All Alone in the Big Bad World
IF IT hadn’t been for Arturo, I never would have known what Renny and Mitch were—and if I hadn’t known that, I never would have known what Adrian was. And if I hadn’t known that, I never would have met Green. I guess, then, I owe a great deal in my life—both joy and pain—to a six-foot-four South American elf, but Arturo doesn’t think like that, and I try not to anymore.
The gas station I used to work at stands between Ophir and Penryn, up on Gold Hill Road. It’s perched on top of a ravine, right near the road. It’s the only commercial building for a three-mile radius. When night falls and the whole thing lights up, it’s like a fluorescent sun in a galactic dark spot—superficial, man-made, a kind of pathetic island of civilization in what is still mostly a rural farming area. At around 10:00 p.m., when everyone else in the two nontowns has gone to bed, you can step out past the gas pumps and see the lights of Sacramento making the horizon glow red. It makes you feel like the city is an alien ship, and the rest of the world is really sentinel oak trees and the smell of new-mown hay and cow manure that’s especially present in the spring.
It’s a lonely smell, the kind that makes you think Hey—if I died under the blackberry bush about ten yards yonder, my body would rot, and you’d be able to smell it for a while, but eventually I would be just another part of the star thistle and the mosquito ponds, one with the decomposed granite. No one would ever know. It happens to cows and horses all the time, on the bigger spreads. It really brings home the idea that life is fragile, and Mother Nature doesn’t give a fuck one way or another.
I know it’s not safe for a woman to work graveyards—but the late shift freed me up for school, and that was my main priority. Besides, I got a fifty-cent-an-hour raise for working graves, and when you’re working your way through college and trying to save up enough to move out of the house, that twenty bucks a week counts. Anyway, it kept me away from the townies who thought going to junior college was just a pit stop on the way to the glamorous world of construction jobs and strip-mall retail. It didn’t make me popular to exclude myself from the people I grew up with, but I hoped eventually it would make me happy.
But I didn’t feel exposed or helpless or anything. I’m a big girl. I had the tough-chick thing going—you know, a pierced nose, a pierced lip, a line of silver rings up both ears. I wore my hair short and gelled a lot, and I went for the black lipstick. Anything to hide how really unattractive I felt, right? But I took the self-defense classes, and my dad took me out to the shooting range and taught me how to use the .22 that Danny, my boss, kept next to the cash drawer. It was actually a nice bonding moment. Dad told me he thought I looked all grown up holding that gun and he was proud of his little girl.
Working my way through school? Nothing. Shooting the hell out of a defenseless tin can? I’m Annie-fucking-Oakley. Life in the foothills stinks if you’re not rich. I was a semester away from transferring to a real college—couldn’t hardly wait.
So I sat behind the counter of the store (only occasionally fondling the .22) and did my reading or finalized my labs. I spent half my first year’s pay on a laptop and a printer, so I wasn’t just a tough-looking chickie, I was a tough-looking chickie with technology and a plan of escape. It’s absolutely hilarious what kind of mystique you can build in the goddamned witching hour by pounding away on a laptop like Beethoven on acid—except, for me, the need for freedom was burning in my chest like cold nuclear fusion and it didn’t feel funny at all. And it was in this atmosphere of absurdity and desperation, when I was partially hammered on Red Bull and Vivarin, that I first realized that the host of the supernatural were wandering in like the Disney light parade of the damned.
Before I met Arturo, I didn’t know they were supernatural—I just thought they were regulars. Arturo got off work at the Denny’s in Auburn at about one o’clock and showed up at my station at around one thirty. Cigarettes and a six-pack—every night. He amazed me then—hell, he amazes me now. He stands six foot four in his stocking feet, but he’s not gangly or stringy at all. In fact, he’s perfectly proportioned—wide chest, narrow waist, black hair just long enough to curl around his eyes, and omigod beautiful. Terrifyingly beautiful—too pretty to be a man, too macho to be anything else—so fucking beautiful I couldn’t even look him in the eyes for my first year or so on the job. And then one cold night in January, as I studied the counter and took his money, he purposely brushed my hand with his finger. I watched him; it was like drawing a line. My whole body jerked, and I was surprised into looking him in the eyes.
He smiled at me gently. His two front teeth were ringed in silver, and it only made him more breathtaking. And then, even as I looked, something odd happened to his beautiful features. His eyes… grew bigger, set farther apart, his face narrower and more triangle shaped. I blinked, hard, and let him distract my vision with his words.
“What is your name?” he asked. He had a little accent, Mexico by way of the UK, and it pretty much made my heart pound in my ears.
“C….” I almost said Crap, as in Crap, dude, you scared the shit out of me, but I was aiming at semi-moron this night (instead of the full-fledged type of moron?) so I tried again. “Cory.” Whew. Actually, my name is Corrine Carol-Anne Kirkpatrick—but that was so not coming out of my mouth.
“Pretty name… but it’s not yours for real, is it?” He leaned over so his elbows were on the counter, and his face was close enough for me to smell him. Denny’s, grease, and a hint of aftershave underneath it all. He scared me, enough to remember my common sense.
“It’s the only name you’ll get tonight,” I told him, the tough chickie back in place, thank heavens. I went back to studying the counter—or rather his hand touching my hand on the counter.
“I am Arturo,” he said back, touching my hand again, “and I see you every night. It is rude not to look at me when I come in.” He sounded angry, and I didn’t know how to respond. How do you tell someone that they intimidate you by being beautiful? It’s impossible, because to say that would be to call attention to the fact that underneath the white makeup and black lipstick are acne scars, lips that are too full, freckles on a large nose, and an extra twenty pounds that make a mockery of your chin.
“I’m sorry” was what I actually said. “I didn’t think it would matter.” He turned my hand over in his and began tracing a design. I was entranced by his touch on my palm, staring at his blunt, rough finger as though it were the center of my universe, and my universe expanded, attenuated, like his fingers on my hand, like the bones in his face. And then he put his fingers under my chin so I would meet his eyes, and I found that I was wrong. His eyes were the center of my universe. His eyes, that weren’t brown or black or anything that would match the dark skin and black hair. They were green. Dazzlingly, swirlingly, copper-lightning, bronze and jade green.
“Corinne Carol-Anne Kirkpatrick,” he murmured, “it always matters.”
“How did you know my name?” I asked, shaken by everything, from his sudden notice to his fingers under my chin, to his oddly shaped features that kept swimming in front of my eyes, to his own eyes that were not quite human.
“You told me,” he said, smiling. And then he left, just left, with me staring at his broad back and feeling like I couldn’t breathe now that his touch was gone from my skin. I didn’t look at the clock again for another half hour, and when I finally drifted out of a total daze, it was to realize that he had lied. I never told him my name.
I felt feverish for the rest of the night, restless, achy, almost in pain, right on down through the next day. I went to class, but I was distracted in the uncomfortable wooden desk, and even though I’d done my homework, I couldn’t participate in discussion because my brain was so very, very elsewhere. I heard his name in every side conversation I passed, in the wind, in the traffic noises as I pulled up to the school in my crap-brown Toyota. I saw the color of his eyes in everything from the spare patches of grass to the bronze roof on the theater building to the gray-green pallor of the frog that I was dissecting. And the whole time, I felt breathless without his fingers on my skin.
I felt like shit that night but went into work anyway just to see him. He didn’t show, and the next day was worse. I had to put my face in my hands to keep from hyperventilating all day. Even though it was Saturday, and I didn’t have to deal with class, I was still exhausted by my 10:00 p.m. shift just from the effort of not screaming. My flesh felt like it was trying to claw its way out of my skin.
By the time 1:35 a.m. rolled around, I had five people in the little tiny mini-mart of the gas station. When Arturo walked in, I was so happy I dropped one guy’s money all over the counter and almost sat on the floor and wept with relief. I could breathe again. I could smell his aftershave from the doorway, and I could breathe again.
I looked up at Arturo and met his eyes, and he had a practiced smile on his face when I did, but something in my face made his eyes widen. I shook myself, shivering like a baby, and ordered “Get out” to the people around me with enough intensity to make my throat burn hot. They fled, for no other reason than the look in my eyes and the sound of my voice, I guessed then. One girl still had her thirty-two ounce soda in her hands, but I would have paid for it myself.
I looked up at Arturo angrily, demanding with my eyes that he set me free of whatever it was that possessed me. Concerned, he leaned over the counter again and took my hand in his.
“My sincere apologies,” he muttered, doing the finger-tracing thing again. “I had not realized…. You do a good job, Cory, of masking who you really are. I did not mean to… distress you, by our conversation the other night.”
He stepped away from the counter, and I felt the tightness between my shoulders, the one that made the small of my back ache and pain and tremble for two days. Then I felt it go away. I sighed for a moment and looked up at him, angry.
“What the hell did you do to me?” I asked, practically spitting, I was so mad. “And how in the fuck did you know my name?”
He gifted me with a beatific smile. I’m only about five foot two—that’s a long way down for six foot plus. “Your name—this building practically shouts it. You are the only heart with any meaning that beats for long within its walls. And what I did… it was… unintentional. In fact, it could not have happened without that thing within you that you don’t recognize yet. You do not look, at first glance, susceptible to the night….” He shook himself, as though he was telling me too much, and said, “Again, I apologize. I will see you tomorrow, yes?”
“Fine,” I muttered. “What are you?” I asked after a moment, before he could turn away.
“I’m a child of the Goddess,” he said with amusement, and I blew out my breath in frustration. What the hell kind of answer was that? But before I could ask anything else, he left, without his cigarettes and six-pack for once, disappearing into the blackness beyond the gas pumps almost before I realized he’d walked out the door. I was left alone and feeling very tiny in the almost claustrophobic space of fluorescent lights and beer freezers.
I played it all through my head several times and thought about Arturo. Was I in love with him? After a year of staring at his shoes, and two nights of conversation, I certainly didn’t think so. In spite of that terrible fascination that he’d held for me, the feeling I got from him now was more… well, like an uncle, or an older brother. Yeah, he was beautiful, but, well, so the hell what? In fact, now that he had walked back through the door, I was losing more and more of my memory of even that terrible, inhuman beauty, or even any lingering tension from that breathless fever that had possessed me so thoroughly for nearly forty-eight hours. I could hardly remember the feeling. And that’s when ten years of reading fantasy literature hit me.
I had been elf-struck.
I didn’t believe it at first, but the next night when Arturo came in I could see that he looked different, other—something that wasn’t human. Don’t get me wrong. He was still beautiful, even more so actually, but now his nose looked a little sharp, and those glorious eyes were far too far apart to be human. In fact, the longer I looked, the more angular the curve of his ears looked.
“You’re not human,” I said bluntly, when we were in the store alone.
“Indeed not,” he said with humor. “Do you have a problem with that?”
And the more we talked, the more avuncular he felt to me. “How did you ever pass for human?” I asked him, feeling comfortable with him now that I realized fully that he was no threat to my nascent libido.
“Glamour,” he said evenly. “It’s a trait we have—the ability to disguise ourselves.”
“We… who’s we?” I asked, because I seemed to amuse him and he let me be nosy.
“We’re called sidhe,” he said.
“She?” He was most obviously a he.
Arturo laughed, looked over my shoulder at someone at the window and shook his head at them, then turned to me. “S-i-d-h-e,” he spelled patiently. “I bet we’re in a book somewhere.” And then he waved to yet another beautiful someone outside the station and was gone.
I scrambled for literature—fairy tales, pagan research, Celtic myths, W. B. Yeats, Laurell K. Hamilton. Everything I had been told was fiction was fact in the flesh in my Chevron mini-mart. According to everything I read, they were the leaders of the elves or fairies. Those cute little pictures of the tiny winged children or the tiny naked women that we see a lot when we hear about fairyland were nixies or sprites, and most of my books told me they were lower in rank than the sidhe. The sidhe themselves were the leaders of this fantasy world that had invaded my Chevron station looking for a six-pack. They were the warriors, or the scholars, or the poets. And they were tall for mortal men, with attenuated features and pointy ears and long, triangular faces. Just like Arturo. Oh yeah, he was a full-fledged member of the sidhe… right down to the whirling eyes.
I tried to dismiss that first impression—and my hysteria after I researched it. I mean, I read plenty of books, and it was a little creepy being all by myself at night, but eventually I started noticing more and more of my customers who were, shall we say, a little more than human. That short homeless guy with the grime encrusted on his fingers who came in every night for the big can of Schlitz Malt Liquor? His skin was actually gray—not just dirty. And, swear to God, under all that stringy green hair? There was a third eye. My boss said it was just some sort of big boil, but I knew better—no zit is that big!
Danny, my boss, tried to talk me out of all that bullshit. He kept telling me it was sleep deprivation from too many all-nighters, and he had a point—a working student averages about four hours of sleep a night, and that ain’t nearly enough. I told him about the elf-struck thing with Arturo, and he said it was just a girl-crush thing. Like he would know! But it was more than just Arturo. There were just too many other people… things… creatures… whatever that didn’t look human or act human or even smell human.
Like the little wizened woman who came in for the shelled sunflower seeds every night? I didn’t notice before, because she wore like a dozen coats and she stank, but I thought she had another set of arms underneath those coats. Her face was puckered and brown, and the gloves on her hands puffed up underneath. I’m totally serious. It looked like fur. She had, like, two-dozen eyes, too—she was, like, part spider—but she wore a big floppy brimmed hat that got in her way.
I was sure Danny could explain her, too, but I never asked him since that one conversation. For one thing, I was so damned tired of being laughed at. For another, the more I talked to him about it, the weirder he started to look—shorter, more wizened, and more green than swarthy, and I was sure enough that I was right to not want to look any closer. I mean, it’s not like there’s a place out here for real homeless people. When you go out past the pumps at night and look around, all that’s there is a moonglow expanse of silver-lit fields and sleeping cows. Where would these people sleep and eat, if not under the shadows of the big granite boulders that pepper the foothills like marbles after an insane throw? Or the blackberry bushes that take over a property if it’s left vacant for even a year? No—they were definitely trolls or goblins or something. If they were human, they’d be dead. Human beings are fragile—they couldn’t survive, just wandering around the back fields crazier than starlings drunk on acacia berries.
And not all of the wacko nightlife was homeless people. There was a group of kids, ten or so of them. Not runaways or anything, but small, feral. They had that heroin-waif thing down, along with lots of black clothes and goth jewelry—but they were really werecats, of the tom/tabby variety. They came in frequently, especially on the weekends, often after going to parties out in Folsom and Granite Bay where everybody was doing drugs that were far too good for anyone to notice a few extra hepcats hanging out. They were actually very nice, when you got to know them—and I found out later that the drugs were a sham. They thought I was pretty okay, since I had the hair and all—but chalk up another subgroup of the weirdass community that seemed to have built up around the Northern California foothills.
Mitch and Renny were part of that group—homegrown, like me, but somehow they escaped into this weird preternatural “ghoulash” and carved a niche of their own. They were funny to watch. Mitch was unconsciously beautiful; he moved with the furtive grace of the feral cats that my mom liked to feed and fix. We’d grown up in the same small town, so I knew a little something about his home life. Everybody knew he’d been expelled from high school for drug abuse—but it didn’t take a genius to spot someone who had been beaten from childhood and couldn’t believe the beatings had stopped. He looked at everything sideways, as though expecting bad things to jump out and get him—everything, that is, except for Renny.
Renny had been an honors student, one year below me in school. It was common knowledge that she had loved Mitch since they used to ride the same school bus together, and that her parents had kicked her out of the house when she told them she wouldn’t leave town to go to college because she wanted to stay with Mitch. She was a tiny, plain girl, with medium brown hair, a pert little nose, and a mouth that drew itself in at the sides—much like the giant, one-hundred-and-ten-pound tabby cat she turned into as soon as she and Mitch cleared the brush in back of the station and bounded into the night. When they were tabby cats, they frolicked. They played. They bounded.
The first time I saw them turn into cats, I was literally knocked on my ass in surprise. I wouldn’t have seen it, I thought, if it weren’t for that extra sense Arturo gave me with that one extra-casual touch. The second time I saw them, I had to swallow past the lump in my throat. Some people wait their whole lives for the happiness these two had when they weren’t people. Maybe, I thought, it was worth it to live outside the world, if you could just be that happy.
I almost missed my chance for that with Adrian.
He’d been driving his glasspack Harley to the station three or so nights a week since I’d started working, and I’m sure the locals just loved all that noise, but I really just ignored him. Too high-class tough for the likes of me, right? I first noticed him about a week after I realized that Arturo’s eyes were too far apart and his ears were pointy.
I remember that night—Mom had been ragging at me all day. Clean your room. When are you gonna get a boyfriend? Get some sleep for cripes’ sake—you look like a drug addict! I’m not here just to do your laundry. (Like I’d asked her!) You’ve got to let something go. You can’t do this forever! The usual. Some of it was well-meaning, I know, but when I tried to explain to her that it was worth the crappy hours to go to school, she got this look on her face like she got when I was ten years old and still believed in Santa. Like she didn’t want to disappoint me or hurt my feelings or anything, but Santa wasn’t real and I didn’t have a rat’s chance in a cat factory of getting out of this suckass town.
So into all of this, Adrian walked. That night I was pounding out a paper on Edgar Allan Poe for my English 1B class, and I was nailing the keys hard, because I was going to get a fucking A on this paper just to prove to her that Santa is real, and I was getting a bus ticket for Christmas. It was February, and I had three months until graduation with my AA in Liberal Science, which doesn’t sound like jack when you’ve got a real degree, but nobody I knew from high school was getting one, so I was pretty jazzed. The last thing I needed was another supernatural demigod like Arturo to come in and give me shit, so the last person on the planet I was prepared for was Adrian.
Where Arturo was Latino and lovely, Adrian was…. My God, how do I describe Adrian? His hair was white blond—Nordic looking, right? Six feet or so (goodness and glory, must they always be tall?) and wiry, with a face so fine and sharply featured he looked like he’d been carved from ice. He had Roderick Usher hair, gossamer around his face like a spiderweb I could pet, and his eyes were blue. Autumn-sky blue. The kind of blue that needs gold to set it off, but silver to shine by itself.
He came in frequently, always with a flavor of the week. He was pale and looked strung out in an appealing I can stop when my angst evaporates kind of way. I found out later that this was an act. It’s easier for a vampire to fit in with humans if he looks doomed. He talked with a British accent and looked as though he had no way of making a living but leeching the substance out of whoever offered up their resources to him. He wore a shiny black leather jacket that went well with the motorcycle, and treated his flavors of the week like shiny toys that he’d give away when their batteries died. He was bad. Not good bad. He was frightening and attractive and a little bit evil. He was bad bad.
A month before the night Adrian first spoke to me, before Arturo called me on being rude for not making eye contact, I would have wasted all that beauty by looking exclusively at his lace-up boots and his tight black jeans. But I didn’t want to be rude anymore, so when he put the money in my hands for his usual pack of gum I looked him in the eyes and smiled.
He stopped dead in his tracks, grabbed my hands, and leaned over the counter. I should have been scared. I should have reached for the .22 and held it under his chin, right? I was tough. I’d been working graveyards for over a year. We’d been robbed twice, and one of those times I’d fired that gun over the head of an escaping thief to get him to stop until the cops got there. I should have been scared, but damn—Adrian’s eyes were just so lovely that I couldn’t look at them enough, and then what scared me was that I wasn’t terrified.
I closed my eyes, swallowed, and then recovered my smile. “Did you need something else, sir?” I asked, my voice like silk on raw wood. He blinked lazily, leaned in, and smelled me. Really—like Hannibal Lecter smelling Clarice through the glass—put his nose in the air by my neck and sniffed.
“You don’t smoke?” He made it a question. An odd, awkward question, but I answered it.
“Nope. Too bad, huh? It would go with the image.” I was babbling. I had just gotten used to Arturo—I certainly didn’t expect this other nonhuman man-god to chat me up out of nowhere.
He sniffed me again, gave a languid smile that didn’t quite show his teeth, backed up a little, and nodded toward his current flavor of the week. I’d seen this one before. She was a pretty town girl who wouldn’t be pretty for long after she got married at twenty and started squishing out puppies. If I were not very careful, I could be just like her. I nicknamed this one Cherry Ice Cream because she always wore red, but looking at her now, I remembered that I knew her from high school—Kim something-or-other. She was wearing a red party dress that night, and the fluorescent lights with the red dress did not do good things for her skin tone—she looked almost green. “That one smokes. Not a good… taste, you know?”
“Wow,” I said, feeling more and more of the tough chickie coming back now that he’d backed away a little.
“Wow, what?” When he spoke, his eyes were half-closed, as though he scented my words, too.
“Wow—that was way too much personal information from someone whose name I don’t even know.”
He extended a lean hand with a better manicure than I will ever have. “I am Adrian. No Rocky jokes, please.”
I didn’t want to shake his hand, but Arturo’s words about rudeness still jangled on my nerves. Smoothly his fingers slid over mine, and my hand felt both cool and warm at the same time—like I’d slid it into water just a little too warm for a swim, but perfect for a summer bath.
“Cory,” I told him.
Again, that smile that didn’t show teeth. “That’s not your real name, is it, luv?” he said.
“What is it about you guys and my name?” I asked, frustrated. Cory had been my name to my parents and through nearly fifteen years of public education, thank you very much, and now these jokers wanted to quibble with my identity like the last nineteen years of my own work didn’t mean a damned thing. Besides, Cory was a boy’s name. A tough name. Corinne Carol-Anne? It sounded too much like someone I didn’t know how to be.
His eyebrow arched, and I noticed that the hair of his eyebrow was only a little darker than his skin. Just one more thing on the laundry list of loveliness, I guess. “You guys?” he asked. He still had my hand in his, and suddenly his flesh was cold, and then so was my hand. I didn’t like his voice now, I realized. It froze my breath in my jaw and made my teeth hurt.
“Arturo,” I hissed, and I could swear my breath frosted as it emerged from my stiffened lips. “He asked me my name, and he didn’t like it when I said ‘Cory.’”
Adrian’s hand warmed as soon as I mentioned Arturo’s name. “Arturo,” he echoed, in a beige voice.
“Yeah—he comes in every night… in fact…”—and the thought made me relax again, which was probably a mistake—“in fact, I’ve seen you two together….”
He dropped my hand abruptly and captured my gaze easily. I wondered if he could read the bumps on the back of my skull, he was looking so hard into my brain.
“Yeah—Arturo and me are mates, of a sort.” With his name out there a third time, the whole of my entirely platonic encounter with the not-quite-human man flashed through my head on fast-forward, and Adrian cocked his head like he was viewing the film and reading the subtitles to make sure he caught everything. After an hour, or a second, or a year taken out of the ticking of the loud clock on the sterile white wall of the mini-mart, he smiled again, a full-fledged smile this time. I had to blink twice before I accepted the fact that his eyeteeth were very, very sharp. Omigod—had he really read my mind? Had I just let a vampire roll my mind? No. Couldn’t be. Danny would commit me if I ever told him this.
I swallowed loudly, and I think he heard me, because his smile both widened at the ends and narrowed over the middle, so I could only see those remarkable teeth protruding a bit over the lip. Cherry Ice Cream walked over and pouted, pulling at his elbow. He gave her a dark look and she subsided, looking as though she would cry. Then he turned his frightening focus back on me for what felt like another full, breathless moment. Because God couldn’t make human men that beautiful? Is it because humans already procreate like hamsters, and more beauty would only make it worse? Everything in my body, parts I don’t even have names for, tingled when he looked at me.
His final smile was dazzling, and I felt my face go slack with the force of all that preternatural charm. “What color is your hair really, Corinne Carol-Anne Kirkpatrick? What color are your eyes?”
“Red-brown,” I rasped then, embarrassingly, “and the eyes are septic-tank green. The brown’s a contact.” I was suddenly so scared I could taste my heart beating in my throat. He licked his teeth as though he could too, and smiled that heavy-lidded, sniffing smile.
“Sounds… delicious,” he said throatily. “You should let me see you sometime.” Then, too quickly for me to draw back, he pulled my hand to his mouth and touched a pointed tongue to the center of my palm. I gasped audibly and snatched my hand back.
“I’m not a Snack Pack,” I said, trying for anger.
He met my eyes, and now that lovely blue looked just as beautiful but not nearly as scary. “No, Corinne Carol-Anne Kirkpatrick. You’re really quite a dish.” And then he was gone, Cherry Ice Cream trailing behind him woefully.
He came in the next night, around 2:00 a.m.—sans Cherry Ice Cream—and bought a thirty-two ounce Diet Coke, which he never drank. He then proceeded to chat me up for about an hour. It was hard to talk to him. He was beautiful, and I wasn’t. He had that accent, with exotic British expressions like “luv” and “bird” and “is terrific,” which did funky things to my knees, and I knew that my voice was sharp, often shrill, characterless NorCal, and that I frequently used outdated expressions like “dude,” “as if,” “whatever,” and “like.” And, to make things even more awkward, he had this look in his blue-sky eyes like there was something crucial he needed from me, and I would never ever see what it was.
But talk to him I did. I told him about school.
“I don’t understand,” he said bluntly, when I talked about getting out of the California foothills and going someplace big and exciting and new. I was working on a paper at the time, and I found my fingers stilling on the keyboard. I looked at him with humor and exasperation.
“Haven’t you ever felt trapped?” I asked. “Haven’t you ever felt like your entire life was one little tiny dust speck in the universe, and if you fought hard enough you could make it the whole universe?”
His face twisted, then clouded, and I didn’t know what he was thinking, and at the time I was glad that I didn’t know, because that kind of pain made my palms sweat.
“Yeah,” he whispered, “I know that feeling.” He swallowed, then shook his head and blinked his eyes; whatever it was he’d been seeing before disappeared. “But not here,” he added. His usual self-assurance slid back in place, and I was left shaken by what lay within this man-god and was never revealed.
At that moment, Renny and Mitch came in. I’d just seen their giant tabby-cat act a few nights before, and I was waiting for something in me to recoil from them, because now I knew they weren’t entirely human. Didn’t happen. What did happen was that both of them looked at Adrian and smiled, a warm, genuine-though-deferential smile, and then they… well, they bowed.
And Adrian bowed back.
I was pretty sure my chin hit the counter. Then things got weird. Renny turned to kiss Mitch on the cheek, and then grabbed Adrian’s hand and took him outside. My head swiveled, and if anything my jaw dropped lower when Adrian stopped her short and looked deliberately at me. His face was changing. His teeth grew, his forehead grew, and his eyes began to whirl. Renny closed her eyes, smiled, and raised her chin. They were close together, like family, not lovers, but then Adrian met my eyes and lowered his head to Renny’s neck and even that changed. Adrian sank his teeth slowly into the sleek, white flesh above the tiny girl’s carotid, and he began to suckle. Renny made a groan that I could hear through the bombproof Plexiglas and gave herself to the feeding, writhing against Adrian without inhibition.
I felt blindly behind me for my high-backed swivel seat, because my knees were going to give out. There was a horrible, empty ache between my thighs, and I couldn’t look away to save my life.
“Christ Jesus,” I blasphemed, and I heard a feral, hungry noise close to me. I spared a glance sideways, and I could see Mitch holding the flower he habitually bought for Renny with rolled pennies and staring out the window with adoration and naked desire.
“It’s something, isn’t it,” Mitch growled next to me.
“This flower’s better, Mitch,” I said automatically, reaching for the special flowers I bought just for the two of them. I had already taken the price tag off, which was good, because Adrian’s feeding was nearing its completion, my panties were flooded, and I still couldn’t look away.
“I love it when he feeds from her,” Mitch continued, as though relieved to have someone to tell.
“How can you….” I couldn’t even finish asking the obvious question—how could he bear to watch the woman he loved writhe and moan in the arms of another man.
“She’s totally turned on when he’s done,” Mitch said wolfishly. “For that matter,” he admitted, “so am I, when he’s done with me. It’s a vampire thing.”
Okay. I could believe that. Finally, after the mind roll and staring curiously at his teeth for the last hour, I could believe that.
“Why do you feed him?” I asked hoarsely. Mitch handed me four rolls of pennies, and I mindlessly put them in my drawer. I would be two dollars over at the end of the night and have no idea why.
“We’re werecats,” he said simply. “All were-animals answer to him. Something to do with the change in our bodies—it cleans out our blood, replenishes it quickly, and makes us in tune with the vamps. I think it’s the Goddess’s way of taking care of both of us—it’s damned hard to drink us dry.” He smiled, a sexy, assured smile that suddenly made me see what Renny had apparently seen since the third grade. “So we feed them. And care for them. And in return, they protect us.”
He looked up to where Adrian held the limp and laughing Renny in his arms and lapped casually at the blood on her neck. The wound was already closing, I saw, but it was a tender, almost brotherly gesture, and my brain was knotted from trying to wrap itself around the relationships of vampires and their dinner.
“Why… why him?” God, I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t stand. A little voice in my head was screaming for Adrian to touch me just like that. Another voice was saying that if he ever touched me at all, I’d melt into a puddle and die.
“Because he’s our leader,” Mitch said, as if that explained everything. Then, with a wholly sweet smile, he ran outside, swept Renny up into his arms, gave a perfunctory bow to Adrian, and scooted her out to their old four-door Nissan. After which, I presumed, he would hustle her home and they would mate like lemmings.
Adrian stood outside the Plexiglas after they were gone and looked at me with a combination of yearning and fear. I looked back, with probably the same expression, and then he turned and vanished into the night.