Death Day #1, 2012
“Death is when the monsters get you.”
STEPHEN KING, Salem’s Lot
The End of Everything
I can smell the blood. It tastes metallic on my tongue and I close my mouth tight, clamping my teeth together until my jaw aches. Still the scent of it invades my nostrils, sweet and ripe as an apple left out to rot in the sun. My stomach cramps, a knee jerk reaction to what the smell of blood has come to signify: death.
A Drinker has been in the hotel. I can see its claw marks running down across the woodwork of the main desk. What little furniture remained in the lobby has been completely wrecked, as if the Drinker went into some kind of mindless rage, destroying everything in sight.
He was wrong. Not all of the Drinkers left. At least one remained. One who knew where we were hiding. One who waited until I left to finally strike.
With my heart in my throat I sprint across the lobby and fly up the stairs, screaming their names with every step.
The green and cold carpet muffles my footsteps as I race down the hall, bypassing door after door until I get to the one I want. I throw it open with such force I nearly fall forward onto the mattress, but I catch myself just in time.
The smell of blood is stronger here. There is no mistaking it. No point in convincing myself I am imagining things.
The shades are still drawn tight. My pounding heart counts off the seconds as I search the pitch black room. I know every nook, every cranny of this small space and I go through it ruthlessly. My fingers glance off the wooden dresser that houses my meager collection of clothing. I don’t bother opening the drawers. What I am seeking is not here. But it is somewhere. The blood does not lie.
Cursing, crying, pleading for their lives I stumble down the hall and search room after room after room, yelling until my voice is hoarse.
The further I go into the hotel the darker is gets, until I am running blind, using the walls to support me. When I see the light blossoming from the edges of a door at the end of the last hallway my knees nearly buckle with relief. I have found them and they are hiding away, just like they should have been. Safe and sound. A breathless laugh forces its way past my lips. I have worried myself to death for nothing. Except the scent of blood is stronger than ever, and I cannot shake the terrible feeling of dread that is threatening to choke me.
I push open the door and instantly cover my eyes, blinded by the light after running so long in the dark. For a few seconds all I see are two blurry shapes. One sprawled lifeless on the ground and the other hunched over it.
My vision refocuses like a camera lens. Sharpening slowly around the edges before spiraling in towards the middle until everything is clear. Clear as crystal. And I see who is on the ground. And I see who is standing over him. And I see what I have chosen to overlook for too long.
“Is he dead?” My words come out flat. Emotionless. It is a rhetorical question. I know he is dead. No one can lose that much blood and survive. It seeps across the tile flooring, reaching all the way to the door and I am forced to step in it as I walk across the room.
The survivor turns to face me and my breath whooshes out to stain the air with shock and betrayal. I had not thought… I had never imagined… But the blood does not lie and his face is covered with it.
“You,” I whisper in agony. “How could it be you?”
His mouth opens and closes. Quick, so quick, but I see the flash of tell tale silver before he can conceal it. He reaches out his hand to me. A silent plea. Blood drips from his fingertips.
“This is not what it looks like,” he says quickly. “Lola, you don’t understand. Let me explain.”
“Isn’t what it looks like?” I repeat dully. “You’re one of Them. You’re a… a… Drinker. You’re a monster.” My voice thickens with tears. “And you killed him.”
He says nothing. His eyes dart to my left hand.
The gun. It has become such a part of me I almost forgot I had it. I raise it now and point the muzzle true. His face pales. He takes a step back, then stops. Goes still. “Do it then. Just do it, Lola. If you think I could have done this I am dead already.”
“No.” I look at the body on the floor. “He’s the one who is dead.”
I aim the gun dead center of his chest. Aim it right at his black, lying heart.
“Lola, I love -”
I pull the trigger.
Fourteen Days Before
Once upon a time there lived a beautiful girl. The beautiful girl had two parents who loved her and an older sister who doted on her. She had a golden retriever named Buddy who knew all kinds of tricks. She lived in a perfect house on a perfect street in a perfect neighborhood. The beautiful girl got all straight A’s in school and wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. She was captain of the varsity soccer team and cheerleading squad. She had a handsome boyfriend named Todd and she was always very, very happy.
Yeah, that girl is not me. My name is Lola. My parents are divorced. My older sister hates my guts, and my dog got run over by a car two weeks ago.
After the big D my mom moved across the country to California and got married six months later to some guy who rides a motorcycle and has a fu Manchu (for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a really stupid looking mustache). I decided to stay with my dad in Birdsboro, Pennsylvania.
We lived in a crappy apartment building on the wrong side of town. Big Sis went with Mom to California and I haven’t heard from her since. I’ve never had a boyfriend. I don’t play sports. The last time I got anything close to an A was in seventh grade English, and that’s only because I sat next to Patricia Clark, the smartest girl in the entire school.
But this story isn’t about me. This story is about them. The Drinkers.
No one knows where they came from. Not exactly. Our government blamed the terrorists. The terrorists blamed the government. The government blamed the Jesus freaks. The Jesus freaks blamed the sinners. The sinners blamed the hippies. The hippies blamed the owners of gas guzzling SUVs. The owners of gas guzzling SUVs didn’t blame anyone due to the fact that they were the first to die. Turns out gas guzzling SUVs can’t go very far before they run out of gas. Go figure.
Personally, I am of the opinion that the Drinkers have always been here. Lurking in the shadows. Biding their time. Waiting for just the right moment to strike.
Curiously enough, they decided on a Tuesday in the middle of August to destroy mankind. Just a normal day like any other. No holiday to speak of. Nothing to make the date significant. At least not then. Now we call it Death Day, but before that was just plain old Tuesday, the seventeenth of August.
I wish I could say I was doing something life changing on the day the world came crashing down. Saving a life. Coming up with a cure for cancer. Rescuing a cat from a tree. Instead I was stealing a car.
“Lola, are you sure you want to do this?” Travis, my best friend and reluctant partner in crime, peeked over the top of the dumpster we were huddled behind and ducked back down. “I think it’s a bad idea.”
I glanced at him sideways. Tall and thin with bright red hair, brown eyes, and crooked teeth Travis hadn’t exactly won the genetics lottery. He was a geek of the first order, but he was my geek and so I tolerated his chicken shit ways. Most of the time.
“Don’t be a p-wussy,” I said, amending my word choice at the last minute. Travis was wound up so tight that any cursing would send him right over the edge. I reached across the gravel between us and patted his hand reassuringly. “It will be fine. It’s not as if we’re taking the car anywhere. We’re just starting it.”
“But why?” he said miserably.
“Because we can.” It was my new mantra for everything. Why steal one of my dad’s cigarettes and smoke it out behind the apartment even though it made me sick? Because I can. Why toilet paper Missy the cheerleader’s house even though we used to be best friends in the fifth grade? Because I can. Why make out with bad boy Everett James in the boy’s locker room at school even though he sucked at kissing and tried to feel up my boobs? Because I can.
“Come on,” I said, grabbing Travis’s arm and hauling him to his feet. “We have to go now, before the street lights kick on.”
The car I had decided to hot wire was located on a quiet suburban street ten blocks away from my suck ass apartment complex. Here the sidewalks were litter free and every lawn in front of the copy cat houses was mowed to perfection. Even the garbage bin we were hiding behind smelled nice. Like Chinese food and Febreze. I took a deep sniff as we slowly edged out to the street and my empty stomach growled in reply.
“Shhh!” Travis hissed.
“I can’t help it if I’m starving.”
“What! We just ate, like, half an hour ago.”
“I didn’t eat that much,” I protested.
“You had two cheeseburgers, an extra large fry, and a milkshake!”
I elbowed him in the ribs. “What are you, the food police? You know I have a fast metabolism.”
He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘pig’ before he clamped his mouth shut. I let the insult pass. I have plenty of problems, but body image isn’t one of them. I am more than content with my height to weight ratio. I’ve always been able to eat whatever I wanted without having to worry about adding extra pounds. Just lucky, I guess. That’s me. Queen of Luck.
Pulling my phone out of the back pocket of my jeans I consulted it one last time. It was surprisingly easy to find out how to hot wire a car on the internet. One site even had step by step instructions complete with pictures. “You have the screw driver and wire strippers?” I asked Travis. He reached behind him to pat the orange backpack he had slung over both shoulders. “Okay,” I said, cracking my knuckles. “Let’s do this.”
Two weeks ago we had picked out the car. It belonged to a man who lived in the third house down on the left, a split level rancher with scary little garden gnomes scattered all over the lawn. According to his mailbox his name was Mr. Livingston. He drove a 2003 black Toyota Corolla. According to Kelly Blue Book it got thirty five miles to the gallon and was a top safety pick. Whatever the hell that meant.
Side by side Travis and I walked down the sidewalk, trying our best to look like two regular teenagers out for a stroll at eight thirty on a Tuesday night. From somewhere across the street a dog was barking. A woman yelled and the dog shut up. Halfway to Mr. Livingston’s driveway a car pulled up behind us. I felt Travis tense and tightened my grip on his arm. The car’s lights flashed as it swung wide into the other lane and shot past, tires squealing.
“Jackass,” I said.
“Do you think they know what we’re doing?” Travis asked nervously. The poor guy was already sweating bullets. I squeezed his arm.
“Calm down. This will be fun.”
“Fun?” he squeaked. “You think stealing a car is fun?”
I sighed. “Need I remind you that you agreed to this over a month ago? And besides, we’re not stealing. We’re just… starting. It’s not like we’re going to drive it anywhere.” Probably not, I added silently.
“What if we get caught?”
“Then I’ll take the all the blame, just like I told you yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. You know Travis if you didn’t want to come you didn’t have to. I’m not twisting your arm or anything.”
“Uh,” he said. “You kind of are.”
I looked down to where my fingers were making little red marks on his skin and immediately let go. “Oh. Sorry.”
He rubbed his arm and managed a weak smile. “It’s okay. A little nervous too, huh?”
“I’m not nervous,” I scoffed. “This is going to be easy.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone sitting in jail said too.”
I shot him The Look. He made The Face but stopped talking. We walked right past Mr. Livingston’s driveway, just like we planned, and went to the next street up before we turned around and walked back down. Two teenagers. Out for a stroll. Dressed all in black. Nothing suspicious here.
The Toyota was sitting right in the middle of the short, slightly sloped driveway. I slinked up to the driver’s side and Travis hovered just over my right shoulder, his breath hot on my neck.
“Okay,” I said, mostly to myself. “Okay. First step is to get into the car without setting off the alarm. Travis, hand me the wedge and the coat hanger.” I held out my hand expectantly. Flexed my fingers. “Travis? Travis!”
“I don’t think it’s locked,” he whispered. “The little nub is up.”
“Of course it’s locked. What idiot doesn’t lock their car?”
“We’re not on the West side, Lola. No one locks their cars here.”
I clenched my teeth and counted to three. “Travis, just give me the damn wedge and -”
Instead Travis reached past me and opened the door. His teeth flashed white in the encroaching darkness. “See?” he said triumphantly. “Told you.”
I bumped him out of the way with my hip. “Whatever. So Mr. Livingston is an idiot. It’s not as if he – damn it!” I cursed.
“What? What? What is it? Is someone coming?” Travis flattened himself against the side of the car and dropped to the ground. It would have been funny if I wasn’t so angry.
“He left the keys in the ignition!” Stupid yuppie East siders. They deserved to have their cars stolen.
“That’s too bad,” said Travis, making no attempt to disguise his relief. He stood up and made a grab for my elbow. I snatched my arm out of reach.
“No,” I said stubbornly. “We’re not leaving yet.”
“Lola… If you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking -”
“I think we said we were going to steal a car,” I interrupted. “And that is exactly what we’re going to do. Now get in.”
“Get in?” he gaped. “Uh uh. No way. You said we were just going to hot wire it, not drive it. You promised.”
I felt an irrational surge of anger. This wasn’t turning out anything like I thought it would. We were supposed to break in the car, start it, and drive off into the sunset like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde. Why? Because I can.
Except now the car wasn’t locked, the stupid keys were in it, and my partner in crime had turned chicken.
Flipping my long hair behind my shoulder I slid smoothly into the front seat and turned the key. The car started with a quiet purr and my anger kicked over to adrenaline. It pumped through my veins, a better high than any stupid cigarette could give me.
Rolling down the window I leaned out and grinned at Travis who stared down at me in slack jawed disbelief. “Want to go for a ride, sugar?” I said in my best southern drawl.
“Get in, Travis.” It wasn’t a request.
“We are so going to jail,” he whimpered before he ran around the back of the car and more or less fell into the passenger seat. I grinned recklessly as I put the car in reverse and started to glide down the driveway.
“They don’t put straight A students with full scholarships to Princeton in jail, my friend. You’re safe.”
“I don’t want you to go to jail either,” he said.
I glanced over at him. His face was white as a sheet and he had both hands braced against the dash board, but he was doing it. He was here. I sighed. Damn it.
“What are you doing?” he asked as I tapped the brakes and slid the car into drive at the bottom of the driveway. “Lola? What’s going on?”
“We drove a stolen car, didn’t we?” I said, beyond disgruntled. “Now we’re putting it back. Safe and sound. You can add it to your -”
A huge crash from inside the house cut me off mid sentence. Heart pounding, I pulled the car back up to exactly where it was before and killed the engine. Travis and I hunched low in our seats. I saw the whites of his eyes flash as he turned his head to look at me.
“What was that?” he hissed.
“Why are you asking me?”
“We have to get out of here. We have to run. We have to run away and never say a word about this to anyone.”
I sucked on the inside of my cheek, considering our options before I said, “We can’t go yet.”
“Why not?” he demanded.
“Because, dummy, if we open up the doors the little lights will go on and he’ll know we’re out here.” It wasn’t something I had thought about until just this minute. I guess part of me always imagined that Mr. Livingston of 233 Turner Street wouldn’t be home when we tried to steal his car. A stupid presumption, since if he was gone chances were he would have taken his car with him.
I sat up just enough to see the front of the house. None of the lights were on, which was weird, because I knew I had heard something fall over inside. Maybe he had a dog. Or a giant cat. Maybe he wasn’t even home.
“What are you waiting for? Just turn the lights off,” said Travis.
I drew in a deep breath. I had really been hoping to avoid this part. “I kind of… uh… don’t know how.”
“Lola,” he said in an oddly strained voice. “What are you talking about?”
Oh boy. “I’ve never exactly driven a car before and I don’t know where the switch is,” I admitted. Honestly, it was a miracle I had gotten it down the driveway without hitting something. Travis should have been happy.
Silence. And then…
“Shut up!” In the darkness I found his mouth and slapped my hand over it. It was a good thing it was dark inside the car so Travis couldn’t see my face was the approximate color of a tomato. “I wasn’t planning on actually driving it anywhere,” I said. “Are you going to be quiet now?”
He shook his head, which I took to mean ‘yes’, and I slowly withdrew my hand.
“You’re insane,” he said the second his mouth was uncovered. “Absolutely nuts. You told me you got your driver’s license six months ago.”
“I lied. I don’t even have my permit.”
“Don’t even… No permit… Crazy…” He continued to sputter out random words while I snuck another look at the house. Still no lights. That decided it. Mr. Livingston was either asleep or not home. A pet must have knocked something over which explained the loud noise. We were in the clear.
“Let’s go,” I said. I opened up the door and shut it silently behind me, holding extra long to the handle so there wasn’t even a click as it went back into place. The lights inside the car popped on, just like I thought they would. I glared at Travis through the window and tapped my wrist, a clear signal that time was ticking away.
Travis, being Travis, scrambled across the center console and spilled out of the driver’s side door. He landed hard on his hands and knees. Grabbing his elbow, I hauled him up to his feet. He dusted himself off and straightened up, still angry, but at least capable of talking coherently again.
“I hate you,” he said succinctly.
“Where is your backpack?” I asked, ignoring him.
His head swiveled around as he tried to look over his shoulder.
I sighed. “You left it in the car, didn’t you?”
“Shut up,” he mumbled.
“Go grab it. I’ll keep a look out. Then we are – did you hear that?” I broke off with a frown. I tilted my head to the side and closed my eyes, trying to pin point the direction of the sound.
“Hear what? I don’t hear anything.”
“It sounded like… A cry for help,” I decided. My eyes opened. I frowned at Travis. “You really didn’t hear that?”
“I told you I didn’t hear -”
But Travis never got finish what he going to say as a blood curdling scream the likes of which I had never heard outside of a horror movie tore through the night.
I Knock on a Door
“Did you hear that?” I asked Travis.
“We have to c-call the police,” he stuttered, looking physically ill. I didn’t blame him. I was feeling a little queasy myself. A human being doesn’t make a noise like that unless they’re in some serious pain.
“And tell them what? We were about to steal some guy’s car when we heard him scream? No way,” I said, shaking my head. “That’s dumb.”
Travis staggered over to the side of the driveway and sank down on his haunches. “Bad idea,” he said to himself. “I knew this was a bad, bad idea. Lame, man. Really lame.”
“What if we call your mom?” I suggested.
Genuine terror filled Travis’s eyes. “No way. Absolutely not. I would rather go in the house myself.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it. Let’s go. I’ll knock on the front door and you go around back and look in the windows. We can’t just leave without doing anything.”
Travis might have been a chicken, but he was a chicken who knew right from wrong. “I would rather steal the car,” he said glumly.
“Saving a guy’s life from a psycho axe murderer is so much cooler than stealing a car. We’ll be famous. Mr. Livingston will probably give us a reward or something.” With one hundred dollar bills dancing in from of my eyes I started walking towards the front door. It wasn’t far from the driveway and the stone walkway was illuminated with ground lights, making it easy navigate. I heard a loud sigh and then the noisy shuffle of Travis’s sneakers as he caught up to me.
“This is such a bad idea,” he said. “What if there really is an axe murderer or you know, a robber or something?”
“Then I’ll use my cell phone and call the police.”
“Why not call the police now?”
“Because we’re right here.” And we were. The front door loomed in front of me, a silent taunt to go ahead and prove my mettle. I raised my fist to knock. Hesitated. Glanced at Travis. “Go around back and see if you can see anything.”
He looked at me like I was nuts. “Don’t you know the first rule of not getting killed by a crazy axe murderer? You never split up.”
Since Travis was the horror movie guru, I decided to take his word for it. “If someone opens this door,” I said out of the corner of my mouth, “and pulls me inside you better have my back. Got it?”
I felt his hand press reassuringly against my shoulder and I took a deep breath.
Why are you knocking on a stranger’s door after you just heard screaming coming from inside, Lola? asked the rational side of my brain.
Because I can, said the reckless part.
I knocked on the door.
Travis Doesn’t Listen Very Well
The door swung silently open under the weight of my fist. I jumped back like a scalded cat and bumped into Travis who went flying into a flowerbed. He must have landed on one of the creepy garden gnomes because he released a totally embarrassing high pitched squeal before he got to his feet and staggered back over to me. From the dim overhead light I could see dirt smeared his left cheek and pieces of grass clung to his hair. Reaching out I plucked half a petunia from behind his ear and rolled my eyes.
“You would never make a good spy,” I told him.
“That’s because I don’t want to be a spy,” he gritted out. “I want to be an accountant!”
“Same thing.” I shrugged.
“It is not the same thing at all! It is the furthest thing… from… oh.” Travis’s voice trailed away. “Hello,” he finished weakly.
I whirled around and tried not to stare. There, standing in the open doorway, was the largest man I had ever seen.
He wasn’t large width wise. Rather, he was large all over in the way those wrestlers were on TV, the ones that hit each other with chairs and made lots of grunting noises. His hair was white blond and slicked back from his face with some kind of oil. A leather jacket, totally not PETA approved, enveloped his upper body and came all the way down to his knees. Gold rings flashed on his hands when he crossed his arms in front of his barrel sized chest and said, “Can I help you?”
Surprisingly it was Travis who recovered first. “We – uh – heard a weird – uh – noise and we’re just – uh – ”
“Why are you not in your houses?” The man interjected, narrowing blue eyes that were only a few shades darker than ice.
When Travis’s mouth gaped open and closed like a fish gasping for air, I took over. “Where is Mr. Livingston?” I asked loudly.
“I am Mr. Livingston,” said the man. He grinned, revealing gleaming white teeth that I instinctively flinched away from. I was trying to look him in the eyes, to show him I wasn’t afraid even though his ham sized fists could do some serious damage to my internal organs, but for some reason it physically wasn’t working. I could gaze into those ice blue eyes for half a second before something in my brain short wired and I had to look away. Within seconds my head was throbbing to beat the band and my stomach was doing greasy flips. The man’s smile widened.
“Would you like to come in the house?” he asked, gesturing broadly with one tree trunk sized arm. “You and your companion are not looking well.”
“What?” I gasped. “Of course we’re not going inside, who do you take us for complete -”
“We would love to come in,” said Travis.
“What?” I said again, although this time it came out as more of a strangled yelp. I tried to grab Travis’s arm but he shook free with surprising force and walked straight through the door.
“Travis Robert Callahan, you get out here THIS MINUTE!” I yelled after him.
The man in the leather jacket laughed and winked one blue eye at me and said, “He is gone now, little girl.”
I didn’t like the way he said ‘gone’. It wasn’t a ‘gone to the store and he’ll be right back’ kind of gone. It was a ‘he has moved to a different country and you’ll never see him again’ kind of gone. I took a wary step backwards. The man’s eyes narrowed. It was a faint movement, almost imperceptible. I retreated another step. His upper lip curled.
“You do not want to come in the house with your friend?” he said.
I noticed his grin was a little more forced now. He almost looked… confused. As if he couldn’t understand why I had not followed Travis into the house. “You come out here,” I challenged, spreading my arms wide. “You want me? Come and get me.”
He didn’t like that. One booted foot stepped across the doorway. I braced myself, ready to run, but with a hiss of pain he snatched his foot back. Tiny curls of smoke swirled up from the leather toe.
“What the hell…” I breathed, staring at his boot. He snapped his teeth like a feral dog and again they glinted in the moonlight. This time I saw why.
Silver. He had fangs of silver.
I recoiled with a little shriek of alarm and landed hard on my butt. “TRAVIS!” I cried desperately as I scrambled to my feet. “TRAVIS, GET OUT HERE!” My heart was pounding like a drum inside my chest. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Didn’t want to believe it.
Grinning lewdly, the man ran his tongue across his top lip in a provocative gesture that turned my stomach. “Best run along home, little girl,” he said. “You cannot save your precious Travis now.”
“Who are you?” I demanded. I almost said ‘what’ are you, but I stopped myself just in time. Take it easy, Lola. He’s just a freak with fake teeth. Get a grip.
“I have gone by many names. I have been many things. Come inside,” he coaxed, his blue eyes filled with cunning. “Come inside and I will tell you everything you want to know.”
I actually took a step forward before I stopped myself. Part of me actually wanted to go to him. That was his power, I realized with a shudder. To create action with a mere suggestion. To coerce with an idea. That was why Travis had gone so willingly into the house. In his mind, there had not been a choice.
“I’m calling the police. I’m calling the police and they’re going to come and arrest you.” I dug my phone out of my pocket and dialed 9-1-1. The man slouched against the side of the doorframe and watched me, his expression bored.
“Hello?” I said when I heard the click of someone answering my call. “I need to report a – um – a kidnapping! At – uh – 233 Turner Street. There is a man here and I think he’s dangerous and he -”
The laughter cut me off. It cackled through the phone, raising every hair on the back of my neck. A woman’s laughter, high pitched and cruel. When the laughter stopped she whispered one word before the line went dead.
I Play a Game of Horse Shoes
I ran. I left my best friend behind and I ran for my life. The screams chased me. They seemed to come from every house I passed. Horrible, gut wrenching screams for help, for mercy, for death. I stayed off the street and ran through stranger’s back yards. I ducked under clothes lines and crawled over fences, skinning my knees and ripping my hands apart with splinters. I tucked the pain and the fear and the terror away in some distant, dusty corner of my mind and allowed only one thought to circle round and round inside my head. One goal: get home, get Dad, and get Travis.
Halfway across a neatly manicured yard I heard the back door slam and I dove into a cluster of bushes just in time. Helpless to do anything but cower in silence, I watched as a woman dressed in red jumped off the side of the porch and went sprinting across the lawn.
Something was chasing her. Something fast. Something dark. It grabbed her arm and swung her around like she was a rag doll, slamming her into the side of her own pool. She crumpled to the ground, motionless, ten feet from where I hid behind a rose bush.
Overhead the moon shifted free of the clouds that had been binding it, allowing a trickle of silver light to bathe the fallen woman and I saw, I saw even when I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my mouth to keep myself from crying out, that she was not dressed in red clothes. She was dressed in blood.
The thing that had chased the woman stopped and sniffed the air. It was human yet not human. A girl yet not a girl. She could have gone to my school. She could have sat next to me in math class. Her hair, brown and sleek and swept over one shoulder, was normal. Her clothes, blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt, could have been worn by any teenager the world over. But her piercing blue eyes… and the blood that dribbled down her chin… That was about as far from normal as you could get.
Her head swung towards me. Those unnatural eyes searched the bushes, traveling leisurely back and forth across my hiding spot. I held my breath. Just go inside, I begged silently. Just go inside and leave me alone.
“I smell you little human,” she said in a sing song voice. “You smell like sugar and spice and something quite nice.”
My right foot was cramping up. I flexed my toes, fighting off the pins and needles. The tiny movement nearly made me lose my balance. I wavered to the right and managed to catch myself. My fingers touched something hard. Something metal. Slowly, silently, I pulled it from the ground and clutched it to my chest. A horse shoe. The big, heavy kind people threw in sand pits. No, not a horse shoe. A weapon.
“I want to play a game.” The girl pouted. She nudged the bloody woman. Sighed. “And now I’ve broken my toy. Come out, come out, wherever you are. I promise to be much more careful with you.” She started to walk in a big, wandering circle. When she turned away from me I attacked.
Holding the horse shoe tightly in my right hand I launched myself at her legs, just below the knees. She went down instantly and I swung the horse shoe without pause, striking her head again and again and again until blood splattered up and coated my face and chest. She tried to fight back but surprise and a healthy fear of not dying had given me the advantage.
I straddled her waist, pinning her down beneath me. With a strength that defied logic she managed to flip herself over and her nails, filed to points, raked out and whipped across my cheek. The cuts burned like someone had poured acid in them and I screamed, but didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Instinct had taken over, and I was more animal than human as I fought for my life.
Her nose shattered, then her jaw. Her eyes bulged and I jammed my thumb to the hilt in the left one, just like Mrs. Hamilton had taught us to do in self defense.
The girl howled like a wild animal and bucked her hips, trying to throw me off, but I clung to her with the knowledge that if I didn’t knock her out – or worse – I wouldn’t be leaving this backyard alive.
“I will kill you for this,” she snarled, glaring daggers at me with her one good eye. Her teeth snapped an inch from my face and caught my hair. She ripped a chunk of it out by the roots and spat it in the grass beside her.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I kept repeating the same words over and over, not realizing until they come out all choked up that I was crying. I brought the horse shoe down again. And again. And again. So many times I lost count. When the girl went limp and her head fell back, mouth open, eye closed, I leaped to my feet, ready to run. But something stopped me. Something pulled at me.
I stared down at the girl I had beaten with a kind of horrified fascination. With her mouth open I could see her fangs. Like the man’s they were silver and looked like daggers, slightly curved and deadly sharp. I wondered if they were natural, if they were real, or if the girl was just part of some crazy cult that had decided to attack the entire town.
The horse shoe dropped to the lawn with a soft thump. Slowly I knelt down beside the girl’s head and reached out with one trembling hand. If I could just touch the fangs… If I could just feel them… They really were quite beautiful. The way they glistened in the moonlight… It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
My fingertips brushed against one fang and it happened in an instant. One second the girl was motionless and the next she had her teeth clamped down on my hand and was shaking her head back and forth like a dog worrying a bone.
I screamed and fell back. She released my hand and I clutched it to my chest, expecting to see it ravaged beyond repair, but the only visible damage were two small pinpricks of blood where her fangs had entered the skin. Yet it burned. Oh, God, my entire arm was burning and I was screaming and the girl was laughing.
She sprang to her feet, nimble as a cat, and sauntered over to where I was rolling in the dirt, frantically trying to put out the invisible fire that was consuming my body inch by inch.
“Peek a boo, I got you,” she giggled before her lips curled into a deadly snarl and she crouched over me, a predator covering it’s prey. I stared into her eyes, glittering with malice. I looked at her face, a face that had healed itself in a matter of seconds.
And I knew I was going to die.
The Pet That Ran Away
You know how they say right before you die your life flashes in front of your eyes? Yeah. That didn’t happen for me.
I held perfectly still as the girl traced a single fingernail down across my cheek and hooked it under my jaw, poking until I felt a drop of blood slide down my neck, warm and sticky. She poked again, harder this time, puncturing another hole in my skin as if I was some sort of human piñata and my blood was the candy.
“Aren’t you going to scream?” Her lips pushed out in a childish pout. “The other one screamed. You’re no fun. I want a new toy.”
That did it. The pain in my arm had dulled, replaced with anger that burned at a fever pitch. I slapped her hand away from my face and scrambled to my feet. She let me get up, renewed interest glimmering in her icy blue eyes.
“I am not some toy,” I told her fiercely. “I’m a human being! And you can’t go around killing people. The cops are going to be here soon and -”
“Oh, cops shmops.” She waved her hand dismissively. “We took care of them ages ago.”
I remembered the laughter I heard on the other end of the 9-1-1 call and shuddered. “Who are you? What do you want? Why are you doing this?”
“Who are you? What do you want? Why are you doing this?” she repeated in a high pitched parody of my own voice. “Always the same, inane questions. Stupid humans,” she said as she began to circle around me. “So content in your little bubbles. Well I am sorry to say that your bubble has just been,” she snapped her fingers, “popped.”
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“My name?” she said, looking surprised by the question. “Angelique. What’s yours?”
Her head tipped to the side as she mused it over. “Lola… I like that. It suits you, I think. You’re feisty. So different from all the others. All they do is beg and cry and beg and cry.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you can imagine it gets pretty annoying after a while. But you… you, my darling Lola, haven’t begged once. Do you want to be my pet?” Her face lit up. “Oh, please say yes! Please. We’ll have so much fun together! I haven’t had my own pet for years and years.”
What I wanted was for this crazy nightmare to end. I wanted to wake up safe in a hospital bed, the victim of an electric shock from being stupid enough to try to hot wire a car. I wanted Travis and my father to be there. I wanted to never know what it felt like to bludgeon someone over the head with a horse shoe. I wanted to forget Angelique had ever existed. “Sure,” I said, feigning a bright smile. “I’ll be your pet. What do I have to do?”
Angelique clapped her hands together, giddy as a child with a new toy. “This is going to be so much fun. And Mona is going to so jealous. Just wait until she sees you! Of course we’ll have to get you out of those clothes and do something with your hair. Dye it blonde, maybe. Is the color natural?”
I lifted a strand of my waist length black hair and nodded.
Her fangs flashed as she grinned. “Excellent. Now I just have to -”
“ANGELIQUE!” A man’s roar ripped through the night and Angelique’s entire body went rigid.
“Oh drats,” she breathed. “He found me and I’m not even in the right sector. He is going to be so angry with me.”
“Who is going to be angry with you?” And how many of you are there?
Her lips pursed. “My maker, duh. Promise you won’t go anywhere? I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“I – uh – no. No I won’t go anywhere. I’ll stay right here next to the dead woman.”
“Is she dead?” Angelique’s gaze cut across to the body that was still crumpled beside the pool. “That’s too bad. She didn’t last very long, did she? Not that any of that matters now that I’ve got my own pet.”
“That’s me,” I said, somehow managing a weak smile.
Angelique leaned in close and very carefully, very gently, kissed my cheek. “Now don’t you go anywhere because then I’d have to find you and torture you and that wouldn’t be any fun at all. For you, at least.” She winked.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I lied.
Faster than my eyes could follow she disappeared into the house. I stood frozen for half a second, a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car, before my brain kicked into high gear and I fled, leaping over the wooden fence that separated this backyard from the next like some sort of world class hurdler.
I wasn’t that far from my apartment. A couple of blocks, four at the most. It was difficult to gauge distance when everything was so dark. I reached for my cell phone without breaking stride and looked at the time. 9:32PM. Had it really only been an hour since Travis and I had met beside the dumpster?
Travis. What had happened to him? Was he still in Mr. Livingston’s house? Where was Mr. Livingston? Because that man who opened the door sure as hell wasn’t him.
I ran behind house after house. A dull ache was growing in my left side, reminding me I hadn’t done this much physical activity in ages. I tried not to think about what it would mean if I got home and my dad wasn’t there. What it would mean if no one was there.
My foot hooked on something. A hose, left out to water the lawn. I went flying through the air, arms outstretched, hair lifted away from my face, completely weightless… and then the ground was rushing up too fast and I landed hard on my right side, hard enough to knock the air out of my lungs. Like a little boiled shrimp I curled into the fetal position and whimpered into the grass, using it to muffle my sob of pain.
I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t think. The panic threatened to overwhelm me and I battled it back, knowing if I let it consume me now I would turn into one of those crying, mindless idiots Angelique had talked about. I tried to concentrate on taking one deep breath. Just one, good, full breath to fill up my body and extinguish the awful feeling of drowning out of water.
When air finally filled my lungs it hurt, more than I had anticipated. I clenched my teeth against the pain and staggered to my feet. I had to keep going. I had to run. The thought of what would happen if Angelique caught me was the jump start I needed. I didn’t want to end up like the woman drenched in her own blood.
A gap opened between the side by side houses. A short stretch of cracked pavement that gave way to an overgrown field. I had finally reached the West side of town. The familiar surroundings were a small comfort. I considered cutting through the woods to get to the apartment complex, then cast the idea aside. If monsters like Angelique had invaded the houses, I did not want to know what lurked in the forest.
I turned right and stumbled up over the sidewalk. The moon had peeked out behind the clouds again, lighting the way. I urged my legs to go faster, then faster still, until I was in an all out sprint.
The boy who appeared suddenly in front of me never had a chance.
I Meet a Boy With a Gun
We collided with the force of two freight trains coming together and went down in a tangle of arms and legs. I saw dark blue eyes, tanned skin, and hair as black as my mine before we pulled apart, both breathing heavily.
In a move too quick for me to anticipate the boy had my arms pinned behind my back and I was shoved up against the side of an abandoned warehouse. My chin bounced painfully off the rusted metal siding and I tried to pull free, but the boy was too strong. He held me easily, as an adult would hold a writhing child, even though he looked to be no older than seventeen or eighteen.
“What are you doing out here?” he demanded, his mouth so close to my ear that I jumped.
“What are you doing out here?” I countered. Oh, God. What if he was one of Them? Like Angelique and the man who had taken Travis. I had been lucky to escape twice; I wasn’t so hopeful about a third time. And I had been so close to home. Another block and I would have made it. Today was really, REALLY not my day. In fact, I was pretty sure this day would go down in history as one of the suckiest days ever. For everyone.
The boy squeezed my wrists a little tighter. “Don’t you know what’s happening?” he said. “Don’t you know what’s out there?”
“Well, no,” I admitted, trying not to wince. “Not really. Do you?”
“You’re bleeding,” said the boy. He sounded shocked. “How did you get this far if you’re bleeding?”
I glanced down. So I was. I must have cut myself when I tripped over the hose. Right above my right knee my jeans were torn to shreds and blood had stained the dark blue denim an inky red. The cut looked pretty deep. I flexed my leg and wondered why I couldn’t feel anything. “I fell. I was running away from one of those… those things and I fell.”
The boy released me and stepped away, giving me some room to breathe. Rubbing my arms I turned to face him. He stared back at me, his face an expressionless mask.
His hair was long and a little unruly. Not black, as I first thought, but a deep, dark mahogany brown. His eyes were the clear blue of a deep lake. I couldn’t read them. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what he was thinking, or why he looked seriously pissed off. You would think he would be happy to find another human alive. Unless…
“Show me your teeth,” I said in my best tough girl voice. “So I can make sure you’re not one of Them.”
One eyebrow shot up. “You go first,” he said.
I peeled my lips away from my gums, revealing teeth that even braces had never managed to make completely straight. “Nuh slivah,” I said.
“No silver,” I repeated sheepishly.
He cocked his head to the side as if he had heard something. I saw his body tense and his hand went to his hip. My eyes widened.
“Is that a gun?” I asked in a hushed tone.
“This,” he said as he pulled the black revolver free from its holster and cocked it, “is a double action forty four mag.”
“It looks kind of small,” I said doubtfully.
The boy shrugged. “It shoots bullets. That’s all I care about.”
I wasn’t completely convinced. If one of those things tried to attack me again I wanted something big to defend myself with. Something huge. Like a bazooka. Still, a small gun was better than no gun. Especially if it was standing between me and crazy Angelique.
I grabbed the boy’s arm. Even through the black leather jacket he wore I could feel the rigid tautness of his muscles. My fingers dug in, harder than I had intended. He didn’t so much as flinch, just stared at me silently out of those piercing blue eyes. “You have to help me,” I said desperately. “I live right over there, at the High Garden Apartments and my dad -”
“We can’t talk out here,” he interrupted. “It isn’t safe. Follow me.”
He took off across the street and I had to run to catch up. I followed him into a narrow alley that smelled like garbage. I tripped more than once, not yet accustomed to traveling in the dark, and with a muffled curse he took my wrist and ordered me to keep up or get lost.
We went up one alley and down another, then up again until I was so disoriented I didn’t know if we were even on the West side anymore. Finally he stopped in front of a nondescript gray door and kicked it in with one well placed strike of his boot.
The room beyond the door was small and cramped and smelled like urine. I shuffled in and stood against one wall, my hand covering my nose, while the boy locked the door behind us and shoved something in front if it. I couldn’t see what it was. I couldn’t see anything. The room was pitch black. I should have been terrified, but I felt oddly… safe.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“An abandoned storage unit.” There was a click, and then a blinding light. I squinted and covered my eyes.
“Get that out of my face!”
He lowered the flashlight and pointed it at the floor, illuminating the space between us in a soft yellow glow and casting his face into shadow. There was a gray metal desk next to me, the kind you would find in any office building. I hopped up on it. My feet accidentally struck the side and made a loud clanging sound. I cringed. The boy reacted a bit more violently.
“Shut the hell up,” he hissed, shining the flashlight in my eyes again. “Do you want to draw them here?”
“No,” I said shortly. And then, because I wasn’t exactly in the best mood, “You’re a real jack ass, you know that? This hasn’t been easy for me either and you’re not exactly making it any easier.”
His eyes narrowed. “Let me look at your knee.”
Before I could say otherwise he was kneeling in front of me and slowly rolling up my pant leg. His fingers brushed against my bare skin and all I could think was, thank God I shaved this morning.
One hand cupped my calf while the other slowly probed around the edges of the wound. I heard a quiet intake of breath before he rocked back on his heels and glared up at me. “This is deep,” he said.
“How are you still walking?”
I straightened my knee and bent towards it, studying the bloody scrape and the bits of grass and dirt that clung to the open wound. It was pretty nasty looking. I glanced at the boy. Under his tan he suddenly looked pale and sweat gleamed high on his forehead. “You’re not going to faint or anything are you?” I asked. “Does blood gross you out? It grosses my friend Travis out. He can’t stand it.”
He shot me a look. “Blood does not gross me out.”
“Okay,” I said skeptically. “Then why do you look so -”
“Did one of them bite you?”
“What – I don’t – that is I – what are you talking about?” How did he know that? How did he know Angelique had sunk her fangs into my hand like some kind of vam-no. My mind shied away from the word. I wasn’t ready to use it to explain what was happening. Not yet.
The boy pulled me to my feet and ordered me to turn around.
I stared at him like he had two heads. “You can’t talk to me like that. Who do you think you are?”
His reply was to simply grab my waist and spin me until I was facing the desk. Caught off balance, I braced both hands against the top of it. A startled shriek pushed past my lips when he began to pat me down, cop style.
“What are you – how dare – I’m going to -”
“Shut up.” His fingers swept down my right arm and pressed over the top of my hand, right where I had been bitten. He froze for half a second, then grabbed the flashlight he had set on the edge of the desk and shined it directly over the bite marks. I looked as well, something I had managed to avoid until now.
I half expected to see my hand oozing puss and blood. I mean, human’s mouths hold some of the dirtiest bacteria on the planet. If I hadn’t been running for my life I would have headed for the nearest doctor’s office ASAP.
My hand didn’t hurt anymore; had not hurt for quite a while. Still, I was not prepared for what I saw. Instead of gooey grossness my hand looked perfectly normal. The only thing different about it was the two white scars evenly spaced between my pointer finger and my thumb. Two white scars shaped like half moons exactly where Angelique had chewed on me like I was some kind of bone.
“You were bitten,” the boy accused. He dropped my hand and backed away as if he had just discovered I had some kind of deadly contagious disease. A feeling of unease turned my stomach.
“Yeah? So? What does it mean?” I said, cradling my arm defensively against my chest. I hadn’t exactly asked to be bitten, yet the boy was acting as if it were my fault.
“What does it mean?” His laughter echoed through the room, flat and humorless. “It means you’re screwed.”
Well that didn’t sound very promising.
I stared at my hand. Poked at the scars. Wiggled my fingers. Everything felt fine. Everything felt normal. Wasn’t that a good thing? I braced my arms behind me and looked across the room to where the boy was standing, his eyes pinned on my hand.
“What do you mean I’m screwed? And who are you, anyways?” I asked suspiciously. Belatedly I realized I didn’t know anything about him. Who he was. Where he had come from. What his name was. All questions I probably should have gotten answered before I allowed myself to be locked in some forgotten storage unit with him. I seriously needed to work on my self preservation skills.
“Let me see the bite mark again,” he said, holding out his arm.
I snorted. “No way, pal. Not until you start talking. Do you know what’s going on? Do you know what those things are out there?”
“What do you think they are?”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“You’re kind of really annoying, you know that right?”
He smiled thinly.
“Okay… Umm… Some kind of cult on a rampage?”
“An inbred family of axe murderers?”
His lips twitched. “No.”
“Oh, I’ve got it. They’re a group of murderous vampires bent on destroying the human race.”
“And we have a winner,” he said softly.
“We have a – wait, no. I wasn’t being serious.” I rolled my eyes. “I mean, you know what sarcasm is, don’t you?”
He leveled those deep blue, unreadable eyes at me and said, “Do you?”
“I invented sarcasm,” I retorted.
“Then you must know I am not being sarcastic, not even a little bit, when I say your third guess was pretty spot on.”
I actually believed him. For all of two seconds. Then the absurdity of what he was saying sank in and I began to snicker. I mean, vampires? A cult, that was easy to believe. Even axe murderers or Satan worshippers or some military experiment gone wrong. But vampires? As in burn in the sun, sleep in coffins, drink your blood vampires? Did he think I was an idiot?
“Is this some sort of… reality show or something?” I gasped out between giggles. “V-v-vampires. You have got to be kidding me!” The laughter roared out of me until I was doubled over with my legs crossed in an effort not to embarrass myself beyond redemption. I didn’t want to be that girl. The one who peed her pants on TV.
“I am glad you find all of this so amusing,” the boy said stiffly.
“Oh come on,” I scoffed. “You don’t really expect me to believe you, do you? I’m not that gullible. You should have done this whole bit on Travis. Is he in on this? That brat, I bet he is!” Grinning, I scanned each corner of the storage unit, looking for any tell tale red lights that would reveal hidden cameras. I didn’t see any, but that didn’t mean anything. They were probably in the walls themselves, or in the miscellaneous office furniture that was scattered about. Spying a chair that looked suspiciously out of place I grabbed the back of it and rolled it into the light. Crouching down, I began to run my fingers under the seat, feeling for wires.
“Would you like some assistance?” The boy inquired politely. I ignored him.
There had to be a something somewhere. A wire. A light. A microphone. Something.
Determined to find it, determined to prove everything I had just endured was one big giant hoax, I flipped the chair on its side and got down on my hands and knees. “What’s your name, anyway?” I grunted out as I pressed the side of my face to the floor and tried to see under the legs of the chair.
“Yeah, your name. You do have a name, don’t you?” A swing of dark hair slipped in front of my eyes and I tucked it impatiently behind my ear, wishing I had remembered to leave the house with an elastic band around my wrist. I had been meaning to chop my hair off for months but had just never gotten around to it. Tomorrow I was going to make it a top priority.
The boy stepped neatly over my legs and knelt down beside me, balancing on the balls of his feet. “My name is Maximus,” he said.
Giving up on the chair, I collapsed on my side and blew a strand of hair out of my face. “Maximus, huh? That’s almost as bad as Lola.”
“Sorrow,” he said cryptically.
“That is what Lola means. Sorrow. Or sorrows plural, depending on the quality of the translation.”
My nose wrinkled. “That’s a weird thing to know.”
Maximus rocked back on his heels and stood up. He offered me his hand and I took it without thinking. Only when I was on my feet and he refused to relinquish his grip on my fingers did I realize what he had done. Sneaky bastard.
He examined my new scars intently, pulling my hand so close to his face that for one crazy, breath stopping moment I thought he was going to kiss the small silver half moons. Until with a mutter of disgust he dropped my hand as if it was something vile and wiped his palms vigorously on the sides of his jeans.
“You’re infected,” he spat.
I studied my hand again. “No,” I said slowly, shaking my head. “I’m not. I don’t know how it healed up so quickly but -”
“Your blood is infected. That’s why you can’t feel pain. Why you can’t feel that cut on your leg. Who bit you?” he asked, taking a menacing step forward and crowding me back against the desk. When my calves bumped into the metal drawers, leaving me with no where else to run, Maximus barricaded me in with his arms and leaned forward until our faces were inches apart, so close I could see my reflection in his pupils. I looked terrified.
“Who bit you, Lola?” he said softly. “I need to know.”
My lower lip quivered. “I – I don’t know what you’re talking about. No one bit me. Not for – not for real. This is all some kind of stupid joke and it’s not funny anymore. I want it to stop. Right now.”
His fingers curled around my wrists, pinning me in place. Little pulses of heat began to radiate up my arm and I shivered even though I was the furthest thing from cold.
“This is not make-believe,” Maximus whispered. “This is not pretend. The monsters are real and they are here and they are not leaving. Do you understand?”
I didn’t want to understand. To understand would mean to accept. To accept that Travis was in very real danger, if not worse. To accept that the woman I had seen covered in blood was really dead. To accept that the girl who had bitten me was more than a very skilled, very scary actress paid to play a horrible prank.
“Angelique.” My shoulders slumped. “She said her name was Angelique.”
“Angelique,” Maximus repeated. He made it sound like a foul curse word. “I should have known.” He released my wrists to bang his palms hard against the desk, making me jump. Muttering something I couldn’t quite hear he turned away and began to pace up and down the length of the tiny unit. His shadow was enormous on the opposite wall. It moved sinuously, rippling across the stacked furniture and unlabeled boxes like something alive.
Taking in a deep breath to soothe my understandably frazzled nerves, I hopped back up on the edge of the desk and crossed my arms tight across my chest. It was time for some answers and some action. We couldn’t stay in here forever. I couldn’t stay in here forever. Not when my dad and Travis were out there… somewhere.
“Sooo,” I said, stretching the word out while I tried to process my jumbled thoughts. “How do you, like, know so much about what is going on?”
“If you are going to waste time asking questions you might as well ask ones worth asking.”
“My teacher said there is no such thing as a stupid question,” I said, barely managing to restrain myself from sticking my tongue out at him.
Maximus released a short bark of laughter. “Your teacher,” he said as he pivoted to face me, “is an idiot.”
Okay, so he wasn’t too far off there. “Fine. Here’s a question for you. What – exactly – are those things out there?”
“Back to this again so soon? Come on, Lola. You have to be smarter than this if you survived an attack. Dazzle me with your genius.”
“They can’t be vampires. They can’t,” I insisted when he just stood there staring at me. “That’s impossible.”
“Going back in time is impossible. Turning invisible is impossible. Balancing the national debt is impossible. Blood sucking creatures that have been documented since the beginning of time across the entire world? Not impossible.”
“Next you’ll be telling me they sparkle in the daylight.”
“No,” he said, giving me his first real smile. “Never that.”
I didn’t like what that slow, curving smile did to my insides. Now is not a good time to crush on some strange boy you hardly know, my practical side scolded. But so hot… Blue eyes… Hair… Smile… Gah gah…, my inner girly girl sighed. “So you’re really telling me those are vampires out there,” I said, telling the girly girl to take a hike.
“They prefer to be called Drinkers, but yes.”
My eyes widened. “Ohmygod. Angelique bit me. She BIT me. Am I going to turn into one of them? Am I going to -”
“No, no, and no,” he said, cutting me off. “I said you were infected. I didn’t say you were changed. Use your head, Lola.” He tapped the side of his temple and scowled. “Pay attention. I do not like repeating myself. Angelique marked you. Your blood went into her, became a part of her, which means she will be able to sense you even from a far distance. Even now she could be tracking you. Hunting you.”
“What? But how…” I shook my head, trying to take it all in. “There has to be a way to stop her though, right? I mean, she can’t find me. I can’t let her find me.” The words came out in a frantic rush as I recalled the burning pain. The choking fear. The certainty of death. I could not go through that again. I would not.
Maximus closed the distance between us in one long stride and took my hands in his. He squeezed my fingers and I squeezed back, managing to find a quiet sense of reassurance in his touch. “Stop it,” he said softly, giving me a little shake. His eyes searched mine, probing deep into places I never let anyone look. Places I never looked. “You can’t afford to panic. You can’t be afraid. Not now, not ever again. The Drinkers feed on blood and weakness. You have already given them a taste of the first, do not let them have the second.”
“But you said Angelique could-”
The knife silenced me. Maximus drew it out of thin air, or so it seemed. The long blade glinted in the dim light. His left hand, still holding mine, tightened like a manacle clicking into place when I tried to pull away. I swallowed hard.
“What are you doing? Put that down before you hurt someone.” Before you hurt me.
“There are two ways to get rid of those scars. Kill the Drinker who bit you… Or cut them from the flesh.”
“Cut them from the flesh?” I echoed in a strangled voice that didn’t sound like my own. “Are you crazy? I’m not letting you come near me with that knife!”
Seconds ticked by, each one longer than the last. I held my breath, waiting to see what Maximus would do. Finally, with a little shrug, he released my hand and tucked the knife back into his belt. “Fine. Just make sure you sleep with one eye open because as long as you have those,” he said, looking down pointedly at my scars, “Angelique will be able to find you.”
Oh crap. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. Was I really going to do this? Why? Why on earth would I ever, ever do this? I had gone crazy, I decided. Only a crazy person would believe what I was starting to believe. Only a crazy person would actually consider letting a complete stranger use a knife on her to cut out scars from a vampire bite. A vampire bite. It was ridiculous. It was absurd. It was…
“Fine,” I said tightly, thrusting my arm towards him before I could change my mind. “Do it. Cut them out.”
A Parting of the Ways
Maximus looked down at my hand. Back up at my face. Down at my hand again. “Are you CRAZY?” he shouted. I snatched my hand away.
“But you said -”
“If I told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that too? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” he muttered, shaking his head. “You’re an odd duck, aren’t you?”
I stiffened. “I’m not odd. It was your stupid idea and since you seem to actually know what’s going on I thought – ”
“Oh you thought, did you?” he mocked. “You thought you would just let me cut your hand open? Why not simply douse yourself in blood and parade through the street naked? At least that would get their attention faster.”
“I’m leaving.” I decided abruptly. I jumped down from the table and almost made it to the door before Maximus slipped in front of me and blocked it with his body. I glared at his chest, not trusting myself to look into those brooding eyes of his. “Get out of the way.”
“Lola, I can see I have upset you and for that I apologize…” He paused. “But you can’t leave.”
Outraged by the command, I jerked my chin up and growled, “Listen pal, you don’t get to tell me anything, got it? If I want to leave I leave. Now move.” I curled my hand into a fist and punched his chest as hard as I could. I might as well have tried to topple over a stone wall with my pinky.
“It’s not safe out there. You will have to wait until sunrise.”
“Sunrise?” I choked out. “I’m not waiting for the damn sun to rise. I need to make sure my dad is all right which means you have to get out of my way!”
“If you go out now you won’t make it to morning,” he said flatly. “They will tear you to shreds.”
I slammed my hands on my hips and glared. “What do you care?”
For the first time, Maximus’s veneer of arrogance appeared to crack. His mouth opened but no words came out as his eyebrows nettled together in confusion. “I – I don’t know why. I just… I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“What about all the people out there?” I said, gesturing with a broad sweep of my arm. “What about everyone I know? My dad? My mom? My sister? My best friend Travis?”
His expression turned vaguely pitying. “Lola, it is likely that they’re all -”
“No,” I hissed. “Don’t you dare say it. Don’t you say anything else, you hear me? You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know anything.”
“I know if you go out there you won’t survive the night.”
It was a risk I willing to take to save the ones I loved. Folding my arms across my chest I waited silently for Maximus to step aside. We both knew he couldn’t stand there forever. He was only delaying the inevitable.
Finally he shifted to the right. I shoved past him and unlocked the door. I started to push it open, to step out into the cool night air and forget Maximus had ever existed, but something stopped me. Something I could not define, yet something tangible nevertheless.
“You could… come with me, you know. Safety in numbers and all that.”
“No,” he said without hesitation. “I can’t.”
I peeked over my shoulder. His face looked like it could have been carved from granite. Only his eyes showed any life as they burned into mine with cold disapproval.
“You are making a mistake,” he said.
“Staying in here, when there are people out there who could use your help… That’s the mistake.”
Maximus reached inside his leather jacket and yanked something out. “Take this,” he snapped, holding out his gun. I stared at it dumbly.
“What would I do with that?”
He forced the butt of the gun into my hand. My fingers closed around it automatically. “When a Drinker tries to rip your head off you shoot it. Simple enough. Hit it between the eyes or dead center of the chest. Anywhere else will wound it, but not kill it. If you’re not sure if it’s dead just keep shooting until you are.”
“Like a video game,” I murmured, staring down at the gun. I had never held one before. It was a lot heavier than I imagined it would be. Heavy and awkward. How was I going to carry the damn thing? Left with little choice, I jammed it down in my left back pocket. Now, along with everything else, I would have to worry about shooting my own ass off. Better that, I supposed, than to be left completely defenseless. “What about you?” I asked. “Won’t you need a gun?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
Sure you will, hiding out in an abandoned storage unit. I almost said it out loud. Almost. One thought stopped me. The thought that if Maximus was staying here, it meant he had nothing worth risking his life for out there. No dad. No mom. No sister. No best friend. I cleared my throat and shifted anxiously from foot to foot. I had never been good at goodbyes. Thankfully, Maximus wasn’t either.
“Either stay in or get out, but either way shut the door,” he scowled.
A faint smile touched my lips, saying everything I couldn’t put into words. Nice to meet you. Thanks for the gun. Have a nice life. Hope you don’t die. And then, mustering what little courage I had left, I stepped out into the night.
Pop a Top Again
Nothing tried to kill me on the way to the apartment complex, which I took to be a good sign. My temporary sense of hope quickly faded, however, when I found Mr. Jacobson, the door man. He was slumped against the door he had guarded for the past twenty five years (something I knew because we had just thrown him a party). The glass leading down to his head was streaked with red. He might have been sleeping, if he slept with his eyes wide open. Looking away, I gave him a wide berth and hurried inside.
The lobby was dark. I tried hitting the light switches, but nothing came on. The power must have been cut, which meant the elevator wasn’t working, but then again it never was. I took the stairs two at a time, making an effort to keep my footsteps quiet as possible. The air stank of sweat and cigarettes and something too sweet. Mrs. Dobbs in 32C must have been smoking again. I wondered if she was still alive. If any of them were. The fat cat lady whose name I didn’t know who lived across the hall from us. Old Mr. Graham two units down who pulled a lawn chair into the middle of the hall every Sunday to read his newspaper. Sue and Livvy, married last spring, who always waved when they saw me.
I thought of them, all of them, as I passed by their doors to get to my own, using the light from my cell phone to guide me. Some of the doors were ajar, but I didn’t look inside. I couldn’t. The blood that had leaked from their rooms to stain the beige carpet a dull brown told me everything I needed to know.
With my heart lingering somewhere in the vicinity of my throat I reached my own door. It was closed, but not locked. The knob turned easily under my hand and I held my breath as I walked inside.
Air came out of my mouth in a whoosh of pain when my shins collided with something hard. I stumbled, arms wind milling for balance. The phone slipped out of my hand and went clattering across the floor. Reaching out blindly I managed to grab hold of something solid and steadied myself.
It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. When they did, I realized why I had stumbled. Nothing was where it should have been. Furniture had been overturned. The television was smashed. Desk drawers had been ripped open and the contents scattered about. The apartment was always a little untidy but this… this was a disaster.
“Dad?” I whispered as loud as I dared. “Dad, are you in here?”
Nothing… and then…
A quiet, familiar pop. A little hiss of air. The sound of slurping.
I charged through the living room like a crazed rhinoceros, kicking things out of my way as I went. “Dad, where are you? Dad? DAD!”
I found him in his bedroom closet. He was slumped next to a box of shoes and was using a case of beer to hold him upright. When I threw back the closet door he lowered the beer he had just opened and squinted up at me, his watery eyes bloodshot and unfocused.
“Aiko? Honey, is that you?”
“No Dad,” I gritted out. “It’s Lola. Your daughter.”
Relief went hand in hand with anger as I leaned over him and ripped the beer can out of his hand. Everyone was dead and my dad was getting drunk. At least only one of those things was abnormal. “Dad, something has happened. You have to get up. It isn’t safe here.”
“Aiko?” he said again.
I drew my hair back and pushed my bangs up so he could see my eyes were gray instead of brown and not slanted at the corners like my mother’s. “No, not Aiko. Lola. It’s Lola, Dad.”
“Yes! Now come on.” I grabbed his arm and tugged. He collapsed forward and rose unsteadily, swaying back and forth.
My dad had started drinking before my mom left him. I don’t know if the drinking triggered the divorce or the divorce triggered the drinking. It didn’t matter, really. Either way, the results were the same.
He wasn’t a mean drunk. Just a careless and forgetful one. He had never once raised his hand to me in anger, or even his voice, for that matter. I should have considered myself lucky – I knew other kids didn’t have it so easy – but how is cooking dinner for yourself every night of the week because you dad is passed out on the sofa by seven o’clock lucky?
Then again, he has paid a heavier price than I have. He lost his job. His wife. His family. All he has left is a belligerent sixteen year old teenager who doesn’t obey her curfew and thinks hot wiring cars is an acceptable extra curricular activity.
“Dad.” I touched his arm and he startled. “Dad, I don’t think we should stay here. It’s not safe. We should try to get to the police station.”
He turned his head to look at me. His face was pale. There was a cut above his left eyebrow that had dried blood crusted in it. He blinked once, twice, and his gaze focused on me. “Lola, I thought they got you too,” he said.
The hug was unexpected and awkward. I returned his embrace hesitantly, patting his shoulder before drawing back. “I’m fine. I was on the East side when it started. With Travis. I ran back here and found a boy. Maximus. He seems to know a lot about what is going on. He gave me this.” I pulled out the gun and held it flat. My dad’s eyes widened.
“A gun? Why would a boy give you a gun? Is it loaded?”
“I hope so.”
He took a few steps forward and tripped. Taking his arm I guided him to the edge of the bed. He sat with a little sigh and stared down at his hands. “I thought they got you too,” he repeated quietly.
I crouched down in front of him. “They didn’t get me, Dad. I’m right here. I’m okay. Have you heard from Mom or Gia? Do you have your cell phone?”
His head jerked to the side. “No. No. I forgot to charge it. The… the power is out. The TV isn’t working. The radio. The computer. I can’t… I can’t reach them.” He closed his eyes. “Everyone was screaming so loud. Doors were slamming. Someone came in here. They knocked everything over. They broke everything. I hid in the closet but… I don’t know what’s happening. Lola, what’s happening?”
“It’s okay. Everything is going to be fine.” I soothed him like I would a small, frightened child as I reconsidered what to do. If the Drinkers had already passed through here maybe the best idea would be to simply lay low until sunrise. Stock up on supplies. Try to sleep. Wait and see if the electricity came back on. It wasn’t an ideal plan, but it sure sounded better than going back outside.
I was confidant that in the light of day things would make sense. Part of me still wasn’t ready to accept Maximus’s explanation for what was happening. I was certain at some point the military would have to show up. I was positive this couldn’t be happening across the entire world.
I was so wrong.
Bodies, Blood, and Burning Cars
Bodies. Blood. Burning cars. It had been a massacre. With a mix of horror and morbid fascination I stared out my bedroom window to the street below. Bodies littered the pavement like broken dolls, their necks ripped open, their limbs twisted in horrible angles. A police car had crashed through the drug store. The cop who had driven it there was mangled almost beyond recognition. Even Barnabus, the gray cat that lived in the alley, had not survived the night.
I lurched away from the window and covered my mouth to contain the scream that threatened to burst free. Keeping my hand firmly in place I rushed into the bathroom, collapsed in front of the toilet, and was sick for the first time since my parents sat me down and told me about the big D.
My dad was still sleeping off his hangover. I took a quick shower – so cold it instantly cleared my head – and got dressed in cropped off jeans and a plain black t-shirt.
Before falling into a restless sleep last night I had packed a green duffel back I found in the back of my closet chock full of things I thought would be useful for an apocalypse: clothes, an extra pair of sneakers, sun screen, toothbrush, little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, peanut butter (it never went bad), batteries, and all the flashlights I could find, which only ended up being three.
I put together a bag for my dad as well. In his I stuffed as many bottles of water as I could fit and any food that wasn’t perishable. I wasn’t positive, although I was pretty sure, that since the electricity was still out the water would stop working soon. When that happened I wanted to be prepared. Why die of dehydration when there was a perfectly willing vampire ready to rip your throat out?
Vampire. Drinker. Whatever they were called; I believed in them now. How could I not when I had looked out my window and seen what they had done with my own eyes? And even worse than the broken bodies outside – even worse than the senseless murder of innocent people – was the knowledge that no one had come. No one had saved us. Not the police. Not the army. Not the secret service government people. Which had to mean this was happening all over, because how could anyone just sit back and let an entire town be wiped out? The answer was they couldn’t. They answer was the only ones who could help us were fighting somewhere else or they were already dead. No one was coming to our rescue. We were on our own.
“Dad, you have to get up now. We have to move.” I knocked on his door and when he didn’t answer I opened it and shook him awake. He groaned and covered his eyes against the light that was streaming in through the windows. If this was a regular day I would have closed the blinds and let him go back to sleep. But this wasn’t a regular day. I didn’t know if there would ever be a regular day again. “Dad?” I poked him.
“Whaffisit?” he mumbled.
“Well…” I took a deep breath. It was probably better just to get it over with all at once. “Vampires invaded the town last night. Everyone is dead. If we want to stay alive, we have to find a safe place to hide before dark.”
That certainly got his attention. He sat bolt upright and said, “What? What? Lola, is that you?”
This again? Good thing I had dumped all the beer I could find last night down the sink. “Yes it’s me,” I said impatiently. “Don’t you remember?”
“I… Yes.” His eyes cut away to the bureau in the corner of the room that had been flipped on its side. “I remember. But vampires, Lola? That’s… that’s impossible.”
I shrugged. “Go look for yourself.”
He shuffled over to the window. I waited by the bed. I did not need to see what he was looking at. It was already imprinted in my brain; sizzled into my memory like some sort of hot brand.
“All those people,” he whispered, still looking out. “I don’t understand. Who could have done this? Where are the police?” He swung around, his eyes a little wild, his face a few shades shy of albino. “Have you talked to your mother? Your sister? Are they all right?”
“I don’t know. I dropped my phone last night. It won’t turn on.” And just like that, all of my contact with the outside world had been severed. No cell phone. No regular phone. No internet to send an e-mail or a message on Facebook. No text messages. I had always taken it for granted, how easily I could get in touch with someone, no matter what distance separated us. Now I had no way of knowing if my own mother was alive.
My dad rubbed his face. “Someone will come. Someone has to come.”
“Dad,” I whispered. “There isn’t anyone left.”
Ninety Miles an Hour Down a Dead End Road
We had to get out of the town. Besides the dead bodies everywhere being the stuff nightmares were made of, it just made more sense to flee to a less populated area. Apocalypse survival 101: run as far away from everything as you can.
I didn’t know if the overnight slaughter of a town of over ten thousand people counted as an apocalypse. I had decided to call it that anyways because I liked the word and how else would I describe what had happened? How else would you describe the people lying in the street in pools of their own blood? Men. Women. Children. Pets. No one had escaped the Drinkers. No one, it seemed, but me and my dad.
Since we were the least likely people to survive an apocalypse I figured it meant there had to be others out there. I mean, if a drunk and a defenseless kid had made it through the night then there had to be other survivors. There had to be.
We had our pick of cars. Many of them had just been abandoned in the street, keys still in the ignition, previous owners dead on the asphalt. Dad picked a navy blue Audi sedan mostly because it was the only car that had a full tank of gas and a little bit because he had always wanted to own one but had never had enough money.
I piled all our stuff in the back while he grabbed more bottled water and batteries from the drug store across the street.
“Ready?” he said when I slid into the passenger seat and buckled my seatbelt.
“We have to make one quick stop first.”
“What? Why? That’s not part of the plan.” His knuckles turned white as they gripped the steering wheel. I did my best not to notice.
Dad has never been very good in crisis situations. I still remember when my sister fell during her basketball game and broke her ankle. He went absolutely nuts before he passed out. And then there was the time I was twenty minutes late coming home from school in the fifth grade. Mom had to physically restrain him from calling the National Guard. So far he’s holding himself together pretty well given the circumstances. I can only hope it lasts.
“Travis. I have to see if he’s all right,” I said.
Dad started the car. “Where is he? At his house?”
“Well…” I hesitated. “Not exactly.”
“What do you mean not exactly?” Dad’s voice pitched up an octave. “Where is he, Lola?”
Oh boy. It was funny, really, that in the wake of everything that had happened some part of me was afraid of telling my dad where I had been last night. What was he going to do, ground me?
“I thought it would be cool to see if I could hotwire a car. I talked Travis into coming. It was on the East side, Turner Street. We heard a loud noise from inside and knocked on the front door. A guy answered. One of them. He put some sort of trance on Travis and he walked right in.”
“Lola,” he sighed.
“I know, I know,” I said hastily. “I promise I won’t do it again but I can’t just leave without him. I know he’s probably not… not okay but I have to check, Dad. I have to be sure.”
“What if that thing is still there?” he asked apprehensively.
“He’ll probably be in the basement or something. Maximus said they couldn’t come out in the daylight.” I had told Dad about Maximus this morning. That, and the gun that was currently sitting in my lap, had finally convinced him the Drinkers were real. The bodies piled outside hadn’t hurt either.
Dad sighed as he put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb. When we reached Main Street and headed left, towards the East side of town, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief and slumped back, gazing out the window as Dad weaved through the motionless traffic.
Everything was destroyed. Shop windows had been smashed in. Cars were driven up over the sidewalks. A truck with a boat attached had been flipped completely over and was hanging half in and half out of Petunia’s Pastry Shop. Here and there fires burned and I wondered how long it would take for them to consume the entire town.
Was this what they had intended? Utter destruction? But why? What was the sense in it? I only knew the basics about vampires courtesy of movies. Sunlight burned them, they were allergic to silver, and they drank blood. Why, then, had not one single victim been drained? Mutilated, clawed apart, ripped open: yes. Emptied of blood: no.
It turned my stomach and I had to swallow back more vomit, but I made myself study the dead bodies as we drove past them. Two things struck me immediately. The first was that all of these people had to have been dragged from their houses. No way had everyone in town just happened to be out for an evening stroll when they were attacked. And the second thing, much more alarming than the first, was that the bodies seemed to form a sort of line. Oh, they were scattered all over. Some on lawns. Others pulled to the sidewalk. One or two in the road. But almost every single one had been turned so their heads faced towards the houses and their feet pointed to the street. A bizarre coincidence? A warning? Or something else entirely? There was no way to tell.
“Are you okay?” Dad asked.
“Are you?” I shot back.
“No,” he said quietly. “No I suppose not.”
We drove the rest of the way in tense silence. When we turned onto Turner Street with its tidy little houses and neatly mowed lawns I directed Dad to the correct address. He pulled up behind Mr. Livingston’s car and turned off the engine.
“To save gas,” he said.
Together we got out and walked to the front door.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Dad asked in a strained voice.
I straightened my shoulders. “I’m sure.”
For the second time in less than twenty four hours I knocked on Mr. Livingston’s front door. I don’t know why. Habit, I suppose. Seconds passed. Nothing happened and I felt like an idiot. What had I expected, that Travis would just open the door and say, ‘Hey guys! Good to see you!’?
Dad touched my arm. “Lola, we should just -”
The door started to open. We both stepped back, our expressions equally nervous.
“Hey guys! Good to see you.”
My mouth dropped open. “Travis?”
“Uh, yeah. Were you expecting someone else after you left me here to die with a WWE vampire? Who, by the way, is definitely not Mr. Livingston. In fact I think he might have actually eaten the poor guy, which would explain the smell coming up from the basement. Your choice of cars to steal was impeccable, Lola. Really.”
It was definitely Travis. I leaped forward and wrapped my arms around him. I might have had reservations about hugging my father, but with Travis such things were simply natural.
I felt him shudder and my grip tightened. “I’m sorry,” I murmured in his ear. “I’m so sorry, Trav. I never would have left…”
“But the big bad vampire scared you off?” he finished for me. “Don’t worry. You know I would have done the same thing.”
I searched his eyes. He looked tired, his clothes were wrinkled, his red hair disheveled, but he was alive. It was more than I had ever dared hope for. “Come on.” I entwined my fingers with his and tugged him out of the house. “We have a car and supplies and we’re heading for the mountains until this whole thing gets sorted out.” How easy I made it sound. Almost as if we were taking a fun vacation.
“Hey Mr. V,” said Travis as we race walked back to the car. “Nice to see you’re not dead.”
Dad tried to smile. It came off more as a grimace. He had never understood Travis’s humor. “Same to you,” he said.
We made room for Travis between the duffel bags and cases of water. He squeezed in, his long legs and lanky arms stretching clear across the backseat.
“You didn’t seem surprised when I said that guy was a vampire,” he said once we had backed out of the driveway and were heading east, towards the interstate.
“That’s because I wasn’t.” I twisted around in my seat and told him all about my encounter with Maximus. He listened silently, his expression revealing nothing, which was kind of odd since Travis was a wear your heart on your sleeve kind of guy.
“And now you’re going to the mountains?” he asked when I had finished.
“There are some cabins up there that we stayed at when I was a little kid,” I said. The cabins weren’t much to speak of. Small, two room buildings made out of logs. But they were in the middle of no where, which was a big plus, and the stream that ran alongside them would provide fresh water. It was as good a place as any to lay low.
“Mr. V, I hate to ask this but…” Travis trailed off and swallowed hard, his adams apple bobbing.
Dad’s eyes met his in the rearview mirror. “I’m sorry Travis. I can’t,” he said.
“I understand,” said Travis, looking close to tears.
I remained silent. I knew what Travis had wanted to ask and I knew why Dad had said no. I went back to staring out the window and tried not to think about Travis’s parents. Tried not to think about how his mom had always called to check up on him and it drove him nuts, and how I always thought, but never said out loud, how lucky he was to have a mom who cared enough to call.
The houses faded away as we got closer to the exit for the interstate. Now there were only trees that blurred together in one long line of green. Neither Travis nor I mentioned that Dad was going well over ninety. Who was going to pull us over? The police? I bit the inside of my cheek to stifle the snort of laughter that threatened to escape. As if there was -
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to react. One second the car was barreling down the road and the next the wheels were squealing and Dad was screaming and I caught only a fleeting glance of the crater in the middle of the earth where the road used to be. I was thrown to the side. My head cracked hard against the window. Dad’s airbag deployed. It sounded like an explosion. I heard Travis yell out. The car bucked once before it hurtled off the side of the road and into the ditch.
Too fast. We were moving too fast. I threw my hands up in front of my face. The tree was right in front of us. The car never had a chance.
The collision shot me forward out of my seat. As I flew towards the windshield all I could think was all things considered, dying in a car accident wasn’t the worse way to go.
We Make a Decision
Everything was black.
That, more than anything else, brought on the panic. It rolled over me in waves until it sucked me under and I was drowning in it. My mind flashed through the last five seconds of memory over and over again, like a film reel stuck on repeat.
Braking. Spinning. Screaming. Flying.
Braking. Spinning. Screaming. Flying.
Braking. Spinning. Screaming. Flying.
Above me I heard voices. The words were broken up. My ears were buzzing. I tried to concentrate on what was being said. I needed something, anything to distract me from the darkness.
“…out of nowhere. Couldn’t… in time.”
“Is… dead? Oh God, all… blood.”
“…move her? Is it okay… move her?”
“I… know. I DON’T KNOW!”
“Stop yelling.” The words come out of my mouth sluggishly, like I was trying to speak through molasses. I heard a sharp intake of breath. A muffled sob.
“Lola, you’re alive.” Travis.
“Everything is going to be okay, baby. You hear me? Everything will be fine. Can you… Can you move anything? Your fingers? Your toes?” Dad.
Of course I could move my fingers. I could move everything. Nothing hurt. There was no pain. But I couldn’t see. Why couldn’t I see?
“Travis, look! She’s moving her fingers. She’s moving her fingers!”
You’d think I just won a gold medal at the Olympics. I sat up and reached out, my awesome fingers stretching towards what I could hear but not see. Someone locked their hand with mine. Travis. I could tell that girly grip anywhere.
“I went through the windshield and I’m alive,” I said, my voice oddly detached, as if it belonged to someone else. I went through a windshield and I’m alive. That was strange. Didn’t people die when they went through windshields? Maybe not. Maybe they just went blind.
“You’re alive,” said Travis. He squeezed my fingers. In the background I heard quiet weeping. Dad. Still not very good in crisis situations.
“Travis,” I whispered. “I can’t see. Why can’t I see?”
“Lola, your eyes are closed.”
Oh. That made sense. The rush of color was nearly overwhelming when I forced my eyelids apart. I cringed away from it, away from the scrap of metal that vaguely resembled a car, away from the glass that covered everything, away from the blood that covered the glass. Instead I looked down at myself, examining the cuts that sliced through my flesh like I had been wrapped in thin red ribbons. I touched my face and didn’t need to glance at my fingertips to know they would come away bloody. I could feel the blood, running down my cheekbones, sliding into the corners of my mouth, dripping off my chin.
“Travis, you should go stand over there with my dad,” I said, concerned. “You know blood makes you queasy.”
His eyes wrinkled at the corners. “I guess I got over it. Lola, no offense or anything, but you should be dead. What happened?”
It was a good question. I think I knew the answer, but I wasn’t ready to say it out loud. Not yet. Not when I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. “I have no idea,” I lied. “Just lucky I guess. Help me up, would you?”
Travis hauled me to my feet. Pine needles prickled up between my toes and I saw I had lost one shoe.
“Here,” said Travis, handing me one of my own t-shirts that I had packed away. “Use this.”
Gratefully I took the shirt and used it to rub my face clean, then my arms. When I was finished the shirt had gone from white to red. I tossed it in the bushes. “Dad,” I called out. “Dad, it’s okay. You can come back now.”
He appeared instantly from behind a nearby grove of trees. It was obvious he had been crying. I didn’t hold it against him. Grown men do cry. Especially when they see their daughter get tossed through a windshield.
“Lola. Lola. Are you all right? I thought you were dead. I thought… Oh my God it’s a miracle. A miracle.” His arms enveloped me. This time I hugged him back, because I could have lost him just easily as he thought he had lost me.
He drew back to study my face and frowned. “But all that blood… I was so sure… You aren’t in any pain?”
“None,” I assured him quickly.
His frown deepened.
“I mean it’s probably shock,” I amended. “My body is in shock. It will hurt later. A lot, I bet.”
“We have aspirin,” he said, as if a couple of aspirin would help me if I really did feel the pain I should have been feeling.
“You’re cuts are closing up already,” said Travis. He didn’t look as convinced by my evasive answers as Dad was.
I shrugged. “Blood clots in seconds, Travis. We learned that in health, remember?”
“Yeah, but -”
“What about you?” I said, flipping the subject around. “That looks like a pretty big bump on your head. And you, Dad. You have a gash on your forehead.”
“I bailed right before the car hit the tree,” said Travis, rubbing the sizable lump that had formed just below his hairline. “I’ll be fine.”
My eyebrows shot up. I was impressed. Usually Travis was on the ground crying for a doctor if he got a paper cut. Running away from blood thirsty vampires has been good for his confidence, apparently.
“I’ll be fine too,” said Dad. “But the car…”
Collectively we turned to survey the damage. It didn’t look good. The car was nothing more than a crumpled heap of metal. What supplies had been salvageable were neatly stacked to the side, which had to be Travis’s handiwork. I glanced up at the road, shading my eyes against the sun. The car had gone an impressive two hundred yards (give or take, I had never been great at eyeballing distances) into the woods after it had sailed over the ditch.
“This is all my fault,” said Dad. “If I hadn’t been going so fast… If I had been paying closer attention…”
“It’s not your fault, Mr. V. Someone blew up the road.”
So there really had been a crater in the middle of the road. In the middle of the road right where the exit for the interstate was. The only exit we had. They planned this, I thought. They planned everything.
I consulted the watch Travis always wore on his left wrist. “It’s almost noon. We have seven hours until it starts to get dark. That’s plenty of time to walk back to town, restock our supplies, and get another car.”
“Go back to town?” Travis looked like I had just suggested we head out for Timbuktu. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
It was nice to know my best friend hadn’t gone completely fearless on me. “What other choice do we have? Stay here in the woods?”
“Lola is right,” said Dad. “Over half our food and water was destroyed. We have to get more.”
“And then where are we going to go?” Travis asked. “You saw the road. It’s the only one out of here.”
A valid point. There were other roads, of course, but none that headed north to where we wanted to go. I worried my bottom lip between my teeth, trying to think of another idea.
“The old Renner Hotel,” Dad said abruptly. His entire face brightened. It was the happiest I had seen him in weeks. “Out past the elementary school. It’s been abandoned for years. No one ever goes out that way.”
I instantly thought of Angelique and how Maximus had said it would be easy for her to track me if I was near. I opened my mouth to object, but Travis spoke up first.
“That could work,” he said, scratching his chin. “At least it would be a good temporary solution until we figure out something better or help arrives. Great idea, Mr. V.”
“Thanks,” said Dad, looking pleased. He looked at me. “Lola?”
I should have told them about Angelique right then and there, but something stopped me. Maybe it was the fact that a normal girl should not have survived crashing through the windshield of a car at ninety miles per hour. A normal girl definitely could not have gotten up and walked away unscathed. Yet I had done both, which meant… Well, I didn’t know what it meant. Or at least I didn’t want to admit what it could mean, not to myself and certainly not to Travis and Dad. “I, uh, don’t think that’s a good idea. I still think we should try to get to the mountains.”
“How would we do that if the interstate is blocked off?” asked Travis. “The hotel is our best shot. It’s been empty for so long they wouldn’t expect anyone to go there.”
“Or they would expect everyone to go there because it’s been empty for so long,” I pointed out.
“Travis is right,” said Dad. “It’s our best shot.”
Two against one. I had a bad feeling about this, but what could I do? Either admit one of the Drinkers had bitten me, or keep my mouth shut and go along.
Pinching my lips together I swung my duffel bag over one shoulder and headed up to the road, leaving Dad and Travis scrambling to catch up.
The Renner Hotel
The Renner Hotel used to be our small town’s one claim to fame. Back in the sixties or seventies (I never paid much attention in history) the land it currently sat on was purchased by a banker from New York City. With dreams of creating a world class hotel he dumped millions of dollars into building a state of the art two hundred room facility. Within fifteen years the hotel was bankrupt and had sat abandoned ever since. It seemed rich people liked their hotels in New York just fine and saw no reason to venture to a little hick town to spend their hard earned money, while people in the town had no reason to stay in a hotel when they lived five miles down the road.
“There are going to be rats and cockroaches and rats,” I predicted as we trudged across the enormous cornfield that separated the hotel from the town. “Great big rats with sharp teeth and long whiskers that will pounce on us in our sleep and rip our throats open.”
“If you’re trying to scare me it’s not working,” Travis said mildly.
I glared at him. “Why not? You hate rats.”
“I would rather face down a hundred rats than one of those things from last night.”
“A hundred rats?” My nose wrinkled. “That’s a lot of rats. That many rats would definitely kill you. They would crawl all over you and chew out your eyeballs and climb in your mouth -”
“Lola, that is enough,” Dad said sharply.
I stopped talking. Dad wasn’t doing so great and I didn’t want to raise his stress level any higher. Being forced to see his friends and neighbors dead in the street, their bodies flayed open and reddening in the sun like cooked lobsters, had done that for me.
We had stayed out of the houses as much as we could when we searched the town for supplies, but there had been no avoiding the bodies. They were everywhere.
I had still been carrying some flicker of hope that we weren’t the only ones who survived the night, but that had been quickly extinguished. If anyone was still alive besides the three of us they were long gone.
There was one more reason for Dad’s mounting stress. It was just past six o’clock. Under normal circumstances this was when he would come home, slump on the couch, and pop open his first of many beers. I knew the fine line of perspiration gleaming high on his forehead wasn’t just from walking. I should have saved a couple beers. It was stupid of me not too. Would I rather be with someone who was slightly drunk or someone who was going through the throes of withdrawal? I still remembered – vividly – the one time Dad had tried to stop drinking cold turkey. It was not something I ever wanted to witness again.
“I have to go back,” I said.
“What?” Dad and Travis said in unison.
“I, uh, forgot something.”
“Lola the sun is going to start going down in one hour,” said Travis. “We don’t know when they can come out. They might not have to wait for it to be completely dark.”
“And we have everything we could possibly need,” Dad added, gesturing to the small mountain of supplies we had piled into two wheelbarrows.
I met his gaze. “I forgot one thing. It won’t take long. I know exactly where it is.”
His eyes immediately cut to the ground and I knew that he knew what I was going back for. “Lola, I -”
“Don’t.” I held up my hand. “It’s fine Dad. I’ll be quick. I promise.”
I could tell he wanted to tell me not to go. To forget the beer. But he couldn’t force the words out.
“What is going on?” Travis wondered out loud.
“None of your beeswax,” I said, punching him on the shoulder.
“Ow that hurt. Why do you always do that?”
“I’ll be back before dark. Where will you be?” I asked.
Still not looking up, Dad mumbled, “Room two fifteen. Your, ah, mother and I stayed there. Once. It’s a nice room.”
Surprise lifted my eyebrows as high as they would go. “You did? When?”
“A long time ago. Before you and your sister were born.” When we were happy.
He didn’t say the words out loud. Of course not. But they lingered between us just the same, a silent reminder that my sister and I had wrecked our parent’s marriage.
“Room two fifteen.” I managed a tight smile. “Got it.”
Travis grabbed my arm right above the wrist. “Lola, this isn’t a good idea. Whatever you forgot we can get tomorrow.”
I shrugged him off. “I’ll be fine.” And then, in a quieter voice only he could hear I said, “Look after my dad, okay?”
“Okay,” he whispered back.
Good old dependable Travis. Impulsively I leaned towards him and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened, but he didn’t say anything. Turning, I let the corn stalks swallow me up.
The only beer store in town was on the West side, opposite of the Renner Hotel. I walked briskly, splitting my attention between the sidewalk in front of me and the sun hovering just above the tree line.
I should have taken Travis’s watch to keep track of the time before I left. Another stupid mistake. How many mistakes did you get before you ran out? It couldn’t be many more. I was, as they say, skating on very thin ice.
I reached Main Street and automatically turned right. Only five more blocks and I would be at Bub’s Beer and Liquor. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d gotten beer for Dad. Some part of me desperately hoped it would be the last.
My shadow began to grow longer and longer, inching out across the street with every step I took. Goaded on by the setting set I went from a fast walk to a jog, dodging and leaping over bodies and broken glass like some kind of world class hurdler.
The beer store loomed in front of me. The sliding glass doors were bashed in and I ducked through them, already looking down the aisles for Dad’s drink of choice. I took a case off the shelf. The weight of the twenty four cans dragged my arm down and with a grimace I hooked the bulky box up under my arm and held it securely against my side. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.
For a split second I considered one of the carts that have been overturned in the corner, then quickly changed my mind. A cart would make too much noise. Draw too much attention.
I hit the sidewalk at a dead run. The sun had sunk below the tree line, and although it wasn’t yet dark, there was a definite sense of impending doom and gloom.
My hair flew out behind me like a black cape and for the second time I cursed myself for not remembering to grab elastics. Tomorrow. I would come back and get them tomorrow. If I live that long.
When I reached Main Street and dashed across I allowed myself one gasp of relief. Not far now. Not far at all. Travis had been wrong. The Drinkers couldn’t come out until it was completely dark.
I was still thinking that when something grabbed my hair and yanked me off my feet.
Real Damsels Rescue Themselves
I saw the eyes first. They swam above me, so vibrant in their intensity I had to look away. The voice came next. Soft. Crooning. Gloating.
“Pretty pretty girl. I’ve found a pretty pretty girl. You ran too slow, pretty girl.”
A cold finger trailed down across my cheek. I struck it away. The voice giggled.
“Ooo, a fighter, eh? Here, let me help you up.”
Strong hands dug into my shoulders and hauled me to my feet so fast my head spun. The hands released me and I stumbled forward, catching myself on a lamppost. Holding fast to the metal, I spun around it to study my attacker as bile curdled in my throat. This can’t be happening again, I thought hopelessly. It isn’t night yet! It isn’t fair.
This Drinker was a young man, slender and tall as a willow. His hair was pale blonde and cut short enough to outline the round edges of his skull. His t-shirt and jeans hung off him, too big for his wiry frame. His eyes were the same blue as Angelique’s. He grinned and held out one fist, slowly peeling back finger after finger to reveal what he had clutched in his palm.
A ball of my hair. The bastard had ripped my hair right out of my head. While I watched he lifted the hair to his nostrils and inhaled deeply, his eyes flickering closed. When his tongue darted out, dark red against his pale white skin, I made a sound of disgust and looked away, stomach turning. The Drinker’s high pitched giggles filled the air.
“I know what you are,” I bit out. “And I’m not afraid of you.”
The Drinker darted forward, light as a cat. His pointer finger slid down my arm and I didn’t register he had sliced my flesh open until he danced away and sucked the blood clean from his fingertip. “Mmmm. Tastes like strawberries.”
He stared at me expectantly, his gaze feverishly bright, no doubt waiting for me to start crying or fall to my knees begging for mercy. I did neither. My blood made a faint drip drip drip sound as it ran past my wrist and fell to the pavement. The Drinker licked his lips and began to circle me, much as Angelique had when she had me cornered the night before.
“Where have you been hiding, moppet?” he asked. The corner of his mouth curled up. “Clever, clever moppet to last this long.”
“What are you going to do to me?” I said, ignoring his question. I didn’t want to say anything that might give away Travis or Dad’s location.
“Oh moppet, the things I’m going to do to you… Best not dwell on them now, though, not when – what is happening to your arm?” he hissed as he crouched low, blue eyes darting left and right. “You didn’t tell me you were already claimed. Sneaky little bitch.”
I followed his gaze to my arm and saw what had upset him. My strange new healing powers were at work again. Before my very eyes the cut on my arm stopped bleeding and closed up, leaving only a light pink scar. “That’s right,” I said, seizing the opportunity he had inadvertently given me. “I’m already, er, claimed. So you can’t, ah, have me.”
“Who bit you?” he snarled.
“Angelique… but… her pet ran away. Unless…” He sprang up and grabbed my jaw, forcing my head as high as it would go, leaving my throat completely defenseless. “Unless the little lost lamb has returned to her flock,” he murmured, all but shivering in delight.
“Did I say Angelique?” I gasped. “I meant Angela.”
“No,” he purred, rubbing his cheek against mine. “I don’t think you did.”
“Let her go.”
I had never heard three sweeter words.
“Maximus!” I cried out his name as he stepped into view. His eyes were trained with deadly intensity on the Drinker that held me captive. I could have wept when I saw the gun in his hand. “Maximus, he’s going to -”
“Shut up,” he said without sparing me a glance.
The Drinker twisted me around until my back was pressed against his chest. I could feel his breath on my ear. The smell of it reminded me of the sickeningly sweet scent coming from Mrs. Dobb’s apartment. Oh God, I thought dimly as his arm looped around my throat and tightened. He’s using me like one of those human shields in the movies. The ones who always get shot by the good guy trying to get the bad guy. I’m toast.
“I said let her go,” Maximus repeated. He took a step towards us. The Drinker snapped his teeth an inch from my face and dragged me back past the lamp post.
“Finders keepers,” he whined. “I found her first. I want her.”
Maximus stepped forward again. This time the Drinker reacted by tightening his hold on my neck until I gasped for air. Maximus stopped short. “She belongs to Angelique,” he said calmly. “You can’t have her.”
There wasn’t going to be any of me left if the Drinker didn’t stop choking the life out of me. I wheezed in air through my mouth as my vision went gray around the edges. My legs kicked feebly, striking at nothing.
“You’re killing her!” Maximus didn’t sound so calm now.
The arm wrapped around my throat released a fraction of an inch. I sagged forward, gasping and sputtering. My hair tangled around my face, temporarily blinding me. Maximus and the Drinker continued to exchange words, but I wasn’t listening to them anymore. No, I was concentrating on the lamp post two feet in front of me and trying to remember what other helpful tidbits I had learned in the defense class. Too bad I hadn’t paid closer attention. Mrs. Hamilton had been right – you never knew when you would have to kick a guy’s ass.
The idea came to me suddenly, like all great (and ridiculously crazy) ideas do. If it did work it would give Maximus one open shot where I could only pray he wouldn’t hit me by mistake. If it did not work I would most likely end up with a broken neck. Not great odds, but what else was I going to do? Wait for Prince Charming to come rescue me? I just wasn’t that kind of girl.
I tucked my elbows to my sides and buckled at the knees, throwing the Drinker off balance. Humping my back like some kind of deranged whale I charged at the lamp post and slammed on the brakes an inch before hitting it, twisting sharply to the side and simultaneously dropping my left shoulder. Caught by surprise the Drinker went soaring rather gracefully over top of me. The lamp post broke his fall.
I scrambled away on my hands and knees, shouting something highly intelligent along the lines of, “SHOOT HIM SHOOT HIM SHOOT HIM.”
Maximus was very obliging. I watched between my fingers as he shot three bullets into the Drinker. Head, heart, and stomach. The Drinker stutter stepped to the side and collapsed forward onto his knees.
“Why?” he managed to groan.
Maximus walked up behind the Drinker and put one foot between his shoulder blades. “You touched her,” he said harshly before he drove the heel of his boot down and the Drinker turned to ash.
“Holy shit,” I gasped, scuttling back on my hands and feet crab style. “Holy shit. What happened? What did you do? He – he vanished. Where did he go?”
“He’s gone. That’s all that matters. Get up, Lola. We can’t stay here.”
I took his offered hand, still staring at the spot on the sidewalk where the Drinker had simply… disappeared. Shaking my head, I looked dazedly at Maximus. “So you were what, like following me or something?”
Maximus’s fingers reached out toward my face. I flinched automatically and his hand hesitated in midair. “Your hair is tangled,” he said softly.
I held my breath as he pushed my hair behind my shoulders, using his fingers to comb out the worst of the snarls. For an instant his thumb lingered on the curve of my collarbone before he withdrew his hand and cleared his throat. “The bruises on your neck are already fading. You didn’t get rid of the scars yet, I see.”
I cleared my throat as well. Maximus had managed to do it with a quiet hem hem. I sounded more like a car engine backfiring. So ladylike. “Ah, no. Not yet. I wanted to ask you about that, actually.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Ask away.”
“Well…” How, exactly, did one ask if they were turning into a vampire? “The thing is…”
Maximus offered me one of his rare smiles. “You are not becoming one of them.”
“I’m not?” I said with relief.
“No. Consider your fast healing a side effect of the bite. When the scars are removed, it will go away.”
“Oh.” I glanced down at the scars. Such tiny things to have caused so much worry. At least now I could tell Dad and Travis the real reason I had survived going through a windshield.
“What are you doing out here in the open so close to night?” Maximus asked, all traces of compassion vanishing as quickly as the Drinker’s body had. “Do you have a death wish?”
“Of course not,” I said indignantly. “For your information I have found a perfectly safe place to stay.”
“That doesn’t exist.”
“A safe place,” he said.
I stiffened. “We tried to get out of town but they must have detonated some kind of bomb in the road. We couldn’t get to the interstate.”
“We?” His head cocked to the side.
Damn it. I wasn’t going to tell Maximus about Dad and Travis. “Nothing. No one. Nevermind. I misspoke. It happens when I’m nervous.”
“You don’t trust me.” He stated it matter of fact and he was right, of course, but the brief flickering of hurt that crossed his face took me by surprise.
“I – I trust you.” As much as I can trust anyone who carries more weapons around than Brad Pitt in an action movie and seems to know a suspiciously large amount about what is happening, I added silently.
“You shouldn’t,” Maximus said, studying me closely.
He was impossible. “I have to go back.”
“Back to where?”
“The Ren-damn it. How do you do that? Are you in the government?” My eyes narrowed. “FBI? CIA? GI Joe?”
Another smile, this one longer than the last. I ruthlessly ignored the answering flutter in my belly. “None of the above. So the Renner Hotel, hmm? Not a bad choice, all things considered. Who is with you?”
Why fight the inevitable? “My dad and my best friend.” Something in the assuming nature of his tone caught my attention and I quickly added, “Wait. Are there other survivors that you know about? Anyw-in the town?” I was about to say ‘anywhere’ but I changed my mind at the last second. If the entire world had been destroyed, I didn’t want to know about it. At least not yet. As my Mom used to say, you have to focus on the little things to see the big picture.
His shoulders lifted and fell beneath his leather jacket. “There are always survivors. You know what they say about cockroaches, don’t you?”
I shook my head. I was not, by any means, a cockroach expert.
“If the world was destroyed by a nuclear blast, cockroaches would survive.”
“Are you comparing me to a cockroach?” I asked skeptically.
His teeth glittered white in the darkness. “What if I am?”
“Then I would say you’re crazy. This isn’t some kind of nuclear blast or a war or something.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Lola.” Maximus stepped closer, pushing into my personal space. I let him push. I liked to see his face up close. To see the color of his eyes. The curve of his lips. The unruliness of his hair. “This is a war,” he said softly, so softly I had no choice but to lean towards him to. He angled his body to mine. We were as close as two people could physically be without touching. My breath caught in my throat, refusing to go up or down.
“What kind of war?” I managed to croak.
“A war to end all wars.” His eyes burned into mine. “A war to end the human race.”
The War to End all Wars
A war to end the human race.
The words rang in my head. Our eyes held until I looked away, over his shoulder. I saw the case of beer that had gone flying out of my hand when the Drinker grabbed me and brushed past Maximus to pick it up. He followed me, silent as a shadow.
“Beer?” he said as his gaze dropped to the case I had balanced against my hip. “You risked your life for beer?”
I could tell by the disgust in his voice that any special moment that may or may not have sprung up between us was gone. Hitching the beer up a little higher, I tightened my arm around it protectively. “It’s not for me. It’s for my dad. He needs it. To… to fall asleep,” I finished lamely. I had never told anyone about Dad’s drinking problem before. Not even Travis. He probably should have caught on when I stopped inviting him to my house, but Travis was oblivious about stuff like that. Real problems were beyond his scope of understanding.
“To fall asleep,” Maximus repeated.
“Hey, if it’s really the end of the world a guy is entitled to a few beers, right? I might even have one or two myself.” Two complete lies in one sentence. Dad would have the case finished by morning and I would never drink beer again after I had stolen a sip from a lukewarm can he had left lying around one afternoon. My gag reflex kicked in just thinking about it.
Maximus cupped the back of his neck and looked heavenward to where the last traces of daylight were fading away. “We should go. Give me the beer. I’ll carry it.” He held out his hands and I passed the case over, grateful that I wouldn’t have to lug it all the way back to the hotel.
“So I guess this means you’re coming with me?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question as we had already started walking. Maximus ignored it.
As with most things, the way back seemed faster. We reached the cornfield without coming across any more of the Drinkers, although I could hear them, slithering in the shadows like snakes. Every so often a shrill scream tore through the air, sending a shiver down my spine. I glanced sideways at Maximus when I heard the screams, searching for some sort of reaction, but his grim, tight lipped expression never faltered. Only when the high pitched squeal of a child reached us did he curse under his breath and falter.
“Are you okay?” I said hesitantly when he stopped and looked back towards the town. His chest rose and fell with every sharp intake of breath. Without thinking about what I was doing I wrapped my fingers around his arm. It was like holding granite.
Maximus jolted at my touch and looked down to where my fingers were splayed across the sleeve of his leather jacket. Neither of us moved. The cornstalks rustled quietly as they closed in around us, cutting away the outside world. Our eyes met, dark gray against deep, stormy blue. For one crazy, mind numbing moment I thought he was going to lean forward and kiss me and I imagined the way my eyes would close and how my arms would curl around his shoulders as if they had always belonged there and my fingers would bury themselves in his hair.
He licked his lips.
My eyes began to drift closed…
“Stop lagging behind,” he growled. “We don’t want to be caught out in the open.”
My eyes popped open. It felt like someone had just dumped a bucket of freezing water over my head. Maximus ripped his arm free and stalked off into the corn, leaving me standing by myself like an idiot. Muttering my own curse under my breath, I hurried after him. Maximus might have been an asshole, but he was an asshole with a gun.
He didn’t look at me when I pulled up alongside him and we continued on towards the hotel in stony silence, neither one of us willing to give an inch. The sun was dipping below the mountain range to the west when we reached the parking lot. Or at least, what remained of the parking lot. Time had not treated the Renner Hotel and her grounds very kindly.
The hotel sat before us, an old, neglected building that sagged slightly to the right. Four large columns, the marble chipped and cracked, guarded the entrance. The front door was one of those old fashioned spinning doors where only one person could go in at a time. I was surprised – and relieved – to see all of the glass was still intact. I gave the door an experimental push. Without electricity to help swing it around, the door didn’t so much as slide an inch.
“Get out of the way,” Maximus said.
Tight lipped and glaring, I stepped to the side.
Leading with his shoulder, he threw his weight into the door and moved it easily. I darted in behind him and narrowly avoided tripping over my own feet as the door spun around with a high pitched whine.
The inside of the hotel was no better than the outside, with the exception of it being darker, so the neglect and decay weren’t as visible. The scent of mold and dust hung heavy in the air, although I would take grandma’s closet over blood and burnt flesh any day of the week.
Our footsteps echoed over the hardwood floor as we walked across the lobby. It was empty; the various tables and chairs that had once filled the space stripped away long ago. Narrow slivers of moonlight passed through the windows and illuminated everything in a soft, silvery glow. It didn’t escape my notice that Maximus stayed mostly in the shadows.
“Where are your father and friend?” he asked.
I bit down on my lip as I struggled to recall what room Dad had said he would be in. “Umm… Two fifteen or sixteen, I think.”
“We’ll have to go higher than that.”
The whites of Maximus’s eyes flashed as he rolled them. “Drinkers are leery of heights. They’ll go up if they have to, but they prefer to stay close to the ground.”
So much for believing everything I saw in the movies. “How do you know so much about them?” I asked as we headed for the stairs. Maximus held the door open behind him – barely – and he answered when it clicked shut behind me, plunging the stairwell into darkness.
“Learn to know your enemy, Lola. You’ll live a lot longer if you do.”
Clinging to the smooth metal railing, I made a face at his back. Or at least where I thought his back was. It was too dark to tell for sure. “What does that even mean? It’s a simple question. How do you know so much about them? Have you seen them before? Are you part of some secret government – AHH!” My shriek of alarm echoed as my right foot slipped out from under me and I went flying forwards. I threw my arms out, bracing for the fall, but it never came. Instead two strong, capable hands caught my shoulders and pushed me upright. Gasping, I collapsed against the wall. It felt cool beneath my back and I pressed the side of my face against the painted brick while I waited for my heart rate to return to normal.
“Are you always this clumsy, or is it just in life or death situations?” Maximus asked dryly.
From somewhere above us came the sound of a door slamming and the clatter of footsteps. I drew in a sharp breath and instinctively moved towards Maximus, who wrapped one arm around my waist and jerked me hard against him.
“Go back down and wait by the door,” he hissed in my ear.
“What about you?” I heard a quiet click and then felt a cool brush of metal against my arm. “Oh yeah,” I said, feeling foolish. “You have a gun.”
“Go down and wait by the door,” he repeated. “Now, Lola.”
The arm around my waist gave a threatening squeeze.
“Okay, okay,” I grumbled. “Just don’t… die or anything, k?”
“Are you worried about me?” Maximus sounded amused.
I could feel my cheeks turning bright red and was suddenly thankful it was so dark in the stairwell. “No. I’m worried about what would happen to me if something happened to you.”
His low chuckle sent my heart pounding again, this time in a not so entirely unpleasant way. “Don’t trip on your way down.”
I made another face.
“I saw that.”
My eyes widened. “But it’s so dark. How can you -”
“I have excellent night vision.”
I raised my hand with one finger in particular pointing high above the others. “Can you see that?”
“I’m going, I’m going,” I grumbled. Carefully turning around I made my way back down the stairs and waited next to the door as Maximus had instructed. He went the opposite way, sprinting silently up the steps and out of sight. I waited anxiously in the dark, twisting a lock of hair around and around my finger as I strained to hear even the smallest noise.
I did not have to wait long. There was a muffled bang, like a door slamming, followed by a high pitched yelp that sounded suspiciously like…
“TRAVIS?” I shouted up the stairs. “TRAVIS, IS THAT YOU?”
“Lola,” came the answering wail. “Lola, get him off me!”
Grasping the railing I took the stairs two at a time and was well out of breath by the time I reached the second level. A flashlight knocked into one corner of the landing supplied enough light to see Travis’s terrified face as he laid on his stomach with Maximus crouched on top of him, pulling his head back with one hand and using the other to hold his arms pinned behind his back in a position that looked downright uncomfortable.
“Let him go,” I wheezed out. I seriously needed to get in better shape. “Maximus, that’s my friend Travis. Let him go, you’re hurting him.”
Reluctantly Maximus released his death grip on Travis and stood up. “Your friend blinded me with the flashlight and tried to hit me with a baseball bat.”
I gazed at Travis with new appreciation. “Really?”
Looking embarrassed, he hunched his shoulders and said, “Yeah. I heard you scream so I came out and when I saw him coming up the stairs I thought he was, you know, one of them. Who is he, anyway?”
“He’s the guy I told you about before. The one who knows about the Drinkers.”
Maximus scowled. “You told him about me?”
“Don’t tell people about me,” he said.
I rolled my eyes.
“Is he always like this?” Travis whispered.
“I can hear you,” Maximus said.
“Where’s my dad?” I asked.
Travis shifted from foot to foot and scratched the side of his head. “In the room we picked out. Sleeping. He, uh, found an old bottle of wine downstairs in the restaurant.”
Travis didn’t have to say anymore. Leaning down, I picked up the flashlight and pointed it directly into Maximus’s eyes. He cursed and backed away, but I tracked him relentlessly until I had him pinned in the corner. That was it. No more nice girl. No more vague answers. I was ready for some facts, and I knew just the guy to give them to me. “We’re going into one of those rooms and we’re not leaving until you tell me every single thing you know about what is going on. You got that?”
“All right,” he said quietly.
“And if you don’t Travis is going to take that baseball bat and -”
“Uh, Lola?” Travis interrupted.
“What?” I snapped.
“Maximus said okay. Plus he kind of, uh, broke the bat.”
I swung the flashlight towards Travis who squinted and threw both hands up in front of his face. “Hey, watch it,” he complained.
“Sorry.” I pointed the flashlight at the ground. “Travis, you can come too if you want.”
“Gee, thanks,” he muttered.
“Well?” I said when he just stood there.
“Lead the way, Travis!” Did I have to spell everything out?
Maximus crossed his arms. “Are you two always like this?”
“Shut up,” Travis and I said in unison. We exchanged a quick grin and for a second, just one fleeting, wonderful second, it felt like nothing had changed. And then I remembered that everyone in the town was dead or dying and the world was ending and I was being hunted by a psychopath vampire chick and I suddenly didn’t feel like grinning anymore.
I Sleep Next to a Boy
Travis led us to the room next to Dad’s. It was sparsely decorated with a bed that had been stripped of its linens and a bureau shoved up against the back wall. The window blinds were still intact and Maximus double checked to make sure they were closed tight. I hopped up on the bureau and slouched against the wall. I was, I realized as I stifled a yawn, absolutely exhausted. When was the last time I had slept? Last night? Barely. An hour or so at most and before that? I couldn’t remember.
“Does the water work?” I asked when Travis reappeared from the bathroom.
He nodded. “It’s cold, though.”
From across the room Maximus released a bitter laugh. “They’ll cut the water lines soon. Take a shower while you can.”
“We’ll get cleaned up in the morning,” I said. I didn’t relish the idea of going to sleep covered in dried up sweat, but I couldn’t think of a more vulnerable position than being naked in the shower. What would I do if a Drinker attacked? Hit him with a loofah?
I set the flashlight down and clicked it off. I needed – we all needed – to get in the habit of conserving what we had. The room went dark and I heard Travis’s muffled intake of breath, then the squeak of rusty bedsprings as he sat on the mattress. Bringing my legs up to my chest I rested my head on my knees and looked to where I thought Maximus was standing. “So tell us everything,” I said.
There was a very faint popping sound, like a joint being distended followed by a quiet, drawn out sigh. “Are you certain you want to know?” Maximus asked.
“We want to know,” Travis answered for me.
“Fine. What is happening out there, what has happened out there, is not a random act of violence. It was planned and executed down to the tiniest detail.”
“But why?” I wanted to know.
“If you are going to interrupt me every three seconds this is going to be a very long night.”
“Yeah, Lola, be quiet,” said Travis.
“It was just a simple question,” I defended.
I couldn’t see Maximus’s face, but I was almost certain he was rolling his eyes at me. “I am not a psychologist,” he said. “I can’t see inside their heads. I don’t know why they do what they do, only that they’re doing it. You want to know, go ask one of them.”
That shut me up.
“They’re fast,” Maximus continued. “Faster than any other living thing on earth.”
“Faster than a peregrine falcon?” Travis interrupted skeptically. “Because, you know, in a hunting dive they can reach speeds upwards of two hundred miles per hour.”
I couldn’t help it. I snickered. I felt a slight whoosh of air as Maximus stalked past and then the door slammed shut.
“What?” Travis asked. “What did I say?”
“He’s a little… moody,” I decided.
Travis’s voice dropped to a whisper as he said, “He’s a little more than that, Lola. Are you sure you can trust him? I mean, the guy came out of nowhere. He hasn’t told you anything about himself. He could even be one of them for all we know.”
The idea was so preposterous I laughed. “He’s not one of them, Travis.”
“How do you know?”
“He killed one of them. I saw it with my own eyes. If he was a Drinker he would be killing us instead.”
“How did he do it?”
“You mean how did he kill the Drinker?”
My fingers began to tap along the edge of the bureau. “He shot it three times and it just went poof. Vanished, like nothing was ever there. It was a boy, or at least it looked like a boy. Not much older than you and me. Do you think…” I hesitated. “Do you think they used to be people? Like us?”
“Maybe,” Travis said after a long pause, but he didn’t sound very convinced. “I mean, a long time ago or something. People don’t do this to other people, Lola.”
“People kill each other all the time.”
“Not like this.”
“No,” I said, remembering the bodies. “Not like this.”
The mattress squeaked again as Travis stood up. He crossed the room and sat next to me on the bureau. I leaned against him, resting my head on his shoulder. He held my hand. We were quiet for a while, just two kids trying to make sense of the impossible.
“Lola?” Travis said finally.
“What?” I murmured.
“I’m sorry about your dad. I never knew… I mean, I never…”
I squeezed his hand. “It’s okay, Travis. You don’t have to say anything.” And he didn’t. It was just enough that he knew. That finally, someone else knew. It was funny, ironic even, but sitting in the dark in an old abandoned hotel holding hands with my best friend who I thought had been eaten by a vampire, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. “Travis?” I said.
“We should probably get some sleep.”
He instantly sat bolt upright and there was a nervous hitch in his voice when he said, “Sleep? You mean… uh… here? Sleep together in here? Because, you know, you could go in with your dad. That would probably be best. And I’ll, uh, stay in here.”
“Travis,” I sighed, “you are such a drama queen sometimes. The bed is big enough for both of us. Just don’t try to spoon me or anything in my sleep, okay?”
His skin felt hot where it still touched mine. “O-okay,” he stuttered.
“Just think,” I said, springing down from the bureau and landing with a quiet thump on the carpet. “If the world wasn’t falling apart you never would have gotten me into bed with you.”
I grinned and tugged on his hand, guiding him to the edge of the bed. He went on one side and I went to the other. We climbed on top of the mattress gingerly, and for all my cockiness I felt the same flutter of nerves dance in my belly that I was sure were doing the Macarena in Travis’s.
There weren’t any… feelings between me and Travis. Not of that sort, anyway. Still, I had never exactly slept next to a boy before unless you counted a sleepover in the third grade, which I didn’t because the boy in question smelled and picked his nose in front of all the girls.
Settling onto my back I folded my arms neatly across my chest and closed my eyes. Surprisingly, I was asleep within minutes.
An Unwanted Pen Pal
Over the next few days we developed a routine. It went something like this:
Sunrise Wake up, take freezing cold showers
Morning Work on barricading our rooms
Afternoon Search the town for supplies and survivors
Evening Meet back at the hotel an hour before sunset, go to bed
By the end of the week we had a considerable stockpile of clothes, food, flashlights, batteries, and water sitting in the hotel lobby. We had yet to find any other survivors. The bodies were gone, snatched up in the middle of the night and taken God only knew where. Only the blood remained, staining the sidewalk and glistening like red paint on the grass in the early morning.
On the third day Dad had taken a car and tried to go for help. He had returned four hours later, discouraged and drunk. Similar holes in the road existed at all exit points, he had explained before he went into his room and slammed the door.
The electricity was still out. The water pressure was waning. Travis and I had discussed trying to walk somewhere, but why would we leave when we had everything we needed right here? Besides, who knew what was still out there? With no television, computer, or radio, I had never felt more cut off from the outside world in my life.
Maximus came by at least once a day. He ignored Dad and Travis and spoke only to me, which I didn’t mind. Often he bought his version of a ‘present’ in the form of another gun or a knife and spent an hour or so teaching me how to use them. Soon the big oak tree behind the hotel was riddled with bullet holes and I had become a rather good shot, something I was inordinately proud of. The knives were a different story.
Maximus was still secretive and danced around my questions with the expertise of a hot shot lawyer, but I managed to get bits and pieces out of him. He was working with a select few who where fighting back against the Drinkers. No, I could not meet them. No, I could not join them. Stay at the hotel, he said constantly. It was the best possible place we could be for now.
He had known about the Drinkers for a while, but he wouldn’t tell me how long, or how he knew. I also couldn’t ferret out where he came from and the one time I asked him about his family he said flatly, “dead, they’re all dead,” and I didn’t ask again.
The weather was exceptionally hot for mid August. The one thing I had not been able to find during my daily excursions was sunscreen, and my fair skin had paid the price. I was somewhere between tomato and lobster red, and my shoulders were peeling like crazy. It wasn’t a great look for me, but vanity was one of those things you weren’t really allowed to have when the world was ending. Like money, it had become irrelevant.
On the morning of the thirteenth day – or was it the fourteenth? I was beginning to lose count – I woke up and reached over to poke Travis as I usually did, except this time there was nothing there on the other side of the mattress.
Immediately I knew something was wrong. Travis had never been an early riser, and he never would have gotten up without waking me. I felt his pillow. It was cold to the touch, as if he had left hours ago.
Rolling out of bed I flew across the room and ripped apart the blinds, flooding the room with light. I called Travis’s name as I peered under the bed, looked in the bathroom, opened the closet door. Nothing.
“DAD, DAD OPEN THE DOOR! IT’S ME!” I pounded on his door with both fists. Like mine, it had been reinforced with four heavy steel bolt locks. The biggest ones we could find at the hardware store on the other side of town. I heard Dad fumble to slide them across, and the door opened a crack. He stared at me from bleary, bloodshot eyes, courtesy of yet another late night spent drinking away his problems.
“What’s wrong?” he slurred.
I used both arms to shove the door all the way open and he fell back with a muffled grunt. “Travis is gone. Did he come in here? Have you seen him? Where is he? Travis? TRAVIS!” I searched the room, shoving aside the mattress to look under the bed and tearing the blinds clear off the window to peer outside.
Dad groaned like a wounded bear and covered his eyes. “Lola, what the hell are you doing? What time is it?”
I whirled on him, chest heaving, hands curled into fists that rested tight against my hips. “Didn’t you hear me? Travis is gone. I woke up and he was gone.”
Dad blinked and rubbed his forehead, pulling the skin taut. “I – I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation.”
Like what? I wanted to cry. Of the three of us Travis was the most timid. He never would have left the room without telling me where he was going. Hell, he never would have left the room without bringing me with him. Yet he was just… gone.
For some reason I thought of a 20/20 episode I had seen on TV once. It had been about a mom who had been grocery shopping with her four year old daughter. She had stopped at the frozen food section to pick up a bag of peas. When she turned around her daughter was gone. She had described it as feeling like some part of her had been ripped away, and that’s how I felt. Like someone had come in the middle of the night and taken one of my kidneys. Cut out my spleen. Ripped out my liver. Taken a part of me that was so connected it should have been impossible to steal without killing me first. At the very least I should have woken up.
“Lola, I know what you’re thinking,” Dad began. My searing glare cut him off. I was in no mood to hear what a hung over drunk had to say.
“I have to go find Maximus. He’ll know what to do,” I decided. I was halfway down the hall when Dad’s voice bellowed out, stronger than I had ever heard it.
“STOP IT RIGHT THERE YOUNG LADY.”
I halted dead in my tracks, too stunned to move. Dad’s footsteps echoed as he stomped towards me and I gasped out loud when he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.
“We stick together, do you hear me?” he shouted. A vein pulsed rapidly across his forehead and I was shocked to see his eyes were damp with tears.
“Dad?” I said uncertainly.
“If Travis is gone we will find him together. I’m not going to lose you too, Lola.”
Not going to lose you too. Like he thought he had lost Mom and Gia. I swallowed hard and for the first time I could remember I looked away from him. What kind of person didn’t think about their own mother and sister? I had been so busy worrying about myself, worrying about Dad, and worrying about Travis that I had forgotten I had other family. Just like they forgot about you, a little voice added slyly. My shoulders stiffened. It was painful, but true. Travis and Dad, they were my only family now. I could not afford to think about anyone else. And Maximus, the voice piped in again. Don’t forget about him.
“We can’t risk going out there without a plan, even if it is daylight,” Dad said. He dropped my arm and glanced to the right, where my room was. His eyes narrowed. “Did you see this?” he asked before he plucked something off the door. A piece of paper. A piece of paper I hadn’t seen because I had rushed out of the room too fast. He read the note in silence, and when his face blanched and his hand trembled I tore it away.
“Lola, what does that mean? Who is Angelique? Is this for you? Is this about Travis? Lola? Lola, can you hear me?”
Head spinning, I sat down in the middle of the hallway and buried my head in my hands. The note fluttered to the carpet beside me. I didn’t need to see it again. Every word, every letter was already burned into my mind. My mouth opened and closed, but no sound came out.
Angelique had finally found me. Had I ever truly believed she wouldn’t? And instead of taking me, instead of killing me, she had done something far, far worse. She had taken Travis; sweet, helpless Travis who had already been traumatized by one Drinker. He had yet to talk about what happened that first night in Mr. Livingston’s house and I had never pressed him, but he screamed in his sleep sometimes. Horrible, gut wrenching cries that sliced through me like a knife and left me awake for hours trying not to imagine what sort of tortures he had been forced to endure.
By not telling him about Angelique – by not warning him I was some sort of monster magnet – I had allowed this to happen. My fault. It was all my fault.
Dad hovered over me and continued to ask the same questions again and again. Who is Angelique? What does she want? Where did she take Travis? I didn’t have any answers for him. I didn’t even have answers for myself.
“Maximus,” I whispered.
Dad stopped talking. His eyebrows knitted together. “What? What did you say?”
I looked up at him. Inside my chest my heart was racing, but suddenly my head was clear as a bell and I knew what I had to do. “We need Maximus.”
Operation Rescue Travis Commences
We could not find Maximus. It seemed he, like Travis, had simply… disappeared. As the hours began to tick by, each one bringing sundown closer and closer, the pit in the bottom of my stomach grew bigger and bigger. There was no question I knew what I had to do. I just didn’t want to do it.
I didn’t want to walk towards my death like the proverbial lamb meekly lining up to be slaughtered. Yet what choice did I have? Angelique had Travis. There was no denying that point. I don’t know how she found me, or why she didn’t kill me when she had, but that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting Travis back. This time I wouldn’t run the other way.
Dad spent the entire day trying to change my mind. He yelled, cajoled, and when that didn’t work threatened to ground me.
Finally I looked up from table where I had spread all of Maximus’s presents out and rolled my eyes at him.
“Seriously? Dad, I’m going. Stop wasting your breath.” I turned my attention back to the guns. I had decided to take two with me along with a whole slew of bullets. I was still debating on whether or not to bring a knife, since chances were I would slice off my own thumb before I got it anywhere near Angelique.
The breeze ruffled my hair and I sighed, tilting my face up at the clear blue sky. If I was going to face the dark, I wanted to spend as much time in the light as I could, which was why I had moved Operation Save Travis out to the picnic tables behind the hotel.
They were old and dilapidated, but the memories that had been created on them were a soothing balm for the nerves that snapped and danced in my belly like live wires.
How many family cookouts had been held back here? How many children had devoured cheeseburgers and begged for more ketchup for their hotdogs? How many couples had sat side by side, sharing laughter and silly stories?
“Lola, you can’t do this. It’s insane. Going out at night is crazy. You know what those things can do,” said Dad, chasing away my happy thoughts.
“What do you want me to do? Just abandon Travis? You know I can’t do that.”
His eyes pleaded with me to reconsider. “Travis wouldn’t want you to do this. He wouldn’t want you to risk your life for him.”
“Really?” My eyebrows shot up. “Because if some Drinker came in the middle of the night and kidnapped me I sure as hell would want him to come to my rescue.”
“That’s… that’s different,” he mumbled, shifting uncomfortably from side to side.
I picked up one of the smaller guns and cocked it, squinting along the sight. Not for the first time I wondered where Maximus had gotten his small arsenal of weapons.
The more I thought about it the more convinced I became that he was part of some top secret government organization. Maybe he had been assigned to our town, or maybe he had just been passing through when the Drinkers started their attack. The reason why he was here didn’t matter. All that mattered was he seemed to be the only person who knew what the hell was going on – even if he wouldn’t tell me.
“I’m doing this with or without your approval, Dad.”
“Then I’m going with you,” he said.
I bobbled the gun in surprise and slammed it down on the table. “Absolutely not. You wouldn’t be able to do anything even if you did come. You’d just distract me.” Harsh, but true. Dad had not partaken in any of Maximus’s defense lessons. He was worse with a gun than I was with a knife, and that was saying something.
Covering his face with his hands, Dad sank down on one of the benches. The rotting wood groaned under his weight, but held. He stared down between his knees as he said, more to himself than to me, “I thought we were safe. We were so careful every night. I don’t know how they found us. I don’t know why they’re doing this.”
The guilt was like a rash on my skin. A rash I kept itching and itching, but could never get rid of. Dad assumed – and I let him continue doing so – that Angelique had picked us at random. How could I tell him, especially now, that I was the reason she had found us?
I should have gotten rid of the scars on my hand days ago, but I had selfishly kept them, knowing what they could do. If not for me Travis never would have been taken. There was no question of my going to get him back, even if it meant taking his place.
“It’s going to be dusk soon,” I said, shading my eyes against the sun as it crawled towards the distant mountains. “I should get going.”
The high school was in the middle of town. It was one of the oldest buildings on record, but recent renovations had given the old brick behemoth a modern facelift. I hadn’t planned on stepping foot through the front doors – painted maroon in honor of the school’s colors – until September 2nd, when classes were scheduled to begin. Things changed, I supposed. Especially when blood drinking demons attacked.
“Do you even have a plan?” Dad asked.
If showing up at the school and offering myself up to Angelique in exchange for Travis counted as a plan then yes, I had one. “Of course I have a plan. I’m not stupid. And I know how to defend myself.” Well, at least one of those things was correct. I hoped.
“I don’t like it.” Dad stood and crossed his arms. “We could just go. Find a way to leave town. There has to be other people out there. People who know what is going on. People who can help us get Travis back without you having to risk your life.”
“Or,” I countered, “it’s even worse out there than it is here. No, Dad. I’m sorry, but I’m going to help Travis. I have to. And you can’t stop me.”
“I never could, could I?” he said. A rueful grin tugged at one side of his mouth. “Fine, Lola. I’ll wait for you at the hotel but if you’re not back in one hour I’m coming after you and that geek.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. “His name is Travis.”
“I know. He’s still a geek. I never could figure out why you two got along so well, but I’m glad he’s been there for you Lola.” He cleared his throat, dropped his eyes, and mumbled, “Especially when your family couldn’t be.”
It was as close to an apology for his behavior as he had ever come before. “Yeah, well, it’s not your fault Mom took off across the country.”
“Yes,” he said simply. “It was.”
A strained silence fell between us.
Part of me was glad that Dad was finally taking responsibility for his actions. The other part of me was annoyed that it had taken me marching off to my untimely death for him to do it. Why couldn’t I come from a normal family? A family where the child didn’t have to be the adult and the adult didn’t act like the child? This was why I needed to save Travis. Not because he was my best friend, not because it was the right thing to do, but because without him, I had nothing. Dad may have been related to me by blood, but Travis was my real family. And when your family was in danger you did everything possible to save them, no questions asked. Especially if you were the reason they were in danger in the first place.
Clapping his hands briskly together Dad nodded towards the setting sun. “All right kiddo. You better get going. Remember, you don’t have to do this.”
As if I would back out now. Perusing the picnic table one last time I selected the smallest of the handguns and stuffed it in my back pocket I picked another – the one Maximus had given me the first night I met him – and held it loosely in my right hand, just like he had taught me. “See you soon Dad.”
We probably should have hugged. It was one of those occasions, but neither of us moved towards the other, and even though it meant I was a horrible person, I was secretly grateful.
I waited until Dad had turned around and headed back into the hotel before I struck out across the cornfield, following the path we had etched out between the stalks with our daily ventures into town.
When Maximus appeared at the edge of the field, as if he had been waiting for me the entire time, I didn’t even jump. He fell in step beside me, matching me stride for stride while those piercing blue eyes studied me head to toe.
“Why are you carrying a gun?” he said casually, as if he were asking why I had decided to wear a red t-shirt.
“Because of this.” Without pausing I fished Angelique’s note out from the back pocket of my jeans and handed it to him. He read it in the span of a few seconds, and I knew he had finished it when his curses filled the air. Crumpling the paper into a ball, he threw it on the ground and grinded it down beneath his boot heel.
“Hey,” I complained. “That’s mine.”
In a flash he was in front of me, his hands on my shoulders, his face in my face, his eyes burning into my eyes. “Stupid girl, does your life mean so little to you?”
I didn’t think, I just reacted. My hand jerked and the gun was between us, leveled straight at his chest. To his credit, he didn’t even blink.
“Good reflexes,” he said, lifting his hands from my shoulders in a gesture of surrender.
“I was taught by the best.” I slowly lowered the gun. Rookie move. Maximus was behind me and had my arm twisted up behind my back and the gun out of my hand before I had time to yell.
“Never,” he whispered in my ear, “let down your defenses.” He pushed my arm up a little higher, enough to cause a twinge of pain to rocket up through my shoulder blade, before he released it.
Rubbing my shoulder, I whipped around and glared. “Have I ever told you you’re a real asshole?”
“Every day since you met me,” Maximus said easily. Something sparked in those lake blue eyes of his – humor? affection? – before he jerked his chin towards the cornfield and his expression turned formidable. “Now turn around and go back to the hotel. I’ll get Travis for you.”
“No.” I crossed my arms. “I already had this conversation with my dad, so all you’re doing is wasting time. If you want to help me then come along, but you can’t stop me. Nothing can.”
His eyebrows drew together to form a dark V above the bridge of his nose. “You are the most stubborn, irrational, pigheaded-”
“Please stop,” I sighed, holding up my hand. “All these compliments are making me dizzy.”
Maximus tried, but he couldn’t quite contain the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth. He ran a hand through his hair, tugging at the ends, while I did my best to ignore the little flutter that tugged at my heart. Maximus was simply too damn handsome for his own good. And mysterious. And intelligent. And handsome.
I looked away, annoyed with myself. Here I was only minutes away from almost certain death and I was ogling a boy. Stupid teenage hormones. “Come on,” I said tightly. “Let’s go.”
Maximus easily adjusted his long stride to my short one so we walked side by side. “I can’t guarantee you’re safety,” he warned. “Angelique is very powerful and you’ve angered her.”
I huffed out a breath. “How do you know that? How do you even know who she is? How do you know anything?”
“Knowledge is its own source of power.” His forearm brushed against mine. I wondered if the contact had been accidental. It doesn’t matter, I told myself sternly. Nothing matters but getting Travis back and trying not to die in the process.
We reached the school sooner than I would have liked. I stopped short to stare at the letters etched across the front entrance.
FAIRHILLS HIGH SCHOOL
I was supposed to start my senior year in the fall. Easy classes. Graduation practice. College interviews. Senior skip day. All taken away in the blink of an eye.
Maximus reached out and linked his fingers with mine. This time there was definitely nothing accidental about it. “Stay here, Lola,” he said softly. “I’ll get Travis.”
“What’s the point of surviving if you don’t fight for it?” I asked.
Maximus’s head swiveled. His searched my face, gaze inscrutable. Finally, apparently satisfied with what he saw, he slipped his hand free and held out my gun. “Well then, let’s go kick some Drinker ass.”
The lights were on inside the school. The hallways, the cafeteria, every classroom – even the bathrooms were all illuminated with a searing glow that hurt my eyes. I had grown accustomed to the darkness so quickly I had forgotten how weak human’s eyes must be that we required every little nook and cranny to be lit up like it was high noon.
Side by side Maximus and I strolled down the middle of the main hallway. I peeked sideways at him under my lashes. As always he looked calm. Confident. Cocky, even, if I judged him by the slight swagger of his hips. I wished I felt the same.
Instead my palms were sweating so much it was hard to keep a good grip on the gun Maximus had returned to me and my heart was thumping so loudly it was a wonder Angelique didn’t hear us coming a mile away. Or maybe she did. She struck me as a cat and mouse kind of predator. One who watched her prey walk by, let them start to feel safe, and then WHAM shredded them to pieces with her claws.
We passed by my old locker. I couldn’t help but slow down in front of it and let my fingertips slide across the cool metal. So many lockers. So many students. So many classmates and friends and teachers. Had any of them survived?
The sound of a door slamming ricocheted down the hall, piercing the eerie silence.
I couldn’t help it. I screamed. The same thing happened when I saw a snake slithering through the grass. Someone could tell me it was there, but one glimpse of its wiggling body and I would scream anyways.
Maximus reacted with a bit more maturity. Wrapping his arm around my waist he pushed me behind him, shielding me with his body. “Stay back,” he said tersely, as if I was thinking about running off down the hall by myself.
Tense silence, and then…
It rang through the hall, gleeful and menacing all at the same time. Vomit rose in the back of my throat and I swallowed it reflexively, trying not to gag on the taste. Angelique. I would recognize that laugh anywhere. After all, it in my dreams every night.
Someone whimpered. It wasn’t until Maximus looked over his shoulder that I realized it had been me. Eyes dark with concern, he traced his fingertips under my jaw, lifting my chin until our eyes met, mine wide and terrified, his dark and solemn.
“You’re going to be fine Lola,” he vowed. “I would never let anything happen to you.”
Panic rolled over me like a black thundercloud, extinguishing the light that had shimmered briefly in the form of courage. Courage I didn’t have. Courage I had never had. “I can’t do this,” I gasped, shaking my head from side to side. “I can’t. I can’t. I’m too scared.”
Maximus simply folded me in his arms and cradled my head against his chest like I was a child. His hands skimmed across my back, running up and down in a gesture meant to comfort and soothe. “You’re the bravest one of them all,” he whispered against my ear. “You always have been.”
“Isn’t this so sweet. It brings tears to my eyes” a voice drawled, thick as honey. Angelique. She was here. She had found us.
I jerked free from Maximus’s embrace. He ducked and spun, a natural fighter, a practiced killer. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite as graceful under pressure.
The gun in my hand bucked as it discharged. I shrieked and flung it away from me. The bullet I had shot wildly into the air zinged past Angelique’s head by mere inches before plowing into the wall at the end of the hallway.
“Bitch!” she cried, her ice blue eyes flaring. “You could have shot me!”
“That would be the general idea,” I said shakily.
Angelique’s hands flicked down the sides of her skin tight red sequined gown, her nails glittering black under the fluorescent lights. She had certainly dressed up for the occasion, I thought as I studied her. Floor length dress, glossy brown hair curled into ringlets, cherry red lips. If I didn’t know any better I would assume she was going to the prom.
Catching me staring, Angelique’s mouth curled in a sneer, revealing the silver fangs that marked her as a monster. “I don’t recall writing two invitations,” she said, glancing over at Maximus who stood beside me, every muscle in his body tensed and ready to spring.
“I’m crashing the party,” he said.
“That’s not very nice,” Angelique pouted. She stepped forward. Maximus did the same. I stood rooted to the spot, unable to move as they began to circle each other, their eyes locked with the deadly intensity of two wolves squaring off for the kill.
Shoot her, I begged Maximus silently. Just kill her and get it over with. But when I glanced down at his hands I saw they were empty of any weapon and my gun, the one I had foolishly tossed away from me like an idiot, was on the other side of Angelique, well out of reach. I still had the smaller one, but I didn’t want to play all my cards. Not yet. Not until I knew where Travis was.
“You marked her,” Maximus said to Angelique, so softly I could barely hear.
“I should have killed her like I did the rest.” Angelique’s shoulders jerked in a little shrug. “But she was so delightfully willful. It would have been a shame not to play with her first.”
Maximus made a low growling noise in his throat. “She is not a toy.”
A smile spread slowly across Angelique’s face and in that moment, even though she was everything evil and ugly and wrong, she was beautiful too. “Ah, but she is Maximus.”
Maximus? How did she know his name?
“There is no reason for you to get involved,” Angelique continued. “The girl is here. Obviously she has agreed to my terms. Herself for the weakling. What else is there to discuss?”
“Where is Travis?” I said loudly. “Is he here? Is he okay? What have you done to him?”
In unison they stopped and spun to face me. Maximus looked furious. Angelique simply laughed and brought her hands together.
“See?” she beamed over her fingertips. “So deliciously unafraid. I haven’t had a pet like that in ages, Maximus. And to find one in the first town… Why, that’s unprecedented!”
Find one in the first town? What did that mean? “Maximus?” I said uncertainly. “What is she talking about?”
“Oooo,” Angelique cooed breathlessly. “You haven’t told her? Naughty, naughty boy.”
Maximus jerked his head to the side, but not before I saw the flicker of guilt pass over his face. “Nothing,” he said. “It’s not important. It doesn’t matter now.”
“Tell me,” I insisted. “What did she mean, first town?”
“She meant,” Angelique purred when Maximus remained silent, “that your little pathetic town is the Origin, darling. The first. A beta test, if you will. To see if we could do it. To see how fast ten thousand people could be slaughtered.” Her head tipped to the side and she frowned. “Much faster than we ever anticipated. Not much fun at all, actually. You didn’t exactly put up a fight.”
My head spun. “You mean – the rest of the world – they aren’t – you didn’t…”
“Slice them open, drink their blood, and destroy their homes? No,” she said sweetly. “I’m afraid not. Oh, don’t look so crestfallen, darling. We will do it. Tonight, in fact. If ten of us can do this in one night, just imagine what ten million can do in a week.”
Ten? All those people dead, an entire town wiped out, and there had only been ten of them? I staggered back, floundering under the weight of all of this new knowledge. Everywhere else… the rest of the world… Safe. Not destroyed, not dead, not yet, at least. Just one town. My town.
My mom. My sister. Still alive. Relief flowed through me, followed immediately by an anger so powerful I trembled.
“You knew,” I accused Maximus, stabbing my finger at him. “You knew it was just happening here. We could have… we could have gotten away! We could have escaped but you told us to stay.” I spat out the words like poisoned darts. Maximus flinched and stepped towards me, one armed stretched out.
“Lola, you don’t understand, it would not have made a -”
“No. NO! I’m getting Travis and we’re leaving. We’re going to go tell everyone what happened here and you,” I spat, cutting my eyes to Angelique, “are going to pay for what you’ve done.”
She ran a fingernail across her lower lip, drawing it down as she considered my words. “Is that so?” she said thoughtfully.
“That is exactly so,” I said.
“Oh, little pet.” She clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and shook her head. “I am so terribly sorry, but I simply cannot let you do that. Warning the rest of the world would be bad for business, you see. Ruin the element of surprise and all that. And we’ve been working so hard on this surprise.”
I ripped out the gun from my back pocket and pointed it right at the middle of her forehead. “The way I see it, you don’t have much of a choice. Now put your hands behind your head and stand against the lockers or I’ll shoot you dead, I swear I will.” Please don’t let her see my hands are shaking.
“I am not very fond of threats,” she said before she lunged for my throat.
The Only Good Drinker is a Dead Drinker
The gun went off. Angelique struck me as my finger curled around the trigger, sending the bullet into the ceiling. Plaster rained down on us and lights flickered crazily as we rolled across the floor.
Her teeth snapped half an inch from my face. I swung the gun up and brought the handle crashing down against the side of her head. She shook off the blow with ease and caught my chest with her knee, driving all the air from my lungs. Wheezing I grabbed her hair and yanked it back. She howled and flipped to the side, wrenching free. Her nails raked down across my cheek and came away dripping blood.
“You fight,” I gasped as I jabbed my elbow into her throat, “like a girl.”
Her answer was to pick me up by the back of my neck and throw me head first into the lockers. I hit them with a crash and crumpled to the carpet, temporarily stunned.
Breathing heavily, her hair askew and her eyes like blue fire, Angelique towered over me. “Stupid mortal,” she spat. “I should have ripped out your insides and made you wear them as a necklace.” One hand drew back, vicious claws extended as she prepared to deliver a death blow that would cleave my head from my body.
For the third time a gunshot rang out. For the first time it hit its intended target. In slow motion I saw Angelique’s mouth fall open in shock. Her body jerked as if she were a marionette and someone else was pulling the strings, drawing her arms out and sending her falling forward in a graceful swan dive. Blood spewed from her lips, showering me in a sticky red spray.
The gun went off again. Her stomach exploded outwards as the bullet tore through her spine and came out her front, tearing a fist sized hole in her beautiful gown.
Angelique fell beside me and for an instant our eyes met. Her mouth opened and closed, trying to force out words that would not come. I said nothing. Did nothing. I was frozen in place, forced to watch in horrified silence as the life ebbed from her body.
Then Maximus was between us, his hands clutching Angelique’s shoulders and shaking her. “Where is the boy?” he shouted. “What have you done with him?”
Her head lolled to the side. With blood running down the corners of her mouth she smiled. “Hotel… But… Too late… Was always… too late.”
Travis was at the hotel? I pushed myself up on one arm and leaned weakly against the lockers. Maximus released Angelique. She slumped to the blood stained carpet. Her eyes closed, her long lashes spreading across her white cheeks like silk fans. One last, shuddering breath lifted her chest and flowed silently from her mouth before she simply… faded.
“She’s dead.” The words sounded hollow. I staggered to my feet, then sagged sideways, unable to support my own weight. I was pretty sure some ribs were broken. My ankle too. Courtesy of Angelique’s bite marks on my hand the pain I should have been feeling was nothing more than a dull throb. Ignoring it, I focused on Maximus.
He stood before me, his head bent, staring down at the spot where Angelique had fallen. “Lola, I -”
“Save it. There is nothing you could say. I’m tired of your secrets and your lies,” I said bitterly. “You said you would protect me, and instead you haven’t done anything but hurt me. I’m going to get Travis and my dad and we’re leaving. I don’t want to see you ever again, Maximus.” The words burned in my throat like acid. Tears threatened to spill, but I blinked them back. I couldn’t believe I had actually liked this guy. And the entire time he had been lying about… well, everything.
“Did you know they were going to come here? Did you know they were going to do this?” They weren’t questions I wanted to ask. They were questions I needed to ask, even if I was terrified to hear the answers.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
A mewling sound escaped my lips.
“Lola, there was nothing I could have done. I -”
“GO AWAY!” I shrieked, striking out at him with my fists. They bounced harmlessly off his chest, which only served to increase my fury tenfold. Even when I wanted to I couldn’t hurt him. The bastard.
He captured my wrists with ease. “Stop it,” he ordered, blue eyes flashing. “You don’t understand. There was nothing I could have -”
“If you say there was nothing you could have done one more time I will kill you. Do you hear me, Maximus? I’ll kill you!” And at that moment I really would have. He was lucky Angelique had knocked my one remaining gun out of my hand. “How could you let this happen?” I stared hard into his eyes, trying to see what I had missed. Trying desperately to figure out where I had gone wrong. “All those people… You could have done s-something.” My voice broke. I sagged against the lockers, defeated. “Just go,” I mumbled, twisting my head to the side. “Just leave me alone. I never want to see you again.”
He released my wrists. “You have to stay here tonight. It’s too dangerous to go outside.”
“What do you care?” I shook my head, no longer able to believe anything he said. “You could care less if I lived or died.”
His laugh was oh so bitter. “I care too much. You’ve made me forget things, Lola. Things I have no right to forget. Since the first moment I met you you’ve been under my skin like some disease I can’t purge, crawling inside, infecting me bit by bit.”
“You’ve been watching Lifetime, haven’t you?” I said dryly.
Maximus smiled, fast and fleeting. “I’ll go, if that’s what you want.”
“That’s what I want.”
His lips parted, as if he wanted to say something else, but with a small shrug he turned and walked away, leaving me alone with my thoughts and one carpet badly in need of stain cleaner.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
The End of Everything
I woke at dawn. My muscles were cramped from sleeping curled in a ball inside the janitor’s closet and I stretched my arms high above my head as I race walked out of the school, pausing only to retrieve the gun Angelique had knocked out of my hands. During the melee it had skittered across the hallway and slid under the drinking fountain. It was a little dusty, but otherwise no worse for wear.
The other gun, the one I had fired first and dropped, was no where to be seen. I assumed Maximus had taken it with him when he left.
Maximus. I shied away from even the thought of his name, and banished him to the far corners of my mind. I couldn’t afford to think about him. Not now. Perhaps not ever again.
Did you know they were going to come here?
I started to run. Despite being exhausted both physically and mentally, I didn’t slow down as I sprinted headlong through the town, retracing my steps from last night. The need to find Travis, to make sure he was all right, was like a drug pumping through my veins, filling me with a sort of frantic energy. I didn’t stop until I was through the hotel’s spinning doors.
The smell of blood hit me immediately. It tasted metallic on my tongue and I closed my mouth tight, clamping my teeth together until my jaw ached. Still the scent of it invaded my nostrils, sweet and ripe as an apple left out to rot in the sun. My stomach cramped, a knee jerk reaction to what the scent of blood had come to signify: death.
A Drinker had been in the hotel. I could see its claw marks running down across the woodwork of the main desk. Our stockpile of supplies had been shredded. What little furniture remained in the lobby had been completely wrecked, as if the Drinker had gone into some kind of mindless rage, destroying everything in sight. With my heart in my throat I sprinted across the lobby and flew up the stairs, screaming for my Dad and Travis with every step.
The green and gold carpet muffled my footsteps as I raced down the hall, bypassing door after door until I got to the one Travis and I had shared. I threw it open and catapulted inside, nearly falling face first onto the bed. The scent of blood was stronger here. There was no mistaking it. Not point in convincing myself I was imagining things.
The shades were still drawn tight. My pounding heart counted off the seconds as I searched the pitch black room, just like I had less than twenty four hours ago, except this time I was filled with an even deeper sense of dread.
The room was empty. I went through Dad’s the same way, looking under the bed, throwing open the closet door, screaming into the bathroom. It, too, was empty. But I know they had to be here. Somewhere. The blood was too fresh for them not to be. I didn’t let myself think about what so much blood could signify.
Cursing, crying, pleading I stumbled down the hall and searched room after room after room, screaming until my voice was hoarse.
The further I went into the hotel the darker it got, until I was running blind, using the walls to support me. When I saw the light blossoming from the edges of a door at the end of the last hallway my knees almost buckled in relief.
I had found them and they were hiding away, just like they should have been. Safe and sound. A breathless laugh forced its way past my lips. I had worried myself to death for nothing. Except the scent of blood was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t shake the terrible feeling of dread that threatened to choke me with every gasping breath.
“Dad, Travis, I’m here! It’s me. I’m back.” I pushed open the door and instantly covered my eyes, blinded by the light after running around so long in the darkness.
Gradually my vision returned, refocusing like a camera lens, sharpening slowly around the edges before spiraling in towards the middle until everything was clear. Clear as crystal, because I saw who was lying on the ground in a pool of blood. And I saw who was standing over him. And I saw, I finally saw, what I had chosen to overlook for too long.
“Is he dead?” My words came out flat. Emotionless. My question was a rhetorical one. I knew Travis was dead. No one could lose that much blood and survive. It seeped across the tile floor, reaching all the way to the door and I was forced to step in it as I walked towards the body of my best friend.
Maximus looked up and my breath whooshed out to stain the air with shock and betrayal. Even now, faced with Travis lying bloodied and broken on the floor, even after everything I had learned last night, I had not allowed myself to imagine… I had never truly thought… But the blood couldn’t lie and Maximus’s face was covered with it.
“You,” I whispered in agony. “How could it be you?”
His mouth opened and closed. He was quick, so quick, but I saw the flash of tell tale silver before he could conceal it. He reached out his hand to me in a silent plea. Blood dripped from his fingertips. “This is not what it looks like,” he said quickly as his eyes darted from my face to Travis and back again. “Lola, you don’t understand. Let me explain.”
“Isn’t what it looks like?” I repeated dully. I waited for the pain to start, for even though I had denounced Maximus last night, some small part of me had still trusted him. Still believed in him. Still wanted to stand beside him.
Yet I felt… numb. Cold. Distant, as if this was happening to someone else. As if someone else’s best friend was dead on the floor in a pool of their own blood. “You’re one of Them, Maximus. You’re a… a… Drinker. You’re a monster.” My voice trembled with emotion. “And you killed Travis. You killed him.”
Maximus’s gaze dropped to my left hand.
The gun. I had drawn it when I entered the hotel and forgotten I was even holding it. Taking a deep, shuddering breath I raised it up and pointed the muzzle true. For the first time my hands did not waver.
Maximus took a step back, then stopped. Went still. “Do it then. I showed you how. One shot to the head, one to the heart. Just do it, Lola. If you think I could have done this I am dead already.”
“No.” I looked at Travis. Poor, sweet, gentle Travis. His eyes were still open, staring up at the ceiling. “He’s the one who is dead.” I aimed the gun dead center of Maximus’s chest. Aimed it right at his black, lying heart. This time I wouldn’t miss. This time I would hurt him, as much as he had hurt me.
“Lola, I love -”
I pulled the trigger.