IMPOSSIBLE TO SCARE
Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day. It seemed like just another Monday, innocent but for its essential Mondayness, not to mention its Januaryness. It was cold, and it was dark—in the dead of winter the sun didn’t rise until eight—but it was also lovely. The falling snow and the early hour conspired to paint Prague ghostly, like a tintype photograph, all silver and haze.
On the riverfront thoroughfare, trams and buses roared past, grounding the day in the twenty-first century, but on the quieter lanes, the wintry peace might have hailed from another time. Snow and stone and ghostlight, Karou’s own footsteps and the feather of steam from her coffee mug, and she was alone and adrift in mundane thoughts: school, errands. The occasional cheek-chew of bitterness when a pang of heartache intruded, as pangs of heartache will, but she pushed them aside, resolute, ready to be done with all that.
She held her coffee mug in one hand and clutched her coat closed with the other. An artist’s portfolio was slung over her shoulder, and her hair—loose, long, and peacock blue—was gathering a lace of snowflakes.
Just another day.
A snarl, rushing footfall, and she was seized from behind, pulled hard against a man’s broad chest as hands yanked her scarf askew and she felt teeth—teeth—against her neck.
Her attacker was nibbling her.
Annoyed, she tried to shake him off without spilling her coffee, but some sloshed out of her cup anyway, into the dirty snow.
“Jesus, Kaz, get off,” she snapped, spinning to face her ex-boyfriend. The lamplight was soft on his beautiful face. Stupid beauty, she thought, shoving him away. Stupid face.
“How did you know it was me?” he asked.
“It’s always you. And it never works.”
Kazimir made his living jumping out from behind things, and it frustrated him that he could never get even the slightest rise out of Karou. “You’re impossible to scare,” he complained, giving her the pout he thought was irresistible. Until recently, she wouldn’t have resisted it. She would have risen on tiptoe and licked his pout-puckered lower lip, licked it languorously and then taken it between her teeth and teased it before losing herself in a kiss that made her melt against him like sun-warmed honey.
Those days were so over.
“Maybe you’re just not scary,” she said, and walked on.
Kaz caught up and strolled at her side, hands in pockets. “I am scary, though. The snarl? The bite? Anyone normal would have a heart attack. Just not you, ice water for blood.”
When she ignored him, he added, “Josef and I are starting a new tour. Old Town vampire tour. The tourists will eat it up.”
They would, thought Karou. They paid good money for Kaz’s “ghost tours,” which consisted of being herded through the tangled lanes of Prague in the dark, pausing at sites of supposed murders so “ghosts” could leap out of doorways and make them shriek. She’d played a ghost herself on several occasions, had held aloft a bloody head and moaned while the tourists’ screams gave way to laughter. It had been fun.
Kaz had been fun. Not anymore. “Good luck with that,” she said, staring ahead, her voice colorless.
“We could use you,” Kaz said.
“You could play a sexy vampire vixen—”
“Lure in the men—”
“You could wear your cape….”
Softly, Kaz coaxed, “You still have it, don’t you, baby? Most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, you with that black silk against your white skin—”
“Shut up,” she hissed, coming to a halt in the middle of Maltese Square. God, she thought. How stupid had she been to fall for this petty, pretty street actor, dress up for him and give him memories like that? Exquisitely stupid.
Kaz lifted his hand to brush a snowflake from her eyelashes. She said, “Touch me and you’ll get this coffee in your face.”
He lowered his hand. “Roo, Roo, my fierce Karou. When will you stop fighting me? I said I was sorry.”
“Be sorry, then. Just be sorry somewhere else.” They spoke in Czech, and her acquired accent matched his native one perfectly.
He sighed, irritated that Karou was still resisting his apologies. This wasn’t in his script. “Come on,” he coaxed. His voice was rough and soft at the same time, like a blues singer’s mix of gravel and silk. “We’re meant to be together, you and me.”
Meant. Karou sincerely hoped that if she were “meant” for anyone, it wasn’t Kaz. She looked at him, beautiful Kazimir whose smile used to work on her like a summons, compelling her to his side. And that had seemed a glorious place to be, as if colors were brighter there, sensations more profound. It had also, she’d discovered, been a popular place, other girls occupying it when she did not.
“Get Svetla to be your vampire vixen,” she said. “She’s got the vixen part down.”
He looked pained. “I don’t want Svetla. I want you.”
“Alas. I am not an option.”
“Don’t say that,” he said, reaching for her hand.
She pulled back, a pang of heartache surging in spite of all her efforts at aloofness. Not worth it, she told herself. Not even close. “This is the definition of stalking, you realize.”
“Puh. I’m not stalking you. I happen to be going this way.”
“Right,” said Karou. They were just a few doors from her school now. The Art Lyceum of Bohemia was a private high school housed in a pink Baroque palace where famously, during the Nazi occupation, two young Czech nationalists had slit the throat of a Gestapo commander and scrawled liberty with his blood. A brief, brave rebellion before they were captured and impaled upon the finials of the courtyard gate. Now students were milling around that very gate, smoking, waiting for friends. But Kaz wasn’t a student—at twenty, he was several years older than Karou—and she had never known him to be out of bed before noon. “Why are you even awake?”
“I have a new job,” he said. “It starts early.”
“What, you’re doing morning vampire tours?”
“Not that. Something else. An… unveiling of sorts.” He was grinning now. Gloating. He wanted her to ask what his new job was.
She wouldn’t ask. With perfect disinterest she said, “Well, have fun with that,” and walked away.
Kaz called after her, “Don’t you want to know what it is?” The grin was still there. She could hear it in his voice.
“Don’t care,” she called back, and went through the gate.
She really should have asked.
AN UNVEILING OF SORTS
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Karou’s first class was life drawing. When she walked into the studio, her friend Zuzana was already there and had staked out easels for them in front of the model’s platform. Karou shrugged off her portfolio and coat, unwound her scarf, and announced, “I’m being stalked.”
Zuzana arched an eyebrow. She was a master of the eyebrow arch, and Karou envied her for it. Her own eyebrows did not function independently of each other, which handicapped her expressions of suspicion and disdain.
Zuzana could do both perfectly, but this was milder eyebrow action, mere cool curiosity. “Don’t tell me Jackass tried to scare you again.”
“He’s going through a vampire phase. He bit my neck.”
“Actors,” muttered Zuzana. “I’m telling you, you need to tase the loser. Teach him to go jumping out at people.”
“I don’t have a Taser.” Karou didn’t add that she didn’t need a Taser; she was more than capable of defending herself without electricity. She’d had an unusual education.
“Well, get one. Seriously. Bad behavior should be punished. Plus, it would be fun. Don’t you think? I’ve always wanted to tase someone. Zap!” Zuzana mimicked convulsions.
Karou shook her head. “No, tiny violent one, I don’t think it would be fun. You’re terrible.”
“I am not terrible. Kaz is terrible. Tell me I don’t have to remind you.” She gave Karou a sharp look. “Tell me you’re not even considering forgiving him.”
“No,” declared Karou. “But try getting him to believe that.” Kaz just couldn’t fathom any girl willfully depriving herself of his charms. And what had she done but strengthen his vanity those months they’d been together, gazing at him starry-eyed, giving him… everything? His wooing her now, she thought, was a point of pride, to prove to himself that he could have who he wanted. That it was up to him.
Maybe Zuzana was right. Maybe she should tase him.
“Sketchbook,” commanded Zuzana, holding out her hand like a surgeon for a scalpel.
Karou’s best friend was bossy in obverse proportion to her size. She only passed five feet in her platform boots, whereas Karou was five foot six but seemed taller in the same way that ballerinas do, with their long necks and willowy limbs. She wasn’t a ballerina, but she had the look, in figure if not in fashion. Not many ballerinas have bright blue hair or a constellation of tattoos on their limbs, and Karou had both.
The only tattoos visible as she dug out her sketchbook and handed it over were the ones on her wrists like bracelets—a single word on each: true and story.
As Zuzana took the book, a couple of other students, Pavel and Dina, crowded in to look over her shoulder. Karou’s sketchbooks had a cult following around school and were handed around and marveled at on a daily basis. This one—number ninety-two in a lifelong series—was bound with rubber bands, and as soon as Zuzana took them off it burst open, each page so coated in gesso and paint that the binding could scarcely contain them. As it fanned open, Karou’s trademark characters wavered on the pages, gorgeously rendered and deeply strange.
There was Issa, serpent from the waist down and woman from the waist up, with the bare, globe br**sts of Kama Sutra carvings, the hood and fangs of a cobra, and the face of an angel.
Giraffe-necked Twiga, hunched over with his jeweler’s glass stuck in one squinting eye.
Yasri, parrot-beaked and human-eyed, a frill of orange curls escaping her kerchief. She was carrying a platter of fruit and a pitcher of wine.
And Brimstone, of course—he was the star of the sketchbooks. Here he was shown with Kishmish perched on the curl of one of his great ram’s horns. In the fantastical stories Karou told in her sketchbooks, Brimstone dealt in wishes. Sometimes she called him the Wishmonger; other times, simply “the grump.”
She’d been drawing these creatures since she was a little girl, and her friends tended to talk about them as if they were real. “What was Brimstone up to this weekend?” asked Zuzana.
“The usual,” said Karou. “Buying teeth from murderers. He got some Nile crocodile teeth yesterday from this awful Somali poacher, but the idiot tried to steal from him and got half strangled by his snake collar. He’s lucky to be alive.”
Zuzana found the story illustrated on the book’s last drawn pages: the Somali, his eyes rolling back in his head as the whip-thin snake around his neck cinched itself as tight as a garrote. Humans, Karou had explained before, had to submit to wearing one of Issa’s serpents around their necks before they could enter Brimstone’s shop. That way if they tried anything fishy they were easy to subdue—by strangulation, which wasn’t always fatal, or, if necessary, by a bite to the throat, which was.
“How do you make this stuff up, maniac?” Zuzana asked, all jealous wonderment.
“Who says I do? I keep telling you, it’s all real.”
“Uh-huh. And your hair grows out of your head that color, too.”
“What? It totally does,” said Karou, passing a long blue strand through her fingers.
Karou shrugged and gathered her hair back in a messy coil, stabbing a paintbrush through it to secure it at the nape of her neck. In fact, her hair did grow out of her head that color, pure as ultramarine straight from the paint tube, but that was a truth she told with a certain wry smile, as if she were being absurd. Over the years she’d found that that was all it took, that lazy smile, and she could tell the truth without risk of being believed. It was easier than keeping track of lies, and so it became part of who she was: Karou with her wry smile and crazy imagination.
In fact, it was not her imagination that was crazy. It was her life—blue hair and Brimstone and all.
Zuzana handed the book to Pavel and started flipping pages in her own oversize drawing pad, searching for a fresh page. “I wonder who’s posing today.”
“Probably Wiktor,” said Karou. “We haven’t had him in a while.”
“I know. I’m hoping he’s dead.”
“What? He’s eight million years old. We might as well draw the anatomical skeleton as that creepy bonesack.”
There were some dozen models, male and female, all shapes and ages, who rotated through the class. They ranged from enormous Madame Svobodnik, whose flesh was more landscape than figure, to pixie Eliska with her wasp waist, the favorite of the male students. Ancient Wiktor was Zuzana’s least favorite. She claimed to have nightmares whenever she had to draw him.
“He looks like an unwrapped mummy.” She shuddered. “I ask you, is staring at a na**d old man any way to start the day?”
“Better than getting attacked by a vampire,” said Karou.