A robin, hopping around a mushroom, seemed unconcerned with food for the moment, more interested in the little shade that had sprung from the earth. The lip was high enough off the ground that she could fit underneath, and this concept seemed fresh and new. She jumped from the sun to the shade and back into the sun, unsure what she liked most.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing there?” The man was trying to disguise the contempt of his voice in big avuncular tones. Amy appreciated the effort, but he was still a feral pig coming straight for her.

“Just watching,” she replied. He wanted to know what she was watching, but the man’s bounding enthusiasm had startled the bird, who was gone. Amy didn’t know enough about mushrooms to pretend she was noting a rare species, and said nothing.

“You’re on my property, so I’d appreciate if you finished up your business and went home.” He wobbled away, through the grass, leaving piles of powdered mushroom in his wake.

The party was a few houses down. College students pecked at each other against every hard surface. Their bodies were pressed together, one hand apiece free for red cups of cheap, available beer, which they sipped alternating with faces.

“Well look who it is!”

“Where’d you come from?”

All her friends were so young. After the initial surprise of seeing her, they put a drink in her hand and went back to their own peer group.

“Let me introduce you. This is Amy. She’s an artist.” The student looked from Amy’s feet to her chest and walked away, shrugging.

Amy sat outside, in the grass recently watered with beer and vomit. “Why don’t you come out more often?” someone said.

Other kids on the bus sat next to each other, but Marcus always managed to have his own seat. Most days, he wore headphones, but someone had taken them from his cubby today. He had cried, but it hadn’t mattered. His friend Kira called him boring and a crybaby, and now he had nothing to do but stare out the window.

“Some people need to get killed, other people need to get raped, you know what I’m saying?” someone said in the seat behind him. Marcus didn’t know what it meant to be raped, but he had heard the word before. “You wish someone would rape you,” said another voice, and the two of them laughed. “Go rape yourself.”

They kept saying it, but Marcus was having trouble figuring out what it could possibly mean. He didn’t often start conversations with strangers, especially older kids, but he was curious enough that he turned around and asked, “What is rape?”

The two laughed. One pointed to his friend. “He’ll show you.”

“Shut up!”

“You’ll find out soon enough, kid.” They seemed to find this hysterical, and high-fived each other vigorously. Their laughter scared Marcus, and he turned away.

They seemed such close friends, perhaps because they joked around with each other. Marcus never told jokes. That’s why he was so boring.

Kira apologized to him the next day, though it seemed someone was making her do it. She didn’t want to talk to him. Marcus shrugged. “Maybe I’d be less boring if I raped you.”

She looked thoughtful as he said this. She walked away and he watched her whisper to a nearby teacher, who panicked.

When the police came to question him, he cried. “I was only joking,” he said. He plead Joking at the trial, on his epitaph.

To be an intellectual, one needs to focus her attention. What separates the intellectual from your ordinary smart person is a passion for something specific, whether it be 17th century architecture or the mating habits of guinea pigs. Ellen was an intellectual. She had studied for a decade and a half and nearly memorized not only Rousseau’s work, but his biography, to such an extent that she could answer even the most trivial questions as Jean-Jacques would, and in 18th century Swiss French.

Sitting at her desk, she looked through her students’ papers, their base summaries of other summaries, and made arbitrary marks wherever she could. Her chair was cold and hard, and she rocked back and forth over the course of an hour, warming it, softening it.

One audacious paper stood out. Some cynical student had made the claim that the entirety of Rousseau’s political philosophy came from his closeted interest in spanking. Ellen paced for a moment to calm herself down, and threw herself back in the chair with renewed purpose, resolving to judge the essay on its arguments rather than its aggressiveness. Rousseau would have done the same.

As the semester continued, Ellen kept an eye on that student, a demure young woman who rarely contributed to class discussions, but scribbled diligently in her notebook. She always wore stiff jeans, and seemed to bend over at the waist as she sat down.

“Professor Collins? I have some questions about the final.”

Ellen assured the girl that she that she’d be fine as long as she applied her powers of reason.

The girl smiled. “You really are Rousseau incarnate, aren’t you?”

As she walked away, Ellen did her best not to stare.

“Sacre bleu,” she said.

Because she’d heard a lot about the outskirts of town and its low low prices, Rebecca found herself in unfamiliar territory. Compared to her home suburbs, traffic was irredeemably congested, and entirely because pedestrians crossed the street whenever and wherever they wanted.

“Use a crosswalk!” she shouted at a mother and three children, though she hadn’t meant to yell. Her window was closed and no one heard her, but she was still embarrassed. Someone behind her honked, and she instinctively lurched forward, almost colliding with a jaywalking athlete who waved as he dodged and flew away.

As her pulse quickened, she began to mutter to herself. “It’s alright. Just get what you need and go.”

The thrift store was just as chaotic, but she kept her head down and concentrated. Her cart couldn’t kill anyone, and that alone made her more comfortable. In just a few minutes, she’d found a beautiful blue silk dress in exactly her size for four dollars, and a five dollar lamp with a full light spectrum.

Those two items alone justified the trip, but as she kept looking, she found a whole new wardrobe, all nicer than her current clothes, and a suit for her husband, too. She even found a ten dollar banjo, which seemed an absurd deal, and she’d always been meaning to learn.

“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” The woman at the cash register, elderly and Indian, seemed to genuinely want to know.

“Yes, and more,” Rebecca replied, “but is it always this crowded in here?”

The woman said nothing, mechanically scanning and folding Rebecca’s new possessions.

“I really like the selection and the prices, but there’s just so many people. It’s like we’re in Calcutta.”

The woman stopped. “No, these are Mexicans,” she said.

Rebecca nodded.

Waking up had never felt so important. As David Blanchett gasped himself awake, the crowd around him murmured in relief. They had thought he was gone, and he had been.

“Dad, we thought we lost you.”

“It’s a miracle.”

They crammed around the bed, trying their best to hug him through the wires and the tubes. They touched his hands. He tried to squeeze back.

“Give him some space. He’s had a long day.” The doctor pulled away Kaitlin, the youngest, and the rest of the family dispersed behind her and out the door. Kaitlin lingered another moment, and as Timothy, the oldest, grabbed her shoulder, she took a deep swallow. “I love you, Daddy,” she said, and as though she’d said something wrong, scampered off into the hallway.

A few days later, he left the hospital. The kids were at school, but his wife drove him home. “What do you think it’s going to cost?” she asked.

“I don’t know. You can’t really put a price tag on your health.”

Regina seemed to contemplate this premise until they were home. She opened up a can of beans and emptied it into a plastic microwavable container. When it was hot, she set it in front of him and made to leave.

He coughed. “I thought we might celebrate later.”

“But darling, you hate celebrations.” She kissed him on the forehead and got in the car.

When the kids came home, they rushed past him to the living room, where they had an Xbox. He followed after.

“What’s that you’re playing there? Some game?”

“Nothing,” said Timothy, shutting off the console. The rest of them scampered off behind him. “Please don’t be mad. It’s my fault.”

David said nothing.

“Aren’t you going to hit him, Daddy?”

His sorrow was treading water, and no more alcohol could improve his life. He was at the point of oblivion. Andre was buying, and Andre insisted that all Rupert needed was a few drinks and his obsessions would seem meaningless.

“Your problem is that you’re too nice. Women like a man who will take control. You can’t even buy your own drink. Two more Dewar’s.”

Rupert was reaching his limit, but once the copper fluid was in front of him, he took a sip. The flavor of scotch seemed more subtle the further gone he was, and he wanted to savor it while he could. Andre downed his in a single gulp.

“You’ve been thinking about her too long, but she’s not the one for you. You’re just going to have to accept it. She’s seen the weak part of you, and you’re never going to overcome that. No one wants to fuck a boy. Why don’t you try acting like a man for once?”

Andre demonstrated by starting a conversation with a stranger. “Hey beautiful, do you have a defibrillator? Because I’m dying to meet you.”

Rupert was shocked when she laughed. After an initial, “That’s terrible,” she seemed receptive to whatever came out of Andre’s mouth. A little later, when he threw up on the bar, she took care of him and led him out, to her place.

Alone, Rupert finished his drink, and tried tapping the shoulder of a woman next to him. She turned toward him and held her hand to the spot he had touched like it was bleeding.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m dying.”

As he fell over onto her lap, she leapt to her feet and let him hit the wet ground. He rolled around in Andre’s vomit, his manly secretions, and obsessed.

As easy as it would be to conquer humanity, and as much as it needed conquering, Vlad chose to bide his time. As an immortal, he could enslave all creation whenever he wanted. Now all he wanted was red wine.

Some faction of the community sent him gift baskets that they called offerings. Today’s collection contained the typical bries and pinot noirs, which made a nice gesture, but the other bottle, filled with human blood, was almost insulting in its implication. The various small animal corpses were similarly patronizing. He would dispose of them when he had the stomach.

He spread some brie on a communion wafer. The sizzle felt good in his mouth and made the fruitiness of the wine all the more welcome.

“Lord Dracula,” came a voice from beyond the door. “I apologize for entering your domain without permission, but I assumed you would not hear my lowly knock from your exalted tower.”

Vlad waved his hand at the door, and glared at the peasant, who led on a leash a young woman draped in white sheets, tied in white ribbon.

“Your excellency, I hope you received our tribute.”

Vlad tipped his wine glass in answer.

“But we didn’t want you to think we were trying to placate you, my lord. I have brought my eldest daughter for you as a sacrifice, to do with as you see fit.”

“Oh that’s quite all right. I don’t need any sacrifices right now.”

He looked at the girl, and as she heard him, she turned her head away in shame.

Her father looked angry. “I apologize that the sacrifice is inadequate, my lord. Please spare our village!”

Vlad sighed, and with a shrug, stripped her body bare and drained her blood.

“Mm, thank you so much. My favorite.”