The basement was hewn out of old rock. Unlike the house upstairs, this room had existed for centuries. A haven for those who needed it. The walls still bore marks of old candle wax, and the floor was bare. Except for the wooden bed at the corner.
Rashmi debated whether to switch off her flashlight. Decided against it. But she kept the beam well away from the bed. Just like her mother had taught her.
The odor was much stronger here in the basement. A sharp coppery tang and old, sealed air. The back of her throat burned with as she fought to keep her breakfast down. Don’t think about it. Just put the lunch box down and go. She creeped to the foot of the bed, not daring to look in that direction. Lowered the lunch box into the waiting basket.
And then something rustled in the basement.
She stood there for a long while, unsure if she’d heard something. Her brain screamed GO, but her feet stayed glued to the ground. Seconds turned into minutes, but she didn’t move. What if she woke him up? To make it worse, her bladder gave a painful twinge. Rashmi crossed her legs and clenched her jaw. Not now. Please, not now.
She didn’t know how long she stood there. Her beam bobbed crazily in the darkness, catching a million little dust motes in its path. Should I move? Is it safe? Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she took a small step and paused. Silence. A few more steps. Her beam shone upon the foot of the basement stairs. Oh, thank goodness! Almost there. Her Disney watch glowed merrily. Oblivious to the dark shape now sitting up on the bed.
Rashmi stopped, 2 feet away from the stairs. The nape of her neck prickled, and she realized he was awake. Possibly watching her. Her mouth dry, she closed her eyes and waited.
And soon enough, a low raspy voice floated her way.
“Rekha? Is that you?”
“N-n-n-nno. This is Rashmi. Her daughter,”
The shape grew before her eyes. Impossibly larger.
(He must be 8 feet tall, at least!)
In the corner, a low lamp turned on, and it bathed the entire basement in a yellow, pallid glow.
The old man was sitting on the bed, cross-legged. He was extremely pale with a sharp, wrinkled face. His bony arms rested on the bed, fingers tapping away on his long, dirty nails.
(Why did I think he was big? He’s tiny!)
“Rashmi.” he murmured, rolling the word around in his mouth. His tongue came out, and licked his dry, cracked lips.
“Come here, child. Let me take a good look at you,”
She stood, rooted to her spot. A thin, long finger beckoned her.
“Come on, child. I don’t bite.”
A high-pitched giggle rang through the basement. The lamp shimmered, and the man whispered something.
As a million little goosebumps popped up on Rashmi’s body, she felt herself being propelled towards the bed.
(Don’t get too close to him. You know what he is.)
Up close, the man looked paler. His amber eyes shone with a light of their own. Liquid and… and…. hypnot…
Rashmi’s thoughts trailed off, as she stood there transfixed. Those eyes. Those strangely, beautiful eyes. Her mouth opened slightly, her body hovering a few inches above the ground.
A cold smile broke out on the man’s lined face. His jaw trembled as a raging hunger screamed inside him. It had been so long. So long since he’d tasted a fresh one. The blood called to him, singing and pulsing with promises of wonder.
His eyes became larger and more luminous. A few wet sounds emanated as his teeth grew longer. Sharper. Till they covered more than half his face. His nose receded and his shoulders heaved upward, breaking out of his robes as the first veins of a black wing snaked out.
Her Blood. Her sweet blood. Oh, this would be so perfect.
Now at almost 10 feet tall, the vampyre towered over the little girl, talons skittering on the basement floor. It’s jaws snapped opened and shut, inches away from her throat. Any minute now. The lamp flickered again and something caught the Vampyre’s eye. A small mark, a tattoo, on her neck, right above that delicious artery. A name. Something jogged in its brain. Something clicked. And before it knew what was happening, its teeth shrunk, the wings involuted, and he shrunk back to being a shriveled old man.
Startled out of her trance, Rashmi fell to the ground and screamed. She’d had the worst nightmare. Teeth and talons, and a burning almost-pain on her throat. She rubbed her neck vigorously and looked up with fear. To where he sat, shrunken and hungry.
“Where’s my lunch?” he asked, in a low voice.
“R-r-r-right there, in the basket.”
And because she had to understand, she asked.
“Who….what are you?”
A long silence followed this question. Then the old man spat, revealing angry, torn gums.
“I am exactly what you think. Now leave me alone. I’ve had enough of you for a day.”
“Why does my mother help you? Isn’t she… scared?”
A faraway look came into the man’s amber eyes. His face softened, and he sighed.
“I am the last of my kind. Hell, my people haven’t been seen for over 3 centuries. I made a promise, to your great-great-grandfather I wouldn’t feed on live humans. In exchange, he wouldn’t reveal my existence. For the first 100 years after that, I lived on pig and cow blood. On a very lucky day, I got to taste human blood – if I came upon a freshly dead corpse. But as you can guess, those were far and few between,”.
He rubbed his cheek and chuckled darkly.
“Your grandmother was a nurse. She stole bags of blood from the hospital. Your mother does the same. As I get older, my appetite isn’t what it used to be. Now, I can live on a bag of blood for a month. And some nights, when I’m feeling strong, I leave the house and find myself some animal… There’s nothing quite so satisfying as warm blood.”
He smacked his lips with a longing look in his eyes.
Rashmi had heard enough. She did not understand how or why she was still alive. But she wasn’t about to stick around and find out. Now where was the flashlight?
She looked up to see the old man, standing right in front of her. His cold breath washed over her face, as he whispered, “Now don’t go thinking you can blab about me to your stupid friends. Or that sister of yours, who just throws the lunch box from the top of the stairs. Remember, I am old and weak. But I am still a hundred times stronger than you. And anyone else you know.”
He handed her the flashlight, trailing one long nail on her cheek. His finger went to her throat. To the artery. To the name above it. With a sad sigh he murmured, “My big brother. He always loved me. Even after I turned. He kept my secret. As did his children and grandchildren. All the way to your mother. And now you. My kind doesn’t forget these favors. Especially not with his name tattooed over your throats.”
Rashmi gasped. The flashlight beam came on and she ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She pulled open the basement door when she heard the cold voice again. This time, from right behind her.
“Don’t come back here, sweet child. My willpower isn’t what it used to be. Your mother thinks that tattoo will protect you. Today it did… But next time, who knows?”
Rashmi turned around. The old man was there, his expression sad and lonely. But something moved under the surface. An ancient evil, begging to be released. A breeze fluttered in through the open door. Past her neck and onto the old man’s face. She saw the humanity go out of his eyes. A loud crack and something monstrous sprouted out of his shoulders.
And the teeth. Wicked, pointed and impossibly long. A creature about to rip her throat.
Her survival instincts kicked in and she leaped out of the basement, into the blessedly cool hallway. The door behind her slammed shut as she ran. All the way to the front door. Past the overgrown yard and the old bridge. She didn’t stop until she reached her house, where she thankfully passed out, one foot inside the backyard.
Rashmi didn’t speak for 3 whole days. Her mother didn’t press her for details, but showed up every time the little girl woke up screaming from a nightmare. Ramya was punished for a whole month, with no access to friends or (worse) her phone. She didn’t complain one bit and instead offered to play board games with her sister. A few weeks later, Rashmi spotted a flyer for a new house. In a different town. She smiled and nodded gratitude at her mother.
Life in their new home went by as usual. Rashmi sometimes worried about the “lunch box”. About who was now making the trips to the old house in the woods. But she asked no questions and turned off the TV when the news anchors spoke about “cattle go missing yet again”. So far, a 3 hundred-year-old promise was being kept. And that was good enough for her.