I don’t know how long I sat on the edge of my bed. It could have been a few minutes, it could have been a few hours, I didn’t care either way. All I could do was just sit there and kick myself.
I’d betrayed Odette. There was no other way to say it. I’d promised her I would always be there for her, I’d told her that she could trust me, and then betrayed that trust at its first test. I felt like the scum of the earth. No, if I called myself that, that’d be an insult to the scum.
“Dude, that’s pretty harsh.” I lurched off the bed in surprise, only to have my braced leg shoot out from under me. I went down hard, making a spectacular faceplant on the floor.
“Owen?!” I gasped. “What the…”
“Sorry, Andrews,” he said sheepishly, “Didn’t mean to freak you out like that. Here,” he leaned over me and offered me a hand. I grabbed it and he yanked me to my feet.
“What the hell, Owen?” I asked.
“Did you know you talk to yourself?” I did do that sometimes when I got really worked up, but I hadn’t realized I’d been doing it right then. Hey, wait a second…
“You always eavesdrop on people like that?” I asked Owen.
“Yeah, uh, I mean, no, uh… your door was open,” he said, kinda lamely I thought, “I was just passing by and I heard you say that line about insulting the scum.”
“Yeah, right. What do you want?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly. Way, way too quickly. “What makes you think I want something?”
“What else would you be doing down here?” I asked.
“I was going… uh… going…”
“Where?” I asked, “My room’s the last one before the hallway dead-ends.”
“No it’s not, I was going to… find… oh,” his protest slowly trailed off as he leaned out the door and found himself face to face with painted cinderblock. “Shit.”
“So…” I really wasn’t in the mood for this.
“So… I was kinda hoping I could talk to you,” Owen said, “About the whole thing with Odette and her undead boyfriend.”
“Fiancé,” I corrected automatically.
“Whatever. Look, Steve…”
“If you’re going to tell me I screwed up, then walk away,” I snapped, “I know, I get it, okay?”
“No no no,” he said, raising his hands defensively, “I wasn’t going to say that. Well, okay, actually, I was but…”
“Owen, what did I just…”
“…but I get it.”
“Huh?” I stared at him in confusion for a second.
“I mean, damn it, I mean I understand why you did it.”
“Okay…” I said slowly, “Why do you think I did it?”
“ Cause you’re in love with her.”
“Owen, what on earth gives you that idea?”
“I’ve seen the way you look at her. You’re like a love sick little puppy. Anyway, you love her and you want to protect her. I totally understand that. Hell, I almost destroyed the universe trying to protect Julie. Twice!” He held up two fingers like a peace sign in case I’d missed it the first time.
“Did you ever betray her like I just did to Odette?”
“Well… uh… not exactly…”
“Then you have no clue,” I snapped, “And we have nothing to talk about.” I wasn’t in the mood for a pep talk. I sat down on the bed and started sulking again. A minute later, I realized someone was watching me. I looked up and saw Owen still standing in the doorway.
“Damn it Owen, I told you…”
“Look,” he said, “I’m not gonna try and pep talk you again, but I do have something that might make you feel a little bit better.”
“Well, Dominique tells me you’re something of a gun nut…”
“Whatever you’ve got, I’m not interested.”
“Not even a full-auto, magazine-fed twelve-gauge shotgun?” That did get my attention.
“That a customized Warhammer or something?”
“No,” he said as a wicked grin appeared on his face, “Abomination.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment, “you got me. This I gotta see.”
“Holy crap!” I all but squealed as Owen unzipped his gun case and pulled out Abomination. “Dude, that… that’s… holy crap!”
Abomination was a heavily customized Saiga that Milo Anderson, MHI’s resident mad scientist, had worked his magic on. He’d slicked up the action, cut down the barrel, fitted the fixed version of the ACE Custom stock that was on my FAL, somehow figured out how to mount an EOTech holographic sight to the receiver, mounted a Tula 40mm grenade launcher under the barrel, and, to top the whole package off, fitted a custom-made eight-inch side-folding bayonet. The whole assembly had been finished in an odd brown and tan tiger stripe pattern. It was, officially, the coolest gun I’d ever seen.
“I have got to get me one of these things!”
“I’ll tell Milo you like it when I get back to Alalbama, he’ll probably cook one up for you.”
“Sure, I think he’s already making one for Shannon.”
“Want to shoot it?”
“Wait, can I?”
I spent over an hour with Abomination, pumping shell after shell of buckshot downrange and even lobbing a few grenades into the big earthen berm at the end of the firing line. By the time I was done, my shoulder was throbbing from the recoil and my arms ached from holding the big, heavy weapon. That wouldn’t have stopped me though; I only quit because we ran out of ammo.
“So,” Owen asked as I reluctantly handed the massive weapon back, “What do you think?” Like he even needed to ask; I was giggling like an idiot and my smile was so huge I was probably going to sprain my face.
“Let me put it this way, can I get mine finished so it matches my FAL?” Owen laughed as he slid Abomination back into its case.
“Dude, you’re a dork. But yeah, Milo can do pretty much whatever you want him to. I’ll let him know you want one.”
“The hell you are!” I replied, “I’m gonna call him the second I get back to the dorm.”
“I like how you think, dude,” he said, punching me on the shoulder. “So, was I right?”
“That made you feel better, didn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “Yeah, it did. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Owen said. I grabbed my crutches and the two of us walked back to the compound’s main building. “Actually, Owen walked; I hobbled.
Owen and Julie were staying in guest quarters on the ground floor, so I rode the elevator up to the third floor alone. That stupid-big grin was still plastered on my face as I hobbled down the hall back towards my bedroom. I was already figuring out exactly what I wanted on my Abomination. Slightly longer barrel, longer bayonet, maybe lose the grenade launcher… and I’d have to give it a real badass name too. Like… I dunno… Mordechai.
The next few weeks were pretty quiet. No more monster attacks, thank God. We guessed Robert had given up trying to get me. Either that or he was regrouping, planning a new strategy, waiting to strike. Personally, I was hoping that he’d given up.
I spent my downtime ordering parts for The Beast. Even though I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with the car, Dominique was still a huge help. Eventually, a new Tremec 5-speed transmission with a Hurst shifter, a McLeod clutch, Goodyear Eagle radial tires, a Magnaflow exhaust system, and a 3.55:1 rear differential were heading my way.
My leg brace also came off, and a round of x-rays revealed that all the damage had healed up, so I was good to go. I hadn’t been so happy to hear news like that since… well, since my casts had come off way back when this whole thing started. The first box of car parts arrived that same day; that was icing on the cake. Pretty soon, I was spending most of my time either under, around, or somehow inside The GTO, along with Dominique and pretty much everyone else on the team. Even Owen and Julie helped out. Chris and Scotty got really into it. They ended up working really well together, which came as a surprise to Jon Dominique, and Shannon. I noticed it too; that level of animosity that had been hovering between them vanished as they squeezed into the engine bay of The Beast to get the transmission aligned. One day I’d have to figure out what’d happened between them. Right then, though, I had a much bigger concern. And getting The Beast finished wasn’t it.
Odette still wasn’t talking to me. Hell, she was barely tolerating being in the same room as me. And I couldn’t blame her. There was no escaping the fact that I’d betrayed her .I wasn’t sulking and moping about it anymore – Owen and Abomination had cured that – but I still felt horrible about what I’d done. I’d tried to apologize, hell every time I saw her I said I was sorry, but she ignored me; pretended like I wasn’t even in the same city, let alone the same room. Sometimes she’d even walk out of a room if she saw me walk in. It was really starting to tear me up inside, seeing firsthand just how bad I’d hurt her.
I’d wound up spending most of my time in the garage, either working on The Beast myself or just sitting there looking at it. Right now I was doing the latter: since the leather seats were cracking and torn in some spots we’d removed most of the interior to have the whole thing professionally re-done. Unfortunately, that had revealed a little body rust, which lead to a search, which revealed even more rust, which meant we needed to do some serious metal patchwork before we did anything else, which meant removing pretty much everything from the car, and that included the drive train (not even the engine bay had escaped the infestation). That whole ordeal left me sitting on the rear bench seat, which was on the garage floor, as I stared at the empty shell of my Beast. It might look like a heap of parts now, but it would look awesome once it was finished.
“It certainly will, Stephen. You’re welcome, by the way.”
I jumped off the seat like it had just caught fire, actually twisting around in midair to find the owner of that voice.
“Doctor Bryson?!?! What are you… How are you… You’re in the garage!”
“Not exactly,” he said with that impish smile, “You dozed off about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah, uh, thanks for the heads-up about the car.”
“I knew you’d like it,” he said, his smile getting even wider.
“Yeah,” I said with more enthusiasm than I felt, “Yeah, it’s really cool.”
“That isn’t really all that important to you right now,” he said, smile vanishing.
“You mean Odette.” He nodded sagely. “Yeah, I screwed that one up big time, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you definitely did mess up.”
“Not like I could’ve done any different, though.”
“If I’d told her about Robert, she’d still be angry.”
“She would have been upset for a few days,” Doctor Bryson said, “but she would have accepted it.”
“And me not telling her means she hasn’t been able to accept Robert being a vampire?”
“Oh she came to terms with that days ago, she’s just very angry at you.”
“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.
“You lied to her, Stephen. You lied to her and betrayed her trust—”
“You think I don’t know that?!”
“—and you did it when she needed you to be there for her.” I hung my head, to ashamed to look at my old mentor.
“I know,” I said angrily, “I know, all right? I get it. I screwed up big time, and I feel horrible about it.”
“So tell her.”
“Tell her how bad you feel about what you’ve done to her.”
“Uh, no offense, Doctor Bryson, but have you been watching? I’ve tried apologizing, and she ignores me every time.”
“That’s because you weren’t apologizing,” he replied, his friendly tone replaced by the deep, scholarly voice he saved for the pulpit. “You were sucking up to her, trying to make nice with her, trying to get back onto her good side.”
“No, I wasn’t…”
“You didn’t really think you had done anything wrong, because you didn’t think the outcome would have been any different,” he continued. “But you were wrong, Stephen. If you had told her the truth, she would have been upset, not at you, but at the knowledge that the man she loved and thought dead was not really dead, but something far worse. But she would have overcome that pain; she would have done so by turning to you, and your promise to always be there for her. She would have come to you because she trusted you. Only you betrayed that trust, Stephen, and because of that she no longer has an anchor to hold fast too. Now do you understand?
I slumped back down onto the seat, shoulders sagging. “Yeah,” I whispered, “I understand now.” A tear started to leak from my eye. I knew that I’d betrayed her trust, but I never once thought just how vital to her that trust was. I’d had no clue just how badly my little white lie had devastated her. No wonder she didn’t want to hear my half-assed apologies.
“I am an idiot,” I said.
“I wouldn’t go quite that far,” Doctor Bryson admonished, “but you do have a habit of not thinking things all the way through sometimes.”
“Same thing.” He ignored my retort.
“So, what are you planning on doing now?”
“Find Odette and apologize,” I said, “I mean really apologize. No more half-assed ‘I’m-sorry-but-’ crap.”
“Good,” he said, his smile finally returning, “she’s out on the shooting range. And watch your language.”
“Sorry,” I said, “Wait, how do you know…”
“It’s complicated,” he replied.
“I meant how did you know Odette wouldn’t have stayed angry at me? I thought you couldn’t tell me stuff like that.”
“I can’t tell you what is going to happen,” he explained, “That, on the other hand, is something that would have happened already, a past that didn’t occur. As I said, the rules are complicated.”
“Yeah,” I said, “You can say that again.”
“As I said, the rules are complicated.” That impish smile was back in full force. “Goodbye Stephen.”
“Thank you!” I called after him as he slowly disappeared from sight.
My eyes snapped open. I was laying down on The Beast’s now-removed rear bench seat. I eased myself up into a sitting position. For a long moment, I just sat there, staring at the disassembled Beast, thinking over the conversation I’d just had. He was right; I hadn’t been thinking about Odette when I tried to apologize, only me. I wasn’t about to make that mistake again.
I found Odette right were Doctor Bryson had said she’d be, on the firing line practicing with her UMP. I watched for a moment as she snapped the subgun up from low guard on-safe, fired a quick burst into her target, which turned out to be a picture of a zombie, and then returned the weapon to low guard on-safe. The zombie’s head had been pretty much eviscerated from the paper, and its torso was riddled with holes. Odette again snapped the gun up and fired. She got two rounds off before the bolt locked back on an empty magazine. She smoothly stripped the empty mag out of the gun and reloaded with a fresh one from the pouch on her belt. I was impressed; I remembered back in training when she’d had trouble figuring out where the magazine even was. Stupid Chicago gun laws.
“You come to apologize again?” I jumped a little at the sound of her voice; I didn’t think she’d seen me approach. “Well?”
“No,” I said after a very long, uncomfortable moment, “No, I didn’t.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I came to make a confession. I have been a complete, unmitigated asshole.” Whatever she’d been expecting me to say, it hadn’t been that. She turned towards me, almost dropping her subgun in shock.
“I told you that you could always count on me,” I continued, “I promised you that I would always be there for you. I made you believe that you could trust me, but when that trust was tested I threw it back in your face. I turned my back on you. I betrayed you. I made you believe that I would be your anchor, only to throw you back out into the currents.
“No, let me finish. You trusted me, and I knowingly, willingly betrayed that trust. And the worst part is I didn’t even realize it. I thought you were just upset that Robert is a vampire, and you were taking it out on me. I didn’t see how badly I’d hurt you. And now that I do see, I… I feel like… I feel so horrible about what I’ve done, I can’t put it into words.”
“Odette, this isn’t me, this isn’t me telling another story, this isn’t me pulling another phony ‘I’m sorry’ out of my ass. This is me, being absolutely honest with you. I betrayed you, and I am truly, truly sorry.”
“Are you finished?”
“Almost. I’m not going to ask you for your forgiveness, because honestly I don’t deserve it, but I am going to ask one thing of you. I know you’re hurting real bad right now, and I know that I’m the reason for that, but please, please do not let your pain lead you where mine led me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t lose your faith. I don’t mean in me; honestly I don’t expect you to ever trust me again. I mean don’t let your pain make you lose your faith in God, or whatever deity you believe in.” I paused for a second, Odette staring at me, unsure of what to make of what I was saying. “Odette, after my uncle died, after all the skeletons came out of the closet about my grandfather, I just… I started thinking about how God had let me and my family down. My whole life, I’d been taught that God will answer your prayers, that He will be there for you in your hour of need, and to make a long story short, I figured that He hadn’t answered me, my uncle, or anyone when they needed Him most. So I pretty much walked away from my faith, and I’ve been hurting from it ever since. I am begging you, please, please don’t make that mistake too.”
For a long moment, we just stood there, staring at each other. Odette didn’t say a word.
“That’s all I wanted to tell you,” I finally said, “I… I’ll leave you alone now.” I turned to walk away, but Odette’s voice stopped me.
“Did you ever get it back?”
“Your faith,” she said, “Did you ever find it again?” I hung my head, unable to face her.
“Not really,” I shook my head, “I’ve tried. I’ve been trying real hard to find my way back. But then I find myself looking at the world, looking at all the bad things that happen to good people… and I find myself losing my way all over again.”
I started walking away again, my mind a mess. I’d lifted one burden from my shoulders, only to have replaced it with another. Why had I told her that? Nobody, not even my parents, knew about me abandoning my faith. That was my deepest, darkest secret, and I’d just confessed it to a woman who probably hated me. What on earth had I been thinking?
My thoughts were shattered as a hand landed on my shoulder. I turned around. Odette was standing there, looking at me. Her eyes were filled with… what? Not hatred… sorrow? Even pity?
“Steve, I… I don’t know what to…” she suddenly glanced at something over my shoulder, and her eyes grew wide. “Oh my God! What the hell is that thing?”