Joelle Quinn slid quietly out the backdoor and closed it behind her. Today was her fourteenth birthday. Fourteen. She'd always thought it sounded like such a great age, as if everything would change when she became fourteen. Nothing had changed. Oh wait, it had. If it were possible, everything had gotten worse. They had moved. Again. Her mother still drank constantly and, because she did, she couldn't pay rent. Again. They'd had to move out of their apartment. Again. And move in with one of Darla's boyfriends. Again. Of course, it was never the same boyfriend. She changed those as frequently as she lost jobs. Even though her mother had promised things would be different. Again. When would Joelle learn? Oh wait, she had. She had learned her lesson today on her fourteenth birthday. The birthday her incredible mother had forgotten. The birthday the boyfriend hadn't forgotten. In fact, he had promised to come back with a present for her. Then he'd patted her on the butt and tried to kiss her. Unfortunately, that hadn't changed.
She hoped he'd forget. She hoped he got so totally faced at the bar that they wouldn't make it back. Ever. But if they did, when they did, she'd deal with it, just like she dealt with everything else. This wasn't the first boyfriend who thought Joelle was part of the package, and it wouldn't be the last. She made sure she wore jeans to bed, slept near an open window and carried a knife. Another lesson she'd had to learn the hard way, but she had learned. And she had survived. Now, one way or the other, she'd get away. No matter what.
Joelle dismissed the memories and tromped through the last of the day's light heading into the woods across the street. Street? Gravel road was more like it. Darla Quinn had talked the place up as if they were moving to this cute little house. Whatever. Joelle had known better since she'd been through it all before and wasn't surprised to find the place was a one room hovel with holes in the roof and even bigger ones in the walls. Oh yeah, they were moving up all right. Darla said all it would take is some paint and it would be wonderful. More like paint and a box of matches.
She ducked under some branches and climbed over a fallen tree. A woods person she wasn't, but the roof and chimneys she could see over the trees intrigued her. Besides, investigating what type of house it was and who lived there was way more exciting than waiting for night to fall and Darla to come home. Or more specifically, waiting for Darla's boyfriend to get home. Even worse, she could hear mice running in the walls and wouldn't be able to sleep. She always imagined them coming out to run over her. She shivered. Darla had moved them into some pretty crappy places, but this one won the award for the worst. Only a couple more years, she told herself. Only a couple more years and she could get a job. Once she did that she could save up enough money to leave when she hit eighteen. Four years, she could do this for four more years. Even to herself she didn't sound convincing. But what choice did she have? Foster care? Yeah, she didn't see that working out any better than staying with her mother did.
Joelle pushed through an enormous set of bushes and found herself on an overgrown lawn. The house was huge with an impressive wraparound porch and massive front doors. Most of the first story windows were shuttered, but the few she could see were broken with the glass littering the ground. She sighed. Okay, not as great as it'd looked through the trees. She thought maybe it was occupied with a family or something, but no such luck.
Shrugging, she crossed through the tall grass and headed to the porch. She might as well snoop around as long as she was here. If it was halfway sound, she could use it as a place to escape to. That would come in handy if the boyfriend couldn't take no and the knife for an answer. The sun wouldn't go down for another hour or so, and she really didn't want to go back. She stepped up onto the porch and tried the doors. Locked. She moved around the porch, trying to look in windows, but due to the shutters, she couldn't see a thing. By the time she had circled the house, she had checked all the windows and found them either locked or too high to get into. She huffed out a breath, refusing to give up. Part of her was glad the house was as secure as it was. If she had to hide, it would be perfect, but she had to find a way in first.
Joelle looked up to the second floor and smiled. There were no shutters on those windows. She moved around to the side of the house and began to test the trees. Once she found a fairly sturdy one, she jumped up to catch a branch and began to climb. Joelle was small for her age and was very thankful of this fact as she began her aerial feat. If she was any heavier, she doubted the tree would be able to hold her.
Okay, don't think about that, she told herself. Just concentrate on getting to the roof.
She found a good solid branch and inched along it, keeping her eyes focused on the roof. She refused to look down because down was a bad place she didn't want to go. As the branch began to dip under her weight, she held on tight and swung out with her legs. The sudden movement forced the branch low, and she was able to drop easily onto the gently pitched roof. Yeah, okay, probably not easily, since she landed hard on her butt, but she didn't fall off. She counted that as a positive. Another positive was a full-sized adult man would never be able to do what she had just done. He would be way too heavy.
Joelle scooted along the shingles on her hands and knees until she could inch her way onto the roof of the porch. She eased down, not putting her full weight on until she was absolutely sure it would support her. She didn't want to drop through and fall to the porch below, especially since no one knew where she was and she doubted Darla would care enough to come looking for her. She ignored the thought as she shoved at the first window she found. It moved up about an inch and stopped. Joelle worked at it, jiggling the sash up and down until she opened it enough to squeeze through.
Joelle went in head first and wiggled around until she found herself lying on the dusty floor of a big open room. She stood, brushing herself off as she headed towards the open door. A long hallway led past a series of empty rooms to a large grand staircase. She wondered why the place had been abandoned since it looked to be in better shape than the place she was currently forced to call home. There didn't look to be any holes in the walls nor in the ceiling and, as she stood in the quiet, she didn't hear a peep from a mouse. Shouldn't there have been mice, or worse rats, since the house had obviously been sitting empty?
Joelle stared down to the dark entry hall and hesitated. Maybe she should leave. There was something not quite right about the place. She wasn't sure if it was due to the absolute silence or just because it was an empty house that shouldn't be empty. She couldn't put her finger on what it was, but even though she couldn't hear anything, she didn't feel alone. It was as if something was out there, watching her, just beyond her vision. Yeah, and maybe she'd watched too many horror movies, too.
Shrugging off the creeps, she walked down the dusty steps to explore the first floor. Every room was empty, but Joelle could imagine how pretty the house had been with everything clean and decorated. The house must have been something, but now it sat empty and abandoned. After touring the entire first floor, she ended back at the front hall and that's when she noticed the door under the stairs. What caught her attention was that it looked new or at least the knob did since it was all shiny.
Without thinking, she checked around as if someone was lurking and watching. Catching herself, she started laughing. There wasn't anyone in the house other than her; she'd checked. As long as she was quick, she could take a peek behind the door. After that, she was leaving. If someone did live here or was planning to live here, she didn't want to get caught. Before touching the knob, she listened at the door to see if she could hear anything. Totally quiet. Slowly, she turned the knob and eased the door open. A set of stairs greeted her gaze, and she hesitated. Go down or leave?
Quickly, she made up her mind and began to descend into the dark. As she went, she felt for a light switch or cord, but found nothing until she reached what she assumed was the bottom. Her hand landed on what felt like a switch, but once again, she hesitated. What if she turned it on and found something horrible? Dead body? Guy in a crazy clown costume? She listened hard, but couldn't hear anything beyond her own breathing. Come on, she told herself, get it over with.
Joelle flipped the switch, and the room was dimly illuminated by a low watt bulb hanging from the ceiling. The floors were dirt and the walls were solid concrete, except for one that resembled a row of cells, like in a jail. She gasped, staring at them. What were they doing in an old abandoned house? And, even more importantly, what were they being used for? The light from the bulb didn't light every corner, but she hoped they were all empty. No one had said anything or screamed for help, but then what if someone was hurt or even worse?
Joelle clamped her teeth together to stop them from rattling. What had she gotten herself into? She had to get out before someone came. But before she could move up the steps, a movement within one of the cages froze her. There was someone there.
"Who are you?" a low male voice asked harshly from the darkness.
"My name is Joelle," she whispered in a quivery voice.
"What?" She was confused.
"What are you doing here?"
He didn't sound scary to her ears now. His voice had softened, and he sounded tired. "I live around here. I saw the roof and came to see the house. What are you doing in there?" She took a step toward his voice.
"You have to leave. They'll be back soon and they can't find you."
"Are you trapped? I can help you," she said, looking around. Across the room, hanging on a peg was a set of keys. Joelle ran over and grabbed them up. "I can let you out."
"How old are you?"
She blinked at the change in subjects. "Fourteen. Today's my birthday." She began to try each key in the lock of the cell he was in. She couldn't see him, but knew he was in the darkness watching her. She wondered what was wrong with him, why he hid from her.
"Fourteen? You should be home with your family, not here."
She thrust a key hard into the lock and made a sound of disgust. "I don't have a family. Darla is out drinking with her boyfriend so it's just me at home." She didn't know why she told him this, but it just came out. She'd heard somewhere that it was easier to talk to a stranger and guessed it was true. Maybe it was even easier when you didn't have to look at someone.
The key turned in the lock, and Joelle stepped back as the door swung open. A flicker of unease ran up her spine, and she wondered if she'd done the right thing. She had no idea why someone would have locked this man up, and now, she let him go. She couldn't very well have left him, and slamming the door and running wasn't an option either.
"You can come out now," she said, shaking off her fear.
"I can't," he said. "I'm chained."
"What?" Joelle asked, stepping toward the cell.
"Don't," he commanded. "Toss the keys. I'll see if one fits."
"How can I toss them if I don't know where you are?" she asked.
"Stubborn girl," he said wearily.
"Yeah and I've been called worse." Joelle said, as she began to inch her way into the cell.
She found him chained down to some kind of flat surface, arms and legs spread wide. For a moment, she was stunned, unable to process what was before her eyes. Who could do this to another person? And what would have happened to him if she wouldn't have found him? Even worse, what had happened to him already? Did someone do to him what someone had done to her? Tears welled in her eyes, and she blinked to clear them. Never again, she told herself.
"Why are you crying?" he asked roughly.
She froze. How did he know? She hadn't made any sound. At least she didn't think she had. She decided to lie. "I'm not."
He grunted, but said nothing as she stepped up to one of his legs. It was hard to see in the dim light, but she began to fit keys into the large cuff around his ankle. The second one fit, and the cuff dropped away. Quickly, she moved to his other leg and released that as well. When she moved up to his arm, she concentrated on the lock and didn't look at him. She knew if she were in his position she wouldn't want anyone looking at her either. When she released his wrist, his free hand shot out and grabbed her arm. She gasped at his tight grip, but didn't try to jerk away. A million thoughts ran through her head, but she was certain he wouldn't hurt her. She didn't know why she believed this, but clung to the knowledge and stood still. Waiting. Finally, the hold he had on her arm loosened.
"I will unlock my other hand."
She handed him the key and left the cell without a backwards glance. She heard quiet rattling as the last chain hit the floor, but refused to leave. She wasn't going until he left. She couldn't leave. She didn't understand the feelings she had, but just knew she couldn't abandon him. Maybe because she had been left so often she wouldn't do it to someone else. Whatever it was, she was staying.
No sound issued from the cell, but Joelle backed up all the same. Some part of her was screaming to run as if a T-Rex were going to emerge from the cell. Instead, she stopped and held her ground to wait. She wasn't sure if it was bravery or stupidity, but she refused to run away.
Between one moment and the next, a large man appeared in the doorway of the cell. Lying down, he looked smaller, but standing, he resembled a giant with wide shoulders and a mass of thick black hair that tumbled down his back. A naked back since he wore nothing but a ragged pair of pants. He held onto the bars to steady himself and stared at her. Even at fourteen, she wouldn't say he was handsome, but he was arresting to look at with his high, sharp cheekbones and exotically tilted aqua eyes. Not much more was visible since he sported an overgrown beard and mustache. She wondered if he always wore it like that or it had grown because of being held for so long. She hoped it was the former.
They stared at one another until Joelle finally broke the stare and looked away. He made her uncomfortable and not in an icky flasher way either. He reminded her of a predator off one of those wildlife shows. When she looked back, she jumped, since he now stood right in front of her. She hadn't heard him move and she certainly hadn't felt him, but there he stood not more than a foot from her.
He wasn't human, the thought whispered through her brain. He couldn't be. No one could move that quickly and quietly.
"You're right," he muttered. "I'm not."
"How?" Joelle asked, sounding so much calmer than she actually was.
"There is much in this world that humans are unaware of."
"Oh." Joelle said, unsure of what else to say. Could she ask him what he was? Or was that rude? As he slowly moved away from her she realized he had numerous bite marks on his arms. She must have made some sound since he turned around to face her.
"What did they do to you?" She pointed at his wrist.
He looked down at the marks for a long moment. "Drank. But that is the least of what they did."
Drank. The word fell in middle of the room like a bomb. Someone drank his blood. Joelle shook her head. People drank this man's blood. She tried to force her mind around the idea, but it fought her like a recalcitrant dog. It just wasn't possible. Was it? People didn't drink blood. Not normal people. People who thought they were vampires... The word trailed off in her mind. Vampires? She looked at him.
"I see you've figured it out," he said in an unsteady voice. "Leave. They will come soon."
No matter what he was, she still wouldn't leave him. She didn't know where the resolve came from but she wasn't leaving until he did. "You're right. We need to leave. Let's go."
"The sun has yet to set and I am...weak." He ground out the last word as if gritting his teeth.
"So, what do you need? What do we do?" Joelle took a hesitant step toward him.
Once again, he stood before her as if by magic. She looked up at him as fangs extended from his mouth and he growled. She wrapped her arms around herself, but didn't run. What would be the point? As fast as he was, he would catch her. Besides, turning your back on a dangerous animal wasn't smart. She knew this from watching nature shows. And if he was nothing else, he was dangerous.
"Blood," he growled out. "I need blood."
Tears of fear welled up in her eyes, but she blinked them back. Crying was for babies, and she wasn't a baby. She'd been through too much. If she were to die here then fine, but she wouldn't cry.
"Fine," she said in a low voice. She held out her wrist. "Can you do it from here?"
He jerked back as if she had struck him. "How old are you?"
"I told you, fourteen. What difference does it make?" she asked coldly.
He slowly sank to one knee before her. "What has been done to you in your short life that you do not fear death?"
"Can you drink from my wrist or not?" She ignored the question. At his slow nod, she once again offered her wrist. "Okay, let's do this so you can get out of here."
"Understand that when I drink your blood, I will know you. I am not strong enough to block your life from my mind."
Joelle nodded, not sure of what he was saying, but wanting it to be over with. Fine, he would know her. Whatever. She jumped when he took her small wrist in his large hands. The two of them locked eyes as he slowly pierced her skin. There was a tiny stick, just like in the doctor's office, but no real pain. The odd sensation came when she felt him suck on her wrist. She watched him swallow the first mouthful, and his whole body jerked as if he'd been plugged into a socket. His eyes, which had closed, flew open, and he stared at her with some kind of emotion. She couldn't say what though, but his gaze never left her again. He swallowed a few more times and pulled his mouth from her wrist. He licked at her skin, and she could see two small puncture wounds that were already beginning to heal.
He stayed on his knee before her a moment more, her hand held within his own. She wondered if she was supposed to say something or do something. Before she could figure out, his head came up, and he looked toward the stairs. Someone was coming. He rose slowly and gently took her arm leading her to the cell he had been kept in.
"You will be safe in here. I will let nothing hurt you."
"Can't we just go?" She looked around for a way out.
"I will deal with them. Do not come out until I call you."
Joelle nodded and pressed her back against the cold stone of the cell. Who were these people? Obviously they were vampires like him. She couldn't even believe she was thinking words like vampires. If she hadn't seen him drink from her wrist, she would think she'd fallen, hit her head, and this was all a dream.
Multiple footsteps on the stairs told her that whoever held him captive had arrived. She leaned out just enough so she could see him, standing tall waiting. The rest of the room was veiled from her view, and she wasn't going to step out far enough to see more. She certainly didn't want them to know there was someone else there.
"Tell your human to come out," a female said. "We'd like to meet her."
"There's no use in hiding, human. We can smell you," a man said. "If you come out, we'll let you go on your way."
Joelle pressed her back against the stone and didn't move. Crap, these people were for real and they were for real scary. They could smell her? They knew she was human? No matter what, she was staying right where she was. The man had told her not to come out until he said, and that was exactly what she was going to do.
"Get back in the cell, and we won't hurt the human," a different man said. Joelle couldn't see him, but there was an undercurrent in his voice. Was it fear? Yeah, she couldn't see him, but would bet the guy was scared spitless. No matter what kind of shape the man was in, Joelle would bet on her guy any day. He was way big and way scary looking. Besides they had chained him head to foot and held him in a cell. She doubted they did that for affect.
She heard scuffling, some grunting, and light footsteps running up the steps. The woman maybe? A scream, fists hitting flesh, something heavy hit the floor, more footsteps running, and a dragging sound. Joelle covered her ears, not wanting to hear anything else. She kept her gaze pinned to the ground and prayed that her guy was winning. No matter what, she knew he wouldn't hurt her. She doubted she could say the same for the other people.
A light touch on her arm made her jump. She took her hands away from her ears and looked up. He was standing before her, and she sagged in relief. Okay, he was okay, and by extension, so was she. They were both going to be okay.
"We will leave now." He spoke softly. "I ask that you close your eyes. I will take you from this place."
Joelle began to ask why she should close her eyes, but thought better of it. Whoever they were had obviously held him captive and done horrible things to him. The bad guys refused to let them go, and now, the two of them were leaving. He had probably killed them. Beyond that, she didn't want to know. She didn't care if that made her a baby or whatever, but she didn't want to see. She lived with enough already. She didn't want anything else to cause her nightmares.
She closed her eyes. "I'm ready."
She thought he would take her hand, but instead, she felt herself being picked up. She squeezed her eyes shut as air rushed past her. Was he running? She didn't know and she wouldn't open her eyes to find out. Whatever they were doing, it was happening fast, or at least it seemed that way. One moment, she was closing her eyes, and the next, Joelle found herself on her feet. She was standing outside the house in the overgrown front yard. The sun had set, and stars twinkled in the sky overhead. She breathed deeply, catching the fragrances of night blooming flowers.
"I will walk you to your house," he said from behind her.
"You don't need to," Joelle said. "I'll be okay."
"I will walk you all the same."
"You're very bossy," she said as she began walking across the grass.
"And you are stubborn."
"What will you do now?" she asked as they entered the woods. "Do you have some place to go?"
"I will be well. I have safe places I can stay. What about you?"
"What about me?" She pushed through the bushes and stepped onto the gravel road. The house sat across the road, and in the light from the moon, she realized it leaned to one side. As if it was constantly sitting in a strong breeze. Jeez, she hoped the place didn't collapse on her.
"Where will you go?"
She turned to where she heard his voice. He was a faint shadow among the trees, but she felt safe. "This is where I live, for now anyway. I only have four more years until I turn eighteen. Then I can leave."
"For what you have done this day for me, Joelle, know that you will be safe no matter where you go."
"Thanks," she said, not really sure what he meant. "You be careful and take care of yourself."
When she didn't hear anything, she searched the darkness and found nothing. He was gone. Slowly, she looked all around and saw trees and shrubs. Nothing more. She had just had the most amazing experience of her life--had met someone out of legend--and she didn't even know his name.