Writers (in order): Maggie Zhang, Najia S., Surya Saraf, Aaron Nguyen, E.M. Lahti, Mariarosa Cerritos, MCMS, M.S., Molly M., Irene Tsen*, Cristian Cervanates, CL, IB, Ife E., RANadia, Xinyi Chi, Alyssa Tang. Editor: Ms. Wilson.

*Wrote more than once.

Last summer, my grandparents decided to send me to a conversion camp. Not the one for non-cishet kids—I’m out and proud, and they celebrate me. No, this was a far more heinous institution—conversion to vegetarianism. And not the type with vegetables, either. Some kooks or crooks allegedly came up with Bunnicula-type technology, and my grandparents, who’d decided that buying blood from blood banks was too ethically questionable, thought it was a great idea. It was definitely a scam, or so I thought.

As I arrived at the camp, the atmosphere was already off. Everyone was wearing the type of clothes for a funeral. It was quite disgusting, really—the lack of color seemed to even make the sky grayer.

Just beyond a patch of blood-soaked picnic tables, I saw that a boy my age was fighting his mom to not be here. His main argument was this: there is no reason to convert to vegetarianism. Humans suck anyway, so in turn we should suck on their blood. A trade-off, he said.

Nevertheless, his mother could not be persuaded and threatened to break his PS5. Only then was he restrained.

After witnessing that scene, I wondered what other kids’ situations were.

Remnants of human bones crunched under my feet as I tentatively made my way to the glowing, gated campus. I seemed to be the only sane one there. Snarling children with blood-soaked mouths dragged their feet around me, all of us one step closer to a possibly life-changing experience. I suddenly tensed up. Maybe this wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to change me, and I couldn’t survive without the salty taste of blood. As I abruptly turned around to flee, the gates opened, and a violent gust of wind forced me to the ground.

The chitters of a thousand bats echoed through the air as a swarm streaked over the campus walls, the combined force of their wings blowing a few of the smaller bits of skeleton around with a rattle. I watched as they coalesced in a swirling pillar before disappearing, a tall figure forming from their bodies and stepping forward with a toothy smile.

The theatrics did little to calm my nerves, as the dust settled. I was able to see her face more clearly.

She was frighteningly pale, more so than the average vampire, and gaunt—as if she had been starving. Her eerie smile was plastered fakely on her face. Eyes are the true windows to the soul though, and her eyes were hungry. She quickly averted her eyes from the crowd, as her face formed a grimace.

“That profoundly disgusting scent,” she remarked, pinching her nostrils shut with her cadaverous fingers. Now that was unnecessary. “Pardon my initial reaction, I just can’t stand that vile scent of human blood. What are you, savages?” she scowled. There she went with the highly anticipated, “compelling” speech about how living off human blood isn’t “eco-friendly.”

I restrained my eyeroll. It didn’t matter what she said; nothing could distract me from what I really wanted, what I really was. The hunger that pulled me away from all otherworldly things, the thing that drove me, filled me, satisfied me. And the absolute last thing that would pull me away from what I was, that would suffocate who I am, was a jumble of decay and rot dressed up in cliches that appealed to the likes of weaker beings.

I snapped back to attention just when Madam Phytophage—that’s what she called herself—finished her speech. She disappeared into the crowd. Everyone started walking around to form small groups, and I got tugged into a circle with five other people. Two of them I had gone to school with, but I didn't know them very well, as they mostly kept to themselves. Another kid looked quite a bit younger than the rest of us, way too young to be in a place like this. And the final one. I definitely knew her. She was the person who got me addicted… the reason why I couldn't stop feeding. She was the reason I was in this, pardon my language, hellhole.

Ice cold and bony, Madam Phytophage’s fingers seized my wrist, raising goosebumps across my spine.

“You are hungry, child,” she hissed in my ear. The salty taste of blood coated my teeth, but despite the pain I sank my fangs deeper into my cheek to withhold my shudder. “Now, now, my dear, such an extreme measure simply for the taste of blood. Tell me, are you satisfied?” She trailed her fingernails up my arm and grasped my shoulder tight. “You see, human blood is no different. You have nothing to gain from a simple drink.”

Her teeth suddenly sank into my biceps. A flash of understanding lit up my consciousness, followed by profound dread and revulsion. This was no conversion camp to vegetarianism—this was a conversion to cannibalism. Vampires feeding on other vampires.

I blinked, and suddenly Madam Phytophage was in another circle of people. My previously bloody arm was now bloodless and flawless. Fear now swirled in my blood. I felt hot and cold at once. Whether the vision had been true or not, I had to escape before it was too late.

But as I looked back, the black steel gates that enclosed the place closed with a clang behind me. The parents—in my case, grandparents—had left, and everyone who remained faced the daunting two-week conversion process. I turned back around, my mouth setting resolutely. I would have to bide my time and escape as soon as the chance presented itself.