We have a vampire living in our basement.
It’s my job to feed him while Dad is in Palo Alto at a convention. At six a.m. I pad into the kitchen in my bare feet and jersey nightgown with my robe hanging off my shoulders. I yawn, wishing I could crawl back in bed after the chore. It’s the last week before finals, and I’m already in at Northwest State, so I don’t really have to focus much. The motivation to show up at school is as low as it gets.
Half the freezer is piled with Tupperware blood-packs, and I dig out one from the bottom, grumbling to myself that Mom still isn’t packing them with the oldest on top for easy access. I should just take over the butcher store runs. Then she could just forget about it – which was all she wanted.
While the blood heats in the microwave, I heave myself onto the counter and stare at the basement door. It’s painted soft yellow, but most of the color peeled away a while ago. I went through a phase when I was in Junior High where I stripped a thin line of the paint off the door every time I passed it. The lines were like prison bars holding me back.
The microwave beeps and I hop down. I grab the lancet from its hook over the sink and pull the Tupperware out onto the counter. I yawn again just as I’m pulling off the plastic top, and get a lungful of coppery pig’s blood smell. I gag like a cat and dance back, making a show of myself because there’s no one around to see. When I calm down, I put my hand on the counter, palm up. I take the lancet, which is a thin triangle of steel about as long as my thumb, and put the tip to my pinky. This is my least favorite part. I grit my teeth and ready myself with a massive grimace, then jab the lancet into my finger.
Blood wells instantly, and I let a couple of drops fall into the Tupperware.
I’m supposed to be using Dad’s blood. He drained a quarter-pint of it before leaving and it’s hanging in the pantry with whatever his favorite anti-coagulant is keeping it sort-of fresh. But it’s bad enough our vampire is trapped in a cage in the basement. To not even give him the two drops of fresh blood he’s promised seems un-Constitutional.
With the Tupperware balanced carefully in my hands, I face the basement.
I was only five the first time I met Saxon.
For a week our water pipes had clanged in a staccato pattern that echoed throughout the house. Dad promised it was bad plumbing, but I woke up in the middle of the night and recognized the pattern of clangs matched the rhythm of my favorite clapping song. I’d been playing it by myself against the kitchen floor just that afternoon. And now the house pipes wanted to play with me.
I crawled out of bed, snuck past Mom and Dad’s room, and all the way down into the kitchen. We kept the door locked in those days, but I knew how to climb up onto a chair and from there onto the kitchen counter to reach the key Dad kept hanging inside the spice cabinet. I managed it quietly, and unlocked the basement door. It was where the pipes lived, because it was where Dad went every time he tried to get them to be quiet.
I couldn’t reach the light switch, so it was very, very dark. Here is all I remember:
The floor being rough concrete.
The tiny red light bulb dangling in the center of the room, not making it any less scary.
Calling out, “Pipes?”
And he said my name. Nicole.
I clapped and ran forward. I tripped on something and fell against the bars of his cage. He caught me in both hands, and his eyes were right there in front of mine. Glinting red in the light. With his arms through the cage, he set me back on my feet and smiled.
He played a clapping game with me, longer than any grown up had ever played before. We didn’t stop until I was the one too tired to go on.
I curled up on the floor with my backbone pushed up against the bars, and falling back to sleep. He tapped the rhythm of the song gently into the metal.
The wooden stairs are spongy under my bare feet from all the dank basement air. We need a new set, but Dad can’t exactly hire a builder to come down here. Not unless he plans to feed the unlucky worker to Saxon.
I can reach the light switch, of course, but I don’t flip it. I prefer the gentle red light. We have a carpet now, a long runner leading from the stairs to his cage. It’s thin and the chill of the concrete foundation still seeps up.
Dad uses a long pole to scoot the blood to the cage without getting near enough that Saxon could grab him. But I walk straight to the black bars.
Saxon is standing with his back to me. He’s watching the square of that fades in through the single window high up against the ceiling. The glass is shuttered over, but pink morning slips through the slats. It makes an aura around him, and I say, “Hey, angel. Breakfast.”
He moves slowly, lethargically. But not because he has to. There’s only about ten square feet inside the cage, and half of it is covered with stacks of books and magazines. “Morning, sunshine,” he says back.
I put my hands between the bars, offering him the blood. He could grab my wrists instead and tear fresh blood straight out of me, but he won’t. Dad tried to make me fear Saxon, after finding me asleep against the cage, but I knew at any time Saxon could have pulled me through and eaten me. I’d been small enough then to have fit between the bars. He’d have sucked the marrow from my bones before Dad woke up.
Saxon dips a finger into the blood and paints it across his bottom lip. He told me when I was eight that the blood tingles against his skin. I’d put a dot on my cheek and been disappointed when it only felt wet and sticky. That had been the first time he’d laughed at me, the first time I’d seen his rows of sharp teeth. When I scrambled away, he’d painted dots of blood onto his own cheeks, and a long line down his nose, in solidarity.
I sit down cross-legged, with my knees against the bars. He sits, too, cradling the blood in his lap. As I tell him about the TV show I watched last night where they had a mock battle between a Samurai warrior and a Roman Gladiator, he keeps dipping his finger into the blood and letting drops fall onto his tongue. He’ll spend hours consuming every last bit.
When I move on to complaining about my trig teacher’s bad habit of putting questions on the quizzes we never went over in class, Saxon holds up his hand. The musty gray sleeve of his shirt falls back. Dad brings him new clothes once a year, saying nothing more is necessary because Saxon doesn’t sweat or pee or do anything but read all day. None of the normal stuff that makes a person dirty. But I wonder what he’d look like in a tailored suit, or a really sexy pair of jeans.
“I’ve been thinking,” he says when he has my attention, and dips his finger back into the blood. “When you leave for college, I won’t have any reason not to rip your father to pieces.”
But Saxon doesn’t. He sets the Tupperware onto the concrete floor of his cage and stands up. He wraps his hands around two of the bars.
My laughter turns into rocks that plummet down toward my feet. “You wouldn’t.”
“I might.” He snaps the end of the word sharply.
I stand up and curls my hands over his. His skin is warmer than mine. “Saxon.” To this day neither Dad nor Saxon will tell me how he came to be trapped here. All I know is that Dad feeds him and somehow having a vampire locked in a box in your basement is massive good luck. Dad shot from junior partner to CEO in six months, and now basically does whatever he wants. The only reason we haven’t moved into a huge house in some gated community is because of Saxon. “It can’t be that easy,” I say, “Or you’d have done it before now.”
His fingers move under mine and I swear I hear the metal creak. “The fool’s been feeding me his blood for years.”
I think of the drops of my blood in the Tupperware. And how often I’ve used the lancet. “What does that give you?”
“A taste for it.” Saxon leans closer and it’s exactly the way it was when I was five years old. His eyes gleam in the red light. But this time, he doesn’t seem old or strange to me. He’s young. He’s my friend.
I used to sneak down when Dad left and help Saxon pick up the million pieces of rice Dad dropped on the cage floor to keep him occupied all day. We’d count them, and drop them one by one into a tin mixing bowl. Sometimes I got bored, but Saxon didn’t seem capable of stopping before every grain was collected. He’d start making up little rhyming songs to keep me down there, and tell me stories about people he’d known and lives he’d lived. My favorites were the ones where he had human companions who guarded him during the day, and who he guarded at night. Probably because I could pretend he’d chosen to be here with my family, instead of imprisoned.
When I was in Junior High I had a fantasy of breaking him free, bringing him to my school, and letting him go to town on all the teachers who made me talk in class, and possibly break the windows. Then we’d run off for New York or something, and I’d be a famous actress while he leaned back in the darkest balcony box and watched me. We’d spend the long hours of the night at private parties, the toast of the town. And all day we’d sleep in a quiet, dark room, waiting for the sun to go down again.
It was the only way I made it through Spanish class.
“What do you want?” I ask him.
He doesn’t reply except to sigh very softly. I can smell the blood on his breath, and see a small streak of it at the edge of his bottom lip. It’s not as overwhelming as it was upstairs when I first took the Tupperware out of the microwave, but I still don’t like it.
I rephrase. “What do you want from me?”
“To go with you.”
My very first instinct is to go to the workbench and get the key. To free him. I don’t, of course, but I try not to ignore my instincts. Sophomore year, somebody told me to always go with my first guess on multiple choice tests, and after that my grades improved noticeably.
I tighten my hands around his. “And then what?”
“Carefree nights and peaceful days?” he says with a smile.
I back away step by step. I’m off the carpet and the concrete is rough under my toes. Like I’m five again.
“Let me tell you a secret, sunshine,” he whispers, leaning against the bars. His cheek presses into one, and he wraps his arms casually around it and folds his hands together. “An imprisoned vampire is good luck.”
“But.” He holds up one finger, the one he uses to feed himself. “A willing vampire – ah, sunshine, a willing vampire is what Washington had. What Charlemagne had. Elizabeth. Cleopatra – she got one from Caesar.”
I don’t know if I believe him. I want to. I imagine him again in new, clean clothes. Clothes he chose for himself. “I don’t want to be those people.”
“You wouldn’t have to be. Hundreds of people you’ve never heard of made friends of us, too.”
He could have killed me so easily, anytime over the last twelve years. He hadn’t. Did that mean I could trust him? Or was he only biding his time for this very moment? Waiting because to him, twelve years was nothing.
My brain – my dad’s voice – is screaming at me to go back upstairs. But the rest of me wants to know. Wants to know if he was my friend. Wants to know if I was his friend. Because if I am, wouldn’t I free him?
If I run upstairs, I’m using him. Just like Dad.
If I let him out, he might kill me. Kill my family. Everyone on the block, everyone in the city, for all I knew.
If I run I am afraid.
If I stay, I risk everything just to prove to myself what I am.
I blink. I’d been staring at him so long the light shoving through the slats of the window is strong and bright. Saxon stands unmoved, caught between the light from the window and the red light of the basement.
I walk into the sunlight and pick the key up off the worktable.
photo by ilmungo, via Flickr Creative Commons