ONE – The Gates of Hell
Cold, metallic grey defaced with sprayed tags. Plastic paint of once green handrails chipped and grubby. Adverts years out of date peeled from the carriage wall. A mystery odour was almost as sickening as the jolting motions of the train racing along its tracks. Beyond the grimy window lay nothing but blackness, broken only by the occasional flash of lightning against a midnight sky.
‘Our father, who art in heaven… hallowed be thy name.’ The prayer was silent in my mind. I clutched my rosary, the small wooden cross biting into my palm. My fingers twisted the beads one by one. ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ The words once warm and familiar gave little relief to the swirling fear that washed through my gut.
Four rowdy, drunken men sat at the other end of the carriage. Praises littered with profanity were sung for their favourite teams. They lifted their bottles, cheered, shouted, and bantered with each other.
I stayed quiet, huddled and small in my corner, hidden from view behind other empty seats. I wasn’t sure they even knew I was there; my frame was so tiny and narrow, even for a sixteen-year-old. But I was grateful for that.
‘Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.’ I bit my lip. My grip on the beads tightened as the men’s cursing grew louder.
They frightened me. Maybe they were friendly. Maybe they were all gentlemen. But maybe they weren’t. With my foul luck, the latter seemed more likely.
I tore frightened eyes away, fixating instead on the window. My reflection caught in the insipid light of the carriage, painting it against the endless blackness outside.
“Merde!” I pulled my hood further over my head. My fingers ducked beneath the fabric and combed through my short, black hair. I tried to rearrange some of the longer locks to hide the purpling bruise around my left, mud-coloured eye. I was a mess. My skin was pale, my face thin. My hair hadn’t been brushed, and the dark circles around my eyes couldn’t be entirely blamed on bruises. I sighed and let my hands fall, giving up on the fruitless attempt to make myself any more presentable.
The train began to slow. Watching through the window, I could make out a few specks of light: the tell-tale signs of civilisation and edge of a new town. ‘Lead us not into temptation… but deliver us from evil…’
A commanding voice echoed over the speakers:“Ladies and gentlemen, this train is now arriving at Torsk. Change here for the South East service to London Liverpool Street.” I reached down with my free hand and picked up my rucksack from under the seat. Torsk? I’d never heard of it. Not that it mattered. I didn’t plan to stay long.
The train slowed to a stop. I cast a final fearful glance towards the men on the other side of the carriage, then jumped up and darted to the exit. I felt their eyes on me as I pulled the chewed sleeve of my black jacket away from my small fingers to press the exit button.
‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory…’ I stepped out onto the wet platform. Wind whipped against my face and blew my hood down. With the guard’s whistle, the doors shut behind me. The train chugged away. ‘Forever and ever…’
I dipped my hand into my jeans pocket but didn’t yet dare to let go of the beads. “Amen,” I whispered into the rain.
It was a tiny, unmanned station. A walkway arched over the single set of tracks to the opposite platform, where an old, red brick building stood, boarded up and gutted. Graffiti marred its hollow shell. Many of the streetlamps were out, and the departures board was lifeless. I began to understand why I’d never heard of Torsk.
I finally left the beads in my pocket so that I could wrap my arms around myself, trying to shield against the violence of the storm. I traipsed to a metal bench that stank of things I didn’t want to think about and took a seat as my teeth chattered. It was just an hour, then the train to London would take me on and away from this place. I’d find my new life there, I promised myself. I could do this. I needed to do this.
Doubts were already poisoning my courage. I glanced to the opposite platform. My fear demanded that I cross over and take the first train back. But the very thought sparked a stronger surge of panic. My heart beat wildly against my ribs. No. The horror of what lay behind outweighed the uncertainty that was ahead. Whatever my new life would be, it would be better.
I had to be strong. I could be strong!
I shut my eyes against the solitary darkness and envisioned it. It’d be coming close to dawn by the time I arrived in London. The sun would peep over the horizon, gleaming on the glass of skyscrapers and dancing off monuments. I’d see it all: The Houses of Parliament, The Thames, Piccadilly Circus, and the West End. I wanted to go on the London Eye and be carried high above the city, just to see it all laid out beneath my feet. I would meet people… good people. I’d have friends, a life… I would be able to dance, to make the most of my God-given talent without fear.
Heavy footsteps against wet stone shattered my fantasy. I jerked my head up. Cold anxiety rushed back. My heart thundered once more. A man had come onto the platform. Average in height with a bulky, strong build: as much fat as muscle. He wore a faded T-shirt, greying jeans, and heavy-looking black boots. A flash of lightning illuminated him as he turned towards me. Soggy, dark hair, salted with strands of silver, hung limp either side of his round face. He had a deep scar on the right side of his forehead, with another crossing over his wide chin. Small, grey eyes fixed on me with a wild insanity that gave me fresh cause to shudder.
He gazed at me for a long moment. I reached back into my jeans pocket to grip my rosary. The comfort of the Lord’s Prayer repeated in my head. I tore my eyes away from the man and stared instead at the rippling puddles beneath my feet.
I felt him approach. The stench of beer and something foul invaded my space. He sat beside me on the bench, his gaze still fixed. I inched away, the anxiety fast turning to terror. Oh God, please let him leave me alone!
“What you doin’ at the train station?” he asked abruptly, his voice deep and rough. “I been lookin’ all over for you.”
I looked up at him nervously, half-wondering if I should just move away, but the word fell from my lips instinctively. “Sorry?”
He glared at me for another long second. His brow furrowed in obvious frustration. He pointed a thick finger at me. “I keep tellin’ y’ not to go wanderin’ off!” He gestured to my rucksack. “Pick up y’ shit, Amber. We gotta get home.”
“I’m not… I think you have me confused with someone else, sir.” My voice wavered. “I don’t know anyone called ‘Amber’.”
The man let out a low grumble and pushed himself to his feet. “This again?” He reached for me.His large hand wrapped around my arm.
My heart leapt, and I screamed. I tried to wrench my limb away from him, but his grip was too powerful. “Let me go. Get off me!”
“I’m sick of your shit, Amber!” His foul breath on my face turned my stomach. “We’re goin’ home!”
Sweet God, save me! My heart had never raced so hard. Panic and adrenaline rushed through me. I kicked, shrieked, scratched at his hand, his arm, his face. I yanked against his hold so hard that I strained all the muscles in my shoulder. He just pulled me back like I was nothing. “Let me go! I’m not Amber! I’m not…”
But my protests fell on deaf ears. He was stronger and much bigger than me. My frantic efforts to escape seemed pathetic against the bulk of him. He snatched up my rucksack from the ground and threw it over his shoulder as he began to yank me along the platform towards the station exit.
“No!” I squealed. “I’m not going with you. I’m not!” In a last desperate attempt, I twisted in his grasp and sunk my teeth deep into the fleshy arm that held me. I poured all of my strength and fear into it, breaking the skin and making the man howl out in shocked pain.
“Fuckin’ bitch!” He grabbed my hair and yanked me away from his arm. Then he struck. I yelped. A bruising pain blossomed against my head. I staggered back, realising in that split second that in his anger he’d let go of me. I half turned, meaning to run, but his fist caught the back of my head in a second strike. I felt the thud and pain before my eyes rolled back and I fell forwards. The world blurred and darkened as consciousness betrayed me.
Beer and unwashed clothes. The stench overwhelmed and sickened me. I moaned and lifted a heavy arm over my face to rest my damp sleeve over my mouth and nose. I tried to block it out as I yanked my sleepy eyes open. I lay on a mucky double bed in the middle of a filthy double room. The floor was littered with empty beer cans and dirty laundry. Everything was covered in dust and grime, and I choked. My skin crawled in disgust.
The room was dark. The only light came from a small battered lamp on a worn bedside unit. I glanced around and realised that both windows, at either end of the room, had been boarded up. The ancient-looking wallpaper was mouldy, peeling, and a horrible nicotine yellow colour. One door was shut with open bolts on the top and bottom. The other hung loosely on its hinges, a dirty old bathroom suite just beyond. All the furniture was old and battered. The doors and drawers of a large wardrobe hung open and empty. A sagging sofa stood in front of a old television, video player and a tiny fridge.
I tried to sit up, but my bones felt as though they were filled with lead. My head thudded painfully, and I had to squint, even in the low light. I wondered how long I’d been unconscious and where the madman from the station had taken me. More to the point, what on earth did he intend to do with me? Fear bubbled from the pit of my stomach through my lead-like bones. I swallowed against a dry mouth then frowned at the strangely familiar taste clinging to my tongue. I licked my lips, and there it was again a dark iron tang. I began to panic. Had the crazy guy fed me something while I was out?
I heard footsteps behind the closed door. I shut my eyes and emptied my expression, pretending to still be unconscious. It was unnervingly easy, to remain so completely still. I even held my breath startlingly well. Adrenaline… it had to be.
The door opened before I could think any more about it. Clunking footsteps trudged into the room, kicking aside the debris, and a large presence filled the space. It was the man from the station, I was one hundred percent sure of it. He grumbled incoherently. I could feel his madness permeating the air, as powerful as the reeking smell of his home.
I heard him shut and bolt the door behind him, then approach the bed. Something heavy dropped onto the mattress beside my feet. One of his hands rested near my head as he leaned over me. I felt a shock of fear as his other beefy hand brushed over my fringe in an illusion of tenderness.
“Amber?” He kept his gruff voice low, little more than a whisper. “Amber? Are ya gonna wake up yet?” He paused and brushed his thick hand over my hair again. “I got you a present. I saw it at Sal’s an’ I though’ you’d like it. Here.” He dropped something light and soft against my hand, his fingers pushing it into my lax grasp. “Take it.” His voice wavered a notch. Fear and desperation leaked into his pitiful tone. “It’s for you… Amber?” To my horror, my heart wrenched with the sound. How could I possibly feel sympathy for this…creature? He’d attacked me! He’d kidnapped me! But it was there, festering so close to the surface that irrational tears filled my eyes. I couldn’t help myself… I could feel his desperation, his loneliness, his fear. It was a bitter agony, one I knew perhaps a little too well.
He shook my shoulder. “Amber. Amber, it’s been a day. You’re supposed to wake up now.” His weight shifted, and I heard his knees hit the floor by the bed. “Please,” his voice cracked. “You gotta wake up now… Amber?”
A war was going on between my head and heart. My head screamed at me, begging me to be rational, to remember what this man had done to me, what he might yet do! But my soul wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t understand it, why I suddenly cared. Why was his pain was breaking my heart? It was unfathomable that I would feel any kinship to this madman, but I did. Some little part of me insisted that he was as broken, wretched, and lonely as I was. That same kindly voice wondered if this was God’s plan. Maybe he’d brought me here to help this man somehow? My head started to tell me I’d finally lost it completely, but I’d already stirred. My body moved long before I’d made up my mind. I swallowed down as much of my fear as I could and opened my eyes, even as I trembled.
He knelt next to the bed, one arm tucked close to himself, the other still reaching towards me. I clenched my fingers around his ‘gift’ and felt the softness of fabric. I glanced down and found that it was a beautiful scarf made of bright pink silk. Looking back, I found that he’d perked up and was watching me with nothing less than ecstatic joy. “You’re awake,” he shouted out. “You’re really awake!”
I swallowed again, my mouth still dry and filled with that taste I didn’t want to think about. With all the courage I could muster, I glared into his small, round eyes. “Where am I?”
“Home.” He scrambled to his feet and stood over me with a bright grin. “I brought you home.”
“And…where is ‘home’ exactly?”
His expression crumpled into a small, confused frown. “Here,” he stated stupidly. “Wi’ me.”
I closed my eyes against the faintest touch of irritation and made a quick count to ten. My fear of him helped keep my sharpness at bay. “And who are you?”
His confusion mounted; his brow furrowed a fraction more, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “You…forgot me?” He sounded both upset and offended.
“Well,” I said carefully, “someone did hit me over the head a couple of times.”
He thought this over for a long second, as if trying to remember a time when I’d been hit. The realisation that I was referring to his attack suddenly dawned on his face. His expression fell into a deep frown, and I sensed something like regret in him, though I couldn’t fathom where that sense had come from. He turned and sat on the edge of the bed, the mattress actually lifting me a fraction as it sank where he perched. “Derek,” he told me. “I’m called Derek, and you’re called Amber, and we been friends for a lotta years. We stick together…” He squared his shoulders proudly. “’Cause we’re family.”
Derek nodded emphatically. “Yup. You’re my Princess.” He smirked and pushed my shoulder almost playfully. “For real now, since I turned ya.”
I wondered what the hell he meant by ‘turned me’, but I was distracted by a more terrifying concern. A hundred and one scenarios ran through my head, each one more disturbing.
“And when you say ‘princess’…” I spoke carefully again, unwilling to incite any of the rage I’d witnessed at the train station. “What does that mean? Am I…” I suppressed a shudder. “Am I your…girlfriend?”
The pure disgust that stretched over Derek’s face filled me with a wave of blessed relief. It was the first comfort I’d had since leaving home, and as it washed over me, it took a fraction of my fear with it.
“Urgh, no!” Derek raised a hand and hovered it about two feet off the floor. “I had you since you was this high.” He shrugged. “Some vampires like that kinda thing, like to get ’em young and raise ’em up all…obedient.” I opened my mouth at the word ‘vampire’, but Derek didn’t let me get a word in. He wrinkled his nose, his lip curling in distaste. “But I ain’t one of ’em. You’s my little girl. My Little Princess.” His grin was wide and toothy. I noticed, with a sharp jolt of dread, the strange point of his teeth. “’Cause you liked that book I got ya when you was little.”
I frowned as I tried to take this in. “Vampires? Derek are you…on drugs or something?”
Derek looked confused again. “Huh?”
“Vampire’s aren’t real.”
Derek pushed himself onto his feet with gruff irritation. “’Course we’re real. I’m real, ain’t I?” He gestured to his own chest emphatically, glaring down at me, his fury rising. “Ain’t I real?”
I shrank back. The terror I’d managed to shake moments ago crept up on me again. “That doesn’t make you a vampire. I mean, unless that’s the name of a gang or something?” I looked up at him, almost hopefully. The alternative, that he genuinely believed he was a vampire, was far more frightening. I swallowed, my fear crawling over my skin as I tasted again that bitter iron tang on my tongue. Holy Mother! What had he fed me?
Panic finally drowned the insane notion of kinship. “You’re crazy. They’re not real!” My head spun as I shoved myself up and scrambled off the bed. My feet were unsteady and I tripped on the debris covering the floor. I reached out, searching for balance. One of my hands slammed against the filthy wall. A pit of horror opened in my stomach. My eyes grew wide. Dried blood… the rusty flakes were caked along my hand. A thick river of it had run along my arm, all the way down from my sodden T-shirt. I wanted to scream, but the shock had stunned me silent. I just gazed at it, horrified, transfixed. The taste in my mouth… oh, God!
Derek reached out towards my shoulders. I ducked to the left and lost my balance entirely. I yelped as I began to fall, but Derek caught me and yanked me back onto my feet. “Vampires are real,” he insisted. “I made ya. I turned ya. You’re my fledglin’ now.”
It was too much. It was impossible. The man was clearly insane and needed to be locked up.
“You’re lying!” I threw myself from his arms and rushed for the door. My fingers fumbled with the bolts. I screamed again as Derek grabbed me and threw me back. I stumbled, and this time, I really did hit the floor. I landed amongst the filthy mess and cried out in pain as my back crashed against the metal frame of the bed. Heavy footfalls approached me, and I gazed up in terror as a furious Derek advanced. His small eyes blazed. His large hands curled into tight fists.
“It’s real!” He let out a low, dark growl and pulled back his lips on clenched teeth.
Icy panic gripped my heart; I shrank back, quivering. Each and every tooth was sharp as a knife: a mouthful of deadly fangs that I swear to God hadn’t been there before. He lunged for me. With another shriek, I managed to dive out of his way and scramble to my feet. He was blocking the exit, so I scurried into the bathroom, slammed the door behind me, and locked it.
I heard him thunder over. A weighty fist thudded into the wood and made the door shake precariously. I trembled, knowing full well he could break it down if he wanted. “Leave me alone,” I screamed desperately. I sank back against the grimy bathtub, my gaze fixed on the door. “Please!” Tears ran down my cheeks. “Please, leave me alone!”
I lowered myself into the tiny corner between the sink and the bath, sitting on the filthy floor. I gripped the edge of the tub so tightly my knuckles had turned white. I flinched and shrieked as Derek banged his fist against the door again. His roar of anger rang in my ears, but then… silence.
I swallowed nervously, not daring to look away. I listened to shuffling, retreating footsteps. Another minute and I heard the muffled sound of the television. He’d done as I asked? He was leaving me alone? I didn’t dare to believe it. Was he trying to lull me into a false sense of security, hoping I’d emerge? But somehow – I still didn’t understand how – I could feel his anger start to ebb away, even without seeing him. He was certainly still furious, but it felt like his focus had shifted. It felt like he was trying, at least, to cool off. How could I possibly know that?
I wrapped my arms around my knees and sniffed back some of my tears, then wrinkled my nose in disgust at the overwhelming stench of mildew and laundry. The grimy floor was covered in wet, dirty towels that had been there since God only knew when. I took a few shuddering breaths of the foul air, trying to regain control of my emotions long enough to think, to come up with some kind of plan of escape, but the smell just made me feel sick. The more I tried to think about getting away, the more my head spun. My brain pounded painfully against my skull. This was all madness. I didn’t know how much more I could take. I moaned pathetically and tried to wipe my tears away on the back of my hand. It was a pointless effort; I couldn’t stop crying. I drew up my other hand and tried again, sniffing down the sobs, stifling the screams.
Enough… I had to calm down! I wiped my eyes a final time and drew my hands away, only to be stunned back into horrified silence. Fresh blood! Mixed with the dried flakes from before, thick smears of wet crimson stained my pale fingers. I threw myself onto my feet and glared at myself in the cracked mirror over the sink. My face was ghostly white. My dark eyes shone out from under the thick tresses of my fringe as tears of blood ran in rivers across my hysterical expression. It looked like something on the cover of a poorly made horror movie. How? It couldn’t be… it just couldn’t be!
I lifted a trembling hand and pressed it against my chest. Nothing. Despite everything I was feeling, there was no beating of a terrified heart. “It’s not possible. Vampires aren’t real! They’re…not…real!” I took a shaking step back and stumbled. I fell against the toilet behind me, throwing out my arms to catch myself against the porcelain. My eyes still fixed on my reflection. I fought the hysterics, trying desperately to accept it. Slowly, I began to realise the cold, impossible truth.
“No.” I shook my head. “No. I’m a good girl!” I lowered myself to the floor again as more crimson tears ran down my face. “Oh, God! Oh, God!” My strength was waning; the spin of my head was too much to keep up with. I dug my hand into my pocket and grasped my rosary, with a silent prayer for mercy on my lips. My eyes rolled backwards. I felt my head hit the floor as my mind simply gave up trying to process the madness.
The darkness was thick and oppressive. I could barely make out my hand in front of my face. It felt as if someone had stuffed cotton wool in my ears. There were voices. I knew they were talking to me, but I couldn’t make out the words. The frustration, the anger, it bubbled through me. I wanted to understand. I needed to understand. The things they were telling me were important. I tried to read their faces, to follow the movements of their lips, but they were just shadows in the darkness. Faceless, nameless, almost forgotten but too important to let go of entirely. I missed them, even if I couldn’t remember why.
A little hand pushed its way into mine. Warm fingers grasped my own and made me glance down. There she was, the only face in this darkness that I could see clearly: large, brown doe eyes, a bright, loving smile, and long black hair that tumbled over her shoulders from bunches decorated with pink ribbons. She wore a pale pink and white checked dress with a large ribbon around her waist and a sailor collar over her shoulders. Her feet were bare and a little grubby, but I didn’t care, not one bit. She was mine, and she was precious above anything else.
I knelt down and she perched on my lap, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing my cheek. “I found you!” She hugged herself to me. She was so small, fragile, and precious. I cradled her tiny frame and held her tight. I would always protect her. I promised her so and she smiled up at me. “Always?” she asked, holding out her pinkie finger.
“Always,” I promised. I linked my finger with hers and watched with delight as her smile lit up her face.
“Okay!” She squirmed out of my grasp and dropped off from my lap to skip away with a bright giggle. “Catch me if you can!”
With a laugh, I pushed myself back onto my feet to join her game. But I paused before I started, frowning as I gazed at her fading silhouette. Something was very wrong. I tried to work it out, but the muddled confusion gave no mercy. I squinted after her until slowly, it dawned on me. A jolt of terror ripped through me, and I raced after her. “Amber. Wait. You’re hurt!” Blood was trickling from a savage wound in her neck, running drop by drop to stain her pretty dress. It spread over the fabric like poison, soaking her. “Amber!”
The girl stopped, turning back to me with a frown. She lifted her little hand and pressed it against the wound to find the blood. She gazed up at me, large brown eyes filled with betrayal and anguish. “You promised,” she cried out. “You promised me!” She crumpled, falling into a bloodied heap.
I fell to my knees beside her and snatched her up, cradling her in my arms. “Amber, wake up!” I shook her, called to her over and over, but that glassy gaze just kept staring up at me blankly. I didn’t understand. Why didn’t she answer?
A low growl from the shadows. I looked up in fright, clutching my girl tighter against my chest. A wolf with eyes of fiercest gold stepped out of the blackness. It snarled and barked at me. “Go away,” I cried. “She’s fine… she’ll be fine!”
But the wolf stalked closer.
I gently laid Amber on the ground. Rising to my feet, I stood between her and the wolf, even as bloody tears ran over my cheeks. “Leave her alone! She’s mine!”
The wolf let out a wild bark and tried to pass me. I threw a punch, but it dodged. It was faster and stronger. It knocked me aside like I was nothing, then grabbed my girl in its merciless jaws. “No,” I begged. “Leave her. She’s mine!” But the wolf was already dragging her into the blackness, where I couldn’t follow. I chased after them, my arm outstretched, trying to reach for her and pull her back. But the harder I ran, the further away they seemed to be, until nothing was left but the golden gaze of the wolf. Then with a swirl of darkness, he vanished completely, taking my precious girl with him. “No!” I fell to my knees. The darkness closed about me. The voices grew distant and alien. “Amber!” I whimpered, fighting back a sob. “Amber…?”
I woke with my face still pressed to the filthy bathroom floor. I moaned and put a hand to my head as I slowly rose to sit with my back against the bathtub. The dream clung to me so vividly. The pain and confusion still clouded my head. I frowned. The little girl… Amber… could she have been…? More impossibility. More madness. My mind thudded dully in protest, and I shoved those thoughts away to deal with later.
I glanced at the door. Everything was silent beyond. I could feel Derek, and though I still found that beyond disturbing, I at least took some comfort from the fact that he felt calm… asleep maybe?
Mustering my strength, I gripped the edge of the bath and heaved up onto heavy legs. Blinking back the exhaustion, I stepped up to the sink and took a long, hard look at my reflection in the cracked glass. I didn’t look like me anymore. At least, not like the girl I remembered myself to be. My skin was now a flawless alabaster. Even the bruise around my eye had gone, leaving no trace that it had ever been there at all. Bloody tear streaks had dried over my cheeks, having flowed from deep brown eyes that seemed wider and brighter. Long lashes curled softly, impossibly perfect, like those of a doll rather than a person. My hair was scruffy from my poor sleeping arrangements, but as I smoothed the locks around my face, I couldn’t help noticing the blacker shade of ebony, the blue sheen that whispered over the strands. It reminded me of raven feathers.
I tore my gaze from the mirror and turned on the tap to wash as much of the blood from myself as I could. I watched with satisfaction as the crimson turned the water pink. My T-shirt was beyond saving, but zipping up my coat at least hid the stain from view. I turned off the tap and brushed my hands against my jeans to dry them.
Turning away, I headed for the bathroom door. I paused before opening it, listening hard for signs of Derek. I knew he was there, but couldn’t hear anything. Tentatively, I unlocked and opened it a crack.
An empty beer can had been left on the arm of the sofa alongside a remote. The TV itself was playing static, the light flickering around the dark room. Derek was lying on the bed, still in all his clothes, fast asleep. Gathering my courage, I stepped out of the bathroom and into the room. This was as close to an opportunity as I thought I’d ever get. I could see my rucksack by the door. I could take it and slip away.
I crept as silently as I could across the cluttered room and snatched up the bag. With a careful glance over my shoulder at the sleeping man, I slid open the bolts on the door. Trembling fingers turned the handle, and slowly, it opened. A slither of golden light slipped into the dark bedroom, the brightness of it making me squint. With a final glance at Derek, I slid through the gap and shut the door behind me, as softly as physically possible.
I found myself standing at the top of a flight of uncarpeted stairs. The wood was dusty and littered with building rubble, the pale blue walls old and cracked. Below was a narrow hallway and a dark wooden front door, with a long glass window beside it. The golden light of the dusky sun poured through.
I swallowed my nerves and stepped forwards, taking the stairs carefully, my hand grasping the bannister. Paranoia flooded me. I strained my ears listening for sounds of Derek. I even clung to that impossible feel of him, using it to reassure myself that he still slept. I frowned as I was forced to squint more and more the closer I got to the bottom of the stairs, the closer I got to the light. It was unbearable, hurting my head like a migraine. I stopped and covered my eyes for a moment, my fingers rubbing the lids. I had to keep going. I had to get away! I took another step forward, out of the shadows and into the sun.
I shrieked. It burned. Oh God, it burned. I stumbled back into the darkness. I couldn’t bear it. I whimpered pathetically. I was blinded!
I cried as Derek’s heavy hands grabbed my burned flesh. The agonising pain shot up my arms with renewed venom. He dragged me away from the light and back up the stairs. He fell to sit on the top step, cradling me close to him. I lifted my hands, screaming and sobbing as I saw the angry red blisters that covered them. Insanity. Impossible! My head spun: the pain, confusion, and bitterest fear.
“Y’ crazy bitch,” Derek roared. “Y’ know we can’ go out in the day! Y’ wanna get y’self killed? For real?”
I didn’t answer. The pain was too much. All I could do was sob and whimper.
Derek yanked my rucksack off my arm to leave on the floor. He lifted his wrist to his mouth, and with a nasty crunching sound, his teeth shifted into the fangs I’d seen before. He bit into his own flesh, then offered me the bloody wound. “Drink it,” he commanded.
I clamped my lips together and shook my head.
“Don’ be stupid. Drink it!”
“I--” The moment I opened my mouth, Derek pressed his wrist against my lips. I tried to resist, but his blood seeped onto my tongue. The dark, iron tang wasn’t as bitter as I’d expected. I felt its haunting power as it dripped down my throat. Something hot and wild soaked into me. It raced through my body like fire and numbed the pain of my scorched flesh. The shocked realisation that Derek’s blood was healing me made me rethink my position. In another moment, I’d grabbed hold of his arm, and shoving aside the last squirming unease, I drank deeply. The taste of his blood awoke a hunger in me I’d never felt before, a craving that demanded an answer. I lost myself to it. I drowned in the strange, intoxicating pleasure the strength of his blood inflicted on me. I could feel it settling into my bones and muscles, awakening power I’d never known was there.
I could feel Derek petting my hair, his thick fingers running over the shorter locks at the back before brushing my longer fringe out of my face. He tried to pull his wrist away from my hungry lips, but I gripped him tightly, trying to bring the limb closer to me.
“Tha’s enough,” he insisted, yanking the limb away. He patted my shoulder comfortingly. “You’re healin’ now. Silly girl. Give it a sec.” He shook his head, and I watched with awe as the wound closed slowly. It took a few minutes, but his flesh was healed entirely; another moment and the bruise had paled, leaving not even a scar behind. I lifted my hands again, and sure enough, I could watch as my own blisters did the same. The burned skin flaked away like ash as it was replaced with new, flawless flesh.
“Holy…” I clenched my fingers, testing the distinct lack of pain. The taste of his blood was still powerful on my tongue. The exact magnitude of what I’d just done started to sink in. I’d…drunk his blood, and... I’d enjoyed it. I sniffed back sobs as new bloody tears threatened to spill. My hand came up to rest against my head. “What have you done to me?” I wailed pathetically.
“I changed y’,” he told me with a shrug.
He seemed puzzled. “Y’ asked me to.”
“I didn’t--” I looked up and found him gazing at me with a dark, confused frown.
“Y’ did,” he protested sharply. “I was always gonna! That was the plan, Amber. Y’ promised that when you was eighteen, I’d be allowed t’ change y’.”
“You’re not,” he barked. “Y’ eighteen! I counted it out. I made sure!”
“Derek… I’m not Amber!”
“Y’ are!” He grabbed my shoulders with a bruising grip. “Y’ Amber. I said so. I know so!” He shook me like a rag doll. I whimpered and struggled, trying to get away, my brain rattling painfully in my skull.
“Stop,” I screamed. “Stop, please! I’ll be Amber!”
He threw me back with a savage growl. I fell down a few of the steps, almost straight back into the golden glow of dusk. Resigned tears rolled down my cheeks as I scooped my legs up against myself, drawing them into the shadows and away from the fading sunlight.
“No more lies,” Derek snapped at me, waving his finger towards my face. “And no more runnin’ off. I made y’ what y’ are an’ y’ gonna need me!” He pushed himself to his feet and stood at the top of the stairs. He was waiting, I realised, with his eyes fixed on the sunset. It would be dark again in a few minutes, and Derek, apparently still scared that I’d try to run off again, was happy to stand there and watch me, to make sure I didn’t leap out of his front door the moment it was dark enough.
He needn’t have bothered. This latest absurdity had me re-thinking that plan anyway. The pain of the light’s burn was still too fresh in my mind. Something unimaginable had happened to me. I’d fallen out of any reality that I knew or that made sense. Derek, slow and crazy as he was, at least seemed to know how to navigate this new world, and how to survive it. He was right; I was going to need him, and I hated that more than anything. I was trapped, and not just by the golden glow of the sinking sun.