At the top of a dark, stone tower, a menacing presence lurked. A lugubrious, green light filled the room which he inhabited. Shut inside his wooden sleeping quarters, his pale flesh gleamed with an otherworldly sheen. Chill winds whistled through the solitary dwelling on high.
Suddenly, a keening wail cut through the preternatural stillness of the morning.
Count Constantin VII awoke.
He pushed on the wooden underside of the IKEA Malm storage bed which he used as a coffin. It swung open. He slapped the alarm clock beside the bed with a shriveled, white hand, and the wailing ceased. He stumbled over to his computer, wiggling the mouse so that the bouncing, luminous, green cube would resolve itself into his home screen. He pressed print. A disembodied clanking and shuffling filled the room as his printer churned out worksheets for the day. He shivered. The Glad trash bag duct-taped over the broken window had done little in the way of insulation. Teenagers had thrown a rock through it earlier this week. Despite several maintenance requests, no one at Scranton Park Towers had come by to fix it.
The Count glided into the bathroom. He washed the acne medication off his face and applied a liberal amount of grease to his black hair, slicking it back neatly so that it tapered at the nape of his neck. The harsh, fluorescent light illuminated streaks of gray in his hair. He stared at the framed photo of his father hanging beside the mirror, then looked again at himself.
He and his father before him shared the same impressive height, but Count Constantin VI looked about a foot taller in his portrait with his chest puffed out, a flinty glint in his black eyes. A real vampire. The dull mirror beside the portrait reflected back his slump-shouldered, scrawny spawn. A pale imitation. A poor-man’s progeny. Count Constantin VII sighed. He missed his father. He missed the good old days. He missed his own kind. He missed feeling satiated. He stared at his hollow, sunken body, bones jutting, shriveled skin hanging loosely. He wondered to himself if he had to live like this, was continuing to survive even worth it? No blood. No blood relatives. What was the point? He was almost the age his father had been when he had been killed.
Just twenty years ago, when his father had been 168 years old, he had been murdered inadvertently by animal control. His father had been feasting on the blood of a virgin when his victim had awoken. To avoid detection, he had transformed into his bat form. The punctured prey, finding herself bleeding with a bat circling the ceiling fan, had assumed she was dealing with a rabid animal and contacted the proper authorities. When the animal control agents had arrived, Constantin VI had made a desperate bid for freedom. He had almost made it too, flying out of the building towards home, when – BAM – a tranquilizer dart had plunged into his wing. Of course, this kind of trauma had immediately triggered a return to his vampiric body, and, plummeting from the sky, he had been impaled on the pointed, wooden picket of a white picket fence.
This had been the last straw for Constantin VII. Life had been spiraling downward for the Constantin’s of Transylvania (and, more recently, Pennsylvania) for several centuries now, and this death was the final nail in the coffin for the old way of life.
Vampires drink blood, of course. Everyone knows that. From blood they derive eternal youth, power, satiation, and good, old-fashioned, hydration. But what isn’t as well known is that vampiric life and power is actually sustained through two, primary sources. The reason this distinction is so often ignored is because the sources usually go hand in hand. Or at least they did in the good old days.
Vampires can be satiated by two things: Blood and Fear. The sapping of joy to be replaced with anxiety, fear, and – ideally – abject terror, is a delicious amuse-bouche for a vampire. The consumption of every ounce of a victim’s previous happiness before the climactic blood-letting confers energy to vampires in much the same way, although in lower quantities. Therefore, vampires have never chosen to live off the sucking of joy alone as it would be akin to only ever consuming the first course of a three-course meal. It can keep you alive, but – unholy shit – who would want that kind of life?
Unfortunately, that was the exact life the Count now found himself forced to live. After his father’s death, he had decided that the murder of humans was simply too risky and had given up sucking blood entirely. In the past, a missing body – or ten – had been easy to cover up. Law enforcement had been largely impotent and ineffective, but now – with the rise of law and order, forensics, advanced weaponry, and those accursed DNA databases – the old way of life was simply too risky.
Constantin had flitted through various walks of life since making his transition to a bloodless existence, trying to ascertain the best mode of sucking joy. He had worked briefly at a DMV. This had kept him alive, but he had found that often his would-be victims entered the DMV already devoid of joy, and, thus, there was very little left to feed on. He had tried a brief stint as a weight loss coach. This had been more profitable as clients often came to him full of joyful hope which he could rip from them easily with a few, well-placed comments. However, this business was built largely off of references, and most of his clients left him fatter and generally worse off than before they had paid for his services. He thought the most effective career for sucking joy would be as an Instagram influencer, but he simply didn’t have the body or budget for it. Finally, he had found a sustainable option. He wasn’t fully satisfied by any means, but he was alive. He was a teacher.
The eighth grade students Constantin VII taught came to him so full of joy. The joy of children was much more potent than that of adults. It was unbridled, overwhelming. As was the depths of their despair. With a pop quiz or cold call he could suck just enough joy out of a kid to go on living for another day or two. Over the years, Constantin had become something of an expert at sucking joy from children – at inspiring fear, anxiety, and abject terror. He wasn’t a good teacher – but he was the best at being bad.
Currently, Constantin was a little paler, a little more wrinkled, a little more emaciated than was the norm – even for him. Today was the first day back from Christmas break, and he hadn’t had a good feeding in several weeks. He had kept himself alive by lurking next to the Santa at the Scranton Mall. Watching the joy leave children’s eyes as they were passed from the warm embrace of their parent into the arms of a smelly stranger in a sweaty suit always helped him during this annual period of near starvation. Summers were never an issue as he taught summer school – which was a veritable feeding frenzy.
Constantin was anxiously anticipating the return to school today. He had had all break to imagine fresh forms of joy-sucking to use on his students, and he couldn’t wait to try some of them out. He even had a new student starting today. He was going to make him stand at the front of the class and share a fun fact. He trembled with excitement.
He pulled on his wool peacoat. His old cape from bygone days was stitched into the lining, but capes had sadly fallen out of fashion and weren’t exactly warm enough for Scranton’s climate anyways. He filled his thermos with coffee and stuffed the worksheets into his bag. On the worksheets he had printed a long excerpt of Finnegans Wake with all the punctuation removed. First, he would give students five minutes to individually add punctuation to it for a grade, and then he would cold call them randomly to read chunks of the excerpt aloud. He would insist that they stood up while they read. He ran his tongue over his pointed incisors. Mmm. Delicious.
Count Constantin VII entered the school building that morning with a bounce in his blood. Though, strictly speaking, he had none. His first period class bounded into the room. Their post-holiday joy was palpable. Intoxicating, even.
As the students filed in, he put them in new, assigned seats. Deliberately separating friends. And even putting Angie and Derek next to each other. They had broken up just before the break. He started class immediately at 8:00 a.m. When Sarah walked in 20 seconds after the bell he said, “Tardy” with relish. Sarah’s face fell, and he felt some of the feeling return to his fingertips.
He started class with a pop quiz.
“Just a refresh to make sure you remember the book from before break.”
He knew they would not. He watched joy seep from their eyes, their hands shaking as they agonized over the long-response questions. One question even required a quote. But the quiz was closed-note. He swooped around the students, breathing in deeply. He felt his hunger abate slightly as their panic rose to a crescendo. At twenty minutes he yelled, “Pencils down!” He was doing well, only a quarter of the way through the class, and almost all of their joy was gone. But there were still some shreds remaining. He thought he saw a flicker of a smile on Suzie’s face. So, he took a big swig of coffee, swept over to her desk, and huffed a hot wave of halitosis on her as he asked, “How was your break?”
Her nose crinkled. He breathed in deeply, inhaling the joy seeping off of her as well as the last stale remnants of his coffee breath hanging in the air.
By the time the class had finished the Finnegans Wake worksheet and the bell rang, the students were empty husks. A faint flush of color had been restored in Constantin’s face. He grimaced as he watched the students leave. Despite all his best efforts, despite the fact that he had sucked every inch of joy from the class, his stomach still rumbled. It was never enough. Never. Never more than basic subsistence. Just enough to keep going until the next day. And the next. And the next.
The second period class was waiting outside the door. He flung open the door, and his victims came in easily, willingly, marching to their own destruction. But something was wrong. The students weren’t laughing. They weren’t even talking. They filed in silently, like little zombies. The Count sniffed the air, trying to detect that sweet, sweaty smell of joy, but there was nothing but despair. It hung over the students like a dark cloud.
Constantin stared at the students as they passed him, trying to ascertain the source of their despair. But he gleaned nothing. Finally the last student passed through the door. Constantin did not recognize him. This, then, must be the new student. Joining halfway through the year with no friends. He, at least, should provide some shreds of sustenance.
The new student sat at the very back of the room. He was small, sickly-looking. His face was paler even than the Count’s. His skin had an odd, waxen quality, and his black hair hung down in greasy strands, obscuring his face. He will be an easy target, Constantin thought to himself.
Once the class had settled in, Count Constantin directed his black eyes to the boy. His pupils bore into the child’s shriveled visage. He checked the roster. “Hello Ivan. Will you come to the front of the class? I want you to introduce yourself. Please share where you’re from and a fun fact about yourself.”
Ivan looked up. The Count took a step back, gripping the edge of his desk to steady himself. Staring back at him, from between stripes of lank, black hair were two, luminous, red eyes. Constantin couldn’t look away. The student’s red eyes were reminiscent of… but – no – it couldn’t be. The Count wouldn’t allow himself to consider it. Wouldn’t allow himself to hope. It was preposterous – impossible. He hadn’t seen another vampire in these parts for over a century.
Ivan’s lips turned up at the corners as he stood. His lips were grotesque, an obscene flush of color on his otherwise colorless face. They were plump and full when the rest of his face sagged and collapsed around those bulbous, glowing eyes.
“Sure thing, my man Stan,” Ivan said, trudging towards the front of the room at a painfully slow pace.
“You will call me Mr. Constantin, young man!”
Ivan smirked back.
Constantin loomed over Ivan as he took his place in front of the class. Constantin was bent over, like some sort of demented shepherd’s crook, trying to glean even an ounce of joy from this boy.
“So – uh – my name is Ivan,” the boy said, picking his long, filthy nails as he spoke. “I just moved here from Romania. And my fun fact. My grandfather kicked the bucket last month. That’s who I lived with in Romania, so that’s why I had to move to this shithole.” He paused, savoring the effect of his words, and then added, “To live with my stupid, fucking, American cousins.”
The rest of the class was staring back and forth between Ivan and Constantin with wide eyes, holding their breath.
Ivan turned towards the Count, “That it? Can I go back to my seat now?”
The Count was breathing hard. “De. ten. tion,” he hissed through his teeth, “My room. After school.”
Ivan stared hard at the Count. The Count stared back. Black into red. Red into black. Who was this kid, the Count thought. He thought a flicker of confusion may have passed over his face, for something twitched in the boy’s too. It looked like he was waiting for something. But then, after another searching look, the boy returned to his seat.
The Count, still breathing hard, turned to face the board. Picking up a marker, he began to write the instructions for the Finnegans Wake assignment on the board. But the marker was dry. Its cap was missing. Frowning, the Count picked up another marker. Its cap too was missing. He swore under his breath, cursing modernity. He would just explain the activity out loud.
“Class. Today we shall be -” But he was cut off mid-sentence by a cacophonous roar. He looked up. Ivan was sharpening his pencil. He waited. Ivan stopped. He started again, “As I was saying, today we shall -” The sharpener started up again. He stopped. Ivan stopped. The boy stood poised, that little wooden writing instrument hovering at the opening of the mechanical sharpener like a guillotine, ready to snap into action.
“Ivan. Your pencil is sharpened. Return to your seat.”
Ivan returned to his seat, looking mildly confused.
“As I was saying,” the Count continued, “Today we will -” This time his speech was interrupted by a flying projectile. One of the previously missing Expo marker caps had been lobbed from the back of the room and hit him directly on the tip of his long, hooked nose.
“Enough!” Constantin shrieked, “That’s it! Get out! Get OUT!”
Ivan stood and walked to the door. Constantin had assumed he would look triumphant. But instead, he paused in the doorway, still with that confused look on his face.
“Get OUT, I said! And I will see YOU in detention!”
The rest of the class was an unqualified disaster. Despite all of Constantin’s best efforts, he was unable to extract even a morsel of joy – so joyless was this bunch of students. The Count thought of Ivan. It was his insolence, his disrespect that had thrown Constantin off his game. That was all. He could fix this. This boy would not break him. Inside Ivan, he knew, like all children, there must be a kernel of joy, and he would find it, root it out at all costs, and devour it.
As the last bell of the day rang, Ivan sidled into the Count’s room. Constantin narrowed his eyes at the swagger of this scrawny child. Ivan’s red eyes turned to slits as he returned the Count’s glower.
“What is your problem dude?” Ivan asked.
The Count spluttered, “My problem? MY problem?” He swept towards Ivan, his teeth bared.
Ivan gasped, “Your teeth!”
The Count grinned, flashing his pointed incisors at the boy. He would scare this insolent youth after all.
But Ivan did not back away. Instead he threw his arms around the Count’s middle.
The Count, thinking of vampire hunters in disguise, tried to extricate himself.
“What – ah! What are you doing boy! Remove your hands from me this instant!”
The boy was shaking now. The Count stopped struggling, realizing that the boy was crying. He had done it. He had made him cry. But yet, he still couldn’t feel any joy leeching off this strange creature. Nothing at all.
Ivan turned his face up towards the Count, his arms still wrapped around Constantin’s middle. Black tears streaked Ivan’s face, and, as he smiled up at the Count, Constantin noticed two, pointed incisors.
“I knew my grandfather and I couldn’t be the only ones. I knew it. I knew it.” The boy buried his face in the Count’s shirt again, his little body shaking with sobs. Constantin felt a pressure in his chest where his heart had been, but he cleared his throat and pushed the boy off of him.
“I am not your grandfather, boy!”
Ivan backed away, snuffling, wiping tears off his face, “Yes! But you’re a vampire! I didn’t think there were any others in America!”
“Yes I am a vampire, and I came here to stake out my own territory! Territory which you are now infringing upon!”
“What – what – what do you mean?” Ivan stuttered. The Count thought he had never seen a vampire look more like a puppy.
He sighed, sitting down at his desk and facing Ivan. “This school -” He gestured, “Is MY territory! Look at me – I’m barely getting enough to survive on as it is! I can’t have you sucking the joy out of everyone and leaving none for me!”
He expected the boy to get angry or maybe start crying again. But he did neither. Instead that same horrible grin split across his face.
“What if -” He said, “There was a way we could work together? Share the school?”
“I don’t see -”
“Just listen! Ok so you know the teachers – right? You know what makes them most upset, what they’re going through, everything! And I’m a student – so I can get to know the students. We can work together!”
The Count hesitated. And then slowly, a grin began to spread across his face too. “You would take the teachers? I would get the students?”
Ivan nodded, those red eyes wide and excited. “And we’d both gather intelligence about what would MOST ruin the other’s day!”
The Count threw back his head and laughed, a wild, triumphant, cackle. He stood up and walked over to Ivan. He gripped his shoulder and said, “Ivan, my boy. I believe this is the start of an unholy alliance”
Ivan smiled up at him, “Let’s ruin some lives.”
Two vampires: one a teacher, one a student, had found each other in the most improbable of circumstances. And, this unlikely bond struck, the two began to meet every day after school, exchanging tactics and success stories.
“Today I asked TWELVE students if that was their final answer,” the Count bragged. His face was flushed with color. His chest no longer seemed sunken, but full – like his father’s.
“That’s nothing! I asked Ms. Maloney if she was pregnant today!” Ivan said. He too, looked healthier. Youthful rather than jaundiced. Sprightly rather than sickly.
The Count roared with laughter, “That’s my boy! I made FOURTEEN calls home to parents!”
“I made EIGHT that’s-what-she-said jokes in Ms. Smith’s class!”
“I told you how much she hates those!!” The Count smiled proudly at Ivan and added, “I still haven’t graded the papers students turned in TWO MONTHS AGO!”
Ivan was giggling so hard he could barely speak, “Every time Mr. Starner turned around today, I turned off the projector!”
The Count shrieked, “That takes at least ten minutes to turn back on!”
Evil cackles echoed from behind the classroom door.
Teachers began to take more and more mental health days, complaining of burnout. Students skipped school, grades dropped, and sports teams floundered. Everyone seemed paler, more subdued.
But, after school, every day, in the Count’s classroom, laughter rang out, reverberating through the silent halls.