Nick stared at the fluorescent lights in the ambulance's ceiling. He tried to shut his eyes, shut out the glare, but they weren’t listening to him.
A pair of paramedics were bustling determinedly round him, rattling off information and orders at each other with frantic calm.
Ivan was holding his hand.
“I’m sorry, bud. I’m so sorry…”
Nick wanted to tell Ivan it wasn’t his fault. He tried to tell him, but the words were trapped inside him. He couldn’t even open his mouth.
One of the paramedics pulled away from Nick’s side. “I’m sorry, sir, but you need to move aside.”
Nick recoiled inwardly as the burly man fell upon him and put his mouth over his:
Eww, eww, ewww…
The paramedic breathed fast and deep, sending hot air and spittle down Nick’s throat.
Nick wanted to push the paramedic off of him, but his limbs were as unresponsive as his mouth and eyes.
The paramedic removed his mouth from Nick’s and started thumping his chest with both fists.
Nick felt his ribs snap and pop. He should’ve been screaming, but he couldn’t move his lips.
Mouth to mouth, he realized. Why’s he giving me mouth to mouth? I can—
No. He couldn’t breathe. He wasn’t breathing. How long had it taken him to notice?
Nick wanted to breathe, but he couldn’t even make an attempt. It was like trying to open someone else’s mouth.
The other paramedic was speaking to Ivan:
“I need you to tell me what he took.”
“I don’t know! I mean—he didn’t take anything!”
The woman frowned, professional gentleness clearly concealing disgust. “Sir, this is no time to cover.”
“The fuck could even do this to him?”
“Heroin for starters.”
The mouth-to-mouth paramedic pulled up Nick’s sleeves. “No needle marks. Least not on the arms.”
“He didn’t take anything!” Ivan shouted, loud enough to make his still bruised throat sting.
A new source of panic welled inside Nick: Ivan was going to get in trouble.
He was just wishing he could shut his eyes and stop staring at those lights when he went blind.
The boy felt hands moving him again. Or did he? Maybe he was imagining it. It was like whispers of touch. There were voices, too, all running into each other. A surf of sound.
Nick did hear one voice clearly, though:
“Time of death, 8:15 PM…”
Nick tried to scream again. He might as well have asked a stone to sing.
No. He wasn’t dead. He was still here. Wasn’t he?
Was this a coma? No. People in comas still breathed.
He felt ice beneath him. Everything above his waist felt… bare. The air was winter-cold.
The morgue. He was in the morgue.
How did he know any of this? Why was he still here?
A muffled, distant voice:
“We’re all very sorry for your loss, Mr. and Mrs Collins…”
Oh, God. His parents. Mom.
“...Yes. That’s Nick. That’s—”
Valerie Collins’ voice broke into a sob. She hugged her son, and he barely felt it. Nick remembered every time he turned down a hug from his mother. When he’d been too embarrassed or thought he was too big for them. Nick hated that kid.
“He’s in a good place, Val,” Nick heard the Minister say. “He’s alright.”
It was a good thing to say. Nick wished he was right.
“I’m sorry Frank. I just—can I have five minutes with him? Please?”
The third voice spoke, “Take all the time you need.”
Nick had to assume his mother was left alone.
Valerie started to speak, falteringly, like every word was in danger of shattering:
“Yis’ga’dal v’yis’kadash sh’may ra’bbo, b’olmo dee’vro chir’usay v’yamlich malchu’say…”
Was that Hebrew? Nick didn’t know his mother still went in for that.
What else didn’t he know about her?
“...Y’hay shmay rabbo m’vorach l’olam ul’olmay olmayo… olmayo…”
Valerie’s voice melted into tears. Nick wished he could be sure she was hugging him.
More than anything, he wished he could hug her back.
Too soon, Nick’s mother’s voice fell away, leaving her son with only distant footsteps and the hum of lights he could not see.
Please come back, Mom. Please?
He tried to keep track of time, but it was a doomed effort. What few hints of the outside world Nick had were getting fainter and fainter, even the cold of the morgue, though nothing like warmth replaced it. Counting out the seconds didn’t work, either. He kept tripping on thirty-five.
Sometime, how long after his parents left, Nick couldn’t know, a man’s voice—barely a whisper—filtered into the void:
“Sorry about this, kid. If it was up to me, you’d be tucked under the earth by now…”
Sorry? For what?
A thin, warm line ran down Nick’s torso. Something hard and sharp pierced the boy. He felt air inside him.
Was—was he being autopsied?
“Bruising to lower jaw. No foreign substances present in cadaver’s stomach. Breakages in rib-cage. Likely caused by CPR. No lung scarring.”
The mortician’s tools played strange, distant music within Nick’s body. He suspected that used to be pain. The sensation was almost welcome.
Soon the mortician’s voice was gone, too. Nick didn’t know if he’d finished with his insides, or if his ears were finally dead, too.
Nick couldn’t feel his body anymore. He could hardly even hear his own thoughts. His memories were faint cobwebs against an abyss. He was nothing.
He wanted to scream. Why was he here? Why wasn’t he in Heaven? Or Hell? Either would be better than this.
Was this Hell? Had the Minister been right? Or had Nicholas Collins already gone somewhere else, and whatever was stuck in here was like the drops at the bottom of an empty soda can?
Nick tried to stop thinking. To become nothing. But he couldn’t stop listing all the things he’d never gotten to do. He would never finish school. He would never make a million dollars. He’d never figure out if he liked girls, or boys, or whatever. He’d never know who the hell his dad was. He tried one last time to picture the man, and found the image oddly similar to Ivan.
He would never even get to read the last Darren Hunter book.
Something cold and liquid flowed across Nick’s tongue, not that he felt it.
Consciousness cascaded over Nicholas like a bucket of paint thinner. He writhed, sensation rushing back into numb flesh. His fist slammed down on something. He heard a crack.
Nick gasped. The air was hot. Like he was breathing steam or car exhaust. His nose was bombarded with a thousand disparate points of information. Animals had died nearby, not long ago. There was a cluster of people not far away. He could smell ash and fresh water. Nick hadn’t realized fresh water even had a smell.
He was in a cave—shallow, but with a high ceiling. Nick’s eyes were like if HD cameras had been invented before colour, then jammed unceremoniously into his skull. Everything was deep shadow and blinding white. The ceiling twinkled with trace minerals like fossilised stars and nebulas in a rocky sky.
Nick groaned as he got to his feet. Were his senses making up for lost time?
“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
The voice almost deafened Nick. Without thinking, he swung around and hissed. Actually hissed. Like a cat.
The girl from Nick’s garage—the thing that had killed Marcus—was reclining on the cave floor, idly reading a Simpsons comic. She wasn’t covered in blood anymore. In fact, she wasn’t covered in anything. She was stark naked.
Nick sputtered. “You! What—who… why?”
The girl hopped deftly to her feet. She had a round quizzical face and small, slightly slanted eyes. Her skin was pallid, though Nick saw a hint of tan. Something Eurasian?
The girl smiled with surprising warmth. “Tabitha Lennox. Pleased to make ya acquaintance. It’s Nick, right?”
She was a wild looking creature. Her black hair was home to twigs and leaves, and her pale skin was mottled and smudged with dirt. Nick thought she looked like a girl from the Jungle Book.
That wasn’t the strangest thing about her. It was how she sounded: kinda. Sounds in general felt so strange now. Disorientingly strong. A distant cricket chirp was like someone smacking their hands against Nick’s ears. He could hear the people out beyond the cave. Talking to each other in the moonlight. Sharing cigarettes. Boiling something meaty on their fire. He could even hear their heartbeats.
Nick heard nothing from this girl. No subtle shifts in the stone around her as she moved. No telltale scent of sweat and food and grease. No regular rasp of breath. Not even a heartbeat. Things he knew to expect. Should have expected. Things he heard and felt and saw in his human life by the day and never knew he noticed till now.
She had none of it. Like a statue, wiped of life and substance.
“…Vampire?” he asked.
Tabitha grinned. “Yup.”
Nick narrowed his eyes at the girl. “Huh.”
Tabby tilted her head. “...You’re not scared of me?”
Nick frowned. “Girl, I was lying in a morgue. For days. I thought I was stuck in myself forever.” He shuddered at the memory. “I don’t think I’m gonna be scared of ‘vampires’ after that.”
He had so many questions. Big ones. Life-changing ones.
Big things first. “I really died, right? That wasn’t just a coma or something?”
She nodded. “Yeah.”
Ok. That was the most pressing issue covered. Now for the more immediate concern. “Why’re you naked?”
Tabby shrugged. “Clothes aren’t much use covered in blood. Where’s yours?”
Nick looked down and yelped. He was naked too. He glared at Tabitha. “What the hell did you do with my jacket?”
For some reason, Nick found himself more annoyed by the loss of his Neo jacket than the fact he was naked in front of a girl.
“Don’t look at me,” said Tabby. “Morgues don’t usually autopsy people with their shirt on.”
Oh yeah, that.
Nick examined himself further. His skin was ice-pale. A few scars had gone missing. A faded burn by his fingernail, a white line where he’d stepped on a broken bottle at the beach.
Huh, he wasn’t circumcised anymore. His poor grandpa was probably rolling in his grave.
Oh well, better him than Nick.
“So am I a zombie now, or what?”
“Nup. Vampire, just like me,” said Tabby. “I was gonna ask first, but I think you got a little of my blood in your mouth. Probably why you were dead so long.” She smiled wryly. “Usually only takes like, an hour if you do it right.”
Nick ran his tongue along his teeth. Two of them were much sharper than he remembered:
He laughed, a touch hysterically. “My Dad’s gonna be so mad!” Nick wasn’t sure that was a bad thing. “Dying sucks. This is way better.”
“Yep.” Tabby eyed the boy. “Especially when you’re what, ten?” She snickered. “Such a lil’ baby.”
Nick gave her a flat look.
“I’m older than you.”
Tabby grinned. “Dream on, I’m twenty five.”
“If you say so...” he muttered dubiously.
The girl looked like she was going to continue, but his stomach interrupted her by growling. She laughed again. “Want to go get some lunch?”
Nick blinked. “You mean like… people-lunch? I don’t even know how to bite people like they do in the movie. Is that how you bite people?”
He expected his stomach to turn at the idea. It didn’t.
Tabby shrugged. “I mean, if you want. I was thinking more whatever those campers are cooking.”
“Oh. Sure, I could eat.”
Part of Nick was relieved. Another part was a little put out. But he’d just woken up and there was a bunch of them, and he didn’t know what phone reception was like out here—
Before Nick could ponder this any further, Tabby was heading out into the night:
Nick’s first mistake was looking up. It was not one he regretted.
Nicholas was a city-kid. On an average night, he saw more airplane lights and satellites than stars. Tonight, though, the darkness was textured and veiled with light. The Milky Way was a wall of fire across the sky, giving off smoke trails of powdered stars. They weren’t just white, either. Nick could make out blue and red; yellow and blue.
Nick stood there, staring. “Wow…”
Nick felt Tabby tapping his shoulder. “You alright, buddy?”
“Huh? Yeah, I just… the stars. They’re beautiful.”
Tabby glanced up. “Huh. Guess they are.”
Nick hoped he never took that sky for granted.
The children crept through the trees, towards the smell of fire. Nick found himself hyper-aware of every sound they were making. Tabby was… surprisingly loud. She didn’t seem to care about the twigs and grass she was crushing underfoot. The way she disturbed the evening air was like shattering windows. And was she humming?
To human ears, Tabby was probably crypsis incarnate. To Nick’s, she was a boulder crashing through the forest.
Then Nick realized. He was sneaking. She was strolling. Why bring your A-game for a bunch of humans?
It was surprisingly easy to think about people that way now.
Not that it dimmed Nick’s mood. It felt so good to… feel again. He couldn’t stop playing with his hands and sniffing the air. His eyes drank starlight like water. The waxing crescent moon was as good as the sun. Nick could probably read by its light. He could see bugs the size of rice-grains crawling through the grass. But Nick could still tell where the trees cast deep shadows, even if he could make out everything within them. Something deep in Nick’s brain also told him a human being couldn’t see inside them.
It’s like a video-game.
Ten yards ahead, Tabby had stopped at the edge of the clearing. She beckoned Nick to her side:
“Easy marks,” Tabby whispered, too low for human hearing.
There were four humans sitting around a fire, avidly debating whether Leonardo Da Vinci was gay, autistic, or a secret heretic.
They were glowing. The campers’ veins were pulsing ruby rivers beneath their heavy autumn clothing. Their misted breath was neon smoke on the night air.
Nick subvocalized. “Um, Tabby. Why are they glowing?”
“Hmm? Oh, that’s just their body heat.”
Their scent was like music. Heat and fat and sweat.
“...I mean, come on, like the Vitruvian Man was made by a straight guy.”
Nick licked his lips. Tabby thumped him on the back.
“Easy, newbie. They look like they’d be missed.”
Nick bit his lip, noting the brand name on the jacket the closest one was wearing. “Yeah. They’ve got money.”
Wait, did he only not want to eat someone because it would be a hassle?
As best as he could, Nick tried to ignore the humans’ scents, focusing on the pot of thick, meaty broth bubbling over the fire.
“So how do we get it?”
“Well, I could go ‘round and make scary noises to draw them off.” Tabby gave her convert a waggish smile. “Or, you could just run in there and grab the pot, because you’re a vampire and they’re humans who can’t see for crap.”
“...Is that a dare?”
“Only if you think it is.”
Nick definitely did. He stretched out into a sprinting stance and shot out into the clearing, darting between two of the humans.
He grabbed the soup off the fire with his bare hands. The hot metal stung, but there was something missing from the pain. Some instinctive repulsion or basic need to flinch.
Nick could see the looks on the campers’ faces. Shock, confusion, but nothing like recognition. One of them had jumped to his feet, but nobody was saying “Where’d you come from?” or “Where the hell are your pants?” The two he’d run past were twisted in their folding chairs, still looking into the darkness Nick had sprung from.
The boy grinned to himself, remembering something his mother once told him. Hummingbirds are bold birds. They'll fly right up to you and make curious sounds at your Hawaiian shirt if it's red enough, all "Why no flower juice?".
They were bold because people moved in slow motion.
The vampire vanished back into the trees, leaving the campers with only two strains of ghostly laughter.
Nick set the stolen soup down on the cave floor and flopped onto his belly:
“Crap. We don’t have any spoons.”
Tabby threw the pot lid aside and dipped her fingers into the soup. “So?” she asked, shoving her hand into her mouth.
Nick gave the pot a look, before shrugging and scooping a handful of soup into his mouth.
God, eating soup with his fingers. Nick felt like he was in kindergarten again. Okay, a nudist kindergarten where you stole your food. A Spartan kindergarten? No, Tabby was a girl…
At least the soup still tasted good. Nick had half-expected it to taste like ash. Although, he was very aware of how much dirt had ended up in the pot.
Tabby ate with more enthusiasm. Nick could see the hot soup running down her gullet, like she’d swallowed molten metal. Now that he looked closely, the girl had the faintest blue aura, like Nick was looking at her underwater. Probably heat from all the moving about they just did…
Tabby noticed Nick’s examination. She looked down at herself. “I’m not the first girl you’ve seen all of, am I? Your house smelled pretty holy.”
Nick felt his cheeks burning. Apparently they could still do that. “Nah, it’s not that. It’s just… everything’s a lot more since I woke up.”
He wasn’t lying. Nick could even hear the campers speeding off in their truck.
“...Some fucking Blair Witch shit!”
The fading engine noises made part of Nick bristle, like a spider watching a fly buzz away.
Deal with that later.
“Egh,” Tabby muttered, tossing a gobbet of soup aside. “Freakin’ hate garlic.”
Nick snickered. “So we can touch that, huh? Figures.”
“Garlic? Sure. Sunlight sucks, tho. Doesn’t kill ya, but still.”
Nick considered that. “What about a stake to the heart?”
Tabby snorted. “Wood’s not hard enough.”
“But it’d kill you if it was, right?”
“What wouldn’t it kill? Cutting off our heads works too, before you ask.”
Nick grinned. “You know, it sounds like the movies got a lot of stuff right.”
Tabby laughed and flicked some soup into Nick’s hair. “Shut up! They’re full of shit!”
“I’ve heard that in the movies, too.” Nick crossed his fingers. “One more question. Bats—can we be those?”
“Nope,” replied Tabby. “Not to start with, at least. Where’s your movies now, huh?”
Nick’s shoulders slumped. Tabby poked her tongue out at him.
“Sorry.” Tabby smiled. “You’ll like this, though.” She leaned forward. “Think fur. Hard as you can.”
Nick shut his eyes and concentrated. His skin tingled—
Nick landed on all fours. The cave ceiling had risen above him. Nick tried to express surprise, but all that came out of his mouth was a shrill mewl.
Nick looked down. His hands had been replaced by chocolate brown paws.
Something flicked at the edge of Nick’s vision. He spun around, trying to get a look at the thing, but it kept slipping from his sight.
He felt something twitch. A new limb near the base of his back, long and flexible.
A tail, he realized. I have a tail. I’m a cat.
Before Nick could ponder this revelation, he was pounced on by a small tuxedo kitten.
The two kittens tussled in the earth, bodies twisting against each other. Nick batted his new paws and kicked his hindlegs against the other cat’s face, then sprang apart from Tabitha and hissed. He felt the fur on his back standing up. As angry as he sounded, he was having… an uncomfortable amount of fun. It was like being a tiger. A really tiny tiger.
The Tabby-kitten slammed into Nick’s flank and sent him rocketing into the cave wall. He barely noticed, too busy pouncing back at her.
For a moment, he worried that this might be permanent. No sooner had he begun to scrabble for his human form, however, than he reclaimed it.
He reverted to human shape under Tabitha. The kitten scrambled to avoid sliding off the boy’s side.
Nick laughed. “Why cats?”
Tabby became “human” again too, sprawling across the new vampire. “I don’t know. Why bats?”
“At least bats are scary! Kittens are cute.”
“Big bats, maybe. Have you ever seen a baby bat? They look like super-smiley rats!”
Nick slithered out from under Tabby, springing into a crouch and looking hungrily out the cave entrance. “Why are we still hiding in here? The humans are gone! I wanna see what I can do.”
Fireworks were going off in his blood. His muscles were Tesla coils. The world was a city built of cardboard boxes, and Nick was Godzilla.
He looked over his shoulder. “Race ya!”
Nick burst out of the cave, Tabby at his heels.
The trees blurred past Nick like brushstrokes. Running was no effort. Nick’s body just did what he told it to. He felt like he was flying—
He slammed head first into a pine tree. It didn’t hurt, exactly. He was more jarred by the sudden loss of momentum.
He picked himself up and examined the tree. Then it fell. Or, rather, the top part of it did. The base of the trunk was still fixed firmly to the ground, the top leaning backwards, the trunk splitting halfway to the core.
Nick cocked his head.
Nick climbed back to his feet, stepped forwards, wrapped his arms around the tree’s base, and pulled. He felt his feet begin to press into the soil. Then its roots shifted in the dirt—
When Tabitha caught up, Nick was holding most of a tree above his head, giggling madly as he tried to balance under the weight. He grinned wickedly at Tabitha:
Nick hurled the tree at Tabby. The girl leaped deftly over it. She landed on her feet with a pout. “That could’ve killed me!”
“...Okay, yeah, it wouldn’t—”
Another tree chunk bowled Tabby over. Nick was cackling like a demon.
He raised his palms. “No splinters!”
Tabby growled and snatched up a stone from next to her, chucking it overarm at Nick.
The boy blurred to the left. A tree behind him exploded into shrapnel.
Nick rocked on his heels and jeered, “Missed me!”
Tabitha pounced, digging a trench through the ground with Nick’s body, slashing at him with glassy nails.
Nick hit back. Ribs popped under his knuckles, but Tabby didn’t let up. The girl grabbed his right ear:
Nick threw his hands up. “Surrender!”
Tabby pulled away from Nicholas. She was breathing heavily with a huge grin. Nick could see the black bruises on her chest fade as he watched.
“...Are you really twenty five?”
Nick rubbed his chin. Then he picked up a branch.
He grinned. “Wanna rematch?”
Nicholas dreamed of forests made of steel and glass. Lampposts bloomed, scattering fairy fire seeds on the night wind. Beasts with metal hides and great yellow eyes drifted down rivers of shadow.
Nick swam through the flooded streets. He chased echoing footsteps, snatching prey from concrete shores down into his world. They thrashed in his arms as he gorged himself on their light—
Nick woke smoothly. No grogginess or cobwebs of sleep clung to him. The electricity in his blood still sung.
The boy was a little relieved. He’d half expected to wake up slow and stupid again.
Nick didn’t have to look outside the cave to tell it was dusk. He knew it in his bones. Tired birds cawed raggedly, and the night insects were just starting to stir.
Tabby had drawn Nick into a cuddle while they slept. Or had they started out that way?
Now that Nick thought about it, they’d been cats at the time. That made sense.
He slid out from Tabitha’s embrace, trying his best not to rouse her. She looked kinda sweet curled up like that. Plus, it was nice not being the oblivious one in the equation—
A hollow opened inside Nick. His mouth flooded with saliva. Intrusive images of kids from school and the Minister and strangers on the street flashed through his mind. He remembered how those campers had smelled:
Why’d you let them get away?
Half an hour later, Tabby wandered out into the gathering night, yawning and stretching grandly. Nick was sitting in front of the cave mouth, knees tucked under his chin.
“Morning, fledgling,” said Tabby, clapping her hands together. “So, I was thinking we could steal some clothes, head to the cinemas?”
In a small voice, Nick said, “I think I’m hungry. Really hungry.”
Tabby had hoped it’d be another night before she had to deal with this. She’d converted a few kids in her time, and the first feed was always a bit of an affair, at least in the lead-up.
Mentally, she summoned up her list of Local Assholes…
Police Sergeant Benoit sat backwards in his chair, watching the human lump curled up in the lockup cell with a kind of smug disgust. Cockroaches like Ivan Jones were why his job mattered.
He lowered his dark glasses and smiled poisonously. “You hear they found that poor boy you threw out your window, Jones? They’re adding murder to the docket.”
Ivan grunted, “I wish I had killed him. Nazi piece of shit.”
The rabble of misdemeanors and drunks whooped and jeered.
The sergeant smacked his knee. “You’re making our job real easy, boy.”
Ivan looked up from his miserable huddle. His bruised face was traced with crusty tears. “I don’t care. Do what you want to me. I deserve it.”
Crocodile tears. Juries and judges might eat that shit up, but not Harold Benoit.
Benoit stood up and folded his arms. “I’m glad you’re being cooperative. Why don’t you tell us what you gave the kid? What was it? Heroin? Ambien? Come on, boy, at least give his mom some closure…”
The other lockup guests started shouting:
Ivan cried out and threw himself against the cell-bars. “I didn’t give him anything! I’d never—” He slid down to the cell floor, his voice cracking with new tears. “Oh, God, Nick…”
Now he regrets it, Benoit thought contemptuously. Bit late for Nick Collins…
The policeman felt his phone vibrating in his pocket. He had a message from one “Jötunn”:
my boys are parked round finch and taylor.
Sergeant Benoit tapped out a response like a chicken pecking at dust:
Sending him on his way.
The message whistled off into the ether, almost drowning out Ivan’s low sobs.
Benoit clapped his hands. “Looks like it’s your lucky day, Jones.” He took a key from his belt and unlocked Ivan’s cell-door. They were supposed to have gotten electronic locks in years back, but the money kept coming up short. City Council probably paying punks to spray-paint alleys somewhere. “You’re free to go.”
The other detainees protested loudly:
“How come that fuck gets to walk?”
“He killed a kid! I wasn’t even drunk!”
Benoit banged his nightstick against the bars. “You all shut your mouths!”
Ivan looked up at the cop and slowly shook his head. “What do you mean ‘free to go’?”
“Just came through. Not enough to keep holding you, for now at least.” Benoit tutted. “Sloppy work.”
“But I’m guilty!” Ivan protested. “For fuck’s sake, my house is full of drugs!”
Benoit hoisted his suspect up, keeping one hand on the man’s shoulder and the other on his back. He drawled into Ivan’s ear, “See, boy, I know you’re guilty, and you know you’re guilty. But as far as the law of the land is concerned, until your day in court, you’re innocent.”
The cop started frog marching Ivan through the station. “So I don’t care where you take your ass, but you can’t stay here.”
Police officers glared at Ivan as they passed. A few muttered under their breath. Some, though, smiled at him. Like they were sharing some kind of joke. Ivan just kept his eyes on the ground. He deserved to be spat on.
Sergeant Benoit escorted him all the way to the sidewalk. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
And so Ivan Jones was left to his unwanted freedom. The streets were choked with people just leaving work, eager to get home before the lingering sun abandoned them. The sky promised rain.
Ivan started walking, though not towards Poplar Grove. He wasn’t walking anywhere, really. Maybe he would find a church and confess his sins till the priest punched him out. Maybe he would walk into a bar and pick a fight with the biggest, meanest bastard he could find. Maybe he would just walk and walk till his feet were bloody.
He saw Nick everywhere. Every boy that passed was his twin. His face stared out from every newsstand. Nick wasn’t alone, though. The Laflech Chronicle had seen fit to put Marcus’s picture on the front page, too. Not the ghoul Ivan had known, but a young Marcus, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old—clean cut and somehow less spotty than when he’d died.
It made Ivan sick. Like they were trying to pretend Marcus was worth mentioning in the same sentence as Nick. Like he was another kid and not a Nazi piece of shit.
Ivan’s righteous fury wilted back into shame while he waited at a crosswalk. Who was he kidding? He’d been perfectly happy to sell Marcus’s shit for him. To give the fucker money. To poison God knew how many people. To drag Nick into all this.
Ivan kept crossing the road whenever he came to an alley. He watched the crowds for shapes and movements that didn’t belong. The thing that killed Marcus—that probably killed Nick—didn’t fit into the world as Ivan knew it. Like a film reel spliced into the wrong movie. Every explanation he could think for what he saw made him feel like a fool. Or scared.
Perhaps he should’ve paid more attention to the traffic.
The white windowless van of suburban nightmares idled up beside Ivan. The side claimed it belonged to a flower company.
Its door slid open. A white-shirted man with a red walrus-moustache and neck-veins like ropes leaned out of the dark interior. The edge of a tattoo protruded from under his collar. “Hey buddy, need a ride?”
It took a second for Ivan to realize the man was talking to him. “Uh, hi. Do I know you?”
The man smiled darkly. “I’m Jötunn. Friend of Marcus’s.”
Ivan’s eyes widened. His legs tried to scramble into a run, but two young men cleaved from the crowd and slammed into Ivan’s back. All three of them fell into the van.
Jötunn slammed the door shut. The van swerved away.
Back at the station-house, a new message flashed across Sergeant Benoit’s phone:
we got him
Benoit smiled with grim satisfaction:
give em hell
Jötunn’s message zoomed in before the sergeant could click the street off:
Benoit’s reply was relatively constrained:
The rest of Sergeant Benoit’s shift passed in a righteous glow. Nobody at the station questioned Ivan Jones’ disappearance. Everyone knew Benoit had ways of making sure the scum got what they deserved.
Harold could always count on cousin Carl for that. They’d both ran with the Soldiers of Baldur until the outfit fractured over the Muslim question back in ‘91. Carl had taken to calling himself Jötunn and started up the Sons of Hel. Harold, meanwhile, became a cop.
A lot of Harold’s old pals didn’t like that. Some of them made Harold glad him and his weren’t listed in the phonebook anymore. Said he was selling out to the system. Another stooge for the Z.O.G. But Benoit always thought cops got a bum rap. Most of the cops he’d met knew deep down who the real troublemakers were, even if they didn’t say it out loud. The fucking courts and the media were tying their hands behind their backs.
Besides, it wasn’t as though Benoit had abandoned the cause. Without him and a few other officers scattered across Laflech’s precinct houses, life might’ve been a lot harder for folk like Jötunn.
“Hate-group.” Nobody called the Black Panthers a hate-group. The queers got a whole fucking parade every year. Why shouldn’t white kids have their own gang?
Benoit could take or leave the Viking stuff, though. Not like the Jews didn’t fuck over Jesus, too.
Night had fallen by the time the sergeant’s shift ended. The rain splattering against his car windshield made it look like a pane of stained glass. The water-blurred lampposts lining the streets were like saluting angels. The thin traffic gave him no trouble, as though the other cars were paying him deference.
It was a good day. Some shifts were nothing but paperwork and dealing with weaselly lawyers with names that ended in “stein” and “berg.” Today, though, he’d made a difference.
Maybe he’d take Jenny out to dinner.
The windows were dark in the Benoit house when Harold pulled into the driveway. The sergeant squinted as he got out of his car. Surely Jenny hadn’t gone to bed already?
No. She’d left the door unlocked.
Harold’s hand instinctively went to his sidearm. He opened the door slowly. A blue glow was pouring into the front hallway from the living room. Harold could hear the TV whispering.
Frowning, he tried calling his border-collie. “Blackie! Here boy!”
A single bark. Then a muted snap.
That sent Sergeant Benoit running inside, gun drawn.
Something tripped him, sending him sprawling to the ground. Harold twisted onto his back.
Sour bile erupted in his throat. Blackie was lying in an ugly heap in front of him.The dog’s neck was twisted clean around, sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling.
The sergeant got to his knees. Frightened, angry tears welled in his eyes.
Silhouetted against a Bewitched rerun, Harold saw his wife’s arm jutting out from the living room sofa.
He practically leapt to her side. Jennifer Benoit was sleeping like the dead with her reading glasses askew, breathing too low and too quiet. The skin around her mouth was stained red like a birthmark.
Harold shook his wife. “Jenny!” he shouted. “Jenny!”
A high, girlish voice cut in from the hallway:
“I wouldn’t bother, we gave her a lot of sleeping pills.”
Benoit’s mind went white. His body meanwhile pulled his glock from his belt and fired thrice into the darkness.
There was a thudding sound beneath the gunfire.
A naked, raven-haired little girl emerged into the light. Twin tracks of blood ran down her chest like lines on a map. The child shot the sergeant an ugly look. “You shot a kid? Guess the internet was right about you guys...”
It was like vines were growing around Harold’s veins. His gun-hand shook. “Wh—what?”
She looked down at the bullet holes. “Oh for Lilith’s—they’re gonna heal over!” The girl forced her fingers into her wounds, wincing and curling her toes as she dug around her insides. “Nick—ooch—grab the Nazi cop’s gun, thanks.”
A young, also unclothed boy materialized at Harold’s side. Before the cop could move, the new child reached up and plucked the gun from his hand with the ease of an adult confiscating a toy.
In an eyeblink, the boy was at the girl’s side, left hand behind his back while he twirled the glock in the right. He gave Harold a smug, impish smile. “Bonus points.”
The boy pulled his hand from behind his back, revealing Benoit’s phone.
Numbly, Harold patted his pockets. They were empty.
The girl—still searching her flesh for one of Harold’s bullets—whistled. “Smooth.”
The boy shuffled his feet bashfully, saying, “Thanks Tabs,” before crushing the phone in his hands and gazing hungrily at Benoit.
The two children looked like marble—if marble could flow as water. Their skin glowed nearly silver in the light of the television. Cold fire burned their eyes. But there was something recognizable in the boy’s body language. The way he was tapping his feet and playing with his hands. A kind of bubbly tension. Anticipation tinged with fear. Harold remembered his own son about to leave on his first date.
The girl threw the last splodge of metal behind her back and regarded her companion. “So…” She nodded her head at the sergeant. “You gonna eat him or what?”
Or when Harold first took him hunting.
The boy scratched the back of his neck. “I mean, yeah, of course. Is there… a ceremony? Do I say grace to the Devil first?
The girl rolled her eyes. “Why’s it always ‘the Devil’ with you Sethites?”
“Don’t call me a Sethite!”
“Do you even know what a ‘Sethite’ is, Nick?”
“...It sounds like they suck.”
Cultists, what was left of Benoit’s reason concluded. These kids were from some kind of cult, and this was all a sick initiation ritual. Probably Satanists. Benoit remembered hearing a lot about them in the 90s. Bastards probably had these kids hopped up on speed or PCP…
The boy shook his head and assumed a primal stance. “Okay, ready—”
Benoit charged at the children.
His world spun.
Harold felt the hardwood floor smack against the back of his head. The boy was perched on his chest. The man stared up at the child’s thin face. Something like recognition was bleeding through the fear and confusion.
What had that girl called him?
“Yeah,” he said, “you weren’t gonna leave this room.”
The boy opened his mouth, revealing two tiny, dagger-point fangs. He threw his head back—
The boy paused. His eyes flitted down at the sergeant. “...Huh?”
Nicholas snapped his hand around the cop’s chin. “How do you know my name?”
“I saw your picture in the report,” Benoit tried to say through forcibly pursed lips. “But… you’re dead.”
“He got better,” said the girl, still standing in the archway. “See, this is what happens when you don’t just eat them quick.”
Superstition instantly eroded Benoit’s rationalizations. He didn’t know if this kid was a ghost or a zombie or what, but he was clearly dealing with the angry dead. The policeman pleaded, “Kid, I get you’re angry. I would be too. But why are you screwing with me? With my wife?” He beat a fist against the floor. “For God’s sake, I did you a favour!”
Nick tilted his head and removed his hand from Benoit’s neck. “What favour? I’ve never even met you.”
Harold nodded for his life. “The fuck that poisoned you. Ivan Jones.” The cop gave a queasy, desperate smile. “My friends are going to make him pay, don’t you worry, Nick.”
The girl went, “Ooooh.”
Nick was silent for a moment. Then he leaned down and hissed in the man’s face. “I like Ivan.”
Nick got up and pinned Benoit’s head sideways with his foot. “What are you going to do to him?”
“I don’t know!” blurted Harold, eyes screwed shut. “That’s up to the boys!”
“Have your friends got him yet?”
Harold sucked in his lips.
Nick stamped his free foot. Benoit let out a scream as his wrist snapped.
“Where have they taken him?”
Benoit sucked in his lips, smothering a heave of pain. There was no way he was sending this thing after Jötunn. He was no coward.
“Want help with him?” asked the girl.
The Collins boy shook his head. “I’m good.”
Benoit exhaled sharply as Nicholas’ weight suddenly left his chest, only to shudder when he saw the child standing by the couch, holding up his drugged wife’s hand.
“Tell me where they are,” the boy demanded flatly.
Benoit got a very stupid idea:
“The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures!”
The children both winced. Black ichor seeped through the veins around their eyes.
The boy rasped something in a language Benoit didn’t recognize, yet felt more familiar to him than English:
“Agh. That fucking stings!”
The girl snarled. “Make him shut up!”
Nicholas put one of the woman’s fingers in his mouth, glaring a warning at the cop.
Nick winced, his teeth accidentally squeezing shut. Something crunched. The woman gurgled.
...Whoops. Roll with it.
“My friend told you to stop,” the boy said through a mouthful of flesh and bone. He shoved another finger in his mouth.
Harold Benoit yelled out, “Whistle Beach!” His head fell backwards. “They always go to Whistle Beach…”
Nick put a finger to his chin. The spider-web of corruption faded from his face. He glanced at his companion. “Think he’s telling the truth?”
The girl looked at Benoit.
“If you’re lying, we’ll be back for the rest of her fingers.”
“Yeah. I believe him.”
“How long do you think it’d take us to get there? If we really run?”
“Bout fifteen minutes.”
Nick looked back down at Sergeant Benoit. The police officer was sobbing with relief.
“Thank God, thank God…”
In an instant, Nicholas was upon him again. The boy sunk his new teeth into the man’s carotid artery. Screams rendered silent by the pressure on his windpipe.
It only took a second for Nick to break through the skin and flesh. Blood poured onto his tongue, surging with every beat of Harold Benoit’s heart. It was like a thousand birthdays at once. It tasted the way lightning and moonlight should. The blood was hot with life, but it made Nick feel as if he were surfing a strong, cold wave.
Bennot hammered his fists against Nick’s sides, but that did nothing to dislodge the vampire. He dug his nails into the man’s chest till blood beaded around his fingers. He tried to get his hands under the boy and shove him off, but he might as well have been pinned under a lead statue.
Cold spread through Benoit’s body like ice-water. What pain there was gave way to a deep emptiness as black clouds drifted in front of his eyes. With one last, weak push against his killer, his arms dropped for the last time.
Nick rose from the corpse as the flow finally stopped. Blood stained his chin and chest. He was breathing as deep and hard as he’d wanted to back in the morgue. Something like a smile was tugging at his lips.
Tabitha trotted to his side. “Taste nice?”
Nick nodded mutely. It definitely put that soup to shame.
Nick started when he saw the colour spread from the middle of his chest. In a few seconds, he was lively, Caucasion pink again.
“Hey, Tabby, why don’t I look dead?”
Tabby was watching the end of the Bewitched episode. “Hmm?” She glanced at Nick. “Oh, yeah, that happens when you feed. Comes in handy.”
Nick heard a beating noise, like a drummer boy marching further and further away…
“You hearing this?”
Tabby leaned sideways and put her ear over Jenny Benoit’s mouth. “Ah, looks like the wife kicked the bucket.”
“For real? You said five pills would just keep her under.”
Tabby shrugged. “Not an exact science.”
“I’m pretty sure it…”
Nick trailed off.
“Something the matter?”
That was it. There wasn’t. They’d just killed a lady they weren’t even gonna eat. By accident. And Nick was fine. He didn’t care. He’d bitten the Nazi-wife’s finger off without even thinking about it.
“If you’re feeling guilty or whatever,” Tabby remarked. “Then stop it. She married a Nazi. I’m guessing the human race isn’t much worse off without her.” She pointed at the dead dog in the hall. “I bet he was a bigger loss, frankly.”
Nick had snapped that dog’s neck. Because it’d barked at him. And he hadn’t even thought about it. Wasn’t hurting the animals the worst thing you could do?
Tabby sniffed at Mrs Benoit. “Still fresh.” She smiled to herself. “Mom always says, don’t waste food…”
As he watched Tabby tore into the woman’s neck, Nick pictured killing his mother. To rip her open and drink her insides.
Revulsion. He didn’t want to do that. He loved his mother. She was too good. He glanced back at Mrs Benoit, lying there without a windpipe.
He shrugged. Maybe that was the difference. His mother mattered.
Tabby’s hand threaded Nick’s. “Seriously. You doing ok?”
“Yeah,” he murmured. “It’s just—” he gestured to the Benoits’ remains. “I was expecting to feel something, you know?”
Tabby gave his hand a squeeze.
“Takes some getting used to. C’mon. Don’t want Ivan getting carved into a swastika or whatever.”
“Why shouldn’t I? He’s your friend, right?”
“... Thanks. You’re cool.”
Nick turned around and darted off, trying to hide his blush.. “Come on. We got Nazis to kill.”
“Now you’re talking.”