The Waiting Game (a vampire short story)
Dante promised himself he wouldn’t leave the house again, but Lydia’s smell—lilacs and puppy dog kisses and sweet innocence—were like a giant brownie sundae to an extreme dieter. Despite knowing better, he let it lure him out into the night, into her world. A place he didn’t belong anymore.
He met her on a clear night, like this, a few months back. He’d warned her about coming out here at night. There were predators, monsters. But all that did was spur her on.
She walked out past the old country club, on the other side of what was once a nice neighborhood full of large craftsman houses that had, after many years of rentals, become derelict. Past the country club, the golf course bled into a nature reserve, which once housed antelope, wolves, and mountain lions. Last fall, two bodies were found mauled beyond recognition; their cause of death undetermined.
Dante had been here several times, but judging by the litter found along the roadside up to the broken fence, going no further than the first grouping of untamed bushes, no one else ventured far onto the property. Lydia was the only person he’d seen out this far.
Like the first time he’d followed her, she sat on a fallen tree staring at the stars, not far from the road. Ancient oaks, poplar, and pine grew so thick here their foliage blocked out most of the sky, isolating Lydia from any passerby. Here the peepers didn’t have to compete against car engines, radios, or gossip. Their chirps filled the air with abandon.
She didn’t hear Dante approach. He walked in slow, avoiding twigs that would announce his presence, something his body now did by instinct. At the sight of her, his muscles tightened, blood and adrenaline coursed through his veins like hot oil flowing through a car engine. He shouldn’t have come hungry. Holding back was almost painful, but he’d promised himself he wouldn’t give up his humanity. And she deserved better than this. He backed away a few feet into the trees, knowing he couldn’t go to her until he calmed.
His dark hair and dark clothes helped him blend into the night, where he was nothing more than a shadow watching her. He counted the rise and fall of her chest, a fly who’d unwittingly landed on a Venus Fly Trap.
She stared up at the sky with eyes closed, lips moving, making a wish. When she told him that she believed in such things, he’d laughed at her, then felt guilty about it when he saw the hurt look on her face. Her openness to life enhanced her simple beauty. He smiled, watching the way the stars sparkled like glitter across her blond hair and how her skin glowed with a soft pink aura. He took an automatic step forward, then caught himself, but she saw the movement.
She turned, finding him in the darkness, her eyes widened. “Oh!” she said, then quickly diverted her eyes to the ground.
He was mildly disappointed she didn’t run. He cursed himself for the thought. Feelings like that needed to be pushed down. Hidden. To redirect his mind, he concentrated on the look he’d seen in her eyes. Shock.
He knew that look—he knew what she’d seen. He pictured Stella’s hunting eyes, golden with slits like a cat’s. He’d been shocked the first time he’d seen them. Until that point, she was a hot older woman teasing college boys at Mardi Gras. He’d been able to dismiss the unease he’d felt around her as being inexperienced. Until her eyes changed, speaking the truth, but by that point, it was too late. He lost track of how many years he’d been with her. How many towns they’d snuck out of. But never of how much he hated her.
“I’m glad you came tonight,” Lydia said, her voice a whisper caught in the air. She patted the spot on the fallen tree beside her. Having gained control of his senses, he sat, but chose a spot two feet away rather than right beside her, though it would only take a second to bridge the gap.
She made small talk about her day. People calling customer service suck. They blame you for everything. People in general are assholes. Volunteering at the shelter was better. The dogs were so excited to see her they tore a hole in her jeans as they jumped and pawed at her legs.
“Animals get me,” she said. “When I had to go, their whines made it almost impossible to leave.”
After her story, she grew quiet. She took several deep breaths like she was gearing up for something. A few moments later she said, “I’ve been thinking.” She looked away, and then after putting her hands on her face so that she spoke through her fingers, the words rushed out. “I think I know how to get rid of Stella.”
The peepers were quiet now.
Laughing would hurt her feelings. He wouldn’t do that again. “Lydia,” he said.
“Hear me out first.” She turned and jumped forward with animation and was now inches from his face. Too close for comfort. Her eyes pleaded for him to listen. Oh, how he wanted to listen. What he wouldn’t give to get rid of Stella. He held his breath and nodded.
“This guy at work, Iggy, it’s rumored his family are mediums and witches and whatnot. He loves to talk about them and the mythical artifact things they have. I used to think it was all garbage until I met you.”
She sat back again, more serious now. Looking off in the distance she continued, “The other day he showed me a book from his family’s library. Their house is almost as old as yours. He said I could borrow it.”
He didn’t know what to say. People often claimed to be things they weren’t. He’d already done his own research, reading dozens of myths. Each held a tiny nugget of truth, but none had answers. He’d given up until he met Lydia. Sitting next to her filled him with hope, even though his bones told him it was hopeless.
Lydia’s hands fidgeted in her lap as the quiet between them grew. He wanted to hold them, warm them, keep them still. He imagined the two of them sitting here like a regular couple. They’d talk about boring things like their jobs.
“Thank you,” he said, breaking the silence, glad he still had some common sense. “I appreciate the thought, but…”
“I know it sounds crazy. This whole thing between me and you is crazy.”
She looked at him with wide moon eyes, and he wanted to believe. “I wish it were possible. But even if Stella were gone, I could never lead a normal life.”
“You said you still have a soul. You’ve never killed anyone. I know you’re a good person inside. I can see it. I know it won’t be easy, but we can make it work.”
“No,” he said. Even now he could hear Stella laughing at him, goading him. He couldn’t imagine a world without that voice, and that’s how he knew it wasn’t possible—his dreams were fairy tales. He took a step back, sorry he’d strung Lydia on so long.
Lydia jumped to her feet and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his chest. Her heat spread through his body. Her smell slid down his throat. Kill her already, Stella whispered.
“I have to go.” He pushed her away and turned to leave.
“Dante?” With the lightest touch, she caught his fingers. Her hand so small he could easily crush it.
“Lydia, I’m sorry, but this has to end.”
He pulled away and ran like he was being chased. He didn’t stop at the old house or the town limits or the next town. He kept going, keeping to the woods, light, and fast as an antelope. He ran until he felt the rubber band of his life stretch to its limit and yank him back home again, where Stella waited for him chained to the basement floor, wheezing with laughter.
She no longer looked like the woman he’d met on Bourbon Street, someone right off a glossy magazine page, in her red dress and stunning chocolate hair. That woman had mesmerized him. This one, leaning against the wall, haggard, grayed and shriveled, repulsed him.
He threw her one of the rabbits he’d snatched on his way back. She grabbed it in the air, and with her broken teeth bit into the flesh. After playing with it for a few minutes, shaking it around like a dog with its prey, she slurped out the blood, doing her best to splatter it all around her.
When she finished, Dante threw a bucket of water on her.
“Punk ass bitch. You enjoyed that didn’t you?” She cackled and shook the water out of her hair like a dog. “You’re slipping more each day.” She still had blood on her teeth when she smiled.
“I’ll never be like you,” he said.
And though he hated her, he couldn’t leave her in a puddle of water and blood. With a washcloth in hand, he leaned across the painted symbols, making sure to keep one foot on the other side. Keeping away from her claw-like hands and the silver chains that bound her, he cleaned her the best he could. He even changed her into a fresh terry cloth wrap he stole off someone’s clothesline.
After cleaning himself, he sat down in the living room to read. Stella had laughed at the things he’d brought in his bag. “Only you would bring books on vacation to Mardi Gras.” He too laughed at the time, but now, he was grateful to have them. These books were the only things left that tied him to his past. They usually calmed him, but the smell of blood still lingered in the air, and he found it hard to concentrate.
He’d only made it a few pages into The Catcher in the Rye when the doorbell rang. He sniffed the air. Lydia. And she wasn’t alone.
He opened the door. Lydia grinned and waved, and then seeing the scowl on Dante’s face, looked everywhere but directly at him. The boy standing beside her wore tight black and grey striped jeans and a white poet’s shirt and big black loafers with silver buckles. He carried a Tumi backpack and couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Dante assumed this was Iggy, the one with the book.
“Dude,” he said, his eyes roving up and down Dante’s body. “You’re really into this.” He winked at Lydia. “You were right about him.”
Dante gave her a quizzical look. She shrugged and pushed past him into the house.
“You’re missing a widow’s peak though,” the boy said as he followed Lydia inside to the kitchen.
“You live here? I drive past here on my way to work. I thought this old place was abandoned.” His eyes scanned the room, taking in every crack.
Dante didn’t know what he felt more of, anger or embarrassment. He hadn’t planned to invite anyone here especially with Stella. Not only did the house look uninhabitable with broken windows and peeling paint and rotting door frames, but the mismatched furniture had come from discarded trash piles on the side of the road. Not something he was proud of. At least he’d recently mopped and dusted. He was doing the best he could. He didn’t like that this boy, with his well-groomed, perfectly unkempt hair and manicured fingernails, reminded him otherwise.
“What are you doing here?” Dante asked, not bothering to mask his anger.
“Dante, I’m sorry,” Lydia said. “But I have to do something. You need my help.”
The boy dropped his backpack on the dining table, which wobbled and threatened to collapse. He pulled out an ancient leather-bound book, a tarnished silver chalice and dagger set, a box of multi-colored sidewalk chalk, a box of rock salt, and six pink cake scented candles.
Dante raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry man, I had to raid my sister’s room for the chalk and candles.”
Iggy reached back into his bag and pulled out a sheaf of papers and a pen. “I’ll need you to sign this. It’s a waiver saying I’m not responsible if anything goes wrong.”
Dante caught Lydia’s gaze in the wall mirror and glared at her, to which she nodded enthusiastically. “I’ve already signed.”
Aware that making a scene would draw unwanted attention to himself, he grabbed the papers and signed a fake name.
“You said she’s in the basement, right?” Lydia said with what Dante thought was a little too much enthusiasm.
He grabbed her elbow and pulled her into the living room. “What are you doing?”
“Iggy has a spell that will get rid of her, you’ll be free. Isn’t that what you want?”
Dante groaned. “Don’t you think if there was a way, I’d have found it by now? It was only by luck I found that binding circle. Lydia, you don’t understand. You have to leave.”
“It’ll be okay. You need to trust me.”
“Get out,” Dante said, baring his fangs.
She stared at him blinking rapidly. The fear rolled off her. An intoxicating scent.
“Get out,” he repeated. “And take that idiot with you.”
“What am I supposed to tell him?”
“I don’t care, just get him out of here.”
“Fine.” She stomped back towards the kitchen. “Let’s go, Iggy.”
But Iggy, and all his stuff, was gone.
Dante raced to the basement, skipping most of the stairs. When he reached the bottom, he saw Iggy had already poured salt and was setting up candles around the circle. For her part, Stella curled her legs up to her chest appearing to cower against the wall, but Dante saw the slight curve of her lips and noticed how the candlelight gleamed in her eyes. Her hunting eyes.
“This is amazing! How long did it take you to get all this setup? I’ve done other rituals, but nothing this convincing.”
Iggy fished around in the front pocket of his bag and pulled out a phone. Dante knocked it out of his hand.
“Hey,” Iggy said as the phone slid across the room.
“Fine. Light the candles.”
Dante crossed his arms, he wasn’t going to help in this madness, so Lydia, still radiating the scent of fear, now mixed with excitement, lit the candles while Iggy found the page he needed in his book.
Speaking in Latin, Iggy intoned like a southern fire and brimstone preacher on the pulpit. He went on like this for several more minutes, waving his arm about and pointing at Stella.
“Amen,” he said and closed the book.
That was the best Amen Dante had ever heard. “Okay, it’s time to go. Thank you for your service.”
But Iggy wasn’t done. He took out the blade and chalice. “I need your blood.” Iggy laughed at his own joke.
Dante imagined snapping his neck.
“Here.” Lydia held out her hand to Iggy who snatched it like a dog snatches food off the table, he didn’t hesitate before bringing the blade down. Lydia grimaced as it sliced across her palm.
The smell of blood permeated the room. Dante could smell it before, but now it wasn’t contained by her skin. Watching it flow freely into the cup, his resolve softened. He listened to the blood pump through her body, and Iggy’s body, and at that moment, he’d never wanted anything so bad.
He clenched his fists and closed his eyes. Hurry up, he willed them. Iggy sprinkled the blood around the circle and began chanting again. Dante counted. One. Two. Three. Four. But it didn’t help.
When Iggy reached his second Amen, Dante grabbed his bag and started packing his stuff. “Thank you again, but seriously, you need to leave.”
Iggy looked confused but allowed Dante to push him up the stairs. Near the top, they heard Stella’s first cough. She coughed again, a hacking cough like she was trying to get something out of her throat. They turned to see what was happening.
Stella’s coughs intensified into hoarse bronchitis like coughs and then gasping. She clawed at her neck and tried to speak, but no words formed, only hawk-like screeches. She shook and writhed inside the circle like she was being poked and prodded by an unseen entity, moving to the edge like she was trying to escape, but each time she reached the edge she was knocked back to the center.
“Should we help her?” Iggy asked.
Dante blocked him from going down the stairs.
Then the smoke started; first at Stella’s fingertips, then her head and hair. Next came the small blue flames licking across her skin, bringing with it a suffocating stench like burning decay. Stella patted at the flames which only made them spread. She screamed, rasping and croaking and begging, as she slowly burned down into a red puddle.
Five minutes passed before anyone spoke.
“Oh my God,” Iggy said. “Whoever put that together is amazing. You have to give me your secret so I can use it at my next gig. People will pay big bucks for this.”
Dante sat motionless on the stairs, too stunned to move. Was she really gone? Was it that easy? He concentrated and listened and reached inward to all the crevices of his brain and outward to all the spaces in the room; all that remained, where she used to be, was silence. Lydia tried to talk to him, but he couldn’t stop staring at the puddle. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
He vaguely heard her and Iggy leave. He didn’t care that Iggy spoke about posting online or that he offered Lydia a ride home. All he cared about was that Stella was gone. He sat in the same spot the rest of the night and through the next day, watching the puddle, expecting it to reanimate. He waited for a sign Stella was still there, hiding. She never appeared. As darkness fell, he came alive again, accepting what he had seen as real.
By the time Lydia arrived, two hours later, Dante had shed his anxiety about Stella. He’d rinsed out the basement, washing away the puddle, salt, and chalk with bleach, and put Stella’s clothes in the big blue trash bin out front. He cleaned until there were no signs of Stella left.
Lydia bounced into the house in a bright blue sundress, though it was still early spring and still chilly at night. A playful smile danced across her lips and a light tan warmed her skin. “I took the day off from work,” she said. “My last day at the beach.”
But Dante wasn’t listening. He grabbed Lydia and pulled her against him, kissing her like he’d wanted to since the first time he’d seen her but hadn’t because he was afraid of Stella’s control over him. She tasted like sunshine and rainbows.
“Wow,” she said. “We should do crazy stuff more often.”
He kissed her again. Freedom, he thought, enjoying the sound of Lydia’s heart quickening, and the excitement, like static, coming from her skin. He let go of all his previous worries. After all his deprivation with Stella, he was going to enjoy this.
He kissed her along her jawline and down her neck.
“I love you,” she whispered. She tilted her neck towards him.
His body reacted, his fangs came out on their own, the thought never reached his mind, and before he could stop himself, he bit into her neck. It wasn’t a romantic bite like he’d seen in the movies, but a hungry, beastly bite. He tore at her, drinking her in, until he felt her heart stop.
The mirror on the wall behind the dining room table cracked. When Dante looked up, he saw Lydia hanging at an odd angle, suspended like someone was holding her, but no one was there. He gasped realizing what had just happened.
“Lydia,” he said, choking on each syllable. “No. No. No.”
Feeling something deep inside himself shatter, he closed his eyes and sank to the floor. Gently rocking back and forth, he kissed her lips, which had already turned blue, and stroked her face, now expressionless, and begged her to wake up. “Please! This can’t be happening.”
It was the laughter that brought him out of the moment.
“She’s gone, Dante.”
Stella stood in the kitchen dressed in designer clothes. She looked like she had the first time he’d met her. “That boy’s sister had great taste.” She stroked the black silk shirt. “She tasted great too.”
“What the fuck?” he said, though all the fight had left him.
She waved her hand towards the basement stairs. “That was fun.” She winked and shrugged. “You needed a little push. I’ll admit, for a moment, I wasn’t sure I had you. But you always clean up.”
“I saw you turn into a puddle.”
She ran her fingers through his hair. “I know lots of tricks.”
“But I fought you so hard.”
“I’ve never been your enemy. It wasn’t me you were fighting.”
Lydia slid from Dante’s arms. He stood and paced the room, trying to put together everything that had happened. Where had he gone wrong? Guilt tore at him. He’d been a good person. Thinking about Lydia, his body ached until he retched.
But the memories and hurts and guilt were slippery. They didn’t want to be held onto. As he sat there, they became easier to brush aside. He didn’t want to think about any of that. The only thing that mattered was right now.
“We could go down the Mississippi. It’s warm and green in Louisiana this time of year.”
He followed Stella out of the house, leaving Lydia lying on the floor. His old bag with his clothes left in the upstairs bedroom closet and his books on the coffee table.
“Yeah, I have a lot to think about,” he said. But already, his thoughts were turning gray and fading. A new feeling was forming way down low in his gut, chasing everything else away. Hunger.