“Back in your box, Laila.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“It’s getting late. In your box, now!”
“Come on Mom, just a little longer, please?” Laila had perfected the whine. She’d learned it from their neighbors, a spectral family who spoke to one another in that ghastly, wailing tone. Cynthia bemoaned their arrival in the neighborhood. They lowered the standard. Soon it will all have gone to the dogs… Quite literally. Where ghosts roamed, the wolves soon followed.
“Come on, let me stay up a little longer. I just want to see the sunrise.”
“No, and no!” Cynthia eyed her rebellious daughter with resignation, hoping this ‘sunshine and rainbows’ aesthetic she was rocking was just a phase. There was only so much fuchsia pink lipstick and glittery mauve eye shadow that a mother could bear. Thank Hades that Leila’s father was interstate on business. He’d explode if he could see what his daughter was wearing. The plaid skirt in shades of purple and pink was paired with a cream knitted top. Cream! It was perfectly vile, and Cynthia was hard pressed not to show any emotion, because of course, the moment she reacted, Laila would take it even further. Cynthia could just imagine bows and bleached blond hair. It was enough to make her shudder, so she kept her face carefully neutral. Raising teenagers these days was a tricky situation. There were so many outside influences, so many online influencers. Back when Cynthia was sixteen, she had no idea that makeup even existed. The natural pallor of her skin was good enough.
“Young lady, if you don’t get straight into your box now, so help me, I will take away your phone and disconnect the internet for two months!”
Laila’s eyes narrowed. Holy hell, was she wearing false eyelashes? Cynthia waited for the barrage of teenaged angst, but it didn’t come. Laila scowled, huffed a curse word under her breath that sounded suspiciously like “Jesus!” and flounced from the room, plaid skirt swinging. Cynthia chose to ignore the curse word and the attitude, and be grateful that the little rebel had complied.
Once she was sure that Laila had stomped upstairs to her room, Cynthia stood and slid open the kitchen drawer to retrieve a large, heavy hammer. Swinging the tool nonchalantly, enjoying the feeling of its weight in her hand, she followed her daughter upstairs.
The door creaked ominously as she pushed it open. Laila sat before a mirror, (where the hell did she get one of those?) removing her makeup with face cream. The reflection showed her hideous outfit and face paint, but no face, because of course, vampires have no reflection.
“You shouldn’t ruin your skin with that rubbish.” The words were out before Cynthia could stop them. She had promised herself that she wouldn’t react, wouldn’t criticize, wouldn’t give Laila the reaction she expected.
“It’s my skin.”
“And it needs to last you for your entire life. Don’t forget, it won’t repair if you damage it with all those chemicals.”
“Mom, you are so old-fashioned.” Laila threw the face wipes into the rubbish bin and turned to her mother, eyes drawn to the hammer in her hand. “You don’t need to do that,” she said with an exaggerated sigh accompanied by a roll of her eyes. “I’m not a baby.”
“Don’t argue with me. What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t tack you in?”
Laila huffed and stomped to the box on the other side of the room, complaining in that sulky tone she had perfected, “None of my friend’s parents still tack them in.”
“You might think I’m old-fashioned, and you might try my patience every day, but you are my daughter. While you live under my roof, I will always tack you in.”
Laila stepped into the box and nestled herself against the soft pillows with a scowl on her face. Cynthia leaned in, placed a soft kiss on Laila’s forehead, before she hefted the lid onto the box. With efficient taps that spoke of years of practice, she tacked the lid in place.
“Good morning honey, I’ll see you this evening.” She adjusted the curtains to ensure they closed completely and made her way to her own room.
Inside the confined space of the box, Laila fished her phone from her pocket. The screen lit up the darkness and she called Christian.
“Hey, beautiful.” His voice was a sexy whisper.
“Good morning. You will never believe it…”
“She tacked you in?”
“Yep, she thinks I’m still a child!”
“Shut up, Chris, I’m sixteen! I’m not a child.”
“I know.” Christian was laughing at her. She could hear it in his husky voice, and she was tempted to tell him where to go. Just because he was seventeen didn’t make him an adult. Actually, he’d been seventeen for over a century now, so perhaps it did. “Don’t worry, I’ll be over in a few minutes to let you out.”
“Hurry, you know how this box makes me feel claustrophobic.”
“I’m on my way.”
He hung up and there was a long moment of silence, until the lid slowly lifted, the tacks pulling free from the wood. Christian peered over the edge of the box, his eerie face shining in the darkness.
“Service with a smile,” he grinned and floated above her. “You look nice, new dress?” He reached into the box to help her stand.
His hand was cold in hers. He was the only person who made her feel warm. Vampires are notoriously cold-blooded, but comparing her temperature with the ghost, she was burning up. It was this contrast that first attracted her to Christian. That and his poltergeist’s ability to break and enter without breaking anything. He could float through walls with ease, then become solid enough to move items at will. It was a neat trick.
When she was steady on her feet, he bent his head and his icy lips touched hers in a brief flicker of a kiss. A ghostly peck that sent shivers up her spine.
“I brought you something to eat.” He pulled a wrapped sandwich from his bag and handed it to her. After living her whole life on a liquid diet, the food was a novelty, and she eagerly savored every bite. He watched her eat with a slight upward tilt of his mouth, amusement dancing in his eyes. Ghosts don’t eat, and she knew that he enjoyed watching her consume food, in the same way she enjoyed the feeling of being warm to his cold.
Once she finished, the lethargy of the encroaching dawn began to weigh her down. Each blink of her eyes became heavier and heavier.
“What is the sun like?” she asked, her voice drowsy as she leaned in to Christian, her head burrowed against his chilly shoulder.
“Bright, hot, golden.” Christian’s own voice was a drowsy, husky whisper. Neither of them were creatures of daylight.
“I’d love to see the sun. It must be beautiful.”
“You can’t. You’d burn up.”
“I know,” Laila sighed, her eyelids growing heavier and her words slurring with fatigue. “It’s just not fair.”
“Life’s not fair, you know. Neither is death.” Christian collected the cushions from within the box to make a small, soft nest and gathered Laila in his arms. He deliberately positioned his back protectively toward the window as they burrowed sleepily into the softness and together they slipped beneath the spell of morning, as slivers of dawn slipped through the gaps in the curtains.
“What the hell!”
The screech startled Laila awake and her head thumped against the floor. Surprise and shock made her ghostly sleeping companion, who had been her chilly pillow all day, disappear. He’d explained it once as an involuntary instinct of self-preservation.
“Mom?” Laila gasped as she scrambled back into wakefulness, trying to sort her thoughts into coherent strings.
“I can’t believe it, Laila, who was that? Why are you not in your box? I tacked you in!” Cynthia almost screeched, the hammer waving in her hand for emphasis.
“I don’t like the box. I feel trapped in there.”
“And who the hell is that?” Laila was relieved to turn her head and see Christian. He could have stayed away in that ghostly state of invisibility, but he chose to be by her side for this. Her dead heart glowed with emotion.
“Mom, this is Christian.”
Her mother flinched. “Chris..?” She couldn’t say the entire name. Laila had been raised on tales of horror. Stories of how their ancestors had been hunted and persecuted by crucifix wielding hoards, sprinkling their holy water and evoking their Christian God, to send vampires to their doom. But Christian couldn’t help having such a name. It wasn’t his fault. She reached out to clasp his hand in hers, taking comfort from his icy, steadfast presence.
“Chris, this is my Mom, Cynthia.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Christian said, his manners impeccable.
“I’m afraid I cannot say the same.” Cynthia’s eyes glowed with fury and her tone dripped with disdain.
“Laila, there is a strange man in my daughter’s bedroom, my sixteen-year-old daughter’s bedroom! No, I am not pleased. What’s more, is that this man is a ghost!” She spat the last word with disgust.
“You don’t understand Mom-”
“Damned right I don’t understand. I have ignored your little fashion phase, put up with all the changes to your image, held my thoughts to myself hoping you’d grow out of it, but this!” She waved her hands at the ghost. “This is unacceptable.”
“Mom, I’m not like you!” Laila raised her voice in a shrill cry. Christian gave her hand a little squeeze, and she took two calming breaths before continuing. She began again. “I’m not like you. I don’t identify as a vampire.”
“You don’t what, now?” Cynthia’s immaculate brows rose in shock.
“I don’t identify as a vampire.” Laila stated again, drawing closer to Christian for support.
“You don’t identify as a vampire? What do you identify as?” Cynthia flicked her eyes to the man her daughter was attached to. “A ghost?”
“No, Mom. I identify as human.”
Cynthia could barely believe her ears. She paused and ran the memory of her daughter’s words through her brain to ensure that she had processed them correctly.
“Human!” she gasped. It was worse than a ghost. Her beautiful daughter believed herself to be food! “I can’t believe it. For the love of Hades, you are a vampire!”
“But I don’t want to be a vampire.”
“It’s not something that you can control. It’s just a fact. You are what you are.”
“If I may?” The ghost interrupted. Cynthia swung her glare at him.
“Absolutely not! You should not be here, you have not been invited in.”
“I’m a ghost, not a vampire. I don’t need to be invited in.” His tone reeked with smugness and Cynthia despised him.
“You are the reason my daughter is like this. You’ve influenced her, changed her.”
“No, I stopped her sneaking into the human realm to steal their food.”
“The human realm? Their food?” Cynthia gasped, feeling her body sway alarmingly. She collapsed into a chair before her knees gave way entirely. “Please don’t tell me you were trying to eat human food. And what if they had caught you? You would have been staked on sight.”
“I stopped her and brought her back safely.” The ghost continued to speak in that annoyingly condescending, over confident way.
“Am I supposed to say thank you?” She snapped back.
Cynthia closed her eyes a moment, trying to center herself and tried again for a more rational tone. “You know that eating human food is going to ruin your digestion. We are vampires, honey. We don’t heal. Once the damage is done, it’s permanent.”
“I don’t want to be a vampire. I want a permanent change.”
Cynthia had heard of Permanent Vampire Transformation, or PVT, as the media had labeled it. It was something that happened to other vampires, to other families. A vampire began to eat human food, and slowly they changed, became less vampire, more human. But it was a fake human. They’d never be able to be fully human, never be able to stand the full sun, would still not have a reflection. Their vampire abilities would be reduced and, in some cases, vanish all together. Human blood would not nourish them, they would age as a human and be unable to fly. It seemed to be a terrible bargain, with no positive outcomes for the one who transformed.
“You are only sixteen. You have at least eight or nine centuries yet to live. How do you know that you want a permanent change? What if you change your mind?”
“I won’t. I have known for years that I’m not like you. I want to be human.”
It had been centuries since Cynthia had last cried, but she could feel the tears welling up. Visions of the future crumbled before her eyes. Vampire balls, weddings, babies. That future dissolved into a puddle of unfulfilled hopes and dreams.
“Why?” she whispered.
“I don’t know.” Laila looked as if she were going the cry, and the ghost boy put his arm about her. “I’m just sure that this is right for me.”
“You will never belong anywhere. You will be a misfit in both the human and vampire world! How can you want that?”
“I don’t have to fit in anywhere, Mom, I just want to be me.”
“Jesus!” Cynthia whispered the curse word. She never swore, but this situation called for the strongest swearword she knew. “Your father will disown you!”
“I know.” The tears that until now had shimmered on Laila’s bottom lid, over flowed her lashes and streaked down her cheek. “But I can’t be what you want me to be.”
That damned ghost put his arms around Laila and turned her head into his shoulder as she cried. Cynthia glared at him, but he stared back at her steadily. In his eyes she could see centuries, an old soul forever trapped in an eighteen-year-old form. Without words he seemed to say, you can accept this and keep her, or not accept it and lose her. Either way, this was happening.
“Christian,” Cynthia winced as she said the name. “I won’t be able to protect her.” It was true. A human, even a fake human, could never live in a vampire household. The instinctual, primal urge to feed would eventually win and the human would not stand a chance. This realization caused her stomach to plummet, and she whispered hopelessly, “I have lost my daughter.”
The old eyes of the teenaged ghost softened with understanding. “I will protect her,” he promised. “I will keep her safe while she transforms.”
“And then?” Laila was going to be alone, a freak neither human, nor vampire, nor a ghost. Cynthia’s heart, dead though it was, broke and shattered into pieces.
“And then it’s up to Laila to decide what she wants.” The ghost’s voice was annoyingly calm.
“I see. And the fact that I want my daughter is irrelevant. I want her here, under my roof, safe and protected. My wants are unimportant.”
Laila wiped her tears on her cream sleeve. “Mom, I love you, but I can’t live my life for you.”
“You are sixteen. You shouldn’t be making decisions that will seriously affect your entire future.”
“You don’t understand-”
“You’re right, I don’t,” Cynthia interrupted. “But neither do you. You have no concept of what you are doing. And what you are doing to yourself is irreversible. It will mean that you can’t live here, not because I don’t want you to, but it won’t be safe for you.”
“Mom, I’ve made my choice. If you can’t accept it, I am leaving.”
Cynthia was speechless as she watched her daughter quickly gather her clothes, throw them into a bag and, with the assistance of the damned ghost, she vanished from sight.
Cynthia didn’t know how long she sat there, oblivious to the tears that rolled down her face, but the moon was long up by the time she stirred herself into action. Gathering up the pile of blankets and pillows from the floor, she placed them neatly into the box. She lifted the lid, placing it into position, and with deft taps, she nailed the empty box shut.