Joshua’s father had smoked yellow-ended cowboy cigarettes. Two packs a day. The bittersweet aroma had seemed to concentrate between his dad’s nubby fingers where the butt always remained pincered until it smoldered to ash. It was that unmistakable scent that surfaced in Joshua’s mind whenever he recalled the four-year span when his baby teeth had loosened but were reluctant to part with his head, and those aromatic digits had repeatedly crunched the waggling offenders free of their sockets.
The hands pinning Joshua dug into his arms and legs, grinding his body against the concrete wall. Another pair cemented his head to the cold solidity behind him, pulling open his lower jaw hard enough that the tendons popped and cracked with the strain. But those hands didn’t concern Joshua nearly as much as the single pale one creeping towards his face, the one that carried the same smoky-sweet aroma he remembered from his childhood. It was that hand that caused him to writhe in panic under the pressure of his captors, turning his gurgling protests into high-pitched screams.
It was all because of her.
The trance music’s beat picked up the individual thumps from the wildly pounding hearts of the dancers around Joshua, swelling the thick rhythm in his throat. He stood off to the side, out of the range of both the stroboscopic spotlights and the trajectory of flashing neon glow sticks wielded by a good number of the contorting youngest attendees. His black hoodie’s ragged string again found its way into his mouth. He chewed it in time to the music, imagining the cord between his teeth was made of a softer, more palatable fiber.
He was hungry.
She walked in front of him, taking a deep swig from her nearly empty water bottle as she passed on her way to the door. She hit the center of his gaze’s range and stopped dead, turning her suddenly wide eyes to meet his. Her dark hair was piled high on her head in an elaborate series of swirling buns. Her sweat-ruined turquoise makeup bled down her face and neck, disappearing into the tiny chasm between her black tube top and the slight mounds of her breasts. For a moment she trembled beneath Joshua’s scrutiny and he feared she would bolt. Then, her mouth curved in a smile and her hips–clad in yet another miniature stripe of stretchy black fabric–swished to the side as a bangled wrist propped against one of them. E was a miracle drug.
“See something you like?” She tilted her head seductively, promising him far more than she was prepared to deliver.
Joshua nodded, rolling the string around in his mouth like a sweet piece of candy.
“You got a name?”
Joshua nodded again, chewing furiously. Any natural instinct to flee would have been long squelched by the feel-good chemicals flowing in her veins. He could tear into her, and she would purr. He dug into the ragged pocket of his jeans and surfaced with a pair of tiny white disks marked with a letter. She’d already used twice tonight at the rave. That meant she’d use again. He held out the pills, smiling. “Name’s Josh.”
Joshua screamed as the thick scent filled his nose. The index finger and thumb closed around his tooth and he could nearly feel their calloused hardness grinding into the enamel. His chest heaved in short, spasmodic bursts. If he’d had breath left, he would have hyperventilated. As he didn’t, the noise continued to flow in broken bursts from his lungs, the high-pitched wailing of a car’s alarm. With the strength of steel pliers, the fingers tightened and wrenched. The crunch of the roots tearing free of their tissue echoed in deafening waves through Joshua’s head, and his cries of agony burbled away in a wash of blood.
“Enjoy that drink,” the owner of the fingers said. “It’s pro’bly the last you’ll get for a long time.” The fingers returned. With the same cold efficiency they tore the other pointed incisor from Joshua’s mouth.
His screams turned to sobs as the imprisoning hands released him and he fell to the floor. Blood gushed in twin torrents from the gaping chasms in his gums. Amid a round of vicious kicks and a chorus of taunts urging him to lap it off the floor like the dog he was, Joshua cried. He hadn’t been a vampire long, and already he’d screwed up beyond redemption.
“You think we wouldn’t find out?” asked Gordon, his master and owner of the assaulting fingers. “You think we’re that dumb?”
Joshua lolled his head against the cold basement floor, unable to lift it for the pain.
“You split before the changes were thru. She didn’t die, but she sure as shit rose again. You made somethin’ that was only the stuff of bedtime stories ’til now. You made that broad a livin’ vampire. You’re too stupid to hunt like us.” Gordon used the toe of his boot to tip him onto his back. An old construction foreman from New York’s nineteen-twenties skyscraper heyday, Gordon was extra sensitive to the effect of individual errors on the greater whole, and gave no lenience in the punishing of them. “You ain’t one of us no more.” Gordon flashed a crooked, humorless smile beneath his bushy gray mustache. “But, you do what I tells you, we might let you come back as a Lesser.”
“It’s the best deal you gonna get, boy-o.”
A Lesser. A human. No. Even less than that. Humans were at least food–useful. He’d be an encumbrance. A slave. If Joshua didn’t do as Gordon commanded, he’d die. One night he’d be walking down the street and the shadows would sweep up from the ground to meet him. When they withdrew, there wouldn’t be enough left of him to fit in his father’s novelty Elvis ashtray.
A hand tangled in Joshua’s hair, jerking it upwards. Mark–a vampire who’d once been his friend–walked towards him, carrying a lighted brazier.
Gordon held up his closed fist and rattled the objects inside it like dice, tossing them onto the floor at Joshua’s feet with a flourish. “You get ta do the honors.”
Joshua gazed at the two miniature white daggers lying in the crimson puddle at his knees. He stretched out his hand and scooped them up. In his mind, he made a brilliant break for it, kicking Gordon’s legs out from under him, smashing the elder vampire’s skull against the wall, then plowing through the other ten assembled vampires with Herculean ease before catapulting through the window and out into the night, his teeth clutched like precious gems in his sweaty palm. In reality, he extended his trembling hand over the crackling miniature fire and dropped in his teeth, watching in helpless grief as they turned to blackened ash.
The first semester art scholar worked alone in her loft, her crackling arc welder and large, contorted slabs of steel the only company she could claim. Joshua had watched her silhouette move behind the frosted mullioned windows for two nights, now. It seemed she lived as hollow an existence as he, going to random parties because they were one of the few refuges where a person could be both surrounded and yet remain completely alone, and no one would be the wiser. Where other humans tended to mesh together to create a fabric, she remained a solitary string frayed away from the rest of the weave–much like the one he’d held clamped in his teeth three weeks before when he decided she was enticing enough to both feed him and be paid eternal life as compensation.
The ramifications of that once seemingly trivial decision pounded in the two tender craters in Joshua’s mouth. As a slave to those he’d once called brothers, his life would be filled with ridicule and torture. Yet, he’d still be able to claim their protection against the rival clans who would clamor to possess him once the word got around a eunuch vampire roamed the States. If he couldn’t survive the torment, he could always choose death. The other way around was a much more irreversible decision.
If Joshua decided to take the hero’s route and protect his first-made, he would be rewarded with a stake through the heart and she would die at Gordon’s hands just the same. His mission wasn’t solely about punishment; the vampires would never permit such an abomination to live. Since she was going to die anyway, Joshua might as well squeeze some sort of existence for himself out of the deal.
It was so simple in his head, yet here he was, staring at her shadow for the second night in a row. With a great effort, he shook himself out of his torpor. The sooner it was over, the better it would be for everyone.
Forcing his way into her apartment was easy; he’d already been invited in. The remainder was the simple task of pitting his vampiric strength against her door’s common metal latch.
As Joshua moved to stand behind her, she flipped up the visor of her welding helmet and switched off the sparks.
“Hi again,” she said.
“You’re here to finish what you started.” She stood, turning to face him. Her cheeks had gone pallid, as had the luster of her eyes. Her face and body were leaner than the last time he’d seen her, and the bones in her hips jutted from her torn jeans in sharp points. She gave him an indiscernible look, and then edged past her sculpture to the fridge.
“Yeah.” Joshua took a step towards her, but made no move to attack. A thin line of blood from the non-healing wounds in his mouth crusted each side of his chin. They crackled to powder as he formed the next words around the painful gaps with tenuous care. “I can’t go back unless I do.”
“But you’re not going to.” April said it with such finality Joshua nodded and then turned to leave. Two steps later, he stopped short, shaking his head to clear it. Even though she’d escaped the vampiric curse of living death, she had the undead’s gift of swaying minds. It was an impressive feat for a novice to muster any amount of control over another vampire. It made him wonder what other amplified gifts her unusual status granted her.
“Do you know what you just did to me?” Joshua asked.
“Not really.” April propped a papery hand against her hip and frowned. “Not until I did it.”
“I really don’t want to kill you.”
He didn’t answer, but lifted first one side of his upper lip and then the other, exposing the voids punctuating the otherwise uniform whiteness of his teeth.
“They pulled them out?”
“If only that.” Joshua sighed, the sound whistling through the hollows like a desolate wind. “The others held me down while my master did it.” He rubbed his hands against the cottony softness of his jacket’s sleeves as if cold–even though the ability to feel such a sensation had long deserted him. “After they made me watch my teeth burn away to nothing, they turned me out. They won’t let me back until I kill you.”
“Without your teeth? Why would they make the job they ordered harder to do?”
“That’s just it. They took my natural weapons, forcing me to use other, more human means.” He shook his head as his hands still worked against his biceps. “Even when I show I’m worthy of the title I was reborn to by fixing my mistake, they’ll still make me live like all the other things not on top of the food chain–at the mercy of those who are. And I can’t ever again have that feeling of biting into a soft neck and letting the blood gush down my throat.”
“They won’t grow back?” April’s question didn’t drown the low, pitiful stomach rumble his last sentence evoked.
“I’m no better than a house cat that’s sprayed one too many times on the furniture. I’ve been fixed.”
“What about falsies? The poseur goth kids get them all the time.”
“They’ll just fall back out. I’m stuck with two unhealing holes in my face forever.” He dropped his gaze to the scuffed toes of his sneakers. “I have to use tools to open veins from now on. I’ve gone from hunter to plain murderer.”
April’s stomach growled again and she opened the refrigerator door. Standing in the slice of harsh light, she flipped open the lid of a container brimming with a toxic green liquid, and tipped it to her lips, draining half of it in two gulps. She turned to him, offering the remainder and he made a face.
“Spinach and cucumber. It’s not half bad.”
He grimaced again.
“It’s your fault,” she said after taking another swallow. “I can’t eat, anymore. I try even the smallest bite of food and I hurl all over the place for hours. I want to kill, to drink like you just described, but I can’t bring myself to eat people or animals; I was a raised a vegan, you know. My parents still call once a week to check on me, make sure my college buddies haven’t lured me to the dark side with a hamburger.” She seemed to shrink into herself as her own words sunk in. “Like that’s the biggest of my problems.”
A fragile squeak of laughter escaped her throat. “Lucky for me I have a juicer. My stomach knows its not blood, but it lets me get away with it–barely.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated.
“I can’t go in the daylight without getting hives. Too much water freaks me out. I’ve had to drop all my day classes; the sun rises and I have to fight not to pass out right then and there. I’ve lost like fifteen pounds and I’m pretty sure I look like crap, but I wouldn’t know because my reflection is just a hazy blur.” April fixed him with a glare. “And the best part? The day after you turned me into this I woke up naked in a room splattered with my own blood. Now, that was fun.”
“I heard you the first two times.” The corner of April’s mouth gave a minute, downward twitch.
When she turned to put the juice away, Joshua made sure he was gone before she closed the door.
Rough hands pulled Joshua to his feet, yanking him off the park bench. Newspapers fluttered to the sidewalk and caught the next breeze, scurrying away from the two burly figures holding him.
“Did you think just because we don’t eat bums we wouldn’t find you hiding like one?” Mark’s hands were as big as baseball gloves as they bunched in the folds of his shirt. The cloying aroma of dinner still hung from his former friend’s fangs and Joshua’s stomach whined. He hadn’t eaten in days. “Gordon gave you an order.”
“No excuses. The way it goes is, order given, order received, order carried out. Even as stupid as you are, you should be able to manage somethin’ as simple as that.” Mark gestured with his head to a thick-necked, vampire behind him. “Or, do we have to drive the point home?”
Thick-Neck grinned a gold tooth studded smile and held up a diamond-encrusted shaft with five deadly inches of sharpened wood protruding from its end. Purchasing custom built, personalized stakes for the skewering of one’s foes was currently a popular trend among the fanged set.
“No.” Josh stammered as Mark raised an expectant eyebrow. “No–No, sir.”
“You know, Gordon says me and Biz, here, can share you when you’re done with your little job.” Mark adopted a tone of false haughtiness as his eyes raked up and down Joshua’s frame in anticipatory appraisal. “Did I ever mention I have a fondness for the taste of vampire blood? It’s not for everyone, I know, but I’ve developed a palate for the unique texture of congealed liquid brimming with platelets marinated in aged veins.” Mark dropped the accent, his expression turning to one of sadistic menace. “And the best thing is, you’ll keep on living this sad life you carved out for yourself even after I drain every single drop of it from your skinny ass. You’ll be as hollow as one of those chocolate Easter bunnies and everywhere you go, your shriveled up organs will rattle around in you like a maraca.”
With a laugh, Mark released him. Joshua toppled to the ground, landing on one side, his elbow taking the force of his thankfully less-than-solid frame. His assailants had already merged back into the shadows. He pulled himself to his feet, still rubbing the twanging joint. How had he been friends with that guy?
Joshua had suspected the quality of life waiting for him when he finished his assignment. But, suspecting and knowing were two different things. He wouldn’t live like that.
Not even if it meant he’d get to live.
Joshua followed April’s scent through the streets, his memory taking over for his nose when the brownstone row houses faded into the familiar sight of the dilapidated buildings of the city’s largely deserted industrial district. Around the next block, the deep bass boomed through the abandoned warehouse, rattling the few remaining unbroken windows and setting his lifeless heart tripping in the closest thing to a beat it had experienced in the long year and a half he’d been undead.
April was standing just outside the rave, hovering at the fringes of activity as the brightly colored butterflies flitted in and out of the doors with their arms wrapped joyously around one another. The expression on her face was pained, as if the hunger inside was gnawing its way out. A young woman with glazed, love-filled eyes brushed by, trailing an exploratory finger up April’s arm. April lurched forward at the contact, but then checked herself. It wouldn’t be long, though, before that control slipped entirely away, the hunger eating her rationale because she wouldn’t give it anything more substantial. The hollow defeat in April’s eyes as she watched her potential meal slide into a waiting car suggested she knew this, that she was merely holding off against the inevitable for as long as she could.
Joshua had a fix for that.
“Hi, April,” he said as he approached.
Her gaze flicked to him. She didn’t seem surprised he was there. “You’ve come to finish what you started.” Although the greeting was the same one she’d used the week before, it was no longer a declaration of fact, but instead a tired plea.
“Yeah.” He gave her a long look. They were both alone in this world, unwilling freaks of other people’s machinations. There was no reason either of them needed to die because of it, and there was every reason the ones who refused to tolerate their aberrant presence should.
Joshua moved closer, leaning in to whisper his proposal in April’s ear. At first she shook her head in vehement refusal, eyes wide with horror and panic. But, as he continued talking, her expression took on a darker, more predatory glow.
She would be his teeth. He would teach her how to use them, to repeat the mistake he’d made and paid for. Only this time it wouldn’t be an accident. And it wouldn’t be just once.
Every shift in history could be traced back to one moment, a single event that set the wheels turning.
This moment was the axis for the downfall of the vampires.
The beat of the rave thrummed through Joshua as he twined his fingers around April’s and led her inside. The sweat-infused damp wrapped them in a warm cocoon as their future army bobbed in cadence under the prismatic spotlights.