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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3. It’s Not Paranoia If They’re Really After You

 

Chapter 3: It’s Not Paranoia If They’re Really After You

 

It wasn’t clear what time of day it was when I woke up. The small, filthy window kept the light largely at bay. All that leaked through was a dim, yellowish, milky haze. Despite it being February, the cottage had grown uncomfortably stuffy as it cooked in the desert sun. It didn't help that I'd fallen asleep with my coat on. I groaned, sat up and wiped the sweat from my face with one of the bed's clean but discoloured white sheets. Next, I peeled off yesterday’s clothes and left them in a crumpled heap beside the armoire. Normally, I’d have showered, but this place didn’t have one of those, so I unzipped my suitcase and looked for something to wear.

Unexpectedly, rifling through my clothes brought forth a fresh wave of tears. I’d been bracing myself for a ghastly assortment of frilly dresses. But that wasn’t what was inside my bag.  When I opened it, I was greeted by all of my favourite things, including my repurposed T-shirts – deliberately ripped apart and then re-sewn together, sometimes two or three times over. Estella said they looked sloppy, but I thought they were comfy and unique. She kept threatening to buy me sewing lessons so I could learn how to make things “properly.” But I’d always just laugh and tell her that she didn’t get it.

Estella had also included my black-and-white-striped arm-warmers and several pairs of jeans. There was even a second hoodie, so now I had a spare in case the one I’d worn here got dirty. I wondered whether Estella had packed these things because she was cognizant of what I felt most comfortable in or because she knew something that I didn’t – like just how long they were planning on keeping me here. Either way, I appreciated it, and the tears that streamed down my cheeks were for her.

Estella and I had had some righteous blow-outs about fashion. My adoptive parents – it was childish to keep calling them my not-parents – were easygoing, but that didn’t mean there weren’t things that they drew lines on. When I came home with blue hair right before the ninth grade spring dance, Estella was so livid that she couldn’t even form coherent sentences. She just sputtered at me and grew more and more red in the face. She refused to even look at me after that until I agreed to bleach it out. I ended up going to the dance with platinum blonde hair, which looked no less fake than the blue, nor did it stand out any less. The dumb thing was, I hadn’t done it to challenge their authority or freak them out. I’d just wanted to try something different. Maybe she was worried Mikey would want blue hair too.

Thankfully, Estella wasn’t quite so wound up about clothes or else our house would be a war zone. Instead she expressed her distaste with my wardrobe passive-aggressively by buying me boxfuls of skirts and dresses at Christmas and on my birthday, and then claiming that she’d lost the receipts so I could never return any of them. She kept telling me that someday soon I’d wake up and want to dress like a woman, and then I’d thank her. But I didn’t believe that. Still, she never dictated what I could and could not spend my allowance on, and she never made me go back to my room and change before leaving the house, even if she absolutely loathed what I had on. And that said a lot.

I settled on a pair of dark green cargo pants and a baggy black tank top. I noticed that Estella had tucked my favourite necklace into the side pocket of my toiletry bag, so I put that on too. Anna had made it for me last Christmas after I told her that I didn’t wear jewellery because it was all too delicate and girly. It was a choker that she’d woven out of hemp and three blood-red beads, and I thought it was absolutely perfect. I wore it almost every day.

Unfortunately, the necklace only reminded me that I had no way to contact her, no way to tell Anna what had happened. That made me sob even harder. I collapsed back onto the bed and gave in to the sadness. It was crushing.

Better to cry yourself dry, I told myself, than to spend the whole day gulping back tears.

The inevitable was coming and I could only delay it so long.

Sooner or later I would have to open the door and face the people who raised me.

And what would I say when that moment came? I was drawing a complete and utter blank. I knew I owed it to Fredrick and Estella to hear them out, but what I really wanted was the truth without all the pussyfooting around, even if it was ugly – which I expected it would be, since no one else I knew had family secrets that resulted in mysterious impromptu trips to the desert.

Once I’d pulled myself together, I decided that I couldn’t hide out in my room any longer. I was just too freakin’ hungry. The throb in my gut had grown into a raw ache that demanded to be satiated, and if I didn’t eat soon, I’d likely start gnawing on the armoire. So I got up, put on the bravest face I could muster and opened the door.

The first thing I saw was Fredrick sitting at the pine table, nursing a coffee, which he desperately needed, judging from the dark bags under his eyes. At the squeak of my door, he raised his head. His expression was grim.

I glanced around the cottage for Estella, but there was no sign of her. The place looked even barer in the muted daylight. The walls were stark and unadorned, and there was not one single keepsake or trinket on display anywhere. In fact, there was nothing that gave any hint as to who owned it or why we were here.

“She left,” Fredrick said quietly. His words were punctuated by the soft clink of his coffee cup as he set it down on the table.

What?” I asked.

“Your mother went home,” he said, even though I’d already put two and two together. That was the sound I’d heard while I slept: Estella leaving. “This has all been extremely hard on her. And one of us needed to get back to Mikey.”

“She’s not my mother,” I mumbled. I hadn’t wanted to say that. I’d promised myself that I’d try to be civil this morning, but it just slipped out, like I was on auto-pilot.

“I wish you’d stop saying that,” Fredrick said. His voice was stern, but compassionate. “You have no idea how much those words hurt her – and me.”

“And you have no idea how much all of this hurts me,” I shot back, gesturing wildly. I’d thought I’d cried myself out, but another tear escaped and slid down my cheek.

“You are absolutely right about that,” Fredrick agreed, in a tone obviously meant to calm me down.  “And we’ve spent the last fifteen years worrying about the day we’d have to tell you and we prayed that it would never come.”

“You said all this already,” I reminded him. “Besides, I don’t buy it. You say you don’t like it when I say she’s my not mother, but she didn’t even say goodbye.”

Now it was Fredrick’s turn to raise his voice. “And would you have let her?”

As much as I hated to admit it, he was right. If she’d have come into my room last night, I would have probably screamed at her to get the hell out.

“She could have tried at least,” I said, my voice small and pathetic.

“Mildred, your mother is a human being,” Fredrick said slowly, allowing his words to sink in for maximum effect. “You feel rejected because you found out you were adopted, and she feels rejected because in your anger, justifiable as it was, you completely forgot about the life we gave you. She couldn’t take any more rejection right now, not when she might lose you regardless.”

“That’s all the more reason to say goodbye, then,” I said flatly, while I picked at the seam of my tank top and refused to meet Fredrick’s eyes.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Mildred,” he said, shaking his head. “Maybe you’ll understand when you’re older.”

That sounded like a cop-out.

“I want to understand now,” I told him, putting my hands on my hips.

“Well, why don’t you fix yourself some food and then we’ll talk some more,” he offered. “Besides, I could use another cup of coffee.”

I didn’t move from where I was standing, halfway between my room and the pine table. “What’s there to talk about? You already said you can’t tell me anything.”

“That’s not entirely true. I thought about what you said in the car yesterday and I agree with you. This is your life and you do deserve to know what’s going on. Your mother just wanted to protect you; please don’t fault her for that. “

“She’s not my…” I started and promptly shut my mouth. Fredrick had just extended an olive branch to me, and I wasn’t about to snap it into little pieces – yet. I wanted to see what would come of it first.

“Thank you,” Fredrick said.

I nodded and made my way towards the table, but he stopped me before I could sit down.

“Food first, then talk,” he insisted.

“Okay,” I relented, and shuffled past him into the kitchen. I hunted around in the cupboards until I found a tin of chicken soup, some crackers and a saucepan. I boiled it up in record time. Not only was I starving, but I was anxious to hear what Fredrick had to say, what Estella hadn’t wanted me to know. The promise of disclosure had a numbing effect on my anger. It morphed it from a red hot coal to a pile of smoldering ash.

I clunked the blue ceramic soup bowl down onto the table and slid into the chair across from Fredrick, who had fixed himself another cup of instant coffee. He’d dribbled some of it down the front of his white t-shirt, but either hadn’t noticed or was ignoring it. If Estella was here, she’d be insisting he change into a clean one right away. Dirty clothes on grown-ups drove her bonkers. She was a tiny bit more forgiving with us kids, but she had to be; Mikey was a filth magnet.

“So, what did you want to tell me?” I asked, as I blew on a spoonful of soup to cool it.

“What do you want to know?”

I blinked at him in surprise. “Are you serious?” I said. “Yesterday it was mum on everything and now I have carte blanche to ask you anything?”

“Yes,” he said. “Though understand: I may not be able to tell you everything, but I will tell you more.”

“Why can’t you tell me everything?” I said.

Fredrick looked down at his hands, which lay clasped in front of him on the table. “Because I don’t know everything, Mildred,” he said with exasperation. “And I can only tell you what I know. Make sense?”

I studied his face and tried to determine if he was lying. It was probably pointless to attempt this, since I’d been unable to detect the biggest lie of all, but this time I was specifically looking for deception and I didn’t see any. His expression was bleak but open. Part of me wanted nothing more than to hug him, but I wasn’t ready for that. I was ready for answers – and I figured I might as well start with the one I wanted most.

“Who is my father?” I asked.

Fredrick hesitated for a split second, just long enough to make me think he might have changed his mind about having this conversation, then he spoke.

“He told us his name was Humbolt Sarker, but I have good reason to believe that that may have been an alias.”

I shoved another spoonful of soup into my mouth before I could say, “Sounds like I’m surrounded by liars.” Sarcasm wasn’t particularly useful when it was clear that Fredrick was trying and I was actually getting what I wanted. “Why would he lie about his name?” I said instead.

“He’s a very powerful man who deals with very dangerous people.”

“He’s a mobster?” I asked, because it was the first thing to pop into my mind and it fit.

“No. Why would you say that?” Fredrick said. “He fixes things.”

“What kind of things?” It was clear that whatever he dealt with was much more complex than refrigerators or computers.

“Bad things. The kind of things that very few people can fix.”

Fredrick seemed to be struggling to the find the right words, and I called him on it. “You’re being vague again.”

“I know. I’m sorry. The thing is I don’t really know the specifics of your father’s profession or even what you’d call it, to be honest.”

What the hell had my adoptive parents gotten mixed up in? I wondered. Even with what little he had told me, I couldn’t fathom how there wasn’t something illegal going on. It just sounded way too fishy.

“So how do you know all this?” I said.

“He fixed something for us once, a long time ago.” So that was it. That was how they met my father.

“What did he fix?” I asked.

“That’s not important, but let’s just say that he was the only one who could do it,” Fredrick said, and I thought I detected a hint of redness blooming in the grave pallor of his cheeks. Whatever trouble he and Estella had gotten into, it embarrassed them. That much was obvious. I decided to let him keep this secret – for now.

“And he did fix it,” Fredrick continued quickly. “And when he was done, he needed our help in return. He needed someone to hide his child.”

“Me,” I said, amazed at how relieved I suddenly felt. My father hadn’t given me away because he didn’t want me. His reasons were much more noble. I wished Fredrick and Estella had explained this better the night before. They might have spared me some of those nightmares.

“Yes, you.”

“But why did he need to hide me?”

“Because if some of the people that he worked for knew that he had a child, they would surely have tried to use you to get to him.”

“And that’s why we’re in the desert?” I asked, “Because they found out?”

I couldn’t fathom that I had been in danger my whole life and hadn’t ever been warned about it. I’d walked to school alone every day since I was twelve, completely unprotected. Why hadn’t Fredrick and Estella put me in judo, tae-kwan-do, mixed martial arts or another kind of self-defence class? If I had custody of a girl who was in the predicament I was, I would have given her some tools to defend herself – but my adoptive parents had done nothing of the sort. Now, everyone’s worst case nightmare scenario was upon us and I had no way to fight back. Unbelievable.

“We received a call from your father yesterday morning, shortly after you and Michael left for school, telling us that someone had discovered his sleight of hand and some very bad men were in the process of tracking you down. He wanted to ensure that you remained safe.”

You still talk to him?” I was shocked. They had maintained a relationship with my birth father and had kept the whole thing under wraps. I understood why better now, but that didn’t make it any less surprising.

“Not really,” Fredrick said. “That was the first time we’d heard from him in more than a decade.”

“What’s he like?” I wasn’t sure he was going to answer me considering how skittish they’d both gotten in the car yesterday when I’d pestered them for information about my adoption, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. It was downright bizarre realizing that I knew no one I was actually related to, and that fuelled my desire for details, regardless of how petty and inconsequential.

“When he worked for us, he was always the consummate professional, but he also had a darkness about him and a…” Fredrick paused as he tried to find the right phrase, “certain ferocity. Let me put it this way, Mildred: you didn’t need to be in a room with him for more than ten seconds to know that he wasn’t the type of man you cross. Don’t get me wrong – he wasn’t boorish; he just wasn’t someone to be taken lightly either.”

Though I wasn't about to say it out loud, my father was beginning to intrigue me. Yesterday, I’d dismissed him entirely; now I’d begun thinking that if we ever made it out of this cabin, I might try to track him down. The danger he had sought to protect me from had found me anyhow, so what more harm could be done? They couldn’t keep hiding me forever. Or could they?

“So who’s trying to find me?” I asked. Now that I knew more about my father, I wanted to know what we were up against.

“I don’t know exactly, but if your father thinks they are a big enough threat to warrant us coming all the way out here, then it is something we should take seriously.”

I agreed. The more I learned about my dear old dad, the less I believed him to be someone who would sound the alarms without just cause. “So what can we do?”

“Do?” Fredrick asked. He looked confused by my question.

“You know, to protect ourselves.”

“Nothing, Mildred,” he said, with a sigh. “We lay low, here. That’s all.”

“That’s a terrible plan!” I exclaimed. If my father’s enemies were after us, than we should be doing something, or at the very least barricading ourselves inside the cottage.

When I told Fredrick this, he reminded me about the lack of indoor plumbing.

“I could go in a pot if necessary,” I insisted. My plan was better than no plan, which is what he had.

“I trust your father. He has never steered us wrong. And this was his idea, not mine,” Fredrick said adamantly.

“Well, I hope you understand that I can’t just blindly trust a man I’ve never met,” I told him.

Still, I really had no other option but to sit tight and wait. Estella had taken the car, after all, so we were essentially trapped. Mice in a shoebox.

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