Good and Beautiful — Laura Eppinger

A Study (1865-6), Julia Margaret Cameron, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bequest of James David Nelson, in memory of Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., 1988

Good and Beautiful

The doorbell’s ring reaches me below the floorboards, deep in the cellar, finding me where I sleep. I use both palms to push the coffin lid up and over.

As I step out, I feel her: A sandy-haired, dolphin-smooth 30-something, kissing Henri on both cheeks on our doorstep. He invites her in. Poor thing.

Once Henri’s victims know our address, this will be their last visit here—or anywhere. I didn’t realize he’d made so much progress on another mark; he’s been sleeping longer and more deeply these days, sometimes for months at a time.

I thump up the wooden steps into the first floor of Henri’s Colonial home, and hear them carrying on in the kitchen. She’s holding a wine glass, playing with her wavy hair, laughing. He always gets them drunk first, and makes them think they see him sip just as deeply.

Does he make them think he’s handsome, too? I know some women have a thing for a “short king,” this fantasy of being Napoleon’s empress. Even still, there are fairer kings than Henri.

His victim mentions restoring old homes along the Jersey Shore.

“Oh, I love the beach, I haven’t been in … forever, feels like,” I say, inviting myself into the conversation.

Henri’s cold brown eyes brim with boredom; he may as well yawn in her face. It’s been five hundred years since he felt the sunlight warm him, so I suppose he’s forgotten how delicious it can be.

“You are free to lay out in the sun whenever you like,” he says to me. We routinely pretend to be father and daughter, and he also pretends he isn’t inviting me to kill myself just now.

I turn to this swan-necked darling in wooden jewelry to say, “Take my dad to the beach on the next bright, hot day please.”

I nod my goodbyes and leave the kitchen. I suppose I’ll prowl for my own meal—I refuse to eat Henri’s leftovers.

Once my back is turned, she says something mild and enthusiastic about me. “What a sweetie,” signals to Henri she doesn’t mind dating a man with a nearly-grown daughter. (In life I was fully grown, but now, undead, people always guess I’m 16.)

You wish I was your biggest problem, I think as the front door slams behind me.

*

I’m bundled in a long puffy jacket, mostly just to blend in. I’m always cold. I keep waiting for someone to notice the breath I exhale isn’t visible, since there’s no heat or moisture roiling inside me. So far, no one looks long enough to care.

The living flock to this affluent Philadelphia suburb because it is so walkable, teeming with joggers in all seasons. I admit I appreciate that I can stroll to the upscale indoor market now for pungent bulbs of garlic and an unchipped wedge of what purports to be sea salt.

The thing is, when a maker dies all the vampires they made perish simultaneously. I am prepared to kill Henri and have myself go in the same way—but I’d like to have a normal human lifespan at least. I never even got to thirty.

*

Every decade or so Henri decides to turn someone into a fellow vampire, starting with thinkers and artists and 19-year-olds who wept because a song was so pretty or at the very idea that ancient Roman architecture still existed. What a bunch of dorks. His stories make me cringe so visibly he’s stopped telling me about his life altogether. 

“Cry about this, you big frilly baby,” I say under my breath as I crumble salt on the doormat of both our front and back doors. Now Henri can’t walk out of the house. Until he finds some way to clear the salt, I can’t walk back in. If he doesn’t figure it out by 4 a.m., I’ll break a window and creep down the basement to sleep. I suppose he could break a window as well. I really don’t care how his evening goes.

The night he turned me, the moon sat full in the sky one week after the American electoral system was maneuvered so a demagogue could be president. I guess it reminded him enough of his own era, when sometimes Catholics and Protestants would start slaughtering one another en masse, even if they’d been neighbors. Henri is at least good for catching the scent of socio-political turmoil in the air. 

He could sense unrest was coming so he sought out a companion to hunker down with.

He chose me, staggering home in the twilight after an early morning shift in a coffee shop then an afternoon folding jeans in a boutique. He claims my heart called out with the perfect pitch of despair. Can you blame me?

I was the worst choice he could have made, incompatible with Henri in almost every way. Not the least because in life, I never dated men. I would never choose to cohabit with one. I deeply loved being alive and walking in the daylight. I knew I wasn’t done growing up, and had more experimenting I wanted to do before it ended.

Once I understood some of my new powers—silent footsteps, the ability to distract people and disable security cameras with a single thought—I stole a set of leaden protection from a dentist’s office, then wore it as I sneaked into a jeweler’s. I snatched things made of purest silver, tempted by antique shops and Tiffany’s alike. I covered everything Henri would have to touch with silver: the lid of his coffin, the handle of the shovel he uses to bury every new set of bones, his set of house keys. The metal seared his skin and caused him pain, and even though the sensation was fleeting, this corny Baroque monster deserved every bit of it.

That first time I injured Henri, I was certain he’d snap my neck. Instead, he laughed.

“I admit, I picked you because you appeared out of the mist as the consummate waif,” he said as he held me off the ground, dangling me by my short hair. I’ll always be taller than Henri, but for the time being he is much stronger. “I wanted to give you a gift and feel your gratitude. Perhaps your thanks will still come. But at least you’re not dull. You can keep me entertained.”

That is the principal sin among those who have lived half a millennium: tedium. How can you not outlive yourself? Until I am strong enough to venture out on my own (I’ve only lasted the length of a single Presidential term, and Henri says this could take a century), I sleep in Henri’s cellar and haunt his historically preserved home. I will be a grain of sand in the eyelid of his afterlife, until I can ditch him completely.

*

Another sunset and I lumber back up the steps to find Henri in the kitchen. His cheeks are rosy. He’s taken in lots of blood.

“I will never understand why you have to kill every time you eat,” I say. “You can just take a drink and send them away. They usually don’t get obsessed with us until they’ve fed us three times.”

He says something about preserving a woman’s perfection in amber, the word ambrosia is used so I glaze over. He can tell I’m not listening but he keeps talking.

For what is beautiful is good, and what is good shall soon be beautiful. Thought you’d appreciate that.”

“Because it’s Sappho and I’m a Lesbo? Thanks.”

I’d just put “genderqueer” in the bio of all my socials when Henri turned me. Now I waste my nights scrolling and it feels like no one even uses that term anymore, just five years later. Who knows who I could have become by now?

I could have moved to another country, learned to drive—or at least stopped telling people I was planning to. Maybe I would have quit smoking the old-fashioned way (with a patch or hypnosis, that part doesn’t matter, I mean: by staying alive) and padded myself in at least 10 soft and supple pounds. Maybe an SSRI would have added even more thickness to wrap me in. I could lose a little of it in a hot yoga phase, then gain it all back when I grew tired of waking up for class at 6. Fluctuate. Change. Planned or unexpected, change is proof of life.

I now spend most of my afterlife asleep, and the other half moving as little as possible. Scrolling while sedentary keeps me from waking up a hunger. I never kill, just flirt with someone cute at the bar and steal a sip from them.

Henri opens the front screen door a crack and brings in a package off the doorstep, clearly addressed to me. He can’t get into someone else’s apartment without their clear invitation but I guess any mail with this address is fair game.

I lunge for the box but it’s no use, he keeps me frozen to the spot with one demonic flick of his hand. He tears away some clear packaging tape and digs through a sea of foamy packing peanuts.

 “These bullets aren’t silver,” he says. 

“But that seller had such good ratings!”

Henri puffs up for a lecture. “Silver bullets are for werewolves and witches. There are thousands of books in this house. It’s humiliating that you never read.”

“All your books are on the Internet,” I say and then the wind is knocked out of me.

Fangs bared, Henri pins me up against the fridge and snarls.

“Still such an ingrate. I took you well past your prime, you should thank me.”

“I was 27!”

“An old maid. Do women even bear children so late?”

Always fun when Henri reveals which contemporary regressive ideas really did come from the Middle Ages. They’re always about fertility.

Henri always kills the night of the full moon, when he can smell the human bodies that ovulate on that cycle. I can’t get him to stop saying “females,” regardless of how these mortals identify. In my own life I didn’t even track my period and I’d been thinking I wasn’t quite a woman when I heard a rustling in the bushes, felt a set of jaws on my neck and the world as I knew it disappeared.

*

He rarely goes out to hunt like this anymore, not since I accidentally let slip about the existence of dating apps. I tried to see it as a mercy. A way of making this mis-gendering demon a little less offensive until I could have him where I want him (staked and fried in the sun). I know it opens up a whole new world of innocents to him, but they can at least express who they are and what they are looking for, their pronouns and preferences, and choose to meet with Henri.

Planted  in an armchair, swiping right across the screen of an iPad he can barely use, Henri seems almost human again. He could be a middle-aged hedge fund manager. An embarrassing old man. 

All those glossy, pixelated faces. Smiling.

I could warn them. It would only take a minute. I bet Henri’s iPad doesn’t even have password protection. 

Instead, I lie awake holding their dating profiles in my mind, until the faces begin to swell and vibrate. A succession of eyes and teeth.

*

The next full moon looms over me while I complete the bare minimum to prep the house for a visitor. It’s easier for Henri to date in the fall and winter—the sun sets earlier, he can meet up with new women as early as 4:15 p.m. This is the season where throwaway “news” sites write about humans coupling up so they can snuggle the cold months away. Unfortunately, Henri is the cold.

Henri says I will grow out of this, but at least at this moment, he can compel me to do things. Not everything and not all the time. It exhausts his energy to push me around, though resisting exhausts my own, too. Sometimes I fight, sometimes I yield. Before a new lady friend comes over I flush all the toilets—they work though we don’t use them, and when they sit too long unused the brackish water stains the bowl. In summertime, ants or mosquitoes lay eggs in the water. Henri still can’t believe how easy it is to get fresh water in so many different areas of the house, but he is surprisingly squeamish about all the bodily functions a living human needs to care for. 

Whenever we dispose of a body, I always take their phones. I break into all their accounts, photos, contacts, their location histories, what memes they share, every sliver of who they were.

I anticipate a new phone to crack, until I see her. I catch a whiff: Henri’s date smells like incense burning on an altar, a frigid arctic air, and a tub of ice cream at a family picnic. Before I even see her, I love her.

Yeah, yeah, she’s tall and pretty and young. That’s just an accident of nature, and so unfortunate for her now. Henri is shallow but this woman thinks deeply. She’s an artist, turning over a sweet lick of some sonata in her mind just now. Her thoughts say: she came over here because she was bored, needing inspiration. Her best work is ahead of her—Henri is cruel to suck her dry right now.

They chit-chat, and neither likes that part very much. She declines a glass of wine but Henri pours anyway.

“Are you in for the evening?” Henri asks, reminding me I am supposed to be his teenage ward.

I shrug to play my part and say, Maybe.

He points to the living room coffee table, and some crusty hunk of a manuscript resting there.

“Why not do some reading? There is one of the oldest surviving printings of The Essai. You would agree with Montaigne on much, I believe.”

He’s really trying to usher me out of the house. I will not be rushed.

“I told you I don’t read dead white guys,” I say.

And his new conquest puts her first in the air and says, “Right on.”

I plop down on one of the uncomfortable velvet couches in the living room, to scroll and to scowl. Henri invites his prey on a tour of the house. Diana, I sense. Her name is Diana.

I scan all the socials of my childhood best friend. She’s 31 now, moved to a new city for grad school, got engaged, goes for fertility treatments so they can start a family right away. (She always shared too much on her public Instagram, but I am so grateful for this now.)

I kid myself she moved and started over because she was grieving me.

My temples ache, and then I can see in a flash: Diana has entered a hypnotic state, and Henri has her recline on the chaise-lounge with the plastic sheet. I can see the canvas she just finished painting, and her visions for what she will create next. Her work is beautiful. It must exist in the world.

I’m back in the Rococo living room downstairs, struck by how strong my psychic powers have become. Maybe I don’t have to kill to grow stronger. Maybe Henri lied.

I gather up my arsenal: ground salt and the remaining brick of it, links of silver bracelets, and a beef mallet I shoplifted from a home goods store with no plan in mind when I did it.

Once I’m on the top floor I catch the rusty scent of blood and have to fight off my own craving. My footsteps are clumsy and loud, but I pray Henri is in such ecstasy as he drains her, he won’t hear anything at all.

I pass a water closet and two empty guest rooms before I reach Henri’s preferred kill room. Diana is pale but her heart is beating, I’m not too late.

His back is turned as he kneels on the floor by the chaise-lounge, so I waste no time swinging the mallet. One blow to the side of his head and he’s detached from Diana’s neck, a heap on the floor. He starts healing immediately so I whack him again, a few times, for good measure. I didn’t grab my leaden gloves so the hunk of salt is burning me, up until the moment I fling it onto Henri’s chest to pin him in place. This buys us maybe forty-five minutes of time before he’s mobile again.

I rouse Diana and though her pupils are dilated, she’s awake.

Mallet in hand, I smash into the old radiator in this bedroom, until a fountain of sulfurous water begins to trickle out. The sight repels me, but I have enough strength to drag Diana from the plastic sheet and push her out into the hallway. I’m hoping Henri will be too drained to cross the running water for a few hours, and my last effort is to drape the chains of silver over the doorknob he’ll have to touch to exit the room. 

He’ll escape, eventually. I’m just buying us time.

I lock us into a bedroom closer to the stairs.

“Are you going to kill him?” Diana asks, wide-eyed. Her fingers hover in the air at the side of her neck.

I’m so whacked out on the scent of iron I can hardly speak more than a word at a time.

“Can’t. It’ll kill me. But we can escape.”

I extend my hand but Diana doesn’t take it. 

“He’ll follow me,” she says.

“Yes,” I admit. I hadn’t planned this far in advance.

“I’m pretty n-new,” I stutter, woozy in hunger. “I’m not a teenager. And I’m not his daughter. I am like him—I mean, ew, of course I’m not. But I do sleep all day. And need human blood to survive. I get stronger every time I kill. But I try not to do—”

Diana backs away from me, edging toward the small window. 

“You should run away. I really like you, I’m not after you like that.”

Please believe me, I think, but try not to push the thought into her mind. Please decide to trust me on your own.

“But I think, I mean it is my understanding, that I’d level up my vampire game pretty significantly once I turn someone. Like, for instance, you.”

Whenever I try to talk my fangs pop out, because Diana is a fountain of the most fragrant blood I’ve ever encountered. So I put my plea inside her head:

I know, I’m sorry. Henri was going to murder you tonight. He definitely isn’t doing that right now. You can run away! You should know, he’s very good at hunting. I wouldn’t help him but my guess is he’ll get to you by the end of a week. If I turn you, you’ll be like me, you’ll live forever, and that is the opposite of dying in a way that running away at this moment might not be. 

She’s looking away, eyes darting from the window to the door. 

Yeah, everyone you know right now will think you are dead. But you can keep making art. You could—I dunno, you could keep filling a storage unit with pieces and when you’re ready, send a fake bill to your lawyer or someone so they ‘discover’ all your work…? This is off the top of my head. But you’ll still love art if you become like me. 

Diana turns to look at me. She holds my gaze. 

And then jerks like Henri won’t be able to hurt you. 

Her eyebrows shoot up high in an expression that seems to say, Well, when you put it that way

I graze my wrist with my left fang to open myself up, and when I extend my own blood to her, Diana steps forward to drink.

Laura Eppinger (she/her) knows that the Jersey Devil is real. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as Best of the Net. Her flash fiction chapbook, LOVING MONSTERS is available through Alternating Current. Her CNF chapbook “When the Hermit Appears” is forthcoming from AlienBuddha Press.

Follow her here: facebook.com/eppingermonsters 

Twitter: @lola_epp

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