Sunshine, p.17
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       Sunshine, p.17

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 17

 

  I nodded. "I know they're the good guys and everything, but. . . "

  "I know. Once I found out they were watching me I changed the way I do some stuff. They are good guys and I do work for them and I don't mind - much. But it's all a little nomad for me. And I still have this silly idea that my life belongs to me. "

  There were good reasons Aimil and I were friends.

  I went home that night and stood on the balcony again and said to the darkness, "Con, Constantine, are you all right? If you need me, call me to you. "

  For a moment I felt. . . something. Like a twitch against your line when you're half asleep or thinking about something else. It may be a fish and it may be the current. . . but it may be a fish. (I'd learned to fish because Mel taught me, not because I longed to impale small invertebrates on barbed hooks and rip hell out of piscine oral cavities and smother fellow oxygen breathers in an alien medium. ) The flicker itself made me think I was half asleep or thinking about something else, because I was straining after any sign whatsoever. And it was gone again at once.

  Thursday afternoon wasn't flash ideal but I managed. Paulie was a little too not-sorry to change his single weekly four-thirty-in-the-morning shift for another afternoon that Thursday, and he hadn't made up the one he'd missed our last thirteen-day week yet either. I'd worry about just how not-sorry he was later. Meanwhile I got up at three a. m. to do a little extra baking like I had a point to make. As I drank the necessary pint-mug of blacker-than-the-pit-of-doom tea to get me going I stood on the balcony again, testing for quivers in the current. All I got was a stronger sense that there was something wrong; but I was good at feeling there was something wrong even when there wasn't - something I'd inherited from my mother - and there was nothing in this case but my own glangy unease to look at.

  There are advantages to driving an old wreck instead of a modern car; wrecks bounce around and jerk at your hands on the wheel and help keep you awake. The charms in the glove compartment were more restless than usual too: I think they were objecting to the driving. By the time I got off work at noon I felt it had been several years since I'd had any sleep, and I had a nap instead of lunch. I brought sandwiches in a bag, and Aimil had a pot of tea waiting for me.

  It was another gray day, but Aimil had pulled the combox table around so that the chair backed up against the window, which she had opened. What daylight there was fell on me as I sat there, and there was a little wind that stroked my hair.

  "Where do you want to start?" said Aimil. "With the bingo! one from the other day, or do you want to start fresh?"

  I hadn't thought about it. Good beginning. It was so hard to screw myself to do anything, the details got a bit lost. . .

  Who - or what - was I looking for? Con? Or Bo? Since I was doing it alone with Aimil I wasn't trying to make Pat and Jesse happy. So what was going to make me happy? Define happy.

  But if I found something on the other side of the real globe that Pat and Jesse would get all tangled up in negotiations with their local SOF equivalents over, it might get them out of my hair.

  Finding Bo wasn't going to make me happy, but I didn't want to look for Con with anyone else around, even Aimil. Which left Bo or the Unknown. The Unknown, at the moment, was unknown. Bo, on the other hand, was after me. Bo, then.

  "Let's start with bingo. "

  Aimil brought up the file, highlighted the cosmail I wanted, and stepped back. I squinted at the screen. I could see the winking bar of highlighting, and the button was under my finger. I pressed.

  It was like hands around my throat, a crushing, splintering weight on my breast; there was also a horrible, horrible pressure against my eyes, my poor dark-dazzled eyes. . . I was lost in the dark, I no longer knew which way was up and which down, I was vertiginous, I was going to be sick. . .

  No.

  I steadied myself. I found an. . . alignment. Somewhere. Somewhere, reaching in the dark. . . I was. . . no, I wasn't standing. There didn't seem to be anything to stand on, and I wasn't sure there was any of me to stand with. If my feet had disappeared, then perhaps it wasn't surprising that my eyes - no, my sight - had disappeared too. This wasn't just darkness: this was what came after. This was the beyond-dark. And I could only see in the dark. My eyes were still there - or perhaps they were now my non-eyes - I couldn't see with them and blinking no longer seemed relevant, but the pressure was there. And why was it so difficult to breathe? Especially since at the same time breathing seemed as irrelevant as blinking. Why did I want to breathe?

  Where was I? I was - stretched - along some intangible line; a compass needle. Compass needles don't mind the dark. Although I doubted I was pointing toward anything like a north that I'd recognize back in the real world. Maybe I'd found where Aimil's cosmail had come from. But where was here? And was there some clue I could take back with me to the world I knew?

  If I could get back there.

  I experimented with moving. Moving didn't seem to be an option. I was too much like nothing, here, in this nonplace, in the beyond-dark. Right, okay, next time I come I'll organize my question better going in. . .

  Next time, presupposing I get out of this time alive.

  I was grateful for the pressure against my eyes, the difficulty breathing; it made me feel I still existed. . . somehow. Somewhere.

  I was a magic handler, a stuff changer, a Blaise by blood, and lately, by practice. Not much practice but growing all the time.

  I remembered another sense of alignment, when I had changed my little knife to a key. I reached for that sense. No, I reached for my knife. It shouldn't have been there, and I had no fingers to feel for it, but I was suddenly aware of it. I couldn't see it, but I knew that it was a light even in this darkness. And by its invisible light I could. . . see. See. Feel. Hear. Smell. Live. . .

  I heard a rustle, like leaves in a breeze. And for a moment I stood on four slender furred legs and I could feel and hear and smell as no human could.

  And then I was back again, sitting in Aimil's living room, and her hand was reaching through my powerless fingers and pressing the button. The screen went dark. "That was not good," she said.

  "What - happened?" I was amazed at the sense of my body sitting in the chair, of gravity, of sight (light; twinkly shadows), of fingers on a keyboard, feet against a floor. Vampire senses are different from human in a number of ways. Had I - ? What had I - ?

  The leaves laid sun-dapples on my brown back as I stood at the edge of the woods with the golden field before me. I raised my black nose to the wind, cupped my big ears forward and back to listen.

  Yeek. My human fingers closed on my knife. I was still in Aimil's living room.

  "You were gone," said Aimil. "Not long - ten seconds or so - just long enough for me to take two steps and reach for the button. But your body didn't have you in it. " She sat down, suddenly, on the floor. "Do you know where you went?" She bowed her head between her knees, and then tipped her face back and looked up at me. "Do you know?"

  I shook my head. Experimenting with motion. I remembered the void, the alignment, the other senses - my little knife. My tree. My. . . doe. I wondered, when she had accepted the death she knew she could not escape, if she knew what her death was for, if that could have made any difference, if that was why she. . . I touched the knife-bulge in my pocket. It felt no different than it ever had. We sat in daylight; if I took it out it would look like any other pocketknife. The second blade, which I rarely used, would be covered with pocket lint; the first blade, which I used all the time, would need sharpening. Folded up it was about the length of my middle finger, and a little wider and deeper; it was scraped and gouged by years in a series of pockets, sharing cramped quarters with things like loose change and car keys. And it glowed in the dark, even in the beyond-dark of the void. Glowed like a beacon that said, "Hold on. I've got you. Here. "

  I felt - carefully - after my experience of nowhere, of beyond-d
ark. Had I brought anything back after all, anything I could use?

  Yes. But I didn't know what it was. It wasn't anything so straightforward as a direction.

  "Not caffeine after that," said Aimil, still on the floor. "Scotch. " She got up on all fours and reached to the little cabinet next to her sofa. "And don't even ask me if you want to try again, because the answer is no. "

  I looked at her when she gave me a small heavy glass with a finger's width of dark amber liquid in it, about the color of the thin wooden plates set into the sides of my little knife. "We won't try it again today," I said. "But we have to try again. "

  "No, we don't," she said. "Let SOF figure it out. It's what they're for. "

  "If they could figure it out they wouldn't be asking us. "

  "The Wars are over," she said.

  "Not exactly," I said, after a pause. "Didn't Pat tell you - "

  "Yes, he told me we'll all be under the dark in a hundred years!" she said angrily. "I know!"

  I slid down to join her on the floor. I felt like a collection of old creaking hinges. I leaned over and put an arm around her. "I don't want to know either. "

  After a moment she said, "There have been two more dry guys in Old Town this last week. Have you heard about them?"

  "Yes. " It had been on the news a few days ago - great stuff to hear when you're driving alone in the dark - and Charlie and Liz had been talking about it when I brought the first tray of cinnamon rolls out front. They had fallen silent. I pretended I hadn't heard anything and toppled the first burning-hot roll onto a plate for Mrs. Bialosky. She patted my hand and said, "Don't you worry, sweetie, it's not your fault. " Because she was Mrs. Bialosky I almost believed her, but I made the mistake of looking up, into her face, when I smiled at her, and saw the expression in her eyes. Oh. I almost patted her hand back and told her it wasn't her fault either, but it wouldn't have done any good. I guess I wasn't surprised to find out that Mrs. Bialosky wasn't only about litter and rats and flower beds.

  "I wouldn't have joined SOF just because Pat can turn blue " Aimil said. "Working in a proofglassed room gives me asthma. Even part-time. Or maybe it's just all the guys in khaki. "

  I went back to Charlie's for the dinner shift, but Charlie took one look at me and said, "I'll find someone to cover for you. Go home. "

  "I'll go when you find someone," I said, and lasted two hours, by which time poor Paulie had agreed to give up the rest of his night off after being there all afternoon. Teach him to be glad to escape the four-thirty-in-the-morning shift. I was home by eight-thirty; it was just full dark. Charlie had sent me home with a bottle of champagne that had a glass and a half left in it: perfect. I stood on my balcony and drank it and looked into the darkness. The darkness danced.

  I had had an idea. I didn't like it much, but I had to try it. I went back indoors and unplugged my combox. It's never quite dark under the sky, and I didn't have curtains for the balcony windows. I tucked the box under my arm, ducked into my closet, and closed the door. This was real darkness. There wasn't a lot of room in there, but I swept a few shoes aside and sat down. Turned the box on, listened to the resentful hum of the battery; it was an old box, and preferred to run off a wire. The screen came up and asked me if I wanted to enter the globenet. I sat there, staring at the glowing lettering. In the darkness, it didn't flicker at all, it didn't run away into millions of tiny skittish dwindling dimensions, like looking into a mirror with another one over your shoulder. I read it easily.

  I liked it even less that my idea had worked. At least I didn't have to use a combox at Charlie's. It would have been difficult to explain why I needed a closet.

  I brought the box back out of the closet and plugged it in on my desk. Not that I invited people home very often but I was touchy about looking normal even to myself now that I was behaving more like Onyx Blaise's daughter. Your combox on a desk is much more normal than your combox in a closet. Could my dad see in the dark? Could any of my dad's family? I couldn't remember any of them except my gran: the rest were tall blurry shapes from my earliest childhood. Aimil was right: the Blaises had disappeared during the Wars. But I hadn't noticed. I had been busy being my mother's daughter. Even if I wanted to contact them I had no idea how.

  I could ask Pat or Jesse. Right after I told them I had a brand-new hotline to Vampire World the new horror theme park. It would blow the Ghoul Attack simulation at the Other Museum clean out of the water. It would make the Dragon Roller Coaster Ride at Monsterworld look like a merry-go-round. Just as soon as we get a few little details worked out, like how you get there. And how you get away again. Meanwhile I still hadn't told them that I could see in the dark. Would I have told them a few days ago, if Aimil hadn't been there? It was what I'd gone in to tell them.

  I went back to the balcony. I felt for an alignment. I stood at the edge of the void, but I stood in my world, on my ordinary feet, looking at ordinary darkness with my. . . not quite ordinary eyes.

  Constantine. Con, are you there?

  This time I was sure I felt that tug on the line streaming in the dark ether - a coherent pinprick of something in the incoherent nothing. But I lost it again.

  I was so tired I was having to prop myself against the railing to stay standing up.

  So I went indoors and went to bed.

  Meanwhile on other fronts I was adapting. I usually hit it right the first time when I reached for the spoon or the flour sack or the oven control. I hadn't walked into a door in several days.

  After the vision had risen like a tide and floated me off my grounding in Oldroy Park, after I'd seen what I'd seen in Maud's face - whether it was there or not, since I could hardly ask her - when the vision subsided and left me standing on solid earth again, some of the dizziness had subsided too. It was as if the dark was a kind of road map I'd been folding up wrong, and this time I'd got it right, and it would lie flat at last. Although road maps didn't generally keep unfolding themselves and flapping at you saying Here! Here! Pay attention, you blanker! I thought: it is a road map of sorts. But it was about a country I didn't know, labeled in a language I didn't understand. And it didn't unfold so much as erupt.

  I didn't know if I'd seen what I'd seen in Mrs. Bialosky's face either, the morning she'd told me not to worry.

  So, which did I like better: that my affinity was growing stronger, that it could pull me out of the human world into some dark alien space, or that I was merely going mad and/or had an inoperable brain tumor after all? Did I have a third choice?

  I worked pretty well straight through that day and got home in time to have a cup of tea in the garden. Yolande's niece and her daughters had left after a two-week visit and it was none of my business but I was secretly delighted to have our garden to ourselves again. Yolande came out and joined me. I watched a few late roses do a kind of waltz with their shadows as a mild evening breeze played with them. Then I watched Yolande. I'd always liked watching her: I wished she could bottle that self-possession so I could have some. It was a little like Mel's, I thought, only without the tattoos. I was feeling tired and mellow and was enjoying this so much it took me a while to realize something strange.

  The shadows lay quietly across Yolande's face.

  I snapped out of being mellow and stared at her. She saw me looking and smiled. I jerked my eyes away hastily. What? How? Why? What could I ask her?

  Nothing.

  I looked at her again. The shadows on her face were quiet, but they went. . . down a long way. Like looking into the sky.

  What did I know about her? She had inherited this house from some distant relative who had also been childless and felt the spinsters of the world needed to stick together. She'd moved here from Cold Harbor when she retired. I didn't recall she'd ever told me what she retired from. She had that calm strong centeredness I thought of as ex-teacher, ex-clergy, ex-healersister or midwife; I couldn't imagine her as someone in a power suit navigating a desk with a combox screen t
he size of a tennis court and a swarm of hot young assistants in an outer office whose haircuts were specially designed to look chic wearing globenet headsets ten hours a day.

  I couldn't ask. If she'd wanted to tell me it would have come up long ago. It probably had nothing to do with what she'd done for a living anyway. It was probably like having freckles or curly hair or transmuting ability: you're born with it. But things like transmuting ability tend to lead to other choices. . . "I don't think you've ever told me what you retired from," I blurted out.

  "I was a wardskeeper," she said easily, as if she was commenting on the pleasantness of the evening, as if my question wasn't entirely rude.

  Wardskeeper.

  I wanted to laugh. No wonder her house wards were so good. You didn't earn that title easily. There were hundreds of licensed wardcrafters, first, second, and third class, for every wardskeeper. The rank of wardskeeper granted an unrestricted authority to design and create any protection against any Others that any client wished to hire you for. Even wardskeepers had specialties: large business, small business, home, personal bodyguard, and the whole murky business of watchering, which ranged from honest protective surveillance to downright spying. But you didn't get your wardskeeper insignia unless you could make a more than competent stab at all of it.

  Wardskeeper. She must then. . . her own house. . . but Con. . . I realized I'd said the first word aloud - I hoped only the first word - because she was answering me.

  "No, I'm not your idea of a wardskeeper, am I?" she said. "I was never anyone's idea. But once I was established, new business came to me by word of mouth, and my prior clients usually had the good sense to warn future clients that they were going to meet a drab little old lady - I have been old and drab since my teens, by the way - who gave the impression of being hardly able to cross the road by herself. " She looked at me, smiling. "I admit that crossing the road alone has never been one of my greater gifts. Cars move much too quickly to suit me, and frequently from unexpected directions. I was always a much better maker of wards. "

  I couldn't think how to ask my next question. I couldn't even summon up the spare attention to hoot at the idea of Yolande being drab.

  "But then," she went on, almost as if she was reading my mind, "people often are not what one might expect them to be. I would not expect a young, likable, sensible - and sun-worshipping - human woman who works in her family's restaurant to have a friend who is a vampire. "

  Then I could say nothing at all.

  "My dear," Yolande said, "I have now told you almost as much as I know about your private affairs. Yes, there are more wards about this house and garden than you are aware of, and the fact that you haven't been aware of them is perhaps an indication to me that I have not yet lost my skill. I knew, of course, that a vampire had been visiting, but I also knew that you had not merely invited him in, but that you were under no coercion to do so. A good ward, my dear, will also prevent a forced invitation from achieving its object. And my wards are good ones.

  "It took no great effort of intellect to puzzle out some of what happened to you during the two days you were missing last spring, especially not with the reek of vampire on you. Sherlock Holmes - do young people still read him, I wonder? - made the famous statement that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. This is a very useful precept for a maker of wards, and I am not, perhaps, wholly retired. Vampires, as vampires will, caused you harm; but in this case, very unusually, not terminal harm. This one particular vampire therefore can be assumed to have done you some service, and that service created some kind of bond between you. This wild theory, suggestive of someone farther into her dotage than she wishes to believe, has been lately fortified when he returned, not once, but twice.

  "I know that your unlikely friend is a vampire, a male vampire, and that there is only the one of him whom you invite across your threshold. This I have found very reassuring, by the way. Had there been more than one, I think my determination to assume the best rather than the worst might have failed. Although I admit I have doubled the wards around my own part of the house. . . I have nothing to indicate that he is my friend too, you understand, and the human revulsion toward vampires generally is well justified. "

  Yolande leaned forward to look into my face. "In the roundabout way of an old lady who perhaps spends too much of her time alone, I am offering you my support, in this impossibly difficult task you have taken on. The natural antipathy between vampires and humans means, I feel, that it is some task; I doubt either you or your friend is enjoying the situation. I don't suppose your new SOF colleagues know about either the task or the friend, do they?"

  I managed to shake my head.

  "I am not surprised. I doubt SOF is very. . . adaptable. Lack of adaptability is the root cause of much trouble in large organizations. "

  I thought of Pat turning blue and smiled a little. But only a little. She was right about their attitude toward vampires. She was right about the universal human attitude toward vampires.

  "I had not planned to say anything to you. I had at first assumed that whatever happened four months ago was over. But the vampire taint on you remained: that wound in your breast was some vampire's handiwork, wasn't it?"

  So much for the camouflage provided by high-necked shirts. I nodded.

  "And then your friend came, and now there is no wound. The two events are related, are they not?"

  I nodded again.

  "That is as good a definition of friendship as I need. But. . . I will no longer call it a taint. . . the fleck, the fingerprint of the vampire is still upon you. I am afraid the metaphor that occurs to me is of the eater of arsenic. If you eat a very, very little of it, over time you can develop a limited immunity to it. I do not know why you should choose to. . . immunize yourself like this. Or why he should. . . My dear, forgive me if I have been a hopeless busybody. But your inevitable and wholly justified dismay, confusion, and preoccupation of four months ago has changed, certainly, but it has not decreased. It has increased - alarmingly so. "

  She paused, as if she hoped for an answer, but I could say nothing.

  "My dear, there is something else my wards have told me: that your nickname is more than an affectionate joke. I can believe no evil of someone who draws her strength from the light of day. If I can help you, I will. "

  The sense of a burden unexpectedly lifted was so profound it made me dizzy, not least that by its lifting I realized how heavy it was. I had assumed - I had known - that there was no one I would be able to tell about my unlikely friend - there was certainly no one I would have risked telling. And now Yolande had told me. There were two of us who knew.

  Maybe that meant the task was not impossible after all. Whatever the task was.

  Well, wiping Bo out would be a service to all humankind, certainly, whether Con and I survived or not. But offhand I couldn't see how even having a wardskeeper on our side was going to be useful. Besides, I had a selfish desire to stay alive myself. Bag the future of humanity.

  And Con was failing to show up to help me make plans. He was the one who had told me that time was short. The new dry guys in Old Town bore something of the same message.

  But there was now another human who knew about Con and me - and hadn't freaked out. I felt better even if I shouldn't've.

  "Thank you," I said.

  "Don't thank me yet," said Yolande. "I haven't done anything yet, except pry into your private affairs. I would not have done so if I had felt I could risk not enquiring into them. "

  Well, thank the gods and the angels for nosy landladies. This nosy landlady.

  "Is there such a thing as a - an - antiward? Something that attracts?" I said.

  Yolande raised her eyebrows.

 
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