It was cool and clean outside, the dusk just beginning to fall. Somewhere in the treetops a little nightjar was singing full-throatedly, accompanied by the handful of crickets the late-spring heat had lured out of their sleep.
Iz sat on the outside of the deck with her feet dangling over the dewy ground, looking up at the heavy night sky, drained of stars. It had recently rained: the wooden deck was damp and the earth smelled distinctly of dark new things poking up from the inner dirt, worms and seedlings and birthed white grubs. Killdeers and blackbirds pecked for grubs on the fringe of the silent woods, filtered dusty sunset-light throwing their silhouettes into long-legged shadowed relief.
Threaded on the edges and frame of the deck, strings of cherry-shaped lights glowed cheerily, jouncing hugely when a swallow landed on a line, called sweetly to his mate, and flitted away. Iz leaned back against the deck’s railing and watched the weeds on the edges of the forest move with crickets.
Slowly she reached down to her boot and pulled out a red-handled pocketknife, glistening in the twilight. Then she hopped off the deck, fumbled around on the ground for a moment, and sat back down with a sizeable twig in hand. She started to whittle. A blue-winged grosbeak fluttered next to her and sat, perched on the railing, picking delicately through its wing as it watched her.
She started up as a crack sounded on the edge of the woods. Through the dim trees, covered eventually with the night’s light, while the deck and her house were still illuminated with the red setting sun. An owl hooted.
“Hey!” she shouted, standing up in the thick grass, dropping her stick and raising her knife. “This is private property, I’ll have you know, be you human or animal. I’ve a knife.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” came a voice. Someone came picking their way through the crackling underbrush, sounding apologetic.
“Yeah, you should be. What are you doing here?”
“Sorry, I was walking in the woods, I got lost. Can you tell me how to get back to the road?”
He seemed to stay in the dark, as if he didn’t want to step into the deepening sunset. Iz raised her knife higher and cocked her head. “Who are you? We’ve got property for a while, how far did you walk? If you’re a stalker I’ll have you know I’ve killed things with this knife,” she added frankly.
He was silent for a minute. “Oh. Well, I’m not a stalker. I’ve been walking pretty much all day, I love these woods.”
Iz lowered her knife. “Me too. You’re lucky you stumbled out here, if you’re who you say you are. There’s woods for hundreds of acres, not a house in sight.”
Now the sun had gone, and the only light was from the strings of bulbs hanging around the deck. Iz stepped up onto the deck, folding her knife in half but keeping it in her hand. “You can come out, you know. You thirsty? I don’t think there are any clean springs back in those woods.”
He stepped into edge of the light. He looked young, perhaps her age or a little older. He jumped when a woodpecker rattled on a tree next to him. “No, I’m good. Thanks, though. I’ll be going.”
Iz sat down on the railing. “Well, alright. Who are you?”
“My name’s Ward, I live on the other side of these woods. What about you?”
She looked up at the shadow of the trees a stone’s throw away. “My nickname’s Iz.” She threw her arms out wide, “I live here!”
A beat. “Wait, you’ve killed with that knife, you said?”
“Oh, that. Yes. A rabbit. And a squirrel. I was exploring last summer, toward the east,” she pointed toward the house, “and got lost for a night. I was hungry.”
“Thanks. Oh. I’ve a question for you.”
“It’s protocol for when I meet someone new.”
“What’s your favorite star?” Iz watched him closely. “I adore astronomy.”
He smiled, looking surprised, and said without hesitation, “Betelgeuse.”
“Well, it’s huge, it has a cool name, and it looks like the sun.”
“But you have the sun.”
Ward didn’t answer, looking mournful.
Iz bit her lip, watching him. “Okay, you’re cool,” she decided abruptly. “See you around, star nerd?”
“Sure,” he replied. He nodded his head and turned and walked away. The forest, seeping mildly with the sounds of birds and squirrels and young singing crickets, closed upon him as though it was hugging him.
The sun had gone, leaving a few fingers of soft gold touching the sky. The stars were beginning to peek out, and Venus was barely visible. Iz sat and watched the sky, making notes on a thin piece of paper with a stubby pencil, swinging her bare feet over the summer grass.
Ward came crashing through the underbrush, laughing. When he saw her he stopped and then threw out his arms and spun until she giggled.
He sat next to her and took the pencil. “Look at this one,” he said, touching the star map on her knees, then pointing to the corresponding glow in the sky. “Aquila. Lovely, huh?”
“I’ve never noticed that one before.”
“Really?” he said laughing, then labeled it on the paper, pressing onto her knee.
She yelped. “Careful, that’s sharp.”
“Oh, sorry.” He took the map, gazing at the sky, and accidentally brushed against the back of her hand on the way. She didn’t move or say anything, just looked at the brightly glowing Venus near the horizon, and smiled to herself.
About a week later he came gasping through the forest again, holding his side and laughing. “Oh, Iz,” he called as soon as he saw her waiting on the darkened deck, her face illuminated only by the cherry-shaped lights. She had music playing, a mix of reggae and jazz, streaming from a battered CD player on top of the iron table.
He stopped and sat next to her and pointed to the player. “What’s this?”
“It’s called Marmalade Harvest, it’s from a movie. You like it?”
He shrugged. “I prefer ragtime.”
She threw her head back and laughed. “Really?” she gasped disbelievingly.
Ward looked rather hurt. “Sure. And why not? I can play a few Joplin pieces on the piano.”
Iz shook her head and bent toward the star chart.
“Hey, oh, I was going to say, look what I brought you.”
He held out an oddly-shaped stick with a little wild rose tied to it with monkey grass. “It’s a stick for your whittling, and I found the rose on the way.” His cheeks were growing pinker in the yellow lights.
She took it, mouth open. “Oh, Ward.” She ran her finger along the white wood shaped like a rough dolphin. “Oh, it’s lovely.”
Iz pulled her knife from her boot and made a slice. A white curl fell to the ground and Ward picked it up. “What are you going to carve?”
“Well, I mainly do whittling but I’ll try to do a dolphin.”
She looked up. “Thank you Ward. Thanks for thinking of me.”
It was early fall, five months after their first meeting. The forest was alight with elderly crickets singing their last sonata, young orioles, fat juncos, skinny squirrels busy storing nuts, and yellowed, blushing leaves that swayed when the autumn wind brushed past.
Laid out on the iron table on the deck were three detailed star charts, all three-foot by three-foot, and an open notebook, filled with five months’ worth of two people documenting stars in the late dusk. Iz sat on the same edge of the deck, feeding a hungry-looking brambling bird with crumbs out of her hand, swinging her legs and waiting.
The sun was at its zenith, blazing down in its unique early autumn way. The forest moved with it, mildly bearing the heat, waiting for the clouds full of rain and snow to give relief.
Ward stepped through the bracken again and Iz laughed when every step brought sharp sounds like a gunshot, old stiff twigs that once broken, snapped and went flying. “I thought it took you half a day to walk here!” she called gaily.
“No,” he said, staying underneath the tree. She gathered up the notebook and walked closer. “That was a wandering walk. As the crow flies it takes maybe an hour or two.”
She unfolded a map of the forest, drawn in Ward’s handwriting, and held it out. He took a pencil and added, near the left upper corner, the words Clean Spring: Shaped like a bat.
“Oh!” Iz folded the map back up and slid it between the book’s pages. “So there is a spring?”
“Yeah,” Ward said. He seemed distracted. “Izzie?”
Iz watched him. She stepped out into a pool of sunlight made from a rare gap in the trees. The forest was so old, so thick, so hardy that barely thimblefuls of sunlight made its way, falling between the leaves, down toward the forest floor. “Come on, are you ready?”
Then she stopped. “Oh, I’m sorry, Ward. You said you hate the sunlight. Sorry, I forgot. Come on, we can go through underneath the tree canopy.”
Ward smiled, watching her. “Thank you for remembering.” His voice was hoarse.
“You can’t be in sunlight. Poor thing.” Iz bent and picked up a cicada shell, rolling it between her fingers, and tossed it to him. Ward caught it.
“Aren’t you curious?”
“You never told me why, but I won’t press you. I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
Then as she watched, Ward poked his fingertip out into the edge of the sunlight. When his skin touched the light it immediately began to change colors, hardening, molding, forming into a new substance altogether.
“Stone!” she gasped.
He nodded and removed his finger and thrust it into his mouth, sucking on it as though he had cut himself and didn’t have a Band-Aid. A brown waxwing bird with red-tipped wings alighted on his shoulder and he brushed it off impatiently.
“I—do you believe in myths?”
“No. They’re myths, they don’t exist. Based on no fact. Legends are based on real events or races, told about fantasy people. Mythological people, if you will.”
He sighed. “Nerd.” She laughed. “Legends, then.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Well, I’m a legend. Based on one. Or—not me, I guess, but I guess I am one now, partly one, I guess. Based on one.”
“You guess?” she said, and couldn’t help smiling.
Ward didn’t smile back. “I’m a vampire.”
She stopped smiling. “Myths and stories. They don’t exist.”
“Yes they do.”
“Well then… are you like the Dracula vampire? Although, I guess not, because those vampires implode into dust when they touch sunlight, not turn to stone. Are you immortal? I think the Dracula ones are, though I’m not sure.”
She was chattering now, nervously talking, running her finger along the spine of the notebook again and again. Behind them in the trees a group of crimson cardinals and three fat nuthatches pecked at the ground, looking up at the humans occasionally.
“No, I’m not immortal, and I turn to stone not dust.” He removed his finger. Though slightly greyer than normal skin, it was no longer stone. “And—and I—”
“Drink blood?” she asked. “I’ve read the book. I know, Ward. But why haven’t you tried to—to do that to me?”
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I love you.”
She stepped back.
“You’re my best friend, Izzie. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone like you. I love talking about the stars with you and reading Bram Stoker and… everything, I guess.”
“And I don’t want to be immortal. If I drink blood I’m immortal, young forever. I want to die like a normal person. I want to get old and live life normally. But I can’t.”
She couldn’t help smiling, though nothing was funny. “How do you know all this? And—how long have you been—a vampire?”
“I was—I was infected a week or so before I met you. And the woman who bit me told me all this. She said she is immortal. She hungers for youth and eternal life. That’s why she—did that to me.”
“I have so many questions.”
“Why did you tell me this?”
“I love you and I want to be honest with you.” The words came out like a gasp, a rush of breath. “And—I’m sorry, Iz, but I had to tell you. I love being with you. I didn’t want to keep secrets.”
“I understand,” she said, and smiled.
Iz was weeping. The stars were out, cold and silent and uncomforting, and Ward was not there. Her tears fell quietly into her lap. She raised her face, swollen and red, and sobbed, looking out at the lonely forest.
“I understand, Ward. I understand. But I don’t understand. I love you. Why can’t we be together? Why can’t we be normal? It isn’t fair.”
An owl hooted, soared from a nearby branch to the ground near her ankle. She stopped crying and smiled at it. Nodding. A sort of thank you. An understanding. Realizing. Accepting.
Closing her eyes, Iz allowed the night mist to fall on her face, cooling, bringing understanding and rest. She sighed, emptying her lungs.
It was nearly night again, a week or so later, and the mid-autumn twilight was falling around the woods like a blanket. The starlings and juncos were ending their songs and calling to each other and burrowing down to sleep. The squirrels stopped chittering and curled up together in their holes. The crickets and cicadas were slowly dying that night.
Iz went to Ward this time, running from the kitchen of the house to the edge of the wood and hugging him fleetingly. “Anything new?” she asked breathlessly in an attempt at normal.
“No, but I went back to that spring. It has a skinny tail I haven’t seen before.”
She marked it accordingly on the map, adding with a skinny tail to Clean Spring: shaped like a bat. “This map is going to be amazing.”
“Yeah,” he said, and laughed. “We’ll have to glue some extra fly-pieces soon. Have you started exploring on the other side of your house yet?”
“Yes, today. I’ll try to do it every Saturday if college doesn’t take up too much time.”
“Izzie, listen, I came to say goodbye.”
She stopped and looked at him. “What?”
“I—I can’t anymore, Iz. Knowing I can’t be with you because I’m—I’m a vampire. I can’t. It hurts me and I can see it hurts you too.”
A dragonfly buzzed around the yellow bouncing lights around the deck.
“I love you, Ward.”
“But I can see it’s torturing you. I’m not selfish. I can be strong, though I wish it wasn’t this way. I love you, always will. That’s why it’s okay.”
He smiled. “That’s life.” He closed his eyes and leaned his head up to the sky and sighed in relief. “I’m so glad you understand.”
They were quiet for a moment, then Iz cleared her throat and tucked the notebook under her arm. A nightjar bird sang quietly from the blackberry bush next to her. “I’ll keep the notebook, if you don’t mind. Thank you for helping me fill it out with the star diagrams. Will you keep exploring this part of the woods?”
“You mean, will I see you again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll keep working on the northern part of the map. I promise.”
She smiled, her eyes red-rimmed and glistening wetly in the darkening light. Night was falling. The nightjar flew from the blackberry bush up into the rowan branches high above the forest floor.
He shifted his weight from his left foot. “It’s like—like this time has been day, full of warm sun, with you. And now that I have to say goodbye it’s night. Night is falling, Iz, without you.”
“Remember me, Ward.”
She started to walk away, then turned back. “Oh, Ward?”
“I never told you. My favorite star is Vega. Because it’s small and clear and almost white. I love the name. And it looks like the moon. Lovely.”
He smiled, but he looked about to cry.
Then he kissed her very gently on the cheek, near the corner of her mouth. She smiled, squeezed his hand lightly, and turned away, walking carefully through the weeds, watching the stars in the dark thick sky. He stood watching her from under the oak tree, tears falling, until the darkness swallowed them both, and nothing was left but the crying nightjar in the trees, high above, buried amidst the watching stars.