The Season of Risks
Every few years, someone commissions a poll to find out how many Americans believe in ghosts. The results vary widely, typically from roughly 30 to 50 percent.
How many vampires believe in ghosts? Virtually all of us, although some prefer not to say so. It may be easier for us to see them, since our vision is keener than that of mortals.
Cameron told me that night to be careful. "You can never be sure why a spirit appears, but there's usually a reason," he said. "They don't often make random visits."
We said good night. I saw no more ghosts as I walked back to the dorm. Back in our room, I wanted to tell Jacey about what I'd seen, but I knew it would frighten her as much as thrill her. So I kept my spirits to myself. Next time I saw Dashay, I'd ask her what they might mean.
The following night, someone set a fire in the registrar's office. All the application and admission records were destroyed. Someone also hacked into the computer system and deleted all of the student files.
This was the biggest sensation on campus since Autumn's murder the spring before. Students were summoned to an assembly with the faculty and administrators. Anyone who had information about the thefts was urged to come forward, but no one did.
I sat near the back of the auditorium, too shocked to feel much, wondering what Cameron might have done. I didn't have any real information. All I had was a strong hunch.
The next day students had to fill out a new set of Hillhouse forms. I listed my age as twenty-two. I told myself that this was simply one more of the necessary lies vampires tell in order to live among mortals. Then I tried to put the age issue out of my mind. My first poem for our creative writing class was due in two days, and I hadn't begun writing it yet.
Earlier I'd submitted a short story about learning to drive-a subject that seemed safe enough, given Professor Warner's many prohibitions. I'd told it from the point of view of a teenage girl taught by two women who gave her conflicting instructions and advice. It was loosely based on my own driving lessons. Of course, I changed the characters in the story and made sure the girl wasn't anything like me.
Professor Warner had said the story was a strong one. Her only suggestion was that I might consider telling the story from a different viewpoint. "Let one of the older characters tell the story," she said. "I think it will gain much more dramatic depth that way."
Her comments made me nervous about attempting a poem.
My father had taught me Shakespeare's sonnets, Keats's and Wordsworth's odes, and a range of more modern poems. Thinking of them intimidated me further.
Jacey had already turned in her poem, one of the best ones so far, about a child afraid of the dark. "Write about something simple," she said. "Something you know a lot about. Start with an image."
I ended up writing about the Victorian oval shadow box that had hung on a wall in our house in Saratoga Springs. What became of it when the house was sold, I didn't know. Under its convex glass cover lay an arrangement of wheat sheaves, a monarch butterfly, and three brown wrens. When I was a child, I'd imagined the birds were my parents and me, trapped and longing to free ourselves to fly away.
The poem I wrote was from the viewpoint of an observer noticing the shadow box and describing its contents. I was careful not to write anything objectionable or biased; I wanted readers to see the box without the poem dictating an emotional response. I don't think it was a particularly good poem; in any case, I threw it away when the semester ended, and I'm not going to try to re-create it here.
In Professor Warner's workshops the author wasn't allowed to speak on the day her writing was reviewed. Each of the other students was called upon to make a comment, and then the professor would weigh in.
My poem received comments like: "Shadow boxes sound cute!" "I think my grandma had one of those." "Why would someone want to frame dead things?" (The last one came from Richard.)
"Think positively!" Professor Warner said.
When it was Sloan's turn, he said, "The images aren't enough to convey the claustrophobia. Something's missing. You might try writing it from the viewpoints of the birds."
After the writing class ended, it was the custom for most of us to walk into the small town near campus. At a distressed-looking bowling alley called Leo's Bowl, we'd drink beer and eat greasy French fries and talk. A few of us might even bowl.
No one ever checked our IDs at Leo's. Its owner, whose name wasn't Leo, had some sort of arrangement with the local police. They never bothered him or us. I think that if we'd been driving instead of walking, things might have been different.
As we walked into the alley, I was still smarting from some of the more sharp-edged comments about my poem, most of them made by Richard. Even though I told myself that the criticisms were directed at the poem, not at me, I felt as if I'd been personally attacked. Many artists feel this way, I've found out since, but with vampires the hurt cuts deeper, just as praise lifts us higher.
My cell phone rang before I had a chance to sit down. I turned and walked back outside again. Another unfamiliar number.
It was Cameron calling. He used a different phone every time, and by the time the call ended I knew why.
He didn't even say hello. "Ari, you've got an FBI record. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know-"
"You didn't know they kept records?"
I cringed at the tone of his voice-not loud, but brusque and dismayed. It made me wish I could disappear-but I wasn't wearing the suit. I leaned against the wall of the building, making myself small.
"You must remember agents interrogating you after your friends died." His voice sounded furious. I hadn't met this particular Cameron before.
"Yes, they did."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
I took a deep breath. "I should have told you about that, but-"
"You knew how high the stakes are."
"I didn't. I didn't tell you because I was afraid you'd-"
"Afraid I'd what?"
I looked up at the live oak tree at the edge of the parking lot. From one of its branches, a mockingbird stared down at me. I couldn't think of the right words. Stop caring? Abandon me? Banish me?
"I don't know," I said. "I can't think."
"Are you too young to understand how serious this could be? You wouldn't believe the trouble my staff is going to, trying to protect you."
Wouldn't. Too young. Words I didn't like then and hate now. I ran one hand across the bricks of the building's wall, feeling their rough edges scrape my knuckles.
"Your staff needn't bother," I said. "I'll give you up."
"Oh, Ari." His voice sounded less angry now. "I shouldn't have spoken to you that way. But-"
I cut him off. "You said it yourself: the timing is all wrong."
I broke the connection and turned off the phone. Then I walked back into the bowling alley.
My friends sat on plastic benches bordering a table holding two pitchers of beer and a bowl of corn chips. Jacey looked up as I came in. She nudged the person next to her, who happened to be Richard.
He stared at me, looked from my face to my hands. His cheeks flushed. Coughing, he stood up, beckoned for me to take his seat. Then he leaned over to whisper in my ear. "I feel bad. I didn't think what I said would upset you so much."
Jacey said, "What happened to your hand?"
Apparently it was bleeding. Now it began to hurt. I let them fetch antiseptic and a bandage, pour me a glass of beer, and say soothing things, but inside I felt as if my lungs were collapsing.
What have I done? I thought. What should I have done?
From the end of the table, Sloan kept his dark eyes on mine. He knew I wasn't reacting to criticism of my poem. He knew how to recognize heartbreak.
November was never my favorite month. It has a mottled brown cast, like the color of petrified wood.
At Hillhouse, classes ended the first week of December. Final papers and studying for exams made days become nights become days again. We drank coffee and energy drinks that tasted like fluids designed to make machines run more efficiently.
Sloan stopped working on my portrait in order to write stories, essays, and a research paper. He didn't take any science or math classes, so he faced no exams. Once his papers were done, he and his sketchbook could be seen around campus, making quick studies. We were either too busy or too exhausted to continue the portrait.
One afternoon I took time out to write my parents a letter-a fine piece of fiction, better than anything I wrote for creative writing class-meant to assure them that all was well with me. The Ari I created for them was a busy, happy student, breezing through her semester. The only true line in it was this: "I am learning a great deal."
When I walked back into the dorm after mailing the letter, I saw Jacey with Richard, sitting in the lounge. They stopped talking when I came in, and I knew they'd been discussing me. Jacey was thinking, No matter what anybody says about her, Ari is my friend.
I didn't even say hello. I walked past them and went straight to our room. It wasn't locked, and when I threw open the door, the room wasn't empty. Someone was trying on my clothes.
She wore the Peruvian dress-or rather, the dress was worn by someone, female in form, made out of smoke. Her skin was translucent, as was her hair, and though she kept her face averted she looked familiar.
And then I saw a second form, sitting on my bed, watching.
In seconds they were gone. Not a trace of smoke lingered. The dress fell to the floor. I picked it up, shook it hard, sniffed it. The fabric smelled faintly bitter, like mold or dead leaves.