She thought her mother was a vampire. It was my fault.
When we were just kids, I was the older sister though not the oldest, the leader of the pack at parties, the herder of children into non-destructive activities. Though only a child myself, at 8 and 10 and 12 I was the one who organised games or races, the one charged with keeping everyone occupied and out of the adults’ hair.
The families would gather, and I would collect the children — a pint-sized Pied Piper. We’d play make believe, run races, or bounce on beds long before trampolines became a feature of every backyard.
Before I was put in charge, there were Incidents.
There was that time The Naughty Boys climbed up on the roof of our house (how did they even get up there?) and jumped, pretending to be Superman. Was there only one broken arm?
Party hosts would regularly take inventories afterwards to assess just how many nick-knacks were smashed beyond repair.
There were Incidents even after I was bestowed the responsibility of shepherding the kids, of course.
Let’s never discuss that time when I stepped out of the room, left the little ones to their own devices, and came back to find them, sheepish ghosts, standing in the middle of a baby powder snowfield.
Or that time when bedrooms were declared off limits, so bean bags were used as landing pads for leaping children. The vacuum cleaner sucked up styrofoam beans embedded in 1970s shagpile carpet for months afterwards.
Nighttime parties posed their own challenges. No access to the outdoors, and tired children had to be overcome.
The adults, momentarily free of the demands of their weekly grind, unwilling to break the spell that held them in this childfree bubble, would chat, eat, laugh, and ignore whined entreaties from bleary-eyed children. While their conversations strained, or strayed into the deeply personal, the little ones would rub their eyes, and look for ways to catch their parents’ attention. Before mischief could be wrought, I’d gather them, shoo them all into the nearest bedroom, and set them up comfortably on beds, or in blanket nests around the floor, to tell them stories.
An early and avid reader, constructing stories was like breathing for me. My imagination trotted along familiar narrative paths borrowed from Just So Stories, Amar Chitra Katha comics, or my own family.
Lights would be flicked off, curtains drawn, my voice would fall to a whisper, and tales of magic, demons, witches, and bravery would wind their wispy fingers around us all.
Children were always the beset upon, and also the heroic stars of my stories. I would glance around my audience and spin a tale that incorporated as many of them as possible.
As we all got a little older, the stories got a little darker. Movies we were too young to see, urban myths, and mythological tales were all grist for the mill. Blue dolphins, evil gnomes, and faces that peeled into chunks of flesh in the sink vied for pole position as the most terrifying.
Amongst them was the story of the children in a post-apocalyptic world filled with disguised adult vampires.
In complete darkness with children huddled close to me on one of our parents’ queen-sized beds, I spun the tale of a gang of kids who never knew who they could trust. A once familiar adult would give them safe haven, and then, without warning or preamble, would reveal themselves to be a vampire who feasted on the blood of children.
The gang of kids, the survivors in the story, the courageous and lucky, emerged from their many trials and finally made it back to their homes, their parents.
Wary from their misadventures, the children tested their families. Did they have a reflection? Were they photophobic? Were their canines suspiciously long or sharp?
After each test that their parents passed, the children would grow a little more trustful.
Eventually, feeling safe and exhausted, one little girl decided it had all been nothing more than her vivid imagination. She relaxed, ate her dinner, showered, and climbed into bed. Lying there, giggling at how she’d scared herself through her own creativity, she heard her mother’s footsteps coming down the hall.
The door to her baby brother’s room creaked open, and she imagined her mother tucking him in and kissing him goodnight. Excited her mother would soon hug her, reassure her that she was safe, and kiss her goodnight, the little girl shrugged further down under the covers and waited.
She heard her mother gently press her bedroom door open, and she squeezed her eyes shut, pretending to be asleep. The little girl imagined her mother’s smiling face bathed in the warm light from the lamp by the bed.
She felt her mother straighten the sheets, and tuck them firmly around her till she she was cocooned. She felt her mother’s breath on her cheek, the tips of her mother’s long hair tickling her face as she leaned in to kiss the child goodnight. Just as her mother was about to kiss her, the little girl opened her eyes to see the glint of long, sharp fangs in her mother’s open mouth.
Before I could finish the story, the party was over and our parents were gathering coats, empty dishes, and children. I sent the kids on their way with promises to finish the story next time we met.
I thought no more about the story. No doubts or worries lingered in my head. It was just a story, after all.
Weeks later one of the aunties, because every woman of my parents’ age is an aunty, took me aside.
“No more vampire stories,” she said.
Her daughter utterly refused to be tucked into bed or kissed goodnight. After much coaxing, the child had admitted she was convinced her mother was a vampire.
I never did finish that story.