The vampire has made the water hot, and he disrobes me before I step into the wet stone walls. He washes me with shampoo he’s made himself, herbal tea cooled and mixed with castile soap. I itch and sting, for I have been among the cats today. The conjunctiva of my left eye swells so that it looks like melted plastic. The vampire instructs me to close my lids and tilts my head beneath the water.
I am one of those animals who would not make it outside of captivity. When the vampire found me, I had unzipped my skin in many places, revealing the forbidden red. I smoked sweet as a candle, and he dipped his fingers in my red wax but never touched them to his tongue.
“You pitiful demon,” he’d said to me.
I ask him as he scrubs the hair beneath my arms, “What does today mean?”
He draws something on one of the stones with the perspiration.
“A hound chases a hare in sleep,” I say in response to the picture. “The sleep hare evades. What a useless mercy.”
The vampire revokes the water, wraps me in a towel, and unfolds my nightclothes.
The vampire likes to begin his night by scrubbing my dirty dishes at our kitchen sink. He uses soap he made himself—tea tree oil and castile. He looks out the half-curtained window and listens for cicadas, owls, and bats. He recites to me Southern Gothic passages he might have written himself. I have access to all his books, but they are told in some Southern Gothic language I pretend I cannot understand. The vampire likes to sit with me every night and count my scars. “They are not open. They have not reopened,” he says, as though he is the one who dreams of my seams untying. I lie with my head in his lap, and he opens my arms and legs at the elbows and knees. He recites my scars to me, but I pretend I have fallen asleep. I pretend my scars are told in a language I cannot understand.
The vampire longs for the ocean and so handcuffs me to himself as the sun goes down and we drink Cabernet. We play one of his various word games until he has taken enough wine to lead me down into the sand. “Synonyms for salvation,” he demands, or “types of captivity.” I believe he has written an infinitude of books about himself in relation to me, but he cannot keep our story in his hands.
“What have I written?” he says. “Can you find yourself in this, Darren?” He says my name as though I have never heard it before. He looks at me as though he grieves and I am the corpse down in the velvet.
He takes me to the beach, crossing his feet in the dunes and nearly collapsing. He yanks me down to a squatting position. The water glides over itself and foams. He takes some into his mouth. He gobbles the water like it might rid him of his fear of my blood getting loose. “Take some, Darren,” he says, slinging water into my mouth which I open for him. I will open for him until I can open no more.
The vampire finds me naked on the sofa in his library. I did not want him to know I’ve been reading, that I’ve resurrected the curiosity which had died in me and fouled my body, but he finds me looking at the devils hanging from the ceiling, their purple metal horns bent like the tops of crescent moons. He finds me attempting to sort out the open Kierkegaard on my chest.
“Only the lower natures forget themselves and become something new.” I look down from the devils and examine my own cuts for the first time since I made them.
My papers too. He finds my papers stacked on the rug. I’ve been writing some characters again. The vampire knows nothing of my art, what I made before him, or what I make now, and I am not ready to answer his questions.
He stoops beside the sofa and takes my papers in his hands, but he does not read them. He sets them on the round mahogany table and rests his face on my belly where I feel his eyelashes fluttering. “You shouldn’t keep your words on the floor, Darren. They don’t belong among dust.”
But my words are just wormwood reverberating off the walls of my casket.
“Just let me put some under your tongue, Darren,” the vampire shouts, wrapping his legs around my torso and holding my head just under my ear.
“I don’t want it,” I say, jerking my mouth away from him. The CBD coats the sides of the glass dropper, and the oil feels like balm on my lips where he’s trying to force me to take it.
“Darren, it comes from a plant. You love plants.”
He’s using my vegetarianism against me, another part of myself I have never confessed to him, but when I refused to eat the meat he cooked for me a few nights ago, I think he figured it out.
I don’t want to lift my pain off me and hang it over a chair. I don’t know if he will give my pain back once he takes it. But I’d like to open a box that does not contain images of slitting my wrist, and there are no such boxes available to me. Perhaps the CBD will create such a box that I can climb into or at least a box that I can look inside of sometimes.
I open my mouth to him once more, curling my tongue so he can deposit the hemp behind my teeth.
“Hold it there for sixty seconds,” he says.
He licks his thumb and wipes the corner of my mouth, ridding my face of the oil that apparently strayed there. I flare my nostrils at the scent of his breath and stare at his eyes as he cleans me.
Submission to him is like discovering a vegetable that feeds your deficit, and I have wanted a very long time for someone to nurture me.
Within the hour, the boxes start to empty themselves. I sit on the rug and touch them. I palm their glossy sides and finger the metal slits into which you can deposit papers. I remove the lids and find no folded loose-leaf containing scribbles of cutting, or if I do, I crumple those papers and toss them behind me.
Within the hour, I am sleeping. In the dream, the vampire holds my hand on the beach, though we are not cuffed together. Dorsal fins reveal themselves above the salt and lamentation. In the dream, the same can be said of our bodies in bed.
The vampire comes home to find me with my hands in hot pink hair dye I ordered online, slicking the color into my roots.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“Making myself interesting to look at,” I say. “Not cutting. Not wanting to cut. Staining your sink. Staining this towel. Finishing off the bourbon.”
“Okay, thank you for that itemization,” he says. “You’ve got some on your forehead.”
“I mean, I can see it. I’m looking directly into the…oh.”
“Baby oil will take it off,” he says, scooting me over and crouching to look in the cabinet.
“But I’m a man,” I say, burping and vomiting into my mouth, swallowing down the acid so the vampire doesn’t know.
“An intoxicated man,” he says.
“No I’m not,” I say and wipe my hands on my mint-colored T-shirt.
“What are you doing?” the vampire says, gripping my wrists. He bought me this shirt as a gift.
“Oh, god damn it,” I say. “I didn’t mean to.”
“What’s that on your lip?” he says, touching the cluster of four yellow crusts in the crease of my mouth. I pull back from him, and he jabs the cold sore, tearing part of the crust from my lip, and causing it to leak. “Ah!” I say, doubling over at the vanity, pounding it with my fists.
“I’m sorry,” the vampire says, opening the cabinet again and dabbing my mouth with gauze. I can’t see for the tears that pour from me, and I’m smearing dye into my eyes.
I surrender to the vampire, and within minutes, I’m sitting in front of the television with a shower cap on my head and a mug of warm chai in my hands. The vampire tends to my face as I rest my head on my own shoulder so I can see the show.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“For what?” he says, touching my knee and rising.
“For being so fucking crazy,” I say.
The vampire reaches into my hair, puts his nose to mine, and closes his eyes.
“I’m hanging by a fucking thread,” I say.
“What makes you think another state is best?”
He sits down beside me. I set my chai on the table in front of us and lay my head on his chest.
“I want to stop hurting,” I say. “I want people to stop thinking I’m crazy and treating me differently.”
“I think what you want is to stop seeing yourself as crazy,” he says, “so you can stop treating yourself differently. But maybe this is how you are. Look at this hair,” he says, scrunching my shower cap with his fingers. “Your crazy is like this hair.”
He awakens me half an hour later to rinse my head with cold water. He drapes my pillow with a towel which my head streaks pink. He lights a sandalwood stick. We smell it burn in the darkness. He holds my hand. I fall asleep to the person in my head counting.
Courtney Wilber received her MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2020 and currently seeks a home for her novel and individual short fictions. She resides in her hometown of Pinehurst, North Carolina.