Gradually, the bloody tears slowed and finally stopped, leaving me empty and drained in that tiny corner. My face felt sticky, my throat ached, and my chest felt painfully tight.
But, for the first time since I’d left New Covington, I could face the horror of what had happened in that lab without falling apart. I could finally remember. Sarren torturing Zeke for information about Eden and the cure, Zeke’s anguished screams and cries, that shining, terrible moment when he’d whispered…that he loved me. Right before Sarren had killed him.
I wondered if he could see me now, if he was horrified and disappointed at the thing I’d become. Or had he forgotten me? Maybe he didn’t even remember his mortal life. Maybe all the pain, grief and darkness he’d endured was nothing but a fading dream where he was now. I hoped so. I wanted him to forget. It was better that way, that he forget this world with its demons and monsters and darkness that smothered any tiny bit of hope or warmth. I would still have to endure, for eternity.
Bitterness joined the swirl of sorrow and regret. Kanin and Jackal had been right; I’d been hiding from this, letting the monster shield me from the pain, because I didn’t want to face the truth. Zeke was dead. I had to let him go.
Wiping my eyes, I rose to my feet, grief, shame and a hundred other emotions weighing me down. I welcomed them this time. Even if it was painful. Even if remembering made me feel like I’d never smile again. It meant that some tiny part of me was still human. I’d been so close to the edge tonight, on that brink of no return, as Kanin had warned. What would’ve happened if the monster had truly won?
Pulling out the chain, I closed my fingers around Zeke’s cross, closing my eyes. The edges pressed into my palm as I remembered, forcing myself to recall what he’d told me once.
“You’re not evil,” he had whispered, those bright, solemn blue eyes staring into me, peeling away every defense. “No one who fights so hard to do the right thing is evil.”
I had to believe that. I had to believe that something in me was still human, that I wasn’t a complete monster.
Keep me human, Zeke, I thought, feeling a sharp flare of determination through the suffocating regret and guilt . My eyes burned once more, but I bit my lip and forced the tears back. I swear, I’ll keep fighting. I won’t forget again.
When I peeked through the closet door, the woman and little girl had fallen asleep, the mother curled protectively around her child. Easing into the room, I watched them silently, feeling that sharp ache of longing as I remembered my mother doing the same. The little girl sniffed and burrowed closer, her young face blissfully calm, free of worry or fear, and I smiled sadly.
Then I turned and glided silently from the room, into the hall, and down the steps to the first floor.
That dark figure waited for me in front of the window, silhouetted against the glass. As usual, Kanin gave no hints as to what he was feeling, what he thought I’d been doing, whether he was annoyed that I’d taken so long. His eyes were blank as I approached, and I couldn’t meet his gaze, staring at the floor when we stood but a few feet apart.
“Is it done?” His voice was barely a murmur in the looming silence. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I heard the barest hint of hope, a last stubborn plea, beneath the quiet surface.
Praying that he was wrong. “Did you kill her?”
I shook my head. “No,” I whispered, and finally looked up at him. “I didn’t. I…” A face swam through my head, blue eyes shining as he smiled at me, and I swallowed hard.
Kanin didn’t respond, but I could feel the tension leave him as I said this. But he only nodded. “Then let’s go,” he murmured, turning to the windowsill. “Jackal is waiting for us at the fence line. By now, Sarren has pulled even farther away.
We need to find his trail again and head for Eden.”
Numbly, I followed my sire out the window to the edge of the house, where the Master vampire pulled bars into place once more. After leaping the trench, I looked around and noticed that a new, very large pile of wood had been stacked next to the chopping stump, and I smiled to myself. Kanin’s “payment” for tonight, for the harm his actions would bring, in his own words. I thought of the woman I’d fed from, pale and weak because of me, and swallowed hard. Maybe I should do something, too, leave something behind that would help.
“I’ve already taken care of it, Allison,” Kanin said behind me, as if reading my thoughts. “Though firewood and a day’s supply of meat is hardly compensation for the loss of a family member. I am glad it did not come to that.”
“Yeah,” I whispered, feeling a burning shame spread through me again. I felt his eyes on me and wondered, briefly, if I would ever earn Kanin’s trust again, if he would ever see me the way he did before.
“I’m sorry, Kanin,” I said quietly, not looking at him. I didn’t have to say more; he knew what I meant. For everything.
For being a monster. For letting myself become a monster. For disappointing you and letting you think you failed. I know you, of all people, never wanted to see me like this. Like Jackal.
Kanin watched me in silence. Just long enough for me to wonder if it was too late, if he had given up both his offspring for lost. Then I felt his presence behind me, his strong hands coming to rest on my shoulders.
“We all have regrets, Allison,” he said, his voice unbearably gentle. “We all have succumbed to the darkness and the monster. There is not one vampire in the world who has not. Even James has points in his past he would change, if he could. The important thing is that you do not let these points define you. James gave up fighting it long ago. For you and I, it is a constant uphill battle not to give in, not to become that demon, and it will be that way for eternity. I will not lie and tell you it gets any easier.
“But,” he continued in that same quiet voice, “you have achieved something few vampires ever could—you have chosen to master your demon, to remember your life before you became immortal. Even though it is hard. Even though the Hunger will always tell you that it is easier to give in, to not remember anything human. It is the reason I told you, from the very beginning, that you would always be a monster.” His voice, already low, went even softer. “I’d hoped that, when I Turned you, you would choose a more noble path than James, that you were tenacious enough to retain some semblance of humanity. I hoped that, if I taught you well enough, your will to live would help you in the fight to contain the beast.” A ghost of a smile entered his voice then, and he dropped his arms. “As it turns out, I greatly underestimated that stubbornness.”