Vampirism: (n) 1. The condition of being a vampire, marked by the need to ingest blood and extreme vulnerability to sunlight. 2. The act of preying upon others for financial or emotional gain. 3. A gigantic pain in the butt.
I've always been a glass-half-full kind of girl.
The irritated look from Gary, the barrel-chested bartender at Shenanigans, told me that, one, I'd said that out loud, and, two, he just didn't care. But at that point, I was the only person sitting at the pseudo-sports bar on a Wednesday afternoon, and I didn't have the cognitive control required to stop talking. So he had no choice but to listen.
I picked up the remnants of my fourth (fifth? sixth?) electric lemonade. It glowed blue against the neon lights of Shenanigans' insistently cheerful decor, casting a green shadow on Gary's yellow-and-white-striped polo shirt. "See this glass? This morning, I would have said this glass isn't half empty. It's half full. And I was used to that. My whole life has been half full. Half-full family, half-full personal life, half-full career. But I settled for it. I was used to it. Did I already say that I was used to it?"
Gary, a gone-to-seed high-school football player with a gut like a deflated balloon, gave me a stern look over the pilsner he was polishing. "Are you done with that?"
I drained the watered-down vodka and blue liqueur from my glass, wincing as the alcohol hit the potato skins in my belly. Both threatened to make an encore appearance.
I steadied myself on the ring-stained maple bar and squinted through the icy remains of the glass. "And now, my career is gone. Gone, gone, gone. Completely empty. Like this glass."
Gary replaced said glass with another drink, pretended to wave at someone in the main dining room, and left me to fend for myself. I pressed my forehead to the cool wood of the bar, cringing as I remembered the smug, cat-that-devoured-the-canary tone Mrs. Stubblefield used to say, "Jane, I need to speak to you privately."
For the rest of my life, those words would echo through my head like something out of Carrie.
With a loud "ahem," Mrs. Stubblefield motioned for me to leave my display of Amelia Bedelia books and come into her office. Actually, all she did was quirk her eyebrows. But the woman had a phobia about tweezers. When she was surprised/angry/curious, it looked as if a big gray moth was taking flight. Quirking her brows was practically sign language.
My joyless Hun of a supervisor only spoke to people privately when they were in serious trouble. Generally, she enjoyed chastising in public in order to (a) show the staff just how badly she could embarrass us if she wanted to and (b) show the public how put-upon she was by her rotten, incompetent employees.
Mrs. Stubblefield had never been a fan of mine. We got off on the wrong foot when I made fun of the Mother Goose hat she wore for Toddler Story Hour. I was four.
She was the type of librarian who has "Reading is supposed to be educational, not fun" tattooed somewhere. She refused to order DVDs or video games that might attract "the wrong crowd." (Translation: teenagers.) She allowed the library to stock "questionable" books such as The Catcher in the Rye and the Harry Potter series but tracked who read them. She kept those names in a file marked "Potential Troublemakers."
"Close the door, Jane," she said, squeezing into her desk chair. Mrs. Stubblefield was about one cheek too large for it but refused to order another one. A petty part of me enjoyed her discomfort while I prepared for a lecture on appropriate displays for Banned Books Week or why we really don't need to stock audiobooks on CD.
"As you know, Jane, the county commission cut our operating budget by twenty percent for the next fiscal year," Mrs. Stubblefield said. "That leaves us with less money for new selections and new programs."
"I'd be willing to give up Puppet Time Theater on Thursdays," I offered. I secretly hated Cowboy Bob and his puppets.
I have puppet issues.
"I'm afraid it's more serious than that, Jane," Mrs. Stubblefield said, her eyes flitting to the glass door behind me. "We have to reduce our salary expenses as well. I'm afraid we can't afford a director of juvenile services anymore. We're going to have to let you go."
Maybe some of you saw that coming, but I didn't. I got my master's degree in library science knowing I would come back to "my" library, even if it meant working with Mrs. Stubblefield. I'm the one who established the library's book club for new mothers who desperately needed to leave the house on Thursday nights for a little adult conversation. I'm also the reason a small portion of the Hollow's female population now knows that Sense and Sensibility was a book before it was a movie. I'm the one who insisted we start doing background checks on our Story Time guests, which is why Jiggles the Clown was no longer welcome on the premises. I'm the one who spent two weeks on my knees ripping out the thirty-three-year-old carpet in the children's reading room. Me. So, after hearing that my services were no longer needed, I had no response other than "Huh?!"
"I'm sorry, Jane, but we have no other choice. We must be careful stewards of the taxpayers' money," Mrs. Stubblefield said, shaking her head in mock regret. She was trying to look sympathetic, but her eyebrows were this close to doing the samba.
"Ida is retiring next month," I said of the ancient returns manager. "Can't we save the money through eliminating her position?"
Clearly, Mrs. Stubblefield had not expected me to argue, which proved that she never paid attention when I spoke. Her eyebrows beat twice, which I took as code for "Just leave quietly."
"I don't understand," I continued. "My performance reviews have been nothing but positive. Juvenile circulation has increased thirty-two percent since I was hired. I work weekends and nights when everyone else is too busy or sick. This place is my whole...What the hell are you looking at?"
I turned to see Mrs. Stubblefield's stepdaughter, Posey, standing near the main desk. Posey waved, her bagged lunch bobbing merrily. Something told me she wasn't just early for a picnic with her wicked stepmother. Posey was virtually unemployable since she'd set fire to the Pretty Paws Pet Grooming Salon while blow-drying Bitty Wade's teacup poodle. Apparently, doggie nail polish, heat elements, and long-haired breeds are a cataclysmic combination.This was the third job Posey had lost due to fire, including blazes started with overcooked microwave popcorn at the Video Hut and a boiled-dry coffee pot at the Coffee Spot. When Posey wasn't working, she moved back into her dad's house, which also happened to be Mrs. Stubblefield's house. Clearly, my boss had decided she could share a water cooler with Posey but not a bathroom.
I was being replaced. Replaced by someone who needed flash cards to understand the Dewey decimal system. Replaced with someone I'd hated on principle since the sixth grade, when she penned the following in my honor: "Roses are red, violets are black. Why is your front as flat as your back?" Thanks to middle-school politics, I was labeled "Planed Jane" until my senior-year growth spurt. Regarding the use of "planed," I believe one of Posey's smarter friends showed her how to use a thesaurus.
Posey spotted me and froze mid-wave. I uttered several of the seven words you're not supposed to say in polite company. My soon-to-be-former boss let out an indignant huff. "Honestly, Jane. I can't allow someone who uses that language to work around children."
"You can't fire me," I told her. "I'll appeal to the library board."
"Who do you think signed your termination notice?" Mrs. Stubblefield preened while sliding the paper toward me.
I snatched it off her desk. "Your crony, Mrs. Newsome, signed the termination notice. That's not quite the same thing."
"She got approval from the other board members," Mrs. Stubblefield said. "They were very sorry to see you go, but the truth is, we just can't afford you."
"But you can afford Posey?"
"Posey is starting as a part-time desk clerk. The salaries aren't comparable."
"She starts fires!" I hissed. "Books tend to be kind of flammable!"
Ignoring me, Mrs. Stubblefield reached into a drawer to remove an envelope, which I hoped included a handsome severance and detailed instructions on how to keep health insurance and feed one large, ugly dog without bringing home a paycheck.
The final indignity was Mrs. Stubblefield handing me a banker's box already packed with my "personal effects." I stumbled through the lobby on legs that threatened to buckle under me. I ignored the cheerful greetings from patrons, knowing I would burst into tears at the first face I recognized.
I got into my car, leaned my forehead against the white-hot steering wheel, and began to hyperventilate. After about an hour of that, I mopped my blotchy face on my sleeve and opened what I thought was my severance check. Instead, a bright yellow-and-white-striped slip of paper drifted into my passenger seat, shouting, "Twenty-five dollars! Plus free potato skins!" in huge red letters.
Instead of a severance check, I got a gift certificate to Shenanigans.
This prompted another hour or so of hysterical crying. I finally pulled myself together enough to pull out of the library parking lot and drive toward the mall. Shenanigans was one of the first big chain restaurants to come to Half-Moon Hollow after the county commission finally unclenched its "dry" status. After decades of driving over county lines to Maynard to get liquor by the drink, Half-Moon Hollow residents could finally enjoy cocktails close enough to walk home drunk instead of drive. Personally, I find that comforting.
McClure County was one of the last counties in the state where you could legally smoke in restaurants -- thank you, local tobacco farmers -- so the bar was cloaked in several layers of cigarette haze. I made myself comfortable on a bar stool, ordered some potato skins and a large electric lemonade. For those unfamiliar with the beverage, picture a glass of Country Time that looks like Windex and makes your face numb. After the gift certificate ran out, I handed my Visa to Gary the bartender and told him to start a tab. I switched to mudslides sometime around happy hour. An "I'm too tired to cook" crowd trickled in after dusk. Unfortunately, this crowd included Adam Morrow, the man whose blond cherubic children I would one day bear...if I ever worked up the nerve to talk to him.
I've had a crush on Adam since elementary school, when he sat beside me in homeroom. (Thank you, alphabetical order.) When we were kids, he looked like Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block, which is like preteen-girl kryptonite. And Adam was one of the few people who never called me Planed Jane, so double points for him. We moved in different circles in high school. OK, we were barely in the same building. He was the dimpled football hero with a mysterious dash of debate-team participation. I spent lunch breaks shelving library books for extra Key Club points. I didn't see him while we were away at college, but I like to think it means something that we both came home to Half-Moon Hollow. I like to think that he values his roots and wants to give back to his hometown. And that it makes me less of a loser for living less than five miles from my parents' house.
Adam's a veterinarian now. He makes his living curing puppies. I'm a woman of uncomplicated tastes.
Adam smiled at me from across the bar, but he didn't come over. It was just as well, since (a) he probably didn't remember my name, and (b) I might have melted off my bar stool into a puddle of hammered, unemployed hussy. Plus, I have had the same reaction around Adam since our very first elementary-school encounter. Total lockjaw. I cannot speak normal sentences. I can only smile, drool, and burble like an idiot...which was pretty much what I was doing at the time.
Had I not suffered enough already?
I considered cutting my losses and scuttling home, but I did not need to add "blackout drunk driver" to my already tattered reputation. Nestled in a crook of the Kentucky-Ohio River border, Half-Moon Hollow is not one of those stereotypical Southern towns where everybody knows everybody, we have one stoplight, and our sole cop carries his bullet around in his pocket. We had the second stoplight installed last year. And don't call it a "holler," or I will personally track you down and hurt you.
Of the ten thousand or so people who live in this town, I am on a first-name basis with or related to about half. And if I don't know you, I know your cousins. Or my parents know you, your parents, or your parents' cousins. So I was caught off guard when a complete stranger materialized on the bar stool next to me.
"Hi," I said. Actually, I think I yelled in a too-loud drunk voice. "That was...unexpected."
"It usually is," said Mr. Tall, Dark, and Yummy. He asked the bartender for the Tequila Sunrise Special and was served in record time. As I stared at the maroon cloud swirling in the bottom of his glass, he asked if I would like another drink.
"I'm already drunk," I said, in what I'm sure I thought was a whisper. "I probably need to switch to coffee if I'm going to get home tonight."
His hesitant smile showed perfectly even, almost unnaturally white teeth. He probably suffers an addiction to tooth whitener, I mused. He seemed to take pretty good care of his skin as well. Hair: longish, winding in dark, curling locks from a slight widow's peak to his strong, square chin. Eyes: deep gray, almost silver, with a dark charcoal ring around the irises. Clothes: dark, well cut, and out of place in the Shenanigans crowd. Preliminary judgment: definitely a metrosexual, possibly gay, with a spontaneous yen for mozzarella sticks.
"What's your name?" Mr. Yummy asked, signaling the bartender to get me a cup of coffee.
"Jane Jameson," I said, extending my hand. He shook it with hands that were smooth and cool. I thought that he must moisturize like crazy. And then I started to babble. "It's mind-blowingly boring, I know. Why don't I just go completely bland and change my last name to Smith or Blank? Or why not do the mature thing and go by my middle name? Well, you'd have to be crazy to go by my middle name."
"And what is that?" he asked.
"Enid," I said, grimacing. "After a distant relative. My dad thought it was really original because no one else had a daughter named Enid. I guess it hadn't occurred to him why nobody else had a daughter named Enid. I think Mama was still hopped up on the epidural, because she agreed to it."
"Purity," he said. I think I squinted at him, because he repeated himself. " 'Enid' is Welsh in origin. It means 'purity' or 'soul.' "
"It also meant there were a lot of jokes at my expense when our full names were announced at school," I muttered sulkily. The coffee was a bitter black jolt to the system after frothy frozen cocktails. I shuddered. "Graduations were hell."
He paused for a moment and then laughed, a good explosion of honest, barking laughter. It sounded rusty, as if he hadn't done that in a while.
"Jane Enid Jameson, my name is Gabriel Nightengale," he said. "I would very much like to keep you company until you are able to drive home."
I wish I could remember that first conversation with Gabriel, but Mighty Lord Kahlua prevents it. From what I can piece together, I gave him the gory details of my firing. I think I impressed him by explaining that the term firing came from ancient Britannic clans. When village elders wanted to get rid of someone, instead of accusing him of witchcraft or shunning him, they would burn down the undesirable's house and force him to move on. I don't know how this stuff sticks in my head, it just does.
We eventually wandered into a discussion of English literature. Gabriel expressed affection for Robert Burns, whom I deemed "too lazy to spell correctly." I would feel bad, but he called my beloved Ms. Austen a "repressed, uptight spinster." I was provoked. We called a truce and decided to discuss a much more neutral subject, religion.
It took several hours, but I sobered up considerably. Still, I was reluctant to leave. Here was a person who didn't know me before my life was turned upside down. He couldn't compare the before and after Jane. he didn't know me well enough to feel sorry for me. He only knew this slightly tipsy girl who seemed to amuse him.
And there was something compelling about my new friend. My nerve endings telegraphed "Run, stupid, run!" messages to my brain, but I ignored them. Even if I ended up chained in his secret basement dungeon...well, it's not as if I had to go to work the next day.
When the bartender yelled "Last call," Gabriel walked me to my car. There was an uncomfortable second when I thought (hoped) he might kiss me. He was staring at my mouth with a sort of hunger that made me feel light and giddy. After a few agonizing seconds, he sighed, opened my car door, and wished me good night.
I drove slowly along Route 161, pondering my drinking buddy's apparent indifference. Had I ever been the type of girl who got picked up in bars? Well, no. I am the designated girl buddy. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the words "I don't want to ruin our friendship," I wouldn't be driving a car with an ominously flashing "check engine" light.
As I passed High Station Road, the taste of coffee and mudslides bubbled at the back of my throat with threatening velocity. I vurped up essence of Kahlua and mumbled, "Great, I'll finish the night off by vomiting."
Then Big Bertha's engine rattled and died.
"Aw, crap," I moaned, thunking my head against the wheel. I did not relish the idea of walking alone at night on the proverbial dark country road. But Half-Moon Hollow had two towing garages, both of which closed after eight p.m. I didn't have much of a choice. Plus, there was also the tiniest possibility that I still had alcohol in my system, so calling the police or AAA was not a great idea.
So, out of my car I climbed, grumbling about useless machines and blowtorch revenge. I was wearing open-toed sandals, very sensible shoes when one is schlepping toward a hatchet-wielding, woods-dwelling maniac. I spent every other step kicking bits of gravel out of my shoes, knowing that it was forming impenetrable gray cement between my toes. I passed roadside banks of wild day lilies, their orange lips clenched shut against the night, their heavy heads leaving tracks of dew on my jeans. To top off my evening, I was going to have to check myself for ticks when I got home.
The one thing I had going for me was good night vision. I thought so right up until I fell face-first into a ditch.
"Seriously?" I yelled at the sky. "Come on!"
Swiping at the mud on my face and the stones embedded in my knees, I made more creative use of those seven words you don't say in polite company. Lights fanned over me. I spun toward the noise of a moving vehicle, wondering whether it was wise to wave and ask for help. Without warning, I felt a hot punch to my side. My lungs were on fire. I couldn't catch my breath. I pressed a palm against my ribs and felt warm gushes of blood spilling out onto the grass.
"Aw, crap," was all I could manage before falling back into the ditch.
You're probably wondering what happened to me. I certainly did. Even in the darkness that cradled me like warm, wet cotton, I thought, Was that it? Was that my whole life? I'm born. I have an unfortunate permed-bangs era. I'm fired. I die?
I remember being so sorry that I wasn't able to say good-bye to my family or at least give Adam Morrow a kiss that would have left him inconsolable at my funeral. I was also very sorry about my choice of last words.
Then the movie started. The whole tunnel-of-light thing is a hallucination, but near-death experience survivors aren't lying when they say your life flashes before your eyes. It's kind of a fast-forwarded highlight reel complete with hokey music. My soundtrack was a Muzak version of "Butterfly Kisses," which is something that I will take to my grave.
The This Is Your Life flashbacks allow you to watch yourself being born and dying and all the moments in between. Sitting in church in torturously starched tights, first days of school, sleepovers, camping trips, Christmases, birthdays, final exams, each precious bubble of time slipping from you even as you try to grasp and hold on. Some moments you'd rather forget, such as throwing up on the school bus or the time you skipped your grandpa's funeral to go to the water park with your friends. (I swear, I'll explain that one later.)
Near the end of my reel, I watched myself talking to Gabriel and wished I had more time with him. I saw us leaving the bar and my car crawling toward home. I saw a close-up of Bud "Wiser" McElray driving his beat-up red truck down the highway about two miles behind me, drinking his favored Bud Light. I watched my own masterful use of obscenities as I climbed out of my stalled car, Bud following me. I watched as I face-planted into the ditch -- which, I have to admit, even I laughed at. There was a wide shot as Bud caught my hunched, muddied form in his headlights.
"Oh, come on," I murmured at the screen as Bud reached for the rifle behind his seat.
"Could be an eight-pointer," Bud mumbled, rolling down his passenger window. Another close-up of Bud's face as he squinted in concentration. His finger squeezed the trigger. I screamed at the screen as I watched myself fall to my knees, utter my oh-so-auspicious epitaph, and slump back into the ditch. Believing he'd missed his quarry, Bud put his truck in gear and lumbered away.
I screamed. "He thought I was a freaking deer ?"
So, that's how I died. A drunk was driving along Route 161 and decided to do some from-the-truck deer hunting. Instead of a nice buck to put up on his wall, he shot a recently fired, far-too-sober-to-die librarian.
In the theater of my dying brain, the highlight reel came to a close. I was cold and tired. And then I woke up as one of the undead.
Copyright © 2009 by Molly Harper White