Star’s throat burns.
Max is dead. He is dead, she’s seen his body burn and his ashes spread into the sunlight thanks to Grandpa. He’s dead, but her thirst remains, tearing at her from the inside out. Her eyes ache in the bright daylight, her skin feels hot and tight, and she sways where she stands, exhaustion sitting heavy on her.
Michael puts his hands on her arms, holds her upright. She squeezes her eyes shut and lets him take her weight.
The sound of the wind is loud, and when it crosses her face, she swears she can feel the scratch of dust, all that’s left of Max, scouring her skin.
“Star.” Laddie tugs on her skirt. She drops her hand and, without looking, twines her fingers in his hair. It’s dirty, matted. She used to brush it for him in the early evening before the sun set and everyone else woke. She’s been too busy for that, too desperate to find a way free. “Star!”
His voice is more insistent the second time, and she forces her eyes open so she can look down at him.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. Her voice tears from her throat, leaving it raw.
“I’m thirsty.” His eyes are bright and bloodshot. His hand shakes where he clings to her. “Make it stop.”
She kneels, or falls to her knees, at least, uncontrolled and too fast. A stone digs sharp into her left knee, piercing through the skin. “I’m sorry,” she tells Laddie and draws him into a hug. Holds him even as he snuffles at her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Michael puts his hand on the top of her head. She looks up at him, limned in sunlight so that she can’t make out his features. She stares at him even though the light stabs into her eyes.
Max is dead, but still her thirst burns.
Star is burning from the inside out.
In the sunlight, she aches, her skin red and raw, but it chases her into darkness, too. Late at night, she twists and turns until she tangles the sheets all around her. They are staying in Max’s house until the repairs are finished on Grandpa’s.
Lucy bought fresh sheets, opened all the windows, aired out the house. The smell of vampire remains, seeped into the carpets and the walls, the glass and the metal studs, the paint and the tile. The stench of hellhound, too, which smells a startlingly amount like wet dog.
When they arrived that first day, smeared with soot and stinking of death, Lucy made them wait in the car while she looked for Thorn. He was gone, though, not even a pawprint left behind. Maybe he’d gone to ash when Max did.
Star touches her throat. Max is dead, and his hellhound gone, and still she thirsts.
When the room gets too oppressive, Star slips from the covers, leaving Laddie sleeping on the other side of the bed. It was Max’s bed, Max’s room, and she understands why Lucy didn’t want it, but Star doesn’t want it, either. She’d rather sleep on the bathroom floor. She’d rather sleep outside.
She’d rather sleep back in the cave, and sometimes when she wakes, she swears she can smell seawater and blood and damp stone.
Michael sits in the backyard. She joins him, drawn to him without really thinking about looking for him. His eyes are red rimmed, and his lips are chapped. She licks hers, and they are just as dry.
He takes her hand when she sits next to him. Laces their fingers together.
Max’s neighborhood is poorly lit, and the stars spread out above them, scattered in the darkness. She named herself for them, once, named herself for the thing she chased, named herself for childhood stories and wishes and dreams.
She wishes, sometimes, that she’d chosen another name. Stars are for the darkness, for night, and she wants to lie in the sand and the sea and the sun.
The sun is a star too, though, for all it burns her still.
She rests her head on Michael’s shoulder and stares at the sky until her vision blurs.
Two weeks in, Lucy calls a family meeting, and Star’s stomach churns.
It’s Lucy, so she goes, and Michael needs her there, so she goes, and Laddie’s actually excited, so she goes, but every breath Star takes tastes bitter with fear. She knows Lucy isn’t like the people she left behind, she knows, but Star can’t shake her dread.
Lucy moves a chair over so she can face the couch, and she makes sure Star, Michael, and Laddie sit there. Laddie squirms, messing up the slipcover Lucy put on it first thing, and kicks a little, but Lucy doesn’t say anything, so Star doesn’t either.
“I know something’s wrong,” Lucy says, and a sharp silence cracks through the room. Star clenches her hands into fists but doesn’t notice until her nails pierce her skin. “You’re not -- not normal again, are you?”
Star bites the inside of her cheek and looks past Lucy’s shoulder. She can’t be the one to break Lucy’s heart. She won’t. It’s not fair of her to leave it to Michael, she knows that, but he’s had this wonderful woman his entire life, she’ll love him no matter what. Star doesn’t deserve the same.
“I don’t know.” Michael scrubs one hand through his hair. “No, we’re not, but it’s not the same. I can’t fly anymore, and I don’t have to sleep all day, but…” He stops. His mouth works, but no more words come.
“We need blood.” Star blurts it out without realizing she’s going to say it, but once she does, she doesn’t want to take it back even if she could. “The thirst is still there, and it’s terrible, Lucy. It burns.”
Lucy bites her lower lip and looks down at her hands. Her face has more lines now than it did when the Emersons first came to Santa Carla, Star thinks, and hates how many she’s caused, directly or not.
“Okay,” Lucy says. She looks up at them, and her eyes are clear and bright, her jaw set at a stubborn angle. “Okay. We can live with this.”
We’re not living with anything, but Star bites that back.
“How?” Michael cries. He’s tense, his muscles knotted, and Star presses against his side, offering what little comfort she can. She doesn’t have any answers, and she looks to Lucy, too, as desperate as he is. “How can we live with this? Killing Max was supposed to fix it, not make things worse!”
Lucy’s chin juts forward. “That doesn’t matter now. It didn’t, and we have to deal with what we’re given. You’re thirsty. You need blood. I will get you blood.”
Star’s mouth opens, but she can’t figure out what to say. Lucy makes it sound easy, when it’s anything but.
“I’m not drinking someone’s blood!” Michael snaps. “I’m not a killer!”
“Michael!” Lucy’s voice cracks across him, loud and shocked. “I would never ask you to do that. Never. We’re not monsters.”
Not like them, Star hears, and despite herself, her heart gives a little lurch. They weren’t always terrible, Max’s boys, and sometimes, especially in the beginning, they were fun, voracious in ways that didn’t yet scare her.
They’re gone, though, and she’s still not free.
“Then how?” Michael sounds more like the boy he must have been. Lucy’s expression softens when she looks at him.
“I don’t know,” she says, “but I will figure it out.”
The fight drains out of Michael. He slumps, and Star catches him. Holds him up. He turns his face into her shoulder, and she lets him hide in the wild chaos of her hair.
Michael scratches lightly at the bedroom door until she wakes and joins him outside. He takes her hand and sets off walking. She falls into step with him as easy as anything. They walk to the lighthouse and its new surf museum, then turn and follow the road to downtown.
The boardwalk is dark and quiet, but bonfires dot the beach beyond it. They cut around until they can get to the beach. Star takes off her sandals and digs her toes into the sand. It’s cold and damp.
Michael walks on, away from the bonfires, across the hard-packed line of sand that marks high tide. He doesn’t stop to kick off his socks and shoes, just walks straight into the water and keeps going until it reaches his thighs. He’s taller than Star, and she’s up to her hips in icy ocean. A wave crashes toward them, sending water up her chest before it settles again. She clutches at Michael, bobs in the water as the sand beneath her feet shifts and she’s temporarily weightless.
“I want to drink it all,” Michael says.
Star squeezes him, because she feels that, too. Her throat burns, her eyes, her stomach, she needs liquid and she needs salt, and here it is all around them, stretched out into the darkness, out to the edge of the horizon and beyond. She could drown here, trying to swallow it down, and then, at least, she would no longer be a threat.
She sits down, suddenly, and the water closes over her head. As it does, she hears Michael shout, and his hands grab at her. She keeps her eyes open even as the saltwater tears at them, opens her mouth, sucks water in.
Michael drags her up and back to shore while she coughs and splutters and sobs. He holds her there in the darkness, clings to her, and she buries her face in his lap, curls into the tightest ball she can.
Lucy doesn’t say anything about the sand they track into the house or the salt stains on their clothes.
Star smells blood.
She’s in the shower when it hits her, and she sags against the wall, lets the water pound against her face, her open mouth, her open eyes, because all she can do is shake and breathe. Then, when her strength comes back to her, she rushes through turning off the taps, wringing water from her hair, pulling clothes over her damp skin.
She leaves wet footprints down the hallway, and follows the smell to the kitchen.
Lucy sets the last of three glasses on the table. They are filled nearly to the brim with a thick, dark liquid. The salt-sweet smell of it makes Star’s mouth water, and for a terrible moment, she can’t look away from the pulse beating at Lucy’s throat.
She shakes herself free when Lucy moves one of the glasses a little closer to her. “Try this,” she says, and there’s something shaky about it and the way she wrings her hands together.
Star wants to be slow and controlled, but she’s across the room in a second, gulping in another. It’s blood, warm and rich, and it fills her mouth, coats her throat. The fire in her throat fades, banked by the rush of blood. She swallows and swallows and swallows until it’s gone, then shoves her fingers into the glass to get the last of it, licks it from her own skin.
By the time she’s done, Michael and Laddie are there, too. Laddie gulps and smears blood on his upper lip and licks and licks to get it clean. Michael manages a little more decorum, maybe because his mother watches, but he drinks fast, too, and it’s all over in moments.
Star doesn’t realize that Sam is hovering by the back door until she starts to come down from the rush of drinking. She’s full now, sated, throat cool and slick, and she smiles at him. He blanches before he can hide the expression, and she realizes her teeth must be bloody.
That shakes a loud laugh loose, and she clutches at her belly until she’s calm.
“Blood from the butcher,” Lucy explains. She’s very pleased with herself. Star doesn’t blame her. Star can’t blame anyone for anything, not as good as she feels. “I don’t know if it’ll be enough, but we’ll start with that.”
“Thank you.” Michael’s voice breaks and instead of trying to say anything else, he sweeps Lucy into a big hug, picking her straight up off the ground. She laughs and pushes at his shoulder and grins and grins.
Star can’t stop smiling, and the burn of her thirst feels very far away.
Three days and three nights later, Star’s thirst burns.