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Still Life With Roads

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Still Life with Roads

Hurry back we've all been waiting
We can't take much anymore
Where are the days where brothers are brothers
- Nickelback, ‘Hold out your hand’

-----

“I had the weirdest dreams,” Sean says on the bed, waking to a bright desert morning next to a girl he doesn’t know, and then he falls silent for a minute until finally he says, “There was all this blood...” and falls back down on the bed.

-----

Nick thinks that he’s fucked up again, that he’s failed again, just like Louis in Interview with the Vampire, that trashy goth novel that tried to put romance into a world made of horror. Then he thinks that they’re all fucked, that this world of MTV and fast-food is doomed anyway, and that one more of them doesn’t make any difference. It doesn’t explain why he’s fighting so hard not to be one of them, not when he thinks they’re all going to hell. Hell is just another form of torture, and they have plenty of that on earth already. Nick thinks he’s well prepared.

Muttering from the direction of the bed, garbled nonsense about weird dreams and strange places.

Yeah, Nick has fucked up again. He’s as unsure of the man on the bed as of his own volatile nature. The girl’s just another wild card, but she’s so drugged up she can’t see straight, so he dismisses her as just another random figure to factor into this cat-and-mouse game he’s been playing for a year now.

She’ll make excellent bait.

It was a girl that bit him, back then at some wild party, when he still had a life, when insurance, a car and a roof above his head meant something. The insane gleam of her eyes still haunts him sometimes, when he’s relaxed enough to truly sleep, and the sleep afterwards is never relaxed.

Since then, Nick’s gotten kind of suspicious of girls, because they’re so easily swayed and because the Eight, in true spirit of machismo, always surrounded themselves with scantily clad females. It’s not that Nick’s against women, but there has to be a reason why they flock to the Eight, why there’s always some crazed psycho-bitch hanging onto the arms of one of them.

Guys for day drivers, girls for company.

On the bed, Sean mutters something, something else about dreams, and tries to sit up.

Nick looks at Sean, then looks at the bag of drugs sitting next to the bed. Divide what’s in there by two and he can easily calculate the days until he needs to check himself into the hospital with the bitten intern, get a refill. The drugs he needs aren’t that hard to come by legally, but why waste money? The girl doesn’t even figure into that equation. Nick picks up another bullet, feeds it into the magazine of the gun, and plans.

-----

When he comes to and sees Nick playing with the gun, Sean thinks that he’ll never pick up a hitchhiker again. Then there’s the business with that girl in the trunk, who explodes under the sunlight after Nick hits her twice with the shovel, and when they burn rubber out of the motel parking lot, the girl they picked up yesterday a senseless doll in the backseat, Sean thinks that he might as well just hand in his ID, credit cards and illusions of a normal life and hide under a rock.

-----

Fifty miles down the desert highway, feeling hot and itchy, Sean shouts at Nick to pull over. He barely makes it out of the car before he throws up thick, coagulating blood, the taste and smell making him feel nauseous all over again, but there’s nothing left in his stomach.

Sean wants to hurt someone, something. Not yet thirty, a budding career in the cutting room, his life categorized into neat stretches of A) planning the future, B) executing the plans, and C) enjoying the well-earned fruits of hard labour, and now he’s hunched over on the dusty ground of the desert, throwing up blood. He wants to reverse time and start over, forget he ever took the job of driving that car to Miami, forget he ever met Nick or the girl, go back to things the way they were.

Instead, Sean grabs Nick by the lapels of his dirty vest, mixing a handful of red shirt in there, too, and throws him against the hood of the Mercedes he’s meant to drive to Miami; by now Sean knows he’ll never make it if he doesn’t ditch the hitchhiker and the drugged girl, and even that seems like a fragile hope he clings to more out of stubbornness than belief.

Sean throws himself right on top of Nick, hands still strangling handfuls of cloth, and gives in to the helpless rage that’s been in his mind ever since Nick told him there are vampires, that they transmit their deadly lust via bites, and that the drugged girl in the backseat of the Mercedes gave Sean a ticket to hell, free of charge.

Nick’s body is taut beneath the loose clothing he wears. He smells of sweat and rage, held tightly in check behind too-long lashes and that cupid’s bow of a mouth Sean doesn’t know, suddenly, whether to kiss or punch. He’s all lean limbs and smooth muscle, struggling furiously against Sean’s weight and Sean’s sudden, fury-born strength.

There is a single moment when Sean understands the seduction, the heady feeling of power that lasts, for him, only a few seconds, until Nick thrusts out his arm and shows him the faint bite marks on the inside of his elbow, soft skin puckered with scars. It’s better than sex, twice as colourful as the drugs Sean did, once, in high school. There’s no fear in Nick’s eyes, only anger, anguish and driving need.

Sean’s never seen someone as focused on a single task as Nick. It scares him, because people with only one intention in mind are dangerous, because these people will go to extremes to get what they want. Nick doesn’t seem to consider breaking the law as a problem. Nick talks about killing that guy with the black hair and the strange, old eyes as though he’s planning a camping trip. Nick had no moral qualms about cutting up the face of the girl in the trunk, the one that exploded, with the sharp edge of the shovel.

Sean enjoys holding him down far more than he should and understands why the vampires in the movies are always portrayed as creatures of lust, of need.

The only thing Sean knows he’ll never understand is how these movie vampires always seem to go cross-eyed and moaning at the taste of blood, because frankly, it tastes awful.

-----

Sean is a mirror-image of Nick, nine months back, hunched over and puking blood, demanding answers. The only difference is that there’s actually someone around – Nick – to give him answers. It doesn’t change the fact that Nick still gets hurt when Sean throws him against the car, but when the other man pulls back, there’s understanding in his expression, next to impotent anger, and Nick thinks they might actually make it out alive.

-----

“What are these?”

“Antigens, aminos, proteins. Back in the late 80’s, when they started getting into drug cocktails for HIV, some doctor who’d been bitten mixed one that slowed the virus. Now, everybody’s different, but usually it takes about a week to turn. You get on the cocktail, you buy yourself some time.”

“How long do the drugs work?”

There’s the slightest bit of hesitation in Nick’s voice. “They can hold off the onset for a couple of years.”

“But not forever?”

“No. Not forever.”

It sounds like complete bullshit. Sean swallows the candy-coloured mix of pills, washes them down with a mouthful of water, and asks Nick if the girl in the backseat gets the same treatment.

He already knows the answer, and if there were any doubts about Nick’s fraying claim to morality left, they’re now gone.

Nick says no.

Sean starts arguing with him about playing god, while deep down he thinks that he’s grateful. He’s seen the contents of Nick’s bag of candy and can do the basic math. It’d never be enough for three. He’s glad to be the one Nick has chosen.

The feeling is so awful he masks it with disdain and silence, which apparently means acceptance to Nick, because the other man doesn’t seem to spend another minute thinking about defending himself against Sean’s accusations.

Nick hates the world. Sean thinks that beneath all that talk about their fast-food generation doped up on MTV and Ricky Martin, Nick is the very spirit of their age, and he’s heard that turn of phrase before but can’t remember where. Probably another one of those movies. Nick’s depressing, a mid-twenties hitchhiker talking about the ancient city of Antioch, a demon, blood-drinking knights and a virus when he should be out partying, enjoying a life that now seems as far removed from Sean as the moon.

Still, Sean likes him. The anti-thesis of one’s viewpoint is always fascinating, but there’s more to it than that. The last thing Sean wants to be is some ancient knight’s bitch, and Nick’s his ticket to salvation, also free of charge. He only has to survive the road to wherever they’re going.

They stop at some forgotten backwater hole along the road for dinner. Tornillo, Texas. Someone’s been target practising on the ‘o’ in Tornillo; from what Sean can tell, whoever it was wasn’t that bad a shot.

Nick tells him about the nine French knights who survived the siege of Antioch during the Great Crusade, and how eight of them made a pact with a demon, sacrificing the ninth to gain immortality and skin that bursts into flame under sunlight. It’s a pretty shitty deal, all things considered. Immortality isn’t all it’s souped up to be, not with someone like Nick on your heels.

“We can’t just leave her in the car,” Sean argues as they leave the diner, scanning the red horizon. “Don’t be so cruel, man.”

“It’s called practicality.” Smooth, muscled shoulders lift in a shrug. “’sides, if we take her into the room with us, there’s the chance that she’ll just go crazy like she did the last time, and there’s a lot more people here than just one nosy hobo motel clerk.”

That’s logic Sean can’t really argue with, but he tries. “If you leave her in the car, she might just get away. Then what?”

“Then they’ll find her, and turn her into a feeder, like that black bitch he keeps dragging around.” Nick’s lips twist into a cruel smile. “’sides, I locked her in the trunk, and she’s securely doped up on morphine.”

Sean is speechless. He follows Nick for a few steps. “What if they kill her? Won’t that stop that telepathic... thing that’s going on between her and the knight? The leader?”

Nick, walking in front of Sean, stops. The line of his shoulders tenses. “Yes.”

“So...”

“So if she dies, there’s still you.”

Sean jacks off in the shower, teeth clenched, leaned against dingy tiles, imagining Nick struggling against him once more, only that this time, it’s not the hood of the Mercedes but a bed, streaked with blood, and Nick’s begging him, ‘Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me...

-----

Nick thinks roads are the only constant thing left in his life. He walks them, hitches rides from all colours and denominations of people while on them, endures the burning sun and the driving rain while his feet eat away at the concrete or dust beneath.

If he doesn’t dream of blood or the girl that bit him, back at that party, he dreams of roads. They stretch out before him, connecting with an invisible dot at the horizon, leading him from city to village to the backside of America, where the farmers carry shotguns over their shoulders and speak of niggers sitting in congress, the wives go to church every Sunday wearing fading bruises on their arms and cheeks like battle scars, and the children are corrupted in the cradle.

He doesn’t think he’s as depressing as Sean tells him, as others have told him before, but once you’ve seen the world for what it is and not through TV-coloured lenses, there’s no going back. His life is a still life with roads leading nowhere.

-----

The girl, and neither of them even knows her name, doesn’t wake up when Nick pulls her from the trunk, only moans softly and curls back up as he puts her into the backseat. Sean finds himself watching her as they drive. She’s pretty, in that standard, blue-eyed, blond-haired American kind of way, and frankly, there’s no need to think further. He doesn’t wonder what her breasts look like beneath the thin shirt, or how her legs are shaped. Nick took care of that when he undressed her and put her in the bathtub, back at the first stop when they picked her up.

Sean’s seen it all, or almost all. Maybe it’s because of that that he sees her as another human being, and not just a possible lay, like he’s done so many times before with other women. Maybe it’s because his life just got that more perishable that he feels sorry, still, even after all the arguments Nick threw at him. The girl is frightened, sleeping the uneasy sleep of those kept on heavy drugs.

Sean asks, “What if you do turn?”

“The virus mutates into something that can’t be killed except by decapitation or sunlight.”

“In other words, a vampire.”

Nick reads by the dim interior light, surprisingly clean fingers gently following the coloured lines of the map he pulled from one of his many bags. “This map says there’s an old Spanish mission about sixty miles up the road. I say we go there and we wait.”

“How do we get his ass to the mission?” Sean’s on his third bottle of water for the day. The late night before, at the diner, he wolfed down a large steak with side dishes and pudding for desert, and though he’s used to regular meals, he isn’t used to food in that quantity. The nagging hunger is something he isn’t accustomed to, but then he’s seen Nick inhale food as if it’s air, so maybe it’s not all that strange.

“Oh, he’ll find us.” Nick’s voice has the ring of utter conviction.

“What if... what if she turns before he does?”

Nick sighs. “Then we kill her.”

Sean has to laugh, and his voice has a ring of despairing humour he’s not accustomed to, either. “Yeah, that’s right. I forgot we were going to kill her.”

“Well, what do you want to do, Sean? Want to get to know her better? Catch a movie with her?” Nick snorts. “Just make sure you keep her away from any major arteries.”

Sean glances in the rear-view mirror, noticing the headlights of a car behind them, but his eyes stray to the girl once more. “That’s not funny.”

“Exactly.”

Sean can tell Nick’s looking at him, so he steadfastly refuses to look, too. Instead, he keeps playing with the blue-capped pill Nick’s been doling out to him like Santa doles out Christmas presents: one at a time. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

“What’s that?”

“I want to put her on the pills. Let me become the decoy.”

“No.”

“She was bitten way before me, man, that means I got longer before I turn.”

“I don’t care, I said no.”

“Why?”

“Because when the time comes, I’m gonna need all the muscle I can get.”

Nick talks with his hands sometimes. Sean noticed that the first day they drove. Right now, Nick’s making one of those ‘it’s completely obvious, you idiot!’ gestures that Sean thinks he might just want to beat out of him.

Then again, after the shower and that disturbing daydream about fucking Nick on a blood-streaked bed, maybe he’s just channelling something. Maybe it’s not even him, maybe it’s that weird French knight who should have died 800 years ago, and didn’t the French back then rape their captured enemies? Or had that been the Romans, even further back?

He’s a bit surprised to figure out that it doesn’t bother him, thinking about Nick that way. Sean’s always been comfortably straight and kind of careless toward gays. It’s not that he’s had to defend himself against the evil homosexuals the televangelists like to preach about or that he ever wondered what it would be like to touch a man, to make him moan and come. It just never occurred to him to think of sex with a man, not with the life he’s leading, or has been leading.

Nick’s attractive, sure; so far, women have always been more attractive.

Now he’s thinking about it; he’s thinking of Nick and the blood-streaked bed, thinks about those cupid-bow lips shaping moans that carry Sean’s name, and while Sean isn’t that desperate to think that Nick may just be the last lay he’ll ever get, if he gets him, the thought is firmly lodged in the back of his mind.

The headlights of the car behind them loom, suddenly, bright and blinding right behind the Mercedes, the driver sounding the horn. Sean yells something out of the window, something about there being another lane and enough room for both of them... or maybe he just thinks he does, because the chase is on and adrenaline is flooding him.

It’s kind of funny that he’s still worried about the damn Mercedes when the French guy, the knight, points a shotgun at them and fires. He thinks he had his priorities straight up to now.

-----

Nick’s only thought during the wild goose chase along the dark desert highway is that he wants to survive, that he won’t give in, and if that bitch in the backseat doesn’t calm the fuck down, he’s going to waste her.

-----

“Give her some more of the pills,” Sean demands when they stop and get out to inspect the damage. They got away, more out of luck than skill.

“If I give her any more, she’ll OD.”

“Why’s she still fucked up?”

“The cocktail works slow when you’re closer to turning, Sean.”

Sean bends at the rear of the Mercedes. The bumper’s missing. That fucking asshole shot it straight off. That’s not the only problem, though. Cursing inwardly, Sean bends further, holds out his hand, and feels the steady drip of gas onto his fingers.

“What’s the matter?” Nick’s voice is strained.

“We’re running out of gas.”

“How can we be running out of gas?”

Although he’s known him for all of two days, give or take, Sean knows it isn’t like Nick to ask stupid questions. He finds himself running out of patience. “Because they hit the tank.”

“How much have we got left?”

“I don’t know, 10 or 15 miles. Do I look like a fucking mechanic?”

“That’s excellent.”

Sean doesn’t like the sound of Nick’s voice now, breathless, as if he’s out of options. Nick’s standing at the side of the car, arms spreads, palms resting on the roof, fingers drumming out a nervous rhythm. Sean stares at the darkness surrounding them, this kind of black mixed with neon blue he’s starting to hate. There’s a shed a little off the road, probably belonging to some farm house that isn’t here anymore.

“I’m gonna check out this shed. You stay with her, all right? Stay with her.”

The shed’s nothing more than an assembly of boards and blind windows, rotting in the desert. Aside from the usual junk left behind by hard-working farmers – an old truck missing its tyres, derelict field machinery, empty boxes and crates – there’s not much in it. Hope sinking when he finds an empty gas canister and angrily throws it down, Sean decides to inspect the old truck. Jackpot. Beneath old blankets, rope and other garbage, he finds a fire-red canister filled with something that smells like gasoline.

Nick’s hand is touching his shoulder when he jumps down from the back of the truck, scaring the crap out of him. “Jesus!”

“Is that what I think it is?” Nick eyes the canister.

“I thought I told you to stay in the car.” Sean manages to make his voice steady. It feels good to be the one bitching, instead of being bitched at.

Nick seems to take the accusation in stride. “I heard a noise, I got worried.”

Sean wants to kiss him for that, and fuck, no, his priorities aren’t straight at all. It’s the sound of the car outside that keeps him from bisecting that thought any further.

-----

Nick thinks they – all right, he, because Sean seems to have a soft spot for her – should have wasted that bitch when they had the chance. All his belongings are in the car, all his drugs, his gun, most of his money. He feels naked without those things. Trust a fucking girl to get hysteric and drive off in a car that only has 10, maybe 15 miles worth of gas in the tank.

-----

Under the star-spangled sky, Nick and Sean have a moment of manly bonding.

“You know how long I’ve been tracking this guy for? Nine months. It’s not easy, they hide their killing.” Nick does most of the talking, in the beginning, anyway. It’s as if he wants to make up for letting the girl get away with their car, offering Sean glimpses of his life. “Make it look like a gang fight. Robberies. Some guy riding a freight train, killing old women. All kinds of shit. Almost all are serial killers.”

It’d take two of him to feel any worse, Sean thinks, coughing. His stomach hurts. He doesn’t understand why it has to hurt, or what this virus is changing inside of him, and allows Nick to take the stolen gas canister.

“It’s weird,” Sean says once the coughing fit is over. “Three days ago, I had a phat job and not a worry in the world. And now I’m gonna turn into a vampire if I don’t whack some freaked out psycho. On top of that, I’m gonna lose my job.”

“How’d you get into the movie biz, anyways? Your old man?”

“My old man doesn’t know I exist.” Sean bears Nick’s questioning glance and nods. “Yeah. He walked out on my mom when she was pregnant with me.”

“That’s fucked up,” Nick offers, sounding strangely non-judgemental.

“Yeah.”

“I guess it just must be in the blood then, huh?”

Sean isn’t too sure what Nick’s referring to, but the coughing just won’t stop, so he just says, “Like father, like son.”

“Shit, I hope not.” Nick shakes his head. “My mom told me my dad was a cross-dressing Marine drill sergeant.”

They laugh, their voices carrying easily in the chill night air, and Sean thinks he might just get used to this when Nick stops walking and pulls something from his pocket, offering it.

-----

Nick feels a little bad for keeping it this long.

-----

When Nick hands him his wallet back, complete with cash, credit cards, ID and everything else he tends to stuff in there, Sean wants to punch him. It’s an absurd thought that pops into his head as he counts the crisp twenty dollar bills: what if it wasn’t a busted tyre that landed him in all this trouble in the first place? What if it was Nick, who so casually handles a gun? Sean doesn’t really believe Nick’s that much of a crack shot to hit the front tyre of a car going 80mph, but then, when he picked him up, Sean didn’t think Nick was much of anything. Just another one of America’s rejects stumbling along dry desert roads, going wherever the next ride takes him.

The guy’s just full of surprises, but then, so’s Sean, and if Nick thinks Sean’s going to hurt him, well, he has another think coming. Stuffing the wallet into his pocket, Sean laughs under his breath; they both do, until Nick points out the Mercedes at the side of the road. There’s no sign of the girl.

They find her a few miles down the road, stumbling along in the darkness, and then they’re found by the vampires and their psycho day driver, suddenly in two cars instead of just the old charger Sean is used to seeing. It’s another wild car chase in the middle of the desert.

Sean’s suddenly so fed up with being the mouse that he discovers a reckless side to himself he didn’t know existed. He wants to survive this, but most of all he wants to waste that French fucker. He wants to see the guy bleed for what he did to the girl, and the girl that bit Nick, and Nick.

The highway ends suddenly, warning signs and cones leading from the smooth concrete onto the dusty track of the desert. When he sees their chance, Sean takes it without thinking twice. Recklessly navigating the narrow space between two parked trucks, barely managing to squeeze the Mercedes – or what’s left of it – through the gap, Sean knows that neither the long, boat-like charger nor the bulky, blue Jeep the fuckers picked up God knows where will make it. The jeep goes up in a big ball of flames, taking the vampires’ day driver with it to a special place that’s hopefully darker than hell, reserved for psychos who aid vampires.

He’s going there, too, because all he feels when he watches the car burn is wild exhilaration. Nick wasted that girl in the trunk, the one that exploded. Nick wasted the day driver.

Vampires: 0.

Almost-but-not-quite-vampires: 2.

Those are odds Sean can live with.

-----

Picking up Sean, or rather, being picked up by him, might have been a mistake. There is a moment when Nick thinks he’s going to die, that their car won’t make it through the gap between the trucks. There’s a moment when he thinks that Sean finally lost it, that he isn’t cut out for the killing, after all. A swift death might seem so much more appealing, considering the alternatives, but it’d suck if Nick died because of the man he decided to trust.

-----

By the time the Mercedes comes to a spluttering halt, they’ve made it to another farm house standing in the middle of nowhere. Ten miles from the Spanish missions Nick mentioned. Sean knows it’ll end here.

The girl’s lucid now, but in pain, bent over and wracked by the same coughing fits Sean’s going through. There’s no hysteria left in her as she clings to Sean, dragging her feet as they stumble toward the dark shape of the house, Nick hammering on windows and trying doors. It looks abandoned; Sean knows by now he’d have no qualms forcing entry. His only worry now is to get them out of this alive, Nick, the girl and himself. Nick more than the girl, but she’s part of the package, a piece of string he can’t leave untied.

The owner of the house is an angel granting them entry to a sanctuary, even if she’s pushing sixty, haggard and hard, carrying a loaded shotgun with a flashlight strapped on top, a large black dog at her side. Trust the sight of an ailing, pale-faced girl to weaken the hardest heart. The owner’s name is Ina. Sean leaves the girl in her care, taking a long-needed breath while he stares at the morbid interior decoration of Ina’s living room. Deer’s heads, marinated animal eyes, black spiders in large glass tanks – are all the people living out here in the desert fucked in the head?

Nick’s in Ina’s kitchen, fixing a meal of toast and ham and what looks like cheese. Sean can smell him from ten feet away, sweat, dust and something electric. They don’t talk. Sean walks up to him, notices for the first time that he’s an inch or two taller than Nick, and stares down at the back of Nick’s dirty neck. He’s abandoned all his thoughts about fucking him for now, yet the temptation is too great; Nick shudders when Sean lightly touches the back of his neck, fingertips sliding on sweat. He doesn’t turn around.

Sean goes back into the living room and has another coughing fit, along with strange flashbacks of their crazy road trip so far. It’s so fucked up. His life’s gone. He’ll be fired from his job, he wrecked the Mercedes, he won’t be on time to get to Miami and his sister’s wedding. He even spent the money he’s been saving up for her wedding dress.

“You want something to eat, my man?” Nick emerges from the kitchen carrying a plate. His enthusiastic movement slows, finally stops, as he watches Sean bend over. “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel so good. I feel like I did before. I think I need some more of those drugs.”

“Sean, the cocktail doesn’t always work.” Nick says it in an offhand way, but Sean catches sight of his eyes flitting left and right, as if looking for a way out.

Ina returns from the upstairs bedroom and announces, “She’s resting now.” At the bottom of the stairs, she adds, “Seems to be okay. Doesn’t say much, does she?”

“Look, there’s gotta be some place around here where we can get her some help,” Nick says.

“I told you Fort Stockton’s the closest and it’s over a hundred miles.”

“Fuck,” Nick whispers.

Pouring herself a drink, Ina eyes them both. “What’s wrong with that little gal that you’re travelling with, hm?”

Sean doesn’t speak, lets Nick do the talking. “We don’t know. She was hitchhiking. She was like that when we picked her up.”

“She didn’t say who she was?”

Sean finds his voice. “She hasn’t said a damn word since we gave her a ride.”

“I think maybe...” Ina reaches for a newspaper, slides it over the counter, “...you should take a look at this.”

-----

Woman sought in Arizona bloodbath.

Nick reads the article twice, something in his gut tightening. He does feel sorry for her – for Megan - now. Discovering her entire family murdered, only to be brutalized by him. Nick remembers the sight of that ugly bite wound just above her pubic mound all too clearly.

He thinks about Sean’s fingers against the back of his neck and shudders again.

-----

Megan comes down from the bedroom two hours later, coherent and clear-eyed. Something strange is going on, Sean thinks, listening from the couch where he stretched out to her story of how the girl in the trunk, the one that exploded, was supposed to kill her after he was done with her but didn’t.

“He left her to kill me. I don’t know why she didn’t. When she pointed the gun at me, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even move. But I think she was scared, because... she just stood there. She had the strangest look in her eyes. After that, I don’t remember much at all.”

Lucky you, Sean thinks. By now the pain in his stomach is too great to allow him to think about much else. Nick is perched on the stairs behind him, the newspaper on his lap, and although Sean can’t see his face, he knows Nick’s staring at Megan as she sits down next to him.

As much as Megan’s story moves him, it doesn’t help them much. He can finally put a name to the girl in the trunk – Teddy – but that doesn’t help, either. They need to plan, to figure out where they’re going from here, and they need to get away from this house, away from Ina, before they drag her along into this hell.

Survival of the fittest, Nick told him when they were having the argument about giving Megan drugs. Sean doesn’t think he’s fit. They’re all wiped out, adrenaline long since faded, leaving behind three tired, beaten young people and an old woman at the ass end of nowhere.

There has to be a way. Sean refuses to think that it will end here.

Buster, Ina’s dog, gets antsy and starts barking, massive paws clawing at the cheap carpet as he gets up and trots toward the door.

“Stay put,” Ina tells them. “It’s probably just a coyote.”

They don’t speak while Ina is outside, listening to her calls. Sean watches Megan, knowing that Nick’s watching them both. Though she sits close to him, Megan isn’t like the other girls who do that, sitting close to a boy; she stares at her hands, eyes wide open but unblinking, blond hair beautifully disarrayed, caught in her own private hell of a dead family and the knowledge that she’ll have to live on knowing why they’re dead.

...if they survive this.

Ina returns. “Buster ran off.”

Hell breaks loose. Sean’s off the couch so quickly he doesn’t have time to register the pain, dragging Megan down under a table. Shot after shot is fired at the house, bullets sawing easily through wood and glass, raining shards down on Megan, Ina, Sean and Nick. They crawl over the floor, seeking cover where they can, the deafening noise of gunshots and the splintering of Ina’s house so loud Sean thinks it’s all he’ll hear from now on. Nick manages to get a hold of one of his bags, pulling the gun from it, eyes wide and suddenly terrified under the onslaught.

“Where’s your shotgun?” Sean asks during a lull, the silence roaring.

“It’s by the side door.” Bless Ina’s shrivelled heart and cool head. “There’s extra shells in the refrigerator.”

Sean doesn’t think twice about the danger and starts crawling over the floor, past Ina, past Nick, until he sees Ina’s shotgun leaned against the wall just inside the door. He makes a grab for it, the cold, alien weight of the weapon suddenly a welcome presence in his hands, and then, through the glass pane set into the door, he sees the crooked tombstones in Ina’s backyard, poking up into the night like strange fruit.

There are no more gunshots when he crawls back, the silence punctuated by their rapid breathing, the occasional rustle of old newspapers and the clink of broken glass. Maybe the vampires are trying to save bullets. Maybe they just don’t care.

“Ina, what’s with those tombstones?”

The old woman lifts her head from where she placed it against her folded hands. She whispers, “It’s an old Spanish graveyard. That’s why the highway wasn’t put through here. They couldn’t dig it up.”

“Your house is actually built on a graveyard?” Nick’s voice comes from Sean’s left, sounding incredulous, breathless.

At Ina’s nod, Sean turns to Nick just as Nick’s head swivels around. Their eyes meet, complete understanding and a sudden bloom of hope in their expressions. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“This place is blessed, baby,” Nick says, and his gaze wanders upward and he shouts, “Sean, watch out!”

Nick starts firing at something on the landing of the second floor. Sean catches a glimpse of the black girl, the last standing companion of the French knight. She’s strikingly beautiful, large eyes, generous mouth painted crimson, body encased in tight clothes – and if Nick hadn’t started firing at her, she would have killed Sean on the spot, the large, silver gun in her delicate hands catching a bit of the light as she stumbles back and vanishes into the bedroom.

She fires a single shot.

Nick’s cry of pain jolts Sean into action, thoughts going a hundred miles and ten different directions at once. He’s handled guns before, as a teenager, seen plenty of them on the silver screen, but Ina’s shotgun is large and heavy and the shell’s stuck. By the time he manages to crack the shotgun open and the shell falls to the floor, Nick’s firing shot after shot at the ceiling, the floor of the bedroom. Sean watches him disappear into the kitchen, gun hand raised high, and the only thing he can think is, ‘Don’t let him die. Don’t let him die. Don’t let him die!’

-----

Nick thinks, ‘Shit. I didn’t even get to waste the fucker.’ The pain is incredible, but there are worse things than pain. He crumbles to the kitchen floor, squeezed into a corner, left side going curiously numb and hot – blood, pouring out of the gunshot wound. The smell is sickening. Nick closes his eyes and listens to the rapid beat of his heart and the shrill scream of the black girl as she falls out of the window. The screams don’t stop there.

Sean’s suddenly at his side, cursing, taking a quick glance at Nick’s left shoulder. The physical presence is oddly comforting, but it’s the continued screams from outside that make Nick smile.

-----

The French knight isn’t all that scary, Sean thinks when he watches him stumble back. He reloads and fires another round, centre mass. Black hair with silver streaks so deliberately placed that Sean wonders if they’re real or dye, a smooth face dominated by strangely green eyes, superhuman strength...

Clad in dusty leather and the remains of a violet silk shirt, the knight doesn’t quite take on the monstrous proportions Sean thought he would; Sean’s seen Nick go down, lying on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood, and if that isn’t monstrous, then he doesn’t know what is.

Sunlight streams through one of the shattered windows, quickly catching the knight on fire. Sean doesn’t stay to watch – he remembers what happened the last time one of them got burned. He doesn’t even check if Ina and Megan make it out, counting on their instincts to survive, running straight back to the kitchen, where Nick lies seemingly unconscious. Sean drags him up, pulls Nick’s arm around his shoulder, ignoring the muffled sounds of pain all that jostling brings about, and drags the other man bodily from the house into blessed dawn.

-----

Ina’s house makes a big enough boom for state troopers to come pick up the pieces. They’ll never know that it wasn’t the house but the knight who exploded, tearing down the walls to the very foundations. Nick, Megan and Sean know. Ina doesn’t seem to remember, or doesn’t want to remember, babbling about bad people that came to hurt the nice, young people. She’s shipped off to some institution where they’ll take care of her – she has nothing left. The graveyard went down along with her house, and Buster remains gone.

Sean feels very, very sorry for her, because Ina’s the most innocent in all of this, even if she knows how to handle a shotgun, even with the marinated eyes Sean saw in the cabinets of her living room.

He spends a lot of time not thinking about what happened. The wounds he sustained heal slowly, but he bears them proudly. Battle scars. Fort Stockton’s doctors handle him carefully, as if he’s made of glass already cracked at the centre. They don’t know how wrong they are.

The press are more interested in the destroyed graveyard. Not three days after the incident, announcements are made that the section of highway previously ending at Ina’s house will now be finished within the year. Sean thinks they’re all assholes, but he keeps his opinion to himself and concentrates on mending.

Four days later, Megan appears in his hospital room. Scrubbed clean and rested, she looks angelic, standing there in her high heels and mini skirt. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Sean turns from the window and hobbles to his wheelchair. He didn’t even notice he’d sprained his ankle so badly the doctors are amazed he greeted them still standing, even carried Nick to the ambulance stretcher.

“How do you feel?”

“Good. You?”

“Going home today.” Megan fidgets. “Actually, not home. My aunt and uncle’s place in Phoenix.”

“Well, they said I could probably go home tomorrow.” Sean, finally seated, laughs under his breath. “Might still make my sister’s wedding.”

“I saw Ina this morning,” Megan goes on. “She’s okay, but she doesn’t remember what happened.”

“Yeah, nobody suspects a thing,” and now Sean can’t quite keep the sneer out of his voice. “Just a couple of bad guys burned up in a fire. Probably better that way, huh?”

“No one would believe it.” Megan tries a smile.

Sean understands. She’s moving on. “No. Probably not.”

She says thank you and walks away, just a young woman – he can’t quite bring himself to think of her as the drugged girl anymore – on the way back to her life.

He wonders if, ten years from now, she’ll still wake up screaming.

The wheelchair is slow and squeaks as he rolls out of his room and down the corridor, going almost the same way Megan did. Two doors down, he stops, staring at the bearded nurse pulling the sheets off an empty bed. Sean is so surprised he says the first thing that comes to mind: “What’s up? Where’s the guy that was here?”

“Checked out, I guess,” the nurse tells him, unconcerned.

Sean keeps staring until a hand lands on his shoulder, small and warm. Jerked out of empty-minded staring, Sean numbly accepts the envelope the head nurse hands him. “He left this for you.”

The letter is short and so completely Nick’s style that Sean forgets to be angry for the time being.

-----

Mopping up what remains of his life, Sean idles for a week as he tries to decide what to do. He looks at the shards of a career, of a lifestyle, and throws them all away. He knows what he wants to do, but a bit of his old self comes back and he plans carefully before he sets out.

The car shop he was driving the car for doesn’t file charges, and if the woman the Mercedes belonged to is pissed, well, she’ll have to live with it.

His boss at the cutting studio is less than pleased when Sean shows up two days late, but anger and reprimands quickly turn into cajoling pleas once Sean slides his letter of cancellation across the desk. Sean doesn’t listen, just packs his stuff and goes.

His sister receives enough money to buy a wedding dress and a handwritten apology, and though they’ve always been close, she’s about to start a new life with her new husband, a life Sean knows he’ll never be a part of.

He sets out one golden afternoon and simply starts driving. He drives for about three months, from Nevada to Kansas, Mexico to Montana, until he finally wises up and starts doing what Nick told him about. He reads the newspapers and watches the news, looking for the clues, the trail he knows is there.

He buys a shotgun and keeps it stashed securely in the trunk of the car he takes from the Fort Stockton city service, where it was kept for sale. Shotgun and shells separate, as the cops who stop him along the road note with muted sounds of appreciation. They don’t know about the pistol Sean wears strapped to his boot, or the twin knives he keeps within reach, always, even when he sleeps.

Three and a half months after leaving his life behind, Sean sees the small figure of a man trudging slowly along the road ahead, swathed in a thick jacket and woollen cap. The look of surprise on Nick’s face is priceless.

Nick is paler than Sean remembers him, but he doesn’t look haggard, just tired. When he takes his sunglasses off, there are dark circles beneath his eyes. He’s clean-shaven, his hair for once not stringy with sweat. “How in the hell did you find me?”

Sean tells him as he hands him coffee from a thermos. He also tells Nick about the knight he thinks is headed for Denver, and it doesn’t take a map for him to know that Denver is where Nick is going.

“You don’t have to do this, you know that,” Nick says, eyes so dark Sean can barely tell their colour.

“Yeah, I do,” Sean tells him.

Nick puts his sunglasses back on.

END