"I'd like that," Caleb murmured. "I hope we get there soon, then."
Not long after, the bottle was empty, and all three were asleep, curled up on my lap or leaning against my ribs. Teresa had also dozed off, her head against her chin, the quilt fallen beside her. It was very quiet in the barn, except for the livestock shifting in their sleep, and the beating of the three hearts surrounding me.
Bethany suddenly slumped over, her head falling to my leg, her golden hair spilling over my thigh. I stared at her.
Flickering lamplight danced along her pale little neck, as she sighed and pressed closer, murmuring in her dreams.
My fangs slid out. Her heartbeat was suddenly very loud in my ears; I could hear it, pulsing in her wrist, her throat.
My stomach felt hollow, empty, and her skin was warm on my leg.
Brushing her hair aside, I slowly leaned forward.
No! Closing my eyes, I jerked back, thumping my head against the wall. The baby goat let out a startled bleat, then tucked its nose beneath its hindquarters with a sigh. Caleb and Bethany slept on, unaware how close they had come to being food.
Horrified, I looked around for an escape route. I couldn't keep this up. The Hunger was slowly taking over, and it wouldn't be long before I gave in to temptation. I needed to feed, before it grew too strong to ignore.
Gently, I extracted myself from the sleeping kids and returned the newly christened Patch to his pen, where he promptly fell asleep. Once free, I slipped outside and leaned against the barn, pondering the inevitable question. It was time. That had been way too close. Who was I going to feed from?
Not the kids. Never. I was not so inhuman that I would draw blood from a sleeping child. Teresa and Silas were so old, though, too weak to lose any blood, and I was not going to bite them in front of two sleeping children. Jake and Darren were on guard duty, and Ruth was with Zeke.
Zeke was definitely out of the question.
That left Dorothy the crazy woman, who was in the farmhouse gossiping with Martha, who didn't go to bed until midnight, apparently, and Jebbadiah Crosse.
Yeah, right. I might as well just shoot myself in the face than go anywhere near Jeb.
I growled in frustration. This wasn't getting me anywhere.
When had I gotten so close to the people I was supposed to be feeding from?
It always starts out that way. Kanin's voice echoed in my mind, quietly knowing. Noble intentions, honor among new vampires. Vows to not harm humans, to take only what is needed, to not hunt them like sheep through the night. But it becomes harder and harder to remain on their level, to hold on to your humanity, when all you can see them as is food.
"Dammit," I whispered, covering my eyes with a hand.
How did Kanin do it? I tried to remember, thinking back to our time in the Fringe. He had some sort of code, a type of moral honor system, that he used when feeding off unsuspecting victims. He left something behind-like the shoes-
payment for the harm his actions would bring.
I couldn't do that now. I didn't have anything I could give.
True, I was helping out, taking the night watch and all, but that was more of a group effort. We were all pitching in to help.
But, I did save that man's life...
Guilt and disgust stabbed at me. How could I even think about preying on a weak, caged human? Earlier tonight, I'd been horrified to see him locked up like a beast, and now I was thinking of feeding off him? Maybe Kanin was right.
Maybe I was a monster, just like he said.
I could hear him now, his deep voice echoing in my head, as clearly as if he were standing beside me. Make your choice, Allison, he would say, calm and unruff led. Will you prey on those you consider friends and companions, or a stranger who already owes you his life? Know that each path is evil; you must decide which one is the lesser of the two.
"Damn you," I muttered to the empty air. Figment Kanin didn't reply, shimmering into nothingness; he already knew what path I was going to choose.
I watched Jebbadiah Crosse finish praying over the wounded man, watched him stride back to the farmhouse, his severe form cutting a rigid path through the darkness. I watched the man in the cage, waited for his coughing and shifting to stop, for his raspy breathing to slow, becoming heavy and deep.
When he was snoring quietly, I glided from the shadows along the wall, walking quickly to the woodshed and snatch-ing the key from where it hung on its nail. Silently, I removed the iron bar across the door, unlocked the padlock and removed the chains, being careful not to clink them against the bars. Carefully, being cautious that the door didn't creak, I eased it open.
Joe Archer lay slumped in the corner, covered in blankets, his body curled into itself to conserve heat. His leg, heavily bandaged and reeking of blood and alcohol, lay at an awkward angle.
Are you really going to do this?
I shoved the voice aside, burying my feelings of horror, guilt and disgust. I didn't want to, but it was necessary. I didn't dare go into the farmhouse; with so many people under one roof, I didn't want to creep into a room only to be discovered by a light sleeper or someone getting up to use the bathroom.
I thought of Caleb and Bethany, Zeke and Darren. If I didn't do this, they might be the ones in my sights next. I could kill them if I didn't feed soon. The cage was isolated, out of the way, and no one would be coming to check on him for a while. Better a stranger than someone I knew, someone I actually cared about.
Besides, he owed me for saving his life.
If that's what you want to tell yourself. Let's get this over with, then.
Joe stirred in his sleep and coughed, his snores faltering.
Quickly, before I had more second thoughts, I stepped up beside him and knelt, easing the collar of his coat aside. His throat, bared to the moonlight, pulsed softly. My fangs lengthened, the Hunger rising up like a dark tide. As the human groaned, eyelids f luttering, I leaned forward and sank my teeth into his neck, right below his jaw.
He jerked, but relaxed instantly, succumbing to the near delirium of a vampire's bite. As blood began f lowing into my mouth, the Hunger drank it greedily, demanding more, always more. I kept a tight leash on it this time, fighting to keep my senses, to not lose myself to the heat and power f lowing into me.
Three swallows. That was all I'd allow myself to take, though my Hunger was raging at me for more. Reluctantly, I drew my fangs from the human's skin, sealing the wounds before stepping back. He groaned, half asleep and dead to the world, and I slipped out of the cage, replacing the locks and chains as quickly as I could.
Just as I was replacing the last bar, footsteps crunched behind me and Zeke's familiar voice f loated over my shoulder.
I turned, and he stood a few paces behind me, a thermos in one hand, a metal cup in the other.
"Here you are," he said, not accusingly, though he seemed puzzled. "You never came back after Ruth left. Are you still angry with me?"
"What are you doing here?" I asked, ignoring the question. I wasn't angry, of course, but maybe it was better if he thought I was. He nodded to himself, as if expecting it.
"They're getting dinner ready in the barn," he continued, holding up the mug. "If you want something, I'd head over soon, before Caleb and Matthew eat all the soup." I nodded and turned away, watching Joe sleep through the bars of the cage. "Did you know about this?" I asked, hearing him move up beside me.
"Jeb told me." Zeke knelt close to the bars and reached through, shaking the unconscious man. He stirred with a groan, opening his eyes blearily, and Zeke held up the thermos. "Hey," he murmured, unscrewing the top and pouring out a dark, steaming liquid. "Thought you could use this. It's black, but it's better than nothing."
"Thanks, boy," Joe wheezed, reaching for the mug. His hands shook, and he nearly dropped it. "Damn, I'm worse off than I thought. How long until morning?"
"A couple hours," Zeke replied gently, handing the cup of soup through the bars, as well. "This will be over soon. How are you holding up?"
"Oh, I'll live." Joe sipped at the coffee and smiled. "At least for another day."
Zeke smiled back, like he really believed it, and suddenly I had to get out of there. Spinning on my heel, I hurried away-away from the caged, doomed human who had been prey to me moments before. Away from the boy who showed me just how monstrous I truly was.
"Hey! Allison, wait!"
I heard Zeke jogging after me and I whirled on him, suddenly furious. "Go away," I snarled, managing, barely, not to show fangs. "Why do you keep hanging around? What are you trying to prove, preacher boy? Do you think you can save me, too?"
He blinked, utterly bewildered. "What?"
"Why do you try so hard?" I continued, glaring disdainfully, holding on to my anger through sheer force of will.
"You're always giving things away, putting yourself at risk, making sure others are happy. It's stupid and dangerous. People aren't worth saving, Ezekiel. Someday that person you help is going to stick a knife in your back or slit your throat from behind, and you won't even see it coming." His blue eyes f lashed. "How ignorant do you think I am?" he demanded. "Yeah, the world's an awful place, and it's full of people who would as soon put a knife in my back as shake my hand. Yeah, I could stick my neck out for them, and they'd throw me to the rabids without a second thought. Don't think I haven't seen it before, Allison. I'm not that stupid."
"Then why keep trying? If Jeb thinks this is hell, why even bother?"
"Because there has to be more than this!" Zeke paused, ran both hands through his hair, and looked at me sadly. "Jeb has pretty much given up on humanity," he said in a soft voice.
"He sees corruption and vampires and rabids, and thinks that this world is done. The only thing he cares about is getting to Eden, saving the few lives he can. Anyone else-" he shrugged "-they're on their own. Even people like Joe." He nodded back toward the woodshed. "He'll pray for him, but he keeps himself distant, detached."
"But you don't believe that."
"No, I don't." Zeke looked me straight in the eye as he said it, unembarrassed and unshakable. "Jeb might've lost faith, but I haven't. Maybe I'm wrong," he continued with a shrug,
"but I'm going to keep trying. It's what keeps me human. It's what separates me from them, all of them, rabids, demons, vampires, everything."
Vampires. That stung a lot more than I thought it would.
"That's great for you," I said bitterly. "But I'm not like that.
I don't believe in God, and I don't believe humans have anything good in them. Maybe you have a nice little family here, but I've been on my own too long to trust anyone." Zeke's expression softened, which was not what I wanted to see. I wanted to hurt him, make him angry, but he just watched me with those solemn blue eyes and took a step forward. "I don't know what you've gone through," he said, holding my gaze, "and I can't speak for everyone, but I promise you're safe here. I would never hurt you."
"Stop it," I hissed, backing away. "You don't know me.
You don't know anything about me."
"I would if you'd let me," Zeke shot back, then crossed the space between us in two long strides, gripping my upper arms. Not hard; I could've jerked back if I wanted, but I was so shocked that I froze, looking up into his face.