Set up for the Hollis' fifth dinner party of the holiday season was almost complete. So far, their guests had each been colleagues of Laura's stepmother, a professor who had joined the Hollis household the previous February. She and Laura's father had a Valentine's Day wedding, much of which Laura had helped plan. Being so busy had kept her from properly celebrating. She had never been in a relationship, but it was one of her favorite holidays nonetheless thanks to the candy sales that came on the days after. Laura dreamed about candy and chocolate as she set plates out on their dining table. Her thoughts drifted towards romance and, oddly, the girl who sat in the back of the classroom during AP Calculus and AP History but raised her hand for every question in AP English Literature. (Laura blocked out the fact that she, as a high school junior, would have to start applying to colleges next semester.) All she could remember was the girl's smooth hair, her pale skin, and her standoffish leather jacket. Any other details were fuzzy. She decided she would have to pay closer attention to the details of this girl's appearance when school started back up.
"...alright. See you soon. Love you too." In the kitchen, Laura's dad hung up the phone with a click. "Laura, honey, can you put out an extra plate? Professor Karnstein is bringing a plus one."
"What? Sure, Dad," Laura called back, half-listening. She put another plate down on the table and joined her father in the kitchen.
"Hey, Dad, how long until dinner?" Laura asked.
He turned from the counter to face her, a colorful finger-painted apron accenting his otherwise business casual attire. "Oh, half an hour, maybe. Jane said they were leaving campus in about five minutes." He poked a fork into a small piece of chicken and handed it to his daughter. "A preview for the coming meal."
"Who's coming with them?" Laura said as she tore the chicken off the fork.
"Professor Karnstein's daughter. She tagged along with them today to check out the infamous Silas U library."
"That place is a little creepy." She handed him the fork. "I give the preview three and a half stars."
Her dad pulled her into a quick hug. "Thanks for all your help, sweetheart."
He was close to a foot taller than she was, though that put him at a pretty average height. She smiled up at him before running around to the staircase that led downstairs to the basement she had claimed as her study room. To the left of the bottom of the stair case was her cozy office. A bookshelf and a dark blue reading chair were pushed up against the wall opposite the landing. Laura's desk and a washed out brown leather couch were flush against the other two walls. Just above the couch, the only window in the small room was inlaid in the wall. The natural reading light that streamed in had coaxed the couch's rich chocolate color to crack. The wall around the window matched the deep blue of the armchair. Laura had chosen the walls' colors and painted them herself. She had read somewhere that having one wall a different color enhanced creative thought, something her teachers had repeatedly encouraged her to hone in her grades and comments. The rest of the walls were painted in a shade close to the beige accents the sunlight had worked into the couch.
Laura picked up her computer and sat down in the armchair, crossing her legs underneath her. She had planned on looking at photos of the girl on Facebook, but couldn't remember her name exactly. Fifteen minutes of light stalking later, she heard the doorbell ring and ran up the stairs. Her father had already answered the door, but their guests had yet to enter the house. Her step mother entered and he shut the door behind her.
"Carol's just parking down the street a ways. Hi, honey." Jane Hollis kissed her husband on the cheek, fumbling with her briefcase. Some papers fluttered to the floor.
"I got it," Laura's dad said as he bent down to retrieve them.
The doorbell rang again.
"Steve, could you help me with this?" Jane said, holding out her coat. She pointed at her briefcase. "I'm just gonna drop this upstairs."
"Laura, get the door?" Her father said as he followed his wife upstairs with her coat.
Laura nodded to him and turned the handle. A tall, intimidating woman in a power suit looked down at her, more than literally, in Laura's opinion. She beamed at their guest anyway.
"Hi, Professor Karnstein," Laura said gesturing for her to enter. "I can grab your coat if you-"
"Don't keep the door open. It's freezing out there, darling," she said, dropping her coat over the back of a chair in the living room.
Laura began to indicate where her guest could go to find the hors d'oeuvres, but, noticing that the woman was already gone, shut the door obligingly. A soft knock immediately came from outside, and Laura swung the door open again.
At that moment, she found out that the mysterious girl who was in so many of her classes had dark brown eyes. One of the girl's pointed eyebrows rose.
Dragged to her mother's job and then a dinner party with some people she didn't even know-what a miserable way to spend a Friday. Carmilla had no intention of doing anything but reading for the evening, and so she wore a grimace and her most torn up jeans to the soiree. Business casual, her mother had said. Fuck that.
She sauntered up the front lawn from where she had parked the car in a cul-de-sac. Her mother had wanted her to practice driving and parallel parking for weeks, and so Carmilla had been forced to drive them and her mother had challenged her to fit their car between the only two street parked cars in the neighborhood. Carmilla would have trudged from the street to the house as slowly as possible, but it was cold and the holes in her jeans didn't do much to stop the stabbing wind.
She waited out on the front step, silence on the opposite side of the door. She glanced at the doorbell and then knocked, not expecting anyone to hear. The door flew open instantly, and behind it was the small girl who annoyingly raised her hand after every question posed in their history class, regardless if a student or the teacher had posed it. Carmilla raised an eyebrow and cocked her head just slightly, puzzled by her hostess' stare.
"Laura?" Carmilla tried to think of something else to say, settling on, "You live here?"
"Uh, yeah, uh-huh." Laura's reply was more a series of grunts than coherent speech.
"Can I come in?"
Laura's expression became explicitly hospitable, her smile wide and her eyes sparkling. "Of course! I can grab your coat if you want."
"Where's the food?" Carmilla said, avoiding Laura's eyes and focusing on the warm decor of the living room.
"Um, kitchen," Laura said.
"Thanks, cutie." Carmilla replied without looking at her and waltzed into the kitchen.
Laura's heart was racing. She had run up the stairs as quickly as possible after the other girl had turned her back towards the door. Winded after one flight of stairs, Laura silently swore that she would exercise more and eat better when the new year came. She waited upstairs for a moment, listening for any sound from downstairs, briefly pressing her ear against the floor.
"Holy crap, holy crap," Laura paced her room, dropping the girl's coat on her own bed. "Camilla? Is that her name? And are those really her-"
"Laura?" Her father's voice rang out.
"Cameron, maybe? Ugh," Laura dragged herself out of her room and scampered down the stairs.
Everyone was already seated at the dining table. Why they needed a separate table for 'dining' and 'eating' was beyond Laura, but her father had seemed happy with her step mother's purchase. Remembering that she had failed to set out cutlery next to the extra place setting, she detoured through the kitchen, searching for a fifth knife and fork. She found a knife, but no matching fork, leaving her no choice but to pick up a children's fork her father had unwittingly kept for years after Laura had outgrown her obsession with the Power Rangers. The extra place had, of course, been taken by Professor Karnstein's daughter, who had taken out a pocket sized novel and begun to read at the table.
"Carmilla, you should have left that in the car," Professor Karnstein snapped. "Put it away. Now."
Carmilla dog-eared her page and slipped the book under her leg. She sat as far from her mother as she could without actually moving her chair. Laura approached her cautiously, handing her the knife and fork from an arm's length away.
"Thanks, red ranger," Carmilla deadpanned, focused on the place setting in front of her.
The fact that Carmilla managed to remain stoic through her delivery of the insult made Laura giggle nervously, a response that caused Carmilla to turn her gaze from her plate up to the girl standing next to her. Laura felt Carmilla's eyes scan over her, lingering with a quizzical look before dropping down again. Laura left the room again, rushing, but hoping Carmilla hadn't noticed.
Laura practically ran out of the room after handing Carmilla the stupidest fork she had seen in her life. The prongs were rounded and short, and the handle was a power ranger, shown from the waist up, pointing at whomever was unlucky enough to be holding the ridiculous thing. Fortunately, dinner hit the table before Carmilla's mother could voice some absurd aside reprimanding their hosts for not having adequate silverware.
"Alright!" Mr. Hollis said as he successfully placed a large bowl of mashed potatoes on the circular table just to Carmilla's right. Mrs. Hollis sat on the other side of her mother and next to Mr. Hollis, leaving the seat next to Carmilla for the strange daughter of the house. Laura sat down next to her without a word. Carmilla glanced up at her, noticing she was still a shade of red that complimented the bright green scallions on the mashed potatoes. They ate in silence while the professors at the table discussed the current drama within their department, Mr. Hollis listening and interjecting a bad joke occasionally.
"Jane, can you believe they're putting Howard up for tenure?"
"The reviews from his students are abysmal. How has he been around for two decades?"
It went on and on and on. Carmilla hated gossip. She was busy shoveling mashed potatoes into her mouth when Laura whispered something to her.
"Hey, do you want dessert?"
"That's a little forward, sweetheart. We only officially met twenty minutes ago-"
"Laura, how are you liking your classes?" Carmilla's mother interrupted, either ignoring or not noticing the mortified, wide-eyed expression on Laura's face. Carmilla smiled to herself, satisfied at the reaction.
"Um, good. They're good. Carmilla is actually in three of my classes," Laura replied.
"Really? She's never mentioned you before."
Laura opted for light flattery in the reply to Mother's false interest. "We don't really sit by each other. Carmilla always knows the answers in English class."
"Yes, she's always reading." She glanced over at her daughter, eyes flickering to where she knew her book was hidden. "Vampire books these days. The influx of these fad supernatural romance books is-"
"It's not like I'm reading Twilight," Carmilla cut her off, earning her an offended glare from her mother.
"No, of course not." Underneath the apologetic facade, her mother's tone was threatening. She continued. "That's not the kind of romance you really go for, right, darling?"
Carmilla pushed her chair back from the table, leaving the dining room without a word. She could feel everyone's eyes follow her out of the room.
"Laura, don't worry about cleaning up. Your father and I will take care of it."
Laura was grateful to her stepmother. She had wanted to follow Carmilla out of the room, but she wasn't sure she should. Laura found Carmilla sitting on the staircase headed upstairs.
"Hey," Laura said.
After a moment came Carmilla's reply. "Hey."
"Do you want to go hang out upstairs?" Laura asked.
Carmilla nodded once, standing and following Laura up to her bedroom.
"So, what do you read?" Laura asked as she closed the door, genuinely interested. Not interested, necessarily, but curious. Curious about Carmilla.
"Mostly philosophy, right now," Carmilla said, sitting atop her coat on Laura's bed. "Gothic era, which is why Mother keeps talking about vampires."
"What?" Carmilla snapped in defense.
"Hey, no, I didn't mean it like that. I just meant that I've never read about that kind of stuff, so it would be cool to learn about it."
"You just said the phrase 'cool to learn.'"
"There are worse things to be," Laura said, smiling sweetly.
"Yeah, like a freak who spends all her time at the university library reading Goethe," Carmilla stated somberly.
Laura sat next to her on the bed. "Hey, that's not weird. You're reading about things you like. That's cool." Carmilla shifted, crossing her arms and turning her shoulders to face ahead of her and away from Laura. Laura continued. "Look, I get that you don't get along with your mom-"
"You don't know me," Carmilla snapped again, standing abruptly. She figured she could intimidate the little nerd into ending the conversation prematurely.
Much to Carmilla's surprise, Laura stood up and came face to face with her.
"No, I don't," Laura said, "but I know what it's like to have a parent you'd rather not be stuck with. So I thought that maybe instead of shoving your nose back into a centuries-old book, you might want to talk about it. If I was wrong, and you'd rather go back to discussing the particulars of Professor Young's now ironically decrepit appearance, be my guest."
"I thought I was your guest. That's implied in the nature of inviting me over, isn't it?" Carmilla stared at this firecracker of a girl who stood in front of her. They were about the same height, Carmilla barely an inch taller. They held each others' glares.
"Laura!" Mr. Hollis' voice boomed from downstairs. "Do you want any pie before I put it away?"
Laura responded to her father's summons by making her way to the door, staring at Carmilla the whole time. She opened the door, still watching. Carmilla leered back at her, narrowing her eyes. Laura started to shut the door, keeping her eyes on Carmilla until she was forced to duck out of the door frame. Carmilla couldn't help but start laughing to herself as soon as Laura had disappeared; this girl was comically stubborn. The door cracked open just enough for Laura to peek her eyes back in the room.
"Do you want any pie?" Laura asked through gritted teeth.
"How could I say no to such a polite hostess?" Carmilla shot back.
Laura slammed the door as loudly as possible when she left, leaving Carmilla even more pleased with herself.
"Is everything alright up there?" Laura's dad asked, handing her two small plates of pie.
"She is incorrigible," Laura replied. "Where are Jane and Carol?"
"They got some emergency email that they were needed on the main campus down in the city. Where did you learn the word 'incorrigible?'"
"Weekly vocab." Harry Potter. "Are they coming back?"
"It'll take them two hours just to get to the city. Carol said she'd come back in the morning for the car." Her father had finished washing the dishes and started hand-drying them. "You know, I should really get that dishwasher fixed. Your mother always..."
Laura didn't care to listen any further. This meant Carmilla was going to be staying the night.
"...I should have listened. Laura? You're about to drop that pie." Her father interrupted her, keeping her thoughts from going anywhere she couldn't rein them in.
"Thanks, Dad. I'll get some sheets and pillows for Carmilla."
Carmilla ran up the stairs, leaving the two slices of pie on the counter. She barged back into her own room, arms full of bedding material. Carmilla was seated on her bed, reading.
"Alright you grouchy vampire," she said dropping the sheets in Carmilla's lap. "Apparently the professors had to go into the city for some reason, so you're staying the night."
"You sound thrilled," Carmilla said as she slid off the bed and started setting up on Laura's floor.
"You wish. Is that the 'kind of romance you go for?" Laura replied, quoting Carmilla's mother.
Carmilla glowered at her, throwing the sheets down viciously before turning on Laura.
"Do you really want me to get into all the gory details of my relationship with my mother? No? Then keep your pretty mouth shut about her." Carmilla returned her attention to the sheets.
"All she said was that you don't like Twilight's twisted conception of romance-which, frankly, I agree with you on a hundred percent-"
"I'm not talking about this."
"I just don't get why you got so mad so fast. Seriously, storming out of a room? Come on, that's like, something bad movie villains do."
"Stop talking about it."
"Make me. She was joking. Why did you get so-" Laura was forced to stop talking when Carmilla's hand clapped her mouth shut in a motion so fast Laura hadn't even seen her move. Carmilla's eyes glowed with desperate rage. She softened as she let her hand fall from Laura's mouth. Laura could have sworn Carmilla's gaze had dropped from Laura's eyes for a split second. Her voice was less charged with anger.
"I get what you're trying to do, cupcake, so you can give yourself a pat on the back and a merit badge for effort." Carmilla backed away from her slightly.
"Okay," Laura replied quietly. "Sorry, Carm. Do you still want pie?"
Laura left the room quietly. Carmilla sat on the floor and pulled one of the sheets around herself.
Carm? She cringed at the nickname.
Why had she done that? She could just tell Laura that her mother hated her, but that would sound melodramatic. It would take too long to explain, and she doubted anyone wanted to hear the story about the time her mother found out that Carmilla had been reading lesbian vampire erotica online. In her defense, it had originally been assigned as part of the summer course in 19th century literature she had been taking. Carmilla may have read it a couple of extra times.
Laura came back and handed Carmilla a small plate with a rather disproportionately large slice of pie on it. She sat down across from her on the floor and ate her pie in silence without looking up at her guest.
"Thanks," Carmilla muttered.
"Mhmm," Laura replied through a mouthful of pie. "My dad always tells me that this was my mom's favorite recipe."
Carmilla hesitated, but decided that letting Laura talk would only mean she wouldn't have to. "What happened?"
"She died in childbirth."
"...sorry for asking."
"What?" Laura looked genuinely puzzled by Carmilla's sincere apology.
Carmilla sighed before offering the vaguest explanation she could think of. "I don't like talking about my mother, so I guess I assume it's the same for other people."
"I'm the one who should be sorry." Laura put her pie down, presumably to better gesticulate while she began rambling. Carmilla followed suit, putting the plate down and dropping her hands into her lap. "I really shouldn't have pushed you to talk about something that you very clearly didn't want to talk about and you basically got dragged here by your mom and I'm not sure why she's so mean to you but it's not very nice of her obviously and-"
"Hey," Carmilla interrupted her.
Laura was silent, her mouth hanging open. Carmilla reached forward and, with two fingers under Laura's chin, closed her mouth. She didn't realize that she hadn't moved her hand away.
"Do you really want to know why my mom hates me?" She continued.
Laura gave a small nod. There was more pure, genuine care in her hazel eyes than Carmilla had ever seen a human being express. She felt the urge to thank the compassionate girl sitting across from her, but she wasn't sure how to best do so. Carmilla leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, then withdrew into the sheet she had wrapped herself in. Laura had an expectant look on her face.
"What?" Carmilla asked, confused.
"Oh," Laura said, slightly taken aback, "I thought you were going to tell me."
Carmilla suddenly felt like she could cry. Why explain something that would probably just upset Laura and herself?
"You don't have to, though." Laura said, paying attention in case Carmilla chose to continue but no longer pushing for an answer.
"Um," Carmilla started, "I like girls, and she doesn't like that."
"What?" Laura was indignant. "That's her big reason? Did she miss that homophobia isn't trendy like it-wrongly-was in the 1940's? How dare she-"
"Can I kiss you?"
It was Carmilla's most effective way of cutting Laura off yet. In fact, she was silent for several seconds, just staring back. Carmilla, realizing what she had said, was suddenly anxious.
"I'm-I'm sorry. You've been so stupidly nice to me all night and that was just the wrong thing to say." Carmilla examined the sheet around her.
"Being nice isn't stupid," Laura nearly whispered.
Carmilla continued to stare at the nest of sheets and pillows around her, looking anywhere but at Laura. Great, she thought. Not only had she said something completely out of line, she had offended Laura's entire view of the world. Needless to say, she was completely shocked when she felt Laura's lips on hers a moment later.
"Being nice isn't stupid." Laura knew exactly how Carmilla felt. She often got upset that the world was cruel to people who didn't deserve it. Her own mother had just wanted a second child, and that had left Laura without a mother and a baby brother. Carmilla didn't need to hear about that right now, she decided. Laura watched her for a moment, noticed how she ran her finger over the sheets, so lightly and carefully, as if they might rip at the slightest touch. Laura figured that she couldn't say anything to make Carmilla feel better. Not that she could think of any words. The thought of kissing Carmilla was so distracting that Laura could hardly remember what they had been discussing. There was an easy way to clear her mind of the persistent thought, so Laura kissed her.
When Laura pulled back, she couldn't read Carmilla's face. Was she about to cry? Laura still couldn't remember how words worked, so she did the only thing she could think of and went in to kiss her again, but Carmilla pulled away. Laura looked at her, afraid she had done something wrong.
Carmilla looked up at her. The glint in her eyes was utterly unmistakable.
Laura wasn't sure how she ended up flat on her back in the pile of sheets, but the next thing she knew, Carmilla was on top of her.