They're always the same. Always at night, in the forest, looking for Drea. The sound of his body lurking somewhere behind me. Branches breaking. Leaves crackling.
Wind whirring in my ears, watering my eyes. And the pain in my stomach-sharp, raw, scathing. Real.
My nightmares make me dread sleep.
I pinch the safety end of the razor blade between three fingers to write. Then I grab the virgin candle and carve the initials D. O. E. S. into the rounded side, tiny flakes of sparkling blue wax crumbling from the surface with each incision and every drag of the blade.
They're Drea's initials, but she doesn't suspect a thing, just keeps scribbling away in her diary, like any other night, sitting up in her bed, only a few feet away.
With the last curl of the S, I place the razor to the side and pluck a branch of sage from the drawer. It's perfect for burning, all dried up-the leaves shriveled, twisted and gray. I wind a piece of string around it for a cleaner burn, so it won't be as smoky, so I'll have less chance of getting in trouble. Then I drop it into the orange clay pot by my bed. "Going to bed?" Drea asks.
"In a few." I unscrew the cap off the bottle of olive oil and pour a few droplets onto my finger.
She nods and yawns, caps her feather-tipped pen, and closes up the diary. "Just do me a favor and don't burn the dorm down. I have a serious history presentation tomorrow." "All the more reason," I joke.
Drea and I have been roommates for a little over two years, so she's used to rituals like this.
She rolls over onto her side and pulls the covers up to her chin. "Better not stay up too late. Don't you have a French test tomorrow morning?"
I watch as she closes her eyes, as her lips settle for sleep, as the muscles around her forehead loosen and relax. It's sickening. Even after midnight, with no visible trace of makeup, not a smidgen of cover-up, hair knotted up in a rubber band, she still looks perfect-angled cheeks; salmonpink, pouty lips; loopy, golden hair; and cat-shaped eyes with curled, jet-black lashes. It's no wonder why every guy at Hillcrest wants her, why every girl hates her-why Chad keeps coming back, even after three breakups.
I touch the top end of the candle with my oily finger. "As above," I whisper. Then I touch the bottom. "So below." I wet my finger with more of the oil and touch the center surface. I drag my finger upward, return it to the center, and then drag it downward, careful to keep the carved letters pointed in my direction so she won't see.
"Wouldn't it be easier just to wet the whole thing at once?" Drea asks, her eyes, open, watching me. I turn the candle counterclockwise, blocking the letters with my palm, and continue moistening the circumference in the same fashion. "Probably, but that would confuse the energies."
"Of course," she says, rolling over. "How ignorant of me."
When the candle is fully anointed, I light it with a long, wooden match and place it on the silver holder my grandmother gave me before she passed away. It's my favorite holder because it was hers and it's sort of dishlike, with a curly handle that winds around the base.
I close my eyes and concentrate on the waning moon outside, how it's an opportune night to make things go away, how the sage and the engraved candle will help. I light the branch and watch it burn; the leaves curl up and dance in the orangy-yellow flame, then turn black and disappear, the way I pray my nightmares will.
When the sage is no more than ashes, I carry the clay pot over to the corner sink and fill it with water, watching the blue-gray smoke rise to the ceiling in long and curly swirls. I return to my bed and position the candle on the night table, Drea's initials facing toward me. Then I grab a black pen from the drawer and draw a capital G across my palm- G for grandmother, so I will dream of her tonight, so I will dream of nothing else.
I crawl inside the covers and watch the candle burn the letters away, the capital D in Drea's initials already half gone.
Then I close my eyes and brace myself for sleep.
I sit across from my grandmother at the kitchen table, snarfing down one of her famous grilled egg sandwiches and a stale bag of potato chips. I watch as her hands curl around the English muffin, and admire the amethyst ring on her fourth finger-a chunky violet stone that all but reaches her knuckle.
"Here." She notices me looking at it and tries to pry it off her finger. No go. She moves over to the sink and douses her hands in soap and water to lubricate the skin. "It's okay, Grandma. You don't have to."
"I want to," she says, finally slipping it off and handing it to me. "Try it on."
I do; it's a perfect fit.
"It's your ring. I bought that for you when you were born. I've just been keeping it for you, until I thought you were old enough. Look at the initials inside."
I take it off and peek-the letters S. A. B. engraved in the gold. Stacey Ann Brown.
"It's beautiful," I say, handing it back to her.
"No," she says. "I want you to have it. I think it's time. Plus it fits your finger better than mine."
I slip it back on and kiss her cheek. "Thanks, Gram." I excuse myself from the table to go outside for some air. It's already nighttime, the sky an inky black canvas dotted with tiny dabs of light. A long, cloudlike puff of air smokes though my lips, and my teeth begin to chatter.
I can hear someone crying beyond the yard. I start walking toward the sound, and soon I'm past the fence, into the woods. With each step the crying gets louder, more insistent. "Drea?" I call. "Is that you?" It sounds just like her. I can just imagine her getting in another fight with Chad and trying to come and find me at Gram's.
Arms outstretched, I run in the direction of the whimpering. But then I have to stop. There's a singeing pain right below my stomach. I place my hands over my belly and breathe in and out. I have to pee.
I glance back in the direction of the house, but can't seem to see it now with the layering of trees and brush. Everywhere it's black. Even the dabs of light that I saw before are now painted over with dark branches.
A stick breaks from somewhere behind me. Then another. "Drea?"
I hold between my legs and hobble as best I can toward that faraway voice, dodging branches and brush with my one outstretched hand. I can feel the ground turn to mush beneath my feet. It slows me down until I stop altogether, try to catch my breath.
I can still hear Drea's voice, but it's farther away now, deeper into the forest. I strain to hear something else, anything that might tell me if I'm still being followed. But there's only the wind, combing through the frail, November leaves, whistling in my ear.
I take a small step and feel the ground get deeper, swallowing up my foot in a bottomless pit of heavy muck. More sticks break behind me.
I try to step out of the mud, to get out, but when I pull up my foot, my sneaker is gone.
Pain sears my stomach. I struggle to get away; I grab hold of a tree limb for support but end up slipping, landing down against my butt, the muck seeping in through my pants.
I count to twelve-the one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi method-and jam my thighs together, but it will only be minutes before I wet myself.
"Stacey," whispers a male voice from somewhere in the darkness.
I close my eyes and bury my head into my legs. Drea's faraway crying turns into a wail. She's calling me now, by name.
"You can't hide, Stacey," he breathes.
I can't give up. I search the ground for a rock or stick to protect myself. I find a rock. It isn't very big, but it has a nice, rough edge.
I arch my neck back to look up at the sky, knowing that the North Star will guide my way. I squint and blink hard to find it, but it's useless. Any trace of light is hidden beyond the treetops.
I crawl free of the mud completely, wrestle myself up, clench the rock into my palm, and trek for several seconds with my arms outstretched, brush scratching at my face like claws, until I reach a circular clearing. I look up to where the treetops have parted and can make out the sliver of the moon, approaching first quarter.
A rustling in the bushes distracts my attention. I look over, blink a few times, and see a man's figure standing between two trees a few feet in front of me. He doesn't move and neither do I, just extends his arm, as if to show me what he's holding. It's a bouquet of some sort. I strain my eyes to see, using the moon as my light. And then it becomes clear to me-the size, the color, the way the petals fall open like a bell. They're lilies.
I know what lilies mean.
I run as fast as I can, my feet like a pair of mismatched ice skates over leaves and sticks.
Then I stop, clench my eyes, hear a full-fledged wail tear out of my throat. My one bare foot. I reach down to feel it-a narrow branch, stabbed into my arch as far in as it will go. I bite down on the skin of my thumb for several seconds, until I can swallow down some of the pain. I can't stay here. I need to get away. I have to be quick. I go to pull the stick out, but the throb in my stomach won't let me bend.
I clench my teeth, marry my thighs, and pray for all of it to go away. I lick my lips and squeeze my legs tighter. Tighter.
But it isn't enough. The warmth swells between my thighs. The front of my pants fills with dampness. I squeeze my legs to hold the water in place so he won't hear me, but my muscles ache from the effort. I feel my face tense, my eyes fill up. I can't hold it. The trickling leaks through my thighs, makes a pattering sound on the leaves beneath me.
"Stacey," he breathes, "I know your secret." The voice is slow and thick, the breath so close to the back of my neck that I reach back to swat it.
I open my mouth to scream but my throat is clogged, filled with dirt. It's everywhere. Up my nostrils. In my eyes. I grip around my throat to keep from choking, and realize the rock is still clenched in my palm. I dig my nails into its jagged ridges and throw it. Hard.
Crash. The sound of broken glass fills my senses. And when the lights come on I'm sitting up.
For many of us, the mere mention of the word "vampire" evokes images of pale Romanian counts with thick Eastern accents, slicked back hair, and tuxedo suits complete with opera capes. Younger generations might instead picture handsomely brooding teenage vampires more in keeping with a modern interpretation of the Byronic hero of older literary... read this article