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Charles Underwood collapsed to his knees, clutching the knife wound in his gut. The long, dark brown hair that his 12-year-old stepson admired so dearly clung to his face. Sweat seeped into his light brown eyes and soaked his white linen shirt collar, cravat and long sleeves. The blood seeped through his boney hands and dripped onto his black trousers and the wooden floor of the church.
His stepson stood over him, draped in the shadow his step father cast. The wound was what Jer had been practicing to inflict his stepfather with since he could remember. His short, black hair curled over his face much worse than it normally did from sweat that found its way into his red eyes. The blood stained his denim trousers, ruining his factory worker clothes. In his hand was the knife in which he used. It was an 1800’s bowie, and by that time already around eleven years old with a blade half the length of the handle made of steel.
Jer fumbled to put the knife back into its leather holster and knelt in front of his stepfather.
“Father? Are you okay, father? Father!” Jer asked, afraid he had hurt his father worse than he intended.
Charles couched and looked up at his stepson. His eyes gleamed, not glared, but Jer didn’t notice.
“I’m fine—I’m fine.” Charles said.
He couched again, Jer saw his teeth turn orange from the blood. The color was something he was used to seeing; orange and red coating his step father’s vampire teeth if not his own, but to see it without feeding unnerved him. Charles coughed again. He switched the blood and saliva in his mouth and spat onto the church’s floor into his blood puddle.
“Are you sure, father?” Jer asked again.
“Yes yes—I’m sure.” Charles forced himself to his feet, but couldn’t make himself stand straight right away. He pressed his hand over the wound, his stomach muscles cramping as they began to heal and force out the internal bleeding.
“You did good.” he said, “I’m proud of you.”
“Rest assured I will be fine. This is why we don’t practice any of your training with silver.”
Jer looked down at his knife holster, the blade itself in mind. The prohibition of silver in his self-defense training was something he never understood. He wasn’t sure why or if it had anything to do with him and his parents being vampires.
Charles stumbled towards the church’s front doors. The blood was soaked by his shirt well enough to keep much from dripping on the floor. He had most of his posture and ability to walk upright by the time he reached the doors. He put his black tailcoat back on and Jer started running up behind up. Charles held out his hand. Jer removed the holster from his trousers and placed it in his hand. Charles unbuttoned his jacket, hid the knife inside, buttoned it back up and left, Jer following behind him.
The sound of trotting horses mix mixed with blowing horns of distant coal trains. Smoke from factory chimneys blocked view of the night stars. The streets weren’t as crowded as they usually were, thanks to the late hour. Children had long past left from work to home, but some, mostly orphans or other begging children, roamed the streets.
Jer looked up at his stepfather and saw that he had healed well enough to appear perfectly fine. He thought about the wound he had inflicted his stepfather and his previous statements about and between steel and silver. It puzzled Jer, like many things did. He didn’t know why he had to learn self-defense. He didn’t know why the sun would hurt him if he went out into it. He didn’t know why he drank blood and why being a vampire was such a bad thing.
He also didn’t know Charles wasn’t his real father. He didn’t know about his parents’ crime and that they had to stay in hiding. He didn’t know that silver was lethal to vampires or that they function in a caste system in which the rank Jer was born into wasn’t allowed to live if discovered to exist.
Likewise, neither of them knew of a trail they had been leaving or who might be
following them or what might be waiting to scavenge what remains of them. Charles always did his best to make sure he didn’t make any mistakes, but still did his best to be prepared in case he never did, never certain which vampires were enemies or allies.
“Father, might I ask you why we do this?” Jer asked.
“I told you before,” Charles answered, not looking away from his focus straight ahead. “this is something we cannot speak of outside of your training or at home.”
“I understand, but even then you never tell me why we do these things.”
Charles remained quiet. He didn’t want to draw attention to either of them in explaining anything to his step son. Jer didn’t speak.
Their walk home continued on for three miles by foot. The wooden cottage homestead they lived in was small, but a regular sized home for the early 19th century working class. Dirt inside was half as much so from the outside. A fire was already in place while Jer’s Mother, Diana bundled the last of the thread she had spun.
Her brown hair fell down over her shoulders. Her thin, white evening dress made her pale skin look like a normal healthy peach. The light made her green eyes almost hazel and her light skin even whiter. Four dots of pale scar tissue just above her left breast glistened in the light of the fire. Charles smiled as he looked at them, the bite marks of when he turned her into a vampire. Although the bite of a vampire’s transformation normally never scars, hers did and she didn’t mind.
“Welcome home, dear.” she said as she got up to greet her husband. He held up one hand and unbuttoned his coat with the other, revealing the blood stain that had grown twice the size.
“Oh my.” she said, surprised but not alarmed. “Did someone—?”
“It was Jer. He had finally been able to strike me.” Charles answered, smiling.
She looked down at Jer and smiled. She knelt down and hugged him, “Oh I am so proud of you.”
“Do you need me to find us prey?”
“I can’t imagine that you aren’t hungry after losing so much of your own blood.” She stood up and turned to leave the living room, “You didn’t swallow any of your own, did you?”
“No, I made sure not to. I believe Jer’s improvement is something to celebrate.”
“Yes. I believe human blood is in order. I saw some runaway slaves pass by not too long before you returned home. We all know they won’t get much further if they’re still alive.”
Charles nodded and walked to the front door. Jer grabbed onto one of the tails of his coat to stop him. His undershirt was stained while his waistcoat and jacket were still clean enough to throw on and wear while walking amongst humans.
“Father,” Jer said. “I have asked you many times before. Why do we do the things we do? You said that me finally hitting you is something to celebrate. May I have my answers to celebrate instead?”
Charles looked down at Jer and then back at the door. He cracked it open, but didn’t move to leave yet.
The questions Jer had been asking for a year were all roughly the same. Charles knew he couldn’t put off answering them much longer, but wasn’t sure if it was still too soon and what might happen when Jer found out. He knew Jer had finally guilt tripped him to a breaking point, but worried it was still too dangerous for Jer to know. Previous thoughts and plans of how knowing might affect Jer’s training against a higher caste member trying to kill him. It always made him wonder if he knew his step son; a worry of a change in the boy he raised in his real father’s place or if it would help him to be better off.
Charles knew he had to feed his family and the time hunting would allow himself to think of the proper wording.
“I might be making a horrible mistake, but I’ll tell you the answers to your questions.”
Jer smiled as Charles hurried to the bedroom to grab a small hand-made book and then rush out the door.
* * *
They fed on the family of run-away slaves Charles brought home—he had promised them salvation from the law. Their blood was a luxury for Jer and his family, a chance of luck for the Underwoods to have found them and on a night to celebrate their son’s progress. Instead of asking why they drank animal blood instead of their own and getting no explanation, Jer asked why it was the blood of slaves instead of animals and why the darker skin of these humans made them different from any of the others. Jer got no explanation. Charles often gave Jer a cold response when he would keep persisting for answers of why, but this time, he was much sharper about it, not allowing Jer to ask more than once.
It was 4:30 a.m. when Jer slept peacefully in his bed, but covered from head to foot in the blankets. The sun was almost a full hour short of rising, but his parents didn’t want to risk staying up beyond that time. A jerky shifting in the feather-stuffed bed woke him, but wasn’t sure if ti was his mother or stepfather. Jer knew better than to move, he didn’t want to annoy Charles, knowing he would say something about it being dangerous to move or talk when he leaves the bedroom at unusual times like this.
He felt the bed shaking as one of his parents left from the bed. One of the others shifted too, but it was from what he felt to be one sitting up. He heard Diana’s gasp and then silence. Jer knew something was wrong, but he remained still as he was always told from his training. He felt her leave the bed after his stepfather. A sudden shrill scream filled the house with thuds and sounds of liquid moving following.
Jer was too afraid and curious to stay still any longer. He counted to ten and left the bed, sneaking his way to where he thought his parents went. He stayed just within the borders of the bedroom, from a distance, light from the fire of a lantern shined on blood that marked the walls.
The professional assassin stepped out of the kitchen, but didn’t see Jer looking at him from the bedroom doorway. He stood just under five and a half feet tall. The white cloak he wore was the same white as his hair. His eyes were a pale gray. Jer didn’t catch a glimpse of the assassin’s face. Underneath his cloak he wore entirely white attire. The tailcoat and trousers had very little blood staining it, covered mostly in dirt and grime from being worn frequently. Most of the blood was on the white gloves and shoes he wore. Jer quietly stepped further back into the bedroom, hoping to hide back under the covers.
All Jer could think of was one of the most recent training sessions from earlier that week that involved Jer practicing dodging from knives. To Jer, this was better than nothing. Jer stepped back before the assassin could have noticed him. Jer ran to the other side of the bed. He grabbed the knife from a drawing table and hid under the bed.
“Mamma! Papa!” Jer recited. “I won’t let you leave me alone!”
He grunted as he stabbed the knife into his forearm. The blood flooded out quickly. He held his hands over the knife and wiped the blood underneath his neck. He rested on the side of the knife wound to hide it. Though it was painful he knew he had to bare it for a fake suicide to work. Jer closed his eyes most of the way and slowed his breath the best he could.
The assassin ran into the bedroom and glanced around. He caught the smell of blood and looked under the bed. He saw what he believed to be their dead son. He reached underneath and dragged him out from underneath by the back of his shirt. Jer remained as limp and lifeless as he could.
Jer’s eyes were just open enough to barely see. He caught a blurry glimpse of the dagger covered in his parents’ blood. It was a simple yet uncommon design. The handle was covered by the assassin’s hand, so he didn’t see what it looked like. The sides were thin and pointed, just like the blade that extended twice that length. In the middle was an intricate crest. Through his blurred vision, he saw that the main colors were red and gold with a light gray blade that glittered in the light from the silver missed into the metal. He couldn’t catch any further details.
“Filthy, vulgar vermin.” the assassin mumbled to himself. “Should have ended their lives once they knew they sinned.”
He left the bedroom, but Jer remained as still and quiet as he could. Sounds of the windows rustling open only lasted for a moment.
Jer counted to ten and stood back up, clutching the knife wound on his arm until it healed enough for him to tolerate the pain and stopped bleeding. He snuck to the window, staying as quiet as he could just in case the assassin was still nearby and would come back. The assassin was gone, But Jer didn’t know for sure. Jer looked down at the knife, frightened. He knew what he had to do. It was part of his training. He didn’t want to do it, but the drive to live was too strong to resist.
Jer put the knife back into its holster and attached it to his trousers. He walked to the window and climbed out, preparing to complete the second half of the emergency plan he had been trained to fulfill.
Jer snuck through the bushes. He wasn’t sure if the assassin was still nearby to hear him make as much noise as he imagined he did. The pounding of his racing heart confused him on how loud he really was.
He couldn’t think straight; too many things went on inside his head at once. Recollection of what the second half of the escape plan was, checking himself to make sure he wouldn’t get caught, how he’d initiate the second half, what if’s on the assassin and which thought to come first and second and third clouded his focus on his sneaking and awareness of time and place.
He finally came to a stop, deciding to check where he was. He stood in front of a small townhouse. Large cracks in the wood suggested the house itself was around his age. The smell of soured sweetness came out the window. Jer recognized it as the blood of a child. He peaked inside the window to make sure.
Inside was a bed with four children clustered on one bed, ranging from as young as five to as old as twelve. The oldest still slept in his factory clothes and clutched at his hand. An injury he got on the way to work the day before made a deep enough cut to bleed and attract Jer.
“Hello? Is anyone still awake?” Jer whispered. He didn’t want to. Speaking without any thought bothered him. In his mind, it also started the second half he couldn’t turn back from if it worked.
The oldest boy started moving in his sleep. Jer’s chest tightened, feeling guilty and afraid.
“Hello?” Jer whispered again.
The oldest boy sat up and rubbed at his eyes. the pain from touching the cut to his face woke him up even more. He turned to look at the window.
Jer noticed the details of the boy; dark hair and eyes, feeling guilty the boy’s appearance was close enough to his own to do what he didn’t want to do. He recognized the boy from walking the same path to the factory they both worked at.
The boy snuck out of bed and over to the window. “Who are you? Why are you—?”
Jer held a finger to his lips.
“Aren’t you the boy who works in the farrer back of the factory?” the boy asked.
“What are you doing here?”
“I need you to help me with something.”
“What is it?”
Jer quickly searched himself for a good lie. In that moment, he then realized he didn’t know enough about children, especially human children, to devise a lie that would lure the boy to his home. He used the first thing that came to mind before the boy could notice anything strange.
“We have too much food at home. I wanta’ bring some over before my ma and pa get rid of it. I don’t know what you and your family would like, so I figure you’d come over and take whatever we can carry back since ya’aint that far away either.”
“Gosh, how’d you get so much food?”
Jer was caught off guard by the question, but he was grateful it wasn’t any harder of a question.
“Turned in a slave and got enough money to get us a lot of food. It’ll go bad before we can eat it all though and my folks ain’t the type to share much.”
“Wow, thank you kindly.” The boy slid the window open as slowly as he could and climbed out.
The two boys ran back to Jer’s home. Jer suggested being quiet to keep from waking his parents when he was really afraid of the assassin still being nearby. Jer became more nervous, afraid and guilty with every step that brought them closer. The pain of believing he couldn’t turn back grew the fastest and hurt the most.
Jer stepped inside the front door first. Everything remained the same as when he left. He hadn’t thought of a way to initiate the second half of the escape plan he was trained to use. A part of him wondered if it mattered while the rest feared for how it did. There was a vague awareness of time, though he wasn’t sure how much had passed in his cross checking for the assassin returning.
“Are you alright?” the boy asked.
“Oh! Yes! I’m perfectly fine!” Jer lied, “I think ma or pa got up when I was gone. Hafta’ be sure they aren’t still up.”
The boy peaked over Jer’s shoulders. Jer quickly turned around and grabbed the boy’s hand.
“Close your eyes when we get in okay.” Jer whispered.
“’Cause I want it all to be a surprise and sneakin’ in’ll be easier if you can’t get distracted from looking around at stuff.”
The boy tried to process the made-up excuse, but Jer jerked at his hands as he opened the door and went in. The boy closed his eyes and fallowed behind.
Jer looked away at where the kitchen was, afraid of catching a glimpse of his parents’ bodies. The boy fallowed behind him quietly The smell of blood didn’t concern him; he was used to the smell of sheep blood from his father’s occasional selling and trading of livestock meat to think anything of it.
Jer brought the boy to the door of their bedroom. Jer dropped the boys hands and went to push the bed aside.
The pain from guilt and fear was too intense for Jer to take. He bared it anyway, wanting to survive. He stared at the old and new cuts and scars on the boy’s hands and arms. They weren’t unusual for factory labor his age or size. Memories of children losing limbs or dying from accidents came back. They became his excuse.
This is best for him. Jer thought. He will either die by disease or an accident if not this way.
Jer stood inches from the boy. The boy’s warm breath saddened him.
“Don’t scream.” Jer whispered in the boy’s ear.
Before the boy could react, Jer bit into his neck and began the transformation.