“I designed my own destruction.”
~ Hazel Dawson
Zach noticed my interest in his flowers right away. In a glance, he stood in front of me to block my view. He reached out to open the door behind me and said, “I’ll take you to the gym.”
I glanced at him skeptically. He’d better not guide me somewhere strange. My reluctance didn’t faze him. He added, “Or would you prefer to spend the night here?”
That got me straight out of the door with a “no thanks” expression on my face.
“You’re not at the stage where you should train to be stronger yet. Right now, you need to focus on the control of your newfound strength. You’ll need to be able to do everyday tasks without appearing suspicious,” Zach explained to me as if he’d said it a hundred times. “Start holding everything like you’re carrying a feather. You’ll adjust to your growing physical power soon enough. You go to school, right?”
I nodded as we got on an elevator. Apparently, this mansion had five floors, including two underground levels. Or maybe this entire estate was underground. I’d never seen a single window nor sunshine in this place. I suppose that was understandable for a house full of creatures of the night.
When the double doors of the elevator slid open, Zach didn’t move. He nodded out to the gym that had mirrors as walls and told me, “Go on ahead. Try the treadmill and weight lifts.”
“What about you? Where are you going?” I asked, not feeling entirely comfortable in the large gym with other unfamiliar vampires there.
He replied casually, “I’m a bit hungry. I’ll be back in about an hour.”
“I thought you were just ripping people apart before our mission?” I pointed out and faced him while I backed out of the elevator.
“Are you one to judge? Humans are supposed to have three meals a day,” he fired back with a straight face as the elevator doors closed.
I nervously turned around to the workout area. Several strangers were chatting while lifting weights in the right corner. I heaved a small sigh of relief when I saw Roman hitting the stuffing out of a punching bag in the left corner. Oh wait, it was made of metal.
I strode over to the familiar face, but he turned out to be a not-so-familiar person. As soon as he beamed at me happily, I knew I should’ve stuck to the treadmill as Zach told me to.
“Hi!” Ashton greeted, waving one of his boxing gloves. “Here for newbie training? Is no one with you?”
“Zach ditched me to get a drink,” I said. He dramatically pulled the corners of his lips downwards in sympathy.
“I’ve only known that guy for five years, but everyone knows how often he goes hunting. I’m surprised he hasn’t been caught,” Ashton remarked. He was quite easy to talk to, despite how Hailee and Zach portrayed him. “Speaking of years, I believe we’re the same age.”
I almost laughed until I saw that he was serious. I tilted my head in doubt. “Really? I’m eighteen.”
“Oh, whoops.” Ashton rubbed his head, then smirked. “I’m seventeen.”
My eyebrows tugged up. I had assumed Roman would at least be a century old because of how quiet and mature he acted, but he was, in fact, younger than me?
“Guess you are my onee-chan,” he hummed in joy.
“Big sister!” Ashton repeated although I could’ve sworn he said something else the first time.
He’s so silly. Ashton started going on about how I was the only person here closest to his age other than Kassandra. How could these twins be so drastically different? They’ve been through the same things and still see the same things.
I soon mirrored Ashton’s smile as I halfheartedly listened. He was very expressive and had a lot of hand gestures, even though they were covered with boxing gloves.
“You’re so adorable, Hazel,” he said suddenly. His eyes seemed to shine less as he reached out and pointed at my chest with his boxing glove. “I can’t wait for the day your heart stops beating.”
At those words, my heart instantly began pounding, anxious. I opened my mouth, but he beat me to it. “There’s a trampoline foam pit in the other room. Want me to throw you over?”
“Huh? No, thanks. I don’t want someone tossing me across the room like a dart.” I quickly shook my head. I decided to ignore the tremor of unease that went down my spine when Ashton talked about my heartbeat.
“Of course not like that! I’m a gentleman... and telekinetic.” With a mischievous grin, Ashton focused his eyes on me. My feet soon lost contact with the floor.
With a yelp, I flew across the room and dropped head-first into the foam pit. As soon as I realized that I was grinning, I wiped it off my face and cleared my throat. When I popped my head out from the foam squares, I found that I wasn’t alone.
A girl was doing some impressive super-speed flips. I stared in awe for a while. Just then, she suddenly leaped across the foam pit and viciously attacked one of the dummies placed on the other side.
My fascination levels dropped when I figured she was practicing tackling. On the other hand, I struggled to climb out of the foam pit.
I passed by the weight-lifting section before I could get to the treadmills and decided to give it a shot. I recalled my burst of physical strength in self-defense class earlier today and thought that I could probably handle some dumbbells. I lifted the smallest one and almost fell over.
Holy crap, this is heavy as shit. I had to sit down on a stool and try to lift it up to my shoulder, but I couldn’t do it no matter how hard I sought. Meanwhile, someone in front of me lifted a dumbbell that was twice the size of mine up and down non-stop with barely any effort.
I awkwardly placed the dumbbell back on its rack and gunned toward the treadmills. No one else was there. I started it up thinking it’d start at a slow speed like regular treadmills. Boy, was I wrong.
I began sprinting at the slowest speed the treadmill could offer. I was too scared to lean into vampire speed because I knew I couldn’t control it very well. It was entirely possible for me to slam my skull onto the machine and break something. I wasn’t immortal yet; I could still die in many, many ways. Naturally, I became tired in a matter of minutes.
All of the other exercise equipment were also extremes that couldn’t be performed by even the most robust human in the world. Most of the punching bags were made of solid metal, and the hand-to-hand combat training area used real knives that were harmless to full-fledged vampires but could cut my skin open.
I couldn’t even get a drink. All there was in the fridge in the break room were those special juice boxes. Very soon, I recognized the fact that the only thing I could currently do was jump on the trampoline and do a front-flip into the foam pit.
I had fun for a while and temporarily forgot about my problems. I’d always been used to being alone, so I didn’t feel awkward that I was laughing by myself and playing by myself while others were in pairs or groups.
I couldn’t get up from the sinking foam pit again when I jumped too high and pencil-dived straight into the hole. Just as I decided to dig myself out, my body floated up on its own, and I landed gently in front of Roman, no, Ashton.
“I was afraid you’d get lonely after awhile, but I see you’re amusing yourself just fine.”
“At the only activity I can do around here, yes, very much so.”
Ashton grinned at my response, then tossed me a clean towel and showed me a bench nearby to sit down. I gladly took up the offer since I was working up quite a sweat despite the fact that I barely did anything.
“So, what’s your story?” he asked while getting into a squatting position in front of me instead of taking a seat beside me.
“You don’t know it?”
“Nope. Harv only called in Hailee and Zach for that meeting. I only know you’re a unique hybrid. Of course, you’re not obligated to tell me anything.”
“Nah, it’s not a secret.” I didn’t see the point in hiding my backstory to another vampire, so I told Ashton about the number of therapy sessions and nightmare-filled nights I went through before I started to steer back to normal. I poured out everything I knew about my parents.
Ashton listened attentively the whole time. He watched me for a couple more seconds after I finished.
“They sound like they were really in love,” he commented finally, surprising me. That thought never occurred to me. I believed my parents probably had an everlasting bond, but the idea of predator and prey being in love was just so preposterous.
“You think so?” I murmured out loud.
“Mhmm!” Ashton chirped. “Love is an extraordinary thing. You must be thinking how impossible it is that a vampire and a human crossed paths. But look, it brought them together.”
And led them to their ultimate demise? I swallowed those words when I saw the bright glint in Ashton’s eyes. Perhaps he was a hopeless romantic.
I didn’t know what else to say, so I asked him the same question. “What about you? What’s your story?”
“Invaders infiltrated the Anderson family mansion,” Ashton began without hesitation. “I still can’t figure out how they found us. Anyway, back then, Roman’s ability was still unstable, and he needed time to teleport. He tried to take us out of the mansion, away from the invaders surrounding the whole place, but he made a mistake. After all, we were only seven.”
He continued with full eye contact and seriousness, “He teleported us right in the middle of enemy troops. I did my best to fend them off with my limited telekinesis at the time while Roman recharged. He grabbed my hand when he was ready, and I let my guard down. The activation of his teleportation was delayed, probably due to his nerves getting the best of him. Right when one of the hunters pierced through my body with a silver blade, the teleportation worked, and we arrived in the middle of the woods far from the mansion. The next time I opened my eyes, two years had passed, and I was sharing the same body with Roman.”
My mouth dropped open in the middle of his story. Roman had his twin brother killed right in front of him, and he wasn’t powerful enough to protect him. I blinked multiple times when my eyes started stinging. Ashton observed my reaction with a small smile.
“You’re very kind, Hazel. My experience isn’t that much worse than your own,” he said in an attempt to comfort me. “If any of the others ever tell you their stories, they’re much worse. There’s a reason why so many of us are fiercely loyal to Zach even though he has such a bad attitude.”
Ashton was about to elaborate, but the elevator doors opened, and right away, Zach walked out in a comfortable jacket and sweatpants. Ashton immediately shut his mouth and waved cheerily, yet respectfully to Zach. The latter nodded up in greeting.
“We should deliver you back home,” Zach said to me. “The sun will rise in another hour.”
We both turned to Ashton simultaneously, who closed his eyes for a second, then shrugged apologetically. “Roman’s asleep.”
Asleep? A vampire?
“I’ll show you out the usual way, then. It’s about time you learned.” Zach spun around and headed back to the elevator. Ashton and I exchanged goodbyes before I followed.
The conversation with Ashton was probably the most comfortable one I’d had with any of the vampires. I’d spoken to Zach the most, but he always purposely made me feel vulnerable and afraid. Ashton was the opposite. He did his best to make me feel comfortable, to feel like I was speaking with a classmate, and it worked.
Once inside the elevator, Zach pressed a particular small button on top of the fifth floor.
“What did Ashton mean that Roman’s sleeping?” I risked my life and asked Zach.
He didn’t seem too irritated this time. “Roman’s ability is pretty omnipotent. There’s no distance limit or time lag. The same goes for Ashton. So, as a weakness, they both need at least two hours of sleep each day. The good thing is, ever since Ashton appeared, they could rotate.”
When the double doors opened, we faced a small patch of woods not too far from a city. I knew where we were. My house was at most a twenty-minute walk from here.
“Go on home.”
That was all he said. When I stepped out, he closed the doors. I turned around to see the elevator disguised as a tree. It blended in perfectly. I wasn’t sure if I could even find it again.
The weekend passed uneventfully after Saturday night. Ever since I learned that I could safely pull all-nighters with no consequences whatsoever, I didn’t shut my eyelids other than blinking. I had never felt so rejuvenated on Monday.
I was laughing my head off at the memes Kaydence saved on her phone when Hailee stepped on her wedges into the classroom. As I thought, her voice invaded my head soon enough.
“How attractive of you.”
“I can laugh however I want,” I responded while continuing to scroll through the memes.
“I relate to this one so much.” Kaydence pointed out to one that I stopped on. It read: I’m on a seafood diet. I see food, and I eat it. I laughed along with her, knowing how many hours we used to spend looking up restaurants and cafés.
I couldn’t help but remember I only had three weeks left to taste all the dishes known to humanity. I couldn’t live with myself for the rest of my life, which would be all of eternity, while knowing I never tried so many delicious foods.
At the same time I noticed that Hailee hadn’t telepathically said anything in awhile, she started, “You seem to have recovered.”
“What do you mean?” I spared a glance at the back of her head when Kaydence was busy searching for a picture that she desperately wanted me to see.
“You’ve been kinda stressed out lately. I mean, it’s reasonable, but I’m glad you got over it so quickly. Anyway, how are you feeling?”
I knew right away that she wasn’t asking about my mental state, but how well I was handling my physical power. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes while ranting to her. “In the past half hour, I accidentally ripped off my zipper, almost made a dent in Kaydence’s phone, and broke the lead in my pencil at least five freaking times.”
Hailee didn’t respond anymore afterward, but her shoulders shook lightly. She was quietly giggling.
By the time a week passed, and I stood under the afternoon sun on Friday, I had already undergone new changes. My skin began to experience a burning sensation if I stayed under intense sunlight for even two minutes. Although I got sunburnt so often and so regularly, my skin had been paler than ever. It was only getting more pallor as the days went by.
“I’ve been thinking of dying my hair lately,” I brought up.
Kaydence turned to me in surprise. “Really? What color?”
“I don’t know. Maybe darker? I feel like a change is overdue,” I said, defying my heart. I didn’t want my appearance to change, but it was probably going to happen next week, so I’d better start mentally preparing myself and others if I wanted to avoid suspicion.
Kaydence studied my face for a few seconds, then advised, “I feel like chest-length jet-black would suit you.”
I nodded. “I’ll consider it.”
I waved goodbye to Kaydence when her mom came to pick her up. I then headed to the school parking lot and drove my way back home.
I glanced in my rearview mirror from time to time. I’d seen vampires having reflections in mirrors in the gym, what was that about? I thought they had no images and didn’t appear in photos. Then again, the world didn’t know that much about vampirism.
I was studying for an upcoming history test when Roman showed up with Hailee in my room. Alright, this was no plan. What if one day they appeared out of nowhere while I was changing?
“Please just teleport into my living room,” I requested. Fortunately, Hailee agreed. After dropping her off, Roman vanished again.
“You’re coming with me tonight.” Hailee grinned. She had her hair tied up into a neat ponytail, and she wore a tank top and yoga pants. Her outfit brought out her long legs and slim waist. I closed my textbook, knowing that I wouldn’t get anything done for the rest of the day.
“Government-funded public research facility. Harv wanted to attack another angle. Perhaps the hunters thought that the most dangerous place is also the safest place. Roman has important stuff to deal with today, so he can’t give us a lift,” Hailee stated while making herself comfortable on my bed. “Vampires can’t fly without a special ability, but we suffer no damage from drops. What we do is super speed up walls or jump straight down. Slower and more troublesome than flight or teleportation, but that’s life.”
I listened without a word. I began to see Hailee in a new light after Ashton’s words last week. He said the others’ life stories were much worse than his. As I watched Hailee speak animatedly, I reflected upon myself. I’d always assumed that Hailee was a spoiled brat who believed she could get whatever she wanted from whomever she wanted.
Why did human nature have to judge others without actually knowing anything about them? Girls who were horribly jealous of Hailee spread all kinds of baseless rumors around the school about her. At some point, I realized, even I started believing them.
I still didn’t know much about Hailee, but I did know that she was an orphan, and she must be extra cautious every single day just to survive. She needed to force a smile, a laugh every waking second of her life to appear like the sassy and outgoing character at school that she needed to be.
Hailee frowned and demanded, “What are you thinking about, Hazel? You have a weird look on your face.”
I told her what was on my mind. Her perfectly shaped eyebrows eventually unknitted, and she averted her gaze. I gulped, then asked her for her story, the same way Ashton had asked for mine.
“It’s not that interesting. My two sisters and I left home to visit Florida, which was a terrible choice since the sunlight there was practically scorching. I don’t know why we thought it was a good idea. They went back after two days because they couldn’t handle the heat, but I stayed the full week. I’ve always been big on traveling.” As she went on, her expression dimmed. “I bought so many souvenirs. I imagined how much my mom would love the deep blue jeweled necklace I got her, but when I got back, she didn’t even have a neck to wear the necklace on.”
I gasped a little.
“The entire estate had been burnt. I only found burnt pieces of clothing and my mom’s ring in my parents' room. Likewise, my father was nowhere to be found, but the blood splatters on the front doors were his. I never appreciated my home and my family enough until I could never see them again.” Hailee’s voice cracked as she kicked her shoes off and curled herself up on the bed.
I hung my head low. I glanced at her through my lashes; she was trying not to cry. She must be vividly remembering the decaying bodies in what used to be the home that welcomed her the most. Vampire bodies burned away fast after they die.
Hailee sniffed. “I was lucky that Josephine and Harv were nearby. They came to investigate when they saw the black smoke from the burnings and smelled the awful stench of so many bodies.”
She didn’t need to finish for me to understand. Harvick was genuinely helping vampires in need. Being part of a group to support each other was better than being alone.
It could be said that he was gathering broken vampires to achieve his own goals, but he was nonetheless providing them a place to stay and allowing them to move freely. Both Zach and Hailee were also remarkably casual when addressing or talking to him.
Hailee cleared her throat and stood up, making me do the same. At a loss, I watched her slip into her flats and dab at her eyes one more time before saying, “Let’s get ready.”
I didn’t know what to say. My experience with my family was a small sardine compared to the load Hailee had on her shoulders. On top of that, she had to act like nothing was bothering her. That was how her job as an informant worked: the preppy social butterfly.
I felt that Hailee was truly mentally strong. Much stronger than I was.