“One hour until dawn,” Pearl said. She leaped off the roof and landed catlike on the pavement. “Oodles of time, if we steal a car.”
Her boyfriend, Jadrien, stretched out on the roof of Outback Steakhouse. He was a shadow, a lovely shadow, against the green tin. “Come back up, Pearl,” he said. “I’ll compare your eyes to stars, your lips to rubies, and your breath to industrial-strength air freshener.”
“Your charm and sincerity overwhelm me.”
Rolling onto his knees, Jadrien clasped his hands to his heart. “Oh, Pearl, jewel of my heart, light in my darkness, grace me with your nearness so I might feast upon your loveliness.”
Pearl laughed, even as she admired his silhouette. His silk shirt rippled in the night breeze. “I want to feast on mint chocolate chip. Or maybe Chunky Monkey.”
“You can taste the difference?”
“Mint chocolate chip, sharp and clean like an ocean breeze. Black raspberry, rich and smooth as a summer night. Bubble-gum ice cream …” She faked a shudder. “Oh, the horror, the horror.”
Pearl scanned the parking lot. This close to dawn, the pickings were slim. Brand didn’t matter, but she’d like a car that could handle curves without threatening to somersault.
She selected a sporty little Kia. Curling her hand into a fist, she slammed her knuckles into the back window. The car alarm wailed as cracks spread through the glass. She hit it a second time, and the shards crumbled. Pearl reached in and unlocked the door.
On the roof, Jadrien jingled a set of car keys. “Want these?”
She examined the flecks of blood on her knuckles. “Your timing needs work.” The cuts were already healing, but still…. “Where did you get those?”
“My waitress was obliging,” he said. “Or, at least, disinclined to protest.” He winked, and then he tossed the keys as he jumped off the roof. Pearl caught the keys, beeped the alarm off, and slid into the driver’s seat.
“I can drive,” Jadrien offered.
“I’m sixteen,” Pearl said. “By human laws, I’m allowed.” She flashed him a grin as he climbed into the passenger seat. It occurred to her that she’d never driven with Jadrien in the car. He was in for a treat. She stuck the key into the ignition and turned the car on.
The radio blared to life, country music.
Pearl winced and flipped the station. She stopped on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Smiling, she cranked up the volume. Shifting into drive, she said, “Seat belts.”
“I’m immortal,” he said. “Why do I need a seat belt?”
Pearl floored the gas, and they whipped through the parking lot. Jadrien grabbed the door and the dashboard to brace himself.
“Cute,” Jadrien said.
“Always,” she said.
“Do you know how to drive?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. “This one is the gas.”
The wheels squealed as Pearl spun the steering wheel to the left and zoomed out onto the street. She rolled down her window and let the wind whip into the car. At near dawn, Greenbridge, Connecticut, was nearly dead. Streetlamps (every other one out) lit the sidewalks in circles of yellow. Trash rolled down the streets like tumbleweeds. Storefronts—a deli, a dry cleaner, an antique store—were dark. The local homeless man slept under a pile of filthy blankets with his shopping cart close beside him. Pearl loved this time of night: just before the cusp of day, when the humans were still caught in their last dream of the night and her kind had one final moment of delicious darkness to drink down.
She inhaled deeply and tasted a hint of onion in the air.
“Your waitress had onion soup, didn’t she?” she said to Jadrien.
He licked his fangs and then retracted them. “Mmm, yes. Why?”
“You’re fragrant,” Pearl said.
He scowled, an expression that suited him well. His high cheekbones looked extra high, and his cleft chin looked extra clefty when he pouted. As she admired him, Pearl swung into the Dairy Hut parking lot and slammed on the brakes. The Kia fishtailed, and she parked diagonally across two spots.
“You clearly don’t know how to park,” Jadrien observed.
“Nonsense,” Pearl said. “I simply know how to make an entrance.” She opened the car door and stepped out. Her leather skirt rode up her thighs. She flashed a smile at the flock of humans that clustered by one of the picnic tables. Earlier in the night, the flock would have been bigger, but now, so close to dawn, only a few remained. Seniors, she guessed, pulling the traditional spring-semester all-nighters. Otherwise known as dessert.
“Care to join me?” Pearl asked.
“Nah. Full.” He patted his stomach. “But you have fun.”
“Always do,” Pearl said.
“See you next dusk, my loveliest night rose.”
She felt the humans’ eyes on her as she walked toward the door. She added a little strut to her walk for their benefit and was gratified to notice that she’d stopped all conversation. A smile played on her lips as she entered the Dairy Hut. The bell rang as the door closed behind her.
Open twenty-four hours, the Dairy Hut had the look of a store that didn’t close for long enough to be cleaned. The door of the soda fridge was streaked with so much dirt that it looked clouded. The newspaper bin was tilted sideways and missing a shelf. The sign listing flavors and specialty drinks was missing key letters (like the i in “drinks,” which someone had replaced with a scrawled u and someone else had then erased).
The kid at the counter—skinny, freckled, and not quite grown into his nose—ogled her as if she were a movie star.
“Hi, Brad,” she said as she leaned against the counter.
His eyes darted down to her black lace blouse. “Y-you know me?” he asked her breasts.
She did, but he didn’t remember that. “Name tag,” she said, nodding at his my-name-is-Brad, how-may-I-serve-you name tag.
His face flushed pink, which made his freckles stand out like polka dots on a dress. “C-can I get you something?”
“You,” she purred.
Slack-jawed, he stared at her. She laughed. She loved playing with Brad. He never failed to follow the script perfectly. “And a cup of mint chocolate chip,” she added.
“R-right, you want ice cream! Of course!” Stumbling over his feet, he managed to yank open the cover to the ice-cream container. She watched, amused, as he tried to scoop ice cream into a cup. His hands shook so badly that it took him three tries. As if delivering myrrh to Baby Jesus, he held out the cup of ice cream to her.
She shook her head. “It’s not for me; it’s for you.”
“You have a break, don’t you? Come share some ice cream with me.” Pearl winked at him and then tossed her sleek black hair. With Brad, the hair always did the trick. Tonight was no exception. She strutted to the back door of the Dairy Hut. Listening to his shuffling sneakers, she didn’t have to glance back to know he was following her. “Bring the ice cream,” she said. She grabbed a napkin from a dispenser.
Behind her, she heard him scramble to fetch the ice cream. She pushed the door open and walked out to the employee parking lot behind the Dairy Hut. It wasn’t the loveliest of environments. The air-conditioning unit jutted out, blocking the sidewalk, and half the parking lot was dominated by twin dumpsters. Hulking, rusted vats, they overflowed with black garbage bags and crushed cardboard boxes. She wrinkled her nose at the stench. At least the dessert was worth the odor. Pearl turned to face her ice-cream boy.
“H-have we met?” Brad asked.
Pearl didn’t answer him. Instead, she walked up close to him, closer than friendly, and lifted the cup of mint chocolate chip ice cream out of his hands. “Try a bite,” she said. She scooped a spoonful and raised it to his lips.
Automatically, he opened his mouth.
“Good boy,” she murmured. She slid the ice cream in between his lips.
“Why are—,” he began.
“Shh,” she said. “Nearly dawn. No time for talking.” Snuggling against him, she continued to feed him ice cream. He swallowed mechanically, as if her proximity erased all brain function. When he finished the cup, she tossed it and the spoon aside. Pearl pressed closer and pushed his straggly hair back away from his neck.
And then she extended her fangs and sank them into his jugular.
At first his body jerked, but the vampire venom worked fast. His shoulders slumped as his muscles relaxed. He stared at the dumpsters with wide, empty eyes, as if watching a fascinating television show.
Sweet blood spilled into her mouth. Lovely, she thought. She sucked, and her tongue darted out, licking up the drops that seeped out. He tasted sweet and minty fresh, exactly as she’d told Jadrien.
She quit after a few swallows. Withdrawing her fangs, she licked the two tiny wounds clean. The marks healed seconds after her saliva touched them, smoothing out to pink skin, only slightly rosier than the rest of his neck.
“There now,” she said. “Run along inside. We’ll play again another day.”
With glazed eyes, he stumbled to the back door of the Dairy Hut. By the time he reached the ice-cream counter, he’d have forgotten all about this incident. Again. She wiped her mouth with the napkin and checked the sky.
Twenty minutes until dawn.
In the bare branches, birds twittered as loudly as frat boys at the end of an all-nighter. Not that she needed the birds to tell her about the approach of dawn. Stretching, she yawned. She could feel the coming sunrise. It was time to head home. She turned away from the Dairy Hut—
—and saw the unicorn.
The unicorn stood between the dumpsters. At first she thought she was mistaken. Unicorns didn’t exist, which made his presence here unlikely at best. But there was no chance that he was simply an ordinary white horse (which, she quickly realized, would have been an odd addition to the parking lot too). Despite the thick shadows by the dumpsters, he sparkled like a horse-shaped disco ball. His traditional spiral horn beamed like a toy light saber.
Pearl burst out laughing. “Seriously? A unicorn? Please.”
He pranced out of the shadows and across the parking lot. His silver hooves jingled like bells as they struck the pavement.
“You sound like Santa’s reindeer,” Pearl said. “Must be embarrassing for you.”
The birds chirped even louder. She had to leave. But this … Her cousins were going to pee themselves laughing when they heard she’d seen a unicorn behind the Dairy Hut.
“Why are you here? Are you dumpster diving?” Pearl asked. “I can see how the horn would be useful in sorting through trash. But is that really appropriate behavior for a mythical creature? Shouldn’t you be eating honey and sunshine?”
The unicorn didn’t speak. She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised—horses didn’t speak, and he was horselike. He paced toward her. She eyed his shimmery neck and wondered what a unicorn would taste like. “Thanks, but I’m stuffed,” she said.
He bumped his nose against her shirt.
“Hey, no equine drool on the blouse,” Pearl said. Did he expect her to pat him? She wasn’t an animal lover. She’d never been the type to plaster her bedroom walls with posters of horses or of fluffy kittens dangling from limbs above the caption HANG IN THERE. “Well, this is all very nice, but I have to run. Go on, shoo. Go … poop rainbows … or whatever it is you do.” She wiggled her fingers at him to wave good-bye, and then she turned her back on the unicorn and started to walk away.
Ow! She felt a sharp sting between her shoulder blades. Her breath hissed out. That hurt! And then the pain intensified until it buzzed through her head. She heard a wet slithering sound, and a burning sensation spread through her lungs.
Pearl looked down at her chest. Two inches of unicorn horn protruded from between her ribs. Red blood dripped from its point. She stared at it. The buzz in her head increased to a steady pounding as loud as a bass drum. Slowly, her brain caught up with her eyes.
He staked me.
The pretty sparkly horse had staked her.
“Crap,” she said.
She clutched at the bloody horn, and the world went dark.
© 2011 Sarah Beth Durst