I love the place by the lake. It has a soothing effect on me—it always had. When I was a young girl I would walk to the old cemetery up the road and wander among the gravestones with their cherub faces, disembodied angel wings, and dire poetic threats. ‘Beware those who tread on my grave, for you shall suffer the same fate.’ There, among the rocks of the stone wall that outlined the cemetery and every other road and field, I hid my love letters and first attempts at deep thought. I’ve often wondered if they’re still there, or if someone eventually found them and, if they did, what they thought.
This time, though, I was at the cottage to get away from Sam. No, not exactly get away. I don’t think he’d notice whether I was there or not. But I needed time to think, so I packed up my car, packed up five-year-old Crystal and off I went.
My grandfather built the summer cottage when I was a baby. It was a modest one story cape with a small garage now packed to the hilt with decades of beach toys, life-jackets, and history. Crystal and I drove up the dirt road in the pitch dark. I left the headlights on so I could find the keyhole in the front door. I had to grope my way into the bathroom to plug in the circuits so we could see. Once the electricity was on I felt better. I still had to crawl under the back porch to turn on the water and the pump. But first I got Crystal out of the back seat and carried her into the front bedroom. She was sound asleep. I smoothed her blonde hair away from her face and kissed her goodnight.
I took Crystal down to the beach the next day. She played at the edge of the water while I swam. I never could stand just lying on the beach in the sun. The water—now, that was a different story. I love the feel of the water flowing past my face. I like to swim under the surface with as little motion as possible—something I read in a book somewhere—and you’d be surprised at how fast you can go. Underwater I felt free, no longer weighted down by either my body or my responsibilities. It was just me and Crystal now; she’s not a responsibility, she’s my life.
Later we walked around the lake. Over the years more and more cottages had sprung up, but even these newer residents insisted on maintaining the simple atmosphere of the lake, so the roads remained little more than dirt tracks and there were no streetlights at all. Cottages were set back in their wooded lots, visible from the lake but virtually hidden from each other and from the road. A car would have to pull way over into the brush if another car wanted to pass by.
We spent a week in this fashion: swimming, walking, thinking. I found myself wandering back up to the old cemetery, where Crystal and I would walk among the gravestones, and I would read her the epitaphs carved there in flowing, old-fashioned script. She was especially fascinated by the children who had died seemingly in entire families. I tried to explain to her that in those days children died of common illnesses because they had no advanced medicines like we do today.
This time we were investigating the grave of a young boy who had died about two hundred years ago. Matthias Benson, born 1777, died 1790. Those old gravestones, little more than thin gray pieces of slate, often gave the cause of death. This one said he had died of a fall from a wagon.
The sun slanted through the trees on its way down. We should get going, I thought. I turned to collect our things and when I looked up, I saw a figure slouched against one of the larger headstones nearer to the trees. My heart leaped into my throat. How long was he standing there watching us? He was dressed like one of those punk kids, long baggy shirt, black jeans, sneakers. I couldn’t really see his face clearly, but I could tell he was a teenager. It was the attitude, really, the slouch, the ignorant arrogance.
“Come on, Crystal,” I said. “Let’s go now.” I took her arm and crossed the cemetery to the paved road. When I looked back I could no longer see him. I felt myself relax.
Suddenly I felt a violent push, the sort that survivors describe in shark attacks, and I heard Crystal’s muffled cry of ‘Mom!’ as if from a far distance. I fell, and I fell and fell into blackness. It was dizzying, that fall, but not unpleasant. I’d felt like this before sometimes when I was on the verge of falling asleep. My arms and legs felt tiny yet my face felt enormous. And, like those times when I’d nearly fallen asleep, I panicked at the thought of leaving my body. I fought with everything I had to come back into consciousness again. With an effort of will I forced my eyes open.
I was lying on the ground with my head against Matthias Benson’s gravestone. Crystal patted my hand and, strangely, smiled at me. Across from us sat that teenager who had been watching us earlier, arms folded across his chest, smiling too.
“What happened?” I asked, sitting up. Immediately the blackness rushed back up and I more or less sprawled on my elbow in the grass, waiting for the pounding to go away. It was really dark now, and the mosquitoes wouldn’t leave me alone. “Did I faint?”
The boy’s smile widened and I found that he was not really that young after all. He made me feel very uncomfortable. “Who are you?”
“Mommy, he’s a vampire! He drank your blood and everything!”
I exchanged amused tolerant glances with the stranger, who didn’t bother to respond to Crystal’s revelation. “Is that so?” I answered Crystal. “And how do you know this?”
“Because he told me!” she said excitedly.
I glanced at the kid, who was still smiling. What kind of person would say something like that to a child, especially in the middle of a cemetery? I had to get us out of there. But every time I tried to stand up I’d start to pass out again.
“You have an amazing little girl there,” the kid said suddenly. “She saved your life, you know.”
“But I still don’t know what happened to me. Crystal, honey, what did you do?”
“I asked him to stop,” she answered, as if it was the most logical thing in the world.
A horrible thought occurred to me. Was this guy a psychopath—or worse? But except for feeling weak I was not physically harmed. Maybe he had tried to strangle me? My hand crept up to my neck, but I felt nothing unusual. I started scratching. “Damn mosquitoes,” I muttered to myself.
I was thoroughly confused and on edge with the strange kid sitting so close. One minute he seemed so sinister, and the next he looked like the boy next door. “Well, who are you?” I asked him point blank.
“My name is Johnny,” he told me. “I live around here.” As he spoke, he got up and extended his hand to me. “Listen, I’ll help you to get home.” He pulled me up, and as the dizziness threatened to overwhelm me again, he pulled me closer and whispered, “Your daughter was right. I am a vampire.” I blacked out just as he called aloud, “Come on, Crystal, let’s get your Mommy home.”
I woke up in the front bedroom with a pounding headache and the sun streaming through the window. Crystal sat on the bed beside me, concern in her blue eyes as she rubbed my forehead. “Mommy, wake up,” she whispered.
“I am awake. What time is it, sweetie?”
“I dunno. I can’t tell time yet. But my cartoons are on.”
Three o’clock at least, then. “Honey, where’s that man who brought us home last night?”
“Oh, you mean Johnny? Well, he put you to bed—in my bed—“ She giggled. “And then he made me supper and we watched TV and then he tucked me in next to you and told me to take good care of you. Then I went to sleep.”
“But is he here now?”
She shrugged. “No. In the morning when I got up he wasn’t there.” She looked at me, her blue eyes big and searching. “I was scared, Mommy, because I shook you and you wouldn’t wake up.”
I held her closer and ran my hand over her blonde hair again and again. “It’s all right. I was just very tired. I’m okay now,” I lied. “Did you have anything to eat?”
“Yes, Mommy. I made a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. Do you want one too? I can make you one.”
“No, that’s all right.” I sat up carefully and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. I wanted to check the locks on the doors, among other things. I didn’t believe in vampires. Serial killers, yes. Vampires, no.
Regardless, when I went into the shower I checked my neck for marks. There was nothing there except a general redness which itched fiercely. No bite marks, and no finger marks either, for which I was grateful. I’d almost believed that Johnny, or whoever he was, had tried to strangle me. I must have hit my head or something. I guess he couldn’t be all bad, then, if he took us home and made sure we were safe. But why did he have to say that about being a vampire? It certainly didn’t make me eager to trust him.
I moved slowly about the cottage, got supper for us and then sat with a cup of tea at the table, half expecting him to knock at the door. I thought about vampires and what I believed. He was a kid, well, younger than I was anyway, and he looked as alive as I was, too. And drinking blood? In this day and age even a vampire’d need to change his diet. I’d tell him so, too, the next time I saw him.
It was dusk. Partly to allay my own fears and partly because we had been doing it every evening since we’d come to the lake, Crystal and I took a walk to the beach. The evening was so quiet that every little noise was amplified. I jumped at the chirp of a cricket. Crystal giggled. When we got to the beach, it was deserted. Nobody except the two of us came to swim at dusk, but I preferred it that way. We had the place to ourselves. I’d brought along a thermos of my tea and I sat sipping it on the beach while Crystal played in the sand.
The mosquitoes plagued me unmercifully. To escape them I went swimming, letting the cool water soothe me. Crystal had finished building her sand castle and was curled up on the blanket with a towel covering her to keep off the mosquitoes. The moonlight on the water lit up the entire lake. It was as smooth as glass and I was careful not to disturb that serenity. Only my hands and my feet moved under the water. The rest of me was perfectly still.
So I noticed the kid, Johnny, before he noticed me. He stood on the beach next to Crystal and slowly he looked around the beach.
“You should come in!” I shouted, and I had the satisfaction of seeing him jump. I laughed. Then I dove under and swam as quickly and as quietly as I could to the shore. As I shook water from me and saw the ripples in the lake, I smiled at him. “I want to thank you for taking care of Crystal and me yesterday.”
He held out my towel. “You weren’t at the cottage,” he said reproachfully. “I was expecting you to be at the cottage.”
“Come. Sit down.” I patted the sand next to me and he squatted down between Crystal and me. She didn’t stir underneath her towel, even when Johnny casually patted her back. I frowned. “Why did you say you were a vampire last night? Was that for Crystal’s benefit?” I leaned in and whispered, “What were you thinking? She’s just a little girl!”
Johnny smiled slowly. “So. You don’t believe me. Your daughter is a better judge of character than you are. She knew me right away.”
“Oh, come on. Are you dead, then?”
“Do I look dead?”
“How old are you?”
He shook his head, gazing at me thoughtfully. “I will come to see you another time. Until then, remember me.”
He reached out to me, held me at arm’s length, and grinned so I could see his long, pointed canine teeth. My eyes widened and I began to stiffen up and push away from him, but I had no chance. He moved like lightning. This time I felt it, the sharp pain, shocking me momentarily until the drifting began again. I felt myself falling, falling. . . .
The sun burning on my face and upper arms woke me the next day. I looked around quickly for Crystal and found her playing in the water with two other little children. There was another blanket at the beach, with a family enjoying the fine summer day. They were a few feet away from where I lay. I sat up carefully, trying not to appear as disoriented as I felt.
“Excuse me, do you know what time it is?” I asked the woman on the other blanket.
“Yes, it’s about two,” the woman responded with a slight disapproving frown as she continued to slather sun-block on her toddler.
“Thank you.” I began gathering up our belongings. “Crystal! Let’s go!” I called to her, interrupting her game of water tag. She must be starving. I wondered why she didn’t try to wake me this time. Then it occurred to me that perhaps she had tried. Immediately memories of last night flooded my mind and I saw Johnny’s grinning face coming towards me, and those teeth! For a moment I wondered if this wasn’t just some dream. It couldn’t have been real. I felt myself beginning to panic, and let out the breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
No wonder I felt so dizzy. Hurriedly I grabbed my thermos and gulped down the remainder of the now cold tea. “Let’s go!” I repeated.
By the time we got to the cottage, I was nauseous, sunburned, and increasingly angry. I poured myself a large glass of water, gave Crystal a late lunch and settled her down in front of the TV to watch cartoons while I rested. Again I inspected my neck, and again there were no puncture wounds, only a rash which I couldn’t even see clearly because of my sunburn.
“Damn vampire,” I muttered. Then I went into my room to lie down. Soon I was asleep.
Later that evening he did appear, literally, as we were eating supper. I hadn’t heard him come in yet he was there, next to us. He pulled out a chair and sat down, looking with interest at the remnants of our chicken and corn on the cob. I raised my large glass of water in a salute to him.
“You know,” I said conversationally, “the least you could have done is told me to drink plenty of fluids. It helps to replace the blood.” My heart was pounding, wondering if I was being a fool by playing into his fantasy, but he only shrugged, unconcerned.
I looked at him, trying to decide what was unusual about him. He was pale, yes, but certainly not pasty white. His wavy brown hair and brown eyes could have belonged to any kid on the beach. Only in his expressions, at once innocent and knowing, could I find any difference. Kids his age tended to be more sophisticated.
“Do you like to drink blood?” Crystal wanted to know. She climbed right up onto his lap and gazed into his eyes.
“Yes,” he answered simply.
“Will you drink mine?”
I felt a shiver of fear. “What do you mean—not today?” I asked.
“Why not?” Crystal asked.
“You’re small. And I don’t need to today.”
“Oh, you mean you’re full!” Crystal laughed. “So am I. Mommy, can I go play now?”
“Yeah, go ahead,” I said. Turning to Johnny, I asked, “Can you have anything else, a cup of tea maybe?”
“I don’t want anything else, thank you,” he replied politely, leaving me to wonder whether he had answered my question at all. I poured myself a cup and motioned for him to follow me to the back porch. I flicked on the light and sat at the little breakfast table my grandfather had made against the screened wall. That way we could enjoy the breeze without the nuisance of those horrid mosquitoes.
Johnny sat in the chair opposite just like any teenager, backwards, but his face was hard. “What?” he asked.
“What do you want with us?” I wanted to know. “Are you going to kill us?” It was surreal, all of it. I don’t know why I wasn’t more scared of him, why I sat so casually in my house across from him instead of running screaming as far and as fast as I could. Whether he was a disturbed kid, or a vampire like he claimed, would mean little in the end if we were dead.
“Not today,” he replied, repeating his earlier answer to my daughter. He stretched and stood. “And I won’t take from you again today either. I don’t want to kill you by mistake.”
I got the feeling that every word he spoke was calculated. Not by mistake could as easily mean he’d rather kill me on purpose.
“I don’t want you to hurt Crystal,” I said quietly. “You won’t take blood from her, will you? She’s so small, she could die.”
Johnny grinned, exposing the tips of his long teeth. “I won’t hurt her,” he promised, not fully answering my question again. “You should be more concerned about yourself. Why didn’t you ask for yourself also? Although,” he laughed softly, “I would not have made you the same promise and I think you understand that.” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
I cleared my throat. “How old are you?”
I am older than you can imagine,” he answered this time. “Older than any you’ll find in that graveyard of yours.”
That blew that theory. Somehow I had thought he might have belonged there, maybe he’d been the boy who fell off the wagon, or one of those children who had died mysteriously so long ago. I told him so.
Johnny laughed harshly. “Died? How do you think they died? I was the wasting sickness that decimated families. Then, children were always the easiest. Today it’s not so easy. . .” The look in his eyes was distant, and a little sad. In an instant it was erased, back to an expression of calm complacency. I stared at my hands gripping the tea cup, desperately trying to make some sense it all.
When I looked up again, he was gone..