Uncle Vampire, page 1
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Cynthia D. Grant
THIS ONE’S FOR YOU, REGAN,
AND FOR GAIL PARIS,
AND FOR THE MEMBERS OF
THE PRINCESS OF POWER CLUB.
MAY THEIR TIARAS TWINKLE ALL ACROSS THE LAND.
They’ve always liked her better than me. I don’t blame them. She’s sweet. My parents call her Honey. They always call me by my name.
We’re close. Twins. Mirror images. We can almost read each other’s minds. Usually that’s fine, but it can be a pain. A family can become too ingrown; interwoven thistles, inseparable, brittle.
That’s what happens when there’s a secret at the core.
Sometimes the secret prickles at the corners of her mind, but Honey wipes it away; she wants to be happy. She wants to have a perfect life.
“You can’t pretend it’s not happening,” I’ll say.
“What’s not happening?” She’ll play dumb. Lately that fills me with rage.
You have to face facts, accept reality. Acknowledge some solid truths. Then maybe things will start to get better. But Honey says, “No, look at these flowers. Listen to this pretty music. Let’s not think about ugly things. What’s the point in being depressed?”
We’ve gone over this a million times. In the past, we always agreed. No more.
We got into another hassle today. We were upstairs, in our bedroom.
I said, “I don’t see why we can’t have the big room.” Our older sister Margaret’s room, down the hall.
“Uncle Toddy’s got it. It’s full of his stuff.”
Maggie is away at college. The folks think she’ll move back someday. I doubt it. She didn’t even come home to visit last summer. She said she had to work. Sometimes I feel like I’ll die if I can’t see Maggie. She’s three thousand miles away, in Boston.
“Richie gets a big room.”
“He’s a boy,” Honey said, as if that explained everything. Richie’s supposed to graduate from high school this year. At the moment, he’s flunking out.
“Why can’t he sleep in the den downstairs?”
“Because Papa works in there!”
He used to have an office downtown, but he couldn’t afford the rent. He sells insurance. Not enough of it, apparently.
I said, “Why don’t they kick Uncle Toddy out?”
“He doesn’t have a job! He has no place to live! Why do we have to talk about this again?”
“The man is a vampire,” I pointed out.
The word always makes Honey flinch.
“Don’t say that.”
“You know it’s true.”
“He can’t help it.”
“Oh, please, don’t make excuses for him!” She is such an apologist.
“Anyway, he’s not hurting you—”
“I can’t believe you’d say that! Are you completely crazy?” I paced around the room.
“It’s not like he kills people,” Honey said.
“No, he just drinks their blood. What a break.”
“It hardly ever happens. Just when he can’t help it.” Honey rearranged the stuffed animals on her bed. “Be sure to wear your cross. It might keep him away.”
“I wear it all the time! It doesn’t help.” My cross was on a gold chain beneath my blouse. I yanked it out and waved it in her face. “Why do you have to pretend it’s not happening?”
“Because it’s not a big deal! It isn’t something I can change. Why can’t you forget about it and be happy?” Honey brushed the honey-colored hair that pours thick and soft to her waist. “Lots of things are fine. Mama’s good lately.” Honey dusted the top of her immaculate bureau, then the desk and the armchair by the window. Our room is so neat it looks vacant.
“Sure,” I said, “she’s fine, unless you tell her something she doesn’t want to hear. Then she gets that look on her face, like: Please don’t tell me that or I’ll go crazy. Richie’s so unhappy lately.”
“He’s going through a phase.”
“Acting like a zombie is a phase?”
“He’s not a zombie. You exaggerate everything. Why can’t you just be happy?”
She’s a cheerleader, for God’s sake. Imagine how that makes me feel, watching her jerk around like a puppet in front of a crowd of strangers. She says: There’s nothing wrong with being proud of my school. Why do you have to cut everything down? Don’t come to the games, if you don’t want to.
“I guess I’m not trying hard enough,” I said.
“I won’t talk to you, if you’re going to be sarcastic,” Honey said, and left the room.
She does that sometimes; walks out, disappears somewhere in the house, and ignores me for a while. Then she gets over it. We don’t like to fight. Divided we don’t stand a chance.
Maybe, like she says, I’m overreacting. Imagining things. Being dramatic. Vampires can be perfectly nice. They don’t stand out in a crowd; they hide their fangs. Uncle Toddy appears completely normal. His face looks young until you get up close and see all the little lines. Then you realize, with a shock: He’s not eighteen. Uncle Toddy is thirty-five.
He can’t seem to keep a job. This has gone on for years. Something always happens and it’s not his fault. People are jealous of him because he’s so good-looking. Or he’s smarter than the boss, so he gets fired. Then he has to give up his apartment and move back here. He’s Papa’s baby brother.
Uncle Toddy never acts like a vampire around my folks, so Honey and I figure they don’t know. Or don’t want to know, so they tell themselves they don’t. Like the time the skunks moved under the porch, and we didn’t know how to make them go away so we all pretended we couldn’t smell them. Tuning out reality is a consuming family passion. It gobbles up everyone’s attention. If I set my bangs on fire at the dinner table, Mama would ask me if I’d lightened my hair.
Honey and I think Richie knows about our uncle, even though Uncle Toddy leaves him alone. Richie’s sad because he knows that our uncle is a vampire and there isn’t anything he can do about it. So now he hardly talks at all. He’s gone down deep inside of himself and won’t come out anymore. I miss him.
Honey was back and fiddling with her hair in front of the mirror on the closet door. She said, “Why do you make things sound worse than they are?”
“Why do you make them sound better?”
“You just like to argue.”
“Our uncle is a vampire! He could be terrorizing the neighborhood, for all we know.”
“You don’t know that!”
“Listen to me,” Honey said, deliberately, as if she were talking to an idiot. “There’s nothing we can do. He doesn’t have any money. When he’s working again, he’ll move out.”
“When hell freezes over, he’ll sell snow cones,” I said.
Honey didn’t get mad. She knew I was sad.
“Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine. God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us.”
“It’s already happening. Where’s God?”
“Everywhere.” Honey touched the gold cross at her throat. She does that all the time.
I said, “Maybe the folks are vampires too. Maybe we’re zombies and we don’t even know it. The living dead, condemned to roam the earth in search of human blood.”
“Don’t be disgusting.”
“Anything’s possible in this big, wide, wonderful world!”
“Sarcasm is never attractive.”
“Yes, Mama. Yes, Papa.”
“You’re impossible.” Honey t
“Ouch! Down and dirty! Honey gets funky!”
“Now I really am leaving.”
“You can’t escape me! I’ll haunt you from the grave!”
“You’ve been watching too many movies.” She left.
It’s true. Watching movies, especially old ones from the forties and fifties, is one of my favorite things to do. They’re black and white. No lurid colors. They’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story starts, the plot develops; the people solve the mystery, or get married, or killed. Whatever. Something happens. Then it’s over. And it makes sense.
Around here, nothing makes sense, or ends. We’re trapped in the middle forever.
Now Honey’s playing the piano. When in doubt, practice. Loud. She fills up her head with classical stuff. Too bad it’s not a pipe organ. All we’re missing around here is some spooky music.
Uncle Toddy appears to tell me dinner’s ready. He’s smiling. My friends think he’s handsome and cute. Mostly I notice his teeth.
“How’s it going?” he says.
We never talk to him about being a vampire. It’s a difficult subject to discuss, to work into polite conversation. Politeness is everything. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. You might drown. But I think the time has come to confront him, to tell the police or our minister or someone. Honey says no; he’d get in trouble, and anyway, no one would believe us. Everybody knows that vampires are a myth and exist only in our imagination.
“Come and eat now, Carolyn.” He pats my shoulder.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll be right there.”
I keep my eyes empty so he can’t see inside me. My eyes are mirrors, reflecting Uncle Toddy’s smiling face.
The trouble with secrets is that they’re so inconvenient. You have to keep covering them up all the time. You’d think we’d be used to that by now. But covering up is getting harder.
When we were little, friends played at our house. There’s a rusty swing set in our big backyard. The slide lies on the ground.
We had lemonade stands and belonged to the Brownies. My mother led a troop for a while. Things started to change.… I am trying to remember when. It’s hard. There are so many closed doors to the past, just like there are in our house.
Things began to change when Uncle Toddy came to live here. At first his visits were lots of fun; he was full of laughter and surprises and games. Like us, he was young. He wanted to be a policeman when he grew up. Or a fireman, a good guy. That didn’t work out. He joined the navy for a while. Then he came back, he always came back, and the den downstairs filled up with his stuff. Once we found a magazine on his bed, full of pictures of naked women. The ladies were pretty, although their faces looked strange—pained or pouting. Margaret said men like those magazines, even our father. She’d seen a lot of Playboys when she baby-sat at different houses.
Maggie was a good big sister. She was never mean to us kids. We’d go into her room when she was out and listen to her radio and try on her boots. She always knew when we’d been in there, even though we left no clues. She was smart.
The older Maggie got, the more she was gone: babysitting, working, studying at the library. It seemed like she was never home. Meanwhile, Uncle Toddy became a permanent guest. “He’s my brother! I can’t throw him out!” Papa said. He and Mama argued about him sometimes. Uncle Toddy knew Mama didn’t want him to live there, so he brought her pots of African violets and helped with the housework and cooking. Those had never been Mama’s favorite chores. After a while she liked having him around. He made bookcases and birdhouses in his shop in the cellar. His occasional jobs were usually on the graveyard shift. “I’m a night owl,” he explained.
He was a wonderful help when Mama had her breakdown. That was many years ago, but I can’t forget it. She was screaming and scared and not making any sense. All the kids in the neighborhood (in the world, it seemed) were standing on the sidewalk in front of our house when she left in the ambulance. The kids hung around out there for hours, waiting for something more to happen, for somebody else to go crazy.
Papa says there’s nothing wrong with Mama. She just has a delicate disposition. Treat her gently. If we’re having problems at school, for instance, we’re supposed to tell him or Uncle Toddy. The trouble is, my father’s gone a lot, trying to scare up business. When he’s here he doesn’t want to be bothered. He holds that newspaper in front of his face like a shield, preferring the world’s bad news to ours.
The other day I tried to talk to him about Richie. Things aren’t going well for him at school, I said. My father looked peeved, as if Richie were having problems just to get attention.
“The trouble with Richie is, he’s selfish,” my father said. “He’s always been that way. He never thinks of anyone but himself.”
That’s not true. My brother was a happy boy. He loved to sing and to give people things, flowers he’d picked, or dimes for my bank. He extravagantly praised my crayoned drawings. “A purple horse! That’s wonderful, Carolyn.”
He’s different now. It’s hard to tell what he’s thinking. He won’t say, and I can’t read his face. When I ask him what’s wrong, he says, “Nothing’s wrong.” He never does his homework and cuts school a lot. It will be a miracle if he graduates. It’s as if he doesn’t care anymore. About himself. About anything.
A couple of his teachers have stopped me in the halls and said, “What’s wrong with Richie?” And I say, “Nothing’s wrong.” Then I wonder which is betrayal: lies or truth.
I wish I could talk to Maggie about this. I’ve left messages on her phone machine. It’s hard to get hold of her; she’s always at school or working. It’s three hours later there. That bothers me. I wish we were in the same time zone. The last time she called, we couldn’t really talk; everybody was hanging around the phone, wanting to talk to her too.
I started a letter to her but never finished it. Then it got lost. Anyway, it sounded too spacey: Uncle Toddy’s a vampire. Did you know that, Maggie? He’s draining me. He’s sucking all the life out of this house. Richie’s strange. He never talks. He used to be happy. Now he’s not. He hasn’t been happy for a long, long time. I kept noticing he’d changed, but then I’d forget. I feel like I’m sleepwalking through my life. Occasionally I wake up and look around, but my eyes want to close; they don’t like what they see. Mama stays in her room and reads and reads. She prefers books to life, which she doesn’t like and which can’t be returned to the library. Papa’s business is doing poorly. I think he invested and lost a lot of money. Besides all that, Maggie, everything’s fine!
Nobody wants to read a letter like that. Or write one.
It’s easier for me to face things than it is for Honey. She tries so hard to have a normal life, getting good grades, being a cheerleader. Yea, team! She won’t let people come to our house. “It’s easier to meet them someplace else,” she says. Sometimes when our uncle looks at our friends, his eyes almost glaze with greed.
We meet our friends at the library downtown, or we wait out in front when they come to pick us up, to go to the movies or to parties or to games.
“Invite your friends in,” Uncle Toddy always says.
“They’re in a hurry,” we say, flying out the front door.
He especially likes my best friend, Nancy. She’s known him since she was little. He still calls her Freckle Face. She dropped by recently. I found them laughing in the kitchen. She thinks he’s handsome and very cool, unlike most adults.
He’s not like most adults at all.
I dragged her out of the house. “Come on. We’re late.”
“What’s the rush?” she said when we got to the porch. “The library doesn’t close for hours. You act like you’re ashamed of your house.”
There’s nothing wrong with the house. It could use some paint, but it’s a nice big place, a handsome house. And we are a handsome family. W
I try not to see him that way, but I can’t help it. We’ll be sitting around the table, having dinner or celebrating somebody’s birthday, and I see him as if I had X-ray vision—the cave of his mouth, the teeth, the claws.
Does he tell me he wants to drink my blood?
No. He says, “Pass the potatoes, please, Carolyn.”
Honey doesn’t see Uncle Toddy as I do. She shuts that picture out of her mind. “He’s our uncle, he loves us,” Honey tells me. I wish I had her faith.
Sometimes when we’re all at church (except for Uncle Toddy and Richie; Richie won’t come anymore), I ask God: What did we do to deserve this? Why did you give us this cross to bear? God, you who have the power to raise mountains, part the seas, destroy cities—why won’t you make one vampire uncle disappear?
Honey says that’s selfish. She says God has so many people coming to him with problems, terrible problems, much worse than ours, that he can’t grant every little wish. Besides, she says, God never gives people more trouble than they can endure. My grandma says that too. She believes in God, and I believe in Grammy. She always loves me, no matter what I do. She used to make me feel so safe. Now she’s old. I sit beside her in the pew. I help her stand up when it’s time to sing a hymn.
Lately I feel like the weight is too great. My family is a huge stone on my chest. I gasp for breath (am I dreaming or awake?) and Mama’s eyes are on me: “Are you all right, Carolyn?”
“It’s so hot in here,” I whisper back.
The church is filled. It’s a large congregation. When I was there I used to feel like nothing could ever hurt me. There were so many of us we could march out of the church and into the streets and crush all the sin and sorrow in the world. Jesus is my savior. He is always beside me. No matter what happens, I am never alone. Jesus watches over me. That’s what Grammy tells me, and I love her so much that it must be true.
When darkness reaches for me and plucks me from sleep and carries me out the window on his billowing black wings, I am never alone. God is with me. I pray silently so that the monster cannot hear me. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done (the monster’s breath scorches my eyelids, my skin) on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those (how can I, Lord?) who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (deliver me, Lord! I’m dying). For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Forever and ever. Amen.
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