Matilda was drunk, but then she was always drunk. Dizzy drunk. Stumbling drunk. Stupid drunk. Whatever kind of drunk she could get.
The man she stood with snaked his hand around her back, warm fingers digging into her side as he pulled her closer. He and his friend with the open-necked shirt grinned down at her like underage equaled dumb, and dumb equaled gullible enough to sleep with them.
She thought they might just be right.
“You want to have a party back at my place?” the man asked. He’d told her his name was Mark, but his friend kept slipping up and calling him by a name that started with a D. Maybe Dan or Dave. They had been smuggling her drinks from the bar whenever they went outside to smoke—drinks mixed sickly sweet, that dripped down her throat like candy.
“Sure,” she said, grinding her cigarette against the brick wall. She missed the hot ash in her hand, but concentrated on the alcoholic numbness turning her limbs to lead. Smiled. “Can we pick up more beer?”
They exchanged an obnoxious glance she pretended not to notice. The friend—he called himself Ben—looked at her glassy eyes and her cold-flushed cheeks. Her sloppy hair. He probably made guesses about a troubled home life. She hoped so.
“You’re not going to get sick on us?” he asked. Just out of the hot bar, beads of sweat had collected in the hollow of his throat. The skin shimmered with each swallow.
She shook her head to stop staring. “I’m barely tipsy,” she lied.
“I’ve got plenty of stuff back at my place,” said MarkDan-Dave. Mardave, Matilda thought and giggled.
“Buy me a 40,” she said. She knew it was stupid to go with them, but it was even stupider if she sobered up. “One of those wine coolers. They have them at the bodega on the corner. Otherwise, no party.”
Both of the guys laughed. She tried to laugh with them even though she knew she wasn’t included in the joke. She was the joke. The trashy little slut. The girl who can be bought for a big fat wine cooler and three cranberry-and-vodkas.
“Okay, okay,” said Mardave.
They walked down the street, and she found herself leaning easily into the heat of their bodies, inhaling the sweat and iron scent. It would be easy for her to close her eyes and pretend Mardave was someone else, someone she wanted to be touched by, but she wouldn’t let herself soil her memories of Julian.
They passed by a store with flat-screens in the window, each one showing different channels. One streamed video from Coldtown—a girl who went by the name Demonia made some kind of deal with one of the stations to show what it was really like behind the gates. She filmed the Eternal Ball, a party that started in 1998 and had gone on ceaselessly ever since. In the background, girls and boys in rubber harnesses swung through the air. They stopped occasionally, opening what looked like a molded hospital tube stuck on the inside of their arms just below the crook of the elbow. They twisted a knob and spilled blood into little paper cups for the partygoers. A boy who looked to be about nine, wearing a string of glowing beads around his neck, gulped down the contents of one of the cups and then licked the paper with a tongue as red as his eyes. The camera angle changed suddenly, veering up, and the viewers saw the domed top of the hall, full of cracked windows through which you could glimpse the stars.
“I know where they are,” Mardave said. “I can see that building from my apartment.”
“Aren’t you scared of living so close to the vampires?” she asked, a small smile pulling at the corner of her mouth.
“We’ll protect you,” said Ben, smiling back at her.
“We should do what other countries do and blow those corpses sky high,” Mardave said.
Matilda bit her tongue not to point out that Europe’s vampire hunting led to the highest levels of infection in the world. So many of Belgium’s citizens were vampires that shops barely opened their doors until nightfall. The truce with Coldtown worked. Mostly.
She didn’t care if Mardave hated vampires. She hated them too.
When they got to the store, she waited outside to avoid getting carded and lit another cigarette with Julian’s silver lighter—the one she was going to give back to him in thirty-one days. Sitting down on the curb, she let the chill of the pavement deaden the backs of her thighs. Let it freeze her belly and frost her throat with ice that even liquor couldn’t melt.
Hunger turned her stomach. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything solid without throwing it back up. Her mouth hungered for dark, rich feasts; her skin felt tight, like a seed thirsting to bloom. All she could trust herself to eat was smoke.
When she was a little girl, vampires had been costumes for Halloween. They were the bad guys in movies, plastic fangs and polyester capes. They were Muppets on television, endlessly counting.
Now she was the one that was counting. Fifty-seven days. Eighty-eight days. Eighty-eight nights.
She looked up and saw Dante saunter up to her, earbuds dangling out of his ears like he needed a soundtrack for everything he did. He wore a pair of skin-tight jeans and smoked a cigarette out of one of those long, movie-star holders. He looked pretentious as hell. “I’d almost given up on finding you.”
“You should have started with the gutter,” she said, gesturing to the wet, clogged tide beneath her feet. “I take my gutter-dwelling very seriously.”
“Seriously.” He pointed at her with the cigarette holder. “Even your mother thinks you’re dead. Julian’s crying over you.”
Matilda looked down and picked at the thread of her jeans. It hurt to think about Julian, while waiting for Mardave and Ben. She was disgusted with herself and she could only guess how disgusted he’d be. “I got Cold,” she said. “One of them bit me.”
Dante nodded his head.
That’s what they’d started calling it when the infection kicked in—Cold—because of how cold people’s skin became after they were bitten. And because of the way the poison in their veins caused them to crave heat and blood. One taste of human blood and the infection mutated. It killed the host and then raised them back up again, colder than before. Cold through and through, forever and ever.
“I didn’t think you’d be alive,” he said.
She hadn’t thought she’d make it this long either without giving in. But going it alone on the street was better than forcing her mother to choose between chaining her up in the basement or shipping her off to Coldtown. It was better, too, than taking the chance that Matilda might get loose from the chains and attack people she loved. Stories like that were in the news all the time; almost as frequent as the ones about people who let vampires into their homes because they seemed so nice and clean-cut.
“Then what are you doing looking for me?” she asked. Dante had lived down the street from her family for years, but they didn’t hang out. She’d wave to him as she mowed the lawn while he loaded his panel van with DJ equipment. He shouldn’t have been here.
She looked back at the store window. Mardave and Ben were at the counter with a case of beer and her wine cooler. They were getting change from a clerk.