I like my blood warm. I find cold blood as appetizing as an old stale cup of coffee. It’s hard to choke down, but then again I’m finicky. Regardless, I’ve never had access to a blood bank. Our lives are nothing like TV. For us there is no daylight, no friends, lovers or family. We do not travel in packs. We’re more like the clouded leopard or spotted jaguar, rare creatures, besieged by modernity, strangely fragile despite our steel strength. We are shy, solitary creatures—especially me. Thus, I haven’t seen one of my kind for 50 years, having perfected the art of lying low. Camouflage and evasion are my great skills. Ten years is the length of commitment I give any place or any job. After that, it’s hard to explain looking like a 29-year-old. I’ve spent nine years and nine months in this cold mountain town and soon my time here must come to an end.
As a mortal, I was plain, but since the turning all my physical qualities have intensified, becoming deeper and more striking. My hair is the color of night, cut in jagged edges above my shoulders, evidence of my desperation in the wake of obliterating fever. I wear it pulled back, hidden beneath a low navy work cap. My eyes are blue violet: intense and startling. When light hits them, they shine like a wolf’s. I hide them behind a sleek pair of safety glasses, prescription, I lie, that cuts down the sheen. My skin is white. Not cream-colored or fair, but a pure porcelain white like Michelangelo’s Carrera. Beautiful for a Venus or a Persephone, but unnatural for a human woman. Then again, I’m not human.
Or am I?
Nearly 200 years have passed and I’m still unsure what to call myself. Night Walker is what I’ve settled on. So much kinder sounding than demon or predator or that most heinous word of all: Vampire.
Long ago I was a teacher and then a writer, but now I am a tender of broken bodies and injured souls. The word they use today is paramedic. Some call me ambulance girl.
Tonight, heaven is brilliantly dark with a net of stars thrown above our heads so incandescent they illuminate the forest. My partner Dana peers through the headlights into the darkness. She is driving fast and lacks my night vision, though her eyes are young and strong. She likes to be in control and so always drives, which is fine with me. I prefer to be in back with the patients. It’s easier to ward off starvation that way.
We are, as Dana puts it, “trolling for trauma” in a well-stocked ambulance courtesy of Asheville EMS. I’ve been a medic since the Crimean War. Dana Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, has been one only six months, and as she goes to nursing school during daylight hours, she is my partner on the night shift.
We are as opposite as the sun and moon. Dana’s blonde hair cascades down her back in a silken ponytail she refuses to secure. She’s all femininity but there’s an assertiveness to her that hints at whips and knee-high, lace-up boots. An alpha female in a Delilah’s body, she chafes at my slender, youthful authority.
She pulls out her glittering phone and starts texting.
“Who are you seducing tonight?” I ask.
She glances over at me wickedly. “Someone new and tasty.”
“Please tell me he’s not married.”
“Like Tom? I’m over him. All he talked about was fires and hunting. Boring.”
“He was a firefighter. A married firefighter.”
“That’s not my fault. Maybe if his wife wasn’t fat, he wouldn’t go looking for someone else.”
“She’s nine months pregnant!”
Dana ignores me and taps at her phone with one hand while steering with the other. Occasionally she glances up at the road. Winter is here and the naked trees flash by in the violet moonlight, spectral as ghosts.
In a flash, I grab the phone out of her hand. Even weak, I’m faster and stronger than any human. “You’re going to get someone killed,” I say. “Watch the road.”
“You have no right to take my phone.”
“Texting and driving are against policy and I’m your supervisor. I do have the right.”
“Great. You’re in one of your moods tonight. Is it that time of the month?”
“Werewolves of London” wells out of the radio and I turn it up loud. After thirty years, this song never fails to thrill me. London and darkness and life. England. Dana begins singing at the top of her lungs as she whips the truck around hairpin turns like a demented chariot driver.
“Ahoooooo, Werewolves of London,” Dana howls. Despite the cold, she rolls the window down to feel the wind rip through her hair. As she howls, her breath puffs with steam. The song infects me and I can’t help but move with the beat. My defenses are slipping. Yes, it is that time of month, but not in the way Dana is thinking. I’m famished. It’s been a strangely quiet two weeks on the ambulance and I’ve gone too long without a meal. I’m weakening and if I don’t feed soon, I’ll become unacceptably vulnerable. I shouldn’t have let things get this far, but this is the price I pay for refusing to hunt like the rest of my kind.
“Come on, Anne! Let loose, sister!”
The music sweeps me up, slipping through my near-constant composure. “Ahoooooo,” I howl long and clear. Dana joins in. Outside, a pack of dogs begins singing in the night. With wide blue eyes Dana looks at me then laughs, head back, voice the sound of shattering glass.
“Are you reading Dracula again?” she asks when the song winds down. She’s noticed the battered paperback tucked beside me on the seat. For a girl so frivolous, her powers of perception are surprisingly keen. “How many times are you going to read that? I thought you hated genre fiction.”
“Dracula is a classic. Bram Stoker is hardly genre fiction.”
“Oh, my bad. I thought it was about vampires. You really should read Twilight. It’s right up your alley. Vampires with a conscience. Compassionate, pacifist, virgin, vegetarian vampires. It makes me want to puke. I want my vampires slutty and violent.”
“Until they rip out your throat. Nothing too sexy about that.”
“Unless I’m doing the ripping.”
Despite her constant chatter, I’m happy to have her as my partner. She’s the perfect foil to work with. All gold hair and abundant cleavage like the quintessential California girl she is. When we’re together men look right past me, their eyes finding her like a homing pigeon streaking toward the castle. She is the queen and I am content to remain in her shadow.
“I wish you could take my Lit class for me. It’s boring as hell and I’m about to flunk out. I’m gonna be a nurse. Why the fuck do I need to take this crap?”
“Because you’re getting an education. A well-educated young lady should be familiar with the classics. What class is it?”
“Nineteenth Century English Lit. Professor Hardcastle expects me to read books that are almost two centuries old. How does reading books written by a bunch of dead virgins help me make a living? Do you realize not one of the women we’ve read all semester ever had sex?” Dana begins counting them off on her fingers. “Emily, Charlotte, Anne, Jane. Well, actually Charlotte Brontë had sex and then died nine months later. Can you believe her morning sickness was so bad she starved to death? How’s that for divine punishment?”
“What can they possibly know about life?”
“There’s more to life than sex.”
I remain silent, my fallback response to so many questions.
“I was wondering, Anne . . .” She turns and smiles sweetly at me. “My paper is due next week, and I was thinking maybe you could help me with it. All you ever do is read and you’re so eloquent.”
“Of course,” I say, amazed. Never before has she made a request of me other than diverting to the mall for a shopping spree. “What would you like to discuss?”
“Well, actually, I was hoping you could just write it for me.”
“Write it for you! That’s cheating. I’d be doing you a disservice, not to mention undermining the entire educational tradition.”
“God, Anne, don’t be so dramatic. People do it all the time. I could just buy something online, but Professor Hardcastle can smell a cyber paper like a bomb-sniffing dog. He already kicked one student out of school for it.”
“As he should have. Professor Hardcastle sounds like a man of integrity. A quality you might learn to value, especially when it comes to men.”
“He’s a stuck-up asshole who thinks he’s God’s gift to Asheville, North Carolina, just because he has a double PhD from Oxford.”
“Oxford? How did he end up here?”
“Hell if I know. I have no idea why he deigned to stoop to our little mountain town. Maybe he can’t get a job anywhere else because he’s such a fucking jerk.”
“What happened?” I demand.
“What happened? When?” she asks innocently.
“Between you and him.”
“Nothing.” She presses her glossed lips together and resolutely stares ahead. The cold, hard road slips beneath us, fortunately free from snow.
“Then why the animosity?”
“Because he’s failing me. He gave me an F on my last paper. So I suggested we discuss my performance over drinks and perhaps I could improve his impression of me. You know, make it clear where my talents truly lie.”
“You propositioned your professor! For a grade?”
“It’s his voice. That English accent! I cream my panties just hearing it. So I figured why not kill two birds with one stone?”
“And exactly what did he say?”
“He acted all indignant. Said that I affronted his honor to think him capable of such a thing.” Dana laughs. “‘Suit yourself,’ I told him. ‘Go beat off to Anne Brontë if that floats your boat.’”
“What?!” I stammer.
“He totally has an Anne Brontë fetish. It’s weird. Guess he didn’t like my take on her.”
“What was your take?” I ask, unsure I want to know.
“That she’s a stuck-up, self-righteous, morally indignant, sexually repressed prude. I don’t see anything remotely appealing about her. She thinks she’s so much better than everyone else. She’s totally cold. If her character Agnes Grey were my governess, I’d stab her with a pair of knitting shears.”
“Of course, he didn’t see it that way. Said she was a rebel. ‘A maverick’ he called her like she’s freakin’ Madonna or something. Said she was way ahead of her time. She wrote of things no one wanted to hear, which is my point exactly!” Dana slaps the steering wheel for emphasis.
“Did he say anything else?”
“He claims that she was the bravest of all the sisters. And the strongest. What a load of horse crap. The man has a PhD from Oxford and he doesn’t even know that Emily was the brave one.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Wuthering Heights. Any woman who thinks haunting a man to the point of psychopathic insanity is romantic—now that’s a maverick. Personally, I think all the Brontës were off their rockers. All those fevers and moors. No wonder Branwell became a drug addict. That poor boy had to grow up surrounded by all those PMSing, sexually frustrated sisters. He sounds like the only fun one of the bunch. I would definitely do him. I would have rocked that man’s world.”
I stare at her in amazement. “Gosh. I never imagined you gave them so much thought.” This is longest conversation we’ve ever had on an even remotely intellectual subject.
“I don’t, but I’ve sat through weeks of Professor Hardcastle raving about them and he’s still failing me. Frankly, I’m glad he spared me from his conceited, snooty self. I honestly think I hate him. Which reminds me, I have some PB tonight.”
I flash her a disapproving look. “You know how I feel about personal business on shift. You have all day to go shopping. Why can’t you do it on your own time? It doesn’t look professional for a woman in uniform to be perusing the shoe department while on duty.”
“This PB you just might approve of,” she says mysteriously.
“I doubt it.” I sigh. After six months of working together, Dana remains staunchly impervious to my influence.
“Professor Hardcastle is giving a talk at Malaprop’s tonight.” She glances at me when I don’t respond. “You know, the coolest bookstore in town? Although the Battery Park Book Exchange is pretty cool too. They have a champagne bar. Anyway, he said if I come he’ll give me extra credit and allow me to rewrite my paper.” She looks at me imploringly.
I stare out the window. The forest flashes by. I should be out hunting or soon I’ll become too weak to work, but I haven’t killed an animal in years. I abhor the feeling of a warm, pulsing creature being drained of life in my frozen hands. I no longer have the heart for it.
“Please, Anne. You don’t have to go inside. You can wait in the truck and read your book in the dark. It’s for my education. I know you hate public places, but this is a matter of me making it through college. My future lies in the balance.”
Suddenly a call comes out over the radio and my heart leaps in my chest. Here is my chance to feed!
“Rescue 1, respond to 29 Thornton Road for a one-year-old, fever.”
“Damn! Hardcastle starts in 40 minutes and we’ve got to run on a fucking baby.”
My mouth waters and I take a deep breath to settle myself. “We’ll make it fast,” I say.
Dana looks at me in surprise and smiles.
In a rare gesture, I smile back. “Step on it.”