Mateo smoked redpax shorts. 

The brand had been around for decades, widely recognizable by its wine red branding and fanged logo on the butts. Cigarettes developed by and for vampires -- he swore it tasted like rich, warm blood somehow. Redpax marketed itself as a way for vampires to blunt the edge of our hunger; supposedly, they made it a little easier to control the monster it created. I thought it was a placebo effect, but Mateo swore by them.

He was real particular about it, so I knew, by the light blue filter, that I wouldn’t be yelling at him for the twin plumes of smoke in the kitchen, one on the counter and the other on the dining table. 

I rolled my eyes, padding across the chilly linoleum, my size-too-big sleep pants dragging under my feet as I snatched both cigarettes, stamped them out in the metal sink, and tossed them in the trash can under the counter. 

“Vee! We agreed, one at a time, and only with one of us here to put out any fires,” I said into the empty room. Cabinet doors flew open and slammed closed.

“Yeah, yeah, you forgot, like always. Whatever. Stop it.” I waved the smoke away until it dissipated, and gave the room a cursory search until I found an actual pack hidden just under the fridge. I shoved the half-smoked pack in my pocket. And just in case, I looked under the stove, finding nothing but some new ashen smudges and scratches. As I left the kitchen, I made a mental note to mention it to the cleaners that came each week. 

Our resident ghost rarely showed her face, preferring to simply exist quietly in the house alongside us, and sometimes rasping out a few sentences. But every so often, she interacted with our side of the veil a little too much and would forget she was dead. Thus, the cigarettes. 

Having a ghost in the house was considered good luck among vampires. The dead couldn’t help but flock to each other, after all. There were some witches attuned to death and its sphere -- whispers of necromancers traveled like playground urban legends among the dead. Never verified, but always sensational. Ghosts didn’t sleep; they weren’t tied to anything but their bones, and we had no idea where Vee’s were to be worried about them. But they tended to be territorial, and didn’t like strangers. Built in security systems. 

It would have been nice if she didn’t regularly try to burn the house down around us, though. 

Vee had been dead longer than I’d been undead, as far as I’d been able to glean from her rare, and sometimes nearly inaudible, whispers. She muttered about men -- a father, a lover, two sons -- and lamented a life lived for them. Expressed an angry regret for wanting so badly to be one. 

She raged the first time I tried to use he/him pronouns for her. She shattered the windows, set the curtains on fire, and exploded every bottle of blood in the house. Including the one in my hand. So, we stuck with she/her to be safe. The violence stopped immediately, but it took a while before she warmed up to us and became our ghost. 

Vee didn’t seem to have a problem with any of us being queer, but it was different for her, and I wasn’t going to be the one to argue with her about it. Some folks liked their cis-shells left uncracked, and it wasn’t my job to play therapist for the ghost. 

I just wanted to know how she was getting the damn cigarettes. 

At the foot of the stairs, I listened for signs that anyone else had begun to stir, but I heard nothing under the buzz of the solar panels on the roof. I frowned up at the second floor, straining my ears slightly for the familiar movement of Ollie beginning her evening routine, Mateo’s grumpy groans, or even Salma’s usual quiet singing.

Their doors should’ve already been open. 

Soundproofing was common in vampire home construction -- even older homes could be upgraded with custom insulation and doors. Sensitive hearing mixed with the common urge to nest in groups made personal privacy one of a vampire’s top priorities. We didn’t just … go into each others’ spaces. 

It was rude. Invasive. A closed door wasn’t a gentle suggestion; it was an unequivocal decree. 

Autumn had begun to close in, cutting the sun’s reign shorter and shorter each day. It was nearly midnight, and even Ollie hadn’t yet risen for the night? Mateo and Salma, sure. They were both known layabeds, the same as me. But there was no way Ollie was still in bed. 

Combining speed and stealth was a skill Mateo had beaten into me over decades after I’d first found my vampiric footing. I could’ve been there in a blink. But I dragged my feet up the stairs, until the hallway runner scratched at my bare soles. Lamplight streamed through the window at the end of the hall, highlighting the dancing dust motes I’d passed through. 

I ignored Salma’s door. The oppressive silence thrumming felt too familiar, too much like a night from another life. The potential for walking into another scene like -- no. 

I needed this to be different. 

Aiming for Ollie’s room, I passed my sire’s with a determination I didn’t feel -- and abruptly stopped. That scent … I closed my eyes, focusing on the air flowing into my lungs, rolling it like wine on the back of my tongue. Blood took on a different flavor profile after consumption -- vampiric bodies stripped the magic from it, leaving it with a thin, brackish taste. I cringed and gagged, sticking my tongue out as if fresh air might cleanse my palette of the offending saltiness. 

I was immediately proven wrong as the scent grew stronger, and flooded my senses in a crashing wave. 

Fuck it. 

I slammed the door open, charging in. 

Mateo kept his room neat as a pin, his clothes neatly hung and folded in his open wardrobe, old books and older trinkets grouped together in a system only he knew the secrets to. He was precise with his organization. 

So it was a shock to find it all on the floor, scattered wildly across the hardwood, chaotic wreckage of crumbled papers and torn fabric. But even that was nothing compared to finding the thin, lanky creature crouched on top of his unconscious form. The gaunt, stooped shape of its spine curled over Mateo like a malevolent lover, dragging its hands up and down his face in a repetitive, violent motion. Thick hairs, stiff and bristled, extended naturally from its palms; the rigid, sharp ends splitting his skin open and sending blood dripping down his cheeks. 

The creature looked up at me as the heavy door hit the wall beside me. The scarlet glow of its eyes remained fixed on me, its hands pressing down harder, sinking the bristles deeper into Mateo’s cheeks. 

The mouth spread wide, black drool dripping down its chin.

“Bad luck,” it hissed. 

I zipped across the room and snatched the lamp off the nightstand, smashing it over the creature’s head. It reared back, hissing between teeth far longer and far sharper than mine, and backhanded the broken light out of my hands. 

Despite the ceramic shards raining down on him and the dark blood dripping down his face, Mateo didn’t stir. 

I shoved my shoulder into its concave belly, knocking us both over the other side of the bed. Rolling together, the thick bristles from his palms stabbed through the thin fabric of my clothes and scratched at my skin as we wrestled to escape each other. Its claws sank deep between my shoulder blades, trapping me against its torso. 

I shrieked and writhed in its arms, fighting to escape its agonizing embrace.  

Hot liquid splattered on my face as it snabbered closer, trying to get close enough to bite down. I shoved away enough to hit it with a palm strike, snapping its jaw shut with a loud crunch and triggering a high pitched screech. It tore away from me, pulling its claws from my back with a sickening wetness. I scrambled back towards the door, slipping on the blood pouring down my spine, and kept my eyes glued to the creature struggling to find its feet. 

Smoke, thick and sickly green, began to coalesce beside the bed. As the fog grew in mass, it took on the vague shape of a person, leaning over the bed and laser-focused on my sire. 

“Hey, you wanna help me out maybe?” I hissed. 

Predictably, Vee didn’t react. 

 Spirits, as a rule, had limited ability to become corporeal, reliant on the strength of their connection to the living world. I wouldn’t have guessed Vee’s bonds with us -- the only slightly less dead -- would be enough to do much more than light her cigarettes. But she continued leaning in close to Mateo’s face, the smoke shifting until it resembled something like the wrinkled face of a long-dead woman. 

The line of what I might’ve called her jaw unhinged and dropped further than it had any right to. Following an audible inhale, she unleashed a harsh, bellowing shriek at a pitch that sent the creature and myself to our knees. I clapped my hands over my ears, sinking into a crouch before falling to my side. The vibrating echo faded to a painful ringing, but my palms grew slick as blood leaked from my ears. 

Gingerly, I opened my eyes to blink tears away and found Mateo sitting upright in the bed. 

“Oh, thank fuck,” I -- well, I tried to mutter, but my sense of hearing had been shot to hell, and I may have yelled it. But my sire didn’t so much as glance at me. His eyes blazed with a familiar violence. 

And I remembered that my sire, for all of his jovial nature, was a predator far more dangerous than I gave him credit for. 

He shot out of the bed, hitting the creature with a full body tackle, his fangs bared. I watched, deaf and silent, as he tore out a thick chunk of its throat before it could react. Its eyes stared at me from over his shoulder, and I realized that the black ichor spilling from its mouth was now gurgling up and out from its ragged, gaping gullet, too.

It tried to reach out to curl its nasty claws into Mateo’s shoulders, but my sire simply removed himself from its hold, his speed putting mine to utter shame. He reappeared behind the creature, grasping it on either side of its head. With an impressive lack of effort, he lifted the little bastard by its skull, his fingertips digging past the flesh with a gross burst of that viscous goo, and swung it towards the bedroom window. 

And out into the street.

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