"Hurts," Zeke said, gritting his teeth as he rose, slowly, to his feet. "But I'll live. I can walk out of here, anyway." He drew the pack gingerly over his shoulders. "Did you find out where they took everyone?"
"Yeah." I smiled faintly as he glanced up, his eyes f laring with hope. "Jackal's territory is in the ruins of a city a day or two east of here. Old Chicago. That's where they took the others."
"A couple days east," Zeke muttered, limping toward the door. I went to help him, but he stiffened and shook his head, so I backed off. "Then it'll probably take us several days to get there. I don't think I'll be going very fast."
"Not necessarily," I said and pushed open the door. Zeke's eyebrows shot up, and I grinned.
The motorcycle sat humming at the edge of the sidewalk, a little crumpled and dinged but none the worse for wear.
"Took me a while to learn how to work the stupid thing," I said as we hobbled down the steps and onto the street, "but I think I got it, more or less. Nice of our raider friends to let us borrow it, right?"
Zeke glanced up at me, relief and gratitude chasing away the hard-eyed suspicion, at least for the moment. In that breath, he looked like the Zeke I knew. Embarrassed, I plucked the helmet off the seat and tossed it at him, making him blink as he caught it.
"I don't need it," I said as he frowned in confusion. "But you might want to put it on-I'm still getting the hang of this. Hopefully I won't run into any more walls." I swung a leg over the bike, gripping the handlebars, feeling the power that rumbled through the machine. I could definitely get used to this. Zeke hesitated, still holding the helmet, eyeing the motorcycle as if it might bite him. Then I realized it wasn't the bike he was wary of.
It was me.
I squeezed the lever on the handlebars, making the bike snarl loudly, and Zeke jumped. "Do you want to do this or not?" I asked as he glared at me. His jaw tightened, and he gingerly swung his bad leg over the seat, sliding in against my back. I felt the warmth of his body, even though he tried to hold himself away, and felt the pounding of his heart in his chest. It made me thankful I didn't have a heartbeat, or mine would be doing the same.
"Hold on tight," I muttered as he strapped on the helmet.
"This thing has some kick to it."
I gunned the engine, probably a little harder than I should have, and the bike jumped forward. Zeke yelped and grabbed my shoulders. "Sorry," I called back to him, as he reluctantly slid his arms around my waist. "Still getting the hang of this." I tried again, a bit slower this time, and the bike eased forward as I maneuvered it down the streets. Once we reached the main road, I stopped and glanced over my shoulder. Zeke's face was tight, his arms and back stiff, whether from discomfort or pain or both.
"Ready for this?" I asked, and he nodded. "Then hang on.
I'm going to see how fast we can really go." His arms tightened around me, his heart thudding against my back. I turned the bike east, kicked it into motion, and the engine roared to life as it surged forward. We gained speed, the wind shrieking in my ears as we went faster and faster, nothing between us but empty road. I felt Zeke's arms squeezing my ribs, pressing his face to my back, but I raised my head to the wind and howled.
Above us, the full moon shone huge and bright on the f lat prairie, lighting our way as we sped east, toward the end of the road.
I could've ridden forever. The wind in my hair, the open highway ahead of me, f lying down the road at this crazy speed; it never got old. Unfortunately, the approaching dawn and Zeke's condition forced us to stop a couple hours before sunrise, pulling up to a crumbling farmhouse to rest and rebandage Zeke's leg. After clearing out the colony of rats that had made their nest in the dilapidated kitchen, I sat Zeke down at the table to check his wound. The gash didn't look infected, but I poured liberal amounts of peroxide on it before wrapping it in clean bandages. The strong odor of chemicals, mixed with the scent of Zeke's blood, made me a tad nauseated, which I took as a blessing in disguise. I had no desire to bite him when he smelled so strongly of disinfectant.
"Thanks," he muttered as I rose, gathering up the old bandages to bury outside. I didn't think there were rabids nearby, but you could never be too careful. Rabids probably had no issues drinking peroxide-scented blood.
I turned warily. From the tone of his voice, I knew he was just as uncomfortable as me. Zeke was silent for a moment, as if debating whether or not he should say something, then he dropped his shoulders with a sigh.
"Why did you come back?"
I shrugged. "I was bored? I had nowhere else to go? It seemed a good idea at the time? Take your pick."
"I would've shot you," Zeke went on softly, staring at the ground. "If I'd seen you, hanging around? I would've done my best to kill you."
"Well, you didn't," I said, sharper than I intended. "And it doesn't matter now-though next time, if you don't want me saving your life, just say so." Turning away, I started to leave.
"Wait," Zeke called and sighed, running his hands through his hair. "I'm sorry," he said, finally looking up at me. "I'm trying, Allison, I am. It's just...you're a vampire, and..." He made a frustrated, helpless gesture. "And I wasn't expecting...any of this."
"I didn't bite anyone," I told him quietly. "That's the truth, Zeke. I didn't feed from anyone in the group."
"I know," he said. "I just thought-"
"But I wanted to."
He looked up sharply. I faced him, my voice and expression calm. "There were a lot of times," I continued, "where I could have fed off you, Caleb, Darren, Bethany. And it was hard, not to bite them, not to feed from them. The Hunger, it's constantly with you. That's what being a vampire is, unfortunately. You can't be around humans for long and not want to bite them."
"And, you're telling me this...why?"
"Because you need to know," I said simply. "Because this is what I am, and you should know what that is, before we go any further."
His voice was cold again. "So, you're saying...none of us will ever really be safe around you."
"I can't promise that I will never bite any of you." I shrugged helplessly. "The Hunger makes it impossible not to crave human blood. We can't survive without it. And maybe you were right to drive me off that night. But I can promise you this-I will keep fighting it. That's the best I can offer.
And if that's not enough, well..." I shrugged again. "We can worry about that after we've rescued the others." Zeke didn't answer. He appeared to be deep in thought, so I left the room without another word, heading outside to dispose of the bloody wrappings.
In the yard, I buried the rags quickly, then stood to gaze down the road. Old Chicago waited at the end of the highway, along with a whole raider army and a mysterious vampire king. Who ruled a vampire city. I found it ironic; the very thing I'd been running from all this time was the place I'd return to in the end.
The sky in the east was lightening. I returned inside to find Zeke still at the table, the open backpack beside him, munch-ing from a bag of pretzels I'd scavenged in town. He glanced up as I came in but didn't stop eating, an instinct I recognized from my Fringer days. No matter what the situation, no matter how awful you felt or how inappropriate it was, you still ate when you could. You never knew when your next meal would be, or if your current meal would be your last.
I also noted he had his gun out, lying on the table within easy reach, and decided to ignore it.
"Dawn is almost here," I told him, and he nodded. "There's painkillers in there if you need them, and some water. The bandages and peroxide are in the front pocket."
"What about ammo?"
I shook my head. "I couldn't find any back in town, and I didn't have much time to look around." I deliberately did not look at the pistol close to his hand. "How many bullets do you have left?"
"Then we'll have to make them count." Glancing through the window, I winced. "I have to go. Take it easy on that leg, okay? If something happens, I can't help you until the sun goes down. I'll see you this evening." He nodded without looking up. I wandered down the hall, weaving through cobwebs and scattered rubble, until I reached the bedroom at the end. The door was still on its hinges, and I pushed it open with a squeak.
A large bed sat against the wall beneath a broken window, curtains waving gently in the breeze. On the worm-eaten mattress, two adult skeletons lay side by side, the remains of their clothes rotted away. Between them was a much smaller skeleton, being held in the arms of one of the adults, cradling it to its chest.
I gazed at the skeletons, feeling an odd sense of surrealism.
I'd heard stories of the plague, of course, when my mother had told me tales of life before. Sometimes it struck so fast, so suddenly, that entire families would get sick and die within a couple days. These bones, this family, were of another age, another era, before our time. What had it been like, to live here before the plague, when there were no rabids and vampires and silent, empty cities?
I shook those thoughts away. No use in wondering about the past, it wasn't going to do me any good. I backed out of the room and crossed the hall, pushing open the door opposite the bedroom. The space here was smaller, with a single twin bed against the wall, but it was dark, the windows were shuttered closed against the sun, and it didn't have any skeletons.
I lay down on my back, keeping my sword within easy reach on the mattress. Of course, if anyone wanted to sneak up on me during the day, I'd be easy pickings, lying here like the dead, unable to wake up.
I glanced at the closed door, and a thought came to me that turned my insides to ice. Zeke was still out there, awake, mobile and armed. While I slept, would he come creeping into my room to cut off my head? Would he kill me as I lay here, helpless, following the principles that Jeb had instilled in him? Did he hate vampires that much?
Or would he simply take the bike and drive off to confront the raiders alone?
I suddenly wished I'd chosen to sleep outside, buried in the deep earth, away from vengeful demon slayers. But gray bars of light were slanting in beneath the shutters, and I could feel my limbs getting heavy and sluggish. I would have to trust that Zeke was smart enough to know he couldn't rescue the others alone, that his principles weren't nearly as strict as his mentor's, and that even though I was a vampire, he would realize that I was still the person he had known before.
My eyes closed, and just before I lost consciousness, I was almost certain I heard the door creak open.
THE WORLD WAS UPSIDE DOWN.
I couldn't move my arms from behind my back, couldn't move anything. A soft breeze slithered across my nak*d shoulders. My arms felt broken. Or bound. Or both. Strange that I felt no pain.
The floor, a few feet from my head, was concrete. The walls around me were concrete. It had the feeling of being deep underground, though I remembered nothing of how I came to be here. I turned my head and saw, upside down, a table a few feet away, covered in instruments that glinted at me from the shadows.
Footsteps. And then a pair of boots stepped in front of me, the glowing end of a poker suddenly inches from my face, blindingly hot.