“We’re all agreed on fangs. Now, should we discuss opening the club up to members who aren’t girls?”
“No, not boys. Everyone but boys.”
“Anyone but boys.”
“I know a boy who’ll lodge a complaint if we let everyone but him in the club.”
“Why? He’s not in any club. He doesn’t want to be in any club.”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
Roxanne sighed and glanced back to where Maggie was sitting. She’d come into the meeting late again and was perched on a desk at the back of the room. Roxanne caught Maggie’s eye and rolled her own eyes toward the conversation going on at the front of the room among the older members of the Girls with Fangs Academic and Service Society.
Maggie pressed her lips together, raised a brow, and shook her head slightly. But not slightly enough to escape the notice of the club’s current president.
“It seems like Maggie has some feedback on the topic,” Sarita said, mock-raising her voice to make sure the people in the back could hear. Her peripheral vision was probably the best of them all, but her ears were better. Roxanne wouldn’t have been surprised if Sarita had heard the shifting of Maggie’s long dark hair against the hood of her hoodie.
Maggie didn’t miss a beat. “I move we table this discussion and return to a topic that we definitely can make a decision on, choosing a permanent name for the club.”
Roxanne didn’t know how Maggie did it. Maybe it was an adaptation of her preternatural senses that allowed her to think of and deliver a comeback right in the moment. Roxanne’s typical timeframe for thinking of the perfect comeback was about twelve hours, give or take infinity.
The club’s temporary name, Girls With Fangs, had worked for them when the founders started it a few years ago, because it described the only two criteria for applying. Staying in the club, however, required a few other things, like choosing a particular subject one liked and excelled in, and providing evidence, through good grades in a related class, or a portfolio, or sample work (like the amazing cookies that Jolene always made).
Speaking of Jolene, she took advantage of Maggie’s diversion from their scheduled agenda. “Why aren’t we talking about what happened last night?” She glanced around the room. “To Robin.”
Chairs squeaked, and breaths were exhaled. But no one responded. They looked to the front of the room.
“Because we don’t know what happened,” Sarita said. “All we have right now are rumors and gossip. Is that going to help anyone?” She swept her dark gaze over the dozen girls in the room.
“He’s in a coma,” Jolene said. “After studying all night.”
“He’s in a coma,” Sarita said, nodding. “That’s all we know. We can talk about getting him a group card, or sending some flowers to his room.”
Roxanne nodded, and she saw others nodding too. Sarita seemed to have realized that they just wanted to do something to help. There were students in the school who had frequent hospital visits. That was scary enough. But what happened with Robin was sudden. As if it might happen to anyone. That made it scarier.
Sarita tabled all the other agenda items for their meeting and let them all talk about ways they could help Robin and his family.
For a few days, the story of how a top student seemed to just fall into a coma was the talk of the school. At least one person a day made a tactless joke about the “dangers of studying too much” in the cafeteria. Unfound rumors about him having an overt reaction to stimulants, or a heart condition from birth that he’d hidden even from his closest friends, or a curse on him that skipped a generation, circulated through the hallways. Teachers and administrators tried to keep a balance between letting the students discuss their concerns in a respectful way and keeping students from spreading made-up stories and gossip. They couldn’t really do much about it.
But it didn’t take long for the students to stop talking about Robin, or at least only about Robin.
It happened to another student.
And then another.
Roxanne found herself in the basement of Sarita’s home on what should have been a school day. The cause of the sudden onset comas was still unknown. The school administration was worried there might be some contagious or environmental element involved, and had sent the kids home until they could get some answers and figure out a reasonable plan to keep students and faculty safe.
Sarita’s mom worked from home and had agreed to look after any of her friends who could fit in the house until the school reopened.
Roxanne walked along the immense fish tank they kept along the far wall. She put her ear against the glass wall and listened.
“How are they doing?” Sarita asked.
“Kind of bored.” Roxanne turned around and smiled. “You spoil them.”
“So, we’re on the case, right?” Maggie asked, raising her brows at Sarita.
Sarita had been reading with her feet up on the couch. She peered at Maggie, set her book aside, and swung her feet down to the ground. “The doctors are investigating the medical side,” she said. “And the police are investigating the criminal side—if there is one.”
“What if there’s another side?” Maggie said. “A supernatural side?”
“What if there is? We’re still not equipped to deal with it.” Sarita held up a finger before Maggie could speak again. “Just because we saved the school from the last disaster, doesn’t mean we are the go-to people for saving it every time some disaster happens.”
Roxanne glanced between the two of them. As the newest student in the school, and the newest member of the Girls With Fangs club, she hadn’t been a part of the incident—or the heroics—that her friend had just brought up.
“I’m not saying we get in anyone’s way,” Maggie said. “But we have the time and energy to find out things that other people may not.”
Roxanne saw Sarita’s face go blank in the way it seemed to whenever someone brought up a topic in club meetings that had been discussed to death without any resolution—like the topic of the club’s name.
“I understand what you’re saying. We have a vampire.” Sarita gestured to Maggie. “And a werewolf.” She put her hand on her own chest. Then she turned to Roxanne. “We even have an undine. But Mags, we are no more like the creatures of ancient legends than non-fanged humans are like…the cavemen. We don’t have secret special knowledge about supernatural stuff.”
“First of all, speak for yourself. Second, what could it hurt to just do some brainstorming?” Maggie said. “We’re sitting around anyway. Here’s what I’ve found out. There’s no apparent commonality among the students affected so far. We are talking about different genders, different class schedules, different grades. Only two of them even knew each other, and only in passing.”
“In case you’re thinking about asking her how she found all this out,” Sarita said, looking at Roxanne, “please let me stop you. I have two words for you, ‘plausible deniability.’”
Roxanne made a mental note to look up the term later.
Sarita turned her attention to Maggie. “It’s not that I don’t want to help.” She drew her legs back up onto the couch and reached for her book. She opened it and looked down at it. “I just don’t want us to get in the way.”
“We won’t. We’ll go and talk to friends, family, and teachers. We’ll tell them the truth. That we just want to help. If they agree to talk to us, fine. If they don’t, we leave them alone.”
Maggie stared at Sarita with eyes that always seemed to glow just a little from within.
“She’s staring at me, isn’t she?” Sarita said, her own eyes still staring down at her book.
Roxanne sat down on a chair from which she could see both of them, unsure if she should say anything.
“You know I’ll agree eventually,” Sarita said. “Let me at least finish this chapter.”
Maggie shifted her glance over to Roxanne. The vampire grinned a goofy toothy grin that made Roxanne’s heart grow all warm and mushy.
Three days later, the school re-opened.
Roxanne couldn’t get to Maggie’s house in time to go to school with her. Her mom had understood why Roxanne wanted to be there for her friend, but she had three other kids to drop off at school.
Luckily, Sarita was able to get Maggie and walk with her. They had almost the same classes.
Three days had passed. And one more person had fallen into a coma, a teacher this time.
But there was more. News had spread of common symptoms that the coma patients shared, or as some people were starting to call them, the coma victims.
Pale skin, puncture wounds near major arteries, weak heartbeats.
Roxanne ran up to her friends. Sarita wasn’t the only one walking with Maggie. A few other of their fellow Girls With Fangs were escorting her.
Roxanne hadn’t wanted Maggie to return to school. She’d been afraid of what the other students would do. She was relieved to see a shield of friends escorting Maggie. But when she glanced around, she noticed that the other students were averting their eyes, and getting out of Maggie’s way.
“We know it’s not you, of course,” Sarita said at lunch time. “Two of the people in comas collapsed in front of other people, out of nowhere. Nothing was attacking them.”
“Vampires don’t drink blood,” Maggie said, glancing over as a student passed by. “Not in real life.”
“And you don’t disintegrate in the sun,” Sarita said. “If you did, we’d be able to rule you out completely.”
Maggie frowned at her. But Sarita was right. The trio had managed to gather a lot of information in the few days that they’d been out of school. For one thing, all the patients had fallen into comas during the daylight hours.
Everyone they approached agreed to talk to them, except for the doctors, who were prohibited by law. The families wanted to tell them all about the person they loved. And they wanted to do all they could to protect the other students and teachers. The teachers understood that the girls weren’t aiming to exploit or interfere, but to fill in any gaps left by everyone else who was involved. And Sarita knew a lot about which questions she could ask, and which ones non-family were able to answer.
“The patients don’t have any infections,” Sarita said, reviewing some of her notes. “And those puncture wounds healed within a day or two, but no one has woken up. Why?” She hissed out a sigh and flicked a page over, checking her notes against some pictures she’d taken on her phone.
Maggie had opened her own notebook, but she’d been on the same page for several minutes. She’d stare at the page, but look up every few seconds.
And Roxanne was having difficulty focusing because she was worried about Maggie.
She used one of the methods that her mom had taught her for keeping herself focused and on track when she was reviewing her notes. She pulled out a fine tip color marker in her favorite color, orange. She made tick marks on her page when she saw similar words. This allowed her to periodically look up and check on Maggie without losing her place.
It also led her to catch something in her notes. She lowered her face to the page.
“Hey Rox, what’s going on with you and your notebook?” Sarita asked. “Should we give you two some privacy?”
This wasn’t the first time Roxanne had witnessed serious Sarita become mildly sarcastic Sarita. She seemed to be trying to lighten the mood. It was rare, but it seemed to happen when the wolf was worried. And Sarita was typically even-keeled. She didn’t worry about things, or even people.
Roxanne looked up. She looked up at Maggie, who was gazing at her. In full daylight, Maggie’s eyes looked dark. They grew wider and Maggie’s cheeks rose.
“You found something,” Maggie said.
Roxanne frowned. “I…maybe.”
“Maybe is a good start,” Sarita said. Her tone had just snapped back into serious mode. “Tell us what you just noticed.”
There was something the four comatose people from their school had in common.
“Six months ago,” Roxanne said. “The career fair, remember?”
Maggie barely remembered seeing something in the school bulletin email for that month. Sarita did remember. She had been scheduled to work the fair, but had come down with food poisoning at a family dinner the night before.
“My aunt had the dinner catered,” Sarita said. “My mom was furious. So was I at first, but…” She shook her head. “…maybe my aunt saved me.”
“A lot of people were at that fair,” Roxanne said. “But no one else has been affected. So either other people are going to start falling into comas, or…these four people have something else in common?”
Sarita nodded and gave her one-corner-of-mouth smile of approval. “Good reasoning.”
The trio split up to investigate the different aspects of the fair—where it was held, who organized it, who had booths set up there, and whatever else they could think of.
And they made a notable discovery about where the fair had been held.
The career fair had been set up and held on the grounds of a field that the school wanted to eventually turn into a football field (once the appropriate funds came through). In the meantime, it was an empty dirt field, perfect for setting up activities like the career fair.
When the school hired surveyors to do a preliminary study of the ground, the survey found something buried in the field. A metal canister. They thought it might be a time capsule. But no one could find anything in the school’s or town’s history about a time capsule. There was nothing else buried in the field. So it didn’t seem to be part of any other construction. It was a mystery, but not a compelling one, at least to anyone who knew about it at the time. So sometime before or maybe during the fair, one of the school administrators decided to open the canister.
It was empty inside.
“This may have nothing to do with the comas. Keep that in mind,” Sarita said as the trio strode down the hall after school hours on their way to meet with the administrator who’d opened the canister.
“We have no other leads right now,” Maggie said.
“Which is why we should be careful not to hope too much. We have to remain as objective as we can, right?”
“Right. Yeah, you’re right.”
Roxanne awkwardly crossed her webbed fingers.
They were lucky that the administrator was willing to tell them all about the canister. And lucky that she hadn’t thrown it out.
She showed it to the girls.
Roxanne immediately saw the shifting patterns of scratchy marks on the surface.
“Looks to be nothing special,” the administrator said. “But I saved it for a friend of mine who makes art out of junk. I forgot about it until you asked me.”
She had stored it away with some of the tent poles, table covers, and other stuff they had used for the career fair.
“What about those marks?” Roxanne asked.
The administrator raised her brows. “Marks?”
Maggie looked over at her, confused. But Sarita put her hands in her jacket pocket, and she was standing close enough to Roxanne for her elbow to poke Roxanne’s arm. Sarita sniffed and cleared her throat. Roxanne got the hint.
She pointed to a scuff mark on the lid, but said nothing more about the pattern of scratches that shifted color in the sunlight.
“Oh, that’s just from being buried,” the administrator said. “We didn’t find any labels. It was probably dumb of me to just open the thing.” She shrugged. “But there was nothing inside. The surveyors took swabs too, and ran some tests. It’s just a dusty, rusty old canister.”
“Do you mind if we borrow it?” Sarita asked.
“What for? How did you girls find out about this anyway?”
Sarita made up a vague reason, about an assignment to investigate some current ongoing school event that affected the students. She’d been hoping the canister would be something exciting, but even if it wasn’t, she wanted to borrow it so she could take a picture of it on the field.
“We’ll bring it back,” she assured.
The administrator shrugged. “No rush. Good luck with the assignment.”
They were barely out of the building and hidden behind their usual tree before Sarita held up the canister and stared at it.
“What is it?” Maggie asked, glancing between Roxanne and Sarita.
“There are markings on the canister. They’re obviously outside of the human—and vampire—visual range.” Sarita peered at the canister. “All I see is a few different colors. It’s pretty.” She turned to Roxanne. “You see scratches? Does it look like writing?”
Roxanne shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe it’s only barely in your visual range too,” Sarita said. “But that still gives us clues. Maybe we need to find someone, or some machine maybe, like a scope, with just the right range of vision.”
After some basic online research in ocular optics, the girls realized that they knew someone who could probably see wavelengths in the range they needed.
They called the Girls With Fangs club member Jolene over to Sarita’s house.
Roxanne held her breath when Sarita handed the canister over to Jolene, who said she didn’t see anything at first. But they were in Sarita’s basement with its cozy but dim lighting. When Jolene brought the canister over to the window…
“Whoa,” she said.
…she saw something. Not scratches. But writing.
Sarita offered up a notebook and pen, and started saying something about translation when Jolene interrupted her.
“It’s in English,” Jolene said.
Please don’t be a vague warning, or a chant, or something, Roxanne thought.
Then Jolene started reading, and Sarita turned on her audio recorder. Her phone transcribed the audio even as it recorded.
There was nothing vague about the warning written on the canister. It must have faded somehow. If it was written in English, then it must have been meant for human eyes, as well as a whole bunch of other peoples.
The canister had been very much not empty. But few people or animals or creatures in the world could have seen what emerged.
Light concealed the creature, especially natural sunlight. Light bent around it, making it effectively invisible, to almost all creatures who could see. It couldn’t die, even as light could not die. The only way to stop it was to contain it.
The creature had a physical form. But it didn’t have a scent. And it didn’t make a sound.
It drew nourishment from living organisms, preferring those who had conscious minds. There was something about the particular electrical patterns of a conscious mind. That must have been the other factor those four people had in common, what set them apart from all the other people at the career fair. They had the tastiest brainwave patterns.
When the creature fed, it disrupted that pattern, altered it. That’s what made the people fall into comas. Its victims lived if it only fed on them once, though they rarely woke. But if it returned to them, and fed on them again, it would kill them.
The canister gave no official name to the creature. It only referred to it by a generic term from old legends and oral folktales.
“The bright death.”
The creature would feast, and it would throw off any suspicion on itself by leaving a residue that made its victims appear pale and bloodless, and pierced by fangs.
The canister had instructions for what to do if the creature got loose.
“Okay, this is when we tell someone,” Sarita said. “We shouldn’t go looking for this thing on our own.”
“Who will believe us?” Maggie asked.
Roxanne looked at the canister. “I have a hunch. If we have proof, it’ll help convince someone, right?”
“What are you thinking?” Maggie asked.
“I could be wrong.”
“Or you could be right,” Sarita said.
Roxanne’s hunch had to do with the message on the canister, and why it wasn’t readable to any conscious person who found it. It had been buried in the dark for a long time. And even after it was dug up, the administrator who opened it had tossed it in a locker, in the darkness, again.
She took the canister and placed it on the basement window’s sill. “If the creature attacks conscious peoples, then whoever made this canister would have made it so we all could see the message. Maybe the creature did something to it? While it was being captured. Or maybe it’s just the way the canister is made…I want to see what happens when this sits in the sun for a while.”
“In that case,” Maggie said. “I know a way we can expose it to sun all day, and all night.”
They went to Maggie’s biology teacher. Maggie’s idea was to expose to canister to ultraviolet light. Their school didn’t have access to a biological safety cabinet with ultraviolet lights. But the nearby college did. And their teacher had access to it. After the girls explained themselves and asked for help with the next part of their plan, their teacher agreed to help.
Roxanne’s hunch turned out to be right.
The next morning, while the girls were still arriving at school, Maggie’s biology teacher had them summoned to the main office. She called them and told them that she could see writing on the canister. It was faint, like embossing on the metal, but it seemed to be getting darker. She had already contacted the authorities and reported the instructions on how to capture the creature, the “bright death.”
Roxanne could barely focus in her morning classes. At lunch, they tried to talk about other things, but all they could do was wonder about the canister, about the creature.
Then Maggie saw her biology teacher walking toward them. She was smiling.
“They got it,” she said.
Those who’d been sent to follow the creature were able to find it using the canister to detect it and confirm that they captured it. The creature didn’t fight back. It didn’t have any offensive measures. And it didn’t try to feed on anyone else. It seemed to be just lying around, digesting.
The girls were relieved. They met in Sarita’s basement after school, and waited for the inevitable barrage of messages about the coma patients waking up.
But the messages didn’t come. By that evening, their phones were still silent, and they realized that the job wasn’t done.
The message on the canister was only about the creature. It had provided no clues about how to help the victims.
Maggie rose from the sofa where she’d been slumped for the past two hours. “I know you said we’re not the go-to people for saving the school,” she said to Sarita, “but I’ve been thinking about something. Something I want to try. Just hope you’ll still want to be my friends after.”
Sarita sat up.
“I’ll need your helping getting permission from Robin’s parents,” Maggie said. “And also my parents. This is going to seem ironic later, but you’re better at convincing people to…cooperate.”
Sarita rose from the couch now too. “Are we going to hospital?”
Maggie nodded. “I don’t want to wait. I know they’re safe from another attack, but…”
Sarita turned to Roxanne, who was already rising from her well-worn spot on the couch.
They had all been worried when the symptoms of the coma patients appeared to be vampire attacks—according to lore. The tricky part about lore was that there was often some bit of truth in it, maybe just a little bit, or maybe a whole big chunk. One part of vampire lore that had some truth in it was about the hypnotic powers of their eyes.
That might have been in part what convinced Robin’s parents and doctors to let Maggie try using her hypnotic training on Robin. Before her parents knew better, they’d sent her a vampire camp. She was taught how to draw a person in with her eyes (alongside bigoted lessons about how her kind were superior to humans overall). Her parents had never developed the skill, and had drilled it into her that it was wrong to use it.
The powers worked because of the unique physiology of the vampire eye, the ability of that eye to shift the thoughts of the person they were looking at. It sounded a lot like altering brainwave patterns, but in a far subtler and gentler way than the “bright death.”
Maggie peered into Robin’s eyes for several minutes.
Robin’s parents, the doctor on shift, a nurse, Sarita, Roxanne, and Maggie’s parents, were all gathered around the hospital bed. They’d put Maggie on a high stool, so she could sit while she stared down at Robin.
Roxanne was the first to notice when Maggie started tilting and slipping off the stool.
She jolted up and caught Maggie under her arms. The touch made Maggie jolt too.
“It almost got me,” Maggie mumbled. She wobbled on the stool for a moment, then took a deep breath and exhaled. She turned back to look at Robin’s parents. “I know what to do now.” She nodded to them, turned around, and leaned toward Robin again.
A determined grunt, and only a minute later, Maggie jerked back, as if some cord connecting her eyes to Robin’s had just snapped.
At the same time, Robin groaned.
In the hours to come, they would all wake. Maggie woke two of the others. She couldn’t wake the one student who wasn’t sighted. But once the doctors knew what Maggie was doing, they were able to calibrate a machine with a workaround that operated through that patient’s ears.
They all woke up.
Maggie was exhausted by the time she was finished. She said she felt loopy, but too awake to be able to sleep that night.
“I think I’ll call in sick tomorrow,” she told her parents, who both agreed.
“Maybe I will too,” Roxanne said, brushing a sweaty lock of hair out of Maggie’s eye. “So I can look after you.”
“And maybe I’ll show up at school and accept all the glory on your behalves,” Sarita said.
Maggie raised the candy bar she was nibbling on. “To the Girls With Fangs,” she said.
Sarita and Roxanne raised their own bars.
“The Girls With Fangs.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel