Sunshine, p.12
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       Sunshine, p.12
 

           Robin McKinley
Chapter 12

 

  I put Altar and Sordid Enchantments on one of the hip-high piles of books to read next in the corner of the living room, and got out the silver polish. Not standard equipment in my household: I'd bought some before I came home. The glyph came up beautifully. Except I still couldn't make out the figures.

  It was weirdly heavy for plate. And doesn't plate tend to look platy when you've shined it up? Maybe I only knew cheap plate. Even so.

  The symbol at the top was round, with snaky and spiky lines woven through it. The symbol at the bottom was narrow at the base and fat at the top. The one in the middle. . . might conceivably have four legs, which would presumably make it some kind of animal. Right. Two squiggles and an unknown animal.

  The top squiggle could be a symbol for the sun. The bottom squiggle could be a symbol for a tree.

  And if it was solid silver - even if the round squiggle wasn't the sun and the fat-on-the-top squiggle wasn't a tree - it was still a shoo-in as an anti-Other ward. None of the Others liked silver.

  Whatever it was, looking at it made my spirits lift. For someone under two death threats - plus, I suppose, the incompatible threats of Pat and Jesse's idea of what my future should include, supposing I had a future, because, if I did, I would spend it incarcerated in a small padded room - this was good enough. I put it in the drawer in the little table next to my bed. I slept that night, you should forgive the term, the sleep of the dead.

  So when the alarm went off I was almost ready to get up. The prospect of the night to come started to creep up on me almost immediately, but there were distractions: Mr. Cagney complained that his roll didn't have enough cinnamon filling at seven a. m. , Paulie called at seven-fifteen with a head cold, and Kenny dropped a tray of dirty plates at seven-thirty. He'd been doing better since Mel'd had his word, but he'd decided he'd rather do the early hours than the late ones, and this was only going to work if he got home sooner to do his homework sooner to get to bed sooner. Not my problem. Except in terms of Liz spending time helping to clean the floor instead of unloading cookie trays and muffin tins for me.

  Pat came in about midmorning and penetrated my floury lair. "Thought you'd like to know - the girl from the other night. She's come round. She doesn't remember a thing from the time the sucker spoke to her to waking up in the hospital the next morning. She doesn't remember the guy was a sucker. And she's fine. A little spooked, but fine. " Translation: the only on-the-spot witness doesn't remember what she saw, or at least isn't saying anything. And Jesse and Theo, who were claiming the strike for SOF (you don't kill vampires, of course, although most of us civvies use the term; in SOF-speak you strike them), were there only seconds after me and before anyone else. Except maybe Mrs. Bialosky.

  But it was one of those days when the coffeehouse schedule breaks down, and Charlie and Mel and Mom and I held the pieces together with our teeth. We always have at least one of these days during a seven-day (or thirteen-day, depending on how you're counting) week. Not to mention the prospect of getting up at three-forty-five on Thursday. During a thirteen-day week. My sense of occult oppression tightened anyway, but it had its work cut out for it. I had forty-five minutes off from ten-forty-five to eleven-thirty, between the usual morning baking and the beginning of the lunch rush, and almost an hour off at three-thirty, while a skeleton staff got us through the late-afternoon muffin and scone crowd, before the more gradual dinner swell began - plus two or three tea with elective aspirin breaks. I went home at nine. Anyone who wanted dessert after that could have ginger pound cake or Indian pudding or Chocoholia. It wasn't a night for individual fruit tarts.

  Fortunately I was tired enough to sleep. Before I'd found out I was going to be working all day I had thought I wouldn't sleep at all; by the time I got home I knew I'd sleep, but assumed I'd get a couple of hours and be awake by midnight, waiting for something to happen.

  I'd spent some time considering what I should, you know, wear. This vampire in the bedroom thing was a trifle more intensively perturbing than this vampire around at all thing. Even if the discon-certingness was only happening in my mind. There was a corollary to the story about male suckers being able to keep it up indefinitely: that you had to, er, invite them over that threshold first too. But if they could seduce you into dying just by looking at you, then they could probably perform other seductions as well. Okay, this particular vampire had declined to seduce me to death when he could have. This was a good omen as far as it went.

  I reminded myself that the sound of his laughter made me want to throw up, and that in sunlight he looked. . . well, dead. Let's get real here. I couldn't possibly be interested in. . .

  I involuntarily remembered that sense of vampire in the room. It wasn't like the pheromone haze when your eyes lock with someone else's across a room, crowded or otherwise, and wham. It really was not at all like that. But it was more like that than anything else I could think of. It probably had something to do with the peak-experience business: with a vampire in the room you are sitting there expecting to die. Sex and death, right? Peak experiences. And since I didn't go in for any of the standard neck-risking pastimes I didn't have a lot of practical knowledge of the hormone rush you get when you may be about to snuff it. Perhaps someone who loved free-fall parachuting or shark wrestling would find vampires in the room less troubling.

  Never mind. Let's leave it that vampires infesting your private spaces are daunting, and one of the ways to stiffen - er - boost morale is to wear carefully-selected-for-the-occasion morale-boosting clothing.

  I went to bed wearing my oldest, most faded flannel shirt, the bra that had looked all right in the catalog but was obviously an escapee from a downmarket nursing home when it arrived, white cotton panties that had had pansies on them about seven hundred washings ago and were now a kind of mottled gray, and the jeans I usually wore for housecleaning or raking Yolande's garden because they were too shabby for work even if I never came out of the bakery. Food inspector arrest-on-sight jeans. Oh, and fuzzy green plaid socks. It was a cool night for summer. Relatively. I lay down on top of the bedspread.

  And slept through till the alarm at three-forty-five. He hadn't come.

  That was not one of my better days at work. I snarled at everyone who spoke to me, and snarled worse when no one snarled back. Mel, who would have, wasn't there. Mom, fortunately, didn't have time to get into a furious argument with me, so we shot a few salvos over each other's bows, and retired to our separate harbors.

  We did try to stay out of each other's way but it wasn't like Mom to avoid a good blazing row with her daughter when one was offered. What had she been guessing while I'd been doing my guessing? There was quite a lot in the literature of bad crosses about petty, last-straw exasperations that tipped the balance. I'd been checking globenet archives when I could have been reading Sordid Enchantments.

  "I'm not a goddam invalid!" I howled at Charlie. "I don't need to be treated with gloves and - and bedpans! Will you please tell me I'm being a miserable bitch and you'd like to upend a garbage bin over my head!"

  There was a pause. 'Well, the idea had crossed my mind," said Charlie.

  I stood there, buttery fists clenched, breathing hard. "Thank you," I said.

  "Anything you want to talk about?" Charlie said in his best offhand manner.

  I thought about it. Charlie ambled over and closed the bakery door. Doors don't get closed much at the coffeehouse, so when one is, you'd better not open it for anything less than a coachload of tourists who didn't book ahead, have forty-five minutes for lunch before they meet their guide at the Other Museum, which is a fifteen-minute coach ride away (it's only seven minutes on foot, but try to convince a coachload of tourists of that), they all want burgers and fries and won't look at the menu, we're not heavily into burgers so our grill is kind of small, and we don't do fries at all, except on special, when they're not what burger eaters would call fries anyway.

  This really happ
ened once, and by the time Mom got through with that tour company the president was on his knees, offering her conciliatory free luxury cruises for two in the Caribbean, or at least all future meal bookings of his tour groups when they came to New Arcadia, made well in advance. She accepted the latter, and the Earth Trek Touring Company (the president's name is Benjamin Sisko, but I bet that wasn't the one he was born with, and you should see the logo on their coaches) was now one of our best customers. We could almost retire on what they brought us in August. And we taught his regular tour leaders how to find the Other Museum on foot. This made the coach drivers love us too.

  This is not what the city council had in mind when they were drooling over the prospect of seeing New Arcadia on the new post-Wars map, but the Other Museum is why coachloads of the kind of tourists who sign up with a company called Earth Trek now come to New Arcadia. The public exhibits are still lowest common denominator, but there are more of them than there used to be, and the Ghoul Attack simulation is supposed to be especially good: yuck-o, I say. We do also have a few more prune-faced academics on teeny stipends renting rooms in Old Town, but it's nowhere as bad as I'd feared. The proles win again. Ha.

  Charlie ambled back from closing the door and sat on the stool in the corner. It wasn't so hot a day that we were going to die of being in the bakery with the ovens on and the door closed tor at least ten minutes.

  "Because of the other night," I said, "the SOF guys want me to be a kind of - unofficial SOF guy. "

  Charlie said carefully, "I didn't think a table knife was. . . usual. "

  I sighed. "What did you think, when you followed me out there that night? Just that I'd lost my mind?"

  Charlie considered this before he answered. "I thought something had snapped, yes. I didn't think it was your mind. . . But I didn't have much time to think. By the time I got there it was all over. And I guess I realized then that I'd, we'd, had the wrong end of the. . . table knife all along. "

  "Since I disappeared for a couple of days. "

  "Yeah. It had to be the Others, one way or another. Sorry. It just. . . the way you were. . . you didn't want to talk to any cops, but you really didn't want to talk to SOF. "

  I hadn't thought it was that noticeable.

  "You were okay with the rest of us at Charlie's, us humans, not just us, strangers too. Nervy - like something really bad had happened, which we already knew - but okay. Anyone, you know, pretty human. "

  Except TV reporters. If they were human.

  "It wasn't Weres, because you were here on full-moon nights like usual, after. And they don't usually go around biting people except at the full moon. "

  And however fidgety and whimsical I'd felt, I wouldn't have driven out to the lake alone on a full-moon night. There are some Weres out there. Just like there are a few Weres in Old Town. More than a few. It doesn't hurt to be nice to them; they'll remember that you were, the other twenty-nine days of the month. Unlike suckers, who tend to prefer the urban scene, the Weres you really want to avoid mostly hang out in the wilderness.

  "And - sorry - since you didn't have any visible pieces missing it couldn't be zombies or ghouls. "

  I was the Other expert at Charlie's. Most of the staff didn't want to know, like most of the human population didn't want to know, and our SOFs were just customers who wore too much khaki. Mel said stories about the Others made his tattoos restless.

  "Sadie and I thought it must be some kind of demon. Sadie well, Sadie talked to a couple of those specialist shrinks you wouldn't talk to, and they said this stuff can be as traumatic as it gets, and to leave you alone about it if you didn't want to talk. "

  I wished that was the only reason for the charms and the uncharacteristic reserve. Maybe it was. Or maybe I could make it be all. I was my mother's daughter, after all. Maybe I had hidden depths of Attila the Hun-ness. I said cautiously, "Did she tell them about my dad?"

  Charlie shook his head. "I'd nearly forgotten about your dad myself, till the other night. It had never seriously occurred to me that what happened to you had anything to do with vampires. Uh - people don't get away from vampires. Any more than people get rid of vampires with table knives. "

  Even Charlie knew that much. "Yeah. That's what the SOFs say too. "

  Charlie was silent a minute. I was thinking, if Charlie had forgotten about my dad then he must not be a part of the Bad Cross Watch. My mother had never told him about Great-Great-Aunt Margaret, who had a limp because her left foot was short, horny, and cloven. Or whoever Great-Aunt Margaret had been and whatever demon mark they'd had. I mean Mom was keeping her fears to herself. I told you she was brave: she'd let her parents cut her off to marry my dad, she'd taken on the Blaises singlehanded when she left him. Any sensible woman who was not Attila the Hun in a previous existence would have been more than justified in leaving me behind for my dad's family to cope with. And they would have: if I had gone bad they might have denied I was theirs, but they'd have coped. And if I had gone bad, they'd've wanted to be there, performing damage control, for their sake if not mine. So she'd been doubly brave, or foolhardy. And there may not have been very many Blaises left before the Wars but they were formidable.

  Some demons are very tough. Tougher than any human. Although the tough ones also tend to be the stupid ones.

  Charlie said: "What do you want to do?"

  "Go on making cinnamon rolls," I said instantly.

  Charlie smiled faintly. "That's what I want to hear, of course - "

  "Is it?" I said. "Do you want someone so - so obviously - not just some kind of freak magic handler but someone who - someone who - I mean with vampires - do you want someone like this - like me - making your cinnamon rolls?"

  "Yes," said Charlie. "Yes. You make the best cinnamon rolls, probably in the history of the world. Never mind all the rest of it. We pay taxes for SOF to take care of the Others. We need you here. If you want to be here. I don't care who your dad is. Or what else you can do with a table knife. "

  I looked at him. He'd have every right to fire my ass - humans don't like weird magic handlers on the cooking staff of their restaurants. But I was a member of this family, this clan, a member of the bizarre community that was Charlie's. A key member even. I owed it to these people not to go mad. With or without an axe.

  And to stay alive.

  Charlie's Coffeehouse: Old Town's peculiar little beacon in the encroaching darkness.

  An interesting perspective on current events.

  "That's all right then," I said.

  "Good. " Charlie opened the door again and ambled out.

  I went to bed wearing jeans and a flannel shirt again that night. I woke at midnight and stumbled into the bathroom for a pee, tripping over the sill on the way. I went back to bed and fell asleep again immediately. The alarm went off at three-forty-five.

  He hadn't come.

  The sense of outrage of the day before - the absurd sense of having been stood up like a teenager on her way to the prom - was gone, as if it were a candle flame that had been blown out. I was worried.

  The fact that the wound on my breast, for the past four days, since he'd told me it was poisoned, was burning like the 'fo had set a match to my skin, was almost by the way. It was as if now that I had the diagnosis I didn't care what the diagnosis was: knowing was enough. For a few days. It was seeping so badly I not only had to keep it bandaged, I had to change the gauze pad at least once a day. I didn't care. I did it and didn't think about it. The heavy, permanent sense of tiredness made this easier than it might have been if I'd been sharp and alert. The only problem was finding places to put the adhesive tape that weren't already sore from having adhesive tape there too often already. I could have bought the surgical tape that doesn't take your skin off with it, but that would have been admitting there was a problem. I wasn't admitting anything. So the area around the slash looked peeled.

  The thing that really wasn't all right was that he'd said
he'd be back, and he wasn't.

  Things are getting bad if I was worried about a vampire. Well, they were bad, and I was worried. I didn't see him as the stand-you-up kind. If you could apply human guidelines to a vampire, which you couldn't.

  But if he'd said he'd be back, he'd be back. I was sure. And he wasn't.

  I had the rest of the day off after I finished the morning baking. Paulie, still hoarse but no longer sneezing, came in and started on Lemon Lechery and marbled brown sugar cake, and I went home to comb every globenet account I could find on vampire activity. Because of my peculiar hobby I paid for a line into the cosworld better than most home users bothered with, so I didn't have to go to the library every time I wanted the hottest new reportage on the Others. If there was anything to find I should be able to find it. When some big vampire feud came to a head there was usually more than enough mayhem to alert even the dimmest of the news media. And maybe this was only a tiny, local feud, but our media aren't among the dimmest. I couldn't believe that, this time, knowing what he knew, he wouldn't sell himself dearly, if Bo had caught him again.

  If, that is, he hadn't come back because he'd been prevented. If I hadn't been stood up like a teenager going to the prom with a known loser. One might almost say a deadbeat. Ha ha.

  I couldn't find anything. After I looked through all the local stuff I started on the national, and then the international. The nearest report of anything like what I thought I might be looking for was happening in Macedonia. I didn't think it would happen in Macedonia.

  I wanted to start looking up glyphs, to see if I could translate mine, but I couldn't make myself be interested enough. I cleaned the apartment instead. I rearranged the piles of books to be read immediately. Altar of Darkness went on the bottom, although I dusted it first. I mopped floors. I scrubbed sinks. I baking-soda'd the tea stains out of the teapot and my favorite mugs. I vacuumed. I folded laundry. I even cleaned a few windows. I hate cleaning windows. I was too tired to work this hard but I couldn't sit still. And it was overcast outdoors: not a day that insisted I go out and lie in it.

  By evening I was exhausted and slightly queasy.

  I had an egg-and-Romaine sandwich on two slabs of my pumpernickel bread at six, and went to bed at seven. I gave up. I wore the nightgown I'd been wearing four nights ago, and got between the sheets. I had a little trouble going to sleep, but it was as if my thoughts were spinning so fast - or maybe it was effect of the poison winning at last - eventually I got dizzy and fell over into unconsciousness.

  When I woke up three hours later he was there. Darkness, sitting in my bedroom chair. Darkness, I noticed, barefoot. I couldn't remember if he'd been barefoot the other night or not.

  I sat up. I was too sleepy and too relieved not tell the truth. "I've been worrying about you. "

  I'd figured out last time that vampires don't move when they're startled, they go stiller. He did that different-kind-of-stillness thing.

  "You know," I said. "Concern. Unease. Anxiety. You said you'd come back two nights ago. You didn't. There's this little threat of annihilation going on too, you know? I thought maybe you'd got into trouble. "

  "The preparations took longer than I anticipated," he said. "That is all. Nothing to. . . worry you. "

  "Nothing to worry me," I said, warming to my theme. "Sure. The annihilation threat includes me and I'm wearing a poisoned wound that is slowly killing me. I wouldn't dream of worrying about anything. "

  "Good," he said. "Worry is useless. "

  "Oh - " I began. "I - " I stopped. "Okay. You win. Worry is useless. "

  He stood up. I tried not to clutch the bedclothes into a knot. He pulled his shirt off and dropped it on the floor.

  Eeeeek.

  He sat on the edge of my bed again. He had one leg folded under him and the other foot still on the floor, sitting to face me cringing into the headboard. I thought, okay, okay, he still has one foot on the floor. And he only took his shirt off.

  "Do you still have the knife you transmuted?" he said. "That would be the best. "

  The best what. I knew this was going to have blood in it. I knew I wasn't going to like it. And that particular knife, of course. . . "Uh. Well, yes, I still have it. " I didn't move.

  "Show me," he said. A human might have said, what's your problem? So where is it? He just said, show me.

  I opened the bedside table drawer. When my jeans went in the wash, the contents of my pockets went in there. The knife was there. It was lying next to the glyph as if they were getting to know each other.

  The light was visible at once in the darkness. I picked the knife up and cradled it in my hand: a tiny, clement sun that happened to look like a pocketknife. In ordinary daylight or good strong electric light it still looked like a pocketknife. I held it out toward him.

  "This has been - since that night?"

  "Yes. It happened - do you remember, right at the end, I transmuted it again, into the key to my door?"

  "Yes. "

  "I'm pretty sure that's when it happened. It had been something-in-the-dark-colored when I pulled it out. I don't. . . it was something to do with making the change at night, I think. I think I'm not supposed to be able to do stuff after dark. But I did do it. I felt something. . . crack. Snap. In me. And since then it's been like this. I shifted it back to a knife the next day - didn't notice till evening what had happened. I thought it would fade after a while, but it hasn't. "

  I think I'm not supposed to be able to do stuff after dark. I had done this somehow though. And I happened to have been being held in the lap of a vampire at the time. That had been another of the things I hadn't been thinking about, the last two months. Because if it was something to do with the vampire - this vampire - why had my knife become impregnated with light?

  I hadn't told anyone, shown anyone. It was very odd, finally having someone to tell. I hadn't wanted to tell anyone at the coffeehouse, any of the SOFs. When I spent the night with Mel, I was careful to keep my knife in its pocket. I was still trying to be Rae Seddon, coffeehouse baker, in that life. Even after I'd exposed my little secret that it had been vampires at the lake - that I was a magic handler and a transmuter - I still hadn't wanted to tell anyone about my knife. The only person, you should forgive the term, left to tell was him. The vampire. The vampire I had now agreed to ally myself with in the hopes of winning against a common enemy.

  It was a relief, telling someone.

  I wondered what else an unknown something breaking open inside me might have let loose, besides a little radiant dye leak. I wondered if the jackknife of a bad-magic cross would glow in the dark. Sure. And when I went nuts it would transmute into a chainsaw.

  He looked at it, but made no attempt to touch it. "That helps to explain. One of the reasons it has taken this extra time for me to come to you is that it has puzzled me you are not weaker, having borne what you bear two months already. I have been seeking an explanation. It could be crucial to our effort tonight. " He paused. When he went on, his voice had dropped half an octave or so, and it wasn't easy to hear to begin with because of the weird rough half-echo and the tonelessness. "What you show me is a judgment on my arrogance; it did not occur to me to ask you for information. I have much to learn about working with anyone, for all that I believed I had thought through what I said to you last time. I ask pardon. "

  I gaped at him. "Oh please. Like I'm not sitting here half expecting you to change your mind and eat me. Oh, sorry, I forgot, I'm poisonous, I suppose I'm safe after all, I get to bite the big one without your help. I'm your little friend the deadly nightshade. But that's just it: humans and vampires don't ally. We're implacable enemies. Like cobras and mongooses. Mongeese. Why should you have thought of asking me anything? If there is going to be pardoning between us, it should be for lunacy, and mutual. "

  At least he didn't laugh.

  "Very well. We shall learn together. "

  "Speaking of learning," I said. "I t
ake it you have learned what to do about this," and I gestured toward my breast. "Since you're here. "

  "I have learned what will work, if anything will. "

  "And what if it doesn't work?"

  "Then both of us end our existence tonight," he said in that impassive we're-chained-to-the-wall-and-the-bad-guys-are-coming voice I remembered too well.

 
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