Jonathan was out on his front porch swing, engrossed in another vampire book, when he gave a shiver and, looking up, caught his neighbor’s dark eye. Willy was across the street, standing on his own front porch. ‘Okay if I come over?’ he called apologetically.
With a tight smile Jonathan closed the book and slipped it beneath a cushion on the seat beside him. ‘Sure thing,’ he said and watched as the old man crossed the road under the arch of the sycamore trees. His movement had a curious floating quality, as if he was being drawn from his own house and over to Jonathan’s by a powerful magnet.
Up the three steps from the path he came and stood where he always stood, his shoulder blades and head of white hair just resting against the porch’s brick pillar. It was the third time he’d invited himself over in the two weeks since Jonathan had moved in. Jonathan never made room on the porch swing or offered to bring out a chair, and Willy never asked for one. ‘I won’t keep you long.’ His doleful voice had a trace of accent. ‘You’re not too busy?’
Jonathan shook his head, tasting a familiar blend of anger and frustration. Anger because he had work to do and he liked his front porch; he should be able to sit there without molestation. Frustration because he wasn’t the type to ask another person to leave him in peace. ‘Just reading,’ he said.
He gave a tiny shrug, glad that he’d thought to hide the book whose cover showed a solitary vampire stalking a cobbled, lamp-lit street. ‘Bit of research.’ He spoke the last word as though it were in italics, meaning to convey the fact that his reading was for work rather than pleasure.
‘For a class?’ asked Willy.
‘No,’ said Jonathan reluctantly. ‘No, it’s for a novel I’m working on.’
‘Ah, so you’re a writer!’
‘Anything I might have heard of?’
‘Unlikely.’ It was six years since his last book, his second, which had sold fewer than a thousand copies. Two years since he’d parted company with his agent, Ruth, who was also the last woman he’d dated.
‘I do a bit of writing myself.’
Jonathan looked past the old man’s head, along the twin rows of sycamores that made of the street a leafy cathedral.
‘Funny that we’re both of us writers,’ Willy prodded.
‘Is it?’ asked Jonathan sharply. This was a tactic of Willy’s, insisting on how alike they were: two un-family men living alone; both of them teachers, though Willy was retired. But between a man in his late sixties, as Jonathan estimated, and a busy man of forty like himself, there was a world of difference. He chose to be solitary, so as to fulfill the demands of his work, but Willy’s solitude was enforced. For him, there were too many hours in the day and, whatever he did to fill them, sooner or later loneliness would drive him out in search of company.
Undeterred, Willy was starting to pick up steam. He talked and Jonathan responded, polite but offering no encouragement, nothing that might prolong the conversation. At each pause it was Willy who raised a fresh topic: candidates for the local elections; recycling schedules; his collection of nineteenth century prints, modest but not without interest, that Jonathan must come over and see. After a while Jonathan ceased to listen. He sat on the porch swing, tipping gently back and forth, and gazed blankly up at the old man’s face.
Ever since childhood he’d been possessed of a vivid imagination. In recent years, however, the nature of his imaginings had altered somewhat; they’d taken on a malicious quality. Now, as he watched the old man speak, he imagined Willy’s lips drawn back to reveal a pair of elongated incisors. He saw him spreading his arms to either side, stretching the loose folds of his cardigan into bat wings. His next-door neighbor as vampire: the notion pleased him immensely. He went on studying Willy, not listening to his words, while his mind assembled further evidence: those white eyebrows drooping at either end, speech marks framing deep-set eyes; haggard features, milk-white skin and the fact that he never smiled; the accent—Central Europe? Eastern? Taken together, the evidence was damning: Willy was clearly a vampire. A cap-in-hand, suburban sort of vampire in his button-down shirts and sandals, not the sort against which you needed a crucifix or garlic, but nonetheless persistent, nonetheless deadly.
For several minutes Jonathan managed to amuse himself in this fashion but then amusement ebbed and anger and frustration re-surfaced. The afternoon was tipping towards evening and it seemed that Willy would never leave. There was a series of false dawns, moments when it seemed impossible that the old man could prolong the conversation, only for his teeming brain to throw up some new thread. But then at last he really did go. Not, however, before he’d produced a gift from the pocket of his cardigan. It was sycamore wood; he’d carved it himself from a fallen limb. ‘You could use it as a letter opener,’ he suggested, his cold hand closing Jonathan’s fingers about the polished wood.
Alone again at last, Jonathan thought to resume his reading. He went so far as to pick up the book but the light was fading and he lacked the energy now to go in and switch on the porch lamp. For a novel I’m working on, he’d told Willy, and that had indeed been his intention when he opened his first vampire book, a parting gift from Ruth, hardly his sort of thing but why not? Now, eighteen months and forty-odd books later, both fiction and non-fiction, he wasn’t so sure he believed in the novel. With each book he read it seemed to recede but still he kept reading, book after book, movies too.
An eerie silence had settled over the street. No cars passing, no joggers, nobody out walking their dog. He’d seen Willy go in but no light showed as yet in the windows of the house opposite. Damn Willy! Why had he let himself be distracted again by that desperate, tiresome man? Something more than simple politeness, he thought, more than charity. Was it for his grandparents’ sake? But they were dead and, besides, his memories of them were none too fond. Fear for his parents, perhaps, far away and getting no younger?
He shook his head, banishing the gloomy train of thought, and got up to go inside. As he rose Willy’s gift tumbled off the swing where he’d set it down and landed on the tiles with a solid thud. He picked it up and went to stand on the top step of the porch. Raising the carving to what was left of the daylight, he examined it closely for the first time. It was eight inches high with a flat bottom, roughly cylindrical save for a finger-shaped section that protruded at ninety degrees from the top, narrowing to a point. The carving felt cool in his hand; it fitted the curl of his palm. As he turned it about, the top brought to mind the head and slender beak of a woodpecker. The beak was a good four inches long and tapered to a point. He tested it against the pad of his index finger and felt a swelling bead of blood.
The carving was nothing at all like a letter opener. It would make a handy weapon though; you could take someone’s eye out with that beak or . . . He recalled a vampire slayer’s kit he’d seen in a museum: the crucifix and the garlic, syringes and silver bullets and a stake. The stake had surprised him; it was smaller than what you saw in the movies, like a hammer with one head stretched and sharpened to a point. It didn’t take much imagination to see Willy’s carving performing the same function.
He gripped the base of the carving, bringing it up level with his shoulder, and let himself imagine. He imagined himself stalking across to the house opposite, up the steps and in through the door, catching Willy unawares and knocking him to the floor. With one knee he pinned the old man to the carpet, staring down into those dark sockets. He didn’t flinch—hesitation was fatal—but brought the carving to bear in a long arc, an inch to the left of the sternum, between the eighth and ninth ribs. The point pierced cloth, skin, ligament; bone cracked and it found its way to the pulsing muscle. Face contorted in anger and pain, the vampire gave a wild, throaty scream that dwindled to a death rattle.
Still standing on his own front porch, Jonathan shuddered as though from a static shock and flung the carving away, onto the darkened lawn. It was not the violence of his imagination that caused him to shudder but an odd trick it had played. For a moment, as he stared in triumph at the dying vampire’s face, the features had looked less like Willy’s than his own prematurely aged.
As the horrid vision faded his eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away, staring across the deserted street at the shape of the house opposite. He stood there a long while without moving, stood with his face to the gathering darkness as though reluctant to turn and go back into his empty house.