May 21st, 2007 07:56 EST
New Blood (a short story)
Make the strangers welcome in this land, let them keep their languages and customs, for weak and fragile is the realm which is based on a single language or a single set of customs. "
St. Stephen in a letter to his son, St. Emric, Carpathian Basin, Central Europe, 1036 A. D.
Eastern Hungary, 1754: Janos trailed a fingertip along Catalyn`s delicate chin, down her neck to the small hollow at its base. She shivered in anticipation. The pair lay naked but barely touching in the massive, ornately-carved bed. A dozen flickering candles bathed the room in a shadowy, seductive orange glow......
Janos whispered, You are absolutely certain this is your path of choice? "
Yesss, " Catalyn purred. She stroked his jaw and inhaled deeply. Her heart pounded visibly in her chest.
Very well, then. It shall be as you wish. " He rolled to one side of the bed and placed his feet on the rough-hewn, stone-tiled floor. Come. "
She took his hand and let him help her to her feet.
Kneel, " he said.
She sank to her knees before him. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her gently on the lips. Extending his left arm, he used a razor-sharp fingernail to open a vein at his wrist. The dark-red blood ran quickly down Janos`s forearm.
Now! " he commanded. Drink. "
Atlanta, Georgia, 2005: I could hear the squeak of Frank`s crepe-soled shoes from twenty yards away and it grated on my nerves like sandpaper on sunburn. Frank was my section supervisor and he never darkened the door of my cubicle empty-handed.
I turned from my computer and managed a weak smile. Yes, Frank? " His arms were filled with printouts bound in mahogany-colored folders.
Where you want `em? "
I looked around my cubicle. Just set them down anywhere. I`ll find a place later. " He dropped them to the floor with a thud that did nothing for my headache.
I shut my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. Thanks. "
He surveyed the mess that was my work space. Kind of backed up, aren`t we? "
No, Frank, we`re not anything. I`m backed up " way backed up. Well, I guess " "
He raised one eyebrow and tapped a finger on the metal trim of my cube wall. You know what they say about idle hands? "
I nodded grimly. I knew all Frank`s clichés. So did everyone else. I wiggled my fingers at him. I`ve been working really hard, Frank, but see "" I could almost feel my carpals starting to tunnel on me, and I thought, "Now, Frank wouldn`t want to me to file a workman`s comp claim, would he?` "
He looked at me with an expression that said he didn`t know if I was putting him on or not. Then he decided I was and grinned. Kidding, right? "
I nodded again. Kidding. "
He turned and squeaked back down the narrow linoleum-tiled hallway. I looked at the stacks of new arrivals and whispered, I hate this job. " That got me thinking of Cat.
I`d been dating Cat for six months when I found out she was a vampire. I was pretty sure I was in love with her, so I took the news hard.
She didn`t do any of the things I normally look for to ensure I`m not sleeping with a blood-sucking creature of the night. No non-reflections in mirrors, no aversion to heavy garlic " she loves Italian " no hissing at crucifixes, none of that. She just told me. It was like being punched in the gut.
I really like you, Harry. " She looked at me earnestly. We`ve dated five months. "
Six, " I retorted irritably.
All right, then, six months. You sleep over here. I sleep over at your place. Our relationship seems to be going somewhere. I thought you ought to know. "
It was Sunday morning and the Atlanta Journal was scattered all over her queen-sized bed. I had indeed slept over at her cozy, midtown condo, but I wasn`t feeling cozy " I sat across from her, nauseous and light-headed. She sat naked, cross-legged, on top of the sheets, balancing a tumbler of orange juice on one shapely knee. Despite my shock at her revelation, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the neatly-trimmed nest of curls where her thighs came together.
Harry. Look at me. "
I am, " I said, trance-like.
Look at my face. "
I did. She had a heart-shaped face with short, dark-brown hair and lighter eyebrows that she darkened with a cosmetic pencil. Her mouth was small and her lips were full and very pink. The rest of her was nicely arranged on a five-foot-five, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound frame. All in all, she looked very un-vampire-like.
So, how come I can see you in mirrors? "
She waved a hand in dismissal. That`s mythical crap. "
You love garlic. "
More crap. Garlic never worked. "
Crucifixes? " I asked.
Like a mosquito bite. "
Ha! " I thought I had her. You go out in the daylight " the sunshine. Hell, you even sunbathe. " I looked at her slowly-fading summer tan lines and felt a surge of triumph.
Harry, I`m two hundred and seventy-six years old. I`m what we call a Daywalker. After a while " a couple hundred years or so " the sun`s rays have a diminished effect. " She looked down at herself. I still don`t tan all that well. "
I picked up my coffee mug from the Homes Section of the newspaper and sipped cold Starbucks` Narino Supremo. I grimaced and put it back down. Christ, Cat. Why are you doing this? "
I told you. You`re a nice guy " a very sweet guy. I could get really serious about you. You deserve to know. "
I shook my head. If this is some kind of sick joke, I don`t know why you`re doing it. I sure as hell don`t believe you. "
What`ll it take, then? For you to believe me. "
I threw my hands in the air. Rip somebody`s throat out, why don`t you? "
She rolled her eyes. Short of that, what`ll it take? "
I got up and paced back and forth at the foot of the bed. After a moment I stopped and faced her. Let`s see your fangs. "
She became serious. You`re sure about this? "
I`m sure. Show me fangs or show me the door, sister. I`m about to get highly pissed off at you. " My voice sounded high-pitched and tinny to my ears.
Okay then. " She tapped a nicely-manicured, pink fingernail on one incisor. Take a look at this. "
I watched in horror as two pearly-white fangs appeared, descending slowly to barely touch her lower lip. Jesus Christ! " I gasped.
When she spoke, it was with a slight lisp. Probably not a good time to take your Lord`s name in vain. "
I must have paled, because the fangs retracted and she looked at me with concern on her face. I was only kidding, Harry. I`d never hurt you. "
I sank to the floor and put my head in my hands.
Cat took my barely-touched plate of organic eggs and nine-grain toast and placed it with hers on the kitchen counter. I stared at the empty spot on the table.
Do you " kill people? " I asked.
No. I`ve never killed anyone. Most of us don`t. The ones the legends are made of, they were rogues. " She shrugged. Why kill off your source of nourishment? "
I didn`t answer. I had no answers, only queasy questions. How often do you " "
What, feed? "
I swallowed hard and nodded.
About once a week. "
Who " " I was having trouble framing my questions. Fortunately, Cat anticipated me.
Targets of opportunity, mostly. Do you have any idea how many joggers there are in Piedmont Park after dark? "
I shook my head and said nothing.
We don`t hurt them, Harry. It`s like donating at the Blood Center. They wake up lying in the grass or on a park bench. " She reached over and took my hand. I even wait till they come around, just to make sure they`re not mugged or anything.
Good of you, " I said.
They don`t remember anything afterward. "
Puncture wounds? " I asked.
Nah, they could be spider bites, infected mosquito bites, anything " nobody believes in vampires anymore. " She rose from the table and pulled me up with her. Come on. Let`s go for a walk. " Winking, she added, I could use some fresh air and sunshine. "
We walked a couple of blocks west to a small neighborhood park and sat side-by-side on a low stone wall. Cat had brought stale bread, and fed the pigeons and the occasional squirrel.
I watched as she tore the bread into tiny pieces. How many of you are there? "
Lots, " she said. You`d be surprised. "
I remember a book I read. " I watched as she flicked another bread crumb to a waiting cluster of pigeons. It was difficult to think of her as one of the undead. The name escapes me, but there was a passage " "and familiar strangers will walk among us.` I never thought I`d be sleeping with one. "
Cat let out a long breath and looked me squarely in the eyes. Most of us have been around a lot longer than you and the oldest of the human race, Harry. So tell me " who are the strangers here? "
Again, I said nothing.
We`re everywhere. Productive members of society " scientists, doctors, lots of entertainers " we love the night life. " She grinned at her joke. Composers, authors, even two Nobel Prize-winners. Not so many politicians though " we`re honest by nature. " Her grin widened. And ironically, we`re not as prevalent in the legal profession as one might think. "
She waited, and I tried hard not to, but this time, even I had to laugh.
Back at her condo later that afternoon, we opened a bottle of twelve-dollar California shiraz and ordered pizza. I hadn`t eaten since brunch, and not much then. The wine helped relax me, and by the time Domino`s arrived, I was ravenous.
I talked around a mouthful of mozzarella cheese and Italian sausage. Okay, so you`re a vampire. I`m a human. I`ve never been in a situation like this. I`m not sure what to do. "
I understand how you feel, Harry. I have been through it before. "
I gazed down into the shiraz. It was dark-red and full-bodied. I wondered if Cat appreciated subtle nuances in " Huh? What do you mean? "
She sat her glass down and took my hand into hers. You already know I`ve had other men in my life. Well " I`ve told some of them what I am. "
What did they do? "
She shrugged. Some went away. Some stayed for a while. "
Cat nodded. Uh-huh. "
How long? "
Some, for years, until the age " I mean the outward appearance of our age difference " made things difficult. In earlier times, other locales, such things were frowned upon. " She smiled then. Others stayed until they died. " Her smile widened into a grin. A natural death. "
I stared into implausibly innocent-looking eyes. Those are my options, then? Stay or go? "
The slice of pizza stopped halfway to her mouth, and she stared at me for a long moment. Not necessarily. There`s one more. "
I studied the wine again, smelling its heady aroma. What`s that? "
She waited until I looked up. Her eyes locked onto mine. I think you know. "
And I had thought marriage would be a big commitment. It was cool in the house, but beads of sweat formed on my brow. Has anyone else ever " "
No. No one else has. " She tilted her pretty head to one side. It`s a really big decision, after all. Lots to think about. "
There was a hell of a lot to think about.
Later that night, I lay alone on my own bed, a thousand thoughts chasing each other in my head. I stared up into the darkness. If I went over, that wouldn`t be a problem. I`d be able to see in the dark. Money wouldn`t be a problem either. Cat was wealthy beyond my imagining " previous benefactors and the miracle of compound interest. She worked only when she wanted to.
There was a problem in that I`d be sun-sensitive for about a hundred and fifty years, but she`d had an answer for that. You`ll learn to love the night, Harry. And, so what if it takes a couple of centuries for us to bask in the sun again? We`ll have all the time in the world. "
Then there was the feeding thing. I`m not the kind of person who passes out at the sight of blood, but I`ve never done more than suck my finger after a paper cut either.
She`d grinned at me, and her eyes sparkled. Try it, Harry. You`ll like it. "
That`s Cat. A laugh a minute.
She had incised a small wound to the vein that ran along the inside of her forearm. She held her arm level and the blood rose up into a rounded dollop that looked like half a spoonful of raspberry Jell-O. Maybe surface tension kept it from running. It just sat there and shook slightly with the rhythm of her pulse. You`ll never really know for sure unless you try, " she teased.
I bent forward and touched the tip of my tongue to the squiggly little mass. It ran immediately and I scooped it into my mouth. It was thick and almost sweet-tasting. Nothing happened for a moment, and then an electric charge shot through my body like a lightning bolt.
I sat stunned, my body humming like a high-tension wire, and watched as the blood welled up again. Then I bent forward again and drank hungrily.
A few seconds later, Cat pulled her arm away. Not too much, baby. You still have a decision to make. "
My heart pounded and my skin felt like it was on fire.
Cat looked down at my crotch and said, Well, well, what do we have here? " She leaned back on the sofa and unbuttoned her blouse.
It was absolutely, without a doubt, the best sex I`d ever had. Afterward, I let out a long breath and Cat nestled in the crook of my arm. Is it always like that " after? " I`d asked.
She made small circles in my chest hair with her finger. It is for me. " She ran her tongue along my neck. I try to feed when I know you`re coming over soon. "
What do you say to something like that?
What do you say to that, Harry? "
I jerked back from my wool-gathering and looked up at the face floating over the top of my cubicle. It was Frank again. What? " I asked.
He handed me a sheet of paper. You`re on the short list for assistant chief programmer for the red team in Actuarial. Pretty neat, huh? "
I scanned the list. My name was there all right, along with three others. Yeah, Frank. That`s pretty neat. " I had a twenty-five percent chance of clawing my way up one more ring of the corporate ladder. Only a few dozen more to go and maybe I could afford something other than my two-room efficiency.
Frank gave me a thumbs-up. Atta boy, Harry. Keep up the good work. "
I scooted backward in my ergonomic computer chair and watched him walk down through the maze of beige cubes. He`d been here twenty-three years, had a comfortable paunch and a rapidly expanding bald spot. I rubbed the back of my own head. I was only thirty-one, but the hair felt a bit thinner than it once had.
I remembered Cat looking at me with those luminous, amber-tinted eyes. Forever young, Harry. You and me, for all time, just like this. "
I stared at the columns of numbers on my computer screen for five minutes, then at the screen saver for another three hours. At five o`clock, I sent an email message to the Actuarial Department with a copy to Frank. I removed my framed diploma from Georgia Tech from the faux wall of my cubicle and the photo of Cat from my desk, and slipped them into my briefcase.
As I passed Frank`s desk, he looked up from a stack of paperwork.
Another day, another dollar, " he said. Seeing Cat tonight? " Frank`s met Cat, and lives vicariously through what he perceives my love life to be.
She`s something else, isn`t she? "
I smiled this time and nodded again. Something else indeed. "
Going out for dinner? "
I thought about it for a moment. We`ll probably be eating in. "
Frank leaned back in the desk chair and rubbed his round stomach. I`ve been eating out too much lately, lots of fried foods. " His face brightened. I`m not giving in though. I`ve started jogging " three times through Piedmont Park, at least four times a week. You should try it, Harry. Really gets the old blood pumping. "
Really? " I thought of Cat again and that got my blood pumping. I headed for the elevators, then called back over my shoulder. Maybe I will, Frank. Cat, too, if she`s interested. Yeah, maybe one night soon we`ll see you there. "
This story originally appeared in the Fourth Annual Vampire Fiction issue of Midnight Times.