Excerpt: Gun to My Head
I woke up when the darkness was complete, with the gun tucked between my cheek and the wet dirt. I could still feel the nothing of the creek behind me, running water blocking my senses, but it closed me in to this dark little space of earth and concrete and iron. There was a blaze of red in front of me, splashed across the concrete foundation of the bridge. I reached out to touch it and was immediately distracted by the sight of my own hand.
It was bony, showing the veins prominently under the thin skin, but it had short, blunt-edged nails and was covered in parchment-pale skin, slightly freckled. I turned it, marveling at the soft pinkness of my palm. I was glamoured again, after an unknown length of time exposed in the Antonines’ roofless torture cell with the glare of sun revealing me, the mirrors reflecting silver blankness upon me until I doubted my own existence.
I had escaped. I was free. I was myself again, despite all they had done to try to make me their creature, despite all the days when I had seemed to be nothing at all.
And I had a gun, and a hiding place. I twisted around to get the gun into my hand and lost all sense of gravity as soon as I moved. I couldn’t tell whether I was lying on the wet little slope under the bridge, or whether it was on top of me, pressing me down toward the rushing water like a horrible reverse of burial.
I froze, and a while later my senses returned: the confusion of running water was to my left, earth under me, concrete under my right hand, iron and wood above me. The gun was in my left hand, held just above my chest, finger resting neatly on the trigger guard.
The moment of its theft came back to me with fever-dream clarity. I’d been able to think of nothing but getting hold of a gun, the same escape I’d attempted in the days before my first death. That time I’d bought one, and been too much a coward in the end to use it. This time I’d homed in on a boy with a gun tucked into the back of his pants. When I grabbed it my knuckles had brushed against his bare skin, blood-hot and sheened with sweat.
I could as easily have taken him as the gun. One bite, one mouthful of blood, and I would have known better, left the cold steel and taken the real prize. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d drunk human blood, and even the meager tastes the Antonines had portioned out to me, from their own cold veins, had been long ago and had left me still starving. I might be myself again, but I was by no means recovered.
I remembered also—my fingers twitched around the gun—the conclusion I had drawn just before I shot myself. It had seemed obvious then that I couldn’t really have escaped, that I must have been set free deliberately, to be stalked and recaptured later.
I looked carefully toward the red splash on the concrete again, reaching over with my left hand to press my knuckles to that spot while still holding on firmly to the gun. There was no blood on the surface of the concrete, only the color left. But that had to mean the splash had stayed there a long time before I healed enough to draw the blood back into myself. This was not the first night after I killed myself, and I was still here.
If the Antonines were so close on my heels, why leave me here? They knew what I had done with my freedom: I had killed myself at the first opportunity. I had been perfectly vulnerable while I lay dead, and yet I had woken up just where I fell.
But the question of whether they were after me or not was academic. I couldn’t end myself permanently, and I could not surrender the hope of somehow escaping them for good. I had to feed, and then I would have to run again. Whether they were on my heels or miles away, whether they were watching my every move or had released me because for the first time in centuries they despaired of making a convert, my next steps were the same.
I’d passed from the dizzy, disoriented extremes of hunger into the false calm of starvation. I knew exactly how much worse my condition could get: the Antonines had introduced me to degrees of privation I hadn’t been able to imagine when I was merely the last and least and most-despised vampire of the court that made me. Whatever might be coming for me, tonight I was free to move and hunt. I inched toward open air, wary of the rushing of water and holding on tight to the gun.
The opposite bank of the creek was like a mirage, the running of water confusing my sight even above the creek’s surface. One moment the path over there seemed to curve left, then right, then I couldn’t see it at all.
I backed away from the edge. The creek’s bank was a good place to hide and a bad place to do anything else. As the baffling rush of running water receded, I looked around properly, and felt an odd pang of homesickness. The trees grew thickly in this part of the park, and the sky was nearly blocked out, reminding me of the canopy of trees that protected the stronghold of the court I had fled before I fell into the possession of the Antonines. The gaps made me think automatically of how to mend them; it had been my job to look after the trees, once.
I remembered the glare of sun among the treetops, remembered the mirrored glare of the Antonines’ cell, and shook my head, focusing on the darkness around me. I had to eat. I listened for prey.
There were deer in the park, sleeping lightly in the way of hunted animals. A year ago I might have chased them for fun if I was bored, if I had gotten to Milwaukee alone and had nothing better to do. Deer aren’t much nourishment, and a vampire’s glamour can’t touch the idiot brains of herd animals. They recognize predators and won’t listen to any arguments. A vampire court could take down a deer easily enough, like a pack of wolves, but a court has more entertaining prey and nastier ways to hunt it.
The ones hunting me now, the Antonines, were nothing so clean and simple as predators, even as vampires count themselves. They were zealots.
I looked down the footpath, which led back into densely settled territory. There were apartment buildings backing up to the park with children’s playgrounds on the grass between. But all the kids were safe in bed, and I was safer near the water.
I crossed the path and jammed the gun into the back of my pants to free my hands. I started walking along the creek’s bank, as near as I could without getting confused, listening for anything I might be able to catch. Squirrels and rats were no good on any level. Cats were tricky, but I might have to risk one. A dog would—
I stopped short. The creek had curved, concealing part of the bank from me, so the boy seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was about fifty feet away, and as oblivious to me as I had been to him until an instant before. He was running hot, his heart beating quickly though he was standing still now, head bowed.
He smelled young but ripe. A teenager, all hormones and intensity and blooming, riotous life. His blood would be a banquet. He was standing alone on the edge of the rushing creek, quietly drinking cheap-smelling beer, in the darkest hour of the night.
He’d come courting death, even if only on impulse, even if it was only meant to be a flirtation. I wouldn’t give him time to regret the choice. I was too hungry to leave him alive. I moved silently through the trees until he was within arm’s reach, blazing like a bonfire against the white-noise backdrop of the creek.
I did it right. I needed to drain him, and that had to earn him a death fit for a classic film. I stepped up close behind him. Some distant part of me observed the picture we would make: nearly of a height, hips and shoulders aligned, the shaggy darkness of my head lowering to bite, the curly dark of his already bowed, waiting.
I closed my arms around him, one at the hips and one at the shoulders, and he startled, his head jerking up and his heart racing. His body temperature spiked, a flare of delicious heat that blasted out the smell of him.
He was more than just boy now: I knew he’d been unshowered as long as I’d been dead under that bridge, and his clothes smelled of sweat and something too-clean, clinical, underneath the honest dirt of the woods. I knew he’d scraped his hand but not quite drawn blood. I knew he’d only drunk half his first can of beer. I knew he was beyond sadness and into despair, and I knew that the grinding misery was instantly dispelled by his bright terror. He wanted to live, now that he was about to die.
I knew he would taste beautiful.
I was on my knees, and when my teeth closed it was not on living flesh. My mouth filled with blood of no particular temperature, sparkling bright with power. My ears burned with the words Tenax chanted above my head. He was always talking, and his words always hurt, but at least now I could eat.
I was starving and I took what I needed. I took what I was given. And when I couldn’t take any more, he said to me, “Now you’ll begin to understand. Now we will always be with you. We know…”
I recoiled, my head snapping back just like his had the instant before. I clutched at the boy instinctively for balance. Between the creek at his feet and the memory still clinging to me, I didn’t know which way was up.
The Antonines knew, and they were going to find me. They were going to take me back there again, teach me again all about how my blood flowed and what it did after it left me, teach me all the nuances of hunger and starvation, teach me all their endless fucking stories. They had taken me once, they would take me again, and they would always, always know.
The boy twisted in my feeble grip, and I found myself on my knees again, looking up again. He was speaking. I watched his lips move: my eyes always focused on a human’s lips first, with their perpetual blood-flush flaming red in my sight. His were chapped, bitten half-raw. Black curly hair tumbled down nearly over his brown eyes, open wide to see what they could. He’d be almost blind in this light. Even as I watched, the adrenaline flush was fading from his olive skin, and his distractingly red mouth was still moving. I made myself listen.
“… Okay, man? You’re cold but you’re not shivering, that’s pretty bad. Shit, just a T-shirt, you must be freezing.” The boy sounded scared again, but this time he was scared for me.
Of course he was; I was the one trembling on my damned knees. He still smelled good. I was still starved, and now this hot, fragile human was running his hands over my arms from elbow to shoulder, from grimy T-shirt to bare skin, trying to warm cold flesh. I shuddered at the warmth and the nearness of my prey, and my teeth clattered together.
The boy—curse him—the boy smiled. “That’s better, huh?”
I shoved him away, following my momentum up onto my feet. I still had some semblance of a vampire’s strength, when I summoned the sense to use it. He stumbled back against a tree and then fell. His teeth clacked together.
There was blood in his mouth. Not much, not even an open cut, but I smelled it on the gust of breath that rushed out of him. I was on him, holding myself just over the furnace heat of his body, inhaling the copper tang.
He cringed away from me this time, his body pressing back toward the cold earth, but he kept talking. Every word he said exhaled the smell of blood, and I was dazed again, unable to strike and end the anticipation.
“Please, I don’t—I don’t have any money, I’m not, please, I’m just—my name is Dominic, I’m eighteen, my mom is, is, please, just let me go, I have to go home, I’ll do anything, please—”
His head was tilted back. Tears ran down toward his ears and into his hair. Sabine, who taught me to hunt, would have just begun to toy with him at this point. She’d have pretended to relent, then attacked again, offered him a chance to win his life, seasoning his blood with delicate layers of terror and pain and desire before she deigned to taste it…
No, wait. I lowered my head, getting a breath of sweat, rather than blood. There it was. Dominic was supplying a rather complex bouquet all on his own.
And still I didn’t bite. I was going to. Any second I was going to. I had to. But my lips didn’t part, and my fangs got no nearer to his skin, to say nothing of his blood.
If I opened my mouth again, I would be back there again, on my knees before Tenax. My tormenter was waiting for me. My escape was an illusion in more ways than I’d suspected; when I tried to feed, I would taste only his cold blood and I would know it for certain. I was back there and I would never, ever escape.
The gun was heavy against the small of my back, but that was no help. There was no escape, and Dominic’s heart was starting to slow from its frantic race.