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’ 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.”