What Kills Me, Chapters 1 to 4
A human girl will be re-born a vampire. She will shed the blood of all who walk in darkness and bring about the death of the entire vampire race.
—Ancient vampire prophecy
The sun’s down. I am so dead.
I walked out of the bakery with a box of cannoli balanced in my hands and when I saw the dark sky, my smile faded.I shouldered my way through the crowds and rushed into a piazza. The clock on the church tower read 9:25 p.m. I rounded the fountain in the center of the square, my flip flops slapping at my heels. I shifted my box of pastries so that it was under my arm like a football and quickened my pace.
Sofia is going to kill me. When I left the house at 7:30 p.m., I had told her that I’d be only twenty minutes. But I’d lost track of time wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, snapping pictures. So far, I wasn’t being a good guest in her home. Two days ago, I had accidentally used dishwasher soap in her laundry machine, producing a titanic bubble bath. This was not the way to redeem myself.
A few people sat on the stone stairs around the fountain. A bearded man plucked at a guitar and nodded his head. A woman reclined against her boyfriend, her hands on his knees as if they were the arms of a chair.
One young man stood alone on the top of the stairs. His hands were in the pockets of a charcoal coat with an asymmetrical zipper that cut across his chest. His face was backlit against the street lamps, but I knew that he was staring at me. He had such rigid posture that nothing but his head moved as he watched me cross the square.
I dropped my gaze. The straps of my backpack dug into my shoulders and shifted my T-shirt. I tugged at the hem so that the Canadian flag was centered in the middle of my chest. He probably wants to rob me. My father had warned me about pickpockets in Rome. A few days before my trip, he had come into my room with a bulgy blue fanny pack: “To keep your valuables safe.”
From the corner of my eye I could still see the man’s face pointed in my direction, and I heard my best friend’s voice in my head. Zee, he’s checking you out. See if he’s hot. Ryka had encouraged me to have a summer fling. The only fling I’d ever had with a guy was when Felix Lewis flung me in the air during cheerleading tryouts. “Find someone and have fun,” but avoid the bad guys, she had said. She wanted me to keep my other valuables safe.
Pretending to look back at the clock, I glanced at the fountain. The guy was gone. I searched the piazza but didn’t see him. Too bad. He might have been cute.Would his trying to pick my back pocket count as second base?
I turned down a lane sandwiched between two square buildings and wove through a group of men in soccer jerseys. An old man in an undershirt and house slippers stood in the street with a dusty poodle, and I returned his sullen glare with a smile and a nod.
After walking several minutes, something seemed wrong. Okay, I remember passing this restaurant with the row of people eating on white linen tablecloths under white umbrellas. I remember this tight street with the parked cars on my left. But I don’t remember the street opening into a parking lot and this giant purple bush.
A mass of fuchsia flowers cascaded down the side of a building, like a purple monster arm, reaching for the ground with its branchy fingers. I would have remembered this. I doubled back through the dim streets but then couldn’t find my way to the piazza. Don’t panic.
I took a mental inventory of the contents of my bag: a journal, my wallet, my passport, my digital camera, a bottle of water. Of course, I didn’t take the note card with Sofia’s address and phone number on it. It’s on my dresser. Of course, I didn’t take a map. I could see Sofia’s round face, scrunched with disapproval, the creases on her frowning forehead. I performed a frustrated pirouette.
“Come on,” I said, exasperated with myself.
“Excuse me?” A voice said behind me.
I spun around, and there he was in the middle of the road. The guy from the fountain. I recognized his jacket and his tall, stiff stance.
“Sorry. I was talking to myself,” I said.
He took a step toward me and his face shocked me. He had high cheek bones and clean-shaven, pale skin. His deep-set blue eyes were in shadow under thick, dark eyebrows, but they were luminous.
I realized then that I was staring with my mouth ajar.
“You’re American?” he asked in his Italian accent.
“No, I’m from Winnipeg. It’s in Canada,” I said, pointing to my T-shirt. I glanced away, feeling weird that I had just directed his attention to my chest.
He nodded. “You are on vacation?”
“I’m living here for two months studying Italian.”
“Well then, welcome to Italia,” he said, and his pale pink lips smiled. “Do you like it here?”
“I’ve only been here for about a week and I love it.”
“What do you love most?” The word, “lah-ve,” filled his mouth thickly.
“I love the architecture, the food,” I said. “If I could eat gelato every day for the rest of my life, I would.”
“Then you must be sweet.”
His smile widened and I felt embarrassed. To quash my anxiety, I thrust my hand at him. “I’m Zee,” I said.
He seemed startled, tucking in his dimpled chin to gaze at my hand. “Zee?”
“My name is Axelia but everybody calls me Zee.”
“Paolo,” he said.
He slipped his smooth, cool hand into mine. I gripped his palm and shook it vigorously.
“Eggs-ee-lee-ah?” he said, pronouncing every syllable of my name. “I like it.”
“Thanks. I like it too. It’s spelled A-X-E-L-I-A; but the X is soft. Though I hated it when I was young. In kindergarten, someone spread a totally untrue rumor that ‘Zee likes pee,’ and then, you know, at recess, it was always ‘Zee likes pee, Zee likes pee.’”
I laughed and when he didn’t join me, I cleared my throat to silence myself. “And I have no clue why I told you that story, since we just met.”
Oh, Zee. Always babbling when you’re nervous.
He cocked his head and studied my face. “Zee, would you like to go with me for a gelato?” he asked.
Whoa. Is this beautiful guy asking me out? Ryka would be celebrating with corniness: “He doesn’t want to steal your wallet. He wants to steal your heart.”
“Uh, thank you, Paolo,” I said, relishing the opportunity to use his name. “But I actually need to get home.”
“Where do you live?”
“Good question. I mean, I’m not sure. I’m a bit lost,” I said with a shrug and something in between a grin and a grimace. “It’s on a narrow street around here. There’s a café on the street. There’s a pizzeria. I know—every narrow street has a café and a pizzeria. And I don’t have a map or an address. I might just have to live on the streets, survive on cannoli, and sing for coins.”
“Yes but I’m sure people will pay me to stop.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I will help you.”
“Oh, I remember!” I exclaimed. “There’s a white church on my street.”
“Via della Scala has a white church,” he said. “And a café and a pizzeria.”
“Via della Scala, that’s it!” I said.
He put his hand over his heart and bowed slightly. “May I have the honor of walking you there, Zee?”
“That would be lovely.”
As we walked back to Sofia’s apartment, I chattered to fill the silence. I told him about the laundry fiasco and about my Japanese housemate, Miyuki. At one point, I realized that I was nervously swinging the box of cannoli while I walked. Paolo kept his eyes on me while I looked everywhere else. His suede coat sleeve would brush my bare arm, giving me goose bumps.
“How old are you?” I said.
“How old are you?”
“Me too,” he replied.
“I start university in the fall. I’m going to take general arts courses for now because I’m not sure what field I’d like to get into. My father’s an aerospace engineer and my big sister is studying mechanical engineering. But I almost failed physics and math in high school. So for the safety of mankind, I don’t think I should get a job building anything. I love taking pictures so maybe I could be a photographer. What do you do?”
“I’m a student.”
“What are you studying?”
“I’m a student of life,” he said. He pursed his lips when he smiled.
Was that code for unemployed?
“I see,” I said, instead. “And what have you learned so far?”
“I’ve learned that treasures present themselves when you least expect them,” he said. “And you? What has your life taught you?”
“That I shouldn’t walk around without a map,” I said. “And that dish soap doesn’t go in washers. Actually, I’m here because I want more life experience. I feel like I’ve been pretty sheltered in Winnipeg.”
“I’ve never been there. Is it nice?”
“Yes, but it gets cold.”
“Cold doesn’t bother me.”
“This cold would. Our winters are brutal. It’s so cold sometimes that my eyes water and then my wet eyelashes freeze together.”
He chuckled. His teeth were small and perfect. For a moment, I imagined walking with him through these streets, laughing and holding hands. I imagined him teaching me Italian. I imagined him kissing me. Then I could add “kissed a hot guy” to my experiences, right after “traveled outside of Winnipeg.”
Suddenly I recognized the square planters in front of Sofia’s apartment farther down the street.
“Thank God, we’ve found it!” I blurted. Then I turned to Paolo. “I didn’t mean thank God because I don’t like your company. You’re wonderful company in fact.”
“I also enjoyed your company.”
“Thank you so much. I owe you my life for helping me get back to Sofia’s.”
One side of his lips curled up. “Then repay me,” he said.
“Okay.” I channeled Ryka’s boldness. “I could buy you a gelato?”
“Yes. Let’s meet tomorrow at nine fifteen.”
“Where?” I asked. I could feel my cheeks flushing.
“Right here,” he said, pointing to the pizzeria to his left.
“Done,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
Sofia was waiting for me in the foyer. Her arms were crossed over her blue robe, her weight on her left foot so that she could tap her right. Her white hair was pulled back in a thick navy headband, and I could see the angry lines in her forehead.
“Sofia, I am so sorry,” I said, with one foot in the door. “I got totally lost and I didn’t remember the street name. This guy had to help me find my way.”
She clucked her tongue. “Axelia, we were so worried,” she said. “It is not safe for a young girl to be walking around at night. I sent Giuseppe out to look for you.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make trouble. It won’t happen again.”
“Miyuki always carries our address and phone number in her purse.”
“These are for you and Giuseppe,” I said, hanging my head and presenting her with the box of cannoli.
“We will talk about this tomorrow,” she said.
I retreated to my room, where Miyuki was sprawled on her bed watching a Japanese show on her iPad.
“Where were you?” Miyuki said in her child-like, halting voice. “Sofia was so worried.”
“I know. I’m sorry,” I said. “I got lost.”
“Lost? What happened?”
“I lost track of time and then when I tried to rush home, I guess I took a wrong turn somewhere. And of course, because I’m a moron, I didn’t bring this,” I said, snatching up the paper with Sofia’s address and slapping it back onto the dresser.
I walked into our shared bathroom and bent over the sink.
“So, I was wandering around,” I said in between splashing my face, “and I ended up meeting this gorgeous guy. He walked me home. I told him about that white church down the street and he knew where it was…”
I looked up in the mirror and Miyuki was beside me. “Guy?”
I laughed. “He’s Italian. We’re going out again tomorrow night.”
I examined her happy face in the mirror. Our dark hair was the same length, down to our chests, except hers was straight and mine was curly. All of her tiny, doll-like features were concentrated in the middle of her milky face. I imaged that she looked like this when she was twelve. When I was twelve, it seemed like my eyes and lips were too big for my small, thin face. A few of the boys started to call me “Fish Face”; they’d follow me around with wide eyes, sucking on their cheeks. I also had braces because my teeth were crooked and crowded together.By the age of sixteen I was friends with Ryka, who had biting criticism for anyone who tried to tease me. Eventually, my braces came off, my cheeks filled out, and everyone just called me “Zee.”
“Zee?” said Miyuki. “What time are you going to see that boy?”
I paused in the middle of rubbing my face with a towel. “What do you mean, ‘uh oh’?”
“Sofia says that we have a curfew now.”
“What? What time is the curfew?”
“Nine? Every day? But it’s the weekend!”
I strode back into our room, gesturing wildly.
“That is ridiculous,” I said, hopping into purple monkey-print pajama pants. “We’re seventeen. We’re almost adults.”
“No way. She never said anything about this when we first moved in. She can’t just spring this on us. Did she say this was every day?”
What if I couldn’t see Paolo? How would I get him the message? I couldn’t just leave him to wait.
“If I stand him up, he’ll forever think that Canadian girls are evil,” I told Miyuki. “I have to date him to protect Canada’s reputation.”
I smirked and Miyuki giggled, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll talk to Sofia about it in the morning.”
I went to bed practicing my speech and picturing Paolo’s face. I had never seen anyone with such bright eyes. I had never met a boy who was so confident and cool. But clearly, Italian guys were different. More mature. More gentlemanly.
I liked that he knew nothing about me. He didn’t know that I wasn’t the summer fling type. He didn’t know that my only friends were Ryka and her boyfriend, Raj. I was a blank canvas and I could create a new image in his eyes. I could be fun, exciting, and adventurous. I could have stories to tell. I could become the person that I was meant to be.
At breakfast the following day, Sofia was unbending.
“It is not safe for young girls to be out after dark,” she said.
“I appreciate your concern but I am seventeen and…” I started.
“You’re here in Rome to study, yes? You should stay at home and work and wake up early for classes like Miyuki.”
I looked at Miyuki, who was silently eating her frittata across the table.
“I always get my homework done before dinner. I have the same deal with my father and he lets me stay out until midnight on weekends,” I said.
“Axelia,” Sofia said. “I can’t have you girls coming in at all hours of the night. Giuseppe and I need to sleep and if you are not home, we will just worry.”
I drew a breath to speak but exhaled as if I was letting the argument leave my body. What could I say to that? I had to be considerate of my hosts.
“I understand, Sofia,” I said. But for the rest of the meal, I tortured myself, fantasizing about the summer romance I could have had. Sofia rested her hands on my slumped shoulders.
“Here,” she said, putting the box of pastries beside me. “Eat some cannoli.”
“Good morning, Zee,” he said.
“Dad, it’s dinnertime here.”
“Right. Daddy forgot,” he said. My father often referred to himself in the third person with me. “How are you?”
“Good. How’s the family?”
“We found a bird’s nest outside of Tiffy’s window. Yesterday, these birds kept flying back and forth around the yard so I figured they built a nest in the tree. Daddy looked, and sure enough, there was a nest with three baby birds.”
“Whenever we go out, the mother bird dives at you. They fly very low and in front of you to scare you away. Daddy was sitting by our pond, feeding the fish and one came and touched the back of Daddy’s head.”
“That’s crazy. Mom must be freaking out.”
“Mommy’s outside right now gardening with a tennis racket.”
I pictured my mother outside in her floppy straw hat, twirling around, wielding the tennis racket like a giant fly swatter and I burst into laughter.
“I told her not to hit them,” my father said. “They’re just protecting their babies.”
“Dad, Sofia instituted a curfew of nine o’clock.”
“Well, you know, maybe she’s more conservative. She’s just concerned about you. Especially with single, young girls, you don’t want them to stay out late.”
I decided then not to tell him about getting lost.
“I understand, but nine is really early,” I said.
“You should respect Sofia’s wishes. She is taking care of you.”
“I guess,” I said. “Hey Dad, can I call you tomorrow? Ryka’s online.”
“Okay, talk to you tomorrow.”
“Bye Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
I wrote Ryka in an instant message: “U there?”
“Just woke up.”
“I met a boy.”
“Calling you on Skype. Turn your camera on.”
When Ryka appeared on my screen, I said, “Nice hair.” Her short hair stood up in two puffs like cat ears.
“Shut up. We all don’t have Italian stallions to impress, okay?”
“Ry, I met the cutest guy and I’m never going to see him again.”
“What? So dramatic! What happened?”
“I went for a walk last night and because I’m an idiot, I didn’t have a map and I got lost. So, I’m wandering around Rome, trying to find Sofia’s house and I turn around and there’s this beautiful guy standing there.”
“Like dark-haired, blue-eyed, ten times prettier-than-me beautiful.”
“Shut up,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“At first, I thought he wanted to rob me. But then he helped me back to Sofia’s house and asked me to meet him tonight.”
“Look at you, Miss Zee!”
“Wait, you forgot the rest of it. I can’t meet him.”
“Sofia imposed a curfew on us. It becomes a prison at nine.”
“No. Can you sneak out?” she asked with a wink.
“Very funny Ry. I can’t risk getting caught and getting kicked out.”
“Zee, why would the universe introduce you to the most beautiful guy in Italy only to have you never see him again?”
“Because the universe likes to torture me?”
“Come on. You’re in Rome. Live a little!”
“I know but…”
“But what? You’re just going to leave him hanging?”
“Oh, Ry. He probably won’t show up anyway.”
“He will. And then his feelings will be hurt.”
She knew how to guilt me into action. After I hung up, I came up with a compromise. Before I lost my nerve, I wrote a note:
It was so nice to meet you yesterday. Thank you for helping me home. I really wanted to hang out tonight but my homestay family surprised me with a curfew of 9 p.m. I’m so sorry. Please let me make it up to you with twice as much gelato. Are you free Monday afternoon? Please meet me at the pizzeria at 3:30 p.m. Also, here’s my e-mail address and number.
Later that afternoon, I gave the waiter at the pizzeria a description of Paolo (“Dark hair, blue eyes, bellissimo,”) and the letter, and ran home.
What if he gets annoyed and decides that he doesn’t want anything to do with me? Well, he would be missing out.
Shortly after 9 p.m., I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling fan and listening to its hypnotic whir. I imagined Paolo’s crooked smile. I imagined the husky way he would say my name. Zee.
I sat up. I heard my name.
“Did you hear something?” I asked Miyuki. She shook her head. But then we both heard a voice from outside. I walked over to the window, pushed open the green shutters, and looked down.
Paolo smiled at me from the middle of the street.
My memory had not done him justice. He wore the same coat but he had spiked his short, dark hair. His half-smile was so sexy.
“What are you doing here?” I said, grinning.
“I came to see you,” he said. He held my note between his index and middle fingers. “I got your letter.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just found out about the curfew. It’s so ridiculous.”
Miyuki came toward me with her head cocked to the side. “It’s him,” I whispered. I felt giddy. Her mouth made a small O and she poked her head out the window. Paolo waved.
“He is cute,” she whispered to me.
“So, are you free tomorrow?” I asked.
“Oh,” I said, the smile fading from my face.
“But I am free now.”
“I can’t leave the house.”
“Of course you can.”
“No, you don’t understand. My hosts aren’t letting me out.”
“How will they know that you are gone?”
“Well, they’ll see me walk out the front door.”
“But you can come through the window.”
I laughed. “That’s true but my arms are a little tired from flying out the window earlier today.”
He didn’t laugh. “Who said anything about flying?”
He pointed in front of him so I leaned further out the window and looked down. Someone had parked a white van below my second-story window.
“I will help you down. We will go for gelato, take a beautiful stroll, and I will have you safe at home in an hour.”
An hour. Sofia and Giuseppe would be fast asleep by then and I could sneak back through the front door.
This is crazy.
I couldn’t climb out my window like a ninja. I’d fall, or I’d get caught.
“I can’t,” I said.
I glanced at Miyuki. Her eyebrows were furrowed. I could stay here with Miyuki and study. Or I could climb out the window and live a little. I could chase the adventure that I had traveled across an ocean for. I looked back at Paolo, who was grinning. He reached inside his coat and pulled out a what appeared to be a clump of tissue. He opened his palm. It was a white rose. He opened his arms to me. I couldn’t believe I was about to surrender.
“How can I say no?” I said. “Hang on a sec.”
I got ready in an elated flurry. I tore off my pajamas, changed into a white eyelet sundress, and wiggled my feet into red ballet flats. I slung a small, burgundy-suede satchel across my chest and jammed my keys and Sofia’s address into the front pocket. Miyuki watched me with wide eyes but she didn’t say anything.
I returned to the window and scanned the dark street for Paolo. I heard my name and saw him standing behind the van. He put one foot on the bumper, one hand on the roof, and in one motion hopped onto the vehicle. He dropped the rose and stretched his arms toward me.
“How am I going to do this?” I muttered. “Miyuki, if I fall on my head, please tell my family that I loved them. And please go ahead and take that fanny pack in my closet that you keep eyeing.”
“Be careful,” she said.
I put my feet through the window so I was sitting on the sill. Miyuki grabbed my arm as I turned and struggled onto my stomach. The sill dug into my gut. This is a disaster. I had my butt in his face and my skirt was riding up. Why did I wear a dress to climb out a window? Groaning, I shifted myself so that I was propped up by my elbows. What now?
I felt Paolo grip my hips and lift me from the window. I grabbed his hands. He lowered me gently, my back to his chest, my ear against his mouth. “There you go,” he whispered. “Safe and sound.” He let me go and when I turned around, he had already jumped off the van. I smoothed my skirt under me, sat on the roof, and slid off into his arms. We stood in the street facing each other, his hands on my waist. I felt my face flush but I could not break from his gaze. My mind went blank.
“So how about what you owe me?” he said.
“Gelato. Let’s go get one.”
He grabbed the rose from the roof of the van and presented it to me. I put the bloom to my nose and covered my mouth to hide a wide smile. I had done it. Ryka would be so proud.
“Encouraging me to break curfew and jump out of windows? You’re trouble.”
“I promise, no more jumping out of windows,” he said.
“Good. I’m never doing that again.”
We stopped at a café for a strawberry gelato and continued walking. I juggled the rose, my spoon, and my cup of gelato while maneuvering around pedestrians and on-coming Vespas. I felt unbalanced on the bumpy stone streets.Paolo never appeared distracted. He examined my face, ignoring his melting dessert.
“What?” I said.
“Why do you keep looking at me like that? What are you thinking?”
“I think you are beautiful,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. I brushed my hair behind my ear. But I had done so with the hand holding my spoon, dripping pink globs into my hair.
“Don’t move,” he said. I froze as he stepped close to me and ran his fingers into my hair. “Your hair smells like strawberries now.”
“That was my plan.”
Feeling shy, I inched away. “So, how long have you lived in Rome?”
“For an eternity, it seems.”
“You were born here?”
“Your English is amazing. Have you ever been anywhere else?”
“I’ve been everywhere else.”
We crossed the street and Paolo pulled on my elbow to keep me from walking into a passing bicycle.
“I like to travel.”
“Yeah, but how did you get to travel so much?”
He paused. “My father, he is a diplomat.”
“So what are your favorite cities?”
“Tokyo is amazing. Very clean. I have friends in Udaipur in India. The most beautiful lakes that you’ve ever seen.”
“I have this dream of traveling the world and taking pictures for National Geographic magazine.”
“Why don’t you?”
I grinned. “Maybe one day. My parents want me to study something practical first—you know, get a degree.”
As we walked by a store with stained glass windows, the shopkeeper came out and said something in Italian. Paolo stopped on the street corner to talk to him. I leaned over the stall in front of the shop and examined the necklaces and bracelets littering the table. I picked up a silver pendant in the shape of a coin; the image of a butterfly was etched on its surface.
“Do you like it?” Paolo asked.
Paolo slipped his fingers through the chain, pulling it from me. He undid the clasp.
“Wait,” I said.
“Please,” he said, putting the chain around my neck.
The pendant was cool against my chest. I pressed it against my skin to warm it up. Paolo reached into his pocket and pulled out some money.
“No, please, I can’t accept this.”
He handed the bills to the shopkeeper. “Zee, you are a guest in my city. Let me treat you. As a thank you for the gelato.”
“The gelato was a thank you for helping me yesterday.”
“Please. This is my pleasure.”
“Thank you,” I said. We crossed the street. “A rose, a necklace? Way to set the bar, Paolo.”
“I just want you to like me.”
“Is this what it takes to get a girl to like you?”
“You tell me.”
It was working. The prospect of a summer of romance with him thrilled me.
“It’s not necessary. But it is appreciated,” I said.
Down an empty street, he set his uneaten gelato in a plant pot and sauntered up to a walled property. A blanket of ivy covered the stone wall and the gated entrance. He gripped the iron bars and motioned with a nod for me to join him. Inside the yard, two street lamps illuminated a brick building with a pitched roof. A large circular window on the front of its unremarkable façade made the structure look like a Cyclops. The ominous silhouette of a slim bell tower topped with a cross emerged from the back of the building.
“This church is special,” Paolo murmured. “People say that this church is built over a well that is sacred to the gods.”
He took the empty cup of gelato from my hand and set it on the ground.
“Let’s take a closer look,” he said.
He jumped, grabbed a horizontal bar at the top of the gate and pulled himself up. He perched there for a second and then vaulted over to the other side. My mouth fell open.
“You didn’t just do that,” I said as he smiled at me from the other side. “Are you some kind of gymnast?”
Paolo fiddled with the latch before pulling the door open, snapping vines of ivy. He parted the green curtains and extended his hand.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” I said.
“I come here once a week and there’s never anyone around,” he said. “We’ll just take a quick look. It’s an incredible place. You’ve never seen anything like it.”
I just stared at his hand. I can’t. I can’t trespass.
“Please? I planned this as a surprise for you,” he said.
I looked at his face, saw it change from excited to disappointed, and I felt bad. He had thoughtfully planned this and I didn’t want to be a spoilsport. I had come this far already. Just a quick look. My hand slipped into his and he interlaced our fingers while I ducked under the ivy and stepped over a vine. The courtyard was barren, the grass long and uneven. We walked around to the side of the church. I listened and heard nothing but the crunch of grit under our feet and the chorus of crickets. I was conscious of the softness of his cool palm and our fingers rubbing together as we moved.
Paolo stopped and opened a door to the building. The door creaked as he pushed it.
What if we got caught?
“Uh, Paolo,” I whispered. I tried to pull back but he held my hand firmly. “I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Don’t worry. I come here all the time to think.”
I swallowed and resolved to trust him. Relationships were built on trust. And being an adventurer required courage. He led me inside, through the darkness, toward a yellow glow. I held my breath and followed him into the sanctuary, where I sighed in awe. “Wow.”
I stared across twenty pews to the glowing altar. A portrait of the crucifixion hung above rows of gold candelabras. Paintings of angels and saints adorned every wall and every column. I took in the white marble floors and the colorful, coffered ceiling. I ran my hand along a wooden collection box and tried to read the sign: “Per I bambini del terzo mondo.”
“It’s for children in the third world,” Paolo said.
I set the rose down on the box and grabbed my purse, but then I realized I’d spent all of my money on gelato. Paolo dropped a coin into the slot. I smiled at him.
“You’re a sweet girl,” he whispered.
He brushed a strand of hair from my face, his fingertips tracing a soft line across my forehead and down my cheek. I became shy and showed him the top of my head. He lifted my chin so that our eyes met, our faces inches apart.
I had stopped breathing. I felt as if, at any moment, I would melt into the floor. As he leaned in, I fixated on his parted lips and I felt his hand slip around my waist. I thought he was going to kiss my forehead. Instead, he rested the side of his mouth against my temple and whispered in my ear.
“Yes,” I said, breathlessly.
“Now that I have you here all alone, what do you think I’m going to do to you?”
His voice was low, his breath cool.
I swallowed. “What?”
“I’m going to kill you.”
I thought I had misheard him.
But his grip told me that everything had changed and that everything was wrong. I pushed back against his hand and his fingers dug into my back. He grabbed my neck and I gasped.
No. This can’t be happening.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. His thumb pressed the skin under my jaw and a shock of pain ripped through me, causing my knees to buckle.
“Ow!” I cried. “You’re hurting me!” I drew a breath to scream and he crushed me against his chest. He was so strong.
“Don’t scream,” he said into my ear.
Inhaling, he dragged his nose against my cheek. Then I felt his tongue, cold and slimy, lap my chin. A whimper escaped from my lips.
“You know, Zee, I’ve never taken anyone here before. But you are special. The second that I saw you, I had to have you. I’ve never seen anything more lovely. I just couldn’t help myself.”
“Please, don’t kill me.”
“That really isn’t an option.”
He pulled me back so that he could look at me. His lips twisted into a sneer. I searched his eyes and saw no warmth, only a terrifying look of madness, of hunger. He didn’t look like himself anymore. I clawed at his arm and my feet slid as I tried to push myself away.
“Mmm. This is my favorite part. The struggle.”
“Please, Paolo. Just let me go. I promise I won’t tell the police or anyone about this if you let me leave.”
He reached over and took the rose off the collection box. He tapped the bloom to his mouth and raised his eyebrows.
“Why don’t we play a game?” he said. “If you can guess my plan for you, then you can go.”
“You—you’re going to kill me!” My teeth clattered so that I could barely spit out the words.
He brushed the rose over my nose and lips. I tried to jerk my face away but his grip was unyielding.
“Come on, Zee. What happened to all your playful energy?”
He hit the rose against the side of my face and a petal fluttered to the ground like a wounded butterfly. I felt sick inside.
“Fine,” he said. “You wouldn’t have guessed right anyway. You girls never do.”
“You’re all the same. You’re always so surprised,” he said. “But I’m going to tell you since you seem to enjoy full disclosure so much.” He leaned in so that our eyes were level. “First, I’m going to take you in my arms. I’m going to stroke your hair. And then I’m going to drink your blood until your heart stops beating.”
Oh my God. I gasped but there was no air.
“There’s no use…”
His voice trailed off and he turned to look over his shoulder as if he’d heard something. I looked behind him, desperate for someone to be there, someone to save me. For a moment, we were frozen. I heard nothing but my shallow breath and my thundering heartbeat.
Suddenly, he released me and swiveled around to face the altar. I lurched backward.
He was blocking the door so I turned and I tore under an archway and down a dark hall. I skidded around a corner and slammed into a wall. The corridor was bleached by moonlight from a window up near the ceiling. I twisted a door handle and hit it with my shoulder. It didn’t budge. I tried another door across the hall and burst into the room.
It appeared to be an office, lit by a small lamp on a desk. I dashed around the room like a trapped animal and tripped over a chair. I cried out, a jolt of pain shooting through my shin. Beside a bookcase there was a small opening, a dark mouth in the brick wall. I crouched in front of the short doorway. I can’t go in here. I looked over my shoulder at the door. At any moment, Paolo would be in this room. He would be behind me, dragging me away. I took a breath, stooped, and threw myself through the passageway.
The tunnel was black. I waved my hands, trying to swim through the thick murk. Rough stone walls squeezed me on each side. The ground under my feet became uneven, lumpy, and started to slope downward. I paused, my breath in shreds, my heart thumping.
His voice, singsong and taunting, from somewhere inside the church shocked me, driving me farther down the tunnel. I scraped my palms along the walls. He’s coming. He’s behind me.
I saw light and ran toward it. A white lantern hung from the tunnel wall, illuminating a set of stairs. There was nowhere else to go. I scurried down the stairs, my eyes focused on my feet. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. The spiraling stairs were unending. My descent became a blur.
If this goes any farther, I’m going to end up in hell.
All of a sudden, my heel slipped off a stair. I pitched forward, screaming, somersaulting, smashing my elbow and my hip against hard rock. I rolled across the ground, landing on my back, tears streaming from my eyes from the blinding pain. Writhing, trying to catch my breath, I waited for the burning to subside in my arm and hip.
I lifted my head off the ground, opened my eyes, and gasped.
I lay in a forest of towering stone pillars, topped by majestic brick arches. The immense room was bathed in an orange light. I winced, willing myself to stand. Flanked by columns, I limped away from the stairs.
“Hello?” I called out. The sound of my own voice, broken and afraid, pushed me over the edge and my body shook with sobs. “Can anyone help me?”
My tears were hot on my face. The pillars around me were carved with undecipherable symbols. I hobbled further and found the source of the light. Hundreds of red candles jutted from the ground, the shining, melting wax creating blood-red pools. They seemed to be arranged around a circular formation of boulders. When I got closer, I saw that the rocks lined a hole in the ground.
What is that?
I looked into that black hole and I shivered.
“Is anyone here?” I said.
I heard the crunch of sand behind me and I spun around. It was Paolo. He opened his arms as if to invite me in for an embrace.
“Why did you run from me?” he asked, sounding surprised.
“Stay away from me,” I said.
“Don’t be like that.” He took a step toward me. I stepped back. I felt the heat from the wax through the soles of my slippers.
“I said, ‘Don’t come near me.’”
“Is that any way to treat me after I rescued you when you were lost? After I took you around Rome, bought you gifts, and invited you to this amazing place?”
My tears pooled under my chin. I lifted my heel and found it stuck to the wax.
“Come here, Zee,” he said. “Let me put you out of your misery.”
Horrified, I staggered back. Time slowed. Paolo ambled toward me, a smile spreading on his face. I backed away farther from him, knocking over candles. My heel hit a small rock. I looked over my shoulder and realized with shock I was now very close to that foreboding hole. At that same moment I saw the rock skitter into it. There was no sound of the rock landing.
I’m going to die.
“Stop!” A voice shouted. Startled, we both turned toward the sound. An older man in a hooded blue robe was running toward us.
Suddenly I was off balance, tipping over. I was falling. Falling into the hole. I saw Paolo dive for me with outstretched hands. Screaming, I clawed once at nothing.
Then there was only black.