“I’m coming, Ma.”
I can’t really see where I’m going behind the stack of plastic garden chairs I’m carrying down to the cellar. I keep knocking into things, like my junior kickboxing trophy, now lying in three parts on the floor. The worst is having to navigate the stairs, so I have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, praying every time my foot hovers unsteadily over the next step that I won’t fall.
My foot lands on the telltale creaky floorboard letting me know I’ve reached the bottom. Exhaling with relief, I drop the stack of chairs and spot my mother fussing over a vase of white lilies.
“There you are you. What took you so long?” she asks.
I shake out my arms to try and get some life back into them. What I want to say is, “You try navigating a million stairs blindly, woman.” But that would be suicide.
“Sorry, Ma. Must I go get the dining room chairs too?”
“Yes, but hurry. They’ll be here soon,” she says irritably.
Feeling half asleep, I run back upstairs two steps at a time. Usually I don’t wake up before twelve, but since Dad hasn’t come back from his rounds yet, I’m the only one left to help Mom set up for the service. No wonder she’s annoyed. I grab a chair back in each hand and head back, only to run into her in the doorway. I flatten myself against the wall so she can edge past. She’s been waiting up all night for Dad to come home. I can tell because she hesitates like she’s about to say something, making my heart speed up. It’s an unspoken rule in the house that we’re not supposed to worry about my father, that he always knows what he’s doing. He always jokes that he’s got the big guy on his side. I wonder if something has changed. I wait, holding my breath.
But she sighs and the moment is gone.
“Brush your hair, Shath. You look like a pineapple.”
Twenty minutes later I’m playing waiter to a cluster of thirsty old ladies, wearing myself out passing around endless cups of tea. Mrs Booysen from down the road stops to peer at me through her thick glasses.
“You’ve shot up like a tree, Lionel. Look how tall you are.”
I smile. It’s my usual response to old lady interrogations.
“I’m Shathley, Mrs Booysens. Lionel is…was my brother.”
She studies me dubiously and shakes her head.
“Can’t keep up with you boys anymore. Give Lionel my best, when you see him.”
I nod and smile, and fill another cup, grateful that she didn’t pry any further about my brother. Unspoken rule number two. We don’t talk about Lionel. I look up at the wall clock. It’s nearly ten and Dad still hasn’t shown up. I look across the room to Mom, who’s busy directing people to their seats, shaking hands and being the token Pastor’s wife. Our eyes meet for a second. She’s worried and trying to hide behind her practiced smile. But I know the truth. It’s her eyes that give her away.
Once all the tea has been poured I start to hand out notes about this morning’s sermon. There are no hymns attached as singing will only raise unwanted attention. Some of the congregation start to mutter among themselves. Mrs Pienaar grabs me by the wrist with a long nailed hand, while she fans herself with the other.
“What’s going on? Where’s your Pa?”
“He’s on his way. He’s just running late,” I reply quickly.
I force myself to smile and she seems to buy it. When she moves along I run up the stairs to look out the front window, but the street is deserted except for someone walking their dog. Dad’s cellphone is lying right where he left it on the table. He forgets to take it every time he leaves the house. A ball of panic is starting to grow inside me. I can’t help it. The man…God he’s so naive. He thinks everything will work itself out, that he’s somehow immune to all the bad things that exist out there because he has some sort of holy force field protecting him.
I’m not a religious person, not after what happened to Lionel, but just this time, I close my eyes and ask for him to be all right.
I wash the tea-cups while Mom paces around the kitchen.
“Thank goodness we had that History Channel DVD for them to watch. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.”
She starts biting her nails as she paces.
“Yeah, who knew that stupid documentary Dad keeps bugging me to watch would actually come in handy,” I say.
The joke doesn’t make either of us feel better. We’re both too wired on panic. In an ideal world I could just pick up the phone and call the police, but our situation is complicated. Calling the cops will just make it worse. I stare at my mother helplessly. She’s gone to sit on the couch and put her head in her hands. She’s not even trying to act composed anymore. That’s when I decide that I have to do something.
“I’ll go look for him. Do you have any idea which houses he was visiting last night?”
She points to a piece of paper on the table. I recognise my dad’s untidy scrawl as I scrunch it inside my back pocket.
“I’ll find him,” I say.
Dad had been preaching in secret for about three years, since the government banned all religious practitioners for their own safety. Religion isn’t banned. That would be crazy. But since the kidnapping and death rate of priests and pastors kept rising and rising, Parliament was forced to take emergency measures. We all knew it was a stupid move, that the only thing stopping the vampires from killing us in our beds is the holy water and blessed crosses we arm ourselves with. And that was the problem right there. The vampires were taking the priests out one by one. A cold, dead finger runs down my spine making me shudder. They better not have taken my dad. I’ll kill them all if they did.
Dad had worked out a circular route that led back to our house. I recognise the next name on the list, Mr Stibbons. When we were kids Lionel and I used to call him Old Captain because he was always on his stoep smoking a pipe. We used to steal mulberries from his front garden to feed our silkworms. As I approach the house, I can see that the Mulberry Tree is dead and dry, and the grass is so overgrown it nearly reaches the top of the vibracrete wall. Old Captain must be getting along now. I knock on the door and wait. It takes him an eternity to answer, my anxiety building with each second that passes.
Old Captain is smaller and thinner than I remember and his skin is that translucent shade of white that only really old people can be.
“Hi, Mister Stibbons, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m Pastor Joseph’s son. I’m looking for my dad. Have you seen him?”
He studies me for a few seconds before his eyes light up.
“I remember you. Come in, come in. I was just about to make a cup of tea.”
“I can’t stay. I’m just trying to retrace my Dad’s movements from yesterday. Did he come here last night?”
Old Captain frowns. “Is everything alright?”
Yes, no… I dunno. He didn’t come home.”
Saying it out loud makes it seem so bad.
“I’m sure everything is fine. He probably got…delayed.”
I fight the urge to scream. Old Captain is just like my Dad, always looking on the bright side.
“Your father visits me every week. He’s the only one that does. Not even my own children…”
I nod even though I’m barely listening. If that’s the case then Dad’s movements have become predictable, traceable. The thought leaves a grim taste in my mouth.
“What time did he leave?” I ask.
“Just after ten I believe or it might have been closer to eleven. He was a lot later than usual because of a death he had to attend to at the retirement village.”
“If he left so late he wouldn’t have gone to visit anyone else.”
“It’s unlikely, I agree,” says Old Captain.
Dad should have been home by midnight at the latest.
The old man reaches across to place a shriveled up hand on my shoulder and I flinch involuntarily.
“Your father knows how to look after himself. He’s fine, don’t you worry.”
I shake my head. I’m not some kid that needs to be reassured.
“I have to go. Thanks for your help.”
“It’s a pleasure, young man. Come round again sometime. I miss having the company of youth around the place. I remember how you and your brother used to sneak into my yard. Such rascals.”
I don’t believe my dad is fine. He’s too oblivious to danger to be fine. Why am I the only one that sees that?
When I get home Mom’s sleeping on the couch. I tiptoe to my room and grab some supplies. I keep a water pistol filled with holy water next to the bed and a rosary in my drawer. I grab both, and coil the rosary around my neck. My parents expect me to keep it with me at all times, but I haven’t touched it in months. The beads feel foreign against my skin. Outside the window the sky has just started to pinken. It won’t take long for it to turn dark blue, and finally black. I grab a jacket and a beanie, not that they would provide any protection whatsoever to what’s out there.
I exit through the kitchen door, and scale the fence. People are starting to leave parcels of meat and butchery blood in their driveways before running back inside. Mewling cats wait on the fences and in the gutters for the doors to close. I sigh and shake my head. They don’t understand that instead of protecting themselves from harm they’re only attracting more vermin – cats, rats, and bats. The cats better hurry though, before the bats get them.
At the end of my street I turn left and head straight towards the park. There’s a cluster of pine trees that will provide me with good cover while the darkness settles. Then all I need to do is wait for the vampires to come out to play – the ones I’m looking for anyway. I’m being irresponsible. Stupid. But it’s my Dad. I have to be.
The merry-go-round gives an ominous creak. It’s just the wind. I scan the park but it’s deserted. I turn to scope out the perimeter – deserted streets where the inhabitants are tucked behind burglar bars and electric fencing. A cat streaks across the road silently.
The soft chink of chain makes me spin round. They’re here. Standing on the tyre swings and hanging from the wooden beams. There are five of them in total, three guys and two girls, their hollow-rimmed eyes shining in the moonlight. They’re laughing, cackling really, the kind of laugh that only those that have nothing to worry about can manage. It’s a jarring sound.
I pull my collar up over my neck and move out into the open. The two girls immediately crouch to strike, but one of the guys, the tall, dark one with an unruly mess of hair holds up his hand to stop them.
“Hello Lionel,” I say.
My brother studies me through his greasy fringe. He’s holding a Slush Puppy cup full of blood. He takes a loud, bubbly slurp.
“What’sup bro. Bit late for you to be out, don’t you think?”
I pull out the water pistol from the waistband of my jeans.
“I think I’ll be okay.”
He laughs, exposing the tiny pin-prick canines that weren’t there when he was alive. He doesn’t look surprised to see me, or else he’s hiding it really well.
“You’ve been watching too many bad horror movies. Those things only work if you believe in them. Unluckily for you, we don’t.”
I give the pistol a trial squeeze. The vamps don’t even flinch.
“Look, I didn’t come for a fight, I’m just trying to find Dad.”
“Yeah, Dad. You know, the guy that raised us for the last sixteen years. He’s missing.”
Lionel sucks some more blood through the straw. The sound grates on my nerves, making my fingers curl up into claws. His eyes never leave mine. They used to be brown. Now they’re yellow, like a cat.
“Will you stop that?”
He stops slurping, and licks his lips slowly. One of the other vampire guys steps forward. He’s wearing last year’s Matric jacket, except his is torn in places and covered in dirt and twigs. I recognise him from around school. He was on the hockey team.
“Why are you talking to the meat? Let’s drink him dry and get out of here. We don’t have all night to waste.”
“Yeah,” says one of the girls. “I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving, but he’s not for eating, okay?” Lionel gives her a dangerous look, and she shrinks away.
“Whatever. I’m going to check out what the meat bags left for us. Who’s coming with?”
The rest of the vampires dart away, but not before they check out my face, memorising my features.
“Nice crowd,” I say to Lionel, once they’re all gone.
He shrugs and hurls the Slush Puppy cup over the swing set. He used to be good at sports. He used to be a lot of things.
“You were stupid to come out. What if I wasn’t here? You’d be dead by now.”
“You would have done the same thing if you were in my place,” I say.
He rolls his eyes and for a second he looks just like the old Lionel.
“Fine. What do you want me to do?” he asks lazily.
“Help me find Dad.”
He shakes his head, and stares at the Crescent Moon as if he can read words on its pale surface.
“If you’re alive by the end of the night it would be a miracle.”
Night transforms the town into something unrecognisable. The young vampires, many I recognise from growing up in the neighbourhood, rush through the streets upending rubbish bins and stomping all over cars like they’re jumping castles. The sound of laughter is everywhere.
“Keep your eyes ahead of you,” says Lionel, who must have caught me staring. I didn’t even see his eyes move.
“Is this how it always is? Just running around trashing the place and drinking blood?”
“Like baboons, yeah. But it isn’t as fun as it sounds. We do whatever we want, but the constant hunger is a drag, especially when the only thing to eat is your old babysitter. Messes with your mind a bit.”
Out the corner of my eye I see two guys kicking what I hope isn’t a human heart to each other like a hackeysack.
“They don’t look so worried.”
“Everyone is different. Some people were jerks when they were alive. Why would it be any different in death?”
I nod. Lionel was a good guy when he was alive. It was that niceness I was betting on.
Our grandparents had been visiting for the weekend. Gran had become very forgetful in her old age. She forgot that there was a pack of undead outside, waiting for someone to slip up and open the door. She wanted to put a bowl of milk outside for a stray cat she had spotted through the window. I heard the metallic ring of the steel bolt being unlocked from upstairs at the same time as Lionel. We raced down the stairs in our pajamas, but we were too late, the door was already standing open. I remember the stars twinkling in the inky sky. I had forgotten what they looked like from outside, forgotten the smell of the grass at night, which despite what anyone says, smells different than during the day. Lionel shouted at me to stop staring at the sky and to help him get Gran inside. She protested, as if she had momentarily forgotten who we were. Her shouts must have attracted them. Lionel shoved us aside to fight them off. Then Dad was there, taller and more powerful than I had ever seen him. The vampires were feral, and scratched and screeched like wild animals, their mouths salivating and yapping at our exposed skin. I got Gran inside just before she fainted on the kitchen floor. She had a bad scratch on her arm but it wasn’t fatal. Dad and Lionel managed to close the door on the creatures, and only when Lionel re-bolted the door did I see the shiny wet bite mark on his arm. He saw me staring and mouthed that he was sorry. It was just like him really, to apologise for something that wasn’t his fault.
There’s a condemned apartment building at the edge of town. I’ve always suspected that that’s where the vampires slept during the day. I shudder every time I look at it. Its rust-red face-brick is scarred with graffiti and illegible posters that have dried into a crust. There are vampires everywhere, pale and dangerous, wearing the rags they died in, now stained black with blood. A crazy-eyed nurse bolts towards me, her mouth wet with blood. Her stockings are torn and filthy black, her blue uniform torn to shreds. Lionel steps in front of me and hisses. The sound makes the hairs stand up on my arms. She hesitates and cocks her head, the blood bubbling in her mouth like drool. I pull the rosary from around my neck and hurl it at her. She backs away from it, like a frightened animal. I walk forward confidently and pick it up.
“What are you doing?” accuses Lionel, grabbing me by the arm.
“It doesn’t matter if I don’t believe in it if Dad did.”
“Don’t be dumb. Just stay close to me, alright. Some of these guys will pull you pieces before you even blink.”
I twirl the rosary around my fist and watch the nurse slink off into an alley.
“Why are some of them so… animal-like?”
“I’m not sure. I think it depends on the amount of hatred people carry in them. If you’re an intolerant sonofabitch that goes around telling people how to live their lives or beats on other people for being different then it’s easier for your humanity to die along with your body. They didn’t have much to begin with.”
“That makes absolutely no sense,” I say.
Lionel shrugs and smiles. “That’s my theory anyway. You’ve always been the act-first-think-later type, which is why I have to be the voice of reason.”
“Had to be the voice of reason, you mean.”
He laughs. “You’re the one that came to me for help, bro.”
The entrance to the building is an ugly sore of peeling paint and broken brickwork. Dandelions grow between the cracks in the ground. I hesitate before going inside. The lights have all been shattered and I can’t see a thing.
“What’s in here?” I ask, nervously.
Lionel follows my gaze.
“This is usually where they bring their victims. They know no one will come looking for them inside.”
I stare at my brother open-mouthed, the anger rushing through me like a hurricane.
“We can get them out. You can help me. We’ll rescue them, get them home…”
Lionel shakes his head sadly. “We won’t get very far. I’m already crossing the line bringing you in. If Dad’s in there, we’ll fight our way through. I won’t risk your life for anything else.”
I kick the wall, loosening a cloud of brick dust.
“You done?” he asks.
I take a deep breath.
“Okay, let’s go.”
My sneakers crunch loudly with each step. I don’t look down to see what I’m stepping on, and hope it’s only leaves. There are sounds of movement all around us. My head darts back and forth, looking for whatever is out there, but I see nothing except a flight of stairs bordered by a large window. The moonlight illuminates us, making my brown skin appear blue, while my brother looks white. I’m struck with an image of his last moments, those last few ragged breaths before he died. He was pale then already. It’s a sobering reminder that it’s not really my brother I’m looking at, but an echo of him that’s lingering behind.
We climb further and step out onto the dark landing. I peer into the first door we come across and freeze at the horrifying image before me.
“It’s not him,” says Lionel, behind me. He places a cold hand on my shoulder and guides me away. I just know that image is going to stay with me for the rest of my life.
“It’s easier to think of them as meat. Although I know that’s probably not helping right now.”
“No. It really doesn’t,” I say thickly.
We reach another door. Lionel raises his hand in warning.
“Stay here. I’ll go look.”
I lean back against the wall gratefully. It smells dusty and stale, as if fresh air never comes in here. The sound of scurrying and distant laughter is also starting to get to me. I pinch the bridge of my nose and close my eyes. I just want to find Dad and get out of here. When Lionel reappears I jump in fright. He moves just like them. I don’t ask what was in that room. I don’t want to know. I want to forget this place forever. He motions for me to follow him.
Upstairs we find a group of vampires pulling the slumped figure of a woman between them. They’re fighting for the body like children. They spot us as we step into the corridor.
“There’s another one!” shrieks a girl. All I catch is her blonde pigtails as she bounds towards me. I crouch low, and raise my fists, all my kickboxing training coming back in a flash. Lionel leaps forward and grabs her around the neck, pushing her to her knees. I unravel the rosary and dangle it in front of me, and she hisses and tries to scramble out of Lionel’s grip. He tosses her aside, like she weighs nothing.
“Leave him alone!” he roars.
She grins and makes a high-pitched sound in her throat, almost like a ululation. The other vampires step towards us, their eyes gleaming in the darkness.
“Run!” shouts Lionel, standing between them and me.
I run up the stairs. My heart is about to burst out my throat but I can’t stop now. I push open every door I pass, but Dad’s not in any of them, only more dried blood pools, the evidence of past feasts, and fat, sated vampires in the act of feeding. I push my legs to climb faster. I’m sweating and my mind is reeling from everything my eyes take in. It doesn’t feel real somehow. There’s only one floor left. I risk a look over my shoulder. There’s a full on fight happening below me, but I resist the urge to go back and help Lionel. I have to keep going. With this thought driving me I push open a door and see a figure lying on a bare mattress on the floor. From the doorway I can’t tell whether it’s alive or dead, male or female. My knees shake as I approach.
“Dad?” I ask softly.
It takes a million years for the figure to turn around. It’s not my dad. It’s my high school History teacher, Mr Nicholson. He’s been missing for about two weeks. I back away to the door as he unfurls to his feet. His mouth opens, revealing two very sharp canines.
“Shaaaaathleeeey,” he says. His voice is nothing but a throaty gurgle. He was scary enough as a human. As a vampire, he’s terrifying.
I back out into the passage, but he’s already behind me, his arms outstretched. My back slams into the wall. He’s right on top of me, breathing his stale biltong breath all over me. I don’t want to go out this way. I curl my fist and slam it into his cheek. He screams as the rosary twirled around my fingers sears his skin and he retreats just enough for me to get away. Except there’s nowhere for me to get away to expect the window. He’s blocking the stairs. I’m trapped.
Mr Nicholson raises himself up and glares at me, a low growl escaping his lips. I back away as far as the window. He grins, and I swallow back my fear, psyching myself up for a fight. I raise my fists, bits of his flesh dripping from the beads of the rosary.
A sound makes us both look towards the stairs. Lionel springs on to the landing, his face scratched and his eyes wild. The other vampires are coming up behind him, hissing and growling. He looks at me, and then to Mr Nicholson.
“Is that our history teacher,” he says.
I can’t help but laugh. It comes out as a bark.
“Yeah. Who would have thought, huh?”
The other vampires launch themselves at Lionel. He sidesteps them and runs towards me, pushing Mr Nicholson out the way.
“Wait, what are you…”
I don’t get to finish my sentence. Lionel flies towards me, grabbing me by my collar and throwing us both towards the window.
“Don’t scream,” he says in my ear.
I don’t. I’m too scared to.
We walk back towards the house. There’s broken glass inside my jacket, in my shoes, in my hair. I can’t speak. I’m too angry. We didn’t find Dad. The sense of failure has deadened me.
Lionel tears a bit of his shirt and presses it into my hand.
“Cover up that cut on your arm.”
“Why do I smell tasty or something?”
He punches me on the arm.
“Not to me, but you probably do to the others. I’m just trying to help you, Shath. They could be following us.”
I don’t argue but do as instructed. The last thing I want to do is lead vampires back to the house. The thought makes my eyes widen. It’s such a logical thought. We all know what to do if we run into trouble after dark.
“Do you think there’s a chance he’s all right? I mean, if he’s wasn’t there, then…”
“There’s no guarantee. I said most of the victims get taken there. That doesn’t mean he didn’t get taken somewhere else. I don’t think it’s a good idea we keep looking tonight though, not with you all scraped up. You’ll be meals on wheels for them.”
I shake my head. He keeps saying ‘them’, like he doesn’t count as a vicious bloodsucker.
“That’s not what I mean. Maybe he met some vamps last night and led them away. He’d have no choice but to stay away till his tracks were covered. Dad knows what he’s doing.”
“Let’s hope that’s true.”
I speed up, ignoring my throbbing muscles. Lionel trots after me. It feels like I broke a rib in that fall. Lionel looks fine, but then he can’t feel anything anymore. The lights are all on in the house.
“I won’t come any further,” says Lionel, hanging back.
We both stop walking. I’m not sure what to say in this situation. I haven’t seen him since he died. Do we hug, do we shake hands? Memories of growing up with an older brother return to my mind. I had tried so hard to forget.
“Thanks. I mean… it was good of you to help me.” I say. It sounds so meaningless. I should be telling him that I miss him, that I never stop thinking about him, that when Dad went missing he was the first person I thought to ask for help. But the words get stuck in my throat.
Lionel smiles as if he can read these thoughts in my mind. “It was good seeing you, bro. Now get inside before I have to save your ass again.”
Before I can even fish inside my pockets for my key the door flies open.
He pulls me into a hug so tight I can’t breathe.
“Come inside quick, before they come.”
My eyes scan his skin looking for scratches and bite marks. He scans me too, his eyes lingering on the dirty bandage on my wrist. I fly into his arms before he can say anything.
“You’re okay,” I say. There are tears in my eyes.
I don’t tell my parents about Lionel or what I went through. Dad and I are both in trouble with Mom. She’s furious at Dad for not taking his cellphone with him on his rounds, and murderous that he didn’t try and contact her to say he was lying low at a night shelter until his trail died. He said a vampire started tracking him when he left Old Captain’s house. I was an idiot for not thinking of that first. Mom isn’t speaking to me either. She almost lost both of us. She must have been dying inside not knowing where I was. I take her punishment without a word. What my body is going through now is punishment enough.
I sleep the whole day, and dream of blood, blood and more blood. I wake in the last dregs of the afternoon, and blearily make my way downstairs for breakfast even though I hardly have an appetite after last night. I settle on an orange and a yoghurt. I might even turn vegetarian for a while.
Dad meets me in the kitchen.
“You okay, Shath?”
“Wanna talk about it?”
He nods and fetches the apple juice from the fridge. He’s regained some colour since last night. He almost lost me too, after all. We’ve both been through hell.
“It was very inconsiderate of you to leave the house at night and not tell your mother where you were going.”
“I could accuse you of the same thing.”
He stares out the window at the faltering sunlight.
“I won’t do that to you again.”
“Those people out there need you. Just be more careful next time. And take your phone.”
I leave him in the kitchen and retreat to my bedroom. I can’t risk him asking any questions about where I was. I play some Need for Speed for a couple of hours to numb my mind. I don’t want to think about Lionel, but I can’t stop his pointy-toothed smile from leaking into my brain, breaking my heart.
When the sun sets I move to sit on the window ledge and watch the cats start to emerge for the evening’s scavenger hunt. Soon, shapes start to emerge in the darkness. I press my face against the glass, trying to distinguish features in the darkness. Then I see him. He steps in to the front yard and looks up at my window, smiling when he sees me. I give him a small wave. He waves back.
I make myself comfortable on the ledge and he takes a seat on top of the fence. I watch him watching me and we both laugh at the awkwardness of it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll leave my spare cellphone out there. It will be good to speak to my brother again.