I first saw them after the doors chimed shut and the train began to pull away from Newark Penn Station.
Outside of being visibly drunk and wearing cheap suits, I wasn’t getting a strong sense for what these two middle-aged men did. The obvious guess would be dead end corporate jobs selling something they could care less about, since that is half the tri-state area.
They sat down in front of me on opposite seats, facing one another, before picking back up.
“Oh man, that was so good,” said the guy I named Tim (I never found out what his real name was).
“Yeah that was really good,” replied John (this name is legit).
Tim continued, “The steak, the way it was cooked.”
“Oh, it was really good,” agreed John.
“Oh man. It was like so good,” double agreed Tim.
“Yeah….” said John, trailing off. He stared out the window, his mind seemingly beginning to replay the dinner they just had.
Tim belched, shifted his weight and kept the conversation going. “The sides. I really liked the sides. French fries. Do you like French fries?“
Tim seemed to transport himself back to that moment of the first bite. Wanting to share every detail, he continued, “They were crispy on the outside and…”
“I liked the salad,” John blurted out, keeping with the time-honored tradition of drunks being terrible listeners. “Have you eaten a Caesar like that? That creamy sauce on it was just the right amount.” He then paused to savor this thought, before letting out a satisfying, “Ahhh maaan.”
Undeterred by John’s attempt to hijack the discussion, Tim stuck to his guns and continued with his plan to list off the remaining items on the restaurant’s menu. “They had cheese and lobster and all that…they had a helluva dessert menu…”
Not wanting to derail the conversation entirely, John met Tim halfway, by staying on the topic of shellfish. “You know what I like? I like crab.”
Tim sensed an opportunity to get them back on the same page. “Yeah, I thought they had…Mike told me that on the menu they had lobster and crab.”
“Crab would’ve been better. Definitely, ” said John. “Lobsters got to be cooked just perfectly, or it tastes like rubber.”
Tim’s phone beeped, effectively ending their “food on a menu” conversation. Fishing it from his pocket, he unlocked it and held it close to his face, scanning through his messages. After a few minutes, he broke the silence. “Here it is. Denise Franz.”
“Denise Franz,” John parroted.
After staring intently at his phone for another few minutes, Tim looked up at John and said, “She’s Franzie man,” and followed this with a chuckle.
“She’s what?” John asked, confused at Tim’s lame attempt to comment on Denise’s attractiveness.
Sensing failure in expressing his admiration, Tim tried a different approach “She’s the Franz.”
That seemed to connect with John. After taking a moment to think about what Tim said, he replied, “No, she’s much cooler.”
Vampires were my first monster. As a child, I was so fearful of vampires and the possibility of them biting my neck that I would sleep with the covers over my head, leaving only a small opening so I could breath. In my mind, the covers would discourage the lazier of vampires, or at very least give me time to wake up and properly fight for my life. Although I eventually outgrew this bedtime practice, it carried well over into my years at boarding school in India.
The monsters that kept people up at night in India were not vampires, but ghosts. Bhoots as they were called in Hindi were spirits with unfinished business. Sometimes their intentions were benign. Other times they intended to do harm and possess humans. Our story begins with the latter.
Harpreet was not a great student. It was suspected that with his college entrance exams fast approaching, he devised an unorthodox plan to avoid taking them. A ghost was attacking him. He claimed it tormented him nightly and intended to possess his soul. As proof, he had cuts of varying degrees across his back. The school’s administration responded, as one would expect a modern institution of education would; they declared him unfit to be a student and promptly expelled him. As the school was in a remote location, he was allowed to remain on campus until his parents could arrive to collect him.
During this time, Harpreet spent his days lurking around the dormitories, wrapped in a dark shawl from neck to toe. As if stalking prey, he would jump out of the shadows and menace younger classmen, scaring them half to death. When possible he was avoided, however, due to the confined nature of the dorms, it was only a matter of time before you crossed his path.
This issue of space was a daily challenge. The biggest respite came on Wednesdays in the form of Chitrahaar, the most watched TV show on Doordarshan, India’s sole TV channel at the time. This show functioned as India’s MTV, showcasing song clips from various Bollywood films. Every week, Indian students would jam themselves into the Common Room to watch this show. For them, Chitrahaar was pure joy condensed into five-minute song and dance routines. For the Americans, it was as an hour free from the daily churn of living so close to hundreds of other kids.
As Harpreet was making his play for demonic possession, my vampire struggle was beginning to heat up. The fuel for this fire came in the form of Stephen King novels, specifically his short story compilations, Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. The seduction of his story telling overwhelmed my instinct for self-preservation. Night after night I would devour these stories, each time frightening myself to the point of swearing off reading any further. The next morning, after realizing I had lived through the night, my resolve would weaken and the cycle would begin anew.
This all came to a head one night, when I awoke to the sound of bat wings flapping above my bunk bed. Cursing under my covers for being weak willed, as if reading Stephen King novels had some how attracted a vampire, I did my best to come to terms with my short, unlived life. To my surprise, the vampire never struck. Despite this reprieve, I felt that I had finally been found and the fight for my life had begun.
For a few weeks after this incident I would attach myself to the largest group of students I could find, never going anywhere alone at night. With the arrival of each subsequent morning, I gained a little more confidence in my chances for survival. Eventually I concluded the vampire had left, moving on to more fertile hunting grounds.
It was a Wednesday evening, when I let my guard down. I decided to stay late in class, past our mandatory study time to finish my homework. Upon leaving the classroom I realized that I now had to make my way down the poorly lit path to the dormitories alone. All the forgotten fears came rushing back.
Like Ichabod Crane sensing his meeting with the Headless Horsemen had finally come, I too realized my moment. I felt the hairs on my neck begin to rise, with goose bumps running up my arms. The vampire was out there. I knew this.
Forcing myself from the well-lit classroom area, I took the stairs two at a time down to the Gurudwara (Sikh Temple). I stopped here to summon what little courage I had left. This was the border, where the light and safety ended. Past here, there was darkness and no turning back. Fight or flight kicked in and I chose to run.
I reached top speed around the first bend heading towards the school clinic, where the lights of the dormitories could be seen off in the distance. With the vampire in hot pursuit, there could be no room for error. I made it past the barely working solar panels, which marked the halfway point. Upon reaching the outdoor pool, unused and in serious disrepair, I began to feel a glimmer of hope. I survived the hairpin turn, which gave me a straight shot to my salvation, the fully lit dormitories that lay a hundred yards ahead. Provided that the vampire was ground bound like me and didn’t know a shortcut, I thought I had a chance. Fifty yards, I was still breathing. Twenty-five, nothing had tackled me yet. Ten yards…
Only after bounding up the stairs, fully bathed in the light of the landing, did I allow myself to savor the moment. I had won. I took one look back at the dark pathway I had just come down before turning triumphantly to enter the dormitories.
Through the entrance, directly on the right was the Common Room. Chitrahaar was in full swing, and the closed double doors were throbbing with the chorus of Udi Baba, “Ah ah ee ee ooh ooh eh eh, udi baba, udi baba, udi baba. Udi baba, udi baba, udi baba…” Past the Common Room on both sides were darkened entryways that led to small dorm rooms. Ahead to the left was the grand staircase leading up to the second floor.
Almost as if on cue, Harpreet emerged from the shadows of the right entryway, gliding to the disco beat bumping from the Common Room. His movements were timed perfectly with my entry and we met roughly at the center of the hall. Standing two feet taller than me, wrapped in his shawl, his height alone made for an imposing presence.
For a moment there we stood, face to face, completely alone, with the song Udi Baba blaring from the Common Room, as the soundtrack to our meeting.
Grinning, he looked down at me and said, “Hello. I’ve been waiting for you”. His eyes were alight with an energy I had never seen before. I felt transfixed by his gaze. I wanted to run, but was powerless to do so. He unfurled his shawl and his arms snaked out to pull me in. It was here that I noticed his nails. Holding me by my shoulders he began to lift me up towards his face. His mouth widened beyond what seemed humanly possible and his teeth began to lengthen. My greatest fear was about to be realized.
Maybe the universe had bigger plans for me, but for whatever the reason, the trance broke and I began to scream for my life. This stopped Harpreet. His head cocked sideways, up towards the second floor. Hearing something I could not he closed his mouth, slowly put me down and receded into the shadows. His face was a mixture of hunger and regret. Just as he disappeared into the dark I heard the footsteps of someone coming down the stairs.
It was an American, curious as to the source of the screams. I had not moved since being released. My eyes were still fixed on the location where I last saw Harpreet. Before reaching me the American said, “Are you ok?” and then upon getting closer, blurted, “Wow it looks like you just saw a ghost!”
All the color had left my face and I was as pale as if I had been drained of blood. I managed to find some words after a few moments, to feebly explain what happened. Incredulous, the American went over to the entryway to see if Harpreet was there, but he had vanished.
Later that night and for many nights following, I would lay awake under my covers, waiting for Harpreet to return and finish the job. Thankfully our meeting outside the Common Room was to be our last. Whether his parents arrived shortly thereafter or he really joined the ranks of the undead, I will never know. For me, this story will always be how I met a vampire and lived to tell the tale.