Take On Me: Chapters One-Five

Edited by Brian J. White

September 2015

(Content Note: This excerpt contains one scene of moderate intensity touching on suicide and one scene of mild intensity touching on sexual assault.)

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Chapter One

Saturday Morning | May 31, 1986

He pushed open the bathroom door and was overwhelmed by the scent of blood — a lot of blood. Alex whipped back the shower curtain and found a young woman crumpled in the bottom of the tub bleeding from gashes down her wrists.

Alex felt the familiar burn of adrenaline as he grabbed the bag containing an eclectic collection of medical items from under the sink and began wrapping her wounds as fast as possible. He needed time.

He found the scalpel, his scalpel, under her body. Goddamn it. The left wrist was cut deeper than the right, but they were both horrible. There wasn’t much of a pulse. She’d lost too much blood. Alex was covered in it, she was covered in it, it was smeared on the tub and had pooled around the drain. The metallic sweet tang had an underlying smell. He knew that smell. It meant “stay away.” It also meant he had one other option.

Alex pulled an old glass syringe out of the bag. He tied off his arm, inserted the needle into his vein and drew out as much blood as the syringe would hold. He felt for the edge of her sternum and found a weak heartbeat fluttering beneath her breast. Alex aimed at her heart and sank the needle its full length into her flesh. His hand pressed the plunger as his brain sparked back to clarity. What are you doing?

He sank to the floor and stared at the empty syringe sticking out of her chest. There was no arguing with himself now. It was done.

Maybe it won’t work? How was he going to get rid of the body? His neighbors noticed when he switched from whole milk to 2%.

The girl started breathing audibly.

Oh my god. I’d rather hide a body.

Alex removed the syringe and hoisted her over his shoulder. Her head knocked into the wall as he tried to deal with the door. She was heavier than he’d guessed from her wiry frame.

“Sorry,” he said.

The unconscious teenager did not reply.

He laid her on the formica tabletop and put a pillow under her head. Her clothes were bloodstained, wet, and ruined. He retrieved a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt from the clean laundry. There was a pair of well-worn motorcycle boots placed neatly beside his jumble of shoes by the door.

How did you get here? Who are you?

Alex grabbed a pair of trauma shears from the kitchen where he’d been using them to cut bunches of grapes.

“Trust me,” he muttered as he cut off her black leggings and oversized sweatshirt. “You’re going to appreciate clean clothes.”

He wiped blood off her skin and worked her limp form into his clothes. Dressing an unresponsive body was harder than he remembered.

Alex rinsed the blood out of the shower before he stripped down and cleaned up. He got dressed, bundled all the bloodstained clothes into a black trash bag, and unwrapped her wrists. The skin had pulled together and was scabbing over. He dropped the bandages into the trash bag and took it out to the dumpster.

When he returned, he checked her pulse. She was up to 30 beats per minute, and her breathing, though shallow, was steady.

Direct infection of the heart seems to speed the process. There wasn’t as much time as he’d assumed.

He got a coil of climbing rope he’d never gotten around to using from the closet, folded the blanket from the sofa, and placed it over the girl’s torso. He tied the rope to one of the table legs before looping it up over the blanket and down her body to each leg of the table, holding her snugly.

In the back of his liquor cabinet was a dull metal can he’d found at an army surplus store mixed in with other cans containing emergency drinking water. The army-green printing read, “PLASMA, NORMAL HUMAN, DRIED, IRRADIATED 300cc”. Alex opened the can and extracted the vacuum bottle of caked yellow powder. He used a bottle opener to carefully work off the top. There was no hiss.

He shoved a takeout chopstick into the bottle and broke apart the chunks so they would fit through its narrow neck. Curiosity got the better of him, and he dumped about a tablespoon into the bottom of a glass and added what he hoped was an appropriate amount of tap water. After a few seconds of swirling, he sniffed it. It smelled horrible. He took a sip and gagged. It tasted worse.

Alex opened the cupboard, pulled down a can of Tang, and added a spoonful to the remaining liquid. He took another tiny sip, added more Tang and tried again. He drank the rest of it, chasing it with a glass of water.

He found a yellow plastic sports bottle and dumped the rest of the powdered plasma inside, using the chopstick to help along some of the more stubborn clumps. He filled the vacuum bottle with water, poured it into the powder, then added scoops and scoops of Tang until the liquid turned an unnaturally strong shade of orange.

He put the lid on the sports bottle, closed the spout and shook it for a minute. He tasted it, rolling the sugary orange plasma around on his tongue.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said, putting the bottle to her lips, “it tastes pretty bad, but it should give your body something to work with.”

Alex squeezed some of the liquid into her mouth and tilted her head so she wouldn’t choke on it. She swallowed beneath his hand, so he squeezed the bottle again. He slowly fed her the contents of the bottle, refilled it with water, shook it to dissolve any residue, and gave it to her in the same way.

He pried open one of her eyes and shined a light into it. Her pupils were dilated and did not respond. As he moved her head to check her pulse again, Alex noticed there was blood matted in her chestnut corkscrew curls.

“The first thing I remember after changing is the smell of a bloodstained rag wrapped around my arm,” Alex said, pitching his voice to carry over the sound of the running tap as he filled a bowl with warm water. “Let’s go ahead and try to avoid the unpleasant complications that led to.”

He turned her head to the side, noticing how sickly his hand looked against her tawny brown skin. His skin had a translucent bluish quality that encouraged complete strangers to offer him sunscreen in the summer. Well, that and the red hair.

He moved the pillow, noticing a small brown blood smear. He placed the bowl behind her head and pulled her hair into it, frowning as the curls retracted when he released them. Alex lifted her head with one hand and held it over the bowl while he washed out most of the blood. He dumped out the water and sniffed her head. He could still smell blood. Retrieving his shampoo from the bathroom, he lathered up the damp hair and rinsed it in clean water. Sniffing again, he found a strong smell of shampoo, but none of blood. He replaced the pillow with one from his bed and took the blood-smeared one down to the dumpster.

When he came back, she was watching him. Her light-brown eyes followed him across the room.

“Hi, I’m Alex,” he said in a soothing voice.

“I know.”

He stared. He wasn’t really expecting a response, much less a coherent one. How do you know?

“Why am I alive?” Her tone was very matter-of-fact.

Why were you expecting to be dead? “I don’t appreciate people dying in my shower.”

“That isn’t your business.”

“It is. I’m a doctor. I work against death.” She shouldn’t be this rational. She should be screaming and thrashing. “My shower. My rules.”

“That sucks.”

Alex started laughing. He sat in the chair next to her head. “Yeah, well… tough.”

She scrutinized him with a series of targeted looks. “You’re not tough.”

Alex felt flickers of danger. It wasn’t a threat. She wasn’t stating an opinion. There was no doubt in her mind: He was no threat to her. “No. I’m resilient.”

“What’s that mean?” Her breathing came in ragged little bursts each time she spoke.

The virus is still working its way through her body. “It means I always get back up.”

“People I hit usually stay down.”

Alex nodded. “You could kick my ass.”

She gestured with her chin. “Ropes?”

He sighed. “You’re at risk of becoming a mindless killer for a few days.” He shrugged. “Most people feel bad afterwards. I thought I’d save you the guilt.”

“Is that why I feel all tingly?” She wiggled her fingers.

“Tingly?”

“Yeah, like when you sit on your foot and it goes to sleep, only all over my body.”

Alex remembered the feel of liquid fire moving through his veins until the pain consumed him, body and mind. “Are you uncomfortable?”

“No. It feels sorta good, like smoking menthols and getting high.”

He blinked in disbelief. “Every blood cell in your body is changing.”

“Oh.” She flicked her gaze around the room with teenage disinterest.

“I think you’re the first person to ever describe the experience as ‘tingly.’ Most people are too busy screaming.”

“Guess I’m not most people.”

Alex leaned the chair back onto two legs. “Clearly.”

“How long is this going to take?” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “This is boring.”

The chair legs snapped down. “This is permanent. You were dying.”

“Duh. That was the point.”

Alex rubbed his hands over his face, realizing he hadn’t shaved yet. “Look…” He glanced over at her. “What’s your name?”

She smirked. “You don’t remember?”

“I don’t even know how you got here.”

“But you were so good at moaning it.”

Alex stopped and slowly turned to look at her. There was a bed made up on the sofa. “That didn’t happen.”

She laughed. “Didn’t it?”

He scowled. “No.”

She slowly licked her lips and blew him a kiss. “Your loss.”

“You’re trouble.”

“No, I’m Hannah.”

Alex got up and placed his hands on the table beside her. “This is serious, Hannah. You’re not going to die. Not today, maybe not ever.”

“What do you mean, I’m not going to die?” Hannah’s autumn-colored eyes fixed on him.

“There is a virus in your blood. It causes your body to replicate cells much faster than usual. The effects of aging will be limited to small musculature changes.”

“I’m not going to die and I’m not going to age?”

Alex walked around the table rubbing at his face. “Correct. You are going to need to up the amount of easily digestible nutrients you take in on a daily basis.”

“What if I get shot?”

“If you don’t bleed out or get shot in something immediately vital, it will heal within a few hours.” He caught himself rubbing below his left collarbone and dropped his hand.

“Can I re-grow body parts?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t know?”

“I’ve never had the opportunity to try, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“So I’m immortal, like the Highlander?” she asked, raising her head. “Do I get a sword?”

“I’ve never owned a sword,” Alex said, frowning.

Her breath hitched and her head slammed back against the pillow. “Wow.”

“What?”

Her eyes closed and she hummed against smiling lips. “This feels better than sex.”

“I’m starting to think you might not go crazy and kill the neighbors.”

“Yeah, probably not. I don’t really like the sight of blood.”

“That might be problematic.”

Hannah’s eyes snapped open. “Is blood an ‘easily digestible nutrient’?”

Alex bit his lip with one fang and nodded.

Hannah glared over a disbelieving sneer. “Goddamn it. Fuck you.”

Chapter Two

Hannah clenched her fists. “I’m a goddamn vampire.”

Alex nodded.

She tilted her head. “Can I fly?”

“No.”

“Can I read minds?”

“Could you before?” asked Alex.

She pouted. “No.”

“Not going to change.”

“Can’t die but I have to drink blood and I don’t get a sword?”

Alex sighed. “You don’t have to drink blood specifically, and we can get you a sword.”

“This sucks!” Hannah flailed her hands against the ropes. “I got turned into a vampire and there isn’t even anything cool about it.”

The climbing rope snapped and slingshot away from the table, narrowly missing Alex.

Hannah’s mouth made a tiny “o.” “Oops.”

Alex swallowed audibly and took a deep breath. Climbing ropes have stretch and don’t break easily. She’d snapped it like kitchen twine. “I changed my mind. No swords.”

“I want a sword,” Hannah whined as she wriggled out of the ropes.

Alex walked over to the liquor cabinet and took a large swig of cheap bourbon. He tossed the cap away and carried the bottle back toward the table.

“I’m going to get up now,” Hannah said, sliding off the table.

He shrugged. It wasn’t like he could stop her.

She stopped next to him, rolling her neck and shoulder muscles. He took a step forward, and her foot caught him on the side of the calf.

Alex went down with a groan as he felt bone crack. Liquid sloshed over his hand, but he held the bottle upright in front of him.

“That’s for making me a vampire.”

Alex clutched his leg with his free hand and writhed on the floor. Pain blotted out all other thoughts.

Hannah’s bare foot pushed him on to his back and stepped on his chest.

He could barely make out Hannah’s angry face through tears of pain.

“What happens if I crush your chest?” she asked.

“Might die,” Alex managed through gritted teeth. “Definitely pass out.”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“I don’t know.” Please don’t. It would really hurt.

“You aren’t fighting.”

“You’d win.”

“I have won.”

Alex nodded.

He whimpered as he pulled himself up and hobbled to the sofa.

“Are you crying?” Hannah asked.

“Hurts,” he gasped. “Broken”

“You moved,” she said in a perturbed voice.

He gulped at the whiskey bottle, set it down, and collapsed back against the sofa. His breathing was loud and shaky.

“It will heal fast, right?” Hannah’s voice was tinged with panic.

Alex shut his eyes against the pain and nodded. “A few hours.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded tiny and frightened.

“I deserved that.”

“I didn’t mean to break it,” she whispered.

He focused on his pain receptors and stress hormones flooding his system. His brain might be operational, but he still had poor control of several internal systems. What the hell happened last night? What is screwing up my control? Why can’t I remember anything? “Can you get the bag under the bathroom sink?” She’s starting to panic. Hold it together.

She came back with the bag. “Are you really a doctor?”

“Yes.”

He set aside the still-bloody syringe on top of the bag’s contents and rummaged for a bottle of ibuprofen. Hannah grabbed a pair of handcuffs as he shoved them out of the way. “Why are there handcuffs in here?”

“Where else would I keep them?” Alex dry-swallowed four pills and grabbed an Ace bandage. “Can you hand me those magazines?”

Hannah handed him a pile of recent Rolling Stones. Alex rolled up Michael J. Fox and Madonna and stuffed them in between the sofa cushions. He pulled the ottoman up against the sofa and elevated the broken leg. He put his nose almost to his knee and gingerly prodded around his fibula.

“I thought you were… what’d you call it?”

“Resilient,” said Alex. “I still feel pain. So do you, I suspect.” He pointed in front of the ottoman. “Sit there.” He placed the rolled magazines on either side of his leg. “Hold these.”

She watched as he wrapped the Ace bandage down the length of his calf. “Are you mad at me?”

Alex looked up. “I said I deserved it, didn’t I?”

“What do we do now?” Her eyes begged for answers.

“I’m going to sit here. I could use a bowl of cereal if you felt so inclined.” Alex closed his eyes and tried to shut off the pain. He heard her get up and rummage in the kitchen.

“You only have crap cereal.”

“I like Grape Nuts.”

“Whatever.”

“Is there still a banana?” asked Alex.

She didn’t answer. He heard the sound of cereal pouring into a bowl and the refrigerator door opening and closing.

“Here,” she said, thrusting a bowl and spoon at him. There were slices of banana floating in the cereal and milk. She carried an identical bowl.

They ate in silence. Alex noticed when the sound of her spoon scraping the bowl stopped. He looked over and found her crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing. It’s stupid.” Hannah wiped her eyes, shoveled cereal into her mouth, and chewed mutely.

He sighed, grabbed a screwdriver out of his medical bag and threw it — handle first — at the push-button TV. It missed and bounced off. “Damn.” He pawed through the bag in search of another suitable projectile.

With a disgusted noise, Hannah got off the couch and turned on the TV. The screen popped to life and slowly warmed up, as the sound of The People’s Court came through before the picture. She took the ear syringe out of his upraised hand and tossed it back in the bag.

“I would have gotten it,” said Alex.

She gave him a sideways look and rolled her eyes.

They ate cereal while Judge Wapner presided over a dispute between neighbors. Hannah grabbed his empty bowl as soon as he set it down. She padded into the kitchen and rinsed out both their dishes.

“How old is this Chinese food?” she asked from the fridge.

Alex rubbed his temple with the heel of his hand. “Thursday.”

Hannah sniffed it and took a bite. “This is awful.”

Alex shrugged. “They deliver.”

“You bite the driver?”

Alex looked to see if she was serious. “What? No.”

“But you drink blood.”

Alex rubbed at his face. “Not frequently and not directly.” He pointed at a cupboard in the kitchen. “I drink a lot of supplement powder.”

Hannah threw away the empty takeout container and came back with a canister of vitamin supplement powder. “This is for women.”

“It has iron.”

“How do I make it?”

“Put four teaspoons in the bottom of a sports bottle, add a scoop of Tang, fill with water and shake for an eternity.” Alex winced as the bone started to bond at the cellular level.

“Blech,” said Hannah.

“You should probably drink two.”

“Yeah right.”

He bit back a smirk watching her face contort as she drank. Judge Wapner handed down his verdict and viewers were urged to take ‘em to court. Alex finally found the remote between the couch cushions and flipped to HBO, where the opening scene of The Beastmaster faded onto the screen. The ibuprofen was taking effect, but it wasn’t enough to completely dull the shooting pain.

Hannah sat down on the sofa’s armrest. “I’ve seen this.”

“You can change it if you want.”

She slid off the armrest into a huddle on the sofa. “I don’t care.”

Alex stared up at the sparkling textured ceiling. “I don’t know what to tell you. I didn’t plan this.”

“Am I your bride or something now?”

“Ahahaha!” The idea caught Alex off guard and sent him into spasms of laughter. He wiped tears out of his eyes and found Hannah staring daggers at him. “No,” he chuckled. “I think that’s Frankenstein anyway.”

“Do you want me to leave?”

He stared up at the ceiling again, counting the sparkles directly above his head. There is no way to neatly explain her presence to anyone. She broke my leg by accident. She’s trouble in every way possible.

He looked over at her curled compactly into a corner of the sofa, not even taking up half the cushion.

She’s scared. She’s miserable. She tried to kill herself this morning. “Can’t force you to stay, but I’m not going to kick you out.”

The halo of curls rose up off her knees. “I can stay, like, forever?”

“Forever is a very long time,” said Alex. “You can stay until whenever.”

“For real?”

Alex felt his world shift and slide like air in front of a speeding train. “Yes.”

Chapter Three

Alex gingerly got to his feet as the closing credits rolled. Hannah was trying to choke down her third serving of supplement powder.

“How do you feel?” asked Alex.

She shrugged. “How’s the leg?”

He shifted his weight back and forth. “Any change in the tingly feeling?”

“Comes and goes.”

“Still hungry?” Alex asked. He poured himself a glass of milk and drank it in three large gulps.

“Starving.”

“Any urges to go on a murderous rampage?”

“No, I think you’re safe.”

Alex looked at his wrist and realized his watch was still by the bed. “We could go get lunch.”

“What if I kill everyone?”

“We’ll get drive-thru.”

“Are you always this calm about everything?”

Alex drank a second glass of milk. “My lack of outward panic is not calm.”

She crouched down and prodded his splinted leg with one finger.

He flinched.

Hannah sat on the floor and unwrapped the splint. “You’re weird.”

“Testing boundaries?” He slid away from her and rinsed out his glass.

“Huh?” Her face did not match the query. She knew exactly what he meant.

Alex retrieved his watch, wallet, and socks from the bedroom, gradually putting more weight on his injured leg.

“Is this a good idea?” asked Hannah. She slipped on her boots, went to the closet, and retrieved a denim jacket Alex had overlooked.

Alex zipped up a hooded sweatshirt and slid on black loafers. “No idea.”

“Maybe I should stay here?”

“No.” He grabbed his keys and gestured her out the door. “I’d prefer to take my chances than come home to a massacre.”

They walked down the four flights to the street. Alex temporarily lost sight of Hannah. He walked outside and found her standing beside his truck in the parking lot. She knows my truck.

“What’s in the back?” She tapped on the darkened windows of the canopy. “Bodies?”

Alex unlocked the canopy and swung it open for her inspection. “Camping equipment.”

“How many bodies did you hide in the woods?”

“None. I went camping with some friends. The only thing that died was a tasty trout.” He locked the canopy and opened the passenger door for her.

“You’re a pretty crappy vampire,” she said, reaching over to turn on the radio as he started the engine. Falco stuttered over the truck’s mono speakers.

“Thank you.” Alex turned down the radio and reached across to the glove compartment for his sunglasses.

“Hey,” she said, “it’s daytime.”

He shifted the truck into gear. “Noon, even.”

“So, not a creature of the night?”

“Not required to be, no.”

“Garlic?”

“That Chinese food was full of garlic.”

“Hmm. Stakes to the heart? Silver bullets?”

“If someone has the strength to push a stake into your heart, it should kill you or anyone else. Silver bullets are for killing werewolves, but try not to get shot in the head by anything. You aren’t likely to grow a new brain.” He glanced over at her. “Put your seatbelt on.”

“Oh my God, seriously?” She huffed and pouted as she clicked it in place.

“Don’t need to be invited in, no coffins, never felt compelled to count sand, and running water is no problem.”

“So what’s the downside?”

“You’re contagious.”

“I didn’t catch a fucking cold.”

“Direct contact with your bodily fluids may transmit the virus.”

“I have vampire AIDS.”

“Close enough.”

“Why not give the virus to everyone?”

“Not everyone can catch it. Some will feel ill when they come in contact with your saliva, some are allergic. Only certain people can host the virus.”

“I caught it.”

“You broke my leg without trying,” he said. “That has something to do with it.”

“Oh. Right.” She turned and stared out the window, sighing. “Of course the only thing being Hallowed’s good for is becoming a vampire.”

“The virus is shutting down your reproductive systems and using that energy to renew your cells. Your hair and nails will grow faster than before, and your skin will shed noticeably.”

“No babies, ashy skin, but fabulous hair and nails?”

Alex pointed to the McDonald’s arches. “What do you want?”

“Four burgers and an orange soda.”

“Cheese?”

“No.”

Alex doubled the order and relayed it into the red box. Unintelligible static answered, and he pulled forward to the window.

A miserable girl about Hannah’s age leaned out the window and took his money. Hannah’s nose wrinkled and she recoiled against the door. Alex handed one of the sodas to Hannah to hold and placed the bag of burgers between them.

He sipped at his soda as they drove away. “I forgot to mention the smell thing.”

“Shit yeah you did.”

“I guess I don’t think about it anymore.”

“How?” Hannah gaped at him.

He shrugged. “You get used to it.”

She sniffed at the bag of burgers. “This doesn’t smell stronger.”

“Just human smells.” He adjusted his sunglasses and switched the soda to his other hand. “I don’t know why.”

Hannah grabbed a burger out of the bag and unwrapped it. “Human smells freak me out.” She ate it in five bites.

“Sorry, I would have warned you.”

She sniffed in his direction. “I guess I can smell you too, just less freaky.”

Alex slid the truck into a parking spot along the lakefront. “People who can host the virus smell different.”

“Different how?”

He turned off the truck and grabbed a burger of his own. “Just different.” He bit into the burger and stared out at the water.

“Can I roll down the window? I’ll leave my seatbelt on.”

She’d locked her door when he wasn’t paying attention. He reached over and put two fingers on the pulse at her neck. She trembled for a second, but her pulse was slow and steady. He drew back, and she let out the breath she’d been holding.

“How do you feel?”

“I feel… good.” She sounded surprised.

“Only halfway,” he said. “Just in case.”

He turned on the radio and they devoured burgers while the Top 40 wound its way down. Hannah finished her burgers before Alex unwrapped his third. She sucked at her soda and tilted her head towards the open window and closed her eyes.

“I haven’t been here in a long time,” she said, opening her eyes to watch a couple pushing a stroller.

“I don’t usually come here,” he said. “Usually I go for a walk further north, near Michael Reese Hospital, so I don’t have to re-park.”

Hannah shuddered. “I don’t want to smell a hospital right now.” She tucked her knees against her chest and leaned on the window. “I smell sick. I don’t like it.”

Alex nodded. “Jaundice. Don’t worry, that baby will be better soon.”

“Good.”

“We’ll keep you away from the hospital, though.”

“We’re going to pretend this is completely normal?” Hannah gestured in the air between them. “It feels pretty normal, or at least what I’ve imagined normal life is like.”

“What does?” Alex held up the last hamburger, which she’d been eying. “Still hungry?”

“It’s OK, I’m used to being hungry.”

Alex winced. He remembered the dull ache of hunger all too well. Not vampire hunger, but human hunger. He handed her the hamburger.

“Watching TV, getting hamburgers, turning into a vampire.” She didn’t tear into the burger like the others. She took normal-sized bites and chewed slowly, watching him from behind its wrapper.

“No, it’s not normal.” He took the lid off his soda and chewed the ice. “I just don’t see any point in freaking out.”

“What are you going to do if I go crazy?”

Alex turned away from those bright brown eyes. “Stop you from hurting anyone.”

“Kill me?”

He wrapped fingers tight around the steering wheel. “Only if I have to.”

“Why did you do this to me?”

The question was incredulous curiosity, but Alex felt guilty. “I… I didn’t really think about it. I didn’t want you to die.”

“Why?” She barely breathed the question.

“I’ve watched too many people die.”

“I’m not special?” Hannah’s eyes threatened to spill over with tears.

Of course you’re special. A special and unique life. But that isn’t what she wanted to hear. He reached over and released her seatbelt. “I don’t think you’re going to go crazy, and I’m not going to leave you on your own unless you want me to.”

Hannah’s curls bounced as she shook her head. “No.”

Alex dislodged ice out of his cup and tilted them into his mouth. “Then I suppose this is normal.”

“Good.”

Chapter Four

Two Nights Prior | Thursday | May 29, 1986

Hannah sighed and got into the car. “Fine, Zachariah. I’ll go.”

“I can always depend on you, Hannah Leigh.”

The hypnotic hum of her brother’s baritone rumble washed over her; familiar and comforting.

“Why aren’t you driving your car?” She pulled her knees to her chest. Something wasn’t right. Even the soft buzz of Zachariah’s persistent humming couldn’t drown out the doubt.

Zachariah drove a silver BMW he loved like a wife. It got considerably more attention and respect than his frequent and interchangeable girlfriends ― white, bleach blonde, and easily manipulated. Hannah didn’t bother learning their names anymore.

“It’s at the mechanic.” He turned on the radio and pulled away from the curb.

She didn’t even know what kind of car this was. Something old and square, with a blue interior that matched what was left of the paint.

The radio was tinny and not quite on station due to an unbent-coat-hanger antenna.

Hannah watched her brother as he drove. He was wearing sweats. He never wore sweats. His dark brown hair was freshly cut ― every Thursday, 3 p.m., Donovan’s ― and impeccably styled to look more like Tom Cruise.

“Where are we going?” Hannah watched his jaw muscles ripple beneath his ear.

He didn’t answer.

“Can we get food?”

“We’ll do anything you want, Hannah Leigh, just gotta take care of some business first.” He layered his words with a throaty growl that prickled her skin.

She hated it, but couldn’t help loving the way it made her feel. It was almost like nitrous elation as it took her mind to blissful nothingness ― no thought, just ecstasy. They say nitrous puts holes in your brain if you use it too much. Scientists should study the long-term effects of Zachariah’s voice. Though they’d have to cut her open to do it. She’d been exposed more than anyone else.

“Roll down your window.” Zachariah turned off the radio.

Hannah cranked down the window as Zachariah slowly crept up on a lone figure walking down the sidewalk.

Zachariah leaned across Hannah to yell out the window. “Kienen!”

Hannah couldn’t believe her eyes. It was Kienen. His once wild and curly hair was shorn almost to the scalp, and his flawless brown face seemed small without it. Why hadn’t he called her? Where were the promised letters?

Kienen kept walking.

“C’mon, Kienen.” Zachariah wrapped his voice in extra tones. “Come get Giordano’s with me and Hannah Leigh.” Zachariah’s voice dropped to a whisper, the words coming out like a hiss of static. “Convince him to come.”

“It’s good to see you, Kienen,” Hannah said, compelled but truthful. “I missed you.”

Kienen stopped walking. Zachariah pulled to the curb.

“Sorry, Hannah,” said Kienen. “I’m not trying to roll with this dude.”

“It’s just pizza.” Zachariah leaned out the window. “I’m not here to start shit, Kienen. I want to put this behind us. I wouldn’t bring Hannah Leigh if there was going to be trouble.” The air hummed with the energy behind his words.

“Please, Kienen?” Hannah tried her best puppy-dog look. “It’s been so long.”

“You buying, Zachariah?”

“Of course. We’re celebrating your return. What kind of friend would I be to make you buy your welcome-home pizza?” Zachariah unlocked the back door behind Hannah.

“Some friend,” Kienen muttered as he slid into the backseat. “You’re the one who got me sent to jail.”

“Let’s not talk about unpleasant things.” Zachariah’s voice lowered to a soothing purr. “You’re back now.”

“You know how many ‘friends’ he’s sold out, Hannah Leigh?” Kienen leaned forward; his warm breath stirred the curls over her left ear.

She frowned. No. She didn’t know how many, but it wasn’t one or two. She turned toward Kienen, but Zachariah’s hand pushed her back.

“Face the road.” Zachariah’s voice sounded off-station, like the recently silenced radio.

Unlike his previous “requests,” she didn’t want to obey this one. She wanted to see Kienen. To re-memorize his face. To search his eyes for answers. She pushed back against Zachariah’s hand.

“You don’t want to disappoint me,” hummed Zachariah.

She let him push her back so she faced forward. They were stopped at a light; the intersection was deserted. She curled up against her knees and closed her eyes.

A gunshot deafened her from within the car.

“Keep your eyes closed!” Zachariah had lost most of the layers of sound and energy in his voice, but it didn’t matter ― she wanted to obey.

The car moved forward and continued to move. Hannah squeezed her ears between her knees. She saw nothing but flashes of light against her eyelids. She heard nothing but her own sobs inside her head. She quickly lost track of the turns while trying to shut out the smell. The car accelerated without stopping.

Memory flashes — Kienen laughing, softness of his lips, weight of his body — the smell of blood.

“Ohgodohgod what’ve you done?” The voice doesn’t even sound like hers.

“Shhh, everything is going to be fine.” Zachariah didn’t sound fine. “I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

Nothing is fine. Nothing will ever be fine.

“I promised,” said Zachariah. “I won’t let anyone take me away from you. I’m taking care of you, Hannah Leigh.”

The car slowed down and began to snake its way through turns.

“He’s your friend!” Her scream reverberated in the small car.

“I had to.”

“Kienen is my friend,” she sobbed. “More than a friend.”

“He wanted you — everyone — to hate me. He was going to tell everyone.

“He wanted you to leave. He’d hurt you.”

Realization. “He did write.”

Zachariah stopped and turned off the car. “I had to, Hannah Leigh.”

Only darkness lay beyond the windshield when she opened her eyes. Zachariah jumped out of the car and ran around to pull her out. The stale air reeked of machine oil and rodents — they were inside some old warehouse or factory. Zachariah wrapped her tight against his chest and pulled her away from the car, kicking the door closed.

“Everything’s gonna be OK.” Zachariah rubbed her arms.

She leaned against his chest, not trusting her own legs to hold her. There were damp spots on the sweatshirt beneath her cheek. Blood. She pushed him away and sank to the timber floor. She bent over her folded knees and pressed her head to the floor, her breath fast and shallow. She felt like she was drowning. Air rushed in and out of her lungs, but she couldn’t breathe.

“I’ll be right back.” Zachariah’s footsteps vibrated into her head. She couldn’t move. Her head was too heavy to lift. Sweat seeped from her palms and forehead into the wood beneath her.

The trunk of the car opened, then slammed shut again. Zachariah picked her up under the arms and struggled forward.

“Leave me alone,” Hannah whimpered, hanging limp in his arms.

“Never.”

Zachariah half-dragged her out of the building and down the street before she was able to get her feet fully beneath her. They were three blocks away when she heard the muffled explosion. Two more blocks and he opened the door to a cheap motel room.

“Take a shower,” he said, his voice layered like a symphony once more. “You’ll feel better.”

Hannah trembled to the bathroom and shut the door. Tears streamed down her face. She started the water and sat on the toilet while it got hot. Toed off her Keds and shrugged clothes to the ground. There were tiny speckles of blood on the back of her shirt. She lifted it to her lips and kissed one of the specks tenderly. This is how it ends. Not another screaming match, no thrown objects — just gone, dead. She buried her face in the shirt and sobbed. Now I’ll never know if I loved him.

The shirt fell from her fingers. Her body shook as she stepped into the warm spray. She leaned against the shower wall, letting the water hit her in the face. Eyes closed, left hand clutching the nozzle for support, she stayed there until the water turned cold. Shivering, she wrapped a thin, scratchy towel around her body and walked back into the motel room, water dripping down her back.

Zachariah wrapped a blanket around her shaking body. “Get dressed.” He placed a grocery sack next to her on the bed and took another with him into the bathroom.

There was a change of clothes in the bag: black leggings, sweatshirt, denim jacket, and her motorcycle boots. Her skin was still damp, making the leggings a struggle, but she was dressed by the time Zachariah finished showering. He reappeared wearing slacks, a dress shirt, a tie, and suspenders. He ran a comb through his hair and checked the mirror to make sure his side part was perfect, flicking a wayward strand into place with his finger. He shoved all their clothes from the bathroom into a bag.

“Wait here.” He didn’t bother adding anything to his normal baritone this time. He was tired and drained. The voice took a lot out of him.

Hannah slid on her boots and hugged the denim jacket tighter around her. She was no longer cold, but she couldn’t stop shivering. She stared at the dark and silent television. Television would be a welcome distraction, but she couldn’t seem to move. She stared at her reflection in the darkened screen.

Zachariah was gone a while — fifteen minutes, maybe thirty — and returned empty-handed. He shut and locked the door. “We need to go, Hannah Leigh.”

She refocused her distant eyes on him. He looked the way he always looked. She wanted to smash him open and see if he was different on the inside.

“You OK, Banana Flea?”

Hannah closed her eyes and shook her head a tiny bit. He hadn’t called her that in a very long time.

He pulled her into a tight hug. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” she murmured into his chest.

“You’re going to be fine.” He didn’t or couldn’t layer reassurance into his words.

“I can’t keep doing this.” She pressed her face harder against him. “Please.”

“I need you, baby sister.”

Hannah felt like crying, but there were no tears left.

“You’re the only one I can trust now, Hannah Leigh. Everyone is out to destroy me.”

She grabbed a fistful of his shirt, imagined picking him up and tossing him into the wall.

He wrapped his pale fingers over her tawny ones and peeled them off his shirt. He pressed her clenched hand to his cheek. “Family is forever.”

Her fingers relented and spread. “Yeah.”

Zachariah stood up and set her on her feet. He rested his chin on her head and squeezed her tight. “We have to go.”

His car was waiting outside. The interior smelled like Drakkar Noir and leather upholstery. She curled up in the seat and closed her eyes.

The Beemer roared into traffic and tore onto the expressway. Zachariah ejected the cassette tape in the deck, turning on the radio. Katrina and the Waves blasted over the speakers.

Hannah buried her face in the back of the seat and wrapped her arms over her still-damp hair.

He shifted gears, and the acceleration pushed her nose harder into the seat. Zachariah reached over and touched her shoulder before shifting again.

They took a sharp turn. Hannah slid across the seat and slammed into the door.

“Careful,” he said.

“I’m fine,” said Hannah. She braced one boot on the dash and squiggled into a forward-facing position.

Zachariah swatted her foot down. “Feet off.”

Headlights streaked past them as they sped back towards the city. He slowed down to the speed limit as they got closer. They slid off the expressway and obeyed every traffic law to the letter until Zachariah pulled into the diner parking lot.

He tapped the digital clock reading 10:17 on the tape deck. “We got here thirty minutes ago.”

“It might have been thirty-five,” she said as he turned off the ignition.

He squeezed her hand. “It might have been.”

I will do anything my brother asks me to do. The thought made her shiver.

Chapter Five

Friday Night | May 30, 1986

Hannah crossed the street to the party. It didn’t seem to be your standard college house party. The partygoers seemed a little older, though no less drunk than the people at the parties she’d already been to. She herself was a little drunk and more than a little stoned. Those other parties wouldn’t make it to midnight before the cops came to shut them down, and she had no intention of getting arrested tonight. This party was quieter. Sure, there were people milling around outside smoking, but they weren’t screaming or undressed.

A dark-haired man wearing scrubs moved towards her as she walked up to the gate.

“Is Bill here yet?” she asked, pointing toward the house.

The man sighed and shrugged. “He might be inside. I haven’t seen him.”

Every group has that guy who invites random people. According to a conversation she’d overheard on the bus earlier, for this party, that person was Bill.

She strolled up to the house and went looking for a crowd to get lost in. A central dining room was stocked with a keg and several coolers filled with ice and drinks. Hannah retreated to a chair in a corner of the room.

A pale, brown-haired woman was barely conscious on the sofa across from her. A man with close-cropped-blond hair had his hands all over her. She didn’t seem to be reacting to anything he was saying or doing.

It set Hannah’s teeth on edge. You’re trying to lie low, she reminded herself.

The man started working his way under the woman’s shirt.

Fuck it, I’ll be gone before the cops arrive. Hannah stood up and started across the room.

A redheaded man beat her to it, seemingly out of nowhere. He hauled the blond man roughly to his feet with one hand and shoved him to the other end of the sofa.

“What the hell, Alex?” the blond asked, trying to struggle to his feet. He was too drunk to get past Alex, who pushed him down again.

“No.”

“What are you doing?” The blond man stopped struggling and contented himself with righteous indignation. “Leave off, man.”

Hannah slid backwards, trying to reclaim her seat without being noticed.

Alex turned and trapped her with a glance. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Bill invited me,” she tried, knowing it was no use.

“I made sure Bill was working tonight.” Alex leaned forward and helped the brunette on the sofa to her feet. He struggled to deal with her faltering balance and his beer at the same time. “Hold this,” he told Hannah. “Come with me.”

“Hey, come back,” protested the blond man. Alex ignored him.

Hannah followed Alex as he helped the woman into the kitchen and got her a glass of water. The woman seemed a little more responsive and was able to hold the glass on her own.

“Who’d you come with, darlin’?” Alex asked. He had a very slight Southern accent.

“Tonya.” The woman laid her head down on the kitchen table.

Alex fixed Hannah in place with a steely blue-eyed stare. “And what’s your name?”

“Hannah.” Shit, should have given a fake name.

“Stay with her, Hannah. If she falls asleep, wake her up.”

Alex left them alone. A few people wandered in out of the kitchen, but no one seemed to pay Hannah or the brunette any mind. Everyone was drunk and having a good time. Everyone except Alex. He was going to be trouble.

Hannah noticed the woman hadn’t moved in a few minutes.

Hannah poked her. “You awake?”

“Yeah,” came a mumbled reply.

“Is there a doctor in the house?!” someone yelled in the other room, followed by loud laughter.

“What kind do you want?” someone else yelled back.

The stereo cranked up on the opening notes of “Calling Dr. Love.”

Hannah sighed. It seemed like such a fun party. More than most. Maybe if Alex just loosened up a bit… She glanced at his beer, which he’d left sitting beside her. She fumbled in her pocket of her denim jacket for the two pills she had no intention of taking and dropped them into the can.

“You still awake?” she asked the woman.

There was only a mumble in answer.

Hannah pushed the baggie of pills for later into the deepest corner of her jacket pocket. She reached over and pinched the woman on the arm.

“Ow, what’d you do that for?”

“Wake up,” said Hannah.

“I’m awake.”

Hannah swirled Alex’s tall beer can and set it back on the table. People in the other room were shouting lyrics back and forth. She kicked at the table leg in frustration. It might not be her favorite Kiss song, but it was one of the better ones.

“What?” asked the woman, disturbed by Hannah’s kick.

Alex walked into the kitchen with an angry blonde woman in tow.

“I’ve called you a cab,” he said. “Take her home and stay with her.”

“Send her home in the cab,” said the blonde. “She’ll sleep it off.”

Alex crossed his arms over his chest and tilted his head to the left. “You can go with her and make sure she’s fine, or I can take her to the hospital and check her in under your team.”

The woman helped the brunette to her feet. “Let’s go.”

Hannah held out the beer to Alex and watched as he took a large swig, then drained the can.

He sat down at the table next to Hannah and sighed. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m just here to have a good time.” She smirked at him. “Don’t you know how to have a good time?”

Air rushed out of his lungs in something resembling a laugh. “How old are you?”

She shrugged. “Old enough.”

“You’re not twenty-one.”

“I’m not drinking.”

“Maybe not here, but you have been.”

“So what?” Hannah pulled one knee against her chest and rested her chin on it, kicking the other leg idly beneath her.

“So you can’t stay here.”

She dropped her knee and leaned towards him, brushing her fingers on the inside of his wrist. “Do you really want me to leave?”

Alex slid his hands up the back of her arms and up her neck as he moved forward into her, then cradled her jaw in his palms. His beer-laced breath brushed her face and his wide blue eyes swallowed her entire vision.

A shiver ran up her spine and she held her breath.

His fingers pressed firmly into the joints below her ears until she winced. “I bet that move works for you all the time.” He laughed and dropped his hands.

Hannah felt heat well up in her eyes. “Fuck off.”

“You should be careful who you play games with.”

“You don’t know me.” She turned her face away to hide the tears.

“I don’t need to know you. I’ve known a hundred just like you.”

Hannah whipped her head back towards him, tears running down her face. “That’s bullshit!” She kicked the chair between his legs and sent it spinning across the kitchen. She ran out the back door and sat down on the steps, crying. She heard the door open and close again behind her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sitting down a few steps above her.

“Go away. I’m leaving. Isn’t that what you want?”

“Talk to me.”

“Fuck off.”

“Something is seriously wrong.” Alex moved down one step. “Tell me.”

“No point in talking.” Hannah wrapped her hand around the pills in her jacket pocket.

“Can’t hurt trying.”

She snorted. “Can. Done hurting.”

“Fine.” He got up and walked back into the house.

Hannah wiped away the tears and started for the front of the house. She shoved her hands in her pockets and slouched into her denim jacket. There were other parties. Other places to go before—

“Hannah!” His voice made her name sound like it belonged to someone else.

She turned around. Alex carried a can of orange soda and another beer.

“What?” She narrowed her eyes.

He pressed the dripping soda into her hand. “Here.”

She kept walking through the front gate.

“Life is often painful,” he called after her.

“Life isn’t worth the pain.”

A hand grabbed her shoulder.

“It is,” said Alex.

“You don’t know that.” Hannah shrugged away his hand. “You don’t know me.”

“I know you’re scared.” He leaned back against the fence. “I know you’re running. I don’t know from what, I don’t know why. You don’t trust anyone, but you can’t deal with this on your own.”

Hannah turned to look at him. As he continued talking, the Southern accent melted away and was replaced with a different one. Not an English accent exactly, but something like it. She realized it had been there before, underneath the Southern accent.

She tossed back her short curls. “You can’t help me.”

Blue eyes held hers. “You don’t know that. You don’t know me.” His words flowed into one another.

Hannah bit her knuckle. She should just walk away. Go somewhere else. “Supposed to be picking up a package for my brother right now.” She tried to sound casual about it.

Alex’s eyes read her face. “Little late for the post office.”

She snorted. “Yeah. No shit.” She sat down on the curb and stared past the glare of streetlights to the stars shining dimly above. She pulled a pack of cigarettes from the inner pocket of her jacket. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” She pulled out a cigarette and wrapped her index finger all the way around it and put it to her lips. “I can’t do this anymore.” She felt in her pocket for a lighter.

Alex stepped away from the fence, into shadow. “I had a brother like that.” His voice was eerily quiet. It cut through the sounds of the city, hitting Hannah like a weight.

He knows. She flicked the lighter a couple times until it held a flame long enough to light her cigarette. She turned to find him sitting on the curb beside her. “Yeah?”

He laughed bitterly. “He almost never got caught. When he did, he talked his way out of it, usually by blaming it on me.”

“Zachariah doesn’t blame me,” sighed Hannah. “He just makes me feel guilty when things don’t go right, and then I agree to help him again.”

“It never ends,” he sighed. “There’s always one more score. One more favor. One more thing you owe.”

Hannah found herself transfixed by the streetlight shimmering on his hair as he rubbed it. She could smell his balsam and citrus shampoo. “How did you do it?”

He tilted his head to look at her. “Do what?”

“Escape.”

Alex laced his fingers around one knee and pulled it to his chest. He took several slow, deep breaths before he answered. “He managed to do something he couldn’t talk his way out of and got himself killed.”

Hannah slumped over. “I don’t want Zachariah to die.” She took a long drag, turned away, and exhaled. “He’s still my brother. I just don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Stay away from him,” said Alex. “He’ll get caught, just don’t be there when he is.”

“He’ll find me.”

“Let’s get pancakes.”

Hannah blinked. “What?”

“Pancakes. Do you like them?”

“Yeah, why?”

“You’re drunk, high, and everything seems horrible. Let’s get pancakes and you can crash on my couch. Things will be easier to deal with in the morning.” Alex lobbed his unopened beer back over the fence. “C’mon, my truck’s just down the block.”

“Are you serious?” Hannah gaped at him. “Why should I go with you?”

Alex offered his hand to pull her up. “Because it is probably safer than half the things you’ve done in the last twenty-four hours.”

Hannah opened her mouth to protest and closed it again.

He pulled her to her feet and waited for her to follow.

“This is crazy,” she muttered.

“Probably.”

His truck was a seafoam green Ford Courier with a tinted canopy on the back. He tossed a bunch of empty soda cans and coffee cups into the narrow space behind the bench. He pushed a bicycle pump and inflatable life jacket back under the seat.

“Why do you…?” Hannah just shook her head.

Alex didn’t seem to notice her concern. “There. A little more room now.” He held the door open for her to get in.

“This is a bad idea,” Hannah said, getting into the truck.

“Horrible idea.” Alex got in and started the engine.

“You’re not supposed to agree with me.”

“Arguing is too much trouble.”

Hannah turned on the radio. A saccharine AM channel oozed from the speakers. She flipped it to FM and spun the dial to WXRT.

“Is there, like, something wrong with you?” asked Hannah.

“Hmm?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Maybe it will help.” Alex readjusted in his seat. “Doing nothing won’t.”

“I don’t need help.”

Alex took one hand off the wheel and pointed at her. “You do.”

“How do you know?”

“Your eyes are very expressive, and they’re screaming for help.”

“You’re making that up.”

“If I was making it up, you wouldn’t be here.” He wrestled the gearshift into second.

“Why am I here?”

Alex tapped the stick with the silver ring on his index finger. “I told you, I had a brother like that.”

Take On Me, the debut novel from Minerva Zimmerman, is on sale now! You can read more about the book here, and also find links to order it for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo. If you enjoy the first chapters, please spread the word. Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Minerva Zimmerman has managed to remain Statistically Chaotic Neutral despite rumors to the contrary. She is the author of The Shattered Ones series of novels from Fireside, and her short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Crossed Genres and Broken Eye Books. She can be found at minervazimmerman.com or as @grumpymartian on Twitter.

© 2015 Stephen Blackmoore