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For my beautiful daughters.
I. NIA STONE
II. FREYA LAWSON
III. SEAN RICHARDS
IV. FREYA LAWSON
V. SEAN RICHARDS
VI. FREYA LAWSON
VII. BEN LAWSON
VIII. SEAN RICHARDS
IX. FREYA LAWSON
X. MICHAEL MATTHIAS
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Eighteen Years Earlier...
My hair is clinging to the pillow, and I’m breathless. It’s so bloody warm. The ceiling fan is on, but it’s barely spinning—and I suppose air-con is too much of a stretch for a hotel this tacky. Green carpets, musty odour, and light-brown wallpaper don’t exactly say classy. I tiptoe across the dimly-lit room to the window and try to open it. Surprise, surprise, the latch is jammed. Just great! I return to the bed, and lie on top of the quilt, staring at Pete as he sleeps. Even after all the crap he’s been through, all the stress, all that he’s left behind, he still manages to fall asleep after sex.
No. I take that back. There’s nothing typical about Pete. He’s not like those other arseholes I’ve dated. For one, he actually gives a shit about me. He’d never leave me. And he’d never lay a finger on me.
I smile, watching his bare chest rise with every soft breath that leaves his mouth. I want to wrap my arms around his toned chest, kiss him on the lips, tell him that I love him, that I’ll always be by his side, no matter what. But he needs his rest. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.
The clock on the bedside cabinet reads 23:17. I wish I could sleep. The TV’s broken so I can’t even nod off to some dumb movie, and I can’t look at my magazine because it’s too dark to read it. Suppose I’ll just have to lie here, counting down the hours ‘til first light, so we can get in the car, and drive as far away as possible.
No turning back.
What’s it going to be like living together, away from my family, friends? Will I miss them? Be tempted to call them?
No. Pete’s my family now. Why would I need anyone else?
“Sorry,” he says, his voice groggy, his emerald eyes gazing back at me, “must have nodded off.”
“That’s okay, babe,” I reply, and then kiss him. “How’s the head? Still throbbing?”
“A little better,” Pete replies, massaging his brow with his finger. “I think your magic touch did the trick.”
“Glad I could help.”
I switch on the bedside lamp, and the bright light blinds me for a moment. “Lose something?” I ask when I spot his royal-blue underwear dangling from the lampshade.
Chuckling, he reaches over me, grabs the underwear, and slips them on. “Thought I’d lost them for good.”
His skin looks pale, and his eyes are bloodshot. Probably just the stress. “Do you think you’re coming down with something?”
Pete leans in and kisses me on the lips. “Stop worrying, Nia. It’s just been a tough couple of days. I’ll be fine when we’re on the road again.” He takes my hand. “Are you sure about this now? It’s not too late to back out. I mean, I’d totally understand.”
“Of course I’m sure. There’s no way in the world I’d let you do this alone.” I beam. “And anyway, spending time on the road, just the two of us, sounds like heaven. Don’t you think? We’ll be like Thelma and Louise.”
Pete’s wheezy laugh turns into a cough. “But I get to be Louise.”
“Fair enough.” The flu, maybe? Chest infection? Probably best if I take the first drive.
A light from outside seeps into the room. Pete leaps out of bed, racing over to the window.
“Don’t be so paranoid.” I sit up, my back against the cold headboard. “We’re miles away from your unit.”
Opening the blinds partially, he peeks through the glass. “We have to be careful.”
I slip on my nightie and join him by the window. “Anyone out there?” Looking over his shoulder, I peer down at the hotel car park. It’s dark, with just a security-light shining down on the eight stationary cars. “See? There’s no one coming for us. We’re fine.” I hold his hand. “Now come back to bed.”
Pete’s attention is still fixed on the window.
“Pete?” I tug on his arm.
“Sorry,” he replies. “I just don’t want to lose you.”
I smile. “That’s never going to happen.”
“You don’t know that, Nia. These people are animals. You don’t know what they’re capable of.”
“I don’t give a shit. I’m not scared of them. They’ll have me to deal with if they try to take you away from me.”
Pete pulls me into a hug. “I love you so much,” he whispers into my ear. “You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I know. And I love you, too. More than anything in the world.” I run my fingers through his thick, blond hair, and try to imagine a world without him by my side.
I can’t. The very notion is beyond comprehension.
“We have to change our names,” I point out with a hint of excitement. “Like we’re—” I wince because there’s a clump of Pete’s hair in my hand, revealing a patch of naked scalp.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, pulling out of the hug. Don’t tell him. He’ll only panic.
“Nothing,” I reply with a forced smile, balling up the hair in my palm. “Just lost my train of thought.” I march over to the bathroom, and my stomach turns with worry when I pass the bed. There’s another mound of loose hair on the pillow. I hadn’t noticed it before.
What the hell did they do to him?
Do I tell him? Add to his paranoia?
“How does ‘Jane’ sound?” I ask, staring at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, trying to remain composed. I wipe the sweat from my forehead, splash some water on my face, and then flush the bundle of hair down the toilet. “I’ve always liked ‘Jane’. Seems like a strong name. Maybe Jane Lawson.”
“Why ‘Lawson’?” I can hear the rustling sound of the blinds. He’s spying out the window again.
“Not sure. Just has a nice ring to it. What do you think?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Pete?” I say, poking my head out of the bathroom. “Did you hear me?”
He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, his head drooping forward.
“Everything all right?” I ask with a knot in my stomach.
He has his hand cupped over his mouth. There are small droplets of blood seeping between his fingers.
“What have they done to you?” I ask, my voice brimming with alarm. I touch his sweaty shoulder, but he brushes my hand away, and then scurries over to the wall.
“Don’t touch me!” he mumbles, blood dribbling down his chin, over his chest.
There’s a tall lamp next to him. I switch it on, and the bright light catches his eyes.
They’re yellow. Glowing like a cat’s.
“Look at your eyes, Pete,” I say, unable to stifle the horror in my voice. “What’s happening to you?”
With a deep frown, he makes his way over to the wardrobe mirror. Just before he reaches it, he drops to his knees, clutching his abdomen, his face creased with pain. I race to his side, my arm over his back. “You need a doctor, Pete. Right now.”
Shaking his head, he tries to stand, but falls onto his side, convulsing violently. “Run!” he groans, his fingernails digging into the carpet. “Get away from me!”
“I’m not leaving you!” I protest. “You need a doctor. I’m gonna call an ambulance.” I grab my phone from the bedside cabinet.
“I said NO!”
Startled, I drop the phone and press my back against the wall. He’s sick. This isn’t him.
Not my Pete.
He spits something onto the carpet. I follow its path and find teeth submerged in a pool of blood.
“They’ve poisoned you,” I sob. “What did they give you?”
He doesn’t reply. Instead, he tries to crawl on all fours back towards the window, his fingers sinking deep into the floor.
“You need help, Pete,” I mutter, just as a hideous crunching sound emanates from his body. “Oh, my, God!” One vertebra at a time, his spine begins to protrude like giant blisters, the bone almost breaking through the skin. “Tell me what they did to you?”
A shrill cry of torture leaves his throat, and I recoil in fright. I want to help, but I don’t know how. Like elastic expanding, his thighs start to lengthen. Then his ankles. Holding a hand over my mouth, I retch. My head starts to spin. I feel faint. I try to speak, but the right words are lost.
I don’t know what to do.
Then, one by one, his toenails break off—and I throw up on the carpet.
Body unable to move, stomach burning with acid, I stare with sodden eyes as the last strand of hair falls from his pale head.
The sound of tyres screeching from outside leaks into the room. Grabbing a chair for support, Pete pulls himself up and limps over to the window, pursued by a trail of blood. He turns to me, but I barely recognise him. “They’re here,” he gargles; his jawbones extending as the words exit his toothless mouth. “You have to go!”
“No!” I meet him at the window, peering down at the two white vans in the car park. “I’m not leaving you!”
“You have—” Another excruciating howl causes him to grasp each side of his hip.
I step back in terror as Pete’s torso begins to stretch like dough, the sound of grinding bone stealing the air around me. With a trembling hand, I reach out to touch him, but he snatches my wrist, the pressure turning my fingers white. “Let go, Pete! You’re hurting me!”
He doesn’t respond.
I pull as hard as I can, but his grip is like a vice. “Stop, Pete! This isn’t you!” I hear muted voices outside the window. “We have to go now.”
Like a dog, Pete snarls at me, his grasp tightening. Pain surges down my arm, and I cry out.
Before I get a chance to plead one more time, I’m thrown across the room, crashing hard against the wall.
“Goooooo!” he screams, pointing at the door, his pale flesh now a shade of blue. “Now!”
My mind is racing, clouded by disbelief—because none of this is possible. I’m dreaming. That’s all. It has to be a nightmare. I’m still lying on the bed, next to the man I love.
Not this thing.
Another roar from Pete’s lungs pulls me from my trance, and I scramble to my feet, snatch the car keys from the cabinet, and open the door. Barefoot, with just a nightie on, I step into the corridor, tears pouring, my heart pounding. I take one last look at Pete. My perfect Pete. Someone who would do anything to make me happy. Anything to keep me safe. Never lose his temper.
Never hurt me.
But it’s not Pete anymore. He’s gone. All that stands in his place is this hideous monster.
It barks at me, the sound vaguely resembling words.
The lift at the end of the corridor pings, and three men carrying rifles and dressed in green military camouflage step out. In desperation, I bolt to the stairwell, yank the door open and sprint down the stairs. There’s an echo of heavy footsteps coming at me, so I barge onto the third floor. Hiding behind a trolley filled with sheets and toiletries, I wait for the coast to clear.
Shots are fired. Coming from the floor above me.
Do I go back for him? Try to help him?
A high-pitched shriek echoes from the stairwell.
Or do I keep running?
Without thinking, vision misted with tears, I scurry down the remaining floors of the hotel and burst into the lobby. Just as I reach the fire exit, I hear my name being called out. Ignoring it, I push the door open.
“Wait, Nia!” the voice shouts. “We’re not going to hurt you!”
Stepping out into the cool night air, I glance behind me. Michael Matthias is standing by the reception desk. I almost say something. Tell him to go to Hell. Tell him to leave me alone. But there’s no time.
So, I do exactly what Pete wanted. I run. And I keep running until The Barlow Hotel is far behind me. Until the memory of that monster has faded, replaced with Pete’s emerald eyes, his thick mane of blond hair, his perfect smile glowing with white teeth.
Nia Stone died the night they tore my soul-mate from me. She lies beside him on the stained carpet, her hand grasping his, their hearts still warm inside their chests.
My name is Jane Lawson.
And you’ll never catch me.
I feel like I’ve been walking forever.
The sun will be up soon. Maybe an hour. Maybe less. But that’s the worst time to be outside. That’s when the desperation kicks in. The mad cravings.
One last chance to feed.
I shouldn’t cut through Solace Park. I know it’s dumb—exposed mine-shafts, roaming purebreds—but it’s the fastest route home.
That word no longer exists. Not for me, anyway.
Did it ever?
One of the bars in the fence is missing, so I slide through without much effort, avoiding the thick weeds and thorny brambles. Once I’m inside the park, that strong smell of pine hits my nostrils. To be here again, so close to home, I should be happy. I should be overcome with enthusiasm. But after losing Ben to those bastards, and after everything Maggie did to us, happiness is at the end of a very long and tiresome road.
The grass is overgrown, way past my knees. Any plans to convert this park into something else died when the vampires came. Now, places like these are wastelands, teeming with danger, and left to rot like the rest of the world.
I walk along the field, remembering the time Ben ran into Lisa and Jason. I was so petrified. I thought my life was over. God, that seems so trivial now. Like teenage crap I left behind at college.
I can’t let those memories distract me. This place is swarming with vampires. I can feel it in the air. In every rustle in the bushes. In every faint howl in the distance. Butterflies dancing in my stomach, I creep along the jungle of grass and head toward the path. I almost overlook the opening because it’s buried in bushes and weeds.
There’s a hissing sound behind me.
Gripped with nerves, I speed up and reach the path.
The noise is getting louder.
There’s something in the grass.
Doubtful. Nocturnal animals don’t last too long these days.
Without a second thought, I bolt towards the gates, tensing my body, preparing myself to climb it. But it’s ajar. The lock is probably still broken from when Mum, Sean, and I smashed it with the hammer. The gate is stiff, so I shimmy through the gap, lightly scraping my jacket. Just as I step out on the road, I glance back into the park. My pulse speeds up because there’s a figure standing about fifty metres away. Purebred, most likely. For a moment, I wonder if it’s Ben, somehow having escaped the clutches of the HCA. Miraculously found his way to me.
But I know it can’t be him. He’s gone.
For now, at least.
I quickly scan the street, praying that a HCA van isn’t parked up next to the pavement. It’s clear, so I sprint over to the lane. Like Solace Park, it’s probably crawling with roaming vampires.
But what choice do I have?
When I reach my old street, I duck down behind some overflowing bins, checking the area for any hostiles—blue or not. The smell of rotting food is revolting, turning my stomach, so I hold my breath. The sun hasn’t quite risen yet, so I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to be out and about. Certain that I’m alone, I walk along the pavement, heading for my house.
I stop outside the gate, and a lump forms in my throat. The windows are boarded up, the front door cracked and damaged, reinforced with wooden panels, and the tiny patch of grass at the front is now a forest of weeds, consuming the concrete path.
Taking a breath, I push the gate open, and a shrill squeaking sound escapes its hinges. My body tightens with fear, so I quickly slip inside. The letterbox on the front door is still visible. Prodding the metal flap, I try to peek inside the hallway, but it’s too dark to see anything. Should I rip off the boards, kick the door open?
I grab one of the panels and shake it.
What the hell are you doing? What good will come of breaking in? This place is not your home. There’s barely a good memory inside.
This is not why you came here.