by Diane Height
Every day I take the same path to work, three blocks away to the library, where I check books in and out, help people find what they are looking for, and answer questions. I’m a librarian. It isn’t very important work compared to what my brother does as a policeman, but it keeps me busy and pays the bills. Isn’t that what matters? I’m happy, right?
It’s difficult, though, not to wonder every day what my brother is doing across town. He has a wife and two daughters to come home to. I, on the other hand, come home to make myself dinner. I usually bring a book home each night--just one. I try to choose the book carefully; I have many favorites, and some that I’ve enjoyed over and over again.
After dinner I open the book, and that’s when the characters invite me in to be one of them. How could I feel alone? How important their lives are. The authors, just by writing about them, make them so. The books I choose also let me choose who I want to become. Action stories are my favorite--westerns and mysteries. I become one of the good guys, of course. Sometimes I'm the lead character, but other times I'm the person who needs to be rescued.
Lately I’ve been wondering what it would be like to become the bad guy, the villain, the spy that gets caught or even killed. Captured or killed by my brother perhaps! To be so important that my own brother would have to risk his life to stop me.
For a week I’ve searched through all my favorites genres for the right bad guy to become, and nothing. Then today one of the new assistants hands me a book that has a hold placed on it, but was never picked up. I glance at the title: Vampires. It’s a subject that has never interested me, but during my break I browse through the pages, thinking this could be my book.
I bring the book home and can’t put it down. Every night, I read Vampires and nothing else. I can’t get enough of the book or the subject. Vampires are bad, but have tremendous power. I could feel important as a vampire, couldn’t I? Perhaps, a voice whispers, even as important as my brother, though in a dark way....
Tonight as I open the book, the characters say to me, “It’s time. We want to invite you to become one of us. Come in. We want you to be Raphaele.”
It’s not even Mardi Gras time in New Orleans, but I insist that everyone wear their favorite mask to my party tonight. Mikror is coming. He’s always telling me that he likes to stay by my side at a party because I’m the most beautiful creature ever created. Is it true? I’m tall and statuesque, and over the centuries my skin has become more radiant--so white, almost translucent. But the younger ones make me question myself. That new vampire, Gabriella, is coming tonight. I saw her a few weeks ago, and she’s young and stunning. I remember those days. I would love to have her as my companion. We could travel together, and I could teach her all about darkness. Mikror says that she still drinks the blood of animals and hasn’t yet tasted the richness of human blood.
“Raphaele, you look radiant as always. I see you have your eyes on Gabriella. Come with me and I’ll introduce you.” As Mikror leads me over to her, I know I’m staring too intently. “Thank you for coming to my party," I say. "Maybe we can spend some time together later on, and you can tell me about yourself.”
When I'm at work, I can watch people coming and going. I often wonder about their lives. Do they have someone to love and take care of them? Some people seem so happy, while others are sad. You can see the pain on their faces. I look at my face again in the window of my cubicle. I’m not sure I want to know what others see in my face. I can't see it myself.
I rush through dinner to get to my book.
“I didn’t get a chance to spend time with Gabriella tonight.”
Mikror sighs. “Don’t worry. Vadim was occupying all of her time. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. You know my sense of hearing isn’t as keen as yours.”
I can feel the intensity of my voice as I say, “Does he think he’ll have her all to himself, so that she’ll become his companion and he can teach her his ways? I can show her powers Vadim doesn’t know exist. I’ll make sure she understands what immortality means." I feel my temper rising as the words spew from me.
It’s very late. Sometimes I think I am like Raphaele and I prefer the night to the day. At night, it’s just me. During the day I have to deal with people, feelings about my brother, feeling unimportant and rejected. I’m the head librarian, the person in charge, yet I avoid any confrontation when I can; it frightens me. I can’t imagine my brother ever being scared, like me, and he certainly has plenty to be scared of with his job.
Actually, I do remember a time when my brother was afraid. We were very young and our family was on vacation. The two of us wandered off from our parents, and my brother started to cry because he thought we were lost. I told him it was okay and took his hand. When and how did I become so weak?
As I’m getting ready for work, I look closely at myself in the bathroom mirror. I don’t like what I see. Why do I wear my hair this way? Always pulled back with no style. And these glasses?
I need to get ready for work and stop spending time in front of the mirror. Isn’t that what my mother used to say? "Stop looking at yourself so much." She always said that I was smart and didn’t have to worry about how I looked. I don’t think she ever said that to my brother, but then my brother is good-looking--and smart.
The day goes by quickly. When I get home, I call my brother. He answers the phone and seems happy to hear from me, though you can never be sure. At times I even wonder if I embarrass him -- his Plain Jane sister, the spinster librarian. He would never say that, though. He’s too nice. I don’t like to think about how lonely I am, so I open my book.
He’s been looking at me for a long time. Quick glances at first. I can feel his heat even at this distance. He's the kind I usually like, too: immoral. Not like the innocents, the ‘good’ ones that Vadim and his group prey on. Vadim has a total lack of compassion for the humans he preys upon. Is that what he’s going to teach Gabriella?
I’m brought back to the moment because I see him making his way over to where I’m sitting. He asks if he can join me. I say yes. After making small talk, he invites me up to his hotel room. The script never changes.
We undress each other and lie on the bed. He has an erection even though he’s been drinking a lot. It doesn’t matter; this is not what I came for. As I reach for him, I anticipate the moment my lips will touch his skin and my teeth barely break the soft tissue of his neck. In an instant my fangs are deep into him and I can taste his blood. I hear him moaning as I drink. I feel him relax, and then I’m gone into the night.
I sit back in my chair, eyes closed. I run my tongue over my lips, and I can still taste blood. Why am I doing this? So I can live, at least live at night. I was with a man. Men never look at me. And why would they? I dress in frumpy clothes, never wear make-up and always wear sensible shoes. No man is ever going to look at me--not even once! If I couldn’t be Raphaele at night, what would my life be?
The next day, I arrive earlier than usual at the library. I have my tea with me and I head back to my cubicle. I have a certain routine in the morning, and that’s what I’m doing when I sense someone standing in the doorway. I look up and my assistant is staring at me. She says, “You look different. What is it? You’re not wearing your glasses. You look good.”
Moments later, the part-time teenage girl always dressed in the latest fashion sticks her head in and says, “Wow! I love your lipstick. Russian Red from MAC, right? Madonna’s color. Your hair looks really cool too. You should put some streaks in it. I’ll give you the name of my stylist.” I don’t even understand half of what she’s saying, but I feel good. Someone has noticed me. Now I’m really excited that my brother invited me over for dinner tonight. He’s going to be so impressed with the way I look--or at least I hope he'll be.
I arrive just in time to see him leave. “Sorry, Sis," he says, looking sheepish, "but you know how it goes. There’s been another robbery in that gated community a few miles away. Gotta go! Go on in and have dinner with the family. Maybe I’ll see you later. I love you.” I love it when my brother calls me ‘Sis’ and says he loves me. I can tell he means it. It makes me think of when we were growing up, when it was just the two of us. I barely get a chance to say goodbye before he’s out the door. He didn’t even notice my hair or the new outfit. Why should he? He’s a policeman, with real things to worry about.
I walk into their house. My sister-in-law is just putting dinner on the table. My nieces do most of the talking during the meal, boyfriends and all that ‘girl’ stuff. I’m laughing right along with them, but inside I’m thinking, "No one has said anything about my hair, my clothes or my lipstick. Maybe they think I don’t look that good."
Finally, I smile and tell them I have to leave because I have things to do at home.
What do I care about anyone else? I have my pleasures. Darkness is all I ever want. The soft touch of the night. Let the others do what they want. I don’t need them. I don’t need anyone.
A voice startles me. I turn. It’s Vadim. “Out all alone tonight, Raphaele? What a pity.” He’s with Gabriella. I just stare. Usually I can read his thoughts, but not now. He smirks. He knows. I detest his attitude. I ignore him and look at Gabriella.
“Gabriella, it’s nice to see you again. Be careful, my dear. Vadim isn’t always what he seems to be. You may think he cares about you, but he only cares about himself. Do you know that he only feeds on the innocent and that he takes tremendous pleasure in the sick games he plays with them before he kills them?”
A shadow falls across Vadim’s face and I hear a faint hissing sound. He says, “I think Raphaele has lived too long. It’s affecting her powers. I think perhaps she is becoming ‘less’. An unfortunate malady that affects some vampires. Maybe it’s time for her to end her miserable life.”
At lunchtime the next day, I can hear some of the employees talking about going to the café around the corner. Maybe that young girl, the one who likes my red lipstick, would like to go to lunch with me? I usually bring my lunch from home and eat in my cubicle, but not today! I’ll ask her to lunch. We can talk about hair and clothes and, well, ‘girl’ stuff.
“Oh, you just missed her," my assistant says. "She went to lunch with that group that just left.”
I go back to my office and pull out the sandwich from home, but I don’t feel hungry anymore. I look at the clock wishing it were time to go home. At least I have my vampires.
I’m heading towards a familiar place. It’s been some time. I have a few hours before sunrise. I’ve been told she stays in her home most nights, her faithful companion Elden taking care of all her needs. I was very young when I met her in Europe, while she was traveling alone. She quickly became my mentor and encouraged me to come to New Orleans, to the Vieux Carre, to live. She’s the only one I trust after all these centuries.
“Good evening, Raphaele. It’s good to see you.”
“Good evening, Betresa. How are you?” As I say these words, I notice how old she has become. Her skin used to glow with radiance, but now it is dull, almost chalky.
“Please sit down. I know you didn’t come to inquire about the state of my mind and body. You have something on your mind. What is it?”
“Betresa, you always seem so happy, and I’m not. We’re both old now. We both have seen the younger vampires come along, asserting themselves, basking in all their beauty and glory. It doesn’t seem to bother you, but it bothers me. Doubt hangs around my neck like heavy stones weighing me down.”
She laughs. “Raphaele, you want to know how I have survived for almost three thousand years? I’ve had my moments of self-doubt, but I will tell you what I’ve always told you. Do not let anything or anyone decide who you are. You must know who you are inside of you. Now, there must be a specific vampire who is causing you so much pain. Is it Vadim?”
“Tell me about you and Vadim.”
“He acts like he’s a prince, better than the rest of us. He takes whatever he wants. He drinks the blood of the innocent. He mocks me because I’m getting older.”
“Raphaele, you give away your power to him. You give away yourself. That’s what frightens you. He cannot take who you are unless you give it to him.”
Why must I think? Why can't I just be? These are questions I ask at night, when I don't want to think about tomorrow, the pain of yet another failed day. This is the moment of truth between me and myself. Release me from this turmoil called life, so that I may finally know peace.
It’s right before sunrise, the best time to be walking. Nothing’s around, except a few animals returning home. Then I hear it -- a noise not too far away. Something is in terrible pain. I walk towards the sound, and I see a man tied to a post, moaning, a stream of blood running down his neck. I hear a voice behind me, and I turn around to see Vadim with a heinous smirk on his face, fangs out, covered in blood.
I can’t go on. I start to hyperventilate. I’m scared. Then I hear Betresa’s words: "He can only take what you give him." I think about my brother and how loving he is. I see us running through the fields, the ones behind our house, flowers everywhere. Someone falls--it’s me, and my brother stops. He’s little, but he comes back and kisses the scrape on my knee. I want to cry now like I did back then .
Vadim’s haunted eyes reach into me as he says, “Raphaele, you are losing your powers. You didn’t even hear me and I’ve been behind you for a long time. Are you here to dine with me or do you want this mortal for yourself? Are you so old you have become like the scavengers who only feed on the prey of others?”
“I want nothing to do with you, Vadim! Let him go!”
“And why would I want to do that?”
I answer, “You’ve had plenty tonight. I know you. You gorge yourself thinking it will make you even more powerful, but it does the opposite.”
He laughs. “Is this the wisdom of an old vampire speaking? You fool! I do what I want!”
“Not this time.” I hurry to the man’s side. My hands can still move very quickly, and I have the ropes untied before Vadim can reach me. The man is conscious, staring back at me, terror in his eyes. I tell him, “Go! You must go!”
In that second, Vadim has his hands around my throat, and I’m pinned to the same post. Teeth bared, Vadim starts speaking, but it’s hard to understand him. I yell again for the man to leave. Vadim’s pride and rage will keep him with me, away from the man.
Vadim throws me across the courtyard, but I get up and have the strength of mind to will a large rock up and off of the ground. It strikes him in the head, but nothing is stopping him. As he gets up, he says, “Raphaele, the sun is rising and you have a long way to go to get to your home. My home is right here." He laughs and the old terrible hissing sound I know so well comes from him. I yell, “I’m not afraid of the light!"
The sun is starting to rise. I scream--or is it Vadim who screams? I see him flinch in pain, but he still moves toward me. His hatred of me has kept him with me and away from his home. My body grows weaker, and I can see Vadim changing--but still he moves toward me……
I pull from the book with such force that I fall to the floor. My lungs feel like they’re going to explode. Death is all around me. Is it my own or another's?
I see my brother and I as children playing, unable to stop seeing it. I see love, and I feel it, yet I am dying. I am afraid, and yet I reach for the book on the floor beside me.
I hear a faint voice. There’s a shadow. Someone is leaning over me, asking if I’m all right. I’m too weak to answer. I open my eyes; and staring back at me is the man I set free. I want to talk, but I can’t. What’s happening to me?
I hear him say, “You saved my life. Thank you. I’m not sure what really happened back there. That....”
I put my hand on his arm and ask, “Is he gone?” My voice sounds different to me.
“He--he disappeared. It cannot be, and yet I--I saw it.”
“And I’m not gone like him?” I ask.
He laughs. “No, you are not gone."
"My name is Raphaele."
"What a beautiful name. My name is Daniel. I am an officer of the peace in this town. You remind me of my sister. Your eyes. Your mouth. She had courage too, before she died."
He will tell me about her, I know, and it will fill me with light--the light that no longer hurts, but feels like life itself, as if I had come home.
I look at the clock. It’s 6am. I don’t know how long I’ve been sleeping. The book is next to me on the floor, closed. I run my fingers over the cover.
I’m still feeling a little shaky. A voice speaks to me, but it’s not from the book, it’s my own voice: “It’s just fear, Raphaele, and fear can take many forms. Remember that it has no power over you unless you give it the power...”
I want to call Daniel. Whether he is at work or at home, I want to call him.
I reach for the phone.
Diane's writing is inspired by her love of travel, adventure and the world at large. She recently spent time in Africa working with cheetahs to help educate people about this beautiful animal. In an earlier life she passed her wisdom along to 5th graders as an elementary school teacher. When she's not writing, she enjoys her new grandson, Bodhi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in All Things Girl, Clockwise Cat, Dog Versus Sandwich, Lucrezia, Mirror Dance, Sand, and The Short Humour Site. Diane can be reached via e-mail.
Danielle Duer has worked as a painter and visual artist in the center of Nashville’s evolving art scene for the past several years. Her unusual pieces have been described as haunting and romantic. She uses bold, beautiful color combinations and layers the main images with dainty details so that the viewer can stare for hours and always see something new. These narrative paintings are quite feminine and successfully possess both realistic and fanciful charm. She includes symbolism to tell lighthearted stories that are metaphors for deeper truths and philosophies in her own life.
Danielle’s work has been featured in a variety of publications such as the Music City Arts Channel and Elle Girl Magazine. In 2007, she was recognized by the mayor of Nashville for her outstanding achievements in the art and culture of the downtown area. You can find more of her work at DanielleDuer.com, and you can contact her via e-mail.