IX. Now or Never
"...everybody knows that it's now or never.
Everybody knows that it's me or you."

When Frank got back to the room, Ray was already in there with them, sitting at the foot of bed, his hand on Mikey's ankle. Seeing them all together like that, Mikey's face in the blankets covering Gerard's lap, Ray's hair a fuzzy electric tangle around his head, Frank was reminded of orphans.

He shook his head.

Mikey sighed and closed his eyes.

"We'll have them check the rooms," Frank said, and they did, dragging the fat manager from room to room, Ray distracting him from Frank's nervous push and fall back at each door by asking him questions about his kids. But they didn't find Pete and none of the kids who started waking up as the sun crawled across the morning sky could remember seeing him leave with anyone.

"And he didn't answer his phone?" Frank asked after they'd finished the search. Mikey was leaning against the van, staring up at the sky, and the light in his eyes when Frank asked the question was brilliant and wonderful to see. Mikey yanked his phone out of his pocket and pressed the numbers.

"It's ringing," he whispered to Frank. Frank smiled.

Then, from inside the van, he heard the midi file of "I'm Not Okay" start up. Pete's ring, the one he'd picked a week ago, laughing as he finished the download while Mikey clawed at his arm and said "that's so fucking annoying, man."

Mikey heard it, too, and closed his phone quickly, like it had burned him.

Frank didn't look at his face.

Eventually, Frank said "well" without meeting their eyes and they threw their stuff in the van and pulled out. Ray drove slowly over the gravel, as if he was waiting for Pete to show up, and Frank even sort of expected that Pete would come loping out from around the corner of building shouting "hey, wait up!"

But he didn't, and soon they were on the highway again.

"It's my fault," Mikey said after a minute.

"Shut up," Gerard said. He was sitting in the seat behind Mikey, the closest Mikey would let anyone get. "Don't touch me," he'd hissed, twisting away from Gerard's hands when Gerard had tried to sit next to him.

"No," Mikey said. "It is. I told him to get lost. So he did."

"Mikes," Frank said. Secretly, he thought it was true. Mikey wasn't meant to be someone's boyfriend, someone's rock in times of trouble. Mikey was a good guy, a sweet guy, but he always ended up thinking of himself, what he needed, what he wanted. Frank had watched him dump girl after girl because they were "clingy" or "demanding" or "sappy," but Frank thought it wasn't the girls at all. It was Mikey. He wasn't reliable. He and Gerard were alike in that way.

"It is, Frank, and you know it, so shut the fuck up."

Frank did.

Eventually, Ray turned on the radio. The van was old, and the radio was one of those ones with the knob that had to be turned by hand, and Frank dialed through the hiss of static until he got to a clear voice.

"--the minions of the DEVIL are AMONG US!" the voice said. "You've seen the news, you've heard the reports. People are dying in New York, they're dying in Los Angeles, the CITY of ANGELS, they're dying in Cleveland and Chicago and soon they'll be dying among us, too, and WHY? WHY? Because there are --"

"Sorry," Frank said, twisting the knob again. "Freaks."

"It's like Children of the Corn," Gerard said, but Frank hadn't seen Children of the Corn, so he didn't know what Gerard meant. It wasn't like vampires ate corn. He found a classic rock station that was only a little staticky, and they drove for awhile, listening to Led Zeppelin and Rush and not talking. Frank watched Mikey carefully, out of the corner of his eye so Mikey didn't notice. There wasn't much to see. Mikey looked out the window, his arms folded over his stomach. From time to time, he sighed.

They pulled over at a McDonald's for lunch and ordered cheeseburgers and fries from the staring clerks at the counters. "What?" Mikey asked one of them as he picked up his tray. "You never seen a rock star before?"

The kid looked away, embarrassed. Frank grabbed Mikey's elbow. "Okay," he said softly. "Come on." Mikey followed willingly enough, although he glared over his shoulder at the clerk.

"So what are we going to do?" Ray asked, hunched over the little rectangular table so that no one else could hear him. Not that there was anyone else to hear him -- just a single mom with two kids on the far side of the dining room.

"We're going home," Gerard said. "That was the plan and that's still the plan."

"Well, that's all good and well," Ray said. "But I haven't talked to Chris in two days, have you?"

Gerard blinked.

"Wait," Frank said. "You haven't heard from Chris in two days?"

"So?" Gerard said. "He's busy. He's got a lot of things to take care of and I'm sure that-"

Frank pulled out his phone and dialed Chris' number. It rang and rang and went to voicemail. Frank hung up. "Did you leave him a message?"

Gerard nodded.

"Well. We'll just have to wait and see," Frank said. "It could be nothing. We'll just go home and see if he calls back."

Frank's phone started ringing.

"Jesus!" Frank gasped. The phone buzzed across the table like a live thing. He picked it up. Chris. "Hey, man, thank god," he said.

"Frank!" Chris said. "Where the fuck are you guys?"

"We're on the road, man. Why haven't you fuckin' called us?" Ray and Mikey and Gerard were watching him with eager eyes.

"Jesus, you wouldn't believe the shit that's going down around here, little man." Chris huffed out breath. He was a big guy and not in the best shape. Sometimes talking to him on the phone was like talking to a wind tunnel. "People are getting attacked and getting sick and it's seriously fucked up. You all need to get your asses back here pronto, little bird, because this is all going to hell in a handbasket."

"Yeah, we're a few--" Frank stopped. "We're a few days away yet, I think. Chris?"


"Have you seen Jamia lately?"

"Sure, man. A few days ago. She was out at a club or something, but Frank, man. I'm sorry, but I think she found herself a new boyfriend."

"Oh yeah?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking. His brain felt like it was spinning in his head. "Um. What's he like?"

"Oh, you know. Tall, dark, handsome. The standard prick, man, the one all the girls like. So, listen, man, you guys have to get the fuck back here, like, soon. How far are you from Cleveland?"

"Why?" Frank asked. He tried not to sound suspicious, but he must have because Chris laughed his large laugh.

"Chill, bird," he said. "Chill. I was just thinking maybe you guys should take a flight home from there. I could meet you at the airport or--"

Frank hit mute on the phone. "They got him," he said to the table. "They got Chris."

"What?" Ray hissed.

Frank nodded. He could hear Chris' voice over the phone, saying "Frank? Frank?" "He called me 'little bird,'" he said.

"Oh shit," Ray moaned. His forehead hit the table.

"So what do we do?" Gerard whispered. "Frank, what do we do?"

Frank looked at his phone. Chris' voice came out, loud and demanding. "Frank, you bitch," it said. "Answer me, you--"

Frank hit "end." "Excuse me," he said, standing up and walking toward the counter. The clerk turned around warily, probably wondering if Frank was going to punch him in the face or something. Frank smiled what he hoped was a friendly smile. "Is there a hardware store somewhere around here?"

He went in alone, leaving the others in the car making frantic cell phone calls home, and bought a dozen fence stakes and four soft rubber mallets. He also bought sixty dowel rods. They didn't have points on them yet, but that could be fixed by the four pocket knives he picked out of the glass case at the front of the store.

"You need anything else, son?" the old guy at the front asked him.

Frank smiled. "You sell guns?" he asked.

The guy didn't, and although the Wal-Mart up the highway aways did, there was a three-day waiting period, so Frank abandoned the gun plan pretty quickly. Plus, guns didn't kill vampires, at least not any vampires that he'd ever heard of. He asked Gerard when he got back in the car.

"No," Gerard said. "Silver bullets kill werewolves, but stuff like that doesn't kill vampires."

"All right then," Frank said, and dumped his paper bags out onto the seat. "We need all of these sharpened into points." He gestured at the dowel rods. "Pick a knife."

"Don't leave me the sucky one," Ray called over his shoulder.

"You seriously expect us to kill people with these things?" Gerard asked, making a stabbing motion with one of the fence stakes. It was about three inches wide and an inch thick and three feet long.

"Not people," Frank said. "And yeah. What else you want to do, Gerard?"

"We could. I don't know. But we shouldn't be killing people."

"They aren't people," Mikey said. He was considering the point of one of the stakes carefully, like it was a fine jewel.

They whittled while they drove, and Gerard gave him the low down: Gerard's mom was still answering the phone and fine, and Ray's family was booked on the next flight to Puerto Rico to stay with his Tia Lucia until everything blew over, but there was no answer at Frank's house or on Jamia's phone. They were afraid to try Bob. The one friend Mikey had been able to get on the line had been hiding in a closet and crying. "She's scared," Gerard murmured, placing his knife carefully along the edge of the wooden dowel and pushing it away from him to that the wood curled off in one clean strip. Frank should have known that Gerard would be good at carving stakes the same way he was good at everything else that required an artistic touch. "She was basically hysterical. I told her we were coming to get her."

Frank nodded, trying to imitate Gerard's smooth strokes with the knife.

"Frank," he whispered, lifting his eyes to Mikey, who was hacking away at the dowel rod in his hand with his knife. The stakes he had finished looked haggard and rough, like they had already been used. They seemed more deadly than Gerard's balanced and perfect results. "What are we going to do?"

Frank shrugged. "Same thing we've always done," he said. "Whatever we have to."

Gerard nodded like that was an answer.

They only needed one hotel room. The clerk looked at them with weary eyes and didn't register any surprise even when Frankie asked him "you ever see any birds around here." The hotel wasn't very tall -- only three stories -- but Frank made the clerk give them a room on the top floor. "Near the emergency exit," he said. The clerk sighed and flipped the envelope with the coded keys onto the counter.

"Anything else, your highness?" he asked.

"Yeah," Frank said. "Get yourself a crucifix."

He turned on the television in the room right away and there it was, on every channel, stories about how people were getting sick and attacking others. He picked the channel that had "Epidemic" written on the bottom of the screen in big letters because it seemed like it might be more accurate than the one with "Red Death!" in big black font.

"--thousands have been infected with what physicians are calling the Red Death--"

"So much for that," Frank muttered to no one.

"--symptoms include lightheadedness, skin that is clammy to the touch, and sensitivity to light. Sufferers are advised to seek medical attention immediately and in no circumstances should you try to wait out the disease. Without treatment, the disease progresses to severe symptoms and results in death."

"By stake," Mikey said, twirling one of his ragged spikes between his fingers the way Bob used to twirl his drumsticks.

The newscaster was an old guy, hair graying at the temples, one of those guys that Frank's grandpa used to like to watch, his eyes gradually drifting shut before the television set, so it was sort of comforting, listening to this guy drone on and on about "precautionary measures" and "methods of transmission." Then they had an interview from some guy from the Center for Disease Control, which was boring and Frank turned off the television in the middle.

"Well, one thing's clear," he said when everyone looked up at him. "They don't have a fucking clue."

"So it's up to us," Gerard said. It was sort of a question, so Frank nodded.

"I guess so," he said.

Ray raised his hand like a school kid. "I have a question," he said.

"Dude, you don't have to raise your hand," Frankie said, embarrassed.

Ray shrugged. "It's just. You got all freaked out because Chris called you a bird." He must have seen Frank's shoulders tighten because he held up his hands. "I'm not doubting you, Frank," he said. "But I don't get what birds have to do with this."

Frank sighed. "I don't know," he said. "I mean, not really. I have ideas. But that's what they call me."

"They can't hurt him," Mikey said from his seat on the bed. He'd given up carving for the night but he still had a stake in his hand, waving the point back and forth in front of his face. "It's like he's Buffy or something."

"I'm not Buffy--"

"They're afraid of him, too," Gerard said. "In the bar. They practically shit their pants when they figured out who he was."

"Frank, the Vampire Slayer," Mikey added.

"I'm not fucking Buffy," Frank said again. "I'm just--"

He stopped.

"You're what?" Mikey asked.

They were all looking at him, waiting for him, just like he'd known they would, and he didn't have an answer.

"Yeah, that's what I thought, Buffy," Mikey said, and turned on the tv again.

Ray sidled over to him. "Look, man, I didn't mean to freak you out or anything," he murmured.

"It's okay," Frank said.

"I just. It's weird. We're going to ... you know. Put things in people. And that's. This whole thing is seriously fucked up." Ray's eyes were big and earnest and Frank suddenly hated him a little. Ray. He hated Ray because Ray was honest enough and truthful enough to point out the fact that carving up sticks so that you could stab people with them was maybe a little fucked up in the grand scheme of things.

"We're going to kill them, Ray," Frank said. He kept his voice low and even.

"What?" Ray asked.

"We're not going to 'put things in them,' we're going to kill them. People. Including Chris and Jamia and even Bob if he shows up where we're going. And you better start getting used to it."

Ray was staring at him, eyes wide and hurt, but Frank didn't blink and eventually Ray went away to sit on the far side of the bed and listen to his iPod, his wary gaze focused on Frank no matter where in the room he went.

[ War ]