“You have no proof.” I trembled as they surrounded me, pale faces pressing in like dead masks. Their red cloaks rippled, and several hands reached for me. “I’m young, right? Nobody taught me the rules. That has to count for something!”
“That is true.” A woman stepped forward. She had a round face; she lifted a pudgy, icy hand to brush aside a strand of blonde hair. She resembled one of those Victorian paintings, but for the crimson eyes. “Nevertheless, you have committed a crime. You have killed an innocent.”
“But what does that mean? Aren’t we supposed to eat? I barely know what I am!”
“You know what you are.” She held up a hand. The others stopped their advance.
“Yeah, I’m a Vampire.” I shrugged. “But what does that mean? Will holy water burn me? Will I burst into flame if I enter a church? Is the sun deadly? Is garlic?”
“Who changed you?”
“I thought he was a mugger. I was walking home from my friend’s. We’d been jamming in his garage.”
A man at the woman’s shoulder frowned. Like paper, his face seemed to crumple in on itself. “What is this ‘jamming’ you refer to? Do you mean canning jam?”
The corners of the woman’s red lips twitched. “No, he’s in a band.”
“That’s an overstatement.” I laughed. “We’re not very good. But he launched himself at me, this guy, and then he bit me. Took all my cash too, so I figured it was a robbery. I thought he was crazy.”
The woman nodded.
“I didn’t even make it home. I ran into the park, and just...I fell down the side. Into the ravine. I don’t know how long I lied there. But when I came to, it was night. And when I saw Mrs. Lowe, it was automatic. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until she was limp in my arms.”
“She is an innocent.” The man trembled. “He has had a taste-”
“He’s had no teacher. No guidance. No chance.”
“I’m sensing a ‘but’.” I looked between them. “I am sorry I killed her. She was always kind to me. When I was a kid, that is.”
“There will be a penalty for your actions.” The woman sighed. She placed a hand on my shoulder. “But we will not destroy you.”
The woman shook her head. “This will appease them.”
I studied her. My brows knitted. “You mean...you don’t think I should be punished? It’s for show?”
“We have to set a certain standard, or there will be chaos. But yes, that is correct. It’s a formality. And when I explain the mitigating circumstances, many will see reason.”
A chill shot up my spine. Who knew Vampires could be cold? I scanned the stony faces. “Many...but not all.”
“There will be those who want to kill you.” She pulled her hood up. “The Vampires of this city are different. There are rules. One can’t kill as they please. In other towns, it’s the same as it’s always been—like animals, they feast on people with no discernment, no respect for human life, no empathy for their former selves.
“When a Vampire acquires a taste for freedom, for killing, we encourage him to leave. You can be a savage in other cities, but not here. Many laugh at our ways, but it’s a way of life which appeals to many of the brood. And one, I believe, which is worth preserving.”
I nodded. “I can understand that. My girlfriend...she would still be human. Even though there are Vampires here, she would be safe?”
The man’s face darkened. “No one is ever safe when there are Vampires around. Accidents happen. Rules are broken. And then we’re called in.”
I looked around. I hadn’t given much thought to my surroundings...but then, there was little to look at. A single light shone on me, and the walls and floors were concrete. Scanning the corners of the ceiling, I made out a cobweb and the spider which nested in it’s centre.
“Will somebody teach me? I mean, what things are actually...dangerous? What are all the rules? Can I...still see my friends? Can I see Emma?”
“If you continue to see Emma, she will learn the truth.” The woman grimaced. “And if she learns the truth, you will have two choices.”
I’d read enough horror novels to guess what came next: “I’ll have to kill her or change her. And option number three is-”
“To never see her again.” She nodded. “That is how it must be. I’m sure you can understand. You’ll be permitted to keep a job, to see your friends as often as is necessary to maintain the facade. But you’ll have to find a night shift. I don’t know about holy water, but the sun will kill you.”
“Will I get resistance to the sun with time?”
“No, that’s a myth. One which became popular after Anne Rice started writing, I think. It will always be your enemy.”
“I guess...I’ll go home then.”
“One minute.” The woman whispered to the others. They argued under their breath. The man pointed at me twice. Then he scowled, and bowed. The rest nodded. They shuffled from the room, flicking up their large hoods. They pooled out of the door like a river of-
My hand flew to my throat. I swallowed, and it ached. My tongue salivated, as dry as paper.
The woman shut the door. “We have to discuss your punishment. It’s lucky you didn’t attack a child. Many Vampires are forgiven for killing the elderly. That is, they are punished but not destroyed. It is my understanding that Mrs. Lowe had cancer, and that she was in considerable pain. Of course, you didn’t know this, but certain negotiations can be made.”
“Are you going to teach me?”
She smiled. “No, but I can share some of the...nuances with you. If a human voices aloud the desire to die, it becomes the right of the Vampire to take that person’s life. However, the desire has to be both in earnest and justified. Teens with depression, or who are blowing off steam, are off limits. I learned too late that our wording of that law was too loose.”
“I’d never kill a kid! Not intentionally.”
“I believe you.” She folded her hands. “But if you meet someone with a terrible disease, whether it be an incurable tumour or Lou Gehrig's, and you can prove they wished to die...we consider it merciful, a form of assisted suicide. Death by Vampire is not painful. Victims sink into a blissful sleep before they die. Some survivors of attacks have even claimed it feels good.”
“But what is my punishment?”
“It won’t be easy. There is a girl of seventeen who has come to our attention. Claire Goodall.”
“Hey, I know her. She’s just a couple years younger. She was in the school band. Really big into...Vampires and stuff.”
“She suspects our existence. She’s put an ad out for a Vampire to change her.”
“And you want me to persuade her not to, right? Because I’m the only one who can?”
“No.” Her eyes iced over. Her voice was hard. “You must change her. Even if she doesn’t really want to join the brood. I don’t condone the deaths of the young, but she will be executed if she is not brought over. She knows too much.”
“Couldn’t we give her another year or two? Seventeen is young. And becoming a Vampire is a bit more permanent than marriage.”
“It’s less permanent than death.” She turned away. “We have no other option. Many will kill her. Others will just bite her. But you’re her age. You can do it delicately.”
I nodded. “I guess.”
“She invited this on herself. You aren’t wrong to pity her. But she is responsible for her own fate. And when she is a Vampire, she will need a tutor.”
“Not me? I know jack shit.”
“You will be her friend. A mentor will be sent to you. Invite the girl to live with you, if you can, that you might ease the transition for one another.”
Emma will love that.
What do I even tell Emma? What if she doesn’t want to be a Vampire? How do I know to tell her or not?
But if I don’t-
“You must go now. The others are growing agitated.” She led me outside. They lined the hallways, forming rows on each side. Their faces were expressionless, nearly identically beautiful, as I passed. When we emerged into a parking lot, I turned to thank the woman.
She was gone. I tugged on the door; it was locked. I pelted away, planning how I might change Claire’s existence irreparably, but gently.