James Wentworth arrived on the campus of Salem State College a half an hour after dark. He parked his black Ford Explorer in the parking lot off Loring Avenue near the Central Campus and walked past the Admissions Office and the bookstore, stepping out of the way of a student speeding toward the bike path. After he walked into the library he paused by the door to watch the young people studying at the tables, searching the stacks, hunching over the computers, so raw and fresh they still had that new-car smell. They had so much ahead of them, James mused. The world was exciting to them, adventures waiting to be had, dreams to be discovered, loves to be found and lost and lost and found. The students in the library were naïve, yes, but that would be tempered by experience and learning. Some of them thought they already knew everything they would ever need to know, but James had compassion for them. We think we know it all, but we never do, no matter how long we live.
Class that night was lively. These students had opinions and they liked discussing and debating, which kept the energy high. There is no worse class than when there were thirty silent students who wanted nothing more than to listen to the professor speak for fifty minutes and leave. That night’s class was an independent study seminar where the students chose which work of literature they would focus on. Usually, James found, the young people were predictable in their choices—Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Thoreau—but that term the students were more creative. One was studying Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about the cursed man who never ages, a story James thought of often. He was amused by the choice, and curious.
“Why The Picture of Dorian Gray?” he asked.
“Staying young forever?” Kendall said. “How cool is that? I mean, don’t you want your hair to stay blond, Professor? You want to turn old and gray?”
James shook his head. “On the outside Dorian stayed young-looking and fresh-seeming, but on the inside he became decrepit in ways no one would guess. His physical body didn’t age, but the catch was, as the years passed, he grew more depraved and detached from human decency.” James looked at Kendall, a Junior about twenty years of age, her sandy-brown hair slung back in a ponytail, wearing a blue and orange Salem State College t-shirt with the Viking logo. Her expression hadn’t changed.
“Dorian looked young, Professor Wentworth. Isn’t that all that matters?”
“A youthful appearance is certainly valued in our society, but don’t you think there could be problems always looking the same while you grew in knowledge and experience?”
“But looking young forever would keep me out of the plastic surgeon’s office.”
“Fair enough,” James said.
“I mean, my sister is twenty-five, and she’s already getting Botox.”
James sighed as he surveyed the classroom, admiring the bright, fresh faces, and he wondered how many others were convinced they looked old when they were oh so very young. He scanned the list in his hand and his eyes grew wide. He pressed his wire-rimmed eyeglasses against his nose as he looked at Trisha, sitting front and center, a bright student, one of his hardest workers, and he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at her choice. He wouldn’t have guessed it of her.
“Why did you choose Bram Stoker’s Dracula?” he asked.
“Because I love that genre,” Trisha said. “I love the idea that there are supernatural beings so extraordinary out there walking unnoticed among us. Since we’re not looking for them we don’t see them, and when we do see them it might be too late.”
“Do you believe in vampires?” he asked.
“Of course not. That’s silly.”
“Yes,” he said. “That is very silly.”
“Besides, even if there were really vampires no one would believe it. It just doesn’t seem possible.”
“You’re right. Let’s hope we never have to find out.”
Levon Jackson, another bright student, an ice hockey player touted as a potential NHL draft, patted Trisha’s shoulder and shouted a loud “Amen!”
James sat on the edge of the instructor’s desk at the front of the room. Levon was one of his favorites that term, in two of his classes, and the young man so rarely shared without raising his hand. Though James insisted from the first day that students didn’t need to raise their hands, this was college, not kindergarten, Levon was always respectful, polite, waiting for James’s attention before he spoke.
“Amen to what, Levon?” James asked.
“Amen to let’s hope we never have to find out. Who wants to learn there’s some nasty old vamp lurking around somewhere?”
“There’s nothing to find out,” said Jeremy, who had aspirations of doctoral school at Harvard. “Who wants to waste time on make-believe?”
“Vampires could be real,” Kendall said. As other students laughed and hissed, she turned her scrunched face to the class. “Why not? Stranger things have happened.”
“How can something be dead and alive at the same time?” Jeremy asked.
“I’m not saying it’s true,” Kendall said. “I’m just saying it’s possible.”
Levon slapped his large hands over his ears, his palms flat against his head. “I don’t want to hear any more about vampires!” James couldn’t tell if he was joking.
Jeremy smirked. “You must cover your ears a lot, Levon. Everyone everywhere is talking about vampires. Vampire movies. Vampire television shows. Vampire books.” Jeremy’s fingers went to his temples and he shook his head from side to side. “I am so damn sick of vampires.”
James watched his students with a mixture of amusement and caution. He didn’t want to stifle the conversation, and he wouldn’t quell their questioning, but he didn’t like the turn the conversation had taken. Levon turned his desk so he could look Jeremy in the eye. He wasn’t intimidating, James noted, only serious.
“My pastor says there are evil spirits, minions of Satan, all around us, especially at night. He says they seek innocent souls to prey on, and if we’re not careful the evil will consume us.” Levon looked around the room, one student at a time, without a hint of sarcasm. “I know there’s evil in the world. Maybe it’s ghosts. Maybe it’s witches. Maybe it’s vampires. Maybe it’s the Devil himself. Whatever it is, I don’t want any part of it, and I don’t want it anywhere near me. Evil like that needs to be destroyed.”
“Do you really believe that?” Jeremy asked.
The students argued amongst each other, some louder than others. They were so caught up in their opinions they didn’t notice as James moved from the desk to the window. He unhooked the latch and pushed the glass up, letting in a cool blast of air, the combined scent of the salty sea and the storm dropping soon. Suddenly the shouting voices stopped. James heard the silence, but he didn’t turn around. He watched the tree leaves sigh and weave from their branches. He watched the moon hanging in wait overhead. He wasn’t trying to be dramatic. He was waiting for the right words to come.
“That could be dangerous,” he said finally, “making judgments and deciding where, or if, others have the right to live.” He was talking to no one in particular, to the windowpane, the trees, the night breeze, his own furrowed brow. “People have lost their lives because of such judgments.”
“What that is, Professor, is a loaf of bullshit,” said Jeremy.
The class laughed.
“It isn’t,” said Levon. “I don’t want anything to do with any vampires. I don’t want to see anything about them. I don’t want to hear anything about them. They’re evil.”
Silence fell over the class again. James turned from the window and saw twenty-five oh so very young faces waiting for him to make sense of it all. That was how class often went. James offered some topic of discussion based on their reading, the students would discuss, or argue, and then James would share some insight that tied the pieces together. Then the students left with some new knowledge that hopefully they’d remember, some lesson they’d carry all their lives, or at least until the next midterm. James wished they would take more responsibility for forming their own opinions, but he was the professor, after all, the one with the college degrees paid to profess his knowledge to classes of impressionable minds. But that night the class had a different feel. He didn’t know if the students could sense the shift, but he could. For the first time, he didn’t know what to say.
Timothy Wolfe, a dark-haired, pale-skinned student, stood up in the back of the class, a flash of anger in his black eyes. James gave Timothy a warning glance, but Timothy didn’t seem to see him. Rather, James guessed from Timothy’s glint, that he was being ignored.
“Why do you assume vampires are evil?” Timothy asked.
The other students turned around, surprised, as if they had never noticed Timothy before. And they probably hadn’t. He was always so quiet, never answering a question or offering an opinion, staking out his usual seat in the back near the door, bolting as soon as James dismissed them. James stood back, his arms crossed over his chest, watching Timothy’s every move as the boy walked toward Levon, the ice hockey goalie, looking like David challenging Goliath.
“Timothy…” James said, caution in his tone.
Timothy jabbed a frustrated finger in Levon’s direction. “I mean, if vampires were real, which they’re not, but if they were, everyone thinks they’d be evil. But not everyone is the same.”
“There can’t be any such thing as a nice vampire,” Levon said. “They’re bloodthirsty, angry devils who’d suck the life right out of you. Who knows how many people they’d kill. Probably one a night.” Levon stood up, and his athlete’s physique towered above Timothy, who looked too small, too fragile suddenly. “Vampires are the way they are, and they all belong in one category: villain.”
James looked at Levon. For the first time that night he was annoyed with the young man. “You don’t believe that people, human or otherwise, can overcome their violent tendencies?” he asked.
“No matter how much they want to change? No matter how resolved they are? Are we victims of some predetermined destiny? I knew some people who thought that way once. They weren’t a pleasant group to live around.”
“I think if you’re mean you’re mean and if you’re not you’re not.”
“You’ve been watching too many horror movies,” Jeremy said. He didn’t try to hide his disdain. He closed his textbook and shut down his notebook computer. He looked at the time, at the door, at the window. Then he began texting on his cell phone. James didn’t stop him.
“If I knew a hot vampire like Edward or Bill I’d give them as much of my blood as they wanted,” Trisha said. She giggled, and so did the girls sitting next to her. “They could bite me anytime.”
James looked at the clock on the wall. “Time’s up,” he said. “See you next week.”
As the others filtered single file from the classroom, Levon turned to James. “No hard feelings, Doctor Wentworth?”
“Of course not, Levon.”
Levon smiled, a flash of white brilliance, and he extended his hand. James stepped behind the instructor’s desk, sliding his hands into the pockets of his khaki trousers.
“I’m sorry,” James said. “I have a cold and I don’t want you to get sick. You have a big game tomorrow night.”
Levon pointed out his folded arm instead. “All right, elbow bump.”
James laughed, and they touched elbows.
“Good luck tomorrow night,” James said.
“You coming to the game?”
“I’d love to but I can’t. Midterms coming up, you know. Maybe next time.”
“You need to get out more. I never see you out with the other professors, and I never see you around town. You never go to the games. Are you married?”
James was startled by the suddenness of the question, and he tried to set his expression. He didn’t want Levon to see how shocked he was, but the look on Levon’s face told him he had not been quick enough.
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Levon said. “I was just wondering if you had anyone waiting for you at home.”
“Too bad. You’re a youngish guy, what, about fifty?”
James shook his head. “You young people think everyone older than you is fifty. I’m thirty, Levon.”
“All right, thirty, even better. From the way the girls giggle about you, you must be okay. They all have a crush on you.”
“They do not.”
“They do.” Levon threw his backpack over one shoulder. “You should find a friend before it’s too late, Doctor Wentworth, you know, a nice lady. That’s all I’m saying.”
James sat on the edge of a student desk, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched the young man in front of him.
“You’re right,” James said, laughing, like the fact that he kept so much to himself was the biggest joke in the world. “Not about finding a nice lady. I did that once. I mean about getting to a game. I’ll come soon. I promise.”
Levon seemed satisfied with that answer. As Levon left the classroom, James saw Timothy loitering outside. By the time James stepped over to talk to him, Timothy had disappeared. James looked down the hallway and heard the boy’s quick-time steps crossing the pavement of College Drive. He knew he would have to talk to Timothy about that, again, soon. It didn’t help anything to have him disappearing like a slight-of-hand trick. James went back into the classroom, packed up his book bag, and left campus, not as quickly as Timothy, but fast enough. It had been a long night.