Authors: Justin Somper
Tags: #Parenting, #Pirates, #Action & Adventure, #Vampires, #Juvenile Fiction, #Mothers, #Seafaring life, #Fantasy & Magic, #Fiction, #Family & Relationships, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Twins, #General, #Motherhood, #Horror, #Brothers and sisters
"Yes," Sally nodded. "All your lives except the very beginning part." She lifted one small hand and gestured with her thumb and forefinger. "Just a tiny beginning sliver before you went to Crescent Moon Bay. That, my darlings, was the last time I saw you."
"When we were babies?"
"But why?" Grace asked.
"It's a long story," Sally said. "A long and sometimes difficult story." Her voice had grown weak again, and she took another sip of water, pausing before she continued. "But it's your story, and you deserve to be told it."
Grace glanced at Connor, then back at Sally. Her fear had given way to excitement. It was as if they were little kids again, snuggled up in their twin bunks in the lighthouse bedroom they had shared, cozy and all set to hear a story before bedtime. Only, now they knew for certain that Sally had never been there in the lighthouse. It was their dad, Dexter Tempest, who had always told them stories before bed. Told them stories and sang them that strange chantey:
I'll tell you a tale of Vampirates,
A tale as old as true ...
Grace felt sad that her dad wasn't here to share in this reunion. It made it incomplete.
"Your story begins aboard the Nocturne," Sally said.
"The Nocturne!" Grace exclaimed. "That's the Vampirate ship," she reminded Connor.
"Yes," he said, slightly irritably. "I know that."
"You sailed on the Nocturne!" Grace said excitedly, shaking her head. Now she had an answer to one of her big questions -- how Sally and Lorcan knew each other. She felt a deeper sense of kinship with her mother, as if they had unwittingly walked the same path in life. "What were you doing aboard the Nocturne?" she asked.
"She was about to tell us," Connor said, with some force. "Grace, please let her tell us the story without interrupting every five seconds."
"All right," Grace said, turning from Connor back to Sally. "Sorry," she said.
"That's okay," Sally said, sipping a little more water. "I was always like you, Grace. Hungry for information. Couldn't wait to know everything. See everything. Do everything." She smiled, then set the water glass down again. "What was I doing on the Nocturne? Simple, really. I was a donor."
Stukeley rode the wave expertly into shore, then jumped off into the shallows and flipped the surfboard into his arms.
He watched as Johnny followed him in. His balance was superb. Johnny had only recently learned to surf under Stukeley's own tutelage, but already he was as good as his teacher. All his experience on horseback had given him a strong sense of how to balance and steer the board through the most powerful of waves.
Johnny was whooping with exhilaration as he scooped up the board and ran out of the water to meet his friend. "How'd I do?" he asked.
Stukeley smiled and reached out his hand to squeeze Johnny's shoulder. "You did good, mate," he said. "You're a natural."
"Thanks, hermano," Johnny grinned. Hermano The word meant "brother" in Johnny's native tongue. And it was true that in the short time they had known each other, they had become like brothers. Stukeley had had close friendships before. His brain flickered briefly with an image of him on board the Diablo, clowning around with Connor and Bart. Such images were becoming harder and harder to conjure now, as if they were a dream he had once dreamed but could no longer return to. This was his life now -- this world of pervasive darkness.
"You look distant. What are you thinking about?"
Stukeley shook his head. "I just had this flashback to when I was mortal."
"Still getting those, eh?" Johnny gave a wry smile and set his Stetson back on his head.
"Yeah, I was thinking about --"
"Don't go there," Johnny said with a shake of his head. "It'll only bring you pain." He slammed his surfboard into the sand. "Trust me. I've made that mistake too many times myself."
Stukeley watched the moonlit waves reflected in Johnny's dark eyes. "Then what?" he asked. "Do I just let it all go? Everything I used to be?"
Johnny nodded. "Yes. Just let it float away from you. Live in the here and now."
Stukeley looked at his friend. "Is that what you do?"
"I try to, man. It's not always easy, but it's easier than filling your head with pain and regret and yearning."
Stukeley nodded. "There are people I cared about and people who cared about me. I didn't always do right by them... ."
"Trust me," Johnny said. "The only way you'll ever be free is to live in the moment. On this beach. Right now. This is all we have."
Though Johnny looked a few years younger, on account of his age when he'd crossed, he'd been in this realm a whole lot longer than Stukeley. His journey had been long and often hard, Stukeley knew, from the few snippets he'd told him. When it came to giving advice on making fresh starts, this onetime vaquero knew what he was talking about.
"Look." Johnny spun Stukeley around and they watched the other surfers. Mortal eyes would have been blind to their serried ranks, even if any mortals had been brave enough to be out on the beach tonight rather than shut up indoors, behind closed windows and locked doors.
The water was teeming with them. There was excitement in the air, not just from the exhilaration of the surf but also from the anticipation of what would follow.
"Where's the captain?" Stukeley asked. "I don't see him."
"Right there," Johnny pointed. "Right where you'd expect him to be -- at the heart of the action."
And there was Sidorio, head and shoulders above those surrounding him, utterly in command of the tall wave that he rode in to shore. Seeing his two lieutenants awaiting him, he gave a roar and propelled his muscled body up into the air, turning a complete somersault, the surfboard still attached to his feet. Then he landed once more on the raging waters and latched onto another wave to complete his journey to the beach.
"Nice one, Captain!" Stukeley nodded in admiration as Sidorio strode up to join them.
Sidorio smiled. "Sometimes I even surprise myself," he said.
"Did you see Johnny surfing before?" Stukeley asked. "He's getting good. Really good."
"I saw him," Sidorio said, nodding at Johnny. "Nice work, Stetson."
Johnny basked in the captain's praise, which was rarely quick to flow.
Now the beach was filling up with the others -- a massed rank of dark figures emerging from the water and stepping onto land, immediately bone-dry.
"Look at that!" Stukeley said. The three of them turned and looked along the beach at the row of surfboards planted in the sand. Here was Sidorio's crew -- the growing tide of Vampirates recruited from the disaffected travelers aboard the Nocturne and those languishing at Sanctuary, as well as some recent inmates of a prison ship. Fresh converts, thought Stukeley. And how readily they had crossed; more readily in many ways than he had. How could this be? How could they have crossed so easily, while he was still struggling? He gazed along the line at their expectant faces.
"They're waiting for you," Johnny whispered in his ear.
Stukeley heard the words, and it was like a switch had been flicked inside his brain. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do, what he had to say. Suddenly, he knew who he was.
"Okay." Stukeley clapped his hands, assuming authority, and with it the semblance of confidence. "Welcome to Santa Demonica, guys. It's a friendly little town, so they say. But I can't promise that the locals will be too welcoming to you at this time of night. Or, to be frank, any old time." He waited for their responsive laughter to settle before continuing. "You know the drill, guys. Do what you want. Take what you need." He zeroed in on a few choice faces within the crowd. "But try to play nice. No fighting between one another!" He addressed them all once more. "And, most important, be back here, ready for the ship, three hours from now."
Stukeley stood back. The ranks of Vampirates still lingered on the sand. Stukeley turned to Sidorio. "If you'd care to give them the command, Captain," he said.
Sidorio stepped forward without hesitation. "What are you waiting for?" he cried out. "Go forth and feast!"
At his command, they began to run like hungry wolves released into the wild. Some ran together, in a pack. Others found their own way, preferring to track and take their prey alone.
Stukeley heard the first door being broken down, the first window being smashed. The first scream. These sounds had their immediate echoes, before the familiar discordant notes grew louder, swelling into a sustained and violent rhapsody.
He shivered briefly, then turned to see Johnny standing at his side. "Where's the captain?" he asked.
"Gone already," said Johnny. "Gone to feast with the others."
Another crescendo of breaking glass. Another chorus of screams.
"We should go, too," Johnny said. "We need it as much as they do. We are all the same."
"Yes," Stukeley agreed. "Yes, we are all the same." Together, he and Johnny wandered off across the sand.
They hadn't gotten very far when Johnny nudged Stukeley. "Look," he said, nodding toward the dunes. "Looks like we could be hunting closer to home tonight."
Stukeley followed Johnny's sight line. Over the dunes were two figures -- two women dressed elegantly in long, fitted dresses and, somewhat impractically under the circumstances, high-heeled shoes. One of them was wearing a broad-brimmed hat and an extravagant ruby necklace, constructed rather like a spiderweb. Both, rather curiously, had on large sunglasses.
"Good evening, ladies!" Johnny called, raising a hand. "You look like you're dressed for a party."
The woman wearing the hat turned to him. "A party," she said. "Yes, indeed. Do you know where we can find one?"
"Right here!" Johnny said emphatically. "Right about here!"
The woman smiled. Johnny could see his grinning face reflected in her dark glasses.
"Why are you wearing those shades at night?" Johnny asked.
The women laughed at this. Then they spoke simultaneously. "Fashion, darling!"
The way they said "darling" sent shivers up Stukeley's spine. This was going to be easy. It so often was. Few could resist a charm offensive by Sidorio's two charismatic lieutenants.
"So," said Stukeley, deciding to move things on. "Care to walk with us for a bit? I'm Stukeley, by the way, and this handsome fellow here is Johnny." At that, Johnny removed his Stetson and bowed grandly.
The women smiled once more. "I'm Jessamy," said the hat-wearer.
"And I'm Camille."
"Beautiful names for beautiful ladies," Stukeley said. "Now why don't you take off your sunglasses and show us your beautiful eyes?"
The women faced each other. Then, in perfect synchrony, they lifted and removed their sunglasses. Turning back toward the men, they revealed faces that were far more beautiful than Stukeley and Johnny could have ever imagined. Their eyes were as bright as jewels, and around each of their right eyes was a tattoo of a black heart.
Stukeley gasped. This was too perfect. His hunger was so strong now. He could sense it was the same for Johnny. He could see the fire burning in the depths of his eyes. As he shifted his gaze back to the women, Stukeley caught his breath. For the very same fire was burning in their eyes, too.
Seeing his confusion, Jessamy smiled, opening her mouth a little wider than before, revealing a pair of oversize, razor-sharp incisors. Now Camille's incisors flashed white in the moonlight, too.
"You mentioned a party before," said Jessamy. "I think we're all looking for the same kind of fun, don't you?" She extended her hand toward Stukeley. Like a mirror image, Camille reached out her hand to Johnny. "Come on," she said hungrily. "Let's go and feast."
Stukeley awoke on the sand feeling a deep sense of peace and relaxation, accompanied by a sense of disorientation. It took him a moment or two to recognize where he was. He turned and saw Johnny snoozing away, his Stetson rising and falling on his chest. A broad smile was painted on Johnny's lips. There were a few spatters of blood between his lips and his chin.
Blood. It brought back a flash of memory. They had been feasting. For some reason, Stukeley could not summon up the full memory of it. But this was not unusual. It was often a blur on waking. Sometimes it took a good while for the details of the feasting to return.