A storm-driven wave crashes up over the road and Dad swerves. Salt water hits the windshield of our ancient VW van, obliterating the view. My heart skips a beat as the van hydroplanes toward the rock-strewn edge bordering the ocean.
Mom gasps and her hand darts out to clutch Dad’s arm. He turns the wipers on and the tires rumble as they make contact with the pavement again. He gives a nervous laugh. “That was a close one, eh?”
Mom drops her hand back to the folder in her lap. “Too close. I’d like to get to South Bristol in one piece.”
Dad briefly turns his head toward me in the back. “Hope I didn’t scare you, Doodlebug. We should be turning off the coast road in about five miles and the station isn’t much past that.”
“Mm,” I grunt, not bothering to ask him to drop the “doodlebug” thing for the millionth time. But seriously, how hard is it to say “Daphne”?
He nods and I watch him push his glasses up the bridge of his nose in the rearview mirror. My eyes briefly linger on the ragged scar on his neck before I turn away, glad he’s not going to try and engage me in meaningless banter. My stomach is wound too tight anticipating the horrors of our next job. I lean forward and rifle through my duffel bag for the container of multicolored antacids. I force myself to swallow the chalky bits and wait for my stomach to settle.
Mom pushes her reddish-brown hair behind her ears. She opens the folder and continues skimming through the papers the police faxed us last night at the hotel in Buffalo. “Huh,” she says absentmindedly. “Strange. Very strange.” She makes ticking noises with her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “I wish I’d had more time to go through this before we said we’d come. From what I’m reading, I think we should have given them a higher quote.”
Bureaucracy being what it is, the dossier is a bazillion pages longer than it needs to be. All they really need to write is “Come quickly. Here’s who to call for body-bag pickup….” Instead, they send page after page of insurance clauses, twisted lawyer-lingo and other indecipherable nonsense before they even get to the part detailing the actual problem—vampires.
It’s always vampires, and useless details about the town’s liability clauses won’t change how we stake them.
I wait for Mom to say more but she just turns to the next page. I have to admit I’m a bit curious; this is the first time she’s used the word “strange” on what I assumed was a standard stake-’em-and-bag-’em job.
I’m tempted to ask her what’s up, but instead look out at the ocean. The last thing I want to do is give the impression I’m actually interested in this or any of our jobs. Steel gray waves capped with frost-white foam churn and thunder against the shore, violent in the wake of a late spring nor’easter that’s made its way up the coast. I hope it isn’t a sign that things will go down badly like the Oak Hill gig.
I shake my head. Oak Hill was a major game-changer for me.
Nothing like hicks getting suckered by vampires—literally and figuratively—to give a kid a major reality check.
Squeezing my eyes shut tight, I try to banish the images that are seared into my brain as if it all just happened. Five years ago we blew into Oak Hill on the tail of a tornado—eerie yellow sky—gale-force winds throwing debris in the path of our van. That town—population twenty-eight—is where my twelve-year-old self finally realized my parents weren’t invincible and that when dealing with vampires, you can go from hunter to hunted in a blink of an eye.
You could say Oak Hill was the end of my childhood—twisted as it was. But when I saw a vampire actually rip a flap of skin from my father’s neck, saw the blood pour from the wound and stain his white shirt, I finally realized any hunt could be our last.
Dad coughs and I turn and look at his reflection in the rearview mirror again. He lifts his chin slightly to look up at the stoplight and I follow the edges of the white scar on his neck with my eyes. Whenever Dad complains about the sloppy stitch-job Mom did, she jokes that he should have married a plastic surgeon.
They both think this is inexplicably hilarious—somehow forgetting that we could have lost him that day if I hadn’t been able to cut the head off the vampire trying to feed on him.
But I guess being a descendent of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing—aka vampire slayer extraordinaire—you have to laugh or go crazy. Since Dad is a direct descendent of Dr. Van Helsing it makes some sense that he’d keep up the family business—it’s all he knew growing up. I’m not sure what Mom’s deal is. She refuses to talk about her past or her family. I figure something pretty bad must’ve gone down for her to have actually chosen this life.
Traveling the country slaying vamps might sound exciting in a video game sort of way, but after cutting off the heads of endless vamps it gets old. And knowing each job might be your last, well, either you can take it in stride or you can spend that traveling time imagining a different life.
I look down on the floor of the van at a crate filled with my meager belongings, and pull out the worn purple binder. I open it and sigh. I’ve landed on a picture I drew when I was seven—a yellow house with a white dog sitting in the yard. I used to imagine going into some town and finding that house. My parents would see it and, without knowing why, fall in love with it, and decide it was finally time to settle down and give me a normal upbringing. I imagined siblings with whom I’d argue over the TV remote or whose turn it was to walk that white dog. My best friend and I would sometimes fight over boys, but we’d always make up.
I turn the pages and look at the various drawings of “best friends” I’d made over the years—always side-by-side with a crayon or color-penciled “me”—my long, red hair loose and wavy around my shoulders instead of pulled back in its usual practical braid. It’s beyond pathetic, but I still know each girl’s name and the imagined adventures we shared.
None of which involved anything with sharp teeth or blood.
I stare at the picture I drew of a girl with brown skin and tight, dark curls forming a halo around her face—Kayla. How many times had I looked for her in real life? I wanted her—or any of them—to be real so badly I ached, and I wished on countless stars hoping to bring them to life. And in every town we were in, I searched the streets hoping to see one of them in the flesh so I’d know I’d finally found home.
I flip through some more pages until I get to the more current pictures. Real girls—well as real as models can be—torn from the pages of Jennifer-Kate magazine. It’s the only magazine Mom will let me read because she says it isn’t all sexed-up like the other ones lining the supermarket racks.
I’m not sure what she’s so worried about. Unless you count vampires, policemen, and an assortment of fast-food cashiers, hotel clerks, and creepy gas-station attendants, my experience with boys is pure fantasy, and really I would give anything to read those sexed-up magazines to find out what actual girls are doing with actual boys.
But former high-fashion model Jennifer-Kate pledges on the cover of each issue to “Keep it clean!” I saw her biography on TV last year. She started modeling at fourteen, hit rehab at sixteen, and started the magazine in her forties to give girls a taste of fashion without exposing them to the “Hollywood fast lane to hell.”
I happen to think Jennifer-Kate is a sanctimonious killjoy, and if I ever meet her I will laugh in her perfectly botoxed face, because articles singing the praises of “The ten best things about holding hands” or “What your favorite lip gloss says about you!” is beyond sad. Jennifer-Kate at least got to experience life—bumps and all. But I’m seventeen and utterly desperate for any lascivious information about the opposite sex I can get my hands on, and all I can get is her pathetic G-rated articles.
At least the clothes in the magazine are cool, but thank goodness for late-night cable TV in hotel rooms or I would be totally clueless about guys. Not that I believe everything I see, but some of it has to be true, right?
As I turn the pages in the binder, I trace my fingers over every impractical hairstyle and hot outfit I’ll never get to wear because my wardrobe is a sad combination of Wal-Mart rollbacks and thrift-store dregs. And as much as I covet designer shoes, high heels and hunting definitely don’t mix.
I take out a small pair of scissors and the latest issue of Jennifer-Kate from the crate to add some new pictures to my binder.
According to the cover, “Prom season is coming” and I can have “a good time without going all the way.”
Of course I have watched enough prom movies to know that this is total crap—even with psychotic serial killers on the loose, prom is all about hooking up.
I turn to the page I’ve folded over in the dress section and spread the magazine open on my lap. I’m filled with longing for things I’ll never have, but I tell myself to keep dreaming.
“You will go to prom,” I whisper.
The first dress in the two-page spread is a light purple, one-shouldered, Greek goddess–style gown with a gold belt to cinch the waist. The moment I saw it I knew it was the perfect one for me. I open the scissors, slide one blade carefully along the crease to cut the page out, and then insert it in the opening of the plastic sleeve in the binder.
I turn to page eighty-one for the hairstyle—long, spiral curls. I don’t have a curling iron or hot rollers (Mom says we can’t afford to spend money on anything so frivolous) but if I want my hair to look like the model’s I can’t afford not to have one.
After I add the hairstyle to the binder I turn back to page six to admire my “date,” a totally drool-worthy guy with a strong chiseled chin and straight blond hair framing ice-blue eyes that look into my soul. I stare at his six-pack abs above the pair of low-slung jeans he’s modeling.
I study his face and decide he looks like a “Brad.”
In my head I’ve dressed (and undressed) Brad in the dark gray tux on page one hundred twenty countless times this week. But Brad and I have no intention of going to the parent-sponsored after-prom party Jennifer-Kate insists is a “totally fun and safe way to party.”
Instead, I giggle as he kisses my neck in the elevator on the way up to the fancy hotel room he booked for us. I burn with anticipation as he opens the door revealing a petal-strewn bed. He slides the dress off my shoulder and the satin caresses my skin as it falls to the floor. I step out of the fabric piled gracefully around my feet and he kisses me hungrily as we fall onto the bed with my six-inch heels still on. The scent of roses fills the air as our bodies press together. His lips devour every inch of my nearly naked—
“Make a slight right onto route 1B and continue for one mile,” the GPS announces.
“We should be there shortly, Doodlebug,” Dad says. “Make sure you have everything you need.”
I throw my magazine back into the crate as my cheeks burn. “Yeah, okay,” I choke out.
I quickly put everything else back, secure the knife strapped to my calf, and make sure it’s fully covered.
There will be no corsages, limos, fancy dresses, extreme heels, or impossibly hot Brads in my future. Only fangs, decapitated heads, traveling the country with my parents in this shit-can van packed with boxes of garlic, and sleeping in connecting hotel rooms—alone.
Sucks to be me.
Mom’s cell phone rings and we all sit up straight. We don’t get a lot of calls. “It’s the Bristol Police,” she says, a hint of concern in her voice. She takes a deep breath and then opens her phone. “Joy Van Helsing—may I help you?”
She nods. “As a matter of fact we’re almost there.” She pauses and turns to my father, wide-eyed. “We had a verbal agreement,” she huffs into the phone. “And we’ve come all the way from Buffalo.”
Dad looks briefly at her, shaking his head. “I knew we should have had them wire the money first,” he says a little too loudly. “There was something fishy about this one.”
Mom waves her hand to quiet him and I lean forward so I don’t miss anything. I’m hopeful this job might be canceled.
“Well, that’s ridiculous. You got our résumé and referrals—we’re government licensed and have a reputation for being discreet. No one in town will be any the wiser as to why we’re there.”
I try to hear the muffled voice coming from her phone but can’t make anything out.
“That incident,” Mom snaps, “happened thirteen years ago when there was another person working with us, but I can assure you our record has been spotless since.”
She scoffs. “And how many vampires have you slayed?”
I can’t make out the muffled reply but I’m pretty sure he’s said—none. Most cops don’t even want to attempt to mess with vampires.
“Anyway,” Mom continues, “I’d love to know where you’re getting this information from.” She listens for a few seconds, her eyes narrowed. “Well, Officer MacCready, I happen to know a few things about Mr. Harker that he’s most likely left off his resume that might affect your decision about who is the best candidate to handle this job. If you’ll just give us a bit of your time we’d be happy to speak to you about it.”
A small smile breaks out on Mom’s face—something I see so rarely. “Wonderful. We’ll see you in a few minutes.” She shuts her phone and tosses it roughly in her purse, all business now. “Nathan Harker—after all these years! What the hell is he thinking moving in on our territory and bad-mouthing us to the police?”
“I can’t believe he’d do something like that,” Dad says quietly. “Not after everything we’ve been through.”
“Like Nathan cares about our past!” Mom shoots back. “And I haven’t a doubt in my mind he’s burned every bridge of his out west so he had no choice left but to move on to our territory without a moment’s care about how it would affect us.”
“Joy,” Dad says, his voice full of warning. “Let’s—”
Mom scoffs. “What? Let’s forget what happened? Not possible!”
“Who are you talking about, Mom?” I ask.
She turns to me and I see her pupils are wide and dark. “The Harkers. Nathan and Tyler Harker.”
“Harker?” I ask. “As in Jonathan Harker, one of the slayers of Dracula?”
Mom takes a deep breath. “Unfortunately, yes. Although I’d bet good money Jonathan Harker is turning in his grave knowing his great-grandson screwed up so badly he had to stake his own wife!”
“Joy, please!” Dad admonishes. “This isn’t the time or the place….” His worried eyes connect with mine in the rearview mirror.
“She’s old enough, Vince, and if Nathan is going to be moving in on our territory, she needs to know what kind of a man he is. I can only imagine what’s become of the boy.”
Dad shakes his head. “Look, we’re almost at the station, let’s find out what’s going on and then you and I can discuss the best way to handle the Harker situation.”
Mom looks out the window, chewing on a hangnail. “Fine. Hopefully he’s still got a ways to go before he arrives in town.”
I lean all the way forward and look between the two of them. “Wait a minute. You guys can’t leave me hanging like this! What did the Harkers do? And what happened thirteen years ago?”
“Let’s just say we used to work with the Harkers but parted company after our divergent methods of hunting became too big to overcome.”
“But what about his wife?” I continue. “Is it really true he had to … stake her?”
“Yes, he did,” Mom says.
I lean back in my seat and stare at my parents. I’d imagined losing them hundreds of times to a vampire attack, but it never once occurred to me that they would get turned and one of us would have to …
I shudder. It makes sense. We often split up to get a job done faster or scout out an area. It would be easy to get turned and catch someone by surprise and what else could you do but …
A small laugh escapes my mouth. “Well, let’s just hope Dad never has to go there.”
“Daphne!” Dad says.
“Sorry,” I say bitterly. “But it’s not like it isn’t a possibility.” Anger wells up inside me like a crashing wave. For the millionth time I wonder why they didn’t quit after I was born and get some freaking normal jobs. Any jobs. Hell, I’d live in the worst trailer park in the world and proudly say my parents flip burgers for a living instead of doing this.
“Could you stake me?” I ask, the words coming out before I can stop them.
Dad shoots a look at Mom. “You had to go there.”
“This is Harker’s fault, not mine,” she insists.
Mom turns around and faces me. Her cheeks are flushed and her jaw is clenched. “Yes, Daphne, I could.”
I look away from her, shaking my head. “I wish I could say I’m surprised,” I whisper.
Dad pulls the van into the police station parking lot and cuts the engine. He puts both of his hands on the top of the steering wheel and then rests his forehead on them.
We sit in silence for a few minutes and then Mom unbuckles her seat belt. “Daphne, you know what we’re up against. You know why we do this,” she says as she organizes the paperwork in her lap.
I look down at the binder filled with dreams and hopes I’ll never get to live. “I know why it has to be done; I just don’t know why it has to be us.”
Mom looks up at the roof and Dad reaches out and takes her hand. She bows her head and leans into him. “Who better than us?”
“It’s not fair,” I say. “Why don’t I get to choose whether or not I want to do this?”
“Look, Daphne, your mom and I each have our reasons. There have been some things from our past we wanted to shield you from—maybe that was the wrong approach. Maybe you’d be more accepting of what we do if we’d been up front with you.”
“Enough coddling her,” Mom says. “Daphne, we need this job. You know how tight money is. And with what the Harkers have told the police, we’re going to have some explaining to do. I just hope you’re mature enough to hear what we have to say and conduct yourself properly during the interview. None of your sulking. It was embarrassing watching your eye-rolling in the Buffalo office; that’s not the kind of behavior that will persuade someone to give us work.”
“Fine!” I snap.
“Maybe she should wait in the car,” Dad says. “We can talk to her later.”
Mom scoffs. “They’re expecting three slayers for the briefing. She’s coming with us.” She pulls down the sun visor and tilts her chin up, applying fresh lipstick in the faded mirror. She purses her lips and then flips the visor back up. “Are we ready?”
“Does my hair look okay?” I ask sarcastically. “Wouldn’t want to make a bad impression.”
Mom gives Dad an ignore her look and then they get out of the car. I shake my head, almost wishing I’d inherited Mom’s robotic lack of emotion. I open the door and think about the job we’re trying to secure, and all the jobs we’ve been on. My stomach churns and I swallow back some bile rising in my throat. What fresh nightmares could my parents have tried to shield me from? What could possibly be worse than this?
© 2010 Amanda Marrone