Fulton Heights, Illinois
The only thing worse than living in a vampire town is having to take Algebra I for the second time. While living in a vampire town. I have a quiz tomorrow on exponents and square roots, and literally the only thing that will keep me from failing it at this point is if I get eaten by one of the undead on my way to school in the morning.
To make matters worse, Fulton Heights, roughly thirty minutes from downtown Chicago, isn’t even one of the cool suburbs. All we’ve got is a dying mall, a nexus of weird, mystical energy that attracts monsters, and a handful of abandoned buildings the municipal government can’t afford to tear down. Hence the real source of our vampire problem. Empty warehouses make great hideouts for creatures of the night, who need proximity to their food source (us) and a safe place to sleep during the day.
I seriously don’t understand why we can’t just move somewhere else, but my parents refuse to discuss it. Right now, going on minute twelve of my agonizing attempt to solve for x on question number eight, I’m not sure if dying doesn’t have a certain amount of appeal. Reviving a lost argument might be pointless, but it is distracting, so I shout from the kitchen, “Why do I have to learn this stuff when I could get vampired at, like, any moment?”
“About three people in Fulton Heights die from vampire attacks each year, August,” my dad calls back from the living room in his stop-being-so-dramatic tone. “That’s less than the number of people we lose to heart disease, cancer, and traffic accidents. It’s not even in the top ten causes of death for the area! Stop being so dramatic.”
Like that’s supposed to make me feel better. Pretty much every Fulton Heights resident has those statistics memorized, but for most of us, it’s cold comfort. Vampires aren’t wild animals that kill indiscriminately, and most of them are smart enough to know that it’s in their best interests not to rack up a huge body count and give the frightened townsfolk a reason to get all torches-and-pitchforks about them hanging out in our long-shuttered glassworks factory. But we don’t exactly have an armistice, either.
They still need to eat, and we’re their favorite entrée. Okay, unlike what you see in the movies, they don’t tend to chase us down dark alleys and tear our throats out. A little Undead 101: Along with their superstrength and eternal youth and all that business, vampires also have this special mind-control thing that makes humans all docile and aroused, which renders us easy pickings. You meet a cute boy, he smiles at you—and the next thing you know you wake up all light-headed with a great big hickey and a pint of blood missing from your veins.
Or so goes the rumor. No cute boys have tried to seduce me yet. That’s another thing Fulton Heights doesn’t seem to have: other gay guys for me to date.
“We should move!” I shout next, because I want to keep this pointless conversation going as long as possible.
“Move where?” my mom responds this time. It’s a challenge.
“I think Californ—”
“Earthquakes.” She doesn’t even let me finish, and I know I’ve got her. “Heat waves, droughts, brush fires, mudslides … Do you know how many people die from those each year? Do you know how much property values are, or how much homeowner’s insurance costs?”
“No!” I’m on a roll now. “How much?”
“Stop baiting your parents,” my tutor scolds, tapping the worksheet in front of me to regain my focus. Daphne Banks is a student at Northwestern University, about fifteen minutes away from here, and my parents pay her to come by twice a week and torture me. “You’re not leaving this table until you finish every one of these problems, mister.”
“Who cares if seventeen is the square root of three hundred and sixty-one?” I exclaim. “A vampire could chase me down an alley tomorrow and eat me, and it’s not like me being barely competent in algebra will scare him off!”
“‘Barely competent’ might be … kind of a stretch,” Daphne says, wincing, “and the square root of three hundred and sixty-one is nineteen, not seventeen.”
“Ha—gotcha!” Gloating, I scribble down the answer to question number eight. I feel a little bad for tricking her like that, but when you’re this bad at math, you need to be really good at grifting. “Thanks, Daph.”
“August Pfeiffer, you little swindler!” She reaches out and messes up my hair to teach me a lesson—but the joke’s on her, because my hair was already a mess to begin with. “This is important, though, you know? You need to learn this if you want to leave here for college. The odds that you’ll get vampired to death are, like, twenty-thousand to one; but if you don’t get decent grades, you could end up stuck in Fulton Heights forever.”
It’s a sobering thought, and I rededicate myself to the soul-sapping practice test. I cannot wait to leave this town, with its empty buildings and guys I can’t date, and go live someplace where “Heart disease is our leading cause of death!” isn’t a humblebrag. It doesn’t have to be California, either. Just a place big enough that the ratio of art galleries to yearly vampire attacks is at least even. The only person I’ll miss is my best friend, Adriana. And my parents. And Daphne.
Everyone else can get eaten.
About two hundred years later, I finish the worksheet, and my mom hands Daphne a chunk of cash for putting up with me all evening. Stuffing the money in her purse, my tutor tosses her blond hair with a gracious smile. “Thank you, Mrs. Pfeiffer.”
“Call me Monica, please,” my mother says for what must be the millionth time. I’m pretty sure Daphne is in a sorority, and she’ll have to be held at knifepoint before she addresses my mother by her first name. Delivering a pile driver to my self-esteem, Mom continues, “We’re the ones who should thank you. So far this year, Auggie’s managed to hold on to a C average in a math class, which … You know, for your next miracle, can I request that water-into-wine thing?”
“Hey!” I’m mildly affronted. “I’m standing right here, remember?”
“I know, sweetie, and you’re doing it so well.” Mom messes up my hair—because why not get everybody in on the act?—and I scowl at her.
“Auggie’s shown a lot of improvement in the past six months,” Daphne says diplomatically, as if I had anywhere to go but up after the grades I received last year. “I think he’s going to get the hang of this.”
“Auggie, why don’t you walk Daphne out to her car?” my dad suggests as he enters the kitchen behind Mom, going for the cabinet where he keeps his trusty popcorn bowl.
“That’s totally not necessary.” Daphne waves the offer away. “My parents used to be vampire hunters, and I’m trained in combat techniques. Honestly, Auggie is safer inside.”
“Statistically, vampires are far more likely to approach women walking alone,” my dad counters, determined for me to be a gentleman, whether I like it or not. “Besides,” he continues, gesturing out the kitchen windows, “there have been a few … unsettling incidents on this block recently, and Monica and I would feel better if you didn’t go by yourself.”
The “unsettling incidents” he’s talking about include handprints found on the outside of second-story windows, strange noises at night, golden lights burning in the darkness, and the occasional animal corpse turning up, drained of blood. In the absence of a convenient human, vampires will snack on whatever is handy.
“Does Auggie get to make any decisions here?” I ask, annoyed. “Or are you going to snap a leash around my neck and drag me outside like an animal?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, August,” my mother says in the manner of someone who is not being sent outside where there are actual monsters.
At the same time, Daphne insists, “I’ll be fine!”
Then, after a moment, my dad puts in, “We do still have that leash left over from when Scout was alive.”
Needless to say, I end up walking Daphne to her car. At the risk of repeating myself, Fulton Heights is a boring town where nothing ever happens—save the occasional death by vampiric exsanguination—so it’s not as if she had to fight for a parking spot. Her secondhand Saab is right at the foot of our walk. It’s early March, snow still lingering on the ground, and a cold wind rips the breath from our mouths in shreds of white steam.
“It was very sweet of you to make sure I didn’t die in the ten seconds it took us to get here, Auggie,” Daphne says when we reach her vehicle. My parents have turned on the exterior lights and are watching through the front windows—as if they’d be able to do anything but wave goodbye if we got attacked right now. Wistfully, my tutor adds, “Sometimes I wish you were straight. And about four years older. And better at algebra.”
“Two of those things will never happen,” I declare emphatically, “and me getting older is about fifty-fifty.”
“Well, I guess it is better for me if you stay bad at math.” Daphne gives me a hug. She actually smells really nice, and just for a moment I also kind of wish I were straight; but then I remember what Boyd Crandall looked like when he got dared to make a snow angel in his boxer briefs at school on Monday, and I change my mind. She pulls back and points a stern finger at me. “Keep studying those flashcards until you’ve got your equations memorized, okay? And if you have any questions about your homework, send me an email.”
“How about I just send you the homework, and—” I stop, mid-swindle, when a strange sensation prickles up the back of my neck, like a breath puffed across my skin. Gooseflesh spreads between my shoulders, and I whirl around, convinced something is behind me. The yard is empty, though, without so much as footprints in the snow—human or otherwise.
“Auggie?” Daphne steps closer, peering over my shoulder. “What is it? Did you hear something?”
And then we both hear something, and our heads snap up as a gentle skittering noise comes from the neighbor’s roof, a shower of displaced snow drifting down from the eaves. It could be anything—a house cat or a raccoon, or maybe a weather balloon caught on a downdraft of swamp gas—but either way, it’s my signal to get the hell back inside.
“So I’ll see you next week,” Daphne says briskly, darting around to the driver’s side of her car.
“Drive safe,” I chirp in response, and then I’m hurrying up the walk before she’s even pulled away from the curb. Halfway to the porch, however, I catch something with my foot and kick it almost onto the front steps. A rabbit, its fur so white it blended in seamlessly with the snow, rolls a few times before flopping loosely onto its back. It’s dead, and two deep, bloodless puncture wounds in its neck are all I need to know what killed it. There was a vampire in our front yard tonight.
I sprint the rest of the way to the door, and my heart doesn’t stop pounding for another ten minutes once I’m safely locked inside, a crucifix clutched in my white-knuckled fist. Vampires can’t enter a privately owned building without an invitation, so I should be safe … but I’m not taking any chances.
It isn’t until I’m brushing my teeth that the most disturbing fact of all hits me, and my throat goes dry: It’s below freezing outside—but the rabbit’s body was still limp. Whatever dropped it on our front walk must’ve just left before I stumbled over it … barely fifteen feet from the windows where I’d been sitting and doing my homework.
Chilled all the way to my bone marrow, I climb into bed, but it’s hours before my eyes finally slide shut.
Copyright © 2020 by Caleb Roehrig