So disappointing. After decades of movies and TV shows and books filled with creatures by turns terrifying and tempting, it was a guarantee that the real thing could never live up to the hype. We knew that. Yet we were still disappointed.
When the first stories hit the news—always from some distant place we’d never visited or planned to visit—the jokes followed. Late-night comedy routines, YouTube videos, Internet memes . . . people had a blast mocking the reality of vampires. The most popular costume that Halloween? Showing up dressed as yourself and saying, “Look, I’m a vampire.” Ha-ha.
Then cases emerged in the US, and people stopped laughing.
While vampirism was no longer comedy fodder, people were still disillusioned. They just found new ways to express it. Some started petitions claiming the term “vampire” made a mockery of a serious medical condition. Others started petitions claiming it made a mockery of long-standing folklore. There was actually a bill before Congress to legislate a change of terminology.
Then the initial mass outbreak erupted, and no one cared what they called it anymore.
• • • •
I first heard about the vampires in a college lecture hall. I couldn’t tell you which course it was—the news made too little of an impression for me to retain the surrounding circumstances. I know only that I was in class, listening to a professor, when the guy beside me said, “Hey, did you see this?” and passed me his iPhone. I was going to ignore him. I’d been doing that all term—he kept sitting beside me and making comments and expecting me to be impressed, when all I wanted to say was, “How about trying to talk to me outside of class?” But that might be an invitation I’d regret. So I usually ignored him, but this time, he’d shoved his phone in front of me and before I could turn away, I see the headline.
The headline read, Real-Life Vampires in Venezuela. The article went on to say that there had been five incidents in which people had woken to find themselves covered in blood . . . and everyone else in the house dead and bloodless.
“Vampires,” the guy whispered. “Can you believe it? I’d have thought they’d have been scarier.”
“Slaughtering your entire family isn’t scary enough for you?”
He shifted in his seat. “You know what I mean.”
“It’s not vampires,” I said. “It’s drugs. Like those bath salts.”
I shoved the phone back at him and turned my attention back to the professor.
• • • •
Two years later, I was still living in a college dorm, despite having been due to graduate the year before. No one had graduated that term, because that’s when the outbreak struck our campus. Classes were suspended and students were quarantined. The lockdown stretched for days. Then weeks. Then months. The protests started peacefully enough, but soon we realized we were being held prisoner and fought back. The military fought back harder. The scene played out across the nation, not just in schools, but every community where people had been “asked” not to leave for months on end. Martial law was declared across the country. The outbreaks continued to spread.
Given what was happening in the rest of the world, soon even the college’s staunchest believers in democracy and free will realized we had it good. We were safe, living in separate quarters equipped with alarms and deadbolts so we could sleep securely. Otherwise, we were free to mingle, all our food and entertainment supplied as we waited for the government to find a cure.
One morning I awoke to the sound of my best friend Katie banging on my door, shouting that the answer was finally here. I dressed as quickly as I could and joined her in the hall.
“A cure?” I said.
Her face fell. “No,” she said, and I regretted asking. I’d known Katie since my sophomore year, and she bore little resemblance to the girl she’d been. I used to envy her, with her amazing family and amazing boyfriend back home. It’d been a year since she’d seen them. Three months since she’d heard from them, as the authorities cut off communications with her quarantined hometown. She’d lost thirty pounds, her sweet nature reduced to little more than anxiety and nerves, unable to grieve, not daring to hope.
“Not a cure,” she said. “But the next best thing. A method of detection. We can be tested. And then we can leave.”
• • • •
A method of detection. Wonderful news for an optimist. I am not an optimist. I heard that and all I could think was, What if we test positive? At the assembly, I was the annoying one in the front row badgering the presenters with exactly that question. “What would happen if we had the marker?”
That’s what it was—a genetic marker. Which didn’t answer the question of transmission. Two years since the first outbreak, and no one knew what actually caused vampirism. It seemed to be something inside us that just “activated.” Of course, people blamed the government. It was in the vaccinations or in the water or the genetically-modified food. What was the trigger? No one knew and, frankly, it seemed like no one cared.
Those who had the marker would be subjected to continued quarantine while scientists searched for a cure. The rest of us would be free to go. Well, free to go someplace that wasn’t quarantined.
The next day, the military lined us up outside the cafeteria. There were still people who worried that the second they got a positive result, the nearest guy in fatigues would pull out his semi-automatic. Bullshit, of course. The semi-automatic would make noise. If they planned to kill us, they’d do it much more discreetly.
To allay concerns, the testing would be communal. As open as they could make it. I had to give them props for that.
They took a DNA sample and analyzed it on the spot. That instant analysis wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, but when you’re facing a vampire plague, all the best minds work day and night to develop the tools to fight it, whether they want to or not.
My results took eight seconds. I counted. Then they handed me a blue slip of paper. I looked down the line at everyone who’d been tested before me. Green papers, red, yellow, purple, white and black. They didn’t dare use a binary system here. So we got our papers and we sat and we waited.
When Katie came over clutching a green slip of paper, she looked at mine and said, “Oh,” and looked around, mentally tabulating colors.
“They say the rate is fifteen percent,” I said. “There are seven colors. That means an equal number for each so we don’t panic.”
Once everyone was tested, they divided us into our color groups. Then we were laser-tattooed on the back of our hands.
I got a small yellow circle. When I craned my neck to look at the group beside us—the reds—they were getting the same. So were the blacks to my left. I exhaled in relief and looked around for Katie.
A woman announced, “If you have a yellow circle, you are clear and you may—”
That’s when the screaming started. From the green group. I caught sight of Katie, standing there, staring in horror at the black star on her wrist. I raced over. A soldier tried to stop me, but I pushed past him, saying, “I’m with her.”
A woman in uniform stepped into my path. “She’s—”
“I know,” I said. “I’m staying with her.”
• • • •
It wasn’t a particularly noble sacrifice. That circle on my wrist meant I could leave at any time. She could not. I had nowhere to go anyway. My family . . . well, let’s just say that when I got accepted to college, I walked out and never looked back and don’t regret it. I won’t explain further. I don’t think I need to.
I would stay with Katie because she needed me and because I could and because—let me be frank—because it was the smart thing to do. I’d heard what the world was like beyond our campus. I was staying where there was food and shelter and safety and a friend.
Assemblies and a parade of officials and psychologists followed, all reassuring the others that their black star was not a death sentence. Not everyone who had the marker “turned.” Those who did were now being transported to a secure facility, where they’d continue to await a cure.
There were private sessions that day, too, with counselors. During those, I sat in one of the common rooms with the other yellow suns. Yes, I wasn’t the only one. We all had our reasons for staying, and most were like mine, part loyalty, part survival. We sat and we played cards, and we enjoyed the break from being hugged and told how wonderful and empathetic and strong we were, when we felt like none of those things.
Night came. Before today, the locks had been internal, meant to protect us while reassuring us that in the event of an emergency, we could leave. Now the doors had been fitted with an overriding electronic system. Perhaps it’s a testament to how far things had gone that not a single person complained. We were just happy for the locks, especially now, in a building filled with dormant monsters.
I woke to the first shot at midnight. I bolted up in bed, thinking I’d dreamed it. Then the second shot came. No screams. Just gunshots. I yanked on my jeans and ran to the door, in my confusion forgetting about the new locks. I twisted the knob and . . .
The door opened.
I yanked it shut fast and stood there, gripping the knob.
Was I really awake? Was I really me? How could I be sure?
People who “turned” were not usually killed on sight, not unless they were caught mid-rampage and had to be put down. Studies said that when vampires woke in the night, they later had no memory of it. People took comfort in that—at least if you turned, you’d be spared the horror of remembering you’d slaughtered your loved ones. I took no comfort because it also meant there was no way of knowing what it felt like to turn. Would you be conscious in that moment? Did it seem real at the time?
I looked at the unlocked door. My gaze swung down to the yellow sun on the back of my wrist.
Another shot, this one so close that I ducked, the echo ringing in my ears. The shot had come from the other side of the wall. Katie’s room.
I threw open my door and raced to hers, and finding it open, I ran through and . . .
Katie lay crumpled on the floor. In her outstretched hand was a gun.
I ran to her and then stopped short, staring. She lay on her stomach, and the side of her chest . . . there was a hole there. No, not a hole—that implies something neat and harmless. It was bloody and raw, a crater into her chest, just below her heart. I dropped to my knees, a sob catching in my throat.
There was a moment when I didn’t move, when all I could think was that she’d come back to life, like a vampire from the old stories and Hollywood movies. Except that wasn’t how real vampires worked. They weren’t dead. They weren’t invulnerable. I grabbed her shoulders and turned her over.
Blood gushed from her mouth as I eased her onto her back. I tried not to think of that, tried not to let my brain assess that damage. It still did. I was pre-med. I’d spent enough hours volunteering in emergency wards to process the damage reflexively. She’d tried to shoot herself in the heart, not the head, because she didn’t know better, because she was the kind of person who couldn’t even watch action movies. So she’d aimed for her heart and missed, but not missed by enough. Not nearly enough.
I shouted for help. As I did, I heard other shouts. Other shots, too, and screams from deep in the dormitory and I tried to lay Katie down, to run out for help, but she gripped my hand and said “No” and “Stay” and I looked at her, and as much as I wanted to believe she’d survive, that she’d be fine, I knew better. So I shouted, as loud as I could, for help, but I stayed where I was, and I held her hand, and I told her everything would be fine, just fine.
“I couldn’t do it,” she whispered. “I couldn’t wait to turn. I couldn’t make you wait.”
“I would have,” I said, squeezing her hand as tears trickled down my face. “I’d have stayed for as long as you needed me.”
A faint smile. “Just a few more minutes. That’s all I’ll need. Then you can go.”
I told her I didn’t want to go, just hold on, stay strong and hold on and everything would be fine. Of course it wasn’t and we both knew that, but it gave us something to say in those final minutes, for me to tell her how brave and wonderful she was, and for her to tell me what a good friend I’d been.
“There,” she whispered, her voice barely audible as her eyelids fluttered. “You can go now. Be free. Both of us. Free and . . . ”
And she went. One last exhalation, and she joined her family and her boyfriend and everyone she’d loved and known was dead, even if she’d told herself they weren’t.
I sat there, still holding her hand. Then as I lifted my head, I realized I could still hear shouts and shots and screams. I laid Katie on the floor, picked up the gun, and headed into the hall.
• • • •
How many times had I sat in front of the TV, rolling my eyes at the brain-dead characters running toward obvious danger. Now I did exactly that and understood why. I heard those shots and those screams and I had to know.
I got near a hall intersection when the guy who’d showed me the news of the first reported deaths two years ago came barreling around the corner. He skidded to a halt so fast his sneakers squeaked. He stared at me, and there was no sign of recognition because all he saw was the gun. He dropped to his knees and looked up at me, and even then, staring me full in the face, his eyes were so panic-filled that he didn’t recognize me. He just knelt there, his hands raised like a sinner at a revival.
“Please, please, please,” he said. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t hurt anyone. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I need to say good-bye. My mom, my sister, my nephew . . . please just let me say good-bye. That’s all I’ll do, and then I’ll do it, and if I can’t, I’ll go away. I’ll go far, far away.”
I lowered the gun, and he fell forward, convulsing in a sob of relief, his whole body quaking, sweat streaming from his face, the hall filling with the stink of it.
“Thank you,” he said. “Oh God, thank you. I know I should do it—”
“Where did the guns come from?”
He looked up, his eyes finally focusing. “I know you. You—”
“My friend had this gun. I hear more. Where did they come from?”
He blinked hard, as if shifting his brain out of animal panic mode. Then his gaze went to my yellow sun. “You aren’t . . . So you don’t know. Okay.” He nodded, then finally stood. “When the black stars had their private counseling session, they gave us guns. Access to them, that is. They told us where we could find them, if we decided we couldn’t go on. Except . . . ” He looked back the way he came. “Not everyone is using theirs to kill themselves first.”
“They’re killing the other black stars?”
He nodded. “They think we should all die. To be safe. They’re killing those who didn’t take the guns.”
Footsteps sounded in the side hall.
“I need to go,” he said quickly. “You should, too.”
I lifted my hand to show my tattoo. “I’m not a threat.”
He shook his head but didn’t argue, just took off. I waited until the footsteps approached the junction.
“I’m armed,” I called. “But I’m not a threat. I’ve got the yellow sun—”
“And I don’t really give a shit,” said a voice, and a guy my age wheeled around the corner, blood spattered on his shirt, his gun raised. “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”
I dove as he fired. He shot twice, wildly, as if he’d never held a gun before tonight. When he tried for a third shot, the gun only clicked. I ran at him, but didn’t shoot. I couldn’t do that. I smashed the pistol into his temple and he went down. Then I heard running footsteps and more shouts, and I raced down the hall, taking every turn and running as fast as I could, until I saw the security station ahead. I fell against the door, banging my fists on it. When no one answered, I held my wrist up to the camera.
“Yellow sun!” I shouted. “Let me in!”
A guy opened the door. His gray hair had probably been cut military short a couple of years ago, but no one enforced those rules now and it stood on end like porcupine quills.
“Get in,” he said.
I fell through. When I got my balance, I saw a half-dozen military guards watching the monitors. Watching students killing each other.
“You need to get out there,” I said. “You need to stop this.”
The gray-haired guy shrugged. “We didn’t give them the guns.”
“But you need to—”
“We don’t need to do anything.” He lowered himself into a chair. “You want to, girlie? You go right ahead. Otherwise? Wait it out with us.”
I hesitated. Then I turned away from the monitors and slumped to the floor.
• • • •
I was released the next day. That was their term for it: released. Cast out from my sanctuary. They escorted me back to my room to get my belongings and gave me a bag to pack them in. Then they walked me to the college gates, and for the first time in over a year, I set foot into the world beyond my campus.
It was fine in the beginning. Better than I dared to hope for. The entire college town had been tested, the black stars already rounded up and taken away, and while families grieved and mourned their loved ones, there was a sense of relief, too. Was it not better that their loved ones be taken somewhere safe . . . so the remaining family members would be safe from them, if they turned? That’s what it came down to in the end. What left us safe.
I boarded with an elderly couple who’d lost their live-in nurse and declared that my years of pre-med were good enough for them.
It was four months later when we heard the first report of a yellow sun turning vampire.
No one panicked. The story came from California, which might only be across the country, but was now as foreign to us as Venezuela had been. The reports kept coming though. Yellow suns waking in the night and murdering their families. Then rumors from those who worked in the nearest black star facility that they’d had only a few occurrences of the dormant vampires turning. Finally, the horrible admission that the testing had failed, that the stars seemed to indicate only a slightly higher likelihood of turning.
That’s when the world exploded, like a powder keg that’d been kept tamped down by reassurances and faith. People had been willing to trust the government, because it seemed they were honestly trying their best. And you know what? I think they were. As much as my early life had taught me to trust no one, to question every motive, I look back and I think the authorities really did try. They simply failed, and then everyone turned on them.
I lived with the elderly couple for almost a year before their daughter came and kicked me out. She said I was taking advantage of them, pretending to be a nurse without credentials. The fact that her town had been taken over by militants had nothing to do with her decision to move home. No, her parents—whom she’d not contacted in years—needed her, so she’d be their nurse now.
The old couple argued. They cried. They begged me to stay. Their daughter put a gun in my face and told me to leave.
A month later, after living with some former classmates in a bombed-out building, I went back to try and check up on the old couple. I heard the daughter had turned. She’d killed her parents. Killed their neighbors too because these days, no one was watching. Unless someone reported them, the vampires just kept killing, night after night. Some committed suicide. Some surrendered. Some ran off into the wilderness, hoping to survive where they’d be a danger to no one. The old couple’s daughter just kept living in their house while her parents’ bodies rotted and a growing swath of neighbors died.
I thought about that a lot. The choices we made. What it said about us. What I’d do if I woke covered in blood. I decided if that happened I’d head for the wilderness. Try to survive and wait for a cure. Or just survive, because by that point, no one really expected a cure. No one even knew if the government was still trying. Or if there still was a government.
I spent the next year on the streets, sometimes with others, but increasingly alone. I was lucky—none of my companions turned on me in the night. I hadn’t even seen a vampire. That wasn’t unusual. Unless you spotted one being dragged from a house to be murdered in the streets, you didn’t see them. And even those who were hauled into the street? Well, sometimes they weren’t vampires at all. No one asked for proof. If you wanted shelter, you could cut yourself, smear the blood on some poor soul, drag him out, let the mob take care of him and move into his house. Two of the groups I was with discussed doing exactly that. I left both before that thought turned into action.
• • • •
I’d been walking for six months. That was really all there was left to do: walk. Wander from place to place, seeking shelter where you could find it. The cities and towns weren’t safe, as people reverted to their most basic animal selves, concerned only with finding a place to spend the night and food to get them through the day.
It was better in the countryside. No one could be trusted for long, but that was the curse of the vampirism. That kindly old woman who offered you a warm bed might rise in the night, kill you, and go right on being sweet and gentle when she woke up. Until she saw the blood.
In the country, there were plenty of empty homes to sleep in and flora and fauna to eat. I met a guy who taught me to trap and dress game. I returned the favor with sex. It wasn’t a hardship. He didn’t demand it, and in another life, it might even have turned into something more. It lasted six weeks. We would meet at our designated place to spend the day together, walking and hunting, and talking and having sex. Then we’d separate to our secret spots for the night, for safety. One morning, he didn’t show up. I went back twice before I accepted he was gone. Maybe he turned, or he met someone who had. Or maybe someone had fancied his bow and his knife and his combat boots and murdered him for them. He was gone, and I grieved for him more than I’d done so for anyone since Katie. Then I picked up and moved on. It was all you could do.
I found a house a few days after that. Not just any house—there were plenty of those. The trick was to find exactly the right one, hidden from the road, so you wouldn’t need to worry about vampires or fellow squatters. Even better if it was a nice house. “Nice” meant something different these days, as in not ransacked, not vandalized, not bloodied. The last was the hardest criteria to fill. There’d been so many deaths that after a point, no one bothered cleaning up the mess. You’d find drained bodies left in beds, lumps of desiccated flesh, and tattered cloth. But other times, you’d just find smears of old blood on the sheets and on the floor, where some squatter before you had been too tired to find other lodgings and simply dragged the rotting corpses to the basement and settled in.
But that house? It was damned near perfect. Out in the middle of nowhere, hidden by trees, so clean it seemed the family had left voluntarily and no one had found it since. The pantry was stuffed with canned and dry goods, as if they’d stocked up when things started going bad.
I lived there for three weeks. Read half the books in the house. Even taught myself to use the loom in the sitting room. Damned near paradise. But one day I must have been sloppy, let someone see me returning from hunting. I woke with a knife at my throat and a man on top of me. There was a moment, looking up at that filthy, bearded face, when I thought, just don’t fight. Let him have what he wanted and let him leave. Just lie still and take it and he’d go and I’d have my house back.
That’s when I saw the others. Three of them, surrounding the bed, waiting their turn. And it was as if a pair of scales in my head tipped. I fought then. It didn’t do any good, and deep inside, I knew it wouldn’t. I don’t even think I was fighting to escape. I was just fighting to say, I object, and in the end, lying there, bloodied and beaten, I took comfort in that, when every part of me screamed in pain. I fought back. No matter what had ultimately happened, I’d fought back.
It was a week before the leader—Ray—decided he’d broken me and I could be allowed out of that room. It took another week to build their confidence to the point where they left me alone long enough to escape that place, because of course they hadn’t broken me. As a child, I’d been inoculated against far more than mumps and measles. They did what they would do, and I acted my part: the cowed victim who comes to love the hand raised against her. An old role that I reprised easily.
Which is not to say that those two weeks didn’t leave their mark, and not simply physical ones. But I survived, and not for one moment did I consider not surviving, consider taking Katie’s way out. I respected her choice, but it was not mine. It never would be.
• • • •
As I walked along a deserted country road a day after my escape, I remembered an old TV show about a zombie apocalypse. I’d been too young to watch it, but since those hours in front of the TV were the best times I had with my family, I took them, even if it meant watching something that gave me nightmares.
That show had endless scenes just like this one, a lost soul trudging along an empty road. While I didn’t need to worry about the undead lurching from the ditches, at least in that world you knew who the monsters were. In ours, the existence of vampires was almost inconsequential. In the last year, I’d had a gun to my head twice, a knife to my throat three times, and been beaten and raped repeatedly. And I had yet to meet an actual vampire.
When I heard the little girl singing, I thought I was imagining it. Any parent worth the title had taken their children and run long ago. There were fortified communities of families run by the last vestiges of the military, sanctuaries you couldn’t enter unless you had a kid. That’s another reason parents kept them hidden—so no one stole their children to gain entry.
But this really was a girl. No more than eight or nine, she sang as she picked wild strawberries along the road. When the woman with her took off her wide-brimmed straw hat and waved it, calling, “Hello!” I cautiously approached.
“You’re alone,” the woman said. She was about thirty. Not much older than me, I reflected.
I shook my head. “I have friends. They’re—”
“If you’re not alone, you should be,” she said, waving at my black eye and split lip.
I said nothing.
“Do you need a place to stay?” she asked. “Somewhere safe?”
“I can offer you a room and a properly cooked meal.” The woman managed a tired smile. “I was an apprentice chef once upon a time, and I haven’t quite lost the touch.”
“Why?” I asked.
She frowned. “Why do I still cook?”
“Why give me a bed and a meal?”
She shrugged. “Because I can. I have beds and I have food, and as much as I’d love to share them with whoever comes along this road, most times I grab my daughter and hide in the ditch until they pass.”
“And I’m different?”
The little girl ran over and held out a handful of strawberries. I took one and she grinned up at me. “We have Scrabble.”
“Do you?” I said.
“And Monopoly. But I like Scrabble better.”
“So do I,” I said, and followed her to the strawberry patch to continue picking.
• • • •
If I thought the last house was heaven, that only proves how low my standards had fallen. With this one, even before the vampires, I’d have been both charmed and impressed. And maybe a little envious of the girl who got to grow up in this cozy sanctuary, like something from an old-timey English novel; the ones where children lived charmed lives in the English countryside, spending their days with bosom friends and loyal dogs and kindly grownups, getting into trouble that really wasn’t trouble at all.
The house itself was as hidden by trees as the one I’d left. The woman had seeded the lane with weeds and rubble, so it looked as if nothing lay at the other end. There was a greenhouse filled with vegetables, fruit trees in the yard, a chicken coop, even goats for milk. The pantry was overflowing with home-canned goods.
“Keeps me busy,” the woman said as she took out a jar of peaches for afternoon tea.
For dinner, we had a meal beyond any I’d dare dreamed of in years. Then we played board games until the little girl was too tired to continue. After that, her mother and I read for an hour or so. Finally, we headed off to bed, and I was shown how to lock myself in. There were two deadbolts, one fastened on either side of the door. As to be expected these days.
I said good-night. Then I went inside, turned my lock, and climbed into bed.
I lay there, in that unbelievably comfortable bed, with sheets that smelled of lemons and fresh air. I lay, and I waited. Hours later, when I heard footsteps in the hall, I closed my eyes.
The woman rapped softly on my door and whispered, “Are you awake?”
I didn’t answer. She carefully unbolted the lock on her side. Then came a rattle, as she used something to pop mine. The door opened. Eyes shut, I waited until I heard breathing beside my bed. When I pinpointed the sound, I leaped.
I caught the woman by the throat, both of us flying to the floor. I saw a blur of motion and heard a muffled snarl and turned to see the little girl with a canvas sack over her head. Her mother swung at me. I ducked the blow and slammed her against the wall. The girl was snarling and fighting against the sack. As I pinned her mother, the girl got free of the bag.
The child’s eyes didn’t glow red. Her fingers weren’t twisted into talons. Her canines weren’t an inch long and sharpened. She looked exactly like the girl I’d just played Scrabble with for two hours. But the look in her eyes told me I’d guessed right. Yes, I’d hoped it was still possible for a stranger to be kind to me, to take me in and feed me and give me shelter because we were all in this hell together. I’d taken the chance, because I still dared to hope. But I’d known better.
If I was surprised at all, it was because I presumed the mother was the vampire. But this made sense.
“She’s my daughter,” the woman said. “All I have left.”
I nodded. I understood. I really did. In her place, maybe I’d have done the same, as much as I’d like to think I wouldn’t.
I looked at the little girl. Then I threw her mother at her. The woman screamed and tried to scramble away. The girl pounced.
It was not over quickly. I’d heard stories of how the vampires kill. The rumor was they paralyzed their victims with a bite. But the girl kept biting and her mother kept struggling, at first only saying the girl’s name and fighting to control her. Then came the panic, the kicking and screaming and punching, any thought of harming her child consumed by her own survival instinct. The girl bit her mother, over and over, blood spurting and spraying, until finally the woman’s struggles faded, and the girl began to gorge on the blood while her mother lay there, still alive, still jerking, eyes wide, life slowly draining from them.
I walked out of the guest room and locked the door behind me.
• • • •
The next morning, I hit the road, back the way I’d come. I walked all morning with the little girl skipping beside me, then racing off to pick wildflowers and strawberries. She’d woken in her own room, her nightgown and face clean.
I’d woken her at dawn, seemingly panicked because I couldn’t find her mother. Something must have happened, and we had to go find her.
The girl followed without question. Now she walked without question. I’d told her that her mother had vanished, and she still skipped and sang and gathered flowers. Proving maybe a little part of her was still that monster after all.
At nightfall we reached my old sanctuary, the horror I’d escaped two days ago. I led her right up to the porch and rang the bell.
One of the guys answered. Seeing me, he stumbled back, as if a vengeful spirit stood on the porch.
“I want to see Ray,” I said.
He looked at the little girl. “Wha . . . ?”
“I want to see—”
“Hey, girlie.” Ray appeared from the depths of the dark hall.
“I want to come back,” I said.
He threw back his head and laughed. “Realized it’s not so bad, compared to what’s out there, huh?”
“I brought a gift,” I said. “My apology for leaving.”
That’s when he saw the girl. He blinked.
“You can use her to get into a refugee camp,” I said. “We’ll say we’re her parents, and the guys are your brothers.”
“Huh.” He thought for a moment, but it didn’t take long before he smiled. “Not bad, girlie. Not bad at all.”
“I just want one thing,” I said.
He chuckled. “Of course you do. Gotta be a catch.”
“I’m with you,” I said. “Just you. None of the others.”
The smile broadened to a grin. “You like me the best, huh? Sure, okay. I accept your condition and your apology . . . and your gift. Come on in.”
• • • •
After midnight, I slipped from under Ray’s arm and crept out. I tiptoed down the hall, unlocking doors as I went. It was an old house, the interior locks easily picked. The last one I opened was the little girl’s. Then I continued along the hall, down the stairs, and out the front door to begin the long walk back to the other house, my new home.
I got as far as the road before I heard the first scream. I smiled and kept walking.
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