Before the coffin lid parts, before he has a chance even to congeal from the bright liquid motion of his dreams—slick and vivid dreams of sunlit beaches and chiseled blue skies into which he drifts, weightless, with the blithe surrender of a child—Dracula can already hear the sounds of fretting, the stifled currents of atmospheric disturbance in the close and mouthy air beyond his sleeping chamber. He knows that his girlfriend is out there. She is waiting for him, probably standing in the open door of the closet in which he is carefully propped, upright—and as he imagines this he also recognizes the broken gasp of air vaguely chafing his trapped interior. His girlfriend is crying.
But Dracula must wait, first for the lid to open, then his eyes. The ritual proceeds with the utmost languor and rigidity.
“What’s the matter?” he finally asks her, stepping out into the dim lamplit room.Dracula’s girlfriend has raw rustling currents of golden hair, some of it dark and some of it light.
“My mother caught me,” she says, her voice glubbed in tears. “My mother is a grubby hag from hell.”
Every minute his girlfriend lives Dracula wants to bite her, with a softening of all his bones. Always it begins with the same stunned weakness the moment his eyelids curl back and there she is, as she was moments ago, planted in the doorway, the burled roots of her feet stippled into the scuffed wooden floor, the white sprigs of her fingers laced frozen across her face.
“Oh darling,” says Dracula, opening his arms to her. “Oh my delicious dove—”
“I wish you would kill her,” she says. He can smell the flush of red coming into her face, her beautiful bullion eyes all simmering hot. “With a knife or something. Not the way you normally kill people. I want her to die.”
He wants to show her that he can be there for her but he can’t help himself. His tongue in the cold mist of his mouth slithers out and licks a tear, and the smooth bisque of her skin warms him like a meal.
“Oh get off me,” she says, pushing him away. “I know what you’re thinking. Can’t you listen to what I’m saying for just a second?”
Dracula’s girlfriend has raw rustling currents of golden hair, some of it dark and some of it light. It smells like fallen leaves burning in the autumn sun, floating into crisp warm piles against gravestones.
“Okay.” His jaw flutters. “I’m sorry.” Dracula shakes off like a sodden dog. He always wakes like this, to his own dark carnival of embarrassment, as if he’s been swilling all night in someone else’s smarmy dramatics, and woken up in their costume. He lets the lingering scent of her hair float up his nose. He breathes while Lucinda speaks. Why does she always have to incite him like this? Why is his love for her so tender and obscene, such a bruised tumor that he has to carry around so delicately, cradling it away from the lacerating whip of her anger? It makes him feel so good. And so bad. A good-bad feeling, he thinks, an exquisite soreness that he wants to touch over and over.
“I didn’t even hear her come in. Did you know she made a copy of our key when she was bringing in our mail last month? I should have never let her do that.” Dracula’s girlfriend plugs her fingers into her temples and holds them there affixed to some electric current. “I’m so stupid! Why would she want to bring our mail in? Do you know what she did?”
He wants to kiss her leeched lips, stop her fevered fretting once and for all. Except his girlfriend is leaving. She’s going to the bedroom. Now she’s back with some letters. Now she has the letter opener.
“Can I at least kiss you?” he says, accidentally tilting his head toward her tensed neck.
“Oh my God.” She’s flapping the letters in his face. “I must be crazy. Why do I do this to myself?” She dodges past and splats the envelopes on the pressboard table that holds their mail by the door. The pits and gouges look so bad there. “She brought it back. It’s nothing but junk mail. Why would she take it in the first place?”
“Hmm,” says Dracula, smoothing the static that’s carrying off wisps of her hair.Dracula was indulging himself here. He put his tongue to the cover and tasted.
Lucinda has only dropped the letters, not the opener. “You’re not helping with this. Do you want me to be like this all the time?”
She pops a piece of gum in her mouth. A pink fat cube. The letter opener she flicks open and begins to jab mercilessly into the rest of the pack on the table.
“No, no, of course not,” he says, patting pillows into the air. They don’t really use the letter opener to open letters. Dracula doesn’t know why she has such a thing with this.
“Are you sure?” Lucinda is cupping her words away from him, her eyes looming with new tears. A sweet warm smell syrups the air. “Because I know that’s why you like me. I know that’s the only reason you don’t kill me every night when you wake up all jiggy for blood,” she says, chewing. “Sometimes I feel like one of your scummy pigeons.”
“Don’t say that,” Dracula says, somehow enamored at this, and feeling sorry for her. “Let me just go get a sip of water.”
“She took your pigeons. That’s what I was trying to tell you. She’s probably calling animal control right now,” she says loudly from the other room.
Dracula fills his glass from the tap, thinking tenderly of her spazzy, sadsack brutality. It’s true, he thinks. It was the reason he had fallen in love with her, the reason he had followed her into this life they now live. She has no choice but to be here now.
He had found her at the public library, late into the night, her bramble of hair bent low into a cubicle desk in front of a second-floor window, the air around her spiked with toxic concentration. He floated among the bookshelves, feeling delicious shudders of anticipation. He could wait. And while he did, he wondered what she was reading. What fantasy, what menagerie of dreams, would still be lingering in her mind with its wisps of wonder and romance and horror, soon to waft her off to eternity? Was she a student? No. She was much too shrewishly bent to be broadening her mind right now. That book was being devoured, violated with a dark, spastic acumen. Her fingers kept dicing the space in front of her face and she would jolt suddenly forward as if the book had sent a hard spark of current through her. He was very close to her now and could see her watered reflection in the window, where of course his reflection was absent. And then she lifted her face and her private peering eyes were like those of a deeply satisfied predator looking out of itself in the middle of a delicious meal. There was something in her mouth, too. It looked like a moth wing. Maybe it was a scrap of gum.
Dracula felt warm as a fresh splat of blood. If he had a reflection, they would have been staring at each other. But instead, she was blank-faced, looking past her own reflection and through the glass into the funnel of black beyond, poised in such a bare attentive stillness that she seemed more and more elaborately savage every second he looked at her. Slowly, as if the sensation hung suspended in him, he felt a dull puncture of surprise. Then her pointed tongue came out and she folded the gum behind her teeth.
When she got up to leave, all his original intent drained away like a seepage of dirty rainwater. By the time she clawed her way out among the desks he was a little soggy about the knees. He noticed that she had left a pile of shredded paper over a book, enough for a tatty nest. It was a scummed-up paperback called The Dead Stars, and the bottom corner of the soft cover had been ripped almost off and it was tacky under his thumb. He sniffed at it. He realized, then, that she had stuck her wet wad of gum here and torn it when prizing it off. Had she put it back in her mouth? That was when Dracula flipped through the pages and found all the source material for her shredding.
It was a freakshow inside of feisty feathered frills, and then—more queerly—mushy places, like she had licked the pages to better hack at the pulp inside, possibly trying to hew out a secret storage compartment for hiding something. There was sort of a square shape in there. But she had also written screwy commentary all along the margins. Or else that was already in the margins before her. Maybe it was what had inspired the ecstatic hacking. Either way it brained him to look at such a rabid fracas, all scrambled with the tidy typesetting. There were comments about egg breakfasts and stage assembly on adjacent pages, and then some spinoff thoughts on one of the biographies sharing the second page. It looked like a book of celebrity profiles and presumably by this commentator’s rantings they were worth attention.
Dracula blew a breath. He was obviously drinking in the pure and lofty industry of a lunatic. He was just about to let it go—not, after all, hanker after this girl’s harebrained blood and instead let the open maw of night have her—when a librarian happened to run up on him. Dracula’s spine quilled. The lady gave him a look of quaint surveillance, and he felt implicated, yanked into collusion, swinging with that girl on her rafter of madness.
It wasn’t until later that Lucinda told him. She wasn’t crazy. Nor was she a vandal. Just severely furious, about something her mother had done. Her mother, Dracula wagered, and wagered correctly, was always maddening her to spasms. But before he knew any of this he had stood in the library, the small, thorn-haired librarian going on her way over the buttered linoleum. He imagined her thoughts still wondering after him, later maybe returning to find the book and falling through a trapdoor of revulsion. What was this? What deviations and recollections would it cleave free from her interior? Who knew what byzantine imaginings she might have, pondering after him? Dracula was indulging himself here. He put his tongue to the cover and tasted. He had to give this back to her. He had to see what she would do. Sweet.
When he was walking through the library he felt more and more urgent, down the wide shoe-buffed steps and through the bandaged echo of the place to get to her, out in the open aching night, that black tremor of terror, where she might already be fiending down alleys of her own, just like he was apt to do.
At the corner he caught up to her. She had paused to riffle through her purse, her leg switched out in front of her like a foldout blade.
She looked at him.
“What?” She was definitely chewing gum. She seemed to crystal over under his gaze. “Oh, I’m not a hooker,” she said, folding her leg back under her.
“No. I’m not—” It sounded malicious, whatever it was. “I’m not either,” he said, hoping this would splinter the tension.
Her mouth smeared oddly. “That’s a good one.” Her voice had a candlelit waver, a blue orange hue that flickered warm and cold, like the key he loved best on his harpsichord. That was the key that he played before and after a satisfying evening, still licking his lips for traces of that deep, delirious birdsong of blood. She started walking. Well, now, what could he do? He fell into step beside her.
“I want to see you again?” he said, trying to emulate something he may have seen on TV.
“Don’t you need to see me first?” She took a chomp of her gum and grimaced. “Look I—this isn’t—”
“But I have seen you,” he fumbled to interrupt her. “In the library.”
Her face climbed into panic. “In the library?” She looked at him and reached down and shook her keys out of her purse, smacking her gum industriously. Her steps seemed to quicken.
“You were. You were reading—” He felt the book in his hand and held it up, not exactly realizing he had carried it with him. His finger grazed the dangling flap on the cover, and he thought of her mouth, her flesh, the delicate fog of his breath unfurling on the spare supple planes of her body.
“Oh my God.” She looked at the book. “You were watching me—” She shook her head and turned the corner, and Dracula hurried up beside her. They were hastening under shivering spores of lamplight, drifting through downtown in a damp and deserted city at the edge of a polluted wood, two shadows thrusting raggedly up the sides of pink buildings.
“Wait,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“No,” she turned on him, her dark eyes boiling. “I’m not a freak.”
He thought, maybe, that he caught a wary glance from her as she turned right along a side street, where a row of shabby Victorians slumped into weedy sidewalks.
“Okay. May I introduce myself?”
She flicked him a thin, tisky look. “I don’t really—”
“Dracula,” he said, holding out his hand to shake.
She looked at it. “Oh,” she said dryly. “Shucks. This is not—okay.” She gave up a breath. “Are you planning to slay me or something?”
He wanted to say no, of course not, but instead a noise bulged out of his throat, something like a startled laugh. He hoped that was what she thought it was.
She idled, warily, in front of a porch with sooty stone columns and gave him a sting of a smile—tiny and totally unreadable. “Maybe you should do it right now and get it over with—” she flitted her eyes back and forth between him and the peeling door behind her. “My mother’s about to do it anyway, soon as I go in there.”
“Your mother.” Dracula was surprised.
She was licking her apparently anesthetized lips. “You should meet my mother, ha ha.”
Why did she seem so mumbled and drunk all of a sudden?
“She’s a bloodsucker too. You’d probably like her.” Then she dashed at the stairs.
“Wait. I didn’t—” He was on her when he noticed the knife. She seemed to slump back in a browbeaten way. But she was the one holding it.
“I can’t believe I just showed you where I live,” she said, to herself. The knife was held. Just held. She never held the knife on him again. Though she could have a million times.
“Not like this will do any good,” she said.
Then Dracula understood that he had bungled this completely.
“So, I’ve read the books,” she said. “Does that mean I can call you Vlad?”
He almost went and opened her fresh lily neck right there, just because he felt sorry for her, and since she so expected it, but something held him back. Something in the song and dance of her misfit defense, some rare vial spilled by her hasty choreography and spritzing the night air. He was standing in it, facing likely the blackened symphony of her home life, wondering why she wasn’t even wearing a coat. It was complex and confounding, this moment. It definitely wanted to thwart him. Dracula could barely flap his tongue to beg himself off. “Where’s your coat?” he heard himself blather. Now who was the drunk and mumbling one? She was wearing a dress that looked like a costume.
Lucinda laughed at this, but not happily.
Dracula always tried to keep her in the limbo of that laugh—or better, if on some days he can manage it.
Now, returning from the kitchen, having occluded himself with the rusty water from the tap, he finds his girlfriend draped over the couch in the living room. She is smiling that same unhealthy smile. It drops like a stale body off her face when she sees him. “So,” she says. “Have you decided to bite me tonight? To get this whole thing over with? Or should I keep stabbing things until I turn you on, huh?”
“All your snacks are gone. You’re going to have to go out and bite some pretty girls instead.”
He lifts her legs and sits under them on the couch. “You’re my pretty girl.”
“Thank you for saying that.” Her voice is cagey and tight and it makes Dracula nervous. “She’s such a fat angry mammoth. I couldn’t stop her. I didn’t even hear her come in. I was practicing my lines. Do you know what she did?” She looks suddenly drugged and horrified at once.
Dracula isn’t really aching to ask.
Lucinda’s eyes come to rest on him with a beautiful, battlefield stillness. “I’ll show you.”
She takes his wrist and stretches across the room with him, pulling him like reluctant rubber, until he’s with her at the chair that came with their dining nook. “Sit there,” she says, and then she gets some twine out of the bottom drawer in the kitchen. Standing over him, she unwinds it.
“She tied you up?” Dracula is incredulous. His girlfriend is arranging his hand against the arm of the chair and wrapping the twine around it. “Is this another of your theater homework assignments?” he asks, preferring that. “Are you just practicing or did your mother really come over?” He hates the theater but her mother is way worse.
Dracula’s girlfriend is too busy grinding the twine into the flesh of his wrist. “Ow,” Dracula says. “That hurts.” She is leaning over him now to tie the other hand, white cords of tension pushing up through the skin at her throat, her hair singed like kindling. He feels almost a tantalizing amorousness in the throes of her despotic calm. What really happened?
Dracula’s girlfriend stands back and screws her face. “You filthy bitch,” she says, raising her hand.
“Wait a second,” Dracula says.
She flicks her hand down and slaps him, stingingly.
“You sick, sick, creature.”
“Is that what your mother said to you? It seems like you’re more talking to me.”
She slaps him again, this time more bluntly. Her clammy hand leaves a trace of dew on his cheek.
“I’m confused,” Dracula says, but she is concentrating on the performance now.
“Don’t you know what you are?” she hisses at him. “Don’t you know? It’s about time.” She holds up a finger—as if to politely signal he wait—and retreats to pull an eyebrow pencil from her purse at the particleboard table. “Sit still now.” She grows a monstrous grin. He can’t tell if this is reenactment—what her mother said to her—or instruction—what she’s saying and doing to him for the demonstration to be accurate. Lucinda’s not using her voice or her mother’s. Then she begins to dig greasy lines into his face with a frenzied look of animal greed.
“Ow. This is scratching. Did she really use a makeup pencil? Or are you doing this to—” He can’t think of why she would be doing it. “I can’t see anything on your face,” he says into her milky complexion.
Her gum blots pink in her mouth, and then all at once, as if the words just hit her, she stops, the stalled operation of her mouth seeming to throw a hitch in her whole industry. She pours a sorry look over him, either false or forthcoming he can’t tell, and hovers with the point of the pencil still denting his cheek. She turns and sits down sideways in his lap.
“I’m sorry.” She breaks out into breath. Without looking at him she reaches out and holds his head against the flutter of her heart.
“I don’t like being toyed with.” Did he really just say that? “I mean tricked or lied—” he still can’t figure out what exactly she did.
Lucinda sighs, like she agrees. “I just kept thinking about how you were going to go out and suck on all those girls tonight.” Now her voice seems to be blowing cool air at his sparks of indictment. “I get so tired of it.”
He’s silent, letting her pat his ire away for several moments, breathing deeply against her fragile chest, sniffing at the blue white skin. “So, my pigeons are really gone?”
“Those are the ones I couldn’t get to fly away.”
She points outside the window, where two pigeons flap on the railing, looking like frazzled witnesses, flustered and disheveled and too enfeebled to flee. “I feel sorry for those pigeons,” she says. “More so than the girls.”
Dracula tries to sift through her bare-branch words, to make sense of the admission that seems to be budding there. “Was it really your mother that let them out?”
His girlfriend’s eyes have glazed over. Her breathing is quiet. “I can’t stand hearing them in there,” she says. “All those wing sounds.”
“I understand.” Dracula sighs. He leans back and his hairline goes up with his brows. It’s one of those fifties hairlines, so he’s been told, severe and handsome.
“I just wish you weren’t Dracula.”
It occurs to him, wiping her hair off his face, that she could any night have killed him with a wooden stake, that she is not the hanged one here so much as he is, that even that eyebrow pencil could do the deed. He isn’t even sure if she loves him. What a silly predicament for someone of his infernal status to walk himself into. How did he take such tasteless and lackadaisical terms here, heading right into apartment living with the first girl he spares, and leaving the night a mere curio outside his window—a place he visits only when he wants to shop for the strange and arcane. He even dreams now of daytime, things he sees on TV. Lucinda isn’t having it either. She isn’t having him. Not really. He can tell.
“Are you mad at me?” she says.
He is hanging here on her mercy. “I love you,” he says, unconsoled and unrelenting like always.
“I sort of wish you were,” she says, daubing his wound with her hand. They watch the pigeons. “I love you too,” she remembers to say. “I have to tell you—” she breaks off to toss her hair out of her face. The pigeons continue to snoop, like secret agents in everyday plumage. Lucinda still can’t seem to say something. “I can’t believe her.”
Time wafts. Lucinda is looking down at a strand of ragged hair. What had her mother done? “My mother is a monster.”
He pats her thigh, waiting.
In a quiet voice, through crisp tendrils, she says, “She is the mother of all monsters.”
Dracula hesitates, turning this over in the slow, immortal folds of his mind. Is this what she was going to say? Just before? “You mean . . .” Dracula trails off. He thinks she’s being metaphorical. He thinks.
His girlfriend looks at him, eyes dark as a sitting cauldron, and also far away, lost in the prim postulations of stars. Or is he just once again grafting his own eternal fixations on her?
“She says she wants to have you for dinner.”
Excerpted from Meghan Tifft’s novel, From Hell to Breakfast published by Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2019 Meghan Tifft.