This story contains elements of body horror and depictions of child endangerment.
A skyscraper loomed over the bustling anthill of the film crew’s activity. Chloe’s gaze followed the skyscraper’s floors up, up, up to the sixtieth floor and then to the roof where the flying equipment was anchored.
She swallowed hard.
She could tell the cast PA that she wasn’t fully recovered after all. But then she wouldn’t get paid.
If she didn’t get paid, she couldn’t cover her medical bills. More importantly, she couldn’t cover her share of Kayla’s private school tuition, and The Jerk had been making noises about suing for full custody.
Chloe took all the gigs she could, but fewer were available for Black stuntwomen. Her dream was to become the preferred stunt double for Thandie Newton or Zoe Saldana. She had the right build and bone structure. All she had to do was keep building a name for herself in the field.
If she could.
“It will be a while before we need you,” the AD told her.
“Thanks.” Chloe wandered over to the shadowy boulevard where they’d tucked craft services away. Maybe a little food would settle her stomach.
She was crumbling queso fresco over her fish taco when a hissing, rattling sound above her raised all the little hairs on the back of her neck.
She looked up. Branches. Leaves. Shadows. Glowing yellow eyes directly above her.
Chloe dropped her fish taco and drew breath to scream. She took a step back, her boot hit the taco, and she slipped like Charlie Chaplin on a banana peel.
The creature landed on top of her, knocking her breath out. Claws gripped her arms. It was the size of a human, naked, with saggy gray skin and sunken dugs and rows of jagged, broken yellow teeth, oh god, the teeth….
Its glowing yellow eyes snared Chloe. She couldn’t move. She felt like she was floating above her body as the creature whuffled along her neck.
Something cold and wet that smelled like a moldy dishrag slopped against the side of her neck. It was licking her. Chloe tried to scream. Only a faint whimper escaped. With oddly finicky delicacy, the creature pressed its jagged teeth against her neck and nipped.
Chloe felt a sharp pain and then warmth as her blood flowed down her neck. The creature unhinged its jaw and extruded a dripping, pus-white tube.
The proboscis latched on to the wound on her neck. It pulsed. A streak of pink spread up its length. Oh God. It was drinking her up like a strawberry milkshake.
Hectic pink patches spread across the creature’s cheeks. Its proboscis swelled and then pulsed once, ferociously. Burning heat shot into Chloe’s neck.
Her eyes swam with tears. She blinked them away and sat up, wiping her cheeks dry with the back of her hand. She looked around, confused. Why was she on the ground beside craft services?
She felt good, really good, for the first time since…. She couldn’t remember when. She hadn’t realized how much everything still hurt until it stopped.
“Chloe!” the AD called. “We need you.”
The first thing Chloe did when she reached the sixtieth floor was walk across to the sugar-glass window that she would be defenestrated from. She leaned close to the fragile pane and stared down at the movie crew below. They looked like ants. If she fell through the window right now, she would splat like a pancake and then they would all swarm around her, just like real ants.
“Chloe, I know you’re fearless, but have pity and take a step back before you give me a heart attack! Get your flying harness on,” the director ordered.
When the villain’s kick launched Chloe into the night sky, she flew. She flawlessly executed the midair flip and window-frame grab. Slamming into the skyscraper hurt, but only for a moment. She got her feet under her and pushed off to flip back up through the window. She landed on the broken sugar-glass in a catlike crouch, head down with her waterfall of braids concealing her face.
“Cut! Perfect. Got it in one take. Damn, Chloe, you’re not just back, you’re more badass than ever.”
The film crew burst into applause. Chloe tossed her head back and grinned.
Buoyed by her success, when her agent asked her about a Christmas movie stunt that involved swinging from the twinkle lights in a mall, Chloe told him yes. Kayla’s tuition had been paid for this month, but there was always next month and the one after that.
She wasn’t worried about being able to do the job, not after being defenestrated from a skyscraper, so she was in good spirits as she pulled on her lucky boots and caught a taxi to the set.
The first assistant director gave her a funny look and wrinkled his nose when she showed up. Chloe ignored that because she was a professional.
“This is straightforward stunt,” the AD said. “We need you balanced on the edge of the railing in the food court atrium. Then you jump, catch the twinkle lights, swing across the atrium, and slide down the pole on the other side, popping the lights as you go.”
“Got it.” They were ripping off Jackie Chan’s mall stunt from Police Story.
Chloe was balanced on the railing when she glanced down for the first time. The tile floor far below seemed to tilt away from her. She broke into a cold sweat. She couldn’t do it.
She gave the director an excuse about sudden vertigo and needing to get it checked out.
As soon as she was back in her apartment, Chloe collapsed on the couch.
Kayla wrinkled her nose. “Mom, why do you smell like rotting fish?”
Chloe stared at her boots. Her memory unwound like an antique film reel, and she remembered everything. She’d been attacked. She’d slipped on a fish taco. A monster had paralyzed her while it fed.
Chloe touched her smooth and unblemished neck. Impossible.
It had injected her with something, and then she was happy. She hadn’t remembered being attacked. She hadn’t even noticed the stench of the rotting fish smeared on her lucky boots.
And she’d happily done a stunt that normally she’d need to psych herself up for, even before the accident.
That thought nagged at her as she turned down gig after gig that involved heights. Things came to a head one afternoon when Kayla came home from a two-week stint with The Jerk, right after Chloe ended yet another disheartening call from her agent.
“Mom, are you and Dad going to change the custody agreement?” Kayla asked.
“No! Why do you ask?”
“Dad took me around to all these pet stores to look at puppies. I told him our apartment doesn’t allow dogs. He said I shouldn’t worry about that. Am…. Am I going to be spending less time with you?”
“Baby!” Chloe wrapped her arms around her daughter and hugged her tight. “I’m not going to give up one minute of my time with you.”
No matter what I have to do.
When Chloe pulled up to the set in an unmarked white van, she was as prepared as she could be. Stun gun, check. Mace, check. Kevlar-reinforced gloves, check. Cross necklace she hadn’t worn since she was sixteen, check. Blood bag, check.
She met her own gaze in the rearview mirror. Bait, check.
She parked as close to craft services as she could. It was deserted.
Time to bait the trap. Chloe took out her Leatherman and cut a line across the meaty part of her forearm. It stung, and she hissed between her teeth as blood welled from the cut.
She waved her arm back and forth like a cheerleader. “Here I am,” she called. “A tasty, tasty human, all alone.”
The bushes exploded as the creature launched itself to land on top of the craft services table.
“You know you want it,” Chloe muttered, backing up slowly and sweeping her bloody arm back and forth. “Come and get it, bitch.”
The creature’s muscles tensed to spring. Chloe spun on her heel and sprinted away.
She dove through the open back doors of the van. She slid across the cargo compartment, wiggled between the seats, and pulled the cage partition door shut behind her. Her hands were steady as she snapped the padlock shut.
The creature rocketed into the van and slammed against the partition. It snarled in balked rage.
Chloe grabbed the rope she’d threaded through the partition earlier and yanked. The van’s back doors slammed shut.
The creature’s head whipped around. It stared at the closed doors and the locked partition. Chloe could see the wheels turning in its brain.
“There’s blood in the dish.”
The creature pounced on the bag of blood that Chloe had put out in a large dog dish.
“And you understand English. Good.”
She drove to the twenty-four-hour-access self-storage unit she’d rented. It was time to make a deal with her own personal demon.
“Here’s the deal. I’ll give you food and a safe place to stay.”
“Renfield?” it hissed.
Chloe jerked involuntarily. It can talk. It sounded like a swarm of cockroaches hissing an imitation of a human voice, but it could communicate.
“No.” Chloe shuddered, thinking of the insane, disheveled man eating bugs and clawing at his own pasty flesh in the Dracula movies. “No Renfield. Food and shelter, and blood when I say so. Do we have a deal?”
The creature hissed again.
Chloe held her taser ready as she swung the van’s back doors wide open. She gestured to the dark, cavernous interior of the storage unit. “Here you are.”
The creature leaped past Chloe in one bound.
Chloe cranked the sixty-minute timer that allowed electricity in the unit, sat down on the battered vinyl sofa she’d bought from a thrift store — vinyl so that cleaning up blood would be easier — and flicked the remote to turn on the small TV she’d brought in. She patted the couch beside her. “Want a snack?”
The creature jumped to the couch. Up close, it exuded the smell of wet dog. It seemed hesitant, crouching beside her but not touching her. This kind of arrangement was new to it, too.
“Don’t make me forget.” Chloe held out her arm.
It bent its head over the crook of her elbow, its eyes locked on hers. When she didn’t flinch or pull away, it nicked the big vein in her elbow. Its proboscis darted out from its mouth and penetrated the wound.
After less time than it would take a nurse to draw a blood sample, the proboscis pulsed inside Chloe’s flesh. A swell of feel-good fearlessness filled her.
“Ahhhh,” Chloe sighed. She forced herself to stand. “I’ll be back. You can stay if you want. You can lock and unlock the door from inside or outside.”
She closed the door of the unit and leaned her head against it. She had self-stored a vampire. “I guess I’m an antiques collector now,” she said. She giggled.
When Chloe got home, Kayla asked something about dinner.
Chloe giggled. “Make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she said. She wasn’t hungry herself, so she drifted off to her bedroom to lie down.
The next morning, Chloe still felt happy and confident. When Kayla came into the kitchenette for breakfast, Chloe was practicing balancing a chef’s knife on the tip of her finger.
“Mom, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, baby. Everything is wonderful.”
And for the next several weeks, it was. Chloe floated through her gigs. Kayla complained that she was acting too happy, but that was just silly. Who ever heard of someone being too happy? It was a relief when it was The Jerk’s turn to have Kayla again.
If the creature fed before the effects of the last session faded, its pulsing proboscis didn’t even horrify her.
Chloe set reminder alarms on her phone for things like appointments and meals and bedtime. As long as she remembered to check her alarms for the next day before visiting the creature, it was all good.
Kayla had soccer practice the day after she came back.
“Mom!” Kayla said, when Chloe arrived to pick her up. “I scored two goals!”
“That’s great, baby. Want to celebrate at Gino’s?”
When they reached the intersection before the restaurant, the walk light was red. Chloe didn’t want to wait. She pulled her daughter into the street with her. Rush hour traffic zoomed around them, drivers honking as they slammed on the brakes or swerved to avoid them. Chloe giggled. It was just like doing a car hit stunt, but without the getting hit by a car part. Easy-peasy.
Chloe pulled Kayla onto the sidewalk in front of Gino’s and smiled brightly. “What flavor do you want?”
Kayla burst into tears. “I want to go hoooooooome!”
“But gelato,” Chloe said reasonably.
Ragged sobs shook Kayla.
“Fine,” Chloe said. “I’ll call a ride.” But because she wouldn’t let Kayla spoil everything, Chloe ordered a raspberry gelato and an artichoke dip with garlic bread to go.
Kayla cried quietly all the way home, which would have been annoying if Chloe weren’t in such a good mood.
Inside the apartment, Kayla announced, “I’m going to call Dad to come and get me.”
“Want any artichoke dip?” Chloe asked, swirling a piece of garlic bread in it. “It’s delicious.”
Kayla ran to her room and slammed the door.
“Suit yourself.” Chloe took a hefty bite.
Thirty seconds later, she erupted off the couch. She sprinted to Kayla’s room and burst in.
Kayla sat on her bed, staring at her phone, tears rolling down her cheeks.
Chloe collapsed to her knees in front of her daughter. “Don’t call your daddy, baby. Please. I’m so sorry. I won’t do it again, I promise.”
“What’s wrong with you, Mom? Are you sick?”
“No, no, baby. I just— I made a mistake, and it made me….” The last few weeks played through her mind. This time, she was in the audience watching the monster creep closer and closer to its victim, but both monster and prey wore her face. “It made me a bad mom.”
She couldn’t go on like this. But if she couldn’t work as a stunt person, she wouldn’t have enough money for a good lawyer to keep The Jerk from winning full custody of Kayla.
Kayla sniffled. “Like Alex’s mom?” she asked. “She had to go away on a retreat for a while. Now she has to take medicine before she goes out to parties, so that she stays fine. Are you going to go away?”
“No,” Chloe reassured her. ‘Going on a retreat’ sounded like rehab. Taking medicine before—
Something tickled at the edge of her mind. Chloe had come back to herself after eating artichoke dip with garlic bread.
Maybe there was a way through this after all.
Chloe paused in front of the storage compartment. Either this worked, or her career was over. She took out the pill she’d made and dry-swallowed it.
“Cowgirl up,” she said out loud. “Here goes nothing.” She unlocked the door.
The creature dropped to land on all fours in front of her. Its jaw unhinged and its proboscis nudged out.
Testing the air for its prey, Chloe thought, sickened. How could I think everything was fine?
She sat on the couch. It was the first time she’d offered a feeding when she was completely sober in…. She couldn’t remember.
The creature nipped Chloe’s vein and plunged its proboscis into the wound. It felt horrible. If her plan worked, it would feel horrible every time from now on.
Chloe felt the pulse when the creature finished. Euphoria swept over her. She sank farther into the couch, head lolling back. Her plan’s success was out of her control. It was okay to enjoy the high. She floated.
Except, eventually, she noticed that her back itched.
And her knee hurt. And so did the old wrist fracture that she still felt when the weather changed. And the TV was annoying and she had to get back to Kayla because Mrs. Dihoud charged extra after midnight and she needed to call her agent about that gig that was shooting the day after tomorrow and—
—and her plan had worked. The relief that swept over her was almost as sweet as the high had been.
The creature on the couch beside her leaned closer until its lips were almost touching her ear. “Feed again,” it hissed in that cockroach voice. “Next night.”
Chloe recoiled and jumped to her feet. It had waited to plant the suggestion until it thought she would be vulnerable. It was wrong.
“No,” she said. Her voice didn’t tremble. “Not next night. I choose when. I am not your Renfield.”
It bared its teeth at her, but she didn’t flinch.
“How?” it hissed.
“How kill joy worms?” it enunciated carefully around those jagged teeth.
Worms. Chloe shuddered. That was what it pumped into her to create the euphoria. “Garlic pills,” she told it.
She had crushed the garlic bread topping and filled a pill capsule with the powder. Now that she knew it worked, she could get delayed-release capsules designed to dissolve later in the digestive process. That would buy her hours of fear-free stunting and then return her to normal. Or as normal as a woman in a codependent relationship with a bloodsucking creature could be.
She was walking a tightrope, and a slip in either direction would lead to disaster.
Fortunately, she was great at heights.