She was nearly a full head shorter than I was, model-slim and startling in a long black dress with a very high neck. Her pale, lineless face never stirred when we shook hands, and her fingers were as cold as chalk. I was relieved when she perched on a chair across the table from me. The clock above the door of the ESL office quietly tocked.

“In my youth,” she began, then cleared her throat. English was not her first language, nor, I thought, probably even her second. Her accent evoked drapes and horses and spices and stone. “In my youth, in my country, girl children were not sent to school.”

There was a twinge of nervousness in my stomach, a flutter that made no sense. Some people are put off by accents, but not me. Never me. My own dad had earnestly and incomprehensibly dragged English through a tangle of East Asian linguistic traits for as long as I’d known him. And this was just another student with an accent, just another immigrant or refugee or exile or exchange learner, and she was here to ask me for help. I smiled at her. “That couldn’t have been long ago. How frustrating for you.”

She fixed me with a falcon eye. “It was the reason I made the choice to leave. Why I left behind my family. And other things.”

“Looking for education?”

“Just…looking. Education was not something I was taught to want. Not something I believed possible. No.” She paused, weighing. “Though it may offend your American sensibilities, I shall be frank. I left my home with a man. A wealthy, powerful man. He promised to give me a new life, and he did. I do not regret it.”

“But he didn’t give you an education either.”

“For his purposes, I did not need one.” She stared into the distance for a moment, out through the hallway picture window that we could both see through the office’s open door. Winter darkness had turned the campus into a pastiche of fuzzy gradients, drifts softening all corners. Pole lights illuminated nebulous swarms of snowflakes as they drifted through the groundward beam and settled onto the mounting white. Normally, the ESL office wasn’t open this late. Normally, I’d have started home by now, hoping to beat the storm. But what was waiting for me at home? An ungrateful cat, an empty bed, cold noodles. What was waiting for me here? A dead-end career at a community college. A foreigner who made me feel vaguely uncomfortable. And in between, the darkness.

“You seem to be a decent man, Mr. Lee,” she said suddenly. “But this topic is one that I have many sensitivities about.”

“That’s understandable.”

“I speak five languages. Five, all fluently. I have lived in every country in Europe, as well as several in Asia and South America. I translate, both for my living and to resist the boredom of a long life.”

She could barely have been thirty. What had she seen, I wondered. The thought of years crammed into months that accordioned into fraught days disturbed me. My uncle’s grey hair. The way he drank, silently, one cup after another, in the weeks after we finally got him to the States. The weeks before he took his own life. A shiver ran down my spine. I struggled to re-center myself. “Translate?”

“In-person medical translation. For the hospital, normally for Spanish and French speakers. And yet, it is not so much longer that I can conceal my weakness.” She paused for a long time. Nothing in her, not the high chin nor the direct, almost unsettling stare, not the unblinking eye contact, suggested weakness of any kind. Finally, she admitted, quietly, “I cannot read.”

Aha. Just like that, I was back on firm ground, secure once more in my educated superiority. I smiled at her again. Understanding. Sympathetic. Smug. “That’s OK. A lot of people can’t.”

“No, it is not true. In my youth, it was normal, most common people were uneducated. Now, not so much. I cannot even use, how do you say it, a smart phone.” Each word, smart phone, fell separately from her mouth, a new combination for her vocabulary. Where was she from? Some stone-crypt valley in the Alps? A lost village in the deep woods of Romania?

I dismissed my questions. I was finally where I ought to be, finally in charge again. What mattered was that I could read. At least I could read. “If you could learn five languages, I’m sure you’ll be able to learn to read with no problem.” Consolation with the smoky hint of condescension. This was just someone’s mistress, a discarded piece of fancy Eurotrash, two steps up from an actual prostitute. At least I could read. But my stomach lurched and roiled again as I struggled to meet her uncanny gaze. I needed her to be vulnerable. Her helplessness must obviate her obscure threat. “When can you come in?”

“Nights.” I blinked at her finality.

“Only nights?”

“Tuesday nights. And Thursdays on alternate weeks.”

“Normally we’re not open nights.”

She frowned very slightly. A chill slithered through me. An ice-clear memory of my mother, ringingly tense, followed like the tail of a snake. I nearly recoiled, controlled myself with an effort, sucked in a breath of stale office air. Her glare robbed the room of all warmth. “The college holds classes at night,” she snapped. “Why should your offices not open at night as well?”

There was a current of frigid electricity in my hands and teeth. “It’s not the same. We’re primarily staffed by students here at the ESL center. They’re not paid, so they don’t stay late.”

“What about you?”

“I’m an adjunct,” I heard my voice squeak. I thought of Madeline, who had offered to wait for me, and Jeff, who had not. They would be at their homes by now, their cars safe and asleep under blankets of snow. “I, ah, I only stayed today to meet with you for the first time. To schedule more meetings during our regular hours.”

“I could pay extra for a tutor.”

“I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work like that.”

“I am enrolled.” Her voice sharpened, hardened. “I have paid tuition, therefore I have paid for this service.”

My hands shook like leaves under the table. “I’m sorry.”

For several seconds, we stared at one another, her pale, pale skin growing paler, my clenched teeth beginning to ache. “It is no small thing,” she said, sibilantly, “to make me angry.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I would have respect if you were refusing of your own will. But you do this as a bureaucrat. Do you call yourself a teacher, you, who have so little dedication to your art?”

My heart ran fast in my chest, my muscles spasmed involuntarily. My body was trying to flee without me. The situation had spiraled away from me again. I needed to regain control. There was nothing to be afraid of. “I have no choice.” I paused, setting my teeth, reining the the throb-throb-throb tomtom of the pulse in my ears. Behind my closed eyelids I forced myself to know that this was idiotic, I willed myself to understand that I was being irrational. I was sick again. Maybe my medication needed a tweak. Dr. Rons would hear about it next week. He’d give me something and all would be well. My breathing steadied. All would be well. I blinked my eyes open and smiled at her shakily. “I’m sorr-”

A powerful force slammed my body backward into the wall. I may as well have been hit by a train, so relentless was the attack. I felt a fine pain run across my neck, accompanied by a warm gush of fluid. My validated fear, the truth of my tremulous hands and terror, broke through my fragile control like a flood through a dam and carried me away into icy darkness.

Time passed in eddies and whirlpools. Years might have gone by as I struggled to consciousness. When I opened my eyes, the clock above the office door dominated my view. Nine thirty. I’d been…unconscious? Forty-five minutes. And I was on the floor. A pool of warm, sticky, sweet-smelling ichor glued me to the office carpet. Fragments drifted through my head like snowflakes, disappearing and reappearing. So much. This red, this much red, couldn’t be mine. No. Not mine. My chest was stuffed with cotton. I pulled my head up with an effort and crawled to my feet. The world was small and large in my vision, both an overwhelming expanse and a pinprick in a lightless void. My only anchor was my sudden awareness of a need so concrete, so ravenous, that it dwarfed me. It was realer than my thoughts and feelings and memory, older than humanity and stronger by far. The noodles flashed into my mind, but as soon as they did, a crippling surge of nausea overtook me. I doubled over and heaved, emptily, onto the crimson floor. I vomited until I was able to force the food from my mind. Instead, I thought of the cat. Hot and full of thrumming scarlet life. The deep hunger returned. I found myself salivating.

She sat across the table as though she’d never moved, methodically applying a wet nap to her lips and face. It did not seem strange that she had no mirror. I wouldn’t have cared if I did notice, because in that moment I knew nothing but her presence. Beyond beautiful, beyond intimidating, she was nearly a deity in my bizarre new perception. Radiance flowed from her, not of light, but of something else, something impossible to resist. The throb of power. The scent of blood.

“Now,” she said, looking down on me, “we agree. You work nights. And.” Her demure lips split wide to reveal a vicious, sanguine brace of fangs. “You will teach me to read.”