“Tooth Fairy” by S.C. Jensen

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Gram slipped his tongue into the empty socket and winced. The pain tasted like the jolt of a D-cell battery. Maybe he shouldn’t have pulled so hard to get his last baby tooth out. But Mom had promised cold hard cash and the illustrated Strange Stories anthology had been calling his name for months. Yesterday, with blood pooling in his mouth, he had texted Jeremy: Kazam!Comics @ 9AM!!?! Mom was working but he’d ride his bike.

Gram flipped onto his stomach and ran his hand underneath his pillow. The sheet on the other side was cool and smooth. No tooth.

No cash either. “Mom!”

He dodged a pile of magazines and nearly tripped on a dusty box of knickknacks in his race to the kitchen. Mom sat at the breakfast table in her waitressing uniform, reading on her phone and drinking a liter of coffee. She didn’t look up. “You’re up early.”

Gram poured himself a glass of orange juice. “Money?” he prompted.

Mom she held up the palm of her hand by her ear like she was holding a tray of drinks. “Tooth?”

“I don’t have it!”

“No tooth, no twenty.” She sipped her coffee, still not looking at him.

He said, “I put it under my pillow.”

Mom’s shoulders stiffened. She gazed at him over the rim of her enormous coffee mug like he was telling a bad joke. “Under your pillow?”

“I always…”

“Look, I’ve got twenty bucks with your name on it if you kill some boxes in the basement while I’m at work.”

Blood and OJ swirled in Gram’s mouth like bile. “But I’m meeting Jeremy in an hour!”

Mom’s eyes shot to the clock blinking on the microwave. “I’m late.”

“I hate this house!”

“At least you didn’t have to grow up here.” Mom clenched her jaw and for a second Gram though she was going to yell. But her face softened and she said, “It’s only for the summer. Once we sort it out, we can sell the damned place and get something of our own.”

“Why’d grandma have so much junk anyway?”

Mom sighed. “Your grandmother was very ill. She hoarded stuff to fill a hole inside herself.”

She looked so sad then that Gram forgot all about his tooth.

“I’ll help when I get back.” Mom rifled through her purse for her car keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

She paused, lost in though. Then she crossed the kitchen quickly and kissed Gram on top of the head. She squeezed his shoulder and said, “The tooth fairy never visited me in this house either. I’m sorry.”

After she had peeled out of the driveway Gram texted Jeremey again: cancel that. there is no tooth fairy.

Gram crept down the basement stairs like he was slipping into someone else’s dirty bathwater. Unpleasantly tepid air slid against his skin and gummed up his clothes. This was no way to spend summer holidays. But Mom would be home after lunch and then he’d be biking to Jeremey’s with Strange Stories in his hot little hands. How bad could it be?

At the bottom of the stairs, though, any thoughts of material possessions fled, evaporating into the decades of accumulated stuff towering around him. The rest of the house was a cluttered mess. This was something else. He tongued at the empty socket again. How much stuff must Mom must have gotten rid of already while he stayed with Dad? Gram opened the first box, surprised to find that he actually wanted to help.

He worked methodically, opening boxes, sorting out the trash from things they might actually be able to sell. There wasn’t much of the latter. The deeper he got into the stacks the fewer salable items he found. Most of the junk was much older than his grandmother. Was hoarding hereditary? Gram imagined his mother burrowing into all this junk like a dragon with its gold. The image creeped up on him as he dug, rising unbidden, as if from the boxes themselves. He made endless trips up and down the stairs. Every box he set on the curb felt like a scab picked off an old wound.

Gram had never been close to his grandma. But the basement was thick with her presence. She lurked behind towers of mouldy newspapers and peered out of boxes stuffed with disintegrating yellowed lace, urging him ever deeper into the stacks. Cold sweat oozed out of every pore but he pressed on, Strange Stories completely forgotten. Every box he opened was one Mom didn’t have to deal with.

Like an archaeologist excavating an ancient burial mound, Gram dug in. At the centre, in the deepest reaches of the hoard, he found his prize. A wooden chest, ancient but curiously well cared for. The layers of dust that hung like a shroud over everything down here didn’t touch it. Grandma’s special place. The thought came out of his brain as if he were possessed. His mouth filled with the sour battery taste again and his jaw ached.

He opened the box.

A swarm of smiling faces stared up at him. Dolls, with strange misshapen buttons for eyes and crooked grins. Each had a little heart shaped necklace with a name printed in spidery letters: Anna, Beth, Susan—his aunts. Mary, Mom. Older dolls with names he didn’t recognize peered up at him. Gram reached into the box and took out a doll with short, dark hair like his own. This one wasn’t smiling. It wore a shocked expression, its tiny mouth a lumpy “O” of surprise. His own mouth fell open. The cold damp air made his socket ache.

Stuffed into the doll’s mouth was a molar. Fresh blood blossomed on the fabric like lips parting around the tooth. Smaller teeth made tiny, unblinking eyes. The buttons on its little jacket were made of teeth. And there was a little heart, just like the others.

Except it was his mother’s clean, sharp lettering that spelled the name.

Gram.

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This piece was written for the #BlogBattle Stories flash fiction challenge. February’s theme was “Loss” at 1000 words or less. This piece is 999 words. Check out the other submissions HERE! And, as always, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

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Interview: Uniweb Productions with S.C. Jensen

Last week I was interviewed by Matt Whiteside of the UniWeb Interview Show about my novel The Timekeepers’ War, my publishing journey (so far), and my own creative process. It was a really fun time, if you can’t tell from all of the laughing. We had some technical difficulties and had to re-do sections of the interview a bunch of times, but Matt did a great job editing it into something cohesive.

Please click the link to view the video in YouTube. For some reason videos embedded into WordPress pages don’t count toward the channels views, and it would help Matt launch his UniWeb Productions channel to have more action over there. Don’t forget to like, share, and comment, especially if you have read The Timekeepers’ War and want to leave me some feedback!

Matt also has a ton of amazing content on his blog Seeking Purpose Today. I highly recommend following him and seeing what he’s up to: from motivational writing and discussion of addiction and recovery, to author interviews, dramatic readings of his own and other’s work, and an experimental “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that anyone can contribute to!

Of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts right here on Sarah Does Sci-Fi, too!

Writing, Hair-pulling, and Rewriting

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No, this is not a sexy new sub-genre of erotica.

I am working on my second novel, Book 2 in The Timekeepers’ War trilogy. The manuscript has been 80% completed for ages, but I keep running into snags. I had a development editor look at it, and she pointed out a few things that were definitely bogging me down, so I went back and restructured and rewrote half of it and I was feeling much better about it. And yet, there was still something missing. I couldn’t seem to avoid big chunks of exposition, forced dialogue, and backstory crammed in all over the place, and it was seriously affecting the pacing.

Well, folks. I started reading Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, thinking it would help me tackle this problem in a new way. I have been a pantser, as in I write “by the seat of my pants,” for the entirety of my writing career. Every excuse for why plotting and planning wasn’t for me has probably passed my lips. But lets just have a look at the data…

I had to cut over 50K words from my MS and completely restructure it to address placing issues with Book One. Now, I’m going through something similar with Book Two. I have done a lot of work studying flash fiction and short story form and practicing the craft as well as the art of writing short form fiction, and my writing has improved exponentially with a little structure…

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of my hippy-dippy muses.

Reading Weiland’s book triggered a horrific realization for me. I have been writing the wrong book. What I have been trying to write as Book 2 in my trilogy is actually Book 3. I tried to skip too far ahead in my own story and was using exposition and backstory to catch up the readers when really, I needed to “show not tell” what has happened between Book One and my current manuscript.

So I have set that MS aside and outlined an entirely new Book Two, and one that makes a whole lot more sense at this point in the trilogy. If you are new to outlining and want to give it a try, I highly recommend Weiland’s book! It is accessible, and it addresses all of those niggling fears we pantsers have about the rigidity of plotting. I’m still not the kind of writer who has spreadsheets full of every detail of their character’s lives right down to their favourite flavour of ice-cream. But Weiland’s techniques allowed me to build and organic outlining method that still lets me tap into the joys of discovery writing while making sure that I have a road map to follow as I write my story. Her method even makes room for exploration of theme and imagery, something that I always add into my writing anyway, and demonstrates how to use the outline to strengthen these aspects of your story.

So, sadly, I have put aside nearly 70K words and another 20K of rewrites to tackle a brand new book. That is both exciting and sad. The bright side is that much of what I have written will still be usable because I still need to tell that part of the story. And all of the time I spent immersed in the world of The Timekeepers has certainly not been wasted.

I have set a stretch goal for myself to write 1500 words a day on this MS until I get the first draft done. Ideally, I would like to have it ready for revisions in three months.

The other thing I’m struggling with is the urge to go back and apply what I have learned about outlining and structure to Book One. I haven’t had any negative feedback about it yet, but I can see how much stronger The Timekeepers’ War could be if I had known some of these things five years ago. But that’s a project for after Book Three is completed, I guess. I might rewrite Book One and release all three within a nine month period. Dream big!

For those of you who have read and loved The Timekeepers’ War, don’t worry. I won’t add anything new to the plot so you won’t need to reread it (unless you’re curious or just want a refresher!) But I might cut some of the excess–there is still a lot of excess even after my initial fat trimming job–and make those sub-stories into short stories, novellas, and other bonus material for fans.

I’m deep into writing mode, but I will try to keep up with my short story challenges and submissions, too. And I’m going to set aside one day a week to catch up on the other wordpress blogs I follow and my “Thoughts on reading and writing SF”

 

“Queen of the Castle” by S.C. Jensen

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Construction equipment lurked along the gravel road, heavy metal appendages folded in on themselves, like an invading army of robotic insects. A man in a white hardhat wandered between them, yelling something into his cell phone. Most of the crew pickups had taken off, and the machines were silent. Missy drove her van past the foreman, up the two-track driveway, and through the property gate, where an old farm house patiently awaited its fate.

Periwinkle flax and alfalfa flourished at the edges of the property in a tranquil sea of blossoms, barely stirring in the heavy midsummer heat. The villa stood, queen-like, before the surrounding fields where colourful bee-boxes peeked through here and there like bashful ladies in waiting. A delicate lacework peeled away from her yellow gown and her shoulders slumped slightly, but she held her crown of terraces high. Tired, not defeated.

Missy parked her van next to another, identical vehicle, in a patch of flattened weeds and cracked earth that may once have been a garden.

“Rise and shine, boss.” She elbowed her passenger awake. “Looks like Ben is still here.”

Keith Weiland stretched and peered blearily through the window at the other Ace Pest Control van. “That bastard.”

They got out. Heat enveloped Missy’s air-conditioned flesh like liquid honey, leaving her instantly sticky. The scent of burnt oil and dead bugs wafted up from the grill and the engine ticked as it cooled. Wasps droned around the front of the van, drawn to the carnage.

“Suit up,” Keith said and flung open the van’s service door. Then he cursed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fuckers are stinging already.”

Missy rummaged through the gear and found her uniform. Keith twitched and swatted beside her, drawing the attention of the bugs. A red welt had erupted on the skin above his collar. He swore again. Boss, maybe, but Keith wasn’t made for fieldwork.

Missy donned the equipment unhurriedly, almost reverently. She felt as if she were a priestess preparing to perform an ancient sacrificial rite. A curious insect buzzed around her, landing briefly on her forearm. She kept still. It tickled, but didn’t sting, then flew off to deliver news of its discovery to the rest of the colony. Missy finished dressing.

A truck tore up the driveway and came to a gravel-grinding stop next to the vans. The foreman rolled down his window a crack and shouted, “It’s about goddamned time you got here!”

Keith zipped his mesh helmet closed and sauntered toward the pickup. “Has the van been here all weekend?”

“It was here on Friday,” the foreman said. “It’s still here today. So are the fucking bugs. No sign of your guy.”

“He’s not answering his phone,” Keith said. “Did anyone check inside the house?”

“Are you kidding?” The man’s eyes bugged out until he looked insect-like himself. “We can’t get anywhere near the place. We stirred up a whole shit-storm of the things when we started clearing.”

The regal structure seemed to stare down at them with wide, unblinking eyes. Something flickered in the upstairs window like a draft had stirred the curtains. “Why are you tearing it down?” Missy asked.

A wasp crawled up the driver’s side window and the foreman eyed it warily. He quickly rolled it up just as the wasp slipped an exploratory antennae over the edge. The insect struggled, trapped against the weather-stripping.

“Just get rid of them,” the foreman shouted through the glass. He sped off down the driveway and back toward town. Missy stared after him. Fury crawled up from her belly and into her throat. It struggled there, and died. Inside the suit her skin felt cool and clammy. She wanted to tear it off.

“After you,” Keith said. Wasps crawled all over his white safety-suit, burrowing at the seams and zippers. He swatted at them fruitlessly. “Are they always like this?”

Missy led the boss up the sunken steps and through the front door. She breathed in the dusty air of the old house. The tang of mouse piss and something else, sweet and a little bit gamey, wafted toward her. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her spine. The insects left her alone, but her skin rippled as if they were crawling on her, too. She placed a tentative foot on the staircase.

“Shouldn’t we check around down here, first?”

“The main nest will be upstairs, on the south side of the house,” she explained patiently. “Wasps love sunlight.”

“I mean shouldn’t we check for Ben?”

“Ben knows about wasps.” She climbed upwards, rising like the heat of the day into the dust speckled beams of light coming from the second floor windows. “He’ll have gone upstairs.”

Keith trailed after her, slapping at his arms and legs. The insects hummed around both of them, thicker now. To Missy, the noise was like the susurrus of tiny voices all speaking at once. They didn’t land on her, but they seemed to whisper, “This way.”

She followed.

The noise was much louder on the landing, as if the entire building was vibrating with winged creatures. It almost seemed to come from inside her head, buzzing her vision and making the walls shake. Missy’s eyes locked onto a door at the far end of the corridor. Wasps swarmed out from the cracks on all sides and a grey, papery film seemed to grow from the door jamb.

“Holy shit.” Keith exhaled in a staccato burst. “Is that normal?”

Keith hovered near her elbow as she reached for the doorknob, as if she could protect him from the millions of creatures that inhabited the house. The door moaned. Missy pushed it open and stepped inside, and Keith tumbled in after her.

“Oh god,” he said.

Ben’s white safety-suit lay, discarded, next to a mound of pale, hairless flesh. Tiny larvae wriggled contentedly at the raw edges where something big had burst out. The rest of it disappeared into the papery layers of a hive that filled the room. An itching need to take off her own suit pulsed through Missy’s body. She closed the door.

“Yes.” The wasps droned in her ears and she began to disrobe. “Yes. He said she would come.”

“Oh god,” Keith said.

Missy’s skin writhed and twitched as she peeled off layer after layer. She dug her fingernails into her convulsing chest, tearing, desperate to be free of the pupal shell she had been trapped in all summer. A sound like the ripping of wet fabric rent the air. Missy burst free of her prison and shook the thick red fluid from her newly formed wings. A beam of sunshine pierced through the cloud of insects. She stretched into it to dry off.

“Yes.” The colony trilled in excitement. “A new queen.”

Wasps swarmed out of the walls, floor and ceiling. Keith Weiland, proud owner of Ace Pest Control, fell to his knees and screamed.

“And a feast,” she hummed, looking up at the fractured, prismatic image of her erstwhile employer, “fit for a queen.”

And before long all that could be heard in the regal house among the flax and alfalfa, was the lazy buzzing of insects.

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This is what I’m working on for the February’s 12 Short Stories Challenge. The prompt was “New Me” at 1200 words. Let me know what you think! I have the rest of the month to make changes before I submit it to the forum.

Failing and Freezing

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We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.

School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.

But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.

This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.

Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.

In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.

With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.

The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.

I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.

But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.

Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.

To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!

But guys. This story is not about my kids.

It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.

I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.

You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”

Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.

So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.

Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

Horrific Fun: “Sanctuary” and more…

 

I know I mentioned this back in October, but I have a story in Corrogatio IV: The Midnight Massacre from CrushPop Productions, which is a collection of horror, gore-core, and thrash type stories. It’s FREE to download here if you want to check it out! Seriously, go check it out. I’ll wait…

Now.

If you enjoyed my piece, “Sanctuary” you will be excited to hear that I will be doing a fiction series for CPOP that builds on this story. I’ve got the whole thing plotted out, and just got the go ahead to start writing. I finished my draft of Season Episode One today and plan to finish one episode a week until I have the first season completed. These are, of course, drafts. So I’ll need some time to fine tune it afterwards and I’m not sure when the release is going to be, but I expect sometime in the second half of the year.

I don’t want to give too much away until it’s all finalized, but I think I can safely say… post-apocalyptic vampire hunters are coming your way. And it’s going to be glorious.