Waking up was like a labyrinth for Ivan. He kept dreaming of waking up in his apartment and making what passed for breakfast, only to realize he was still lying down. Then he’d try to raise himself up, right back into the same dream.
Eventually, though, Ivan managed to keep his eyes open. He was lying in a half-open sleeping bag in the back of Jötunn’s van.
But Jötunn wasn’t there. Jötunn wasn’t anywhere anymore.
Ivan’s left arm was in a rough sling. The many sore spots on his body were smothered by an unmistakable narcotic warmth. His mouth was parched.
Ivan looked beside him. There was an open bottle of water lying next to a packet of high-grade painkillers. He snatched up the bottle and drank greedily.
Hope I’m not hooked…
Thirst sated, Ivan got back to getting his bearings. Orange light and smoke-spiced air leaked in through the cracked van door. A young voice spoke in a language Ivan didn’t know he understood:
“...Why does meat taste better when you catch it yourself?”
Ivan slid the door open with his good arm, only to flop onto his belly against the metal floor as his strength abandoned him.
At least he could still look outside:
It was early morning. Dawn was about to burn darkness out of the sky. Nicholas and his new friend were sitting naked a few paces off in the middle of a small forest clearing, holding chunks of meat skewered on branches over a smouldering campfire. They smelt of seawater.
Nick looked towards the van and grinned. “Ivan! You’re awake!”
The girl waved enthusiastically. “Hey Ivan! I’m Tabby.” She looked smugly at Nick. “Told you I didn’t give him too many pills this time!”
Nick poked his tongue out at Tabby.
Ivan blinked. When he was done, Nick was at his side, helping him sit up with effortless strength.
Ivan managed to speak again. “Thanks for saving me guys.”
Is that what happened? Ivan mostly remembered a weirdly cute horror flick.
“No problem,” said Nick. The boy's smile softened. “That’s what friends are for.”
Guilt stung Ivan. He took a deep breath. “Nick. I—I’m sorry.”
Nicholas cocked his head. “For what?”
The poor kid still didn’t get it. What Ivan had gotten him into. “For everything.”
Tabby giggled behind her hand. Nick looked down at himself and beamed up toothily at Ivan. “Seems to me like it’s turning out pretty good so far.”
He squinted at Nick. His skin glowed like quartz in the firelight. And were those fangs?
Ivan had to ask. “Ah, Nick… are you on something?”
Nick and Tabby exchanged a smile. Then they recapped Nick’s afterlife:
“...So Tabby found me a cop to eat, and he was all ‘Don’t kill me, I gave Ivan to some Nazis for you, wah!’ so I made him tell me where you were…”
“...Okay, yeah, we can see and hear better. But that’s an easy guess!”
“...I don’t know, why are you wrapped up?”
Nick added, “Was too busy being amazing to find clothes anyway.”
After five minutes, Ivan nodded. “I getcha.”
Then he passed out again.
Nick lay in the back of the van, keenly aware of every bump and imperfection of the road below them. He had wanted to ride on top of the vehicle, but he’d relented when Ivan put his foot down. On the accelerator.
“So,” Nick said, “you’ve got two moms?”
“Yep,” Tabby answered from atop the stack of money they’d liberated from the Sons of Hel Fellowship Hall.
“Nice,” Ivan enthused from behind the wheel.
Tabby giggled. “Not like that. They’re twins.”
Tabby looked over at Nick, who rolled his eyes as hard as he could.
The van slowed and came to a stop.
“Uh, we’re here,” said Ivan. “You guys don’t want me to park a bit closer? We’re a ways off…”
“Only for humans,” Tabby retorted. “You ready Nick?”
“Yeah,” he said, hopping to his feet. “Let’s do this.”
Ivan got out and opened the van’s back doors. They were in the deserted parking lot of Carnival Park—roughly equidistant between Ivan’s apartment building and Nick’s house. Midnight reigned.
Ivan frowned concernedly at the children. “You sure we can’t find you some clothes before you do this?”
“We’re already breaking and entering,” said Tabby, shoving past the grownup.
Nick hopped out after his friend, adding “And we just killed a bunch of people.”
“...What’s streaking on top of that?”
Ivan groaned. “Yeah, I’m sure the cops are going to be real cool with finding a couple of nude, anemic looking kids in my windowless van!”
Nicholas squeezed Ivan’s hand. “I’m not gonna let anyone get you, Ivan.”
Ivan noticed the blood still stuck under Nick’s fingernails. Somehow, he didn’t feel reassured. “Thanks, buddy,” he said. “Just… try not to take too long, alright?”
Nick looked out onto the road, “We won’t.”
Nick and Tabby shot out of the parking lot and leapt clear across the street, landing in the alley between a deli and a smoke shop. They clambered up the sheer brick walls, small fingers digging into the stone like sand.
Nick’s hands curled around the lip of the roof as he hoisted himself up over the edge, landing in a crouch. A second later, Tabby sailed up over his head, alighting upright on her feet.
Nick grinned up at her. “Show off.”
They ran across rooftops, shadowed against the waning moon. The gaps between buildings might as well have been cracks in the sidewalk. Broken glass and the debris of forgotten places crunched harmlessly under their feet.
In less than five minutes, the two were standing on top of the strip-mall next to Poplar Grove. The window Tabby broke was covered by a sheet of cardboard. Far below, a dried patch of dried blood and shattered glass was cordoned off by yellow police tape. Much to Nick’s disappointment, there was no chalk outline of Marcus.
“Police don’t do that,” said Tabby. “Trust me, I’ve given them lots of opportunities. So, through the window?”
Nick nodded. He'd been sorely tempted to see if Saul the doorman would notice or care about his state of undress or sudden return from the dead, but Nick figured they didn’t want to draw any more attention to Ivan. Poor guy was still a wanted man.
Tabby lowered herself from an adjacent roof, hanging by her hands with her back against the neighboring wall. She pushed off from it with her feet, launching herself through the window in a semi-accidental pirouette. Nick opted for crawling down the wall like a spider.
The apartment was cold and empty, but Nick and Tabby could smell the lingering scent of coffee and tobacco smoke.
So much for forensics… thought Nicholas.
Tabby glanced about the living room and clapped. “So, essential supplies…”
Not long later, Nick was shoving a foam mattress and a duvet into Ivan’s arms.
Ivan tilted his head at the boy. There were a couple of game controllers taped to his chest. “Ah, buddy?”
Nick smiled brightly. “Don’t worry, I’m getting the console next trip.”
Ivan let out a small laugh. “Buddy, we’re going on the run, I think I can live without—”
The increasingly familiar sound of small feet landing on asphalt—a touch louder than usual.
Ivan glanced in the direction of the sound. By the looks of it, his plasma-screen TV had grown a pair of pale legs.
“I don’t think we’re gonna be able to bring your speakers,” said Tabby. “Sorry.”
Ivan sighed and cupped his jaw. “Just load it in.”
Once the children had successfully extracted Ivan’s valuables—along with some posters Nick dug—it was time for the second half of Operation Get-The-Fuck-Out.
Getting to their next staging ground required a touch more caution on Tabby and Nick’s part. They were traversing houses, not apartment blocks and commercial buildings. The pitter-patter of their feet might as well have been reindeer hooves. A smattering of insomniacs lingered on their doorsteps and patios.
Once, struck by an impulse, Nick stopped on one of the rooftops, just long enough for a woman smoking in the yard behind the house to look up.
The woman inhaled sharply. Nick waved.
He was gone before she could speak, or even be sure of what she’d seen. Nick wondered how many ghost stories he’d just birthed.
The windows of the Collins residence were dark, as if in mourning. The children sat on the roof of the house across the street. Nick swore he could hear his mother’s slow, steady breath...
He felt Tabby take his hand. “You know,” she said. “I could go in for you, if you gave me a list—”
“No, said Nick firmly. “I need to do this.”
The plan was simple:
- Get inside, grab his shit. Especially his coat.
- Hug Mom. Maybe kill the Minister, Nick wasn’t sure about that yet. He’d wing it.
- Get out.
Nick walked unerringly off the edge of the roof and landed on his feet without breaking his stride. As he crossed the street, Nick almost wished some of the stupider neighbour kids were around. Scaring the shit out of them would’ve been a very satisfying distraction. The fun kind of New Vampire Feelings. Ah. Who was he kidding. The old Nick would’ve liked it too.
“How do you want to do this?” Tabby asked at the front door. “Break the lock? Turn into cats—“
Nick groaned. “Dude. It’s my place. They keep a spare key under the doormat.” He slipped a hand under the “Bless This House” mat and pulled out said key. “Like so.”
Tabby grumbled as Nick unlocked the door. “Why do humans always stick it under there? So stupid…”
“Hey, you didn’t think of it.”
The pair walked into the wood frame house and gently shut the door behind them. They didn’t bother creeping—sleeping humans weren’t going to hear vampire footsteps.
Nick was stopped by the sight of the little mirror that hung above the key bowl. He was surprised to find it reflected him just fine. And was he always that pretty?
Tabby noticed Nick’s fascination. “Yeah, mirrors are fine. Cameras too. Pretty sure I’m on a few wackjob sites.”
“Shit,” said Nick, flexing his fanged mouth. “I was gonna make people think the Invisible Man was robbing game stores.”
The rest of the hallway wall was lined with pictures. A very grumpy, seven year old Nick on his first day of Bible camp. The big golden cross above the lodge door in the background made his older self wince:
He shook himself. Freaking Minister. Ruined my whole summer…
Yeah. That was it.
“Oh my God…”
Tabby had found the Collins family portrait. An actual portrait. The Minister had taken them to a studio and everything. Frank Collins was in a dark blue suit like he was running for state rep, while his immaculately coiffed wife beamed in a white dress. The only thing that spoiled the image was—instead of a gaggle of painfully blond children—they just had Nick standing tight-lipped between them in a periwinkle suit, like he was very early to his senior prom.
Tabby somehow giggled in the ultrasonic range.
Nick had his shoulders hunched. “Shut up…”
“It’s like when humans put their dogs in sweaters!”
Mentally, Nick added another point in favour of “Kill the Minister.”
One of the pictures, though, was from before the Minister. His mother on some couch, smiling down at a two year old Nick in her lap. He’d asked about that photo, once. Apparently it’d been taken while they were crashing at a friend’s.
She looked so tired.
Mercifully, Tabby took him by the shoulder and drew him into the kitchen. “Come on, we’re burning night—”
Tabby’s hand slipped. She fell hard unto the linoleum floor and started twitching. The veins of her face became choked and blacked. A growling gurgle escaped her throat.
Nick’s eyes widened. “Tabby—”
Tabby just barely managed to raise her hand. “Nick, don’t—”
Nick collapsed the second he stepped into the kitchen. He felt his blood go stagnant inside of him. His bones were rusted steel. He tried to raise himself, but a giant was pressing his thumb on his back.
Nick’s eyes darted frantically around him. There was dirt beneath his skin. Tabby was lying in front of him, curled and shaking with her eyes screwed shut.
Sourness radiated from every corner of the kitchen. The framed and stitched psalms and Bible verses on the walls. Christ crucified on the refrigerator. Nick could hear the echoes of a hundred thousand prayers.
The boy whimpered as his skin started peeling. Something vaster than time and stronger than death was staring down at him, its eyes unblinking, scorching stars. Its voice boomed in Nick’s skull like the knelling of monstrous bells.
Nick was a flea between its fingers. And it hated him.
Tabitha barely managed to clamber to her knees.
She’d felt the old bastard’s spite before. Nick hadn’t.
Tabitha slowly crawled towards him, her hands and feet living bloody prints behind her.
Nick gasped. “Tabby… what’s—”
His words died with a pained heave. It was the closest he could manage to a scream.
Tabby reached out and took Nick’s hand, even as the loss of support made her fall flat on her stomach. The girl tried to pull them both out of the kitchen—out of this black hole of faith— but it was like pulling a lead weight across Jupiter.
Reluctantly, she let go of her new friend’s hand.
Tabitha wrenched herself back out into the hall. She staggered shakily to her feet. Every inch of her skin felt raw and scoured. The scorn of the Father.
Nick keened quietly behind her.
“It’s watching us…”
Tabby didn’t look back at Nick. That’d make it harder to help him.
She rubbed her hands in nervous thought. What could she do? Somehow desecrate everything holy in that kitchen? Find a broom and roll Nick out like a penny from under the couch?
Nick let out a low whine. “Mommy...”
Tabby didn’t know if Nick was making a suggestion, but it was an idea.
Tabby climbed the staircase slowly, leaning on the bannister all the way. Every step fell on hot knives. It’d been ages since Tabby had gotten so sanctified.
She heard capillaries breaking in Nick’s eyes and skin. The boy didn’t even scream.
Lilith, how many stairs did this house have? Was this how being human felt? Everything hurting? Weighed down by His disdain?
Tabby weakly opened the door to the master bedroom. She was nearly bowled over by a fresh wave of holiness. She smelled her hair begin to burn.
A cross hung above the bed like a lump of divine uranium. But that was just a reagent. The true source of Tabby and Nick’s pain was lying like a snoring mountain under the bedsheets.
Tabby could smell the fat clogging Frank Collins’ arteries. The staid medicines in his blood. The general stench of ever-increasing decay. Such a human shouldn’t have been able to do anything to Tabitha’s kind. But slavish, unwavering faith burned inside him like plastic in a bonfire. Were Mr. Collins awake and wielding that crucifix, he probably could’ve held off Tabby, her mothers, and her siblings all at once. His blood would’ve melted through her mouth.
Nick had mentioned his dad was a minister, but he’d never told her he believed this much. A psalm from this bastard might even be enough to kill her.
Frank Collins wasn’t why Tabby was here, though. She shut her eyes tight and forced herself into the bedroom.
Valerie Collins, née Robinowitz was woken by something squeezing insistently on her arm, leaving sticky smears with every try. She startled when she felt the small hand clasped over her mouth.
There was a girl kneeling next to the bed. Her eyes were closed, and her skin was spider-webbed with black veins:
“Don’t”—her face twitched—“wake your husband.”
Down in the kitchen, Nick couldn’t even summon the strength to writhe. It hurt to look at anything, but the dark behind his eyelids hurt, too. His soul thrashed inside him like a rabbit in a snare. Fire and thunder bellowed down at him.
I’m in Hell—this is what Hell feels like—
A click. Nick hissed as light exploded across his eyes.
A soft, uncertain voice:
Nick barely managed to roll over. A woman’s silhouette loomed in his whited-out vision.
Nick felt his mother hoist him up into her arms. The pain subsided slightly, like his mom was blocking the sight of whatever hated him so much. He nuzzled his head against her neck
“What’s wrong with him?”
“That room,” Nick heard Tabby say. “Too much God. Get him out of there!”
Valerie rushed out of the kitchen as fast as she could with her burden. Nick sighed as he felt the thing look away from him, leaving only a bone-deep ache.
Val eyes darted between the strange girl sprawled at the foot of the stairs and her resurrected son. Nick’s skin was seeping blood. His eyelids were fluttering.
She couldn’t feel him breathe.
“What—how do I fix this?”
Tabitha asked, “Is there any room in this house your husband doesn’t… pray in?”
Valerie bit her lip, trying to ponder the girl’s question without falling into the trap of processing all this.
It didn’t take long. “The attic.”
Nick’s mother carried him up the stairs.
“Hey… Mom,” he said quietly. “Not dead.”
Valerie kissed him on the forehead. “I know, Nick,” she said, voice quivering with desperate, uncertain joy. “I know.”
Tabby was strong enough to jump up and tug the pull-cord for the attic stairs. The three of them climbed up into the unhallowed dark.
Valerie lay down next to Nicholas, letting her boy wrap his arms around her.
Sleep was good.
Nick awoke with soft, cool moonlight on his face. There was a pillow under his head.
The next thing he noticed were steady, human lungs.
Valerie stroked his hair. “Hi.”
Nick pivoted upright and hugged his mother tight.
Val winced a smile at her son’s vice grip. “Jeez, you’ve gotten strong…”
Nick released her immediately. “Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean—”
His mother laughed. “I’m fine, Nick. Just let a gal get in a breath in her lungs, kay?”
Nick buried his head in his mom’s chest again, not daring another hug. He took in her scent, the sweat and blood under the peach perfume she liked. He could feel her pulse through her shirt. When Nick looked up at her face, he could make out the pores in her skin, thin scars invisible to the human eyes, the furrows and crypts of her dark irises.
It should’ve been weird, seeing and feeling his mom this way. Nick’s senses were meant for hunting and killing. But to be able to see her, absolutely…
“I love you,” Nick murmured.
“Don’t have to tell me, hon.”
Nick drew away from his mom. “Look, Mom, something happened—”
Tabitha was leaning against a stack of boxed Christmas decorations, arms folded with a wry smile. The holy marring of her skin had healed completely and perfectly.
“I already told her.”
Nick’s eyes widened at Tabby. He squeaked, “You did?”
Nick looked back pleadingly at his mother. “Mom, please, don’t—”
Valerie embraced her son, patting him on the back. “Nick. It’s fine.”
“You’re alive, Nick. It’s the best thing.”
“But God hates me…”
“God can think whatever he likes. I’m your mom. And even if I wasn’t, you’re a great kid.”
Nick found himself giggling. “No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.” Val’s expression became sobre. “Just tell me, this vampire thing. Do you like it?”
She was talking like she could do something about it. Like she could wipe away vampirism like crumbs around Nick’s mouth.
Not that he’d let her.
Nick smiled. “It’s great. Really great.”
“That’s all I need to know.”
“Your ma’s cool,” said Tabby.
“I know,” said Nick.
Tabby pointed at a couple of suitcases lying near the attic doors. “She packed for you and everything!”
A silence fell over the attic, or what passed for silence when you could hear spiders spin their webs.
“You think I should go?” Nick asked.
“Wasn’t that the plan?” replied Val.
“Yeah but… you know now. And you’re not even freaking out.”
“She knows,” said Tabby. “Your dad doesn’t. And he can kill you with an old poem.”
Valerie nodded. “I wouldn’t tell your father. He can… jump to conclusions.”
Nick growled. The Minister was keeping him from his mother. He’d eat his tongue, tear his lungs from his chest, send him up to meet his stupid God. A thrown rock from across the street, maybe—
Val folded her arms. “Nick. Honey. Really?”
Nick’s shoulders slumped.
Okay, the Minister got to live. As long as Mom said so.
“Stupid stepdad aside,” added Tabby, “You’re also, you know, a vampire. You won’t hit puberty for like, ten years.” She cocked her head and nodded at some inner thought. “I guess if you hid up here for thirteen years you could pretend to be your younger brother.”
Nick groaned. “Ten years? It’s gonna suck.”
Val smiled. “Eh, you’ll stay cute longer.”
“Of course you think that…”
Valerie put a hand on Nick’s knee. “Honey, I’m still your mom. I’ll still be your mom even if you’re a little ways off. Think of it like… boarding school.”
“Only without the school!” Tabby added brightly.
“But I’ll miss you.”
“Phones exist, hon. And planes, and cars.” Val jabbed a thumb towards Tabby. “Tabitha here says she’s loaded. They can pay for my flights.”
Nick shot the other vampire a questioning look. “You’re rich?”
“Yep,” said Tabby, examining her fingernails.
“You don’t even wear clothes.”
“That’s the big people’s job.”
Valerie gave her son a sly smile. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to go stay with the rich vampires.”
“...Yeah. I really do.”
Val clapped. “Then it’s settled. You’re going on a road trip. Oh!” She got up and bustled over to the suitcases, picking up a mass that unfurled into a leather coat. “The hospital gave us back your coat.”
Nick pumped his fist. “Yes!” He ran over to his mother and stepped into the coat.
“You want to put on anything under that coat, hon?”
Nick tilted his hand. “Eh. Ivan’s gonna—oh shit! How long was I out?”
“All day,” answered Val. “It’s eleven o’clock.”
“Don’t worry,” said Tabby as she joined Nick’s side. “I slipped out and told him what was happening.” She snorted. “My skin was still all bleedy. Shoulda seen the look on his face...”
“Still,” said Val. “Shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
The three of them trooped down to the first floor, Nick and Tabby effortlessly carrying the well backed bags.
As they walked out the hallway, Nick noticed a bed sheet hanging in the kitchen doorway. The photo of him at Bible camp had been turned to face a wall.
Nick smiled gratefully at his mother. “Thanks, Mom.”
Val shrugged. “It was easier than putting those covers on all the outlets.”
Tabby stood impatiently on the front lawn, hopping from foot to foot while Nick said goodbye on the front veranda.
He jumped up and kissed his mother on the forehead, hugging her when his feet hit the ground. “Promise me you’ll keep writing.”
“And that you won’t let the Minister walk all over you.”
“Nick, I can take care of myself. Now, promise me you’ll have fun out there.”
Nick grinned up at Val. “Definitely. Love you, Mom.”
Val ruffled his hair. “Love you too.”
“Come on!” said Tabby. “It’s not that late!”
Nick looked between Tabby and his mom.
Valerie tilted her chin. “Get going.”
Nick turned around and ran after Tabby.
His mother knew he was okay. She was cool with everything.
He was free.
Valerie Collins watched the two of them disappear into the night.
It was going to be hard, mourning her son.
She wasn’t even sure if she’d be pretending.