Oh, yeah. This high school had a serious vampire infestation.
I watched him move down the hall, and I wondered how anybody could mistake that for a teenage kid. Sure, his face was unlined. Sure, he was dressed like a seventeen year old. But his skin was the color of a fish’s underbelly, and he wore dark glasses despite the school rules. He was handsome, but most vampires are, and he oozed danger the way a tiger at the zoo does when it looks out at you and licks its whiskers. You know what I mean. They look at you through the glass and you can almost feel them thinking, if you were in here, or I were out there, this game would be on.
Only he wasn’t caged behind three inches of Plexiglas. He was wandering around a high school with a bunch of innocent kids who were too young to know how to look for tiger stripes, holding his books in one arm and smiling down at some poor virgin who didn’t know what was about to hit her. Or bite, her, I guess, if you want to be accurate.
The worst thing was, this was the fifth vampire I had seen since I walked through the doors this morning. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how a school this size could even feed a clan that size. A buck like the one that had just wandered down the hall could eat maybe two kids a night. But five vampires? How did this town even have a population?
I closed my locker, shaking my head in amazement at the sheer audacity of these creatures. Sometimes I thought sunscreen was the stupidest invention ever.
Beside me, a small, freckled fellow with thick glasses said, “Disgusting, isn’t it? He doesn’t give a crap about her.”
I gave him a look from beneath a raised eyebrow. “You have no idea,” I murmured, and slipped into the stream of hall traffic to follow my quarry.
I stalked him through calculus and English literature, watching him stalk the girl. She was a pretty thing, but her shoulders slouched as if she felt awkward among her peers. She wore black clothes and dark make-up. Oh, she was practically bait for a monster like that. He would appeal to her feeling of otherness. It was sometime between history and lunch that he noticed I was watching him. He didn’t react in front of the girl, only leaning to kiss her while he watched me. But I knew his mind.
I waited for him beside my locker, knowing he would find me. He did. I didn’t see him approach, but suddenly he was there, all soulful expression and leather jacket toughness.
“Why are you following me?” He asked, voice resonant with age and dark magic.
“I’m a scout,” I told him, shrugging. “I’m here to get an idea of how many vampires there are in this school, and how much weaponry we’re going to need to clean you out.” I threw my Spanish book into my locker and shut the metal door casually.
The vampire looked taken aback. “You...you’re a hunter?”
“Sure am,” I agreed.
“But,” he said, “I’m a good vampire. I have a soul. I’m a...vegetarian, if you will.”
I rolled my eyes. “Listen, Dracula, save it for the goth princess. We both know that "good vampire" is just code for "I eat rats when I can’t find a girl alone in an alley."”
The creature stiffened with offended hauteur. “But I am good, I swear.”
I shrugged. “Good is a philosophical term, Drac. It’s linked to morality and the accepted norm. I’m not here to bring you to Jesus. I’m here to put you down.”
For a moment, we stared each other down. If this were night time, I would have been afraid to meet the vampire’s eyes. But he couldn’t do much for hypnotism through the dark sunglasses. He snarled a little, revealing a pair of delicate fangs like those of a cat. His whisper was almost inaudible:
“Come at me if you dare, mortal. I will protect my own.”
I snorted, but the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. It was easy enough to talk tough with the sun up and Count Dracula’s little bass player of a girlfriend watching. But after twilight a smart mouth can get a scout in a world of trouble.
“You do that,” I told him, smiling blithely. I shoved past him on my way out.
Living with vampire hunters is a little like being Snow White, except that my dwarves are huge, hairy, hard-partying dudes with savior complexes. I snorted with disgust as I shoved my way into the hotel room where Tom was staying while we were in town. He had left the door unlocked, but fortunately before he passed out drunk he had possessed the foresight to barricade the door with empty liquor bottles and women’s underwear. The room was dim, but I could still see that much of the furniture had been upended. Glass bottles covered every available space, and a few empty pizza boxes held the remainders of pies that had started to go stale in the air-conditioned climate.
Tom was draped across a bed on his stomach, snoring. He wore nothing but a pair of Bart Simpson boxer-briefs. Across his broad back was a naked blonde with a mystery name that I honestly doubted he had caught. I sighed with exasperation and kicked the mattress hard enough to shake Tom and his company awake. For a moment Tom only blinked at me with confusion. The dark hair stood up on the side of his head where it had been mashed flat.
“What the hell, Tom?” I demanded. “You left the door unlocked. I just walked right in here. If I were a vampire you’d be dead by now.”
The girl chuckled as if she thought I was joking. I looked around, found a dress that may or may not have belonged to her, and threw it at her.
“Get out,” I snapped. “We have work to do.”
“You have to calm down, Syd,” Tom slurred. He was obviously still drunk from last night. “I didn’t invite anybody in here.”
“This is a hotel,” I reminded him, exasperated. “The threshold doesn’t work here. Jesus, are you an idiot!”
“I don’t think he’s an idiot,” the blonde muttered. Tom gave her a blurry smile.
I snapped, “Then you are obviously a double idiot. Get out!”
The blonde glared at me while she pulled the dress over her head and hunted up her shoes. I crossed my arms beneath my breasts and glared at her until she left.
“That was a little melodramatic, Syd,” Tom said. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and reached for a pack of Luckies, one of which he lit. I coughed meaningfully, but Tom only regarded me calmly above the glowing end of his cigarette.
“Well?” He said, breathing a stream of smoke into the hotel room. “How was school?”
I pushed a pile of trash off a chair and seated myself in it. “Five,” I said. “There were five just in the high school. This town is in real trouble.”
Tom swore lightly and ran a hand over the cowlick in his hair.
I waited in silence for a few seconds while he processed. When he stood up to locate the pants he had been wearing the night before, I added, “The oldest buck gave me that line about being a good vampire.”
Tom made a thoughtful sound. “They’ve been saying that a lot lately,” he observed.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Five towns this month, and I’ve heard the same bull in three.”
“It never stops them from killing as many of us as they can,” Tom murmured around his smoke. “But still. It’s strange.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Strange.”
When I joined up with Tom and the boys there were seventeen of them. Vampire hunters, as a rule, are big, athletic people with a thirst for danger. Professional athletes work exceptionally well. Marco, for one, was recruited from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nothing makes a better hunter than a tight end who gets cut from the team. He was big, strong, and he had nothing else to live for. I don’t know how Tom came to this. All I know is that he was the first. He’d been our boss for as long as any of us could remember. Marco had been hunting with Tom for seven years. That may not sound like that big a deal, but seven years is a long time for a vampire hunter to survive. Like I said, when I joined up two years before there were seventeen of them. Then we were down to six. Six hunters and one scout.
I came to vampire hunting the traditional way. You know the drill: snuck out with my friends one night and came back drunk in the wee hours of the morning to find my entire family dead in pools of gore. I think my sister was the one who invited them in. She had a thirst for bad boys that just couldn’t be quenched. Boring, right? Yeah, I know. I’m a stereotype. Sue me.
Anyway, Tom, Marco, and the rest were in my town, and they pretended to be cops to interview me. I found out the truth and forced them to let me join the crew. I’m too small to fight monsters, but that’s all right. They never knew how badly they needed a scout. I’m actually almost twenty, too old for high school, but I look young and I earn my way around here. I’ve graduated four different times in the last two years. And since they hired me, our death rate has dropped. Like I said, this is a dangerous line of work.
We woke up the rest of the boys together. I ordered food from a local Chinese restaurant, because frankly, feeding the crew is my job. Everybody was hung over but Charlie, which meant quite a bit of the hair of the dog that bit them. Six heavily muscled, half naked guys sat around the hotel room, swigging booze straight from the bottles. Except Marco. Marco quickly pulled his clothes on over his rippling brown slabs of muscle and disappeared into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed. But I expected it of him; Marco was never less than a perfect gentleman.
While Tom called the evening meeting to order, I walked around with a trash bag and picked up empty bottles. I righted what furniture I could lift, and when Marco reappeared he kindly helped me with what I couldn’t. I couldn’t begin to express how many times I had bitched about these rock-star style parties, but after a while I began to understand them. Tomorrow night, any one of these boys could be dead. At least, if it happened to them, their friends could say that they went out with a bang.
I smiled at Marco as he found a couch cushion that had been half-emptied of fluff. He turned it torn-side down and shoved it back into the couch. Marco returned my smile, dark eyes crinkling at the edges in a most charming way. Marco was almost ten years older than me, and there was no way I could have cared any less. I used to wonder if Marco liked me as much as I liked him, and to be honest I think the answer was yes. But he never made a move. Not once.
“Thanks, Marco,” I said, batting my eyelashes at him to the best of my ability.
“No, problem, Syd,” he replied. “Let me take that trash out for you.”
“No, I got it,” I told him. “They need you here. Tom will botch this thing without you.”
“You have that crucifix?” Marco asked.
I pulled the silver talisman from my blouse, letting it dangle from the end of its chain where he could see it. “Check,” I told him.
Marco gave me another smile. He walked me to the hotel door, holding it open for me while I shouldered the bag of trash and wandered into the parking lot. The shadows were already long against the purpling night, and I cursed Tom for scaring away the cleaning staff. They wouldn’t set foot inside any of our rooms until we were gone, and that was the way the boss liked it. That meant I had to take out the garbage myself.
I looked around with wide-open eyes as I crossed the asphalt, peering into the shadowed spaces between cars fearfully. Belatedly, I wondered why I hadn’t just let Marco take out the trash. The vampire’s voice hissed in my ears: Come at me if you dare, mortal. In vampire language that meant watch your back.
So when the vampire I had confronted at school oozed out from behind the trashcan like a congealment of shadows I was hardly surprised. His sunglasses were gone and his hypnotic gaze commanded my attention immediately. His eyes were deep pools of dark water, pulling me under. I fought to turn my head, summoning every drop of will I had, but it was no good.
“Do not scream,” he whispered, “And do not struggle. If you hate our kind, perhaps you should walk with us for a few centuries to learn tolerance. Come to me.”
As I had not been forbidden to pull my crucifix back out of my shirt, I did so even as my feet carried me forward without my consent. In a conversational tone that was pointedly not a scream I said, “Get back, monster.”
The vampire hissed and fell back, shielding his eyes with one hand. The glamor dropped instantly, and I screamed, high and loud enough to deafen a German Shepard. I heard the door to one of our rooms slam open with a hard crack, and both the vampire and I spun to find Marco leading a top-speed frontal assault. Marco was barefoot and armed with a crossbow the size of a Toyota. Tom swung twin Katanas with the practiced ease of a real Samurai. Behind him came a flood of vampire hunters in their underwear, half-drunk and bristling with weaponry.
I snorted. “You didn’t think I was about to sick ‘Xander and Willow on you, did you, Drac?”
The vampire gave me a sharp, gleaming smile, and suddenly he was gone. “Watch out!” I shrieked, and I saw Marco raise his crossbow in response. It was too late. The vampire was on him, dark trench coat still flapping in the wind of his passage. I know his strike on Marco’s throat was lightning-quick, but for me it’s frozen in my mind as if it had happened in slow motion. The creature’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight, and Marco fired a bolt wildly into the air. The vampire drove his fangs into Marco’s throat and came away again with a gobbet of flesh in his mouth. There was a spray of blood, dark as oil against the evening sky. I don’t remember running. But I do remember pressing the silver cross into the monster’s cheek. It sizzled like lard hitting a hot skillet, and the creature’s screams joined mine in a chorus of pain before he vanished into the darkness.
I pressed the hem of my skirt against Marco’s wound, trying to staunch the bleeding. Marco’s eyes rolled back in his head, eyelids fluttering. I remember that I was crying though I cannot remember when I started. I heard Tom chase the vampire, screaming hate. But of course the thing was gone. There was no way Tom could have caught it at night.
I rode to the hospital with Marco, listening to the sirens as if they were far away and screaming above someone else’s head. Marco died in the back of the ambulance. He had been clutching my hand with terrified strength, and suddenly his grip went slack and I knew he was gone. I trailed after the gurney like a lonely ghost while the blue and red lights strobed the parking lot. Nurses and a doctor met the EMT’s in the bright white of the hall and declared him dead before he was all the way inside. Nobody noticed me silently weeping as they pulled a sheet over his face. They wheeled the gurney away, leaving me standing in a long, tiled corridor by myself.
After a while, I don’t know how long, a nurse in blue scrubs noticed that I was covered in blood and asked if I was hurt. I don’t remember what she looked like; I only remember the neat square of her pocket as I fell, weeping, into her arms.
“Come with me,” she said solemnly. “Come and say goodbye.”
I allowed her to lead me down the hallway and into the ER. Mothers with screaming babies stared at me with wide-eyed alarm, but I ignored them. Marco had been tucked into a section of room with a blue curtain around him and left alone. I pulled the sheet back from his face to find that someone had closed his staring eyes.
“Marco,” I whispered. “You can’t leave me.”
But he was gone, and I was left. One scout who could not take care of the five hunters she had remaining to her. My only job was to get them enough information to keep them safe, and I was a failure at even that.
I don’t know how long I stood there before Tom appeared beside me with a faint rustle of the curtain. He was so big that when he closed his arms around me in a tight hug I felt like a little girl again, being comforted by her father.
“Best man I had,” Tom said, hoarsely.
“Why did he do it, Tom?” I wept. “It should have been me, not him! Marco shouldn’t have died protecting me! I’m just a damn scout!”
Tom gripped my shoulders and shook me a little to get my attention. I stared up at him, dumb with shock at his treatment of me.
“Bull, Syd,” Tom growled. “You listen up right now. Those boys fight monsters every single day. When they go to work, they know how good the chances are that they’re not coming home. But they keep going. You know why?”
Eyes wide, I shook my head. Tom continued, “Because there’s a girl back home that’s going to clean their wounds and order dinner. A girl who’s going to try to make them watch their health and cry for them when, finally, it’s their turn. That girl is a symbol for them, Syd. She’s proof that there’s something beautiful and loving left in the world. Every single one of them would die for you. You’re the reason they do what they do.”
I cried harder. I don’t know if Tom intended to make me feel better with that pronouncement, but it only succeeded in making my guilt worse. Today, Marco. Tomorrow, Charlie. Next week, Tom. All of them would be dead sooner or later, and it would all be because of their weird little mascot.
Tom patted my shoulder awkwardly, obviously not sure what he had done to make the deluge worse. “Well,” he said, reluctantly. “I need you to go outside and stand guard. I have to finish Marco off.”
Obediently, I wiped my face with my forearm and moved around the curtain. A few minutes later, a loud pounding sound issued from inside. It was a sound exactly like that of a large hammer driving a wooden stake through an old friend’s heart. I could hear Tom weeping in low, choked sobs.
A doctor in a white coat approached, obviously intent on knowing what the commotion was all about.
“Just keep walking,” I warned, and with little more than a frightened backward glance, he did.
The vampire was absent from school the next day, but his clan mates weren’t. They glared at me balefully through their designer sunglasses. When the smallest female swept past, white face locked on me, I stomped my foot after her and shouted, “Boo!”
It wasn’t long after that before the buck’s girlfriend appeared next to my locker, looking daggers at me from behind her heavy eyeliner.
“Why did you burn Alistair’s face?” she demanded. “He looks hideous now!”
“Maybe you should break up with him,” I suggested casually.
“No!” she shouted. “You don’t understand! No one understands! Our love is true , just like in that book!”
Frowning, I demanded, “What book? What the hell are you talking about?”
The goth princess rolled her eyes. “Sundown, dummy, don’t you know how to read?”
My mind reeled. How could a book possibly make it okay for her to date a vampire? The girl continued to natter on for a few minutes without needing any input from me. Then she said, “I don’t know how you can be so judgmental! Alastair really is a good vampire!”
I can’t really explain what happened in my head right then. All I know is that I felt the back of my hand strike cheek and the girl staggered back, dark eyes brimming with tears. I was grabbed by some teacher a split second later and three seconds after that I was in the principal’s office with a promise from Tom that he was on his way. I was also suspended. As I sat there on that vinyl padded seat, feeling my hand sting with remembered impact, I realized that I needed to get a copy of that book.
Tom was pretty hot that he had to pick me up from school while he was still hung over.
“What the hell, Syd,” he growled, “You smacked a little girl?”
I crossed my arms over my chest and stared out the window. “She was spouting that bull about good vampires,” I quietly told the streaming scenery. “I’m sorry, Tom, I know it was wrong. I just snapped.”
Tom was silent for a little while. After a few seconds he said. “I know how you feel. Trust me. I knew Marco longer than you did. He pulled my ass from some seriously sticky situations. But that’s no excuse to harm a human being. She’s probably all strung out on vampire spit or something disgusting like that.”
“Apparently she identifies with this book called Sundown,” I told him. “I was thinking I better get a copy and find out what she was babbling about. Can you take me to Borders?”
Tom grumbled, but he turned the car around. He parked a few spaces down from the door and leaned far back in his seat as if he intended to go back to sleep. Sighing, I cracked the window for him and got out of the car, slamming the door behind me.
As I walked into the air conditioned book store, I wondered where I should start looking. Sundown turned out to be easier to find than I thought it might be. There was a whole section of bookshelf dedicated to it, filled almost to bursting with books. Above the display was a poster of a couple clinging to each other with desperate passion. The girl was young and pretty, and the boy who held her protectively was movie-star beautiful and painted with white make-up. I felt a disgusted little chill as I realized what he was supposed to be.
Reluctantly, I took one of the glossy paperbacks from the shelf. I paid for it without really looking at it and headed back out to the car. Tom had locked the doors, and when I rapped a knuckle against the glass of the window he jumped awake.
He cast a scornful look at the front cover of the book as I slid into the passenger seat.
“You made me come clear out here so you could get a romance novel?” he muttered.
“Shut up,” I snapped. “Just drive the car.”
I started reading the book just after dinner and didn’t stop until the next morning. I stayed up all night, eyes glued to the words in front of me. It wasn’t a poorly written book. In fact, in places it was downright interesting. But the message was clear as day: vampires are misunderstood, and so are teenage girls. The vampire in the book was gorgeous, with old-fashioned morals and a quaint way of speaking. There wasn’t much about him that a girl wouldn’t love, if she overlooked the fact that he was actually a dead person with a thirst for human blood. The girl had the decided standoffishness of an outsider. Of course there was no one who would understand her but the monster next door.
I was filled with horror as the sun rose. This book was an international best seller. Kids everywhere were reading these lies. I could just imagine what the missing persons list in this town must look like. It had to be pages long and covered in the names of pretty young girls who had believed this book.
I turned the last page with shaking hands as I heard the morning’s first robin chirp. I ran for Tom’s room and slammed his door open with a crack. He was passed out, thankfully alone, and he jumped awake. His eyes rolled wildly as he sought the source of the noise.
“Tom!” I bellowed. “Wake up! We have to go to Delaware!”
He had half pulled his pants on before he figured out that he should ask, “Why?”
“This writer lives there! We have to go make her stop!” I shouted. “She’s helping them, Tom! She’s helping them take over the world!”
Tom crossed the room and gently took the book from my hooked fingers. “You need to get some sleep, Syd,” he said. “And so do I. We have to clean out that nest today, remember?”
He gently guided me to the couch and helped me sit down as if I had become his delicate old grandmother. He used one hand to sweep trash from the cushions onto the floor. Suddenly exhausted, I felt my eyes fill with frustrated tears. This would never end, I realized. We couldn’t beat these monsters. They outnumbered us. They were older than us. Smarter. Better. I felt my brain shutting down from lack of sleep and the overwhelming odds stacked against us.
“You need some food,” Tom told me. “Listen, I’ll order up some breakfast. You curl up there and I’ll get you something to eat.”
“But,” I protested weakly. As soon as the pressure was off my feet my eyes started to slip closed. “But Tom. We have to stop her.”
“Sure we will,” Tom agreed. He found a paisley patterned hotel quilt and tucked it around my shoulders. “We’ll stop her. We’ll leave for Delaware after we clean out this nest.”
Tom ran a big hand over my hair and I slid down against the arm of the couch. Sleepily, I said, “I miss Marco. I was in love with him.”
“I know, Syd,” Tom told me quietly. “He loved you too.”
I woke up hours later in an empty room. Someone was knocking at the door insistently. I rubbed my eyes and swung my feet onto the carpet, kicking through piles of junk as I went to answer the door. The knocking sounded again, and I realized that I could hear sobbing.
“Hold on, I’m coming,” I called. The crying on the other side of the thin door faded to heartbroken snuffles. I slid the lock over and swung the door open.
Standing in the afternoon light was the red headed, freckle faced boy from the locker next to mine. He was dressed in baggy jeans and a faded black hoodie. His fiery hair was flattened on one side as if he had slept on it wrong and not bothered with a comb. Surprised, I said, “Hey, you’re-“
“Nick,” he said, wiping a runny nose on his sleeve. Behind his glasses his eyes were red and swollen. “I’m Nick. I’m in your homeroom.”
“Right,” I agreed. “What’s wrong?”
Fresh tears welled in his already watery eyes and slid down his thin cheeks. “She’s dead,” he wailed. “Oh, God, she’s dead!”
My skin prickled with goose bumps. I said, “Well, Nick, you’d better come in and tell me about it.”
I stood aside and allowed the boy access to Tom’s room. I pushed the door shut behind him and locked it. For a moment I was blind as sunlight turned to indoor gloom.
Nick looked around as if he had never seen a filthy hotel room before. I gestured at the couch. He sat with shoulders slouched like those of a man defeated before he’d ever gone into a fight.
“Amelia,” he clarified. “The girl you hit yesterday? They found her dead this morning. They’re saying it was some kind of an animal attack. My brother is one of the police that they called out. He said there wasn’t enough blood, that she had to have been killed somewhere else and moved. But they found her in her bedroom. That doesn’t make sense, does it? Why would an animal move her back to her bedroom if she didn’t die there?”
I regarded him with dismayed silence as he watched his freckled hands clench and unclench in the space between his knees. I put my hand on his back, rubbing it the way I would for one of the hunters. Nick sobbed again, harshly.
“It wasn’t an animal, was it?” he wept. “I heard you talking yesterday. Amelia said you burned Alastair and she said he was a good vampire. That’s when you hit her. Is it true ? Is he a vampire? Do you think he did this?”
“He is a vampire,” I admitted quietly. “And the chances that he did this are pretty good. I hurt him the last time I saw him. He would have needed fresh blood to heal.”
“Vampires aren’t real,” he told me desperately. “They’re just a Victorian-era symbol for forbidden sex.”
I shrugged. “Symbols don’t kill teenage girls.”
Nick had nothing to say to that. We sat together in silence for a while, and I listened to him weeping. “I loved her,” he admitted. “But she only wanted him.”
I said nothing. I wasn’t glad Amelia was dead. I had wanted to protect her. Even so, I couldn’t summon anything complimentary to say about her that didn’t involve the way she had applied her eyeliner.
“How did you know Alastair is a vampire?” Nick asked. “I saw you staring at him. I assumed you had a crush on him like the other girls, but you didn’t, did you? You knew what he was.”
“I’m a vampire hunter,” I said. I figured it sounded more comforting than admitting that I was a scout. “I came here with my crew to kill him and his clan.”
Nick looked up at me, and his eyes were suddenly burning with emotions that made me recoil a little. “Let me help you,” he breathed. “I want to kill him.”
My first inclination was to laugh. Nick was so skinny. But the hot rage in his eyes made me pause. He was serious. I believed that he would really go into that nest and hammer a stake through a ribcage. “Well,” I said, “Let’s ask Tom. He’s our boss. If he says it’s okay, then you’re in.”
Tom had left me alone long before, so Nick and I moved down the row of rooms, pushing the doors open in the attempt to find him. After three empty rooms, I opened the door to my own.
“Wow,” Nick said. “This is the only one that’s clean.”
“Naturally,” I agreed. I was about to close the door again when I noticed something unfamiliar on the coffee table. “Hang on,” I said. I quickly darted inside and snagged a sheet of notebook paper with Tom’s familiar chicken scratch adorning it.
Sydney, it said,
The boys and I went to work. Sorry I didn’t wake you, but you seemed tired. Marco’s crossbow is under your bed if unfriendlies show up. Watch some TV and we’ll be back before dark. Order a couple of pizzas. The boys will be starved after a nest this big. Tomorrow we’ll leave for Delaware.
Nick had been reading over my shoulder. “Crossbow?”
I felt my shoulders slouch with disappointment. “Aw, dammit,” I muttered. “I really wanted a piece of this guy.”
Nick watched as I crouched to pull the huge weapon from under my bed. I checked the string and trigger, and loaded in a bolt just for general purposes. It made me lonely to look at it. I remembered Marco standing with his arms around me as he taught me to aim it.
“Uhm,” Nick said, “Are we going to kill some vampires?”
“Nah,” I said dispiritedly. “We’re too late. They went without me.”
I propped the crossbow beside the little sofa and pulled a diet coke out of the minifridge. “Want a soda?” I asked Nick.
“Sure,” he said. I pulled out another and passed it over. He popped the tab with a hiss of carbonation. “Wait. So we’re not going to kill any vampires?”
I snorted laughter. “Settle down, Rambo. There are plenty of vampires in the sea.”
I switched the television on. Nick stood in the middle of the room, looking as if I had kicked his puppy. “Aw, come on,” I told him. “Sit down and drink this. Tom and the boys will be home soon with tales of glory and valor. Some days that just has to be enough.”
Nick slouched onto the couch beside me and I flipped channels until I found an episode of Jersey Shore. We watched in silence. Blue images flickered across the screen, shadowing Nicks face. The show ended and another episode began. I shifted uneasily. As the episode wore on, I asked, “What time is it?”
Nick glanced at his watch. “Five fifteen.”
“What time does the sun set?”
Nick rolled his eyes at me. “What do I look like, an almanac?”
I scowled at him and rose to jerk the curtains aside. Tom’s note had promised that he would be home by dark, and the shadows were lengthening. I was nervous as I sat back down beside Nick. I fidgeted and flipped through the channels.
I wondered if I should go after them. But if something bad had happened to the boys, I couldn’t stop it now and trying to could be a quick way to die young. If they were okay, they would be home soon. Maybe Tom had stopped to buy beer. Yes, that must have been where he was. They had finished late and stopped to purchase a few bottles of booze.
I used my cell phone to dial a local pizza joint and paced while I ordered five pies. I had a terrible feeling that only Nick and I would be eating that night. I shook my hands, willing my nervous energy to disperse. Then I twitched the curtain open again. The shadows were deep and full of frightening promise.
“Hey,” Nick called, sounding slightly alarmed. “What’s wrong? Why are you pacing?”
“They were supposed to be back before the sun went down,” I fretted. “Did you see anybody when you came in?”
“No,” Nick replied. “Listen, Sydney, they’re professionals. They’re okay. Sit down.”
I reluctantly returned to my place beside him on the couch, but I couldn’t sit still. My leg bounced without my permission. Oh, Tom, I thought sadly, please come home. Please.
And then someone knocked politely on the door.
My heart leapt into my throat while my mind darted in fifteen directions. It was Tom! It had to be! But it could also be the pizza guy. Or even Alastair pretending to be the pizza guy. I decided that the best course of action would be to grab my wallet and the crossbow. If it was Tom, he would be expecting an armed greeting at night. If it was Alastair, I’d put a bolt through his heart so fast he’d wake up in Hell before he knew I’d fired on him. If it was the pizza guy, I’d just over-tip.
I propped the crossbow next to the window so I could peek out through the gap in the curtains.
“Tom!” I shrieked, flung the door open, and threw myself into his arms all at once.
“Hey, Syd,” he said softly. Tom was still dressed in his leather hunting gear, with his swords strapped to his back. He stroked my hair as I buried my face in his cool chest. I was so relieved I almost wept.
“Jesus, I was worried sick. You could give a girl a call,” I told him. Tom flinched. I looked up, up into his face, and then I realized that something was wrong. His skin was paler than I had ever seen it, almost luminous in the moonlight. His eyes were deep and dark, as shadowed as the night itself. He looked back down at me hungrily.
“Jesus,” I warily said again, by way of experiment. A brief flicker of pain danced across Tom’s familiar features. His flinch revealed a long, sharp incisor like that of an animal.
“Aw, Tom,” I said, choking on my dismay. I shoved him, hard, propelling myself out of his arms and back into the hotel room. I slammed the door and chained it shut, knowing the barrier wouldn’t hold, and snatched up the crossbow.
Alarmed, Nick jumped up. “What? What’s wrong?”
“The window!” I screamed. Nick hurtled toward it like a meteor. A loud thump sounded from the door, splintering the wood. I ran toward Nick as he grabbed a nearby end table and pushed it toward our escape route. Nick jumped up onto the table. His kick dislodged the screen and sent it clattering into the parking lot. Another loud crack sounded from the door, splitting it up the middle. One more hit from the Tom-thing would let him in.
“I thought they couldn’t come in unless you invited them!” Nick cried. He jumped off the table and half-shoved me toward the opening.
“That’s a house! This is a hotel! It doesn’t have a threshold!” I put my foot on the table and pushed myself into the windowsill, still clinging to the massive crossbow for dear life.
“What’s a threshold?” Nick asked.
“Nick! For Christ’s sake, shut up and come on!” I shouted. I looked down at the ground I was about to jump onto and realized that Charlie was leering up at me, new fangs gleaming in the evening light.
“Charlie,” I gasped. “Not you, too.”
“Aw, quit being such a prude, Syd,” Charlie hissed. “Being a vampire is actually great. You’ll love it.”
I lowered the crossbow and fired a shot directly into Charlie’s midsection. The force of the bolt dragged him off of his feet, hurling him against a parked car. The huge bolt shattered the glass of a window, and the car alarm shrieked in the still evening air.
I hopped down onto the asphalt with the knowledge that we had to get the hell out of this town. Behind me, Nick struggled to get his lithe frame through the window. I grabbed his hoodie and pulled him down behind me.
“That’s my truck!” he gasped, and we ran for it together. Nick leapt into the cab and the engine growled alive. My door wasn’t even shut before he pealed out of the hotel parking lot with a scream of tires.
“Floor it!” I screamed unnecessarily as he whipped the old Chevy onto Main Street. I turned back to find Tom running after the truck with preternatural speed, leather duster flapping behind him like demon wings. His swords were in his hands, bright metal against the lowering dark.
“Tom,” I whispered. He was gaining on us. I rolled the glass down with a few hard cranks of the handle, loaded the crossbow fast enough to break my personal record, and lifted the big weapon through the window. Tom faltered when he saw the crossbow lock on him. My finger spasmed against the trigger. The bolt sped for his belly and the force of it knocked him down. He flipped three times, head over heels, before coming to rest flat on his face. Then Nick turned a corner and Tom was gone.
I slithered back into the cab, resting the crossbow on the floorboard at my feet. Tears slid unchecked down my face. I didn’t wipe them away. They had a right to be there.
“You killed your friends,” Nick observed, in an odd, frightened voice.
“They would have wanted it that way,” I told him. Outside the cab, the dark river of night swept by. I’d never been on the losing end of one of these fights. I supposed there was a first time for everything.
After a long, silent moment, Nick asked, “Well? Where should we go?”
Sadly, I replied, “Delaware.”
We drove for three days, stopping only to refuel and eat. When Nick got too tired to drive, I took over and he snored in the passenger seat. In Dodge City we stopped in a grubby little diner and ordered two plates of eggs. Nick ordered his over easy. I preferred scrambled.
We ate in silence, as we did most things. Nick found a newspaper at an adjoining booth. I read the front of the paper with interest. The cover story was about a couple of murders two states over that had been committed with a medieval crossbow. There had been no witnesses. I breathed more easily when I read that, I can tell you.
Suddenly, Nick lowered the paper. His face was pale beneath his freckles, and his eyes were full of fear.
“Sydney,” he said. “Look at this.”
He flattened the paper on the table between us. There, in a glossy, full page spread, was the title Sundown. Another young couple, this one even lovelier and more haunting than the people in the cover of the book had been, looked out at us as if mocking. Now Playing in a Theater Near You! It exclaimed in romantic script.
My eyes met Nick’s. His face was full of grim understanding.
“Oh, no,” I breathed. “We’re too late. We’ll never stop her, now.”
We both looked back at the actors in the ad. They didn’t waver. It was no dream. This was really happening.
“Why do I have the feeling that this movie is a monumentally bad idea?” Nick asked.