In the middle of a dusk-blue field, Nicholas Robinowitz bore a red convertible across his shoulders like a second, more American, Jesus Christ. Under his breath, he counted:
“Two hundred, ninety-nine Magnolias… three hundred Magnolias…”
Right. Five minutes and he still wasn’t getting tired. That seemed like a scientific length of time to lift a car. Plus, Nick was getting bored.
The young vampire dropped the car behind him and strolled over to the flat rock he was using as a writing desk. He picked up his pen and notebook and curled his tongue in thought.
“Let’s see, Google says that the average ten year old can lift…” Scratch scratch. Vampire memory made this a lot easier. Not as much as a phone would have, but hey, Nick wasn’t going to complain about yet more vampire superpowers. “A Fiat Charismo weighs one point five tonnes, and I can probably lift two, so that makes me…” Scribble scribble, math-math. Nick whistled. “Okay, interesting. Wonder how far I can throw ‘em.”
A couple of days after his field trip with Agatha, Nick started asking the Moms and the other kids about the actual limits of the vampire condition. What’d he’d gotten was a lot of guesstimates and shrugs. Or vaguely poetic religious allusions, in Agatha’s case. Or bragging, in Tabitha’s.
This annoyed Nick. He wanted to know mathematically how awesome he was. So, he decided to go out and do the scientific thing. He didn’t tell anyone. Gren and Zeke didn’t seem like they’d have the patience for proper tests. Tabby would’ve turned it into a contest.
Most of all, Nick wanted to surprise Agatha.
So far, he’d spent fifteen minutes sitting at the bottom of a pond (raw fish were surprisingly yummy) , read an X-Men comic from a hundred yards, and cut a deep gash across his chest without flinching. It’d closed without a trace in less than five minutes. If Nick had had a phone, he would’ve seen how far away he could hear it, but no…
In short, Nick had determined that he wasn’t Superman strong, but he could definitely take the Thing in a fight. He probably could beat up Spider-Man and drink that dork’s sweet, sweet radioactive blood. There was a thought: if you drank a superhero’s blood, did you get their powers? Nick bet Ivan would have strong opinions.
The Fiat Charismo landed grill-first in the long grass, its bonnet crumpling like tinfoil. To Nick’s surprise and disappointment, the car did not explode. Wasn’t like he was planning on giving it back. Nick sighed, dug a line in the dirt with his toe, and fished the tape-measure from his equipment pile.
He’d thrown the car twenty yards, more or less. Science was fun. Nick jotted the feat down, right next to the fact his kitten self weighed about as much as a regular cat.
Right. Nick had delayed gratification long enough. Time for the speed test.
Nick exchanged the tape-measure for a stopwatch. He looked down at his jacket. Would the wind resistance slow him down enough to compromise the results?
Eh, it was for science. And the wind did feel nice…
Nick threw the jacket on top of the rest of his testing stuff and kneeled in the grass like a ready tiger, thumb on the watch’s start button.
Nick pressed down.
He’d already gone from zero to thirty by the time the numbers started counting up. No crashing into trees this time. It wasn’t like the world was moving in slow motion. Nick’s brain just saw stuff coming before he did.
Yellow grass and tired blue sky blurred together on either side of the boy. Windshear that should’ve peeled off his skin only tickled. Quick hops over rocks sent him sailing through the air, only for Nick to land on his feet without skipping a beat. A delighted yell escaped his pretense of dignity.
Nick skidded to a stop next to the highway sign he’d preselected, his feet digging a trench in the gravel girding the road. The same instant, he pressed “stop” on the watch.
Nick checked his time. He’d run two miles in one minute. To his knowledge, the going standard for human athletes was eight times that. He pumped his fist.
He tried to beat his time on the way back.
As he approached his field, Nick caught a new scent in the air. A moment later, he spotted someone sitting on his writing rock. They were reading his notes.
Nick stopped dead in his tracks and shouted across the field, “Hey! Those are private!”
The figure looked up from the notebook. Nick flinched. For a second, he'd thought it was Shadow back for round two. But no. This boy had broader shoulders. The skin around his nose was lightly dusted with faint, corn seed freckles, and his hair was a darker shade of blond. Marmalade instead of dandelion. He was also naked, bar what looked like a Batman utility belt around his waist. It even had the symbol.
“Hi,” he blurted, pointing at the ruin of the Fiat Charismo. “You the one who smashed the car?”
“Yes,” Nick growled, trying to make the answer sound threatening as possible. “It was easy.”
“That’s cool,” said the boy. He waved Nick’s notes in his hand. “I like your book!”
Nick bounded over and snatched the book. “They’re scientific records!”
“Oh? What for?”
Nick rolled his eyes. “I want to figure out how strong we are. Vampires, I mean.” Nick titled head. “You are a vampire, right?”
Nick wondered when “monster” had become his default for new acquaintances.
The boy smiled, revealing tell-tale fangs. “Yep! You the new Lennox?”
“Yeah,” said Nick, a touch warily. “You heard about me?”
“Shadow told me about you,” replied the boy. “Said you knocked one of his teeth out before he kicked the shit out of you.”
Nick frowned. “You know Shadow then?”
“I’m his uncle.”
Nick quirked an eyebrow. “You look the same age.”
The boy looked blankly at him. “So?”
Oh yeah, immortal. Nick guessed that for vampires uncles might as well be cousins.
The boy hopped off the rock. “I’m Danny.” How did Shadow have an uncle named Danny?
“Nick.” He glanced at Danny’s belt. Sometime, Nick thought, he really had to figure out a way of scientifically testing why looking directly at another boy’s junk no longer bothered him. Or maybe why it did in the first place. “So, Capeless Crusader, what’s with the belt?”
Danny reached into one of the belt’s pouches, removing a sleek looking smartphone. “Naked doesn’t have pockets.”
Nick’s jaw dropped. Danny might as well have been holding the Holy Grail. “You have a phone?”
“Yep,” said Danny, already looking down and tapping away at the device.
“That you can use the internet on and apps and stuff?”
“...Yes. It’s a phone.”
“But you’re a vampire!”
Danny cocked his head, still not looking at Nick. “Do humans think we can’t use phones and stuff? ‘Cause we can.”
Nick groaned. “No, I mean—I thought vampires were like, Amish, or something?”
“Tabby and Zeke and Gren don’t have phones.”
Danny shrugged. “I’m not Tabby or Zeke or Gren?” He looked down at himself. “Two of those are kinda obvious.”
Nick couldn’t tell if Danny was trying to joke or not.
“My mommy and daddy likes me to call them and stuff. Oh! Should tell them about you.” Digitized keyboard clicks.
Nick narrowed his eyes. He leapt, landing at Danny’s side and reading over his shoulder. He scowled at the message:
“Found a weird boy throwing cars and stuff? I’m trying to do science!”
“What’s wrong with being weird? People call me that a lot.”
“Want some science help?”
“Do you know what science is?”
“That thing the beardy humans on TV do when they explode stuff.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Close enough.” He held up the stopwatch. “Do you know how to use one of these?”
Nick sighed. “Okay, so—”
Danny’s fingers danced across his phone. He raised the screen to Nick. “My phone has a timer anyway.”
Nick blinked. Then he nodded. “Good, good”—he smacked his lips—“good.”
Nicholas turned on his heels. “If I run all kitten-shaped, could you keep up? Enough to keep sight of me?”
Danny shrugged. “Probably. Unless you’re like, Tabby or Shadow fast.”
“Nope,” admitted Nick. “Not sure if I’m slow or just normal for a vampire.”
Danny grinned. “I can tell you!”
“Sure. So, count of three? Start on ‘Go’?”
“You’re the boss.”
Nick shrunk into cat-shape. Suddenly, he was standing in a forest of gold.
He heard Danny start counting:
Nick stretched out his front paws, back legs ready to spring forward.
His whiskers twitched. He suddenly wondered if grown-up vampires could grow beards. Or were they like elves?
Nick purred, trying to focus.
Nick’s first bound rocketed him through the tall grass. It was a full three seconds before his paws touched the ground again.
He was a tiny, furry missile. Nick blasted through trees like they were cardboard cutouts. The wind roared in his tiny ears, but he could still hear Danny gamely maintaining speed behind him, phone no doubt in hand.
If Nick could’ve grinned, he would have.
He swerved about and pushed himself harder, trying to shake the still boy-shaped vampire. Admittedly, that would’ve defeated the whole point of the exercise, but cat brains weren’t the best for clear decision making. At least, that was Nick’s theory so far.
Not long later, a kitten shot straight through the highway sign, leaving a hole the size of a large man’s fist.
Nick shifted back mid-flight, landing on his feet. By the time his momentum died, he was buried up to his ankles. He turned around to find Danny jogging towards him, waving his phone in the air.
“I stopped the count when you hit the sign! Is that okay?”
Nick smiled. “All good! What’s my time?”
Danny squinted at the screen. “Fifty-three seconds.”
Kitten vampires were faster than boy vampires. Did the vampire magic or whatever not have to work as hard when there was less Nick to accelerate? But then that got Nick wondering where the rest of him went—
Nick shook his head. The theoretical stuff could wait. Nick looked over at Danny. “So… wanna do some more science?”
Danny’s eyes widened. They did that more than he smiled. With a kind of monotone excitement, he shouted, “Sure!”
The first test the boys collaborated on was an arm wrestling match on the flat stone. This was of course to determine the strength variable between two roughly same-aged vampire males.
Nick’s nose was wrinkled with exertion. He thought he was on the brink of sweating. Danny meanwhile had his gaze locked on their clasped hands, seemingly willing the other boy’s arm to wilt.
He is Shadow’s uncle…
Nick’s hand was about to brush against the stone when a chirping sound filled the night air.
Danny’s grip slackened momentarily. “Mommy!”
Nick leapt on the opening, slamming Danny’s hand down so hard it split their stone table down the middle.
Nick leapt up, arms raised. “I win! I am the uber-vamp!” He plucked up his pen and notebook up from next to him and jotted down, “Nick is better than Danny at arm-wrestling.” He dotted the full stop with great emphasis.
“I’m not sure that counts,” Danny said neutrally, reading a text message. He glanced sideways. “So, ah, my mom’s made lunch. Do you wanna come have some?”
Nick looked down at Danny. The other boy still wasn’t looking at him. “Sure. Wait, you don’t live like, in another state or something? I don’t think Tabby’s moms want me going off like that yet.”
“Nah, just a few miles away.”
Nick had never been invited to another boy’s house before. Well, he supposed Zeke was another boy, but Tabby was the one who did the inviting. And never just to visit. It felt weird.
Weird, but nice.
Nick smiled. “Sure, buddy.”
Stars and darkness reigned as Danny and Nicholas walked through the forest together. Danny was the first kid-pire Nick had met who didn’t run everywhere. Even counting himself, honestly. Just walking outdoors still made Nick feel like a blocked up firehose.
Danny chewed on a fruity-nut bar he’d procured from his utility-belt, which Nick was beginning to think was the perfect compromise between nudity and pockets—that didn’t involve badass leather jackets with nice airflow, at least.
“So,” Danny said, mouth full. For whatever reason, he seemed to be making sure to keep a few paces ahead of Nick. “Why’re you doing all that science?”
“I want to understand… us, I guess. We don’t make much sense.”
“...How do we not make sense? I think we make sense.”
Nick was amazed. How could a kid with proper internet access not get it? “Why can some of us do magic stuff?”
“...Tabby can freeze things with her mind.”
“Oh! You mean blood gifts?”
“They have a name?”
“Yep. You know how the Old Father can do whatever he wants, pretty much? It’s like that, just… less.”
“We can do magic because God invented us?”
Great, another creationist.
Wait. Nick had grown up on the internet. He’d debated this type before. Well, trolled this type, anyway. And Danny wasn’t his sorta girlfriend or sorta adopting him.
“Okay,” said Nick, smiling as the argument occurred to him. “If we have powers because God made us, why don’t the humans have any?”
Danny’s answer was quick and unforced. “The Old Father cursed them for eating the fig.”
“...The fruit was a fig.”
Religious weirdos always had an answer ready, didn’t they? Nick felt like he was watching one of the Minister’s DVDs about evolution. The kind where pretend archeologists and dudes in dinosaur costumes talked about giraffe necks. “Why do we turn into cats? Lilith didn’t even make vampires with cats, the Moms said.”
Danny thought about it. “...I don’t think anybody knows.”
“Did being human make sense?”
Nick stopped walking for a moment. “What?”
Danny repeated the question, with no particular emphasis. “Did being human make more sense than being a vampire?”
Nick tried to remember what being human felt like. It was surprisingly difficult. So many things he felt back then felt completely nuts now. He used to care that other boys at school were bigger or stronger than him, for one. If Tabby had been in his life, her being tougher would’ve been the most embarrassing thing imaginable. Why? Why would his girlfriend being awesome have made him feel bad?
He hated it when his mom hugged him in public. Because he thought idiots would think he was soft. That didn’t make any sense, either. Now he just wished he could give her a hug at all.
And he’d avoided kids like Danny, because of what other kids he hated would think.
No, being human didn’t make sense.
Still, Nick wanted to know why Bronze Age poetry could make his flesh boil on his bones. He missed burgers. And it kind of sucked that clothes itched.
“...No, not really,” Nick finally answered. “About the same, really.”
“Thought so,” replied Danny. If there was any satisfaction in his voice, Nick couldn’t find it.
A few minutes of companionable silence later, the boys came upon a small sandstone cottage nestled in a clearing. Its garden was populated by winter-barren fruit-plants and rose bushes. The lights were all off, but Nick could make out the glow of a television (or a computer, he dearly hoped) in one of the windows.
“Nice place,” Nick remarked. “I kind of expected you to live in a spooky old mansion like the Lennoxes.” He quirked a shoulder. “Or a cave, maybe.”
“A cave?” Danny held up his phone. “Where’d I charge this?”
Nick still couldn’t tell if Danny was making jokes or not.
The door of the cottage had a shepherd’s crook hanging on it. Nick had gathered this was the vampire cross: the staff of Abel the shepherd. Sadly, as far as Nick knew, it didn’t make vampire hunters melt.
The two walked into the cottage, Danny crying, “Mom, Wanda! Home!” He grabbed Nick’s arm and raised it. “I brought a new friend!”
A honey blonde, handsome boned vampire lady in a purple top and black shorts bustled into the dim sitting room. She smiled brightly at the children:
“Hello darling.” She gave Danny a quick, tight hug, before treating Nick to an only slightly shorter, marginally less tight embrace. “You must be Nicholas. Agatha and Winona’s new boy?”
“I’m staying with them for a while, yeah,” Nick said, cheek pressed against the woman’s shirt.
“Call me Audrey.” Audrey looked over at the sitting room’s couch, a shadow against the light of the TV. “Wanda, don’t be antisocial.”
A young woman—maybe twenty—rose from the couch. She was the same shade of baby duck blonde as Shadow. In fact, she and Shadow shared a lot of features. Same eyes, same nose.
Not the breasts, though. She was utterly naked.
“Hey bro, hey new-fang” she said absently, “run into anything neat, Dan?”
That got a grin out of Danny. “Me and Nick did some science!”
Nick meanwhile was hoping Wanda didn’t notice him looking at her. He hadn’t seen a naked vampire who’d made it past puberty before. Winona was too fond of her dresses and Agatha seemed to regard cat-shape as vaguely frivolous. It was odd, seeing a grown-up so at ease in their skin.
Also, it turned out a lot of people on the internet had no clue what breasts looked like outside of clothes.
“Right,” said Audrey. “Dinner.”
Dinner was a spread of mangoes, tomatoes, and vegetables arranged around fresh fish fillets cooked to just barely above raw, drizzled with a light lemon sauce. Nick found it vaguely comforting that vampires could actually make good meat dishes.
“...Wait, the president was in a car chase?” asked Nick.
“Yep,” said Wanda. “Got impeached again, too.”
“Did they convict?”
Wanda smiled, raising a glass of wine. “What do you think?”
Nick grinned. So this was what news was like. He’d kinda forgotten what humans got up to when he wasn’t eating them. He’d definitely got off that train at the right time. “So, is Shadow around?”
“Afraid not, sweetie,” said Audrey. “He headed back with Garret yesterday.”
Part of Nick was disappointed. The parts below his waist were not. He looked at Wanda. “Is Shadow your son?”
“Loosely speaking, yes.”
“Was he always batshit crazy?”
The table went very quiet. Danny was looking down very intently at his fish.
Danny’s phone whistled. Nobody objected to him taking it out and reading the text at the dinner table. Nick was beginning to feel like he’d joined the wrong vampire coven.
“Oh, Rick’s online. May I be excused?”
“Of course, dear,” said Audrey. “Don’t want him to lose interest.”
Nick asked, “Who’s Rick?”
After helping clear the table, Danny led Nick to his room: a dark cave of electronics and RGB rainbows. He had three curved monitors, each showing different social media profiles.
“The internet’s great,” said Danny. “Lotsa weird humans who like kids the wrong way.”
Nick scrolled through weeks and pages worth of sketchy correspondence. Danny had spun a detailed tale of parental neglect, religious suffocation, underlined by strange longings and curiosities for an insurance salesman in Trimountaine.
The young vampire had also sent the man photos that almost made Nick remember shame. The worst part was the way Danny smiled in them.
The most recent messages were about how “Colin Jordan’s” parents would be out of town that weekend.
“I met him on a Wizards vs. Superheroes server,” said Danny. “He kept trying to be all supportive to the kids playing, total tip-off.”
Nick nodded, impressed. “Nice touch with the fundie parents. Suck if lunch was carrying a cross and knew how to use it.”
“Yeah,” said Danny. “Can go wrong, though. Once I caught a youth pastor. Couldn’t even eat him after.”
Nick shuddered. “Jesus.”
Nick wondered again if Danny was trying to make a joke. “Does seem like a lot of work, though. Why not just order a pizza. Then you get blood and pizza.”
“First, Don’t touch delivery guys,” Danny warned Nick. “Their bosses always know where they were going. And what if you want pizza later? Besides. I like knowing Rick’s not going after someone helpless.”
There was a knock on the bedroom door.
Audrey opened the door. Winona was standing beside her in what Nick could only call a night-sundress and a big green hat.
“Evening, Nick. Glad you found your way to Auddie here. Up for another field trip?
“How’d you know I was here?” asked Nick.
“She followed your scent,” explained Audrey.
Oh yeah, vampire. Nick still wasn’t used to adults actually being better than him at stuff. “Sure.”
Danny’s whole aura wilted somehow. “Oh. I thought you could help me make up more stories for Rick.”
“Could Danny come with?”
Winona looked at Audrey. “That alright with you, Auddie?”
Danny didn’t smile. But he did beam.