Sunshine, p.14
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       Sunshine, p.14

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 14

 

  I hated it that I now "saw" more easily in the dark than I did in the light. In the dark it all made sense. I hated this.

  I was so clumsy for the first ten days or so that Charlie did another of his drifting-into-the-bakery-and-closing-the-door numbers. Golly, twice in two weeks: I must be a worse pain in the butt than I realized. Damn. He wandered around the bakery for a minute like he was thinking about what to say. I knew better; he figures this stuff out beforehand. When I still lived with him and Mom I used to see him ambling around the house in that fake idle way, figuring out what he was going to say to someone, what they might say back. He thinks of it on the move and he says it on the move. He wandered a lot during the time the city council was trying to upgrade us. The media, who love a good story and truth is noncompulsory, presented Charlie's as the focus of the neighborhood campaign to stay the way we were: downmarket and crappy. This was not entirely false. That's when Charlie's kind of got on the New Arcadia map rather than merely the Old Town map, and one of the results was that Charlie could afford to build my bakery. (I have to say he used to wander a lot when Mom and I were at each other's throats the worst too. There was some overlap between these two eras. Kenny and Billy are probably scarred for life. )

  But having him wandering around again in that way I recognized made me feel bad. I didn't live with him any more, but I had the impression he didn't wander as much as he had then: that he'd mostly figured out how to say the sort of things he needed to say as Charlie of Charlie's.

  I suppose a magic-handling baker with an affinity for vampires is kind of an unusual problem for a coffeehouse. Maybe the bitchiness factor was trivial.

  "You've been having a little trouble lately," he said, mildly and gently, addressing one of the ovens.

  "That oven is working fine," I said, thinking, if you're going to me you can just do it.

  He turned around. "Sorry. We. . . Charlie's has had its rough times, but. . . having SOFs interested in one of my staff is a new one. "

  I refrained from pointing out that our regular SOFs had always sort of jived with me. I had thought because I was the one who wanted to hear their stories, but as it turned out, I now knew, because they remembered my father, even if Charlie - and for that matter Mom and I - didn't. "Yeah," I said. "It blows. I've been thinking, okay, my dad has always been my dad, but that doesn't help. I could have gone on not knowing what it meant. "

  Charlie hesitated. "Well. . . I doubt it, Sunshine. If you just kept coffee hot, maybe. But someone who can. . . " His voice faded. "Have you talked to Sadie about it?"

  I shook my head. Have I sawn myself in half with a blunt knife? No.

  "You know what Sadie is like - no one better. You inherited her backbone, her doggedness. "

  The big difference between my mom and me - besides the fact that she is dead normal and I'm a magic-handling freak - is that she's the real thing. She may have a slight problem seeing other people's points of view, but she's honest about it. She's a brass-bound bitch because she believes she knows best. I'm a brass-bound bitch because I don't want anyone getting close enough to find out what a whiny little knot of naked nerve endings I really am. "And her nasty temper," I said.

  Charlie smiled. "She knew your dad pretty well. Do you know she loved him? She really did. Still does, in her secret heart. Oh, she loves me, don't worry. And we're happy together - that's the point. She's happy running the admin side of Charlie's. "

  And ripping self-important assholes to shreds, I thought. But get under cover if there haven't been any self-important assholes around lately.

  "She was often joyful - euphoric - with your dad, especially at the beginning. But his wasn't a world she could live in. Mine is.

  "My guess is she got out of your dad's world when she did and took you with her because she knew what you were. I think she knew you were going to be someone pretty unusual. I think she was hoping that what she's given you - both by being your mom and by raising you in a place like Charlie's - is going to be enough. Enough ballast. When what your father gave you started coming out. "

  I'd already figured out that she hadn't included him in the Bad Cross Watch, so what I was in Charlie's version of events didn't include the possibility of a demon taint. On the whole I thought my version was more plausible than Charlie's. Possibly because it was more depressing.

  I drifted in a very Charlie-like manner over to the stool and sat down. I looked at my hands, which had a funny red-outlined light-dark edge. I thought about bad gene crosses. I put my head in my hands and closed my eyes.

  "What do you think, Sunshine?" said Charlie. "Is it going to be enough?"

  "I don't know," I said. "Charlie, I don't know. "

  August was less death-defying than usual in terms of temperature (which among other things meant that I hadn't had to beg Paulie not to quit) if not in terms of numbers of Earth Trek coachloads, and possibly, because all the heat August hadn't used had to go somewhere, we went straight into Indian Summer September, do not pass Go, do not collect two thousand blinks. So I got out all my least decent little-bit-of-nothing tank tops and wore them. The scar was visible but the skin was flat and smooth, no puckering, and the white mark itself seemed weirdly old and sort of half-worn-away-looking the way old scars get sometimes.

  I was still having trouble with the idea that what had happened that night counted as healing, but whatever it was, it had worked.

  I started going home with Mel a lot. He was glad to have me around - glad to stop arguing about my going to another doctor. He didn't know about Con, of course, but he knew plenty - too much - about recent events. He would know that I needed reassuring without knowing I needed to feel. . . human.

  This is really stupid, but I also discovered that I somehow believed that he was the one human at Charlie's who might be able to stop me in time if my bad genes suddenly kicked in and I picked up my electric cherry pitter and went for the nearest warm body. That he'd drown me efficiently in a vat of pasta sauce while everyone else was standing around with their mouths open wringing their hands and saying, who are we going to get to cover the bakery on such short notice?

  This was at its worst during Monday movie evenings. The Seddon living room had never seemed so small, or so packed with flimsy, vulnerable human bodies. If Mel didn't feel like going I didn't go either.

  As a romantic fantasy I don't think it's going to make it into the top ten - most women pining for the presence of their lovers aren't worrying about needing their homicidal tendencies foiled - but it did mean I felt a little safer with Mel around.

  I probably didn't believe it at all. I just didn't want to give him up. He was warm and breathing and had a heartbeat.

  Human. Yeah. I hadn't been willing to go see a specialist human doctor, as Mel had kept asking me to. No. I asked a vampire for help. And took it instantly when he offered it.

  Mel must have wondered what happened to the wound on my breast. But he didn't say anything. He was very good at not saying things. It had only been since the Night of the Table Knife that I'd begun to wonder if his reticence was for my sake or his.

  And if it was for his. . . No. I needed him to be steady, solid, secure. I needed it too badly to pursue that one. Too badly to wonder about the number of live tattoos he had. Even for a motorcycle thug.

  Another of the things I'd never thought about was the way when we went home together it was always his home. He'd been inside my apartment a handful of times. If we had an afternoon together we went hiking or went back to his place. If we had an evening together and we decided to go out, we went where he wanted to go because there wasn't anywhere I wanted to go. I knew his friends. He didn't know mine. His house wards were set to know me. Mine weren't set to know him.

  I didn't have friends. I had the coffeehouse. A few librarians - chiefly Aimil, who had been a Charlie's regular all her life - was as far afield as I went.

  It is halfway true t
hat if you are involved in a family coffeehouse you don't have a life. But only halfway. Mel had a life.

  I've said before that Mel had been a bit of a hoodlum in his younger days, although nobody seemed to be quite sure how much, or maybe his War service had wiped earlier misdeeds off the record. He wasn't old now but he'd had time to go wrong and then change his mind. There must have been signs he wasn't going wrong right, though, even at the time. Some of his tattoos were for pretty strange things. Some of them I didn't know the purpose of because when I'd asked he'd said "Um" and gone silent.

  Anybody who spent a lot of time on or about motorcycles would have a couple of the regulation anti-crushed-by-flying-metal-or-running-into-trees-at-high-speeds wards, either pricked into your skin or on a chain round your neck or a secret pocket in your belt or the soles of your biker boots. He had those. But he also had a seeing-things-clearly charm that I hadn't recognized when I saw it the first time: okay, a useful thing for someone on the wrong side of the law (or the wrong side of the battle zone) who needs to have his eyes peeled for trouble, but Mel's wasn't the conventional block-and-warn ward that most petty crooks used for the purpose.

  (You could sometimes half-identify the variety of malfeasant you were dealing with by whether or not you could see that ward. Scammers, of course, kept it well hidden: wouldn't do to have it dangling on a bracelet or tattooed on your wrist when you popped your cuffs at someone you were trying to schmooze. A couple of Mel's old gang who had also changed their minds about being professional bad guys had it on the backs of their gonna-punch-you-in-the-nose hands, so the guy who was about to get punched would see it on the fist being held under his nose. )

  Anyway. Mel still bought and sold motorcycles. He still drank beer with friends at the Nighthouse or the Jug. Wives and steady girlfriends (very occasionally boyfriends) were expected to show up if they wanted to. (Better yet, we were expected to talk. Of course the women who could talk about ignition mixtures and piston resistance were preferred, but you can't have everything. ) He'd bought a house in what had been Chesterfield but was now called Whiteout, the worst-Wars-hit section of New Arcadia, had it cleared and re-warded, and was slowly doing it over into something even my mother would recognize as habitable (although the motorcycle-refit garage on what had been the ground floor would probably have given her spasms). He loved cooking and Charlie's but he wasn't owned by them.

  I felt like maybe I should be asking to borrow his survival textbook. Maybe the problem was that the first chapters in it were about running away from home at fourteen and lying about your age, and then being a biker bandit for a few years before deciding that the fact you always seemed to wind up frying the sausages over the fire for everybody was maybe a pointer toward a different way of life with better retirement options, which five years of the Wars had given him plenty of time to consider.

  Mel would have understood why I drove out to the lake that night. He probably did understand without my telling him. I would have liked hearing him understand. But I didn't want to tell him. Because I couldn't - couldn't - tell him what happened after.

  But you don't have to talk when you're making love, and bodies have their own language. Also you don't have to use your eyes so much. There are other things going on.

  Meanwhile I was still reaching the wrong distance to pick up the edges of baking sheets and muffin tins or the handles of spoons, and fumbling them when I managed to grab them at all, and I walked into doors a little too often instead of through them. At least I knew the recipes I used all the time by heart and didn't have to bother peering at print midmix or identifying the lines on measuring jugs. Nor had I lost my sense of whether a batter or a dough was going together right or not, or what to do if it wasn't.

  I could tell Jesse and Pat about seeing in the dark and let them tell me what to do about it. Or with it. As far as my strange new talents went it beat hell out of Unusual Usages of Table Knives. And maybe if I told them I could bear to tell the people at Charlie's.

  Nobody had to know anything about why I could now see in the dark. Including the dark of the day.

  One day when Pat and John came in for hot-out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls at about six-thirty-two, I tipped them onto a plate myself and took them out while Liz was still yawning over the coffeepot. "You have some free time soon maybe?" I said, trying to sound casual in my turn. They both shifted in their seats, trying not to point like hunting dogs. Not very many people, even at Charlie's, are at their best at that hour, but it doesn't pay to be careless. And Mrs. Bialosky was there, pretending to read a newspaper while waiting for one of her confederates to turn up to make a clandestine report. "For you, Sunshine, anything," said Pat.

  "I'm off at two," I said.

  "Come round the shop," said Pat. "There are two desks in the entry, okay? You go up to the right-hand one and say Pat's expecting you and they'll let you straight in. "

  I nodded.

  There was a young woman at that desk with a nameplate and a sharp uniform and a sharp look like she should have had a rank to go on the nameplate, but what do I know? She hit two buzzers, one that opened the inner door and one that, presumably, warned Pat, because he came walking out to meet me before I'd gone very far down the faceless hallway Mel must have brought me out of the last night of the giggler's existence on this earth, but it was so characterless I was ready to believe I had crossed one of those distance-folding thresholds and was now on Mars. If so, Pat was there with me. Maybe we'd been on Mars that night too. "What if the wrong person showed up first and said you were expecting them?" I said.

  "I told them middling tall, skinny, weird-looking hair because it will have just been let out of being tied up in a scarf for working in a restaurant and you never comb it, wearing a fierce look," said Pat. "I was pretty safe. "

  "Fierce?" I said. I also thought, Skinny?, but I have my pride. The part about my hair is true.

  "Yeah. Fierce. Through here," and he opened a door and shepherded me through. This was, presumably, Pat's office. The chair behind the desk was empty, but had that pushed-back-someone-just-got-up look. Jesse was sitting on a chair to one side of the desk. "Someone I want you to meet," Pat said, nodding toward the other person in the room, who stood up out of her chair, and said in a rather stricken voice, "Hi. "

  Aimil.

  I looked at her and she looked at me. With my funny vision the sockets of her deep eyes and the hollows of her cheeks had a glittering dark periphery. "Okay," I said, planning not to lose my temper unless it was absolutely necessary. "What are you doing here?"

  "Tea?" said Pat blandly.

  "Tell me what Aimil is doing here first," I said.

  "Well, we're in putting-all-our-cards-on-the-table vogue now, aren't we?" said Pat, still bland. "Since the other night. So it's time you knew Aimil is one of us. "

  "One of you," I said. "SOF. And here I thought she was a librarian. "

  "Undercover SOF," Jesse said.

  "Part time," added Pat.

  "I am a librarian," said Aimil. "But I'm sometimes a - er - librarian for SOF too. "

  I thought about this. I'd known Aimil since I was seven and she was nine. She and her family had had Sunday breakfast at Charlie's most weeks for years, were already regulars when Mom started working there and then when I started hanging out there. She was one of the faces I recognized at my new school. I'd lost half a year being sick and then Mom crammed the crap out of me the second half of the year so I didn't lose a grade when I went back to school in the fall. (Yes, I mean crammed. Second grade is freaking hard work when you're seven or eight. ) In hindsight that was the beginning of Charlie's being my entire life: I didn't have time to make friends the six months I was being crammed. The only kids I met were kids who came to Charlie's, not that I got to know many of them because I wasn't allowed to annoy the customers. But Aimil used to ask for me, so I was allowed to talk to her. She talked to me because she felt sorry for me: I was weedy and undersized and
hangdog that half year, and always doing homework. I forget how it started - maybe she saw me sitting at the counter studying, which I was allowed to do when it wasn't too crowded.

  We'd managed to stay friends outside of school although not inside so much; two years is the Grand Canyon when you're a kid. She'd gone off to library school my junior year and did an internship at the big downtown library the year after I started working full time at Charlie's and we used to get together to complain about how hard working for a living was. Two years later she got a job at the branch library near Charlie's. Sometimes she still had Sunday morning breakfast at Charlie's with her parents.

  "When did you become SOF - undercover, part time, or hanging upside down on a trapeze?" I said. I did not sound friendly. I did not feel friendly.

  "Twenty months ago," she said quickly.

  I relaxed. Slightly. "Okay. So why did you?"

  Aimil sighed. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. " She glanced at Pat and Jesse. I glanced at Pat and Jesse too. If they looked any more bland and nonconfrontational they were going to dissolve into little puddles of glop.

  Aimil looked back at me. "You're not going to like this," she said.

  "I know," I said.

  "SOF monitors globenet usage for who likes to read up a lot on the Others," said Aimil. "That's how they found me. They have a note of everybody who subscribes to the Darkline. " Which included both her and me. In theory any heavy-duty line into the cosworld will let you look up anything you like on the globenet, and the parameters are drawn only by your subscription price and the weight of the line. But in practice it is a little more specific than that. The Darkline is what you are going to choose if what you are chiefly interested in is looking up all the latest the globenet could give you on the Others without going to a Darkshop or the library or some other public hook-in for it.

  If I'd ever given a passing real-world thought to anything outside my bakery, I would have known SOF must do stuff like monitor the Darkline. Which would mean they would know I used it. That, with my dad, was easily enough to interest them in me.

  If I'd ever given a passing real-world thought to it, which I hadn't. I'd lived in my own swaddled-up little world. I who had been the star pupil in June Yanovsky's vampire lit class. But that was the point, really. The Others were still something that happened between the covers of books like Vampire Tales and Other Eerie Matters. SOF shop talk overheard at Charlie's was just live stories. Dry guys happened, but never to anybody I knew. Vampires were out there, but nowhere near me.

  Until recently.

  "We'd already found you, of course," Pat said to me, "because of your dad. "

  "Yes," I said. "You could stop reminding me. Nothing wrong with your dad, is there?" I said to Aimil.

  Aimil laughed a little bitterly and bowed her head. As her bangs fell across her forehead they left flickering mahogany bars against her skin. I blinked. "Nothing that I know of. Or with my mom either. That's why it came as such a shock to them when I had two sets of adult teeth come in, one inside the other. Fortunately my mom has a cousin who's a dentist. A discreet dentist. And scared to death there might be something wrong with his blood. Also fortunately my second set wasn't the kind that keeps growing, although they were a funny shape. Once they were out they've stayed out. And my mom's cousin doesn't have anything to do with our branch of the family any more. But I'm not registered. Remember Azar?"

  I was already remembering Azar.

  He'd been the year between Aimil and me. My freshman year in high school, he was the only sophomore on the varsity football team. That was before his lower jaw began to drop and widen to hold the spectacular pair of tusks that started to grow at the same time. They took the tusks out, of course, but they couldn't do much reconstructive surgery on his face till his jaw stopped expanding. After the first surgery his family left town so that he could start school again somewhere they hadn't known him before. That was after he'd been registered. After our school had taken away all his sports awards because he was a partblood and must have had - ipso facto - an unfair advantage. Which is crap. And he'd been a nice guy. He wasn't stupid or a bully.

  "It's an interesting situation," Pat interrupted, "because one of SOF's official purposes is to find unregistered partbloods, register them, and fine their asses good, if not arrest them and throw them in jail, which happens sometimes too. One of SOF's unofficial purposes is to find certain kinds of unregistered partbloods, protect them from getting found out, and persuade them to work for us. We really like librarians. They tend to have tidy minds. "

  "Librarian partbloods are probably flash easy to find," said Aimil. "We'll be the ones who belong to Otherwatch and Beware. " These are the two biggest globenet trawlers for Other 'fo, exclusive to the Darkline. For a modest extra monthly fee you too can download eleventy jillion gigabytes every week and experience mental overkill paralysis, unless you are a trained member of SOF or a research librarian or a prune-faced academic and have a cyborg overdrive button for taking in 'fo. I didn't have the overdrive button. Besides, I'd always had a guilty preference for fiction. Since I seemed now to be living fiction, this proved to have been an entirely reasonable choice.

  "I spend a few hours every week reading certain threads and - well - following my nose. "

  "We contacted her because the filters she'd set up herself on her subscription passwords seemed to bring her a peculiarly high level of source traffic by Others and partbloods, not just about them. So we had her in for a few chats and once she softened up a little. . . "

  "Did someone turn blue for you too?" I said. Aimil smiled. "Yeah. "

  " - We found out that that nose of hers often told her when your actual Other had actual fingers on the keyboard, and that has sometimes been very interesting," said Jesse.

  "Especially when she picks up a sucker," said Pat.

  They all saw me freeze. "Hey, kiddo," said Pat. "That's kind of the point, you know? Nailing vampires. Remember?"

  I nodded stiffly. The rift - or did I mean rifts - in my life were getting deeper and wider all the time. I only just stopped myself from reaching up to touch the thin white scar on my breast. If any of these people had noticed that I'd spent the entire sweltering summer wearing high-necked shirts they hadn't mentioned it, and they weren't mentioning that I had suddenly stopped wearing them for a mere autumn burst of pleasantly warm weather either.

  "I - I just don't like talking about vampires," I said, after a moment. If one-fifth of the world's wealth - or possibly more - lay in vampire hands, of course there were a lot of them out there with not just basic com gear to handle their bloated bank balances but monster com networks that meant they had probably stopped noticing they weren't able to go outdoors in daylight. Plenty of human com techies never went out in daylight either. But com networks would include trog lines into the globenet. And some vampires who had them no doubt amused themselves chatting up humans.

  I knew this. But those vampires were scary faceless bogeypeople that SOF existed to deal with. What was I doing here in a SOF office?

  Partbloods sticking together, I suppose. What if I told them I didn't know I was one of the lucid ten percent? I shivered.

  Did Bo have a line into the globenet? He was a master vampire. Of course he did.

  Did Con?

  I shivered again. Harder.

  "Sunshine, I'm sorry" Aimil said. "I know it doesn't mean much, but sometimes when I'm tracking some - some thing, even that much contact, through however many miles of trog and ether, it starts to make me sick. I can't imagine what it must be like for you. "

  True.

  "Now, about that tea," said Pat.

  "You still haven't told me why you're here, like, today, now, this minute, in Pat's office," I said to Aimil.

  She shook her head. "Serendipity, I guess. I showed up this afternoon to plug in my usual report and Pat brought me in here, said I was about to meet an old friend who was also a
new recruit, and maybe I could reassure her that having anything to do with SOF doesn't automatically mean you're going to lose your interest in reading fiction and will wake up some morning soon with an overwhelming urge to wear khaki and start a firearm collection. "

  Pat, who was wearing navy blue trousers and a white shirt, said, "Hey. "

  "Navy blue and white are khaki too," said Aimil firmly. "But Rae, I didn't know it was you till you walked through the door. "

  "Then why are you saying you're sorry about what happened to me? What do you know about it?"

 
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