There were twelve small beds lined up in two rows and eleven of them were empty. Twelve children crowded on and around a single bed, kneeling on their knees with thin wool blankets shrouded around their shoulders and heads. The children’s eyes were wide in the darkness which was disbursed by quick lightening strikes and the moon shrouded in its blanket of clouds. Outside the stone windows, across the grayish green lawn and beyond the beyond the tall, black, rod iron fence, the world creaked and groaned in the eerie, evil silence of nighttime. Trees creaked and whined with the salvo of heavy rain. Somewhere distant but also close, there was a rabble of wheels atop of uneven cobblestone sounding like broken-throated laughter. The wind was catching the heavy iron gate, forcing it creak and forcing a sign to clang, metal against metal, that read: Low City Home for Orphans and Wayward Youth. Back inside, the eleven children stared up, with their mouths open, at the twelfth who was standing on the bed and telling stories.
The twelfth child was named Alfred and was completely called Elf. The boy had black, prickly hair, a skinny frame and eyes that might have belong to an old man. Elf had gotten the Elf because a younger child had difficulty pronouncing Alfred. The child’s eyes had grown glossy with frustrated tears as he tried to make his words obey him. The best he could do is, “Elf-Head.” He had told the child, whose name was Murphy, that he like the name “Elf-Head” because it reminded him of the king of the elves.
“The King of the elves?” Murphy asked.
“Yeah. The boss of all the elves. The Head of All Elves. You know how he got to be the boss?”
“Elves aren’t real.” Murphy said, apparently old enough to know skepticism.
“They are too. Who do you think slue the dragons?”
“There aren’t any dragons.” Murphy reminded Elf.
“Exactly. They’re all dead and they died before they could gobble everything up. Who do you think did that?”
“The elves?” The child had bitten and Elf began to reel him in, slowly.
“That’s right, the elves and the king of the elves had showed them how. Elves aren’t very big, hardly any taller than you.”
“How’d they kill dragons, then?”
“Well, all sorts of people tried to slay the dragons. There were really big guys who showed up to kill them and they didn’t. They got the giants from the end of the world to try and they were turned away. They got vampires and wizards and all sort of people and they all failed.”
“Then how did they kill the dragons?” Murphy urged.
“Well, the problem was that they were all too big. None of the people who tried had attacked the dragons from below. The king of elves, before he was actually the king, came forward to kill the dragon and everybody laughed at him. He ignored them and went for the dragon with a sharp stick.”
“Yeah. A sharp one. You know what he did with that stick?”
“Killed the dragon?”
“You bet he did. He pointed that dragon in his belly, which was really soft. Everyone else was too big and nobody could get at their bellies. Everyone was attacking from above and they were all beaten. The king of the elves killed the dragon and everyone was cheering and applauding and they put the king on their shoulders and they made him king. I really don’t mind being called Elf-head. It makes me feel like a dragon slayer.” Elf had said, smiling down to Murphy. Murphy had smiled back, his tears forgotten. Elf had made the story up on the spot, but Elf heard Murphy retold the story over and again.
Now, amongst the eerie night sounds and the rain, Elf was telling the other children about vampires. He had started the tale mostly because Murphy and some of the other children had been harassing him for a new one. He would have rather closed his eyes and slept, but he gave in and beckoned them close. He figured that he’d give them a scary one. Like the one about the elves and the dragons, Elf pulled the story straight out of air, closing his eyes and actually seeing how it was supposed to start. In his mind’s eye, he saw a boy in the woods. The boy had shaggy, black hair and ragged clothes made from burlap. The boy didn’t look exactly like Murphy, but the image put Elf in the mood for a little prophecy. He locked eyes with the small boy, who had curled up at the edge of his bed and gave a crooked, cracked smile.
“Do you know about the dark men?”
“No.” Murphy said. Elf’s eyes swayed across the faces of the other children.
“Do any of you know?”
“Do you mean Africans?” A small, ginger haired girl chanced.
“No. I mean bloodsuckers. Night walkers. I’m talking about vampires. They’re out there.” Elf said, pointing out the window and into the stormy darkness. The children peered out the window and at that perfect moment, lightening flared through the night.
“Out beyond the city limits and among the trees, they’re out there, looking back toward us. You know what keeps them from coming over?” He swayed his eyes across the children, their eyes wide and glowing. No one ventured a guess as to why.
“Because the watchmen, of course. They hide in the shadows waiting for the vampires and turn them away. How will do you think they can in this weather, though?” The iron gate whined aloud and the Low city sign clanged against the gate. Possibly, the sound of someone slipping past the gate and across the grayish green lawn.
“Ever heard of what vampires do to people?” Elf asked. “Drink blood, of course. But they also crush bones and rip up throats. They squeeze all of the blood out of you like water out of a sponge.” Elf made a ringing motion with his hand for the effect. Elf’s eyes had been narrowed and his smile curled up the side of his face.
“Vampires are fast and they’re strong and they love to eat little children like you guys. You guys are little snacks to them.” There was a crash in the hallway and the children breathed in shocked air.
“And if they don’t drain you dry, you become just like them. You can’t go out into the sunlight and the watchmen come after you.” There was another crash and this one was closer. Elf’s face began to crack and curl into a ghoul’s face and he began to issue a fizzy laughter like tar pit bubbling. At the end of the row of beds and beyond the tall wooden doors, there was a fleeting scream. It sounded like Mistress Song, one of their more beloved caretakers. The children had stopped listening to Elf talk about vampires. There were heavy footfalls thudding against the old, hollow wood of the outside hall. The children could hear ragged breathing like some colossal beast. All their eyes shone in the darkness and tears stole down some of the children’s tears. They stopped listening to Elf’s story, even Elf, because the story had become real. Fingers rapped and drummed against the wood of the door leading to the hall.
The door creaked open on whining, rusted hinges and again, the lightening struck at the perfect moment. The lightening strike threw a man-shaped figure into view, head lowered and arms hanging slack. He stepped forward, making those heavy footfalls. Another lightening strike illuminated his face, porcelain white skin shocked with a goatee of tacky blood. The children screamed, the sound slapping at the walls. Elf did not, his mouth went slack and his face went pale. A number of children scurried toward the door and the man-shaped figure snatched up two of them. The rest filtered around him, only to see the door swing close. There was a man that might have only been a shadow. He stepped into view and slammed the door shut before the children could get out. They battered at the door, screaming and crying. Soon, even that was gone.