“Allow me to taste your ink, if you’d like to enter my library,” the vampire said as soon as I crossed the threshold. Moonlight speckled silver in the gaps between the heavy curtains covering the windows in the front room. Rows of bookshelves stood at attention in the dark beside my host, waiting for me to pay his fee. My eyes burned and blisters throbbed and I knew the rumors I’d followed into the forest were true. The vampire’s library contained more information than most humans could fathom, but his knowledge came at a price. Most paid it with their lives on the journey; there were many things living within the trees ready to tear and bite and lead travelers astray. Arriving alive was half the goal.

I nodded, and he held out his hand. His palm was white, unnaturally smooth, no wrinkles. No lifelines.

“It only stings for a moment,” he said, voice smooth, soft—a quiet reassurance, like my father’s had once been, steady, chasing away monsters I now willingly sought.

A sharp pinch precluded the dull ache that crawled up my arm, through my chest. I looked at the vampire, but startled to feel the warm press of my mother’s embrace. The ink pooled on my skin, dragging memories forward so vivid I could nearly see them in the sheen clinging to my skin. I flinched at the memory of my brother’s hands shoving at my shoulders, turned toward the sweet scent of cinnamon, tried to back away from the cloying taste of blood on my tongue. The vampire held me fast.

Thick globs of black, depths glistening purple and midnight blue, smeared across my skin. A cosmos of memory caught in the flickering candlelight, part of the story that made up my life until the moment I’d reached the library. The ink rolled down my forearm, looped around my wrist, and then dug tight into the vampire’s hand. A bitter tang clung to the back of my throat. The memories remained, but now part of them belonged to him. My mother’s goodbye stung a little less deeply. My father’s indifference was shared. I thought back to my brother’s sneer, when I’d fallen and bled before I left. It hurt less, as if someone had rubbed the raw edges of those moments grey. I felt worse knowing someone had tasted the broken pieces of me.

“Salty,” the vampire said, pulling his tongue across his teeth. His eyes had gone dark as the ink that’d disappeared between us. “You taste like salt and smoke. A hint of cinnamon.”

When stressed, my mother baked. When pressed, I’d fled.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said. “Search if you’d like. Don’t set the collection on fire.”

He left me with a row of unused candles, walking into the shadowed stacks as I rubbed at my wrist. I could still feel the slight ooze of ink against my skin. That memory remained sharp.

I woke with pages crushed beneath my cheek and the vampire tapping on my shoulder. Night had fallen again and found me in a deeper, darker place. My dreams had urged me homeward, taunting me with a warmth that wouldn’t exist if I failed to find answers in the library.I’d turned pages until my hands cramped, read until my vision blurred and smeared and failed me.

“Will you remain in my library?” the vampire asked.

“Yes,” I said, offering him my hand. “I’m not finished.”

Together we watched the ink spiral down beneath his skin. More of my story, but some of the older pages, when my feet had always been dirty and my stomach always full. My ears rang with old laughter, coated sour on the edges with the pleading I’d done before I’d left. Begging my family to listen, to understand. When he released me, I couldn’t recall the exact words I’d said, or track the tension written into the lines of my family as they’d let me go.

“Stay the night,” the vampire said, patting my hand, just once. “Remember that one day your ink will run dry.”

I swallowed down the panic that rose to meet his warning. When the ink was gone, I would have nothing left to pay the vampire, and he would force me out of his library. Back into that cold, dangerous forest; back to my loneliness. The story of my life wasn’t so long, so far; I didn’t have much time before my welcome would run out. I needed to find my answers quickly; I had no other choice. Nothing to go back to if I arrived empty-handed.

I turned back to the books, finding some comfort in their indifference toward who held them.

“What question brought you here?” the vampire asked on the third night. He’d found me deep in the library, down a spiraling stairway and across an echoing chamber. A cramp locked my neck and my eyes burned for sunlight that couldn’t be found there.

“If I tell you, could you help me find my answers?” I asked, pressing my lips together, tight, when he glanced away. I’d known I’d be doing this alone; the stories I’d followed never mentioned any assistance offered by my host. Still, I realized how nice it was to have someone sit beside me, someone who might listen.

“I look after the books,” the vampire explained. “I don’t look into them.”

He waited, dark eyes fixed on mine, as if I’d promised him a story.

“I need to find a way for them to understand me,” I said, flushing under his attention. From frustration, and shame, and anger that I had even been forced to feel ashamed. “Then I can go.”

“Who is it that brought you here?” the vampire asked.

“My family,” I answered. My brother, whose lips had peeled back as he’d shouted at me to fix myself or never return. My mother, who would have me shove the truth away inside me, deep enough to rot and fester. My father, who had already started the slow process of pretending I didn’t exist.

“Myself,” I added later. Because through time and distance, the weeks that had passed since I’d left home, my despair had dulled into determination. Because beneath the hard words and rough hands and confusion, all I really wanted was a way to claw back to happiness.

I stared at one of my open books while we held hands. That night, the ink stabbed deep.