Exclusively for XOXO Connects, Molly Harper is sharing the opening chapter from her new Half-Moon Hollow paranormal romance, The Single Undead Moms Club! This doesn’t hit shelves until next week, so you read it here first! (And you can preorder at the bottom of this post.)
Becoming a vampire parent is like going through the infant phase with your firstborn all over again. You will be just as unsure of yourself, just as frightened. And at some point, someone will probably throw up on you when you least expect it.
—My Mommy Has Fangs: A Guide to Post-Vampiric Parenting
If you have your choice about how to be turned into a vampire, I strongly suggest that you do not post an ad on the supernatural version of Craigslist offering cash to any creature of the night willing to bite you.
I swear, I had my reasons. Really good ones.
Still, waking up in a paper-thin balsa-wood coffin three feet below the surface of the Half-Moon Hollow Little League Field wasn’t exactly the result of a solid plan.
I remember my very first moment as a vampire with shocking clarity. I was dead, without thought or breath or being, and then, suddenly, I wasn’t. Or I was, if you have more philosophical leanings.
And in that first moment of existential limbo, I panicked, thrashing out, crying as my knees and elbows smacked against the wooden walls. I was trapped. I could feel the weight of the earth pressing down on the lid of the coffin, pinning me in, separating me from the world—separating me from my son. I sucked in air by the mouthful, hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t break through to the surface? What if I got stuck down here? I forced myself to suck in a deep breath and hold it, to make the most of what air I had in this little box.
Nothing. No distress. No pressure against my throat or lungs. No need to draw another breath. Because I didn’t need to breathe. I was a freaking vampire. The undead. Nosferatu. A nightwalker. The other members of the PTA were going to be shocked. And then scandalized. And then shocked again.
I’d dreamed of this moment for months, ever since I’d come up with my insane “transition” plan. And yet it was so close to my very worst nightmare, taking the literal dirt nap, that I was almost afraid to move. What if I’d miscalculated? What if it was safer for Danny if I stayed here underground? What if, after all my scheming and planning, it was better if I was dead?
It would be easy enough for people to believe. Everybody in Half-Moon Hollow knew about poor Libby Stratton, suburban Half-Moon Hollow’s cautionary tale of twisted probability. In two years, I’d gone from softball widow and mother of a busy toddler to actual widow and cancer patient.
Six months after losing my husband, Rob, in a car accident, I started feeling nauseated and dizzy at random. I woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. I bruised easily and fell asleep before I could even give Danny his bath in the evenings. I thought it was stress—I’d just lost my husband, after all. There were bound to be physiological repercussions.
When my doctor said the words “acute lymphocytic leukemia,” I kept expecting her to follow it with “just kidding.” I kept expecting there to be a second test that said it was just anemia or fibromyalgia or something. But the doctor was not kidding, and I was not lucky enough to be dangerously anemic.
At the ripe old age of thirty, I was dying of cancer. My blood was turning on itself. For months, I went through a constantly shifting combination of chemo, radiation therapy, and drug cocktails as the doctors tried to figure out my atypically belligerent case. (Frankly, I was surprised my vampire sire could tolerate more than a few swallows of my toxic plasma.) All while I watched my mother-in-law, Marge, take over my role as mother to Danny. I was too wiped out for bedtime stories and Sunday-morning waffles. I wasn’t strong enough to walk up the bleachers at his T-ball games. I was like a ghost, watching my life go on without me.
And a few months before my underground nap, Dr. Channing informed me that nothing we’d done had made a dent in my insistent little cancer cells. Nothing. And my chances of making a dent were not great. Dr. Channing very gently suggested I might want to think about long-term plans for my son.
For a long, awkward moment, I just stared at my oncologist, dumbfounded. What mother didn’t have long-term plans for her children? What mother doesn’t secretly squirrel away money in college funds and mentally budget for teenage orthodontics? And then I realized Dr. Channing was referring to plans for who would raise Danny after I was gone.
How could I make plans for someone else to raise my baby? My sweet Danny, my funny almost-six-year-old towhead with my eyes, his father’s stubborn little chin, and the permanent expression of someone building castles in his head. He was already an incurable smartass and an amateur cryptozoologist. You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth, but when you heard it, you’d have to bite your lip to keep from laughing while you reminded him about showing respect for adults. He had the weirdest habit of picking up on the most uncomfortable aspect of any conversation and asking about it. And I wouldn’t have changed a thing about him. He was creative and loud and quirky, and I adored him completely.
I knew it seemed selfish to go to such extreme measures to stay with him when Danny’s grandparents were more than willing to take him in after I passed. Hell, they were already setting up a bedroom for Danny in their house. I trusted Marge, for the most part. She was a pain in my ass on occasion, but she loved “her boys” unconditionally. Under the pestering and fretting, there was an undeniable element of affection. Les, on the other hand, was the primary reason for my seeking out a vampire’s help.
Les had raised Rob to be the epitome of a man’s man—sports, hunting, never expressing a serious emotion, you get the idea. With Rob gone, Les seemed to think he could start over with Danny. I could see the gleam in my father-in-law’s eyes when he watched Danny play. He saw my son as a clean slate on which he could rewrite Rob’s life, instead of a bright, imaginative kid with a personality all his own, who was far more interested in telling pretend epic adventures with his LEGO people than hunting or fishing. If Danny lived with his grandparents, Les would have spent Danny’s childhood systematically reprogramming my son until he was a mini-Rob.
The idea of letting go before Danny was grown up, of not seeing him graduate from high school, greet his bride at the altar, welcome his own children into the world, was simply not acceptable. And yes, for purely selfish reasons, I wasn’t ready to die. The thought of passing into the unknown, of no longer existing, terrified me. So I made a desperate choice. More time, at any cost.
Once the idea was born, it took an alarmingly short time to make the arrangements. I found a willing vampire online, arranged payment, and within weeks, my anonymous sire told me where to meet him. I’d arranged to be buried, so I’d be tucked out of the way, far from prying motel maids or innocent bystanders who didn’t deserve to be munched on by a semicomatose newborn vampire. I’d heard of people being turned into vampires for more ridiculous reasons—bad debts, vanity, trying to avoid jury duty. And I knew that I’d gone about it in a sneaky, underhanded manner. But I promised myself it would be worth it if it meant I got to stay with my son.
Lying in my coffin, I took another unnecessary breath, forcing myself to focus. I closed my eyes, flexing my fingers. I could feel. I felt every cell in my hand, every nerve firing as my fingers bent and stretched. I had to do this. I would do this. I’d survived the meds, the treatments, the failure of both. I could learn to live as a vampire. I could learn control. I could be strong. And that all started with throwing one damned punch. I could do this.
Breathing deep, I clenched my fist and shoved it with all of my might through the flimsy wood surface and into the claylike earth above.
“Owwww!” I yelled, shaking my stinging knuckles.
Apparently, vampires had the exact same ability to feel pain as humans. Ow.
I braced myself for another swing. The coffin lid splintered away, dirt sprinkling down onto my face like confetti from hell. I sputtered as clumps of dirt clogged my nose and mouth. I shoved my other hand up through the cheap coffin lid and tried to make a hole big enough to allow me to sit up. There was no room for me to maneuver. How did vampires who woke up in real coffins handle this?
But I was thirsty, so thirsty that the idea of spending one more minute without drinking was enough to make me thrust my arm through the earth above my head and stretch until I reached the surface. I threw up an arm, smashing at the lid with my fist, sputtering dirt.
Air. Sweet, warm night air, fragrant with fresh-cut grass. I didn’t need to breathe it, but that didn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the sudden influx of oxygen into the little tunnel I’d clawed. I didn’t hear anyone aboveground, which meant I’d timed my rising just about right. Everyone had left the ball field for the night, which was good, because I did not want to emerge from the mud like a cicada, only to realize I was being watched by a bunch of Little Leaguers. That was the sort of thing that got around the beauty-parlor circuit.
Grunting, I punched up with the other fist, leveling my shoulders against the falling dirt and sitting up. It took a few tries, but eventually, my head broke through the surface.
I forced myself to push up on shaking legs and crawl to solid ground. I coughed, spitting out the grave dirt and wiping at my eyes. I flopped onto my back, the damp blades of bluegrass tickling my skin.
“Ugh, that was like childbirth, only in reverse.” I groaned, wiping at my mouth with the sleeve of my shirt.
I opened my eyes to a brand-new world. Brilliant stars in a beautiful mess of constellation patterns I’d never been able to make out before sparkled against a black velvet sky. I could make out every bump and pore on the man in the moon. I could hear every cricket’s chirp, the motor of every car within a mile radius. The chemical garbage smell of the concession stand, sickly sweet soda syrup and greasy hot dog water, was so strong I gagged. That was a downside I would worry about later.
And still, I was dying of thirst. My online sire had agreed to leave me in a shallow grave with synthetic blood waiting in a Coleman cooler by the nearby Marchand Memorial Fountain. The blood-drinking aspect of vampirism had been the main obstacle in talking myself into this whole plan. I didn’t want to feed off people, period. The very idea of drinking directly from the source made me a little ill. I would become the vampire version of a vegan: bottled synthetic only, thank you very much.
I hopped to my feet, thrilling at the ease with which I was able to spring up from the ground. After months of having little to no energy, hobbling around like an old woman, it was a lovely change of pace.
“It will take a couple of days to get used to that.”
At the sound of the strange feminine voice, I dropped into a defensive stance. A sharp sensation ripped through my mouth, making me wince even as I bared my new fangs and hissed like an angry cat.
Ow. Badass, but ow.
Near the tree line stood a brunette in a pretty purple print dress and a rakish-looking man in faded jeans and a T-shirt that read “What Happens in Possum Trot Stays in Possum Trot.”
The brunette looked vaguely familiar, but my brain was running too fast for me to recognize my own mother, much less a passing acquaintance. They were both pale, with dark circles under their eyes, and considering that it was eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night and they were strolling around all casual-like in a remote, badly lit location, I could only conclude that they were also vampires.
The brunette smiled, strolling over to shake my hand, while the man lingered near the trees. The woman handed me a warm bottle of Faux Type O, Extra Iron. “I’m Jane Jameson-Nightengale, representative of the local office of the World Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead. I was a couple of years ahead of you at Half-Moon Hollow High, so you probably don’t remember me. And this is my associate, Dick Cheney, also a Council representative.”
The man offered me an awkward little wave. I nodded, tamping down the instinctual zip of panic up my spine. I’d known that at some point, I was probably going to attract the wrath of the Council, the governing body for vampires since they’d burst from the coffin a decade or so before. In the early days, when humans were lashing out against the existence of creatures that had existed under our collective nose for centuries without posing a direct threat to us, the Council stood as a protective force against the people who were staking and burning vampires by the dozens. Now they kept vampires in line by any means necessary. And despite the fact that I remembered Jane as the nice girl who used to tutor kids in my grade in literature and now owned a funky occult bookshop downtown, I doubted my first meeting with them was going to involve a Welcome Wagon basket.
But surely they would understand, right? I could make them understand, if I just explained about being sick and my son and—
Wait a second.
“I’m sorry, did you say Dick Cheney?” I asked, my words muddled by my fangs. I drew my bottom lip across the sharp edge of my left canine. My mouth filled with the coppery tang of my own blood, and I hissed. “Ouch. How do you make these things go back in?”
“Just give it a minute,” Jane said, nodding toward the bottle. “The blood will help. And yes, I did say Dick Cheney. You can hear Dick’s tragic name-related backstory some other time. Because right now, you are in a pant-load of trouble, sweetie.”
“How so?” I asked, my voice the very bell-like tone of innocence. Hoping to quell the burning in my throat, I took a long, deep pull from the bottle of Faux Type O. It was . . . not terrible. Sort of saccharine, like diet soda. You knew you weren’t getting the real thing, but it slaked your thirst temporarily. I could live on this, I supposed. I could drink fake blood every day if it meant I could be with Danny.
“Dumb is not your color, Mrs. Stratton,” the unfortunately named Dick Cheney chided. He was a handsome man, in a sly, can’t-take-me-home-to-Mama kind of way. His expression was guilty, somehow, and apologetic. And given his choice of outfits, I got the impression he didn’t take his position on the Council too seriously. How had someone like him been appointed to oversee all vampire dealings in western Kentucky?
“Please don’t call me that.” I sighed. “Please call me Libby.”
“Libby, then,” he said, his tone gentle. “Would you care to explain to us why you thought it was a good idea to advertise online for a ‘sire for hire,’ agree to meet a complete stranger at the Lucky Clover Motel, and let him turn you and bury you in a public park?”
I grimaced, feeling grateful that Dick had omitted the details. Thanks to the magic of modern pharmaceuticals,
the mechanics of being turned were a little hazy for me. And yes, I did see now that this was a tactical error in terms of personal safety.
“We know about your illness, Libby,” Jane added. “Even if we hadn’t run a background check on you, you’ve been on my mama’s church prayer list for months. Plus, I’ve been reading your unusually loud thoughts for the last couple of minutes, and your story checks out, along with your not awesome but not megalomaniacal intentions.”
I turned to Dick. “She read my mind?”
He shrugged. “It’s a thing. Try not to picture people naked around her.”
Jane ignored us both. “Look, it’s not that I don’t sympathize. I do. But there’s a reason we don’t do bite-for-hire transactions. Money takes the deliberation out of the equation. It’s the equivalent of undead prostitution, which is a creepy thing even to say, much less do.” She looked to her companion, who had stayed silent during this diatribe. “A little help here?”
Dick shrugged and actually patted me on top of the head. “I can’t fuss at her. Look at her. She’s all brand-new and scared, like a little vampire kitten with big, sad cartoon eyes. Don’t you just want to hug her?”
“That’s sweet, but please don’t hug me,” I told him, shaking my head.
“Don’t hug her.” Jane sighed. “Dick, we’re supposed to be chastising her or giving her stern guidance or something. Stern guidance does not involve hugs.”
Dick mumbled something about “feeling sorry for Jamie.”
“So what was your plan?” Jane asked. “You get bitten, and a couple of days later, you let your son walk into your house to be alone all day, waiting for you to wake up? No preparation, just pray you can keep your thirst under control?”
“I had a plan,” I insisted. “Danny’s on a camping trip with his grandparents until Sunday, an end-of-the-summer
thing before he starts school. I told my in-laws I needed time to recover after a treatment, which they were more than willing to believe. And since they told me they would have him home by four, that means I have until at least eight-thirty before they drop him off, because they’re always late bringing him back. I figured I would have some time to get over the bloodthirst before he comes home. I have a babysitter all lined up to stay with Danny during the day while I’m asleep. I’ve already set up a contract with Beeline to deliver blood to my house starting this week. I took a calculated risk.”
Jane harrumphed as if she was not all that impressed with my plans and/or backup plans. “If this was the result of your calculations, you suck at math.”
“OK, so it was a crappy plan, but I was frantic. I’m sorry. And don’t be too hard on my sire, whoever he may be,” I added reluctantly. “He lived up to his end of the deal, at least. And he didn’t hurt me. He shouldn’t suffer because he helped me. Besides, I’m not really sure how to contact him.”
“Oh, trust me, I’ve spoken to your sire. And he’s not going to contact you, period. If his judgment is this piss-poor, he doesn’t have the right to guide you through your transition.”
“I really hadn’t planned on contacting him anyway.”
“You say that because you don’t really understand the sire-childe relationship,” Dick told me, sounding more severe than he had during this whole disaster of a conversation. “You’re going to need guidance. And if your sire was anywhere around, you would instinctually look to him.”
“Even if he is an enormous asshat,” Jane added.
This made me smile, for some perverse reason. But given the irritated expression on Dick’s otherwise winsome face, I decided to ignore that and resolve the issues I could handle at the moment.
“So what happens now? Are you going to turn me in to CPS?” I asked. “Report me for potentially exposing my son to inappropriate displays of vampirism?”
“And set back vampire parents’ rights ten years because you took the half-assed route to being undead?” Jane said. “No, thanks. The courts are just now getting to the point where they give vampire parents fair consideration in custody cases. If you screw this up—if your story gets out about how you paid some random vamp to turn you so you could keep your son and you end up hurting him, or if you screw up and your in-laws, who as I understand it are already preparing for Danny to live with them full-time, end up taking custody of him anyway—it will be a public-relations nightmare I don’t even want to think about.”
If I’d been capable of blushing, my cheeks would have flushed with guilt. I hadn’t thought of the effects my actions would have on other vampire parents. I would be the first to admit that I’d had tunnel vision, only concerned about myself, my son. I forgot how quickly the media hopped on sensational stories about vampires behaving badly, anything to recapture the initial panic of the Great Coming Out. The idea that my actions might result in some other mother losing her children made my stomach twist with guilt.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone else. I’ll admit that I was shortsighted. I apologize for that,” I said carefully. “And I know that a sincere apology is not followed by a ‘but,’ but I was desperate, and this seemed like the only option.”
“Well, you apologized,” Dick said drily. “Which puts you ahead of about fifty percent of our population.”
“What does this mean for me? A fine? Vampire jail?”
“No. We are going to take a very personal interest in your transition, Libby,” Jane said brightly. “You are going to go through Council bloodthirst boot camp. You will prove that you are in complete control of your thirst. And after that, we will monitor you every second until we are convinced that you will not cause a huge embarrassing news cycle for vampires everywhere. And then we will back off and let you live your unlife in a reasonably unsupervised fashion.”
“Sounds fair,” I conceded.
“I still kind of want to hug you,” Dick told me, patting my head again.
“You seem nice, but—” I shook my head. “Resist the urge.”