Authors: Laura Kasischke
Tags: #Fiction, #General
We are enmeshed in a sad dilemma when we ask if these apparitions are natural or miraculous.
The Vampire: His Kith and Kin
And all the winds go sighing,
for sweet things dying.
he scene of the accident was bloodless, and beautiful.
That was the first word that came to Shelly’s mind when she pulled over:
The full moon had been caught in the damp bare branches of an ash tree. It shone down on the girl, whose blond hair was fanned around her face. She lay on her side. Her legs were pressed together, bent at the knees. She looked as if she’d leapt, perhaps from that tree or out of the sky, and landed with improbable grace. She was wearing a black dress, and it was pooled around her like a shadow. The boy had already climbed out of the smashed vehicle and crossed a ditch full of dark water to kneel by her side.
He seemed about to take her in his arms. He was speaking to her, pushing her hair out of her eyes, gazing into her face. To Shelly, he did not appear panicked. He seemed stunned, and rapturous with love. He was kneeling. He was just beginning to slide his arms beneath her body, to cradle or lift her, when Shelly came to her senses long enough to honk the horn of her car. Twice. Three times. He was too far away to hear her no matter how loudly she might shout, but he heard her honk her horn, and looked up. Startled. Confused. As if he’d thought that he and the girl were the last two creatures on earth.
He was far from Shelly, on the other side of the rain-filled gash, but seemed to wait for her to tell him what to do, and Shelly was somehow able to tell him, as if they could speak to one another without bothering to speak. As if they could read one another’s thoughts. (Later, she would consider this. Perhaps she hadn’t spoken to him at all, she’d reason, or maybe she’d been shouting and hadn’t realized it.) However it had happened, Shelly managed to tell the boy, calmly, so he would understand, “If she’s injured, you don’t want to move her. We need to wait for the ambulance.”
This was the one thing Shelly knew about accidents, about injuries. She’d been married for a few years to a doctor, and that detail had stuck.
“The ambulance?” the boy asked. (In Shelly’s memory his voice was clear and close. But how could it have been?)
“I called them,” Shelly said. “From my cell phone. When I saw what happened.”
He nodded. He understood.
“What happened?” he asked. “Who was that? In the car without headlights? Why—?”
“I don’t know,” Shelly said. “You ran off the road.”
“Help,” he said then—a statement, not a cry—and the bare monosyllable of it was heart-wrenching. A cloud passed over the moon, and Shelly could no longer see him.
“Hey?” she called, but he didn’t answer.
She turned off the engine. She opened her car door. She took off her shoes and waded carefully into the ditch.
“I’m on my way,” she called. “Just stay where you are. Don’t move the girl.
The water was surprisingly warm. The mud on the soles of her feet was soft. She slid only once, climbing up the opposite bank—and that must have been when she cut her hand on some piece of chrome torn from the wrecked car, overturned ten feet ahead of them in the road, or on a shard of broken glass from the windshield. But Shelly didn’t feel it at the time. Only after the twin ambulances had flashed and wailed away from the scene would she notice the blood on her hands and realize that it was her own.
When she finally climbed out of the ditch and reached the boy and girl, the cloud had passed, and Shelly could see clearly again:
The boy was lying down beside the girl now, his arm wrapped around her waist, his head at rest in her blond hair, and the moonlight had made them into statues.
Marble. Perfect. Rain-washed.
Shelly stood over them for a few moments, looking down, feeling as if she’d stumbled onto something secret, some symbol in a dream, some mystery of the subconscious revealed, some sacred rite never intended for human eyes, but which she had been singularly and mysteriously invited to see.
here was a sad landmark on every block of that town:
The bench they’d sat on, watching the other students walk by��with their backpacks, short skirts, iPods.
The tree they’d stood under during a downpour, laughing, kissing, chewing cinnamon gum.
There was the bookstore where he’d bought the collection of poems by Pablo Neruda for her, and the awful college sports bar where they’d first held hands. There were the pretend-Greek columns that pretended to hold up the roof of the Llewellyn Roper Library, and Grimoire Gifts, reeking of patchouli and incense and imported cloth, where he’d bought the amber ring for her—set in silver, a globe of ancient sap with a little prehistoric fruit fly trapped in it for eternity.
And the Starbucks where they went to study, and never opened a book.
Craig’s father cleared his throat and slowed down at an intersection when a girl in tight jeans, flip-flops, and a low-cut tank top walked in front of the car without even glancing over. She was nodding her head in time to something she was hearing through the white wires plugged into her ears. Craig’s father looked over and said, in a voice thick with emotion, “You okay, buddy?”
Craig nodded solemnly, straight ahead, and then looked over at his father. They both attempted to smile, but to someone seeing it through the Subaru’s windshield it might have looked like two men grimacing at one another, each gripped suddenly and simultaneously by chest pains or intestinal discomfort. Sun slid through the car windows in the slanted, distant way of a bright day in early autumn; obviously, their side of the planet was tilting away from the sun. The girl passed, Craig’s father stepped on the gas, and the car moved through the green shade of the huge, leafy oaks and elms that lined the road through campus, and which had been greeting new and returning students to the university for nearly a hundred and fifty Septembers.
“Take a left here, Dad,” Craig said, pointing.
His father turned onto Second Street. On the corner a girl with an old-fashioned bike was stomping at the kickstand near the curb. Her hair was so blond it glowed. It was the kind of hair that Craig had always distrusted—too seraphic, almost God-fearing—on girls.
But this girl at the curb with the bike was nothing like Nicole.
This girl had seen too many music videos, and was trying to look like one of the straggly, anemic blondes dancing behind the band. Her hair was greasy. Her nose was pierced. Her jeans sagged down over the sharp blades of her hipbones. She was the kind of girl Craig might have dated for a few weeks back home. Back then, before Nicole.
“Take a right now, Dad,” he said.
His father slowed down on narrow King Street. It was still cobblestone, somehow. Some strange nineteenth-century leftover. (Had they simply forgotten to pave it?) The tires of the Subaru rumbled over the stones, and the rearview mirror rattled.
Here, on King Street, the trees made a canopy overhead, and the houses sagged with their decades at the edges of the sidewalks. These decrepit mansions must have been, at one time, inhabited by the town’s elite; Craig could picture women in bustled skirts, men with handlebar mustaches and bowties, rocking on the front porches, being brought glasses of lemonade by servants.
But it was a student slum now. The thudding bass of someone’s stereo served as a heartbeat to the whole block. Couches sat on the porches and on the lawns. Bikes appeared tossed into piles, leaning into each other, locked up to wrought-iron fences. There were hitching posts for horses at the ends of the driveways, most of them painted the school’s colors: crimson and gold. Two shirtless guys standing several lawns apart threw a football between them with what seemed like malicious force, while a girl in a bikini on a lawn chair watched it fly back and forth in front of her. Against the sky that football looked like the pit of some piece of bright blue fruit.
“It’s this one.”
Craig’s father slowed down in front of the house, which had once been painted white but had weathered to gray. There were ten mailboxes beside the front door—the number of apartments—and there was Perry.
Good old Perry.
How long had he been standing there, waiting?
Eagle Scout. Altar boy.
The realization of that fact filled the back of Craig’s throat with something that tasted like tears. He swallowed. He lifted his hand to wave.
Perry was wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, a clean T-shirt, and khaki shorts. New tennis shoes? Had his mother ironed that perfect crease in the shorts?
Perry saluted—sadly, ironically, the perfect gesture—and Craig’s father’s chuckle sounded vaguely like a sob. “There’s your pal,” he said, and pulled up to the curb, and Perry strode solemnly over to the car, yanked open the passenger door, and called in, “Hey, asshole, welcome back,” and then bent down and looked past Craig to his father. “How are
, Mr. Clements?”
Dependable, presentable, sociable Perry. Just profane enough. Just polite enough.
, Perry,” Craig’s father said in a voice full of gratitude and relief. “It’s really good to see you.”
raig and Perry’s apartment was on the third floor. Perry had picked it out for them back in July. “It’s not the Ritz,” he said as they climbed the stairs behind him. “But it has indoor plumbing.”
Craig’s father carried a box of books and a tangled mass of USB cords. Perry had Craig’s duffel bag slung over one shoulder and a trash bag full of sheets and pillowcases over the other. Craig carried his laptop, towels, and another trash bag—boots and shoes and his down jacket—up a narrow staircase carpeted in dust and dirt, to the left, past the closed doors of two other apartments. One of the doors had a whiteboard nailed to it and
I went to Good Time Charlie’s! meet us!
written in purple Magic Marker on it, a big smiley face for the
“This is us,” Perry said, nodding at number seven. He pushed open the door with his sneaker.
“Great!” Craig’s father said again, stepping in behind Perry, exclaiming it so loudly that his voice echoed off the bare floors and walls, sounding even more falsely bright the second time.
The apartment was, of course, immaculate. Perry had moved in a few weeks before, having worked as an orientation guide for new students over the summer, and he’d obviously done his thing—swept, dusted, arranged a collection of books in alphabetical order on the narrow bookshelf next to the couch. Craig carried his things through the dark little kitchen with its freshly scoured sink, past Perry’s bedroom, to his own, and stood in the middle of it.
A bright whiteness. The windows looked freshly washed—something Craig felt pretty sure their slumlord hadn’t done—and the bed was made in crisp-looking blue sheets, a plaid bedspread.
“My mom did that,” Perry said, nodding at the bed, “and that,” he added, nodding at a bouquet of daisies in a clear vase on a scratched-up plywood dresser. “I like you, man, but not enough to buy you flowers.
.” He raised and lowered his eyebrows in the way that only Perry could, and Craig felt what might have been a chuckle start in his chest, but he suppressed it, just in case it might turn into something else.
“Well,” Craig’s father said, clapping both guys on the back at once. “This looks
he year before, his freshman year, Craig’s whole family had rolled onto campus together to bring him to Godwin Honors Hall. Craig’s father had been laying on the horn the whole way through town, startling pedestrians and causing the drivers of the other vehicles to swivel their shocked faces at the Subaru. “Don’t they teach people how to drive in the Midwest?” he had growled.
Craig’s mother had just stared out the window, taking it in. Her silence made her dissatisfaction with the place palpable—a kind of thick green mist filling up the car. “It’s
,” she’d said, tapping her finger in the direction of the library’s ridiculous faux-classical columns, as if it weren’t the most damning praise she was capable of giving. Beside Craig in the backseat, Scar maniacally twiddled at the Game Boy in his hands, breathing heavily through his mouth as if he were alone at the control panel of a spaceship that was about to spin out of control.
Finally Craig’s father pulled the car up to the curb right under a sign that read,
NO PARKING HERE TO CORNER,
and asked, “This it?” as if it might not be, despite the name chiseled into the stone above the entrance,
, and the crimson-and-gold sign posted near the gate,
GODWIN HONORS HALL
, and the banner strung between two trees in the courtyard,
WELCOME TO GODWIN HONORS HALL
, and the student standing outside with a poster board sign that read,
GODWIN HONORS HALL
“I think so,” Craig said.
Godwin Honors Hall was the oldest building on campus, and looked it. It was the campus’s only “Living Learning” facility, a dorm in which selected students slept, ate, and attended classes all in one building. On a campus that covered two hundred and fifty acres, if you were allowed into the Godwin Honors Hall program, it was implied by the brochure materials, the farthest you would ever have to walk was to the library, and you would never have to take a class or share a meal with any non-honors student for your entire four years at the university.
The whole thing had started as an experiment in 1965—a way, mainly, for some hippie activists to keep the decrepit building from being torn down, Craig would learn later—the proposal being to create a private little liberal honors college (Oberlin? Antioch?) right there at the dead-center of one of the country’s biggest public universities. It would appeal, they’d implied, to students who didn’t want to get lost among the unwashed hordes.
Or who’d applied to Oberlin and not gotten in.
To Craig, it had sounded claustrophobic, a rat-in-a-maze kind of experiment that should have failed by 1966 due to rat insanity, but his father had insisted that the prestige of getting into the program would confer some sort of magical properties on Craig’s future. And once Craig got his acceptance letter, which had shocked them all, the subject was closed for discussion.
The windows of Godwin Honors Hall were of the tiny diamond-paned variety, one or two of them cracked, glittering in the sun. The heavy wooden doors—gouged and shellacked, gouged and shellacked—shone with the sad decay of having been abused by thousands of students for a century and a half. The tiles of the entranceway were blood red and cracked, chipped, ice-picked away in places and sloppily replaced in others. Inside, there was the smell of mildew and disinfectant. A guy leaned against a wall of mailboxes, wearing a baseball cap on backward and a football jersey. He might have taken a long soaking bath in stale beer that morning. Someone had spray-painted, misspelled, the great philosophical advice “KNOW THYSEFL.” Scar tapped Craig on the shoulder and mouthed the now-familiar and maddeningly annoying joke: “It’s not Dartmouth.”
Four flights up, through a maze of old carpet and blasted rap music and flyers taped to cinderblock warning the residents about STDs and inviting them to church jamborees and library orientations, they dead-ended at Craig’s room, number 416, opened the door, and found Craig’s roommate sitting at one of the two desks, reading a textbook of human anatomy.
That was Perry, back when Perry was a stranger.
His hair was shaved down to a millimeter of his scalp, and he was wearing khaki shorts and a fluorescent orange T-shirt that looked brand new, but which Craig would learn later wasn’t (Perry’s mother starched his T-shirts, per Perry’s request), that read,
, on it in alarmingly large black capital letters. What event? What assist? Craig would also learn later that this was the standard T-shirt worn by Perry’s Scout troop when they helped out in the parking lots of state fairs and Civil War reenactments. He just liked to wear it, whether he was assisting any events or not, and at the moment, it struck Craig as disorienting.
“Hello!” Perry said, closing his book.
“Hey,” Craig said, and then, “I guess I’m your roommate,” shrugging, feeling noncommittal, but Perry stood up quickly and offered his hand to Craig, shook it firmly, and then went around the room shaking the hands of each of Craig’s family members—even Scar, shaggy bangs falling across his face, who stood openmouthed before this new breed of human being. Had Scar ever seen a person under the age of twenty-five shake another person’s hand, except on television, or as a joke?
“Welcome,” Perry said, and then, without a hint of irony, gesturing around, “Sorry the place is such a mess.”
They all looked at the room at once:
Four bare walls, a dustless linoleum floor, two closets with doors closed. Perry’s bed was made. (A green comforter. A pillow in a plaid pillowcase.) Where was the mess?
“Where are you from?” Craig’s mother asked Perry in a tone that suggested she fully expected Perry to admit that he’d been assembled in a laboratory, or that he’d grown up on the moon.
“Bad Axe,” Perry said, as if everyone would be familiar with “Bad Axe.”
“No way,” Scar said, sounding sincerely astonished.
“Yeah,” Perry said. He held up his hand and pointed at his thumb, as if that might explain something. “What about you?”
“New Hampshire,” Craig’s mother said. “Via Boston,” she added, as she always did, and Craig’s father stiffened, as he always did—but Craig could tell, by looking at Perry, that none of this meant anything to him.
ow, obviously, a year later, Perry had given Craig the better room in the apartment. The closet was large, and the window faced the backyard instead of the street.
“Don’t you think?” Craig’s father asked. “I mean, that it’s a great apartment? A lot better than the dorm?”
“Yeah,” Craig said, trying hard to sound appreciative. “It’s great.”