Ray Thorpe met Violet Fox on a summer night in June.
Ray's new neighborhood, located on the outskirts of Four Winds in Fruit Ridge County, Michigan, was semirural. The houses spaced far enough apart that no one cared what their neighbors did. Several fruit orchards existed nearby, their branches heavy with peaches and budding green apples. A weeping willow tree took up part of the yard, the locusts singing inside the long, drooping branches.
Ray noticed Vi from a distance; she looked about his age, seventeen. Her hair was a dark brown, cut in a pageboy. Small and thin, she wore denim shorts and a baggy pink T-shirt. She sat with her chin in her hand, brushing away a mosquito with the other. She watched as a large puppy, a yellow Labrador retriever, dug a hole on the tall grass. Dirt flew around its long legs, its tail wagging spastically. Ray looked away from the puppy, and saw Vi waving at him.
He waved back as Vi rose from the picnic table. The puppy ran toward him.
"Joy, come here!" she called.
Ray, with Joy now running circles around him, approached the table.
"I'm sorry. She's so hyper."
"That's okay. She's friendly."
"How are you liking the old Petersen place?"
Ray shrugged. "It's all right. Needs some work."He saw the lights on in her house through the front porch, which was painted white and surrounded by a wooden decorative arch.
"What brings you out so late?" she asked.
Her eyes were brown with long lashes, and freckles covered the bridge of her nose. The rest of her features were soft.
"I couldn't sleep. I have to get used to the place."
"I've never moved. Always been here."
"It's so quiet."
"Nothing happens in Fruit Ridge."
Although he seemed like the kind of boy who had to force himself to be sociable, Vi knew he was trying hard to chat her up. He was taller than her, and she assumed he was older. His long, blond hair was almost white, combed close to his head and parted to the side. His blue eyes were pale in the dark. He had fair skin with a long nose and a wide forehead with a small scar above his left eyebrow. His skinny build had not quite filled out, but his arms and chest looked strong under the white T-shirt. "Where did you live before?"
"Boston. Then Vermont. South Carolina. I was born in California."
"Yeah. My parents get restless."
She covered her mouth with her hand, suppressing a yawn. "I'd go to bed, but I'm waiting on Joy."
The puppy was crouching, getting ready to relieve herself.
"She should be done soon," Ray said.
"How long do you think it takes a dog to pass a twenty-dollar bill?"
"What?" He turned to look at Vi, who was grinning. He noticed a dimple near the corner of her mouth.
She stifled her laughter. "Joy ate my gas money. She found it on the coffee table. I tried to pull it out of her mouth, but she swallowed the whole bill. Now, I have to wait for her to pass it."
They watched Joy finish her business then charge up the front steps.
Vi shook her head. "She only took a leak."
The front door opened, and the puppy went inside. The figure behind the screen was a broad-shouldered, heavy guy. Ray could not make out his face, just the thick head of dark hair.
"Is it out yet?" the guy asked.
"No," Vi said.
"I can give you a ride to work tomorrow."
The guy turned away and went back into the house.
"Is he your dad?"
"No, my brother Gary. He's my oldest brother."
"Where do you work?"
"At the Four Winds Mall, in the Marshall's department store."
"I might have a job there at Media Store. My parents know the manager."
"Not too many jobs around here. Gary's laid off. So is my other brother, Nicky, but our mom is still working."
He hoped she would not ask him what his parents did for a living, at least not until he came up with a good lie. With each town, he tried to stick to the same story; his parents worked different shifts--his dad on days, his mother on nights. He had to make excuses to other people, his friends and teachers--Mom was too tired to attend conferences and Dad was working a lot of overtime. He could not tell his friends that they were not allowed to come over. Ray and his dad had to protect her, keep her secrets.
"My mom will try to get something at night. She's worked third shift forever."
"My mom works third at a nursing home. She's a nurse's aide."
Vi yawned again. Ray wanted to leave before she asked more questions, but he found himself attracted to her warmth and seeming acceptance. However, he knew he was the outsider, the one who would leave at any time when the rumors came too close or people started asking questions he could not answer.
"You're tired. I need to get some sleep, too."
"What's your name?"
"I'm Violet, Vi for short."
"Nice to meet you, Vi. Goodnight."
Ray returned to the house. The old stairs creaked under his feet as he went to his room.
Lena was standing in the hallway. Ray knew when she had an exciting night because she could barely contain her energy. Her thick black hair was pulled away from her pale face; her lips and cheeks were flushed red. Her dark eyes glowed like embers. Ray could imagine the young male victim who would be dumb enough to leave with her. He knew she was sexy, the toss of her wavy hair and the vulnerable, but seductive, way about her. Her laugh was warm, and her voice still contained a trace of Hungarian. With a flash of her pale wrist and French manicure with long white tips, she could make smoking a cigarette sensual. Smoking could not kill her.
Lena was wearing a black dress with thin straps and no shoes, her hair down. Ray could smell the night air and her prey's blood on her skin.
She came closer, and Ray did not step back. He faced her, as he had every day of his life. Ray realized that he was lucky Lena preferred not to feed from children. He never doubted who came first in her mind.
"I saw you talking to a girl."
"Yeah. Her name is Violet."
"Do you like her?"
"It's good you're making friends."
"What does that mean?"
She ignored his sarcasm. "I'm hoping we can stay here. You can finish school. Senior year is important, from what I've heard."
Ray could not imagine Lena at his age. She was always something other than human; imagining her in a prom dress or a cap and gown seemed degrading. She was better, the promise of a more glamorous, more satisfying adult world.
"Do you want me to wait another year?"
"For what?" He watched her lips twist into a smirk, the look she gave his father when she was teasing him. Ray did not want her to think he was being a fool; that he had taken her offer lightly. "For you to change me, Ma."
She shook her head. "No hurry. I'm not going anywhere."
"You were my age when you changed."
"I didn't have a choice."
"You're giving me a choice, but it's on your terms, like usual."
"Do you know why? Because you can't possibly understand what I can give you. You only think you know, and that's why I want you to wait."
"Then I'll never be ready."
"Maybe I'm the one who is not ready. Maybe I want you to stay innocent a little longer."
She reached up and rubbed the back of her neck through her hair. Ray noticed the dried blood smear on the back of her arm.
"I need a bath. You need to sleep."
Ray knew she only wanted to end the discussion. "Yeah. Goodnight, Ma."
"He's seventeen," Ed said. "He wants now what he could have tomorrow."
Lena had taken her bath and changed into a clean nightgown. She joined Ed in the musty cellar, where he had placed her casket. The cellar leaked on rainy days and the old pipes nearby were covered with mildew. Ed had been a plumber and a handyman; his work was cut out for him with a farmhouse built sometime before World War I. Lena knew the house's history from the voices she heard, leftover spirit energy of a large family that worked those fields. They had harvested blueberries and blackberries, now overgrown with weeds. Tonight, she had seen the old man in overalls, staring at her by the barn. She thought about talking to him but knew she would only confuse the poor soul.
Ed was sitting in a chair, the bare light bulb swinging over his head as he read the newspaper. Ed had a slight build, and short, dark hair parted to one side. His eyes were a soft brown with long lashes; his features were still boyish but pale. He was in his early thirties when Lena met him; his life on an Oklahoma dirt farm had not yet broken his back. He was sensitive and kind; the man Lena found by accident.
"I try to explain to Ray that it can wait."
"Give him time to change his mind."
"He wants to talk about it more and more."
"I knew you wouldn't be able to resist offering immortality to him, but I can't help wonder if you're offering to protect yourself."
Lena raised an eyebrow. "I could keep him human, and he would be no threat to me."
"Would he? Lena, there is no going back from when we agreed to be a family. I have been with you for almost eighty years, and you chose not to completely change me. I am also immortal--"
"Only as long as you are not seriously harmed, and I continue to exist. If something should happen to me--"
"I wouldn't want to live without you."
"Is that how you want it to be for Ray?"
"No. He wants his freedom; he can't be tied to you like that." Ed dropped the paper to the floor. "He has to decide for himself, and I want you to let him choose."
"Of course, I love Ray."
"I know, but dealing with a seventeen year old..." "Do you think I might kill him?" She kneeled down next to Ed, her chin almost on his knee. "I have enough control. I won't force myself on Ray."
"You almost killed his mother."
"I was jealous. Rhonda gave you the son I couldn't; then he was stuck with me for a mother. Besides, have I ever harmed you?"
"No, you haven't. I trust you, always have, but Ray has put up with a lot--the moving, the lack of friends, keeping our secrets. I don't want him to make any choices out of anger. Although I think that's the only thing that will push him into choosing. You need to remind him of all he's going to lose, things he can't even appreciate now." "Are you telling him this, Ed?"
"You need to tell him."
"He won't listen."
"He is listening, Lena, but he just can't grasp it all. I've been with you for a long time, and even I'm frightened of what you are."
"So am I, Ed. I have searched and traveled to so many places, but I still don't understand any of it. You and Ray are what make my life truly meaningful. I could live forever, but it's all lies after awhile."
"Try to convince Ray of that."
"It's something you can only learn the hard way, Ed."
Lena dreamed often of her father's fortress with walls a foot thick, twelve feet high, and sharp ends pointing skyward. Her father was Stephan Darvulia, an illegitimate son of a Hungarian count who had risen in the ranks of his father's army in the 1440s. An ambitious soldier, he defeated Turkish troops in battle after battle. Darvulia, with his own army, attempted to take part of Transylvania but was captured by the Turks. The sultan must have been a generous man. He released Darvulia, who pledged his loyalty to him and was married to one of the sultan's daughters, Fatima, who later became a Christian.
In her dream, Lena could hear the birds' morning song while walking across the courtyard, the dew shimmering on the grass and the sun tingling on her skin. The fortress, including a modest castle and a small army of mercenaries, was meant as a place to protect Darvulia's wife and three daughters. He was a duplicitous man, having pledged his loyalty to the Holy Roman emperor before Lena was a teenager. His new campaign was defeated, but Darvulia managed to stay in the good graces of the emperor, and his wife and daughters remained safe. However, one wrong move and Darvulia was a dead man, leaving his family defenseless.
Lena was not privy to these things as a girl and neither were her sisters, Katya and Eva. Lena sometimes saw their faces in her dreams, and she would wake up sobbing from missing them, bloody tears on her cheeks.
Darvulia, known as the Black Knight or Darvulia the Two-Faced, returned from his last campaign a vampire.
Lena could see her mother; the plump, black-haired Fatima, wearing a loose dress and a long silver chain with a crucifix swinging at her round belly. Lena did not have to reach Fatima to notice the sadness and worry on her mother's face, the very look she wore the day they all died, except for Lena. Gregory saved her for later.
Fatima turned her face up, gazing at the sky. Lena, now close to her, also looked up. The huge ball of fire gave off no heat. A large bat emerged from the smoke. Its wings opened wide; long, sharp fangs took up most of its rat-like face as the hungry mouth descended on the women. Fatima screamed, and Lena awoke from the dream, calling for her mother, wanting to save her. She realizes she is in the cellar, in the oak casket Ed made for her decades ago. She tries to close her eyes but sees Fatima, so terrified, behind them.
My poor, simple mother, she thought. One of them had cut her throat as she prayed at their feet. She was a Christian, a real believer, but Jesus did not create the vampire. He only knew them as legion.
Gregory told her that story many times. His creator, Athena, had seen Jesus perform a miracle in Rome, curing a woman of madness by placing his hands on hers. Gregory loved Athena, but she, knowing she had created a true monster, fled from him.
Stephan Darvulia, the handsome and cunning two-faced warrior, could not defend his own family the night Gregory and his men came. They slaughtered her father's small troop of defenders at the fortress. The last she saw of him was Darvulia's head stuck at the top of the gate, facing east.