"Here, dearie." An older woman stepped in front of me, holding out a bowl. It was half full of slimy, colorful fruit chunks, and my stomach recoiled at the sight of it. "We never got to thank you for finding Caleb last night. I know you must be hungry-go ahead and eat. We won't tell the others you skipped your place in line."
I stif led a sigh and took the bowl. "Thank you," I told her, and she smiled.
"You're one of us now," she said and hobbled back to the others, favoring her left leg. I tried to remember her name and failed.
Taking the bowl with me, I walked outside, looking for Zeke.
I found him talking to Darren near the broken gate, discussing plans for the night. Physically, Darren and Zeke were similar, all lean muscle and wiry strength, though Darren was dark where Zeke was pale and fair. Between them, the pair probably did most of the harder physical tasks, since the majority of the group were women, kids and old people. There was a middle-aged black man-Jake, I think his name was-who helped out as well, but he had a bad shoulder so the harder tasks fell to the two boys.
"I think we should spend some more time scavenging, too," Zeke was saying as I came up, "but Jeb wants everyone to move out as soon as they've finished eating. He already thinks we've wasted too much time here. You want to argue, you take it up with him. Oh, hey, Allison." He nodded pleasantly, and Darren scowled at me and walked off. I jerked my thumb at his back.
"What's with him?"
"Darren?" Zeke shrugged. "He's just being sulky, don't worry about it. He thinks we should wait another night before moving on, search the rest of the town for food and supplies.
We got lucky yesterday. Found a mini-mart that hadn't been picked clean, and Dare thinks there could be more nearby."
He sighed and shook his head. "He has a point. Unfortunately, once Jeb says it's time to go, it's time to go."
"That's insane. Here." I handed him the bowl. He blinked in surprise but took it with a murmur of thanks. "He won't even stop for food? What's the hurry?"
"He's always been like that," Zeke replied with a careless shrug, and picked out a chunk of white fruit, tossing it back.
"Hey, don't look at me. I don't make the rules. I just carry them out. But Jeb has our best interests at heart, always, so don't worry about it. Speaking of which, did you get anything to eat? We're not going to stop for several hours, and you should have something for the march."
"I'm good," I told him, avoiding his eyes. "I already ate."
"Ezekiel!" called a familiar voice. Jeb walked out of the apartments and motioned to him. "Are we almost ready?"
"Yes, sir!" Zeke called back and headed in his direction.
But he stopped and gave the bowl to the elderly man sitting on the fountain ruins before continuing toward Jeb. "Everyone is packing up. As soon as we're all finished eating, we're ready to go."
They walked off, still discussing. I turned and came face-to-face with Ruth.
The other girl held my gaze. We were about the same height, so I could see right into her dark brown eyes. Oh, man, she didn't just dislike me, she loathed me. Which was pretty ungrateful, I thought. Especially since I had saved her darling little brother. Especially since I had no idea why she hated me so much.
"Can I help you?" I asked, arching an eyebrow at her.
She f lushed. "I know who you are," she huffed, making my stomach lurch. "I know why you're here, why you're hanging around."
Narrowing my eyes, I regarded her intently, wondering if she knew what a dangerous position she was in. "Is that so?"
"Yes. And I'm here to tell you to forget it. Zeke isn't interested."
now it all made sense. I almost laughed in her face.
"Look, you don't have to worry," I said, trying to be reasonable. "I'm not interested that way, either."
"Good," she said, watching me intently. "'Cause there's something about you that isn't...right." My amusement vanished. My senses prickled a warning, and the vampire within urged me to attack, to silence her before she became a problem. I shut it down, hard. "Aren't you taking this 'don't talk to strangers' thing a little far?" I asked.
Ruth's lips tightened. "You're hiding something," she said, taking a step back. "I don't know what it is, and I don't care, but Zeke is too good to be ruined by someone like you. He has the unfortunate habit of seeing the good in everyone, and he's too nice to realize he's being taken advantage of. So I'm warning you now, keep your dirty claws away from him. I'll make you sorry you ever came here if you don't." Before I could respond, she f lounced off, dark curls bouncing. "And stay away from Caleb, too," she called back over her shoulder.
"Charming," I muttered under my breath and felt my fangs poking my gums. "Well, we know who's going to get bitten first now, don't we?"
Not long after that, fed, packed up and ready to march, the small group of eleven people gathered around the fountain, talking quietly with each other and shooting curious glances at me, hanging back in the shadows. Then, as if prodded by an invisible signal, we started moving out; three teens, five adults, three children and a vampire, weaving silently through town and onto the road. They walked quickly-even the kids and the two elderly people moved with a sense of purpose-
and soon the town faded behind us.
"So, Allison, was it? You came from a vampire city. Did you see many of the soulless devils wandering about?" I repressed a sigh. That was the question of the night, it seemed. I'd already been asked something similar by Teresa, the old woman with the bad leg; Matthew, a freckly ten-year-old; and Ruth, who inquired with a perfectly straight face if I had been a vampire's whore. Of course, then Caleb had to ask what a whore was, and Ruth gave him a very vague and watered-down explanation, all the while smiling at me over his head. If Zeke and Jeb hadn't been nearby, out of earshot of course, I might've punched the smug bitch in the nose.
This time, the question came from Dorothy, a middle-aged blond woman with vacant green eyes and a smile to match.
She would often wander a little behind the rest of the group, staring down the road or toward the horizon, always smiling.
Sometimes she waved to things in the distance-things that were never there. Other times she would randomly break into song, belting out "Amazing Grace" or "On a Hill Far Away" at the top of her lungs until someone told her, very nicely, to shush.
I suspected she was a few bricks short of a full load. But there were also times where she seemed perfectly coherent and normal. Times like now, unfortunately, when she was sane enough to ask questions I really didn't want to answer.
"No," I muttered, keeping my gaze on the road ahead.
Don't make eye contact with the crazy woman; don't look at her and maybe she'll go away. "I didn't see many vampires 'wandering about.' I didn't see many vampires, period."
"How do you know?" Dorothy asked, and I gave her a suspicious look, forgetting not to make eye contact. She smiled emptily. "Vampire devils are masters of disguise," she went on, to my extreme discomfort. "People think they're slaver-ing monsters with red eyes and fangs, but that's what they want you to think. Really, they can look like anyone else." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "That's what makes them so dangerous. They can look perfectly human. They can look just like Teresa. Or me. Or you."
I felt a f lutter of panic and squashed it down. "I don't know, then," I told her with a shrug. "I saw lots of people in the city.
Maybe they were all vampires-I couldn't tell."
"Oh, there are other ways to tell if a person is really a devil," Dorothy continued, nodding seriously. "Devils hate the sun. They burst into f lame in the light. Devils can't resist the sight of blood, and they don't breathe like we do. But most important..." She leaned in, and I felt my fangs pressing through my gums, wanting to bite, to silence her. "Most important," she whispered, "devils are surrounded by this red glow, this aura of evil that only a few can see. You have to know what to look for, and it's difficult to see at a distance, but that is how you can tell a devil from a real person. Just like the white glow around the angels that walk down the road sometimes." She broke off, smiling dreamily at the horizon, where the pavement met the sky. "Oh, there's one now! Can you see him? He's walking away from us, so it might be hard to tell."
There was no one on the road. There was nothing ahead of us at all, except a large brown bird, perched on a fence post.
I gave her a wary look and edged away, as she waved both arms in the air, making the bird f ly off with a startled whoo-whooing sound.
"Is that Gabriel? Or Uriel?" She signaled frantically, then pouted. "Oh, he disappeared! They're so shy. It might've been Gabriel, though."
"Dorothy." Zeke was suddenly there, smiling as I shot him a desperate look over the crazy woman's shoulder. "Allison doesn't know us very well yet. She might be nervous around your angels-not everyone can see them as well as you."
"Oh, right! Sorry, love." Dorothy squeezed his shoulder, beaming crazily, but he only grinned back. "I forget sometimes. You're an angel yourself, you know that? Ezekiel. The angel of death."
Now Zeke looked faintly embarrassed, giving me an apologetic glance as Dorothy patted his arm and turned to me.
"He thinks he can fool me," she whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear, "but I know he's an angel in disguise. You can tell. When you've seen as many angels as I have, you can always tell."
She tried patting my arm but missed as I slid smoothly away.
Unconcerned and humming softly to herself, she wandered to the side of the road and peered into the distance, probably looking for her bashful angels. Zeke sighed and shook his head.
"Sorry about that," he said with a rueful grin. "Forgot to warn you about Dorothy-she's a little touched in the head, if you hadn't figured it out by now. Sees angels every other day."
My body uncoiled in relief. For a second, I'd thought I was in real trouble. "Has anyone here seen a real vampire?" I asked, wondering whom I should be wary of. "Forget fangs and claws and red beady eyes, does anyone here really know what they look like?"
"Well, Dorothy swears she's seen one, though she can't remember exactly when or where, so who knows if it was real. Beyond that..." He shrugged. "Jeb. Jebbadiah's whole family was slaughtered by a vampire when he was a kid, and he's never forgotten what it looked like. He says he's always remembered, so he can kill the vampire if they ever meet again."
I looked at Jebbadiah, at the head of the group, walking briskly down the road without looking back. And I wondered what a lifetime of anger, resentment and hatred could do to someone like him.
A few hours later, my internal clock was giving me the two-hour warning when Jeb held up a hand, calling the group to a stop. Zeke jogged up beside him, leaned in as Jeb spoke quietly, then turned to face the rest of us.
"Set up camp!" he called, sweeping his arm to the side, and the group immediately began shuff ling off the road into the dry grass that surrounded us. "Jake, Silas, you're on first watch. Teresa-" he nodded at the old woman "-Darren will help Ruth with dinner tonight. You should rest your leg.