edited by Maria Joannou and David Steffen
Content note (click for details)Content note: body horror
Even by the third hot, sticky day into our road trip, the humans in the back of the transportation trucks remain fascinating. Theoretically, we know where our blood comes from. But this is different, seeing the little bits of them, poking through the slots on the sides of their container, pressed against the grates for lack of room.
“They didn’t used to be like that, you know,” our grandma shouts at us over the wind of the open windows for the third time in ten minutes, as another truck passes by. “They used to rule the world, back in the day. They were wonderful, I think.”
In the middle of the country, it seems that there’s nothing but trucks. There’s not even humans in the vast fields they pass, just dead grass and the occasional wild pig. They’re kept inside, but none of us can guess where.
Grandma is losing it, Mandy speaks into our minds from the front seat. Max is behind grandma, knees pressed to the fabric of the seat in front of them, to accommodate grandma’s long legs. None of us got this trait from her. The car is tiny, solar-powered, rented from a shop in Colorado Springs, where we started our journey.
Our grandma is getting more restless by the second, making us three restless along with her. There was no stopping our grandma from going on this trip, despite all of us knowing it would be bad for her. We’ve seen the pictures in school, the ones that she’s apparently avoided, of the Statue of Liberty, the surrounding water at her navel. And yet, grandma had the mindset of someone that would go back to the exact same city, livable, superb, bustling with humans, filled to the brim with life of all kinds.
And then we arrived. Suitcases in hand, grandma wearing a sunhat bought from a yard sale from Ohio on her hand. We found the city destroyed, in tatters from a hurricane, most of it underwater, the only tourist attraction a boat tour of the city that ran through the streets. We could look down from our spot on the dock where we drove up to the cars at the bottom, stalled on the road a hundred feet below, rusted and warped by the brown water.
Our grandma’s expression was so desolate it scared us, and we all piled back into a car, without a word said.
We don’t understand our grandma, exactly, as much as we would like. We’ve spent lots of our lives fantasizing about what it must be like to be an old vampire, as few and far between as they are. The kind that stopped popping up around a hundred years ago to make way for the new kinds of vampires, the ones that we are. Grandma’s type can go into the sun without an enormous amount of fanfare, where we cast light like prisms. Where grandma can speak clearly aloud, we talk into minds, finding it difficult to make our mouths form words. Grandma has always walked and danced with grace, where every time we try to dance, our limbs hurt from twisting and we feel so self-conscious we could die, even if it’s just around each other.
Grandma is fascinating and worldly, and everything she says could be either very true or completely made up. We’ll never know, and that’s the best part of her stories. She can’t hear us speaking into each other’s minds and, though we can talk, it takes an incredible amount of energy, and makes us almost as self-conscious as dancing. We can’t hope to make those captivating facial expressions that grandma can make, eyes widening when she’s shocked, or wants us to be, nose scrunching when she’s disgusted, taking big deep breaths to throw her head back and laugh.
Our grandma requires every single window in the car rolled down so she can “get some fresh air, finally,” but we’re pretty certain she’s claustrophobic in the car with us. We’re the best company she has, and always say yes to spending time with her, but we’re silent and still and casting rainbows all around the tiny car, our dark skin refracting the sunlight. We never think much of it but our grandma, whose skin is lighter than ours and altogether different in texture and strength, is shocked every time she sees it. In the sun, her skin only glows a little bit, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.
We never think about how we look more than when we’re with our grandma. She’s lighter than us, her skin a warm brown rather than an inky near-black. And our skin has little texture, smooth as glass, where grandma has a scar on her left temple, freckles on her nose. But what really sets us apart, if grandma’s reaction is an indication, is the intensity of the way our skin reflects the light. In the sun, her skin only glows slightly, as if a candle is lighting her from the inside.
To talk to us, our grandma shouts over the noise of the wind rushing in via the open windows, pushing her dark sunglasses back up her nose, as close to her face as possible, so that the light we cast won’t impair her ability to see the road.
We pass another truck, and the four of us ease our bodies to the right, trying to peek in to see the humans being transported. All we can see are dimpled thighs, matted golden or red or brown hair, the occasional freckled elbow. Our grandma, who slows the car down to specifically let us see into the back of the truck, speeds up once more, and we relax back into our seats.
“Why were they wonderful?” Mandy asks quietly. Our grandma jumps in her seat at the sound of another being speaking, whipping her head around. She smiles brightly then, and we’re reminded that everyone she would’ve been able to talk to, the vampires she went to Broadway shows with, had since died, too bored or anxious or depressed to continue.
Our grandma rolls all the windows up so she doesn’t have to shout. We all lean forward in eager anticipation, happy to see our grandma in such high spirits for the first time since we left New York.
“They moved, girls. They all had knives to their throats, they had expiration dates, so they moved. They innovated and they dreamed and they…made things.”
“They dreamed?” Max asks, slowly enunciating every letter. “You dream.”
We nod, remembering all the times grandma tells us about her dreams. Only old vampires like our grandma could dream or sleep at all. Only old vampires could put their minds at rest for hours on end, could do somewhere else while they were laying down. Oftentimes we watch over grandma when she sleeps, peeking in every once in a while to put our finger under her nose, leaving only when her soft breaths cooled the skin there, to make sure she was still alive.
She wants to continue speaking as another truck comes into view and, again, she slows down as we pass, lingering so we can all have a look. We see long, elegant fingers with dirt caked underneath the cracked nails, hairy shins, the sides of breasts. The car is silent while we look through the fist-sized holes on the transportation container, until grandma speeds up again. The truck gets ever smaller in the rearview mirror until we can’t see it at all. Grandma pushes the car to just over one-twenty.
“The dreaming I do is minute in comparison, barely even worth mentioning. I dream moments, they dreamed worlds.” She pauses, taking a sip from the bottle of blood in the cupholder, shuddering at its “god-awful flavor” that she claims is much worse than the blood of the old humans that she would get “straight from the tap.” Farming them, she tells us constantly, makes them taste like chemicals, like bleach. The rainbows we emit blink out as we pass under a cloud, blocking the sun completely for a few moments before it reappears.
We mentally nudge each other, trying to figure out what to say to her, knowing that her mood has fallen again. Grandma accelerates, faster than we thought the car could go, and we come across another transportation truck. We see bellies, the dips of lower backsides and…an eye. A green one, looking directly at the three of us. It’s squinting at the sun on our skin, but not looking away. Its plump fingers rise to grip the edges of one of the holes.
“And they were all so loud! The world was loud back then, the streets filled with music and conversation. I was never bored, not one time. Now it’s like…to be alive is to be bored. You’re bored or you’re dead.”
I roll my window down, and lean my torso outside of the car, and grandma drifts towards the truck seamlessly, knowing exactly what I want without having to say so. I extend my hand, rainbows arching through the air as I move, and everyone in the car watches as the soft hand of the human, so dull and pink, stretches towards mine. Grandma gets a hair closer, and then closer, until finally my fingertip gently presses against the human’s.
The violent honk startles us, and I quickly retract, pulling my body back into the car as the truck veers off the road, flinging up dust before careening onto its side. Grandma slams her foot on the brake as the truck lands, our tires screeching on the pavement. We’re out before it stops all the way, running over to the truck. Before we can get there, we see the back door pop open, and we freeze.
After a few moments, a head of long, red hair peeks up over the side of the truck The human’s face dripped with blood its lungs inflating and deflating so rapidly that we can see them move under its flesh. One by one, other humans peek out, disoriented and wobbly on their legs as they walk on hot pavement for the first time. We watch, transfixed, as the humans begin, one-by-one, to run hard in the opposite direction, not looking back, sprinting into the cyan blue of the methane in the sky.
© 2023 by Lily Watson
Author’s Note: This story started as an assignment for a class I took senior year of college — Eating Animals — when I was deep into my vampire phase (still am). It was inspired by my road trip from Washington to Connecticut, and how many trucks I saw transporting cows to slaughterhouses, particularly as I’ve been vegan for my whole adult life.
Lily Watson is a writer based in Seattle. Her work has been published in the Baffler, the Longleaf Review, and Fiyah Litmag. She graduated with a degree in Sociology in 2019 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is beautiful and kind. Everyone loves her.