#666 Gatehawl Street
t was late. She could tell because the luminescent display of her digital clock shining green on her nightstand read 2:21 AM. She’d been watching it change one number at a time for the past fifteen minutes. She was supposed to be asleep but she couldn’t settle.
Footsteps paced above her head as agitated voices rose and fell, allowing her to hear snatches of tense conversation. Mama and Gram were arguing for hours and the little girl felt charged up, electrified, though she had no idea what was going on. All she knew was that Mama was upset because Gram had taken her into a modeling agency. Ames Modeling, she thought maybe it was. They had taken her picture there which for some unknown reason made Mama very, very angry.
“We’ve been so careful about hiding her,” Mama had said when she discovered what Gram did. She clutched a glossy magazine with a picture of her daughter, in a frilly dress pulling a red wagon, on the front cover. She waved it at Gram accusingly, voice tight as she spoke. She almost yelled—and that was scary ‘cause Mama never yelled.
“It’s one magazine layout, Caroline. What are the chances he’ll even see it?”
“There’s a chance, that’s all that matters. There’s always a chance,” Mama sounded hoarse, frightened. Her eyes, the prettiest eyes any woman ever had, blurred with tears.
“You shouldn’t have done this. You shouldn’t have exposed her. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” her voice rose to a high squeak. Gram looked upset.
“But she’s such a beautiful girl,” Gram wrapped her small granddaughter tightly in her arms and squeezed her with all the love she had. She smelled delicious, like pie and cookies and special grandma perfume.
“You’re asking me not to spoil my only granddaughter, not to be proud of how people stare and compliment when they see her. Besides Caroline, you know we’re struggling here. They paid us cash for this, five thousand dollars. We need the money!”
Mama looked angry. “We can make it. Tiernan will—”
“Face it Caroline. Tiernan has been missing for a week. He’s disappeared—” Gram clapped her hands over the little girl’s ears at this point and continued in a hushed tone, but the little girl, whose ears were sharper than most, could hear her anyway, “—maybe dead for all we know. We all knew the risks involved; what this life might cost us.
Caroline, we all knew this day could come. He may not be coming back. We can’t make it alone, not with you gone on your—excursions, not without extra income. And you have to face up to the reality—”
“—stop it, just stop it!” Mama shook off the words. She inhaled deeply and reached for her daughter, drawing her away from Gram.
“Darling, there are some cookies in the kitchen,” she’d said, soft and gentle, chasing the little girl’s fears away, “would you like one?”
At the eager nod, she hugged her baby’s shoulders and pressed a kiss to an angelic head of midnight curls. “Good girl,” she murmured, “now I need you to go to your book nook and stay down there tonight for me. You may read as late as you like, but if you hear voices or strange noises—do not come upstairs! You must switch off your light and stay quiet as a mouse until Mama comes and gets you, ok?”
Mama was trembling now and the little girl wanted to ask her what was wrong, but before she could, Mama kissed her again and pushed her in the direction of the kitchen. “Be strong my love. Be safe.”
They were the last words the little girl would ever hear her mother say to her.
ut that was this afternoon. Now it was late, and Mama and Gram were fighting as they so often did now that Papa had gone. Tonight their fight was sharper, fraught with raised voices and lined with fear. Something terrible had happened today in a faraway place called Los Angeles. It had happened to Aunt Coraline.
Aunt Coraline was frightening. There was something not right about her—even the little girl could sense it. It was the curious little things, like how her hands were icy no matter what the room temperature was. And the way Mama would never leave Coraline alone in a room unguarded, as if she were afraid of what might happen.
Aunt Coraline was very beautiful, but in a wild, unfocused way. She inspired as much fear with her presence as fascination. The little girl had to admit she was grateful when Aunt Coraline left from her visits and went back to her home in Los Angeles.
Something happened tonight—something terrible that involved Aunt Coraline and whatever it was, it’d frightened Gram and Mama terribly as well. Things were building now, coalescing to a certain point and the little girl could sense it beckoning even if she didn’t understand it. But she had school early in the morning tomorrow and she knew Mama would be upset if she was discovered so wide awake at this late hour. She just couldn’t get to sleep, even though her book nook was warm and cozy.
Her book nook. That was what she’d called her playroom for so long she’d forgotten there was ever a time before it was called that. It was her favorite room in the whole house, though it was also the child’s only secret.
Bright posters of rainbow unicorns and ponies covered the walls, a carved mahogany box full of toys sat at the edge of a cozy twin daybed, a tiny child’s table and chairs set with a miniature tea party for her and, her most favorite of all, a slim pink bookcase held children’s picture books stacked ceiling-high with an overstuffed, bubblegum pink beanbag beside it where she’d curl up to read on rainy days. Sometimes even on sunny days. Or during the night, armed with a big flashlight, because there was nothing the little girl enjoyed so much as getting lost in one of her fairytales.
Still, her book nook was unusual because most other little girls in her class didn’t have playrooms like hers. They had just their bedrooms or a playroom their friends could visit in that looked like any other room in the house. Their playrooms had normal doors and windows and anyone could walk in whenever they wanted.
But her book nook was different. It was underground, built a level beneath her bedroom so no one knew it was down there. It only had one door, a special door that opened in the middle of her bedroom floor. It was hidden beneath a rug so you couldn’t open unless you knew where it was.
Finally, her book nook was a big secret. She wasn’t allowed to have friends inside or even to speak of it outside of the house. Mama warned her sternly that no one must know of her book nook and how to get inside it but her. So though the little girl longed to tell all her friends the biggest secret she knew, she never breathed a word to anyone.
She snuggled deeper beneath the pink bedspread and hugged her much careworn ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ doll closer to her chest. It was cold tonight, unseasonably so. Colder than a mere absence of warmth could cause. The air felt stagnant and ancient, like a waft of air escaped from a sealed crypt. The dark corners of the room were steeped in velvety midnight, the shadows looked nearer than they should and she felt time hold its breath, waiting for something to happen.
It was then that she realized the voices above her were growing louder—and that they didn’t just belong to Mama and Gram anymore. There was a male voice now, low and accented, lingering just at the edge of her hearing. But it didn’t sound like Papa. It didn’t sound like anyone she recognized.
Curious, she slipped out from beneath the covers and tiptoed over to the steps, clambering up and pressing her ear against cracks in the floorboards, trying to hear better.
“Why are you here?” That was Gram’s voice, tense with a hint of terror. “What do you want?”
The male spoke again, words flowing beautifully as a song yet dark as splintering ice. “You already know what I want. You cannot hide her from me.”
“She’s not here,” that was Mama speaking, scared but strong. Her voice wavered only a notch, but she controlled it with effort. “She’s dead, you know that. She died a long time ago. It’s time to accept that and move on.”
“No,” the word was spit out, low and tight, “she was taken from me. But I’m here to reclaim her now. She’s mine! She always was. You can’t hide her from me. We are, and have always been, one soul. I can feel her even now.”
“Soul? You have no soul! Nor do you have any claim here. Haven’t you creatures done enough to us? What right do you have to tear our family apart?”
“All the right I need,” the stranger now sounded calm. “I have your husband.”
There was a sharp indrawn breath, then a low hiss. What Mama said next the little girl couldn’t hear but she could sense the underlying fear, intensified by the stranger’s rich chuckle.
“Come, come now. You’ll have him back safe and sound, providing you cooperate. Now I’m only going to ask this once more. Where is she?”
“Get out of my house!” the words were low and vicious. They didn’t sound like Mama at all. “How dare you try to threaten us?”
“How dare you defy me?” the stranger no longer sounded cordial. “You will hand her over to me or I’ll rip your house to its very foundations until I find her.”
At the beginning of his speech, the stranger sounded distant as if he were rooms away. By the end of it, though barely any time passed, he sounded much closer—nigh well on top of her. He couldn’t possibly have crossed rooms that fast but he sounded as if he were in her room now.
The little girl shrank back as her book nook suddenly grew colder; much, much colder. Her breath crystallized in midair; her fingers and toes grew numb. The musky scent grew sharper and the atmosphere around her tingled though she didn’t know why. A floorboard squeaked inches away and she bit back a gasp.
Through a crack in the floor she could just barely make out the silhouette of a man; tall, dark and slender, standing motionless in the darkness of the room above. A coat, satiny black, swept down and ran full-length down his body, stopping only inches from the ground. From her vantage point, she couldn’t see much. She glimpsed part of his black-clad thigh and one shiny black boot. One black gloved fist was clenched just above her vision and the little girl thought she saw something shiny grasped in it, twinkling all silvery at her and she tilted her head, trying to make out what it was he held.
“Where are you?”
His words were ignored in favor of her curiosity. It was a ring, she thought as she studied the object, a ring with a dragon on it. It looked pretty, shiny, probably real silver and she wondered, as little girls are apt to do, why he was carrying the ring and not wearing it instead.
The stranger’s eyes swept around the room, but he made no movement otherwise. Seeming unbothered by the dim lightning, he kept scanning the room as if he were checking every crevice. “Come out, little one, wherever you are. You don’t have to fear me. I won’t hurt you.”
His voice was intoxicating, melodious and she was having a hard time resisting the invitation. He was a stranger and Mama always said strangers weren’t to be trusted, but surely she hadn’t meant a stranger like this. His voice spoke of warm summer days and sweet rainbows and magical things. It urged her that if she would only step out of her book nook and follow him, he could make all her wishes come true.
“Come out, little one. I know you are here,” he purred. Lifting one finger to his nose, he sniffed deeply. “I can smell you.”
You may read as late as you like, but if you hear voices or strange noises–do not come upstairs! You must switch off your light and stay quiet as a mouse until Mama comes and gets you, okay?
Her mother’s words swirled in her head. Mama, who was always soft and gentle, looked so fierce when she’d said that. The little girl stilled her own curiosity and obeyed for, though the stranger tempted her, she’d rather perish than break a vow to Mama. Her love for her mother saved her from following even the voice of the Devil.
“Come out,” the voice was losing its enigmatic edge. Softness fled for domination as the stranger spoke again. “I grow tired of these games, child.”
The room grew colder still and the little girl began to shake. Trembling, she glanced longingly at her warm bed but dared not move for fear he’d hear her. As if awakening from a dream, she became aware of noise steadily increasing. Loud banging and thumping sounds, and judging by the direction it came from; it was taking place outside her bedroom door. Voices began to filter in as well, what sounded like Mama and Gram shouting and threatening, demanding to be let in the room. The stranger sneered and swung back to the door.
In a swirl of motion, something which took the watching little girl utterly by surprise, he no longer stood in the middle of the room but moved with dizzying speed. He appeared as if instantaneously planted in front of her bedroom door and, to the little girl’s everlasting horror, he didn’t stop there but thrust a fist straight through her door, splintering the painted wood with an enormous, ear-splitting crack. Strangely this didn’t faze him. He peeled back solid wood as if it were cardboard and grabbed Mama by the throat, yanking her through the makeshift hole and paying no heed to her gasp of pain as jagged wood shards tore deep into her skin.
“Tell me where she is,” he leaned down to hiss this directly in Mama’s face. Gram tried to interfere but a single thrust of his arm sent her careening back against the far wall. She crumpled into a little heap on the ground. The stranger glared full force at Mama, blue eyes boring like drill bits into hers.
“I want answers, do you hear me? I want her or everyone else that you love will die tonight!”
Mama said nothing. She stared at him, biting deep in her lower lip until a line of scarlet ran down to join the ones staining her arms, but she said nothing. She only looked at him with a mixture of anger and contempt in her eyes.
The stranger ruthlessly shook her by the arms, paying no attention to her wounds or her blood now staining his gloves. “Answer me, damn you. Answer me now! WHERE HAVE YOU HIDDEN HER?”
“Damn you,” Mama said, low and tight. “Damn you back to Hell where you came from! She’s dead, do you understand that? She’s dead forever! And I won’t let you take my daughter in her place! I will die before I let you take her.”
The stranger’s face went white. For a moment no one spoke. No one even breathed.
Then a look of incomprehensible fury took over his face and it—changed somehow. His face transformed and grew feral, evil—monstrous. It grew so hideous that the little girl hidden under the floorboards had to bite down on her tongue to keep from screaming and screaming until she was hoarse.
Mama reached for the ring he held and the little girl wanted her to take it. Maybe she could hit the monster with it, hurt him—and though the little girl longed to run out and help, Mama’s warning rang in her ears, too fierce to deny and too powerful to disobey. So the little girl was forced to watch, forced to be still as death on the outside though inside she was sobbing, screaming, wanting to run to her Mama’s side.
The stranger was clearly stronger and he kept the ring out of her reach, not letting Mama touch it. Then he leaned in and—and he did something horrible, she didn’t know what he did—she couldn’t describe it. It was something strange and terrible to Mama’s neck. Mama’s head fell back and she stopped struggling and—and—the river of blood just kept oozing and flowing on and on, not stopping—until finally, horribly, it did stop. It stopped flowing forever!
When Gram finally came to later and found her granddaughter—the child was huddled in a ball on the underground steps, almost catatonic, too terrified to move or speak for fear of being found by the monster. The dead body had been dealt with, but the psychological damage was already done.
Weeks before the little girl could talk again and function normally. Months before the little girl could talk about it. Years before the now older girl could get past the nightmares that came every night and the terrors of the dark and begin to put the monster behind her. Even longer before she could sit down and talk about that night and what she had witnessed: after the monster had done what’d he done to Mama, he began ripping her bedroom apart as he’d threatened but the arrival of another like him, deferential but urgent, had interrupted the search before he unearthed the little girl.
She and Gram had fled the house at Gatehawl Street that night, never to return. Later they moved to Ventura Bay, California—close to Los Angeles, close to where Aunt Coraline was laid to rest only days before Mama. But her killer was still unknown.
Gram eventually explained what those monsters were. Vampires. Not like the ones you found in dime store novels, she’d said, but worse. Oh far, far worse.
She taught the rapidly growing girl to fear them and shun them. And—worse case scenario only she insisted—how to fight them and survive a predatory attack.
The young, impetuous little girl wished she could to seek revenge on the monster who destroyed her childhood. The mid-teens girl blamed herself for the sacrifice her mother made to save her: if only she’d given into the vampire’s demands, Mama would still be alive today.
The near-adult wanted nothing to do with vampires, now or ever. She endured years of grief counseling and intensive psychological therapy, to which she gave all the right answers and none of the truthful ones, and her upcoming college applications took their toll. Let the bloodsuckers keep to their side of the fence—and the past would stay dead and buried.
Gram raised her grieving granddaughter as best as she could but finally passed on the day before high school graduation. Papa never did come home. Abducted, abandoned, and alone—the once-little girl still missed her Mama and what her life used to be. Though her grief and pain ebbed and faded some over time, the haunting nightmares of her childhood never fully left her.
The monsters killed her Mama, and she was the only witness. They killed Aunt Coraline too—burned her alive in a hotel room! Accident caused by a gas leak said the coroner’s report, but that was a cover-up. Gram knew the real truth.
She also knew the culprit, a fact her granddaughter didn’t discover until much later in life when she was packing up the last of Gram’s things. While examining Gram’s hope chest, she discovered a false bottom and contained therein, a worn, much-wrote-in leather journal detailing a whole different side to Gram—and Mama’s life too for that matter, a side neither women ever got the opportunity to explain to her.
Perusing through the past journal entries, though they weren’t meant for her eyes, gave her penetrating insights about who she really was; more than she ever anticipated knowing about the dark creatures of the night. It also revealed the identity of Aunt Coraline’s—and her Mama’s killer! They were one and the same!
A name she’d never forget. A name she’d learn to hunt and seek and destroy. A name she hated and feared more than she hated and feared any other vampire in existence.
Mick. Saint. John.