The Toyota came to a gear grinding halt before the silver gates of the Saving Faith Care Facility. The door hiccupped as the driver stepped out, taking the keys to the ignition with him. The old girl was so battered, he couldn’t fathom anyone in their right might would steal it, but habits won over logic any day of the week. From the back seat, he took a tangled mass of bright blue blanket. It was lighter than he imagined, and it deepened his frown. From the mass of fabric stuck out a once brilliant brown face, the mahogany shade lost to the ashy tint of illness.
“It’s alright. We’re here now.” His fear that he would once again have to mourn the death of hope made his voice gruff.
“Can they help me?” she asked.
“I don’t know, Sweets.”
A tall man came out of the gates, his faint smile not at all softening the immense brow-bone that made him look meaner than a heavyweight boxer. He didn’t wave, just stood there and stared at them, gleaming eyes shining from the shadows.
“I don’t know,” he repeated, kissing his daughter’s forehead. “But we’re going to keep looking if they can’t.”
The tall man, whose name tag read Seyit, said with an octave that weighed on the listener like a ton of lead, “Good day, Mr. Sagal. This must be Grace.”
He nodded. Sweets burrowed deeper into the blanket, making herself small. His arms tightened around her, acknowledging that the man in fact creeped the heck out of him too.
“Ms. O is waiting for you inside. Please, come in.”
They walked a short path, surrounded on both sides by trees with wilting leaves. It was the time of year for that, but it still felt like an ominous sign. The manor loomed ahead, reddish-brown weepy stains trailing down from the roof, silhouettes shifting like ghosts behind thin curtains. Up marble steps, through a pair of towering double doors, they came to the foyer.
The man’s brows rose. Twin stairs with polished brass rails led to the upper landing, where a chandelier hung before massive floor to ceiling windows. The crystals dangling from thin gold chains split the light into a multitude of colors. His breath caught in his throat. Then the stench of antiseptic hit him like a dump truck loaded with reality. He eyed the cracks revealed by the peeling wallpaper and the vacant reception desk. The director, Ms. O, had warned the facility was struggling like every other institution in these trying times. Suppressing a sigh, he kissed his daughter’s forehead again, an act which had become as familiar as his mama clutching her prayer beads whenever grief overwhelmed her. With him being the only surviving children out of four, it was often.
“This way.” Seyit began climbing up the stairs.
The high-ceilinged hallway created a cave-like effect: the coughing, hacking, moaning pooled from all the levels of the mansion, cascaded down the stairs, and boomed in the foyer below. He felt Sweets’ hand clutching his shirt.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” He rocked her in his arms. Several months ago, he wouldn’t have been able to do that, but she’d lost so much weight. Surely, the place wasn’t as bad as it looked, smelled, or sounded.
Along the way to the director’s office, they stumbled upon a pool of red liquid that stank like blood.
“I’ll mop that up later.” Seyit kept on walking as if blood on the tiles was his day-to-day stuff.
Sensing his hesitation, Sweets stuck a finger out, pointing down the hallway. “You’re falling behind.”
He looked down into those dark brown eyes, titled at the corners like a cat’s. A weak smile tugged at his lips. If she could cling on to this sliver of hope, he could too.
Seyit held the door open for them, this time adding teeth to his creepy grin. They were small in his mouth, as if his milk teeth had never fallen out.
Ms. O, thankfully, looked entirely normal, other than her ashy complexion. She motioned for them to sit on the two leather seats across from her desk. Her gaze was of those solid stuff nurses in hospice had. The ones that combined shared grief, kindness, and a no-nonsense acceptance of the realities of living.
“Welcome, Mr. Sagal. I hope your, and Grace’s, trip was pleasant.”
“It was.” He nodded, pretending his car’s suspensions weren’t as wasted as they were.
“Will your wife be joining us today?”
“No. She’s at work. I was furloughed.” He swallowed; it didn’t get any easier saying it.
“So you’re Grace’s primary caregiver.”
“I feed, clothe, and bathe.” Sweets punched his chest, her touch soft due to lack of muscles. At seven, she didn’t like him saying out loud that she needed help to do the basics. He hugged the bundle sitting on his knees. He didn’t mean any harm by stating the truth, which seemed to hurt them both anytime they opened to strangers.
A silence filled the gulf for a moment, Ms. O’s gaze never flinching. Having seen whatever she wished to see, she asked, “May I examine her?”
She took Sweets with the utmost care and placed her on the desk. The little girl crumbled to a lying position, no longer able to sit upright on her own.
Ms. O propped Sweets by placing an arm around her and took a flask from the table. “Would you like a drink?”
Sweets must have said yes, cause she started pouring whatever was inside into a tiny cup. He wanted to see what it was, but the angle she held the bottle over the cup prevented him. After drinking whatever that was, the director dropped Sweets on the chair beside him to sit on her own.
When he tried to put the blanket back on, she told him it wouldn’t be necessary. But Sweets was shivering, despite the lack of air conditioning and the closed windows.
“She should be fine in a minute or two.”
He wanted to ask why, but kept shut when he saw the intense focus Ms. O had on Sweets. Slowly but surely, Sweets raised her head from its tilted position. A spark lit her eyes, then she scrunched her face.
“This place stinks.”
The director smiled. “My apologies. Most people here have lost their sense of smell.”
He stared at the both of them. “How?”
“I gave her blood to drink.”
The director stepped closer at the same time he stood up, anticipating his anger. Even with her low heels on, she was a head taller than he was. “You can see that it works.”
“You gave her blood.” He couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth.
“Human blood to be precise. It’s the only palliative for those with this vampiric affliction.”
He could feel his nerves throbbing, an overflow of anger that would leave him with a headache later. But then a small hand wrapped around his.
“I feel better.” Sweets stared at him, measuring and absorbing whatever she saw.
He inhaled and looked down at the floor. She didn’t understand the gravity of what she’d drank. The thought of it made him nauseous, and the image of the pool of blood at the hallway flickered back to him. “This is sick.”
“Yet it works. I, Seyit, and many others in this facility are proof of that.” Ms. O stood firm, daring him to oppose her.
They’d gone to nearly a dozen pediatricians and specialists, burning through their savings during a recession till they were broke with nothing to show for all their effort. All the while, Sweets’ condition had deteriorated. His shoulders deflated, because he couldn’t.
“What about the moans and the screeches?” He waved his arms around. “If it’s working—”
“There’s a constant shortage of blood for regular hospitals, what makes you think it’s easy for a facility like ours to get them?”
He ran a hand through his thinning hair. A few strands clung to his fingers.
“Human blood alleviates the symptoms of the condition, but the effects are like that of a painkiller. Prolonged use means the patient requires higher doses. It's a sad yet hard truth we live with.”
He collapsed into his seat. His heart ached with fatigue, not only physically but the kind that shadowed the soul. “Why?”
“A fault in the genes like any other hereditary disease.”
“But neither my wife and I, nor anyone else has this.”
“Not everyone’s condition will manifest into extremes.” The director resumed her sitting position, calm across the desk as if she had delivered this news a million times.
Remembering his siblings’ deaths, all before their third birthdays, made him shudder. He felt as if he were being crushed. Only Sweets taking his hand lessened the sensation. She seemed cheerful, maybe because of the blood, or for finally receiving a diagnosis, however other-worldly, for her condition.
“But aren’t vampires strong?” his daughter asked.
“Well, you’re not a vampire, Sweets? If I may call you that.” Sweets nodded. “What you have is a condition. You are still a human being.”
The director gave him time to digest the news before landing another blow. Since they were low on blood, the facility could not support Sweets. His daughter could come every Saturday, when the facility held a picnic for those who could not live in the manor to socialize and connect with those in similar circumstances. She advised him to ask his wife to come, so she could deliver the news. It had gone pretty much the same way it had gone over with him.
Months passed and as Ms. O warned, Sweets developed a higher tolerance and required more blood, more than either he or his wife could provide themselves.
One night, as his wife lay sleeping, cradling Sweets to her, he found himself scrolling through the depths of Google’s search results. He had so many tabs open, he wasn’t sure which page was where or why he’d opened them in the first place. At this point, he was willing to take even the slimmest of chances, and he found it like an angel answering his prayers.
So he was back in Ms. O’s office two weeks later, this time without Sweets.
“We’re taking a chance.”
“No, you’re gambling with her life.” The director’s tone had a finality to it that irked him. Who was she to deny them their hope when she had no alternatives other than more blood?
He opened his mouth to argue, but could not find a winning strategy. “What then?” His voice cracked. “Are we supposed to let her suffer?”
“You’re doing the best you can at the moment. I too want what’s best for your daughter.”
“But it’s not enough. And it’s getting harder by the day.” He looked away, unable to face someone with his features distorted by pain, tears streaming down his cheeks. They had so much wrenched away from them. This one simply couldn’t die like this.
“I understand your pain, believe me, I do, but it’s not your life, it’s hers. It’s not your body, it’s hers.”
“And she wants to take a chance.”
“For her sake or yours?”
He exhaled, turned his back to the director. “We’re not asking for your blessings, Ms. O, and I didn’t come to argue either.” His voice now carried the finality the director’s had shown before.
She sighed, a long and loud exhale. One tired being to another understood what it meant. “Whatever happens, we’re here for you. Our doors are always open to kindred folks.”
“Appreciated.” Without looking back or a parting greeting, he left. Sweets was waiting in that scrap of a Toyota. Heavens help them, chased to the cliff’s edge, they were jumping without a parachute.