The Girl is Always Eaten At the End
“The Daddy Thing” by K. C. Mead-Brewer, recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
In “The Daddy Thing” by K. C. Mead-Brewer, a young girl named Juana befriends a vampire bat that enters her bedroom at night. It’s unclear if the bat, like so many fairy-tale characters come before, is a villain or a friend. The bat offers Juana a deal: if she shares her blood, the bat will “owe her.” It’s a bargain only a vulnerable and lonely person would make. “No one ever thinks they owe anything to people that young,” Mead-Brewer writes. Certainly no one has ever admitted to owing anything to Juana, not her abusive father, nor her terrified mother, her clueless teacher, or her imaginary sister. What the vampire bat will give her is unspecified, though it only has one skill, and that is drinking blood.
“You must listen to me, Juana,” her mother says, believing she is speaking metaphorically. “This is the way the story ends, you understand? This is the way it always ends… Vampires are parasites and they’ll take every drop you give them.”
I don’t want to share too much of what happens. Better that you get the story filtered through the eyes of Juana, who perceives the violence of her household as only a child can: in half understood shadows, the sound of her mother crying, a BANG BANG BANG on the door. “The sound that hits you, as if you yourself were the door.”
With “The Daddy Thing,” Mead-Brewer has written a modern fairy tale of the highest literary merit. Like the witch that cages children, or the wolf that swallows the grandma, the brutality of “The Daddy Thing” is at once laid bare and cleverly disguised. It makes sense: in life, violence is permanent; but in fairy tales, violence is reversible. The children escape the cage, the grandma is preserved in the wolf’s stomach. In “The Daddy Thing” the violence is spectral, hidden, yet pervasive. Waiting to be appeased. And like the best fairy tales, it is far too scary for children.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
The Girl is Always Eaten At the End
K. C. Mead-Brewer
by K. C. Mead-Brewer
Juana woke up to find her hair had come alive on her pillow. It might’ve startled her if not for the elderly voice, so small and papery, “Don’t scream, girl, whatever you do. My ears can’t take it.” It almost sounded like her abuelita’s voice. Except, of course, not dead.
Lying on her side staring at her bedroom door, Juana felt the open window breathing against her back. Had her mother left it open? She supposed she ought to be afraid, but she wasn’t. Even as young as she was, she was already a connoisseur of frights, and very little was left to scare her. Reminding herself of just this fact, she whispered, “Who are you?”
“I’m a vampire bat,” the bat said. “If you’d bother to look, you’d know.”
Though bats were one of the ‘very little’ things left that actually did make her nervous, the girl took a deep breath and sat up in bed. There, on her pillow, tittered the bat. Its tiny bat fingers, like needles, a pair of living fine-tooth combs. Its upturned nose, the shape of a rose petal. Its pointed ears, an elf’s ears.
“I was so tired,” the bat said, perhaps by way of apology, “I had to stop for a rest. Did you know that we vampire bats lose our ability to fly if we go more than a couple days without blood?”
Though the idea of it made her squeamish, the girl said, “That’s terrible,” and she meant it. After all, she could go two days without food and still walk. In fact, she knew from experience that she could go a full four days before anything really bad started happening.
The bat nodded like it’d known all along that Juana would understand. “We’ve been long without a good cave to live in, my colony and me, and all this moving around looking for one gets taxing.”
“Your cave?” The girl looked around her room. She’d never thought of it as a cave before. “What happened to your old one?”
The bat settled into the pillow as if at home, as if it’d been born right there on the moon-and-star print sheets. “It’s far behind us now, back in Mexico.”
Juana gasped her smile, whispering, “I’m from Mexico, too. Or, my abuelos are. Or, I mean, my bisabuelos are. I’ve never seen it.” She almost said, “My sister’s been there before,” but stopped herself. Her sister took so much explaining. The bat might not understand.
“It’s beautiful there,” the bat murmured. “Our cavern was beautiful. Then men came and burned us out of it. When I first opened my eyes, I thought it was the sun itself reaching in to take us. Its endless white hands grabbing us — you’ve seen it; you know. The noise of your city is nothing compared to the screams bottled down in that rock.”
Juana hugged herself. “I’m so sorry,” she said. And then, softly, “Lo siento, vampirita.” She wasn’t supposed to speak Spanish, not where Daddy might hear.
“The noise in your city, did you know it’s called white noise?” The bat shook its head as if to say, How did I never think of that? “Like they stuffed the air with cotton, and who can fly in that? So then I thought, There’s a nice girl in that room. I’ll go take a rest and comb out her hair for her and she’ll share a bit of blood with me.”
“Share my blood?” The idea made Juana think of doctors and syringes and tubes and, if she was being honest, those were all also part of the very little that still scared her.
“Don’t be nervous,” the bat said, attending to an itch beneath its left wing. “This is something all lady vampire bats do for each other. If ever one of us goes too long without blood, we just find a sister, and she coughs up a portion to share.”
“I’m not a bat though,” the girl said, sadly now. She liked the bat’s crinkly voice, and she especially liked the idea of having a sister to share things with. She’d almost had one once, the kind of sister other kids have, the kind of sister other people can see and understand, but then Daddy had thrown Mamá down the stairs.
“That’s all right, I could just bite you. What would you think of that?”
“I wouldn’t like it!” Juana scooted away on reflex. She’d been bitten by cats and bugs before, and even once by a boy named Samuel at school. Being bitten was definitely on the list of the very little that scared her.
“Come on,” said the bat. “It won’t hurt, and I’ll even owe you a bit more in addition to combing your hair. What do you say to that?”
“You’ll owe me?” No one had ever admitted to being in Juana’s debt before. She was so young, her feet dangled just above the floor when she sat at the table.
No one ever thinks they owe anything to people that young. Still, dubiously, “And it really won’t hurt?”
Strange images whorled around the girl’s brain: her little body drained dry right there under the blanket, her girlish blood later coughed by bats into rodent-sized goblets deep in the green-dark woods. There, owls and coyotes sit in solemn attendance, possums hang from branches like fat teardrops, all watching as she, stark and blood-empty, steps out in a dress made of struggling moths, the lunar ones glowing in all the most scandalous places.
“I promise,” said the bat, her beady eyes tired but sincere. “You won’t even feel a pinch.”
Juana squeezed her eyes shut and gave a small, brave nod. If she could’ve kept her eyes open, she might’ve laughed at how the little bat waddled up, clawing its way around as if her nightgown were made of ladders. She held out her arm, but the bat whispered, “No, no, this will be better. Trust me, this will be better,” and before Juana could ask what this was, there were tiny fangs stuck down in that tender spot where her left arm and her ribs and her not-yet-breast converged, the threshold to her armpit.
Normally she was so ticklish she couldn’t stand even the idea of being touched there. But as the peculiar heat of the bite settled in, like a friend scratching something for you, scratching a touch too hard, Juana was sure she’d never be ticklish again.
“Oh, my!” the bat said, smiling and patting its belly. “What a gift!” A little burp, the bat snuggled into Juana’s elbow.
The girl stiffened, trying not to cry out as she looked down at herself. “There’s blood — ” It rolled out of her arm and down her lavender nightgown in a long, bright ribbon.
“Wipe it, wipe it,” the bat said, handing Juana a corner of blanket. “My kiss keeps the blood from clotting. Don’t worry. It won’t go on for long.”
Juana dabbed her armpit. It really wasn’t as scary as all that, she decided. It didn’t hurt; the bat hadn’t lied.
Outside her window, emergency sirens ran weeping, racing from one corner of the city to another. Because somewhere someone was in trouble, dying in a fire or getting shot or feeling half of their face rapidly lose its faceliness, the same way her abuelita’s had done last year. The sirens came every night, all day, wailing for whomever they were rushing to save. But they never cried for her. No matter what happened, they never came crying for her.
Sometimes Juana pictured her little sister as a driver for one of them, an ambulance or a firetruck. (Never a police car, though. Juana hated guns, the angry way they sat curled in Daddy’s safe.) Sometimes she imagined her sister pulling up in front of their rowhome, sirens whooping. She’d stick her firefighter’s ladder right up to Juana’s window and smile as she carried her down, a kitten from a tree. Then they’d pack inside that hollering truck together and off they’d go, away, away.
Juana once told her teacher Miss Sexton about her sister’s driving career, how she saved people. She’d even saved the mayor once.
“Ursie?” Miss Sexton had said, smiling whitely, her trendy ballet-style sandals squeaking on the tile, mua-mua-mua. “I thought you said your sister’s name was Jasmine.”
The bat snuggled closer and Juana giggled. She’d never thought about cuddling a sister before or how nice that might be.
“Now, down to business,” the bat said, yawning up at the faux-copper tiled ceiling. A bunch of rooms in their old house had come with such fancily tiled ceilings, tin squares imprinted with winding vines or paisleys or fleur-di-lis. It was Juana’s favorite part of her room; what kept her company at night as she lay awake, listening. The sirens, the raised voices, the ghost that haunted her mother’s bedroom vanity, crying all the time. What did the bat think of her ceiling, she wondered. Could the tiles ever look a little like the rumpled stone walls of a cave? “Now, now, what can I do to repay you, pretty girl?”
It still dazzled Juana to think that someone owed her something. That someone owed her something and fully intended to make good on it.
They reclined together awhile in silence, thinking on this happy puzzle, letting their gazes blur on the tiles, bringing the patterns to life. Breezes and black starlight fell through the window. Juana wished quietly that Peter Pan or a non-crying ghost boy might fly in to spirit her away.
“I know!” said the bat. “Someone you don’t like — name them, and my colony and I will exsanguinate them for you.”
“You’ll do what?”
“We’ll suck out all the blood from their body. Every drop. You just say the name, and it’s done.”
Daddy was her first thought, and it startled her. Such an upsettingly easy thought, like it’d been sitting right there waiting at the very front of her brain. Juana couldn’t really want such a thing. She didn’t. No, no. She —
She’d never killed anyone before. Of course not. But she knew what death looked like, and she’d given it a good deal of consideration. The way her abuelita had looked, sleeping like an old, old princess in her coffin. (Why hadn’t Abuelito just kissed her awake?) The way her mother had looked on the floor, clutching her swollen middle, moaning, “What have you done? What have you done?”
Feeling panicked, she said, “You don’t have to give me anything. It’s all right.”
Her doorknob rattled, the door in its frame, big angry knocks. BANG BANG BANG. It made Juana jolt and draw her covers up tight. Because there it was, the thing at the top of her very little list: a banging at the door. The loud, violent sound of the uninvited. The sound that hits you, as if you yourself were the door.
“Who the hell are you talking to?” her father demanded from the other side. His name was Paul. He was white and tall and had long, tough arms like rope. Juana sometimes imagined him trapping her mother inside those arms, tying her down to train tracks. “Why the hell is this door locked?”
Hide, Juana mouthed to the bat.
The creature climbed up her shoulder, whispering, “I’ll tuck myself into your hair. I’ll give you advice. This is how I’ll repay you.”
The knob twisted like Paul was trying to wring its neck. “Juana Maria! Why is this goddamn door locked!”
“I didn’t lock it, Daddy,” she said, forcing herself to get out of bed, go to the door, reach for the lock. Her heart, her heart, her heart, her heart; she could feel it in her hands, behind her face.
“You’re going to let him in?” The bat jittered around the back of her neck.
“I have to,” Juana said. We’ll never be rid of him. That’s what the vanity ghost whispered as it cried in her mother’s room, back in the red darkness where it didn’t think Juana or anyone else could hear. We’ll never be rid of him. And he’d only get angrier the longer she made him wait.
The bat burrowed deeper under her hair, hugging the bottom curve of her skull. Juana felt the bat’s comb-fine fingers against her neck, down in the same spot where her mother had a tattoo of an elaborate black flower. A tattoo Juana often stroked with her own fine fingers. A Mexican dahlia, her mother had explained, but that was all she’d say. Her mother, Anna; Anna Full of Secrets.
“Just do as I tell you and you’ll be safe,” the bat promised her. “Just do as I tell you, hermanita.”
The door quaked in front of her and Juana could almost see her father standing behind it, quaking just as hard, fists down at his sides like the big weights inside their grandfather clock. Distantly, Juana heard the vanity ghost crying like it still couldn’t believe it was only a lonely ghost.
Watching the door shiver, Juana had the sudden uncanny sense that she was still lying down looking up, that it was her pounding on the door, her coffin lid. She’d felt her sister do the same thing, pounding against the inside of their mother’s body. Anna had smiled as she’d led Juana’s hand over her middle to feel the knocking. Let me out! Let me out! her sister had cried, banging and kicking, and all while Anna coo-cooed, “There, honey, can you feel it? She’s right there, can you feel it?”
“Juana!” her father yelled. BANG BANG BANG.
“I didn’t lock it, Daddy,” she said again. Her hand trembled up like smoke to turn the lock. BANG BANG — A delicate click.
She’d imagined the door springing open under her touch, one giant jack-in-the-box. But instead her father waited. All was silent outside the door, outside the window, inside her chest, and for a moment, Juana wondered if she’d dreamed the entire thing, bat and all. But no, there were her bare feet cold on the floor. There was the bat tucked beneath her hair, its tiny hands on her neck. Finally, she reached up to touch the knob again. She didn’t think she could actually open it, but she could touch it. Just touch it, and maybe then she’d be brave enough to do more.
“Daddy?” she whispered. There was a heavy thud, a thump, like when her mother flopped a bag of fresh apples onto the kitchen table. Except, bigger. Louder.
“Stay in your room, Juana.” The last voice she’d expected to hear.
“Stay in your room, baby. Stay in your room and don’t open the door, you understand me? Get back in bed.”
Juana stepped away, nearly screaming when her bare heel landed in something wet. She looked down; blood from her armpit had dripped all over the floor, looking so much like her mother’s blood that day at the base of the stairs, in the car after Daddy had driven Mamá to the hospital. A skinny trail, something a huntsman might follow through the woods to find her. We’ll never be rid of him. He’ll always find us in the end.
The bat gripped her tighter. “Looks like you won’t need my advice tonight, after all.”
The bat napped with her awhile, perhaps hoping she’d fall asleep first, but Juana didn’t sleep at all that night. Staring up at the ceiling, she counted the tiles and then their different embellishments. She tried not to think about the dragging sound outside her door or the way her mother grunted, the same noise she made hefting big bags of mulch and fertilizer for the garden. She tried not to think of the original builder of the house and how they must’ve gone about putting up all the tiles, crawling across the ceiling like a spider, lining each new square with webbing instead of glue, the entire house, one big web.
Juana blinked rapidly as the tiles began to quiver and peel under her unfocused gaze, so many dormant baby spiders, freshly hatched, finally skittering out to feed.
Juana sat with her parents over a breakfast of cornflakes, chocolate milk, and mango slices. Anna even let her drizzle honey on the cornflakes. Juana stirred them in her bowl; she liked how they crackled, reminding her of the little bat’s voice.
“You aren’t eating, gordita,” her mother said.
Juana looked to her father sitting across from her at the table. How could she eat with him looming there like that? Not dead, but not himself either. That big dent in the side of his head.
Anna had first tried hiding the dent under a hat, but it was no good. Paul never wore hats, so the dent only seemed highlighted by the addition. After the hat, she’d tried packing the gap full of play-doh, but the play-doh kept falling back out in a big lump onto the table. And anyway, they only had green play-doh, which didn’t look at all natural with Paul’s blond hair.
The dent was large as a jumbo avocado, right there above the left ear. It was close enough to his temple that it stretched the skin around his left eye, pulling it tight. Juana wondered if eventually that skin would droop and slacken, letting his eyeball go rolling out onto the floor. Tears kept forming there in the corner of that stretched eye, and so Anna was continuously dabbing it with napkins. A crumpled pile of them sat beside Paul’s hands on the table, as if he couldn’t stop thinking of the saddest thing in the world.
“Maybe if you hold his nose and make him blow?” Juana suggested. “Like the way you showed me to pop my ears. Maybe that would fix him.”
“Daddy’s fine,” her mother insisted for the eighteenth time. “Daddy doesn’t need fixing now.”
But Juana could tell her mother was just as bothered by this version of Daddy as she was. This Daddy who slouched. This Daddy who sat perfectly still and said nothing, his endless-large hands unmoving on the tabletop. This Daddy who Mamá had to arrange like furniture, his blue eyes staring off vacantly, forever unfocused. It made Juana shiver to think that he might be seeing the spiders now too, the ones crawling out from between the old sheets of wallpaper. It made her shiver to think he might never stop seeing them.
Her mother stood from the table, exasperated as Juana only continued stirring her cereal instead of eating it. She grabbed a mop bucket out from under the sink and, perhaps with more force than necessary, plunked it down on top of Paul’s head. “There!” she said. “Is that better?”
It made Juana’s stomach ache, seeing her powerful father that way, a fool, an idiot, a man with a bucket on his head, so it surprised her when she started laughing and couldn’t stop. Couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, until she had to put down her spoon and her eyes watered and her legs kicked and her chair scraped back from the table with the force of it all.
“Stop that now and eat your breakfast,” her mother said, but she’d already begun laughing herself.
They were both still laughing when Juana ran out to catch the school bus, laughing so hard it sounded like they were screaming. Two women screaming and screaming in a tall empty house haunted by a tall, empty man.
All day at school Juana thought of her father with the dent in his head and the old bat tangled in her hair, its tiny hands brushing the back of her neck. Did she have a tattoo back there, too? One she didn’t know about? Did all girls have a tattoo somewhere, marking them for something?
She didn’t get why her mother would’ve chosen a dahlia. It wasn’t like she had any growing in her garden. And what was that down in the center of her flower? — a skull? A tiny baby’s face, grinning? (Did Anna even know this hidden center existed?) Why have it drawn where she couldn’t see it for herself? And why ever show Daddy, knowing how angry he’d be? The night he’d thrown the lamp across the room, the way she’d leaned an arm against the microwave to balance herself, her face so red, scalded by her own tears.
For the longest time, these questions hadn’t existed for Juana. Her parents were, are, always. The streetlights come on at night and the sirens weep and the sky is a hard heavy gray; this is the way things are. But Juana knew mothers and fathers weren’t that way anymore. They weren’t any kind of predictable way. She’d learned as much from school and TV. (Juana watched lots and lots of TV.) Divorces and deaths and “separations.” That boy Samuel had never even met his father. His mother had broken up with him. That’s how Samuel explained it. Broken up with. Though sometimes Juana wasn’t sure if by him Samuel meant his father or himself. His mother was her own woman. Samuel carried this fact around like a badge worn upside-down. His mother was her own woman, something Samuel constantly reminded everyone of, kicking the kid in front of him or dumping someone’s lunch or snapping all the pencils in his case. His mother was her own woman and it was important for boys to grow up knowing that women were their own and no one else’s. Something had changed for Samuel’s mother. So why couldn’t it for her? For Mamá?
Juana touched her armpit, the little pink bite-mark that she’d been able to make out in the bathroom that morning, twisting in front of the mirror. It was the most private place she’d ever been touched.
While Miss Sexton went on about stupid things, Juana filled all available pieces of paper with drawings of bats. She needed to draw hundreds of them if she was going to create a full colony. She’d looked it up online at home: A family of bats is called a colony; hundreds of bats, a thousand! They talked through echolocation and slept dangling by their feet like Christmas ornaments. They could run and jump and fly and flip around at all angles. She drew them soaring and landing and hanging and perching and sharing blood with each other (it looked like they were kissing!). She drew them happy in their cave-palace. A palace full of rocks that forked up and down like teeth, ready to chew up anything that came knocking uninvited.
For three days it went on like this: The vanity ghost crying softly or loudly or grimly (was it moving around the house? — slipping through the walls, riding a herd of spiders?), Anna propping up Paul in various rooms and positions, pouring liquids down his throat like she was watering a particularly troublesome plant, and Juana going to bed early after school, waiting for a weary bat to come and feed at her armpit, a creature she’d taken to cradling as if it was her own little baby fluttered in through the window.
This day would be no different, surely. Except, no, it already was. It was its own day.
Juana wanted to wait in her room for the bat to return just as she had before. She planned to offer it more blood, and she wouldn’t even mind if the bat didn’t want to pay her back anymore. So long as it came at all. Though, of course, she finally knew what she’d ask for if the bat was still interested in giving her something. She’d ask to be somewhere else. She’d ask to go live with them and become part of the colony. She wanted to break up with her parents like Samuel’s mother had broken up with his father. She would try explaining to the bat, I think my mamá hurt my daddy. I think she lost her temper at him — really, really lost it. You can’t lose things more than my mamá. Losing is what she does.
But her mother didn’t want to do that. Her mother wanted to stay up late. “Like a slumber party,” she said. “It’ll be just us girls. Won’t that be fun?”
All through the house Juana felt the heavy presence of her father, though she didn’t see him anywhere downstairs, not stuffed on the sofa or folded up at a kitchen chair to look like he was sitting. Getting home from school, she’d half-wondered if maybe he hadn’t gotten better during the day, his dent popping out like a plastic soda bottle, and gone to work as usual.
But there was his car on the street. There was his manly Daddy-smell, thickening the air.
“He’s upstairs sleeping,” her mother told her, kept telling her. “Daddy’s fine. He’s just upstairs sleeping.”
Juana did and didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to picture him there, lying in bed, his dented head leaving a funny impression on the pillow. But she also didn’t want to turn a corner and suddenly find him tilted back against the grandfather clock, an old lampshade on his head like he was some cartoon character drunk at a party. Or, worse yet, when her mother had put him in “time-out,” turning his chair so that it faced away into a corner. The way he’d stared and stared into the wall, such a bad, bad boy, his hands limp in his lap, his feet on the floor, a silent line of tears leaking from his stretched left eye.
Knowing or not knowing, Juana couldn’t tell which was worse. Though none of it changed the fact: No matter where he was, he was everywhere.
“Come on,” her mother said, using old bedsheets and couch cushions to make up a fort in the living room. “Let’s eat popcorn and tell shiver stories!”
There was an odd edge to her mother’s voice, but Juana didn’t know the name of it. Not that she could blame her. She wouldn’t want to sleep in the same room as that Daddy-thing either.
Her mother hunkered down under the tented sheets with a flashlight and a bowl of kettle corn, a whole twelve-pack of root beers. The way she sat, her pink nightgown rode halfway up her brown legs. Juana hadn’t seen so much of her mother’s skin since she didn’t know when. Even in the summertime, Anna had always kept herself covered. Still, all Juana could think about was her room upstairs, her open window, and what if the bat saw her empty bed and decided to never come back again? What if she was stuck forever in this house with her sad mother and the crying ghost and a hundred unexplainable sisters and that towering zombie of a Daddy-thing?
“I think I’d rather go to bed,” she said, “I don’t feel good.” This was almost never a lie. Stomach-aches plagued Juana constantly. She was well used to the feel of her own arms squeezed about herself, the sharp smell of the nurse’s office at school.
But her mother said, “Oh, you don’t mean it,” and Juana truly didn’t know how to argue with that. “Come on, come on. What story would you like to hear? — the one about the mummy? La Loba? Or the little orphan ghosts?”
“Bats,” Juana said, louder than was necessary. Maybe if she spoke loudly enough, the bat would hear her from upstairs and know not to leave. She drank her soda standing, hoping at any moment she might find some opportunity to bolt. All but shouting, “Tell me a story about vampire bats.”
Anna flinched, rubbing her forehead. “Inside voices, Juana. What’s the matter with you?” Anna scratched her neck; or was she scratching her tattoo? “Vampire bats?”
Maybe a little quieter, “The kind that drink blood.”
“I don’t know any good vampire stories, gordita. Pick something else. And sit down already — come here, come here, cuddle up with your mamá.”
Juana huffed and swallowed her root beer in obnoxious gulps. She couldn’t keep her eyes from straying back to the stairs. “Tell me a true story, then,” she said. “A story about Daddy.”
She was sure her mother wouldn’t do it. She was sure her mother would give up this fantasy and let her go back upstairs. It didn’t usually take much for her mother to give up.
Anna sat back, drawing the sodas and popcorn closer, as if they might protect her. “A story about Daddy?”
The house creaked. The wind was a fist, squeezing and squeezing it. The wind, or maybe her sister. Kaylie, larger than any gripping storm. “Just an old broad’s bitching and moaning,” her father had liked to say of such noises. Would he still like saying that? Did he still like things at all, this new Daddy? Or did he exist only because he had to, because the world knew as well as she did: We’ll never be rid of him.
“Okay,” her mother said, and it surprised Juana so much that she finally did sit down. “Okay, I’ll tell you a story about vampires.”
“And then I can go to bed?”
Anna’s face scrunched and folded, and Juana knew she shouldn’t have said it. She’d hurt her mother’s feelings, but there wasn’t time to feel bad about it. There wasn’t time. Why couldn’t Mamá understand that?
“The vampire was a tall, handsome man,” Anna said, moving her hands through the air as if to give him shape. “He was so handsome, in fact, that he couldn’t wear silk or velvet or tuxedoes because the material was always so jealous of him that it rotted right off his body, out of spite.”
Juana couldn’t help but lean in, scoot closer.
“But the vampire had a problem: No one would invite him anywhere because they’d all learned that he drank blood. So gauche, the ladies said,” and the face Anna made had Juana giggling even despite the Daddy-thing upstairs. “Puts a fellow off his cigar, the men said. And so the vampire had to go looking for people to entertain him — and, of course, for people to drink. He used to be a friendly vampire, never killing anyone and only taking the politest of sips when he had permission, but being lonely is hard. It rubs all kinds of rough edges into a person. It made him angry, it made him look all the more romantic, and it made him so angry. All the young girls thought he was like a steep ocean cliff, stormy and dangerous and compelling.”
Juana shivered; the wind, her sister, was pushing in through her bedroom window upstairs. Could the breeze really find her all the way in the living room? She thought she heard a rustling, a small sound, like a parade of sewing needles down the bannister. The house groaned again and Juana’s skin tried to shrink away from her. It wasn’t him, she reminded herself. He was asleep upstairs.
“And soon there was one young girl — and she was just the right kind of girl; dreamy and hungry to fall in love; she’d never once been hurt, not even splinters could bear the thought — who was convinced by this vampire to go out dancing one night. Just dancing, he told her. Not dinner.”
Her mother grinned like this was a divine joke, a joke that might save them. She grinned, but couldn’t keep her lips from quivering.
Juana shivered again and again. That skittering-rustling sound, as though an entire tree’s worth of dead leaves had fallen down right there in the den, the black night breeze stirring them over the wooden floor. She turned to look, but nothing was there. Of course nothing was there. The Daddy-thing upstairs didn’t move on its own. Hadn’t moved from the bedroom all evening.
But what did it matter if the Daddy-thing hadn’t moved so far? This quiet wasn’t so different from all the other quiet times before. The times when Juana had almost convinced herself that things were better, that things would always be better and maybe they’d never been that bad to begin with. The quiet times when Daddy had smiled a lot and told his own stories and cooked pancakes — he called them griddle cakes — and tried teaching Juana things, like how to make spätzle and to use a computer like a proper young lady. He’d taken her to the aquarium, too. He knew everything there was to know about dolphins and octopuses. He knew why the aquarium’s giant sea turtle had only three fins.
Even Miss Sexton — the boys in class called her Miss Sexy; her blond hair braided up with pink and purple pencils — had hung on Daddy’s every word about all the different underwater creatures, what would bite and what would sting, what would poison and what would lure. Daddy’s stories about hammerhead sharks had spooked Miss Sexton so badly she’d grabbed hold of his hand. The three of them holding hands under all that heavy, pressing blue. And if something had felt wrong about it, Juana was too nervous to say anything, to risk shortening Daddy’s quiet time. Because all quiet times end the same way.
“So the girl went with the handsome vampire for a dance,” her mother said. “It was at a special location, the vampire told her. A special ballroom out in the middle of nowhere, a place so dark and deep that it was said the stars floated out like candles on water, all around. So they travelled through the city and down into the doggy suburbs and out past all the houses and electric streetlights to a place where they had to get out of their car and take a horse and carriage. And all the while the girl thought she’d never met anyone who’d made her feel as wonderful as he did. And all the while the vampire wondered if maybe this girl might really be the one for him, the one who could finally make his angry heart feel full.”
A crinkling, as if a foot had stepped down into those living room leaves, crushing them. Juana startled, looked around. Sometimes her sister liked to make herself invisible and sneak up to run icy hands down her back. A regular trickster, that Roxane. But then Juana spotted it, there on the bookshelf — the bat. The animal waved a tiny claw at her and the girl whirled back around to her mother. If Anna saw the bat, she would shriek. She would hurt the bat’s old ears. She would try chasing it back out of the house.
“Juana? What’s — ”
“What happens next?” Juana asked, scooching closer. “In the story. At the dance.”
Anna’s eyes narrowed on her suspiciously, as if Juana was transforming into someone else right in front of her, into her secret self, her features rearranging. Who did her mother see? Juana gripped her own hands tight to keep from touching her face, to keep from inspecting the change. Was she becoming a vampire bat? Did their bites work the same as a werewolf’s? Who did her mother see? She had her father’s nose, she knew. (Everyone said so.) And sometimes they said she had her father’s mouth or smile. One woman even said she had her father’s forehead. But she couldn’t be turning into him. Not the Daddy-thing lying upstairs. That wasn’t how it worked. Being your father’s daughter, that wasn’t the same as being his were-child. Right? (Right?)
We’ll never be rid of him. Juana almost started crying, the thought pinched her so hard. We’ll never be rid of him.
“What happens next?” Anna repeated, a cold echo, and then her eyes filled with tears as well, as if in answer to her daughter’s. She smiled a mean, trembling smile. “Well, the vampire eats her up right there in the carriage and has the horse for dessert.”
Juana tensed to run, to go anywhere but where she was, but her mother grabbed her wrists and held her in place.
“You must listen to me, Juana. This is the way the story ends, you understand? This is the way it always ends. No matter where the girls go for help, no matter what they look like or what they want, if they’re eaten in one swallow or bite-by-bite for years, no matter — this is the way the story ends.”
“Vampire bats aren’t like that!” Juana yanked at her arms and finally her mother let go. She stumbled to her feet. “Vampire bats share with each other. They take care of each other.”
Her mother shook her head. “Vampires are parasites and they’ll take every drop you give them.”
Daddy. For some reason, it was all she could think. Daddy. Daddy — “Is Daddy really upstairs?” She sucked up tears through her nose. “Will he stay there forever?”
Anna finished her root beer, crumpling the aluminum. “Not forever. I’ll have to take him out to clean and change him. I’ll have to find a different job now that he’ll be leaving his.”
“I don’t feel good, Mamá,” and this time it was true. She eyed the bat, and the creature understood. It scurried from shadow to shadow, making its way back upstairs. “I’m gonna go to bed.”
Her mother flexed the can in her grip, the bones in her hand stark as a bird’s, featherless, flightless. “Dream of somewhere faraway,” she said. She held herself. “Somewhere beautiful.”
Juana rushed up the stairs, but then slowed, almost stopped — what if the Daddy-thing had gotten out of bed? Juana, what have I told you about running in the house? She always forgot. How did she always forget?
Inching down the long, narrow hall toward her bedroom, she looked for the bat but couldn’t find it. She listened for her sister, the wind, but couldn’t hear her. The vanity ghost had gotten into the walls again, dragging its sad sounds around, and the sirens wept a chorus outside. Juana could hear them wandering up and down the streets like La Llorona, another of Anna’s shiver stories. The ghost-mother doomed to roam the world in search of the children she’d drowned before she’d gone and drowned herself. All to please her own handsome vampire. Juana wondered if it wasn’t just another kind of echolocation, those sirens. The heartbroken kind. Did prayer work the same way? Bouncing sound off of God? Perhaps that was the problem; she simply hadn’t been praying loud enough.
Her parents’ door sat endless still in its frame, a dead heart. One that might start beating again at any moment, pounding. Her father had that power, to make hearts pound.
If she crept softly enough, perhaps she wouldn’t wake anything up, the dead heart, the sleeping Daddy-thing. Perhaps if she tiptoed through the entire rest of her life, all the monsters would stay asleep and no one would ever notice her again.
“Little sister!” The noise was small but still made her jump. “Little sister!” the bat said, whispering from her open doorway a little farther down the hall. The creature waved for her to hurry and Juana did, holding her breath as her abuelita had taught her to do. Whenever you pass a grave, always hold your breath. That way the ghosts won’t be jealous of your breathing and try to steal down inside of you.
Daddy might not have been dead, but Juana knew a grave when she saw one.
As far as she knew, the vanity ghost had never been interested in her or her breath. It preferred her mother’s things. Her mother was thin like a ghost and took to wafting around instead of actually stepping anywhere; so maybe that was it, maybe the ghost recognized her as one of its own, a pre-ghost. But then sometimes Juana thought about her mother lying there at the bottom of the stairs. Sometimes Juana thought about her lying there holding her baby-filled middle instead of holding her breath. How she’d been gasping, panting. And sometimes Juana wondered how jealous her sister must’ve been, to feel her own grave breathing when she never would.
She closed the bedroom door behind her, clak clak clak clak, gently as possible. But the careful quiet was nearly ruined when she turned and only just stopped herself from screaming.
The entire room was a-glitter with bats. They crawled over everything, down the walls, under the bed, pointy ears sticking up from within dresser drawers, white fangs testing out the glass bowl of a lampshade, the plastic roof of her dollhouse.
“I brought the entire colony!” the little bat said. And then, her voice falling, “What’s left of us.”
Their presence pushed Juana back against the door and she put a hand to her chest, just like frightened women did on TV. One bat had been fine, fine, plenty fine, but this many — so many of them! — she couldn’t breathe. As if they’d roosted down inside her lungs.
“Why?” she managed, trying to remember to be quiet, her mother in the living room, the Daddy-thing down the hall. “Why did you bring them here?”
“I had to show you to them,” the bat said. “The girl who shared her blood with me.”
“I don’t have enough blood for everyone,” she whispered, tears panicking out of her.
“Baby, baby,” the bat said. “We didn’t come for that. I just wanted them to meet you.”
Juana’s heart sank back down from the top of her head. “Just to meet me?”
All at once her tears changed from dread to wonderment. Because it was coming true. Her dream. They would fly her away just as she’d hoped. They would fly her away to their new home and she would live with them in the woods, in caves, building campfires every night. She would teach them that not all fire was bad. She would traipse and clomp and dance in the mud, and the only time she’d ever have to tiptoe again was when she was hunting her own food, stalking deer through the trees, hopscotching wet stones to fish with a spear she’d made herself. She would be her own woman. She would surround herself with a thousand wild sisters.
“Señora,” she said, suddenly calm, an adult calm, sniffling only a little, “do you still owe me for the blood I gave you?”
The bat blinked, surprised, crawling up the left leg of Juana’s pajama bottoms. “Yes, of course, I do, of course.”
“Then I know what I want. I want to go with you. I want to be part of the colony. I’ll share my blood whenever I can if only you’ll let me come with you.”
The bat settled in on her shoulder, sighing as she braided a column of Juana’s dark hair. “I’m sorry, sweet girl. That’s something I can’t do.”
Juana wanted to scream and fling the bat across the room. She wanted to stomp on one and then all of their tiny winged bodies until they popped. She wanted her walls coated in the shiny blood they’d drunk. Instead, she slid down the door and sat there, her limbs sprawled around her as if deflated.
“You aren’t a bat,” the bat said, trying to explain. “You can’t fly. You can’t make other bats. You can’t do what a bat needs to do.”
“And girls? What do girls need to do?” The words sloshed out of her, a bucket of tears. “Because I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t tiptoe everywhere forever. I can’t. I won’t remember. I always forget. I’ll die. I’ll die. I’ll die.”
“What are you saying?” The bat sounded put out, as if Juana were embarrassing her in front of the other bats. “What is all this, Juana?”
The girl shook her head, all the bat’s good work undone as her braided hair fell loose. She would never be like Miss Sexy, all those pretty pencils in her pretty blond hair and the ballet slippers going mua-mua-mua as she passed by. Like the floor itself couldn’t help but kiss her.
“I can’t stay here,” she whispered. “I have to run away before the Daddy-thing wakes up. Before the dent in his head pops back out again.”
“The Daddy-thing?” The bat waved for all the other bats to gather round, as if for a story of their own.
“It’s in bed right now.” But Juana looked behind her as if it might not be anymore, as if the hulking Daddy-thing might actually have its ear pressed tight to the door. “Mamá says it’s asleep.”
“Show us,” the bat whispered back. “Show us and maybe we can take care of it. Maybe this is what we can do for you.”
Again Juana imagined her father drained of blood, his body like a pressed flower between the sheets. She wondered how different that would be from what Mamá had done. But, no. Unmoving wasn’t the same as dead. People didn’t take care of dead things — clean and change him, Mamá had said, tending him like one of her tomato plants. People didn’t do that for dead things. People buried them. Juana had seen them do it with Abuelita.
And maybe her mother would be glad if he was dead, but Juana thought it just as likely that she wouldn’t be. Mamá’s feelings were a mystery to her, changing constantly like the colors on her face.
Besides, people who killed people went to jail. If Daddy died, then the sirens would come for her at last. They’d come screaming to her door and carry her screaming away. No, no, no. We’ll never be rid of him.
“You can’t,” she whispered to the bats, the sound so soft and wet she could hardly even hear it herself. “You can’t take all of his blood out and kill him. I’d get in trouble.”
The bats exchanged various looks, their dozens of dark heads turning this way and that; it reminded Juana of New Year’s Eve, how the lights had glimmered on her mother’s black sequined dress. They chirped at each other, speaking too quickly and too high-pitched for the girl to catch even a syllable.
The little bat was right. She’d never fit in with the colony, a family with its own beliefs and history, its own secret language full of codes and nicknames and jokes. Her insides went to sludge and all at once her arms felt painfully heavy, as if, in the face of it all, they’d given up the fight of being arms. Why bother. Why try. Why tiptoe when you can simply lie down and die.
“Show us,” the bat said again once all the others had quieted. “Show us the Daddy-thing.”
Before she left for school, Juana caught her mother on her cellphone, cupping the device to her ear and keeping her voice low.
“He left,” Anna said, probably to Miss Chloe, another mom from school. Mamá said they were best friends, but Miss Chloe had never been invited over for dinner or anything like that. (No one was.) Juana liked her all right. Miss Chloe was white and a little older than her mother and had tattoos all over — maybe so no one would notice that first tattoo; the one all girls come stamped with. The one that marks them.
Juana had started searching for her own tattoo each morning in the bathroom mirror. Still nothing. For all she knew, her entire body was one big tattoo, one big ceiling that’d been tiled over at birth. Who knew what might be underneath something like that? Maybe the bat could be wrong, after all. Maybe all it’d take was cracking off a few of those tiles for a pair of dark wings to come poking out.
“He just…left,” Anna said again, and though her voice cracked a little, she was smiling. Then she wasn’t smiling; she was crying. But then she was sort of almost smiling as she cried. “I still can’t believe it. No note or anything. Didn’t even take the car. Am I supposed to file a missing person’s report?”
Juana still couldn’t tell if her mother was more upset or glad that the Daddy-thing was out of the house. Two days it’d been gone already. Two days of no tiptoeing or whispering or taking corners real, real slow. And yet, maybe some part of Juana didn’t miss him a tiny bit, too. The way he’d smile sometimes, or the woodsy look of him in greens and browns. The way he absolutely never slouched, always wide and tall as a knight. If you ever ran into one of his shoulders, it’d be you that was left with a dent.
Even Miss Sexton came up and asked about him. She’d put one of her slim white hands on Juana’s shoulder — they didn’t hold hands in school, Miss Sexton had explained, never in school — and smiled a funny smile, worrying one of its corners with her straight white teeth, asking first, “How’s everything at home, Juana?” and then, “Has your daddy been helping you with your homework?” and then, “I heard there’s a bit of a cold going around. Have your parents been feeling all right? Your daddy?”
Everything’s fine, Miss Sexton. No, I’ve been doing my homework all on my own. And no, I don’t think they’ve got colds. We all got our flu shots together at the grocery store.
Miss Sexton had squeezed Juana’s shoulder before walking away, mua-mua-mua, but tighter than usual. Almost a pinch.
The truth was, Juana didn’t know where the Daddy-thing was anymore. Not during the day, at least.
The excited way the bats had reviewed his empty condition — “Empty as a cave,” they’d said. “Not a person at all!” — they hadn’t spared a thought to telling her where they might head next. Not that they owed her any such information. Not now that they were spiriting away this Daddy-thing for her. How large his body was — “Plenty of room for all of us!” they’d twittered. And then, one after another, they’d plopped inside of him, sliding over his limp tongue and crawling down his throat, so many little hands pushing up against his insides — like her sister’s hands, Juana had realized, stunned, exactly like her sister’s hands had pushed out from deep inside her mamá. The Daddy-thing, their very own portable blood-cave, something that no one would ever burn them out of, their white-man suit. So long as they could keep his heart beating, they could have it all, they could have it all.
“Abuelita was wrong,” Juana had whispered, watching them. “Abuelita was all wrong.”
Manipulating their new body-cave, an army of tiny puppeteers, the bats had a hard few minutes getting the Daddy-thing up out of bed and walking around. But once they had it, they had it. The body a bubbling, shambling mass. Its wet mouth shining in the dark.
“Look at us, Juana! We’re Daddy Dracula,” the bats had all laughed inside of him, their new joke. “Just call us Daddy Dracula!”
Juana put her head down on her desk, looking off at Samuel as he snapped one pencil after another from the latest box his mother had given him. Her eyes felt woolen. She wasn’t sure how much more she could cry. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep ignoring the Daddy Dracula outside her window each night, the hobbling man with the undulating face. The one she would never be rid of. The one who made beautiful bats hideous. The one who stood out on the sidewalk, staring up and up at her moonlit window as if it were just another ceiling tile. Perhaps waiting for the night when she’d finally crawl out from under it and join him.