Through the crack in the closet door, I saw a small figure in a ragged blue nightgown walk silently across the room to stand beside the bed. She was young, probably no more than eight, with stringy dark hair hanging down her shoulders and thin, birdlike arms. Those arms were wrapped around some kind of stuffed creature, holding it tightly to her chest, as she padded up to the mattress, her eyes large and frightened. Strangely, though I’d never seen this girl before, I felt a prick of recognition, making me frown. This scene was…familiar, somehow.
“Mommy?” The little girl hovered at the edge of the covers, clutching her stuffed thing. “I had a nightmare. Wake up. Mommy?”
Her whispers grew louder and more frightened as the figure in the bed refused to stir. Finally, the little girl reached out and shook the woman’s arm.
“Mmm?” The figure under the covers finally moved, dark head raising off the pillow to gaze at the child. She was very pale, her skin having taken on an unhealthy grayness. But, seeing the girl, she rose higher from the mattress, reaching out to stroke the child’s hair. “Abigail? What’s wrong, baby?”
There was a sudden tightness in my chest. Something squeezing at my heart, making my throat ache with longing.
Memories of another time, another life, much like this one.
A tiny bedroom, ratty curtains fluttering in the icy breeze, a woman and a child in a single bed…
Terrified, I clamped down on those emotions, shoving them back, trying to bury them in the darkness once more. I didn’t want to remember. I knew, with a grim certainty, that if I did remember, something inside me would unravel, and I didn’t want to face the fallout of whatever came to light.
The little girl sniffled. “I had a nightmare,” she murmured.
“I dreamed there were rabids climbing in the window. I was scared and came to find you, but you didn’t wake up.”
“Come here, sweetheart,” the woman said, struggling to sit up. Her arms trembled as she pushed herself into a sitting position, leaning back against the headboard. But she didn’t seem to notice or care about her sudden weakness as she patted the sheets beside her. “Come up with me. Do you want me to tell you a story?”
My stomach churned, that cold fist crushing my dead heart.
Do you want me to read you a story, Al ison?
I took one staggering step back from the door. The woman and child vanished from sight, but that didn’t stop the realization. I recognized them now. I knew why this felt so familiar.
It was me. This scene, the child in the room with the bed and ratty curtains…was me. Not the same place, obviously, and not the same circumstances, but I could still see myself in the girl: a skinny waif of only ten, climbing into bed with my mother. Listening to her soft voice as she read me a story I’d heard dozens of times before.
The ache of longing spread, growing more painful, and I bit my lip to keep the sudden jealousy in check. Clenching a fist, I listened as the girl clambered onto the bed beside her mom and curled up with her beneath the covers. I remembered doing that, once. Feeling peaceful and content and not scared anymore, because my mom was right there, holding me. Outside our hovel, vampires stalked the night, and humans preyed on each other when they could, but when I was with her, I knew I was safe.
Even though it was all a lie. When you lived in a vampire city, you were never safe. Even though my mother had followed the rules and was Registered, even though she had faithfully given blood every time it was required, they still came for her when she was too weak to get out of bed. They’d taken her blood, not caring that she was sick, not caring that a terrified ten-year-old watched from the corner, silently judging. Hating. Not caring that, after they left, the girl would see her mother waste away to nothing, that she would be out on the streets alone. And that hatred, planted inside her when the vampires’ Pets forced their way into her home, would grow into a searing, burning determination that would keep her alive when most others would’ve died. She would never submit to the vampires. She would never give them her blood.
And she would hate them for the rest of her life. Because she had watched the most important thing in her life wither away and die…to feed them.
Just like this girl.
Oh, God. I staggered farther away from the door, brushing aside the handful of coats and dresses in the closet with me, and collapsed against the wall. Shock and horror rose up, breaking through the numbing cold, shattering the emptiness at last. I’m…I’m doing the exact same thing. That kid in there could be me. And I…
I had become that monster. The thing that I hated most in the world. The demon that preyed on humans and cared nothing for what it left behind—a broken family, a distraught parent…or a little girl who had only grief and hate to sustain her.
Sickened, I slid down the wall until I was sitting in the corner, while the murmuring voices of the woman and girl came to me through the closet door. What’s happened to me?
I thought in numb despair. What the hell am I doing?
The monster snarled, angry and dismayed, reminding me that I was a vampire. It was my nature to hunt and kill and destroy. Human emotions meant nothing to me. Mortals were food, prey, nothing else. I felt its cold apathy to the scene outside, the welcome, icy indifference, and for just a moment, I teetered on the brink of falling into it again. Letting the monster shield me from pain, grief and the horrible, crushing guilt just beginning to emerge from the darkness. It was safer in the dark, the demon whispered, soothing and enticing. I wouldn’t feel anything, remember anything. I wouldn’t have to face the reason I’d sacrificed my humanity. Why I had let the monster win.
My hand rose to my neck, finding the thin silver chain that rested there, tracing the image of the tiny metal cross beneath my shirt. And just like that, all memories of him came rushing back.
My eyes stung, turning my vision red and blurry. The knot in my chest unraveled, the barrier holding those emotions back fraying to shadows, releasing everything in a flood.
And in that tiny closet, with the humans I’d nearly slaughtered murmuring just outside the door, I put my head to my knees and shook with silent sobs. For the horror of what I was, what I had almost let myself become. For the shame of my lost humanity, even if it was for just a moment.
And for Zeke. I cried for the boy I had lost, the human who’d believed I was more than a monster, even if I couldn’t believe it myself. I’d never said a proper goodbye to him, had never let myself grieve his death before tonight. Vengeance had been the only thing on my mind, my utter hate for Sarren driving me forward. It hurt now, to realize Ezekiel Crosse was truly gone, and I would never see him again. In this world, or the next. Because Zeke’s soul had surely gone to its final resting place, far from the misery of this godforsaken hell, a place where demons and monsters and soulless creatures of the night could never follow. He was safe now, truly safe. He was with his father and all the people he had lost on the way to Eden, and they would never have to fear anything, ever again.