Sherry Castleberry awoke from a restless sleep to a commotion outside her bedroom door. She heard a scuffle moving down the hallway; a round of curses from a tired, angry man; a muffled, almost drugged pleading from her mom; then, inevitably, the front door slamming shut, the harsh footsteps against the sidewalk; the tires squealing off.

Dennis was leaving, just like all the rest.

Sherry rubbed her eyes and glanced around her semi-darkened room. The outdoor bug lights cast a soft, yellow glow through the window, and she could just make out her teen idol posters thumbtacked to her closet door. 

Why? Why did Mom always run off every boyfriend? Especially a nice guy like Dennis?

Dennis had given her Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and had once even taken her to a movie. Most of Mom’s boyfriends hadn’t been nice. They called Sherry “rug rat” or “pesky twerp” and tried to pretend she wasn’t there. Dennis had been different. He was kind, but like the rest, he was gone—and he wasn’t going to come back. They never came back.

Mom wailed from the living room. She often wept after her men left. Tomorrow, if the past was any guide, she’d spend the day sullenly listening to rock bands from her youth. Her brooding might last for days or even weeks, depending on how quickly she found another man.

Sherry glanced at her clock radio: its red numerals glowed 3:10 a.m. If only Mom could see the obvious. The more she clung, the more she begged her men to stay, the more she drove them away. If Sherry, with the meager experience of a thirteen-year-old, could see that, then why couldn’t her mom? She had suspected Dennis would leave soon. That evening, Dennis called to say he didn’t feel up to coming over, but Mom had gone into fits. “Oh, Dennis, I can’t make it through the night without you,” she cried with a frantic whine. “I want you. I desperately need you.” 

Dennis finally agreed, but when he arrived, he looked like a caged animal, his face an exhausted white, his expression one of worn-out disgust. 

Mom threw herself at Dennis, smothering him with caresses and kisses.

He tensed. “Settle down, Ester. Sherry’s still up.”

Sherry cringed in embarrassment and fled to her room. 

Now, Mom stumbled down the hallway, no doubt returning to her bedroom where she’d sob for half the night.

How will I ever fall back to sleep?  

To distract herself, Sherry reached for her latest dystopian novel, then thought better of it and decided to get a glass of milk.

When she passed through their small living room, she glanced around and sighed. Scattered across their scuffed, second-hand coffee table stood empty wine bottles, and scattered across their tweedy, beige couch lay Mom’s stripped-off clothes. Their apartment’s tattered and mismatched furniture symbolized the shoddiness of their lives: the aimless roaming from city to city, the tendency to end up on the bad side of town, and the sense of rootlessness as Mom drifted from man to man. 

Sherry opened the refrigerator, sniffed the stale odor of molded food, and then grabbed a carton of milk. When she turned to the cabinet for a glass, she froze. A big rat with pinkish eyes, bristly, brown fur, and long whiskers sat on the counter, staring at her with an imperious, how-dare-you-intrude-in-my-domain look.

She screamed, a high pitched, ear-splitting scream that scared her more than the rat.

It stared back, indifferently.

Sherry dropped the milk carton, which split open as it hit the floor, its cold liquid splattering across her bare feet.

She sobbed. Big, painful sobs signaling her reservoir of pent-up frustrations had burst. 

When she glanced up, Mom stood at the kitchen door. Her long, black hair spilled across her shoulders and her striking green eyes stared, crestfallen. 

“Come here, babe,” Mom said in a breathy whisper as she opened her arms. “Come to Mama.”

Sherry rushed over.

Her mom embraced her, pulling her into her black lace and satin teddy. “Was it the rat, honey? Did the rat scare you? It’s run away. It won’t be coming back.” 

Sherry wanted to yell that far more than a stupid rat upset her, but she couldn’t bring herself to express the endless frustrations she felt. 

Mom eased her into the living room, settled them both into a battered Boston rocker, and held Sherry while she hummed a familiar lullaby.

When Sherry’s snivels lessened, Mom said, “First thing in the morning, I’ll ask Mr. Ives to call an exterminator.” 

Sherry doubted Mr. Ives, the manager of Paradise Hills Apartments, who loved to yell at children and neglect his chores, would ever make such a call. She looked up at Mom. “Why do we always live in dumps? This is not the first rat I’ve seen.”

The color drained from Mom’s cheeks. “It’s all I can afford, babe.” 

Sherry’s heart sank. She didn’t want to upset Mom, but she couldn’t hold back. “Dennis left, didn’t he?”

“Yes, hon.” Sorrow flashed across Mom’s face, along with something else. What was it? Desire, longing, desperation?

“I liked him, Mom.”

“I did, too. A lot.”

“But he’s not coming back, is he?”

Tears brimmed in Mom’s eyes. “No.”

“Why do they always leave?”

“Men these days don’t want to make a commitment.”

“I don’t like it when you’re looking for new boyfriends.”

“Why’s that?”

“Dennis was nice. Most of your boyfriends aren’t. I’m afraid you might pick a bad one. One who will hurt us—or kill us.” She let out a choked sob.

Mom pulled her tight. “Don’t worry, babe, that won’t happen.”

How clueless? How oblivious to evil? Sherry hated having to play the adult and longed for parents who’d take her to soccer practice, help her with homework, and bring her to church.

But Mom did none of those things. 

“Try to get the next one to stay. Especially if he’s like Dennis.”

“I’ll try,” Mom said as a tear rolled down her cheek. “I promise.”


At seven the next morning, Sherry realized she hadn’t heard a peep out of Mom’s bedroom. 

“Mom, wake up.” Sherry said as she stepped into Mom’s dimly lit room.

Mom didn’t stir. She lay at peace in her queen-size bed, with its rose-red comforter and matching silk sheets.

“You need to get up for work.” Sherry drew open the thick burgundy drapes.

Mom opened her eyes and winced at the early morning sun. She was a night person and always had a rough time in the morning.

Mom had lost several jobs due to lateness and absenteeism, and to make sure Mom got out of bed, Sherry waited in the kitchen before leaving for school. They’d arrived in Los Angeles a little over a year ago, and she feared they’d be forced to take flight again if Mom lost her current job at Eddie’s Beauty Salon. 

A minute later, Mom stumbled into the kitchen, shuffling like a sleepwalker. Her expression reflected a sorrow so deep she looked ill; in fact, she often got sick after the loss of a lover.

She lurched her way to the Formica countertop and grabbed her ever-present vitamin tray. She poured out an assortment of colorful pills, tossed them in her mouth, and gulped them down with water from a dirty glass, completing her morning ritual. Hopelessly addicted to her pills, Mom often refused to leave their apartment if she ran out, and she would wait for a friend or coworker to deliver a new supply.

Sometimes Sherry wondered what sort of pills they were. Could they be drugs? 

Mom plucked out a rust-stained coffee pot from a pile of dishes in the sink, placed it on the stove, switched on the gas burner, and snatched up a jar of Folgers Instant Coffee.

Sherry rolled her eyes. “Hello, Mom. Wake up. You forgot to fill the pot with water.” Then she stomped toward their front door, slinging her crimson backpack across her shoulders.

“What’s wrong, hon?”

Sherry turned and found Mom staring at her with wide and bewildered eyes. Sherry didn’t know what to say. She saw the hurt in Mom’s face and realized how helpless and out-of-place she looked standing in their filthy kitchen, wearing her see-through teddy, struggling to play a role for which she was totally unfit.

“It’s nothin’. See you tonight.” 

“I’ll find a nice new boyfriend,” Mom called out.

Sherry didn’t answer. Instead, she trudged out the front door into the bright, early-morning sun and overheard a faint cry behind her. She wondered if the cry was for her or for Mom’s lost love. 


I should tell Joel to turn that silly movie off. He hasn’t even glanced at his schoolbooks.

But Sherry didn’t have the energy to berate nine-year-old Joel Rigsbee into doing his homework. With his mop of tousled, brown hair, dirty, scuffed jeans, and fidgeting arms and legs, he looked like the bundle of energy he was.

He lay on the floor in front of the Castleberry’s television, watching an old horror movie called Van Helsing. He loved movies featuring either vampires or werewolves, and both were in an abundant supply in this one.

Sherry frowned. The movie reminded her of a nightmare she’d once had where Mom fell prey to a vampire. Sherry had lots of nightmares about Mom.

Joel and his mother lived in the apartment directly across the sidewalk from the Castleberry’s. His mom worked on an evening shift at a restaurant, and Sherry had been babysitting him for three months now, earning six bucks an hour. Sherry and Joel had become fast friends, and earlier that evening, he’d asked her if anything was wrong. 

She told him no.

But something was wrong. When she’d returned from school earlier, she found a note on the coffee table. Mom would be back late—her code phrase for hitting the bars. Now, at 9:00 p.m., Sherry’s stomach had twisted into knots.

“Sherry, are you okay?”

She snapped out of her thoughts and noticed Joel staring at her. She knew he fancied himself as a knight in shining armor, ready to rescue damsels in distress. She didn’t think it smart to talk to him about Mom, but some problems you just can’t keep to yourself. “Actually, Joel, I’m a bit freaked out about my mom.”

He crawled away from the TV and parked himself beside her at the foot of the sofa.

She realized he must be worried for her if he’d put a movie like Van Helsing on hold.

“Mom’s latest boyfriend left her last night,” she began. “And I think she’s out looking for a new one.”

Joel cocked his head. 

“The men who Mom finds in bars are typically losers. Some are creepy and do nothin’ but stay in the bedroom all day, and others can even be dangerous.”

He sat up straight. “Dangerous? How?”

“Sometimes they get mad. Real mad. And I’m afraid one day, one of them might hurt us or even kill us.”

His brown eyes widened, and his expression transformed from concern to an I’m-gonna-protect-you determination.

Oh My God. Why did I say that? Now I have to calm him down. 

She set aside the thick history textbook she’d been trying but failing to read, ready to backtrack, when abruptly the front door flew open, a momentary gust of wind fluttered through the room, and Mom stepped in with a man.

“Hi,” Mom said in a cheerful voice.

Sherry stared at Mom’s transformation. In stark contrast to how she’d looked this morning, Mom’s dark hair glowed with luster, and her makeup, which her coworkers had no doubt applied, erased her earlier sick pallor.

“I’d like you to meet Gary Leeds,” Mom said. “I met him this afternoon at Garrow’s Pizzeria & Bar.”

A medium-height man followed Mom into their apartment. He had raven-black hair and the pale complexion of someone badly behind on their sleep. He strolled up to Mom, embraced her about the waist, then glanced at Sherry and Joel. “Pleased to meet you munchkins. You sure got a beautiful mama.” He made a quick glance around the apartment. “Nice place, Ester. Sure beats the motel we just left.” 

Mom elbowed him in the rib. An irritated snarl flashed across his face, but he recovered and replaced it with a Cheshire-cat grin. “Your mom told me about you, Sherry, so I brought you a treat.” He pulled a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from the pocket of his stained tan sports jacket and tossed it to her, then turned toward Joel. “Sorry, Tiger. If I’d known you were here, I would’ve brought you one, too. Ester, you didn’t mention you had two kids.” 

Joel leaped from the floor, scowled, then said, “She’s not my mama and my name’s not Tiger.”

“Well, excuse me, little man. I thought these two lovely young ladies were your sister and mom.”

“I’m babysitting Joel,” Sherry said, wincing inside. She thought the breezy, I’m-a-real-friendly guy air Gary projected hid something else. It lurked behind his eyes, a seething something just waiting to come out. 

Mom tossed her imitation Louis Vuitton purse on the coffee table, headed for the kitchen counter, and poured vitamins into her cupped hands.

Gary glanced at Van Helsing, grimaced, then tweaked Joel on his left cheek. “Are you sure you’re old enough to watch a movie like that?”

Joel glared back. His forehead scrunched up, his eyes like daggers. 

For a moment, Sherry thought Joel would snap Gary Leeds’s fingers off, but Gary didn’t seem to notice the hostility. He ruffled Joel’s hair, then winked at Sherry.

A shiver shot down her spine, and she threw Mom an angry, how-could-you-bring-this-creep-home glare. 

Mom didn’t notice. She downed her pills, then strolled over to Gary, looking proud. 

Gary’s eyes feasted on Mom, his grin becoming a leer.

He’ll have his fun tonight, Sherry thought. All of Mom’s boyfriends had fun during their first night, before her clinginess overshadowed everything. 

Mom’s face turned dreamy. “Sherry, I noticed Joel’s mom is back from work now. Why don’t you take him home?”

Sherry didn’t feel sorry for Mom anymore. Just angry. And if Gary and Joel weren’t there, she’d let her have it.


The next day after school, Sherry found a note from Mom on the coffee table. “Honey—I’m meeting Gary for lunch at Garrow’s Pizzeria & Bar. I’m taking the afternoon off so we can spend the day together. We’ll be back after midnight. Luv, Mom.”  

Sherry crumpled the note and flung it to the floor. Why does Mom always run around with men at night like some drunken high schooler? Can’t she—

Sherry heard a knock at the door; it was Laura Rigsbee dropping off Joel. The thin, battered-looking brunette practically shoved him into the apartment. “I think he’s a bit under the weather. Maybe you can coax him to take a nap.” Laura gave him a kiss on the cheek, then dashed off.

A bit under the weather put it mildly. Joel’s tanned complexion had grown pale, and he now had dark circles under his eyes.

“Hey, Joel, are you okay?”

He stood frozen in place, throwing a petrified glance about the apartment.  

“Come on, talk to me.”

“Is that man here?”

“You mean Gary Leeds? No, but he’ll be coming home later with Mom.”

He turned a shade whiter and grabbed her left wrist. “Sherry, I’m worried about you. I watched your apartment all night long. I saw somethin’ terrible.”

“What did you see?” 

He bit his lower lip, then said, “It was this thing, Sherry. This awful thing that came out of your mom’s window. I know you’re not gonna believe me, but I saw it.”   

“What was this thing?”

“A big, black bat.”

She gasped. 

“He’s a vampire,” Joel whispered. “Gary Leeds is a vampire.”

“Oh, Joel, come sit with me.” She nudged him to the sofa, set him down, and placed her right arm around his shoulders. 

He gripped her wrist as if clutching a life raft. 

“Did you actually stay up all night and watch our apartment?”

He nodded.

“Awh, man, that must have gotten you spooked.” She wondered how she could best calm him down. With one look at his terrified face and his tense body, she knew he wasn’t knowingly making this vampire stuff up. 

Tears welled in his eyes, and she gave him a reassuring hug. “Oh, come on. There’s nothing to worry about. It was all just a dream. A big, ugly dream.”

He yanked away. “No, it wasn’t any dream. I saw it. I did.”

“Okay, I believe you think you saw something. But let me point out a couple of things. First, see that big mirror over the TV? I noticed Gary’s reflection in it last night. You must have seen it, too, right?” 

He nodded his head, halfheartedly. 

She rose from the sofa and picked up Mom’s note off the floor. “Now see this note? Notice when Gary and my mom planned to meet today?”

He read with the plodding speed of a nine-year-old. 

Impatient, she snatched the note from him. “Look here, it says they wanted to meet in the middle of the day. And Garrow’s Pizzeria doesn’t sound like a vampire hang out to me.”

Joel jutted his chin out. “I know a lot more about vampires than you do. According to my Modern Day Vampires book, vampires can go out in the sun. They take medicine that protects them.”

“Your what?”

“My Modern Day Vampires book. It’s part of the Monster Book Collection. It tells you everything you need to know about monsters.”

She remembered his book collection. He’d shown it to her once, but she’d paid scant attention.

“And I bet Gary Leeds takes medicine that makes him appear in mirrors, too,” Joel said.

Something clicked inside her, something that said she could argue with him until she grew blue in the face, but he’d never budge from his story. “That’s it,” she said. “No more talk of vampires.”

“But Sherry, you’ve gotta—” 

“Shush,” she hissed, raising a finger to her lips. “Drop it. Now.”

Throughout their dinner of microwaved pizza, Joel shot her fierce looks of betrayal. But after a while, he lost himself in cartoons, and she gave up on her textbooks for her dystopian novel. 

At 10:30, she took him home, pausing at the front door. “Are we still pals?” She asked, sticking her hand out.

He dug into his pockets, withdrew something, and placed it into her palm. “Take this. You’re gonna need it.”

She glanced down, seeing a small silver cross. For an instant, a woozy sensation surged through her, mingled with an elusive awareness she couldn’t quite grasp, but it passed as fast as it came. She looked up, only to see he’d fled inside and locked the door.

She shrugged and pocketed the cross.


Sherry couldn’t sleep. She’d been trying for a good two hours now, but nothing worked. What Joel had said unnerved her. She’d caught herself looking, foolishly, for signs that Gary might be a vampire when he’d come home with Mom. He wore that same tan jacket; it now had four stains. Were they blood stains?

He wouldn’t keep his eyes off Mom, drinking her in like a lustful—


Cut it out.

She glanced at the clock radio, now showing 1:22 a.m. At this rate, she’d stay up all night worrying about Mom, which was ridiculous because Gary was your average creep, bent on one thing: sex. And as soon as he had his fill, and Mom began her don’t-leave-me routine, he’d be gone, just like all the—

What was that sound?

There was a faint noise coming from Mom’s bedroom, a scuffling sound like somebody leaving. Did Mom already run Gary off? Oh God, please yes.

But she heard no one lumber down the hall.

She felt a sudden wave of sympathy for Joel. She could see how he might conjure up a vampire as he lay awake during a sleepless night with his imagination running wild. If she, at thirteen, could get this skittish, then what could she expect from a nine-year-old?

She threw her comforter aside, got up, and trudged over to the window. She gazed at the Rigsbee’s apartment across the sidewalk and noticed no one peering out from Joel’s bedroom window. She breathed a sigh of relief. At least he was getting some sleep. She lingered a moment longer, taking in the night sky. It was clear, the stars shimmering specks of light in a vast expanse of black, the moon a thin crescent of brightness.

She froze.

A dark, fluttering something flickered across the night sky, momentarily blotting out a portion of the moon.

What’s that?

Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew, but wasn’t ready to admit the possibility. She scanned the night sky. A full minute of relentless searching produced nothing.

Just a trick of the mind. My imagination getting the better of—

Then she spotted it. Flying toward the Castleberry and Rigsbee’s apartments.

A bat.

Surely, it was an ordinary run-of-the-mill bat.

But the bat broke its flight, and its clawed feet arched as it landed on the ground. It turned and inched toward their apartment, then lunged into the air. 

She let out a startled shriek, broke away, and tumbled to the floor. She heard the bat bumping against Mom’s bedroom window. A surreal sensation gripped her. Had Mom finally picked the wrong kind of guy? Totally, totally the wrong kind of guy? Her heart pounded as she lunged toward the door. She overheard the thing struggling to find its way in. Mom often kept her window ajar, and once the bat found the opening, it would fly inside. Sherry pictured it transforming into Gary Leeds as it bent over Mom, its eyes burning with that seething something that had finally come out. 

Sherry felt an overwhelming urge to flee, to race to the nearest street, and scream for the police. But she couldn’t leave Mom behind. She glanced across her room, searching for something to fight off Gary. 

The cross! Stupid. Joel gave you the cross.

Galvanized, she scrambled for her jeans, snatched them from the floor and dug into the pockets. For a terrifying moment she couldn’t find it, but then she felt its cool metal. She yanked the cross out, gripping it as if it might slip away. She steadied herself for the trek to Mom’s bedroom where she’d confront Gary Leeds and thrust the cross right smack into his leering face.

She stepped into the narrow hall. She stopped and heard a faint, wet, smacking sound. 

Her heart pounded in her ears. She stood still, staring at Mom’s door, then took the cross from her palm and held it between her fingers. She would shove it into Gary’s face the second she saw him. 

She took a deep breath, turned the knob, pushed the door open, and barged into the room.

Gary lay prone across the bed, jagged streams of blood trickling down onto his chest. A vampire bat squatted over him, its face buried in his neck, making hideous slurping sounds. Startled, it fluttered its wings, flew back, and underwent a transmutation: its bat’s webbed wings became a black teddy, its clawed feet became shapely female legs; its hideous rodent face became a woman’s face.

Mom’s face! And then everything clicked. All of Mom’s annoying obsessions. All the drained-looking men. No, Mom, No.