Amelia Slemp is currently a freshman college student in Ohio, majoring in Sacred Music, with a concentration in voice. This is only the second story she has submitted for publication, and the first to be published. In her free time she enjoys reading, writing (obviously…), singing, and exercising in preparation for “American Ninja Warrior”.
by Amelia Slemp
My vampire mother was tired of me before I was even born, inducing labor at four months. After my three following months in the hospital she gave me to a couple on her street and forgot about me. Mr. and Mrs. Baker were in their mid-fifties when I was left with them, and had never wanted children. They weren’t really given a choice. Considering the situation, they did a fine job raising a vampire/human mutt. I spent most of my childhood in the back of a dingy coffee shop while Dad worked the night shift, or on Mum’s green, shag carpeted living room floor, doing school work and reading Harry Potter.
It would have been easy for them to hate me.
But they didn’t.
I close the door to my basement apartment and toss my bag of groceries on the kitchen counter. It’s still early in the night, around 11, and I push the thick, heavy curtains back from the windows set high in my living room wall, letting the moon shine through. It casts white rectangles of light across the room, leaving the rest in darkness. I walk back to the kitchen and start putting food into cupboards with a little more force than necessary. The Steersman’s six year old boy went missing today. That makes three kids from my apartment building in the past two weeks. The police have been overwhelmed by gang drug dealing in the Walmart parking lot, and don’t have a clue to follow even if they had time. I leave out a can of cat food and crumple the empty plastic bag in my fist.
“Casper,” I call, digging through the junk drawer for the can opener. “Casper, food.” I open the can and dump it into his bowl. “Casper!” No cat. I grumble under my breath and walk back into the living room.
My apartment is not big. The kitchen is the size of a pool table, and the living room maybe three times that. The single bedroom wouldn’t fit a king sized bed, and the water heater for the apartments above me is squeezed into my bathroom between the shower and sink. My point being, there’s not a lot of places for a cat to hide. I look in my bedroom closet and squeeze around the water heater to check the shower. I lay flat on my stomach and peer under the couch. No cat. Now not only do I have to worry about neighboring children being kidnapped, my cat has gotten himself lost. I rest my forehead on the shag carpet and take in the smell of dust, cat, and burnt coffee beans.
There is a knock on my door. I turn my head to the side and give it a hard stare before pushing myself to my feet. I leave the chain in place and crack the door open. The fathers of the three missing children are standing on my rug, shuffling their feet. It looks like every other tenant in the building, maybe twenty people, is gathered in the alley up my stairs. I close the door and take several deep breaths before I undo the chain. It rattles in my fingers, and I keep my hand on the door handle as I reopen the door.
“I’d welcome you in, but I don’t think you’d all fit in my apartment.”
“We’ve come to talk about our children, Bristol,” Steersman says, ignoring my comment. He is the tallest and broadest of the three men. Mathews is standing on his left, bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet, staring at the door frame above my head, and Bartlebee is on his right, sweating more than the heat of the night allows for, the collar of his shirt several shades darker than the rest of it. All three men have their hands in their pockets, and I get the feeling that they’re hiding something in their fists.
“What about your children?” I say, looking Steersman dead in the eyes. He holds them for a second, then lowers his focus to my nose.
“Somebody’s kidnapped them, Bristol. Someone’s stolen three of our children in the past two weeks.” He waits, but I don’t say anything. “We thought you might know something about it.”
A bit of me in the back of my mind starts grinding its teeth and putting on its fighting gloves. It was obvious what they wanted from the moment I opened the door, but it still makes my blood pound harder to hear them say it. “I have no idea what has happened to your children.” I say, trying unsuccessfully to make my words sound sympathetic. Mathews looks down at his feet and continues to rock. Bartlebee tightens his grip on the thing in his pocket.
“We don’t want trouble.” Steersman says, his jaw tight. “Just give us back our kids and we’ll leave you alone.”
“Check with the police. Maybe they’ve turned up something.”
“The police?” Steersman lets out a huff of air through his teeth. “Three children missing near dark just months after a vampire moves into our building, when nothing like this has happened for years before. Do you think we’re idiots?” A look has come into his eyes—the lion-like look of a man who is ready to do something he won’t regret—but the blood is raging in my ears and I don’t much care what he does.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” I say, dropping all pretense of courtesy. “I’m not a vampire, and I. Don’t. Have. Them. Why would I want three kids? If you haven’t noticed, I’m not much of a father figure and I haven’t eaten meat since I was four.”
Steersman takes two steps forward, right into my doorway.
He’s only an inch taller than me, but he’s twice as big in the shoulders and blocks out most of the light from the streetlamp in the alley outside. I take an involuntary step backward, into my apartment.
“I don’t know where you’ve put them, and I don’t care what twisted reasoning you have for taking them. If our children aren’t home by sundown tomorrow we’ll come back with the police. And if they won’t do anything, we’ll take care of it ourselves.” He glares straight into my eyes, but I don’t blink and again he is the first to look away. He reaches in and grabs the door handle, pulling it shut behind him. I hear their feet crunching up the steps, and the murmur of voices in the alley outside. After several seconds of silence I step forward and push the dead bolt into place. My breath is coming fast and my face feels hot. I stare at the closed door another minute before walking back into the kitchen and grabbing a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. My hands are shaking and I set the bottle down without taking a drink, so it’s harder for me to notice.
A half hour later I leave my apartment, black baseball cap pulled over my eyes and a wooden bat resting against my shoulder. The bat feels less than reassuring in my hands; I may have some minor healing abilities and more muscle than the average guy who doesn’t go to the gym, but that doesn’t make me any good at fighting monsters. Maybe I’m lucky and it’ll just be some human creep, hoarding toddlers.
The moon is a perfect crescent tonight; the shape you always see in pictures and movies. I thank my guardian angel that it’s not whole. Whips of smoke and fog from the city block most of its light, but there’s plenty for me to see by. I look around the alley outside my apartment building and turn left, away from the main road. I don’t have a clue where to look, but luckily whatever is stealing the children is out at night and seems to have some fascination with my apartment building. If I’m going to find them anywhere, I’m willing to bet it’s in the maze of alleys around my apartment. That’s the direction children run off in.
After a quarter of an hour aimless wandering I stop. I’m not well in tune with magical energies, not being completely magical myself, but something inhuman has been in this alley. I frown. There are no vampires, werewolves, or any other kind of semi-civilized creatures living for blocks. That’s why I moved here. That’s why my rent is so expensive. I close my eyes and feel the energy in the air. It’s faint. Almost more of a taste than anything else. A slight lemony, metallic hint on the tongue. Like window cleaner. Whatever left this trail isn’t powerful, perhaps even less powerful than me. I walk, following the energy around corners and through alleys. The taste leaves and I come up short, opening my eyes. I’d forgotten I had them closed, and looking behind me see an oddly green mattress and several discarded televisions I was lucky not to have broken my shins on. I inch back the way I came and the taste returns. I look around the alley. There are no doors around, and the walls are too high and smooth for anything I know of to climb. I look down. There’s a grate in the ground, leading to what I assume is the sewer. I crouch down and set my bat on the concrete next to me, wrapping my fingers around the bars of the grate. I pull, the rusty metal groaning, and the grate grudgingly comes up. I manage to move it over a foot before releasing it with a clang. I lower my head to the hole. Whatever left the trail of energy is down there.
“Brilliant,” I mutter, grabbing my bat in one hand and lowering myself into the hole. I love wandering around sewers after mysterious magical creatures with no protection but a stick and my own insignificant physical prowess. Give me more, please.
I drop down a couple feet and land on a cement walkway, not wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Goosebumps raise on my arms, and the sweat brought on by the heat of the street above suddenly feels cold and clammy. To the left of me is black, rushing water. I give it a long stare before following the taste of lemon to my left, baseball bat held at the ready. I don’t know how the running water rule applies to me. I’m not anxious to find out. Close to an hour passes as I walk through the dripping tunnels. The trail is twisting and convoluted, making turns whenever possible. More than once I pass through the same stretch of tunnel, walking the opposite direction. If I didn’t have the same trail to follow on the way out I’d be worried about getting lost. As time passes I lower the bat from my shoulder and swing it by my side. There is a gentle swish on every other step, as it goes past the leg of my jeans.
There is a flame bobbing ahead of me, cotton candy blue against the black of the tunnel. It is barely bigger than that of a match, and moves first to the left, then the right, as if wanting to get my attention. I take a step forward, squinting at it. After complete darkness the flame is almost blinding. As I step forward the flame bobs back. I take another step and it retreats again. As my eyes readjust to the light I see a small shape behind the flame, an outstretched hand bobbing left and right with the light. Anyone without my night vision wouldn’t have been able to see it there. It’s a Will-o’-the-wisp. Will-o’-the-wisps live in dark, damp places and lure children and animals off with their flames. I think they eat them after that.
I narrow my eyes and raise my baseball bat. Just as I am about to take a step forward, I pause. It would be easier to find the children if I followed the Will-o’-the-wisp. He would probably lead me right to them. I rest the bat back on my shoulder and walk forward. The flame waits for me to get within a couple of yards and bobs off around a corner. I have to stop myself from quickening my pace to catch it. Though I know it won’t leave me behind and has every intention of eating me later, it’s still infuriating to see it bobbing just out of reach. I pull my hat further down, set my eyes on the concrete just in front of the flame so as to not completely ruin my night vision, and follow it in a measured, even pace.
I haven’t heard of Will-o’-the-wisps in the city before. They usually live in marshes and swamps, but with the quick urbanization of farmland I suppose even marshes aren’t safe anymore. I look around at the damp, dripping walls and gurgling water beside me. I have to admit, if a marsh was my home this would be the closest thing I could find to it in the city.
There aren’t many magical creatures in the world; creatures like vampires and werewolves and ghosts and elves. No one knows for sure, but I would guess there are only ten thousand in the States. We would really be happier as far from each other as possible, but, as I said before, magical beings can sense each other. They can taste each other on the air. For some reason—maybe an ingrained herd mentality—they always seem to gather in the same places. Maybe it’s not so much herd mentality as hoard mentality: if there’s a mob with torches and pitchforks, I’d rather not be alone, no matter how ornery and temperamental you are the rest of the time. Maybe they just don’t want to feel so much like monsters. And so they build their own hierarchy within cities. Vampires become lords and ladies of blocks, and the rest of us either find a vampire to serve in return for safety or keep our heads down and try not to be noticed. I fall into the last category. I grew up living on the street where my mother was Lady. It was buying your safety every day, trying to keep your head under the radar, hoping she didn’t decide you were worth more as blood.
I remember people walking into her house and never walking out. People like my biological father.
My head snaps up and I look around. There is a smell in the air, something other than the lemony tint of the Will-o’-the-wisp ahead of me. Something rotting. I begin to salivate, sickeningly sweet, as I see a crumpled pile on the walkway a dozen yards ahead of me. I fight down the urge to throw up and continue walking forward, my eyes on the form. I get within a couple yards before I see the body of a raccoon, nothing left but a pile of bones and matted, bloody fur. The sight of blood hits me like a wall and I double over, vomiting into the water rushing by on my left. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to block out the smell, but it drives its way into my head, like a shovel through wet sand. Rage wakens in my chest. And desire.
Burning desire to tear something.
I grit my teeth and push them down, burying them under thoughts of something else—anything else. I throw up again. When I straighten, panting, the feelings are still there, still struggling to get out, but they’re under control. At least for the moment. I edge past the carcass, not looking at it. The Will-o’-the-wisp is waiting for me at the next corner, and bobs along on its way when I get near.
I don’t know how long we walk for after that. My mind is a boiling, twisted mass of thoughts and emotions, like a pot of spaghetti about to boil over. I distract myself by kicking stray pebbles along the walkway ahead of me, until they bounce off into the rushing water.
I come to a halt when I realize that the blue flame has gone out. I raise my bat from its resting place at my side and walk forward, looking left and right.
“Hello?” I whisper, the word bouncing around me, quieter every time. The flame had been almost cheery. Without it the tunnel feels colder, more menacing, like it’s waiting for me to make a mistake. “Hey,” I call, this time with my full voice. I hear a half strangled cry, and the scrabble of claws on concrete. I move forward. As I round a corner something small and bony slams into my shins, knocking me over backward. I break my fall with my hands, skinning the heals of my palms, the bat bouncing out of my fingers into the gurgling water beside me. The thing that ran into me jumps up onto my chest, scrabbling with small, sharp fingers, trying to reach my throat. I roll onto my back and grab its arm, pulling the thing away from me. It lets out a high, thin screech, like wind whistling through tree tops, and claws at me with its free hand and both feet, drawing long scratches on my hand and arm. I hold it up in the air, away from my face.
The Will-o’-the-wisp is the size of toddler. Its bones are easily outlined through its dull gray skin. The arm in my hand feels fragile, but the fingers it wraps around my wrist, trying to free itself, are long and sharp, almost cutting off the circulation in my hand. I would have had a problem had it gotten them around my neck. Its face is pinched, with a pointed nose and rows of teeth that remind me of a shark. It wriggles in my grip, hissing at me with that same high pitched whistle. I push myself to my feet and look into the flow of water where my bat had disappeared. The water isn’t deep. I can practically see the outline of my bat at the bottom. After a long look I turn away from it and continue down the tunnel, the Will-o’-the-wisp held out in front of me. Several yards later the tunnel reaches a dead end. A rusty grate beckons the water through and out of sight. Leaning up against the damp cement of this wall I see several wiggling forms. I crouch down to get a better look at them. The wide eyes of three children, two raccoons, and Casper look back at me. They are all tied and gagged with twine, yarn, grocery bags; evidently anything the Will-o’-the-wisp could get its hands on. My cat seems able to get into almost as much trouble as I can. I look appraisingly at the creature struggling in my hand.
“An industrious little fellow, aren’t you?” I look back at its crowd of prisoners. “Were you going to eat all of these?”
“Shut up. Let me go,” The Will-o’-the-wisp says in a reedy voice.
“Why’d you get so many?” I ask, almost laughing.
“Winter’s coming, idiot,” it says, glaring at me, still trying to free itself. “You don’t save up, you don’t last.”
Now I do laugh. “You’re not going to run out of things to eat in the city.” I say. “All these people and animals aren’t going to go anywhere when it gets cold. They live here. All winter.” It continues to glare at me. I stop laughing and look it in the eyes. “I’m going to put you down so I can untie these kids and my cat. If you attack me again, I’ll kill you.”
The Will-o’-the-wisp lets out a low, rumbling gurgle of a laugh. “You can’t kill me, human. I’m not a bug you can squash.”
“I’m not human.”
The Will-o’-the-wisp bares its teeth at me. “You look human.” It hisses.
“I’m not. I’m a vampire.”
It squints. “Vampire?”
I nod. “You can feel it, if you look.” The Will-o’-the-wisp closes its eyes for a moment, finally pausing in its struggle for freedom. When it opens them, they are a little wider than before.
“I won’t move,” it says. Its voice still sounds like the rubbing of reeds, but there is more of a creek to it now.
“Good.” I set it on the concrete floor, not taking my eyes from it. I doubt if it could tell I’m only half vampire, and it’s best for it not to find out. I turn back to the prisoners. I untie Casper first. He lets out a purr and rams himself against my hip as I untie the children. They are all too scared to move, and stay sitting where they are, not making a sound, staring at me with glassy eyes. After consideration I leave the two raccoons tied and turn back to the Will-o’-the-wisp. It is watching me, its long fingers slowly forming and unforming fists. I stand up.
“You won’t lure away any more children,” I say, looking down at it, doing my best to sound used to giving orders. The Will-o’-the-wisp grinds its teeth but doesn’t say anything. “And no house pets, either,” I say, as Casper rams himself into my shins again.
“What will I eat?” it croaks, its fingers now twisting the air.
“There’s plenty of raccoons and mice for you. You could even try a coyote if you can find one. But leave the kids and cats and dogs alone.” The Will-o’-the-wisp looks from me to the wide eyed children.
“You would order me? You would protect them?” I nod. It lets out a growl of frustration and rage, like a pile of stones being knocked over. “Then I have no choice, Lord.”
My face goes blank.
Is that what I had just done? Had I just declared myself lord over these people? Had I, Bristol, the half vampire with no power to fight half the magical creatures in this city, just sent out a challenge? It would appear I had, and there was no way around it. I scoop the three children into my arms and walk down the tunnel, Casper following, still purring, at my heel. At the corner I look back. The end of the tunnel is drenched in darkness, and I can only barely see the glint of the Will-o’-the-wisp’s eyes, watching me.
When I climbed out of the sewer the moon was almost gone, and there was a glint of rose peeking over the rooftops in the east. I tried to explain the Will-o’-the-wisp to the kids parents. Bartlebee listened with a blank stare, his hands shaking so badly he was making the door handle rattle, and Steersman shut the door in my face as soon as his son was in his arms. Mathews wouldn’t even open the door, and I had to leave the child on the hallway floor. I walked down the steps to my apartment just before the sun broke over the city like an egg yolk, rushing down streets and over rooftops.
I fed Casper. I washed my hands and arms in the kitchen sink, dozens of red scratches burning when I rubbed soap into them. I emptied the dishwasher. Easy, automatic things my body did while my mind was elsewhere.
I fall onto my powder blue, corduroy couch and shove half a peanut butter sandwich into my mouth. The room around me is pale yellow, lit by light sneaking through the now heavily curtained windows. I watch the shifting shadows of feet move across the shag carpet as people walk by outside.
A Will-o’-the-wisp doesn’t belong here. It belongs in a marsh somewhere, or a swamp. It belongs in the dark, luring off rats and opossums. It doesn’t belong in a city. It doesn’t belong in a sewer, stockpiling children and cats for a hungry winter that is never going to come.
I don’t belong here.
I belong in a castle on the top of a mountain, speaking with extra “v”s and laughing maniacally whenever lightning strikes. Well, maybe not. But I don’t belong in the basement of an apartment building, eating peanut butter sandwiches because I can’t stomach the sight of meat. I don’t belong in a city where not being shot by my neighbors means finding kidnapped kids. I don’t belong where stopping children from being eaten means putting myself in the open for every creature who wants to challenge me for my street.
I don’t belong as Lord of anyone.
I’m going to need a new bat.
Copyright 2019 by Amelia Slemp