Laura Eppinger

Quit Cigarettes to Become a Blood Drinker

 

 

You could go ahead and ask the most impertinent question first: How unlucky of a vampire do you have to be to wind up in Southern California? The sun, the beaches, the movie star values: that’s got to make (after)life difficult.

 

Banish the thought. I prefer Los Angeles. West Hollywood, to be exact. Could you name a city where it’s easier to claim you are ill during the day but come back alive at night? People don’t even ask, they just assume it’s a coke problem.

 

The modern world offers more desire, distraction and fleeting reward than ever before. These are the conditions in which the vampire thrives. We are all addicted to our phones, notifications, to endless streams of pithy observations. We only want to plug in and let the stream pull our consciousness under. And I have a stream to sell you.

 

I look around the block and can see only evidence of unquenchable desire. Bars and liquor stores. Cannabis dispensaries. Fatty burgers and lean vegan protein for sale, each trying to plug the same gap in their own underwhelming ways. And the yoga studios—you’d think those would repel me, as they teach the breathing to conquer their desires. Or at least give out tiny servings of peace. Surely the enlightened would never invite a demon like me through the front door?

 

Nope. The taste of the faux-yogi has become commonplace to me.

 

I would guess one out of every hundred practitioners in athletic wear is even attempting to break out of the cycles of desire. And that means: trying. And failing, then getting sucked back in. That’s where I come in, promising to make the longing stop.

 

Speak of the devil, here comes a nice snack. A nearly-six-foot-tall 23-year-old woman with doelike grace and vulnerability. Straight out of a hot yoga class that ended just after dusk, hoping to sweat off stress and water weight in time for an audition. We’re stuck at a crosswalk together and I don’t even need to look into her eyes to scan her thoughts or pick up on what she wants most. A boyfriend who listens more, a roommate more trustworthy. Someone with any amount of authority to say something approving.

 

We pass the psychic’s storefront and right as she looks at the neon sign of a pink crystal ball, I hit her with a gust of suggestion: Approval is here. Validation is here.

 

My mark stops to read the sign and peek at our hours. I dip around back with lightning speed to unlock the door to show her in.

 

“Good timing,” I say, admiring her long neck. “We just opened. May I read your cards?”

 

I’ll spare you the gore. I own a cramped storefront that sells a few crystals and esoteric books, and behind a curtain lays the reading room. It is clean and well-lit. You will never see one drop of blood on the Persian rugs or armchairs.

 

I lull poor lonely young people into a daze and fill their heads with promises of fame, fortune and respect.

 

I never kill in the shop, only steal a quick drink from each customer and send them home riding a wave of relief. Most nights I won’t actually take their money, though they will seem to remember paying for my services.

 

Same thing for today’s Angelino. I walk her back to Santa Monica Boulevard, smiling and sleepy, with the feeling she’ll come back of her own accord and soon. I just had to help her envision a world where her roommate stopped stealing her electronics to pay for drugs.

 

The most depressing thing about evil is that it doesn’t seduce with the grandest plunder, the most beautiful lover, inexhaustible riches or beauty. It just promises an end to pain for a little bit, a temporary relief. Such flimsy, petty rewards our desires promise us. Yet we are enraptured.

 

I don’t say this to demean my mortal hosts. To me, they are radiant. At their lowest points they begin to hope, to vow to be better. It's delectable, the hope, and that is what I feed on.

 

Lately I’ve been thinking that the delusional hope of the living is the most beautiful force on Earth. I may live forever but I’ll never generate it again.

 

*

 

When you run a successful psychic shop, you don’t really have to hunt. Treat mortals well enough, give them vivid dreams, and they’ll refer their friends to you. Nothing sweeter than hearing, “I really trust my Tarot reader, I want you to come meet her.”

 

Then you have even more necks to nip and heal and send back out into the fog. But sometimes, not even once a year but often enough, you can’t stave off a deeper hunger. You long to kill. It’s a delicate situation, but so many inhabitants of this city seek out death.

 

I have been bottling up this hunger but it will be sated tonight through the Halloween Parade.

 

This block party is WeHo at its finest. Everyone is an exhibitionist; the only attraction is to stare at the handiwork of other adults in the entertainment industry. Group costumes, obscure movie titles, abstract ideas—this is how adults come out to play.

 

I saw the barricades rising through my sunglasses when I woke at 4:30 p.m. Beyond the fences, jacarandas bloom and spill their petals into the street. It makes me miss the sense of smell terribly. Touch, too. I want to whiff that honey. I want to feel the breeze.

 

I can cheat by poaching a vicarious sensation off a mortal. It’s Perception Roulette—I don’t know what I’ll get. At a crosswalk I am so surrounded by women in tight black leggings and wisps for shirts that I don’t even know the source, but I am stealing the perception of being stoned in a white porcelain bathtub, foamy water around me. It’s gorgeous and I want more.

 

I skip through a different mind and have the visceral awareness that the scoop neck top I’m wearing does nothing to protect me from the elements. Night air rolls over my shoulders and I actually shiver. I’m sitting in a mission style hotel, a hacienda-turned-eatery, a stucco-walled apartment and all the windows and doors are open. Even indoors in LA, you’re always a little bit outside. Now there’s a morning chill clinging around my collarbones but I can’t shake it because the only café seating is al fresco, and the desire for coffee is overpowering. I can feel a hot beverage sinking down my throat.

 

But none of these are really mine. I doubt you’ve ever started down a century or five ahead of you knowing that there would be no taste, no temperature, no danger and little satisfaction. The disappointment can be overwhelming. What is there worth continuing for?

 

At least the hunger has kept me moving thus far.

 

*

 

It’s only 9 p.m. so the Parade has barely begun. Some costumes take up entire lanes in the road—a T-Rex, an apple tree, the Mystery Machine. Other partygoers keep hands free to swipe across phone screens and complain about the lateness of one freelance payment or another.

 

Another reason this location works for me is that it so hip to have or be a servant in LA. Well, you shouldn’t use that word. But there are jobs helping people with dieting, childcare, driving, spiritual practice. Everyone wants to be employed by someone else to show off their expertise. And all of these employees can help a person like me hide their tracks. They live out my cover story. Count Dracula had nothing on my assistant, housekeeper and personal chef.

 

That said, the biggest inconvenience of the 21st Century (not to mention the biggest surprise) has been the zealous embrace of Christian fundamentalism by the young, affluent and beautiful—my marks, in other words. These supple-skinned children of privilege call their parents and their pastors, sometimes daily, for guidance and advice. They claim a personal relationship with the Holy Ghost. They pledge their virginities to their God. It’s all too treacly sweet, especially when they pray to be left alone by the Devil and His Demons.

 

Those prayers aren’t really effective but of course I leave the poor fundies alone. I am not a beast. Plenty of others seek me out in this City of Angels. I don’t need to bother the Jesus Freaks.

 

*

 

How did I get here? Vampires are made, not born. I’m from an Eastern Seaboard city, to start with. In my desperation to quit smoking (to change, to be cleaner, to become morally stronger) I enrolled as a research participant. The flyer read “SEEKING WOMEN AGES 25-39 WHO ARE DAILY SMOKERS” but it should have read “QUIT CIGARETTES BY BECOMING A BLOOD-DRINKER.”

 

 

The ensuing sessions with researchers in an unlit university office were hard to recall but left me elated for days. I craved nicotine less, certainly. I also had no appetite for food and couldn’t wake up in the mornings, though night had become a time of productive mania.

 

After three months I was cured and told my obligation as a human subject for research had been met. But my life was over—I slept through so many barista shifts I’d been fired. Friends never saw me before 10 p.m. and stopped inviting me to brunch, hikes and baby showers. Food appalled me but I was ever ravenous.

 

After a month of agony I went back to the researchers, asking if hypnosis or micro-doses of anti-depressants had been administered. Something just wasn’t right. Some grad student assured me I’d be fine, but the most curious sensation occurred to me: I could hear the blood thumping deep inside his neck. I hadn’t eaten solid food in days or even weeks, but this dude in an argyle sweater smelled amazing. My heart leapt and I realized I had the student pinned up against a filing cabinet, digging my nails in under his jaw.

 

He laughed. He only said my researcher had been too sloppy, given me a taste of something forbidden.

 

Argyle Sweater gave me two options: If I could be patient, wait it out, I’d return to my old self. I’d probably end up just as addicted to smokes or food or whatever my issue had been, but I could at least follow familiar rules. I’d just have to get through a month or so of disorientation as I sweat out whatever vampiric blood or saliva was bouncing through my insides.

 

I couldn’t imagine living through another month.

 

Or, I could dive in deeper, make a new life (after a certain death) and surely leave the old neuroses behind.

 

What would you choose?

 

In life, drinking alcohol was never my vice. I found it an unpleasant sensation, leaving me feeling too full. But I kept company with drinkers as they overindulged, sipping only seltzer as nights broke into early morning. All for the excuse and the company for drunk food, junk food in greasy, hearty portions. I liked my cheese deep-fried and covered in batter. I always ate like a sloppy drunk and only other drunks would indulge with me, the way I wanted.

 

“Gross” is the polite word girls use to describe feeling full if they actually eat enough. Notice how it's loaded with guilt and resolutions to be in control again. That can happen tomorrow, in the harsh light of day. At the end of a bar crawl we may feast.

 

*

 

That was all before. I’ve traded all those old vices and misadventures for a new lifestyle. But being sated is just as important now. And it can only happen in the dark.

 

 

One comfort of this neighborhood to old souls like me: Young people here love classic movies and TV, and make great costumes. Have you ever seen thousands of aspiring actors in theatre-grade wardrobe just ambling about? I nod approval at the cast of Gilligan’s Island, and half a dozen men in drag as Mary Tyler Moore.

 

I get a whiff of creativity and genuine affection from a group of women, who are bemoaning the fact that no one “gets” their costume. They explain to anyone who will stop to listen—one is Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. A pair of sisters has dressed as Samantha and Tabitha from Bewitched. Three are from Hocus Pocus. And so on.

 

I roll my eyes. Teen witches in pop culture are empowered. They learn and improve and change. Vampires are slaves to their desires and remain forever as they were the moment of death. They are as evolved as they will ever be. This is why you like us.

 

But the witches seem fun. Their steady hearts tell me they are full of red wine, medical marijuana and the promise of meeting up with men later. That’s the party I am looking for. And lo, I have already done the groundwork.

 

“Oh my God, it’s you!” pretend-Tabitha says. “You sold me the healing rhodonite. I have it in my pocket now!”

 

She fishes in her purse and shows me a pink crystal. I don’t recognize it but believe her when she says it was plucked from the baskets of rocks in my shop. “It is opening my heart!” she says, staring at me hard.

 

“That’s good to hear,” I say, pretending to scan for a friend in the crowd. “Sorry, I think my friends already left. Oh well, I should be go—”

 

“You have so much knowledge,” Tabitha says, with blue eyes so earnest they’d draw blood from a stone. “Don’t go. I’m taking us to my boyfriend’s house for a party—my new boyfriend.”

 

She smiles sheepishly, as if she is thanking me for this bit of news.

 

“I’d love to meet him,” I say. I need not attempt a glamor or any sorcery to be absorbed into the group.

 

We mill around and comment on costumes. Every year more outfits integrate robotics, like the convincing Headless Horseman hunting down an Ichabod Crane. His writhing pumpkin head glows and moans in his hand. The witches drink beer and eat cannabis and feel more and more restless. When I have run out of small talk the ladies pick up the slack.

 

“I can’t believe you run your own business. You must be—28? Oh, sorry,” Tabitha demurs. Twenty-eight is decrepit for a woman in this town. I am so much older than 28 and impossible to offend.

 

“Something like that,” I say. “Tell me about your boyfriend.”

 

Tabitha digs in her phone for a picture but I lift it from her mind: just some scrawny specimen in a too-long Dodgers jersey. I feel certain he’s using apps to find other women to sleep with right now. He does not and will not ever treat her well, but I smile and nod when she points her phone in my direction to share an image. While she’s flushing sweetly I leave little suggestions in the back of her mind: She is strong, she can recover from any setback, she should go for a hike alone and crush blueberries with her molars until her tongue turns purple. I envy her the ability to be surprised, to feel despair and rise above it. Her beating heart is resilient; mine is stagnant, cold with envy.

 

My flock of witches mobilizes. Time for the afterparty.

 

*

 

 

We file into the dark living room with navy walls and only candles to guide us. The witches can’t get very far—too many bodies, too hard to hear one another over the speakers. I am assaulted by two badly trained German shepherds, and their fleas. Nip me all you want, I think. I’ve got nothing for you. Tabitha apologizes for her boyfriend’s dogs. The boyfriend never gets around to greeting me. I nurse a glass of wine, tipping it into succulent pots along the balcony when nobody is looking.

 

“Heard you predict the future,” a confident man’s voice burns in my ear.

 

I rarely startle, but I confess I didn’t sense him approach. I smile as I take in the black gauges in his earlobes, a wide-rimmed baseball cap and the graffiti across his jacket. He is hoping I ask or already know how much the jacket cost him. He turns the number over and over again in his mind.

 

“The future isn’t certain,” I say. “I think of it more as showing people what’s inside of them.”

 

What’s inside this man: Greed, lust for power, hatred of women, hot thrashing blood.

 

“Damion’s place is great, right?” he asks, fearing he’s already run out of ideas to get me to talk to him.

 

I only nod. Damion must be Tabitha’s boyfriend. As I said, I was not introduced.

 

“What was your name?” I ask, even though I already know it: Ivan. When he introduces himself I can only think, The Terrible.

 

“Let’s get out of here, Ivan,” I say, knowing the host won’t miss him.

 

*

 

 

Another stucco house, another balcony with an ashtray. Ivan snorts powder and motormouths about the business venture he and Damion partner to lead. It’s going to be big, big, big, but still authentic, you know?

 

The delusions of grandeur pass and I know the next phase. He runs a hand along my leg, feeling only where my boots hit my leggings. He has no idea how cold my skin is to the touch, yet.

 

I lean in close, rubbing a fang along the delicate skin of Ivan’s earlobe. I probe his mind and leave some new thoughts: This is only appealing because a woman initiated and gives you permission. This is never to be forced, or expected. Now you understand, Ivan.

 

The next impression is more subtle: Handcuffs, but not the dollar store plastic kind. Over and over I flash into his brain: I came here to take a risk, because risk it sexy. And futile. And beautiful.

 

“You like to party,” he says with a dumb chuckle, leading me deep into the closet of his bedroom. He rattles metal cuffs thinking his power excites me, but I’m more interested in the fact that neither of us will have the strength to break the metal loops. I am weak from hunger and the late hour of the night.

 

How about the roof, baby?

 

He takes me by the hand and I have just enough vitality to suggest its warmth in his mind, and then to make him believe we have kissed. I impart that he has picked this spot, a railing with a clear view of the open sky. I never falter, no second guesses. The cuffs open and shut around my pale wrists. Now that I am stuck between two bars, I have no more need of Ivan.

 

If I could shed a tear, I would. But I can’t, so I command Ivan to crawl into his bed and then forget this ever happened.

 

The first rays of the sun sting me pink. It’s a relief to feel something. In this first hour of the Day of the Dead I hope, finally, for peace.

 

 

 

Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry and essay. Her work has appeared at the Rumpus, the Toast, DM, and elsewhere. She's the blog editor at Newfound Journal. 

Visit her here: https://lauraeppinger.blog/workspub/