Bleeder [Blood Magic, Book 1]

What if everything you knew about yourself was a lie? Mildred "Mills" Millhatten had a good life: close-knit family, fantastic friends, decent grades and even a not-totally-annoying kid brother. You might say it was the best kind of ordinary. Nothing could have prepared her for being taken and cast into a strange, vicious world that she didn't know existed and has little hope of understanding. As a Bleeder - one whose lifeblood feeds the Nosferatu - her continued survival hangs ever in the balance. The creatures are keeping her alive because they believe her blood has mystical properties. Mills fears what will happen when they realize they are wrong. If she hopes to survive and discover who she truly is, she needs an ally. She has to befriend the mysterious boy who's been secretly visiting her cell, even though he's destined to become a bloodthirsty monster. Because s

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4. It’s Not Paranoia If They’re Really After You (Part 2)

I’d finished my soup, so I got up and deposited the dirty bowl on the kitchen counter. I wondered how the dishes got done around here since there was no sink. I figured I’d let Fredrick worry about that. I had enough on my mind already.

I collected my hoodie and army boots from the bedroom and slid them on. I left the boots unlaced since there was little point in doing them up just to walk the sixty-odd paces to the outhouse and back. When I opened the door and stepped outside I was surprised to see the sun already setting. I must have slept half the day. It was a tad disorientating. I was a morning person who rarely stayed in bed past nine a.m., never mind noon.

When I returned, Fredrick had swapped his coffee for a bowl of salt and vinegar-flavoured potato chips and a beer, and there was a cold pop waiting for me, as well.  He’d also replaced all the candles; we hadn’t needed them during the day, but the lower the sun sank in the sky, the less light managed to seep through the grime-encrusted glass. Maybe tomorrow I’d look around for some rags and window cleaner and make this place feel like less of a tomb. Boredom was going to be an issue out here, so that would give me something to do.

“Where’d this come from?” I asked as I opened the can. “Have you been holding out on me, old man?”

Fredrick smiled.

“What?” I said.

“I’m just happy to hear you sounding more like yourself again. And yes, I have been holding out on you. This place has a root cellar.”

I took a deep swig of ginger ale. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I savoured the way the cold liquid felt as it rushed down my throat.

“I could’ve used this hours ago,” I told him. “It was cruel of you not to tell me we had pop.”

“I thought you needed to talk more,” he said, still smiling.

“We couldn’t have done both?” I was smiling too now. I’d missed our playful ribbing.

“Probably,” he admitted and we both laughed. It wasn’t even that funny, but things had been so tense for so long that it was refreshing to just let it all go. When we stopped laughing, Fredrick asked if there was anything else I wanted to know. There was tons, but I settled on the one thing that was still bugging me the most.

“I know this is going to sound stupid,” I started. I was nervous. I dreaded the answer to this question more than any other. “But do you guys love me? Or was, like, taking care of me just something you had to do?”

Fredrick raised an eyebrow. “You think we don’t love you?”

“Well, it’s just yesterday in the car, you said you cared about me, but you didn’t say you loved me.” This did sound stupid when I said it aloud.

“So you took it to mean…”

“Yes,” I cut him off. I was starting to get embarrassed.

Fredrick stood up, walked over to where I was sitting and pulled me up into his arms.

“Of course we love you,” he said. “How could we not?”

He’d hugged me a million times over the last fifteen years, but I don’t think I ever hugged him back as ferociously.

I wasn’t alone.

Fredrick was here because he wanted to be, and we would face this together.

When he finally let me go, he continued. “When we first got you, we tried so hard not to fall in love with you. We knew you were ours, but not ours; we knew that we might have to give you back at any time, so we tried to brace ourselves for that day and because of that we tried to keep some emotional distance. But you didn’t go home, and soon we couldn’t help it. You were such a wonderful little girl. After that, we tried to forget about how you came to us; we did our best to put it out of our minds. Your future would be with us now: we decided that. And it was – until yesterday. You can’t imagine what it is like to love a child you ultimately have no claim on.”

I hadn’t considered their side of things until now. It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I wasn’t the only victim in all of this. “This sucks,” I said, emphatically.

“You’ve got that right,” Fredrick agreed. When he spoke next, his tone had lightened again. “What do you say we do something that doesn’t suck? Or did you want to talk some more?”

I still had questions, but they could wait till morning. I already felt a million times better than I had when I had woken up. I was still concerned about who might be pursuing us, but I’d made tentative peace with my adoption. I may be a pawn, but at least I was a pawn that everyone cared about. I could live with that.

“What are you suggesting?” I asked.

“I happen to know that the bottom drawer of that dresser is full of board games,” Fredrick said, pointing to the oak monstrosity outside the door of the other bedroom.

“Ooooh... retro,” I teased.

“You have a better idea?”

I didn’t, so I set about digging through the drawer in search of something to play. I eventually settled on Monopoly. Fredrick decimated me in the first game and I promptly demanded a rematch. As I prepped the board, he refilled the chip bowl and got us another round of drinks from the cellar. It was not often that we got to hang out alone together and I found that I was enjoying myself despite the unpleasant circumstances. I was just about to declare victory – I’d easily won the second round – when I heard a sound. I might not have noticed it in the city, but the cabin was so silent and secluded that the only audible things that punctured the serenity were the occasional bird call or coyote yowl, and this was neither.

It was a deep far-off rumble, constant and steady, but as I sat and listened to it, I could tell it was getting closer.

“Do you hear that?” I asked.

“Yes.” Fredrick’s demeanour had grown more jovial and laid back as we ate junk food and played board games, but now his face was lined with concern.

“Sounds like it’s coming this way,” I said. I could feel a tingle of fear take root at the base of my spine. Was this it? Had they found us? That fast? Who were these people?

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Fredrick admitted.

We sat motionless, the Monopoly battle completely forgotten, as we listened to the dull roar grow louder and louder until it became clear that what we were hearing were engines: dozens of them.

Fredrick sprang into action. “I’m going to check the locks on the door and windows. Put on your shoes, douse the candles and then wait for me in the kitchen.”

“The kitchen?” I asked, confused. “If they’ve found this place shouldn’t we get as far away from here as possible?”

“We don’t have time, Mildred,” Fredrick said brusquely. “Now, hurry up and get to those candles.”

I raced around the cottage snuffing out the wicks. Soon, all four rooms were cast into complete darkness. When I was done, I parked myself on the kitchen floor and did up the laces on my boots. The stiff, unlined leather chewed at my ankles, and I wondered what the odds were of finding a pair of socks in my suitcase in the pitch dark.

The cabin began to vibrate slightly as the cacophonous din of the engines grew nearer. It sounded like whoever was after me had sent an entire army. And if that was the case, then we were outclassed, outmatched and completely out of hope. Unless, of course, there was an armory in that secret root cellar.

“I’m scared,” I whispered. It was one thing to be told that I was in danger, but this really banged it home.

Fredrick offered me his hand and pulled me to my feet. “Me too, kiddo,” he said, so quietly I could barely make out the words.

“You’re the parent,” I reminded him. “Isn’t it your job to tell me that everything is going to be all right?”

“I thought you didn’t want me to lie to you anymore,” he answered, wryly.

Maybe in this case it would have been okay if he’d lied. Even if I wouldn’t have believed him, the sentiment might have been nice.

“Should we call 911?” I asked.

“Your mother took my phone back with her.”

What? Why?” I said, incredulously. That didn’t make a lick of sense. It was bad enough that we were stuck out here without a car, but now we didn’t even have a phone to call for help? Fredrick and Estella may have insisted that all this was done to protect me, but I was starting to have my doubts. These epically bad decisions were doing nothing to keep me safe. If anything they were actually jeopardizing my safety. Maybe my adoptive parents weren’t as committed to hiding me as they claimed to be. Maybe they were just relieved that all this was going down out here in the desert and nowhere near Mikey, because they were never this incompetent.

“Your father said he would send someone for us when it was safe to leave,” Fredrick explained. “He didn’t want us to use our phones anyway; he said he couldn’t be sure of what sort of technology these people had.”

“So is there any chance that whoever’s out there might have been sent by my father?” I asked, knowing it was a long shot.

“None,” Fredrick said. His monosyllable made me think of a nail being hammered into a coffin. My coffin. “Your father is discreet above all things. This isn’t his style.”

“So we’re screwed,” I said dismally.

“Let’s hope not,” Fredrick said, but he didn’t sound optimistic.

The noise of the engines rose to a roar as the vehicles pulled up outside of the cabin. Then they began to cut out one by one.

“What about the root cellar?” I asked, frantically. My self-preservation instinct was making me desperate.

“That was always the plan,” Fredrick admitted. “If they don’t leave, then I’m to hide you down there. It has a secret entrance and it should keep you safe.”

I choked back a caustic laugh, there was that word again: safe. I don’t know why he kept using it because it was the one thing I wasn’t, the one thing I had never been, and saying it over and over again didn’t miraculously make it so.

“We need to be absolutely quiet now,” Fredrick warned me as the last two engines died out and the cabin was ensconced in an eerie silence that reminded me of the calm before a really bad storm. “Do not give them any reason to think we’re in here.”

I strained to hear what was going on outside, but I couldn’t make out anything over our breathing, which sounded impossibly loud in the funereal stillness of the cabin’s interior.

Car doors began to open and close, and we could make out multiple pairs of feet tramping on the ground. Whoever they were, they were circling the cottage.

Looking for signs of life? I wondered. Or a way in?

As if in answer to my question the footsteps proceeded up the front steps.

I stopped breathing, afraid that any little sound would give us away. I clutched onto Fredrick as if he were an anchor. Everything came down to the next couple of minutes.

I’d always expected that I’d graduate high school, go to college and maybe even get married someday, but I was starting to think that I’d never do any of those things. Nor would I get to say goodbye to Mikey, or Anna or Jenny or any of my other friends. I wondered what Fredrick and Estella would tell them happened to me. Would they say I’d gone back to live with my birth parents? No, that wouldn’t work: people would be too suspicious if I suddenly stopped returning texts and phone calls. They’d have to tell them I died. And maybe that wouldn’t even be a lie. Maybe I would die here. Maybe that was the end game for my father’s enemies. Though it didn’t make much sense that they would expend all of this energy and manpower just to bump me off.

The sounds of movement outside ceased and for a long time nothing happened. Then when something did, it was not at all what I expected.

One moment, we were standing in darkness, then it was as if lightning had struck the cabin. An immense burst of white light penetrated the dwelling’s windows as if there was not a speck of dirt on them; it was followed by an inhuman shriek that tore through the night. The light blinded me momentarily, and when my vision returned all I could see were spots. It was as if I’d stared into the sun and then looked away. Despite not knowing what had happened, I found myself instinctively backing into the far corner of the kitchen, putting as much distance between the front door, where the flash had originated, and myself as possible.

“What was that?” I whispered, as the sickening smell of charred flesh found its way to our noses. I was too terrified to leave the kitchen, not that Fredrick would’ve have let me anyway, but I desperately wanted to know what was going on. My brain kicked into overdrive trying to riddle it out. Flash of light. Charred flesh. Agonized scream. Put those things together and all it could mean was that someone had gotten burned out there and bad. But by what? And why? Were they using a blowtorch or something to try to breach the door? But would that alone account for the blinding light? Maybe my father was right, maybe they did have some kind of super-advanced technology. Maybe that flash of light was them scanning the cottage for warm bodies. Maybe we’d just been found out. This kept getting worse and worse.

“Shhhh,” Fredrick reminded me.

“But…”

He hushed me again.

“We know you’re in there. You’re foolish to think you can hide from us,” a deep, gruff voice hollered through the door. “We can smell you - and let me just say, your fear is absolutely delectable. The King told us you were special, but I never expected this. Surrender yourselves now, and we'll take what's rightfully ours. Whoever else is inside can go unharmed.”

The King? Smell us? Rightfully ours? It seemed every time I started to get a handle on things, we took another detour down crazy lane.

I hadn’t planned on responding but Fredrick clasped his hand over my mouth anyhow. I leaned into him to balance myself; the stress and fear and minimal meals were taking a toll on me and I was starting to get dizzy. How long could my body sustain this fever pitch of emotion? I’d never fainted out of fear before, but I suddenly saw how it might be possible. But then I’d be even more helpless than I already was. I sucked in a deep breath and vowed not to do that. If I was forced to face my pursuers, I would be conscious when I did so and I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Fredrick might be a milquetoast, but I refused to be. I doubted that my birth father would just roll over and submit, so why should I?

“In case I haven't been clear,” the voice continued, “we’ll be taking the girl either way. You can't stop us.”

My heart skipped a beat and time slowed to a crawl. Now there was no denying what they were here for, and no question that they would do whatever it took accomplish their mission. My newfound determination bled out of me as quickly as it had swelled up. Who knew courage was a balloon that could so easily be popped? I felt as if I was stuck in amber, held frozen in place, this unbearable moment stretching out into days, weeks, years, with Fredrick and I forever trapped on the precipice of disaster. This was it – the culmination of everyone’s fears – and if it scared someone as powerful as my birth father, than it had to be truly awful. I willed myself – and Fredrick – anywhere but here. Because nothing could be as gut-wrenching as this moment.

“That perimeter isn’t going to keep you safe, “ the voice outside chided. “We’ll take down this entire building if we have to. You have five minutes to decide. Easy or hard. Your choice.”

“We’d better get you down into that cellar now,” Fredrick whispered. “I think this is about to get ugly.”

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