As a thirty-six year old woman in the post-apacalyptic world, the vampires valued me. Yeah, finally, Noir Tekeste, meant something to someone other than my ten year-old son – wherever he was. My heart gave a pang. I hoped he was still alive.
Ever since Zompocalypse, humans were a scarce commodity in the vampire world. That’s when the blood suckers stepped up to the plate and started protecting people from anything and everything. The emergence of zombies shortened the supply of prey.
Dead blood held no nutrition value for vampires. Once humans were gone, vampires would starve for eternity. Living with out-of-your-mind hunger wasn’t an acceptable fate to vampires. So blood-suckers started protecting humans from zombies. I never thought I’d say this but, thank god for vampires.
“Incoming.” My vampire guard, Jason, pointed down into the water.
Zombies didn’t pay attention to bottles riding river currents, which was how rivers became postal by-ways. A mason jar, its sparkling head bobbing in froth and rapids, was the night’s last mail delivery. As soon as the net spanning the small tributary caught that goodie, I’d reel everything in and see what the river placed on our door.
Jason wasn’t much of a talker. He subscribed to the mindset of keeping food at a distance. Me being human—food meant me. I huffed at him, even though he was my protector and companion for tonight.
“Yeah, I can see that, I have eyes.” I batted my eyelashes at him.
His lack of interest in what men had told me was an adorable face and curvy figure irked me. Most vampires, or even my fellow male human compatriots, would smile and ask if I needed a hand bringing in the heavy nets. Not Jason.
I grabbed the mail pole that would release the net and started fishing the mail out of the water. I still got a thrill from getting water post. No matter what the news, letters were information. A personal letter from someone, or anyone proving we weren’t alone, was cause for celebration.
“Calm yourself.” Jason growled. “Heartbeat.”
I scowled at Ass-wad. Jason constantly reminded me blood coursed through my veins. “Bite me.”
“Tempting offer.” Jason towered over me, eyeing my throat. Built like a biker lumberjack in a leather jacket, with a goatee he was intimidating enough to make me remember my vitality was my only defense against him. I also knew he had a Glock handgun in the inner pocket of his iconic “Fonzie-wear”. I was safe because I was a commodity. No one wanted to kill a golden goose.
You’d think my comment was an invitation. It wasn’t. Vampires biting humans was against the head vampire, Calif’s rules. Calif ruled all the vampires in a fifty-mile radius. For whatever reason, Calif’s first rule was “no biting”.
Calif required all humans wanting his protection to donate via the Red Cross method with their blood stored in little “doggie bags”.
No donation and we were “free to leave” the comfort and safety of Vampire Dam into the maw of flesh-eating zombies, ravenous shape-shifters or who knows what other perversions the apocalypse had created. No, thanks. What vein would you like, sir?
Considering the chance of being eaten by zombies was enough to keep thirty-seven of us under his protection. I’d rather be a little lethargic from blood loss than zombiefied.
But Jason was still a human-eating immortal.
And I was alone with him right now.
Jason gritted his teeth. “Heart. Beat.”
Fear and my stomach weren’t friends, but I swallowed that ball of dried anxiety. “Can I get the mail now?”
He stepped back and my heart began to calm.
“Thank you.” I shifted my pack-back and lowered my mail catcher.
The jar did a fine job of keeping the message dry. Paper is a rare jewel in this day and age but peeled birch bark worked when you scratched a message with a blade. I could almost read the message through the glass. My eyes halted at the name—Yiran Tekeste. My son. He would be ten now.
Blood rushed through my ears.
In the background I heard a growl as my vision narrowed to pinpoint precision of the handwriting.
Jason yanked me out of my fog. We were running.
The jar slid out my hand. The sound of glass shattering on rock brought maternal instincts back to life. That small jar carried the last whereabouts of my Yiran. Nothing would separate me from my son if he was alive.
Jason’ superior vampire strength couldn’t match the super powers of a determined mother. I wrenched out of his grasp and darted for that sliver of bark before I saw why Jason hurtled me away from the river.
The horrid smell of death preceded the appearance of a sickly, droopy skinned zombie. Stringy hair clumped in patches over her scalp. Her jaundiced eyes surveyed me, then darted toward me.
I grabbed the mail catcher and prepared to battle over what might be the last reminiscence of my son, I heaved the end of the mail pole with all the strength a mother possessed protecting her child.
A streak flew past me. Wind from its passing whipped hair into my eyes.
The brain-eater tumbled in a writhing ball with another figure—Jason.
The wooden pole I had hurled, snapped in two as the two monsters battled.
I thought zombies were ugly. The vampire wrapped around the zombie was all sharp teeth and feral eyes. Those teeth could make a saber-toothed cat jealous.
The zombie snarled.
Jason bit its head off.
The soccer-sized melon rolled my way and the mouth snarled silently. Its wind pipe was done. My insides shivered.
The snapping of bone focused my attention back on Jason.
My attacker’s knees jutted backward. Ick. I thought there might be blood, but I guess if you don’t have a beating heart to pump the red stuff around, only gravity pulls it out. Not that there wasn’t blood, it just didn’t leak out in gobs.
A thunk pulled my attention to the ground near me. The thing’s decapitated head maneuvered its tongue to roll toward me.
“Oh, that is just gross.” I punted the head into the bushes.
I picked the birch paper from among the broken glass, and then Jason slung me over his shoulder cave-man style and ran.
“I’m not an invalid.” But I didn’t squirm.
His normal preternatural speed became sluggish and his grip loosened.
We went on like this, me the damsel in distress, and he the lumberjack version of road warrior, trudging the forest long enough that I started to believe he was going to carry me all the way home.
He set me down somewhere between a pine and a conifer, and I got a good look at where my mail pole landed.
A squeak passed my lips.
“I thought if you got a wooden stake through your heart it killed you.”
“You obviously don’t understand the meaning of immortal.” He rubbed his hands down his jeans and hung his head looking at the pole in his chest.
“Seriously? You can’t die?” That could not be right. “But when Calif burns one of you, you’re ash.”
Jason glanced at me. The steel in his eyes warned me to shut up.
“Burning is the best way to keep us down for a while.”
This was news to me, and more than Jason said to me in my time with him. I wondered if he would talk more. “Zombies die when you burn them.”
“Do they die?” He cradled the piece of wood protruding from his chest in his bear-paw hand. “Or do we just pulverize them to the point where they can’t move.”
Jason grunted. As far as I knew, vampires never felt pain or joy. They remained grim rocks. Guess if I lived forever in a world where I could starve and never die, I’d be cranky too.
“You alright? Does it hurt?”
He dropped his hand and speared me with the scowliest scowl ever. Geez, I was just trying to be nice.
“Let me see.” Jason stroked his goatee like some evil overlord. “I’ll shove a wooden pole through your middle and ask the same question.”
I couldn’t help my donkey snort. “Okay, I just thought you guys were void of pain.”
Jason shook his head, looked down at his wound, and winced. “Pull it out.”
I said nothing and he brought his murky blue eyes to me. “You threw the pole. You get to take it out.”
My small hand could barely grasp the stick.
“This might go better if I tie a rope to it and pull.” I started searching my pack.
“Just get it out!”
His pale face started turning a faint shade of blue.
I grabbed the stick and yanked.
Jason’s wrinkled nose and gritted teeth confirmed his statement. Vampires felt pain.
Beyond our clearing, the bushes rustled wildly. The headless body of the zombie erupted through the shrubbery and charged us, her arms and hands dragging it through the underbrush. Its useless legs dangled behind Jason roared and punted the body, football all-star style, into the air and over the bushes.
He reached inside his leather jacket and pulled out a Glock handgun.
“Go!” Jason planted himself between me and the headless zombie.
“No way!” I stuffed the piece of bark in my pack and pulled out my trusty flashlight. Nothing like a long metal tube and heavy “D” batteries to give you some oomph behind a swing. Slipping the back-pack on, I anchored myself next to Jason.
Aiming the gun barrel at plants and tree trunks, Jason took hold of my wrist and pulled me towards home, Vampire Dam.
Pain shot down the arm he grabbed. I couldn’t keep pace with his superior speed, and my arm popped out of socket.
“Ahhhh!” I screamed. I couldn’t get my feet back under me.
Jason didn’t even bother helping me up. He carried me like a sack of wet beans.
Thank you Calvin Klein, my jeans fit snug enough to protect me from dirt, rocks and wet leaves without chaffing. My dislocated shoulder, not so lucky.
As far as I was concerned, Jason and I were even – dislocated shoulder just as painful as pole through the middle. The headless zombie body crawled after us with amazing speed. I had no clue how it knew where we were.
“It’s gaining,” I said.
My vampire was not up to par. We should have been leaving Headless eating our dust.
This was why we always beat zombies to a pulp when we found them. Even headless the thing pursued us.
Jason cut right, then left, using trees to confuse my attacker. Weaving around trunks did not make my shoulder any better. Each switch of direction ripped another streak of pain down my arm.
“Give me your Glock!” I reached my good arm out. No way was I zombie chow without blowing up a few body parts.
Jason managed to put the gun in my hand. Big ass grip though. I hate Glocks. They’re made for men with big hands.
Headless kept coming.
I aimed for an elbow, breathed, and squeezed the trigger. Jason whipped me right and my shot winged a tree. Bark shrapnel cascaded down on Headless. It didn’t matter.
“Damn it!” I half screamed from the pain in my shoulder. I was safe from zombie claws, but missed my target. “Stay on course, Jason!”
He grunted. I wasn’t sure if that was compliance or an “F” you.
Headless caught our direction and clambered towards us. The thing would have been comical if it hadn’t been so deadly. It arms wind-milled propelling it forward faster than Jason could run.
I aimed again.
The zombie gained. Dirt flew into the air as she clawed to get at us. Severed arteries from her exposed neck bled. She wore a fifties style dress reminding me of a stay-at-home mom with three children. But the flecks of red and dirt stained rips on her dress suggested she ate those children after her transformation. How horrible. I pulled the trigger.
Headless fell flat on the ground.
“Finally.” Jason pulled me up into his arms and held me like a baby while he ran.
“I shot June Cleaver.” I buried my face in his cool chest. It would make me feel better if he breathed. Listening to a beating heart does wonders for the psyche. But like all vampires, Jason only took in air to talk.
Soft thuds of Jason’s feet turned into the crisp echoes of Nike’s on pavement. Almost home.
Vampire Dam was home to fifteen vampires and thirty seven humans. If my son were here, the human count would be thirty eight.
“Put me down.”
“Not until we cross the bridge.”
He was right, but I wanted to see the bark parchment again. Was it really my son? Was he alive?
Before the Zompocalypse, Hansen Dam was just land stolen from the Hansen Family by eminent domain and built into a dam by army engineers. Turns out, the military had more than just a dam in their plans.
Bunkers underground led to facilities that created the perfect vampire lair. Space, plenty of catacombs, and no sun. But to get there you had to cross the bridge that was guarded by at least one sentinel at all times. Tonight’s duty belonged to Blaze, the one and only vampire that loved fire so much the crazy idiot strapped a flame thrower to his back. His favorite hobby was barbecuing zombies.
“Good.” Blaze saluted us with the ungodly nozzle of his chosen weapon. “Calif is waiting for you.”
Jason set me on my feet and without any warning, he popped my shoulder back into place.
“Owwww!” Piece of Ass-wad didn’t even warn me.
Ignoring the huge blood stain and a hole in Jason’s shirt, Blaze smiled at me. “Hey, sweetcakes. Want to see a vampire burn?”
His words were a bit too light hearted.
“Not really.” I shook my head and tugged at my pack. “I hear it really stinks.”
“Too bad.” Blaze turned and gave his full attention to Jason. “One’s going up in flames before dawn.”
My hands fell from the zipper of my pack.
Jason asked before I could. “Who?”
Blaze turned and walked towards the long stretch that saved us from many a zombie horde.
Jason and I followed. We got half-way over the bridge when I realized Blaze was going with us. “Who’s guarding the bridge?”
Jason answered in military precision. “Four guards at the mouth. All human.”
I looked back knowing it was in vain. I’d never be able to see them. I wasn’t a soldier. I had more “important” duties.
Being a woman, my job was to have babies. Babies that would grow up and help supply blood to our caretakers. The memory had me pulling my pack, unzipping the top, and grabbing Yiran’s bark inscribed message. I stopped dead in the middle of the bridge. The handwriting looked rushed, but it was Yiran’s.
My name is Yiran Tikeste. I am looking for my mother, Noir Tikeste. We are trapped and need help. Please anyone, find my mother, tell her I am ten miles north of the Big Paw Den. She can be found at Vampire Dam. They won’t hurt you. They aren’t like these ones.
“Keep moving.” Jason nudged me.
I stumbled forward with blind obedience while my mind spun. “He’s alive.”
Two years I thought my baby boy was dead. This writing wasn’t from the mind of a zombie. How had Yiran survived?
We walked in silence toward one of the common areas.
Not many humans were awake at this time of the morning. Even I only got up early before the sun rose because going out without a vampire escort was too dangerous. And they were rather busy sleeping during sunlight hours. My time belonged to any volunteer that agreed to go with me.
But all was not quiet in the common area.
“Frazier!” The shout shattered the silence usual during this time of night.
I ran to Maggie, our human medic. She was trying to escape Kabal’s restraining arms.
“What in the hell?” I looked to the older man for answers.
Kabal, our human counterpart of Calif, held Maggie and shook a weary head.
The dry aqueduct was a perfect meeting place for humans and vampire. A tube led down to the catacombs of the vampires’ day light area. Sometimes if zombies made it over the bridge, we’d run down that pipe. Zombies that followed never made it out.
Frazier, one of the calmest vampires of the fifteen, was chained to the base of the wall.
Calif held a torch. His blond farmer boy face always proclaiming innocence retreated giving way to the ruthless head vampire persona. Light bounced off the anger gleaming from the head vampire eyes.
Maggie screamed again. “Let him go!”
“Jesus,” I muttered. What was going on?
Calif turned his cold stare to Jason and Blaze. “Get in line.”
I noticed all the vampires under Calif’s control were in formation, beaming hateful stares at Frazier. They stood tall and stiff as an egret’s leg.
Jason and Blaze stepped up to the end and joined the communal stare down.
“Kabal?” I walked over to our elder. “What’s going on?”
Maggie shrieked. “They’re going to kill him.”
Kabal held Maggie closer and shushed her.
“Maggie.” Frazier eyed the torch in Calif’s hand. “Don’t watch this, darling.”
Our medic tugged at the elder’s hold. “Calif, please don’t!”
The head vampire stood, impervious to her pleas.
“Maggie.” Frazier tugged at the solid metal bars holding his wrists at his sides. “I don’t regret it.”
Calif turned to the other vampires. “I have two rules.” He held up one finger. “What is rule number one?”
A chorus of voices answered in unity. “No biting humans.”
Oh no. I smoothed away Maggie’s hair from her neck. I didn’t see any bite marks. It must have been the second rule. But how did Calif know? If you’re quiet about an affair, it’s not hard to hide.
“What is rule number two?” Calif held a wide stance, his power over the others saturated the air. Usually, Calif smiled and women melted.
Again the chorus piped. “No sleeping with humans.”
Hell if I knew why those two rules were worth burning for. I could understand no biting humans, but the second? Why couldn’t vampires and humans play hide the sausage?
Maggie held tight to Kabal, and hid her eyes in his bony shoulder.
Frazier stood in what looked like a copper bowl.
“Jesus.” I stroked Maggie’s hair and listened to her cry. “I get it. I really do. Calif wants more babies and you can’t have babies screwing vamps, but doesn’t this seem a bit extreme?”
Kabal shot his watery blue eyes my way and then to Calif.
Maggie wailed harder.
Morbid curiosity moved my legs closer to Jason. I could barely make out the conversation between Calif and Frazier.
Calif turned to the chained up vampire. “You damn idiot.”
“It was worth it.” Frazier held no spite in his words, but the conviction came from a heart I didn’t know vampires possessed. “Calif—”
“Not another word!” Calif threatened Frazier with the fire in his hands and the torch seemed to burn brighter as if it knew touching Frazier would give it eternal, sentient life.
“You need to know.” Frazier bowed his head.
“I forgive you,” Frazier whispered.
Calif threw the torch into the pot.
The flames consumed Frazier faster than a Christmas tree.
“Watch you bastards!” The normally reserved head vampire stared at his remaining thirteen. “You fucking look away and I’ll toss you in with him.”
Frazier put up a good front for about ten seconds.
The sound of screeching inbetween a bird and a lion’s roar tore through the air. My hands flew to my ears when the scream of a burning vampire hit.
Another ten seconds and a blackened skeleton fell into the bowl. Licks of fire peeked over the container.
“Get in the catacombs.” Calif’s voice grated against my ears.
“Wait!” I stepped forward, ready to grasp the head vampire’s arm.
Calif whirled on me and exposed fangs.
My eyes grew wide and I stepped back. “Sir.”
I hadn’t seen him move, but now Jason stood two feet behind the head vampire. My escort had been twenty feet away.
“I want to ask a favor.”
Within a blink, Calif the overbearing head vampire, morphed into Calif the Georgia boy who got all the girls to say yes to anything.
“Noir, darling, what favor do you ask?”
“I got this.” I handed over Yiran’s bark letter.
Calif read the knife scratch.
Jason cocked his head and read the note over Calif’s shoulder.
“My son is out there.”
Calif handed me the proof of Yiran’s existence. “No.”
“I have not asked yet.”
“No.” Calif turned, avoiding Jason’s gaze.
“By your own policy, I can leave any time I want.”
That got the head vampire’s attention. “What makes you think you can come back?”
Calif was in a sour mood. I needed to put on the sweet face and make kissy-kissy if I was going to present my case. Or come up with a great argument.
Jason slid between us and said, “The boy indirectly mentions other humans. He wrote ‘we’ not ‘I’ and if he’s with others…”
The two vampires locked eyes. Vampires had some creepy visual communication that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
Calif growled. “No.”
“Fine.” I turned and walked to the bridge.
Standing in the middle blocking my way was not Calif the head vampire, but the smiling Georgia boy. “Noir, you don’t want to leave.”
Shaking, I wasn’t sure if he was going to let me go. I walked around him and he walked beside me.
“Sir, he’s my son.”
A firm hand grabbed my still-aching arm. “Noir, I can’t protect you out there.”
I tried a different tactic. One I never considered before. I reached out my good arm and cupped that square male jaw. “I will find him and we will come back.”
Calif closed his eyes and leaned into my touch. His face was bitter cold. All the warmth of my hand leaked out until my fingers felt like they were going to get frostbite.
Behind Calif, Jason cleared his throat.
Steel, murky blue eyes accused me of treachery.
“I’m free to leave.” I said.
“Master,” Jason whispered.
Whatever meaning was inside that word made Calif’s face fall inward. He nodded once and walked the length of the bridge and out of sight.
“I’ll get us a travel pack.”
“What? I thought I was going alone.”
“Meet me at the mouth.”
Jason leaped over the side of the bridge and disappeared.
Seeing Jason using ‘vampire abilities’ surprised me. They consumed energy – energy that could only be replenished by human blood. If you did the math, there were fifteen, now fourteen vampires. Thirty-seven humans. On average, vampires need around a gallon of blood a week. Because there weren’t that many humans, vampires were getting less than that. The vampires protecting us were getting a fourth of their normal diet. Not comforting when I ran the thought all the way through. Treading across the wild lands with a starving vampire didn’t make for a safe journey.