James narrowed his eyes as the sun lowered towards his eye line. Shattered light poured through the damaged cockpit windshield. Cracks were everywhere, some pieces of the window were large shards from other vehicles, all connected by a web of mismatched metal bands with bolts and nuts. How can anyone call this “fixed?”
Driving the tank itself wasn’t difficult. Most of the controls extending from the central console were meant for external pieces of equipment, of which there was none. Damn, would’ve loved to see what this thing could do. He had expected the behemoth vehicle to be slower, harder to steer. The young man even smirked for how fun it felt. His father had worked on one at the village, but James had been too young at the time to help in any way.
Blocking the sun with his hand, James could make out the rock formation ahead. Wider than it was tall, the side facing north pointed further out at the top than the bottom. The formation resembled a large boat out of water. Almost home.
The mechanic lowered his gaze to Deborah in his lap. Weird. ‘Vulnerable’ was the last word James could think of to describe his fiancé’s sister. Passed out in his arm, he remembered years ago when they were basically forced to hug each other for the first time. It was the first and only time they had made physical contact before. Just to make Tsara happy.
Deborah had insisted James not waste the medical supplies on her wounds. He still felt guilty for listening to her, but her exposed thigh was already mending itself. The twisted wounds in her torso looked painfully mangled, but the bleeding had stopped before she had passed out.
Is she allowed to be unconscious? She doesn’t even breathe anymore. James didn’t know much about the vamps. He had grown up with the stories of their blood lust and unstoppable wrath. There were also tales of their infinite wisdom and otherworldly charm.
He glanced down once more to Deborah’s gaunt, dull complexion. I could’ve met a hundred at night and never known. James reflected on Deborah’s rescue, how she had immediately tried to kill herself. She seems to be herself. What does she know about the infection that scares her so much?
James knew that Deborah had spent most of her life alone in the sand before she had laid roots in the village. What did she see out here for all that time? No matter how much he would wonder about her past, he didn’t expect her to ever talk about it.
Maybe talking to Tsara will help. James felt a pit in his gut. We’ve been gone for so long. He looked up through the cockpit the approaching darkness. “Please God, don’t let Tsara worry too much about us, and please help Deb get through her trial.”
“Don’t waste your breath.”
James felt his heart skip, “Amen.” He glanced down to Deborah. “There’s nothing wasteful about praying.” He stared ahead to the steep, rolling dunes ahead. “No witty comment?”
As badly as James had almost jumped in surprise, he felt more paralyzed by her silence. The mechanic forced his gaze to her. Deborah’s red eyes radiated with the orange light of the setting sun. Worse than staring at his face, her eyes were fixated below his chin.
He could barely process the thought of Deborah feeding on him. Her lips slowly peeled open to reveal her teeth. They weren’t like the fangs he had seen on the feral vamps. Most of her teeth looked normal, but Deborah’s canines did seem a bit sharper. James hoped it was just an illusion his mind had created.
Draped into his left arm, Deborah’s right arm curled back. James felt her hand gripping a handful of his pants along his outer thigh. Her left arm was cradled in her own lap; James watched her fingers straighten as they reached for his chest.
Her hand spread against his loose tank top, finding its way to his shoulder. James grabbed her wrist, but she was already working her fingers along the back of his neck to the base of his skull. It was his sweet spot, Tsara had used it often to get her way.
Her hoarse voice whispered, “Don’t fight me.”
Deborah’s face had always been overly-angular for James. Where Tsara was soft, smooth and inviting, he had always found Deborah to be jagged, rough and closed off. He had always preferred Tsara’s conservative side.
Somewhere through the impending fear, James actually felt aroused. He’d never looked at Deborah this way before. Vamps get what they want, however they can. James couldn’t remember where he had heard that.
James knew Deborah could kick his ass any time she wanted. Then he remembered how a vamp had risked exposure to the sun for a chance to drink James’ blood. His eyes inadvertently scanned the cockpit for options. Weapons on the floor. Hatch release. Emergency brakes..
Deborah’s hand gathered the cloth at his thigh tighter. Her left hand gripped the back of his neck tighter. “James.”
The mechanic saw a steep dune ahead. Shit, shit, shit! Okay, ram the dune, open the window, emergency brakes. Before he could commit to the plan, Deborah shot up and shoved her teeth into the nook between James’ neck and shoulder.
“Fuck!” James’ hands fumbled, failing to throw the stick of a woman away. He was suddenly aware that the infection had stripped away most of Deborah’s already low body fat and liquids. The toned muscles she had worked at for years didn’t seemed diminished in the slightest. How much stronger are vamps than before they were infected?
There was a momentary lapse in Deborah’s strength. James didn’t think, he worked his arms between their bodies and twisted Deborah’s arms until she dangled, heavily, before him. Her diaphragm shifted up and down. Blood trickled from her bobbing chin. Rage boomed from James’ voice, “Are you fucking laughing?”
She tilted her face up. Behind thick strands of dirty blonde hair, James thought he saw tears. Not wet, clear tears. Her red eyes were surrounded by some kind of yellow-green mucus. A faint glimmer of normal tears shined, but the mucus seemed to absorb them. Further down her dry sobs, her lips quivered uncontrollably.
She’s crying. He attempted a softer tone as he kept a firm grip on her forearms. “Deb, it’s okay. I don’t know what you’re going through, but—”
Deborah’s frame bulged forward; her forehead smacked him in the nose. Reflexes took over. James grabbed his throbbing nose, tears already welling up.
A gun hammer cocked. Deborah had claimed Tate’s pistol from the floor. The tank hadn’t stopped moving towards the steep dune ahead. James’ thick boot slammed the emergency brake. He leaned forward to grab the gun she had pointed in the back of her mouth.
The tank came to a sudden halt, Deborah’s body slid from James’ lap. James felt like his chest and hips were crushed by the tightening of the safety harness in the chair. The pistol was still in Deborah’s hands.
Deborah sat at the bottom of the cockpit’s bubble windshield. Her raspy, high pitched shout sent chills down James’ spine, “I tried to kill you!” She shoved the pistol in her mouth.
The mechanic swallowed a hard lump in his throat. “No! That was an accident. Your body wants to heal itself, right? You just had a little lapse. Dropped your guard for a moment. You can beat this.”
Deborah’s face was scrunched together. “I’m a monster.”
Her crying somehow kept her lungs moving. Involuntary reaction? James couldn’t quite reach her without unlatching the seat belts. “No you’re not. You saved my life a while ago. Tsara will love you just the same.”
The sobbing vamp let her hand dangle to her side. Her chin quivered as she stared at the ceiling. “Why can’t I do it?” The gun slipped from her hand, clanking on the floor.
James felt his eyes begin to water. “You… are the strongest person I know.”
Deborah shook her head to the side, “You don’t know me.” She forced herself to look James in the eyes.
“I know enough.” The mechanic swallowed a lump in his throat.
Silence overwhelmed the cockpit for what felt like an eternity. He tried to think of anything to say to improve the mood. Nothing came to mind, even with a mental prayer.
Deborah glanced over her shoulder to the setting sun. James frowned as he disengaged the emergency brake. I don’t have to say anything. He regained control over the steering controls, working his way safely around the base of the dune.
Deborah spoke very quietly, just enough to be heard over the slow, deep whirring of the tank’s batteries behind the cockpit wall. “A vampire killed my mother. We knew him for years. Trusted him.” Deborah’s left hand floated to the slowly mending wound on her thigh. “Craig never drank from me. Mom fed him when he needed it, and he helped us survive the nights.
“One morning, Craig was late from a night scout. I was old enough to carry my own weight, so mom and I searched. Took us nearly till dark to find him. We were near an old city, Lancaster, I think. Found him on the outskirts in a parking garage. Ever see one?”
James didn’t really want to interrupt. He answered softly, “Seen pictures.”
Deborah was still staring out the window. “Craig taught me how to fight, made sure I knew moves that worked on blood suckers especially. ‘If you can stop a vamp, you can stop anyone,’ he said.
“He was surrounded by six corpses. We found him licking fresh blood from the pavement. He’d warned us about blood lust; we thought he was exaggerating.” She brought her hand back up between her heart and hip. “He was badly wounded right here, but he was healing most of it back. Normally, the infection lies dormant in the brain, just along for the ride. When a host is injured badly enough, it takes over. Survival is the only goal.”
James had to stop himself from speaking. You had to put him down.
“Craig rushed us. I had killed before that moment, but… I loved him. Mom fired once, I’m not sure if it was a warning shot or not. Anyway, he tackled mom first, larger source of blood I imagine. My rifle wasn’t suited for close quarters; my backup was a switchblade. Terrible weapons for that moment.”
She almost sounds like a soldier. Maybe turning this into a mission report makes it easier?
“I tried to yell at him, pull him, shove him, stab… I ended up using Craig’s axe. I killed him, just… not in time. I stared at their bodies all night. Part of me hoped that the infection would revive my mother. I already knew at the time that it didn’t work that way, but I was just hopeless enough that I didn’t care.”
“Did… Never mind.”
Deborah finally turned to look James in the eye. He thought she sounded genuinely curious, “What?”
James struggled for a neutral tone, “Did he love your mom?”
She nodded right away. “I know he did. That didn’t stop the blood lust.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry about that, I just… Did you ever think… Maybe he would’ve been grateful for what you did for him?”
Deborah’s expression had been guarded, tight. As she registered this new possibility, James saw her face relax. Her crusted eyes darted to the floor.
James waited for her to say something for minutes. The sun fell completely behind the horizon. He switched on the bright blue-white headlights and slowed the vehicle to a conservative speed. The mechanic had never driven after dark before.
Back home, he’d already have the garage closed up, and on his way home to Tsara. I imagine Deb’s gonna need her more than me when we get back. James preferred to speak his prayers aloud, but he thought it a bit rude to pray for someone right in front of them.
Deb’s face was completely turned to the dunes ahead. James at least tried to read her body language, but he had no idea what she was feeling now. James prayed, Dear God, if I didn’t say anything good for Deb yet, then please help me come up with something better.