They named him Steven: a boring human name. That’s what you get when you’re theirs. Names become fleeting when you’ve got to outrun the ones who named you.
Steven ducked branches and jumped over barbwire bushes. Mind buzzed with questions: had they let him go or had he escaped. No matter. Either way they would gun him down. Steven had been cooked up inside the Facility for so long he forgot the green of trees and the scent of lilies. He would’ve stopped to bask in his freedom if his freedom was already a given. The tracker lodged in his ear beeped.
The city vanished behind Steven. Memories electrified Steven’s head. With each breathe, he reminisced on the bloodied steak and the velvet that snacked out. Docile ran in his DNA now. They’d sterilized his hunger. The thoughts rekindled his haste.
Branches cracked in the distance.
Steven’s neck almost snapped as he turned. Nothing. Taking comfort behind a tree stump, Steven reached for his ear only to have his hand jerk away automatically. “Dammit!”
“Lethal force is allowed,” A voice engulfed the forest in a roar. “Whoever catches him can hang his head from their wall.”
Chuckles echoed through the forest.
Steven distinguished each voice. It pained him to think his nurses and doctors wanted him dead. An infantry of men headed his way with rifles and handguns. There was no way out. Steven smacked the side of his head trying to silence the voices. Not even in the end could he have some silence. Moments like these made him wish he were human. But now more than ever, Steven couldn’t ignore his senses.
“His tag’s on, right?” Another voice, closer and crisper than all the others, said into a HAM radio. “I don’t want him going all bat-shit crazy on me.”
“Of course it’s on!” The radio barked.
Lullabies shrouded Steven’s mind as he waited for death. Tales of vampires ruling the world had been sung to him centuries ago; those stories seemed so fake—impossible. He was gullible for believing them. Who could ever fathom that they preyed on innocent humans? Steven ached for truth in those words; he needed to believe or survival had no meaning.
Bushes rustled and rifles cocked. A symphony of dread and misery sunk into Steven’s gut. He removed his battered old sneakers, tied the shoe laces together, and closed his eyes. Forcing his nails out had never been so painful. They’d almost done it; they’d almost turned him human. Blood trickled over his cuticles as the nail elongated. He was as human as he would get. Steven hid disgust behind a fistful of courage and flung the shoes over his shoulder.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Gunpowder littered the air.
Shuffling out of cover, Steven locked onto the human. Nails ready for the ripping, he swung and ripped through the man’s Adam’s apple. Gargling replaced gunfire. The human was too busy covering his new hole to reach for his weapon.
As much as Steven tried to avert his eyes from the gushing blood, he couldn’t. The scent alone reminded him of a succulent rare steak—fresher, juicier. Steven ran his tongue over his lips, but lust was quickly replaced with pain. A jolt spiked up his ear and through his skull and Steven fell to his knees. Blood vessels burst in his eyes as he tried to resist the tag. He regained his balance, his head throbbing.
“Healing would be nice about now,” Steven said.
A single rifle shot echoed. Leaves rustled and silence fell. No wind, footstep, or cocking; only the sound of Steven’s blood dripping. Steven cradled his shoulder’s wound and swayed. His vision blurred, his strength faded.
“So this is what it feels like?” Steven muttered. “I’ve been doing this to people all my life? Damn. I’m horrible.”
“Hitting a steady bull’s-eye isn’t as fun,” Brad said. His voice was so familiar that it aggravated Steven. The Facilities head doctor wasn’t someone easily forgotten. Brad kicked Steven to the ground and stepped on his shoulder, before gazing at the throat-less cadaver. “Poor guy. I guess I’ll win again. You rejects just get duller and duller each year. Takes the fun out of the hunt.”
“You’re the one to blame. You don’t cure us! You use us,” Steven squirmed.
Brad tapped his chin with his rifle. Steven wished the gun went off. “What do you say we make things interesting?”
“You’re gonna give my treatment another shot?” Steven swallowed, wistfully.
“No, idiot,” Brad snarled and tucked his rifle behind his back. He slid out his hunting knife from his ankle. Rust and dried blood imprinted on the blade. Steven greeted the knife with a glare. The Corrector, as the other specimens called it in the Facility, stared back. “If you squirm, I’ll go deeper and slower; if you stay completely still, it’ll be over quick.” Brad dug the Corrector into Steven’s wounded shoulder, shoving the bullet deeper. “You don’t say much.”
Steven bit down on his lip trying his best not to cringe. His own blood and sweat filled his mouth. Cold steel sawed deeper. Eye contact wasn’t an option. Steven couldn’t let Brad see him suffer.
Pain raced up Steven’s left side. The side of his head drummed. Red trickled down his left cheek and then the pain…vanished. Steven’s eyes shone and the blood flushed from his iris. He was more alert—alive. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Steven’s ear perked to the beating heart. He reached for his left ear, but it was gone. The tag had gone with it.
“An arrow? That’s the best you can do?” Brad snickered and jerked the arrow from the tree. Steven’s ear dangled from it. It could have been a salamander for all Brad cared. He stashed it in his pocket. “I’ve never gotten a souvenir in a hunt. Thanks.”
“It’s my left. You know what that means,” Steven grinned. He dipped his hand into his shoulder and fished out the bullet.
Brad cradled his rifle. “Stay where you are or I’ll blow your brains out.”
“We both know you won’t risk damaging your wall ornament,” Steven flicked the bullet aside and sniffed the air, basking in its glory. Everything was livelier. The treatments had forced him to forget the world and all its majesty. “Plus, you’re shaking too much to hit your mark.”
Brad steadied the rifle against his shoulder, his trigger finger twitching. “Care to bet on it?”
With a pull of the trigger, Steven froze. He hadn’t seen that coming. A proud man like Brad wouldn’t just do that. But what happened next was even more surprising than Brad’s selfishness. The bullet wasn’t speeding. Steven could see it. He stepped out of the way and in a couple of steps stood behind Brad. The bullet shredded through a tree.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Steven cleaned dried blood off his nails. “My turn.”
Brad turned, fretting with his rifle. Steven grabbed his arm and ripped it off; the rifle went flying off with it. Brad screamed, clawing at the floor. Distant gunfire reverberated through the woods. The others were close.
“Sorry, but I have to make this quick,” Steven twisted Brad’s head like a bottle cap and it snapped. He heaved Brad up to height. He could smell the hamburger Brad had had for lunch. Steven’s fangs pierced through his gums, and with the same ease, they punctured Brad’s cold skin. But as Steven’s tongue clicked with the blood, he shot back, squirming.
“No, no, no!” The wind whispered. “You were doing so well. Why do they all fall for the blood? It’s always the damn blood.”
Steven dropped to the floor. He crawled away from the whispers, but they were everywhere. He had more than enough reasons to think this was his last breath. His bowels wanted to burst, he could barely move, and he was hearing voices. He lied on his back, hoping to get one last glimpse at the world outside the Facility before he died.
Leaping from the top of a tree, a camouflaged silhouette crashed next to him. It shook his head. “You’re going to be in the bathroom for more than a week. I tell you, it’s always the same story.”
Steven tried to speak but his bowels disagreed.
The stranger batted his eyes, slipped out a syringe from his utility belt, and rammed it into Steven’s neck. “Get up, I don’t have all day. There are others that need me. Other recruits I need to rescue.”
“Rescue?” Steven’s stomach died down and the taste of mint lingered on his tongue. It was then that he saw the arrows stashed in a quiver. The same type of arrows that ripped off his ear. “Who are you?”
“That doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t know me if I told you. They’re coming.” The stranger readied another arrow into his bow as his ear twitched.
Steven reminisced on what it felt like to have both ears. He would never know for sure again. “What do I call you then?”
“Gen,” he said.
The rustling of leaves and crackling of branches caught their attention. Sneakers and boots trampled over grass in the distance. Steven could see them in the back of his head. Gen was right; they were coming.
Gen ran out of the open, and Steven followed, his curiosity peeked. Feet became kilometers and time slipped by. Steven’s anxiety was getting the best of him, but fear of getting skewered by an arrow held his tongue back. He took the time to study his guide. The way he walked—the way he sprinted—heck, how Gen inhaled was different. Steven had come to an honest conclusion: Gen had to be a time traveler. By the look of his utility belt and the fact that he’d saved him in the nick of time, there was no doubt—.
“Stop,” Gen batted his eyes and dug his skull between his hands. “You’re way off. What the hell goes on in your head? Can’t you just ask like everyone else? Then again, what can I expect from someone like you? Can’t even live with what you are.”
“Talking gets you caught. Maybe even killed,” Steven said, bitterly.
“That’s how they found you, huh?” Gen sighed and wrapped his hand around a barbwire fence, spreading it open for Steven to pass. Blood trickled down his palm but he didn’t flinch. “Out here that won’t be a problem.”
“That’s how they promised me the world. They promised me humanity and look at me!”
“You are what you are,” Gen said. “There’s no changing that.”
“I’m not going past the veil,” Steven refused, staring blankly beyond the barbwire fence into the dark bushes. Stories about people going out and never coming back shrouded his mind almost as much as blackness engulfed the veil.
“What then, huh?” Gen growled. He let go of the barbwire and jerked Steven. Blood painted Steven’s shirt, but as quickly as it stained it, the blood slithered back into Gen’s hand. “You’ll go out into the world—their world, mind you—and hide in a nook? They’ll find you again. And when they take one look at your ear, they’ll have no choice but to end you.”
“And you’re my savior?” Steven snarled.
“Pft, please,” Gen snickered. “I’m just guiding you to the promised land. Take a chance.”
Steven swallowed the ounce of fear stuck in his throat and pushed through the veil’s dark shrubbery. Thorns scraped his face and arms but the wounds quickly healed. Beyond the darkness, Steven saw hope. A thriving camp rested below the mountainside.
Voices pierced his thoughts. People he didn’t know welcomed him. They celebrated and cried in triumph. Steven couldn’t help but smile.
“You’ll fit right in,” Gen said, pushing through the thorny bushes back into the forest.
“Fit in where?” Steven turned from the camp to Gen.
“The Bloodlust rebellion, my friend,” Gen winked, baring his shinny polished fangs. “Earth is as good as ours.”
Michael Baez lives in Puerto Rico in a tiny apartment with an even tinier desk. He has a bachelor degree in Theology and a minor in Teaching English as a Second Language. He strives to bring a Puerto Rican flair to the writing community. At the moment, he is pursuing a PhD.
When it comes to his published works, Michael's track list includes everything from poetry to academic articles, yet fiction is his dame. He has published works in Corpus Litterarum, The Hound Magazine, Leading Edge Magazine, Inter Metro Newspaper, and Flores Nuevas Poetry Anthology. Michael Baez was the Editor-in-Chief at Vaunt Zine and Geek Whale.