X. War
"Everybody knows that the war is over.
Everybody knows that the good guys lost."

The road goes ever on and on, Frankie thought. He'd heard that before somewhere, like in a Led Zepplin song or something, and it had sounded romantic to him then, but it wasn't anymore, not with the grey ribbon of the highway stretching out in front of the van as far as he could see. It seemed more like a resigned statement of fact; like death and taxes, the road was inevitable and there was nothing to do but keep driving.

"Ohio sucks," Mikey said suddenly, looking up from the dowel rod that he was carving. Everyone else had lost interest after the first half dozen or so, but Mikey just kept working, hacking away at the wood, his knife jerking the wood chips away from his body. Gerard had slid out of the seat near him and into one closer to the front, after Mikey's flailing knife hand had come a little too close to his eyes.

"No shit," Frank said. He found himself peering out the window, scanning the passing fields for any sign of trouble. He didn't know what he expected -- zombies to come tearing out of the ditches alongside the pavement or vampires swooping out of the trees, or something -- but he couldn't stop himself. He felt stupid, but he kept looking out the window.

They passed a sign for a rest stop and Mikey said "Hey, I gotta piss," to no one in particular. Ray pulled off into the parking lot. The inside of the van had been dark, so the late morning sun made Frank squint and blink. It was so quiet. Frank had always been amazed by the wide open parts of the country, where there was nothing but a farmhouse in the distance and the thin cable of the power lines to show that anyone even existed. New Jersey had been deathly boring a lot of the time, but it hadn't ever seemed quiet, not like Illinois or Ohio or Indiana.

The rest stop was one of those modern ones, low to the ground and filled with flourescent light. Frank stopped at the large map of Ohio between the first set of outside doors and the doors leading into the lobby and traced his finger along the blue line that was I-80 until he reached the red star. "You are here," he murmured. Mikey stepped up behind him, reaching over his shoulder to do the same thing. Through the wavery glass of the door, Frank could see Ray and Gerard standing next to the van talking, Ray tossing the keys from hand to hand.

Somewhere down the hall a door slammed.

Frank turned, yanking his head around, banging his cheek against Mikey's shoulder. It was a woman and a little girl, holding hands. Frank backed up against the wall, glancing at his fingernails, trying to seem casual. Mikey stood alert at his side, dowel rod quivering slightly. The woman paused for a split second when she saw them, her step faltering, then kept going, lifting her head, meeting their eyes.

"She's fine," Frank whispered, pushing Mikey's hand behind his back to hide the stake from the little kid. "She's fine." He didn't know how he knew that the woman's fear was different from the fear he'd seen in the eyes of the things at the bar, but he did. She wasn't one of them.

"Hi," he said as she strode past, the little girl's hand tight in hers.

"Hi," she said brusquely, not looking at him.

"Be careful," he said. The woman was almost out the door, her hand pushing on the glass, but she stopped and looked over her shoulder at him. There was something in the tilt of her head maybe, in the set of her shoulders, Frankie didn't know, but he felt the flash of recognition, like she was a long lost family member he was meeting for the first time. Bird, he thought.

"You, too," the woman said, and before he could say anything else, she was gone, taking the girl out the door across the parking lot to a blue Toyota, scanning the parking lot nervously before opening the passenger side door.

"Come on," Mikey said. "I gotta piss."

Frank followed in a daze. There were more of them. He wasn't the only one. There were others like him, birds, people who could help him. People who would fight. He released his breath, feeling lighter and more hopeful than he had since this whole thing had started. There were others.

Mikey pushed into the men's bathroom and clanged into a stall at the very end. It was a typical rest stop bathroom --cement block, polished metal plates instead of mirrors, cobwebs in the corners. Someday, Frank thought, unzipping his fly, he was going to buy a house and have a huge bathroom with a giant tub in the middle of it and mirrors all around and a dozen lights everywhere. He'd talked about that with Jamia a couple of times, his dream bathroom, especially once the band had started making money, and she had been enthusiastic about it, jumping in with questions of color scheme and layout so complex and technical that Frankie hadn't been able to answer them. He was pretty sure that Gerard wouldn't care about the giant tub and wouldn't like the mirrors, but he didn't really know. He had never --

The door of one of the stalls banged open knocking him out of his reverie, and Frank turned slightly, still peeing, to see what Mikey's damage was. Not enough toilet paper perhaps, or --

It wasn't Mikey.

It was a guy maybe around Mikey's age, but he was shorter and his light grey sweater was stained with something along the collar and over one shoulder. He stumbled out of the stall and lifted his head to look at Frank.

"Hey," he said, and smiled.

Frank shuddered. The guy's mouth was rusty and red, like it had been filled with blood and left open. His teeth were outlined in it. His tongue looked black. Frank yanked the zipper of his pants up, one hand protectively over his cock. "Hey," he said, taking a step back. Of all the fucking times to be caught by one of these motherfuckers, while he was taking a piss, and of course he didn't have anything with him, the fence posts and stakes sitting in a heap in the back of the van, and didn't this just fucking suck? Frank wished, watching the guy move slowly toward him, that Mikey had been right and he'd suddenly developed super-human strength like Buffy, the better to take this guy out. Reality sucked.

"I'm the bird," Frank said, taking a step toward the door. If he could lure the guy out, then Mikey could sneak out behind him and they would be home free.

"Oh yeah?" the guy said. "I'm the fuckin' tooth fairy." He lunged.

Frank grabbed the guy's wrist and twisted him to the side, pushing him at the same time, and there was Mikey, a dowel rod in his raised hand, his scream of rage echoing on the cement block walls.

The stake, when it went in, made a surprisingly loud sucking noise and Mikey's scream was cut short by a spurt of blood that arced over his chest and face. "Holy shit, Frank," he screamed, although they were no more than two feet from each other, "they bleed!"

The guy writhed and snapped at Mikey's throat and Frank had to jerk him back and force him to the floor, and when he snatched the dowel rod from Mikey and plunged it into his back, it broke against the thing's rib, the broken half skittering away on the cement floor.

"They bleed!" Mikey was crying. "He bled on me!"

Frank yanked the guy's arm up behind his back, keeping him on his knees, the guy's thick wristwatch digging into his palm. He was still bleeding, blood pulsing from around the wound in his chest like air from a balloon, but Frank didn't know if it was even possible for vampires to bleed to death. "Get me the stake," he said to Mikey, pointing to the broken end of the rod. It had rolled under one of the sinks.

"It bled on me!" Mikey said again, drawing his hands over his face.

"Motherfucker!" the vampire said, trying to wrench himself away from Frank's hand. Frank kneeled on its back and yanked the arm up, making it howl in pain. The vampire's skin was hot against his leg. He had hoped that the killing would be easy, like on Buffy. A stake through the heart and then a cloud of dust, not this squirming struggle.

"Get me the fucking stake, Mikey!" Frank shouted.

"Frank!" someone shouted and there were Ray and Gerard in the doorway and someone shoved a stake into his hand, one of the large ones, the fence posts, and Frank lifted it above his head with both hands and brought it down right above his own knee, feeling the resistance as it pushed through flesh and between ribs. The vampire arched up, almost throwing Frank off, its mouth open in a hissing cry, and then fell forward onto the floor, its face hitting the concrete with a crack. Then there was no sound but the soft echoes of Mikey's crying and Gerard's murmured consolations.

"What the fuck?" Ray asked.

Frank, who was still kneeling on the thing's back, his hands on the stake just in case, sighed. "It lived in here, I guess," he said.

"Jesus," Ray said. "That's a lot of blood. I didn't know they bled."

"Yeah, me neither."

Mikey had calmed down a little and was standing at the sink with Gerard, washing his face. "We'll have to keep an eye on him," Frank murmured to Ray. "It really got blood on him. I don't know if that's enough but --"

Ray nodded. "Jesus. That fucking sucks."

"I know," Frankie said. "But we have to."

Ray nodded again, urgently this time, his hair bobbing in time. "I get it, man," he said. "I get it."

"So we should get him to a motel or something," Gerard called softly from over by the sink. He had his arm around Mikey's shoulders. "If that's cool. He's pretty freaked out."

"I'm fine," Mikey said raggedly. He wiped his face with a paper towel. "Let's just go."

"Sure," Frank said. "Let's go."

He herded them out of the restroom, holding the door open with his foot, watching the body carefully. It didn't move -- even the pool of blood beneath it had stopped seeping out from underneath the chest -- but he didn't take his eyes off of it, not until Gerard slipped past him, one hand on Mikey's back. They walked down the hallway quickly, almost running, and Frank couldn't think why they weren't actually running after what had happened. He could hear Mikey's harsh snorting breaths through his nose and Gerard's nervous humming and the slap of their shoes on the linoleum floors. Ray shoved against the glass doors and that was when Frankie heard it.

He turned, lifting a hand instinctively, and there they were.

Three of them, two men and a woman, their eyes lit with desire and hunger, maybe two or three feet back. Almost close enough to grab him. The men were older and fat and wore jeans, like truckers maybe, or farmers. They had a kind of lived-in strength to them. The woman was blond and thin and wore a strand of pearls and her bare arms were covered in ragged bites marks, most of them old and on their way to healing if that was what you called it when these things did it.

"Where's Alan?" she said, and her voice was high and sad and lonely sounding. It was a sweet voice, but her mouth was stained with blood.

"He's in the bathroom," Frankie said. "You should go look for him."

"Alan?" the woman called, looking back over her shoulder. She turned back to Frank. "Did you see him?"

"Oh, I saw him," Frank said. He took a step backwards. Ray was there, in the atrium space between the two layers of glass doors, holding the inside door open for Frank.

"I didn't know there were more," he whispered in Frank's ear. "Gerard went to get stakes."

"You're red," the woman said dreamily, reaching out as if she were going to touch Frank's shirt. Frank backed up another step. "Why are you so red?"

"Ask Alan," Frank said. She was the closest, just an arm's length away, but it was the two big ones he was really worried about. He was pretty sure he could take the woman, but Alan, if indeed the thing in the bathroom had been Alan, had been hard to kill, and these guys were much bigger than he had been.

He didn't know how smart she'd been before she was bitten, but the woman didn't seem too quick on the uptake. She was staring at the splotches of blood on his t-shirt like they were hieroglyphics. "Alan?" she said again, her voice high and wavery, and Frank couldn't take it anymore, the plaintive quality of her voice and the sneaky silence of the men, creeping up on him the way they did, it wasn't fair. It wasn't right. That they should be able to crawl up behind him and then make him feel bad for stabbing someone in the bathroom. It wasn't right.

"Alan's dead, bitch," he said. "He's dead on the bathroom floor."

Her speed was stunning: before he could blink she was on him, her hands around his neck, and he was stumbling backwards, slamming his shoulder against the door frame, her body thudding into his. "You burn," she hissed in his ear. Her tongue lapped at the side of his face, horribly wet and hot. "You're on fire."

He was. He could feel his blood boiling in this veins, his skin heating, particularly under her hands. Her hands were on his neck, but he could hardly feel them; they exerted no pressure against the throbbing in his veins. He was going to explode and he would take her with him. Her breasts pressed against his chest, full and intimate. He could feel the unnatural coolness of her body against the heat of his own skin, and he liked it: it was arousing in the same way that playing guitar in front of ten thousand screaming fans was arousing -- it made him feel invincible. He stared into her eyes, so close to his, and saw the web of blood-laced veins in the whites throbbing at him, beating in time with her undead heart.

"Let's go," he whispered to her, and threw himself backwards, his shoulder blades slamming against the final glass door, his momentum propelling him over the threshold and onto his back on the pavement into the afternoon sun.

She came with him, her hands still around his throat, her weight landing on top of him. One of her elbows thudded into his ribs and her thigh racked him in the balls, shooting pain up into his stomach, her mouth an O of surprise.

It only took a second for her skin to start smoking. Her hands burst into flames, and she pulled them away from his neck to look at them. "What?" she said, softly.

Frank pushed himself away from her smouldering body. The reek was awful, the smell of burning clothes and meat and something richer, darker. Bloody. She was kneeling now, staring at her blackening hands, the fire shooting up from her fingertips. The other vampires, the truckers, stared at her from the shadowy doorway of the rest stop, their eyes wide with horror.

"Help me," she said to Frankie, holding her burning hands out to him.

Then she exploded.

For a second, everything was silent and dark.

Then Frank came back into himself. He was sitting on the sidewalk, his ass and hands sore from landing there, a dull ache in his nuts. The woman, the vampire, looked like a pile of blackened hamburger heaped on top of khaki pants and a sweater set. A clump of blond hair lay neck to Frank's hand on the pavement.

He looked around, but the trucker vampires were gone from the doorway, back into the shady safety of the rest stop, probably. Gerard was standing in the open door of the van, a fence post in his hand. Ray was already almost back to Frank, his own fence post still raised high to strike. Mikey wasn't in sight.

"Jesus," Ray said. He crouched down, and hooked a hand under Frank's arm to pull him up. "That's fucking disgusting."

Frank turned his face up, closing his eyes against the brightness of the sun, and started laughing.

They checked into the next roadside motel they came across, one by the side of the highway without even a town attached. Frank showered quickly, scrubbing his hair with the bar of hotel soap to get rid of the smoky smell, and collapsed onto the thin sheets.

"Are you okay?" Gerard whispered, his hand brushing over Frank's still-damp hair.

"I'm tired," he answered. Sleep seeped out of his skin, eased out on his breath. He hadn't been tired before, but now he felt like he'd played fourteen nights in a row without sleep, like he'd never slept before.

"Okay," Gerard said. Frank felt Gerard's lips touch his cheek and then he felt nothing.

In the dream it was summer just like it was now, and Frank was sitting on a split log fence in front of a white farm house.

"Hey," Gerard said, and he was sitting there too, suddenly, his pale hands on the rough wood.

"What are you doing here?" Frank asked, which was a strange question because Gerard was always with him, late and soon, and they were never apart.

Gerard smiled. He didn't have any makeup on and his smile was sweet on his naked face. "You brought me here."

Frank looked around. There was a tree just behind them, its branches spread over Frank's head as if it was sheltering them from something, although it didn't have any leaves. "Do you like it here?" Frank asked.

Gerard laughed. "I never want to leave."

Frank leaned back as far as he could while maintaining his grip on the fence. "Maybe we won't have to," he said.

When he woke, it was dark and Gerard was asleep next to him. He sighed, feeling fully rested and tired at the same time. His body was utterly at peace.

Frank's eyes were drifting closed again when he heard it, the soft intentional tap on the door, the rattle of the knob being twisted. His eyes snapped open.

"What?" Mikey mumbled from the other bed.

"Shh," Frankie said, his arm flailing out to stop Mikey from talking.

The tap came again, a gentle cautious rapping, like a polite maid, only this place didn't have maids, and Frank wondered if the others had been coherent enough to put the chain on the door.

He sat up, and saw in the faint light filtering through the curtains that Mikey had sat up as well, his bare chest shining, his naked eyes glittering. "What do we do?" he whispered, his voice mingling with the steady breathing of the others.

Frank made a cutting motion with his hand, lifting the sheet off of his feet.

The knock came again, more insistent this time, but still soft. Frank wondered where Ray had put the stakes he'd brought in, carrying them heaped in his arms like a stack of firewood. Maybe on the other side of the bed, or somewhere near the door? He couldn't turn on the li-

"Open up," someone said on the other side of the door. "Guys, it's me. It's Pete."

[ Live ]