Sunshine, p.16
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       Sunshine, p.16

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 16

 

  We drove. Old county buildings quickly became Old Town, which turned almost as quickly into downtown and then rather more slowly into nothing-in-particular town, blocks of slightly shabby houses giving way to blocks of somewhat seedy shops and offices and back again. It wasn't a big city; we went over the line into what most of us called No Town far too soon. In the first place I didn't want to go there at all, in the second place I didn't like being reminded that it was so close. New Arcadia's only big bad spots are in No Town, which did compel a certain amount of evasive driving. Even a SOF car can only go where there are still roads, and urban bad spots get blocked off fast. But we weren't going nearly indirectly enough for me.

  Here moved out of the back of my mind into the front, like Large Zombie Rat getting up off your living room floor and following you into the kitchen where you realize that it's bigger and uglier than you thought, and its teeth are longer, and while zombies are really, really stupid, they're also really, really vicious. They're also nearly as fast as vampires, and since they don't just happen, they're made for a purpose, if one is coming after you, that's probably its purpose, and you're in big trouble.

  Here was getting worse. It was going to burst out of my skull and dance on the dashboard, and it wouldn't be anything anyone wanted to watch. "Stop," I said. Pat stopped. I tried to breathe. Zombie Rat seemed to be sitting on my chest, so I couldn't. I couldn't see it any more though - there didn't seem to be anything left but its little red eyes - no, its huge, drowning, no-color eyes -

  "I - can't - any - more - turn - around," I think is what I said. I don't remember. I remember after Pat turned around and started driving back toward Old Town. After what felt like a long time I began breathing again. I was clammy with sweat and my head ached as if pieces of my skull had been broken and the edges were grinding together. But Zombie Rat was gone.

  That had been far too much like the bad spot the SOF car hadn't protected us from, the day Jesse and Pat took me back out to the house on the lake. (Those no-color eyes. . . both mirror-flat and chasm-deep. . . if they were eyes. . . ) But we hadn't tried to drive through a bad spot. And this time it was just me. Pat and Jesse hadn't noticed anything. Except my little crisis.

  I didn't know if I was angrier at their making me try to do - whatever - or at the fact that I'd failed. I'd been to No Town when I was a teenager. It wasn't like I had no idea. Any teenager with the slightest pretensions toward being stark, spartan, whatever, which I'm afraid I had had, will probably give it a try if it's offered, and it will be offered. And No Town is a rite of passage; quite sensible kids go at least once. I'd been there more than once. Some of the clubs were pretty spartan by anyone's standards. Kenny said (out of Mom's hearing) this was still true. And it was also still true (Kenny said) that you dared each other to climb farther in, over the rubble around the bad spots, although nobody got very far. But I hadn't got any less far than anyone else, when I was his age.

  So had whatever-it-was moved there since my time, or was I just more sensitive now than I had been? No Town was actually a lot cleaner now than it had been when I was sixteen and seventeen, which was right after the Wars. Having been once captured by vampires, did I now overreact to their presence? If "overreact to vampires" wasn't a contradiction in terms.

  Or was this another horrible, specific one-off, like my having heard the giggler when no one else could?

  I didn't know if I wanted the answer to be yes or no. If it was no, then it might mean my sucker connection was general, which didn't bear thinking about. But if it was yes, then it meant I was picking up something to do with Bo. Which didn't bear thinking about.

  Unless it was Con. Unless this had been his daylight wards, protecting him, protecting us, in the company of a couple of sucker-hating SOFs.

  No. It wasn't Con. Whatever it was, it wasn't Con.

  Pat drove around into the SOF back lot again. Neither of them had said any word of blame or failure or frustration to me, although I felt I could hear them both thinking. Words like "triangulation. " I didn't know if they'd marked where I made them turn around. Probably. But neither of them mentioned it. Yet. "I'd take you straight to Charlie's but I don't think you want the neighborhood seeing you show up in a SOF car," Pat said, as offhand as if we'd been buying groceries.

  I started to shake my head - unmarked SOF cars were like SOFs out of uniform; you still knew - but changed my mind. "Thanks. " I fumbled for the door handle.

  "Do you want to come back in? You look a little. . . worn. There are a few bedrooms in the back. They're pretty basic but they have beds and they're quiet. Or I could run you home. "

  This time I did manage to shake my head. Carefully. "No. Thanks. I'm going for a walk. Clear my head. " The last thing I wanted to do was lie down in a small dark room and try to go to sleep. I didn't want to go home either. There might be a dead rat in the living room.

  I got out of the car, lifted my face to the sunlight. It felt like a good fairy's kiss. Except good fairies don't exist.

  As I walked toward the exit Pat called after me, "Hey. Didn't you want to tell us something? When you came in. "

  I looked at him, at the way the shadows fell across his face. He was leaning on the roof of the car, which was unmarked-cop-car blue. That was probably why the shadows in the hollows of his eyes, his upper lip, his throat, looked blue. "I forget now," I said. "It'll come back to me. "

  Pat smiled a little: a twitch of the lips. "Sorry, Sunshine. "

  I raised a hand and turned away again. He said softly, "See you. " He could have meant only that he'd see me at Charlie's, where we'd seen each other for years. But I knew that wasn't what he meant. I went for a long walk. I spiraled slowly through Old Town, from the outside edge, where SOF headquarters and City Hall lie on the boundary between Old Town and downtown, to the next circle where the area library and the Other Museum and the older city buildings are, through several small parks and down the long green aisle of General Aster's Way (purple in autumn with michaelmas daisies, some municipal gardener's idea of a joke), and then into the back streets of Charlie's neighborhood, where everyone gets lost occasionally, even people who have lived there all their lives, like Charlie and Mary and Kyoko. I was used to getting lost. I didn't mind. I'd come to something I recognized eventually.

  I wandered and thought about the latest thing I didn't want to think about. There seemed to be so many things I didn't want to think about lately.

  I didn't want to think about my increasing sense that something had happened to Con.

  And that it mattered.

  There is no fellowship between humans and vampires. We are fire and water, heads and tails, north and south. . . day and night.

  Maybe I was imagining the bond. Maybe it was a way of dealing with what had happened. Like post-traumatic thingummy.

  Con himself said the bond existed, but he could be wrong too. Vampires are deadly, but no one says they're infallible.

  I blinked my treacherous eyes, watching the things in the shadows slither and sparkle. I had plenty to worry about already. I didn't have to worry about vampires too. One vampire. The last thing I wanted to be doing was worrying about him.

  No, the next to last thing. The last thing I wanted was to be bound to him.

  I hadn't thought I had any - did I mean innocence? - to lose, after those two nights on the lake. I didn't know you could go on finding out you'd had stuff by losing it. This didn't seem like a very good method to me.

  Over two months of being slowly poisoned probably hadn't been really good for me either. And the nightmares had been bad. But in a way they'd still been pure. I'd made a mistake - a mistake I'd paid dearly for - but it had been a mistake.

  A month ago, I'd called on Con. Okay, I was at the end of my tether. But I'd still asked a vampire for help - not Mel, not a human doctor of human medicine. And he'd helped me. The nightmares I'd had since weren't pure at all.

 
My thought paused there, teetering on the edge of a precipice, and then fell over.

  What if it hadn't been a mistake, driving out to the lake? What if I'd had to do it - if not that exact thing, then something similar. What if that restlessness I hadn't been able to name had caused exactly what it was meant to cause?

  That question I hadn't asked Con, out by the lake, is my dad another of your old enemies? Or your old friends?

  Between the dark thoughts inside my head and the leaping, glittery shadows my eyes saw, I had to stop. I was at the edge of Oldroy's Park. I groped my way to a bench and sat down.

  I sat there, and stared at the tree opposite me, and the way the rough ridges of its bark seemed to wiggle where they lay in shade. My thoughts were stuck on that night at the lake. I never liked coincidence much, but I hated the sense I was making now.

  I watched the wiggling bark. It occurred to me that this was new. I'd been seeing into shadows, but merely what was there, as if there was a rather erratic light on it. This was something else. Which gave me something I could bear to think about, so I thought about it. A few more minutes passed and it seemed to me it was as if I was watching the tree breathing. I found a leaf in shadow, and looked at it for a while; it twinkled, as if with tiny starbursts, but rather than thinking ugh - weird, I kept watching, till there seemed to be a pattern. I thought, it's as if I'm watching its pores opening and closing. I looked down at my hands. The shadows between the fingers gleamed like a banked fire. The tiny shadows laid by the veins on the backs of them were a tiny, flickering dark green edged with a tinier, even more flickering red. The daylight part of the veins looked as it always did. In the shadow places I could see the blood moving.

  I was sitting in sunlight, not shade. I automatically chose sun if there was any sun to be had. I remembered the sun on my back the first morning at the lake, like the arm of a friend. I closed my eyes.

  I heard the footsteps but I didn't expect them to pause.

  "Pardon me," said a voice. "Are you all right?" ;

  I opened my eyes. An old woman stood there, a little bent over, leaning on the handle of her two-wheeled shopping cart. "You look - tired," she said. "Can I fetch you anything? There is a shop on the corner. And it has a pay phone. Can I call someone for you?"

  She had a nice face. She would be someone you would be glad to have as a neighbor, or as a regular at the coffeehouse you and your family ran. I looked at the shadows that fell half across her face and saw. . . I don't know how. . . that she was a partblood. And that something about my expression was maybe making her guess I might be going through finding that out about myself. And remembering how hard this was she was going to ask me, a total stranger, if I was all right.

  I hauled myself back into the ordinary world, and the vision faded. The shadows that fell across her face reverted to being the usual, disorienting, see-through, funny-edged shadows I'd been seeing for a month. She smiled. "I'm sorry to disturb you. I - er - I thought you might perhaps - er - "

  "Want to be disturbed?" I said. "Yes. Isn't it. . . silly. . . how. . . upsetting. . . just thinking can be?"

  "It's not silly at all. The insides of our own minds are the scariest things there are. "

  Scarier than vampires? I thought. Scarier than an affinity for vampires? Well. That was what she'd said, wasn't it? What my mind contained was an affinity for vampires.

  She was fishing around in her cart and pulled out a package of Fig Carousels and another of Chocolate Pinwheels. I laughed. She smiled at me again. "Which?" she said, holding them out toward me. I hadn't had a Pinwheel in fifteen years, although the secret recipe for Sunshine's Killer Zebras was the later result of a three-pack-a-week pre-Charlie's childhood. I pointed to the Pinwheels. She tore open the packet, sat down, and offered it to me. "Thank you," I said. She took one too.

  We sat in silence for a while, and did away with several more Pinwheels. "Thank you," I said again.

  "Maud," she said. "I'm Maud. I live - there," and she pointed to one of the old townhouses that surrounded the little park. "I sit here often, in warm weather. I've found it's a good place for thinking; I like to believe Colonel Oldroy was a pleasant fellow, which is why the disagreeable thoughts seem to fall away if you sit here. "

  Colonel Oldroy had been one of those military scientist bozos who spent decades locked up in some huge secret underground maze because whatever they were doing was so superclassified that the existence of a lab to do it in was confidential information. It still wasn't public knowledge where his lab had been, but Oldroy got the credit, or the blame, for the blood test SOF still used on job applicants. Before Oldroy there was no reliable test for demon partbloods. (Remember that demon is a hodge-podge word. A Were can't be a partblood; you either are one or you aren't. Anything else, anything alive that is, may be called a demon, although things like peris and angels will probably protest. ) Pretty much the first thing that Oldroy discovered was that he was a partblood. He'd retired before they had a chance to throw him out, and spent the last twenty years of his life breeding roses, and naming them things like Lucifer, Mammon, Beelzebub, and Belphegor. Belphegor, under the less controversial name Pure of Heart, was a big commercial success. Mom had a Pure of Heart in her back yard. Oldroy may not have had a very happy life, but it sounded like he'd had a sense of humor. I wondered if he'd had anything to do with synthesizing the drug that made partbloods piss green or blue-violet but pass his blood test, or with setting up the bootleg mentor system.

  "Sometimes you have help," I said. "Sometimes people come along and offer you Chocolate Pinwheels. "

  "Sometimes," she said.

  "I'm Rae," I said. "Do you know Charlie's Coffeehouse? It's about a quarter mile that way," I said, pointing.

  "I don't get that far very often," she said.

  "Well, some time, if you want to, you might like to try our Killer Zebras. There's a strong family resemblance. . . Tell whoever serves you that Sunshine says you can have as many as you can carry away, to bring back to this park and eat. In the sunshine. "

  "Are you Sunshine then too?"

  I sighed. "Yes. I guess. I'm Sunshine too. "

  "Good for you," she said, and patted my knee.

  I got home that night at about nine-thirty and had a cup of cinnamon and rosehip tea and stared out at the dark and thought. There was at least one good result of my negative epiphany that afternoon in Oldroy Park: there seemed to me suddenly so many worse things that worrying about Con seemed clean and straightforward. He had saved my life, after all. Twice. Never mind the extenuating circumstances. I stood on my little balcony and remembered: I could not come to you if you did not call me, but if you called I had to come.

  "Constantine," I said quietly, into the darkness. "Do you need me? You have to call me if you do. You told me the rules yourself. "

  He'd said Bo was after us. And that Bo would make a move soon. I rather thought that "soon" in this instance meant a definition of soon that humans and vampires could agree on. Con should have been back before now to tell me what was going on, what we were going to do. How far he'd got in tracing Bo. He hadn't.

  There was something wrong.

  I slept badly that night, but this was getting to be so usual that it was an effort to try to decide if the nightmares I'd had were the kind I should pay attention to or not. I decided that they probably were, but I didn't know what kind of attention to pay, so I wasn't going to. I went in to work, turned my brain off, and started making cinnamon rolls, and garlic-rosemary buns for lunch. Then I made brown sugar brownies, Rocky Road Avalanche, Killer Zebras, and a lot of muffins, and then it was ten-thirty and I had the lunch shift free.

  I had pulled my apron off and was about to untie my scarf when Mel's hand stopped me long enough for him to kiss the back of my neck. I shook my hair out and said "Yes" and we went back to his house together and spent some time on the roof. There's nothing nicer than making love outdoors on a warm sunny day, and thi
s late in the year it felt like getting away with something too.

  Mel used to laugh, sometimes, right after he came, in this gentle, surprised way, as if he'd never expected to be this happy, and then he'd kiss me, thoughtfully, and I'd hang on to him and hope that I was reading the signs right. That afternoon was one of those times. He'd wound up on top, which, I admit, I had slightly engineered, since there was a bit of an autumnal breeze snaking around and it was nice and warm under Mel's body. His breath smelled of coffee and cinnamon. We lay there some time afterward - I loved that butterfly-wings feeling of a hard-on getting unhard inside me - and while we lay there I was all right and the world was all right and everything that might not be all right was on hold. And it was daylight and with my treacherous eyes shut I could just lie there and feel the sunshine on my face.

  After a comfortable, rather dreamy lunch he went downstairs to take apart or put together some motorcycle and I went off to the library. I wanted to talk to Aimil.

  She looked up from her desk, smiled faintly and said, "I have a break in, uh, forty minutes," and went back to whatever she was doing.

  I had a pass through the NEW shelves where there was a book hysterically titled The Scourge of the Other. It was a good two inches thick. I considered stealing it and putting it through the meat grinder at Charlie's, but the library would only buy another one and the detritus of ink and binding glue probably wouldn't do the quality of Charlie's meatloaf any good. I knew without picking it up that the chapters would have rabble-rousing headings like "The Demon Menace" and "The Curse of the Were. " I wasn't going to guess what noun was desperate enough for vampires. Four months ago I would have just scowled. Today it gave me a hard-knot-in-pit-of-stomach feeling. It was turning out I had a lot of Other friends. And Con, of course, whatever he was. Con, are you all right?

  My tea was already steeping when I went back to the tiny staff kitchen to find Aimil. "So, how did it happen?" I said.

  She didn't bother to ask how did what happen. "I knew about your SOFs at Charlie's because you told me about them. "

  "I told you so you wouldn't stop speaking to me because I seemed to like some guys who wore khaki and navy blue. "

  "That they were SOF was supposed to help?"

  "They told the best Other stories. "

  "I guess. I could have done without the one. . . never mind. Anyway, so I recognized them when they came here. One day Pat and Jesse asked if I'd come by the SOF office some day for a chat - I hadn't realized you could feel surrounded by two people, you know? - and what was I going to say, no? So I said yes. And then they asked me if I'd be interested in doing a little work for SOF and of course I said no, and then they started working around to telling me they weren't so interested that I was a reference librarian as they were interested in what I was doing with Otherwatch and Beware. They seemed to know what I was doing at home too, and before I totally freaked Pat held his breath and turned blue. I said, what's to prevent me reporting you? And he said, because you're another one. . . I have no idea how they found out. " Aimil stopped, but she didn't stop like end-of-the-story stop.

  "And?" I said.

  She sighed. "Rae, I'm sorry. They also said, because you're a friend of Sunshine's. "

  There was no window in the little library staff kitchen. I wanted sunlight. What had my friendship to do with anything? She'd been working for SOF for almost two years. "And you didn't tell me. "

  Aimil walked over to the door and closed it gently. I didn't want anyone to hear us either, but my spine started prickling with claustrophobia, or dark-o-phobia anyway. "I'm sorry," said Aimil. "It's only been since I've been working for them that I've started. . . have been able to start thinking of myself as Other. As a partblood. The best way to pass is to believe in the role, you know? My parents know, of course, but they haven't made any attempt to find out where it comes from. None of my brothers had anything weird happen to them, and so far as I know they don't know about me. I haven't told my family I'm SOF, and I haven't - hadn't - told anyone I'm partblood. Who was I going to tell? Why? The only person who would have a right to know is the father of my children, and I'm not going to have children and pass this on. I hope none of my brothers' kids. . . well. Because I'd have to tell them then. "

  I didn't say anything right away. "When did you find out?"

  "Yeah," said Aimil. "Right about the time I met you. You looked as lost as I felt. And then it turned out we got along, and. . . "

  "Did everyone but my mother and me assume that who my dad was was public knowledge?"

  "It wasn't quite that bad. "

  I looked at her.

  She said reluctantly, "It was maybe worse during the Voodoo Wars but by then everyone knew you, and your mom had married Charlie, and Charlie's family has lived in Old Town forever, and you were normal by context, you know? And then you had two dead-normal little pests for brothers. Nobody ever, ever caught you doing anything weird at school - you seemed just as fascinated as the rest of us when some of the Ngus and Bloodaxes and so on talked about magic handling. I don't deny that a few people looked at you a little sideways. "

  I'd let my tea sit too long, but the bitterness in my mouth seemed appropriate.

  "You were into cooking, Rae. And a generation or two ago the Blaises were top dog, sure - "

  Were they, I thought. So many things my mother never told me. Although I couldn't really blame her for my avoiding reading globenet articles that mentioned the Blaises. Could I? I'd wanted to be Rae Seddon.

  "You still heard a little about them at the beginning of the Wars. . . but then it's like what was left of them disappeared. So maybe you were genuinely normal, you know? Most people say that magic handling runs out in families sooner or later. "

  "The SOFs didn't think so," I muttered. Disappeared. Bo's lot brought me a Blaise. And, not just a third cousin who can do card tricks and maybe write a ward sign that almost works, but Onyx Blaise's daughter.

  Onyx Blaise.

  Whose mother taught his daughter to transmute. How did the people who were looking at me sideways count those one or two generations? What else could my gran do? Had she done?

  Disappeared how?

  "And nobody gets more normal than your mom. "

  True. I would think about how to thank her for my very well embedded normalcy later. It might be difficult to choose between cyanide and garrotting.

  "Can we go outside?" I said.

  The sun was behind a cloud but daylight is still better than indoors. "Aimil. I want to ask you a favor. "

  "Done. "

  "Okay. Thanks. It's what SOF wants me to do - try and get some location fix on one of your creepy cosmails. But I want to do it somewhere that isn't behind proofglass. "

  "In daylight," said Aimil. "Okay. We'll do it at my house. My next afternoon off is Thursday. "

  "I'll find someone to swap with. "

  "It's not only the proofglass, is it? It's also SOF. You don't want to do it just because SOF tells you to. "

 
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