Hours later, I stood on the porch, gazing at the empty driveway. The space where my father’s car belonged, where its presence had always reassured me when I needed it to, was devoid of any such comfort. After my mother had left, being able to see my father’s car whenever I woke up had become… important. I used to bolt out of bed in the middle of the night and run to the window, just to show myself that I still had a parent, that one of them still cared enough to stay.
Sometimes, it wasn’t enough. Some nights, I had to go to Dad’s room and sleep in his bed. I had to touch him, had to know he was there for myself. The only way I could rest on those nights was to put my hand on his cheek, feel his beard under my fingers. Then, only then, could I relax enough to sleep.
Tonight, I was having that feeling again. That feeling of being abandoned. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t. Dad had to help Rose with her father. I knew that. I would never try to feel upset about that fact. And yet that feeling of worry, like I wouldn’t see him again, kept rising up in me, like bile in my throat.
It made me anxious. I wanted to call him, wanted to chat and find out where he was and how it was going. But I’d already done that twice throughout the afternoon, and I didn’t want to drive Dad crazy. God, I needed to get rid of this selfish feeling. Why did I hate the idea of him being out there so much? Sure, tomorrow was my birthday. But a woman’s father might be dying. Have some perspective, Flick.
An hour. I’d give it another hour and then call to see how things were going. I could wait that long, right? Hell, make it an hour and a half so the kid and I could watch another movie.
Not that he’d seemed all that interested in the ones we’d already watched. Most of the boy’s attention had been devoted toward getting me to essentially recite my life story to him. He wanted to know everything, from the name of my fifth grade teacher (Mr. Bisby) to my first crush (also Mr. Bisby), and more. Every question I answered just seemed to make a dozen more spring up in the kid’s head.
I’d excused myself to come outside while he was finishing up his dinner, some spaghetti I’d put together. For some reason, I’d felt like the walls of the house had been closing all day long. This house, my home, felt very different without my father in it. It felt dark, and smaller than I remembered.
The gate past the driveway that led into our backyard squeaked. My eyes turned that way, and I frowned. Through the darkness, it felt like there was something on the other side of that gate, something watching me through the tiny crack between it and the attached fence. If I squinted just right, it seemed like I could just sort of make out a pale face gazing back at me contemplatively.
A trick of the light. Really, it had to be my mind playing tricks on me. Still, I glanced at the door behind me to make sure I wasn’t being watched before stepping off the porch. My hand strayed to the weapon sheath at my belt automatically as I walked to the gate. With each step, my brain kept telling my heart that we were jumping at shadows and being ridiculous. My heart’s response was mostly a lot of pictures of decapitated girls and wild gestures toward the stacks upon stacks of books about Stranger attacks that were in the Crossroads library. My bladder was anxiously waiting its turn to weigh in on the situation.
At the gate, I hesitated. For a long moment, I simply stood there, facing the wooden barrier. Slowly, ever so gradually, I reached up to unlatch the tiny hook that held the gate closed. My other hand touched the canister that held my staff, and I held my breath while giving the gate a firm shove.
Nothing. The space between our house that led into the backyard was empty save for the enormous pile of firewood that had sat there for as long as I could remember. Other than that, there was nothing in sight. Nothing to jump out at me, nothing to be afraid of. I had been jumping at shadows after all.
Shaking my head, I turned around and almost ran directly into a small figure standing directly behind me, silent and motionless, staring. A startled yelp escaped me, and I jerked backwards reflexively, my heart in my throat, pounding furiously. It took me a second to recognize the figure. “Jeeze, Ammon!”
“That’s my name,” the boy announced, head tilting to gaze up at me. “What’re you doing out here?”
“I was just…” Feeling embarrassed, I shook my head. “I thought I saw a cat or something. I thought it might belong to you or your aunt. Do you guys have any pets?” I tried to move the conversation onto him. As interested as he had seemed in my life, the kid had been equally tight-lipped about his own.
“I used to have a lot of pets,” Ammon confirmed easily. “But I had to leave them to come here.”
Blinking at that, I relatched the gate once more. “You had to leave them?” My mouth started to open to ask if they were renting the house next door or something, but I remembered what my Dad had said about interviewing someone. Don’t supply the answer for them. Ask the question and see where it goes.
His small blond head bobbed up and down earnestly. “It was a really long trip. I couldn’t keep track of them all. And I didn’t want to choose which ones to bring, so I left them behind.”
“Aww, I’m sorry you had to do that. Losing your pets can be hard.” Wincing at the thought of the ill-fated rabbit I’d had once, I tried to make him feel better. “So what kind of animals were they?”
His gaze met mine evenly, his expression blank. “I don’t understand the question.”
My mouth opened to respond to that, but a chill ran through me. “I uhh, let’s go inside, kid. It’s getting cold out here.” Ushering the boy back into the house, I trailed after. At the door, I looked around once more, unable to shake the feeling of unease. If anything, it kept getting worse. With a sigh, I locked the door, twisting the deadbolt before turning to face Ammon. “So, what movie should we watch next?”
Midnight. I was officially seventeen years old. As the near-scalding hot shower water pounded down on my back, I gazed at the drain and let my thoughts wander. I daydreamed absently while giving my hair a thorough scrubbing. The anxiety from the day, the confusion over finding out that Seller was my ancestor and wondering what connection he had to my mother, the concern for my father, all of it and more just swirled through my brain without rhyme or reason. I was thinking about Seller, and that somehow turned into thinking about the twins, which turned into thoughts about Ammon and his curiosity. Everything, every thought just competed for attention in my mind. I tried to let it go, tried to relax and just enjoy the shower. Yet something just kept nagging at me. Something in the corner of my mind would not let up its cries for attention. I’d thought that taking a long, hot shower after getting Ammon tucked into bed would help, but if anything I felt even more anxious. I was nervous, almost scared even. The tension in my back and arms was getting worse under the hot water, not better.
Finally, after almost an hour, I gave up. This wasn’t working. Twisting the knob off, I stepped out of the shower and grabbed a nearby towel. As I dried myself off, my eyes lifted to the door and I paused.
Didn’t I lock that?
After dressing in what I admit was a bit of a rush, I opened the bathroom door and eased my head out to look down the hall toward the guest room where I’d left Ammon. His door was shut, and I couldn’t hear anything aside from the sound of a couple cars driving by outside. Probably some people heading home from the bar that was across the street from the bowling alley.
Shaking my head at my own imagination, I walked past the guest room, moving quietly to avoid waking up the poor kid inside. Bypassing my own room, I started downstairs. Even if I hadn’t recently gained the ability to stay up roughly twenty-three hours a day, I still wouldn’t have been able to sleep while Dad was still out with Rose. I’d watch some television for awhile, maybe poke through the kitchen and see if we still had that brownie mix that had been in the cupboard before I went to school.
All of the lights were off as I made my way downstairs. It was very nearly pitch black, though that hardly mattered. I knew this house perfectly. I knew everything in it. I could literally navigate it with my eyes closed, so the tiny amount of light coming through the closed curtains was more than enough.
At the bottom of the stairs, I turned to the living room, walking straight in with a quick left to avoid the coffee table in front of the couch. Circling back that way, I found the familiar fuzzy sofa itself with one hand before plopping myself down into it. My questing fingers found the remote, and I sat back while lifting it to stab at the power button with my thumb.
The television came to life, illuminating the room to reveal half a dozen people standing around me.
Jump scares in movies and games fucking suck. They’re awful. Believe me, jump scares in real life are about a thousand times worse. A not-so-tiny yelp escaped me as I jerked, my hand dropping to my belt.
It was too late. They were on me. Strong, firm hands caught each of my arms, shoving me back against the couch. A man for each side, their figures appearing massive in the faint and distorted light from the television that cast their features in terrible and mysterious shadows.
Another caught hold of my legs as I kicked out, dragging them up onto the coffee table. As my mouth opened to shout, the guy holding my left arm in a vice-like grip put his other hand over my mouth.
The remote was pulled from my hand by another figure, and the television was shut off. Darkness returned briefly before the light switch was flicked on, illuminating the room so suddenly I had to close my eyes momentarily.
Opening them once more, I found myself staring at the person holding the remote. Ammon.
Wait. The people holding me down, I knew them. They were my coworkers from the theater over the summer. The one using both arms to hold my right arm against the couch was Pete, the senior from my old high school who had helped me clean one last time before I had confronted our boss. The guy whose right hand was covering my mouth while his left held my other arm trapped was Rosco, the grumpy old projectionist. Bradley Joseph, the would-be film critic that manned the ticket booth, was holding my legs. Other co-workers, other people I had spent the summer with, crowded in close. There were even more people than I’d originally thought. It looked like all my co-workers were here.
“I’m not tired,” Ammon informed me, his voice strangely calm considering everything that was happening. I thrashed against the grip of those holding me down, my shouts for them to get the hell off me muffled by the hand that still covered my mouth, making it harder to breathe. And through all of this, Ammon simply stood there and continued. “So I want to play another game. A better game.”
I was lost. Confused. Scared. Horrified. All of it, everything. I was still struggling to get free, but there wasn’t a lot that the power of ‘never get tired’ could do against three full-sized men practically sitting on me.
Ammon stepped closer, setting the remote down. His eyes were bright with enthusiasm. “See, I think I might like you. Maybe. But I’ve gotta be sure. I have to find out if I really do, if I care. I wanna know what that feels like. You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to feel things.”
How long he’d waited to feel things? What the fuck? What was going on? Why were my coworkers here? Why were they holding me down? What was Ammon doing? Why did it seem like they were listening to him? What the hell?! All of that and more prodded me to fight harder against the hands holding me in place. Not that it accomplished anything, but at least I could keep struggling futilely a lot longer than they could hold me. These guys were strong, but I knew for a fact that I could outlast them.
Ammon smiled humorlessly. His small hand reached out to pat Rosco’s, and the man removed it from my mouth. As soon as the obstruction was gone, I demanded, “Ammon, what the hell do you–”
My words were cut off by a hard slap. Ammon’s hand had shot out, connecting with the side of my face so hard I briefly saw stars.
When my gaze cleared up, the boy was frowning as he shook his head, looking at his hand in disappointment. “Nope. Darn. I was really hoping I’d feel sad about that.” Making an annoyed face, he finally heaved a sigh. “Oh well, I guess we have to try something worse.” Tenderly patting my arm, the kid added, “Maybe if you get really hurt, then it’ll turn on. Maybe if you’re crying. Do you think you’ll cry if they hurt you? You spent a lot of time with them. Would being hurt by them make you sad? Will seeing you be hurt by them make me sad? Is that how it works?”
“Ammon, what… damn it, let me go!” I raised my voice, trying to snap my former coworkers out of whatever spell they’d been put under. Because at that point, that was was all it could be. A spell or some Stranger ability. Nothing else made sense. Nothing about Ammon made sense.
And I was in very deep trouble.
“My name is Ammon,” the kid announced to the room before pausing. His gaze met mine. “You should all make her cry.”
In the corner of the room, the window behind Dad’s recliner abruptly shattered as a figure leapt through it. I barely caught a glimpse of movement before a spray of blood suddenly appeared in the middle of Ammon’s chest. A knife had embedded itself there, and the boy stared down at it in surprise before slumping down.
As he collapsed, the hands holding me loosened. The figure in the corner moved again, so fast that it was barely a blur. They caught hold of poor Rosco and shoved him away from me one direction to knock down several people there before planting a hand against both Pete and Bradley, shoving each of them so hard even one-handed that each flew back a good dozen feet, plowing into the people there as well.
I was yanked to my feet by a firm grasp, and before I knew what was happening, we were halfway to the front door.
“Wait!” I jerked back around, stumbling as my eyes took in the sight on the floor of my family’s living room, looking for the dead boy with the knife in his chest.
He wasn’t dead, and the knife was no longer in his chest. Ammon was sitting up, staring at the bloody blade in his hand. His shirt was torn, and I could see the wound in his body already sealing itself up. He raised his gaze our way, eyes narrowing as he began to speak. “My name is–”
Strong hands grabbed me off the floor, and then the world blurred around me as I was carried out of the house and all the way down the street within the span of a few seconds.
Then we stopped almost two blocks away, and I was released. Stumbling a little, I took in a breath before letting it out again. “Thanks, Sell–” I started while turning toward what I thought was the man who had come back to check on me.
It wasn’t him. It was a girl. She stood a few feet from me, face illuminated by the nearby streetlight. She was clearly at least half-Asian and partly something else. Native American, probably. Or maybe French. I wasn’t entirely sure. I guessed her age at maybe a few years older than me.
What I was sure about was the feeling that my brain was screaming at me about. She was a Stranger. With a capital S. I knew it. Instinctively, I just knew she wasn’t human.
Taking an immediate step back, I grabbed for the weapon canister at my belt. “You’re a—you’re–”
“A vampire,” the girl replied evenly. “Yeah. And you’re a Heretic. But you have bigger problems than me right now.”
Distractedly, I glanced down the street. “Ammon… what—I don’t understand. What did he do to them? Mind control or something? But how? I mean, he’s not… that’s like a… a Stranger power. But he’s not, I didn’t sense…” I paused. Hadn’t I? I’d been uneasy around Ammon the whole time. He was a thoroughly creepy kid. Had that sense of unease been something more?
But that didn’t make sense, because one glance at this girl and my brain wasn’t subtle at all about things. It screamed Stranger at me, blaring every possible alarm.
And what had Ammon been talking about? Why would he care if I was hurt? What did that–
My brain stopped. I realized the worst part of what was going on. “Dad.”
The girl—vampire in front of me gave a single nod. “That’s your bigger problem. Come with me. I will get you to him. Trust me, you don’t have time to lose right now. I know what that school told you. I know what they think, what they’re teaching you. Now I’m asking you to forget it. Because your dad needs you to. You cannot get to him in time without help. I want to help you. I want to get you to him. But you have to let me. You have to trust me, at least long enough to save your father.”
“Save him…” My heart pounded. “What—what did Ammon do?”
“It’s not about what Ammon did,” the vampire informed me. “It’s about what he told your father to do.”
“What he told Dad to do?” I echoed slowly, staring at her. Scenario after scenario kept playing its way through my brain.
She nodded once. “He wanted you all to himself. He wanted to get rid of your dad. So he used his power and told him to drive that woman out to a motel. There he was supposed to wait until one in the morning, kill her, and then call the police and turn himself in.
“It’s twelve-forty now. We’ve got twenty minutes to stop your father from being arrested for murder. So either trust me and let me get you there in time, or drive yourself. Either way, choose.”