by Michele Lee
It started when the theater kicked off its Classic Horror Film Festival. But no one noticed anything strange until they found Ian in the front row of the theater, pale and unconscious with pinwheel shaped purple-red bruises on his throat. Matt found him when he came to turn off the overheads in theater five. Poor Ian lay, broom and dust pan still in hand, slumped over the seat on the end of the row. What a trooper, like somehow he could still clean popcorn and candy wrappers from the floor while horizontal.
The movie, House on Haunted Hill, started a mere five minutes late. It took two of us to carry him out of there, in the middle of the five o’ clock rush, and tuck him nicely out of sight. Then I went back to the front booth to sell tickets, pretending nothing had happened. Matt vanished back up into the booth to start the movie. Tammy even waited until all eight movies were into the second reel before calling an ambulance. Isn’t she a peach?
The paramedics didn’t find anything immediately wrong. We all stood around, like a curtain, watching as they took Ian’s vitals.
“It’s like he’s asleep,” Tatyanna said in that thick accent of hers. She should have been in the Elvira costume instead of Shannon and not just because of her rolling Russian-goddess accent.
“Only nothing’s waking him up,” I added.
“Does he use any drugs, prescription or illegal?” the fat, little paramedic chic asked. Tammy looked to us with an eyebrow raised.
I shrugged noncommittally. I doubted being a pothead put him in a coma. They took him away on a stretcher, rolled him right over the black and white tiles and out the doors.
We still hadn’t heard anything a week later when Hellraiser reopened to a crowd of fans who missed it the first time around. The theater carded, but that didn’t mean all the people in the ticket booth did. Most of the crowd, like most of the non-management employees, were under age or AARP members. When the movie let out I found Josh slumped in a chair with an employee box of popcorn and matching bruises on his neck. I shook him, hard. At least two people had dumped their popcorn in the chairs and I’d already policed the theater once during the show on a complaint of people throwing nachos at each other. I needed the back up to get the theater cleaned in the five minutes I had until the chick flick next door let out.
“Come on man, don’t be like this.” I shoved him harder and like a passed-out drunk he fell to the concrete floor without a muscle twitch to protect himself. He felt sort of plastic, and I felt bad when his head smacked on the floor. I radioed Tammy. It was the first run of the day, so a longer delay didn’t bother our start times. Matt, the projectionist, could make up for it.
The ambulance came right away this time and took Josh away immediately. He didn’t have insurance. He’d be pissed when he woke up to the bill.
Tatyanna paled when I told her. “Maybe there is something in the air.”
“Like a mold?” I asked.
“Yes, that is it, like a mold.” But her eyes didn’t agree with her words. Sometimes I forgot she hadn’t always been a teen fashionista. Her family immigrated to the States when she was four. She might have been raised in America, but her parents told stories even agnostic folks crossed themselves after.
“You mean a chemical? Like a terrorist?” Shannon asked. He was big on the conspiracy theories.
Tatyanna didn’t answer. Instead she turned and offered to help a customer still four feet from the counter.
“Why would a terrorist strike a movie theater? Oh, maybe it’s like that theater in Russia, only instead of holding us hostage they’re pumping anthrax to the customers through the air conditioning,” Shannon continued while the popcorn started exploding out of the kettle behind him.
The customer ordering from Tatyanna changed her order from popcorn and soda to prepackaged candy and a safety-sealed bottle of water.
“I’m making the popcorn, what else do they want?” Shannon grumbled. For more than just a moment I hoped he’d be next.
Night shift came in and I hung around. I sat at the back of the theaters sniffing the air and the seats. I didn’t understand how only one person at a time in the whole theater could be affected if it was a chemical, or even some sort of flu. I left after the house lights went on and the geriatric night shift ushers hobbled in to make sweeping motions at the floor.
Word spread fast through the employee ranks. Monday Dave, the other manager, called me into the office before I pulled on my purple shirt and put me through twenty questions that equated to “How do you feel”.
“I feel fine, man. How’s Josh and Ian?”
Dave shook his head. “I haven’t heard anything.”
Whether I liked them or not it was hard working every day knowing two of the people I spend most of my time with, even if it was on the clock, were lying in a hospital bed somewhere like zombies. Sleeping, living zombies. I called every hospital in the area, and two across the river, but I couldn’t remember Josh’s last name. One of the ones downtown said Ian’s parents took him home a day after he came in. They wouldn’t tell me how to call his parents, or how he was. Privacy laws or something.
I repeated my sleuth stint Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was the first day of the weekend and after school, homework in the break room and popcorn pushing I wasn’t capable of figuring my way out of Mathemagical Land, much less a bio-terrorism threat on my favorite discount theater. It didn’t seem effective to target one person at a time, so terrorism, while high on Shannon’s list of maybes didn’t make it far on mine. If I heard him rewriting what the other kids claimed to see one more time to prove his theory I thought I’d hit him. Dave, cool little guy that he was, felt the tension and let Shannon out early. It meant when the crew of ancient weekend employees left I had to pick up the theaters myself. But Chad and the night cleaners would be in at two a.m. so all I had to do was clean cups, napkins and trays from the seats.
I thought about the newest hire, a fifteen year old half hippy chick named Daisy. She should probably be the biggest suspect. But then I flipped on the overheads in theater one and spotted Daisy. It was pretty easy, she lay on the red carpet down the center of the theater drooling onto the rope lights. Maybe it was just a thing, or maybe it was the theme to Dracula playing over the end credits, but instead of calling Dave on the radio I squatted down and took a good look myself. No, it wasn’t because she was a chick. I’m not into jail bait.
She was pale to begin with, a hippy who disliked sunlight. It didn’t mean anything. We’d sent her out for lunch in daylight before. She didn’t burst into flames or howl in pain. Bruises were on her neck too, like nasty hickeys and not nasty in the fun way. They were dark purple spots, with spikes radiating out into a lighter red bruise. But then it ended without any further fading. I poked at the bruise to see if pain would get a response from her, but instead another bruise, yellow-green this time, rose onto her skin. I hadn’t poked her that hard, but it made me grimace at the thought of Josh’s head hitting the floor.
I couldn’t think of anything else. It looked like a vampire bite. There wasn’t any blood, or broken skin, but it was like all the bites I’d seen in the movies in shape, size and spacing.
Tatyanna came in as I rolled back onto my heels. She covered her mouth and paled. “It is another one?”
“Yeah, Daisy. I found her like this.”
“And not one of the customers said anything?” Tatyanna asked. I shook my head.
“Maybe they didn’t see her. Maybe it happened afterwards.” I stood and walked over to her. Tatyanna did not seem to want to get any closer.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I think it’s a vampire.”
“This is not crazy.”
“I mean there’s no blood or anything. But I still think…” I stopped and stared at her, suddenly aware that she had agreed with me.
Tatyanna smiled. “Well, where I come from there is never blood. We call them something different, but the idea is the same. Vampires, they are restless dead. They are possessed by a demon at the moment of death. They feed on their relatives and friends to continue existing. There is never blood gone. They feed on the life, the luck, the..”
“Chi?” I asked. Tatyanna faltered. I was mixing cultures again. “Chi is like life force.”
“Yes, exactly! The essence of one. The victims get tired, poor. There are accidents, ill health and bad luck, before they die.”
“Tatyanna, are you a vampire?”
“Not last time I checked.”
“When was the last time you checked?” I ask, just curious.
“I went to church on Sunday. A vampire could not go into a holy place.”
Good enough for me.
I wasn’t going to go spreading my theory around. Shannon was the only weirdo we needed. So instead I asked Dave and Tammy for usher duty.
No one liked to usher, so no one complained. When not scrapping Junior Mints off the seats and cleaning nacho cheese from the screens I slummed in the back row, hoping I’d be the next victim. After two days I realized I didn’t know what I’d do if I caught this supposed vampire.
There was a grocery store down the street so on lunch I walked down, bought a sandwich and chips, and big clove of garlic in a sealed plastic bag. It should be better than nothing. I could have raided the trash for improvised stakes. But if some of the movie legends weren’t true I wasn’t about to be found with some kid impaled and the word “vampire” on my tongue.
I worked Saturday morning, if you can call noon to six morning. Then I changed to street clothes and movie hopped, trying to stay awake through a political thriller and a romantic comedy. The credits rolled, and I was more than ready to switch theaters. On a Saturday night almost everyone works, but only one usher walked in, feet dragging and eyes on the floor, due more to a humped back than attentiveness. I stayed still for good measure. I think Tatyanna knew what I was doing, but everyone else would think I was nuts.
The usher scooted over to me, broom and dustpan trailing behind. She was about ninety, so it took a while. She pushed smashed cups and flattened popcorn over the concrete floor. She smiled at no one as she moved, her eyes and lips lost to wrinkles and the rest of her tiny, hump-backed body covered in our purple and black uniform. She shuffled down the aisle smelling like talc powder and burnt popcorn. She hovered over me and opened her mouth. Her eyes started to glow green. Really glow. I reached for my garlic.
“Holy hell.” I jumped up, but her decrepit arm caught me and held me in place like steel. “No way. No freakin’ way you’re the vampire.”
Fran grinned, her dentures looking poky and wrong in the flicker light of the rolling credits. “Young kids last longer. Theaters are full of young kids.”
She sat on my lap, which I always wanted to save for strippers on my eighteenth birthday. She leaned down, her soft, flabby, textured skin on mine and I shoved the massive bulb of garlic down her throat.
Something like a hiss, if one could hiss around a chunk of garlic larger than a golf ball, escaped her. Then she turned blue and hard on top of me. I jumped up, throwing the body aside and danced around until I felt somewhat less disgusting.
Dave and Tatyanna stood at the back of the theater when I could finally stop. From the looks of things Tatyanna had explained to Dave why I was in a dark theater alone with well-aged Fran.
“This is the vampire?” Tatyanna said.
“Yes, I’m guessing. The glowing eyes and trying to suck on my neck, and dying when I stuck garlic in her mouth probably proves it,” I said, still wanting to shake the old woman smell off me.
Tatyanna looked grateful enough that I thought I might be able to get a date out of it. I’d have a hundred old ladies try to neck with me for that.
“Okay.” Dave looked around, assessing the situation. “We could say it was a heart attack. She looks like she was sitting.”
“Yes, that is it. She had a heart attack.”
We all stood and looked at tiny, dead Fran. Then I asked the obvious.
“So who’s going to take the garlic out of her mouth?”
Dave and Tatyanna both looked at me.
“I’ve got to call the ambulance and stop the next show.” Dave vanished before I could say a thing.
“She’s not going to come back?”
“No. The demon will not be able to retake a body when it is dead, just when it is on the edge of dying,” Tatyanna answered. I made her hold a broom, and used a glove and plastic spoon to pry the garlic back out of Fran’s throat.
I turned and smiled, the bulb Fran-less and the day saved. Tatyanna pressed against me, with an enchanting smile.
“I could have been next. You have saved me from the worst nightmare in the stories my parents used to tell me. I owe you a great deal,” she said.
Then she leaned and kissed me. My arms wrapped around her as her lips rested on mine, and I knew I’d sit through at least twenty lap dances from ninety year olds for a kiss from her.