This story was sold in 2001 and appeared in the vampire mag “Dreams of Decadence” #19, which was published as part of the nonfiction industry magazine “Chronicle” #267 in September 2006, under the title “Steeling Ligtle Girls.” I am not making this up. Not only was I never paid the promised fee for this story, I would not even know it was published were it not for a friend of mine telling me in 2007. In fact, I wouldn’t own a copy if said friend hadn’t given me his copy of the issue that he’d been given at a convention. (Thank you, Todd!) Editor Lapine claims all this is just business and that probably more people read it in “Chronicle” than would have in “Dreams.” As far as I can tell, though, the only thing I got out of this other than public humiliation was being published alongside Shariann Lewitt, because no one ever read the story with the weird title. (Except Todd.)
STEALING LITTLE GIRLS by JULIA DUNCAN
The bucket’s tires hummed against the rustic road, the engine labored to get us home.
Loud backbeat kept me awake, holding the needle at fifty-five, keeping us alive-live. Alabama, bama, bam, get me out of Alabama, get me home from Alabam, bama, bama, bam bam.
My head was zonked, it hadda be, a week on the road and couldn’t shake my trace. Needed speed, all gone, and still at least a night, sunset to dawn, between us and a safe strike at home. I couldn’t even pray no more. I made the girl sit in back so I could keep the gun beside me, under my hand. For all the good.
An hour till night and four to home . . . you’ve heard the saying on a wing and a prayer? We were down to the wing.
Floor it, floor it, floor it. No, we’ll never make it, never shake it, one mistake, one cop stop, we’re done. Dustbucket breaks down. Detour. He’ll catch us on the road, swoop, we’ll die. I’ll die. She . . . she . . . pretty little thing . . . worse than die. Live.
God. Another night. I checked the map, took the next exit with a hotel, and lucky me, there was a chicken joint too. Drove through, ordered an entire bird, rolls and coffee, four assorted super-size sodas. The teen in the window, long greasy hair pulled back, wrinkled her nose; maybe garlic wafted from the car, I didn’t know, didn’t care. Bucket coulda used gas but it would have to wait–my head throbbing already with drums and faded meth, didn’t need the fumes too, gotta stay alive-live. Goddamn sun still a fist above the scrub palms, way up, but teasing the dusk is a mistake I’ll never make again. Sunset has teeth, dusk has reach.
I got a room, first floor in back, led her inside. No will, lost it already, Goddamnit, compliant and mute. I sat her on the bed, turned on the TV, gave her a soda, carried in all my shit, did the barrier work, laid the oil and the water, put the crosses and the garlic and the pistols around the room. The Gideon open on the dresser–just for luck, to tell the truth, ’cause I was still a little pissed at God.
She would sit for hours, this one, watch anything without the sound. I paid no mind. She sucked the straw and stared. Vacant. Gone already. I checked the door, the window, washed my face, combed my hair wet, changed my shirt, cut up the chicken, gave her a breast. Meat on the bone was one of the few things she’d eat–tidy little bites, methodical, uninhabited. I gave her another soda and sat to drink my coffee. I watched her rip and tear and chew and swallow.
She was six or seven, older than the ones before, and when I took her blood, it was fine, but she herself barely yielded. Ate only flesh and things with lots of sugar, acted like bread was excrement. Her face rigid. I kept a diaper on her in the car, ’cause in the motel she’d get up and use the toilet but in the car, without a word, she’d just piss all over the seat. She never spoke, except for just one word, one single word in all those days on the run.
My fault. In my kit was Little Red Riding Hood, an unspectacular choice in hindsight, but she glommed onto that book as if it was the tale of her own salvation from the belly of the beast. Every night, in another ugly motel room, after eating flesh and sugar, and after being given a bath and letting me brush her odd little teeth, she pushed the book at me until I read. If I didn’t read word for word exactly, she would slap the page. Just smack it. No expression, no language, just slap. And then, near the end, every time since the first time I read the book, she pointed to a spot of red in the picture, and she said her single word. “Blood.”
Sent shivers through me the first time, and after that I called her Red. Had she stopped saying, “Blood,” I might have slapped the page myself.
I cleaned up, we bathed. Each night, a little more water before she shook like a wire in a high wind, as if thundered by terror I would drown her. Tonight, she lifted her hands to help me rub in the shampoo. Her thumbs red and raw from constant sucking, they must have hurt, but she sweated it out. My heart raced, toiling like the dustbucket’s engine, and I thought it was marvelous how perfect her bony little arms and legs were, how large her damn summer-sky blue eyes, look at her try, try, come back, little girl, come back. That’s why I took you, to bring you home.
The woodsman saved Granny again in the end, and I tucked Red into bed. Sticking the book back into the kit, I saw Rudolph with his nose in there, and I remembered the drugstore, buying supplies, tried to count back. The days blurred, fog was rolling in, after dark and I couldn’t remember, couldn’t think, twenty hours of sleep in seven days, and he’s still out there, tracing, racing, God, I’m so so tired.
What day, what night, what fearsome bite? I grabbed the remote stick, brought up the blue TV screen: December 23. Shit. Too long on the road. Couldn’t shake the trace. Night. Tonight.
I’m dead. She’ll live.
I climbed into the bed, sat next to Red. She had let me do that a couple times, even let me doze on the bed without kicking me in her sleep. So I snuggled close to read Rudolph. Before I opened it, her bony hand shot to the cover. A finger stroked Rudolph’s red nose, stroked it again and again and again and again. I froze, except for my slamming heart. Silence. Her hand withdrew. I opened the book.
When I read the final page, the happy ending, the room around us all fuzzy and muted, warmly lit yet cozily dim, dark green walls and drapes fertile and protective, worn wheat carpet and blankets warm and rich. I let my eyes half close, stroked her soft rigid arm. She pointed at a red spot on the Christmas tree in the book’s final scene and said, “Tree.”
Tree. I hugged her, read the book again, and watched her sleep before the end.
I took the last of the No-Doz and showered. The cold water made me want to scream, and the last watery soda made my stomach hurt. I ran in place to move my blood, cranked the air conditioner, stripped to panties and T-shirt. Red never stirred. All was quiet in the night.
I stuck her finger and squeezed out the drops of blood I needed; she slept. I wrote the coded numbers in the book–levels of the foreign protein had dropped again. I counted twelve days. Three longer than the most ever, so much longer than the week I’d been calling it in my head. God, why? Did he want her more, because she was older, so far gone? Maybe Red was lost. Lost, and me too, ’cause if he found us tonight, would I dare then run straight home? Draw him home? Yet could I, would I, last through night thirteen? No. Lost.
I rinsed the blood away, sat at the table, and wanted to pray. Wanted to, but asked instead. Asked and already knew there would be no answer. I played a game of remembering psalms for a while, and then I made a Christmas tree.
In my kit, I had yarn and colored paper and scissors, stuff to stimulate, draw attention, but mostly useless this shot with Red and her stone face and empty eyes. But I outlined a tree on the green drapes with yarn, cut loops and circles of paper, pinned them up with pins from my sewing kit, until it looked approximately like a sad and shabby but decorated green curtain. Too tired, I didn’t care.
Trying to make a five-pointed star from golden origami paper and my hands didn’t want to work, and I saw it was almost 4:00 without a hint of whispers and murmurs from the dark.
He was late and hope throbbed in my chest hard enough to hurt, like my shrunken heart was trying to stretch itself to normal size. I pinned up the crooked star and paced, watching Red sleep, hoping with every dragging step that the bloodsucker had lost our trail and we could go home, home, to help, hope, home.
The girl slept, frail, vulnerable, her mind open in sleep to the tracer, to his mind’s influence, to his pressure from outside the wall. If he came, she was his, and I, her guardian, her hope, had to stay awake, I had to make it. If God wasn’t going to intervene, then it was just me, just Marah, alone, out on the road, on the run, on my own. Me and the big bad wolf. The bloodsucker. Tracer.
I took her from under his nose, I kept her safe, all this time, twelve days, and his fury grew, out there, on our trail, across the south. I could feel it. He wanted Red, he wanted to consume me.
He’d murmured outside every motel room door for twelve nights, needing to be invited in. I’ll rape you and I’ll eat your heart, he whispered, and I guarded the door from Red’s attempts to open it. I stood between them. Me, Marah, so tired, and for some reason I could no longer remember why I refused to pray. I knelt to ask, one more time, to ask–stupid, stupid–why, yes, why. I knelt to pray. Red’s keening woke me.
No more than moments could have passed, the night still thick, but she stood at the door, the knob in her hand, crying. Groggy, thick, I tried to think, make sense of what I saw. I heard the fluid whisper. Eat your heart. I moved, I tried to jump but only turned toward the door as if stuck in the glutinous atmosphere that can catch and hold your dream-body when you try to run away in a nightmare. I moved, but as if through pudding.
“No,” I said, a strangled sound, and Red turned her hand. “No.” I pivoted toward the dresser, reaching for the pistol and crucifix there. Red opened the door, and the tracer leapt inside.
I never had a chance.
On me in a breath, my torso caught in his arms, with inhuman strength, he bore me to the bed. Tossed me, vaulted upon me, heavier than flesh. Heavier than stone. Red keened, a sound too thin to attract notice in the dead of night. The tracer pinned my arms, ground his pelvis into mine, and I thought my bones would shatter beneath him. He grinned, too wide, his flesh of stone too pliant. Eyes on fire. Breath of fetid rot. I gagged. Teeth. Showing me his teeth.
Red’s keening fell silent.
The vampire grinned into my face and opened his mouth wider. He screamed in my face, a roar to wake the dead, and the blast of rot and burning flesh brought tears to my eyes, scum bubbling into my throat.
The beast rolled off, arms flailing, one smacking my head and setting it ringing. He thumped to the floor between the beds, and I moved, sucked air, got to my knees. Saw Red on the floor too, down there with him, between the beds, caught, trapped, and keening again in little gasps, fragments of cries.
I gasped, swallowed my urge to heave at the scorched meat odor, and I leaped, bounced off the other bed, slammed sideways into the table, and knocked it out of the way. I scrabbled and grabbed for the big gun, the one I liked to keep under my hand in the car.
The beast roared as I spun, and he sprang up, almost flying toward me, blotting out the warm light. Half a second, I pumped the gun, aimed and caught him in the head. He lunged across the bed at me, and I shot and shot and shot.
He collapsed, slumped, dissolving. I emptied the soaker at his head, and the holy water turned his flesh into greasy, running candle wax, gray and brown and gritty, smoking. It made no sound. His thrashing limbs fell still. Wisps of smudge rose from the soup of his head.
The room smelled like burning waste, smoldering garbage, endless rot. My throat spasmed. I gagged and coughed. I found Red still between the beds. God, she was so small and thin, so wasted, a wisp, a child, a little girl, stolen from vampires.
The crucifix she had used to burn the tracer’s flesh of stone lay in her pure little hand. “Tree,” she said.
I went to pull her out.
“Christmas tree,” she said, pointing at my stupid curtain, and she put one bony arm around my neck and squeezed.
I said, “That’s right,” and we stole away, riding home through the night on a wing and a prayer.
© 2001 JULIA DUNCAN