Itís too late for Aaron now. Even if his fragile body could make it to the hospital, I doubt theyíd be able to keep him alive another day. Heís rocking back and forth, shuddering from the cold, trying to speak to me but unable to produce anything but a faint gargle. I can see suffering in those dull searching eyes of his, and Iím amazed he feels anything at all; thereís nothing but pale bone under his translucent, bruised skin. His throbbing veins look as though they could melt away with every slow pulse, but somehow heís still breathing. Must be sheer will-power and hope I suppose. But more probably itís the food I force down his scrawny throat every week. And the cocktail of drugs. Iíd give him a final hug if I could, but heíd just spit at me if he had any strength left, so I shake my head and offer a smile before I leave for the last time.
I first met Aaron when I overheard some of my students whispering about him in the school yard. I followed them one day to a block of flats in a shitty estate at the edge of town. The whole area had been abandoned; scheduled for demolition three years ago, but the council ran out of money and just left it there to rot. To my knowledge, even the down-and-outs avoided that place. Said it stunk and that strange noises came from the buildings at night. Of course, that made it the perfect place for kids. Theyíd dare each other to go there ó the later the better ó until one day all that stopped. Jason Grant, probably the toughest son-of-a-bitch in the school, took on a bet for two hundred cigarettes to stay there the night. He didnít come out screaming or crying the following day. He didnít even come out hurt. He just didnít come out.
I remember the newspaper article, the investigations, the rumors ó especially the rumors. Nobody ever found out what happened to Jason. Some of the kids that goaded him on said that a vampire lived there. Seemed a strange rumor, that one. Itís not the sort of place youíd expect a vampire to hang out. Sure, it had an appropriate name I suppose ó Crimson Lakes ó but stories about zombies or ghosts would have been more believable.
So I followed the kids, six of them in all, the first bunch to go back there in almost a year. I watched them from a distance as they levered the planks away from one of the boarded windows and kicked the wood through the gap, laughing and shushing each other. One after the other they crept into the darkness. I heard their scuffling echoes as they went inside, jumping out at each other, pretending to be some night-stalking abomination as they ventured farther. I guess I waited for about ten minutes before the screaming started. Not the pretend kind Ė the real kind. The kind that makes the little hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. The first kid stumbled out, barely able to breathe for screaming and then the second came out, punching his way past the first one in his desperation to get out. Three others came out a few seconds behind them and that was when I noticed the blood on their clothes, plenty of it.
I shouted to the kids, but hysteria had claws stuck so deep in their brains they ran right past as if I wasnít even there. Naturally I had to go inside; anything could have happened to that last kid and by the looks of the others, he probably needed help quicker than the emergency services could have got paramedics there.
So I went in, following the scarlet trail into the darkness, creeping from one crumbling room to the next, ignoring the hurried graffiti and hints of scurrying rats, until I stopped in a room slightly larger than the rest ó probably some sort of reception area many years ago. Threads of sour daylight fanned in through wafer-thin gaps in the boards and I had an urge to rip them away from the broken window frames. Not because of fear, but because of the stench of piss and decay; Crimson Lakes desperately needed a dose of fresh air. I looked down at the floorboards, grimacing at the blood pooling around my boots. It looked like a painting party that had ended in a drunken brawl. A hand print extending into a five-lined smear ended in a confusion of fluids, and Iím sure I saw one of the kidsí fingernails in there. Farther back I saw what might have been a tooth, and everywhere the evidence of a violent struggle. I stood in that room for almost a full five minutes, staring at the carnage before I realized I was not alone.
Shadows moved in the darkest corner, lurching, jerking in sudden fits and my first impression was of a twitching corpse tied up in a black sack. I squinted into the half-light, suppressing the primeval urge of fight or flight, but strangely relishing the cold pinpricks across my skin at the promise of gruesome discovery. I took a step closer and it stopped moving. I spoke to the shape, whatever it was, hoping it was just the missing kid sobbing quietly after a punch-up with his friends, and that my greeting would bring him out into the open and that we could get the hell out of this shit hole. But some deep instinct told me that a rational explanation wasnít about to present itself today.
"Fuck you want?" echoed the drawling voice of a teenager.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
The boy didnít reply, so I risked a step towards him, my eyes making sense of the shape in the shadows now that I knew it was human. There were two of them... or almost two. The owner of the voice sat cross-legged with most of a body in his lap and bits of it in his hands. There was just enough light to make out the viscous liquid roping down from his mouth as he pulled a chunk away.
"I take it youíre hungry by the looks of it," I said.
The boy paused, probably trying to make sense of my unexpected comment, then dropped his meat and jerked forward. A band of evening light suddenly illuminated his face.
"Fuck it look like?" he shouted.
I took a step back when I saw his face and clothes. Full understanding came with the revelation, but it did nothing to prevent my shock. Heíd dressed himself completely in black. Shoes, jeans, T-shirt, smudged black eyeliner, even a cape. Iíd seen cases like his time and again; it was one of the job descriptions that came with being employed as a child psychology teacher ó you had to know exactly what was going on in a kidís head. This one was easy. GRS I called it ó Gothic Rebellion Syndrome. Most teenagers with his problem had the usual issues with authority and would choose a moody, anarchic look to project their attitude. But this kid had taken his rebellion to a violent extreme, and on seeing his face I had an inkling why. In keeping with his gothic persona, the boy had had his hair dyed jet black and slicked back with God-knows-what (possibly even blood), but the hair didnít sit properly ó the shape of his head was wrong. Perhaps heíd been in an accident, perhaps heíd been born like it, but whatever the cause, I doubted that a person could remain in any way sane with a deformity like that. His forehead sloped with an unnatural ball-shaped dent ending with a brow that extended in an ugly ridge above his dull eyes.
I stared for a moment, not allowing any emotion to show in my face, but wondering if he would savage me in the same way he had violated the unfortunate trespasser that now dripped from his mouth. An animal glint shone in his eyes as he appraised me and I could almost see the decision to attack taking shape under that bestial brow, but I stood my ground, kept my cool.
"Whatís your name?" I asked.
The expression changed, he flicked his head to the right, staring blankly for a moment, as if Iíd asked him to recite Shakespeare. "Aaron."
"Aaron," I repeated, nodding and crouching down to his level. "So... Aaron, is this where you live?"
"Fuck it look like?" he shouted again, the aggression boiling back up through his features.
I nodded a second time, avoiding eye contact as I would with any hostile creature and wondering how many body parts had been thrown under the floorboards he sat upon. I surveyed the room, noting the evidence of minimal survival: crumpled beer cans, bloodied knives, a monthís worth of excrement and what might have been chewed ratsí bones. I wondered how long heíd been here. He was probably suffering from a list of illnesses and deficiencies as long as the line of blood that snaked its way out of the room, and without help, heíd be dead in less time than heíd been staying here.
"Looks like you could use some help, Aaron."
He grinned, like a child that had pulled the legs off a frog and offered it to his kid sister. "Iím a vampire. Donít need no help."
"Ah, right. A vampire," I said, unable to suppress a smile. "Care to prove it?"
Aaron showed me his bloody hands then rolled his tongue over the palms.
"Fuck it look like?"
"It looks more like youíre a cannibal than a vampire, Aaron."
"Iím a vampire," he said again, returning his attention to some entrails.
I studied him for a moment. "Are your parents vampires too, Aaron?"
"Dunno. Donít Care. Fuck you care?" He looked up.
"Who said I did?" I said, standing up and turning to leave the room.
For a few seconds I wondered if heíd rush me, tear at my clothes and sink his teeth into me while I wasnít looking, but he didnít.
"See you again, Aaron," I called without looking back.
So that was my first encounter with Aaron. I left Crimson Lakes that day inspired, energized. I should have called the authorities, but I didnít. Here was a real challenge for me ó a kid who had more problems than that building had bugs, but it wasnít until my sixth encounter that I dared to believe Aaronís condition could actually be changed. He seemed too far gone, beast-like in his mannerisms, and too far removed from society to place any trust in me. But that would be the first step ó trust.
The second time I saw him was a week later, much the same as the first; a conversation splattered with blood, profanities and threats, but I did make some progress. I brought him beer and a hamburger which he consumed with all the eagerness of a night stalker devouring its prey, all the while insisting that he only rarely fed on human food. He told me he sneaked out at night to steal food and drink because the sunlight would kill him in seconds. And that was the first time he let me touch him. Touch is a very important medium for trust, but not as effective as proof. I grabbed his arm after he told me that, and I held it under the light that filtered through the boards to prove to him that sunlight wouldnít hurt him. At first he struggled and I was surprised by his strength, but when he realized I was right, he looked at me with those ape-like eyes and I know I saw seeds of hope in there, even if he did spit his denial.
The third visit came and I was sure he was pleased to see me. He tried to hide it, of course, but there was no disguising his body language when I brought more beer and takeout. Still he insisted that he was a vampire. I produced a pocket mirror, asked if he could see his own reflection. He said he couldnít ó classic self-rejection.
I pieced together some information about his previous life that day from the small bits of his history he confided to me ó about how his mother had been killed accidentally by his alcoholic father in a road accident ó about how he himself had been injured in that same accident ó and about how his father had gradually deteriorated from that day on, becoming more and more violent, more and more antisocial, until he succumbed to the more attractive prospect of suicide at the end of a noose. One of the last things that heíd told his son was that he was nothing but a leech, draining the blood from his life until there was no reason to go on existing. You donít have to be an expert child psychologist to know how this brain-damaged kid went on to make the connection with his own morbid choice of lifestyle. How he came to be at Crimson Lakes was something I never found out, but I guess it was the name and the atmosphere of the place that attracted him.
It was the fourth visit that was the most risky. The kid was sick. I noticed that from day one, but it was nothing some antibiotics couldnít remedy. The trick was getting him to take the stuff. I had to wrestle him to the ground, endure the bloody saliva aimed at my face, ignore the venomous insults as he thrashed like a wild cat. Fifteen full minutes and Aaron was exhausted. It made it a lot easier to inject the drugs. A significantly heavy dose of oxytetracycline rushing through his bloodstream would achieve the results I wanted, and might even kill off some of the microbes that were making him vomit too. I told him itíd make him feel bad for a while, but if he injected himself with the drug every day the way I showed him, heíd be one more step closer to what he wanted to be ó a real vampire. Despite the violence and his insistence that he really was a vampire, Iím certain he believed me. He trusted me. Weíd made an important step forward that day.
And then visit five came two weeks later. Heíd been taking his medication religiously every day, exactly how Iíd shown him. He must have, because I soon discovered that the results were far better than Iíd hoped.
"How are you feeling?" I asked as I stooped down to touch his lumpy brow.
"Fuck it look like?" came the ever predictable response.
"Well, you look like shit, Aaron."
Aaron spat at me.
"Have you been taking your medication?"
"Fuck it look like?"
Empty syringes lay around him with crushed cartons amongst the usual piles of excrement. Obviously he had.
"So have you noticed any change?"
"Letís see, shall we?"
I walked over to the nearest window, tore the boarding away and allowed sunlight to expose the room in all its hellish glory. Aaron squealed, thrust himself into the corner and clawed at his eyes as if the daylight had gushed shards of glass into his face. He soon stopped though, once his vision had adjusted. I expected to see some real results the following week.
"Thereís nothing to be frightened of," I said, lifting him up, trying to ignore the obscene stench as the putrid air shifted around him. I grabbed his mouth, yanked open the jaws and pushed one of his teeth. It moved loosely in the gum.
"Fuck you doing?" he screamed, yanking himself away and falling back to the floor.
"Perfect. See you next week, Aaron. Iíll have a special gift for you."
Visit six. This time I was certain things were going my way. Heíd removed his clothes and used them like a blanket to cover his naked body ó that was the first clue that the antibiotics had done their work, but I suspect the uncanny mechanism of psychosomatic reaction had played a huge part too. When I asked him why heíd stripped, he told me it was because his skin started burning a few days ago and his clothes got sticky after scratching too much. That would be the overdose of Oxytetracycline I gave him causing extreme photosensitivity. He thought it was because he was a vampire. Job done ó almost. The last part, the most important part, was still up to him, but I still had one last thing to do to him today. Once the transformation was complete, heíd trust me implicitly and that was crucial.
I set my medical bag down, which he eyed suspiciously, and then I watched him eat, studying him as he grimaced with each bite of the food I brought him.
"Your teeth hurting, Aaron?" I asked.
"Fuck it look like?"
"Itís the antibiotics. They soften up bones, particularly the teeth."
"We both know what you want, donít we, Aaron?"
He munched slowly, twitched with pain, then spat a tooth from a bleeding gum at me. Fortunately, it missed.
"Ever read up about vampires, Aaron?" I asked.
He stared back at me. "Why should I? Iím a vampire."
"No. No, youíre not. But I can help you."
"Donít need no help."
"I think you do. And if we do things right today, Aaron ó if you trust me, youíll find out that being a vampire isnít quite what you think it is."
"I am a vampire," he said, wiping beer from his bloody mouth.
I smiled, produced a syringe from my bag. "More drugs to help you on your way."
He watched me, scowling as he withdrew into the corner, like a broken dog snarling at its abusive master. I waited, stared into those dark wells of confusion and violence until he offered his arm to me. It was blistered and raw where he had been continuously scratching the irritated skin, as if ants had chewed on him from the inside out. I gave him the shot and waited again, asked him to count to ten. He failed after seven and lay there, only partially aware that I was stretching his mouth open, pressing cold metal tools against his gums and teeth. Filing the top two teeth into points would take a while, but I would be finished long before the anesthetic wore off.
And we were done.
I cleared up the mess, packed away my tools and paused to offer him a thought before I left him. Whether he understood everything I said through the blurred moments of recovery I didnít know, but I hoped some of it sunk in.
"The next time I see you, youíll realize youíre not a vampire, Aaron. Iíve done as much as I can to give you what you wanted, but youíll realize it isnít enough. You canít make yourself become a vampire. Didnít you know that little fact?
"You should find out a bit more about them. They arenít scared of crucifixes or daylight, you canít ward them off with garlic, and they have reflections just like everybody else. And hereís the most important thing, Aaron ó if you donít invite them into your home it doesnít mean they canít come in. The books got that one mixed up, my friend. What it means is, they canít invade your body, your soulís home, unless theyíre invited. Get it, Aaron?"
Then I left him alone to think about it. I hoped heíd work it all out by the time I came for the next visit. Whether he did or not, I donít know; I didnít realize at the time that my next visit would be the last. The Vampire of Crimson Lakes. Itís all he wanted to be.
And all he had to do was ask.
Simon West-Bulford lives in Essex, England, earning his keep as a Clinical Trials scientist. He has short stories accepted at Colored Chalk, Spaceports & Spidersilk, and The Absent Willow Review, and is currently working on his fourth novel - "The Soul Consortium".