her ghost wore a strapless gown of chiné silk. Eva had taught me about crepe de chiné, lightweight and cool even on humid days in Florida where she had grown up and where we had met at school. I didn’t realize how much she knew about fashion or staying comfortable until she was dead — and her ghost started getting angry at me for imagining her without clothes.

 

“It’s the easiest way to materialize you,” I told her again. That was usually enough for her to scowl about how we could never be whole the way we once were.

 

I didn’t mind when she scowled. What I didn’t like was how crazy she got and sometimes crazy quiet like in a trance.

 

This time, her silence had focus. She stared hard over my shoulder. In a blurred voice, she said, “Someone’s following us.”

 

I swiped a look, unreasonably afraid I would see the brash, bald figure of the Branded Man, the vampyr who had killed Eva. If she had spied him, of course, she wouldn’t have said “someone” — or spoken so calmly.

 

In the streetlight stood a skinny old man all in black wearing a white collar. A priest with buzz-cut gray hair and a sad face, jowly as a basset. The woeful stare he directed at me shifted a little as he noticed Eva’s reflection.

 

And mine.

 

Of course, vampyrs don’t have reflections. Usually. But when I materialize Eva’s ghost, my reflection appears too, floating out of the invisible like an image in a photo lab. Same with my shadow.

 

That’s a handy camouflage that vampires in movies don’t have. An extra benefit of staying close to Eva’s ghost.

 

I could see the confusion in the priest’s haggard face. He had obviously been following us long enough to notice that I had no reflection or shadow until Eva appeared.

 

For a moment, I considered approaching him. I had been very good about not getting noticed since we’d arrived in Manhattan, and I was curious to learn how the priest had spotted me and what he knew of vampyrs.

 

But we were late for the EAT meeting. I looked to Eva, still in eye-lock with the priest. “Come on.”

 

“He’s a priest.”

 

I ignored her as I hurried to our destination, a small building behind St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, where EAT held meetings on the second floor. My reflection in the glass of the side door looked substantial, which bolstered my confidence.

 

Yet, Eva appeared worried. “He’s following us.”

 

For you to understand why Eva fretted, I realize now I have to go back. What I’ve written so far isn’t entirely true. I mean, the facts are right, but I haven’t told you everything.

 

Let me start again.

***

Midnight in Manhattan, the full moon directly overhead filled the streets with silver light, blue shadows — and spirits. The truth of being a vampyr is that I see things the living don’t.

 

In moonlight, I see sylphs. Small transparent bodies swarm in the air. Filled with black light, they glow see-through purple like jellyfish. Convoluted knots of perforated lace, they flutter on unfelt breezes. Eva called them moon sylphs. We had no idea what they were.

 

They seemed indifferent to us as I crossed the street. I didn’t cast a shadow. And neither did they.

 

Eva looked tormented. Even with her ghost shredding like street smoke, I could see tears smeared her face and her eyes trembled. She was about to lose it if I didn’t help her get a grip. I imagined her naked, and her ghost flickered bright and dark really fast, like a fluorescent tube about to come on.

 

Her apparition floated onto a parked car’s tinted window, and her reflection stared hard over my shoulder. “Someone’s following us.”

 

I turned my attention to the priest watching from across the street. Around him, a dozen moon sylphs bounced without weight, mysteriously shapeshifting to a seraphic figure, a looming angel.

 

And that brought up an issue I’d been avoiding with Eva since she’d died and I became a vampyr.

 

A Catholic, she thought she was going to hell, because she had died in sin. And that was why she feared letting go and trusting the emptiness that pulled at her. She had been on me to take her to confession. But really? How was I supposed to do that? I wasn’t a believer. Even so, I was pretty sure that priests didn’t tolerate vampyrs — or forgive the sins of ghosts.

 

Eva ignored my objections. Moon sylphs spread platinum pinion wings in the streetlight above the priest. I hurried us along. I didn’t want Eva getting worked up about heaven and hell. We had problems on earth to figure out first.

 

The biggest problem is always the same: What’s happening? What’s really going on? I hadn’t been a vampyr long enough to trust my new senses.

 

All certainty vanished two months ago, when the Branded Man lurched out of the mangrove shadows in Indian Lagoon Park where Eva and I came at night to make love. The vampyr tore open Eva’s throat in one swipe and bit me on the shoulder with his gruesome smile.

 

I remember jumping away from that blasting pain, numb with terror. The Branded Man’s horrific face pursued: an argument of man and primeval creature. Undershot jaw like a pike. Lobed forehead of an eel. Skin ridged with scars, even his bald head disfigured, dented.

 

His starving stare ate into my brain.

 

Two moons later, that lunar midnight in Manhattan, I remembered that this was a memory from months ago and far away, in Florida.

 

Could it be false? I had to ask myself this, because the way things were before that terrible attack and the hungry way forward had become so crazy different, I didn’t know what was real.

 

Memory might be false but not desire.

 

Desire for blood pulsed in me like breathing. Every other thought fixed on the nearest source of blood. Half of me wanted to approach the priest on that luminous street and take his blood.

Desire for blood pulsed in me like breathing.

Though I had never tasted human blood, my whole being lusted for it. That was reality. My existence had become unmanageable.

 

Fortunately, I had just fed my need at the meat market. The EAT meeting offered an opportunity to feed Eva. And that’s what got her to let go of the priest and his attentive sylphs. She followed me across the church yard. Unless she fed, she would fade — maybe all the way to hell.

***

Feeding Eva meant collecting body heat. That’s how I liked to think of it, though it’s actually life energy, what spiritualists of an earlier time called ectoplasm. In the unreal weeks after Eva died, I had learned how to draw ectoplasm from the living and feed her.

 

She thrived on it. It made her calm and more substantial. But she didn’t like calling it ectoplasm, which sounded too spooky. And she didn’t care to name it body heat or lifeforce, which made her feel we were depriving people of something essential (which we were).

 

So, we agreed it was emanations, and I merely collected it out of the air around people.

 

Our first EAT session, two nights earlier, had provided a lot of emanations for Eva. We hadn’t even made much of an effort to introduce ourselves to the meeting. Curious newbies, we’d sat quietly in a corner and inhaled emanations billowing from the assembled bodies. That had been one of our most peaceful feedings, and we were eager to mingle again with our unwitting donors.

 

Seven warm-blooded bodies awaited us in a dingy room of tall casement windows. Long, naked fluorescent tubes buzzed the length of the ceiling.

 

The members sat well apart among slat-wood folding chairs arranged loosely about a metal stool. These were robust bodies of big-eaters as well as wiry figures buzzing with hunger, who gathered each day for an hour to discuss managing food addiction.

 

Conveniently for me, they met at midnight. Some were insomniacs. Others, like me, showed up at the hinge hour of their night jobs.

 

Darla Whiems rushed to me as I came through the door. She was the meeting’s anchor, the one who set up this midnight chapter of EAT, and a legend among the eating afflicted. She used to weigh a quarter of a ton. Now, she presented herself as the skinny truth for EAT.

 

Truth? EAT is another twelve-step program.

 

What worked at Darla’s meetings was Darla. She thought of addiction as a form of physical intimacy with one’s self.

 

She liked to talk about the sensual experience of eating and the spiritual pleasure available in ‘crave zones’ of not-eating.

 

She defined hunger as the body of desire.

 

“The real body is what we eat, what we make into our own flesh,” Darla began every meeting. “The real body is food. The mystical body is hunger — the body of desire.”

 

Darla was my sponsor, responsible for watching how I handled my food disorder — a craving for blood that she had only found out about that night. I looked to see if my admission had disturbed her.

 

She embraced me with the same vigor as before. And more earnestly. Her skeletal body pressed hard against me, and I could feel her backbones click and clack with the happy force of her hug.

 

“You had me worried, Beautiful! I thought we’d have to carry on without you.” She had the merriest gray eyes, set in big sockets. An angular face, like an aged fashion model instead of the currency broker I knew her to be. “Mmm. You always smell divine.”

 

I smelled to her like the edge of night at the last hour of summer. That was vampyr glamor. I guessed it was there to help vampyrs attract victims. Even the Branded Man had carried that sulky scent of twilight.

 

While Darla stood close, I breathed in her emanation with my whole body.

 

She shuddered and took that enfeebling feeling for a shiver of ardor. Immediately, a warm glow descended over me, and Eva’s ghost grew stronger.

 

Vampyrs are erotic. Our cryptic beauty spills into everything around us and makes even inanimate things come alive. The humming fluorescent lights quieted down and glowed softer. Three or four sylphs pulsated across the room.

 

Empty chairs seemed to swell with longing flowing into them from the people sitting alongside, hoping I would come to them. Each body leaned closer, eager to have my vampyr enchantment near.

 

Before I could choose, Darla led me by the hand to the tall metal stool facing the meeting.

 

I sat.

 

“I’m Cruz. I’m a food addict. I crave blood.” I had no reason to be nervous. The seven people in that room yearned for me to notice them, to communicate directly to them. Yet, dread held me. I had never spoken to anyone about my sickness. “It’s a fixation. An obsession that frightens and disgusts me. I can’t control it. I work at a meat market to be near it. But I’m not a butcher. I’m a college student. Or I was, until…this happened to me. Now blood is all I think about.”

“I’m Cruz. I’m a food addict. I crave blood.”

I paused and tried to read my audience. I didn’t see revulsion or distress, only a rhapsody of fascination. How much could I tell them before horror got a grip?

 

“I’m a vampyr.”

 

Chairs squeaked, bodies shifted. Expressions tightened, curious, concerned. And the fluorescents buzzed louder.

 

“I think we’re all vampires. Food addicts. Our sickness measures in our bodies the sickness of our civilization. We are all vampires, sucking the life out of this planet.”

 

The electric hum softened and expressions relaxed. Sylphs twirled across the room like feathery night moths.

 

“In college, before this addiction got a grip on me, I studied critical theory. And that’s helping me now to see my compulsion in a broader context. My thirsting for blood is not just my personal suffering. It’s explicitly political. But we’re in a post-political world. Consumerism is the only social thought of our time. Even in communist China. There are no other dominant ideas in society, except consuming. We’re all vampires. And so, to defeat that addiction is an explicitly political act. I want to overcome being a vampyr. I want to be a human being again. And that’s why I’m here. Among you. The people. I need your help — to reclaim my humanity.”

 

Seven bodies leaned toward me, rapt.

 

Anxiety lifted, and Eva’s hunger came forward. The reverberation of her need impelled me to keep speaking while I breathed in the emanations of the people entranced before me. I had gotten adept at pulling lifeforce from others to feed Eva, but in the beginning, in Florida, it had almost made me a killer.

 

Human body heat sets me ablaze with bloodlust. Those first days as a vampyr, filled with murderous desire, I pulled away violently when people came near. I bolted. And their bloodsmoke went with me. My need inhaled their savory warmth even as I fled. That’s how I learned about emanations. And how I found out that ectoplasm was enough to fortify Eva’s ghost.

 

By the time I addressed the EAT meeting, my perpetual appetite for blood had become more familiar. I could control my urge to rip throats and feed. Only barely. I needed EAT to help me cope — and to provide for Eva.

 

With my fellow food addicts, I could get close and take my time, as I did with Darla when I entered. She sat in weary reverie listening to my spiel about food addiction as capitalism.

 

I turned my attention to the large woman a few chairs away, Regina Dasani, insomniac program analyst and binge eater, under whose wide haunches the folding chair had entirely vanished. She wore her hair bronzed and tousled, and she dressed provocatively in tight blouses and miniskirts that drew attention to the balloon art of her white legs.

 

Eva scowled at my unkind thought. Her reflection at the far end of the room peeled right off the dark window and fixed me with a glower.

 

I appeased her by giving Regina an earnest smile.

 

At our first meeting, Regina had spoken persuasively, her small hand over her heart as if taking a pledge. She had testified how EAT had saved her life. Her sincerity convinced me to join. I acknowledged that now to the meeting, and when we made eye contact again, she sighed, and her ample blood heat coursed through her slack smile into me.

 

At the back of the room, in the night window, I glimpsed Eva’s wispy wraith brighten beside my reflection. Her flimsy figure floated against darkness that threatened to absorb her.

 

The languishing way she held my gaze made me feel small but whole. We were so close to nothing, a phantom and her undead lover. So close to nothing, yet still together, belonging with each other. Our two fragments of life, complete.

 

A few chairs behind voluptuous Regina perched Duke Dupré. A compact and dramatic black man, he sported a zigzag afro and round eyeglasses of thick, glitter-red resin. He had exploited his celebrity as a gay sex star from the previous decade to make several internet porn sites a torrid success — while failing to manage ravenous, bulimic cravings.

 

I spoke directly to him, as if he were a classmate back in college, “Last time we met, you said food addicts shouldn’t think of themselves as victims. It’s narcissistic. I’ve been pondering that, Duke, and I have to agree. Addiction is something universal. It happens to everybody some way or another. Our cravings might be different, but the conflict is the same. And that’s our solidarity.”

 

Duke Dupré shivered in delicious agreement, and his lifeforce’s warm ether coursed into me.

 

Was this sexual harassment? It was sexual with Dupré, I could see that from the keen way he looked me over. That made what I was doing feel like harassment.

 

Vampyr charm had put that leer on his face. Vampyr charm had left Darla and Regina happily drained. I didn’t desire any of them. I just wanted a piece of their lives. For Eva.

 

Her image in the black window sharpened.

 

On to the next donor: a portly older man with bold, joined eyebrows that rhymed with the black mustache under his narrow nose. The intelligence in his pudgy face scared me.

 

I gathered from what others had said that he was some kind of scientist. He dressed like a yoga instructor, in canvas pants, kurta shirt, and sandals. Not once had I heard him speak. I knew his name because, unlike everyone else, he wore a laminated name tag: Simon Lehns. I somehow sensed I didn’t want his emanation.

 

I glanced at Eva for agreement, and with her eyes she directed my attention to the window at my right. The tall panes reflected the open door to my left. From that angle, I could see the priest who had followed us standing in the corridor. Head bowed, hands held low and clasped, he seemed immersed in prayer.

 

No. He wasn’t praying. He was listening. Attentively.

 

Eva’s phantom image blurred from view and reappeared in the window with the priest’s reflection. Her faith moved her. She had defied her Catholic upbringing when we were alive together, making love with me out of wedlock — and now her anguish for her soul writhed beyond my help.

 

I’ve always been an unbeliever. As a vampyr even more so.

 

Witnessing how Eva’s consciousness floated on the void, thinning toward sheer nothingness unless I gathered blood heat for her, I couldn’t convince myself there was anything immortal about the soul.

 

Her ghost was vaporous, maybe an electrical pattern fading into space, which is no soul at all. Or perhaps she existed only in my vampyr mind, a figment of delirium, and I only imagined others could see her.

 

No matter. She wanted succor. So, I spoke to her and the priest.

 

“These last two meetings, hearing Regina and Duke describe their struggles, and getting to know my sponsor, Darla, I’ve learned that living with addiction means redefining ourselves in a radical way. In my case, because I want blood, I find it useful to define myself as a vampyr. I know it’s shlock and shock. It’s a sick myth. The undead. But addiction is exactly like that. We aren’t dead, but we’re not alive the way other people are. For us, life has become uncanny. We are never alone with ourselves. There’s another will that’s taken us over and no matter who we think we are, addiction makes us act out what we are. We’ve become things moved by another will. And that’s why we need a Higher Power to help us.”

 

I knew that’s what Eva wanted to hear. Her specter evaporated, and the priest raised his head and glanced aside as if brushed by her passing.

 

Where did she go when she disappeared? I never knew. To a satisfied place, I figured, because I saw her only when her mind was on fire.

 

Okay I had lied, acknowledging a power greater than reason. It had got her back to that satisfied place. That was the least I could do, helping her keep faith. Now, I could concentrate on simply keeping her.

***

Is that true? I have to stop myself here and try to remember what really happened. Writing about this is difficult, because it didn’t play out like a sentence, one thing at a time.

 

From the black moment the Branded Man grabbed Eva’s neck in a death grip and sank those tiny pink fangs into my shoulder, reality burst open. Like yanking a hood off my head. Sounds flourished, scents slammed into me, vision dazzled sharper.

 

Eva’s blood had gushed hot in my face. That was my last experience as a man. When sight blinked back, I met her lifeless, gaping face above a severed pipe gurgling crimson. And her ghost.

 

That phantom didn’t look white and see-through gauzy, like a traditional spirit. Lit with luminous colors and wearing the same blue summer dress, she stood brilliantly over her mangled body.

 

Her shocked expression pulled together quickly, livid with understanding. She screamed for me to run, and I heard her in the bones of my face.

 

I splashed into the marsh with Eva while the killer hunkered over her corpse, sousing his grotesque face in her blood.

 

We had scampered up a spongy embankment before I realized I wasn’t running with Eva. What was this flowing presence that looked so brightly like her?

 

Ghost or hallucination, she knew which way to go to elude the vampyr. This predator wasn’t used to losing prey. I could tell from the furious shouts reaching for us in the gloomy forest of mangroves, getting angrier as they dimmed.

 

That was eight weeks ago, and I still had no idea how Eva’s consciousness followed me without a body. How much easier to believe I fabricated her.

 

Maybe vampyrs have the power to collect emanations and materialize whatever they want, even a dead girlfriend.

***

I sat down to a patter of applause, choosing a seat beside a sullen kid with smudged eyeliner. I had never met her before, but I knew who she was.

 

Nydia Chernow, 15-year-old heiress to the international real estate empire of exotic property moguls Irving and Anikka Chernow. For 18 notorious months, she had lived as a devout Satanist, outrage of the town. Darla had gone on about her at my previous meeting when the waif didn’t show.

 

Though Darla wouldn’t talk about the Satanic prodigy’s eating affliction, she enthusiastically divulged lurid details from an interview Nydia had granted the religion section of the Times last year. The article featured the teen’s spiritual convictions, which had motivated her to sacrifice her virginity to a masked man, Satan’s proxy, chosen by lot from the cult.

 

“I’m Nydia Chernow.” She leaned into my charm. “And you’re a vampire.”

 

“That’s what I said.” I breathed her thin heat, and she shivered like a flag. “We’re all vampires.”

 

“Not like you.” She snapped open a compact mirror to end the debate. My reflection deeply surprised her. “Wuh!” She spoke to me in the mirror. “You’re good. How do you do that?”

 

I ignored her. What could a teen in a pink tank top and low rise stretch jeans know about vampyrs?

 

She sagged in her seat, unraveled. “Was that your girlfriend I saw you with on the street?” She gave a lazy smile. “That was me in the limo. Me and Dalton.”

 

She nodded to her chauffeur, a burly warrior sitting in the far corner of the room. He wore a sleek pashmina suit and a very fragile expression on an otherwise brutal face.

 

When I turned to him, he visibly cringed. Immune to my vampyr charm after having glimpsed on the street the truth of me — and what haunted me — he hunched smaller in his elegant suit, and his body heat darkened.

 

That’s when I recalled that I had in fact met this guy and the kid earlier. In the fluttery light under the trees on Tenth, I had mistaken them for creatures of the Bornless Realm.

 

Let me start over.

***

The full moon at midnight filled Manhattan’s bright streets with deeper shadows. A vampyr, I cast no shadow at all. And I saw things the living don’t. Like moon sylphs, transparent bodies, fluent as jellyfish. They morph into all kinds of forms and shapes.

 

Motley dwarves and outlandish harlequins move about the city unnoticed by citizens. Takes a moment to realize they have no depth, and when they turn sideways, they disappear. What are they laughing at, with their mirthful lips stained blue?

Motley dwarves and outlandish harlequins move about the city unnoticed by citizens.

Crossing the moonlit avenue at Tenth near Stuyvesant, I didn’t cast a shadow. And I stayed alert for other things that had no shadow. A masked dancer in a gown of paned colors leaned on the hood of a compact limousine, a maroon Audi with the vanity plate Mourning Star.

 

These colorful figures in placid masks are untouchable. Like moon sylphs and the other mute inhabitants of the halfworld, the closer you get, the less they are there.

 

They belong to the carnival without shadow that vampyrs see. The Bornless Realm. That’s an expression I was about to pick up from a vampyr expert. But I’m jumping ahead.

 

At midnight on Tenth near Stuyvesant, I knew that masked dancers were a good sign. I had learned about them in the darkness of Indian Lagoon Park. That horrible night that I fled the Branded Man with Eva’s ghost, masked dancers stood on hummocks and root-struts. Their luminous frocks and shining cowls showed the way out of the marsh to the highway and the manic mayhem of our first hours undead.

 

Eva trusted the dancers. She calmed down in Manhattan’s moonlit street, enough for me to pull together her reflection in the limo’s tinted window. And for her to spot the priest.

 

That was the real reason I wanted to approach our stalker. A masked dancer had helped to mark him out.

 

Eva smiled. Did I mention that before?

 

I followed her smile several steps toward the priest and paused. He returned her smile.

 

It took time, this smile on the priest’s face, reaching through so much disbelief. That’s when I foresaw all the explaining the old man would need, and I was already late for EAT. And I was afraid, too, what he might say to Eva, about her sin, about damnation, especially with those moon sylphs blurring into an ethereal angel around him.

 

I turned about and briefly spotted Nydia and her hulking driver Dalton in the tree shadows. They could have been bodiless figures only vampyrs see, which is what I thought they were. I guess I thought that, because they stood so still, fixed in place by shock. They had seen a ghost.

 

Only later, when I sat beside Nydia in the honesty of fluorescent lighting did I grasp how she knew I was a vampyr.

 

Eva didn’t care what Nydia knew. She just wanted the kid’s emanation. I sensed Eva coming back from wherever she went when she disappeared. She wanted body heat. We both knew that the more I gathered of the meeting’s emanations, the more vivid and alive she would feel later in my arms.

The more I gathered of the meeting’s emanations, the more vivid and alive she would feel later in my arms.

That’s how messed up I was. I had come to a food addicts meeting to feed on the addicts. I paid no heed to Duke Dupré, who sat pertly on the speaker’s stool holding aloft a bulk size bag of gummy bears. He eyed the candy with an oblique expression of disgust while speaking impassionately about the learned helplessness of addiction.

 

I should have listened. He was describing my exact problem: I wanted control but had none, because I believed I already had it. By drinking pig blood and feeding Eva ectoplasm, I thought I might get a grip on being a vampyr.

 

Feeling in command of my need, I left Nydia slouched and drained.

 

I slid onto a seat behind a tiny woman with skin so white her veins shone green.

 

At the mere sight of those prominent blood vessels, control slipped away.

 

My mouth buckled, fangs erupted. I clamped my jaw shut and pushed away so sharply I tilted my chair back on two legs. For a moment, I hung motionless, perfectly balanced between repulsion and attraction.

 

Then those bold veins pulled me closer, and I rocked forward.

 

Chair legs banged on the floor sharp as a gunshot, and ferocity would have fed. But panic stopped me. A vortex of fear spun me around to face myself, the monster.

 

Silence hit the room.

 

But only for a beat. My vampyr charm made my abrupt behavior seem like enthusiastic agreement with the speaker, and I stiffly saluted Duke. Others immediately offered encouraging noises.

 

But not the pale woman I had almost attacked. She turned full around in her chair and held me with a knowing stare, not unfriendly.

 

She was the meeting’s celebrity, a Finnish concept artist: Kaisa Taika, ka-EE-sa TIE-ee-ka. Her name means Pure Magic. She wandered the world creating challenging eating environments: floating a donut shop down the Amazon, shish kebab from a solar grill on a high slope of K2 (oxygen masks included), and now C’est When, a minimalist Manhattan penthouse where she served exotic food vapors — yes, saturated vapors of white truffles, saffron fugu and other rare delicacies — served in blown glass vessels by humanoid robots. The thousand-dollar-a-plate wait list had extended this artistic event at least another year.

 

Kaisa Taika regarded me as if she approved that I wanted to eat her. A tiny woman of indeterminant age, with white blond hair and Asian eyes in a wizened babydoll face, she looked exactly like an elf or a gnome queen, someone at ease with far-out. I think she knew from the first I was undead.

 

Blood fury left me shaken.

 

Stripped back to my need by the mere sight of veins, I stared hard at this nugget of a human, trying not to see her as food. She met my ardent gaze with an expression packed with self-awareness.

 

That knowing look stalled my appetite. And in that gap between urgency and hesitation, I forced myself to remember what she had told me about her food problem at our first meeting, how she had fixated on eating yellow foods exclusively.

 

Obsessed with counteracting the carcinogenic effects of her chain smoking, she sucked on star fruits, mangoes, and lemons between cigarettes. She ate squash soup and a mound of apricots after each pack. Instead of quitting cigarettes, which she believed would be detrimental to her inspiration and art, she was frantic to stop her yellow craze and hoped EAT could help her expand her diet to orange and maybe eventually red foods.

 

Visualizing summer squash and papayas, I calmed down. My mouth filled with sorrowful emptiness. My fangs retracted, eerily swift, like a crab with raised pincers backing into its secret hole.

 

“Embark the distance.” Kaisa Taika had pitched her foreign voice for my ears alone. I didn’t know what she meant. What distance?

 

She read my befuddlement and leaned over the back of her chair, tiny eyes aglow, carats of bright expectation. She winked. And my brain finally deciphered what she had actually said, “Be dark existence.”

 

Attention sputtered. Did I understand correctly?

 

Had she figured out about my dark existence as a vampyr from our previous meeting?

 

Her astute elfin face, holding my searching stare so confidently, told me that she wanted me to take her emanation!

 

Really?

 

I peered closer and in those pale arctic eyes spied my ghost lover, a wisp of chiné silk and those pale arms open for a hug.

 

I had distracted the session too much already, and Darla Whiems, rousing from her lazy repose, noticed that her meeting’s celebrity was not paying attention. I quickly reached out with my dark existence and drew Kaisa’s ectoplasm out of her along with a sigh of singsong wonder.

 

Her peacefulness filled the room, and Duke Dupré, exploring aloud how powerless he felt before the endless legions of gummy bears, hugged his big sack of candy critters.

 

The more emanations I drew from the meeting, the greater the dreamy rapport among the attenders. That was one reason I had come back. I could do no wrong.

 

Duke gave up the talking stool to Regina Dasani, who presented the meeting with her current dilemma: gastric band or bypass? By then I’d accumulated enough lifeforce for Eva to appear again briefly. She hovered in the harsh fluorescence of the room like a flicker of memory. Just long enough to remind me she had once lived and loved as a woman.

 

She stuttered out of sight.

 

I sat as if attentive to Regina, while my invisible lover tugged longingly. She was eager to move on to our final victim of the night, the real rush on our run of intoxicating ectoplasm, a woman whose beguiling emanation had become the grace, glory and invincible poetry of our undead lives — Chavella.

***

After our first EAT meeting, Eva and I stood in front of the saloon mirror at the antique shop on West 25th and admired ourselves.

 

We looked wonderstruck, our amazed faces peering through hair flustering about us in a phantom wind. A pedestrian strolled right through Eva on that 2 am pavement without ruffling her clothes.

 

Eva wore a split-neck tunic in pink challis styled with roll-tab sleeves and a dramatic high cut hem. Silk stockings of wispy white lace netted sinuous legs. And I leaned forward, brow against the window, to peer down into the mirror at her pale rose pumps of enameled leather. “I wanna see you dance in those shoes, E.”

 

Beside her, I looked disheveled in denim shirt and frayed black chinos.

 

My gaze hardened before our temporary reflection in the saloon mirror. Was that wonder in our faces — or lost in the forest?

 

The desperate absence of my heart answered. How could this image be anything but a mirage? Eva was dead. And I…

 

“Don’t.” Eva’s whisper ghosted through me. “We’re still figuring things out. We’ll find our way back.”

 

“To life?”

 

“To health.”

 

Her lucidity spooked me. She had been mostly incoherent as a wraith.

 

I met the sharp clarity in her eyes, reaching for me from the reluctant mirror. Prisms of fire lit pupils that plumbed darker dimensions. She leaned close, and I could almost feel again the spice of her breath. “We have each other. Look at us.”

 

“We look alive.”

 

“Yes. Tonight gave us strength. We need more. So, take this call — and make sure she’ll be there next meeting. Somehow, she’s special.”

 

“Who?” I exhaled, and as I inhaled my phone hummed.

***

Hello.

 

Hello, Cruz? This is Chavella. I’m sure you didn’t expect me to call so soon. But our time tonight was amazing. And I wanted to tell you that.

 

 

Cruz, you there?

 

Yes. You surprised me.

 

I shouldn’t have called this late. I’m sor…

 

No. I’m glad you did. Tonight was amazing for me too.

 

Really?

 

Yeah really. I like your energy.

 

That’s a relief! I was afraid I’d gushed all over you after the meeting and made a fool of myself.

 

No. I felt an immediate connection.

 

You did? I was so busy trying to impress you I didn’t let you say anything. I’m sort of calling to apologize for that.

 

No need. You charmed me. I’ve never met a software genius before.

 

I did my bit, didn’t I? Jabbering about my app. I didn’t really give you a chance to tell me about yourself. What did you say you were studying in school?

 

Critical theory.

 

Sounds brainy.

 

It’s the study of freedom. The theory is critical of everything that constrains our freedom. Which I guess is just about everything that makes us civilized.

 

I’m critical of everything too — especially what I eat!

 

Yeah, you said you can’t keep anything down.

 

For a while, I wasn’t eating anything! And I wasn’t hiding it anymore. I appalled my parents, ignored my priest, and totally avoided my doctor.

 

You look okay now. What happened?

 

Darla. You know. She makes hunger feel sexy. I saw you with her today. Magic Mama, right?

 

I only just met her tonight.

 

She really likes you. She’s not so cozy-nosey with everybody.

 

Cozy-nosey?

 

Sure, laugh. She made you her best buddy right away.

 

She’s my sponsor.

 

Really? Her site says she doesn’t sponsor individuals. She’s the guru for all of the midnight EAT meeting. You’re some kind of lucky-ducky.

 

I suppose. It’s all really new to me.

 

Do you mind me asking? What’s your affliction?

 

I’m going to talk about that at our next meeting. Will you be there, Chavella? I’d really like to see you again.

 

Yes, yes! I’ll be there. I want to see you again too.

 

Till then, then.

***

Strawberry blonde and splattered with freckles, she looked like a pug-nosed teen, though she was almost thirty. Only her expensive layered cut suggested adulthood. Lanky and rumpled, she didn’t appear all that special. When actually, she was.

 

Transgender programmer, Chavella had created a gay dating app, Beaux Ties, that had made her a colossal fortune before she turned sixteen. Yet, for all her coding skills, she couldn’t stop code her anorexia.

 

Eva and I were not really interested in the story of her molting from Andrew Fogarty code monkey to Chavella hunger artist. All we wanted was her lifeforce. An emanation of wild serenity and creaturely spirit, her body heat was mysteriously different than anyone else’s.

 

Her strength entered me more calmly. More coolly. So cool she quieted my vampyr fever. I felt almost human after inhaling her tranquil ectoplasm. So did Eva. We knew gentleness once more, the sanity of the living. And that peace lasted, sometimes for hours.

 

Of course, then, Eva was eager for more Chavella. But I had to be careful. As human as Chavella made me feel, I was still a vampyr. And she was ruddy. Food. The nectar scent of her blood filled me with dark existence.

 

There’s something else, too. Because Eva responded so well to the virtuoso coder’s emanations, I didn’t restrain my vampyr charm. And I had let Chavella fall in love with me.

 

Love. A dangerous meme. That first night we met her, I thought my love for Eva motivated me. To lift Eva out of her darklong abyss, I wanted all the soothing emanations I could get from that freckle-faced tomboy, all I could get without killing her.

 

Actually, I knew from the first I was going to kill her. The candied scent of her blood assured that. Sweet sticky stuff. Poetry can’t touch that smell. It gave up everything. Musky heat, flesh fragrance, the fresh taste of her wafting into the afterworld, luring wasted ghosts closer — including my Eva.

 

It was easy to fool myself that first night about what love is to a vampyr. Or regret. I love Eva. I didn’t regret deceiving Chavella.

 

Do genius transgenders have ectoplasm of a higher octane? My ghost lover thought so.

 

Eva’s wraith, invisible to all but me, smoked like ground mist along the floor at the EAT meeting. She swirled upright beside skinny Chavella. Smiling nervously, brandy eyes only half filled with sadness, my ghost lover signaled me to hurry.

 

I ignored her. I wasn’t just going to pillage this woman’s lifeforce. Though, obviously, I was. But softly. Could my vampyr charm help her somehow? Perhaps I could meet her in the mirror where she saw herself distorted? Could my glamor restore her beauty there, in the mirror?

 

Immediately that first night at EAT, without any contradiction from me, Chavella had taken my vampyr charm for love. And when I showed up at the second meeting, she didn’t hide her feelings. She had been watching me avidly since I’d entered. Her rangy and boyish frame sprawled casually, but her attention addressed me, focused as a poem.

 

Strategically, she had sat at the far end of the room, so I would come to her last and we could hoard a moment’s intimacy. I dropped into the seat beside her, and she leaned into me, into my dusky scent and cold hunger.

 

Over her shoulder, I watched Eva’s wraith appear in the next seat. Undiluted joy illuminated her. Imagination shone again in her features, as if she were free of the gruesome fact of her death.

 

Chavella and I made eye contact, and space jangled, a merry tambourine. I breathed deeper of her lifeforce, and she sighed dreamily and closed her eyes. If I took any more of her strength, she’d pass out. Any more and Eva would fit so well to the moment everyone would see her.

 

The Satanic pixie girl and the gnome queen already seemed to see her. They didn’t even bother pretending to listen to Regina’s eloquent expectation of the laparoscopic surgery that would throttle her stomach. What had caught their attention was not my dead girlfriend but the haughty satisfaction on Chavella’s face. I shrugged my eyebrows smugly, and the teen looked away. Kaisa Taika only smiled, her already wizened eyes wizening brighter.

 

The remainder of the meeting for me passed in a placid interlude of deliverance. The tarnished gloom about Eva had wholly lifted. She sat there shimmering with wellbeing, no different than when she had been alive, and so for a while my guilt weighed less. I yearned to be alone with her now that she was herself again.

 

The moment Darla signaled us to rise and hold hands for the closing declaration, I touched eyes expectantly with Eva. We would have our moment, our intimacy and renewal, as soon as we sent Chavella on her lovelorn way. To either side of me, Chavella and Kaisa squeezed my hands, swaying with vampyr charm as we chanted EAT’s closing refrain:

“Source of Life, grant me serenity

to accept food as your intimacy,

courage to meet our cravings adequately

and wisdom to know

the real body is food,

the mystical body is hunger.”

 

That last syllable still growled as I turned and hurried Chavella out of the room. Eva led the way, disdaining the open door and striding right through the wall.

 

Chavella didn’t mind me pushing her along. Her warm, freckled face met my quiet happiness with urgent eyes and passion that seethed from deep within, from down in the stillness of herself.

 

That fervent bond, taut and electrical, snapped like a cable and spat sparks the instant we crossed the threshold. The priest who had followed us blocked our way.

The priest who had followed us blocked our way.

Hot points of light flurried around him. It took me a moment to realize that these were the sylphs I had noticed about him earlier. They had cringed to fiery motes. A field of forceful emotion had pulled them tight.

 

Took me a beat to realize that my vampyr sense recognized anger, furious anger, though his face and body language seemed calm. In fact, his rage had burned holes in reality, leaking fiery radiation from an alternate universe, maybe heaven, probably hell.

 

“Father Angus!” Chavella stopped in the doorway, voice round with surprise. “What are you doing here?”

 

He smiled benevolently. No trace of ire showed.

 

Instead, he spoke to me in the sturdy, serene voice an oak tree might have, “You must be Cruz Jordan, our Chavella’s new friend.”

 

Chavella’s surprise had turned fragile, “Did mother send you?”

 

“Not directly.” A smile of shared confidence poised on his lips. “This is your first real pal since the change.” The priest placed a protective arm across her shoulders and amiably separated her from me. “So much enthusiasm, so quickly. I had to meet this wonder boy for myself. Your mom doesn’t know I’m here.”

 

“After you see how charming he is, don’t forget to tell her he’s cute, too.” Her voice sounded fondly attuned, and by that I knew he was as much friend and confidant as priest and confessor. “Cruz Jordan, this is the priest who baptized me in my infancy as Andrew Fogarty and then again all grown-up as Chavella Anorexia. Father Angus Kieran married my insomnia and my eating disorder.”

 

I lifted questioning eyebrows in greeting.

 

“I introduced her to EAT.” He smiled, and his hound dog features folded up into deep creases of human tenderness. All the same, what he had seen of me on the street with Eva showed in his eyes. When he looked me over, he beheld a creepy, sneaky monster. His hideous fury kindled.

 

To Chavella, the priest’s intensity projected friendly enthusiasm. He stuck out a big-knuckled hand, and I flinched.

 

My vampyr clarity detected threat in that lockjaw grin and flat stare. Flat yet deeply interested. Like a surgeon scrutinizing a tumor.

 

Brusquely, he grabbed my right hand and pressed something hard into my palm. Lightning shot up my arm, and I jolted backward so violently I collided with Regina Dasani and knocked the big woman onto her rump in the doorway.

 

A quick glance at my hand revealed a small metal crucifix blistering my palm. What is it about right angles that hurts vampyrs? I had no clue at the time. I remember feeling something stronger than that searing pain — a surge of hopeful expectancy that here at last was someone who obviously knew about vampyrs. I had to speak with him.

 

But not here.

 

With all my strength, I focused on pushing pain out of my wound and back into the crucifix. I stepped into the priest, into his field of malice, and took his hand again. “I can’t accept this,” I said for Chavella’s benefit and returned the metal icon. “I’m not religious. And, besides, don’t the Commandments warn us not to worship idols?”

 

I acted miffed, an offended atheist and critical theorist refusing to pander to superstition — and I turned away brusquely, desperately.

 

I was halfway down the corridor before the pixie Satanist caught up with me. Her driver, Dalton, stood well away.

 

“He burned you!” Nydia gloated. “He got you good.” Even without black lipstick, her sneer would have gleamed.

 

I opened both my hands in a casual gesture, as if brushing off the priest while actually dismissing Nydia’s suspicions. “I hate religion.”

 

Her victorious expression withered when she eyed my unscathed palm. Not a mark remained of the scalded wound, because I had used most of the emanations I had gathered from the meeting to heal myself for the moment.

 

I felt dizzy from the effort. Nevertheless, I smiled. My vampyr charm still had heat. That may have been all that kept the priest from chasing me. That and Chavella holding onto him, trying to figure out what had just happened.

 

The rest of the meeting gathered around Regina, helping her upright, checking she was unhurt. I met her startled fragility with what remained of my smile, and the moment expanded between us warm as baking bread.

 

Only the cold stare in the priest’s dogface defied my charm. Oh, he felt my enchantment all right, the timelessness I brought to that moment, the same eternity we all experience when the day ends in hushed flamboyance. But it was like his mind had an impervious coating shielding him from me. He had been trained.

 

The others hurried forward, led by Regina, eager to mollify my hurt feelings. Chavella, too, tried to come to me, but the priest clasped her in both arms. She reached for me with all the dreamy ambition a woman can put in her face. I would feed again from her. Even if the priest told her everything.

 

Nydia followed me down the stairs, and on the first landing she took my arm. “I can help you.” She spoke like a child praying, softly, intently. “I know other vampires.”

 

She didn’t. Any vampyr could hear the lack of destiny in the way she said vampires. Such a hollow sound. I breathed in the emanations from her center of gravity, and she slumped against me.

 

More like a sigh than a whisper, I told her, “Leave me alone.”

 

Gnats of angel fire drizzled down the stairwell, and I knew Father Kieran was on his way. I wanted to face him and learn.

 

My throbbing hand insisted now was not the time. Unable to stand, Nydia draped herself against me, head on my chest, listening for the heartbeat that wasn’t there.

 

I propped her against the wall. Even as she lolled about stupefied, her avid eyes promised inexhaustible devotion.

 

I hurried downstairs.

 

In the lobby, Eva waited. Her reflection stood in the glare of the glass door against the night.

 

Serifs drifted by outside, neon moon sylphs, and frizzles of spirit fire. They couldn’t budge my focus from Eva. We had lost a lot of our strength to the priest’s attack. Still, she filled the emptiness softly, like flesh, vibrant, humming with withheld movement, with life.

 

I didn’t want to open the door and push the presence of the woman I loved into darkness.

 

Presence? This was a ghost upgraded to a reflection. An absence of presence.

 

That blunt thought surprised me. I needed a moment to accept that this fact had come along to help me get through the door. It came from the part of me that loved the night more than people. More than Eva.

 

I feared that part of me. And I didn’t want to obey and push open the door, not until Eva moved.

 

Nydia shambled down the stairs, defying the sleepiness of my charm. Close behind, Darla descended pleading, “Darling! Don’t leave mad. EAT has no religious affiliations…”

 

Heavenly confetti showered onto the steps hot as welder’s sparks.

Heavenly confetti showered onto the steps hot as welder’s sparks.

I turned to Eva’s reflection. With a look of understanding and blazing affection, she vanished, and I shoved through the door, sideways into the night.

***

Father Kieran’s crucifix had seriously hurt me. So had cross streets and the cross grid of window panes in the first days before I learned to avoid them. What is this problem the undead have with orthogonal angles? There had to be some serious vampyr science at work here. What did the priest know?

 

Dazed by his attack, I wandered into alleys and back lanes for hours. My phone buzzed with calls from Chavella and Darla, and I turned it off. Hunger sharpened in me. Unless I avoided people, I would feed — I had gotten that depleted, that sucked up into vampyr need.

 

Instinct urged me to get across town, to my narrow keep under the elevated roadway of East River Drive. I felt safe there, high off the ground and yet buried under traffic in a claustrophobic crypt, a concrete niche, more like an oversize seam between the road bed and the span’s undercarriage. No one living could squeeze in there.

 

Would I always have to hide from the day in crawlspaces? Always avoid hot cross buns, Phillips head screws and vengeful priests? Crave human blood always?

 

I wanted to be human again. I fully intended to rejoin the living. That was my daily ambition among the undead in those early days — or I should say nights.

 

Maybe there was no way back to my humanity. Maybe, like the moon I saw that night in abandoned solitude at the end of the alley, I stood apart. Forever. Even if I completely avoided human blood, I would never be human again.

 

Was that true? In the bereaved dark, I could smell my fear. I needed more information.

 

The internet, libraries, bookstores offered nothing about vampyrs. Father Kieran was the only person I’d met who seemed to know. I pondered how I might find him — and not get killed by him.

 

How did the undead die? The ferocity twisting in me and calling itself hunger promised I would die unless I fed soon. I knew this wasn’t true. Hunger scorches the vampyr until the mind chars black. I had experienced that in Florida, in those first terrible and chaotic nights as a vampyr, when I was so shocked I refused to feed at all. By the fourth night, bloodlust had seared my mind black. And when I woke from that blackout, I had fed.

 

If Eva had not kept us in the swamp park and if there had been people anywhere near, I would have awakened to more gruesome remains than the ripped throat of a white-tailed deer. Eva’s clarity had kept us from killing people and probably getting killed at the beginning of this nightmare. Since then, something in her had broken.

 

Dressed in defeat, Eva stood at the end of the alley. Her silhouette against the moon looked flimsy. I knew if I peered into her face, I’d see bad things. Dullness. Emptiness. Her mind small as a whisper. Better not to look, I figured and stepped from the alley onto a side street.

 

Blood gleamed in the air. The carnal scent of human hearts pumping came from a city road crew filling potholes upwind. The hot stench of asphalt only heightened by contrast the body heat pulsing on the night breeze. Hunger scorched me, and I scurried across the street into the next dark alley.

 

What moved me to avoid feeding? It sounds simple: the vampyr in me flared with voracious appetite, while my humanity wanted nothing to do with that need and walked stiffly away.

 

How could human nature defy my vampyr identity? I am undead. Feeding on human blood is the common call and basic order of my kind. But that night, I hadn’t yet sorted out what is living from what isn’t for the undead.

 

And that confusion derails my narrative. I mean, who is narrating these events? Am I the vampyr or the human? Or is it obvious, I am undead — and therefore anything I write about my human life is memory and fantasy?

 

Do you see the problem? How reliable is the memory of being human for a nonhuman? Writing all this down is supposed to show you the real life of the undead. If human nature is false memory for a vampyr, I’ve reached a point in my writing where I’m less sure who “you” are (if you’re human) — and what I mean by “real.”

 

Who made me defy the vampyr’s impulse to stalk my prey? The road crew had parked a gravel truck alongside a manhole, providing a convenient screen for taking down and carrying underground the first worker to stray out of sight. Who forced me into the alley and set me running into a dementia of shadows?

 

Can I sort that out? Can I know who is writing this?

 

Who remembers that lane of recycle bins and supercans as “a dementia of shadows?”

 

I’m not trying to be obtuse. I’m the one who fled down the alley with the moon behind me and building security lights throwing shadows. Except mine. Something noble focused me when I took the risk of running away from food. I’m just having trouble remembering what that “something” was. And why I think it was noble.

 

Earlier, I’d written that something in Eva had broken. I think it was the same “something” I’ve forgotten. I want to say “humanity.” That was what I had studied in college. Not the humanities but humanity, the kind of thinking that makes a mind human. It’s called critical theory. I had become obsessed with what people think they know and how knowledge promotes or inhibits action.

 

This is humanity’s dark glamor, what people wrongly believe is noble: morality, passionate intensity, certainty. Like Father Kieran, so sure vampyrs must be destroyed. Or like me that night, certain that I had to avoid drinking human blood — even if it meant losing my mind.

 

My human mind.

 

I see now. Writing all this down shows you that the real life of the undead is about losing the human mind. I am a body without a soul — and writing is a soul without a body. With these words, I’m really trying to meet my absence.

 

Is that the truth?

 

The truth is punishment for having a secret. In those first weird nights as a vampyr, I thought I could be human again. Trying to write this now, I realize I’m writing about my absence, the lost “I” that once was human. That was my secret, until the truth took me to the boundary of myself.

 

This is confusing. Let me start again.

***

Father Kieran’s crucifix had damaged me, left me crazy for my crawlspace. That’s why Eva surprised me when she spoke from behind me in the alley with such care and dignity, “You’re more scared than hurt, Jordie.”

 

Sometimes I heard her disembodied voice. Usually just mewling or weeping. Spooky grief sounds. After losing so much strength, I didn’t expect to hear anything cogent from her. I didn’t even bother turning around.

 

I kept my attention among the exaggerated shadows cast by the alley’s motion-sensing lights. All this illumination assured me the homeless had no sanctuary here and I wouldn’t stumble on any alley-sleepers to test my abstinence. I moved quickly to the next street.

 

“Won’t you talk with me?”

 

“Wait up,” I urged. “We’re almost there.” We had walked through the early morning byways and made it to Cherry Street. There, we could see the gargantuan span of the Manhattan Bridge. Its girdered underside crossed above FDR Drive and soared over the East River.

 

We stood in sight of my narrow refuge under the el. Three pre-dawn bicyclists flurried past, silent as souls.

 

“Don’t go up there yet.” Eva beckoned in a voice without force. “I’m not tired.”

 

How could that be? She should have been dead silent with fatigue or else ranting. When I turned about, I found her ghost leaning against a brick wall, naked. Her black hair against her pale skin shone with a luster almost like heat. Even the tuft between her thighs glowed softly, a glossy flame of black fire.

Even the tuft between her thighs glowed softly, a glossy flame of black fire.

Reading my gaze, she smiled and lowered her eyes, hiding the light in her face. “You still think I’m beautiful?” Then she gave me a mischievous look from under her brows. “Sexy?”

 

This was how we had held onto each other during those two months she had been dead and I undead. If she could arouse me sexually that meant I was still human. Vampyrs lusted for blood not sex.

 

Surprise, not desire, thickened in me. I gazed at her, at how vivid she appeared. A vivid ghost, irreducibly present. How was that possible, as depleted as we were?

 

She cupped her breasts in her hands and thumbed the pink tulips of her aureoles. “Am I sexy?”

 

I spoke with the certainty of a man, “You’re stunning.”

 

“I’m dead.” She gave a crooked smile, as if mocking my necrophilia.

 

Irony? Eva’s ghost had to be strong. On our best nights, Eva got witty. Witty and wounded, clasping her human joy as a tool for her ghost to work on our sincerity, she laughed at how love had led us here — to where she was bodiless and I hollowed of life.

She laughed at how love had led us here — to where she was bodiless and I hollowed of life.

We usually used the emanations we’d gathered to remember making love. Holding onto the feeling of being human, we had these graphic replays of our sexual intimacies from the life we’d lost.

 

We often took our passion to the top of the Manhattan Bridge Arch. Sculptural panels on the sides of the Arch depict winged female spirits of Industry and Commerce, which to Eva looked like angels. She liked making love with angels guarding us from below. Like we were in heaven already.

 

Up there, the city dazzling against the scarlet night with the glittering dreams of the living, we touched.

 

I know. It was unreal. She was a ghost after all. But with the remaining emanations of the living, we remembered life. And she remembered her nakedness and her passion. Real passion, like when we were alive. Maybe more real, because we remembered it so well.

 

She rode me like she used to do in the dorm when my roommate was away. We blazed with the same intimacy we had kindled in the park’s remote tree coves at night where the vampyr ultimately found us.

 

She rode me with her hair down, falling across her shoulders, swaying over her face and breasts. And when she was ready, she would pull at my shoulders, and we’d roll over, and I’d ride her to climax, with her body slippery and fragrant under me, not a ghost at all.

 

Afterward, in the ceremonious silence, with the sounds of the city a tapestry all around us, we shared a look of love. I’d never seen love, actually seen it. I did then. She loved me, the man. When we made love, when she aroused me, we were human again. And when she looked at me that way, with those large, peaceful eyes empty of sadness, full of triumph at reclaiming me, we never felt so alive.

 

All of it was an illusion, of course — a fantasy shared between the dead and the undead. Eva knew that, too. And that’s when she would make her anguished jokes about a love greater than death and how I obviously didn’t love her for her body because she didn’t have one.

 

As our spent emanations wafted away in the treacherous predawn light and my lover returned to emptiness, to the nothing I imagined was her satisfied place, contempt abundantly replaced joy in my empty chest. I was a vampyr. I had no right to love.

 

Each time that I slinked back to my crypt after those erotic episodes, I wasn’t thinking about love. Revisiting sex as a vampyr had helped convince me I could be human again. Still hurting from Father Kieran’s attack, I wasn’t so sure.

 

Eva saw that in my expression. In the last tattered minutes of dark before dawn, she saw that. She didn’t stir from where she leaned against the brick wall. Her improbable beauty, her nakedness, shone like an omen, like a vision that had matured in a dream and entered waking life to mean more than it seemed.

 

I’m writing nonsense. Because as five o’clock in the morning came to an end that Friday after our second EAT meeting, her nakedness didn’t move me. These last few weeks of pretending I was a man, reminiscing the heat and muscularity of sex, seemed wrong. The very idea of lust pressed on me like a bad thing, a cruel indulgence. Nonsense.

 

Eva read all that in my face or behind my face, which I’m confident she perceived even more clearly. And she nodded once with disconsolate understanding. “The priest knows you’re a vampyr.” She stepped toward me, her nakedness disappearing into an airy white dress pleated, tucked and mere as origami. “The priest knows. Maybe he’ll help us.”

 

Behind her, down the alley, the moon’s fullness shimmered between buildings. Sylphs and masked dancers in harlequin pajamas frolicked there, small with distance and black in the lunar light like notes of music. Sadness broke through me. Mortal sadness. “You’re dead. And I’m a vampyr. No priest can help us.”

Sylphs and masked dancers in harlequin pajamas frolicked there, small with distance and black in the lunar light like notes of music.

“Don’t say that.” Wonder wedged her eyes wider. “I felt grace tonight. From the priest. And the crucifix.” She placed her palm against my cheek, and benevolence flowed. “I know the crucifix hurt you. But look at me, Jordie. Look at how strong and clear I am! The crucifix hurt you. But it made me strong.”

 

My attention was down the alley. I thought I had glimpsed movement, smelled blood heat. Even though the security lights still glared, I saw no one. The low moon glistened like lychee meat.

 

“Why won’t you look at me? Do I have to be naked for you to see me?”

 

“Eva, I’m sorry. I’m scattered. I didn’t expect to see you at all after what the priest did.”

 

“I know. I’ve been trying to show you.”

 

“I assumed…”

 

“That the crucifix hurt me. But it didn’t. My faith protected me.”

 

“I’m confused, Eva. I don’t know what to believe.”

 

“You always know what you believe, Jordie. It’s the vampyr that’s hurt and confused.”

 

“We need information.”

 

“Information? Or protection?” She spoke in a turbid voice, cloudy with worry. “The priest hurt you. He got the vampyr’s attention. You want to see the priest for the wrong reason. For information that will protect the vampyr.”

 

“No. I’m not a vampyr.” I sounded unconvinced, even to myself. “I haven’t tasted human blood. I’m still a man, Eva. I need to find out what he knows.”

 

“He may only know how to kill you.” She held my face in both her intangible hands. “But then your soul will go to heaven.” She waited, hoping that silence would prompt me to agree. The man in me didn’t believe in heaven. The vampyr scorned belief. Her eyebrows bent sadly. “If that’s the only way to help you, Jordie, will you let him kill you? Will you join me?”

 

“I don’t believe in heaven.”

 

Her expression went from hurt to defiant to a sudden smile of recognition. “That sounds like the man I love. You don’t want to go on as a vampyr, do you? What if you already are a vampyr whether you drink human blood or not? What if you can only ever be a vampyr? We’ll die together, right, Jordie? Like we agreed?”

 

“We’ll talk to the priest.”

 

“You’ve promised me that before.”

 

“This time, there is a priest who knows about us.”

 

“He hurt you. He looked like he wanted to kill you.”

 

“He was trying to protect one of his flock.”

 

“Do you think he will tell Chavella about us?”

 

The thought of losing Chavella didn’t trouble me now that Eva naked meant nothing. “I don’t know.”

 

The lights in the alley went off. The building behind which the moon had disappeared glowed with an aluminum aura. Somewhere far over New Jersey, the Bornless Realm pranced onward following the night.

 

A few moon sylphs lingered in the alley, suffering little things, fluttery and blistered, like sea anemones singed with a cigarette. I’d noticed before, as the lunar night moved on, weaker sylphs got left behind. A few times, after amorous recollections of when we were alive, after Eva had disappeared into her satisfied place, I would breathe on the frail sylphs whatever emanations remained. They brightened. Briefly. Then flared away like magician’s flash paper.

 

What were they?

 

What were we?

 

“You’re more scared than hurt, Jordie.” The intelligence in Eva’s clear eyes penetrated my misery. “But there’s nothing to fear. Don’t you see? Grace has brought us to this moment.”

 

My hand still throbbed from the crucifix. No grace there. “Who are you?”

 

I actually expected an answer. She stood there as if listening.

 

“I don’t know who I am either.”

 

“You’re Jordan Cross. You’re the man I love.”

 

The chill that went through me was so cold it felt like electricity. A subway rumbled by on the elevated tracks. I barely heard it. “I’m not Jordan anymore. I’m Cruz now. I’m a vampyr.”

 

“No. There’s a way out.” She paused as if sharing a heartbeat. “The priest.”

 

I said nothing. I only nodded. I noticed how her eyes had gotten still, her pupils dilated. She needed affirmation. And maybe she was right. Maybe the priest had answers. And maybe the answer was death.

Maybe the priest had answers. And maybe the answer was death.

“Go,” she spoke.

 

I didn’t understand at first. Her set gaze was not reaching into me for agreement. She was staring beyond me, down Cherry Street to the public housing buildings in the east. Dawn painted pink the shelves of clouds between the bulky buildings.

 

Eva shifted her attention, and the ferocious sparkle in her dark eyes fixed me in sharper focus. “Or stay. Stay, my love. And we’ll end this sorrow now.”

 

I reached for her. Of course, I touched nothing. Felt nothing. And I felt everything, everything she meant to me. All of that a ghost. Why not stay on the street with her, wait for the sun to end this? For the undead, death is a power greater.

 

The sickly moon sylphs in the alley bobbled higher, as if reaching for the first rays of killing light to end their misery.

 

Watching them, I felt the ignition of something imperative in the empty place where my heart had once thrived. I wanted to know. What were these things? What was this nocturnal phantom world outside the common reality of the living? Who were these protoplasmic shapeshifters and pied dwarves moving about the city unnoticed by citizens? Into what higher dimension did they vanish when they turned sideways? What were they laughing at in the moon shadows? Was I part of their cosmic joke?

 

I wasn’t ready to die. I wanted answers.

 

Sadness lightly touched Eva’s face. “Go.”

 

I went. From under the protective shade of the elevated road, I looked back. Sunlight inflamed the summits of buildings and flared in rigid stars from top story windows. My eyes burned. I retreated deeper into the blue shadows cast by the bridge.

 

Eva didn’t budge. She stood erect, proud to face me with the form and countenance of a living woman. In that incandescent moment, seeing her daring the day to claim her, I never loved her more, never felt more sure why I had taken her love into my care and why I could never betray or forsake her.

 

A morning breeze off the East River rippled her silky dress and breathed through her long hair. Daylight descended into the side street and struck her full on. As if in collusion with reality, a shadow briefly threw her shape onto the sidewalk.

 

She put a hand to her heart, swept that hand toward me and vanished. Through the emptiness she left behind, my aching eyes saw into the alley we had exited.

 

Nydia Chernow stepped out of the shadows. Our gazes met. The young Satanist smiled. And though she stood in brilliant sunlight, darkness smoldered in her face.

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