Dying for an Invitation
Mama discovered a six-year-old Dacie twirling and dancing in her bedroom. Her arms were outstretched, her tiny hands clasped by unseen larger ones that pulled her around in circles. Noticing her mother in the doorway, Dacie rapidly drew her hands back and sprung on her heels. That following Sunday she was baptized yet again and a newly blessed cross placed on her little neck.
Another time her mother stumbled upon her playing with a doll that was posing on its own midair.
“Dacie?” her mother called, concern in her voice.
The doll quickly dropped to the floor.
“Who’s there with you?”
“No one, Mama.” Dacie picked up the doll and hugged it to her chest.
Her mother entered the room and bent down, taking her daughter by the arms. “You can tell me. Who plays with you?”
Dacie’s gaze lowered to the area rug. “I don’t know.”
She lifted her daughter’s chin. “What do you mean you don’t know?” Her eyes darted about the room. Squinting, she said, “Listen to me. You need to stop this. Command whatever it is to leave you alone. Do you understand me?” She shook her daughter’s arms while glaring at her.
Dacie slowly nodded, her eyes wide with fear.
“Come, you’re sleeping with me tonight.” She yanked her daughter’s hand. Dacie trailed along, her doll dangling behind.
“You need to go away when Mama comes,” she’d told him the next night, as she stood underneath the giant wooden rosary her mother had nailed to the wall.
Mama suspected the paranormal activity continued, but she never caught them in the act again.
Not quite twenty years later, sitting in the back of the cab, Dacie wondered if her paranormal playmate still loomed in the corners of the family mansion. The memories of him seemed like a dream, although napping now in the car on the four-hour ride to Bran village appeared to be as useless as stealing any sleep on the plane from New York to Bucharest. Normally the passing fields of corn and long grasses dotted with white and yellow flowers proved a visual lullaby. She would watch the occasional farmer, dressed in cioareci pants tucked into boots, a linen shirt, and straw hat, feeling like she had somehow traveled back in time when things were simpler. There was something comforting about a place where time stood still, while simultaneously feeling eerily unnatural. Now, in winter, the landscape was a blinding white. Everything was still, cold, frozen.
None of her friends believed that Transylvania was an actual place, much less that Dacie grew up in one of its villages. Even the origin of her unabridged name, Daciana, was a history lesson. So she told people it meant “wolf.” Technically, that was only one of the etymologies.
The truth was she was named after her grandmother, who’d disappeared at the age of twenty-three. Speculation regarding her fate had circulated in the family for years, but Dacie refused to believe anything dreadful had happened. She always imagined her grandmother had escaped from her ordinary life and was doing something extraordinary somewhere. That was the spirit that had prompted Dacie to step on a plane headed for the United States when she turned eighteen. She wanted to leave behind her childish fantasies and meet a real man and have a normal relationship. And, as fate would have it, it was on that very flight where she sat next to Zane.
As the cab twisted along the driveway, past the dry fountain coated in ice, she coaxed the sketch pad from her bag to compare her memory with the real life mystique of the manor. Despite her preference for drawing human subjects, she’d captured the spired turrets, all the straight edges, as well as the correct number of windows. She grinned in satisfaction until a drawing of Zane slid from the pad’s pages when the car hit a bump. Trying not to look at it, recalling sitting with him at a Parisian café near the Eiffel Tower where she’d put pencil to paper on the very trip he proposed to her, she stuffed the image back in the book.
Once the driver had helped unload her suitcase, she paid him. He scanned the façade of the house before appearing to shiver, his breath like smoke in the air. Hastily tipping his fedora, he scrambled back into his vehicle. The car jerked into reverse and drove away.
Dacie stomped the snow from her boots onto the mat. Opening the front door, she smelled the odor of old wood and dusty curtains. Her mother could never keep up maintaining such a large place. Dacie suddenly sympathized, thinking about how she had trouble keeping her studio apartment clean. Although, now it was easier to tidy up since Zane had taken all of his stuff.
The latticed rectangular skylights sent rays in ribbons. If only she could feel more of that light in her life. She dropped her luggage on the polished floor in the entryway. Even if the rest of the house was not in tip-top shape, the entrance needed to give an immaculate impression—especially since superstition said it indicated the type of visitors one would attract.
Practically toppling down the steps and throwing her arms about her daughter, her mother cried, “Dacie, my baby!” She was still her petite, solidly built self, her long gray hair framing her animated face.
Dacie leaned forward for her cheeks to be kissed.
The jet lag had her feeling cranky. A year had passed since she’d been home, and her mother would be rabid with inquiries. Sprinkled into the conversation would most likely be the typically ominous remarks about the local legends she grew up hearing. I hope she spares me the dark tales tonight.
“It’s been too long. Come,” Mama said.
Dacie groggily shadowed her mother into the sitting room. The matriarch took out the decanter of palinka from the antique cabinet and poured two drinks. Her hands wavered with age as the plum brandy filled the glasses.
Dacie recalled a time when her mother’s hands had been steady. The years had passed so rapidly that Dacie had a hard time believing she was out of the nest and on her own.
They clinked a toast.
“To you finally being home,” her mother said with a smile.
They swigged the alcohol in unison. Dacie had forgotten how strong it was and covered her mouth, repressing a cough. Her throat burned. While she studied at the Academy of Art, she had indulged in the occasional wine, but there was no palinka to be had—and even if she had found a bottle, it would never have been homemade moonshine.
Her mother tugged at the drawstrings of her dress, making sure they were perfectly symmetrical, as she lounged in one of the leather chairs. “My, you are rather dark.” Her eyes darted about the space around her daughter as if scanning for something in her aura.
Dacie’s brow crinkled. “I wear a lot of black, Mama. You should know that by now.” She sipped.
“That’s not what I mean.” She lifted her hair from her neck and moved it to one side. Patting her chest, she said, “Something troubles you here.”
Dacie yawned. Her eyelids were heavy.
“No answer and now you’re yawning in my face?” Mama crossed her arms.
“I’m just tired.” She flopped onto the loveseat and stared out the window overlooking the hillside. The last time she had sat here, her fiancé had his arm around her, and she rested her head on his shoulder. They swapped stories with Dacie’s mother late into the night.
“What’s Zane up to?” her mother asked. “I thought you’d be bringing him with you—and we were going to plan the wedding.”
Dacie’s eyes watered. “We broke up.” Saying it flat out made her face the finality of it. She hated endings, especially this one, an ending that wasn’t supposed to be an ending.
Her mother’s eyes widened as she got up to pour herself more liquor. “How can this be?”
Dacie twisted the butterfly ring on her finger.
“What happened? You looked happier than I’ve ever seen you.” The tone of her voice was flat as if she was saying one thing, but thinking of something else. Her eyes narrowed while she straightened one of the picture frames on the coffee table. It was a selfie of Dacie and Zane in front of Bran Castle.
“Lots of things happened, I guess.” Spending long hours apart hadn’t helped. Her studio hours, his researching for his next big court case. They were supposed to go back to Paris for the honeymoon. Dacie had even called the travel agent.
“You two should work things out—you have to work things out.” Her mother put her glass down as if it had suddenly become too heavy.
“It’s not that simple.”
Startled by the touch of a hand on her shoulder, she turned her head. There was an imprint of fingers on her T-shirt. She pressed her shoulder to her cheek in acknowledgement as her emotional anguish dulled. Maybe part of her heart had always been here with him. As he retreated, she recalled the first time she had sensed his comforting hand. Standing in the living room the night of her father’s funeral, tears streaming her chubby cheeks, she felt the hand on her shoulder. Instead of being afraid, she wondered for a moment if it was her father’s spirit. But her six-year-old intuition told her this was not his stern, mature energy. It was a younger man.
“You are more vulnerable now than ever. And, you are the exact age my mother was when she vanished. This is unbelievable.” She squeezed her age-spotted hands together.
“I’m not going to disappear. You need to relax about that stupid nonsense.” Anger flared inside Dacie as she resented that her mother cared more about vampire lore than the fact that her daughter was suffering a heartbreak. She stared at the framed black and white prints of the nearby forest on the wall, noting their precise alignment. Mama had nagged her father to get the measurements just right until he did.
Mama’s face tensed as she frowned. Her expression faded while she surveyed the room and rubbed her arms. “Do you feel that?”
“What? How much palinka have you had tonight?” Dacie smiled, deflecting attention away from her. It was one tactic to cover for her supernatural friend, just like she when she was little.
Her mother scowled as she nervously looked around. “I thought that with Zane you’d finally be safe—you would have had a husband to protect you.”
That’s just what I need—to feel even worse because I might become a vampire. Dacie clenched her teeth. This wasn’t old world sexism that dictated a woman needed a man to take care of her. The risk of turning into a strigoi was equal opportunity for both genders. Anyone who died unmarried could become one of the undead. “I’m doing my best not to die.”