Sunshine, p.6
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       Sunshine, p.6

           Robin McKinley
Chapter 6



  It might not have been too bad, afterward, except for two things. The nightmares. And the fact that the cut on my breast wouldn't heal.

  That's nonsense, of course. If I'd been able to face being honest, there was no way it wasn't going to be bad.

  I suppose I didn't realize how rough I was that first morning. After I had one bath I had another. (Bless landladies with absurdly huge water heaters. ) I washed my hair three times during that first bath and twice during the second. Hot water and soap and shampoo hurt like blazes, but it was a wonderful, human, normal, this-world sort of hurt. Getting dressed wasn't too difficult because my wardrobe specializes in soft, well-worn, and comfortable, but finding shoes and socks that didn't feel like they were scarifying my poor feet with steel wool was hard. Then I drank a pot of very strong tea and on the caffeine buzz I almost half convinced myself that I felt almost half normal and if I felt half normal I must look half normal.


  At the last minute I didn't burn the dress. I put it in the sink with some handwash stuff and then hung it in a corner with a bowl under it to drip dry. It leaked thin bloody-looking water and this made me so queasy I almost screwed it up to be burned anyway. But I still didn't.

  I did burn the underwear I'd worn. It was like I had to burn something. I took it out - nearly on tiptoe, clinging to the shadows, as if I was doing something illicit I might be caught at - and stuffed it into the ashes and wood chips on Yolande's garden bonfire heap. My hands shook when I struck the match, but that might have been the caffeine. It burned surprisingly well for a few scraps of cloth, as if my eagerness to see something go up in smoke was itself inflammatory.

  I stuck that note in a drawer so I didn't have to see or think about it. Or about who had written it.

  The house key that had been a jackknife lay on top of a pile of books next to the sofa. It had been one of the first things I'd seen when I'd managed to lever myself upright. I had done all of this other stuff - wash, rewash, inject caffeine, set fire to things - while not deciding what to do about it. It wasn't that an extra house key was an enormous problem. But it was a house key that had been a pocket-knife. Was supposed to be a pocketknife. And I missed my knife. I wanted it back. And there was only one way to get it back, which would remind me of all that stuff I was working on forgetting. I had returned to the world where I made cinnamon rolls and was my mother's, not my father's, daughter, and I wanted to stay there.

  I had opened all the windows, and the door to the balcony; I wanted as much fresh air as I could get. I wanted no faintest remaining scent here of anything that might have come back with me last night. The blanket that had covered me was soaking in the tub. I had brushed the sofa within an inch of its life, with a whisk broom that would take the hide off an armadillo. The cushion I had had my head on had spot remover troweled over it and was waiting to dry.

  I stood on the balcony, closed my eyes, and let the sun and the soft breeze move over me. Through me. I heard - felt - the leaves of my tree stir and rustle. My grandmother had taught me that if you handle magic, you have to clean up after yourself. Just like washing (or burning) your clothes or troweling spot remover on a sofa cushion.

  I went back indoors to pick up the house key that shouldn't be left a house key. I knelt on the floor inside the balcony door, in the sunlight, near enough the open door to smell the breeze from the garden.

  It was so easy this time. I felt the change, felt the key slip from keyness to knifeness. It was like kneading dough, feeling the thing become what you want it to be under your hands, feeling it responding to you, feeling it transform itself as a result of your effort. Your power. Your knowledge.

  I didn't like it being easy.

  But I liked having my knife back. It lay in my hand, looking like it always had. "Welcome back, friend," I murmured, and refused to feel silly for talking to a jackknife. Maybe I was talking to myself too.

  Then I put it in my pocket and went to look for incense. I never use incense in my life as a coffeehouse baker - I much prefer the smell of fresh bread - but it was one of those things that people who need to give you something but haven't a clue who you are give you. My aunt Edna, my mother's other sister, every year at one solstice or another, gives me a packet of the current hot fashion in incense. So there was probably some lurking in the back of a cupboard somewhere. There was. I lit a wand of World Harmonics Jasmine and put it in a glass and said the words my grandmother had taught me. I didn't have to remember them, they were right there, like my tree.

  Then I called the coffeehouse to tell them I was back, and all hell broke loose. Especially after Mom belted out to my apartment when I explained I didn't have a car any more, to pick me up, and got her first look at me.

  I won't go into a lot about that. It was not one of our finest mother-daughter moments.

  I did go to the doctor because everybody said I had to. The doctor said there wasn't much wrong with me but minor dehydration and exhaustion, gave me a tetanus shot, and some cream to put on both my feet and my breast. He asked me how I'd got the cut on my breast because as he put it, in that portentously unruffled and infuriating way of doctors, "It looks a bit nasty. " But I hadn't decided how much I was going to tell anyone, and having had everyone who had seen me so far freaking out (except the doctor, who was doing portentously unruffled like a kick to the head) wasn't helping. So I said I didn't remember. He said "mm hmm" and put some stitches in so it would heal neatly, muttered something about post-traumatic shock syndrome, offered me a reference to someone who could talk to me about remembering and not remembering, and sent me away. Mel had brought me. He borrowed Charlie's car so I didn't have to ride pillion on a motorcycle. (I hadn't known Mel could drive a car. He drove his motorcycles in all weather, including heavy snow and thunderstorms. ) And he brought me back. To the coffeehouse. The thought of going back to my apartment was only fleetingly tempting. I wanted to return to my life, and my life, for better or worse, was in the coffeehouse bakery. Also, I wanted to get the freaking out over with so that I didn't have to keep coming back to it, and I knew Mom wasn't through yet. Charlie had nearly had to tie her up to let Mel take me to the doctor. Mom is a bit prone to overreacting. But Mel, when he first saw me, turned haggard, and his eyes seemed to go about a million miles deep, and I suddenly felt I knew what he was going to look like when he was ninety. And he didn't say anything at all, which was probably worse than the noise everyone else was making.

  Mom tried to insist that I stay at the house - move back in with her and Charlie and my brothers. I said that I would do nothing of the kind. I meant it, but I was a little hindered by the fact that I no longer had a car. (They never did find my car. I had liked that car. ) That afternoon, after talking to the doctor and about forty-seven kinds of cop, Mom and I had a big shouting match that I didn't have the strength for, and I burst into tears and said that I would walk home if I had to and then Mom started weeping too and it was all pretty ghastly. Charlie at this point reminded Mom in a reasonable facsimile of his normal voice (he kept starting to pat my shoulder and then stopping because I'd told him, truthfully, that I was sore all over) that there was no longer a bedroom for me: the spare bedroom and den had disappeared when Charlie knocked all the downstairs walls out, and Kenny had moved out of the boys' bedroom into my old bedroom upstairs. This only made Mom cry harder.

  Then Mel, who had been left more or less singlehanded to run the coffeehouse while all the drama went on in the office, began collaring the staff who had crammed into the office door to watch and be a kind of Greek chorus of horror, and one by one heaving them physically toward what they ought to be doing, like minding the customers, before they all came back to see what was going on too, which, given Charlie's kind of customers, they would be quite capable of. When he'd forged his way through to me, he handed Charlie the spatula he was still holding in his other hand, like the relay runner handing on the
torch at Thermopylae, and said, "Can you hold the kitchen a minute?" and hustled me off to the bakery. My bakery. Just standing in my own domain again, where I was Queen of the Cinnamon Roll, the Bran Muffin, the Orange-Date Tea Bread - the Caramel Cataclysm and the Rocky Road Avalanche - made me feel better. I had to cancel the immediate impulse to put on a clean apron and check my flour supply. It was far too clean in here for a Thursday. . .

  "Nobody's been in here while you've been gone. We gave Paulie the time off. "

  Paulie was my new apprentice. I had stopped crying for the moment but this made my aching eyes fill up again. "Oh. . . "

  "Hey, we didn't know what to do. No Carthaginian idea. " Mel sounded grim but studiedly calm. For the first time I had some glimpse of what it must have been like for everybody here when I disappeared. I wasn't the disappearing kind. They would have feared the worst. It was the right response. And given what could have happened, I probably looked a lot worse than I was, so everybody was taking one look at me and fitting this vision against what their dreams had been churning out the last two days.

  "Sweetheart. . . "

  I stiffened.

  "Hey. Sheer. This is me, okay? I saw you not taking the name the doctor wanted to give you about someone to talk to. You don't have to talk to me unless you want to. Or anyone else, including Charlie and your mom. But if you tell me what you do want, I'll help you make it happen. If you'll let me. "

  Thanks to all the gods and angels for Mel. I couldn't explain that while yes, I'd always been a bit solitary, a bit disinclined to talk about what mattered to me, about what I was thinking about, it was crucial that I be able to go home, to my home, my private space, now. Alone. Where I didn't have to lie.

  I hadn't forgotten nearly as much as I was pretending I had.

  Mind you, I'd forgotten a lot. Post-traumatic whatsit, like the doctor said. The cops mentioned post-traumatic whatsit too. I had to check in with the cops because Mom and Charlie had, of course, reported me missing. I said that I'd driven out to the lake Monday night and didn't remember anything after that. No, I didn't remember where I'd been. No, I didn't remember how I'd got home two days later. No, I didn't remember why I was so beat up. Mel went with me for that too, even though he was pretty allergic to cops. (Charlie, trying to make a joke, said that he hadn't done so much cooking for years, and did I want Mel to take me anywhere else? Florida? The Catskills?) And the cop shrink they made me talk to had to go into it again. The gist is that you only remember what you can bear to remember. If you're lucky, as you get stronger, you can bear to remember a little more, and eventually you get round to remembering all of it and by remembering it then it can't mess up your life. That's the theory. Fat lot they know.

  I didn't say "vampires" to anyone, and I sure remembered that much. If I had said it, SOF wouldn't have just talked to me, they'd've kept me. People don't escape from vampires. I wasn't going to think about how I'd escaped from vampires - let alone tell SOF about it - so let's just pretend I hadn't escaped from vampires. Post-traumatic shock, phooey. Seemed to me the trauma was trotting right along with me, like a dog on a leash with its owner. I was the dog.

  I had to talk to SOF, because anything mysterious might be about the Others, and SOF were the Other police. But I told them I didn't remember anything too. By the time I talked to SOF I was getting good at saying I didn't remember. I could look 'em in the eye and say it like I meant it. They were cleverer about questioning me. They asked me stuff like what the lake had looked like that night, where exactly I'd sat on the porch of the cabin. They weren't trying to trick me; they were trying to help me remember, possibly to our mutual benefit, trying to help me find a way in to remembering. I pretended there was no door, or if there was one, it had six locks and four bolts and a steel bar and it had been bricked over years ago.

  It was easier, saying I didn't remember. I walled it all out, including everybody's insistent, well-meaning concern. And it turned out to be easy - a little too easy - to burst into tears if anyone tried to go on asking me questions. Some people are mean drunks: I'm a mean weeper.

  The first days started passing and became the first week. The bruises were fading and the scratches skinned over, and I began to look less like hell on earth. On the second Monday movies night at the Seddons' after my return, people began to make eye contact with me again without looking like it was costing them.

  And I was making cinnamon rolls and bread and all like a normal crazed coffeehouse baker again, thus deflecting poor Paulie's imminent nervous breakdown. He was going to be good, but he was still new and slow from lack of experience, eager to gain that experience, he'd been several weeks going through the wringer, or the five-speed industrial strength mixer, with me, and then I disappeared and everybody was barking at him because his presence reminded them that I wasn't there, and sending him home. I wanted to cheer him up, so I let him in on the secret of Bitter Chocolate Death and he made it, beautifully, first time. This bucked him up so much he started humming while he worked. Gah. It was bad enough having someone in the bakery with me some of the time, so I could teach him what to do and keep an eye on him while he did it: humming was pushing it. Was it absolutely necessary to have a cheerful apprentice?

  Charlie found someone who could loan me a car till I could replace the one they never found, and then found another one when the first one had to go back. The insurance took forever to cough up but it did at last. Their agent wanted to complain about my not remembering exactly what had happened, but he was promptly inundated by people from Charlie's, staff and regulars, offering to be character references, the doctor I'd seen and the cop shrink I'd seen said I was genuine, and then Mom started writing letters. The company might have held out against the rest, but no one resists Mom for long when she starts one of her letter-writing campaigns.

  During borrowed-car gaps Mel gave me a lift on his motorcycle of the week (favors don't get much more serious than giving someone a ride at four a. m. ), and then I started using Kenny's bicycle. Kenny was at an age when bicycles are deeply uncool and he didn't miss it. Downtown where the coffeehouse is is a drag on a bike, cars and buses first run you off the road and then leave you asphyxiating in their wake, but it's nice out near Yolande's and bicycling helped make me tired enough to sleep through the nights. Although it meant getting up at three-thirty to get in in time to make cinnamon rolls. Which is ridiculous. Also, Mom was having kittens about my riding a bike after dark (or before sunup), and she was perhaps not entirely wrong about this, even if she didn't know why, and even though there was no record of anyone ever being snatched off a bike in New Arcadia. There was no record of suckers at the lake either. So I did buy another car. The Wreck. It ran. I bought it from a friend of Mel's who liked tinkering with cars the way Mel liked tinkering with motorcycles, and the friend guaranteed it would run, just so long as I didn't want anything fancy like a third gear that was there all the time, or a top speed of over forty. It suited me fine. I didn't feel like getting attached to another car, and the sporadic absence of third gear was an interesting diversion.

  The doctor took the stitches out of my breast. My feet healed. Life started to look superficially normal again. I took a deep breath and asked Paulie how he'd like to get up at four in the morning once a week to make cinnamon rolls. He was delighted. Another head case joins the inner cadre at Charlie's. He chose Thursday. I now had two mornings a week I didn't have to get up before sunrise. Theoretically. I didn't tell him what if he was paying attention he already knew, that the coffeehouse schedule was a thing that happened on paper and never quite worked out that way. But letting him think he got to choose should be good for morale. His morale. And even an unpredictable series of fours in the morning I didn't have to get up at was going to be good for my morale.

  Aimil and I started going to junk and old-books fairs again. And when I went hiking with Mel we didn't go out to the lake. Not being able to decide what to tell anyone about anything had become the habi
t of not telling anybody anything. The funny thing was that the nearest I came to telling anyone was Yolande. There was something about the way she put me in a chair and made pots of tea and sat with me and talked about the weather or the latest civic scandal or some book we had both read, and not only didn't ask me anything but didn't appear to be suppressing the desire to ask me anything either.

  The second nearest I came was one night with Mel, when I woke up out of one of the nightmares, and was out of bed and across the room before I had registered that the body I had been in bed with - had had my head on the chest of - had a heartbeat. Mel didn't say anything stupid. He sat up slowly, and turned the light on slowly, and made me a cup of tea slowly. By that time I was no longer twitching away from every shadow but I was too pumped with sick adrenaline to sleep. Mel took me downstairs and put a paintbrush in my hand. Every now and then he got talked into doing a custom job on one of the bikes he'd rescued. I had laid down primer and first coats for him a few times, and buffed finishes, but that's all. That night he had me filling in the outline of tiny green oak leaves. When I had to stop and get ready to report for cinnamon roll duty I felt almost normal again. No, not normal. Something else. I felt as if I'd accidentally re-entered my grandmother's world, where I didn't want to go. But if that was where I had been, it had done me good. I wondered who the bike was for, why they wanted an oak tree. Mel would never do the standard screaming-demon thunderbolt-superhero sort of thing, all jaw and biceps and skeggy-looking flames, and one of the few little dumb things that would ruffle that calm of his was the sight of a bike decorated with a flying sorcerer, but a tree was a. . . well, a funny symbol for something with wheels that was built to go lickety-split. Or look at it another way. The main symbolism around trees is about their incorruptibility, right? Their immunity to all dark magic. This is not something you expect your average biker to be deeply interested in.

  I felt a little breeze - Mel had opened a window - heard leaves rustle. It hadn't occurred to me that my secret tree might be, say, an oak, or an ash, a beech, some particular kind of tree that related to a tree I might find in an ordinary landscape. I didn't want my grandmother's world to have anything to do with this one. I didn't want what had happened to me at the lake to have anything to do with this world, this ordinary landscape. I laid my paintbrush down and went and stood with Mel by the open window.

  After the first week or two of armed and sizzling silence after the argument, and all messages passed through pacifist intermediaries, Mom had started giving me charms. She'd turn up at the coffeehouse at about eight in the morning with another charm done up in the standard charm-seller's twist of brown paper. I didn't want them, but I took them, and I didn't argue with her. I didn't say anything at all except (sometimes) thank you. Mom and I hadn't gone in for light conversation in years, since it never stayed light, between us. I did things with the charms like wrap them around the telephone at home, to soften any bad news it might be bringing me, or drape them round my combox screen, ditto. This kind of abuse wears charms out fast. I'm not a big fan of charms - barring the basic wards, which I admit only a fool would dispense with, fetishes, refuges, whammies, talismans, amulets, festoons, or any of the rest, I can do without 'em. They take up too much psychic space, and the sooner these new ones crashed and burned the sooner they'd stop bugging me. But Mom was trying to behave herself, and the charms seemed to relieve her feelings. Once I had a car again I started stuffing them in the glove compartment. They didn't like it, but charms aren't built to quarrel with you.

  The mark on my breast, which appeared to have closed over, cracked open again, and oozed. It was nearing high summer by then and I, who generally wore as little as decency allowed because it got so hot in the bakery, was suddenly wearing stranglingly high-necked T-shirts. You can't ooze in a public bakery. I went back to the doctor and he said "hmm" and had I remembered yet how I'd gotten the cut in the first place. I said I hadn't. He gave me a different cream for it and sent me home again. It seemed to heal for a while and then cracked open again. I grew clever about taping gauze over it and ripping the armholes out of my high-necked shirts and wearing lurid multicolored bras - fortunately there was a vogue on for lurid multicolored bras - so it looked like I was merely making a somewhat unfortunate fashion statement. Mel knew better, of course, and if it hadn't been for him I would have stopped going to the doctor, but Mel was a stubborn bastard when he wanted to be and he wanted to be about this, drat him. So I had to go back again. The doctor was starting to worry by now, and wanted to send me to a specialist. A specialist in what, I wanted to say, but I didn't dare. I was afraid I'd give something away, that my guilty conscience would start oozing through the cracks somehow, like blood and lymph kept oozing through the crack in my skin. I refused to see a specialist.

  Some cop or other came by the coffeehouse at least once a week "to see how I was doing. " Any of our marginally half-alert regulars knew the Cinnamon Roll Queen and chief baker had been absent a few days under mysterious circumstances and that whatever had happened to her was still casting a pall over the entire staff at Charlie's. That was everybody. And our SOF regulars are better than half alert or they wouldn't be working for SOF. So I had cops coming in and our SOFs watching the cops and the cops watching our SOFs. It should have been funny. It wasn't. I think Pat and Jesse actually suspected the truth, although I don't see how they could have. Maybe they thought it was ghouls or something, although ghouls don't generally have the foresight to, like, store a future meal. But something had happened and the law enforcement guys wanted to get out there and enforce something. They weren't fussy. If it was people, the cops were happy to do it. If it wasn't people, SOF was happy to do it. But I was supposed to choose my dancing partner and I wouldn't, and this was making the troops restless.

  I did notice the difference between the people who were really bothered for me, or for the sake of the society they were paid a salary to keep safe, and the people who wanted to know more because it was like live TV or those cheesy mags with headlines like I ATE MY ALIEN BABY. Fried, with a side salad and a beer.

  The most serious drawback to the telling-nothing approach is that it made that much more of a mystery of what had happened, and the nature of gossip abhors a vacuum of the unexplained. This meant that soon everybody "knew" that whatever had happened did indeed involve the Others, because that made a better story. I think they would have liked to assume that it involved the Darkest Others, because that made the best story of all, except that, of course, I was still here, and nobody escaped from vampires.

  Nobody escaped from vampires.

  I didn't know if the everybody who knew this included SOF or not, but I could hardly ask.

  Meanwhile there were the nightmares. There continued, relentlessly, to be the nightmares. They weren't getting any better or easier or rarer. There's not that much to tell about them because nightmares are nightmares on account of the way they feel, not necessarily by the mayhem and the body count. These felt bad. Of course they always had vampires in them. Sometimes I was being stared at by dozens of eyes, eyes that I mustn't look into, except that wherever I looked there were more eyes, and I couldn't shut my own. Sometimes there was just the knowledge that I was in a horrible place, that I was being contaminated by the horrible place, that even if I seemed to get out of it I would take it with me. The nightmares also always had blood in them, one way or another. Once I thought I had woken up, and my bed was floating in blood. Once I was wearing the cranberry-red dress and it was made of blood. But the worst ones were when I was a vampire myself. I had blood in my mouth and my heart didn't beat and I had strange awful thoughts about stuff I'd never thought about, that in the dream I would think I couldn't think about because I was human, and then I'd remember I wasn't human, I was a vampire. As a vampire I knew the world differently.

  I told myself that those two days at the lake were just something that had happened. That's all. The dreams were like the wound on my breast: my mind
was wounded too. The bruises and scratches were the superficial stuff: of course they healed quickly. And everybody dreams about vampires; we grow up dreaming about them. They're the first and worst monster that lives under everybody's bed. You do get mad Weres or a demon that's tired of passing for human and not being able to do the less attractive demon things, but mostly it's vampires.

  I never dreamed about. . . The funny not ha-ha thing was how hard I was trying to forget about him too. He'd saved my life, sure, but he'd destroyed my world view in the process. The only good vampire was a staked and burned vampire, right? So what if he'd shown a little enlightened self-interest about me - as well as having a sense of honor straight out of some nineteenth-century melodrama with dueling pistols and guys who said things like "begone varlet," which was how I'd lived long enough to present him with an opportunity to display enlightened self-interest. He was still a vampire. And everybody he'd. . . my brain wouldn't go there. . . was still dead. To put it another way: the loathly lady was still a loathly lady, she hadn't been cured by whatever, and there was no reason to suppose she wasn't going to go on eating huntsmen and their horses and hounds, and probably the occasional knight who didn't give her the right answers as well.

  I didn't think there was a word for a human so sicko as to rescue a vampire, so he could go on being a vampire, because no one had ever done it. Before.

  When I woke up out of one of these nightmares I didn't dare go back to sleep again. And they kept coming. So after a few weeks I segued from being flipped out and exhausted by what had happened to being flipped out and exhausted from being flipped out and exhausted.

  During this first time in my life I didn't want to read lots of news reports about Other activity, there seemed to be more of them around.

  Some of it was okay. There was another long heated debate - as a result of some statistical review stating that the numbers of those afflicted were rising - about whether incubi or succubi were living or undead, which is an old argument but no one has ever settled it. The obstacle to scientific study is that the moment the psychic connection is cut your object of investigation disintegrates, and by seizing one of the things for scientific study you are ipso facto severing the link. At least until the global council decides it's okay to keep a human being as a thing-thrall, which is at present even for purposes of pure research highly illegal, although the official language talks about corporeal and noncorporeal subjugation. The reason it's such a hot topic is that while incubi and succubi are a relatively small problem, some people think that finding out how they work would give us a handle on vampires, which is absolutely number one on everyone's list about Others, and the medical guys can cure someone who has been a thing-thrall, which isn't an option with vampire dinners. Well, usually they can cure someone who has been a thing-thrall, if they haven't been one for too long.

  There was a project drawn up not too long ago with a list of volunteers to be thing-thralls but that never got off the ground, maybe partly because the 'ubis like choosing their own prey and bait on a string doesn't interest them, but mainly because there was this huge public outcry against it. Mind you, you have to wonder about the volunteers. 'Ubis may be a bigger problem than anybody knows because thing-thralls are usually having a very good time and it's their loving friends and families (sometimes their pissed-off colleagues) that start to wonder why they're sleeping twelve or fourteen hours a day and spending the rest of the time looking like they just had amazingly terrific sex. Nobody knows whether thing-thralls really are having sex with their things either, or whether they only think they are. But even the best sex your nerve endings can be made to imagine they're having has to be balanced against the fact that your IQ tends to drop about one point for every month you're a thing-thrall. The cleverer ubis cut and run before the brain drain gets obvious, and a lot of people aren't using their brains to begin with and don't miss them. But sometimes it's too late for the thrall to have any future more intellectually demanding than night shift shelf restocker. There is a bagger I know at our local Mega Food who had been New Arcadia's top criminal defense lawyer before an 'ubi got him. I used to read the reports of his courtroom antics and thought being a thing-thrall had improved his personality beyond recognition, but it had knocked hell out of his career prospects.

  There was a series of articles about how many different kinds of Weres there are, another favorite topic. Wolves are the famous one, of course, but they're actually comparatively rare. There are probably more were-chickens than there are were-wolves, which if you're asking me explains why comparatively few Weres go rogue as against, say, how many demons. And possibly why the black market in anti-Change drugs is so slick, although the idea of black marketeers with either a sense of humor or of compassion is maybe stretching it a little. More likely the were-chickens will pay anything for the drugs, and do.

  But there are were-pumas, for example, and were-bears. Were-coyotes are enough of a scourge that the SOFs go after them and do a horrible sort of mop-up about once a year. Were-raccoons are nasty little beggars and were-skunks are, well, beyond a nightmare. Get a were-skunk mad at you and your life isn't worth living. There's a special flying SOF unit for were-skunks. Every city over about a hundred thousand has a SOF were-rat unit, speaking of horrible mop-ups. New Arcadia has one. But according to Pat and Jesse you can stay one jump ahead (so to speak) of all the Weres, even the rats, as long as you don't get careless. Nobody ever stays a jump ahead of vampires.

  Maybe because there was all this other stuff about the Others, and because, of course, I wanted not to be noticing, I ignored for a while that there were more local stories about vampires. Sucker sightings, sucker activity, which is to say fresh desiccated corpses, aka dry guys. As I say, New Arcadia is pretty clean, but nowhere is really clean of vampires. And so I didn't notice right away - who wants to notice bad stuff happening next door? And even if it was happening, it didn't mean it had anything to do with my little adventure. I could ignore it if I wanted to.

  . . . That we are both gone will mean that something truly extraordinary has happened. And it almost certainly has something to do with you - as it does, does it not? - and that therefore something important about you was overlooked. And Bo will like that even less than he would have liked the straightforward escape of an ordinary human prisoner. . .

  The coffeehouse is in the old downtown area, called Old Town now. It had been a pretty grotty place when Charlie's first opened, and he catered to grotty people, figuring that everybody has to eat. Since he apparently didn't do anything - including, I swear, sleep - in the beginning but run the coffeehouse, he could do everything himself, including cook from scratch. He didn't even have a regular waitress the first couple of years; the kitchen, such as it was, was lined out along the fourth wall. This kept his overheads low, and I've already said he's a good cook. The cleaner and more lucid of his grotty clientele began to bring their less grotty friends there because of the food. When Mom and I moved in two blocks away the gentrification had only just begun - begun enough that Mom wasn't totally stupid to move in - but there were still drunks and hype heads on more corners than not, and Ingleby Street was still all old-books shops, the kind where walking in the door puts you at immediate risk of being crushed to death by a toppling pile of crumbly yellow magazines no one has looked at in fifty years. (This nearly happened to me when I was twelve, and the owner was so relieved I wasn't going to tell my mom on him - my mom even then had a local rep as someone you didn't mess with - that he gave me a great deal on them instead. This motley assortment included an almost unbroken run of Vampire Tales and Other Eerie Matters from the sixties, which among other Other things included the first serial publication of the early, less controversial volumes of Blood Lore. I was already Other-fascinated, but this may have confirmed the disease. )

  When I was still in high school the city authorities got really excited because New Arcadia was going to be on the post-Wars map. This was partly because we'd had - compar
atively - quiet Wars, so most of the city was still standing and most of its occupants were still sane, and partly because our Other Museum by the mere fact that it was still there had become nationally and perhaps globally important. I had never liked it myself; the exhibits for the public were real lowest-common-denominator stuff, and you had to have six PhDs, no dress sense, and a face like a prune to get into the stacks or any of their serious holdings, which included stuff you couldn't get on the globe-net. You could say my nose was out of joint. I was going to like it even less if it was going to swamp us with the kind of loony-tune academic that specialized in Others, but the city council thought it was going to be totally thor.

  One of their bright ideas about raising Old Town's attractiveness level, since we were inconveniently close to the museum, was to dig up all the paving and put down the cobblestones that the city authorities had dug up seventy years ago to put down paving, and replace the old (and, by the way, brighter) street lamps with phony gas lamps with electric bulbs in them. Then they stuck a raised flower bed in the middle of what had been the road, and made it a pedestrian precinct. The old-books stores left and the antique shops and craft boutiques moved in, and for a while there Charlie and Mom were thinking desolately about trying to relocate the coffeehouse because we didn't want to learn to make Jackson Pollack squiggles out of raspberry coulis, thank you very much. And if the taxes went up as predicted they would have to sell the house even if they kept the coffeehouse, which they probably wouldn't do either because they wouldn't be able to bear putting up the prices enough for the sort of hash and chili and chicken pot pie and succotash pudding and big fat sandwiches on slabs of our own bread menu that we do so well - this was before my bakery was built and so before we were also known for toxic sugar-shock specials - to keep us in the black. Our regulars wouldn't be able to afford it, even if the new upscale crowd wanted to eat retro diner food, or we wanted to serve it to them. Meanwhile the pedestrian precinct seemed to be pretty well shutting down our trucker traffic, and Charlie's has had truckers from its first day. There used to be a joke that a New Arcadia route trucker wasn't the real thing till he could get his rig within two blocks of Charlie's.

  But it turned out there were more of the old grotty people still clinging on than anyone realized - well, we realized it, because most of them ate at the coffeehouse (including the better class of derelicts who knew to come to the side door and ask for leftovers), but we thought the Rolex shiny-briefcase thugs would drive them out. Only it was the Rolex shiny-briefcase thugs that eventually left. So the old grotty people are still here, and the coffeehouse is still here, and Mom and Charlie still live around the corner, and most of the antique shops have subsided or are subsiding more or less gently into junk shops again, and some of them are beginning to have piles of old books in the corners, and most of our truckers still come in the back way, although they can't get within two blocks any more. And when the city in disgust told us to mind our own flower bed because they weren't going to do it any more, Mrs. Bialosky, who is one of our most stalwart and ubiquitous locals, organized working parties, and nearly every year since then our flower bed wins something in the New Arcadia neighborhood gardening festival, and I like to think I can hear the sound of city authority teeth grinding. Mrs. Bialosky owns a narrow little house on the corner of Ingleby and North where she can keep an eye on almost everything that happens, and the two-seater corner booth just to the right of the front door of Charlie's also belongs to her in all but real estate contract, and woe betide anyone who sits there without her permission. Mrs. B, by the way, is suspected of being a Were, but there is no consensus on a were-what. Guesses range from parakeet to Gila monster. (Yes, there are were-Gilas, but not usually this far north. )

  For the most part our neighborhood is a good thing. Who wants to be dazzled by Rolexes and aluminum briefcases every time you want to have a quiet cup of tea sitting on the wall around the award-winning flower bed? I'll take the odd wandering vagrant any day. But it means that if you've got vampires moving in from the outside they're going to move into our neighborhood before they move into a neighborhood like the one the city authorities had planned for us. Suckers don't like their food in a bad state of preservation any more than humans do, but our population is predominantly sound and healthy, just not very well-off or important. Furthermore, when the city went into its snit about our bad attitude, they had finished tearing out all the old streetlights but hadn't finished putting in new ones, and since then they keep claiming they can't afford to finish the job. Some of our shadowy corners are really very shadowy.

  And then one of the dry guys turned up on Lincoln Street, less than three blocks from Charlie's.

  You might think the neighborhood would shut down, everyone staying indoors with the doors locked, iron deadbolts stamped with ward signs and shutters hung with charms, but far from it. Charlie's was hopping the next evening, and since Charlie himself would almost rather die than turn away a customer - not because he always has his eye on his profit margin (Mom would say he never has his eye on his profit margin), but because a hungry and thirsty person must always be treated kindly - we had people leaning against the walls and outside against the front window. Maybe they were crowded a little closer than usual under the awning, where the coffeehouse lights were bright. Our dopey fake gas lamps dotted around the square looked even more pathetic than usual, but you're pretty safe if there's enough of you. Even a serious vampire gang won't tackle a big group of humans without an extremely good reason. But it was just as well no fire inspector came out for a stroll that night and checked the numbers against our license. Although the local fire inspector was an old friend of Charlie's, and would have stopped for a glass of champagne and a chat.

  Things got really exciting when the TV van showed up. I was in the bakery, feverishly turning out whatever-took-the-least-time to feed the extra people, but I heard the commotion and Mary put her head in long enough to tell me what was going on. "I'm not here," I said. "If it comes up. " She nodded and disappeared.

  But too many other people knew I was there. I'd been interviewed - or rather they'd tried to interview me - right after it happened. SOF is supposed to "cooperate" with the media, but I know Pat and Jesse are in a more or less continual state of pissed-offness because someone is forever leaking more stuff from their office than they feel anyone but them needs to know, but their boss, or rather their sub-boss, widely known as the goddess of pain, refuses to try to shut it down, so they are stuck. In this case it meant that it had got leaked that SOF was very interested in whatever had happened to me, even if I hadn't given them any reason to be interested, and even though apparently nothing else had happened since (if I'd developed a rider, like an incubus, or a hitch, from a demon having me on a tether, there are signs, if you're looking). So now Mr. TV Roving In Your Face Reporter, exploring neighborhood response to a sucker in our midst, wanted to interview me, and at least eight people had told him I was on the premises. Mom, for good or bad, had gone home; she hates packed-out nights and in theory we didn't need her. She would have given Mr. TV Pain in the Butt Interviewer something to think about. It mightn't have been such great publicity for Charlie's but we don't really need to care what local TV thinks of us.

  Charlie is great at blandishing. Few people can resist him when he's in Full Blandish. But he's nowhere near as good at getting rid of assholes as Mel is, and it was Mel's night off. Charlie came back after a while and asked if I could bear to come out and be stared at. "You can say no a few times and come back here; I'll keep 'em out after that. But if you'd be uncooperative in person first it would be easier. "

  Charlie knew I hated the whole business, which I did, but that wasn't the real problem. The ever-ready-for-fresh-disasters media guys had walloped my bruised and messed-up face onto TV seven weeks ago, though I'd refused to talk to them. I don't suppose I could have stopped them even if it had occurred to me to try. I'd thought about it later. I hadn't wanted to, but I did. Did vamp
ires watch local news on TV? Seven weeks ago they might still have been prying up floorboards for where I might be hiding.

  Most of what goes on TV, even on local TV, gets archived on the globenet within a few weeks. And vampires use the globenet all right. Some people believe vampire tech is better than human.

  I went out front like Charlie asked. Mr. TV was there with his camera slave, half Quasimodo and half Borg. Mr. TV had amazing teeth, even for a TV presenter. "I don't have anything to say," I said.

  "Just come outside a minute, where we can get a clearer shot," said Mr. Teeth. I wondered if vampires ever got their teeth capped. I went off on a teeny fantasy about specialist fang caps. Probably not.

  "You don't have anything to get a clearer shot of," I said.

  "Oh now you want to leave that up to us," said Mr. Teeth, grinning even wider. He put his hand on my arm.

  "Take your hand off my arm," I said. I had meant to sound huffy but it came out sounding like a person about to fly into the ozone and loop the loop. Damn.

  Mr. Teeth dropped my arm but his eyes (and his incisors) glinted with increased interest. Damn. He made a gesture to the slave, who raised his camera and pointed it at Mr. Teeth. I heard him start in with the TV introduction voice but there was a ringing in my ears. The scab on my breast started itching fiercely. I kept my hands clenched at my sides; if I scratched it it would start to bleed, and if it started to bleed it would leak through, and I didn't want the Contusion That Wouldn't Go Away to be on the eleven o'clock news too. Seven weeks ago I'd been home from the doctor for the first time and bristling with stitches (for the first time), which had been part of the shock effect of my appearance, since they showed. Back then while I hadn't exactly been aiming for the Frankenstein look it hadn't occurred to me I had anything to hide, and I didn't want the little stubbly ends catching on my clothing.

  I had been avoiding thinking about any implications in a sucker victim found three blocks from the coffeehouse, as I had been avoiding noticing there was more local sucker activity at all. If I'd been avoiding it less hard, it might have occurred to me that some kind of news gang would turn up to pry a few ravaged expressions and maybe if they were lucky some sign of an incipient crack-up out of some of the natives. (Possibly not realizing that Old Town always had natives on the brink of a crack-up. ) The police hadn't identified the body yet - they called it "the victim" - and nobody at the coffeehouse was missing anyone.

  Vampire senses are different from human in a number of ways. The one that is relevant in this case is that landscape which is all one sort of thing is. . . more penetrable. . . to the extent of its homogeneity. . .

  I had no idea what the homogeneity of TV broadcasting might be from a vampire perspective. I didn't want to know.

  The camera swung to point at me.

  I raised a hand against it. "No," I said.

  "But - " Mr. Teeth said. He was trying to decide whether more smiling was called for or if he should try a frown. I put up my other hand, blanking out most of the lens. Quasi-Borg said, "Okay, okay, I get the idea," and let the thing sag. If it was still taping it was getting a good shot of a dirty apron, purple jeans, and red sneakers.

  Mr. Teeth, the mike still glued under his chin, said, "Miss Seddon, we only want a few words with you. You must understand that the assaults on any human by the Others are always of first importance to every other human, and it is the duty of a responsible media that we report anything of that sort as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Miss Seddon, a man died here. "

  "I know," I said. "Fine. Go report it. "

  Mr. Teeth looked at me a moment. I could see him deciding on the hard-man approach. "Miss Seddon, it is very plain to many of us that whether you wish to discuss your experiences or not, you too have been a victim of an Other attack, and the fact that a mere few weeks later a vampire victim should turn up near your place of employment cannot be considered insignificant. "

  "Two months," I said. "Not a few weeks. "

  "Miss Seddon," he said, "do you still deny that you were set on by Others?"

  "I don't say anything one way or another," I said. "I don't remember. "

  "Miss Seddon - "

  "She's told you she has nothing to say to you," said Charlie. "I think that's enough. " He was so rarely hostile I almost didn't recognize him. In the back of my mind, a thought was forming: if he can get rid of a tanked up six-and-a-half-foot construction worker with a few friendly words, which he can, and if he just failed a few minutes ago to get rid of a tanked-up-on-his-own-importance TV asshole because he had been unable to get confrontational about it, what does it mean that he's suddenly feeling so antagonistic toward Mr. Responsible Media Reporter now? I didn't like the answer to that question. It meant that he thought Mr. Responsible Media - and our suddenly over-watchful Pat and Jesse and their friends - were right about what had happened to me. How could they tell? I hadn't said anything. And nobody gets away from. . . they couldn't think it was vampires.

  Mr. Responsible Media was looking rebellious, but this was my country. I was Cinnamon Roll Queen and most of those assembled were my devoted subjects. "Hey, leave her alone, man," said Steve, idly rolling up to stand next to the counter stool he'd been sitting on. Steve isn't major league tall, but he is major league in the looming unspoken threat department. Things had gone kind of quiet in the last few minutes while everyone watched me refuse to be interviewed, and now they went quieter yet. One or two other people - that is to say, guys - stood up, just as idly as Steve had. I was suddenly glad it was Mel's night off after all; under the good-old-boy exterior he had a temper on him, and he'd been feeling kind of protective of me lately. Over Mr. Responsible Media's shoulder I met Jesse's gaze. He and Pat and John were sitting squashed together at a two-person table. I could see by their stillness that they weren't standing up. . . and I didn't have to think too hard to figure out that this was because they knew Mr. Responsible Media would recognize them as SOFs and they were giving me a break. Because they knew I needed a break. Oh skegging damn.

  "All right, all right," muttered Mr. Responsible, and he waved at his camera slave, and they left the coffeehouse reluctantly.

  "Thanks," I said to everyone generally. I patted Steve's hamlike shoulder on my way back to the bakery (and sent him three cranberry and sprouted wheat muffins via Mary, which were his favorite) and didn't come out again till closing, although Mary came in a few times to tell me what was going on. She had her break in the bakery too so she could tell me in detail about the interview Mr. Responsible had had with Mrs. Bialosky, who knew how to play an audience. She'd learned a lot in the years of running our flower bed, and she'd never been somebody any sane person would want to jerk around. Mary had me laughing by the time she had to go back to work.

  Jesse came in right after Mary left. It was like he'd been listening at the door. He stood there looking at me. I went on hurling large spoonfuls of batter into millions of muffin cups. Muffin cups in my bakery were real sorcerer's apprentice material, like the dough for the cinnamon rolls every morning could have stood in for The Blob. "There isn't room to hang around back here," I said. There wasn't, although people often did. It was illegal to have customers back here, but the local food inspectors were all Charlie's friends, just like our local fire inspector was. We'd had the head inspector's daughter's fifteenth birthday party here about six months ago: the story was that the coffeehouse was the compromise reached between the party her parents wanted her to have and the party she wanted to have. I made six chocolate chip layer cakes for the event (and chocolate butter alphabet cookies to spell out HAPPY BIRTHDAY CATHY over the frosting, because I don't do fancy decorating, life is too short), and they were all gone that evening. Some of her friends were still coming back. I was going to need a second apprentice if Charlie's became a haunt of teenage boys.

  "Mary was in here for fifteen minutes. "

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