Sunshine, p.11
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       Sunshine, p.11

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 11

 

  Silence fell. Some things hadn't changed.

  "Bo is looking for me," I said at last.

  "Yes," he said.

  "I'm sorry," I said humbly, "I don't know what to do. I. . . I. . . All I did was drive out to the lake, that night, and everything else. . . I'm sorry," I said again, a little wildly, and only too aware of the irony: "I don't want to die, you know?"

  "Yes," he said again.

  This time I heard the pause as one of those "you're not going to like this" pauses.

  "Bo is looking for me too," he said. "When he finds me, he will be careful to destroy me. Last time was theatrics. This time he will take no chances. "

  Well, that was the most cheering news I'd heard all week. Even better than ghastly revelations about the possible truth of my genetic composition. No one really understands genetics any more than anyone really understands world economics, and what I'd been guessing might not be true. I could just worry about it for the rest of my life. If I was going to have a rest of my life. As guaranteed bad news, vampires are a much surer bet. Great. Spartan. Let's have a party. "Oh," I said carefully.

  I looked into what was probably a short, bleak future, and realized that one of the reasons I'd been glad to see that dark shape in the chair was that with him here, for the first time since I'd come home after those nights at the lake I'd felt maybe. . . not totally clueless and overwhelmed. Yes, he'd been the one shackled to the ballroom wall with me, but they'd been afraid of him. Twelve against one, and him chained to the wall, and they were afraid. The fact that they'd caught him could have been some kind of trick. It happened. Presumably among vampires too.

  And now he was saying that he was out of his depth too. That it was hopeless. I wanted some nice human equivocation and denial. No, no, it'll be all right! The table knife was an ugly accident! And by the way you're not going to morph into an axe murderer!

  Rescuing the odd vampire from destruction had already fulfilled my bad-gene quota of antisocial behavior. Please.

  "Why does he hate you so much?" I said.

  The silence went on for a while, but I could wait. What else was there to do? Walk outside and shout, "Here I am!"? I might be due for a short, squalid future, but as a basic principle I was going to hold on to what there was of it.

  He hadn't refused to answer yet.

  "It's a long story," he said at last. "We are nearly the same age. There are different ways of being what we are. Mine is one way. His is another. Mine, it turns out, has certain advantages. If others perhaps thought the implications through, some things might be different. Bo does not wish anyone to think those implications through. Destroying me is a way to erase the evidence. Plus that he does not care for me to have advantages no longer available to him. "

  This was interesting, and under other circumstances would have made me curious. Constantine couldn't be very old - by vampire standards - only young vampires can go out in strong moonlight, like tonight. Middle-aged ones can go out when the moon is young or old enough. Later middle-aged ones can only go outdoors when there is no moon. Really old ones can't be outdoors under the open sky at all, with any possibility of the dimmest reflected sunlight touching them. That was one of the reasons older ones began running gangs. If they survived to be old they'd also developed other powers. "He has another urgent reason, now. If he does not destroy me, he will lose control of his gang. Bo likes ruling. It is also necessary to him that he rule - to do with those advantages I possess and he does not. And while as the leader of his gang he is much more powerful than I am, alone, I am the stronger. "

  "And you don't run a gang," I said.

  "No. "

  I thought of saying, So, what now, do we hold hands and jump? How long a fall can a vampire walk away from? How high do we have to climb first? A mere almost-human pretty reliably goes splat after about four stories, I think. I was beginning to feel sorry that he'd come. No. I'd rather jump out a window and get it over with fast than fall into Bo's clutches again. I was merely resisting the idea that jumping was my best choice.

  "I have thought of it a good deal, these last weeks," he was saying, "for I knew what happened at the lake would not be the end. Not with Bo. I also know that singly you and I have no chance. "

  I do wish you'd stop saying that, I thought.

  "But together," he continued, "we may have a chance. It is not a good chance, but it is a chance. I do not like it. You cannot like it. I do not understand what it is that you do, and have done. I am not sure we will be able to work together, even if we attempt it. Even if we are each other's only chance. " He was sitting in the darkness beyond the moonlight, and I could not see his face. I could - a little - see movement as he spoke; vampires also speak by moving their mouths. But this conversation was a little too like talking to a figment of your own imagination. Your darkest, spookiest, most bottom-of-your-unconscious-where-the-monsters-lurk imagination. Even the shadow in the chair was half-imaginary.

  No it wasn't. There's really no mistaking the presence of a vampire in the room.

  "Will you help me?" he said. It is very peculiar being asked a life-or-death question in a tone of voice that has no tone in it. Emotionally speaking the response feels like it ought to be something like passing the salt or closing the door.

  "Oh," I said intelligently. "Ah - er. Well. Yes. Certainly. Since you put it so persuasively. "

  There was a pause, and then there was a brief noise that, mercifully also briefly, unhinged my spine. He had laughed.

  "Forgive my persuasiveness," he said. "I would spare you if I could. I do not wish this any more than you do. "

  "No," I said thoughtfully. "I don't suppose you do. " If I'd been honest I suppose what I'd really wanted him to do was say, "Oh don't worry about it. This is vampire business and I'll take care of it. " Dream on. "So," I said. I didn't want to know, but I guessed I should make an effort. "What do we do now?"

  "We start," he said, and paused. I recognized this as the middle of an unfinished sentence, and not one of his cryptic pronouncements, and waited. Then there was a funny breathing noise that I translated provisionally as a sigh. Vampires don't breathe right, why should they sigh right? But maybe it means vampires can feel frustration. Noted. "We start by my trying to discover what assistance I can give you. "

  Somehow this didn't sound like the usual movie-adventure sort of "I'll keep you covered while you reload" assistance. "What do you mean?"

  "We must face Bo at night. Your abilities would not get us past the guards that protect his days. "

  I didn't even consider asking what those guards might be.

  "Humans are at great disadvantage at night. I think I may be able to grant you certain dispensations. "

  Dispensations. I liked that. Vampire as fairy godmother. Or godfather. Pity he couldn't dispense me from getting killed. "You mean like being able to see in the dark or something. "

  "Yes. I mean exactly that. "

  "Oh. " If I could see in the dark I would never again have to trip over the threshold of the bathroom door on the way to have a pee at midnight. If I lived long enough to need to.

  "I will have to touch you," he said.

  Okay, I told myself. He's not going to forget himself and eat me because he comes a few feet closer. I thought of the second night in the ballroom: Sit a little distance from the corner - yes, nearer me. Remember that three feet more or less makes no difference to me: you might as well.

  And he'd carried me something like forty-five miles. And only about the first forty-two of them had been in daylight.

  And somehow pointing out that I now was in bed and wearing nothing but a nightgown and would like to get up and put some clothes on first, please, was worse than not mentioning my inappropriate-for-receiving-visitors state of undress. So I didn't mention it.

  "Okay," I said.

  That fluid, inhuman motion again, as he stood up and stepped toward me.
I'd forgotten that too - forgotten how strange it is. How ominous. Too fluid for anything human. For anything alive.

  He sat down near me on the bed. The bed dipped, as if from ordinary human weight. I pulled my feet up and turned toward him, but I did it carelessly, more conscious of him than of anything else - which is to say, more carelessly than I had learned to move over the last two months, carelessly so that the gash on my breast didn't just seep a little, but cracked open along its full length, as if it were being cut into me for the first time. I couldn't help it: it hurt: I gave a little gasp.

  And he hissed. It was a terrifying noise, and I had slammed myself back into the pillows and headboard before I had a chance to think anything at all, to think that I couldn't get away from him even if I wanted to, to think that he had declared us allies. To think that there might be any other reason for a sound like that one but that he was a vampire and I was alive and streaming with fresh blood.

  "Stop," he said in what passed for his normal voice. "I offer you no harm. Tell me about the blood on your breast. "

  He didn't linger on the word "blood. " I muttered, "It won't heal. It's been like this for two months. "

  He wasn't as good at waiting as I was. "Go on," he said immediately.

  I'd stopped shrugging in the last two months too: you can't shrug without pulling at the skin below your collarbones. "I don't know. It doesn't heal. It seems to close over and then splits again. The doctor put stitches in it a couple of times, gave me stuff to put on it. Nothing works. It just splits open again. It's a nuisance but I have been kind of learning to live with it. Like I had a choice. This is - er - worse than usual. Sorry. It's only a shallow gash. You may - er - remember. "

  "I remember," he said. "Show me. "

  I managed not to say, What? It took me a minute to gather my dignity as well as my courage, and my hands were shaking a little when I raised them to unbutton the top two buttons of my nightgown, and peel the edges back so he could see the bony space below my collarbones and above the swell of my bosom, where the blood now ran down in a thin ragged curtain from the wicked curved mouth of the long ugly slash. I barely flinched when he reached out a hand and touched the blood with his finger and. . . tasted it. Then I closed my eyes.

  "I offer you no harm," he said again, gently. "Sunshine. Open your eyes. "

  I opened them.

  "The wound is poisoned," he said. "It weakens you. It is very dangerous. "

  "It was for you," I said, dreamily. I felt like one of those oracle priestesses out of some old myth: seized by some spirit not her own, a spirit that then speaks from her mouth. "They wanted to poison you. "

  "Yes," he said.

  I thought, I have been so tired, these last two months. I have got used to that too. I have told myself it is just part of - having had what happened, happen. You do not get over something like that quickly. I had told myself that was all it was. I had almost believed it. I had believed it. The cut didn't heal because it didn't heal.

  Poisoned. Weakening me. Killing me is what he meant. Note that vampires can also be tactful.

  All those hours in the sunlight, baking the thing, the hostile presence on my body. I'd known it was hostile, although I hadn't admitted it. I hadn't taken the next step of thinking "poisoned. " Sunlight was my element; and so I turned to sunlight. And sunlight was the only thing that did any good, and it didn't do enough. Because the wound was poisoned. That was out of some story where there would be an oracle priestess somewhere: the poisoned wound that did not heal. I'd already been wondering how I was going to get through the winter, when I couldn't lie outdoors and bake some hours every week. Been learning not to think about wondering how I was going to get through the winter.

  He was silent, waiting for me to finish thinking. I looked at him: glint of green eyes in the moonlight. Don't look in their eyes, I thought. Tiredly.

  This would have been a nasty shock to him too, of course. Finding out his ally is a goner.

  I was too tired to look at him. I was too tired for almost anything. Sometimes it is better not to know. Sometimes when you do know you just fold up.

  "Sunshine. I know a little about poisons. This is not something your human doctors can distill an antidote for. "

  This was even better than his repeating that neither of us had any chance against Bo. By dying I was going to ruin his chances too. It's funny: I was actually sorry about this. Maybe I was a little delirious. Maybe too much had been happening lately. Maybe I was just very, very short of sleep.

  "There is something that can be done. Can be tried. " Pause. "It is not easy. "

  Oh, big surprise. Something wasn't going to be easy. I tried to rouse myself, to react. I failed.

  "But can you trust me?"

  More happy news. Not just something to be done, but a vampire something. Which doubtless meant it would have more blood in it. I don't like blood. I mean, I like it fine, inside, circulating, carrying oxygen and calories to all your stay-at-home cells, but slimy seeping pink hamburger gives me the whim-whams.

  Can you trust me, he said. Not will you. Can you. Good question. I thought about it. It will not be easy. Yes, okay, that was a given. I didn't have to think about that. Can I trust him?

  What have I got to lose?

  What if his something is something I can't bear? There are all sorts of things I can't bear. I'm not brave to begin with, I'm very, very tired, I'm spongy with post-traumatic what have you, and I very nearly can't bear what I did last night with a table knife. And I may be a homicidal maniac.

  "Yes," I said. "Yes. I think so. "

  He didn't exhale a long breath, as a human might have done, but he went motionless instead. It was a different kind of motionlessness than not moving. Having said yes I felt better. Less tired. Evidently still delirious, however, because I bent toward him, touched the back of his hand. "Okay?" I said.

  A little silence.

  "Okay," he said. I had the sudden irreverent notion that he'd never said "okay" before. Spend time with humans and have all kinds of unusual experiences. Laughter. Slang.

  "It will not be tomorrow night," he said. "Perhaps the night after. "

  "Okay," I said. "See you. "

  "Sleep well," he said.

  "Oh, sure, absolutely," I said, trying for irony, but he was already gone.

  I left the window full open. I wanted as much of the fresh night air in the room with me as possible. There was a tiny chiming from one of the window charms. It was a curiously serene and hopeful noise.

  I must have looked pretty rough that morning too. It occurred to me that everybody at the coffeehouse was treating me like an invalid while trying to pretend they weren't treating me like an invalid. I wanted to tell them that they were right, I was an invalid, that mark on my breast that only Mel knew was still there was poisoned, and I was dying. I didn't say any of this. I said I was still short of sleep.

  Paulie turned up an hour before time that morning saying he didn't have anything better to do, but I was pretty sure Mom had called him and asked if he could come in early. I think Mom had figured out that the charms she was giving me were going somewhere like into the Wreck's glove compartment, so she had begun stashing them around the bakery where maybe I wouldn't find them but they could still do me some good. Since my unwelcome speculations about dark family secrets the other night in Jesse's office I had begun to wonder what all Mom's charms were for, exactly. She's always been something of a charm freak; I'd put it down to eight years in my dad's world. I found two new ones that morning: a little curled-up animal of some sort with its paws over its eyes and a red bead where its navel should have been, and a shiny white disc that rainbows ran across if you held it up against the light. I left them where I found them. Maybe I should let them try to defend against whatever they could. I had some fellow-feeling for the small curled-up creature with its hands over its face, even if the red alien parasite was lower down on it than it was o
n me. Charms are often noisy, which is another reason I don't like them much, but you aren't going to hear extraneous buzzing and burbling above the general din at Charlie's. Especially on shifts when I had to spend some time in the company of a genially humming apprentice.

  Mel was working that afternoon but Aimil had the day off from the library. She wandered back into the bakery with a cup of coffee toward the end of my stint, said she'd just found out about an old-books-and-junk sale in Redtree, which was one of the little towns between us and the next big city to the south, she was going to go, and did I want to come along? I should probably have gone home and taken a nap, but I didn't want to. So I said yes. A nice little outing for the doomed. Furthermore Aimil talked about library politics the whole way there and didn't once mention nocturnal neighborhood excitements. So by the time we arrived at the village square in Redtree I was in the mood.

  Ordinarily I love this kind of thing without any effort. Someone who does coffeehouse baking for a living doesn't have huge amounts of disposable income, but the point about books-and-junk sales is that you never know what you may find for hilariously cheap. There are fewer people since the Wars than there had been before, and less money (don't ask me how this works: you'd think if there were fewer people there would be more money to go around), so there is a lot less motive for dealers to discover specialist markets for old, beat-up, weird, or obscure-looking and possibly Other-related stuff. Plus a lot of people don't want to think about old, beat-up, weird, obscure-looking, and possibly Other-related stuff because it reminds them of the Wars, or what life had been like before the Wars, i. e. , better. The result is that a lot of very interesting nonjunk gets heaved into the nearest box for the next garage sale.

  Furthermore, almost nobody wants to read the gormless old fiction about the Others which is my fave. I picked up a copy of Sordid-Enchantments on the title alone, and the fourth, and most icky and rare, volume of the Dark Blood series, which I was no longer sure I wanted to read - the heroine has a choice to die horribly or become a vampire horribly, and she chooses to die. If I'd realized how gross it was going to get after the first volume I wouldn't have bothered - but I'm a completist, I had the first three, and hey.

  I was feeling pretty good. In spite of last night. Or in an even funnier way, because of it. It was like I had two days out of time. Everything was on hold until. . . either the vampire-something worked, or it didn't. Jesse and Theo had been at a table under the awning when Aimil and I left Charlie's, and I'd nodded and kept going. I hoped nothing had come up they wanted to talk to me about. Nothing was allowed to come up for the next two days. I was on vacation in my own mind, cinnamon rolls at four a. m. or not.

  It must have been Paulie's influence, but I was positively humming a tune - an old folk song about keeping a vampire talking till sunrise: not one of your brighter vampires - while I burrowed through a big sagging cardboard box of junk. Chipped china teacups. Dented tin trays. Small splintery wooden boxes with lids that no longer closed. A bottle opener shaped like a dragon with an extremely undershot lower jaw and pink glass eyes. Pink. The Dragon Anti-Defamation Society should hear about this.

  At the bottom, when I touched it, it fizzled right through me, like I'd put my arm in a cappuccino machine. I knew it had to be some kind of ward - nonwarding charms are kind of stickier - but a live ward shouldn't be in the bottom of a box of cheap junk at a garage sale. Maybe it had fallen out of one of the splintery boxes. I hesitated, then picked it up to get a better look. Gingerly. It had now got my attention, so presumably it wouldn't feel the need to scramble my arm like an egg again.

  I didn't recognize the style or the design. It was an oval, not quite the length of the palm of my hand, with a slightly raised edge, the whole of it thick and heavy, like an old coin, before the mints got mean and started stamping out pennies that sometimes bent if you dropped them edgewise on a hard floor. It was silver, I thought, or plate; it was so tarnished I couldn't make out clearly what was on it, except that something was. Three somethings: one each on top, middle, and bottom, rather like an old Egyptian glyph. The only thing I could say for sure was that they weren't any of the standard Other-preventive sigils I knew of, nor the all-purpose circle-star-and-cross one.

  The most interesting thing was that it was live. Very live. Wards aren't necessarily as master-specific as most charms, and if they aren't actively in use they can molder quietly for a long time and still be capable of being wakened and doing some warding; but even one that's been tuned to you specifically shouldn't leap avidly out at you and wag its tail like a dog wanting to go for a walk.

  I could have put it back. I could have taken it to someone in charge and said "You've made a mistake. This one still works. " But I didn't. It seemed to like lying there in my hand. Don't be ridiculous, I thought. It's not responding to me personally.

  As a soldier in the dented-tin-tray army they shouldn't be expecting real money for it, but that could only be because they hadn't noticed it was live. It was still worth a try. I took the two books and the tarnished ward to the suspicious-looking character at the card table with the rusty money box, who snatched them out of my hands as if he knew I was trying something on. But he was so preoccupied with whether or not he should sell me Altar of Darkness (in which it takes the heroine four hundred pages to die), which was certainly worth more than the seventeen blinks for two, which is what the sign on the drooping book table said, that he barely registered my little glyph. I'd done piously outraged innocence when he started haranguing me about Altar and a few of his other customers scowled at him and muttered about fairness. I won that round. So when he looked at the glyph and said "fifty blinks" I sniffed so he would know that I knew he was a brigand and a bandit, and let it pass. He knew more about books. Even a dead ward made out of silver plate was worth more. A blink is a dollar, and has been since after the Wars, when our economy went to pieces, and the average paycheck disappeared in the blink of an eye.

  What was more interesting was that he'd touched the glyph and hadn't said "Wow! That was like putting my hand in a cappuccino machine!"

  Aimil had been watching my performance with a straight face. "Well done," she said, when we got back to the car. "Dark Blood Four as two for seventeen blinks! Zora will be mad with jealousy. Now what is that little thing?'' I was balancing my glyph on the top of the books, and I watched as she picked it up. That Mr. Rusty Money Box hadn't registered anything was one thing; if Aimil didn't register either it was something else.

  She didn't say anything about a feeling like having her funny bone hit with a hammer. "Hmm. It's quite - appealing, isn't it? Even all blackened like this. "

  "Appealing"? Maybe it had decided that making people's hair stand on end wasn't such a good way of making friends and influencing people. "Can you figure out any of what's on it?"

  She frowned, turning it this way and that in the light. "No clue. Maybe after you get it polished. "

  Dessert shift that night was notable only for the number of people who wanted cherry tarts. They were catching on. Rats. I didn't really like little electrical gadgets - most of the other so-called home bakeries in town used kneading machines, for example, which I thought beneath contempt - but there was no way I was going to be making cherry tarts without one. I'd already said I would only make individual tarts and customers had to order them with the main course to give me enough lead time. And they were still catching on. I didn't want cherry tarts to turn into another Death of Marat. When I was first installed in my new bakery and messing around with the heady implications of Charlie's having built it for me, I'd been having fun with puddings that look like one thing and you stick a fork in them and they become something else. A Gothic sensibility in the bakery is not necessarily a good thing. I'd made this light fluffy-looking number in a white oval dish with high sides and presented the first one with a flourish to a group of regulars who had volunteered to be experimented on. Aimil was the one with the knife, and she stuck it in a
nd the raspberry-and-black-currant filling had exploded down the side and over the edge of the dish onto the counter. It was, I admit, a trifle dramatic. "Gods, Sunshine, what is this, the Death of Marat?" she said. Aimil reads too much. Everybody at Charlie's that night wanted a taste, and the Death of Marat, the first of Sunshine's soon-to-be-notorious, implausibly named epic creations, was born, although I think most of our clientele thought Marat was some kind of master vampire. (Aimil is good at names. She's responsible for Tweedle Dumplings and Glutton's Grail and Buttermost Limit too. ) The problem is that for months after I was getting constant requests for the damn thing, and light, fluffy puddings with heavy fillings are a brute to make. Our long-time regulars still ask for it occasionally, but I'm older and meaner now and say "no" better. I will make it if I like you enough. Maybe.

  Well, the cherry season doesn't last long around here; I'd be back to apple pie before Billy'd had time to miss doing the peeling. (Unless I found some other source of cheap child labor I might have to get an electric peeler in another year. ) It was true that Charlie's did almost everything from scratch and that anything that one of us wasn't good at didn't get done at all, but it was also true that our loyal customers were compelled to be biddable. If I decided I didn't feel like doing cherry tarts outside of fresh cherry season they could like it or eat at Fast Burgers 'R' Us.

  When I got home I fished last night's sheets and nightgown out of the tub where they'd been soaking the bloodstains out (just like the Death of Marat without Marat), hauled them downstairs, and stuffed them in the washing machine. If Yolande had noticed the amount of laundry I'd been doing in the last two months she never said anything.

 

 

 
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