'A friend is someone who would help you get rid of a corpse if you asked them to.'
- my friend Ahmed
Part I: 2007
Machlanow, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland
Saturday, May 19
Mr Palczuk's nasal voice silenced the classroom at once. Ola hated his voice, hated the way he articulated each syllable separately whenever he was trying to make a point, hated how he always picked on her for the smallest things. All considered, she hated pretty much everything about their Polish lit teacher. Including his piggy eyes, double chin and the flabby belly he desperately tried to tuck away in high-waisted, vomit-coloured pants.
If only she could pretend that she hadn't heard him shout her name. If only she couldn't feel everyone's eyes on her, everyone holding their breath, expectant and excited like Roman spectators before bloodshed. Bloodshed... The idea lingered in her. Teasing. Enticing. Then deliberately, she put down the pen she'd been using to draw cryptic symbols on her left palm and looked up. An ash blond lock fell in front of her eyes, the dubiously stylish remnants of bangs long gone; but she didn't bother to brush it back behind her ear.
'Miss Aleksandra,' the teacher said again. 'Could you please repeat what I was just saying?'
Ola shrugged. 'I'm afraid I couldn't, sir,' she replied with perfect composure, which surprised even her, for she was usually reserved.
'No, indeed, as you were too busy daydreaming... or should I say: doing art?'
The last word was pronounced in such a sarcastic tone that the whole class burst out laughing. Only Ola didn't laugh; instead, she felt a strangely familiar urge build up inside her. Her senses changed, sharpened, intensified. The laughing turned into a croak, while the students' faces turned ugly, distorted. Through a transparent screen of red, she saw her teacher walking down toward her desk.
'Very funny,' she forced herself to say. 'I must say my own sense of humour leans towards other types of jokes... Jokes more like... this one―'
Chemicals rushed in her system as she finally allowed herself to bare her teeth. Except those weren't teeth anymore, but white, shiny, foaming... fangs. In a second the rest of her face became equally monstrous: under bristly brows, her eyes grew big and dark, while her abysmal pupils flashed with ferocity. All her body felt alive and vibrant with a need and pleasure she had never experienced, yet somehow recognized as her due.
The students' laughter had died in their throat. Mr Palczuk himself had frozen in his tracks, observing the metamorphosis with growing alarm, until his lower lip trembled and his deep-set eyes looked almost as large as usual ones. Then Ola bellowed out. The students screamed; the teacher instinctively reached for his double chin. Too late. Ola―or rather the creature she had become―was already on him, her fangs plunging deep into his thick skin, piercing blood vessels, tearing at the fat and flesh in a frantic search for the artery.
The moment the blood exploded and Mr Palczuk expired in her clutch was like a release. A glorious, tremendous, absolute release. Ola cried out as she finished pulling her victim to pieces. A large, dark pool was forming beneath them on the black and white tile floor. There was no sound. Except for her and the corpse, the room was utterly empty.
Ola woke with a start, sweaty and breathless. She was in her bedroom, in her bed. Moonlight poured from the window, which stood slightly ajar. A timid breeze made the open curtains flutter. Her blanket had fallen down one side of the bed, and she shivered. Automatically, she ran her tongue on her teeth, checking their size and number. All seemed normal, except the tangy, metallic taste of blood in her mouth. Apparently she had bitten herself in her sleep.
What an extraordinary dream. She guessed she should call it a nightmare, since her transformation had looked pretty scary, as had the act of killing someone―even someone she hated. However, she couldn't banish the memory of how good it had felt, how empowered and yet utterly out of control she had felt. Again without thinking, she slipped her hand underneath her panties. God, she was wet. What sense was that supposed to make?
Her alarm-clock showed 12:15. Too disturbed to go back to sleep, she pushed herself to her feet and quietly left her room, wearing only an extra large tee-shirt and her panties. Her aunt and uncle would already be fast asleep at this time. Still, she couldn't help listening for the sound of her uncle's soft snoring as she tiptoed past their door.
Ola had never known her father. Never even known his name, or owned a picture of him. Neither perhaps had her mother. And if she had, it didn't matter anymore, for her secret was buried with her in Machlanow's parish cemetery. It had been for fifteen years, a part of Ola's life which would never stop increasing. How could it ever get better when it forever got worse?
Monika Jaworska had killed herself. She was very sick, aunt Marta always said; she'd been suffering from a mental disorder since she was very young. Ola had nothing to do with it, and she must be glad to be happy and safe herself. But Ola, in her mind, always thought of herself as a toddler of two, happy and safe in her smiling mama's arms. Monika had loved her baby, of course she had. Just not enough to stay alive and raise her.
That had been left to the care of Monika's older sister, Marta, and her husband Wojciech Bakula. Her aunt and uncle were perfectly respectable and amiable people, though not exactly child-oriented, if Ola had her say. That, to her, explained why she didn't have any cousins, who in her case would have been more like siblings. Although Marta claimed that she couldn't have children, she was also ready to add: 'Why would we want other children, now that we have you?' That could have made Ola feel important. Instead, it usually made her feel de trop.
Putting a rein on self-pity, she entered the kitchen and made her way to the fridge's tall silhouette, fancying a glass of cold milk. When she pulled the fridge door open, a shaft of light ran on the floor, revealing the black and white tiles. Just like in her dream. Ola pushed the door closed and night engulfed her once more.
That's when the telephone rang. It sounded so coincidental that at first Ola didn't react. It was past midnight. What in hell... ? Suddenly filled with a dark premonition, she hurried to pick up the phone, then paused to listen. The house was utterly silent. Apparently Marta and Wojciech hadn't heard anything.
'Hello?' a female voice breathed in the handset. There were sniffs and sobs and hiccups. 'Ola? Ola! Is that you?'
'Yes,' Ola whispered, trying to adjust her grip on the phone and fighting her rising anxiety. 'Kasia, what's up? What's wrong?'
'Everything!' Kasia bawled in the receiver. 'It's... it's Darek... oh, my God!'
Darek. Darek Krawczewicz. Tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired, with a tan and a toothpaste ad smile. Machlanow High School heart-throb and Kasia's secret crush since ninth grade. Ola remembered. He had finally asked her friend out last week, and they were supposed to have gone on a date at the movies... tonight. Ola sighed. Kasia wouldn't call her in the middle of the night if this weren't truly important, would she? She was still whining in the phone. Abruptly Ola found herself praying this wasn't important.
'Kasia. What happened?'
'He's dead,' came Kasia's mumbled words. 'Darek... is dead!'
'I said he's dead!' Kasia shouted hysterically. 'Dead! I... killed... him! You must help me, Ola, please, please, help me!'
Her voice was so shrill Ola had to move the headset away from her ear and muffle the sound in her tee-shirt. Her palms were damp on the plastic piece. Her ears were buzzing. Thank God, her uncle and aunt were still asleep.
'Ola? Ola, you've got to help me! You can't... you cannot... Ola, you've got to!'
'Kasia, calm down.' When she herself was shaking and on the verge of puking. 'Listen, I'm here... Of course I'll help you. Tell me where you are, okay?'
'I'm...' There was more sobbing. 'I'm right beside the mall. On Zelazna.'
'Okay, stay put, I'll―wait, did you call Paolina?'
Paolina. Of course. Paolina would know what to do.
'She didn't pick up. I left her a voicemail.'
'Okay.' Ola breathed in through her nose, trying to control her increasing panic. 'Please keep calling her until she picks up. I'll be there ASAP. Promise to wait for me?'
'I promise. Ola... what are we going to do?'
'I... I dunno. Just wait for me, 'kay?'
Ola hung up and silence fell once more, marred only by the slight, mundane buzzing of the fridge in the kitchen. She shivered. She felt as if ice had just settled on her every bone, and she could never be alive, warm and normal again.
They were vampires. All three of them. The first signs had begun to show at puberty. At a time when everyone's body changes, theirs changed more, and differently. Kasia had worn glasses as a child; she stop needing them altogether. Paolina would cringe at the very mention of PE; that was before she discovered she could beat all the other kids at their own games if she as much as tried. As for the pale, frail-looking Ola, whose clumsiness and delicate skin had always earned her scratches and bruises aplenty, she suddenly developed an amazing self-healing power.
But those were only side effects, easily rationalized if not logically explicable. On the other hand, nothing accounted for their nascent craving for blood. Human blood. Raw, freely flowing human blood. Since they were about fourteen, it was in their head all the time, like a hunger, a thirst never quenched, a desire still unsatisfied.
It had been hard to talk about it at first, even to one's best friends for life; less so after it was established all three of them were the same. Where did it come from? Ola, also known as the trio's brains, had a theory: if vampirism was transmitted by blood, and since they weren't blood-related, then one must have infected the two others when, as lonely and reckless eight-year-olds, they had sealed their friendship with a blood oath.
Who had been the original vampire? That was a question none of them knew the answer to, and which they avoided dwelling on. What was the use of finding the culprit when all of them were in it together, like it or not? But of course Ola's imagination ran free whenever she was alone and bored, and she so often was... It was ironical to recall the very reason why Kasia, Paolina and Ola had become friends in the first place: none of them had parents.
Kasia Wisniak's parents had both died in a car accident―or so the official version went―when she was four years old. Just old enough to treasure some blurry, enchanted memories of them. After a year in a children's home, she was taken as a foster child in the Tusz household. They were a big, simple, boisterous family, and Kasia might in the long term have learnt to fit in, if she hadn't been deprived of her big brother's company. Seven years her elder, Kamil had been her whole family and her only friend after the accident. Yet they'd taken him away from her, placed him in care of other strangers, in another town. No reasons given. No visits allowed. Three years later, news reached Kasia that he was put in a centre for juvenile offenders. She had never seen him again.
Even though Kasia's family was gone, it was still too real to imagine they could have been vampires. The same couldn't be said about Paolina's origins, which remained completely unknown. If the secret of her biological mother's identity existed somewhere out there, it was safely kept away from the girl, who had been adopted practically at birth by Dr Lukaszewski and his wife, a wealthy, childless and now elderly couple.
Based on strictly empirical evidence, the natural born vampire might also be Ola herself. Didn't she too have a mysterious fugitive of a father? However, there was the question of looks. If vampires were supposed to look anything special, they looked exactly like copper-haired Paolina: ethereally beautiful, cool, poised and elegant in all circumstances, with honey-coloured eyes as piercing as they were unfathomable. Neither Kasia's exotic prettiness, shiny black curls and small frame, nor certainly Ola's flat blonde hair and overall plain features were any match to that.
Back in her room, lights still off, Ola quickly slipped on a simple top and faded jeans, not even bothering with a bra. As if there was anything much needing to be supported, anyway. In the hallway, she grabbed her hoodie and jacket and put on her old canvas shoes as silently as she could. Her fingers trembled as she attempted to lace them, though, and she cursed under her ragged breath.
Retrieving her keys in slow motion so as not to make them jingle, she turned the knob and opened the door. It creaked slightly, but to Ola's ears the thumping of her own heart sounded much worse. Finally she sneaked out and carefully pulled the door shut behind her. She hadn't known she was sweating until a chill, light rush of wind seem to touch her forehead with ice. Her teeth chattered, something that appeared excessive on a clear-skied night in May. With somewhat jerky moves she managed to zip up her hoodie and her jacket, then ran across the dark, noiseless residential street towards the bus stop that stood two blocks away.
When the hourly Saturday night bus stopped in front of the mall, Ola jumped off and walked directly to the side street. Paolina was already there. Of course she would be; she lived in an old individual house downtown, maybe five mere minutes away from the mall. Sheltered from the front neons by the building's shadow, she was holding Kasia in her arms and murmuring soothing words.
'Hey,' Ola called feebly, feeling a sting of envy even at that gravest of times.
Kasia and Paolina had always managed such simple, physical closeness, a propensity to touch and hug which they sometimes conferred on Ola, but which the latter seemed unable to encourage or return. It hadn't been that bad when they were all children. But as they became teenagers, Ola had turned irremediably self-conscious and uncomfortable with her body. Her inhuman, blood-craving body. But then, Marta and Wojciech had never been the hugging and kissing kind, either. Maybe that explained it.
'Thank God you're here,' Paolina whispered, letting go of a pale, red-eyed Kasia.
The genuine relief that sounded in her friend's deep voice gave Ola heart, even as they all stared at each other, exchanging thoughts that could not be spoken. This was going to be the longest night of their life, they knew. Their first vampire night. Their first night as killers, as hunted criminals. From then on, there was no turning back. The die was cast.
'Where is he?' Paolina asked softly.
'I left him in his car,' Kasia stammered. Darek had been over eighteen, a year older than them. 'There was blood... all over. On the seat. On the window. Oh my God... I was so shocked... scared... and yet all I could think of was... licking the blood off his dead face!'
At that she broke down, and Paolina protectively circled her shoulders with an arm. Ola then noticed Kasia wore only a thin blouse. She probably didn't feel the cold, true vampire that she was.
'Where is the car?' Ola further inquired. 'Did you leave your jacket there?'
'I wasn't wearing a jacket... I had your blazer on.' Oh, yes. The cute, still fresh-looking blazer Ola had lately grown too tall to wear. Only Kasia cared enough for fashion to distinguish between a jacket and a blazer at a time like that. 'It's parked on the corner... Kantora, Biala.'
She shuddered and hugged herself. One could imagine how little she wanted to go back there. Ola herself wasn't overly eager to face the crime scene, although another, still unfamiliar and disturbing part of her felt irrationally attracted to the notion of there being blood. Blood all over. She had to resist the urge to drool. Shaking off the thought, she turned to Paolina; but in her otherwise motionless face, her friend's eyes glinted strangely, predatory-like.
'Let's go,' Paolina said, averting her gaze from Ola's scrutiny.
Kantora and Biala were two narrow, dark streets that wound their way behind the mall. The three teenagers walked briskly into the foggy darkness of the backstreet. There were no streetlights at all there, only a faint moonlight halo cresting the tall buildings on each side, lending an indisputably spooky atmosphere to the place.
A few feet away from a rather ancient black car, Kasia froze abruptly. But instead of looking frightened or panicky, she frowned.
'Where is he?' she mumbled.
She covered the distance to the windowpane in one of those lightning-quick moves they had learnt to manage.
'He's not there!' she cried, alarm quivering in her voice.
She reached for the handle and violently opened the car door. Kasia had a tendency to show off her supernatural strength when she lost her temper.
Even though it was pitch-black inside the car, all three of them could perfectly see that the cab was completely empty. Covered in blood all over, for the smell was unmistakable, but definitely empty.
'Your blazer is gone too!' Kasia said.
There was a moment of silence and consternation when each of them tried to contemplate the meaning of what they saw.
'Close that door,' Paolina then ordered, 'and let's get out of here!'
'But...' Kasia uselessly babbled.
'Shut up and run!' Paolina hissed, and gripping both Ola and Kasia by a wrist, she pulled them behind her up the alley where they came from.
Even the avenue in front of the mall was now deserted. Machlanow was a small town, after all, and Saturday night fevers came down early. Without slowing down, Paolina tugged at her friends' sleeves to turn right.
'Whoever... whatever,' she murmured ominously, 'can make a dead man vanish... I don't wanna meet it. We stay together. We go to my place.'
Even if she hadn't stated it with such finality, Ola wouldn't have thought to protest. Paolina's was without a doubt the grandest house she'd ever been in, something like a fantasy, or the house of your dreams. Paolina herself admitted it, and together they had nicknamed it 'the Fairy Palace.'
'Fairy Aleksandra, Fairy Katarzyna,' ten-year-old Paolina would say with a solemn pout, 'I'll see you tonight at 5 at the FP. Meeting of the board. Do not be late.'
Fairies, Ola thought with a grimace as she struggled to keep up with Paolina's fast motion. As children they had loved role-playing. How ironical that they'd turned out to be vampires after all. And how ironical that real life could thicken beyond any plot they had ever made up.
A classical, stately stone house on the outside, the Fairy Palace's interior took one aback with its richly coloured Persian rugs on the shiny, white tiled floor and traditional Chinese paintings on the walls. A majestic wooden staircase greeted the visitor in the hallway, flanked by a tall Japanese vase on one side, and a luxuriant houseplant with glossy, purple leaves on the other.
Upstairs was Paolina's territory: a spacious, light bedroom with an adjoining bathroom, a walk-in closet and a balcony big enough to sit three for tea. When Paolina switched the lights on―a simple but stylish cluster of little bulbs hanging from the ceiling―Ola saw that she had changed the decoration again. That was an idiosyncrasy of hers; every couple of months she needed to reinvent her own space. There were different posters up―movie, bands and art gallery posters, as well as fashion ads―where old ones had been taken down from, new pictures pinned on the dressing table's mirror, while the desk had been moved closer to the French window. The fluffy, fake fur rug and the silvery silk bed sheets, on the other hand, hadn't moved since Ola's last visit.
'I don't know how I'll explain this impromptu sleepover to Marta and Wojciech,' she said with a sigh, falling onto the bed next to Kasia, while Paolina efficiently opened out the bed-settee.
She felt bone-tired, hollow inside and still somewhat shaken, despite the irresistible impression that nothing bad could happen in that little haven that was her friend's bedroom.
'Paolina had invited you and you forgot to tell them,' Kasia provided in a flat voice, probably repeating a lie she had herself told many times. 'For once I'm glad the Tusz care so little about my whereabouts...'
In any other circumstance, Ola would have jumped to challenge this last assertion. It was always frustrating for her to hear her friend complain about her foster family's neglect of her, when she was clearly the one shutting them out. Tonight, however, the Tusz would have to do without Ola's leaping to their defence. Not only was her energy level exceptionally low, but she had more important preoccupations in mind.
'I guess we should be more worried about the police finding out where we were, than my uncle and aunt...' she trailed off.
'The police cannot prove anything,' Paolina declared, standing straight, hands on hips.
'I didn't tell anyone but you two that I was seeing Darek,' Kasia confirmed, her expressionless tones a weird, alarming contradiction to her normally explosive temperament.
'What about him?' Ola countered. 'Maybe he told people about it.'
'So?' Paolina opposed, sitting on the sofa-turned-bed. 'Kasia will swear the date was next week, since she was spending this evening with me. What's the worst that can happen? A few people's word against ours?'
'I hope so,' Ola said. 'And I hope they're going to believe us.'
'Why wouldn't they? How else could they explain that Kasia's fingerprints are nowhere in or on the car?'