Sunshine, p.30
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       Sunshine, p.30

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 30

 

  Of course I couldn't sleep. I would have liked to pretend - even to try to pretend - that it was because I wasn't used to sleeping during the day, but with the hours I sometimes kept at the coffeehouse I had to have learned to take naps during the day or die, and I had learned to take naps. Up until five months ago "something or other or die" had always seemed like a plain choice in favor of the something or other.

  Sleep was no friend today. Every time my heavy, aching eyes closed, some scene from the night before shot onto my private inner-eye movie screen, and I prized them open again and lay, dismally, in the soft golden sunlight of early autumn, surrounded by the smell of roses.

  I don't know how long I lay there. I turned on my side so I could watch the sunlight lengthen across the tawny floor as the sun rose higher, as the light reached out to pat my piles of books, embrace the desk, stroke the sofa, draw its fingers tenderly across my face. I was comfortable, and safe: safer than I'd been since before the night I drove out to the lake, and met Con. Bo was gone, Bo and Bo's gang. But I couldn't take it in. Or I couldn't take it in without. . . taking in everything it had involved. We'd done it, Con and I. We'd done what we set out to do, and, furthermore, what we'd known, going in, we wouldn't be able to do. Or I had known we wouldn't be able to do it. What I hadn't known was that I'd been counting on not being able to do it. And I'd been wrong. We'd done it. Done is a very thumping sort of word. I felt like I was hitting myself with a club.

  I didn't feel safe. I felt as if I was still waiting for something awful to happen. No. I felt as if the thing I most dreaded had arrived, and it wasn't death after all. It was me. I'm afraid of you. I'm afraid of me.

  As little as three months ago I'd thought that finding out I might be a partblood, and might as a result go permanently round the twist once the demon gene met up properly with the magic-handling gene, was the worst thing that could happen. It was the worst thing I could imagine. I'd pulled the little paper protector of disuse off the baking-soda packet of my father's heritage and dropped it into the vinegar of my mother's. The resultant fizz and seethe, I'd believed, was going to blow the top of my head off. Now those fears seemed about as powerful as the kitchen bomb every kid has to make once or twice to fire popcorn at her friends. I felt as if mere ordinary madness would have been a reprieve. I'd known about the bad odds against partbloods with human magic-handling in their background. I hadn't knovn anything about Bo. About what a thing like Bo could be.

  Black humor alert. And I still didn't know if my genes were getting ready to blow the top of my head off. Although it seemed to me they'd had the best opportunity any bad-gene act could possibly have wanted, and had let it pass them by.

  I wrapped the blanket closer around me and stood up and went into the bedroom. I'd drawn the curtains tightly together and the bed was in heavy shadow and I wasn't paying attention, so it took me a moment to realize he wasn't in it.

  He couldn't have left. It was daylight out there. Panic rose up in me. I would have guaranteed I didn't have the energy for panic. One more thing to be wrong about. And what was I panicking about anyway? Being left alone with myself? I'd rather have a vampire around?

  Well. Yes.

  I didn't have time to finish panicking. He stood up - or more like unfolded, like a particularly well-jointed extending ladder or something: stood up doesn't really describe it - from the far side of the bed. "What are you doing on the floor?"

  He just looked at me, and I remembered the room I had once found him in. The room that wasn't his master's. At least he was still wearing the kimono.

  "I'm sorry," I said. "I can't sleep. "

  "Nor I," he said.

  "So you do sleep," I said. "I mean, vampires sleep. "

  "We rest. We become. . . differently conscious than when we are. . . awake. I am not sure it is what you would call sleep. "

  No, and orange juice probably doesn't taste like orange juice to you either, I thought.

  I couldn't sleep, but I was too tired to stand up. I sat down on the bed. "I - we did it, you know?" I said. "But I don't feel like we did it. I feel like we failed. I feel like everything is worse now than it was before. Or that I am. "

  He was still standing. "Yes," he said.

  "Does it feel like that to you too?"

  He turned his head as if he was looking out the window. Maybe he was. If I could see in the dark, maybe a vampire could see through curtains. Maybe it was something you learned to do after the first hundred years or so. One of those mysterious powers old vampires develop. "I do not think in terms of better and worse. "

  He paused so long I thought he wasn't going to say any more. It's probably an occupational hazard, becoming a fatalist, if you're a vampire.

  But he went on finally. "What happened last night has changed us. Yes. Inevitably. You have lived - what? One quarter of one century? I have existed many times that. Experience is less to me than it is to you, for I have endured much more of it. And yet last night troubles me too. I can - a little - guess how much more it must trouble you. "

  I looked down, partly so he couldn't read anything in my eyes, although he probably already had. Maybe that was why he had been looking through the curtains. Vampire courtesy. Previously observed.

  Troubled, I thought. Okay.

  "Sunshine," he said. "You are not worse. "

  I looked up at him, remembered what I saw him do. Remembered what I had seen myself do. Remembered Bo. Tried to remember that we were the victors.

  Failed. If this was victory. . .

  I was so tired.

  "I will do anything it is in my power to do for you," he said. "Command me. "

  A vampire, standing on the far side of my bed, wearing my kimono, telling me he'd do anything I asked. Steady, Sunshine.

  I sighed. I wasn't up to it. "I don't want to feel alone," I said. "Lie down on the bed and let me lie down beside you, and put your arms around me. I know you can't do anything about the heartbeat, but I know you can breathe like a human if you want to, so will you please?" I looked at his face in the shadows - the shadows that lay motionless and fathomless across it - but it was expressionless, of course. He lay down, and I lay down, and he put his arms around me. (Note: do vampire limbs get pins and needles?) And breathed like a human. More or less. It was a little hard to ignore the lack of heartbeat that close - no, you may not think you're aware of a pulse in the body lying next to you, barring your actual head on an actual chest, but, trust me, you are - but he was the right temperature and that helped. And somehow the solidity of him, the fact that my open eyes could see nothing but his throat above the folds of the kimono and his jaw above that, felt strangely as if he was protecting me, as if he could protect me from what I had brought back with me, had roused to consciousness within me, the previous night. I curled my deceitful hands under my chin. And I found myself falling asleep after all.

  I dreamed, of course. Again Con and I were in Bo's lair, and there were vampires coming at us from all directions, flame-eyed, deadly, horrible. Again I saw Con do the things I would rather not have seen anyone do; again I did things myself I would rather not have done nor know that I had done. It does not matter if it is them or us, after a certain point. It does not matter. There are some things you cannot live with: with having done. Even to survive.

  Again my hands touched Bo's chest. Plunged within it. Grasped his heart, and tore it free. Watched it burn. Watched it deliquesce.

  And again.

  And again.

  I felt the poison of that contact sinking through my skin. It did not matter if it was only the poison of evil, the poison of an idea: it was corruption, and it corrupted me. I felt the fire of the golden web rise up in me: through me: and lift away.

  I wept in my sleep.

  When Bo caught fire and burned, I too burned: my tears left little runnels of fire down my face, not water. They dripped on my breast, where the wound had reopene
d. They burned especially terribly there. My tears and the light-web burned me, and then left me.

  For a little while after this I blew on the wind as if I were no more than ash. But I was blown eventually out of darkness into light, and as the light touched me I began to take shape again. I struggled against this - I was fragments, bits of ash. I was nothing and no one, I had no self and no responsibilities. I did not want to be put back together again, to face everything I was and had done, and could do again. Another hundred years, tops, and the suckers are going to be running the show. The Wars were just a distraction.

  I did not want to feel the poison eating through me again, to see those gangrenous lines crawling up my arms where the golden web had once run, toward my still-beating heart; to see myself rotting. . . I would rather be ash, dry and weightless, without duty or care. Or memory.

  Or severed loyalties.

  Here was a memory: I was sitting on the porch of the cabin by the lake. It was night. I could hear behind me the ping of my car's engine as it cooled. It was a beautiful night; I was glad I had come.

  But my life was about to change irreversibly. Irreparably.

  My death was about to begin.

  I listened for the vampires, knowing I would not hear them. It was too soon in the story of my death for me to hear them.

  Instead I heard a light, human step rustle in the grass, in last year's half-crumbled leaves. I turned in amazement.

  My grandmother walked up the steps to the porch, and sat down beside me. There was more gray in her hair than there had been fifteen years ago. She looked worn and discouraged, but she smiled at me as I stared at her disbelievingly.

  "I do not have much time, my dear," she said. "Forgive me. But I had to come when I heard you weeping. When I understood what you wept for. " She picked up my hands - in a gesture very like Con's - and then held them together, as she had done long ago, when she had taught me to change a flower into a feather. "Constantine is telling the truth," she said. "There is nothing wrong with your hands. There is nothing wrong with you. Except, perhaps, that you came into your strength too quickly, and all alone, which is not how it should happen - if it is any comfort, this is not the first time it has happened this way to someone, and it will not be the last - and yet if it had not happened that way to you, you might not have done what you did, partly because you would have known it could not be done. And so you would have died. "

  "Would that have been so bad?" I said, trying to keep my voice level. "Mel would have mourned, and Aimil, and Mom and Charlie and Kenny and Billy. . . even Pat, maybe. Even Mrs. Bialosky. But - would it have been so bad?"

  My grandmother turned her head to look out at the lake, and again I was reminded of Con, of the way he turned his head to look through the curtains. She was still holding my hands. "Would it have been so bad?" she said, musingly. "I am not the one to answer that, for I am your grandmother, and I love you. But yes, I think it would have been so bad. What we can do, we must do: we must use what we are given, and we must use it the best we can, however much or little help we have for the task. What you have been given is a hard thing - a very hard thing - or you would not have to ask if your failure and early death would be so bad a thing to happen instead. But my darling, what if there were no one who could do the difficult things?"

  "Which difficult things?" I said bitterly. "There are so many of them. Right now it feels as if they're all difficult things. "

  I waited for her to tell me to pull myself together and stop feeling sorry for myself, but she said: "Yes, there are many difficult things, and they have been almost too much for you - too much for you to have to bear all at once. Remember what Constantine told you: that he too is shaken, for all that he is older and stronger than you are. "

  "Con is a vampire," I said. "He's one of the difficult things. "

  "Yes," she said. "I'm sorry. "

  "Pat says that we have less than a hundred years left," I said.

  And for a third time she reminded me of Con, in the quality of the silence before her answer. But she sighed like a human. "Pat is perhaps a little pessimistic," she said.

  "A little!" I said. "A little!"

  She said nothing.

  We sat there, her warm hands still holding mine. I was waiting for her to tell me everything was all right, that I would be better soon, that it would all go away, that I would be fine. That I would never have to look at another vampire again. That we had all the time we needed, and it wasn't my battle anyway. She didn't. I heard the little noises that the lake water made. I felt the pieces of my severed loyalties grinding together. Of the fragments of me.

  I thought about the simplicity of dying.

  At last I said, and surprised myself by the saying: "I would be sorry never to see the sun again. " I paused, and realized this was true. "I would be sorry. . . never to make cinnamon rolls again, or brownies or muffins or - Sunshine's Eschatology. I would be sorry never to work twenty hours straight on a hot day in August and tear off my apron at midnight and swear I was going to get a job in a factory. I would be sorry never to leave my stomach behind when Mel opens the throttle on this week's rehab project. I would be sorry never to tell Mom to mind her own damn business again, never to have Charlie wander into the bakery and ask me if everything is okay when I'm in rabid-bitch mode, not to make it to Kenny and Billy's high school graduations, supposing either of them manages to graduate. I would be sorry never to reread Child of Phantoms again, never to argue with Aimil about Le Fanu and M. R. James, never to lie in Yolande's garden at high summer. . . " Wonderingly I said, "I'd be sorry never to hear the latest SOF scuttlebutt from Pat again. "

  I paused again, longer this time. I almost didn't say it. I whispered: "I would be sorry never to see Con again. Even if he is one of the difficult things. "

  I woke with tears on my face and Con's hair in my mouth. I don't think any of me moved but my eyelids, but he raised his head immediately. I sat up, releasing him from dreadful servitude. He rolled to his feet at once, and drew the curtains back. Night had fallen.

  "It's dark out," I said unnecessarily.

  "Yes," he said. I didn't see him shed the kimono or walk out of the room, but suddenly he wasn't there, and the kimono was a black puddle on the dark floor. When he reappeared he was wearing his own clothes. The black shirt looked much better on him than it had on me. The trousers looked pretty bad, but they were better than nothing. They had to be damp still, but I told myself he could raise his body temperature to steam them dry if he wanted to. Another of those little perks to being undead.

  He hadn't buttoned the shirt.

  There was no wound on his chest.

  I'd been here before.

  But there was a scar.

  I climbed off the bed - standing up, a little dizzy - went to him, touched it. "That's new," I said.

  "Yes," he said.

  I wanted to know why: what would scar a vampire? Another vampire's try for your heart? Or the touch of live human lips on such a wound? But I didn't ask.

  "You slept," he said.

  I nodded.

  "It is over. Last night is over," he said. "And Bo is gone forever. "

  I looked up at him. There was no expression on that alien, gray-skinned face. If it wasn't for the eyes, he could be a statue. One carved by a particularly lugubrious sculptor.

  Ludicrous, I thought. Insane, grotesque, impossible.

  I looked away, so he couldn't read my eyes. But he'd said he could only read my fears, not my secrets.

  I would be sorry never to see Con again.

  "It is beginning to be over," I said. "Last night is beginning to be over. I dreamed - I dreamed of my grandmother. "

  "She who taught you to transmute. "

  Yes.

  He nodded - as an articulated statue might nod - as if this made perfect sense. And as if this were the last, perfect stroke, and the story - or the statue - was complete.

>   I wasn't going to cry. I wasn't.

  "We are still bound, you and I," he said. "If you call me, I will come. "

  I shook my head, but he didn't say any more. "You could call me," I said. Spectres of the sort of black Bakelite phone fantasy that Con's master might have tucked away in a corner gyrated briefly across my mind's eye.

  "Yes," he said.

  I touched the new scar on my neck, the one that crossed the old scar, the one in the shape of a necklace. "I have lost the chain you gave me. I'm sorry. I couldn't find the way, even if you did call me. "

  "You have not lost it," he said. There was a pause. "The necklet is still there. "

  "Oh," I said blankly. I suppose if a pocketknife can be transmuted into a key a chain can be transmuted into a scar. Maybe on the same grounds as that it's hard to leave your head behind because it's screwed on. Although it had been as well for Con a little earlier that my pocketknife was still detachable. Carefully I said, "I would not want to call you if you did not want to come. "

  Another pause. I bit my lip.

  "I would want to come," he said.

  "Oh," I said again.

  Pause.

  "Would I. . . do I need to be in danger of dying?" I said.

  "No," he said. But he turned his head, and looked through the window, as if he was longing to be gone.

  I stepped back. I took a deep breath. I thought of cinnamon rolls. And Mel. I thought of trying to help save the world in less than a hundred years, doing it Pat's way. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm trying to turn this into some kind of human good-bye thing, you know? You're free to go. "

  "I am not human," he said. "I am not free. "

  "I am not some kind of trap - or jail cell!" I said angrily. "I am not a rope around your neck or - or a shackle around your ankle! So - so go away!"

  Perhaps it was the wind of my anger. I heard a rustle of leaves.

  He looked again at the window. I wrapped my arms around my body and leaned back against the end of the bed, and stared at the floor, waiting for him to vanish.

  "When do you again make - cinnamon rolls?"

  Gaping at him was getting to be a bad habit. So was saying, What? I gaped at him. I said, "What?"

  Patiently he repeated, "When do you go again to your work of feeding humans?"

  "Er - tomorrow morning, I guess. What time is it?"

  "It will be midnight in two hours. "

  "Six hours then. I leave here a little after four. "

  Slowly, as if he were an archaeologist deciphering a fragment of a long-dead language, he said, "You could come with me. Tonight. I would return you here in time for your leaving to go to the preparation of cinnamon rolls. If you are sufficiently rested. If you. . . wished to come. "

  What does a vampire actually do at night? Go for long invigorating walks? Research the habits of badgers and owls and - er - I wasn't very up on my nocturnal wildlife. "Aren't you - er - hungry?"

  Another pause. Time enough for me to decide I'd imagined what he'd just said.

  "I am hungry," he said. "I am not so hungry that I cannot wait six hours. "

  I thought of how totally, horribly difficult tomorrow was going to be. I thought of all the stories I was going to have to tell. I thought of all the truth I was going to have to not tell. I thought of lying to Charlie, to Mel, to Mom. To Mrs. Bialosky and Maud. To Aimil, even to Yolande. I thought of facing Pat again. I thought of having to talk to the goddess again - among other things about the disappearance of Mr. Connor, whose address would turn out to be false. I thought of how much easier all these things would be if Con vanished into the night, now, forever. They wouldn't be easy - nothing was ever going to be completely easy again, after last night. And I hated lying. I had been lying so much lately.

  Almost everything would be easier, if Con went away forever.

  Con said, "I would rather bear you company a few more hours than slake my hunger. "

  I didn't make up my mind. I heard my voice say, "I'll get dressed. " I turned - like a walking statue, a badly made puppet - and went to the closet. I managed to turn the knob and open the door before my brain caught up with me. By that time the decision had already been made.

  Since my living room closet was now full of com gear, my bedroom closet was impassable. Where, or for that matter when, had I last seen my black jeans? As I say, I don't do black, and my wardrobe isn't based on the concept of dematerializing into the shadows. "This may take a minute," I said. I hoped I didn't sound like I was begging.

  "I will not leave without you," he said.

  His voice was still expressionless, and I could not see him now, as I was, on my knees on the floor of my closet, fumbling through a pile of laundry that might have stayed folded if it had had a shelf to go on, but it didn't and it hadn't. Maybe it was because I was thinking about self-unfolding laundry that made it so easy to hear that he was telling the truth. I will not leave without you. I looked at my hands, the hands that had touched Bo and held his heart while it melted and ran stinking down my wrists and dripped sizzling to the disintegrating floor, and which were now efficiently sorting wrinkled laundry. I saw my hands clearly, although it was dark, because I could see in the dark, and they did not look wrong or strange or corrupt to me; they looked like my hands. Deeper in the closet - where were those damned jeans - where it was really very dark, and while I was thinking about jeans, I saw the faintest glimmer of gold on the backs of them, on the backs of my hands, and on my forearms. I had not lost the light-web either.

  This was now my life: Cinnamon rolls, Sunshine's Eschatology, seeing in the dark, charms that burned into my flesh where I could not lose them. A special relationship with the Special Other Forces, where not everybody was on the same side. A landlady who's a wardskeeper. Untidy closets. Vampires.

  Get used to it, Sunshine.

  I came out of the closet wearing black jeans and a charcoal gray T-shirt I had always hated. And red sneakers. Hey, red turns gray in the dark faster than any other color.

  He held out his hand. "Come then," he said.

  I went with him into the night.

 
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