In dead man stalking Shane is followed by a dead man named Jerome Fielder.
Living in West Texas is sort of like living in Hell, but without the favorable climate and charming people. Living in Morganville, Texas, is all that and a takeout bag of worse. I should know. My name is Shane Collins, and I was born here, left here, came back here—none of which I had much choice about.
So, for you fortunate ones who've never set foot in this place, here's the walking tour of Morganville: It's home to a couple of thousand folks who breathe, and some crazy-ass number of people who don't. Vampires. Can't live with 'em, and in Morganville, you definitely can't live without 'em, because they run the town. Other than that, Morganville's a normal, dusty collection of buildings—the kind the oil boom of the '60s and '70s rolled by without dropping a dime in the banks. The university in the center of town acts like its own little city, complete with walls and gates.
Oh, and there's a secluded, tightly guarded vampire section of town, too. I've been there, in chains. It's nice, if you're not looking forward to a horrible public execution.
I used to want to see this town burned to the ground, and then I had one of those things, what are they called, epiphanies? My epiphany was that one day I woke up and realized that if I lost Morganville and everybody in it ... I'd have nothing at all. Everything I still cared about was here. Love it or hate it.
I was having another one of them on this particular day. I was sitting at a table inside Marjo's Diner, watching a dead man walk by the windows outside. Seeing dead men wasn't exactly unusual in Morganville; hell, one of my best friends is dead now, and he still gripes at me about doing the dishes. But there's vampire-dead, which Michael is, and then there's dead-dead, which was Jerome Fielder.
Except Jerome, dead or not, was walking by the window outside Marjo's.
"Order up," Marjo snapped, and slung my plate at me like a ground ball to third base; I stopped it from slamming into the wall by putting up my hand as a backstop. The bun of my hamburger slid over and onto the table—mustard side up, for a change.
"There goes your tip," I said. Marjo, already heading off to the next victim, flipped me off.
"Like you'd ever leave one, you cheap-ass punk."
I returned the gesture. "Don't you need to get to your second job?"
That made her pause, just for a second. "What second job?"
"I don't know, grief counselor? You being so sensitive and all."
That earned me another bird, ruder than the first one. Marjo had known me since I was a baby puking up formula. She didn't like me any better now than she had then, but that wasn't personal. Marjo didn't like anybody. Yeah, go figure on her entering the service industry.
"Hey," I said, and leaned over to look at her retreating bubble butt. "Did you just see who walked by outside?"
She turned to glare at me, round tray clutched in sharp red talons. "Screw you, Collins, I'm running a business here, I don't have time to stare out windows. You want something else or not?"
"Go squeeze a tomato." She hustled off to wait another table—or not, as the mood took her.
I put veggies on my burger, still watching the parking lot outside the window. There were exactly six cars out there; one of them was my housemate Eve's, which I'd borrowed. The gigantic thing was really less a car than an ocean liner, and some days I called it the Queen Mary, and some days I called it Titanic, depending on how it was running. It stood out. Most of the other vehicles in the lot were crappy, sun-faded pickups and decrepit, half-wrecked sedans.
There was no sign of Jerome, or any other definitely dead guy, walking around out there now. I had one of those moments, those did I really see that? moments, but I'm not the delusional type. I had zero reason to imagine the guy. I didn't even like him, and he'd been dead for at least a year, maybe longer. Killed in a car wreck at the edge of town, which was code for shot while trying to escape, or the nearest Morganville equivalent. Maybe he'd pissed off his vampire Protector. Who knew?
Also, who cared? Zombies, vampires, whatever. When you live in Morganville, you learn to roll with the supernatural punches.
I bit into the burger and chewed. This was why I came to Marjo's . . . not the spectacular service, but the best hamburgers I'd ever eaten. Tender, juicy, spicy. Fresh, crisp lettuce and tomato, a little red onion. The only thing missing was . . . .
"Here's your damn ketchup," Marjo said, and slid the bottle at me like a bartender in an old western saloon. I fielded it and saluted with it, but she was already moving on.
As I drizzled red on my burger, I continued to stare out the window. Jerome. That was a puzzle. Not enough to make me stop eating lunch, though.
Which shows you just how weird life in Morganville is, generally.
I was prepared to forget all about Jerome, post-lunch, because not even Marjo's sour attitude could undo the endorphin high of her burger and besides, I had to get home. It was five o'clock. The bottling plant was letting out, and pretty soon the diner would be crowded with adults tired from a hard day's labor, and not many of them liked me any better than Marjo did. Most of them were older than me; at eighteen, I was starting to get the get-a-job-you-punk stares.
I like a good ass-kicking, but the Good Book is right: It's better to give than to receive.
I was unlocking the door to Eve's car when I saw a reflection behind me on the window glass, blocking the blazing westerly sun. It was smeared and indistinct, but in the ripples I made out some of the features.
Jerome Fielder. What do you know, I really had seen him.
I had exactly enough time to think, Dude, say something witty, before Jerome grabbed a handful of my hair and rammed me forehead-first into hot metal and glass. My knees went rubbery, and there was a weird high-pitched whine in my ears. The world went white, then pulsed red, then faded into darkness when he slammed me down again.
Why me? I had time to wonder, as it all went away.
I woke up some time later, riding in the back seat of Eve's car and dripping blood all over the upholstery. Oh, crap, she's gonna kill me for that, I thought, which was maybe not the biggest problem I had. My wrists were tied behind my back, and Jerome had done some work on my ankles, too. The bonds were so tight I'd lost feeling in both hands and feet, except for a slow, cold throb. I had a gash in my forehead, somewhere near the hairline I thought, and probably some kind of concussion thing, because I felt sick and dizzy.
Jerome was driving Eve's car, and I saw him watching me in the rear view mirror as we rattled along. Wherever we were, it was a rough road, and I bounced like a rag doll as the big tank of a car charged over bumps.
"Hey," I said. "So. Dead much, Jerome?"
He didn't say anything. That might have been because he liked me about as much as Marjo, but I didn't think so; he didn't look exactly right. Jerome had been a big guy, back in high school—big in the broad-shouldered sense. He'd been a gym worshipper, a football player, and winner of the biggest neck contest hands down.
Even though he still had all the muscles, it was like the air had been let out of them and now they were ropy and strangely stringy. His face had hollows, and his skin looked old and grainy.
Yep: dead guy. Zombified, which would have been a real mindfreak anywhere but Morganville; even in Morganville, though, it was weird. Vampires? Sure. Zombies? Not so you'd notice.
Jerome decided it was time to prove he still had a working voice box. "Not dead," he said. Just two words, and it didn't exactly prove his case because it sounded hollow and rusty. If I'd had to imagine a dead guy's voice, that would have been it.
"Great," I said. "Good for you. So, this car theft thing is new as a career move, right? And the kidnapping? How's that going for you?"
He was absolutely right, I needed to do that. I was talking because hey, dead guy driving. It made me just a bit uncomfortable. "Eve's going to hunt you down and dismember you if you ding the car. Remember Eve?"
"Bitch," Jerome said, which meant he did remember. Of course he did. Jerome had been the president of the Jock Club and Eve had been the founder and nearly the only member of the Order of the Goth, Morganville Edition. Those two groups never got along, especially in the hothouse world of high school.
"Remind me to wash your mouth with soap later," I said, and shut my eyes as a particularly brutal bump bounced my head around. Red flashed through my brain, and I thought about things like aneurysms, and death. "Not nice to talk about people behind their backs."
"Go screw yourself."
"Hey, three words! You go, boy. Next thing you know, you'll be up to real sentences. . . . Where are we going?"
Jerome's eyes glared at me in the mirror some more. The car smelled like dirt, and something else. Something rotten. Skanky homeless unwashed clothes brewed in a vat of old meat.
I tried not to think about it, because between the smell and the lurching of the car and my aching head, well, you know. Luckily, I didn't have to not-think-about-it for long, because Jerome made a few turns and then hit the brakes with a little too much force.
I rolled off the bench seat and into the spacious legroom, and ow. "Ow," I made it official. "You learn that in Dead Guy Driver's Ed?"
"You know, I think being dead might have actually given you a bigger vocabulary. You ought to think of suggesting that to the U. Put in an extension course or something."
The car shifted as Jerome got out of the front seat, and then the back door opened as he reached in to grab me under the arms and haul. Dead he might be; skanky, definitely. But still: strong.
Jerome dumped me on the caliche-white road, which was graded and graveled, but not recently, and walked off around the hood of the car. I squirmed and looked around. There was an old house about twenty feet away—the end of the pale road—and it looked weathered and defeated and sagging. Could have been a hundred years old, or five without maintenance. Hard to tell. Two stories, old-fashioned and square. Had one of those runaround porches people used to build to catch the cool breezes, although cool out here was relative.
I didn't recognize the place, which was a weird feeling. I'd grown up in Morganville, and I knew every nook and hiding place—survival skills necessary to making it to adulthood. That meant I wasn't in Morganville proper anymore. I knew there were some farmhouses outside of the town limits, but those who lived in them didn't come to town much, and nobody left the city out without express vampire permission, unless they were desperate or looking for an easy suicide. So I had no idea who lived here. If anyone but Jerome did, these days.
Maybe he'd eaten all the former residents' brains, and I was his version of takeout. Yeah, that was comforting.
I worked on the ropes, but zombie or not, Jerome tied a damn good knot and my numbed fingers weren't exactly up to the task.
It had been quitting time at the plants when I'd gone out to the parking lot and ended up road kill, but now the big western sun was brushing the edge of the dusty horizon. Sunset was coming, in bands of color layered on top of each other, from red straight up to indigo. I squirmed and tried to dislocate an elbow in order to get to my front pocket, where my cell phone waited patiently for me to text 911. No luck, and I ran out of time anyway.
Jerome came back around the car, grabbed me by the collar of my t-shirt, and pulled. I grunted and kicked and struggled like a fish on the line, but all that accomplished was to leave a wider drag-path in the dirt. I couldn't see where we were going. The backs of Jerome's fingers felt chilly and dry against my sweaty neck.
Bumpity-bump-bump up a set of steps that felt splinter-sharp even through my shirt, and the sunset got sliced off by a slanting dark roof. The porch was flatter, but no less uncomfortably splintered. I tried struggling again, this time really putting everything into it, but Jerome dropped me and smacked the back of my head into the wood floor. More red and white flashes, like my own personal emergency signal. When I blinked them away, I was being dragged across a threshold, into the dark.
I wasn't up for bravado anymore. I was seriously scared, and I wanted out. My heart was pounding, and I was thinking of a thousand horrible ways I could die here in this stinking, hot, closed-up room. The carpet underneath my back felt stiff and moldy. What furniture there was looked abandoned and dusty, at least the stuff that wasn't in pieces.
Weirdly, there was the sound of a television coming from upstairs. Local news. The vampires' official mouthpieces were reporting safe little stories, world events, nothing too controversial. Talk about morphine for the masses.
The sound clicked off, and Jerome let go of me. I flopped over onto my side, then my face, and inchwormed my way up to my knees while trying not to get a mouthful of dusty carpet. I heard a dry rattle from behind me.
Jerome was laughing.
"Laugh while you can, monkey boy," I muttered, and spat dust. Not likely he'd ever seen Buckaroo Banzai, but it was worth a shot.
Footsteps creaked on the stairs from the second floor. I reoriented myself, because I wanted to be looking at whatever evil bastard was coming to the afternoon matinee of my probably gruesome death. . . .
Oh. Oh, dammit.
"Hello, son," my dad Frank Collins said. "Sorry about this, but I knew you wouldn't just come on your own."
The ropes came off, once I promised to be a good boy and not rabbit for the car the second I had the chance. My father looked about the same as I'd expected, which meant not good but strong. He'd started out a random pathetic alcoholic; after my sister had died—accident or murder, you take your pick—he'd gone off the deep end. So had my mom. So had I, for that matter.
Sometime in there, my dad had changed from random pathetic drunk to mean, badass vampire-hunting drunk. The vampire-hating component of that had been building up for years, and it had exploded like an ancient batch of TNT when my mother died—by suicide, maybe. I didn't believe it, and neither did my dad. The vampires had been behind it, like they were behind every terrible thing that had ever happened in our lives.
That's what I'd used to believe, anyway. And what Dad still did.
I could smell the whiskey rising up off of him like the bad-meat smell off of Jerome, who was kicked back in a chair in the corner, reading a book. Funny. Jerome hadn't been much of a reader when he'd been alive.
I sat obligingly on the ancient, dusty couch, mainly because my feet were too numb to stand, and I was trying to work circulation back into my fingers. Dad and I didn't hug. Instead, he paced, raising dust motes that glimmered in the few shafts of light that fought their way through smudged windows.
"You look like crap," Dad said, pausing to stare at me. I resisted the urge, like Marjo, to give him a one-fingered salute, because he'd only beat the crap out of me for it. Seeing him gave me a black, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to love him. I wanted to hit him. I didn't know what I wanted, except that I wanted this whole thing to just go away.
"Gee, thanks, Dad," I said, and deliberately slumped back on the couch, giving him all the teen attitude I could. "I missed you too. I see you brought all your friends with you. Oh, wait."
The last time my dad had rolled into Morganville, he'd done it in a literal kind of way—on a motorcycle, with a bunch of badass motorcycle biker buddies. No sign of them this time. I wondered when they'd finally told him to shove it, and how hard.
Dad didn't answer. He kept staring at me. He was wearing a leather jacket with lots of zippers, faded blue jeans, sturdy boots. Not too different from what I was wearing, minus the jacket, because only a stupid jerk would be in leather in this heat. Looking at you, Dad.
"Shane," he said. "You knew I'd come back for you."
"Yeah, that's really sweet. The last time I saw you, you were trying to blow my ass up along with a whole building full of vampires, remember? What's my middle name, Collateral Damage?" He'd have done it, too. I knew my dad too well to think anything else. "You also left me to burn alive in a cage, Dad. So excuse me if I'm not getting all misty-eyed while the music swells."
His expression—worn into a hard leather mask by wind and sun—didn't change. "It's a war, Shane. We talked about this."
"Funny thing, I don't remember you saying, If you get caught by the vampires, I'll leave you to burn, dumbass. But maybe I'm just not remembering all the details of your clever plan." Feeling was coming back into my fingers and toes. Not fun. It felt like I'd dipped them in battery acid and then rolled them in lye. "I can get over that. But you had to go and drag my friends into it."
That was what I hated the most. Sure, he'd screwed me over—more than once, actually. But he was right, we'd kind of agreed that one or the other of us might have to bite it for the cause, back when I believed in his cause.
We hadn't agreed about innocent people, especially my friends, getting thrown on the pile of bodies.
"Your friends, right," Dad said, with about a bottle's worth of cheap whiskey emphasis. "A half-vampire, a wannabe morbid freak, and—oh, you mean that girl, don't you? The little skinny one. She melted the brains right out of your head, didn't she? I warned you about that."
Claire. He didn't even remember her name. I closed my eyes for a second, and there she was, smiling up at me with those clear, trusting eyes. She might be small, but she had a kind of strength my dad wouldn't ever understand. She was the first really pure thing that I'd ever known, and I wasn't about to let him take her away. She was waiting for me right now, back at the Glass House, probably studying and chewing a pencil. Or arguing with Eve. Or . . . wondering where the hell I was.
I had to get out of this. I had to get back to Claire.
Painful or not, my feet were functional again. I tested them by standing up. In the corner, Dead Jerome put aside his book. It was a battered, water-stained copy of The Wizard of Oz. Who did he think he was? The Cowardly Lion? The Scarecrow? Hell, maybe he thought he was Dorothy.
"Just like I thought, this is all about the girl. You probably think you're some knight in shining armor come to save her." Dad's smile was sharp enough to cut diamonds. "You know how she sees you? A big, dumb idiot she can put on a leash. Her own pet pit bull. Your innocent little schoolgirl, she's wearing the Founder's symbol now. She's working for the vampires. I sure as hell hope she's like a porn star in the sack for you to be betraying your own like this."
This time, I didn't need a knock on the head to see red. I felt my chin going down, my lungs filling, but I held on to my temper. Somehow.
He was trying to make me charge him.
"I love her, Dad," I said. "Don't."
"Love, yeah, right. You don't know the meaning of the word, Shane. She's working for the leeches. She's helping them regain control of Morganville. She has to go, and you know it."
"Over my dead body."
In the corner, Jerome laughed that scratchy, raspy laugh that made me want to tear out his voice box once and for all. "Could be arranged," he croaked.
"Shut up," my dad snapped without taking his eyes off of me. "Shane, listen to me. I've found the answer."
"Wait—let me guess—forty-two?" No use. Dad wasn't anywhere near cool enough to be a Douglas Adams fan. "I don't care what you've found, Dad, and I'm not listening to you any more. I'm going home. You want to have your pet dead guy stop me?"
His eyes fixed on my wrist, where I was wearing a bracelet. Not one of those things that would have identified me as vamp property—a hospital bracelet, white plastic with a big red cross on it.
"You wounded?" Not, of course, was I sick. I was just another foot soldier, to Dad. You were either wounded, or malingering.
"Whatever. I'm better," I said.
It seemed, for just a second, that he softened. Maybe nobody but me would have noticed. Maybe I imagined it, too. "Where were you hurt, boy?"
I shrugged and pointed to my abs, slightly off to one side. The scar still ached and felt hot. "Knife."
He frowned. "How long ago?"
"Long enough." The bracelet would be coming off in the next week. My grace period was nearly over.
He looked into my eyes, and for a second, just a second, I let myself believe he was genuinely concerned.
He always had been able to catch me off guard, no matter how carefully I watched him, and I didn't even see the punch coming until it was too late. It was hard, delivered with surgical precision, and it doubled me over and sent me stumbling back to flop onto the couch again. Breathe, I told my muscles. My solar plexus told me to stuff it, and my insides throbbed, screaming in pain and terror. I heard myself making hard, gasping noises, and hated myself for it. Next time. Next time I hit the bastard first.
I knew better, though.
Dad grabbed me by the hair and yanked my head back. He pointed my face in Jerome's direction. "I'm sorry, boy, but I need you to listen right now. You see him? I brought him back, right out of the grave. I can bring them all back, as many as I need. They'll fight for me, Shane, and they won't quit. It's time. We can take this town back, and we can finally end this nightmare."
My frozen muscles finally unclenched, and I pulled in a whooping, hoarse gasp of air. Dad let go of my hair and stepped away.
He'd always known when to back off, too.
"Your definition of—the end of the nightmare—is a little different—from mine," I wheezed. "Mine doesn't include zombies." I swallowed and tried to slow my heart rate. "How'd you do it, Dad? How the hell is he standing here?"
He brushed that aside. Of course. "I'm trying to explain to you that it's time to quit talking about the war, and time to start fighting it. We can win. We can destroy all of them." He paused, and the glow in his eyes was the next best thing to a fanatic with a bomb strapped to his chest. "I need you, son. We can do it together."
That part, he really meant. It was sick and twisted, but he did need me.
And I needed to use that. "First, tell me how you do it," I said. "I need to know what I'm signing up for."
"Later." Dad clapped me on the shoulder. "When you're convinced this is necessary, maybe. For now, all you need to know is that it's possible, I've done it. Jerome's proof."
"No, Dad. Tell me how. Either I'm in it or I'm not. No more secrets."
Nothing I was saying was going to register with him as a lie, because they weren't lies. I was saying what he wanted to hear. First rule of growing up with an abusive father: you cope, you bargain, you learn how to avoid getting hit.
And my father wasn't bright enough to know I'd figured it out.
Still, some instinct warned him; he looked at me with narrowed eyes, a frown wrinkling his forehead. "I'll tell you," he said. "But you need to show me you can be trusted first."
"Fine. Tell me what you need." That translated into, Tell me who you need me to beat up. As long as I was willing to do that, he'd believe me.
I was hoping it would be Jerome.
"Of everybody who died in the last couple of years, who was the strongest?"
I blinked, not sure it was a trick question. "Jerome?"
"I guess—probably Tommy Barnes." Tommy was no teenager; he'd been in his thirties when he'd kicked it, and he'd been a big, mean, tough dude even the other big, mean, tough dudes had given a wide berth. He'd died in a bar fight, I'd heard. Knifed from behind. He'd have snapped the neck off of anybody who'd tried it to his face.
"Big Tom? Yeah, he'd do." Dad nodded thoughtfully. "All right, then. We're bringing him back."
The last person on earth I'd want to bring back from the grave would be Big Tommy Barnes. He'd been crazy-badass alive. I could only imagine death wouldn't have improved his temper.
But I nodded. "Show me."
Dad took off his leather jacket, and then stripped off his shirt. In contrast to the sun-weathered skin of his arms, face, and neck, his chest was fish-belly white, and it was covered with tattoos. I remembered some of them, but not all the ink was old.
He'd recently had our family portrait tattooed over his heart.
I forgot to breathe for a second, staring at it. Yeah, it was crude, but those were the lines of Mom's face, and Alyssa's. I didn't realize, until I saw them, that I'd nearly forgotten how they looked.
Dad looked down at the tat. "I needed to remind myself," he said.
My throat was so dry that it clicked when I swallowed. "Yeah." My own face was there, frozen in indigo blue at the age of maybe sixteen. I looked thinner, and even in tattoo form I looked more hopeful. More sure.
Dad held out his right arm, and I realized that there was more new ink.
And this stuff was moving.
I took a step back. There were dense, strange symbols on his arm, all in standard tattoo ink, but there was nothing standard about what the tats were doing—namely, they were revolving slowly like a DNA helix up and down the axis of his arm, under the skin. "Christ, Dad—"
"Had it done in Mexico," he said. "There was an old priest there, he knew things from the Aztecs. They had a way to bring back the dead, so long as they hadn't been gone for more than two years, and were in decent condition otherwise. They used them as ceremonial warriors." Dad flexed his arm, and the tattoos flexed with him. "This is part of what does it."
I felt sick and cold now. This had moved way past what I knew. I wished wildly that I could show this to Claire; she'd probably be fascinated, full of theories and research.
She'd know what to do about it.
I swallowed hard and said, "And the other part?"
"That's where you come in," Dad said. He pulled his t-shirt on again, hiding the portrait of our family, "I need you to prove you're up for this, Shane. Can you do that?"
I gulped air and finally, convulsively nodded. Play for time, I was telling myself. Play for time, think of something you can do. Short of chopping off my own father's arm, though. . . .
"This way," Dad said. He went to the back of the room. There was a door there, and he'd added a new, sturdy lock to it that he opened with a key from his jacket.
Jerome gave me that creepy laugh again, and I felt my skin shiver into gooseflesh.
"Right. This might be a shock," Dad said. "But trust me, it's for a good cause."
He swung open the door and flipped on a harsh overhead light.
It was a windowless cell, and inside, chained to the floor with thick silver-plated links, was a vampire.
Not just any vampire. Oh no, that would have been too easy for my father.
It was Michael Glass, my best friend.
Michael looked—white. Paler than pale. I'd never seen him look like that. There were burns on his arms, big raised welts where the silver was touching, and there were cuts. He was leaking slow trickles of blood on the floor.
His eyes were usually blue, but now they were red, bright red. Scary monster red, like nothing human.
But it was still my best friend's voice whispering, "Help."
I couldn't answer him. I backed up and slammed the door.
Jerome was laughing again, so I turned around, picked up a chair, and smashed him in the face with it. I could have hit him with a powder puff, for all the good it did. He grabbed the chair, broke the thick wood with a snap of his hands, and threw it back at me. I stumbled, and would have gone down except for the handy placement of a wall.
"Stop. Don't touch my son," my father said. Jerome froze like he'd run into a brick wall, hands working like he still wanted to rip out my throat.
I turned on my dad and snarled, "That's my friend!"
"No, that's a vampire," he said. "The youngest one. The weakest one. The one most of them won't come running to rescue."
I wanted to scream. I wanted to punch somebody. I felt pressure building up inside, and my hands were shaking. "What the hell are you doing to him?"
I didn't know who he was, this guy in the leather jacket looking at me. He looked like a tired, middle-aged biker, with his straggly graying hair, his sallow, seamed face, his scars and tats. Only his eyes seemed like they belonged to my dad, and even then, only for a second.
"It's a vampire," he said. "It's not your friend, Shane. You need to be real clear about that—your friend is dead, just like Jerome here, and you can't let that get in the way of what needs to be done. When we go to war, we get them all. All. No exceptions."
Michael had played at our house. My dad had tossed a ball around with him and pushed his swing and served him cake at birthday parties.
And my dad didn't care about any of that anymore.
"How?" My jaw felt tight. I was grinding my teeth, and my hands were shaking. "How did you do this? What are you doing to him?"
"I'm bleeding it and storing the blood, just like they do us humans," Dad said. "It's a two-part spell—the tattoo, and the blood of a vampire. It's just a creature, Shane. Remember that."
Michael wasn't a creature. Not just a creature, anyway; neither was what Dad had pulled out of Jerome's grave, for that matter. Jerome wasn't just a mindless killing machine. Mindless killing machines didn't fill their spare time with the adventures of Dorothy and Toto. They didn't even know they had spare time. I could see it in Jerome's wide, yellowed eyes now. The pain. The terror. The anger.
"Do you want to be here?" I asked him, straight out.
For just that second, Jerome looked like a boy. A scared, angry, hurt little boy. "No," he said. "Hurts."
I wasn't going to let this happen. Not to Michael, oh hell no. And not even to Jerome.
"Don't you go all soft on me, Shane. I've done what needed doing," he said. "Same as always. You used to be weak. I thought you'd manned up."
Once, that would have made me try to prove it by fighting something. Jerome, maybe. Or him.
I turned and looked at him and said, "I really would be weak, if I fell for that tired bullshit, Dad." I raised my hands, closed them into fists, and then opened them again and let them fall. "I don't need to prove anything to you. Not anymore."
I walked out the front door, out to the dust-filmed black car. I popped the trunk and took out a crowbar.
Dad watched me from the door, blocking my way back into the house. "What the hell are you doing?"
He threw a punch as I walked up the steps toward him. This time, I saw it coming, saw it telegraphed clearly in his face before the impulse ever reached his fist.
I stepped out of the way, grabbed his arm, and shoved him face-first into the wall. "Don't." I held him there, pinned like a bug on a board, until I felt his muscles stop fighting me. The rest of him never would. "We're done, Dad. Over. This is over. Don't make me hurt you, because God, I really want to."
I should have known he wouldn't just give up.
The second I let him go, he twisted, jammed an elbow into my abused stomach, and forced me backward. I knew his moves by now, and sidestepped an attempt to hook my feet out from under me.
"Jerome!" Dad yelled. "Stop my—"
The end of that sentence was going to be son, and I couldn't let him put Jerome back in the game or this was over before it started.
So I punched my father full in the face. Hard. With all the rage and resentment that I'd stored up over the years, and all the anguish, and all the fear. The shock rattled every bone in my body, and my whole hand sent up a red flare of distress. My knuckles split open.
Dad hit the floor, eyes rolling back in his head. I stood there for a second, feeling oddly cold and empty, and saw his eyelids flutter.
He wouldn't be out for long.
I moved quickly across the room, past Jerome, who was still frozen in place, and opened the door to the cell. "Michael?" I crouched down across from him, and my friend shook gold hair back from his white face and stared at me with eerie, hungry eyes.
I held up my wrist, showing him the bracelet. "Promise me, man. I get you out of here, no biting. I love you, but no."
Michael laughed hoarsely. "Love you too, bro. Get me the hell out of here."
I set to work with the crowbar, pulling up floorboards and gouging the eyebolts out for each set of chains. I'd been right; my dad was too smart to make chains out of solid silver. Too soft, too easy to break. These were silver-plated—good enough to do the job on Michael, if not one of the older vamps.
I only had to pull up the first two; Michael's vampire strength took care of yanking the others from the floor.
Michael's eyes flared red when I leaned closer, trying to help him up, and before I knew what was happening, he'd wrapped a hand around my throat and slammed me down, on my back, on the floor. I felt the sting of sharp nails in my skin, and saw his eyes fixed on the cut on my head.
"No biting," I said again, faintly. "Right?"
"Right," Michael said, from somewhere out beyond Mars. His eyes were glowing like storm lanterns, and I could feel every muscle in his body trembling. "Better get that cut looked at. Looks bad."
He let me up, and moved with about half his usual vampire speed to the door. Dad might not let Jerome have at me, but he wasn't going to hold back with Michael, and Michael was—at best—half his normal strength right now. Not exactly a fair fight.
"Michael," I said, and put my back against the wall next to him. "We go together, straight to the window. You get out, don't wait for me. The sun should be down far enough that you can make it to the car." I gathered up a handful of silver chain and wrapped it around my hand. "Don't even think about arguing right now."
He sent me an are-you-kidding look, and nodded.
We moved fast, and together. I got in Jerome's way and delivered a punch straight from the shoulder right between his teeth, reinforced with silver-plated metal.
I only intended to knock him back, but Jerome howled and stumbled, hands up to ward me off. It was like years fell away, and all of a sudden we were back in junior high again—him the most popular bully in school, me finally getting enough size and muscle to stand up to him. Jerome had made that same girly gesture the first time I'd hit back.
It threw me off.
A crossbow bolt fired from the far corner living room hissed right over my head and slammed to a vibrating stop in the wooden wall. "Stop!" Dad ordered hoarsely. He was on his knees, but he was up and very, very angry. He was also reloading, and the next shot wouldn't be a warning.
"Get out!" I screamed at Michael, and if he was thinking about staging a re-enactment of the gunfight at the OK Corral, he finally saw sense. He jumped through the nearest window in a hail of glass and hit the ground running. I'd been right: The sun was down, or close enough that it wouldn't hurt him too badly.
He made it to the car, opened the driver's side door, and slid inside. I heard the roar as the engine started. "Shane!" he yelled. "Come on!"
"In a second," I yelled back. I stared at my father, and the moving tattoo. He had the crossbow aimed right at my chest. I twirled the crowbar in one hand, the silver chain in the other. "So," I said, watching my father. "Your move, Dad. What now? You want me to do a cage match with Dead Jerome? Would that make you happy?"
My dad was staring not at me, but at Dead Jerome, who was cowering in the corner. I'd hurt him, or the silver had; half his face was burned and rotting, and he was weeping in slow, retching sobs.
I knew the look Dad was giving him. I'd seen it on my father's face more times than I could count. Disappointment.
"My son," Dad said in disgust. "You ruin everything."
"I guess Jerome's more your son than I am," I said. I walked toward the front door. I wasn't going to give my father the satisfaction of making me run. I knew he had the crossbow in his hands, and I knew it was loaded.
I knew he was sighting on my back.
I heard the trigger release, and the ripped-silk hiss of wood traveling through air. I didn't have time to be afraid, only—like my dad—bitterly disappointed.
The crossbow bolt didn't hit me. Didn't even miss me.
When I turned, at the door, I saw that he'd put the crossbow bolt, tipped with silver, through Jerome's skull. Jerome slid silently down to the floor. Dead. Finally, mercifully dead.
The Wizard of Oz fell face down next to his hand.
"Son," my dad said, and put the crossbow aside. "Please, don't go. I need you. I really do."
I shook my head.
"This thing—it'll only last another few days," he said. "The tattoo. It's already fading. I don't have time for this, Shane. It has to be now."
"Then I guess you're out of luck."
He snapped the crossbow up again.
I ducked to the right, into the parlor, jumped the wreckage of a couch, and landed on the cracked, curling floor of the old kitchen. It smelled foul and chemical in here, and I spotted a fish tank on the counter, filled with cloudy liquid. Next to it was a car battery.
DIY silver plating equipment, for the chains.
There was also a 1950s-era round-shouldered fridge, rattling and humming.
I opened it.
Dad had stored Michael's blood in bottles, old dirty milk bottles likely scavenged from the trash heap in the corner. I grabbed all five bottles and threw them one at a time out the window, aiming for a big upthrusting rock next to a tree.
Smash. Smash. Smash. Smash. . . .
"Stop," Dad spat. In my peripheral vision I saw him standing there, aiming his reloaded crossbow at me. "I'll kill you, Shane. I swear I will."
"Yeah? Lucky you've already got me tattooed on your chest, then, with the rest of the dead family." I pulled back for the throw.
"I could bring back your mother," Dad blurted. "Maybe even your sister. Don't."
Oh, God. Sick black swam across my vision for a second.
"You throw that bottle," he whispered, "and you're killing their last chance to live."
I remembered Jerome—his sagging muscles, his grainy skin, the panic and fear in his eyes.
Do you want to be here?
I threw the last bottle of Michael's blood and watched it sail straight and true, to shatter in a red spray against the rock.
I thought he'd kill me. Maybe he thought he'd kill me, too. I waited, but he didn't pull the trigger.
"I'm fighting for humanity," he said. His last, best argument. It had always won me over before.
I turned and looked him full in the face. "I think you already lost yours."
I walked out past him, and he didn't stop me.
Michael drove like a maniac, raising contrails of caliche dust about a mile high as we sped back to the main highway. He kept asking me how I was doing. I didn't answer him, just looked out at the gorgeous sunset, and the lonely, broken house fading in the distance.
We blasted past the Morganville city limits sign, and one of the ever-lurking police cars cut us off. Michael slowed, stopped, and turned off the engine. A rattle of desert wind shook the car.
"I know that."
"I can't just let this go. Did you see—"
"I saw," I said. "I know." But he's still my father, some small, frightened kid inside me wailed. He's all I have.
"Then what do you want me to say?" Michael's eyes had faded back to blue, now, but he was still white as a ghost, blue-white, scary-white. I'd spilled all his blood out there on the ground. The burns on his hands and wrists made my stomach clench.
"Tell them the truth," I said. If the Morganville vampires got to my dad before he could get the hell out, he'd die horribly, and God knew, he probably deserved it. "But give him five minutes, Michael. Just five."
Michael stared at me, and I couldn't tell what was in his mind at all. I'd known him most of my life, but in that long moment, he was just as much of a stranger as my father had been.
A uniformed Morganville cop tapped on the driver's side window. Michael rolled it down. The cop hadn't been prepared to find a vampire driving, and I could see him amending the harsh words he'd been about to deliver.
"Going a little fast, sir," he finally said. "Something wrong?"
Michael looked at the burns on his wrists, the bloodless slices on his arms. "Yeah," he said. "I need an ambulance."
And then he slumped forward, over the steering wheel. The cop let out a squawk of alarm and got on his radio. I reached out to ease Michael back. His eyes were shut, but as I stared at him, he murmured, "You wanted five minutes."
"I wasn't looking for a Best Supporting Actor award!" I muttered back.
Michael did his best impression of Vampire in a Coma for about five minutes, and then came to and assured the cop and arriving ambulance attendants he was okay.
Then he told them about my dad.
They found Jerome, still and evermore dead, with a silver-tipped arrow through his head. They found a copy of The Wizard of Oz next to him.
There was no sign of Frank Collins.
Later that night—around midnight—Michael and I sat outside on the steps of our house. I had a bottle of most illegal beer; he was guzzling his sixth bottle of blood, which I pretended not to notice. He had his arm around Eve, who had been pelting us both with questions all night in a non-stop machine gun patter; she'd finally run down, and leaned against Michael with sleepy contentment.
Well, she hadn't quite run down. "Hey," she said, and looked up at Michael with big, dark-rimmed eyes. "Seriously. You can bring back dead guys with vampire juice? That is so wrong."
Michael almost spit out the blood he was swallowing. "Vampire juice? Damn, Eve. Thanks for your concern."
She lost her smile. "If I didn't laugh, I'd scream."
He hugged her. "I know. But it's over."
Next to me, Claire had been quiet all night. She wasn't drinking—not that we'd have let her, at sixteen—and she wasn't saying much, either. She also wasn't looking at me. She was staring out at the Morganville night.
"He's coming back," she finally said. "Your dad's not going to give it up, is he?"
I exchanged a look with Michael. "No," I said. "Probably not. But it'll be a while before he gets his act together again. He expected to have me to help him kick off his war, and like he said, his time was running out. He'll need a brand new plan."
Claire sighed and linked her arm through mine. "He'll find one."
"He'll have to do it without me." I kissed the soft, warm top of her hair.
"I'm glad," she said. "You deserve better."
"News flash," I said. "I've got better. Right here."
Michael and I clinked glasses, and toasted our survival.
However long it lasted.