First things first: the vampire is a metaphor.
They tell you these stories when you are young, so that you do not forget. Let me tell you about Maria, went out at night, without any of her brothers, and now…you wouldn’t want to be like Sara, that poor girl… Cautionary tales mixed with sleepover etiquette so that they become instinctual, ingrained with all other common childhood edicts. Look both ways before you cross the street; never accept candy from strangers, much less car rides; always wear your crucifix and carry holy water, just in case.
Do not go into the woods alone for there are monsters there, sharp-clawed wolves ready to eat a pretty thing like you. When you go into town, hold your cloak tight and do not talk to the strangers who call hello; they can smell weakness, and they will chase after it like a fine wine, the sweetest of foreign sweetmeats. Better not to go out in the first place, try and test the edges of the story; better to stay here, with your grandmother and sisters by the fire where it is warm, where you are safe.
But you cannot. That, too, is part of the story.
It will happen when you are twelve, fifteen, five months into eighteen—the timing is crucial, but the exact date does not matter. It is the ripeness of the time that counts, child-yet-not ready to tilt into adulthood. Liminal, that wingbeat when the world balances on the edge, moon tilted precisely between wax and wane—you are at your most vulnerable then, and also (unknown to you) your most powerful. And it is that mixture, the combination of unsteadiness with strength, that brings the monsters.
Boy-children, when they turn twelve or fifteen or eighteen, get swords and dragons, pleas to travel to distant kingdoms and wake long-asleep princess. Girl-children get a bread knife and a crucifix, a cape to protect against the cold and a handful of cautionary stories to warn against edges. It is a not a fair story but then, twelve-fifteen-eighteen, you know well enough of the world’s unfairness.
This is how it will happen. You will get a summons, a letter from a brother thought long-lost, a call to bring bread to some distant elderly relative—again, the exact details do not matter, for it all leads to the same result, a departure from familiar lands. Your grandmother and sisters will hear, and they will try to stop you, plead and cajole and threaten, but in the end, they will give. They, too, know how the story works.
And so, in the end—willing or unwilling, ready or not—it will happen. You will go from the house that you have slept in all your life, the town you have lived in all your years, and head into the dark.
Do not fight it. Cry if you must, but do not forget to take your cross and holy water, a can of gasoline and something sharp, for weaponry. Kitchen knife, stake, old iron knitting needles—a chainsaw will do in a pinch, though it is recommended you plate it with silver first, if available. If not, a drop of blood—so long as it is virgin—will work well enough.
Lace your boots and check your hunting pack, make sure that you have your store of meat and matches. Then put on your cape, red as blood, and go outside.
The woods will be dark and deep, and soon you will be alone.
There will be rules to it, once you have been in the woods long enough. Scholars and wise men will pour over it, break the forest into neat archetypes and precise phases, all perfectly useless to you.
This is how it will happen:
It does not matter how you ration your use; your phone will run out of battery by the end of the first night. You will try to follow the path, mapped by the merchants and boy scouts on their treks; it will lead nowhere. A hint about the forest: no matter how you quarter and delineate its edges, you cannot make it believe in them.
You will run out of food.
You will run out of water. It will not be a surprise, but that will not stop the fear from being the same as always, caustic and all-encompassing the moment you unscrew your canteen and find nothing there.
Do not let it consume you. Do not ignore it, for that will not help either, but let it strengthen you, the rabbit-fast beat of your heart reminding you that you are alive.
There will be a river, sparkling seductive as it trails into the woods. Fill your water bottle, but do not follow it: gingerbread houses and witches’ gardens are the only places it can lead, and that is not where you need to be now. Ignore the bonfire lights and carousel music, the berries so bright and plump on their waving branches; for like colorful caterpillars, their beauty advertises nothing but danger.
The forest animals will be friendly, too unfamiliar with humans to be afraid, and that will be your advantage. Collect the wishbones from the birds you stone, save the feet of the rabbits you skin: you will need them later, for luck. Pare your tree roots and boil your water, sharpen your knives and do not let your fire die.
It will not take long. A day, two nights, three—the duration varies, but they will come, the scent of youth a flare to hungry archetypes waiting for their prey. They will come. The vampire, the werewolf, hopping corpses and leagues of wailing las lloranas, Baba Yaga with her mortar and pestle wet with human blood—
They will come. Slowly, suddenly, creep-crawling through tulgy wood or sweeping in on howling winds whose cold that reaches into your bones, they will come.
There may be one or a pack of them, a straggly pair or a red-eyed, panting horde. It does not matter; in the end they are all variables, moveable parts in this worn tableau of two figures against a setting sun.
They will come to you, because you are untried and uncertain, because your blood is still child-sweet and your limbs gangly from new growth, because you are twelve-sixteen-eighteen, child-not-adult and the power so ripe it is impossible for them not to be drawn, an iron filing to its magnet.
Do not run. Do not flinch. Keep your eyes on theirs, staring back into the abyss as it limps towards you on ragged feet. Let them approach; let them smell the youth on you, scent of innocence sweet as nectar as they approach.
And then when they are there, fingers combing softly through your hair, take your stake and drive the wood through the neck, the soft loam where head meets body.
Hold it there. Wait until the eyes fog over, the lips slack around yellow teeth. Only then, when the last vestiges of already-dead flesh have stopped twitching, should you let go.
Separate the head from the body and cut out the eyes, just in case. Burn that first.
When even the bones are nothing but ashes, the smoke rising thin into air, stand up. Take your things: your knives and canteens, the empty bottle of holy water and rabbit’s feet already starting to shrivel from age.
Walk out, and do not wash the blood from your hands.
Cynthia Zhang’s work has been published in Memoryhouse, The Other Stories, daCunha Global, Lunch Ticket, and Leading Edge.