Sunshine, p.10
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       Sunshine, p.10
 

           Robin McKinley
Chapter 10

 

  My jackknife seemed to be trying to burn a hole through its cotton pocket to my leg. I wrapped my hand around it. The heat was presumably illusory, which perhaps explained why the sense of being fried felt so comforting. I set off through the trees without looking behind me. They'd follow, and I had to get myself moving before I thought much about it or I wouldn't do it at all.

  I didn't bother trying to figure out where the bad spot ended. I went down to the shore of the lake and turned right. Walking on the shore, while awkward, all shingle and teetery stones and water-tossed rubbish, wasn't so bad as walking through the trees. I was in sunlight out here, and the memories were under the trees. I hadn't walked on the shore before.

  It was the right bad spot. I came to the house much too soon. I could half-convince myself I was enjoying walking by the lake. I like walking by water in the sunshine. I'd often enjoyed walking by this lake. Before. I stopped, feeling suddenly sick, and waited for the other two to catch up with me. "I'm not sure I can do this," I said, and my voice had started to go funny again, as it had last night, when I told them you don't hear vampires coming.

  "It's daylight, and we're with you," said Jesse, not unsympathetically.

  I said abruptly, "What if we get back to the car and it won't start? We'd never get out of these woods before dark. "

  "It'll start," said Pat. "You're okay. Hold on. We're going to walk up the hill toward the house real slow. You just keep breathing. I'm walking up on your left and Jesse is walking up on your right. We'll go as slow as you want. Hey, Jesse, how's your nephew doing with that puppy he talked your folks into buying him?"

  It was well done. Puppy stories got me to the stairs. By that time Pat had me by the elbow because I was gasping like a puffer demon, except they always breathe like that, but having a hand on my elbow was too much like having been frog-marched up those stairs the last time I'd been here. "No," I said. "Thanks, but let me go. Last time, you know, I had help. "

  The porch steps creaked under my weight. Like last time. Unlike last time, the steps also creaked under the weight of my companions.

  Almost dreamily I went through the still-ajar front door and left across the huge hall toward the ballroom. It was daylight, now, so I could look up, and see where the curl of grand staircase became an upstairs corridor lined by what had once been an equally grand balustrade, but some of the posts were cracked or missing. There were still glints of gold paint in the hollows of the carving. In the dark I hadn't known the railings were anything but smooth. I wouldn't have cared.

  The ballroom was smaller than I remembered. It was still a big room, much bigger than anything but a ballroom, but in my memory it had become about the size of a small country, and in fact it was only a room. As ballrooms go it probably wasn't even a big one. The chandelier, very shabby in daylight, still had candle stubs in it, and there was a lot of dripped wax on the floor underneath. There was my corner, and the windows on either wall that had bounded my world for two long nights and a day in between. . .

  I shuddered.

  "Steady, Sunshine," said Pat.

  I had been worrying about the shackles in the walls. I was going to have to revert to not remembering, when Pat and Jesse asked me about the second shackle, the one with the ward signs on it.

  There were no shackles. Just holes in the walls. I almost laughed. Thanks, Bo, I said silently. You've done me a favor.

  Pat and Jesse were examining the holes, Pat still half keeping an eye on me. The holes looked like they'd been torn - as if the shackles had been ripped out of the walls by someone in a rage. By some vampire: no human could've done it. But I guessed the rage part was accurate. A frustrated - possibly frightened - rage, or on orders? On orders, I thought. I doubted Bo's gang did anything that Bo hadn't told them to do first. But however it had happened, I didn't have to explain a shackle with ward signs on it.

  They did, of course, want to know about the second set of holes.

  "This is where I was," I said, pointing to the holes nearer the corner.

  "And this?" said Jesse, kneeling in front of the other holes.

  "I don't remember," I said automatically.

  There was a silence. "Can we have an agreement, maybe," said Pat. "That you stop saying 'I don't remember' and do us the kindness of telling the truth, which is that you're not going to say what you remember. "

  There was a longer silence. Pat was looking at me. I met his eyes. He had held his breath till he turned blue last night. He'd already made up his mind to trust me, even knowing that I was lying about what had happened. That made me feel pretty bad until it occurred to me that there was another angle on last night's demonstration: not only that Pat and Jesse and Theo were willing to trust me, but that they understood sometimes you had to lie.

  "Okay," I said.

  "So," said Jesse. "This second set of holes. "

  I took a deep breath. "I'm not going to tell you. "

  "Okay," said Jesse. "I think these holes are from another shackle. If it had been empty while you were here, Rae, you wouldn't mind telling us that. So, there must have been another prisoner, and it's this other prisoner you aren't going to tell us about. "

  I didn't say anything.

  "Interesting," said Jesse.

  Pat stared out one of the windows, frowning. "Shackles in a ballroom aren't standard equipment, so the suckers will have put them in special. The thing is, the space cleared around this house has been done recently too. You have to assume they did that as well. Why?"

  I could keep silent on this one a little more easily. It seemed pretty weird if you didn't know. And this one they couldn't guess. I hoped.

  They went off to look at the rest of the house. I stayed in the ballroom. I sat on the windowsill nearest my shackle, the one on the long wall - the window I'd peed out of. The window I'd knelt in front of when I'd changed my knife to a key. The lake looked a lot like it had the day I'd been here: another blue, clear day. It was hotter today though, summer rather than spring. I leaned back against the side of the window and thought about cinnamon rolls and muffins and brownies and the cherry tarts I'd started experimenting with since Charlie had ordered an electric cherry pitter out of a catalog and gave it to me hopefully. Charlie's idea of post-traumatic shock therapy: a new kitchen gadget. I thought about the pleasure of sitting in bright sunlight. With two humans in easy call. I might have opened my collar and let the sun shine there, but I had the gash taped up and I wasn't going to risk Pat or Jesse seeing it.

  I thought about the fact that Mel, easygoing, laid-back, mind-your-own-business Mel, kept nagging me to look for a doctor who could do something about it, and found my refusal inexplicable and dumb.

  Jesse and Pat came back into the ballroom and hunkered down on the floor in front of me in my window. There was a silence. I didn't like this. I wanted to leave. I wanted to get away from the lake, from what had happened here, from being reminded of what had happened here. I'd done what they'd asked, I'd found them the house. I didn't want to talk about this stuff any more. I wanted to go back to the car and make sure it was going to start, and get us out of here before sundown. I wanted to sit in the sun somewhere other than beside the lake.

  "So, last night," said Jesse. "What happened?"

  "I don't - " I said. Pat looked at me and I smiled faintly. "I wasn't going to say I don't remember. I was going to say I don't know. It was - it was like instinctive, except who has that kind of instinct? If it was an instinct, it was a really stupid instinct. "

  "Except that it worked," Pat said dryly. "So, you didn't think, ah ha, there's a sucker a couple of streets over, I think I'll go stake the bastard? Never mind that I don't know how I know it's there or that I'm going to stake it with a goddam table knife?"

  "No," I said. "I didn't think at all. I didn't think from the time I - I stood up from where I was sitting at the counter to when - when Jesse had hold of me and was yelling tha
t it was all over. "

  "So why did you stand up - and pick up a table knife - and take off at a speed that wouldn't have shamed an Olympic sprinter?"

  "Um," I said. "Well, I heard him. Um. And I didn't like having him. . . on my ground. I was, um, angry. I guess. "

  "Heard him. Heard him what? Nobody else heard anything. "

  "Heard him, um, giggle. "

  Silence.

  "Was this by any chance a sucker from two months ago?" Pat said gently. "From what happened here?"

  "Yes. "

  "Can you tell us any more?"

  He's the one that made this mark on me, I thought. This slice in my flesh that won't close. You could say I had a score to settle. That doesn't explain why I managed to settle it though. "He was - he was the other one that had hold of me, coming here. I don't know how many of them there were altogether - a dozen maybe. " I thought of the second evening, the twelve of them fanning out around me and the prisoner of the other shackle, coming closer. Slowly coming closer. How I'd been pressing myself against the wall so hard my spine hurt. "Most of them didn't say anything. The one I think was the Breather - he seemed to be giving the orders. I thought of him as - as the lieutenant of the raiding party. He talked. And he held one of my arms, bringing me here. This - the one from last night, he held my other arm. He talked. He was the one with the. . . sense of humor. " Her feet are already bleeding. If you like feet.

  "The lieutenant of the raiding party," said Jesse thoughtfully. "That sounds like there was a colonel back at headquarters. "

  "You'd expect that, a setup as elaborate as this one," said Pat. "This is a gang run by a master vampire. "

  They both looked at me. "Do you know anything about the master?" said Jesse.

  I could have said, I'm not going to tell you. I said, "No. "

  There was another silence. I tried not to squirm. This should be when the SOFs revert to type and start yelling at me for withholding important information and so on.

  "We have a problem, you see, Sunshine," said Pat at last. "Okay, we know you're not telling us everything. But. . . well, I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but that happens oftener than you might think, people not telling SOF everything. Hell, SOF not telling SOF everything. I mean aside from the nomad blood of guys like Jesse and me. We could probably live with that if that was all it was. We wouldn't like it, maybe, but we've had a lot of practice not being told everything, and if you get too pissed off at people then they really won't talk to you.

  "But you've done something pretty well unprecedented. Twice. You got away from a bunch of vampires - alone, and out in the middle of nowhere. It happens occasionally that a sucker gang gets a little carried away, teasing some kid from a human gang that has been jiving in the wrong place, hoping to see vampires. The kid gets a little cut up, but we take him to the hospital and they stitch him up and give him his shots, and he goes home good as new if a little more prone to nightmares than he used to be. It doesn't happen that a young woman alone in a wilderness gets away from a sucker gang so determined to keep her they have her chained to the wall. So far as I know it hasn't ever happened before. "

  I wished he would stop saying "alone. " He hadn't forgotten the second set of holes in the wall any more than I had. Thank the gods at least the telltale shackle itself was gone.

  "And that's only the first thing. The second thing is that you sauntered up to a sucker last night that in the first place you had no way of knowing was there, in the second place he stood there while you staked him without any warning or any backup, and in the third place staked him with a stainless steel table knife. People have staked suckers without backup, but they've never done it by running up to one in full sight and they sure as suckers hate daylight don't do it with a goddam table knife. I pulled the research on it that proves it can't be done, last night. Stainless steel is a no-hoper even if you've had the best wardcrafters and charm cutters in the business do their number on it first.

  "I told you I don't need much sleep. I spent the rest of last night going through the files for anything about sucker escapees and unusual stakings. There isn't much. And nothing at all like you, Sunshine.

  "We ought to put all this in our report, and pass it on up the line, and then you'd get a horde of SOF experts down on you like nothing you've ever imagined, and, speaking of shackles, you'd probably spend the rest of your life chained to the goddess of pain's desk. She'd love you.

  "But we don't want to. Because we need you. We need you in the field. Dear frigging gods and angels, do we ever need you in the field. We need anything we can get because, frankly, we're losing. You didn't know that, did you? At the moment we still got the news nailed shut. But it isn't going to stay nailed shut. Another hundred years, tops, and the suckers are going to be running our show. The Wars were just a distraction. We think we won. Well, maybe we did, but we skegged our future doing it. It blows, but it's the way it is. So little grubby guys like me and Jesse feel we need you in the field a hell of a lot more than we need you disappeared into some study program while they try to figure out how you've done what you've done and how they could make a lot of other people do it too. Which they wouldn't be able to because it's gonna turn out not to work that way. And we guess you don't want to be disappeared either?"

  I shook my head on a suddenly stiff neck.

  "Yeah. So, anyway, if you can off suckers with common household utensils, we want you out there doing it. We'll even lie to the goddess of pain about you to keep you to ourselves, and babe, that takes balls. "

  Would they still want me out there doing what I could do if they knew what else I could do? If they knew the truth about the second shackle?

  Were the vampires really going to win within the next hundred years?

  When we got back to the car it started the first time. There wasn't much conversation. We were most of the way back to town when Pat said, "Hey, Sunshine, talk to us. What are you thinking?"

  "I'm trying not to think. I'm - " I stopped. I didn't know if I could say it aloud, even to make my point. "I'm trying not to think about those stains on the walls in the alley, last night. "

  There was a pause. "I'm sorry," said Jesse. "We do have some idea what we're asking you. Don't let Pat's pleasure in his own rhetoric get to you. "

  "Hey," said Pat.

  "I haven't been your age in a long time," Jesse went on, "and I grew up wanting to join SOF. I knew it was going to be bad, what I was going to be doing, if I stayed a field agent, which I wanted to be. And it is bad, a lot of it, a lot of the time. You get used to it because you have to. And SOF doesn't throw you in like you've been thrown in. Last night was rough even for a grizzled old vet like me.

  "Rae, we aren't asking you to make a decision to save the world tomorrow. But please think about what Pat said. Think about the fact that we really, really need you. And think, for what it's worth, that we'll back you up to the last gasp, if you want us there. If last-gasp stuff turns out to be necessary. "

  "And just by the way, kiddo," said Pat in his mildest voice, "I'm not accusing you of anything, okay? But it must be fifty miles from here back to where you live with that weird siddhartha type. I ain't saying it's not possible, Sunshine, but that's a hell of a hike for anyone, let alone someone who's spent two days chained to a wall expecting to die. I'm thinking your last gasp is pretty worth having. "

  I stared out the window, thinking about the second shackle.

  I got through dessert shift that night on autopilot. Nobody asked me how my afternoon had gone and I didn't volunteer anything. The atmosphere of Repressed Anxiety was thick enough to cut chunks out of and fry, however. I wondered what you'd have on the side with a plate of Deep Fried Anxiety. Pickles? Cole slaw? Potato-strychnine mash? Things were so fraught that Kenny came into the bakery long enough to say "Hey big sis" and give me a hug. He hadn't called me Big Sis since the time he was eight and I was eighteen and I'd caught him spying on my then-boyfriend Raoul an
d me and he went around the house yelling Big Sissy Kissy Kissy and I sent Raoul home and went into my brothers' room and destroyed the backup discs to every one of their combox games that I could find. Which was a lot. You might think this was overreacting (Mom, Charlie, and Billy did), but I was lucky he'd only caught us kissing, and I wanted to be sure I'd been discouraging enough about this sort of fraternal behavior. Anyway neither Kenny nor Billy spoke to me at all for about six months, by which time I'd graduated, the Big Sis era was over, and shortly after that I'd moved into my own apartment.

  Mary took her break in the bakery again, and told me the latest Mr. Cagney story, but her heart wasn't in it.

  "I'm okay," I said. "Really. "

  "I know you are," she said, but she hugged me anyway, and got streaks of flour and cinnamon all down her front.

  I was due to stay till closing but they packed me off an hour early. I didn't argue. I fetched the Wreck and drove home slowly. I was so tired - bone tired, marrow tired, what comes after that? Life tired? That's the kind of tired I was. It wasn't just lack of sleep tired, though I did have a few fuzzy cobwebs at the corners of my vision.

  I could hear some of Mom's charms moving around in the glove compartment. Once a charm has been given someone's name, if that someone doesn't snap it and let it go live, it may pop itself, and try to come after you. When I opened the glove compartment to put a new one in now, half a dozen of the old ones tried to climb up my arm. They were probably all totally cracked from driving around in a car though.

  It had been dark for two hours. The moon was rising. I thought about trying to talk Charlie into keeping the coffeehouse open twentyfour hours, drive those inferior Prime Time brownies right out of town. Then I could never leave the coffeehouse again, for the rest of my life. Pat and Jesse would be disappointed, of course, and we'd have to gear hard after the insomniac market, to keep the customer flow up, all night long, since you can't ward a restaurant. But these were mere practical problems. The thing that really bothered me was that I'd have to tell everyone why.

  That there was a vampire - a master vampire, and his gang - after me. Specifically the ones I'd got away from two months ago, and it turns out suckers are poor losers. And persistent bastards.

  That maybe I was the first bad-magic wuss in history. The lab-coat brigade would probably want to do exhaustive research on my mother's child-rearing techniques as well as on my blood chemistry. Academic prunes would write papers. If they knew.

  If I lost it and they found out.

  There was a light on in Yolande's part of the house, spilling across the porch and toward the drive. I still went up my own stairs in the dark; there was a hall light, but electric light in that narrow window-less way made me feel claustrophobic. When I got upstairs, and bolted the door behind me, I still didn't turn the light on. I had another cup of chamomile tea on the dark balcony. Moonlight was beginning to glimmer through the trees at the edge of the garden. And I turned off thinking. I sat there, listening to the almost-silence. There were tiny rustling noises, the hoot of an owl, the soft stirring of the wind through leaves. External leaves. Internal leaves.

  A tree? It shouldn't be a tree. My immaterial mentor should be one of those things in one of my brothers' combox games that you zapped on sight, all teeth and turpitude.

  And nothing at all like you, Sunshine. . . we need you.

  I was so tired. At least tonight I had the option to go to bed early. I put my cup in the sink, put my nightgown on. Like last night, I was out as soon as I lay down.

  But I woke again only a few hours later, knowing he was there. I lay curled up, facing the wall; the window, and the rest of the room, were behind me. I didn't hear him, of course. But I knew he was there.

  I turned over. There was a bright rectangle of moonlight on the floor, and a dark shape sitting motionless in the chair beyond it. He raised his head a little, in acknowledgment, I think, of my waking. He'd been watching me.

  I thought about being in the same room with a vampire. I thought about the fact that he'd come in, however he'd come in, through some charmed and warded door (or window). I thought about the fact that I had, of course, invited him in, when he had brought me home, two months ago. I hadn't thought about inviting him in, but I'd been beyond that kind of thinking then anyway, and he'd been doing me the small service of saving my life at the time. I shouldn't now object to the idea that once I'd invited him over my threshold the welcome was, apparently, permanent.

  You can kind of feel the barrier your wards are making for you, feel if there are any big drafts flowing through any big holes. There weren't any drafts. None of my wards were reacting to his presence.

  I assumed the invitation was particular to him. That I hadn't thrown the way open for vampires in general. Not a nice thought.

  Maybe I'd invited him over my threshold a second time when I stood on the edge of the darkness two nights ago and said, What do I do now?

  There were things I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten the wrongness. What was new was the fact that, despite my heart doing its fight-or-flight, help-we're-prey-and-HEY-STUPID-THAT'S-A-VAMPIRE number, I was glad to see him. Ridiculous but true. Scary but true.

  The one person - creature - whatever of my acquaintance who wouldn't be in any danger if I snapped. Even a criminally deranged almost-human berserker is no match for a vampire.

  The one whatever of my acquaintance who probably would still make me look virtuous and morally upstanding if I did snap.

  I didn't find this very comforting.

  "You came," I said.

  "I was here last night," he said. "But you slept deeply, and I did not wish to disturb you. "

  I'd also forgotten how uncanny his voice was. Sinister. Not human.

  "That was nice of you," I said, listening to myself and thinking you pathetic numbskull. "I had three hours of sleep last night and it - it's been a long couple of days. "

  "Yes," he said.

 
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