“When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami” is the story of when immortal teen goddess Athena is mistaken for a vampire by a desperate youth who refuses to leave her side until she turns him. This tale takes place in the world of the Goddess Wars series for young adults by award-winning author Kendare Blake.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by senior editor Melissa Frain.
The kid thinks she’s a vampire. He’s following her, not terribly discreetly, through the nighttime market on Eighth Street, ducking behind piles of fruit and weaving through people with his neck stretched up like a periscope. This is his fourth night on her tail.
To ditch, or not to ditch, she thinks, but keeps on walking. It’s so earnest, and so harmless, the ineffectual way he hides. His pounding heart when he thinks he’s lost her. It’s also annoying. She came to Los Pinarenos for a mango and to smell the flowers and instead finds her nose tuned to his hair gel and sweat. The heavy, greasy scent of whatever he uses to color his lips black. This is what she gets for sleeping all day.
She pops into a shop near the end of the market and glances over the fruit, and the kid’s whitewashed face peers at her through the corner of one of the dusty, painted windows. Or maybe he’s just really that pale. She could buy a mango and take a huge bite while staring him in the eye. She almost does. But her time in Miami has been too sedate. None of the sun sank into her bones, and the rhythm of the city hasn’t gotten her blood to pumping, not the neon lights in South Beach, not even the thumping music of Little Havana. So she buys a cigar instead, and lights it as soon as she leaves the shop. The kid watches, and she knows he’s watching the draw of her cheeks. The suck of the smoke, as if it were blood.
Vampires. Creatures of the night. Beautiful, romantic figures for the death obsessed to chase. She doesn’t see the appeal. They have immortality, sure, but what use is immortality if you can never see the sun? If any mortal can take it away with a wooden stake or a well-aimed ax to the neck? Besides, they don’t exist, as far as she knows. At least they didn’t when she was a true god, and in all her hundreds of years of wandering, she hasn’t seen anything to make her think that has changed.
But it’s nice that he stares at her cheeks and nowhere else. And it’s nice to feel his eyes on her, like worship. She hasn’t had that in a very long time.
The street ends. She slides around a corner, too fast for a human, just to hear him gasp. Or maybe it was an accident. Not even she knows for sure.
True to form, the kid comes skidding around the building, so fast and ungainly that he almost burns himself on her cigar.
The look on his face is priceless: enormous Os of black eyeliner. He feigns nonchalance and mutters, “Sorry.”
“Sorry my ass. Why are you following me?”
His mouth hangs open. He hasn’t thought this through. To his credit, he doesn’t say that he wasn’t. He just shrugs.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your real name?”
He rolls those kohl-smudged eyes.
Skylar, Skylark. Lark. Not the most outlandish thing she’s ever heard of, not by a mile.
“What’s yours?” he asks.
She doesn’t know why she tells him. Perhaps because there’s something about him that’s so damn hopeless. He looks like he hasn’t eaten in a week. A lot of the goth kids roaming Miami look that way, but his black T-shirt is threadbare, and he hasn’t changed clothes since the first night she spotted him. There’s a faded tattoo on his forearm that looks homemade. A crow. Then again, it might not be a crow at all, but a lark.
She snorts. That’s sad. She hopes it’s a crow.
“Athena,” the kid says, and stars blow up in his eyes. “That’s old, isn’t it? Greek.”
She waits for him to wonder, or make the connection, but he doesn’t. Why would he? His mind is on vampires, and if he’s wondering anything it’s whether she’s a vamp from for-real Greece, really old Greece, with freshish marble columns and twenty-four hour togas.
The cigar rolls between her fingers. The kid stares at her, only slightly afraid. He feels pretty safe just a few steps off of the main drag, which is pretty stupid by her accounting. He puts too much stock in the romantic tales. Thinks of himself as a vampiric companion, rather than vampiric prey. And he puts too much stock in his human male strength, too. That old mortal fallacy: I am nowhere near dying of old age, therefore I am nowhere near death.
“You need to eat,” she says. “Come on. I’ll buy you a Cuban or something.”
They have their choice of places, most filled with sweaty summer tourists and loud music. She takes him a few blocks over, into one of the quieter establishments, family owned and with some kind of pet pig roaming around the tables. They slide into a corner booth, back near the kitchen, so she can smell the spice going into every dish. Savory and sweet, just salty enough. It’s a pity she won’t be able to eat anything.
The kid orders a cheeseburger. She orders a whisky. He takes her in, and she enjoys the feel of a human appraising her human costume. One side of her head is shaved, the rest combed over to fall against her cheek, bleached and dyed pink. A black net fingerless glove on her left hand and four silver rings on her right. Only one is old enough to raise any eyebrows, and those eyebrows would have to belong to a historian or museum curator.
“Where do you come from?” he asks.
“Lots of places. Where do you come from?”
That might have been her last guess. He doesn’t look like he belongs anywhere near there. Of course, that might be why he left.
“How old are you?” she asks.
“Fifteen. How old are you?”
“Older than you think.”
“I know what you are.”
A waitress brings her whisky in a pretty, delicate little glass, and Athena swirls it around and studies the color through the candle on the table. Then she puts it to her lips and pretends to drink, and wonders what the hell she’s doing.
“What gave me away?”
“It’s obvious,” the kid says. “The long night walks, almost till dawn. Holed up all day until the sun goes down. The way you move. The way you’re obviously way older than you look.” He grins. “How bad you are at pretending to drink.”
She wipes at her lips.
“If I am what you say I am, then shouldn’t I be very good at pretending to drink?”
Doubt flashes across his face for less than an instant. He is one hundred percent invested. One hundred percent enthusiasm. He came all the way from Tucson to find someone like her, he says. All the way to Miami. The vampires’ city.
She’s heard it called that before. It’s from a book. A very serious, very elegant vampire book, the kind that turns readers into acolytes.
“What did you hope to find?” she asks. “What did you think would happen?”
The kid blinks. He’s going to say he doesn’t know, but that isn’t true. He thought it would be like it was in the book. Not how it was for the hapless victims of course, the incidental anonymous page-filler. No, he would be a major protagonist. He would find her, and she would be fascinated. They would have long conversations. Become enthralled with each other. They would fall in love, and she would make him one of them.
What a fucking fairy story.
“Tell me something,” he says. “Anything. A secret. Someplace you’ve been. Some time.”
“How about France?” she replies. “The Hundred Days. When I allowed myself to become imprisoned in order to feed on the mercenaries inside.”
“How did you escape?”
“Pretended to be dead. When they threw the sack with my body into the sea, I swam to an island and became a smuggler, and thus passed many years at sea, eating smugglers.”
“Really?” he asks.
“No. Except for the part about eating mercenaries and smugglers, that’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Which you’ll probably read, if you ever go back to school.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that.” His cheeseburger comes, and he rips into it. She watches his throat when he swallows and wonders if she’s taking this too far.
“Why shouldn’t I say things like that?” she asks.
“Because it makes you sound like my mother.” He swallows, and sucks Coke from a can through a bent white straw. “And you don’t look anywhere near old enough to be my mother. Which is why you need me.” He takes another bite. “I can be of use to you. I’ll keep you young. Connect you to this age. I’ll help you pass for human.”
Passing for human. She’s been doing it for a long time. Since she came out of exile after Olympus fell. Since she and the other gods scattered across the globe. She studies the human across from her, stuffing his face with red meat to enrich his blood, blathering on and on, asking questions with the same starstruck look on his face.
Does this happen to Dionysus, she wonders. To Apollo, or Hermes, or Ares? Are they better at playing mortal than I am, or worse?
It doesn’t matter. If she really wanted to know, she’d go find them and ask.
“So can I?” he asks.
“Can you what?” She hasn’t been listening for at least the last three minutes.
“Stay with you. Guard you, during the day. Be, like, your hound of hell.”
“Just how many movies have you watched? And no, you can’t. Go home.”
“I don’t have one. I crash sometimes at the Y.”
“Christ.” She throws money on the table and gets up. When he follows her she doesn’t stop him. She’s fed him already, might as well put a roof over his head. If he’s still around tomorrow night, maybe she’ll clothe him, too. Get him a job and a fresh start. She doesn’t know what the hell has gotten into her.
Her apartment is tucked into the edge of Overtown. There are roaches, and a crack in the kitchen wall that runs from the ceiling into the window casing. Walking to it in the dead of night, the kid edges up closer and mutters something about never feeling safer.
They walk up to the third floor and she lets them in and turns on the dingy yellow light.
“There’s not much in the refrigerator. There’s not much of anything, anywhere.”
“Why do you live here?” he asks. It’s not what he expected, no lavish penthouse full of silk pillows and marble busts.
“People leave me alone here,” she says, and for all the lies she’s told tonight, that one’s the truth. She throws her keys on the counter and leans on it. The kid stands just inside the door, trying to appear interested in all of the nothing in the three small rooms. His shoulders scrunch up high like he doesn’t want to touch anything.
“This was a mistake,” she says.
“No. No, it wasn’t.” He takes a step and puts his hand on the yellowing Formica tabletop.
“It’s getting late. You can sleep here tonight.”
He whispers under his breath, some words half-formed, but the phrase “no coffin” comes out clean.
“No coffin,” she says. “Bed.” She walks through the small living room and points at the couch. He nods, and follows her to her room anyway.
“Right,” he says. Dark blankets are hung over the window, because she really has been sleeping during the day. She’s set herself up for this, she supposes. Set him up. And it has been fun, pretending to not eat, and putting on a show.
“You won’t sleep for a few hours,” he says like he knows. “And I’ve been following you since practically sundown. So.” He rolls up his sleeve and pulls a knife out of his jeans pocket. A switchblade.
“Don’t do that,” she says, but he’s too fast. He’s stuck the tip into his wrist and is dragging the stupidly dull edge through his skin. Thick, cheeseburger-infused blood drips onto the carpet.
“Shoot,” he says and catches it with his other hand. “You’d better get over here.”
“Dammit.” She goes to the bathroom and yanks a towel off the rack, then grabs his wrist and presses down hard.
“Don’t waste it,” he says. “I don’t have that much.” He smiles, a skinny kid behind day-old makeup. His hair has been dyed black so many times. She wonders what color it really is.
“I’m not hungry.” She draws the towel away. The cut is ugly, thanks to the dull blade. It’s too wide and the skin is stretched at the edges. The knife wasn’t clean, either, so on top of everything else she’ll have to find him some antibiotics. There isn’t even anything to wrap it with, so she ends up shredding a pillowcase for bandages.
“Ow,” he says when she tugs.
“Don’t whine. You should really have stitches, but I don’t have a needle.”
“Your blood is warm,” he says. “I thought you’d be cold.”
“Yes, I’m warm. So I don’t need . . . you.” She points again at the couch. “Just go to sleep.”
“How can I sleep? This is the best night of my life.”
“Just lay in the dark then. We’ll talk more tomorrow night.”
She listens to him go and to the soft whoosh of air when his too-light body hits the couch cushions. His blood stains the carpet dark between her feet, and the towel in her hands is sticky with it. What a mess.
So stop playing with this mortal, she thinks. Shake him off your couch and kick him out. You don’t need this, taking in a stray human like a stray dog. You’re the goddamn goddess of battle.
She snorts. She is. So she can handle taking care of a lost kid, at least for a couple of days.
He sleeps longer than she does. Passed out prone on his stomach, with his mouth open. The upholstery around his lips is dark with drool. Before he wakes, she rifles through his backpack. There’s not much in it. A couple of cracked Nestle Crunch bars and an unopened can of Coke. Some clothes and a toothbrush. Lots and lots of black makeup.
The clothes she washes in the sink and wrings out to dry, then she waits for him to stir.
Two hours past sundown and he hasn’t yet. She wanders into the living room, picks up his wallet off the floor, and checks for ID but there isn’t any. No driver’s license. Not much money either. Certainly no last known address for her to write to, to tell some worried mother that her kid is momentarily safe, just hunting for vampires along Miami Beach.
She leans down and checks the bandage on his cut; there’s a little bit of blood showing, but it’s brownish and dry. Still, it should have a proper cleaning and there are no first-aid supplies in the apartment. There’s also no food. She throws on a fresh T-shirt and bends over the table scribbling before crumpling the half-written note in her hand. She doesn’t know what to say, and a vampire wouldn’t leave a note anyway.
When she gets back, arms loaded down under brown paper bags, all the lights are on in her apartment. The kid is up, and he isn’t alone. Other voices fall through the open window.
“What the hell.” She takes the stairs by two and shoves through her door. “Lark?”
“Athena!” He jumps up from the couch, where he sits flanked by two girls in short skirts and blue eye shadow. “They’re drunk,” he whispers. “It’ll be easy, I promise.”
Athena puts the bags down on the table.
“Get them out of here.”
“Do you only want one? That’s fine, just choose and I’ll take the other one out.”
“I don’t like people here,” she snaps. “Get them out.”
His expression is infuriatingly puzzled. He steps closer.
“They’re not nice people,” he says. “Pickpockets and junkies. Jess shot up right before we came.”
She looks at him and exhales, exasperated. The kid fancies himself a judge and jury. He fancies himself a predator. The thought of continuing the charade crosses her mind for a moment—she could tell him she doesn’t like to be fed, doesn’t appreciate it—but she shakes it right out of her head.
“This is over.” She rousts the girls up off of her couch and ushers them through the door as gently as possible. The kid is right, though, they aren’t terribly nice, and what she gets is called several kinds of bitch and middle fingers in her face, so she tosses the high one maybe harder than she has to. Certainly hard enough to keep them from coming back.
“I don’t understand,” says the kid. “Was something wrong with them?”
“You’ve got to stop doing this.” She shoves by him and starts to unload food and supplies. “Cutting yourself. Bringing me . . . snacks.”
“Well, take me hunting with you at least.”
“No.” She pushes pink hair out of her eyes and tries to organize the refrigerator’s shelves so it’s big enough for the milk carton.
“You have to let me in,” he says, more insistent now.
“You are in. You’re in my apartment.”
“If you don’t,” he says, and shudders. His face is red. “If you don’t.”
“If I don’t, what?”
“Then how will I ever understand? How will you make me like you?”
She sighs, and lets her head droop. The food on the table and in the bags seems suddenly superfluous. The kid doesn’t want it. The kid doesn’t want to be a kid. He wants blood, and to be a monster. He’s chasing forever youth, and forever life, and no price is too high.
“You’ll never understand immortality,” she whispers. “It’s not something that humans can understand. Do you understand?”
“No. I mean, yes. I understand that to understand I can’t be human. You have to change me. You have to turn me.”
She closes her eyes.
“This was such a mistake.”
Before she opens her eyes, something that feels like fire pushes into her stomach. She looks down and sees the kid’s hand, wrapped around the handle of the switchblade. All seven inches are buried under her ribs. Her blood soaks into his fist.
“Give me some,” he says and pulls the knife out. “It’s not the heart, just give me some.” He tears at his bandages and reopens his own cut, trying to mingle her blood with his.
“Stop that. Stop it!”
But he doesn’t. He goes for more of her with the knife and she loses her patience. The sight of her blood on his hands, the nerve of him stabbing her straight in the gut, the sad, desperate tears on his face, she’s had enough. She turns and goes out the open window, drops three floors to the ground, and lands easily. Then she glares up at him framed in her kitchen.
His face is less filled with fear than with awe.
She doesn’t go back to her apartment until the next night, and by then the kid is gone. Most of the food is, too, which eases her conscience. Wherever he is, he won’t starve yet. She leans out her still-open kitchen window and breathes in humid air. The night is young. And it’s a relief, to be able to roam on her own, with no stalking kid, free to eat as many non-blood foodstuffs as she likes. She’s dying for a Cuban sandwich.
She leaves the apartment not long after, and tries to catch the kid’s scent. He doesn’t have that many places to go. He won’t be hard to find.
The kid has wiles. She searches for a solid week, and even asks around, but it’s as if he’s vanished into thin air. She makes herself very visible, too, in the market and along the night beaches, hoping she’ll feel his clumsy tail. But she doesn’t.
It doesn’t matter, she thinks. He’s not my responsibility. Never was.
But she keeps looking, all the same.
She finds him when she’s almost given up. She’s walking back toward her apartment, stub of a cigar between her teeth and a warm bellyful of whisky, and she smells him. Greasy black makeup and sweat and the barest hint of her shampoo from what she guesses was his last shower. She drops the cigar to the street and stares down the dark alley. She stands and waits for many long minutes before she finally walks into the shadows and flips open the dumpster.
His eyes are open, and he’s just as pale and skinny as he was the last time she saw him. There are new cuts on his arms, and new needle marks at the elbows. His neck is a pincushion of clumsy, ripping bites, some bruised and half-healed and some larger and not healed at all. Only a few appear to be classic vampire marks, the kind with two delicate, round incisor punctures.
“Lark,” she says, and pushes his head back and forth on his limp neck. She touches his cold cheek.
She leaves Miami the next morning with the kid’s backpack over her shoulder. She walks through the day and into the next, sick of darkness. She’ll sleep at night from now on. It’ll subject her to more people during the day, but at least no one will ever make the kid’s same mistake.
Finding the vampires wasn’t hard. Not near as hard as finding the kid. Killing them wasn’t hard either. For creatures of the night their bones broke awfully easy. Getting their heads off wasn’t even a strain. She trashed their lair, too, for good measure. Burned up their Lost Boys posters and smashed every bottle of red wine and blood decaying in tiny stoppered vials. She tore through their musty silk pillows and kicked over vanities full of black wigs and makeup.
She walks north, along the back roads and through the swamps. She won’t ever go back.
The kid was right.
Miami is the vampires’ city.
“When Gods and Vampires Roamed Miami” copryight © 2014 by Kendare Blake
Art copyright © 2014 by Goñi Montes