Scattered clouds covered most of the pre-dawn constellations, leaving the sky broken and unfamiliar. The silent city around Hank also seemed alien—built of murky gray chunks under the crescent moon's shining fang. A loose wire sparked intermittently near the top of the football stadium's distant bulk, the only sign that electricity was still coming in from somewhere outside.
Hank could remember the stadium just three months ago, when he had stood there with raised fists in the end zone, TK and Floyd dancing around him. Every seat seemed to be bursting gold and red as the floodlights poured down a billion kilowatts on the Bent Creek High supporters chanting his name: "Ca-llum, Ca-llum, Ca-llum..." Even Luca was on his feet. With an illicit beer bottle held high, posed atop the safety rail, Luca swung his crotch like the spot-lit rock star he aspired to be. And the brightest thing of all was the new plasma scoreboard flashing '20-17' with Hank's face five feet tall next to the words, "Touchdown - H.T. Callum."
No noise now, though. Even the wind was sneaking through Lincoln, Nebraska these days.
"Is it time yet?" whispered Sammie.
Hank looked down at the digital watch he had picked up in the broken showcase of a pawnshop after his cell phone went dead. "Yeah," he told Sammie. "Make sure the others have everything." He had also picked up a thirty-eight revolver and a box of bullets at that pawnshop. The thirty-eight was in his coat with Hank's last six bullets in the cylinder.
Setting out in the dark like this was a risk, but it would be a long drive and they needed to find shelter by the time sunset fell. Most of the infected had left Lincoln over the first few weeks and drifted outward in their thirst for prey. There would be more of them out there than here in Lincoln, but staying in the city meant death: even the birds and roaches were gone. And Hank’s group had cleaned out the mini-mart shelves and supermarket back rooms of every last tuna can and ketchup packet.
Hank’s twelve followers were young—half of them were grade-schoolers. There was no way they could fight the other survivor gangs for food. So, the day before, he and Sammie had gotten three working cars and hidden them at the south end of the city with full tanks of gas and trunks loaded with their scavenged supplies.
This morning, they intended to silently weave between the city's abandoned vehicles on mountain bikes for the dark first leg of their exodus. Hank hoped that they would reach their cars and be racing down the open back roads before any predator could see or smell them. The hunters tended to be less alert so close to sunrise.
Hank watched the rest of the group emerge like ghosts from the basement stairs and roll their bikes out the broad front doors of the Pioneer Foundation Library. He would miss this place, and not just because it was the last and safest of their hideouts, but because of what it had meant to him before the apocalypse. Hank had never had much use for reading back then, but he'd spent over a dozen weekends down in the basement with the new librarian, Mr. Block, sorting crates of books, some of them older than his father. Block had so many stories to tell about life in Chicago: big things in a big city, like Bears games and Pride parades and stealing rides on 'El' trains.
Mr. Block was dead now.
TK was dead now.
Floyd was dead too: Hank had killed his best friend to save Floyd a fate worse than death.
Patrick Henry would have approved of that last act, the boy thought, fingering an American history text book in the return tray at the front desk. He thumbed through the tray—Joseph Conrad would have understood why Hank had done it. Golding would have said it was inevitable. Kierkegaard—well, as much as he read to escape boredom and terror these days, Hank could never stomach Kierkegaard long enough to see if the man ultimately made any kind of sense.
"We've got a problem with Jack," said Sammie, her face more stressed than usual.
Jack was one of the aces in Hank's pack. Just fourteen, he had been a dedicated Boy Scout in the world before. Hank saw a lot his own traits in Jack. The boy had learned how to slip through the city even at night, hiding his scent with the relics of urban life, such as motor oil and cinder dust. Because of Jack, the group knew where they could eat and where they could sleep and when they should run.
"What happened?" asked Hank.
"He left for the lookout post—said he forgot his radio. It's been ten minutes."
Far too long for a simple retrieval in the East Tower, even with Jack's careful, stealthy creep.
"Shit!" said Hank. Jack had the keys for one of the Toyotas. "You get everyone to the cars. I'll get Jack and catch up."
Sammie, his trusty sergeant, never hesitated, but Hank could see her eyes pleading with him not to go.
Hank and Sammie had lived a lifetime of friendship in the three months since they'd met. She had kept him going after the disaster with Luca and Floyd by reminding Hank that the others still needed him. Leaving the lobby, he heard Sammie's voice drift after him: "Thanks for everything, Hank."
He walked carefully along the outsides of the six flights of broad, stone stairs in the East Tower, the walls offering guidance and extra shadows.
At the top of the stairs, beyond the open door, Jack stood braced against the wall, looking miserable, but very much alive. If he was having a breakdown, he wouldn't be the first.
Hank surveyed the room, found it empty and entered. He put a hand on Jack's shoulder and said softly, "Time to go."
"I'm sorry, Hank," Jack half mumbled, half cried.
"Don't be. You just need to—" Then Hank followed Jack's eyes.
From outside, Luca swung down into the shadowed opening that had once upon a time been occupied by an ice blue stained-glass window. He reclined on the sill, his plain white sneakers jammed against one side. Luca folded his arms loosely and smiled with the world's whitest, sharpest teeth.
A cold, matter-of-fact realization sunk through Hank like a pebble into a pond. 'My life is over. I'm going to die here.'
Through all the shifting sensibilities of the punk-rock scene, Luca had always believed in the classics: tight white T-shirt for his lean torso and dirty, ripped jeans. His black hair was short and neat, but seemed to stay in place resentfully. He still had that bored, slack demeanor that had defined him whenever he wasn't screaming about the evil of meat as lead singer of Civil Disobedience.
In the surreal time crawl of the moment, Hank had time to think, 'A vegan vampire! Now that's funny.' Then he remembered Jack and the frozen moment burst like the ripples that spread on the pond after the pebble sinks. This was not Luca. All that remained were the distorted echoes of Luca's urges and emotions, amplified a thousand times and animating his shell.
There was no conscious thought behind what Hank did next. Luca had started grandstanding in his new croaky voice, as if he had finally become a big-time star, saying, "Mornin' Hank. Glad to see you looking so ha-" And that was when Hank shoved him out the window—just ran straight at him and, before Luca could even think of what was happening, thumped both hands into his ex-classmate's chest and sent him spilling out.
Time did not slow down again, but it still took a long while for Luca to hit the courtyard below, landing on his back with a crunch.
"Holy crap, you killed him," said Jack.
Hank had changed nothing for himself, only bought time for Jack to escape. Luca would shake off his thirteen broken bones and climb right back up the tower like a reptile before Hank could get to safety. But, by then, Hank would have given his gun to Jack and sent the boy—
Something bothered Hank. "What did you mean about being sorry?" he asked.
"He said he'd let us go," Jack said quietly. "He just wanted you."
"You mean you set me up?" Anger rose in Hank. Jack had betrayed him.
But, looking back, it all fit together. Jack was the one out at night sharing the city with Luca—the one who could find Luca. And forgetting his radio? Jack never forgot anything.
"What the hell were you thinking?" Hank yelled. The boy just looked away. "And why did you even bother with this whole act? If Luca wanted me, why didn't he just come in the front door? I couldn't have stopped him."
"I didn't want to risk the others in case his bloodlust sent him wild. I told him I'd help him if he came for only you." Jack squirmed. "Don't you see, Hank? It's all about you. It's always been about you. He torments us to torment you. If I'd let you go on the road with us, Luca would just have kept coming. We can never be safe with you around."
Jack was completely right.
Hank thought back seven years. Luca in fifth grade was a gentle, quiet boy with bright green eyes, neglected shaggy hair and oversized hand-me-down-clothes. When Hank had transferred in, he had immediately noticed that Luca only showed diligence in one thing: taking care of the class rabbit, Hare Brain.
And TK and Floyd, it seemed, had taken it as their duty to torment Hare Brain. That first Friday, Hank watched Luca try to stop the boys poking the rabbit with rulers. Luca pushed at them, only to get knocked down, where TK and Floyd turned their rulers on him, laughing.
That was when Hank had tackled the two boys simultaneously, despite being smaller than either. The resulting fight was quick and dirty, with bruised testicles, bite marks and sore ankles for both Floyd and TK. The two of them never picked on Luca again. Never picked on anyone, in fact. Strangely, it was Floyd and TK who became Hank's friends after that and his influence seemed to give them better outlets for their aggression.
Luca had continued to drift at the periphery of the class, despite Hank's efforts to be his friend. By then, Hank had started sorting boys into 'cute' and 'plain' and Luca was definitely cute. More importantly, he seemed like he really needed a friend. Hank spent hours puzzling over just what made this boy's face so magnetic. He would ponder Luca's expressions across classrooms, gymnasiums and parking lots and feel a spark of satisfaction whenever Luca allowed himself a nervous smile at something.
High school delivered a new Luca. He worked in the Crane Street pet store and used his money to keep his hair cut low, get new clothes and buy a guitar. He still revealed his old vulnerable self whenever Hank saw him half-heartedly crack a smile, however. But he and Hank remained only acquaintances. Hank would try to start something more, but Luca was too busy with flash-mob concerts under bridges and 'meat is murder' murals on the side of the hot dog plant.
And now there was an even newer Luca, a monster with twisted memories and an eternal vendetta.
"Take this," said Hank, passing the gun to Jack. "Get out. Run. Keep the others safe."
The boy left, his clattering footfalls echoing up the stairwell as Hank faced the window.
Luca seemed to slide into the room, taking up his former seat like nothing had happened. He said, "I'm the one that did all this to Lincoln, you know."
A part of Hank wished that Luca would just get to attacking him. But, the rest of Hank knew that the more time the others had to run, the safer they would be. "I seem to remember you had some help."
"Before me, vampires would just feed a few times a month, treat the people in a city like a herd and make sure their prey didn't come back as hunters. But me, I created a plague. When you can't fix the world, you've got to tear it down."
An odd tenderness passed across Luca's face. "I could have loved you, Hank—I wanted to! But you, and everyone else in this town, never felt I was your equal. I could hear it in your voice every time you spoke to me." Luca's eyes blazed red. "Now, I've made this whole city crawl."
Luca stood, menace in his body, and Hank attacked again.
This time, Luca expected Hank to rush him so the vampire easily intercepted Hank's lunging hands with his own. But this was not the same Hank. This Hank was fueled by a rage that his life was over now, that this was all he was going to get, and he longed to make his killer pay with as much pain as possible.
Hank had attempted to decipher a chapter of Milton two weeks earlier. The language had defeated him, but one bit still rang in his ear. 'How had Satan put it?' Hank thought. 'You might not be able to defeat God, but you could at least shake His throne? Something like that.'
So, with the outrage of a thwarted demon, Hank broke through and grabbed Luca's throat with both hands, squeezing and grinding the neck which seemed frail under his superhuman surge. He barely felt Luca's hands beating at his wrists as he backed the creature against a wall. Hank could no longer think beyond flashes of what his life had become: edging about from hole to hole, sweating fear and eating like a rat; abandoning each safe place when the growing smell of human life threatened exposure; shooting at shadows, hoping the undead would not get back up until all his people were safe; Floyd begging for his life as Hank brought down a fireman's axe right between the two red pinpricks Luca had left on Floyd's neck; choosing whom to save and whom to leave, until Jack had chosen Hank to die.
Through the window, Hank could see the eastern sky brightening toward gold.
Luca's hands struck against him with less and less force. Hank's fingernails were biting into the bloodless flesh under them. The grunts of resistance faded to silence and the red of Luca's eyes flickered out. Even with the half-light, those eyes became green beacons. Hank's mind registered the face he's always found so fascinating. Luca seemed like a child struggling to stay awake, his hair blowing gently off his forehead.
Hank could not help but grieve over Luca, because of everything the boy had once meant to him, everything he had hoped to find in him. He was overcome with longing. And love.
It was that love that killed Hank. It sapped the anger from his veins and the strength from his fingers.
Luca twisted and snapped his fangs into Hank's forearm. The pain made his muscles limp. The flesh felt shredded and aflame. Hank fell to one knee, losing his grip. Luca still had not recovered, though, and Hank was able to reach up with his good hand and grab hold of Luca's neck again. There was no rage left to tap, however. No sense of vengeance. All Hank had left were desperation and fear, clawing to keep away a death that would not relent.
Luca bit into Hank's neck, and his shoulders and head burnt with pain. Hank felt the blood being pulled out of him and, along with it, his very essence—his sense of self.
He fought back again, tightening his grip momentarily, but then he lost that final part of his identity through his open veins and his hand fell back. Luca stepped away, letting Hank slump to the ground. Hank was happy now that he had stayed behind to be with Luca. Just being next to him was glorious. He remembered being worried about losing himself a moment before, but could not imagine why. He was aware that his thoughts were jumbled and not completely sensible, but Luca's shimmering red pupils promised comfort and even bliss.
'Everyone should have red eyes,' was Hank's last thought before he faded away.
He awoke in the library basement, laid out on a table of scattered hardcovers, their rich smell almost gagging him. There was absolutely no light, but he could pick out authors' names on the books with no effort: Snyder, Stoker, King. Hank knocked them away and vaulted off the table.
His watch told him that he had slept three days. He looked at the spot next to his watch where he had been bitten. There was no scar. Hank felt strong and his head was clear, his mind focused by an acute thirst. There was a fire at the roots of his teeth. Hank thought of Sammie, Jack and the others, hiding on the other side of Kansas by now.
He licked his lips.