It's dawn. I don't know when I got to sleep, but now the air is white. Snowglobe above a splinter of dust. Beyond the rest stop is nothing. Long black highway and emptiness. The car is stifling. Slept with the windows just cracked in the same red track shorts and black wifebeater I've been wearing since I left, and I'm sticky now with days of sweat and dust. From a distance I must look like I've got a great tan, but it's just a mudbath.
Almost there. I planned on getting there last night, but I started seeing black people-shapes running from the side of the highway in front of the car, and I knew I couldn't make it.
I haven't seen Uncle Rob since I was a baby. He was my mom's brother, black sheep. He moved out here years ago. Didn't come to any of the funerals or weddings or reunions. I spoke to him on the phone once or twice as a kid. I remember him being hard to make conversation with. My nervous, high-pitched giggles echoing back at me, hurridly handing the phone back to Mom. I was surprised when he offered me a place to land. But family is family.
Late evening when I start to see the signs. It must have been a big city at some point, or someone at the highway department thought it was on its way. An express route splits from the main highway to avoid the city entirely, even though you can see for miles coming toward it that it's just a tiny speck. Uneasy looking six-story buildings huddled close to the highway like spokesmodels at a redneck car show, and then a sprawl of beat up pump stations and dulpexes.
The road is nearly empty. Few straggling commuters angling home against the setting sun. I'm the only eastbound car. Earlier, there was a flash in front of me that could have been evidence of life, or a mirage, but he took the alternate route.
I roll in, passing outlying single family dwellings and their corner stores, and it looks like any other stranded Midwestern town. These people must get sick of the weather. Sky's been a swimming pool all day, blue and slick with rising heat. It's just family dogs outdoors, panting at the edge of their fences. The shades are drawn everywhere. At home we'd be barbecuing. But this is home for now. I stow my past tense thoughts and focus on forward motion.
I roll the volume on the radio back up. Hoping now that I'm in town, it'll be something besides creepy unscored religious fanatics. I pick up fuzzy opera. Keep going. On the other end of the dial is some eerie sounding wailing in a language I don't recognize. Arabic or something. Almost throat singing. In between is empty.
Uncle Rob lives downtown. Once I get away from the highway, it's definitely a ghost town. Or people take suppertime very seriously. Lots of nice cars parked on the streets, but no one attending them. No young punks pretending to lean up against the passenger side while they jimmy the doors. It's clean though. Just missed them, I guess. Maybe they have a lot of money and bored cops. Maybe they have a curfew. Or maybe I've found the last place in the world where the streets still roll up at sundown.
Easy to find the place, in the quiet. It's near a park covered in vines, with a little musical fountain. I leave the car there so it doesn't get lonely in the stillness.
Uncle Rob's building is ornate and old. An original apartment building, not a sliced-up house. Glowering white lions guard the door. Can't imagine how the lion-carver used to make a living out here in the middle of nothingness. Must have been a side gig. I push the button to call 302.
"Ellen?" Same voice. Humorless.
"Hi, Uncle Rob! Ye-"
Door buzzes. Speaker clicks.
It's dim inside. Takes a second for my eyes to adjust. Smells like auntie. But I hear more songs than there can be apartments bumping softly behind the doors. Electronica and death metal swirling sniffing the hallway like pent-up dogs as I pass. They make a combined beat that builds up as I climb the stairs. Feels urgent.
Two apartments on the third floor, labeled with bright brass numbers. I knock on Uncle Rob's. He is electroclash. A sliver of goth-emo widens into the hallway as his neighbor peeks out at me. Rob's door opens. I look across the hallway and see the tip of a head, greasy spikes falling over the eyes. Rob places a hand on my back and gently shoves me in.
"Who's that?" I hear a young voice snarl. "My niece," says Uncle Rob, behind me. Takes a second for him to follow me in. But he doesnt say anything else. Hear across-the-hall's door close and only then my uncle comes inside.
He gestures at the apartment. Predictably, the blinds are drawn. He has low lamps going, and the glow of a laptop in a small living room. Dark wood, nicely kept up. Shiny hard floors. Real plaster. Tiny uneven white tile peeking out from a kitchen down the hallway. "Make youself at home," he suggests, then wanders back into the open living room, shuts the laptop. Pats the couch. "This folds out. Did you bring many things?"
I hoist my backpack.
"Well. No problem, then. If you don't mind living out of a suitcase?"
I shake my head no. Try to smile, but I know a grimace comes out.
"Well." He folds his hands. Perfect posture. Thought he was my mom's older brother, but I must be remembering wrong. He's in his thirties or he's spent the last twenty years indoors in a vat of moisturizer. The hands fall back limp at his side, and then he walks across the room and gives me an awkward hug. He has cold hands, like a doctor. Steps back with his hands on my shoulders and stares at me until I get nervous. His eyes are very dark blue. Freaky hypnotic. "You look like Madeline. God rest her soul.
"Well. Can I get you something to drink? I don't have soda. Let's see..." I follow him around the corner to the kitchen. He opens the fridge and looks inside. It's mostly empty. "I guess I have wine. Or water? Your mother would be apalled, wouldn't she." Sighs, then turns toward me to resume the question.
I don't think he knows I'm only 20. "Wine would be great," I croak. It's been days since I've spoken to anyone.
He opens a cabinet. It's full of wine. He must be an alcoholic. "Is red alright?"
"Sure, that'd be awesome."
He takes out one bottle, then another from further back. Then opens another cabinet and removes a third, closes the cabinets, turns to me. "Merlot, Chianti, or Pinot Noir?"
"Ummm.. Pinot Noir?"
He squints slightly, then he laughs as he opens a drawer and draws out a corkscrew. His smile is charming, but weirdly feline. Friendly, but like something that would chew your face off if you died and left it without any kibble. He hands me a full glass. "You were only two the last time I saw you. So not quite old enough for wine, are you?"
"It's alright." The cat smile melts. "You're on your own now. Whatever your age, you're an adult. I don't think anyone would begrudge you a glass of wine.
"Besides, I'm your bad uncle, aren't I?" Just like that, the charm's back on. "This is what we do, we give the children alcohol! Ah, there we go. There's a smile."
I am smiling. I take a long sip. Tastes like dust, but I'd rather sink into it than stay sober.
"Put your things down in here," he leads me back to the living room. "Drink your wine, then you can have a shower. Then we'll go and get something to eat. Alright?"
I nod yes, slump into the armchair next to the couch.
He scoops up his laptop. "I'm going to finish up some work in my bedroom." He points down the hall past the kitchen. "Take your time, and just come and knock when you're ready. The bathroom's back that way." Back by the front door. "Just knock if you need anything, alright?" And he disappears down the hall, into the gloom.
I'm drunk when we go out, and it's dark. All the neon has come on, and now the city doesn't seem dead at all. We pass a few people on the way to a restaurant a couple blocks away. Italian. And more of a bar, really. No one seems to be eating. I guess it's late. Something strange occurs between Uncle Rob and the waiter when I order fettucine. A stare-down. But the guy brings it back, presenting it to me with overt earnestness as though it were a surprise birthday cupcake. I look around for other red-vested staff waiting to jump out and sing me a clap-along song about my bold decision to eat after hours. He leans over and whispers something to Uncle Rob, who pats him consolingly on the back as he walks away.
Uncle Rob himself doesn't stay long. He goes to the bar to say hello to someone, and then he's surrounded by several someones, all merrily downing glass after glass of red wine. I am mostly in shadow and stuff my face with fitting abandon. I'm fishing the last half-inch scraps of noodles from the cream sauce when I notice he's disappeared.
The waiter comes back, right on cue. In the candlelight he appears to leer. "Anything else?"
I look around again, but Uncle Rob is still missing. "Uh, no, I'm ok. I think I'm just waiting on my uncle."
"Rob? He sitting with some people over there." He points toward the back of the place, which I can't see for the flood of bodies and the dearth of illumination. "You want me to let him know you're all finished?"
"Um. Sure." I feel completely conspicuous. People are slyly staring at me and I see stage whispers behind pristine manicures. The waiter smirks off as though he'd been amusing a spoiled birthday girl. I stand up immediately when I see Uncle Rob making his way toward me.
"How was it? Good? Listen, would you be offended if I stayed out for a bit? I tend to be a bit of a night owl, and I'm sure you're exhausted."
"No, absolutely. I'd love to just crash." It's true. I see black rain falling from the ceiling. Carbohydrates in my stomach lulling me to sleep like warm milk.
"Thank you for being understanding." He pulls a key from his pocket and hands it to me. "This is for the front door and the apartment. It's a spare, so you just hang onto that. And... ah!" He looks over my shoulder.
A young guy in a skinny suit has appeared behind me.
"Ellen, this is Jason. Jason, my niece Ellen. Jason's going to walk you back, alright?"
I look at the guy again. He's looking around the bar a little warily, like maybe he's irritated. "Oh, I'm ok. It's just, what, three blocks?"
Uncle Rob looks very serious. Drunk, I think. He lays a hand on my arm. "Ellen, during the day this is a very friendly town. Nice people. But it gets quiet in the evening and it can be much more dangerous than you might think at night. You might think I'm overprotective, but please. Never go anywhere at night without an escort." He gives Jason a long look. Significance is lost on me. "Jason's someone I trust. And he doesn't mind a bit, right Jason?"
The kid steps closer to us. He has a warm smile now. Could be he's pissed at someone here and needs the air. "Course not! It's really not safe, even three blocks." His grave expression looks theatrical.
"Ok, well thanks then? If you really don't mind..."
"No, my pleasure!" enthuses Jason.
I look back at Uncle Rob, who is again giving Jason a stare that seems to mean watch it. But he turns to me brightly and smiles, "Great! Just make yourself at home, get some rest. I'll be back late, but I'll be very quiet." He leans in and give me a quick, stiff squeeze. "It's good to have you here." Then is quickly swallowed up by the loud crowd.
Jason takes my hand and leads me out.
It's cooled off a little and there are lots of people in the street. It seems we're on the edge of some nightlife district. Feels like they're all looking at me as we pass.
"Small town, huh?" I remark.
"Not that small. It's the biggest thing around. Why?"
"Don't know. Just feel kind of like the new girl at school."
"Oh." Head down and we walk faster.
It must be further than three blocks. We've gotten away from all the people, just random clumps here and there, hanging out on the stairs of apartments. Someone yells Jason's name, sing-song.
"Ignore them," he growls. And we walk faster. Then we turn a corner and we're there.
I pause on the front stairs. "Awesome. Thanks for-"
"Oh, I should walk you all the way up." He's standing too close, like he stopped on my heels right before I turned around.
"No, you don't have to do that. It seems like a pretty nice building. I'm cool."
"Sure. But I promised Rob I'd see you home safe." He looks around. Shifty. "Just open the door."
"Dude, thanks, but I got it from here."
A guy walks toward us, skinny in biker leather. Checks us both out, but mostly me. Passes us, then pauses, patting his pockets. Cigarette hanging from his lips, he turns back to us, mouth open to ask-
"Back the fuck off!" Jason yells. The echo rings. The guy pivots hastily and continues on. Jason looks back at me, "I'm going to be a perfect gentleman. I'm going to walk you up to Rob's apartment and then go back to the bar. Please unlock the fucking door and let's go inside."
The dude in the leather has stopped a couple of blocks up and is looking back at us. There's another guy, closer and across the street, also hanging in the shadows just watching. I march up the steps and unlock the door. Jason follows me in. We both listen until the door latches behind us. "Walk," he whispers. "Quietly." So I nearly tip-toe up the stairs. I hear a door creak open on the first floor as we ascend the second stairway. Reach Rob's, put the key in the lock, and I hear footsteps at the door across the hall. Feel sweat on my upper lip. Get the door open.
"Come in for a second?" I whisper.
He nods and we close the door on whatever he's afraid of.
We stand in the entryway, just looking at each other. He's up against the door, and slides against it to look out the peephole. Faces me again but doesn't meet my eyes.
"What's going on?" I ask.
Shrugs. "Like Rob said. It's dangerous here at night."
"What about the neighbors?"
"They don't know you."
"What does that have to do with it?"
"People are just kind of weird. You know? Your neighbors will be cool once they know you're staying here. But people get weird about strangers."
I try to stare him down, but he isn't looking at me. "So that's it? People are just weird?"
"Yeah. But it'll be different once you've been here a few days. Don't worry about it.
"I should get going. Or Rob'll think I was an asshole."
"Yeah, right. I can deal with assholes." I roll my eyes. I want him to notice. If the best game he's got is alluding to it, he's no threat to my honor.
"No, I meant..." he gives me the weirdest look. Then laughs. Shrugs. "Suit yourself." Winks. Laying it on a little thick, but I don't know why. "Listen, don't let anyone in, right? And if something happens, you got Rob's number?"
"No. If something happens like what?"
"You know. Burglars. Funny noises. Whatever. Here, I'll give you mine." He grabs a Post-It and a pen from a desk in the hall and scratches out a number. "Seriously, even if the fucking building's on fire, don't leave, ok? Just call me, I'll come running back here."
"Take it however you want. Rob's like family. Which means you're like family. If you need me, call me. Ok?"
I nod. Nice. Just a small town after all.
He steps through the door, but pokes his head back in. "Keep this locked." I nod again. "Sweet dreams."
I bolt it. It's cozy, with all the blinds still closed. I peek out the window in the living room. It's 12:30 on a Monday. Half the lights in town are on.
Blazing daylight. I slept past noon. I'm sitting on the front porch with a glass of water and the phonebook, trying to find a place to get something to eat. There aren't as many people out as there were last night, but I've seen two cars pass, and it's comforting. The night feels surreal. Certain in hindsight it was only scary because Jason was acting so alarmed. Would have been fine on my own. Walked down here - all by myself - without incident. Indoors it's silent like a tomb.
Didn't hear Uncle Rob come in last night, but his wallet and pocket change are spread all over the desk in the hall, so I guess he had a good night. Don't want to wake him to ask where I can get breakfast. I go back inside to return the phonebook and walk toward the tall buildings by the highway. Office workers have to eat.
Foot traffic picks up as I get closer to the ocean noises of the interstate. Weirdly, these people don't look at me at all. I find a coffee shop. It looks like it came through a wormhole from the 1960s. Says seat yourself. I do. The booths have the imprints of shoulders rubbed into the wood grain of the walls next to them.
A waitress who looks like a soccer mom brings me the laminated menu. I order a grilled cheese and coffee. Once the sandwich is gone, I pull out my notebook and sit milking the refills. Haven't had time to think since I left. It feels good to write it down. It's almost like being back in time, being here. Uncle Rob had no connection to me once my mom died. He probably didn't know my dad. Wasn't at the wedding, never knew my husband. Might not even be aware I was married. All that just four days behind me, but it feels like years. Years that never happened. In the margin I sketch the ketchup bottles of a cafe older than I am. Maybe it didn't.
I wake up again around 10pm. Uncle Rob is cooking pancakes. He didn't get out of bed until nearly 6, then suggested I go back to sleep so I could come out tonight and meet some people. Apologized for not introducing me better last night. I guess Jason told him about the walk home. Confirmed the weird cliquishness of people in this town, but assured me again that it would change once people got used to seeing me.
We go back to the same bar, the restaurant where no one eats. We start at the back and work our way toward the front, making introductions, shaking hands. People stare less. At me. There are several meaningful stares between Uncle Rob and the people we're meeting. One woman holds my hand uncomfortably long and then yanks it away suddenly. I see Jason over her shoulder. We all retire to a big table in back.
It seems Uncle Rob is some sort of big deal. Hard to tell, since these people all party like they don't have day jobs. It's a good time, though. No one cards me and I have several bottles of wine to myself as people come and go from our table.
It's well past 2am, I'm sure, and the bar is swirling around my head when Jason sits down next to me. "You look like you need some air," he says loudly. I allow him to lead me outside.
The stars are bright against the teeth of old buildings and the haze of spotty neon. We sit on the curb outside the bar, walled off from pedestrians by a cluster of overflow from inside, laughing 11pm laughs. I'm the only person here who's drunk, I'm certain.
"Feeling more comfortable now?" he smiles.
"I was comfortable last night," I scoff. "I was freaked out because you were."
"Oh, ok." He's laughing at me.
"Are you more comfortable?"
"Yeah. You should be honored. You're kind of a novelty. And nobody fucks with Rob. Anyway you're safe here."
"Why am I a novelty?"
"Cause you're new." It's a little hasty. He's looking at someone. "Hey, your neighbor's here." The emo guy from across the hall. He's staring at us through his hair. "Fucking hate that guy."
"He's just an asshole. Always trying to start shit. Wait here a sec." He becomes a blur in triplicate as he stands up and walks toward the neighbor. They have some words. A woman sits down in Jason's place.
"Hi! I'm Magda. We met earlier. Rob's niece, right?"
I nod, feeling a little shy about trying to keep my eye on Jason and the dude.
"Takes some getting used to, doesn't it?"
"Yeah. Weird town." I think quick enough to add, "But the people here seem cool."
She flutters her hand in front of her face. "It's ok, it is weird. I've been here.. twenty years?" She doesn't look a day over 30. "It still feels strange. But you adjust. As long as you can stand living at night. But you're young! You'll have the time of your life." Her smile is completely genuine. "How long are you sticking around?"
"Just until August. Then I'm starting school."
"College? Just starting? You look older than eighteen! More mature, I mean."
"No, I'm 20. But I got married right out of high school, so.. just now getting around to it, I guess."
"Married? Rob didn't... Oh! And here's Jason. I'll let you two chat." She leans into me. She smells good, like gardenias, but her breath is coppery like she's just been at the dentist. And her voice is low and hard. "Watch out for him."
I follow her retreat with my eyes. She pauses to give me a look. Feel like I've joined a cheerleading squad. All these unspoken sentences flying through the air.
"What'd she say to you?" Jason asks, settling himself.
"She said watch out for you," I smile. Totally flirting.
But he's got a dark look in his eyes. "Right. Watch out for me."
"What? I figured she meant.. you know..."
"She means... I used to be kind of a thug, is all. Like your neighbor over there." I note my neighbor over there has made himself scarce. "But if I were still that way, Rob wouldn't let me near you. So ignore her."
"I would have anyway," I shrug defensively.
There are places I own completely. Away from downtown, where the houses sleep the day away with eyes stubbornly shut. I walk down streets patting bored dogs through fences. Like a little girl scratch graffiti onto the sidewalk with stubs of plaster and stucco.
It just gets hotter and hotter, and the skies ooze by interrupted only by occasional clouds like combed-out curls. Ant traffic passes slowly on the interstate and sometimes I go that way and watch it. Sometimes in the heat of midday I run across, for kicks. Deer do it.
I miss some nights out. Some days I go to bed as Uncle Rob's getting up, but first we sit down and talk. He's warm once you get to know him. Maybe we feel the same. We're each other's last connection to something that doesn't really exist anymore, and we have nothing in common, but we have that. If that goes, we lose part of the foundation, we could float away to god knows where.
There's surprisingly little wasted space. But what there is, no one seems to want. No demolition fences, no padlocks. I hang out on the pump island in the lonely shell of a gas station down 150th, writing in my notebook or staring into nothing. I can count cars on one hand. I can write a tally in the dust and unless it gets windy, it will be right where I left it tomorrow.
Sometimes think as far away from yourself as possible is the only place you ever find yourself.
Drunk again and Jason is taking me home. Not to Rob's, but to his place, where I stay on the couch sometimes because, as a bachelor, Rob sometimes benefits from not having his young niece sleeping in the living room. Too sure of myself, I trip on a rock or a crack in the sidewalk or my own feet, and find I'm kneeling on the sidewalk, laughing at the pain and my own stupidity. Jason helps me carefully up, as though he were peeling me away. We look down together and see that my right knee is scraped all to hell and trickling blood.
Jason makes a weird noise in his throat. Animal moan. The way a prisoner with his tongue cut out begs for death.
He kneels in front of me and seizes my knee, almost toppling me again. Instead I fall forward and brace myself against his shoulders. He looks up at me with big, dark eyes, pupils huge.
He inhales very carefully and exhales very carefully. In slow motion, still looking at me, he kisses the wound. I am watching, mute, a bystander. He kisses it again. Licks his lips. Gently, runs his tongue across it, cleaning it like a cat. The raw flesh is baby pink for a second, but new blood beads again on the torn skin, he begins to tremble. I feel it in his hands and in his tongue as it delicately touches each forming droplet. We continue this way until the bleeding has stopped and he is panting.
"Are you ok?" He breathes.
"Yeah... Are you?"
Jesus if I knew what his eyes were trying to say. He hugs me, with his face in my hair, nuzzles through it and I feel his cheek against my neck. Then his lips. It's like the first time, high school. My mind racing past events that have yet to happen trying to sort drunken desire from sensible restraint. For now he is deciding for me. Lips close and open again, climbing my neck. His tongue darts out and teases the thin skin of my pulse point. My arms find him and reach up his body to lift his chin to mine.
Between ferocious sessions up against the walls of random buildings, we find our way back to his apartment. We are halfway naked by the time the door locks, we are nude as we fall tangled into his bed. It's quick. It's what you'd expect after two months of nothing. But it's good. I climb off of him to see I've banged my knee and smeared fresh blood across his sheet. He sees it too.
Now he climbs onto me and slides down my body - no, further - to kiss the scrape again. Just once, though. He looks at me and whispers, "Ellen, you should stay here."
And I'm torn. I'm living in a dream. But not really living. I shake my head, "No."
Wordlessly, he reaches over me and into his nighstand. Pulls out a knife, pushes himself up to kneel on one knee. And he cuts the knee, without hesitation, a strong cut that blooms instantly. "Do this for me. I did it for you."
I bring my face close to the cut, but find it with my fingers first. Even in near darkness, I swear I can see his blood welling in my fingerprints. I extend my tongue, but pull it back. "What will happen if I do?"
"But what if I don't want that?"
"I don't know..."
He gets up with a loud sigh and goes into the bathroom, slamming the door. When he comes back, the cut is bandaged. He lays next to me and pulls me against his chest, which is cooling. "I'm sorry," he whispers into my hair. "Sleep on it. For as long as you need to. I can wait a long time."
I say goodbye to Uncle Rob the next night and leave two weeks early for college. I send letters to Jason, and he sends them back.
He says come back to the vampire city.