The Poison Eaters (Small Beer Press):In her debut collection, New York Times best-selling author Holly Black returns to the world of Tithe in two darkly exquisite new tales. Then Black takes readers on a tour of a faerie market and introduces a girl poisonous to the touch and another who challenges the devil to a competitive eating match. Some of these stories have been published in anthologies such as 21 Proms, The Faery Reel, and The Restless Dead, and have been reprinted in many “Best of ” anthologies.
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“The Coldest Girl in Coldtown”
MATILDA WAS DRUNK, BUT then she was always drunk anymore. 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 MarkDanDave. 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 modded 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 corners 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 who 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 skintight 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.”
Maltilda 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 it 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 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.
“I was hoping you, er, wouldn’t be alive,” Dante said. “You’d be more help if you were dead.”
She stood up, stumbling slightly. “Well, screw you too.” It took eighty-eight days for the venom to sweat out a person’s pores. She only had thirty-seven to go. Thirty-seven days to stay so drunk that she could ignore the buzz in her head that made her want to bite, rend, devour.
“That came out wrong,” he said, taking a step toward her. Close enough that she felt the warmth of him radiating off him like licking tongues of flame. She shivered. Her veins sang with need.
“I can’t help you,” said Matilda. “Look, I can barely help myself. Whatever it is, I’m sorry. I can’t. You have to get out of here.”
“My sister Lydia and your boyfriend Julian are gone,” Dante said. “Together. She’s looking to get bitten. I don’t know what he’s looking for … but he’s going to get hurt.”
Matilda gaped at him as Mardave and Ben walked out of the store. Ben carried a box on his shoulder and a bag on his arm. “That guy bothering you?” he asked her.
“No,” she said, then turned to Dante. “You better go.”
“Wait,” said Dante. Matilda’s stomach hurt. She was sobering up. The smell of blood seemed to float up from underneath their skin.
She reached into Ben’s bag and grabbed a beer. She popped the top, licked off the foam. If she didn’t get a lot drunker, she was going to attack someone.
“Jesus,” Mardave said. “Slow down. What if someone sees you?”
She drank it in huge gulps, right there on the street. Ben laughed, but it wasn’t a good laugh. He was laughing at the drunk.
“She’s infected,” Dante said.
Matilda whirled toward him, chucking the mostly empty can in his direction automatically. “Shut up, asshole.”
“Feel her skin,” Dante said. “Cold. She ran away from home when it happened, and no one’s seen her since.”
“I’m cold because it’s cold out,” she said.
She saw Ben’s evaluation of her change from damaged enough to sleep with strangers to dangerous enough to attack strangers.
Mardave touched his hand gently to her arm. “Hey,” he said.
She almost hissed with delight at the press of his hot fingers. She smiled up at him and hoped her eyes weren’t as hungry as her skin. “I really like you.”
He flinched. “Look, it’s late. Maybe we could meet up another time.” Then he backed away, which made her so angry that she bit the inside of her own cheek.
Her mouth flooded with the taste of copper and a red haze floated in front of her eyes.
Fifty-seven days ago, Matilda had been sober. She’d had a boyfriend named Julian, and they would dress up together in her bedroom. He liked to wear skinny ties and glittery eye shadow. She liked to wear vintage rock t-shirts and boots that laced up so high that they would constantly be late because they were busy tying them.
Matilda and Julian would dress up and prowl the streets and party at lockdown clubs that barred the doors from dusk to dawn. Matilda wasn’t particularly careless; she was just careless enough.
She’d been at a friend’s party. It had been stiflingly hot, and she was mad because Julian and Lydia were doing some dance thing from the musical they were in at school. Matilda just wanted to get some air. She opened a window and climbed out under the bobbing garland of garlic.
Another girl was already on the lawn. Matilda should have noticed that the girl’s breath didn’t crystallize in the air, but she didn’t.
“Do you have a light?” the girl had asked. Matilda did. She reached for Julian’s lighter when the girl caught her arm and bent her backwards. Matilda’s scream turned into a shocked cry when she felt the girl’s cold mouth against her neck, the girl’s cold fingers holding her off balance.
Then it was as though someone slid two shards of ice into her skin.
The spread of vampirism could be traced to one person— Caspar Morales. Films and books and television had started romanticizing vampires, and maybe it was only a matter of time before a vampire started romanticizing himself.
Crazy, romantic Caspar decided that he wouldn’t kill his victims. He’d just drink a little blood and then move on, city to city. By the time other vampires caught up with him and ripped him to pieces, he’d infected hundreds of people. And those new vampires, with no idea how to prevent the spread, infected thousands.
When the first outbreak happened in Tokyo, it seemed like a journalist’s prank. Then there was another outbreak in Hong Kong and another in San Francisco.
The military put up barricades around the area where the infection broke out. That was the way the first Coldtown was founded.
Matilda’s body twitched involuntarily. She could feel the spasm start in the muscles of her back and move to her face. She wrapped her arms around herself to try and stop it, but her hands were shaking pretty hard. “You want my help, you better get me some booze.”
“You’re killing yourself,” Dante said, shaking his head.
“I just need another drink,” she said. “Then I’ll be fine.”
He shook his head. “You can’t keep going like this. You can’t just stay drunk to avoid your problems. I know, people do. It’s a classic move, even, but I didn’t figure you for fetishizing your own doom.”
She started laughing. “You don’t understand. When I’m wasted I don’t crave blood. It’s the only thing keeping me human.”
“What?” He looked at Matilda like he couldn’t quite make sense of her words.
“Let me spell it out: if you don’t get me some alcohol, I am going to bite you.”
“Oh.” He fumbled for his wallet. “Oh. Okay.”
Matilda had spent all the cash she’d brought with her in the first few weeks, so it’d been a long time since she could simply overpay some homeless guy to go into a liquor store and get her a fifth of vodka. She gulped gratefully from the bottle Dante gave her in a nearby alley.
A few moments later, warmth started to creep up from her belly, and her mouth felt like it was full of needles and Novocain.
“You okay?” he asked her.
“Better now,” she said, her words slurring slightly. “But I still don’t understand. Why do you need me to help you find Lydia and Julian?
“Lydia got obsessed with becoming a vampire,” Dante said, irritably brushing back the stray hair that fell across his face.
He shrugged. “She used to be really scared of vampires. When we were kids, she begged Mom to let her camp in the hallway because she wanted to sleep where there were no windows. But then I guess she started to be fascinated instead. She thinks that human annihilation is coming. She says that we all have to choose sides and she’s already chosen.”
“I’m not a vampire,” Matilda said.
Dante gestured irritably with his cigarette holder. The cigarette had long burned out. He didn’t look like his usual contemptuous self; he looked lost. “I know. I thought you would be. And—I don’t know—you’re on the street. Maybe you know more than the video feeds do about where someone might go to get themselves bitten.”
Matilda thought about lying on the floor of Julian’s parents’ living room. They had been sweaty from dancing and kissed languidly. On the television, a list of missing people flashed. She had closed her eyes and kissed him again.
She nodded slowly. “I know a couple of places. Have you heard from her at all?”
He shook his head. “She won’t take any of my calls, but she’s been updating her blog. I’ll show you.”
He loaded it on his phone. The latest entry was titled: I Need a Vampire. Matilda scrolled down and read. Basically, it was Lydia’s plea to be bitten. She wanted any vampires looking for victims to contact her. In the comments, someone suggested Coldtown and then another person commented in ALL CAPS to say that everyone knew that the vampires in Coldtown were careful to keep their food sources alive.
It was impossible to know which comments Lydia had read and which ones she believed.
Runaways went to Coldtown all the time, along with the sick, the sad, and the maudlin. There was supposed to be a constant party, theirs for the price of blood. But once they went inside, humans—even human children, even babies born in Coldtown— weren’t be allowed to leave. The National Guard patrolled the barbed wire—wrapped and garlic-covered walls to make sure that Coldtown stayed contained.
People said that vampires found ways through the walls to the outside world. Maybe that was just a rumor, although Matilda remembered reading something online about a documentary that proved the truth. She hadn’t seen it.
But everyone knew there was only one way to get out of Coldtown if you were still human. Your family had to be rich enough to hire a vampire hunter. Vampire hunters got money from the government for each vampire they put in Coldtown, but they could give up the cash reward in favor of a voucher for a single human’s release. One vampire in, one human out.
There was a popular reality television series about one of the hunters, called Hemlok. Girls hung posters of him on the insides of their lockers, often right next to pictures of the vampires he hunted.
Most people didn’t have the money to outbid the government for a hunter’s services. Matilda didn’t think that Dante’s family did and knew Julian’s didn’t. Her only chance was to catch Lydia and Julian before they crossed over.
“What’s with Julian?” Matilda asked. She’d been avoiding the question for hours as they walked through the alleys that grew progressively more empty the closer they got to the gates.
“What do you mean?” Dante was hunched over against the wind, his long skinny frame offering little protection against the chill. Still, she knew he was warm underneath. Inside.
“Why did Julian go with her?” She tried to keep the hurt out of her voice. She didn’t think Dante would understand. He DJed at a club in town and was rumored to see a different boy or girl every day of the week. The only person he actually seemed to care about was his sister.
Dante shrugged slim shoulders. “Maybe he was looking for you.”
That was the answer she wanted to hear. She smiled and let herself imagine saving Julian right before he could enter Coldtown. He would tell her that he’d been coming to save her and then they’d laugh and she wouldn’t bite him, no matter how warm his skin felt.
Dante snapped his fingers in front of Matilda and she stumbled.
“Hey,” she said. “Drunk girl here. No messing with me.”
Melinda and Dante checked all the places she knew, all the places she’d slept on cardboard near runaways and begged for change. Dante had a picture of Lydia in his wallet, but no one who looked at it remembered her.
Finally, outside a bar, they bumped into a girl who said she’d seen Lydia and Julian. Dante traded her the rest of his pack of cigarettes for her story.
“They were headed for Coldtown,” she said, lighting up. In the flickering flame of her lighter, Melinda noticed the shallow cuts along her wrists. “Said she was tired of waiting.”
“What about the guy?” Matilda asked. She stared at the girl’s dried garnet scabs. They looked like crusts of sugar, like the lines of salt left on the beach when the tide goes out. She wanted to lick them.
“He said his girlfriend was a vampire,” said the girl, inhaling deeply. She blew out smoke and then started to cough.
“When was that?” Dante asked. The girl shrugged her shoulders. “Just a couple of hours ago.”
Dante took out his phone and pressed some buttons. “Load,” he muttered. “Come on, load.”
“What happened to your arms?” Matilda asked. The girl shrugged again. “They bought some blood off me. Said that they might need it inside. They had a real professional set-up too. Sharp razor and one of those glass bowls with the plastic lids.”
Matilda’s stomach clenched with hunger. She turned against the wall and breathed slowly. She needed a drink.
“Is something wrong with her?” the girl asked.
“Matilda,” Dante said, and Matilda half-turned. He was holding out his phone. There was a new entry up on Lydia’s blog, entitled: One-Way Ticket to Coldtown.
“You should post about it,” Dante said. “On the message boards.”
Matilda was sitting on the ground, picking at the brick wall to give her fingers something to do. Dante had massively overpaid for another bottle of vodka and was cradling it in a crinkled paper bag.
She frowned. “Post about what?”
“About the alcohol. About it helping you keep from turning.”
“Where would I post about that?”
Dante twisted off the cap. The heat seemed to radiate off his skin as he swigged from the bottle. “There are forums for people who have to restrain someone for eighty-eight days. They hang out and exchange tips on straps and dealing with the begging for blood. Haven’t you seen them?”
She shook her head. “I bet sedation’s already a hot topic of discussion. I doubt I’d be telling them anything they don’t already know.”
He laughed, but it was a bitter laugh. “Then there’s all the people who want to be vampires. The websites reminding all the corpsebait out there that being bitten by an infected person isn’t enough; it has to be a vampire. The ones listing gimmicks to get vampires to notice you.”
“I dated a girl who cut thin lines on her thighs before she went out dancing so if there was a vampire in the club, it’d be drawn to her scent.” Dante didn’t look extravagant or affected anymore. He looked defeated.
Matilda smiled at him. “She was probably a better bet than me for getting you into Coldtown.”
He returned the smile wanly. “The worst part is that Lydia’s not going to get what she wants. She’s going become the human servant of some vampire who’s going to make her a whole bunch of promises and never turn her. The last thing they need in Coldtown is new vampires.”
Matilda imagined Lydia and Julian dancing at the endless Eternal Ball. She pictured them on the streets she’d seen in pictures uploaded to Facebook and Flickr, trying to trade a bowl full of blood for their own deaths.
When Dante passed the bottle to her, she pretended to swig. On the eve of her fifty-eighth day of being infected, Matilda started sobering up.
Crawling over, she straddled Dante’s waist before he had a chance to shift positions. His mouth tasted like tobacco. When she pulled back from him, his eyes were wide with surprise, his pupils blown and black even in the dim streetlight.
“Matilda,” he said and there was nothing in his voice but longing.
“If you really want your sister, I am going to need one more thing from you,” she said. His blood tasted like tears.
Matilda’s skin felt like it had caught fire. She’d turned into lit paper, burning up. Curling into black ash.
She licked his neck over and over and over.
The gates of Coldtown were large and made of consecrated wood, barbed wire covering them like heavy, thorny vines. The guards slouched at their posts, guns over their shoulders, sharing a cigarette. The smell of percolating coffee wafted out of the guardhouse.
“Um, hello,” Matilda said. Blood was still sticky where it half-dried around her mouth and on her neck. It had dribbled down her shirt, stiffening it nearly to cracking when she moved. Her body felt strange now that she was dying. Hot. More alive than it had in weeks.
Dante would be all right; she wasn’t contagious and she didn’t think she’d hurt him too badly. She hoped she hadn’t hurt him too badly. She touched the phone in her pocket, his phone, the one she’d used to call 911 after she’d left him.
“Hello,” she called to the guards again. One turned. “Oh my god,” he said and reached for his rifle.
“I’m here to turn in a vampire. For a voucher. I want to turn in a vampire in exchange for letting a human out of Coldtown.”
“What vampire?” asked the other guard. He’d dropped the cigarette, but not stepped on the filter so that it just smoked on the asphalt.
“Me,” said Matilda. “I want to turn in me.”
They made her wait as her pulse thrummed slower and slower. She wasn’t a vampire yet, and after a few phone calls, they discovered that technically she could only have the voucher after undeath. They did let her wash her face in the bathroom of the guardhouse and wring the thin cloth of her shirt until the water ran down the drain clear, instead of murky with blood.
When she looked into the mirror, her skin had unfamiliar purple shadows, like bruises. She was still staring at them when she stopped being able to catch her breath. The hollow feeling in her chest expanded and she found herself panicked, falling to her knees on the filthy tile floor. She died there, a moment later.
It didn’t hurt as much as she’d worried it would. Like most things, the surprise was the worst part.
The guards released Matilda into Coldtown just a little before dawn. The world looked strange—everything had taken on a smudgy, silvery cast, like she was watching an old movie. Sometimes people’s heads seemed to blur into black smears. Only one color was distinct—a pulsing, oozing color that seemed to glow from beneath skin.
Her teeth ached to look at it.
There was a silence inside her. No longer did she move to the rhythmic drumming of her heart. Her body felt strange, hard as marble, free of pain. She’d never realized how many small agonies were alive in the creak of her bones, the pull of muscle. Now, free of them, she felt like she was floating.
Matilda looked around with her strange new eyes. Everything was beautiful. And the light at the edge of the sky was the most beautiful thing of all.
“What are you doing?” a girl called from a doorway. She had long black hair, but her roots were growing in blonde. “Get in here! Are you crazy?”
In a daze, Matilda did as she was told. Everything smeared as she moved, like the world was painted in watercolors. The girl’s pinkish-red face swirled along with it.
It was obvious the house had once been grand, but it looked like it’d been abandoned for a long time. Graffiti covered the peeling wallpaper and couches had been pushed up against the walls. A boy wearing jeans but no shirt was painting make-up onto a girl with stiff pink pigtails, while another girl in a retro polka-dotted dress pulled on mesh stockings.
In a corner, another boy—this one with glossy brown hair that fell to his waist—stacked jars of creamed corn into a precarious pyramid.
“What is this place?” Matilda asked.
The boy stacking the jars turned. “Look at her eyes. She’s a vampire!” He didn’t seem afraid, though; he seemed delighted.
“Get her into the cellar,” one of the other girls said.
“Come on,” said the black-haired girl and pulled Matilda toward a doorway. “You’re fresh-made, right?”
“Yeah,” Matilda said. Her tongue swept over her own sharp teeth. “I guess that’s pretty obvious.”
“Don’t you know that vampires can’t go outside in the daylight?” the girl asked, shaking her head. “The guards try that trick with every new vampire, but I never saw one almost fall for it”
“Oh, right,” Matilda said. They went down the rickety steps to a filthy basement with a mattress on the floor underneath a single bulb. Crates of foodstuffs were shoved against the walls, and the high, small windows had been painted over with a tarry substance that let no light through.
The black-haired girl who’d waved her inside smiled. “We trade with the border guards. Black-market food, clothes, little luxuries like chocolate and cigarettes for some ass. Vampires don’t own everything.”
“And you’re going to owe us for letting you stay the night,” the boy said from the top of the stairs.
“I don’t have anything,” Matilda said. “I didn’t bring any cans of food or whatever.”
“You have to bite us.”
“What?” Matilda asked.
“One of us,” the girl said. “How about one of us? You can even pick which one.”
“Why would you want me to do that?”
The girl’s expression clearly said that Matilda was stupid. “Who doesn’t want to live forever?”
I don’t, Matilda wanted to say, but she swallowed the words. She could tell they already thought she didn’t deserve to be a vampire. Besides, she wanted to taste blood. She wanted to taste the red, throbbing, pulsing insides of the girl in front of her. It wasn’t the pain she’d felt when she was infected, the hunger that made her stomach clench, the craving for warmth. It was heady, greedy desire.
“Tomorrow,” Matilda said. “When it’s night again.”
“Okay,” the girl said, “but you promise, right? You’ll turn one of us?”
“Yeah,” said Matilda, numbly. It was hard to even wait that long.
She was relieved when they went upstairs, but less relieved when she heard something heavy slide in front of the basement door. She told herself that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was getting through the day so that she could find Julian and Lydia.
She shook her head to clear it of thoughts of blood and turned on Dante’s phone. Although she didn’t expect it, a text message was waiting: I cant tell if I luv u or if I want to kill u.
Relief washed over her. Her mouth twisted into a smile and her newly sharp canines cut her lip. She winced. Dante was okay.
She opened up Lydia’s blog and posted an anonymous message: Tell Julian his girlfriend wants to see him … and you.
Matilda made herself comfortable on the dirty mattress. She looked up at the rotted boards of the ceiling and thought of Julian. She had a single ticket out of Coldtown and two humans to rescue with it, but it was easy to picture herself saving Lydia as Julian valiantly offered to stay with her, even promised her his eternal devotion.
She licked her lips at the image. When she closed her eyes, all her imaginings drowned in a sea of red.
Waking at dusk, Matilda checked Lydia’s blog. Lydia had posted a reply: Meet us at the Festival of Sinners.
Five kids sat at the top of the stairs, watching her with liquid eyes.
“Are you awake?” the black-haired girl asked. She seemed to pulse with color. Her moving mouth was hypnotic.
“Come here,” Matilda said to her in a voice that seemed so distant that she was surprised to find it was her own. She hadn’t meant to speak, hadn’t meant to beckon the girl over to her.
“That’s not fair,” one of the boys called. “I was the one who said she owed us something. It should be me. You should pick me.”
Matilda ignored him as the girl knelt down on the dirty mattress and swept aside her hair, baring a long, unmarked neck. She seemed dazzling, this creature of blood and breath, a fragile manikin as brittle as sticks.
Tiny golden hairs tickled Matilda’s nose as she bit down.
Blood was heat and heart running-thrumming-beating through the fat roots of veins to drip syrup slow, spurting molten hot across tongue, mouth, teeth, chin.
Dimly, Matilda felt someone shoving her and someone else screaming, but it seemed distant and unimportant. Eventually the words became clearer.
“Stop,” someone was screaming. “Stop!”
Hands dragged Matilda off the girl. Her neck was a glistening red mess. Gore stained the mattress and covered Matilda’s hands and hair. The girl coughed, blood bubbles frothing on her lip, and then went abruptly silent.
“What did you do?” the boy wailed, cradling the girl’s body. “She’s dead. She’s dead. You killed her.”
Matilda backed away from the body. Her hand went automatically to her mouth, covering it. “I didn’t mean to,” she said.
“Maybe she’ll be okay,” said the other boy, his voice cracking. “We have to get bandages.”
“She’s dead,” the boy holding the girl’s body moaned.
A thin wail came from deep inside Matilda as she backed toward the stairs. Her belly felt full, distended. She wanted to be sick.
Another girl grabbed Matilda’s arm. “Wait,” the girl said, eyes wide and imploring. “You have to bite me next. You’re full now so you won’t have to hurt me—”
With a cry, Matilda tore herself free and ran up the stairs— if she went fast enough, maybe she could escape from herself.
By the time Matilda got to the Festival of Sinners, her mouth tasted metallic and she was numb with fear. She wasn’t human, wasn’t good, and wasn’t sure what she might do next. She kept pawing at her shirt, as if that much blood could ever be wiped off, as if it hadn’t already soaked down into her skin and her soiled insides.
The Festival was easy to find, even as confused as she was. People were happy to give her directions, apparently not bothered that she was drenched in blood. Their casual demeanor was horrifying, but not as horrifying as how much she already wanted to feed again.
On the way, she passed the Eternal Ball. Strobe lights lit up the remains of the windows along the dome, and a girl with blue hair in a dozen braids held up a video camera to interview three men dressed all in white with gleaming red eyes.
A ripple of fear passed through her. She reminded herself that there was nothing they could do to her. She was already like them. Already dead.
The Festival of Sinners was being held at a church with stained-glass windows painted black on the inside. The door, papered with pink-stenciled posters, was painted the same thick tarry black. Music thrummed from within and a few people sat on the steps, smoking and talking.
Matilda went inside.
A doorman pulled aside a velvet rope for her, letting her past a small line of people waiting to pay the cover charge. The rules were different for vampires, perhaps especially for vampires accessorizing their grungy attire with so much blood.
Matilda scanned the room. She didn’t see Julian or Lydia, just a throng of dancers and a bar that served alcohol from vast copper distilling vats. It spilled into mismatched mugs. Then one of the people near the bar moved and Matilda saw Lydia and Julian. He was bending over her, shouting into her ear.
Matilda pushed her way through the crowd, until she was close enough to touch Julian’s arm. She reached out, but couldn’t quite bring herself to brush his skin with her foulness.
Julian looked up, startled. “Tilda?”
She snatched back her hand like she’d been about to touch fire.
“Tilda,” he said. “What happened to you? Are you hurt?”
Matilda flinched, looking down at herself. “I …”
Lydia laughed. “She ate someone, moron.”
“Tilda?” Julian asked.
“I’m sorry,” Matilda said. There was so much she had to be sorry for, but at least he was here now. Julian would tell her what to do and how to turn herself back into something decent again. She would save Lydia and Julian would save her.
He touched her shoulder, let his hand rest gingerly on her blood-stiffened shirt. “We were looking for you everywhere.” His gentle expression was tinged with terror; fear pulled his smile into something closer to a grimace.
“I wasn’t in Coldtown,” Matilda said. “I came here so that Lydia could leave. I have a pass.” “
But I don’t want to leave,” said Lydia. “You understand that, right? I want what you have—eternal life.”
“You’re not infected,” Matilda said. “You have to go. You can still be okay. Please, I need you to go.”
“One pass?” Julian said, his eyes going to Lydia. Matilda saw the truth in the weight of that gaze—Julian had not come to Coldtown for Matilda. Even though she knew she didn’t deserve him to think of her as anything but a monster, it hurt savagely.
“I’m not leaving,” Lydia said, turning to Julian, pouting. “You said she wouldn’t be like this.”
“I killed a girl,” Matilda said. “I killed her. Do you understand that?”
“Who cares about some mortal girl?” Lydia tossed back her hair. In that moment, she reminded Matilda of her brother, pretentious Dante who’d turned out to be an actual nice guy. Just like sweet Lydia had turned out cruel.
“You’re a girl,” Matilda said. “You’re mortal.”
“I know that!” Lydia rolled her eyes. “I just mean that we don’t care who you killed. Turn us and then we can kill lots of people.”
“No,” Matilda said, swallowing. She looked down, not wanting to hear what she was about to say. There was still a chance. “Look, I have the pass. If you don’t want it, then Julian should take it and go. But I’m not turning you. I’m never turning you, understand.”
“Julian doesn’t want to leave,” Lydia said. Her eyes looked bright and two feverish spots appeared on her cheeks. “Who are you to judge me anyway? You’re the murderer.”
Matilda took a step back. She desperately wanted Julian to say something in her defense or even to look at her, but his gaze remained steadfastly on Lydia.
“So neither one of you want the pass,” Matilda said.
“Fuck you,” spat Lydia. Matilda turned away.
“Wait,” Julian said. His voice sounded weak.
Matilda spun, unable to keep the hope off her face, and saw why Julian had called to her. Lydia stood behind him, a long knife to his throat.
“Turn me,” Lydia said. “Turn me, or I’m going to kill him.”
Julian’s eyes were wide. He started to protest or beg or something and Lydia pressed the knife harder, silencing him.
People had stopped dancing nearby, backing away. One girl with red-glazed eyes stared hungrily at the knife.
“Turn me!” Lydia shouted. “I’m tired of waiting! I want my life to begin!”
“You won’t be alive—” Matilda started.
“I’ll be alive—more alive than ever. Just like you are.”
“Okay,” Matilda said softly. “Give me your wrist.”
The crowd seemed to close in tighter, watching as Lydia held out her arm. Matilda crouched low, bending down over it.
“Take the knife away from his throat,” Matilda said.
Lydia, all her attention on Matilda, let Julian go. He stumbled a little and pressed his fingers to his neck.
“I loved you,” Julian shouted.
Matilda looked up to see that he wasn’t speaking to her. She gave him a glittering smile and bit down on Lydia’s wrist.
The girl screamed, but the scream was lost in Matilda’s ears. Lost in the pulse of blood, the tide of gluttonous pleasure and the music throbbing around them like Lydia’s slowing heartbeat.
Matilda sat on the blood-soaked mattress and turned on the video camera to check that the live feed was working.
Julian was gone. She’d given him the pass after stripping him of all his cash and credit cards; there was no point in trying to force Lydia to leave since she’d just come right back in. He’d made stammering apologies that Matilda ignored; then he fled for the gate. She didn’t miss him. Her fantasy of Julian felt as ephemeral as her old life.
“It’s working,” one of the boys—Michael—said from the stairs, a computer cradled on his lap. Even though she’d killed one of them, they welcomed her back, eager enough for eternal life to risk more deaths. “You’re streaming live video.”
Matilda set the camera on the stack of crates, pointed toward her and the wall where she’d tied a gagged Lydia. The girl thrashed and kicked, but Matilda ignored her. She stepped in front of the camera and smiled.
My name is Matilda Green. I was born on April 10, 1997. I died on September 3, 2013. Please tell my mother I’m okay. And Dante, if you’re watching this, I’m sorry.
You’ve probably seen lots of video feeds from inside Coldtown. I saw them too. Pictures of girls and boys grinding together in clubs or bleeding elegantly for their celebrity vampire masters. Here’s what you never see. What I’m going to show you.
For eighty-eight days you are going to watch someone sweat out the infection. You are going to watch her beg and scream and cry. You’re going to watch her throw up food and piss her pants and pass out. You’re going to watch me feed her can after can of creamed corn. It’s not going to be pretty.
You’re going to watch me, too. I’m the kind of vampire that you’d be, one who’s new at this and basically out of control. I’ve already killed someone and I can’t guarantee I’m not going to do it again. I’m the one who infected this girl.
This is the real Coldtown.
I’m the real Coldtown.
You still want in?