“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.

“What don’t they understand?” the vampire asked a few days later. “Would I?”

He’d brought another chair to sit beside mine, and had stood to relight one of my candles when it flickered and faded in a draft sneaking between the endless bookcases. There were depths to this library I would never touch, a perpetual itch at the back of my neck.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve only just begun to understand it myself.”

It had been horrific and gratifying all at once, to realize something that had always been a part of me. To put into words how I felt, or more essentially what I didn’t feel. The relief that came with speaking truth aloud and then, everything that had come afterward. The screaming upset that had never belonged to me.

“I can taste it in your ink,” he said, rubbing a hand across his thin lips. “I’m putting together the story of you, out of order. There are too many paragraphs still missing.”

I leaned back, wood creaking beneath me in a squeal, a question mark. Smoothed a hand over one of the crumbling books tucked into my lap, filled with stories about other families, and relationships and children and expectations.

“My parents told me it was good to be different,” I said. “They meant someone who stood out as a leader or inventor or storyteller. Not the kind of different when you could love someone, and love them well, but part of you shrivels inside whenever your lips touch. Where you aren’t sure you’ll ever be comfortable with kissing, or more.”

They hadn’t understood, because I hardly had the words to understand it myself. I didn’t need an explanation, but they did, and in one of these books I’d find the right words. A good way of telling it. A way to fix things, when I refused to see it as a way to fix me. A way to make them understand.

“She left me when I told her,” I said to the vampire. “I loved her but that wasn’t enough for her to stay. My family wants me to do anything to get her back. Pretend like that conversation never happened. It’s important to our social standing. Important to them, how others see our family. I’m the one ruining our reputation because my wife left me. Because I won’t give her children. Because I rarely want to touch her.”

The vampire exhaled. His hand flexed against the armrest.

“Are you comfortable, when we—”

“Oh, yes,” I said, turning back to the books and holding out my hand. “That, I’ve never minded.”

The ink ran slow, days later. Weak, greyer than the vampire’s frown. The memories dredged up the feel of rain against my scalp. The sweet taste of apples harvested from my family’s orchard. I remembered a different, smaller hand, enveloped in mine before pulling away. It felt as if a sheet had been hung between me and my past. I could still see it and remember it well, but, out of sight, it mattered less. I didn’t know if that was because of me, or the vampire; I decided I didn’t care.

“You don’t have many stories left to share,” the vampire said, licking his lips.

“I need to stay,” I said. “I need answers.”

Time had slipped away from me, slick as the darkness fading beneath the vampire’s skin. My nails dug into my wrist as if the sharp pain would draw out more ink, add a few extra chapters to my life. Beyond us, the library continued onward and backward, to shelves filled with novels and textbooks I hadn’t touched, notebooks and loose pages I needed to read. I’d skimmed hundreds of stories, read thousands of spines and still had no explanation to give to my family. I had no way to fix things in a way that would bring back my wife.

“This library holds much, but not everything,” the vampire said. “Many leave satisfied, but some never look in the right place.”

My breath hitched, mouth drying with the first flares of a panic I’d hoped to bury somewhere in those faded memories. Failure loomed and more than anything, I felt utterly alone.

“I don’t mean to say it’s any fault of yours,” the vampire told me, stark and calm as a period perfectly placed at the end of a run-on sentence. “Sometimes it’s the people my visitors left behind who most need to pay the library a visit.”

Two evenings later, the candles burned low, and no ink flowed between us when the vampire took my hand. I swallowed down my disappointment, abandoning the last of my books on a tabletop to gather dust until a new patron arrived. I’d heard stories of visitors who’d overstayed their welcome—or rather, stories of those who never left the library alive. It was time for me to leave.

The vampire led me past sections I’d already sorted through and sections I’d left untouched. Dread built in my chest, dragged at my ankles. I’d found stories of others like me, some who’d found love and some who’d never wanted it, some who had families supporting them and others who’d gone on alone. There was no why to it, no reasoning—that was just the way those people were, the way their lives had been lived.

Moonlight gathered in the library’s front room, peeking through the old curtains.

“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” I told the vampire on his threshold.

“Did you?” he asked, thin lips curving.

I thought of the stories I’d read and the people in them, and wondered if my mother or father or brother turned those pages, if they would see through to the truth of me. They’d see I wasn’t someone waiting to be fixed. They’d see there was more to a person than changing themselves to preserve a legacy.

I exhaled. My family could find their own way to the library, if they were willing to risk the journey. My work was done, when it hadn’t been my burden to bear to begin with.

“You may return when you have more stories to share,” the vampire said. He squeezed my hand before letting me go. “Though I hope you will find my library bearing different questions. In the meantime, less salt would do well for your ink, I think.”

I went out into the world and left the library behind.

Kayla Whittle works in marketing and social media for a medical publisher. She has previously had a short story published in Luna Station Quarterly. Most often she can be found on Instagram @caughtbetweenthepages or on Twitter @kaylawhitwrites. When not writing, she’s usually busy reading, embroidering, or planning her next Disney vacation. She currently resides in New Jersey.

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