Mother-daughter vampire story wins 2017 Harris book prize

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The University of Oklahoma announces Winners of                       2017 William Foster Harris Prizes for Young Writers

I’m not entirely sure what it is about vampires that has fascinated humans for millennia. Perhaps the lure of immortality and everlasting beauty (not to mention the blood, sex, and gore), or the fact that Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, and Robert Pattinson have all played one at some point in time… Whatever the reason, I know they’ve cast their spell on me, and after devouring novels, movies, and tv shows like Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I found myself compelled to tell my own bloody tale.

This is how my short story “Mother Says” (2,223 words) came to be, in which two blood-starved vamps troll a college campus in search of… well, you know how the story goes. And, honestly, you can probably guess how it ends too. This story not only earned me recognition and a cash prize from OU’s Gaylord College, but publication in Oklahoma City University’s anthology of student writing, The Scarab (on page 66).

The story can be found below or by clicking the link: TheScarab2017.pdf

Enjoy

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Death comes in many forms, but none so beautiful as my mother.

I call her this, though I was not borne from her, never slipped between her blood-greased thighs, never suckled sweet milk from her breast. But she passed down her burden to me, just as strong legs or brown eyes are passed down from begetter to offspring. Her DNA is not my own, but her blood is my blood. It is to blood which everything returns and is the one commodity she is always willing to share.

 

— ◊ —

 

Yesterday, my name was Connell. Tomorrow it might be Alexa or Steven or Hennessey; it could be anyone. I take their names in place of mine, for it’s their blood which cycles through this heart that sits stagnant within its red-walled cavity. I have no name tonight, but my luck might change, should our hunt prove fruitful.

Mother brings me to the main breeding grounds, where the humans are gathered so thickly it’s a hot, pulsing cesspool of booze and bodily fluid. Strange sounds thump from a clapboard house across the street from the university, bass heavy and jarring.

What is it, I ask.

Mother turns toward me, weak moonlight painting half her face white.

Music, she says. But this kind comes from machines instead of instruments.

Keeping to the shadows, I move closer, along the brick cobble avenue. Mother follows. I stop at the edge of the dark copse of trees lining the small yard of the fraternity house. A black rectangle stands out against the orange glow leaking through thin curtains from the front window where a JUSTICE FOR KELSEY flier has been taped to the corner of the glass.

Kelsey. I roll the word over on my dry tongue. I was Kelsey once.

The picture on the flier jogs my memory. Blonde. Blue eyes. Big smile. Kelsey. The last real taste of summer. There had been something unusually clean about her, none of the fat from red meat that gets left behind to rot in the gut. It was the first time Mother or I had eaten vegan. All the ones before had been filet mignon; Kelsey was beef jerky. Herbivores were the best and the worst, we decided. Lean and clean.

Ironic, Mother had said when we’d finished, that she should eat such a diet. To ensure a long life. She’d smiled then, a film of watery pink covering the shining white of her teeth.

The bottom of the papers read REWARD $100,000. Big money, even in the twenty-first century. We must take our time with the next one, Mother had said, wiggling her brows. Easy money.

I scan the nameless faces of the bodies coming and going. It is a constant stream, like the ocean’s tide. Tonight, it’s my turn. But there are too many, the scents layering over each other. And so many of them travel in packs on their way back to the dormitories, it’s like they know.

I take my time. Mother says I must take care in choosing, as one takes care in choosing an eau de parfum. There are top notes and base notes. What at first smells sweetly may in fact be decay and putrefaction underneath. She’s always warning me against the Lily of the Valley. Beautiful and pure on the outside, but poisonous. You must never pluck a Lily, she’ll say.

This is when I spot her, stumbling down the steps of the vibrating house. I can see no razor’s edge has touched her hair in years and her skin emits a musk that reminds me of vanilla or some other mild spice, like cloves or cinnamon. She’s a pure one. I can smell it. I need to know her name.

Her, I whisper like a secret.

Yes, Mother approves. There is power in this one.

I can sense what mother is talking about, pick up the waves of energy radiating out of her. Her aura, as Mother calls it.

Whenever you’re ready. It’s your turn, remember?

I look up at her, the moon of her face latticed by the shadows of rustling leaves. Her eyes tell me I must learn.

Eat or starve, she says. Her mantra.

The girl makes it to the street, the iron gate of her dormitory less than a hundred steps away.

It’s this or Sunday Mass, Mother warns.

I deliberate for a moment, not sure if she means she’ll force me to go as punishment or to do my hunting there. But I know which. Even as a creature who predates Christianity, Mother still has moral standards.

I fill my lungs with the girl’s scent and allow my instincts to take over.

She knows I love the choir, for there is no other sound from which one can experience God in aural form, but I hate the hymnals. They are too much a reminder of what I’ve lost.

 

— ◊ —

 

The liquor leaches out of the girl’s skin through pearls of sweat that glisten in the light of the Hunters Moon, the same moon under which ancient peoples tracked summer-fattened deer that were unable to hide in the naked fields of autumn. Secondhand sunlight gives her skin a silver-colored scent as she shuffles back to her dorm. She never looks back.

The closer I get the quicker Connell’s blood pumps through my veins. I can still taste the salt in it, like salt from the sea. I can taste the hops of good Irish ale, hear the racket of his ancestors building warships in Dublin Bay, feel the weight of a rubber mallet in a thick fist, feel the flex of strong, freckled forearms, hear men calling to one another on the rigging…

I’m close enough now to be the girl’s shadow, close enough to reach out and touch her, when I realize I don’t know her name. And I need her name. Need it like a woman ripe with child needs to push. But my drive to drink from her fades with this revelation. My pace slows and before I understand what I’ve done, the girl has disappeared behind the glass doors of her dormitory. I inhale the faint traces of her scent that hang in the air, but it’s no stronger than the white spot left by the sun on closed eyelids.

I’m far enough away from the fraternity house to hear the sounds of the night: the wind whistling softly as it whips between buildings, dry leaves fluttering like leathery wings, crickets scratching their legs—

And the creak of a metal side door as two girls emerge from the dorm, talking to one another animatedly, too loud for the dark. The first, the taller of the two, steps off the curb and their paths diverge. She calls to the other, who can’t be more than ninety pounds beneath her cutoff jeans and wool cardigan, and I catch her name.

Lilah.

I know what comes next, though the thought does not solidify. From behind a tall hedgerow, I watch her hair lift and fall against her shoulders, its honey color platinum in the moonlight. Each step that takes me closer to the girl, she takes a step away. When I stop, she stops. When I move, she moves. This is the dance. Humans call it a gut feeling; they don’t have the proper vocabulary.

Lilah slides one of the light-up machines out of a pocket, the baby nickelodeons every modern human reaches for that sends some kind of signal for help that always comes too late. The screen illuminates Lilah’s face in a blue-white glow. She looks around, but sees only shadows.

 

— ◊ —

 

The memories flash by in a blur of zest and heat. Citrus reflections. A red sunset cutting through a canyon; torn fabric on a cactus; blood on desert sand; petals plucked off a white flower; the heady taste of marijuana and chocolate. My memories now.

Mother finds me in the narrow alley behind the girls’ dormitory on my hands and knees, sucking platelets out of marrow, yellow fluid leaking out of the top of the body’s spinal column and onto the night-cooled grass. The body that used to be called Lilah lies flat on its back, the head turned backwards, dark hair forming a mesh over the face I never saw.

In the dark, Mother’s eyes glitter, black and reproachful. You drank from this one? she asks, her lithe frame sinking into a crouch at the other end of the body.

I look up, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand and licking the smeared blood clean.

Scrambling for the body’s feet, Mother removes the white canvas sneakers and socks from the feet, checking the bare soles, then moves up, flipping the palms moonward, inspecting the delicate pink skin there.

What are you looking for? I ask.

Mother swipes a finger where the neck is severed, tasting a drop of the blood, then spits.

I think it’s Syphilis, she says.

I swish around what’s in my mouth and swallow. I was too preoccupied with the memories before, too hungry to even taste it. But the flavor sits on my tongue now, tingles as it absorbs into the sides of my mouth, my throat, my heart. Almost metallic, like a mouthful of coins. She’d warned against blood diseases, one of the reasons it was so important to take care in our choosing.

What will happen? I ask.

You’ll rot, Mother says. From the inside.

How long?

Mother looks down at the body, placing a hand on the chest, right over the heart.

She’s not cold yet, Mother says. Perhaps until sunrise.

 

— ◊ —

 

A soft pat, pat, pat of blood on my lips wakes me. I open my mouth to receive it. In the tree above me, I hear a nest of baby birds doing the same, yellow beaks wide, ready for a fresh worm. Mother’s punctured wrist floats in the air above me and, to the east, a faint flush of violet colors the horizon.

I want to ask how long, but my throat has closed.

Don’t speak, Mother whispers.

And I don’t need to, for the answer is in her eyes, the truth of it in her blood. The answer is, Not long.

There is a heaviness in my limbs, weighed down so by this debilitating sickness. The metallic tang hasn’t left my tongue. If anything, it’s become more pronounced, the polluted blood sapping the energy out of me. Like being wrung dry or slowly squeezed like fruit in a juice press.

There have been hangings here, Mother muses, distracting me, one palm flat against the velvet earth. I smell it too, the scent of iron where the blood seeped into the gnarled roots many moons ago.

I wish she would say my name. I wish she would say Lilah.

My tongue wet with blood, I try to tell her this, but the words won’t come. With what little strength is left in this body, I reach up for Mother’s face, placing a hand, crippled as if from rigor mortis or carpal tunnel, at the back of her neck. I move my mouth close as if to place a bloody kiss on her cheek but instead sink my teeth into her smooth flesh, deep enough to pierce her left carotid artery. My eyes roll back in my head as I drink and it’s a symphony, the blood, hot and unnamed, blaring in my head, the song of life and death, the sound the universe made when it exploded into existence, the cry of distant stars as they streak across the endless black expanse, blazing fire that breathes warmth into dead rocks that will become life-breeding planets long after this one is sucked dry. I drink and swallow, drink and swallow, taking deep, yawning mouthfuls.

Waste nothing. Another one of Mother’s lessons.

Behind my eyelids, a flock of brightly dressed gypsies dance, a skirt belted with gold coins jingling around Mother’s gyrating waist; a caravan of camels lapping at the edge of a turquoise sea; a sugar cube dropped onto a waiting tongue; and the holy rivers of blood… so much blood… enough to flood a small city or drown a dry valley.

When I open my eyes, my vision is red. I wipe away the blood tears and lick my fingertips. Mother’s skin is white as bone and thin as the onion pages of a Bible. I focus my mind on the task of hiding the body, if only to divert myself from what I’ve done. I don’t feel like I’m rotting, rather I feel very much alive as I get to my feet. The dawn is rising, coloring the sky the same blush pink as my cheeks, the backs of my hands, my heart. And if it could beat again, just once, it would for my mother.

Tomorrow morning, a hungover medical student will find her body in one of the refrigerated chambers in the cadaver room of the science laboratory and pump her full of embalming fluid and idly wonder what her name was.

Mother. It’s what I called her, though I was not borne from her. This is the burden she has passed down to me. The burden of blood. It is blood to which everything returns, she would say. And it was her blood she was always willing to share.

Dragon Breath Nights

Published in the Spring 2015 volume of Tulsa Community

College’s online journal The Tulsa Review


The neon sign in the window of the liquor store switches off just as he steps from the curb.

The brown paper bag clutched in his fist is wrinkled as a turkey neck. Even through the rearview mirror, I can tell the weight of the bag by the way he handles it, his calloused knuckles white, wrapped around more than just one bottle. His other hand is busy lighting the end of a cigarette, which dangles crookedly from the corner of his mouth. The already hawkish features of his face collect elongated shadows and his greasy hair shines a greenish yellow beneath the fluorescent dawn of the streetlamps. He’s a skeleton in skinny jeans.

The night has become our morning. We’ve lived by the lights of the city—the streetlights and stoplights, the neon signs in bars and strip joints and pawnshops and convenience stores like this one—for almost a year now. Tonight, the whoosh of the wind funneling through the alleyways of the promenade sounds like the flush of a toilet.

I jam my finger down on one of the buttons on the car radio, cutting off Barbara Lewis mid-verse, before he slides into the driver’s seat. His door creaks open and he stoops into the car’s cracked leather interior, tossing the heavy bag into my empty hands.

“I got your favorite,” his voice rumbles and his dry lips part into a snaggletoothed grin.

Jim has a face like strawberry jam—his cheeks all pocked and ruddy from ancient acne scars. He removes a square-shouldered bottle from the bag. Filtered through green glass, the clear liquor is the color of mint-flavored mouthwash.

“Schnapps,” I say.

“Don’t I get a thank you?” he asks, brandishing his own bottle, a flask-shaped jug of some high-proof off-brand whiskey.

“Thanks,” I say.

I hate drinking. But I hate listening to him talk more. On nights like this, when he has too much, which is most nights, he’ll chase his malt with longwinded spiels, the topics wide and dull. But because his verbal battles are unwinnable, I’m self-taught in the art of strayed attention and by the time the schnapps are half gone, his voice has faded to an indiscernible roar. The heady alcohol knows just how to silence my mind. His hot words bathe my face in a fiery discourse, his dragon breath a cloud of soured smoke and milky moonbeams. But these nights are better than the nights when he doesn’t drink enough.

It’s not until he touches the blazing end of his cigarette to my inner thigh that I realize he’s been saying my name. I gasp and recoil, slapping his hand away and knocking the stub to the floor.

“Asshole,” I hiss, brushing the ashes from my leg.

“Oh, come on,” he rasps, his words floating somewhere at the opposite end of a long tunnel. “You know I love you,” he adds, retrieving the cigarette from the floorboard and tossing it out the open window.

I glance at him sideways, my vision losing focus as I take another swig from the schnapps.

“Look at me,” he says.

I keep my eyes trained on the young couple sitting on the sidewalk across the street.

“Look at me,” he orders, clamping a hand around the back of my neck and swiveling my head around like a stiff Barbie.

I lean my cheek into his caress, rolling my eyes in his direction. His tongue idly traces the dip in his lip where ten thousand cigarettes have cut a shallow valley.

Then he says, “Why don’t you go get us some condoms.” The words themselves are a request, but he doesn’t say or mean them like one.

Jim releases me and lifts himself off the seat, retrieving his wallet and digging out a ten. He waves it like a tiny flag in front of my face. I attempt to snatch the bill from between his pinched fingers once or twice before I’m successful, not meeting his eyes. Sandwiching the schnapps between the seat and center console, I look down at my feet. We left my sneakers in the motel when the super realized the credit card we’d used was stolen. He said if we didn’t want the police involved to make like roaches and scatter, so we did.

I climb out of the car and my feet touch the cool cement. I take a deep breath, grateful for air not saturated with the stink of his cat piss spirits.

“Hey, and get the ones I like,” Jim hollers out the window. “None of that latex shit. And some energy shots.”

I make no sign of acknowledgement; I know how much it irritates him.

Across the lot from the desolate liquor store is a rundown Conoco, the registers inside manned by a two-person crew.

The couple I’ve been watching, a boy and girl, maybe sixteen or a little older, sit pretzel-limbed on the weed-choked sidewalk outside in front of the ice machine, their spines kinked like drooping dandelions. Their faces glow, ghostlike, in the severe white of the station’s industrial lighting. I pretend to focus on my fingernails, the dark polish chipped around the edges, but can’t avert my eyes from them as the boy plucks a bent flower from the crack in the pavement and tucks the delicate stem, and a stray lock of pink-streaked hair, behind the girl’s ear. His touch seems gentle and the top of my ear itches—

A loud pop, almost like gunfire, explodes from inside the gas station. I look up. Through the storefront windows, the metallic glint of a small black pistol winks under the harsh troffer lights. I freeze; my eyes locked on the hooded figure holding the gun, as the couple springs to their feet and scatters, the rapid scraping of their sneakers on the asphalt the only sound in the night. They’ve disappeared around the side of the building before my brain can process what’s happening. Inside, the shooter slams a backpack onto the counter next to the register and barks orders at the cashier who’s still standing. His shouting is muted by the glass doors between us.

Jim is out of the car now, the glowing embers of his Parliament drifting to the wet macadam like drunken fireflies dropping dead in the air. He’s standing behind the driver’s side door, raising his voice at me, the syllables of my unfamiliar name dripping from his tongue like acid. But my mind is misplaced, out of sync with my body, like a dream where life moves in normal speed, but everything I do is in slow motion. I’m still standing in the same spot, stone-faced, when the man—in his late thirties maybe, sporting three days’ worth of scruff and tattered Nikes—emerges from the mouth of the station. His eyes are bloodshot and wild. They dart from me to Jim, who’s moved to just inside the limit of my peripheral vision, then he turns his back on us and pounds his sneakers into the pavement.

“Stop!” Jim shouts.

Flyaway paper tumbles out of the man’s pack, catching the wind and drifting down the street, mingling with dried leaves. He doesn’t stop for them.

“I saw your face!” Jim yells.

With the wide arc of an oscillating sprinkler, the man raised his gun and two more cracks of thunder split apart the night. The man’s shapeless form, clothed in loose jeans and an oversized t-shirt, slips away, gradually blending into the environment. I force my eyes away and turn around.

Jim is spread-eagle on the dark asphalt, his bare chest spattered with a spray of red like wine on white carpet. His face, a tiny moon in the darkness, is sallow and shadowed in places, his dimpled cheeks deep and sunken in.

Just ahead, the wailing of two crazed voices echoes against the building. I glance up to see two men crossing the lot. One of them is on his cellphone, his free hand tangled in his windswept hair, the guy behind him is hollering, his misty eyes growing wider with each step that brings him closer to us.

“Holy fuck!” he whimpers, a broken cry escaping his lips at the sight of the dead man. “Holy fuck, he’s dead…” The last word curls up at the end, like a spider’s legs upon its death.

While the guy on the phone keeps a safe distance between himself and us, trying to piece together his disjointed sentences, the other stops and stares. His clear blue eyes rake over me, apprehension coloring his face. It’s always the same expression when someone first sees me, my eyes dark and round like a dumb farm animal, arms and legs willowy as a gazelle, all spotted up like a cheetah from Jim’s caresses. His eyes come to rest on my feet.

“Y-you okay?” he asks, his voice settling at a relatively normal level.

I follow his gaze down, where a bright red flower has bloomed beneath Jim’s body. The tips of the liquid petals are starting to tickle the tips of my toes, the pooling blood warming my cold feet.

“Yeah,” I say.

Lifting my foot, I nudge Jim gently, as if he were some helpless beetle who has flipped onto his back and can’t right himself, my toes leaving prints on his soaked shirt. He doesn’t budge.

“I am now.”