The teenage vampire sitting across from Gale sat hunched in the chaise lounge chair, her entire body pressed against the back cushion like an amorous dog if amorous dogs liked to press against seat cushions. Her knees were high against her cheekbones, with only the top of her nose and eyes skulking from behind the gangly protuberances. A vampire Kilroy, her despondent eyes stared at nothing in general, yet somehow found it all lacking and unworthy of her attention.
He suppressed a sigh; this was his first real client and he couldn’t afford pickiness. Ever since he had opened the Supernatural Psychology Agency, or S.P.A., he struggled to find clients. There wasn’t much demand for a human psychologist specializing in the treatment of supernaturals. As far as he knew, he was the first. And only. Ever since the Reemergence, the humans had stayed on their side of the Border and the supernaturals had stayed on theirs. Mostly. Except for hungry vampires.
Gale took a moment to look at his client. She appeared seventeen, not seventy-two. Vampires aged only one year for every fifty, so they kept their youth a little longer than the average human. If the human was cryogenically frozen or, you know, not human.
Her hair was as dark as the insides of his eyelids, a deceptive darkness that didn’t have the decency to have an edge so it was hard to know where her hair ended. Her cheeks, what little peeked above her knees were flushed and red, a sure sign that she had fed just before coming to Gale’s clinic. Even so, he had his spray bottle of holy water in his lap. At least he thought it was the holy water. He kept his cat spritzer on the same shelf. Either way, if the vampire jumped up on the countertops, he had a weapon to shoo her off. If she wanted to eat him, he had only a fifty percent chance of warding her off.
“So, ah, Cynthia,” he started. “Do you know why your parents asked you to come here tonight?”
“Bmch mnfh hthm mph.”
“You’re talking into your knees,” said Gale.
Cynthia sighed, an elaborate teenaged gesture that expressed her utter contempt and aggravation that Gale hadn’t understood her and that she needed to repeat herself. She lowered her knees, “Because,” she repeated as she managed to imply an eye roll without actually doing it, “they hate me.”
“I met with them last night,” said Gale. “They expressed a lot of concern. They, ah, care deeply for you.”
“You think they, ah, hate you?”
“Why do you do that?” asked Cynthia.
“Say ‘ah’ all the time when you speak?”
“Well, ah, I don’t know,” said Gale, all the sudden unable to not say it. “I suppose it’s, ah, what I do when I’m gathering my thoughts.”
“Makes me want to bite you. It’s annoying.”
Gale was unsure how to respond to that, so he said nothing. Cynthia stood and walked around the tiny office, looking at everything on the walls, the shelves, and in the two small bins he kept games in. Gale remained silent as she did so, watching. Her steps were fluid, unlike his own lumbering gait. She didn’t walk so much as will the floor to slide underneath her. Her curiosity of human knickknacks was obvious.
She stopped in front of a picture of Gale on the day he had graduated college. In it, he was wearing the obligatory cap and gown, his parents were on each side, with two of his classmates photobombing the picture in the background. Gale noticed a slight discoloration on the skin of her arms as she picked up the picture. That discoloration would have been severe scarring in a human, and it was the reason she was here tonight.
The picture she held was an opening for discussion. Of all the items in his office, that was the one she had picked up. Gale had no way of knowing this but an ancient form of sympathetic magic left over from the days when druids bled virgins to help flowers grow, dictated which object was first touched in a room by a stranger. Even had he known, there was nothing to be done for it; the druids were all dead, and as druidic magics go this was one of the more benign.
Unaware of the link between virgins, flowers, and druids, Gale commented on the photo in Cynthia’s hand, “That’s me, at college graduation.”
“Who are the two humans making faces in the background?”
“Two of my friends. Terry, on the left, is a pharmacist now. Douglas, on the right, is backpacking in Europe.”
Cynthia set the picture down as delicately as a rhinoceros walks. The frame cracked, and glass shards fell to the floor at her feet. She noticed neither the shattered frame or the wince of mild dismay on Gale’s face. She flung herself onto the chaise and wiped a small, red, tear from the corner of her eye and then sucked it off of her finger, savoring it for longer than manners dictated.
“Cynthia,” said Gale, “why are you here? If you’re worried about me spying on you for your parents, please know that everything we say in here is confidential. Even from your parents. So I’ll ask again, why are you here?”
“Because I hurt myself,” the young vampire mumbled.
“How do you hurt yourself?” asked Gale, although he already knew because her parents had told him last night. His college textbooks seemed to think that getting Cynthia to admit it was a big first step, although why the books thought anything was beyond Gale. They were just paper.
“Cynthia?” prodded Gale after a moment.
“Fine,” she snarled and jumped off the chaise and, quicker than his eyes could register, was standing in front of him. He grabbed his bottle of anointed water out of pure terror reflex, pretty sure he’d made a mistake, picked up the cat spritzer instead, and was about to die.
“I burn myself, okay?” She lifted her sleeves showing the full extent of her self-immolation. The skin on her arms appeared pinched and puckered a lot like Gale assumed his anus was after the scare Cynthia had just given him. It looked like a burn that was almost healed and, indeed, even as Gale stared he could see slight stirrings under the skin as her vampiric constitution labored to heal the wounds completely.
“Does it hurt?”
She looked at him like he had just asked a dumb question. He had.
“I mean, ah, right now,” he clarified.
She pulled her sleeves back down and sat again, “It aches; a lot.”
“So why do you do it?”
Gale tried something different, “You’re a scorcher, Cynthia.” He used the term he had made up last night when he had first heard of Cynthia’s condition as if it were an already-established medical term. The appearance of confident knowledge was important. “A scorcher is a lot like a human cutter. Human cutters are usually teenagers, like you, and are trying to say something they’re having a hard time putting into words, or say something no one will listen to. Is there something you want to say to me, or to your parents, that we aren’t hearing?”
Cynthia was silent for a moment, then looked Gale in the eyes. He squirmed a little under the near-hypnotic gaze of the vampire. “You’ve stopped.”
“Stopped, ah, what?”
“Dammit, you’re doing it again. You just made an entire speech without saying ‘ah’ at all.”
“Cynthia,” said Gale with as stern a voice as he could, which wasn’t all that stern, all things considering, “You’re trying to change the subject. I know this is, ah, a sensitive thing to discuss, but you’re doing serious harm to yourself. You owe it to yourself to know why.”
The vampire scrunched her face and bit her lip. Gale knew she wanted to talk, she was practically begging to, but he hadn’t yet gained her trust. He had to take the next step forward, though it terrified him to do so. His colon reminded him with a sudden urgency that it had already had enough adventure this week; last night’s meeting of Cynthia’s vampire parents was quite enough, thank you.
Ignoring the superior wisdom of his digestive system, he set his anointed water aside, stood, and walked over to the chaise. Without any outward signs of his nervousness, he knelt and grabbed Cynthia’s hand in a gentle grip of his own. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was, that her hand was cold and lifeless.
“When I was a teen I didn’t think anyone understood me, and they didn’t. Adults were clueless, my teachers were idiots, and no one ‘got’ me. I’m not sure if it’s the same at all with you, but it hurt, a lot, and I had no one to talk to. I didn’t even have a lot of friends.”
Gale wasn’t quite sure what he had expected with his gesture, but he was pretty sure the last thing would have been a red-teared wail from the young vampire as she threw her arms around him and sobbed into his chest. He gave Cynthia an awkward pat on the back as she stained his shirt with her blood tears. Finally, after a short eternity where Gale knew his furiously beating heart was about to become her after-cry snack, she stopped crying and wiped her nose on a non-bloody section of his shirt. Vampire snot, he noted, was exactly as gross as human snot.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into the tissue Gale handed her. “I don’t know what that was.”
Gale sat back down in his chair, leaning forward and towards Cynthia. “You needed to let it out; it’s okay.”
The vampire teen reached out and, before Gale could react, gave his hand a comforting (for her) squeeze that felt like his hand had just been slammed in a door. He had an instant spike of fear; he couldn’t escape her grip if he tried. Cynthia noticed his discomfort and dropped his throbbing hand.
“I’m not going to eat you, Dr. Simmons,” she said in hurt tones.
Flexing his fingers, Gale took a calming breath, “I never thought you would,” he lied. “But please, call me Gale, or Mr. Simmons. I’m not a doctor.”
She gave Gale a shy smile, an endearing effect ruined by the pointed teeth that peeked out from under her lips for the express purpose of letting Gale know who was boss. “Ok….Gale.”
“So,” he said, feeling a flush of pleasure that they were making progress, and being slightly uncomfortable that he had flushed in front of a vampire, “I think we just had a breakthrough.” He had put the pieces together. The one item she had touched was his picture. Her question had been about his friends. When he had mentioned he didn’t have a lot of friends, she had broken down.
“Something’s going on with your friends, isn’t it?” he asked.
The blood welled in her eyes again, but she held it back, “No. I don’t have any friends.”
“Not a single one?”
“They’re all dead, or dying!” she wailed. “Everyone I knew as a human, I’ve been checking on them since the Reemergence, and they’re all … wrinkly and old!”
“What about vampire friends?” Gale asked.
“I don’t have any; it’s not like a lot of us just hang around in the belfry.”
She was holding on to her humanity and watching the last connections to her human life disappear as they grew old and started dying. Gale was pretty sure this was a big part of the reason for her scorching. It certainly wasn’t a problem human teens had to contend with.
He opened his mouth to say something to that effect when the office door slammed open with a loud crack and protest from the hinges. Startled, both Cynthia and Gale jumped, looking towards the now opened door. Filling the doorway, almost literally, was a large and grey figure. It had multiple six-packs where the abdomen was, bulging legs with whipcord tendons vying for attention, and biceps so large they had biceps flexing on them. It had a bowling ball for a head, with a wide, flat, nose, beady eyes, and a large mouth with tusks protruding up and down.
The troll stepped into the room, cracking the door frame as it did so. Grunts and growls emanated from somewhere in the vicinity of its mouth, but Gale was unable to understand it. Still, this was his office, and he was ostensibly the authority in the room, so he stood and faced the beast.
“Ah,” he said with his ostensible authority, “I’m in a private session. I’m afraid you’re going to have to, ah, wait in the lobby until I am done.”
“Need help now,” came the guttural response. Along with a meaty finger pointed at Gale’s chest. A finger, he had no doubt, which could flick him into the future if it so desired.
Cynthia had reverted back to her teenaged self and was sulking in a corner, glaring at the troll. Gale’s mind did some mental gymnastics and decided that the risk of angering the troll was greater than the risk of annoying Cynthia. The rest of Gale concurred, except for the small part of his brain that was too busy gibbering in fear to weigh in on the survey.
“Why don’t you tell me your, ah, problem and we can set an appointment Mr….ah?” He looked at the troll, letting the expectant pause linger between them. The troll stared back at Gale with dull eyes, not understanding the pregnant pause.
“Oh for God’s sake, troll,” snapped Cynthia, making the pause give birth. “What’s your name?”
“Oh,” rumbled the troll, “Me am Bob.”
“Your name is Bob,” asked Gale, his voice as flat as his first girlfriend’s chest had been. “Bob the troll?”
“Okay, Bob,” said Gale, “What seems to be the problem?”
The troll took his time formulating the complex sentence he was about to speak, “Me bridge gone.”
“You live under a bridge,” asked Gale.
“Of course he does,” said Cynthia. “He’s a troll. You need to pay attention to the details here.”
“I rather think,” said Gale with some asperity, “That the important detail is where Bob’s bridge has gone off to.”
Cynthia rolled her eyes and said “ugh” in a very human way.
“Anyway Bob,” said Gale, ignoring the eye roll, which is all you could do with a surly teenager regardless of species, “Was your bridge destroyed?”
“Bridge gone,” said Bob.
“Yes, we already established that,” said Gale, “but was it knocked down? Or set on fire? Did someone make it blow up?”
Bob’s brow furrowed as he considered the possibilities. Finally, “Me bridge. Just gone.”
Gale looked over at Cynthia in confusion, “Is it common for a troll bridge to just disappear?”
Cynthia glowered at Gale, “You really don’t get it, do you? Bob’s lost. He wandered away from his bridge and can’t find it again.”
It made sense as she said it, but Gale wasn’t about to admit that he had missed the clues, “Well how was I supposed to know he’s lost? He found his way here, to the S.P.A..”
“It’s probably the closest structure to his bridge,” said Cynthia, the “duh” implied but not spoken.
Again, it made sense, and Gale felt annoyed that he hadn’t put it together. He set his annoyance aside, though, and spoke to Bob, “You want us to help you find your bridge?”
A large, infantile, smile painted Bob’s face as he realized he had stated his case and it had been understood, “Uh huh!”
“Do you mind if we take a few minutes to help Bob?” asked Gale of Cynthia.
That was as close as agreement as he was likely to get, so Gale took it. Bob led them out of the clinic, shattering the glass front door as he walked through it instead of opening it, and into the night.
“Hmm,” said Gale, “He’s leading us, ah, across the Border.”
“Where else do you think he lives?” said Cynthia, making the statement a judgment of his intelligence.
Gale had only been across the Border once before, invited by Cynthia’s parents. This was different; he had no invite and, so, no protection tonight. Humans were fair game across the Border unless they had protection from a patron.
“It’ll be fine,” said Cynthia, and although he couldn’t see it, Gale was pretty sure another eye roll accompanied the statement. “It can’t be that far in, and we’ll be out soon.”
“Yes,” said Gale, “but can’t you give me protection?”
“I don’t know the spell to mark you for protection,” said Cynthia.
Of course she didn’t. Gale had no idea how he had found his way into this mess, and his brain was pretty sure it was blameless. His digestive tract proclaimed with a loud growl its own innocence, and his arms waved and expressed confusion at it all, so that really left only his feet. And they were too busy walking into danger to contest the unanimous decision by the rest of his body to blame them for this mess.
They crossed the Border, and Gale could feel the ambiance change. The air was immediately cleaner, the sounds of human civilization, highways, cars, and airplanes, just stopped. The night became darker as the ambient glow of human cities winked out leaving only the waxing moon and starlight illuminating the way. It was unnaturally all-natural, and Gale didn’t like it.
Gale realized that when one walked a forest at night, one walked in a cone of silence. The sounds of the forest were loud and all around, in every direction, except in a fifty-foot circle around them as they plodded through the underbrush. He attributed it to the hulking brute leading the way; nothing in its right mind would advertise its presence anywhere near Bob.
They hiked about twenty minutes into the forest, with Gale’s spidey-sense tingling the entire time. Things were watching them; he just knew it, biding their time until they could chomp him. Finally, Bob stopped at the foot of a tiny creek about three inches deep and a foot across, his head looking around confusedly, “Me bridge am gone.”
“This is where you think your bridge is supposed to be?” asked Gale?
“Uh huh. Look,” he pointed, “water.”
“There’s no bridge here, Bob,” said Gale with forced patience.
“Me bridge best bridge. Me bridge need me,” said Bob with a sniffle. The troll pointed at the tiny rivulet in front of them, “There water. Where bridge?”
Of course, the troll assumed his bridge would be where the water was. For a troll, this was a remarkable and astute observation. There’s a reason trolls never leave their bridges, their stupidity is so colossal that they never find their way back. Too long away from its bridge and a troll starts to wither, shrink, and get a really bad attitude – eventually looking remarkably like a wild gnome. In fact, some experts speculated that gnomes and trolls were related, but wisely never in front of a troll or a gnome. Gale wondered what could have persuaded Bob to abandon his bridge, even for a short time.
“I bet this creek turns into a wider stream or river a ways down,” said Gale to Bob with justified confidence. “If we just follow it, it will lead us to your bridge.” Bob clapped his hands happily, creating miniature thunderclaps with each smack of his hands, and causing leaves to fall from the surrounding trees.
“It’s flowing this direction,” said Cynthia from twenty feet away, forgetting for the moment to sulk as she got into the adventure of finding Bob’s bridge.
They followed the creek another fifteen minutes and, sure enough, it widened and deepened enough to need a bridge to cross. A few minutes later, they found a bridge. Bob jumped up and down in joy and wept at the sight. It wasn’t much to look at as far a Gale was concerned. It spanned twenty-feet across the stream, made from slightly rotting wood, one of the handrails had collapsed, and had obviously seen better days. To Bob, though, this was home and he was beside himself at the sight of it.
“Me bridge! Me bridge!”
Gale looked out of the corner of his eye and saw Cynthia smiling as widely as he at the troll’s unabashed joy. Still, he sobered, he was deep behind the Border with no protection. It was time to leave.
“Okay, Bob,” he said with forced cheerfulness. “You found your bridge. We have to go back now. Good night.”
“No,” said Bob. “You stay. Dinner.”
“Oh,” Gale made a polite gesture, “no thank you, Bob. I’m not hungry, and I really need to get back to my clinic.”
Bob’s oversized hands scooped up Gale, knocking the breath from him, “No. You stay. You dinner.”
A horrifying realization sunk into Gale’s consciousness. Bob was going to eat him. Terror overwhelmed him as his entire body took a single “I told you so” moment to chastise his feet for bringing them here. This is how it ends, he thought. Eaten by Bob the troll.
The troll loped towards his bridge, bouncing Gale with every step, rattling Gale’s teeth. Gale knew that once they were under the bridge, he would become a late-night meal for the dimwitted troll. This is what he got for being a good Samaritan. He struggled against the troll’s grip, but it was about as useful as flapping one’s arms when falling. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Except he was. Without warning, Gale was airborne. He had only a second to register this fact, not nearly long enough for him to even try and flap his arms, when he hit the muddy earth next to the stream with a wet thud. Gasping and spitting mud, he sat up.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow!” Bob was yelling, Gale heard as he picked the mud from his ears. He looked up to see, about fifteen feet away, Cynthia pinching one over large ear on the troll. Bob stood hunched over as Cynthia yanked his ear down to her level.
“No!” said Cynthia, her petite voice more forceful than Gale would have expected, “we don’t eat our friends, Bob.”
“Me am hungry!” explained Bob reasonably.
“Gale helped you find your bridge. He is a friend; not food.”
Bob tried to reason again, changing his argument for clarity and elegance, “But me am hungry.”
Cynthia pinched his ear again, and the giant creature whimpered, “Find something else to eat, Bob. And tell Gale you’re sorry for trying to eat him.”
She let go of his ear and the troll stood upright, towering over both Cynthia and Gale. The troll took a lumbering step towards Gale, hands clenching an unclenching.
“Bob…,” warned Cynthia.
Bob lowered his hands. “Me am sorry,” he said, shuffling his feet. “Me not eat friend.”
“That’s, ah, that’s okay, Bob,” wheezed Gale, still catching his breath. “Honest mistake, I suppose.”
“We friends?” asked Bob, his face beginning to light back up.
Gale nodded, “Yes, Bob. We friends.”
“Yippee!” Bob jumped up and down twice, causing the ground to shake, then loped to his bridge. He stopped a moment and looked back at Gale and Cynthia, “Bye friends!” He then disappeared under the bridge so completely that Gale had trouble even believing the troll was under it.
“Come on,” said Cynthia, “The wood sprites are starting to take notice. We need to get you out of here.”
“I thought wood sprites were friendly.”
“Seriously?” said Cynthia. “You can stay if you want; I’ll pick up your bones tomorrow night and bury them for you.”
They hurried towards to Border, Gale striding as fast as he could without running. “Cynthia,” said Gale as they sped through the forest, “you called me your friend back there.”
She didn’t acknowledge his statement, leading the way back out of the forest.
“Did you mean it?” asked Gale?
After a moment, she spoke, “I don’t have any friends.”
“Yes,” said Gale, “you do. I know I’m only a human, but I’d like to be your friend if that’s okay with you.”
Cynthia stopped and faced Gale. Her face was going through contortions, but she didn’t cry. Instead, she grabbed him in a tight bear hug that threatened to crack a rib or two. “Okay,” she said into his ear.
She let him go and Gale took a second to catch his breath before following her again.
“One thing,” said Gale. “You need to stop scorching. I’m your friend now, and it bothers me that you hurt yourself. I’d rather you talk to me instead of sticking your arm in the sun. Can you do that?”
“Yes,” said Cynthia, “I think so, but it’s kind of addicting. I can’t promise I’ll never do it again, but I promise to try not to.”
“Fair enough,” said Gale as they crossed the Border back into human territory. He knew it wouldn’t be that easy, and that Cynthia had a long road ahead of her. Tonight just cracked the surface of her angst; she had some trials ahead of her, but tonight wasn’t the night to bring that up.
Gale welcomed the ubiquitous smell of car exhaust and wanted to kiss the pavement on his side of the Border. He stared at the wreck of his clinic when they got close and winked at Cynthia, “So I guess this session is a success.”
“Yeah,” she said, “I should get back to my parents. Dad’s a controlling twelve-hundred-year-old barbarian and has a strict view on curfews.”
They parted ways, with Cynthia walking slowly back towards the Border, and her home. A sudden thought hit Gale as he watched her walk away.
“Hey Cynthia,” he said.
“You did pretty good out there. You really understood Bob in a way I didn’t. How would you like a job?”
A smile broke through the surly teen angst, wide enough to cause Gale to shiver at the sight of her fangs, “I’d like that a lot.”
“Okay,” he said, picking up a large shard of broken glass from the doorway. “See you tomorrow night.”