Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
I woke up with a wooden stake held to my heart, as if the lore was true. As if it ever had been.
“What did you do with her?” a voice shouted, shrill and bordering on hysterical. The man’s face that became clearer as I opened my eyes looked so familiar. He looked so very much like Thane that for a confused moment, I thought he had forgotten everything we’d shared and was attacking me for reasons I couldn’t yet fathom.
But no. This man was older, his straw-like blonde hair graying at the temples. His blue eyes were red-veined and beginning to lack clarity. The shirt that came down to his shaking wrists was conservative, plaid cotton and white plastic buttons. Thane would look much younger than this for the next few millennia, at least. I woke from my deep daytime sleep, my dreams of old villages and newer crumbling cities, and understood exactly what was happening.
Thane had carried all the sadness in the world when I met him. That was how I knew.
The night we met, I’d been in a pitch black club shot through with razors of light. My photosensitivity was in full effect; even artificial light in those pulsing, jarring blades can trigger the same unpleasant effects I get from the sun. After too much of it, I began to feel sick. Then I began to hallucinate. The blades of white light in the darkness became white-clad angels with flaming swords, the sweat pouring off of bodies was suddenly the baptismal water splashed by men in long robes who hid in the shadows. I had to get out and clear my head, so I went to the brick alleyway and lit a joint.
I didn’t feel anything from the drug, but it had its desired effect -- a person with thin shoulders and so much sadness I could taste it in the air came towards me. Later, I would learn his name -- Thane.
Thane couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. How different he wished his life to be was palpable. It was in his drunkenness, wobbly and full of desperation. It was in the way he devoured the joint, as if some great prize were at the end. It was in the way he hunched his shoulders to hide the smallest hint of breast tissue still visible beyond the body-damaging ACE bandages wound tight around his chest. I was just another clubgoer to him, a petite woman with long white-blonde hair, complexion maybe a bit too pale -- but who could tell in the dark club and the alleyway?
I reached out to hand him the joint. The skin of his fingers brushed the skin of mine, electric, wanting.
I didn’t want his blood, you know. I never needed his or anyone else’s. Humans have always thought their blood so pure and special. Animal blood does fine.
What drew me to him was the sadness I had once known so well.
We shared a cab back to my apartment. It was a cavern that had once been a warehouse space. So few people lived there, still, even after most of the rats were chased out and it was divided into units. My blackout curtains, my refrigerator empty but for pouches full of cow’s blood -- they were too far away from anyone who mattered to matter at all.
“What do you do?” he asked. We were in the car, the driver in front of us glancing up at the GPS map on his phone and pretending to ignore us.
“I manage,” I said, shrugging my thin shoulders.
I slid my hand into his. There was something unspoken, like in all love. We could not say what we intended. But I did intend the best for him.
Thane stumbled into my apartment as I walked soundlessly in my slipper shoes. Industrial dirt stained the floor. I told him it was best to leave his shoes on if he wasn’t in the bed.
“Who are you?” he asked, looking around at the blackness of the floor, the curtains, the sheets on the bed. There was not much in the room. After so long, I have learned that even the things I love don’t always come along. I used to leave a place to crowds and fires, to shrill terror and blood. But it’s been different. Now it’s the whispers that chase me, the rumors of a life lived too long, a face unchanged all those years. When I came here, I came with a suitcase, all of my last life’s prizes left to gather dust or be claimed by those brave enough to make their way into abandoned places. Things fade. It is only in the rare moments, the moments that stretch and last and make promises they can’t keep of “forever,” that I forget. And, often, it’s best to forget what you’ve left behind. It lets the rest happen.
“I’m just....well, I suppose I wonder about you, too?”
“I’m nobody,” he said. “Almost gone. Just looking for an okay time.”
It was a lie, all of it. He was clinging to life so fiercely. There was fire in him, small and hot as blue embers you have to kick away the charred wood to reach. Okay was the least of what he deserved.
I made sure Thane found my supply before anything happened between us. I wanted him to know everything. It’s safer that way.
“Are you going to kill me?” he asked, the refrigerator door open and the pouches of cow’s blood glowing ruby in its light.
“It’s….never been that way,” I said. “The stories you know -- they’re from The Pure. Propaganda. Hands with yellow talons reaching for their round-cheeked babies. Carrying their women off. Making their men unholy. Maybe you know stories like that?” I asked.
He closed the refrigerator. “I may have heard one or two of them,” he said.
“The only men I’ve killed have deserved it,” I said.
“There are men who do bad things,” I said. “I wish I could say just one, but I’ve lived a number of lives. Anyone would have done the same. I just happen to have the strength to break a neck with my hands.”
He paused. “Are you going to turn me?”
I reached my hand behind his head, my fingers tangled in his hair, and kissed him gently, so he would not be afraid.
“The story about having to invite us in?” I asked, leaning my forehead against his. Our eyes could see nothing but each other; our mouths breathed the same air, hot and wet below our line of sight. “That one’s almost true.”
Thane took his clothes off slowly that night, as if his body was to be a surprise. There are no surprises left, not after a life this long.
Days spent sleeping, nights together. I forgot forever was the worst lie in these moments.
Thane and I liked to read books together in the warm water that filled the giant claw-footed tub in my bathroom. I am still catching up on what are now called the classics. Imagine the futility of reading all the books of several lifetimes. When humans despair of ever reading the ones released in their own lives, I multiply by thirty. I will never make it through them all. The edges of my hair brushed the surface of the water, the tips dripping and darkened when I stood to get out.
One grey day, I went to the grocery store. I hadn’t been there in this city I lived in now, ever, and I found it lacking. I wandered all day to the vegetable and fish and meat stands and markets within a fifty mile radius. I picked the closest to the ingredients for the favored foods I’d seen over multiple lifetimes and many continents. I made brioche, truffled mushroom soup, game meat terrine, shucked oysters, made miniature beef Wellington with tender cuts of beef. They were all the foods that I had watched others eat with longing after food meant nothing to me. I was so young when I turned that I never experienced the joy I saw on others’ faces when they ate them. I cooked them, and fed them all to Thane.
I watched him devour them. I understood longing again, in ways I have not for so long.
After many days passed into many weeks, he did not leave the room when I drank from the ruby pouches I kept in my refrigerator. That -- it was not longing. It was survival.
Once I asked him a question about his childhood, and a smooth blankness fell over his face. He looked up, searched his mind, and found only the slick surface of forgetting. His face contorted; his sharp chin dimpled and went soft.
He couldn’t remember. After-effects of the electroshock therapy his parents had signed off on when he was younger. It had been designed to make him forget who he was. To be someone else.
Once, he woke up in the day, asking where he was, who he was, who I was. His thin arms and slight back were covered in sweat. He shook. I have only seen the fear that was in his eyes in the hunted.
The light around the edges of the blackout curtains disoriented me, but Thane’s fear made me calm. Light could not do to me what had been done to him. I wrapped my arms around him and repeated my name, his name, the date, the street where I lived, the name of the city, the state, the country, the continent, the planet.
He asked me if I remembered changing.
“From before,” I said, “I mostly remember the sadness.”
“What did it feel like?” he said.
“Like being a puppet of yourself, and pulling the strings from just behind. Always apart. I don’t know what to say. I remember being my own ghost. Then I was who I am.”
He was crying. He cried most nights. We would hold each other’s bodies, our skin pressed close, our mouths together. After, he would weep and shake.
“If I wanted you to, would you change me? Could I stay here? For good?”
I kissed his lips. They were puffy and slick from the tears on his face.
“I could only ever do it if you wanted me to. It’s never been the way The Pure say it is, all that terror. The Pure’s nightmares---for the rest of us, it’s just surviving as we are. Impure. Imperfect.”
He lay on his back, his arm stretched out to me. “There’s so much I’ve forgotten,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be gone. I wanted to remember my first bicycle, the color of it, the first time I saw snow -- but it’s all faded away. When I try to reach it in my head, there’s just nothing, like a song lyric or a word you just can’t recall. But it’s my life.”
I touched his face. What was it in this boy that made me want to play games of forever? I knew what a long thing forever was.
“I wish that I could give you those things back,” I said, “and make the sadness go.”
The door slammed open, spilling sunlight all over. I began to feel nauseous.
“They’re threatening to come after me,” he said. He was wild with fear.
“Who, Thane? Who?”
“The same doctors, the ones with the electricity. And they’ll let them do it again.”
“Thane, please calm down.”
“No, no,” he said. “They can’t do it again. You won’t let them, will you? You’ll change me first? Please, do it now, before they come.”
I held him, trying to calm him. “Not now, Thane. Not like this. Not with all this terror.”
I closed the door, still feeling sick to my stomach. The darkness wrapped its arms around me, just as I put mine around Thane. He pulled his straw-like hair and wept into his hands. I held him until he fell asleep.
We awoke at sunset. He peeked around the edges of the curtain to the descending orb. It has never been able to hurt me as it is sinking, as the light becomes swollen and orange.
“I still want you to,” he said. “I want to stay. I want this forever.”
He was calm, collected, so unlike the person he’d been that morning. As he said the words he said to me, some of the weight seemed to lift off of him.
I rose from the bed. My long hair swept down my back and I walked toward the window, towards him. In the dying light, I put my mouth on his neck. The taste of his blood ran through my lips, warm, sweet, metallic, him. I had been able to smell the taste of it in his veins since that first night. The longer I kept my mouth on him, the weaker his body went. Not just the life, but the sadness was slipping away. I choked on it at first, recognizing its bitterness. But I was stronger than it. It flowed through me, and away.
Finally, I pulled back. The person he had been was gone. After a long pause, I felt his heart wake up, sluggish at first, then beating with new strength. His limp body, slumped against the wall, stood straight. The ACE bandages had slipped down his flat chest, around his waist. His features had changed, ever so slightly, but I could see how. I could see that all of the sadness was gone.
“Hello,” he said, blinking, standing in his new self.
“Hello,” I smiled.
I came fully awake, days later, with Thane gone out, and with Thane’s father standing over me holding a silly, ineffectual tool of destruction against my chest.
“What did you do to her?” he demanded again. “Where is my daughter?”
He didn’t know. He didn’t know anything, least of all that I could turn the stake, snap his wrists, destroy him quicker than he could move. And he would deserve it. I didn’t doubt that.
He pressed the point against my skin, annoying me but not doing much else.
“She was here,” he said. “I don’t know what kind of sick thing you’ve done with her, how you’ve made her think this is all okay, but I won’t have it.”
I let him go on for a minute. His daughter. His property. The same old stories of The Pure, with a different name.
Finally, I grew tired. I grabbed the stake and leapt up from bed, so quickly he never saw it coming. In a heartbeat, he was on the floor. I was over him, my eyes wild, my teeth like those he had only seen on beasts, and the point of the wooden stake against his throat.
“You never had a daughter,” I hissed at him. “Do you understand me?”
I could see the fear in his eyes. I could smell the fear as his pants went dark and wet with urine. That was one thing Thane remembered from the shock therapy this man had allowed to be performed on him: pissing himself.
“Do. You. Understand. Me?”
“Where is she?” he whimpered.
“You never had a daughter. If you want to keep living, say it with me. Say it until you believe it. I. Never. Had. A. Daughter.”
“I…..never had a daughter.”
I made him repeat it until the words became senseless. Only then did I let some of the fire drain from my eyes. I slowly released his collar and pulled the point away from his throat.
“Sometimes it’s best just to forget,” I whispered to him. The same cruel option he had forced upon Thane. It could be a blessing, to forget. Or a torment.
I let him walk out the door, alive, though I didn’t trust him not to come back. I could have killed him. Maybe I should have. But I could see the face of the person I loved inside his. For all he had done, Thane would not exist without him. And in a sudden tender space in my heart that I had assumed long gone, but that had grown in the months Thane and I spent together, I felt that he deserved mercy for that alone.
It didn’t matter if he tried to come back. Tomorrow, Thane and I would be gone. We’d go somewhere else in the world, somewhere beautiful and full of lore. We’d go somewhere where they would never be ready for us, and begin the work of living.