“What are you doing?” Johnny lounged against a tree safely in the shadows, hands in pockets and the hood of his jacket pulled up over his head so his face was protected from the sun. Even though the day was cloudy, it was enough to burn him.
Crystal glanced up, an uncharacteristic scowl on her fine features, as she pulled a rake towards her in a short, savage burst. “I have to get the front yard raked before Mom will let me go over Ellie’s,” she grumbled, thrusting the rake forward for another load of leaves.
“Why?” The house was set in among a veritable forest of trees, all of which had shed their leaves at once. The job seemed impossible, and unnecessary, in Johnny’s opinion. He straightened up and walked over to where Crystal continued to rake leaves into a big pile. “Why not just leave them there?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Crystal replied. “They went to the store and told me I couldn’t go anywhere until this was finished. It’s my chore.” Her tone indicated she thought it was more like a punishment.
“Then I’ll help,” Johnny decided, against his better judgment. The sun ate away at his strength the longer he stayed outside in it, but Crystal was here, and so he would remain here also. He grabbed another rake from the shed out back and started raking in the far corner, ignoring the small pain on his knuckles where the sun raised blisters.
Later in the afternoon Lisa’s car pulled up, and she and the hunter each got out carrying armfuls of groceries. Kenny brought his into the house, while Lisa went to check on her daughter’s progress. “Good job, Crystal!” she called out, before her eyes caught the tall, slender figure who had paused, rake in hand, at the far end of the yard. She frowned in confusion.
“Mom, can we stop now?” Crystal asked plaintively. “It’s almost dark out. We finished most of it, see?” She swept her hand around the front yard. A large area was leaf-free, allowing a clear path from the driveway to the front walk. By mutual agreement, Crystal and Johnny had decided not to attempt raking the area directly in front of the road, which was like a mini-forest and served to block the house from the main road. Other than that, they had raked a defined ‘yard’ in front of the house.
“What? Sure.” Lisa was still staring at the tall youth. “Who’s your friend?”
The tall youth raised his eyes to meet hers, and Lisa gasped. The youth flashed her a derisive grin and turned to help Crystal put the rakes away. Kenny came back out and took Lisa’s shopping bags. “Who’s the kid?” he asked. “He looks a little old to be somebody from Crystal’s class.”
“No,” Lisa agreed, in a faint voice. Kenny glanced at her curiously, but she didn’t answer and instead went inside the house, with Kenny trailing behind with the groceries. She busied herself putting them away as she wondered furiously what Johnny was up to.
Crystal came in alone a few minutes later. “Where’s your friend?” asked Kenny, glancing behind her at the open door.
“He had to go,” Crystal replied. “Mom, can I go over Ellie’s now?”
Lisa glanced quickly at Kenny, then pulled her daughter out of the kitchen. “Let’s talk about it upstairs,” she said in a firm voice for Kenny’s benefit. She kept a grip on Crystal’s arm as they went to Crystal’s room and shut the door behind them. “What was Johnny doing here?” she whispered. “Why did he let Kenny see him?”
“Why don’t you ask me yourself?” came a voice from the corner of the room. Johnny stepped into the light, an ironic grin still on his face. He had pushed the hood down and his face looked slightly red, but his hands were blistering and oozing blood.
“Johnny!” Lisa managed a whispered version of the shout she felt welling up inside of her. “Kenny could have seen you! What were you thinking?”
Johnny sat on the edge of Crystal’s bed. Already, the redness was receding from his cheeks and forehead. His hands, though, still looked raw. He glared at Lisa, his eyes black. “I was thinking how careless it was of you to leave your daughter unprotected,” he said flatly.
Lisa gaped at him. “What?” she answered weakly. “She wasn’t—I didn’t. We just went to the store,” she finished. “She’s old enough, now.”
“Is she?” Johnny’s eyes rested on Crystal, who busied herself by picking out clothes to change into for her visit to Ellie’s. He smiled, and Lisa panicked. Johnny smiled wider, before relenting. “Not quite,” he said.
“I’m going to change,” Crystal announced, taking her chosen outfit and slipping out the door.
Johnny and Lisa regarded each other. “Are you in pain?” Lisa asked softly, now that her daughter was out of the room. She touched one of his hands. “Do you need blood?”
Johnny’s lips curved upwards in a genuine smile. “A little,” he admitted. He pushed the neck of her sweater out of the way and bit down close to her shoulder. Just a taste, that’s all he needed. It was over in a matter of seconds, and he adjusted her sweater to cover the mark. “Thank you,” he said, and he meant it. He held out his hands, palms down, and allowed Lisa to see the healing that her blood had engendered.
“Why are you so reckless?” Lisa murmured, shaking her head.
“Let me take Crystal to Ellie’s,” Johnny suddenly said. “I’ll bring her back by—eight o’clock? I’ll take good care of her.”
Lisa hesitated. How would she explain how Crystal had gotten there to Kenny? But she didn’t think Johnny would care much for her reasoning, so she tried another tack. “Won’t it be too cold for her?”
Johnny’s eyes darkened. He had seen through her attempt. “Tell the hunter the truth,” he said far too casually. “And I wasn’t asking.”
“I’m ready!” Crystal bounced through the door, scrubbed fresh and dressed in a heavy sweater, slacks and boots. She held a knit cap and a pair of mittens in her hands. “Thanks, Mom.”
Lisa knew when she was defeated. “Wear your coat,” she admonished. “And go out the front way—not you, Johnny. You go out however you go in and out, and meet Crystal out front. I’ll tell Kenny that Ellie’s mom is picking her up.” Lisa opened the door, and muttered underneath her breath, “Now I just have to find a way to distract Kenny so he doesn’t notice there are no headlights out front.”
Johnny chuckled. “You do that,” he said.
Lisa stomped down the stairs.
“Johnny.” Now that her mother was out of the room, Crystal knelt down and took Johnny’s two blistered hands into her own. They looked almost completely healed now, and Crystal gave Johnny a knowing glance as she gently cradled his hands. “You need more blood,” she said softly.
This had become their nightly routine. Johnny thought of it as an exercise in self-control. He watched as Crystal took a small paring knife from her bedside drawer and lightly nicked the inside of her left palm. The blood welled up almost instantly. He did not yet trust himself to use his teeth to pierce her palm, but one day he would. He used his teeth to nick his own palm. Solemnly they each sipped the offering from each other’s hand. It took only a moment.
Already, Johnny could see the effects his blood had on Crystal. The mark on her palm disappeared within seconds after he drank from her. She felt the cold less intensely, which would have reassured her mother, had she known. But Lisa would not find out about this, not yet. He had to make sure Crystal was able to survive the change first, and that would take years, he now realized. In the meantime, he had plans.
He stayed away while Crystal visited with her friend Ellie. That child’s mother was worse than scatter-brained. She never noticed how Crystal had arrived or how she eventually left. It was no wonder the grandmother so often cared for Ellie and her siblings. Because Ellie was Crystal’s friend, she was safe from Johnny. So was the grandmother, due to a promise he had made to Crystal long ago. But the mother, she was a different story. She had family blood, which made it all the more tempting to sample her. Better yet, nobody had told him not to. Johnny resolved to come back for a visit to Ellie’s house later tonight, after Crystal was safely asleep in her own bed.
Now it was time to move his game plan further along. He deposited Crystal at the front door at precisely eight o’clock, as promised. “You okay with all this?” he asked her quietly, just before the door opened. She nodded, and gave him a hesitant half-smile. They had discussed Johnny’s plan on the way back from Ellie’s house, and Crystal agreed it was the only way. She never even asked Johnny to promise not to harm them, which led him to wonder if she had forseen what was to happen.
“Crystal—Joh—“ Lisa cut herself off in surprise. She tried to block the entrance, but Johnny brushed by her and entered the house in front of Lisa and Crystal. Lisa ran after him and tried to grab his arm. It was like trying to hold on to smoke. Johnny easily evaded her grasp and continued on to the living room, where Kenny sat watching television.
“Did you have a good time, sweetie?” asked Kenny, not bothering to look up. Crystal, who had followed Johnny and her mother into the room, now moved in front of Kenny and nodded. He focused his glance on her, and noticed the tall youth who stood silently by her side, with Lisa fidgeting on his other side and looking worried. “Oh, is this the boy who was raking leaves with you earlier? I didn’t know he had gone with you.” Easily, Kenny rose from his chair and reached out to shake the youth’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Ken Brown,” he said.
Johnny shook off the hood to his jacket and extended his own arm. He smiled viciously, and replied, “I’m Johnny. Johnny Price.”
Kenny’s brow wrinkled, as he slowly repeated, “Johnny Price.” Then his head shot up and he fixed an incredulous glance at Lisa before he focused on Johnny, dawning recognition in his gaze. “You—you’re Johnny Price? But that’s impossible. I--“
“You what?” Johnny unzipped the fleece jacket and shrugged out of it, depositing it carelessly on the couch. “You killed me? Guess not. You have a lot to learn about being a hunter, Kenny.” Johnny sneered as he lowered himself to the couch to sit slouched, one foot crossed over the other knee. “You should ask Lisa about it some time.”
Kenny’s stunned gaze once again focused on Lisa, who cringed back as if slapped. “You knew?” he asked in astonishment. “You knew he wasn’t dead?” He sat back down heavily in his chair. The look he turned on her was one of betrayal.
Lisa thought she was going to be sick. “You don’t understand, Kenny,” she stammered. “He’s not what you think. He’s a good person!”
“He’s a vampire!” Kenny roared, coming to his feet again. Johnny stood up, too. The entire time, Crystal had stood quietly by Kenny’s chair, watching the scene unfold in front of her. Now, she put a small hand on Kenny’s arm and pulled on it until he acknowledged her presence. He scowled, then schooled his face, abashed. She had heard him as much as say he had killed this creature. “What?” he asked, looking down at her.
“Let him taste your blood,” Crystal said softly.
“What!” Kenny pulled his arm free of Crystal’s grasp and strode across the room to the other side. “He got you, too?” He glared at Johnny, who remained standing by the couch, grinning maliciously as all Kenny’s preconceptions came tumbling down. “You disgust me!” he ground out. “What did you do? Corrupt them with your mind games? How long, how long has this been going on?” He turned to include Lisa in his anguished glare.
“I didn’t have to,” Johnny replied evenly. “Just as I won’t compel you. I’ll just take. You can do what you want.” He slowly paced across the room towards Kenny. “But hunter,” he purred softly, “think hard before you cross me, unless you want to lose everything you’ve ever loved.”
With that, he reached Kenny, and all Kenny’s strength was as nothing before Johnny’s onslaught. He took more than a taste, as Lisa looked on in horror and Crystal in quiet fascination.