Chuck had brilliant red eyes: If anyone saw him without his black pince-nez glasses, he told people he was albino. He was otherwise an unassuming, genially-smiling old man, with a thin sweep of white hair, wrinkled skin covered in liver spots and freckles, and a grey plaid suit just a little out of style.
He was older than he looked.
Chuck settled in a chair beside the bed. The bed was in the spare bedroom now ostensibly serving as a hospice suite for the grandchild of some old friends. The old couple wasn’t old like he was. They were just normal-old: Human-old.
By comparison, the grandchild looked older than she should have. Van was only twenty, but a life of ill health and malnutrition had ravaged her into a gaunt, ashen form. Chuck had hoped she would hold out longer, but sometimes a stable mortal body went unstable in a cascade of sudden failures.
“Hey, Uncle Chuck.”
“Hello, Vanessa,” he said. “It’s time.”
“Cool. Will it hurt?”
The old man looked around at all the drips, devices, and dialysis equipment. “Not compared to this.”
“How does it work?” she asked.
Chuck pulled out a vial. “Just a simple injection, dear. The last one you’ll ever need.”
Usually the process had people writhing in agony, screaming for release. He’d seen some who tore out pieces of flesh to dig the pain out. He’d broken a few bones during his own transformation.
Not Van. She breathed more sharply, her spine arched, her jaw set hard, and her hands turned white as she gripped the bed rails. He was right. It couldn’t be worse than life itself so far.
Her eyes pinched shut, then snapped open again, the old brown color gone, drained to near-white. She reached up and clawed at her mouth and throat. “Oh God. I need –”
Chuck was ready for that. He tossed over a thermos. “Drink up, dear.”
Van screwed it open, and guzzled, grasping both hands around the thermos desperately like a baby with a bottle – only the bottle was full of pig’s blood Chuck got from the local butcher.
He brought a bucket from his trunk next. As soon as he popped the lid off, Van sprang out of bed, tripped over the wheelchair next to it, and scrambled like a feral animal on all fours to dunk her face in the blood like she was bobbing for apples.
Chuck had her grandparents in a hotel for a week, to avoid any accidents during this stage.
Van finally had her fill and flopped against the bed, sated and healthy for the first time in her miserable existence. Not that she looked like it. She’d look bony and anemic forever. Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers, and parasites are always beggars.
“Now that you’re my real protege, it’s time we went over the rules.”
Van kept pacing the living room, braiding and un-braiding her long, black hair. “Rules?”
“Not laws, per se. But I’ve lasted as long as I have only by following certain guidelines for myself. I’ve seen too many vampires making foolish mistakes, and getting themselves killed.”
“Most importantly: Always stay calm. Never give in and start hissing, baring your fangs, threatening them with tall-talk, none of that nonsense. Never frighten humans.”
“You’ve seen pigeons before, haven’t you? They’re docile birds. They don’t fear humans. They’ll flock around humans for food. A human could reach out, and snap a pigeon’s neck without effort. But they don’t.”
“So we’re the humans in that analogy?” Van said.
“Yes,” Chuck sighed. “We let the humans become domesticated. They won’t fear us. They won’t fly away. But we also domesticate ourselves. We must act like dogs to them.”
“Dogs are predators, too. Dogs eat meat, or anything like it. No matter how small or unassuming, a dog needs to feed on flesh. They used to hunt the humans, as wolves, and the humans culled them down to almost nothing. The dogs that turned friendly were allowed to live.”
Van looked him over. “You don’t seem like my family’s dog to me.”
Chuck smiled faintly. “Don’t I? Loyal throughout the generations, a steadfast guardian. I never raised a hand to the Renards. But make no mistake, I’ve killed to protect this family. And I could have killed you all instead, if I ever wanted to. Just like a dog. People with dogs never sleep with one eye open, wondering if Spot will tear out their throats and eat them, even though he always could.”
Van shuddered, rubbing her thin arms. For the first time ever, she was clearly unnerved by him, as she must have realized how easy, and even how tempting, tearing out their throats would have been. He smiled a little wider, letting his fangs lengthen a bit for effect.
“And now you see why I never told you before,” he said softly. “A dog that growls, and barks, and bares its teeth… At best, it gets put in a kennel. At worst, it gets put down.”
“But if you – if… we, can kill them whenever we want…”
“One on one, we’ll usually win against a human. One on one, a dog will do the same. But when do humans let something dangerous get close to them, while alone and unarmed? Once they feel afraid, they’ll flock together, arm themselves, and win.”
“But you have bitten my family.”
“Rarely. Good dogs get treats. Good vampires get to draw a pint here or there from their loyal friends. A good vampire looks friendly, acts docile, and stays by their human’s side through anything.” Chuck gestured at the hall that led to Van’s bedroom. “Or covers the medical expenses needed to keep a hopelessly sick orphan alive as long as possible.”
Van followed the gesture with her now-pale gaze. Her expression was muted and thoughtful. He wondered: Did she think his benefaction came from a good heart? Or did she realize now that saving her was all a token of his loyalty, a gift he could have easily declined to share? Not that he didn’t feel some affection for her. It was hard not to pity a sick child, and he hated to see her grandparents suffer for it.
But Charles was an old creature, who once devoured their kind in a time before telephones could warn neighbors faster than he could run, before cars let them flock and fly away, before guns and rockets let them hunt him back from afar. The darkness of the world drew back over the years, and things like him either adapted to life in the sunlight, or died out. Wolves came out of the woods to lie at the feet of humans and live on the sacrifices bestowed from the dining table.
Chuck had considered putting her out of her misery by putting his teeth where the I.V. usually stuck. Her parents were dead. Only the old Renards were left, and not for long. But Chuck’s prior acolytes were all dead, too. In a way, turning Van made her his grandchild.
Hopefully she lasted longer than his real ones had.
Van broke the silence. “What if I don’t want to kill anyone?”
“Then, my humble parasite Padawan,” Chuck said, “it’s time to introduce you to the butcher.”