O’Malley and I went to St. Cecilia’s, but while she went around back to visit the haven, I went in the front door to go into the club. I hadn’t been there in a while and I needed some time alone to work out the Tanner thing.
I went inside and immediately remembered why I’d liked the place to begin with. They never played any of that lousy club music. It was all rock, all the time. When I entered, I was met with the heavy, aggressive music of Rob Zombie.
There were two bars, one on either side of the room as I walked in. In front of me and along the walls were round tables where patrons sat, talked, drank, and smoked. Beyond that was the dance floor, filled with headbanging, gyrating, sweating bodies. Arranged in a large square, each on its own platform, were four cages containing the dancers.
I took an ashtray from the bar and sat down at a table near the wall. While I smoked and watched the cage girls writhe to Superbeast, I went over what I’d heard in the café. Tanner was a great detective, and that made me nervous. He knew a lot more than I was comfortable with. Still, O’Malley was right: he had no idea who we were, and it was unlikely he would ever know. He had prints, but no one to match them to. It would take one of us getting caught, and c’mon. How many times has anyone read the headline “Actual Vampire Arrested”? No, that Rod Ferrell guy doesn’t count.
In the back of my mind, I knew there was a simple solution to my problem with Tanner, but I’d thrown that option out long ago. He was a good man. And, in the end, even if he knew I was the killer, who would believe him? What could he possibly do to me? Sure, he could shoot me in the heart and kill me, but he was a cop. He couldn’t shoot me unless I threatened him, or unless he saw me threatening someone else. So, I decided all I had to do was stay out of his way and never get caught during a kill.
My thoughts were interrupted when I noticed something across the room. There was some kind of fight going on and security hadn’t noticed it yet. Then, as I looked closer, I could tell it wasn’t just a couple of guys scrapping. There was a kid cowering against the wall in front of them, and two thugs were beating the shit out of him. I jumped to my feet and pushed my way across the room. Girls were squealing at them to stop, but they didn’t listen until I came up behind them and barked, “HEY!”
They turned away from the kid to look at me, startled. The kid lifted his head, blood dripping from his nose.
“Want in on this too, you—” one of the thugs began, lumbering toward me threateningly, but his words were choked off as I grabbed his throat hard and pushed him back, sending him stumbling against the wall. The other thug ran at me, swinging his fists wildly, but I ducked and dodged him until I could kick him in the chest. I felt a few ribs crack on impact, and he flew back against the wall, smacking the back of his head on the brick and collapsing in a groaning pile. The first thug was near recovering, murmuring threats while he got his balance, but I ran up and grabbed him by the ears, yanked his head forward and down, crushed his nose on my knee. I let him crumple at my feet, then turned and looked down at my bloody friend.
“That’s two you owe me now, Nick,” I said, grinning, and offered him my hand.
He gazed at me with wide eyes and gaping mouth, then leapt to his feet and hugged me as hard as he could. “Grin! I don’t believe it! You’re alive!” he cried.
“Yeah, I’m glad to see you, too. Get off me,” I said, just as I had a lifetime ago at that party. But he didn’t move away, and I suspected he was crying. I laughed and patted him on the back a few times, but he stayed there. “All right, seriously, dude. It’s getting a little gay.”
“Sorry,” he murmured, and backed away, quickly wiping his eyes. “It’s just… I thought you were dead.”
“Yeah… Look, about that,” I started, picking his glasses up off the floor and handing them to him. “It’d be really cool if nobody knew I was still around, okay?”
“Um… Sure, I won’t say anything, but…” He put his glasses back on and looked at me in shock. “What… happened to your…”
“Long story,” I said, and ushered him toward my table.
“Hey, you with the face,” one of the thugs coughed. I turned around, because who else could he be talking about? He pointed at Nick. “You tell your little friend to keep his eyes off our bitches, okay?”
“‘Bitches?'” one of the girls shrieked.
“C’mon, this is about to resolve itself,” I said to Nick as the couples began to argue.
When we sat down, Nick didn’t waste any time asking, “What happened?”
I sighed and hunched over the table on my elbows, thinking over the explanation. Could I tell him? He was my best friend, but the story I had was a little much. I didn’t even know if he would believe me.
“What happened was, you were right,” I told him as quietly as I could over the music. “After the party, Kelly chased me down. He forced me off the road, beat me up, and gave me these.” I motioned to my scars. “With my own switchblade, no less. Then he left me to bleed out.”
Nick stared at me like I’d slapped him in the face. “He… he actually did it?”
“He tried to kill me,” I confessed.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence as Nick’s face slowly transformed into a look of rage I’d never seen him wear before. Angry tears gathered in his eyes.
“That fucking asshole,” he seethed.
“Calm down?” he nearly shouted. “That… that fucking bastard tried to murder my only friend!”
“Dammit! I’ll fucking kill him! I’m going back to Findlay and I’ll—”
“Sit down!” I commanded, grabbing his shoulder and pushing him back down in his seat. His chin trembled and tears ran down his cheeks as he glared at me. “And stop saying ‘fuck.’ It sounds kinda silly coming from you,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
From the look on his face, it didn’t work. Nick was pissed.
“What’s the deal, man?” I asked. “I’m still here, so he didn’t actually kill me.”
“I don’t care,” he growled, wiping his face. “You saved my life, I should’ve been able to save yours.”
I forced a laugh. “I told you, I only saved you from an ass-kicking. They weren’t gonna kill you.”
He lowered his eyes and shook his head. “No… I was.”
It took me a moment to figure out what he was saying, but when I did, I stared at him in shock.
“I was sick of it, you know?” he said, becoming a little solemn. “Since I moved here sophomore year, the guys were always picking on me, and the girls were always laughing at me.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose on his sleeve. “I dealt with it at first. Just picked up my books when they got pushed out of my hands, ignored the girls when they teased me, learned to just go down and play dead when I got hit… But that day, they went too far.”
My jaw clenched when I remembered what had happened to him that day. It was in the shower after gym, and some guy had accused Nick of looking at his junk. He and his friends started calling him these awful, homophobic slurs, saying the most obscene things you could imagine. I remembered seeing Nick just standing there under the showerhead, trying to ignore them. Then the instigator grabbed him and shoved him into one of his friends, who shoved him into someone else. In that moment, I decided to do something about it. They pushed him around like a pinball in a machine, until the first guy slammed him into the wall, put him on his knees in front of him, and said, “C’mon, you wanna look at it? Here it is, you faggot fuck.” That was when I started making my way through the crowd. The guy’s friends gathered around and they all shouted and laughed at him, and their body language told me they were about to start swinging. They wanted blood. I shoved through them, grabbed the instigator’s shoulder, spun him around, and punched him so hard he bit through his tongue and broke a tooth. My knuckles had already turned white-blue, but I turned on his friends and beat them down, breaking noses, punching eyes, kicking ribs. I took a few hits myself and walked away with a split lip and bruised fists. Then I reached down to Nick and said, “You all right, man?” Coach ran in just as I was helping him to his feet.
“I’d been planning it all day,” Nick went on. “I was going to do it when I got home from school. That’s what I was thinking about the whole time, while they were yelling at me and pushing me around. I kept thinking, ‘It’ll all be over soon. When I get home, it’ll all be over.'” He lifted his eyes and looked at me. “I never expected we’d be friends or anything. I didn’t even think we’d say another word to each other after that. But when you stood up for me, I realized there was at least one person who gave a shit. And that made all the difference.”
His tears had stopped and he had calmed down somewhat, but there was another long silence as I processed his story. I had seen him getting bullied a lot, but it always seemed like he was dealing with it okay. It looked like he ignored the taunts, shook off the occasional punch, and didn’t let any of it get to him. I stepped in that day because it wasn’t going to be a punch in the gut or a shove into a locker. I had a feeling that, if someone didn’t do something, Nick wasn’t going to be able to stand up and dust himself off when they were finished with him. They were really going to fuck him up. I couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m sorry,” Nick said. “You had my back, I should’ve had yours.”
to warn me,” I reminded him. “I didn’t listen. It was my own damn fault.”
He laughed a little bit. “Well, you are pretty stubborn,” he commented.
I laughed too, relieved that the mood was lifting. “Not arguing with that.”
“And cocky,” he added.
“Well… maybe a little…”
“And don’t even get me started on your ego.”
“Okay, you’ve made your point,” I muttered, grinding out my cigarette. He was silent, and though I wasn’t looking directly at him, I could tell he was staring at my scars. “Go on, ask your questions,” I invited, gesturing towards him.
“The millions of questions that come up when you run into a guy who’s supposed to be dead.”
After some thought, he questioned, “How did you make it?”
“The short version is, someone found me just in time.”
That seemed to disturb him. “Who found you? Annie Wilkes?”
I chuckled. “What makes you say that?”
“Because only a lunatic would find a guy bleeding to death in a ditch and not call an ambulance, or even drive him to the emergency room.”
“It’s complicated,” I dismissed.
He gave me an examining look, probably determining that I was hiding something. “So… who did find you?”
“You wouldn’t know her. Er… them.”
“Yeah. Dude found me first and fixed me up, chick showed up later.”
He nodded. “Do they have names, or am I not allowed to know that either?”
I gave him a long look. “Anyone ever tell you you’ve got a NASA-grade bullshit detector?”
“My talent for scientific analysis is really the only thing I’ve got going for me,” he answered matter-of-factly.
I sighed. “Her name’s O’Malley, his name’s Dodger.”
He laughed softly. “Well, if anyone ever wanted to make a people-with-weird-names club, the three of you are a good start…”
“Tease all you want. My nickname is more a part of me now than it’s ever been. But if you wanna make jokes, I can stop trying to be serious.”
“Okay, so… What happened after they found you?”
“I woke up at O’Malley’s a few days later.”
“Why didn’t you come back?”
“You kidding? Being dead is awesome!” I told him, grinning. “I can do whatever I want now. Even more than I used to.”
“But what about us?” he pressed. “Me, Sarah, your mom… everybody.”
“Sarah will be fine. And my mom finally got away from that bastard Walter, so I wouldn’t have that any other way. As for you…” I gave him a sly grin. “Don’t tell me you haven’t learned anything from me.”
He looked a little smug at that, but didn’t say anything. I just assumed he’d kicked some major ass—and possibly gotten some major ass—since I’d been gone, and left it at that.
“Just trust me,” I said. “It’s better this way.”
“How could you think that? Your death was a tragedy.”
“I can’t really explain that right now.”
“I just can’t, all right?” I said, a little harshly. “I’m not the same person I was. The guy you knew, he would never do the things I’ve done. I can never go back.”
He started to look a little scared, staring down at the table. The vein in his neck began to pulse faster. Behind the fear, I could see a glint of realization in his eyes.
“Grin…” he began, and swallowed hard. “Did you know that… that Walter is dead?”
I was silent for a long moment, trying to figure out how I should answer that. The longer it took me to answer, the more nervous he seemed to get. I settled on a simple, “Yes.”
He let out a long, staggered breath, closing his eyes. “Did you… y’know… have anything to do with…?”
“Yes,” I answered again.
His eyes lifted and he stared at me. “You…”
“I killed him,” I told Nick.
He sat there silently, trying to comprehend what I’d just revealed to him. The friend he thought he knew was a murderer.
“Isn’t this the part where you laugh and say, ‘I’m just fuckin’ with ya, dude?'” he asked.
I shook my head slowly. “Not this time.”
I could practically see the gears turning in his head. His eyes darted back and forth like he was mentally rereading obituaries from the news and trying to tie me to them.
“And have you… done that… to anyone else?”
I clenched my jaw and looked down at the table. What the hell was I supposed to say? I’m a vampire now and I kill people every night? I’m sure that would go over well…
He deciphered the truth from my silence and slowly got to his feet. “I have to go,” he murmured.
“C’mon, man. Don’t be like that.”
“No. Look, thanks for having my back earlier, okay? But I’ve gotta go. I’ve got a date with Helen tonight,” he said, walking backward toward the exit. “It was… nice talking.”
“Nick, hang on,” I protested, and went after him. He stopped and I walked up close to tell him, “Listen, I could really use your help. Meet me here, out front, Monday night, if you’re in. If not… Well, have a nice life, all right?”
He looked at me for a long time, but just said, “All right,” and left.
I watched him disappear in the crowd and sat back down in my seat. “That reunion coulda gone better,” I muttered to myself, and lit up another cigarette.