Painting by Brittany Zagoria
PRETEND THAT WE'RE DEAD
by Jake Cline
In the fall of 1993, I was a senior at the University of Florida, from which I was about to graduate a semester later than I should have with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a handful of clips in my portfolio and a head stocked with fear. No job was waiting for me back home or elsewhere, no girlfriend existed to meet me at a crossroads I was too clueless to locate, anyway, and no friend remained on campus to make leaving the school a bittersweet experience. My imminent departure tasted like nothing at all. It was room-temperature tap water. It was ice chips on the lips of the comatose.
Issue #21 soundtrack: MillionYoung "Perfect Eyes"
Just before the start of that final semester, I had moved into an apartment located a few blocks from campus. It was no one’s idea of luxurious, a first-floor unit at the north end of a decades-old, two-story, rectangular building. The kitchen was smaller than the bathroom, the air conditioner released as much mold into the air as oxygen, a fine layer of dust covered the walls and the beige carpet radiated all the cheer of a coffin lining.
What color there was to be found in the apartment came from the clumps of pink, red and blue candle wax that someone had allowed to melt onto the carpet and curtains. I didn’t notice any of this when I sublet the apartment from Jim, a friend of a friend who had graduated that summer with a job, a girlfriend and a life waiting for him in Jacksonville. I could only imagine how eager he must have been to get on with that life. Certainly, he was so preoccupied with his good fortune that he had neglected to tell me about the source of all that wax. He had neglected to tell me about the woman who had lived in the apartment before him.
About a month after I had moved into the building, I opened the mailbox to find an envelope addressed to someone named Mistress Victoria. The text had been written in red ink, and the return address was for a place called the Nightwalker Society. I immediately thought it had something to do with prostitutes, since I’d confused “Nightwalker” with “streetwalker” and because the letter was addressed to someone who answered to the title “mistress,” a word I’d most associated with late-night movies on cable.
My head immediately filled with questions: “Did a hooker used to live in my apartment? Did she conduct her business here? Did she carry diseases? Did she leave any behind? … Was she hot?”
Before opening the envelope, I decided I would have to move out of the apartment. I didn’t even like to drink from the water fountains on campus. How the hell was I going to live in a former whorehouse?
Still, curiosity getting the better of me and having decided the envelope had already given me syphilis just by touching it, I took a butter knife from the kitchen’s lone drawer and sliced it open over the sink. Out floated not the results of a blood test, a pornographic photo or a feather boa — remember, I was a very young 21 — but a newsletter.
It was a four-page, Xeroxed job printed on paper so cheap that red ink rubbed off on my fingers as I turned it over, causing me to worry that I had contracted some kind of epistolary herpes to go along with the syphilis. The front page of the newsletter had been fashioned to look like that of a 19th century newspaper, with the name of the Nightwalker Society stretched across the top in gothic lettering, and a box containing the issue and volume numbers in the top-right corner. The lead front-page “article” was actually an open letter that began, “Greetings, Nightwalkers! We trust that this correspondence finds you well. Once again, we bring you dark tidings from the unbeating heart of the underworld, where the sun never rises, the prey is plentiful and the blood falls like rain.”
I was mystified. “What kind of hooker nonsense is this?” I said, flipping open the newsletter to find more gothic pronouncements about blood and darkness, fake advertisements for a funeral home and a blood bank, and even a poem extolling some gibberish about the life that comes after death to a chosen few. The back page consisted of a photo collage under the headline “Spring Rising ’93,” in which skinny, pale-faced men stood arm in arm with fleshier, paler-faced women who parted bright, scarlet lips to reveal canines shaped like icicles.
“Fangs!” I said, flipping the newsletter over to the front page and back again. “Holy shit! These people aren’t prostitutes. They’re vampires!”
I dropped the paper in the sink and called my friend Kevin, who had arranged for me to sublet the apartment from Jim.
“Hey,” I said when Kevin picked up the phone. “Does your friend Jim have a thing for candles? Or Anne Rice novels?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Because there’s candle wax stuck to everything in this apartment, and I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t, I don’t know, hosting a witches’ coven or practicing Santeria in here,” I said.
“Oh, that,” Kevin said, chuckling. “That wasn’t Jim. That was the vampires.”
“What vampires?” I asked, my voice rising as I looked into the sink at the scrapbook of the prom from hell.
“He didn’t tell you?” Kevin said, laughing again. “The chick who lived in that apartment before he did thought she was a vampire. Jim never met her, but he still got her mail when he lived there. Crazy vampire shit. Ask your neighbors about it. I’m sure some of them remember her.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure to do that. Thanks. I’ve always wanted to be Van Helsing.”
Because the middle-aged woman who lived in the apartment next to mine was Korean and spoke no English, and because I was far too shy and self-conscious to pantomime acts of vampirism for a complete stranger, I decided to knock on the door of the apartment directly above mine. The girl who lived there was a student. I met her one afternoon when she came downstairs to tell me the Fugazi CD I had been playing at top volume to feel less alone was causing her floor — my ceiling — to shake.
“So this is the girl who lives above me,” I thought, taking stock of her acne-scarred cheeks, crooked bangs and browning smoker’s teeth. “This is the girl I’ve heard moaning and screaming in the middle of the night as various men moaned and screamed along with her.” Her bedroom was located above mine, and nearly every night since I’d moved into the apartment, I’d been made to listen to her commanding her lovers to do this or do that. They never seemed in much of a hurry to finish up and go to sleep. I envied them their passion, their ability to physically connect with another person. But mostly, the effect for me was like watching porn on a TV with a blown picture tube, and I’d lie awake more frightened than turned on, waiting for her bed to burst through the ceiling and bring my life to a predictably humiliating end.
“Hi,” I said when she opened her door. “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could tell me about someone who used to live in my apartment.”
“You mean Jim?” she asked, opening the door a bit wider as she made no effort to conceal the fact that she was looking me up and down. It was after 3 p.m., and she was wearing a robe.
“No, not Jim. The woman who lived there before him. Here,” I said, thrusting the newsletter at her. “This was sent to my apartment.”
She took the newsletter and laughed a little too sharply. “This is Victoria’s mail,” she said, taking a moment to read the front page. “‘Greetings, Nightwalkers.’ Oh, man, that girl was funny. Cracked me the fuck up with her vampire shit. Look, this is her right here.”
She pointed to a photo in the “Spring Rising” gallery of what I assumed was the only female attendee with a BMI less than 50. She was taller and much more attractive than the other vampires. She reminded me of Elle Macpherson, had the supermodel been born in Romania instead of Australia.
“For a vampire, she was very pretty,” my neighbor explained. “Most of them look as if they suck down more Doritos than blood, if you know what I mean.”
“ ‘Most of them’?” I asked her.
“Yeah, Victoria would have her friends over all the time to drink sangria and listen to the Sisters of Mercy. They didn’t like going to clubs or anything. People would make fun of them. They certainly didn’t go to the Purple Porpoise, and they never went to football games, though I once asked Victoria if she wanted to go to the Florida-Georgia game with me. For a minute, I thought she was going to say yes. Haven’t you ever seen the vampires on campus? Always dressed in black? Red lipstick? Skin whiter than shit.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “I just assumed they were into, like, the Cure or something. You know, goth.”
“I know what goth is,” she said, allowing her robe to fall open to reveal a bit more of her own sun-deprived skin. “And yeah, Victoria liked the Cure, at least the early stuff. She told me she hated ‘Friday, I’m in Love.’ She thought they were selling out.”
“What was with all the candles? There’s wax all over my carpet and curtains.”
“Well, duh — she did think she was a vampire. And vampires like candles. Reminds them of the sun they can no longer see or something like that.”
“So she wasn’t a real vampire, then?” I said without thinking, a not-uncommon occurrence then or now.
My neighbor sighed and pulled tight her robe. “You’re kidding, right? ‘A real vampire?’ ”
“No, of course, I know she wasn’t a real vampire. I mean, she didn’t think she was a real vampire, right? That’s what I meant to say.”
“No. Victoria didn’t think she was a real vampire. Do you think you’re a real vampire hunter?”
“What? No. I’m not a — I don’t think I’m a vampire hunter. I just got some creepy thing in the mail,” I said, reaching for the newsletter, “and I wanted to know what kind of place I had moved into.”
“Well, you can be sure this isn’t Count Dracula’s castle, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried about anything,” I said, flushed with embarrassment. “I just wanted to know, is all.”
“So now you know,” she said, closing the door in my face. “See you later.”
“So now I know. Thanks a lot.”
I was halfway down the stairs when she opened her door again and called after me.
“Hey, vampire hunter.”
“Yeah?” I asked, bracing for the next humiliation.
“Keep the music down, will you?”
Jake Cline is a writer and magazine editor based in South Florida. His work has appeared in City Link, The Rumpus, Blurt, Harp and elsewhere. You can find links to his stories, reviews and essays at jakecline.wordpress.com. You also can keep up with him on Twitter.
Brittany Zagoria is a painter who recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She currently is an artist in residence for the Hungarian Multi-Cultural Center in Budapest, Hungary. Visit her online portfolio at brittanyzagoria.com.
MillionYoung hails from Ft. Lauderdale. Their new record, Replicants, drops this month as a joint release from Old Flame and Rix Records. For more, visit millionyoung.com.