There are whole universes, galaxies, planets, civilizations hidden in an unsettled glass of Guinness, he thought, mesmerized as he watched the beer placed in front of the man next to him return to its black-and-tan state. If only he liked the flavor of the stuff.
The cathedral held its ground against the high rises that have shot up like weeds around it, blocking the sun from the stained glass windows that used to share their kaleidoscope hope with the rest of the city when it knew better than to try to touch the sky with iron and steel.
The roar reverberated within my chest cavity, knocking my heart and lungs together so beating and breathing were interchangeable.
“Any vices?” he absentmindedly flirted.
“Fuck yeah,” she smiled into her martini. “I drink like a sailor and swear like a fish.”
And he fell madly in love.
The fact there was something different about him should have clued me into the fact that this was a bad idea — but I never heed my own instincts. My sister said it would eventually catch up to me, this haphazard lifestyle, but hey: I’d been purposefully arrogant for all 563 years of my life.
That’s what comes with being 17 for the last 547 of them. People expect me to be a thrill-seeking, living-on-the-edge, throw-caution-to-the-wind adolescent because I look like a walking, talking teenage cliché.
My sister, ten years my senior, used to moan about how inconvient it was that I vamped at the height of my teen years. She was a perpetual victim of my pubescent mood swings until I figured out how to control them around Year 303 of vampiredom. It also meant having to move around constantly because I never grew older. Then she realized continual transfers were useful, as it meant she could take complete advantage of any man she dated, then disappear when the relationship had run its course. No awkward breakups, and no one-night-stands gone long.
This was fine for the first 500 years until everyone suddenly became like us.
I don’t know who did it. Brom Stoker? Anne Rice? Fucking Stephanie Meyers? Almost overnight — or over-day, rather — the 300 or so vampires, including me and Morgan, came out of hiding in droves. Maybe it was because we were tired of being casted as brooding teenage heartthrobs. Maybe we were jealous of the attention fictional characters attracted and wanted some of the lime light. Whatever it was, suddenly, it was cool to be a vampire.
All I know is that one minute I was a rarity — a freak, some would say — and the next everyone I knew was drinking blood and sleeping from dawn until dusk.
Along with this change came another.
For 563 years, I avoided the hormone cesspool of high school successfully. Now that everyone turned out immortal, everyone started hitting Vamp Highs, where the older you were, the cooler you looked. It was a place where if you were new the first question wasn’t “Where are you from?” but “How old are you?” Some people jacked up their age, just to get attention. That was stupid, since just one glance at your V.I.D (Vampire Identification) clarified the subject.
None of us really needed school, but we were in the habit, and habits die hard, especially when you won’t. Or can’t. Ever.
Like any other “new kid,” when he walked into history class and the teacher, 958 years old, told us his name was Ron Jones — quite a pedestrian name, as far as everyone could tell compared to the students named Cecily, Piper, Loradonna, and Hunter that dominated the roster — the first question he was smacked in the face with upon taking his seat was “How old are you?”
“17,” he replied, looking at his books. I snorted at how Hollywood it sounded.
“No,” said Cecily di Garso (Cecily G. for short). “How old are you? Like — all together.”
“17,” he said again.
That was when the teacher told Cecily G. to shut up and listen to the lesson. Because we were all pretty old, the teachers didn’t really take care “to protect the youth.” Half of us had braved the Crusades, and we had all lived through at least the second World War. When we weren’t trying to one-up another during history class, we were busy swapping war stories.
Which helped make abundantly clear that this Ron kid was weird.
First off, he took notes.
Second, he had no good stories to tell. Not even when the topic of conversation moved on to the Vietnam War did he perk up. He attempted, once, by regaling us with a story told by his last history teacher who had passed around a shell from a bomb he almost died from just outside of a small coastal village in South Vietnam, but when no one seemed to care unless Ron had personally collected it, he grew quiet.
I overheard Cecily G. talking with the over-600 crowd at lunch that day while I eyed Ron taking a seat alone at the corner table.
“He must be a newbie,” she said. “That’s why he said he’s seventeen. Must have just Vamped.”
“Wow,” gasped one of them. “I didn’t know there were any humans left!”
I took my seat at a table away, with my friends in the mid-500s. There were no humans left, even 20 years ago. We had all taken care of that pretty well. I personally had never bitten anyone — I didn’t believe in all the stories about how kinky it could be — but I knew Morgan had. Once. By accident.
I found this in my files from God knows how long ago and thought it would be fun to share in the light of today’s Halloween festivities. Honestly I don’t know where I was going with it, but it fits into my usual M.O. of imagining a tired storyline with the roles reversed or perspective changed. A vampire figuring out what to do about a human in their world? Now that could get spookily hilarious. Who knows: Maybe this will turn into a YA book one of these days….
I describe the black smoke that had bubbled from between the buttons of my shirt, and Reema sits patiently, waiting for her turn to speak.
“I think you need to get out of here,” she says.
“Reema, you know I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”
“And that’s the scary part,” she says. “I know you’re telling the truth about what you think you saw, but I’m not sure why you think you saw it at all. Maybe you should take a drug test or something.”
“I’m clean,” I say, crossing my arms. I wasn’t expecting her to bring that up. Reema, of all people, knew how hard I had worked to get beyond that dark spot in my past.
“You think you’re clean,” she says. “Who knows what those psychos you’ve been covering would do to get someone to believe them. You said you had coffee with them: They could have slipped you something or –”
She has a point, and I uncross my arms to show that I’m willing to acknowledge it. As I draw my hands away from my chest, my jacket pulls back a bit and I see Reema’s expression change into one of surprise and horror. Looking down, I pull the lapels away.
I’ve left my gel pen uncapped in my pocket, and black ink has soaked into my shirt.
“Or maybe that’s it,” she says, grimace turning into a half-smile that’s half sweet, half mischievous. “I still think you should take a drug test, though. Hallucinations take more than a visual trigger.”
Then I hear it: eight piano keys crashing in a single chord and filling every corner of my head with noise. I look for the culprit, but there’s not a piano in the room. Not a stereo, speaker, radio or even windchime. But the sound — a chord struck just barely off from the rest of the song, continues, and it snaps the string of words in my head so they go skittering off like plastic beads across tile.
“Yeah,” I feel like I’m shouting over the din. The only words or Reema’s response that break through are “wait in your office” and “get the building medic.”
I inch down the stairs, each step muffled by the endless piano chord reverberating in my head. Once in my office, I close the door behind me and remove the pen from my pocket. I whip it at the wall so hard that it cracks completely in half and bleeds a matching stain into the rug.
There’s a broken body in my arms.
Despite the falling snow and frigid air, I rip away my goggles, hood and scarf to get a better look at the milky face staring lifeless up at me. The Elevated Trains pass each other on the tracks above us, but their screams do little to drown out her death rattle.
Two more coughs, and the woman in my arms is dead.
A small voice in my ear fizzles in.
“Status request, Omaha,” it says. “Omaha, do you copy?”
I don’t want to let go of her. Even though her face is covered in blood and her cropped hair is matted against her forehead, it’s like I’m seeing her clearly for the first time. Green eyes stare lifeless as marbles. Snow catches on the sandy eyelashes and eyebrows framing them, unable to melt against a body that’s quickly going cold.
“Omaha, do you copy?” asks the voice again, quiet against the roar that’s now my own blood pumping in my ears. I roll my shoulder up to my ear to push the voice out of my head. Instead it pushes it deeper in so it’s louder.
“Omaha, do you copy?”
Now I dig my finger into my ear, trying to pry out the piece that’s talking to me. But there’s nothing there to remove. I pull my finger out and run it along the outside of my ear. The skin is smooth, untouched.
“Omaha, do you—”
Just as my fingers graze the bump where my jawbone begins, the voice goes silent, as if I’ve hit a mute button. Something in my brain remembers that the bone I’m touching is called the temporomandibular joint. I don’t know the name of the dead woman, but I do know that.
Another train is coming, but it’s as empty as the first one was when it arrived. It’s surreal, thinking that even though everyone — almost everyone — fled the city, the trains still run. That’s the beauty of a solar powered system: As long as the sun is shining, the system works, even if the passengers are long gone. In some ways, it’s like the trains are just waiting for people to come back. Or maybe they’re celebrating a lighter load.
Or maybe they don’t give a shit because they’re trains. Machines don’t think or feel.
The woman is still in my arms, and I don’t know how to move forward from here. Do I leave her on the pavement to be buried in snow and the city’s dust? Do I try to take her somewhere? What was her name? Who was she?
Who am I?
I recognize that every question I ask about the dead woman I’m asking about myself, too. I may have muted the voice in my head, but that’s now left me with no one to talk to — just a passing train and falling snow. My questions pile up in their own drifts.
My name is Omaha. I know that much. Or do I?
A sharp wind tears down the street, kicking up snow and grit. I lift my scarf back over my mouth and nose to avoid breathing in the dust of a dead city. The growing blood pool at my knees collects some of it. A shard of plastic wrapper sticks to her blood-encrusted eye like a patch.
I pick it off and squint against the wind at it. It’s red and white, and something in the same section of my brain as “temporomandibular joint” reminds me of chewy fruit candy pills — Skittles, I think.
With no clear direction, I continue to sit in the street as the body cools, which doesn’t take long in the freezing climate. Another train comes by, and with it come flashes of how I got here. We had been running from something — or at something. There had been another person, and that person had gotten on top of one of the trains above with her while I stayed below. But why the chase?
My fingers play with my ear, contemplating pressing the button to get the voice back. I could ask it what’s going on, who I am and what to do next. But something in me is weary of it. Innate curiosity pushes me to find my own answers and not trust what some implanted personality in my ear might tell me.
I move the woman off my lap. She’s bigger than me, but somehow I’m able to hoist her over my shoulder. The Skittles wrapper crunches under my boot as I start walking down the road labeled Lake Street, heading east away from the winter sun glowering in a cloudless sky. Ahead is a building like a landed spaceship, its walls curving like an intergalactic teacup on a concrete saucer. I carry the body around the perimeter lined with rust-red pillars dimpled by bullet holes and occasionally gouged away by more significant artillery. There’s little rubble on the ground, as if someone had tried to clean up after the battle but didn’t go as far as to patch up the more permanent damage.
Rounding the building, I come into a courtyard. What looks to be white tombstones are scattered among rolling trash cans and a rack of abandoned city-sanctioned bicycles missing their tires. As I get closer I recognize the stone graves were actually leftovers of a sculpture that once stood 20 feet high. Along with temporomandibular joint and Skittles is the name “Dubuffet.” This was once one of his pieces, I think, before the savage city made its mark.
I prop the body against one of the slabs. Her head slumps down. The wind catches my shoulder, and I can feel the fabric is wet, probably from blood. In this cold temperature, shedding my jacket isn’t an option, so I wait for half of it to freeze.
I lean against a fallen stone pillar adjacent from her. The snow is still falling, but I’m not sure if I’m squinting against it, the wind or the vibrant winter sky. The wind howls through the streets, but not loud enough to mask the sound of four boots identical to mine crunching their way across the courtyard.
Unable to decide whether to stay in the sculpture’s shelter or emerge to greet the newcomers, I stick my head out from behind the stone. The white sun’s glare disappears as the two figures come to stand over me. Both are dressed in the same hood, coat, pants and boots as me, but with automatic rifles, not a body, slung over their shoulders.
“We’ve been trying to connect with you for the last twenty minutes,” says the taller of the two as the shorter pulls me to my feet. I feel fingers graze my jawbone, and a white-noise hum returns.
“That would explain it,” says the shorter, drawing a hand away from my jaw and clapping me on the back. I hear the voice both in front of me and within my ear. “Your ice was shut off. Must have bumped it during the chase.”
I want to ask what they mean by “ice,” but instead am faced with a question myself.
“What happened to Keystone?” A nod tells me this is the dead woman’s name.
“Fell,” I say, knowing only that for sure.
“It was a hot pursuit,” says the taller. “Bound to be at least one casualty. Shame it wasn’t the target.”
The wind howls even louder, tugging at my hood. Instinctively I whip it back over my head. The two newcomers turn and scowl at the gale, then eye the sculpture.
“Wind blast estimated at sixty-point-zero-seven miles per hour detected,” says a voice in my ear, and from the way the shorter one ducks down, I know my new companions have heard it, too. “Seek shelter immediately.”
Across the courtyard, the spaceship building taunts us with glass doors barred by rusting security gates. The taller one sees me eying it.
“Nah, it’ll take too long to get over there. This sculpture thing should break the breeze well enough.”
Before I know it, the two have crawled into the cave formed by the broken sculpture. I stay outside, watching as an almost visible wind comes down the street, lifting dirt and broken glass off the abandoned street surface. At one point I think I see a piece of the metal slatting that once covered a bus enclosure flying magically down the road.
The gale tears at my coat, pushing my hood back again and numbing my face. There’s something else tugging at me, too, and I look down to see that the taller newcomer is gripping my pantsleg to get me inside.
A trashcan comes rolling at me, pushed by the wind, and I duck down as it bounces over where I stood and explodes against one of the dimpled red pillars. As I slide into the sculpture’s shelter, I pull Keystone’s body with me. I’m not sure whether I do it out of sentimentality or so we have a makeshift door between us and the mile-a-minute wind.
Once the voice in our ears give us the all-clear, we emerge from the sculpture, starting with me pushing Keystone out of the way and back onto the courtyard, where little has changed. I check her left side—the part that had been most exposed to the wind—for damage. Then I realize how silly that is, as she’s dead.
“We should head back,” says the taller. “It’s about a ten minute walk to the station, and there’s probably another wind coming this way.”
“Or worse,” says the shorter.
“Nah, nothing worse than wind,” says the taller. “Can’t kill the wind.”
“What about Keystone?” I ask. Now that I know her name, I want to use it as much as possible.
“What about her?” the shorter turns to look at me. Even though I can’t see the face under the scarf and goggles, I know there’s a look of incredulity accompanying the statement. “She’s rabbit food, now.”
Those must be some vicious bunnies, I think before a sudden fizzle comes into my ear.
“Attention mode initiated,” says the placid digital voice.
My two new companions almost comically snap into a straight-backed military stance. Like a reflex, I find myself imitating them, arms wrapped behind my back.
“MacArthur needs Keystone’s body to be brought back to headquarters immediately for diagnostics and data recovery,” says a different voice, this one far more human. “Do you copy, Omaha?”
“Uh, yes, sir,” I say, though the words come out far less sure than the mechanical responses given by the newcomers.
“Mission mode initiated,” says the digital voice again.
I bend down and hook one of Keystone’s arms around my neck. The shorter takes Keystone’s other side.
“What do they mean, ‘diagnostics and data recovery?’” I ask.
My question must be so appallingly ignorant that despite the sub-zero temperatures and increasingly strong wind, the taller of the two pulls the scarf and goggles away to answer me. The coverings reveal a young, angular male face blank as freshly poured concrete.
“Mission mode initiated,” he says. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”
“Mission mode initiated,” he repeats. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”
“Is he usually like this?” I ask as the shorter and I start walking with Keystone’s arms around each of our shoulders and her feet dragging on the ground.
“Mission mode initiated,” says the shorter’s muffled voice. “Questioning inadvisable at this time.”