27 FREEDOM FEST
VLAD WEAVED THROUGH THE PEOPLE who had gathered in front of the Ferris wheel, surveying the crowd for any sign of Meredith. The high school stadium had been transformed into a carnival this year, which was much better than previous incarnations of the Freedom Fest. Several rides had been erected on the high school football field, as well as various tents containing whatever a carnivalgoer could want. Food, drinks, jugglers. Even in its mildly dorky array, it was probably the coolest thing the town of Bathory had ever done. And all of this was merely a prelude to the big street dance that would begin at midnight and end at one in the morning. It had begun as a tradition back in the 1800s, a public dance held during the witching hour and said to chase away demons. Vlad wasn’t sure about that. But he was sure that the dance had a way of chasing away the curfew demons for many kids that night.
After he rounded the corner of a tent, he spotted her and smiled. Meredith caught his eye and smiled back.
They wandered the carnival for a while, checking out the rides, devouring handfuls of cotton candy, until the sun finally set and the stars came out overhead. Once it was dark, Meredith found his hand, confident at last that her father would have a hard time seeing them, and Vlad’s life wouldn’t be in too much danger.
Vlad tugged her over to a booth and dropped five dollars in the carnival worker’s hand. After six tries, he managed to knock all the clown’s teeth out and won a giant pink poodle for Meredith. She hugged him tightly, all warm and close, and Vlad froze.
Suddenly he had the urge to bend her neck back and slip his fangs into her flesh, slurping and swallowing every last drop of the sweet crimson that flowed within her veins.
In his mind, he could see himself killing her, and an excited thrill shivered through him. He pushed Meredith from him and took two steps back. It wouldn’t be enough to save her if he didn’t get a grip soon.
Meredith looked confused. “What’s wrong, Vlad? You look like you saw a ghost.”
And he had. The ghost of his true self, the monster that lurked within him. Always hungry. Never satisfied. Forever tormented by an unquenchable thirst.
And in a blink, he knew what he had to do to protect her. The answer had been there all along. Vlad had just been too stubborn, too selfish to see it. If he loved her-and he did, deeply-he didn’t have an easy choice. In fact, he had no choice at all. If he really cared for her safety and well-being, he had only one option, one way to make certain that she would be safe from his dire thirst. He met her eyes and swallowed the enormous lump in his throat. It choked him on its way down to his stomach, where it formed a knot. “I’m sorry, Meredith. But we have to break up. I can’t go out with you anymore.”
At first, Meredith looked stunned, as if she hadn’t really heard what Vlad had said to her, or hadn’t understood, like he was speaking in a foreign tongue. Then her face twisted into a horrified expression. Her eyes filled with the tears of dawning realization. When she spoke, her voice was soft and trembling… like her lips. “Why?”
Vlad considered telling her the truth-that she would get hurt if she kept getting closer to him-but he knew it wouldn’t be enough. He had to hurt her. Badly. To keep her from coming back. To keep her safe. “I don’t love you. I never did. Now just… just get away from me.”
Tears poured down Vlad’s cheeks, so thickly that he could barely make out those on Meredith’s. But it was the right thing to do, the only thing he could do to protect her.
She croaked out, “You’re lying. Why are you lying to me? Why are you doing this?”
The ever-thirsty monster within him moved closer to Meredith, ready to feed, despite the crowd. With his last ounce of strength, he shoved her away and yelled, “Just get away from me!” before turning and hurrying away through the crowd, leaving Meredith to fall on her knees in tearful anguish.
His heart had completely evaporated, leaving him as nothing more than an empty shell. Broken, he moved past tents and rides and people until he was free of the festival at last. He barely noticed Henry on his knees in front of Melissa, who was laughing in an oddly flirtatious way. He hardly noticed the goth kids waving to him and almost couldn’t remember which direction was home. All he could do was move, get away, hide his horrific self from the human girl he loved… before he killed her, all for the sake of hunger.
As he walked home, he kept to the shadows, hoping no one would notice him. Three blocks from the park, despite Vlad’s wishes, someone did.
A bright flash assaulted his eyes.
As his eyes adjusted once again to the darkness, a person came into view. Eddie’s voice was strong and sure. “Out for a walk, Vlad? Or is it a snack?”
Vlad hesitated, then pushed the demon within him back down and kept walking.
Eddie kept the pace, and was only about two steps behind him. “What’s the hurry? Gotta get back to your coffin before sunrise?”
Eddie chuckled to himself and Vlad tensed, pausing mid-step. “What do you want from me, Eddie?”
“I just wanted to show you a picture of my new friend.” He held out a photograph of a girl with black hair, pale white skin: Snow. “Oh, she doesn’t know it yet, but she and I are about to become the best of friends. And oh, the conversations we’ll have-some, I’m sure, about you.”
Without thinking things through with his rational mind, Vlad grabbed Eddie by the shirt collar and slammed him up against a nearby tree. Eddie yelped, then made an oof sound. Vlad gripped his collar tighter and hissed into his ear. “Listen to me, because I’m not going to say this again. If you don’t stay away from me, you’re going to get hurt. I’m going to hurt you, Eddie, and I will take guilt-free pleasure in your pain. You got me? Now back off!”
He let go, and Eddie slid down the trunk, trembling. Vlad turned and walked away before the hunger raging within him ended Eddie’s young life.
Vlad moved through the gate and into his house, slamming the door behind him. His secret was out. He had no way of stopping Eddie. He had no way of leading a happy, normal life without becoming a danger to those he loved. And he couldn’t even ask for help from Otis, all because of his stupid pride. He ran his hands through his hair and released a shuddering sigh.
As he moved toward the stairs, the sound of television drew his attention. Otis and Nelly were cuddled up together on the couch as a movie played on television. Nelly had fallen fast asleep, and Otis was on his way. Otis offered Vlad a concerned look. “You’re back early.”
Vlad watched Nelly snoozing quietly against Otis’s chest, then turned his eyes to his uncle. “How do you do it, Otis?”
Otis pushed the power button on the remote, silencing the television. “What do you mean?”
Vlad licked his lips. “How do you get close to her without wanting to feed?”
A long silence went by. Then Otis whispered, “It’s not easy, but I manage.”
“And if you couldn’t control your… urges?”
“I’d keep my distance.” Otis paused, a look of concern on his face. “Is everything all right, Vladimir?”
Vlad’s heart sank. He took a deep, shaking breath. “It will be.”
He started up the stairs and sighed, his heart heavy, his chest tight. “I don’t know how… but it will be.”