I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where she is or how to get to her. Just like then, we have no way to bridge what seems like an insurmountable chasm.
Then, the chasm was only as deep as my inability to accept the truth, but now… I kick out lethargically at my box, a weariness so deep in my bones that only desiccation and hopelessness could be responsible.
I love Tina with all that I am; and I was completely gone on her even then; I had been for most of my life. I just couldn’t accept it. It would mean a risk – a risk with consequences that I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to survive when it went wrong; and it always went wrong.
That was probably the only one constant thing in my life, the one thing that I could count on, even while I had Tina. My life was a prime example of the crippling power of Murphy’s law. But the law of nature and Tina herself taught me the most important lesson: risk makes life worthwhile.
Safety is a pipe dream and let’s face facts, some clichés are true. It truly is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But assuming those risks took so very much from me then, and as such, I fought with all of my considerably stubborn might.
Hoping, fighting, trying, giving in to what I needed – to Tina, it may have been a waste of time, but it was worth it. I had never had anything good and healthy and warm before Tina. But it was her, not me, who was determined to fight and reach me, to make things good. And she did. All I had to do was let her.
I owe her everything, and yet here I am, helpless and pathetic. I feel so angry that not even the desiccation or asphyxiating water can stop the sharp movement of my body as I force it to turn in the too tight space. I feel the crunching snap of my ribs and my knees, but I don’t care. I’m facing the weaker wall, and I refuse to be a whining, moaning bitch anymore. I owe her absolutely no less than my best, or at the very least, a valiant death.
I don’t have much time left so I start to kick as hard as I can as the first trickles of water seep into my mouth and down my airways. And my own words start to settle into what’s left of my mind: it was her, not me… but this time, I owe it to her to at least try, and I do.
I try with all I have before the intense rush of water swallows me up and washes over me, both inside and out.
We’d been running for several days, and while I wouldn’t admit it out loud, I was weak. I needed blood, but alas, there wasn’t a soul in sight, at least not yet.
We were, as I came to understand, in the Peruvian Andes. It was, quite literally, the highest and most desolate place in South America. And it was also the very stronghold of the vampyr rebellion.
After Tina had snapped my neck in New York, she’d kidnapped me and brought me here to this place of isolation, enlightenment, pain, and knowledge. I’m not sure how she’d managed to escape Lilith precisely, but I can only assume that it was due to her impeccable planning.
She’d found us in New York and waited for just the right moment to show herself. And when she did, I played into her trap beautifully. She’d snapped my neck and stowed me away on a barge that was waiting out in the open water of the Atlantic, and apparently she’d continued to snap my neck many times over the course of our trip to this place.
I had no recollection of it, but she certainly did, and I could tell that it had hurt her to do it, though her regret meant little to me. I wasn’t sure if I should love her or hate her for it. The circumstances, and even the reasons, hadn’t been ideal, but they’d opened my eyes, however forced.
We’d spent two months traveling to South America by ship, and then I spent nearly a year desiccating and fighting all of the things that I was coming to learn from Tina in her mountainous refuge. That was one of the things that I hated most about her – just spending time with her could change everything about me. And that fact was wrapped up in the very thing that I hated most about myself – I wanted to change my life and the world around me without changing myself.
But then all of those things that I was learning had been put on hold as Lilith could pursue a grudge indefinitely.
The river that we’d escaped through a few days ago flowed into a long, slippery slope that twisted like a slide through the mountain that the rebellion was dug into. We were finally spit out and hurdled a thousand feet down into and unforgivingly shallow pool of rocks. And we felt just how high and desolate we really were when we hit the rock-laden water at the bottom, the impact killing us instantly. But it had been worth it.
Facing Lilith would have been a worse fate.
Tina had taken a major risk in seeking refuge at the stronghold with Lilith on her heels. I didn’t want to believe what I’d heard in Tina’s thoughts on that first night in the prison, but I knew the truth: I’d been a joke to Lilith. There had been an age-old war waging around me, and I hadn’t even known it.
She was a tyrant to her own kind, and that explained so many things about our life together, most specifically the hiding and extreme distrust. But ultimately, she’d lied to me and used me, kept me in the dark to keep me from having freewill, brought me up to be a toy and a distraction. She’d taken away any and all semblance of freedom from me, and I was just too wrapped up in her to realize it.
I slowed to a stop at the edge of a cliff, physically and emotionally overwrought. I tried to shake off the incessant thoughts of Lilith as I gazed out at the snow-dusted forest that stretched across the infinite horizon. Small tufts of billowing smoke caught my attention and my eyes focused on the clearing in the distance where a small shanty town was situated.
I sighed with relief at the welcome signs of life. The moon would be disappearing soon, and while I knew that we’d be able to last for a fourth day without blood, I just didn’t want to. We were all very weak from death and continued physical exertion, but unlike me, the three of them had the added problems associated with sun exposure.
After the fall, I’d awoken in the water, just as the sun was coming up, to find that we’d drifted down stream for most of the night. That would have been fine, but then I realized that I was the only daywalker among us.
An unusual panic set in as I searched the river for Tina, and when I found her, her skin was scorched and heat was lifting off of the angry burns in strange waves that bent the light as they smoldered.
I splashed out to her with an urgency that I hadn’t meant to feel, and dragged her out of the water just as her friends washed up on the shore. Their condition was worse than Tina’s, and I considered leaving them to die, but Tina had begun to stir and writhe, the pain of her injuries saturating her thoughts to the point that I could almost feel it myself.
But the pain of sun exposure was nothing compared to the fear of losing her friends. I felt everything that she felt as she tried to stagger to her feet to help them, going right back into the sun no less.
Caring was an odd sensation, and I cursed under my breath as I relieved us both by dragging the other two to an overhang in the rocks along the shore. I hid them in the shade that nature had kindly provided and packed them in some of the snow to stifle their pain.
Tina fretted over them, her own well-being not even a consideration, and I marveled at the intensity of this force that I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe in or understand, even as I wanted to fret over her.
She was in so much pain, and yet only they mattered to her, while only she mattered to me.
It was an immensely difficult situation. On one hand, the sun meant death for them, and I couldn’t wrap my mind around the emotions coursing through me that didn’t really belong to me. On the other hand, being unable to keep moving meant death for all of us, and I now had a strange longing to know what it meant to love someone that much.
I could have ended my suffering and left them to their fate, and I truly considered it. But I just couldn’t leave Tina, and I had to grudgingly accept that simply complicated truth, despite all of the challenges that I was facing both inside and out.
It was then that I had decided to throw all caution to the wind and teach my companions to daywalk as soon as it was possible. I was extremely nervous to do it, given how sacred the rites were to Lilith and what they meant, but it would be necessary if we planned to survive, and I planned to ensure that Tina did, no matter the cost.
I couldn’t care less about her friends, but Tina’s thoughts had made it clear that it was a packaged deal – all or nothing – and while I knew that I actually wanted to share my knowledge with Tina, I’d convinced myself that I was only doing it to be rid of the annoyance that comes with waiting out the sun.
However, the ancient rites would have to wait. I would need supplies: fire, blood, and a personal item from each of them. And ultimately, I would need the emotional fortitude to withstand the intensely personal aspects of the act. I would have to bind them to me, by blood and by trust, and I did not relish the thought.
Tina stepped up next to me, snapping me from my reverie, and I glanced over at her. She was filthy and gaunt, her normally pale and smooth skin mottled with semi-healed blisters, but somehow, she was still startlingly beautiful.
I tried not to swallow my tongue along with the lump in my throat, and she exhaled heavily as she looked down over the town. A comfortable calm settled over us as we absorbed the knowledge that we’d made it this far. The running wasn’t nearly over, if such a hope would ever be possible, but this was at least a waypoint of help in what would be a lifelong escape.
Several moments passed, and while I knew that Tina’s mind was open to me, she was quiet. It was one of the things that I was growing to appreciate about her. She was so calm – so unlike Lilith.
Al and Dana caught up to us and, as I was coming to expect, Al broke the moment. “Oh, thank sweet baby Jesus…”
Dana put her arm around Al’s shoulders and chuckled in agreement. “Yeah, I’m so hungry that I might lose control.”
I looked back at the brunette, puzzled at her words. What did she mean, ‘control?’
As if to answer my question, Tina piped in with, “You’ve never been this hungry before, but it’s not as hard as you might think.”
I frowned at Tina, feeling slightly put off. What did it matter?
“I don’t see the problem. We just go in, get what we need, and raze the place to the ground.”
Tina looked at me disappointedly. I decided that I preferred her to be angry with me instead.
“Bette, they’re people…”
Her expression indicated that I should just somehow magically understand why that mattered, but I didn’t… at all. We were vampyrs; they were food. End of story.
She tried again. “We’re vampyrs, not murderers.”
I was more annoyed by the fact that her disappointment was more disconcerting than her reasoning.
“They’re food, you’re injured, and we’re hungry…”
I looked at Dana and Al, both of them unwilling to meet my gaze or speak a word because they knew that I was right.
“All of us…”
Tina closed her eyes and shook her head sadly. She had maintained her openness with me, though my walls were up, but nothing was coming through from her and that made me all the more curious.
This was just common sense, wasn’t it?
“Bette, do you have to kill them to get what you need?”
I glowered at her in annoyance. Did she assume that I was naïve?
“No, I’ve taken what I need without killing them before. But out here?”
I gestured to our hidden and desolate surroundings.
“There’s just no need for anonymity.”
Al and Dana chuckled and I furrowed my brows as Tina joined them.
Her voice was apologetic as she said, “Sorry, that’s sort of the point of the war with Lilith. Well, that and the fact that she’s a controlling, homicidal bitch.”
I wanted to defend Lilith, but I knew that Tina’s words were true. I had spent one hundred years with Lilith. She was my maker. She saved me and loved me when no one else would, except that had been a lie – one hundred years of lies to be exact.
Would I always feel the need to come to her defense?
Maybe if I understood, I wouldn’t.
“What does anonymity have to do with the rebellion?”
Tina seemed nervous to tell me, but she did anyway.
“Several of us want to come out of hiding, make ourselves known to the humans and try to live in peace with them.”
I gazed at her like she’d grown a second head, and she smiled sardonically as she gestured to my expression.
“Loyalist vampyrs tend to give us that very look when we talk about this; it’s more taboo than a religious debate.”
I laughed mockingly. “It’s little wonder. You can’t be serious…”
Tina exhaled heavily and crossed her arms over her chest in a defensive manner.
“I am. There’s no reason to hide because there’s no reason for humans to be frightened. Well, except of vampyrs who share your beliefs.”
I mirrored her posture. “There’s no reason not to feel the way that I do. They are food.”
She threw her hands up in frustration.
“They’re more than food. They have a soul. It’s murder…”
I eyed her skeptically as I tried to reason with her. “Is it murder when a lion eats a gazelle? No, it’s the natural cycle. Some eat and others are eaten. That’s who we are, Tina… who you are.”
An intense sadness fell over her countenance as she broke my gaze and looked down on the town. It was almost as if she was buckling under the weight of the very world, and I felt inexplicably saddened as well.
I tracked my eyes to the horizon, trying to puzzle out what she was seeing when she looked down on these insignificant people.
Why did she feel so much compassion for them?
Why were they worth fighting her instincts?
It didn’t make any sense.
She must have sensed my curiosity because her thoughts were passionate as she explained herself.
‘Humans are more than animals or a part of the natural cycle… or a part of the four food groups, for that matter. They love and reason and feel. They fight, especially when they know that they can’t win. They forgive, they keep trying, they’re determined… they’re just special, Bette.’
I couldn’t help but wonder if she was deluded or naïve… or both. I’d seen humanity, lived humanity, and none of the things that she was saying were remotely accurate in my experience.
Her next thoughts were blind against my barriers, but inscrutably accurate as they cut through.
‘Yes, there’s intense darkness, but there’s also intense light. You were once one of them, if you can remember.’
She turned to look at me as she finished.
‘You were definitely a bright spot for me.’
She smiled sadly and I felt something tug at my soul, if I had one. The nagging sensation intensified as her soft thoughts continued with honesty.
‘You still are.”
She had been a bright spot for me as well, until…
My thoughts grew dark, and whether it was to hurt her or just to speak, I let her in.
‘You left me there.’
I could tell that she was going to argue as she opened her mouth, but I knew the story too well already. She didn’t need to speak. No version of the events would change what had happened or why.
It just was.
There was no injustice to right or love to be restored. For all that she had seen she was blind.
‘Don’t,’ I say. ‘I know what happened and why, but that’s all the more reason to see it my way. Not a single person I knew had any redeeming qualities.’
Those words hurt her and I watched regretfully as tears gathered in her eyes. I could have really hurt her had I told her that I still didn’t find anything redeeming in anyone that I knew, but as I went to do it, I couldn’t.
It would have been a lie and I just couldn’t bring myself to go there anyway, which was strange. Normally I’d have fed off of her weakness, but this time… it wasn’t possible. I could neither love her nor hate her, and maybe that’s why it was impossible: talking this through might push me in a direction that I just wasn’t willing to go.
I swallowed those thoughts and managed to remain mostly neutral. ‘I know that you tried in your own way, but you were too scared for yourself. I understand that, and I really don’t care anymore. That’s why I don’t understand why you sought me out or feel that you owe me anything. You did what you had to do and I didn’t matter. That’s humanity, and what I’ve seen of it is neither special nor worthy of compassion.’
She closed her eyes and lowered her head, and I pushed in to make her understand.
‘No, humanity is selfish and cruel. What I do to them is nothing more or less than what they do to each other. They’re food, sometimes entertainment… but they’re animals, pure and simple.’
She shook her head softly, and I almost wished that she’d shut me out of her thoughts they were so agonized.
But only almost…
What was worse was that her agony wasn’t caused by me, but sympathetic towards me.
Thankfully, she didn’t seem to need to defend herself from my words. Those wounds were best left bleeding.
‘Humans are more than the sum of their parts, Bette. They aren’t just instinct and they don’t always put themselves first. But even if the darkest parts of them outweighed the good, which they don’t, that’s not what we’re even talking about. Humanity isn’t limited to being a human any more than murder is limited to being a vampyr. Who you are, isn’t limited by what you are.’
I rolled my head over to her with a bored expression. ‘The humans killed any humanity in me long before I transitioned. Now that I have, I just don’t need it. It goes against my nature. I’m a vampyr and so are you. We don’t need all of that nonsense anymore.’
She met my gaze and smiled determinedly. ‘Then why do you still care?’
I was struck dumb but I managed to posture nonchalantly which caused her to laugh.
‘You can’t hide it, Bette. Somehow, despite all that you’ve been through, you still have compassion. You were always a kind soul; you just don’t want to admit it.’
I literally felt my eyes harden as I reinforced the armor that I’d buried myself in for most of my life.
I didn’t want to be soft, warm, lovable, or any of the things that she was accusing me of. I just wanted to be free, and to be safe… and denial was as close to freedom and safety as I could come.
‘I don’t care, and I have no compassion. Those very words were created by a lesser species, and the notions associated with them are just as weak.’
Her smile became a grin and I felt piqued. If there was one thing that I wouldn’t abide it was condescension, even when well-deserved.
Her grin faded when she heard my thoughts and she looked at me almost… lovingly, almost… adoringly…?
For fuck’s sake…
‘I don’t think that I’m better than you, Bette; not in the least. It’s you who can’t see yourself as an equal, not me.’
She reached a hand forward hesitantly, and for some reason, despite my anger with her words – or more pointedly, my anger with the truth of her words – I allowed her to rest it over my still heart. I would have sworn that the long-silenced organ fluttered.
‘We’re immortal,’ she continued gently. ‘And it would be far too cruel to have infinite life with no reason to live it.’
I wanted to leave, to find a way to be away from her, but it was as if the roots of the forest floor had tangled themselves around my feet to hold me there, or maybe fate had cruelly bound me to her.
What was worse was that I couldn’t speak to argue. How could I? I wanted to die. I had been very vocal in that desire. How could I say that there was a reason to live without all of this nonsense that she was spouting off about when I had never found one for myself?
My darker desires gave me purpose for a time, and I had eventually fallen in love with knowledge and learning, but both were empty. They just weren’t enough to want to live.
They allowed me to exist, only exist.
She shook her head to counteract my thoughts. ‘You chose to live. More than that, you choose to stay with me every day, when in all honesty, you could abandon me and never look back.’
‘You know just as well as I do that it’s because you care.’
I was trembling with rage and snatched her wrist to pull her hand away. My grip was tight at first but it automatically loosened when I noticed her wince at the contact.
I sighed. I wanted to hurt her, but I just couldn’t, not that it would matter. She’d never leave me alone.
For the first time I knew that no matter what, no matter how much I fought against it, someone was with me, and it wasn’t to use me. She was with me for no rational reason, and she wouldn’t go away. I knew that as well as I knew anything, which wasn’t much at that point, but that knowledge was a part of me – Tina was a part of me; physical distance wouldn’t change that.
She stroked my palm tenderly, and I stared at our hands transfixed as she slowly settled her smaller one in my own, and I realized that she’d heard my thoughts and had been watching me.
I cursed as I tried unconvincingly to repair the glaring damage to my ego.
‘I survive. It’s instinct, that’s all, not humanity…’
She frowned before stepping closer and looking up at me from under long lashes.
‘That’s a shame,’ she breathed out. ‘Because it’s your loyalty…’
She smiled as she reached up to tuck a lock of curls behind my ear.
I let her. More than that, I wanted her touch and it infuriated me that I couldn’t squash that desire as she continued.
‘Your stubbornness, your compassion – your humanity – that I love so much.’
If I had been smart, I’d have accepted all of the things that were glaring me in the face and leaned in to seal a bright new future with a warm and passionate kiss.
This was my chance. She was close, very close, holding my hand with an oddly soothing propriety as her comfort washed over me like a balm to the soul that I had lost so long ago.
The atmosphere was thick with expectation and longing; the tension was high, and my heart was willing to beat again. But my mind wouldn’t allow me to live, not really, not yet. It couldn’t accept any of these wholly necessary things.
I released her awkwardly, or took back control of myself, and wiped my hand on the thigh of my jeans to unsuccessfully rid myself of the tingling warmth that was her touch.
“Hello! Are you two done with this cryptic mime routine?”
Tina and I both jumped before glaring at Al.
Dana scrubbed at the back of her neck embarrassedly as Al punctuated her irritation with a murmured, “Telepaths – worse than silent movies…”
Tina shot Al a playfully scathing expression.
“You hear Dana…”
Al glared at Tina and I furrowed my brows as I considered why she would be so annoyed. Well, more annoyed than usual. Was she jealous? I determined this to be the case, and knew that Tina was aware as well as she attempted to shift the focus of the conversation.
“You know better than to rag on my silent movies, Alice.”
Alice… so that was why they call her Al. I had thought that it was maybe just an inside joke to give someone so annoyingly cute a decidedly masculine nickname.
She gazed at Tina with a mischievous expression.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah… they’re boring, and so are you.”
For a moment I wanted to tear out her tongue for insulting Tina, but Tina just laughed it off good-naturedly, something that seemed foreign to me.
“Yes, I’m boring,” Tina admitted easily, glancing at me out of the corner of her eye.
It was as if she was trying to include me in their banter, but I was entirely out of my depth and still reeling from our encounter. I was terrified by so many things, but they all revolved around her and my inability to be unaffected.
What was worse was that she was treating me as if I was someone – a lover, a friend, just important.
Lilith had treated me like a good pet. We never joked around and our touches didn’t do this to me. I was trembling and unraveled, as if I needed to clutch at my guts to hold them inside.
Tina’s smile was coy, genuine, and loaded with innuendo as she continued without realizing or caring that I was imploding.
“But at least Bette likes me.”
Oddly enough, my panic subsided with her words as I realized that they hadn’t been so bad, that I hadn’t been expected to reciprocate or dance on command. I didn’t even have to respond.
I couldn’t help the quirk that tugged at the corner of my lips, though I hated that it’d happened. Mostly, I hated that I wasn’t supposed to like her. So I again decided that I didn’t, no matter what my actions indicated or my feelings dictated. I wasn’t planning to leave her anytime soon, for reasons unknown, but that didn’t have to mean anything, did it?
Alice’s snort broke my thoughts as she gestured to me and laughingly said, “Tina, she tortures people for fun…”
Dana cringed and touched Alice’s forearm as if to stop the words that had already tumbled out. I wasn’t sure what to make of them. I felt… shameful? Yes, shameful and angry – just always angry. She had no right to judge me and I honestly couldn’t remember why I’d fished her out of the sun-soaked river.
I looked back over to Tina, frightened of what she might be thinking, and she smiled sadly as her thoughts reached out to me.
‘She didn’t mean anything by it. She’s just…’
She sighed exasperatedly as she looked for the right word to complete her thought. She went through frustrating, inappropriate, socially awkward, contradictory, and judgmental before I piped in to help her.
‘Overly-excited, nauseating, irksome, exasperating…’
She butted in as she cracked a smile, and of course was disagreeable. ‘Loyal to a fault, caring, protective, hilarious…’
I cut in again. ‘The phrase, ‘irritating blonde,’ comes to mind.’
She laughed and I decided that I hated the fact that I loved the sound of it.
And she knew it.
‘You do refer to her by that title often.’
I couldn’t help but smile back at her despite my still-fresh misgivings that she could hear my thoughts, and I was becoming increasingly careless with my barriers. They were just forgotten as I interacted with her.
She grinned, and I tilted my head back in exasperation. Point in fact…
She playfully rubbed it in. ‘And ‘irksome’, seriously? We really need to update your vocabulary. You’ve even mentioned ‘smiting’ recently.’
I squinted defensively at her and she laughed again.
I chuckled despite myself and she shrugged as she said, ‘Irksome is true though. Alice is just… Alice…’
Her thoughts started to focus on me and I looked away from her as I shut her out, afraid that I might find that she agreed with the irritating blonde. I wasn’t sure why it hurt to consider the notion, but I wouldn’t allow myself to think on it, however much my mind insisted.
Several minutes of silence ensued before Dana tried to salvage the stifling atmosphere with a well-placed subject change – about the weather no less.
“The sun will be up soon. We should probably go.”
She crooked her head at the horizon and I again stared out, feeling entirely out of place and completely unsure of myself. It had been a long time since I’d felt like I didn’t belong.
I scanned my eyes back over the town. A cluster of tiny, weathered structures were blanketed in dry snow and small swirls of smoke curled up from their lopsided chimneys. I couldn’t help but wonder what was so wrong with me, why these vampyrs found me to be so different from them. I had always been other, so it didn’t faze me, but I must have assumed that all vampyrs were like me… like Lilith.
That’s when it hit me, in a random moment of clarity: I’d seen who and what Lilith was in Tina’s mind, and as such, I was no better than her. They hated her and therefore, they hated me. To them, I was unnatural because I delighted in death. And while I didn’t care what they thought of me, at the same time, I worried that they were right.
Had I always been other because something was truly wrong with me?
I felt Tina’s hand settle back into mine and she squeezed it to get my attention. I looked over at her, and her expression was so serious but compassionate that I was taken aback.
‘I love who you are, but I would be lying if I said that it didn’t scare me. I only want you to be happy. Does hurting people make you happy?’
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, mostly because I knew that I wasn’t happy. Again, I had been far too vocal in my distaste with life to delude myself or anyone else. But I knew only what I had seen of life.
How could I want any different when I’d never seen any different?
And, yes, I took joy in hurting others because they had taken joy in hurting me. Humans, in general, stood for everything that I hated. Was it so wrong to fight back… and more pointedly, take pleasure in it?
Tina entwined our fingers and gazed down at our hands as she stroked me with her thumb. I considered breaking the contact, but it was a touch that I’d never experienced before – sweet, kind, gentle, and soothing. I just wasn’t done studying how it felt yet.
Tina smiled sadly as she looked out at the gathering horizon before releasing me and coming to her own determination.
“Look, we obviously disagree, but I won’t condone you hurting those people. In fact…”
She lowered her eyes and set her jaw, and I heard her pleading thoughts just a split second before she spoke.
And while her thoughts said, ‘Don’t make me fight you. I couldn’t bear it…,’ her words were less gentle.
“I’ll defend them with my very life. Those people are my friends… my family. But what you do is your choice.”
There was that word again: choice.
“It doesn’t change anything. I see who you could be, but I accept who you are, Bette. Unfortunately, I still have to do what I feel is right. That’s who I am.”
Her voice was sad as she finished, and as she turned to begin a fast descent down the slope at the side of the cliff, I felt utterly alone as I watched her go.
What had just happened?
Alice had happened…
I turned and glared angrily at her as she stepped up to me to give me a warning.
“Let’s get something clear: you’re with us, not the other way around. If you hurt Tina, or anyone else for that matter, I won’t be so forgiving. Unlike Tina, I’ll put you out of your misery.”
She spun on her heel and followed after Tina, and I took a step forward to answer the nagging call to kill her, but Dana put her hand on my arm to stop me. I looked down on it in and considered pulling the extremity from its socket.
Her eyes widened as she snapped it away, saying. “Sorry.”
She lowered her eyes and scrubbed at her neck as she blew out a breath, a habit that was beginning to annoy me.
Her voice was small as she continued. “I’m sorry that she said that. She doesn’t always think about what she’s saying. If it’s any consolation, Tina and I don’t agree with her.”
I was quick to answer with a weary voice. “I really don’t care what any of you think. So by all means, feel free…”
She met my eyes, and I wondered at the depth I found there. Everything about her screamed oblivious, but the word didn’t fit when you actually paid attention.
“You know, it doesn’t hurt to try something new, even when it’s not comfortable.”
I exhaled wearily. What was she talking about?
As if she had heard the question, she answered.
“I’m young, but then you know that.”
She grinned, and the way it lit up her gray eyes was disarmingly endearing, at least before it faded.
“But I suffered for most of my life and I was pretty terrible to those around me. I wasn’t always a good person either.”
I scoffed as I looked her over. She was small but her physique was that of an athlete. She was unassuming, your typical girl-next-door, and there was an innocent warmth about her.
She couldn’t possibly know the first thing about suffering, not really, especially with her being young as she was. But as she looked up at me without falter or trepidation, I could see that there was a knowing pain buried deep within her.
Perhaps I was underestimating her.
Her voice was solemn as she continued.
“I was dead and gone long before I was supposed to die, but when Al and TK found me, they helped me.”
Her smile returned triple-force and she was wistfully quiet for a long moment.
“Alice gave me her blood and healed me, and it gave me another chance at life; I was just determined to waste it.”
She shook her head.
“It’s hard to change, in any circumstance, but it’s worth it to try. Just give it a chance.”
Her words meant nothing to me and her struggles even less. And she must have sensed that fact, because she blew out an anxious breath and made her way to the slope, stopping to look at me once more before climbing down.
“Besides, we don’t want to leave a burning trail for Lilith.”
I watched her leave, frustrated that even she’d figured it out when I couldn’t. And it also seemed that when I had a choice, I didn’t like my options.
I allowed the welcome solitude and silence to settle over me for several long minutes, though I couldn’t find the relief in it. My thoughts were just too jumbled.
I never doubted myself with Lilith, but with Tina, nothing was true for me anymore. It was as if all of my chips were in the air at all times, but they’d never land and give me an answer or direction. And even if they did, would I have the courage to follow through?
More importantly, what did I want to do? I had never asked myself that question before, and no one else had ever asked me either. The last time that I thought about my wants was a lifetime ago, wading in a cool stream, with a young, tow-headed white girl who had more options than I’d ever know sitting beside me and voicing her own wants. But even then, she didn’t have the courage to stand up for herself… or for me.
Why should I? How could I? What did I really want?
I just didn’t know, and it wasn’t just whether or not to kill the people in the town below; it was just everything: live or die, love or hate, compassion or cruelty, human or demon.
I wasn’t sure who I even was anymore, and yet I still found ways to defend my beliefs when I didn’t know if I truly believed them. I felt like I didn’t believe in anything…
Either way, at least Tina wasn’t trying to force me. And as much as I hated to admit it, the brunette was right – a burning village would undoubtedly be considered conspicuous. But I was concerned about something wholly less important: Tina made me feel guilty.
Is that what choice meant to her – manipulate the outcome with guilt? And if so, why had it worked?
I wasn’t concerned about her approval like I had been with Lilith. No, I would make my own choices and I would live with my own consequences. But no matter what, I couldn’t kill Tina, and apparently she would try to kill me if I made a choice that she didn’t agree with.
I supposed that I could try to kill her first, or at least test her resolve, but I knew that I’d fail. More importantly, I knew that she wouldn’t. My heart, if I still had one, just wasn’t in it, but hers… her heart was pure and thriving despite everything.
There was truly nothing that she did without meaning or stalwart conviction.
The twilight started to gray and melt away the stars as the first flickers of dawn appeared on the horizon, and I realized that I wasn’t going to reach an understanding within myself any time soon. I was either willing to try something new, or I would completely destroy myself by wallowing in who I pretended to be. No matter what, drawing Lilith’s attention wasn’t an option, and therefore, I needed to get moving.
I made my way down the slope, my thoughts still buzzing around in my skull as if an angry hive of bees had taken up residence there. There would be no peace for me with Tina or away from her. There was no good outcome, not for me, not ever.
The town was unnaturally quiet as I approached, and the thickening rays of light had started to chase shadows across the small, weathered, and dilapidated structures around me. The wind whistled and picked up the sparse dusting of snow that littered the ground and for a moment, I found some peace in the stillness of it.
My companions were nowhere to be found. In fact, there was no one at all. The structures showed signs of recent use; smoke still billowed from makeshift chimneys, and I began to worry despite the peacefulness of such solitude. It was too quiet, and something just felt… off. That sense of foreboding was becoming the norm.
I knew Tina was close. I could always feel her. It was a steady and now pleasing hum that vibrated low in my stomach, and I used it to find my way to her through the abandoned town. The hum became stronger and I listened in around me. The unsynchronized thudding of several heartbeats reached out to me and my gaze settled on a large, communal structure at the end of the uneven pathways.
The wet rhythm inside thrummed over my synapses and caused my mouth to water as my stomach clenched. I felt my fangs push forward and I closed my eyes as I breathed in deeply.
The smell of fresh blood didn’t saturate the air, but the aroma was strong enough that it hitched in my nostrils and pulled me forward as if I’d been caught on a hook. This was even more worrisome. Did these people always wake and congregate at dawn to bleed?
Somehow, I just didn’t think so.
The sounds of laughter greeted me as I approached the structure and I opened the door cautiously. Roughly sixty or seventy locals were congregated in the open, rustic space of this pseudo-tavern, many of them in a line at the counter. But most of them were huddled together around one of the longer tables at the back of the room.
Some were sitting, some standing, but they were all laughing and drinking, and seemed to be enthralled with someone specific. I heard her warm voice before I approached the largest group to find a woman I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to figure out. She was seated at the table in the middle of the crowd, her skin was radiant and slightly flushed with health, and I felt as if the breath had been stolen from my lungs.
Tina’s bright, laughing eyes met mine and the room became oddly silent as everyone turned to me. I eyed them distastefully as I waded through them and approached the table.
Tina turned to Alice on her right, and I smiled as Alice glared at her in distaste. After only a moment, she lost the visual standoff, rolled her eyes, and sharply scooted down to grudgingly make room for me. I threw a long leg over the bench and settled in next to Tina, still feeling awkward and unwelcome, and slightly inclined to drink from every heart thudding loudly in the room. But Tina had obviously fed, and no one in the crowd seemed any the worse for the experience.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t curious as to how this would play out.
The moment of calm passed as everyone resumed their conversations, and Tina nudged a stein a few inches across the tabletop until it was settled in front of me. The smell of it permeated my body and brought out my hunger as I peered into the thick, sloshy contents of the mug to see it nearly brimming with blood.
I wasn’t accustomed to this, but I didn’t much care if it was cold and stale. I picked it up and took a long pull to find that it was warm and fresh, and I closed my eyes as I continued to drink.
The taste was different, but pleasantly so. These people didn’t have fast food or restaurants on every corner, and as such, the taste was earthier – healthier maybe. It was more than the donors’ diet though. I could only describe it by comparing it to a variation of something Mama made when I was a child: stew. It was one of the few things that I had been afforded the pleasure of trying, and that was only because she worked in the kitchens and knew how to smuggle it out.
It was wonderful – meat, potatoes, vegetables, spices – all of these singular things that when put together, brought out the unique flavors in each before combining into something wholly delightful. Drinking from one human is like eating just one item at a time. It’s delicious and filling, but this, this was a meal – a culmination of various delights.
I drained the large container and set it down on the table with a thud, giving Tina a sidelong glance. That wouldn’t be enough, but the quality of it was staggering. That didn’t mean that I wanted her to know that I had found pleasure in it, even as I was sure that she did.
She grinned and it reached her eyes as she gestured to the back corner of the room. I hadn’t noticed it when I had entered, but the people in line at the counter were each taking a turn holding their wrists over a large bowl, and I’d been too caught up in Tina to even realize it. It was strange, the knowledge that even my intense hunger was nothing in comparison to my intense… curiosity… for Tina.
One of the current donors finished, and held his wrist to his chest above his heart as he strode up to where we were sitting. Tina’s fangs snapped out and she punctured her thumb, swiping her blood over his wound to heal it.
She finished with a bright smile and a warm, “Thanks, Gustavo.”
He smiled shyly, his accent thick as he replied, “It is my pleasure, Miss Tina. You will stay here this evening. My children have missed you.”
I was… stunned as she replied. “Gustavo, we’re being followed. I don’t think it–”
He held his hand up to stall her. “I won’t hear such things. You will stay for a while and rest, at least.”
She smiled, though I could feel her worry as she agreed.
“We’ll stay in the mines, but once the sun is down, we have to go. It’s not safe.”
He grinned and she shoved on his arm playfully.
“I’m serious, Gustavo.”
His grin turned rakish before he kissed her hand in a brotherly manner. “We’ll take what we can get, then.”
He patted her hand as he released her, and strode over to the woman who was nursing a child in the back of the room. She looked up at Tina and smiled warmly at her from across the room, and I could only assume that she was Gustavo’s wife. Two other children ran past them and she called out to them to slow down as they barreled straight for Tina.
“Miss Tina!” Their unified shout was grating, but my irritation with them faded as I watched Tina pick the youngest one up and place him in her lap. The older boy started speaking excitedly, his eyes bright as he ran through words faster than even my mind could keep up. Tina seemed to have no problem understanding him though. Actually she seemed present and her attention was entirely his.
I watched for several long minutes, wholly unaware of their conversation as I tried to wrap my mind around this scene. Children were off limits. That was the way most predators reacted in nature, but this… this was… unnatural, wasn’t it?
Tina laughed as she ruffled the older boy’s hair and the younger boy hugged her tightly around the neck before jumping out of her lap to run off for adventures unknown.
Tina resettled herself next to me and her thoughts were so complacent and warm that I almost wanted to crawl into them. I faced forward and played with my empty mug as I considered just how odd and insane this truly was.
Could we live alongside humans, and have deep and meaningful attachments to them? Were they not all that bad, or was it just me? Was I just repugnant to all living things and as such, I gloried in lashing out at them for their ostracism?
Whatever I was, I was certainly shocked, and I couldn’t seem to snap myself out of it.
I finally glanced over at Tina to see her head resting in the palm of her hand as she leaned her elbow on the table to stare at me. Her barriers were down, like always, and her thoughts smug. And while it irked me, I didn’t hesitate to open my own mind to her.
‘Did you compel these people?’
She chuckled incredulously and the sound of it was disconcertingly exhilarating.
‘Wow, Bette! I don’t have to compel people to have friends.’
She laughed again and calmed herself to explain.
‘No, that would defeat the purpose of friendship. We have a mutual agreement with them, and Gustavo is a personal friend of mine. I saved his life when he was a boy.’
I was appalled.
‘They know what we are and you let them live?’
She became serious as she folded her arms on the edge of the table.
‘Of course. It’s a hard life up here. The altitude alone causes severe sickness, but mining is dangerous work at any height. When one of them becomes sick or injured, we heal them. In return, they feed us.’
That was easy enough to understand, but… ‘What if one of them betrays you?’
She shook her head.
‘No, that won’t happen.’
I scoffed at her naïveté as a kindly woman set another mug in front of each of us. Tina took a sip from her fresh cup before she spoke again.
‘They’re thankful to us, Bette. We help them and they help us. And…’ She shrugged. ‘…they’re my family.’
I took a long pull from my own mug as I again attempted to wrap my mind around her complacency.
‘These are gold miners and profiteers, Tina. It would take one, only one, to see the profit in selling you out. It would cause a world of damage.’
She smiled over the edge of her mug as she took another sip. ‘No one here would do that, but selling us out wouldn’t even be a problem if we stopped hiding.’
I rolled my eyes and she continued on her soapbox.
‘If the world knew and grew to accept us, there would be no profit in harming us. Think of the good we could do on a global scale.’
I was quick to counter with, ‘Think of the government scientists that would kidnap our kind to do experiments on us, or the vampyrs that would be captured and drained for a cure-all.’
I shook my head with resolve.
‘No, if they know we exist, they’ll feel threatened. People fear what they don’t understand; you know that’s true. You’re a lesbian, and I’m a half-black lesbian. Now we’re vampyrs… We’re fucked.’
She laughed and I couldn’t help but join her. my eyes mesmerized by the way she tilted her head back and it exposed her long neck. My cup found its way to my mouth and I took a huge gulp to calm myself.
Something was different, so very different with her, with me… with us. We each calmed ourselves, albeit in entirely different ways, and she decided that she just had to have the last word. I wouldn’t have allowed it, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter. There was really no way to argue her point.
‘There’s really only one way to look at this,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t matter what either of us believes.’
She took a long, slow sip of blood, and as her lips pressed against the smooth edge of the cup, I envied the inanimate object. I was so distracted that I may not have even heard her thoughts if they hadn’t been so poignant.
‘You know just as well as I do that being ignorant of your options robs you of freedom. If humans want to fight, so be it. But they should have a choice. And I’m done living under Lilith’s thumb and hiding in shadows because she’ll have me killed if I don’t.’
I frowned and sipped from my stein, unable to assemble my thoughts into anything coherent. She was fighting the very injustice that had bound me for my entire life, my very maker; she just extended that justice to all living creatures, apparently even animals.
A comfortable but pensive silence fell over us as we both got lost in our thoughts. I glanced over at her and almost wished I hadn’t when a thought that I didn’t want to entertain came to me.
She was beautiful when slightly disfigured, but now, with fresh blood soaking into her smooth muscles, her skin tinted with an attractive blush, all indications of anything but youth and health absent, I might have wanted to clear the table and take her hard against it. But oddly enough, all that I really wanted to do was bury my face in her neck and breathe her into the soul that I didn’t even believe that I had.
Mischief gleamed in her hazel eyes as I finally focused away from her neck, and she smiled knowingly. My emotional pendulum swung back hard to carnal pursuits as the expression stirred something thick and hot inside of me.
‘I think it’s funny that you compare being a lesbian with being fucked by society. It’s a little ironic,’ she said.
I shifted in my seat to relieve the uncomfortable pressure that was beginning to build there.
‘My verbiage may be ironic,’ I replied. ‘But it’s true. As far as human society is concerned, we’re fucked.’
Her voice lowered and I took a frustrated sip from my mug, not understanding myself at all.
‘Well, they got over it when slavery was abolished, just like they got over it when women took their rights. They’ll get over vampyrs soon enough if I have anything to say about it.’
She took another swig from her cup and gave me a smug sidelong glance. Her next thought nearly caused me to choke on the blood I’d just anxiously gulped.
‘They’ll get over lesbianism too. I fuck who I want.’
I swallowed the blood in my mouth hard. I’d never thought about Tina in the throes of passion before, though I’d noticed her sexuality almost immediately. Well, she’d just changed that, like she’d been changing everything else.
At that very moment, I was being inundated with mental images that were markedly erotic, and it was markedly pleasant.
She grinned disconcertingly at me, and I cursed myself for having been careless with my mind yet again. I had to get that under control. She leaned toward me, her breasts grazing my arm as her lips brushed softly against my ear. Her breath ruffled my hair, sending toe-curling tingles down my spine, and she started to reciprocate with her own desires, which didn’t make it any easier to shut myself down.
It went on for long, glorious minutes, my breath ragged and my mouth dry as we played this game back and forth.
I closed my eyes as an especially erotic thought unfolded from her incredible imagination only to abruptly fizzle as she said, “You. Wish…”
Her breath was warm, and so was the temperature in the room. It felt strange; temperature regulation was a thing of the human past, and I gripped my mug tightly as I weakly scoffed at her, trying to shut out the images that were causing decidedly southern nerves to twitch and beg for attention. I somehow managed to ignore my body as I attempted to turn the tables back in my favor.
“Please… don’t flatter yourself.”
She didn’t buy my bravado, not by a longshot, and I realized that the tables hadn’t moved an inch as she rejoined,
“Your loss… someone else’s gain.”
I turned to gaze at her worriedly, but she’d already started to pull away. The corner of her mouth grazed mine and I had to fight not to think about how it had felt or how much I wanted to taste… no, I wouldn’t go there. I knew what waited there. I felt her smile against me, and I considered the possibility that it hadn’t just been an accident, at least not on her part, but her mind was firmly her own and the loss of it clawed at my guts.
The fact that for all of my telepathic abilities I couldn’t read her had left me floundering, but then she abruptly turned her back to me. That was just… unbearable, but then it got even worse. She actually had the gall to start flirting with the obnoxious redhead on her left who had been shyly vying for her attention since I’d arrived and stolen it.
I felt irrational. So many thoughts were warring for supremacy inside of me, but all of them were tightly bound up in Tina. She was a puzzle. It was hard enough to put all of the contradictory things about her together into some semblance of reason without having to go searching for more pieces, but that was precisely what I had to do with her. And I couldn’t seem to stop myself from wanting to complete the puzzle, wanting to maybe even be a part of the picture that would unfurl itself.
But Tina… she was wholly unaffected. Would I ever really know her or affect her the way that she did me?
I leaned against the table, hoping to burn a hole through the back of her head with my eyes as a sense of indignant anger rumbled in my chest and shook apart any control that I had left in me. My ire wasn’t just ignored; it seemed to further encourage her to continue with the overly-excited woman next to her.
My eyes nearly tumbled from my head and rolled across the table as Tina confidently ran a finger over the other woman’s forearm. It wasn’t just unnecessary, it felt… I wasn’t even sure, but it wasn’t at all acceptable. They continued to converse, their touches few and far between, but still far too many by my estimation.
She’d truly shut me out for the obnoxiously clueless redhead behind her, and it couldn’t possibly have been worth it.
I felt… slighted. Yes, cast-off, ignored, cranked up, and shut down.
The redhead caught my eyes over Tina’s shoulder, and I considered snapping her neck. And she seemed to know my thoughts because I then watched with petulant satisfaction as her smile melted and her eyes widened.
She jumped to her feet and nearly tripped over them as she tried to free herself from the bench. Tina caught her, asking her if she was okay, but all she could do was stutter nervously before inexplicably excusing herself.
She nearly ran from the table as Tina slumped back into her seat, and I suddenly felt much more grounded and less scattered. Tina looked over at me with a raised eyebrow, and I hastened to take another sip out of the wonderful stew in front of me to hide my smile.
Her thoughts came back, and I felt almost… relieved. No, I felt whole again, like a part of me that had been missing had been restored.
Her voice was low as she scowled at me. ‘What was that about?’
I gave her my most bored expression, making sure my thoughts were secure as I shrugged nonchalantly.
I hadn’t meant to scare the oblivious woman away, or maybe I had. She was dense, and touching Tina in ways that might still cost her her life.
Tina continued to glare daggers at me, but I wasn’t even slightly apologetic; I was just… flailing, grasping, drowning… it had become an art form.
Her thoughts were incredulous as she asked, ‘Did you really just growl at her?’
My response was haughty as I answered, ‘Oh, please…’
She gaped at me before shaking her head slowly and releasing a heavy breath. Then, she faced forward and focused on her own cup, her sexually frustrated thoughts mirroring my own.
I was cognizant enough to keep her firmly shut out, but she didn’t hide herself from me. And for a moment, I almost wanted to let my guard down, but I didn’t. No, I was too proud, or maybe just too terrified.
Suddenly, I felt guilty. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but I did. I sighed as I searched my mind for safer territory, but I could only come up with a myriad string of questions that I couldn’t answer, the very things that were the least safe. Why did I care that she’d flirted with the redhead when I wasn’t supposed to care at all… about anything… least of all her?
And what of Tina’s love? If she loved me, why would she flirt with this other woman?
Lastly and only slightly less important, was freedom really only limited by the mind that refused to be free?
No, I couldn’t care, Tina didn’t love me, and freedom couldn’t come that easily. It took only a moment for me to convince myself that those questions had no answers.
It was ironic, really. I had answered them by dismissing them away, and I hadn’t even realized it. I took comfort in the safety that I felt knowing that I’d stalled Tina’s libido, though I wasn’t sure why it mattered.
It couldn’t, under any circumstances, have been because I was jealous, or that I cared, or that a part of me needed her.
Not with Tina.
I didn’t like Tina.
I didn’t care about anything, least of all her.
But maybe she knew that, and wanted to force me to care.
And maybe… no, without a doubt, there was nothing that I could do to stop it.
I jerked up startled, and wiped a hand over my face wearily. Everything was quiet, but something had woken me.
I leaned up and peered down the long tunnel of the mine we were sheltering in to see the sky darkening at its opening, and looked around me to identify any reason for my abrupt consciousness.
Nothing was out of place. Dana and Alice were twined together comfortably on a pallet of blankets and Tina… I wanted to laugh. How she was sleeping so peacefully was beyond me.
She appeared to be lying on her side, but as my eyes travelled up the length of her, she had twisted at the waist and her face was pressed firmly into the cushioning blanket beneath her. Her right arm was fully extended and her left had disappeared somewhere under her body. Her honey-hued hair lay over her face and shoulders in haphazard waves, and I unthinkingly reached a hand forward to brush it back so that I could see her better.
I smiled unconsciously as I gazed down on her wonderfully serene face and focused on her thoughts. Everything about her was beautiful, even her dreams, and I was slightly surprised to see myself make an appearance.
It was strange. In the dream, Tina was cradled in the ‘v’ of my legs where she was pressed against my chest. A campfire crackled in the middle of the small wooded area we were reclined in, and I could tell that we were being affectionate with our thoughts, though as an outsider, I couldn’t hear them.
Everything about me and this scene was so… realistic – the way that I held her too protectively, the way that I was dressed, the way that I brooded and scoffed at her quietly while she chattered on.
It was as if she knew me so well that even while dreaming it was reality. But the difference, the difference was the fact that I was holding her, touching her, finding peace in her.
I would never do that, no matter how much I wanted to.
I was only slightly apologetic with my voyeuristic intrusion into her secrets, but I was mostly thankful that I’d done it. I was awestruck with just how much I wanted to hold her, to touch her, to find that elusive peace in her. A part of me that I couldn’t even name needed her.
My eyes closed and I found myself trying to become part of her dream, trying to see how it would feel to just let it happen.
For a moment, it was unlike anything that I’d ever known. I could almost feel the porcelain texture of her pale skin, and smell the intoxicating bouquet of her hair. In fact, my olfactory sense was overwhelmed but that wasn’t even the best part of it.
I was completely unfurled, filled to overflowing with so many things and not one of them negative. But mostly, I was honest in my love for her.
I wanted to stay there forever, dream with her forever…
I frowned as my stomach churned with panic. It was terrifying, being that open and trusting – needing someone and allowing someone to need me…
My chest heaved as my guts roiled and I wanted to vomit. My eyes snapped open and I nearly did, but that’s when I realized that what I was feeling had nothing to do with Tina’s naïve, albeit perfect dream.
“Tina… wake up!”
I shoved her roughly as I tried to keep myself from growing manic, but my urgency was winning out as another pang of realization froze up my guts: Lilith was here and she was close.
As if to punctuate the feeling, a young boy’s voice echoed down into the mine.
“Hurry, she’s here!”
Tina snapped up abruptly and I grabbed her hand to pull her to her feet.
Dana was already standing and Alice was only now rubbing at her face as she yawned and sleepily asked, “What’s going on…?”
I watched as the boy came barreling down the corridor, Gustavo, his wife, and his two other children further behind.
I glanced to Alice and snapped, “Lilith.”
Her eyes grew wide and she fought with the top layer of her pallet that had tangled in her legs as she frantically tried to get to her feet.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck…,” escaped her mouth in rapid succession and I would have found her terror hilarious if the situation hadn’t been so serious.
The boy skidded to a halt in front of Tina, his chest heaving as he grabbed her hand and started pulling on her. Tina quieted him with her words as she pulled him back towards his family.
“Emilio, it’s okay.”
We caught up with the rest of Gustavo’s family in the middle, and while he was out of breath, his speech was calm.
“My friends, you must leave. Come…”
He started to turn but Tina stopped him and pulled him into a tight hug.
“Thank you, Gustavo.”
He pulled back and patted her cheek before smiling at her.
Tears gathered in Tina’s eyes as she said, “I may not see you again in this lifetime.”
His smile turned sad but he was gracious nonetheless.
“You have been nothing less than family.” His voice broke. “You will someday come visit the children?”
She hugged him tightly again and I pulled on her to get her moving. This was all so heartwarming that it was unbelievably uncomfortable.
“Of course,” she said, sorrow so plainly written in her thoughts and on her face.
“Get your family to safety, Gustavo. We can make it from here.”
He nodded and kissed her hand, his dark eyes glassy as he finally released her and started to usher his family to the entrance, the rest of us right behind them.
Alice cursed under her breath and we all stopped to look at her. Her expression was contrite and she stuttered before turning and running back to our pallets to retrieve her nearly forgotten satchel.
Tina sighed and called, “Hurry, Alice,” after her.
She turned back to the family and used the extra time to hug the older boys and kiss the infant in its mother’s arms before shooing them away.
The family continued on and we waited impatiently for Alice to finally find what she was looking for and stuff it into her satchel.
Tina was clearly annoyed. “Al, it doesn’t matter! We have to go!”
Alice bolted up to us and gave Tina a pathetic expression.
“I couldn’t leave that behind, TK.”
Tina softened minutely and opened her mouth to speak, but the sound of tearing flesh sounded from the mouth of the cave and all reasonable thoughts and actions were lost.
We turned just on time to watch a Loyalist rip Gustavo’s head from his body as the last of his blood was drained away. None of us could move for the second that it took for the lifeless lump to thud to the ground like so much forgotten garbage.
I’m not sure why, but we were all rooted to the floor. It was almost as if we couldn’t convince ourselves that it had happened.
I felt intense anger flood my system as the momentary shock wore off, only to triple when the vampyr licked his lips to taunt us.
Shrill screams erupted from behind him and the terrible sound of an infant crying flooded the mine, but the worst of the sounds was Tina’s guttural bellow of, “NO!”
It bounced off of the walls and tore through me before she snapped forward and made a mad dash towards the Loyalist. I attempted to catch her arm and stop her, but she was too fast in her anger, and all I could do was watch as she collided with the vampyr and toppled him to the ground. She tore his head cleanly from his shoulders and a part of me felt sick with the sight of it, though I had been privy to worse carnage thousands of times.
Movement behind Tina caught my eye and I watched paralyzed as another Loyalist finished draining Gustavo’s youngest son and dropped his dead body to the ground to join the rest of his family, even the infant. He threw his head back and his chest heaved as he relished the high of his kill.
And as I looked at him, the cruelty rolling off of him in waves, I realized that I was looking into a mirror. That’s what I was – who I had become. The weight of my past settled like a well-fitted mantle on my shoulders and I wanted to sink and drown under the weight of remorse that was starting to trickle into my system.
Another bellow reverberated off of the walls and this time I felt it in my chest. I dazedly turned towards the sound to see Tina jump at the other vampyr. He hit the floor hard and a tearing crunch sounded as his limbs were torn from his body to go whizzing to past me.
She staggered back and left him to slump to the ground as she disbelievingly took in the carnage at her feet – her friends, her family, they were all so brutally destroyed, and I could feel it twist in her heart like a stake.
A menacing air settled over her as she gazed down on the writhing vampyr, and I wanted to fall to my knees with intense grief. No, not Tina, not like this. This wasn’t who she was. This was me, my domain…
I watched in shock as Tina succumbed to her anger and ripped into him over and over again, crying and tearing into his flesh even as his struggles and screams had gurgled out into silence.
For a moment there was nothing but the wet, crunching sounds of her hands against his destroyed flesh and the anguished tears of her destroyed mind. I was helpless in the face of the very cruelty that I had perpetuated. I couldn’t get my body to respond to the call of my mind to go to Tina.
Alice finally stepped in and attempted to stop her, but she was shoved away so roughly that she fell and the items in her satchel scattered on the ground.
Tina towered over her as she scrambled to retrieve them and screamed, “Was your fucking trinket worth their lives?!”
My head swam as everything settled more fully over me, breaking me beneath its incredible weight.
And Alice didn’t help anything at all as she shouted, “I don’t know! Was she?!”
She threw an accusing finger in my direction and my mind was so anguished that I felt crippled. I could feel all of it: every kill, every scream, Tina’s grief, my own…
I gazed down on my hands dazedly, unable to see it, but the blood was still warm, still innocent, and still fresh. It was too much to bear. I had to fight the numb tears that wanted to roll down my face but Tina… Tina took precedence. She needed help, my help…
I managed to stumble over to her, tripping over the bloody mess around her as I tried desperately to save her from becoming like me at the hands of those who already were. I gripped her by her waist and secured her hands across her chest, desperate to stop all of this.
If I stopped her, the rest would follow, right? It had to be her. I didn’t feel. I just didn’t…
The grief seemed to intensify as the reality of her loss set in to mingle with my own, becoming a tincture of torment that I couldn’t even put into words. There was just so much… just, too much… and it was all so anguished.
I couldn’t believe that I’d finally tapped into emotion – regret, pain, love, compassion – all of those things that I’d been fighting so fully. And I’d managed to do it at the worst possible moment imaginable.
I buried my face in the hair of her neck as I tried to get a grip on all of the things that I was feeling, when in reality the only grip that I could find was on her, but maybe that could be enough.
Her breathing was still erratic, and so was mine, but we both seemed to relax into the other as everything came pouring down on us. She rested her head against my temple as she began to sob and though I didn’t have the strength to hold her any tighter, I held her so fiercely that I trembled.
The tears kept trying to release from my eyes, but they just wouldn’t. They caught on the precipice of my lashes and shook with the intensity of all of the answers inundating me. They were everything and nothing, but mostly they were just terrible and sincere.
Tina turned in my embrace and clung to me as she continued to let it out, and I envied her. I wanted to let it all go, to weep, to mourn, to feel alive, but I just couldn’t. I wasn’t meant to be free or to feel. No, all I could do was hold onto her for dear life.
For dear life…
We stayed that way for long minutes, until another Loyalist came barreling into the mine, and the reality of our situation set in. Alice and Dana dismembered him easily and I hesitantly let Tina go. The loss of contact left me reeling with panic, or maybe it was the seizing feeling in my guts as Lilith drew closer. I couldn’t be sure.
Alice stormed out and Dana looked at us sadly before following her. I fought to stay on my feet. I felt impossibly weak, as if my skull might burst apart, or maybe it was my long-dead heart that was shattering in my breast.
Tina scrubbed her face with her hands before looking at me with an expression so broken that I wanted to run away from her. My mind was collapsing in on me, and I wasn’t sure how to withstand it, to withstand her.
I considered taking her in my arms again, to comfort her and find comfort in her, but instead, I refused to meet her gaze or acknowledge her as I sleepwalked passed her and out into the smoke-tinged night air.
She caught my hand but I barely felt it, even as I heard the murmured apology in her thoughts. The apology was cut off as everything she was doing to me stopped. There was a moment of relief before it only got worse. She gazed out at the fires randomly roaring to life throughout the village. People were screaming, some flailing about in the flames, and she knew just as well as I did that it was a total loss.
There was nothing that we could do about it. More than that, we’d brought this down on them. I would have given anything not to care, or maybe even take all of her pain on myself and die to leave her free. But as usual, I was helpless.
Why were none of the old tricks working?
Why couldn’t I get a handle on it?
I tried so desperately to shut her out and shut myself down, but I couldn’t. All I could do was focus on the mountain and take one staggering step at a time, and so I did.
We made it undetected to the tree-line at the base of the trailhead, but that’s when our problems doubled. Lilith was smart, and while some of her loyal were pillaging, killing, and burning the town to the ground, the majority of them had formed a perforated wall along the edges to catch those who would attempt to flee.
Three of them were walking along the border as we approached and there would be no way to get past them without a fight. Ultimately, I wasn’t all that worried. I relished the thought of killing or dying. Killing came naturally to me, and dying would be a welcomed relief. Either way, maybe some of the intense emotions clanging around inside of me would die as well.
Why was it then that descending on the first of the three and tearing off his head did nothing to stifle the pain tightening in my chest?
And the one next to him, well, just as I was about to kill him, Tina shouted and it distracted me. He was stronger and older than I had imagined, despite his small size. It was only moments before I was dangling from a tree by a trunk that had punctured through my abdomen.
Her words sounded as if they were under water as Tina shouted, “No! Shane! She’s with us!”
He quickly dispatched his friend and looked up at me, saying nothing before turning back to Tina, and I took a gurgling breath as I shakily gripped the serrated wood sticking out of me and considered if I should break it to dislodge myself and let it heal or run it through my heart. The organ was useless to me, both proverbially and physically. But the pain was all consuming, and coupled with my emotions – Tina’s emotions… well, I would need help to end it and make it all stop… help that I wouldn’t get.
Tina came into focus and hurriedly pulled me free, stroking my face as she anxiously placed me on the ground. I was well-fed, so it didn’t take long for the hole to close, but as the physical pain subsided, the emotions came back ten-fold, only this time they were directed at me.
She had been frantically fearful when she’d called out to me, but when she’d seen me hurt, it was as if her whole world had come crashing down. And as such, mine came with it.
I just couldn’t abide it. It was worse than the guilt, anger, pain, and loss of more than a hundred years, more than two hundred years… it was worse than anything I’d experienced yet.
I shrugged her off and grappled to my feet to try and get away from her. She was killing me from the inside out, and I just couldn’t endure it anymore.
“Bette, it’s okay…,” she tried.
But it wasn’t. It was far from okay.
I didn’t stop but climbed faster, feeling impossibly weak and leaning heavily against the trees in my path as I practically crawled up the hill to safety. Tina wedged herself under my arm to support me and her thoughts attacked me.
‘It’s okay. This is a good thing. Just hold on. Please, just hold onto what you’re feeling.’
I wanted to scream in pain as her worry grew more desperate. Why couldn’t she just stop? Why couldn’t I handle it? And that’s when something inside of me snapped. I shut myself down, just as easily as if I’d blown out a candle.
And I breathed out in intense relief as I slumped against Tina. Her worry grew but I was wholly unaffected as I started to catch my breath.
I felt a small hand stroke the side of my face as it was turned to gaze into tearful eyes.
I straightened myself and pushed her away from me. She stumbled back and gaped at me incredulously, her thoughts begging me.
‘No, no, no, please… Bette, no… don’t do this…’
But it was done and I couldn’t feel enough to hate myself for it. It had to happen. I needed it. All of the emotions were killing me. It wasn’t possible to go from feeling nothing to feeling some things to feeling everything all at once. I was buckling under the intense weight of it all. I just couldn’t carry it. I couldn’t absorb two lifetimes of pain and grief at once and survive it.
I stood less weakly, the relief so welcomed that I nearly vomited. Tina’s eyes were intense as she frantically searched my mind for anything that might give her hope, only to come up empty when I shut her out. She was disbelieving for a moment as she looked at me. I may not have been so affected by her feelings anymore, but I still couldn’t look on them, and as such, I couldn’t look on her.
She strode up to me and grabbed me by the lapels of my jacket, jarring me as if she could shake the emotions back into me. Her mind was open and wounded as she felt for mine, but I wouldn’t have to deal with the grief of knowing what I’d just done, at least not yet.
She shook in her anger and shouted, “WHY?! You could have finally faced it and been freed from it!”
I still couldn’t look at her. Couldn’t she understand that I was free, just not in the way that she’d hoped?
Or… wasn’t that true?
I said nothing as I avoided her face and she finally released me. I looked at the Loyalist she called Shane and considered whether I cared to kill him, and decided that he wasn’t worth it; nothing was. As empty as I felt, I was too defeated to even attempt to care, and even my defeat was empty.
I was just… numb.
His eyes were piercing as he looked at me and he spoke sharply.
“Go… now. I’ll cover for you and try to keep them off of you.”
Tina turned and hugged him, and something might have stirred inside of me, but I honestly couldn’t find it and it couldn’t find me. It was as if I didn’t even exist, and in all honesty, I didn’t. I’d seen to that.
Tina grabbed my hand and tugged me hard, daring me to fight her with her eyes, but I didn’t. I was a husk. What happened from here on out wouldn’t matter.
She began a running trek up the hill and I sighed as I remembered that despite it all, despite whether I cared or whether I even had a choice, she wouldn’t leave me, no matter how much I wanted her to – no matter how much she should.
Bulgaria in the fall was one of the most incredibly beautiful places I’d ever been, even during my travels with Lilith. A dense fog had settled over the lush forest we were hiding in, and the leaves had shed their monochromatic greens for the brighter tones of red, orange, and yellow. It was as if they had sensed the impending death of winter and decided to go out in a riot of color against the gray, backlit sky.
Some might have found it dreary, but for me, it was indicative of how I felt, and as such, I felt a sense of belonging beneath the vibrant canopy of the withering forest.
The thought of leaving this place saddened me, but Lilith was still coming for us and had been for more than a year. We’d been lucky to have made it as far as we had really. And while I knew it wouldn’t last, I still went along and called it trying, though it was only because of Tina.
If… when, she was captured and killed, my life would be forfeit, not because of Lilith, but because I was nothing. She was all that was left of me at this point. And that wasn’t much.
Of course, she was physically present, but she wasn’t faring much better than I had been since I’d shut it all off. I glanced behind me from my watch at the mouth of our cave to see her stir restlessly, and sighed before continuing to sketch the landscape of her face from the pad in my lap. The rain pelted the vibrant leaves in the gray expanse outside in heavy, wet torrents, and it felt right to be there. I wanted to remember this place, but ultimately, I’d have given anything to forget the last year.
So much had been destroyed that night in the village. I still couldn’t understand it, but it was eye-opening. When Tina had said words like compassion, caring, and love, I finally knew what they really meant, and I could no longer decide that they didn’t exist. The feeling was as real as anything I’d ever experienced, perhaps more real.
And it was then that I’d decided that if those emotions did truly exist, if emotional pain was what it really meant to have humanity, then I wanted nothing to do with it. It was grief, anguish, and intense regret, and I couldn’t stomach it. There was just nothing that I could do to change it. But there was one thing about it that was worse than all of the others, perhaps the most human of all emotions – helplessness.
Something inside of me changed that night. That knowledge had truly shut me down, and that meant that I had to draw a line in the sand with Tina. I could no longer let her in, and I could no longer look inside of her. It was too painful, and pain was the very thing that I had been trying to avoid my entire life, though wholly unsuccessful.
It had taken months of hiding and running in circles throughout South America to avoid Lilith and her Loyalists, and we’d done so only barely. Sometimes, they were right on top of us, but Shane was true to her word.
Yes, Shane was a woman, and apparently, she was my sister. She was living proof of another lie that Lilith had told me. I wasn’t her only progeny, not by a longshot. Shane was older, by more than two hundred years, and she, like me, was betraying her mother. So she had done her best to clear a path through South America for us, though it was still a game of cat and mouse.
Sometimes, we had to fight our way through without her assistance, reattaching our limbs and drinking from wayward travelers as we stumbled upon them. Not once did we kill the humans we drank from, even when the entirety of their blood was more than needed. For all of my emptiness, the memory of those emotions was still there, and if I ever had to go through that again, I wouldn’t add to my sorrow by taking another life. I would rather die.
We’d eventually made our way to the shores of Brazil, though exhausted and barely alive. The enemy was on our heels and we made a final desperate push for the ocean. Lilith had chased us right into the Atlantic, but there was little that she could do without risking anonymity as we disappeared into one of the large containers being prepped for loading in the shipyard.
To our great fortune, the shipping crate had been full of coffee beans. The pungent aroma did wonders to mask our scent and aid in our escape.
It took roughly one month before we were finally unloaded in Turkey, but Lilith had been waiting for us. I’d sensed her, and so we’d stayed in the container for the extra duration – an additional month of traveling by train before arriving in Bulgaria.
Overall, it had been an immensely difficult journey, but even the gnawing pain of hunger and desiccation wasn’t the worst of it; shutting Tina out had done some very strange things to me emotionally.
I had stopped speaking or responding except when only necessary. I had shut up my mind and hidden my heart behind it. Tina had argued, cried, and even begged me, both physically and mentally during that time, but I wouldn’t give in to the desire to answer her, no matter how intense it became. And sometimes it was so intense that all I could do was quietly leak empty tears in the corner of the container.
How strange it seemed that I couldn’t cry when I needed to, and now when it didn’t matter, when it did nothing to salvage any part of me, I couldn’t.
When nothing worked, she retreated into her mind and for a time, I enjoyed the peace brought about by her solitude. She would occasionally try to reason with me or just talk to me, even while knowing her conversation was entirely one-sided. But of course she got no answers, and of course, she never really gave up.
And… she never shut me out, though I had abandoned her completely.
I felt what my silence was doing to her, how much harm I was causing her, and it only seemed to get worse when she stopped speaking altogether. After she gave up completely it became disconcerting. It made me ache in ways that I didn’t even know were possible. I felt responsible for killing some part of her, and I began to grow bitter with myself for it.
As it was, Lilith would draw close soon enough; we’d had several months in this soul-rending place of panoramic beauty – reading, sketching, and whiling away the hours.
At first, Alice and Dana had mostly high spirits, and sometimes they would draw Tina into a game of charades or chess. Tina loved chess, and picked up a small set while on one of our feeding excursions. And while I never joined them, choosing to keep to myself despite the fact that I also had a fondness for chess, I would instead just watch them.
There was a sense of family that pervaded their interactions with one another, a family that I would never belong to, though had found myself growing slightly… attached.
The truth didn’t stop me from wondering what it would be like to play against Tina with the condition that we had to keep our mind’s open, or laughing to myself when Alice would do something particularly dimwitted. But I wouldn’t delude myself. In fact, I had been considering what I could do to stop this witch-hunt.
Only one thing came to mind, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It would mean leaving Tina and fulfilling the death-wish I’d harbored for most of my life. And while I could die with purpose, I would first need to be sure that Tina was safe.
As the months drew on, Tina retreated further in on herself and slept, and the other two became more and more stir crazy, their games unable to satisfy the stifling claustrophobia and constant waiting. But they knew that living in the open meant dying in the open, so while they never complained, I knew that Alice blamed me for our predicament, and perhaps even Tina, though my intuition told me that she didn’t have to heart to say those words to her friend.
And while I resented her feelings towards me, a bigger part of me was thankful that Tina had someone who would support her, even when they didn’t agree with her actions.
Really though, it was no matter. One of Lilith’s Loyalists would have surely spotted us in town. If not, it was only a matter of time. It was an unfortunate fact, but it was indeed factual. Blood, while generally easy to obtain, meant venturing into the public. It was that need that would have us found and captured and killed, I was sure of it.
‘You’re even more quiet than usual.’
I didn’t respond or even look up at Tina, though she’d startled me. My hand hesitated on the paper in my lap before I realized what I was doing and closed the sketch pad soundly. I cursed under my breath, hoping beyond hope that she hadn’t seen what I was drawing, and hating her for her ability to sneak up on me.
It was as if the more somber and introverted that she became, the more that she seemed to move with the grace of a stalking panther. And as such, though I would normally have known that I was being approached, I was having a hard time getting a handle on Tina specifically. It would seem that I couldn’t handle her in any capacity.
Her quiet was different this day. There was a small bit of comfort in the fact that while I wasn’t searching her or letting her in, the connection was still there like a lifeline, a safety net.
I listened for long moments, hoping to hear her thoughts and confirm that it was indeed still there, but it wasn’t, and that gave me cause to look up.
She leaned against the stone wall of the cave and stared out at the rain.
‘So that’s what it takes for you to acknowledge my existence: I have to shut you out.’
A deeply engrained sense of dread latched onto my heart. Since I’d shut down, I was at least functional, but so very alone, so very incomplete.
Was… was that what I was doing to her?
That question gave me pause and if my heart were beating, it might have raced. The sheer thought of it was terrifying. The fact that I could still feel connected while trying to disconnect was the only tether I had to life, and if it were gone…
I opened my mouth to speak to her, but shut it quickly. I was playing a losing game by constantly breaking my own rules. It had always been that way with Tina – I couldn’t fully shut her out.
I looked her over, trying to decide why she affected me so fully, and had to stifle the bitter laugh that tried to bubble up in my chest. I had never figured her out, try as I might. Why would it be any different now?
Well, it didn’t hurt to look at her, or maybe it did. She was thin and pale, and the blood and sleep deprivation only furthered the disparity of her haggard appearance. But for all that was wrong, she would always be so indescribably gorgeous to me.
Everything about her, from her heart to her delicate facial features, they were so utterly breakable, and I wanted… no, needed to protect her, even from me…
She reached her hand out to the gray sun in the opening and I watched with wide eyes as she not only entered the muted light, but held it there.
The smooth skin started to smolder under the heavy rain, but other than clenching her jaw tightly, she seemed wholly unaffected. It was as if she needed the pain of it to help her know that she was alive.
I held myself rigidly still for a moment, trying to stay out of her life, but as the scorching started to grow and wither her hand, I just couldn’t abide it.
I snapped to my feet, dumping the pad in my lap onto the ground as I hastened to grab her and pull her to the shade. I jerked her roughly and held her tightly, almost desperately. I hadn’t meant to yell, and they were only thoughts, but they bordered on abusive.
‘What do you think you’re doing?!’
She gazed up at me and her expression was so broken that I felt tears sting the back of my eyes. I looked away to shut her out as I attempted to control myself, but it didn’t work. Her mind was open again and I felt her despair, a despair that I’d caused.
Her thoughts were bitter and angry as she snapped back.
‘Why does it matter? You don’t care, right? You haven’t said a word in nearly a year.’
She shoved me roughly and darted out into the rain, washing herself in the gray sun. It may as well have been acid for the burns that started to blossom on her fair skin and I felt my pique rise.
She was robbing me of the choice to shut down, just like she’d robbed me of any semblance of right or wrong. She challenged and shattered everything that I believed in and she wouldn’t allow me to reject it. Or… maybe, just maybe, rejecting it, rejecting her, was still a choice; I just couldn’t live with the consequences.
Either way, I moved on survival instinct alone, or at least that’s what I wanted to call it, and I gripped her around her waist and picked her up. She fought and flailed at me as I pulled her back into the shaded safety of the cave and set her down, holding both of her hands in one of my own as I fumbled over her angry wounds. They started to heal, but she’d need blood for the worst of them. And we were already in short supply.
I blew out an angry breath. She was infuriating in everything she did. But this, this was unacceptable.
“In our time together, you’ve said and done some truly stupid things, but this…”
I gestured to the burn on her cheek before running a finger over it gently. “This is by far the most ridiculous.”
She closed her eyes and reached up with her charred hand to hold my palm to her face as if she feared that I’d pull it away. I listened as her emotions quieted, and that’s when it all struck me. She needed me and I was shutting her out, pushing her away. I’d have done no less if she’d done the same to me. I didn’t know how to fix it, to fix myself so that I could let her in, but now I knew that I just couldn’t keep her out. More importantly, I wouldn’t.
My head fell forward as I closed my eyes, centering myself on her and just absorbing the calm of the moment. She was quiet, but it wasn’t the somber stillness of one trying not to fall apart. It felt like an eternity since I’d last felt this grounded, and maybe even hopeful. She shifted and I felt her forehead rest against mine; I let go of her hands as I got lost in the relief of her touch, the closeness of it.
We stayed that way for long moments before she reached up and linked her hands behind my neck to pull me closer. She was warm and pleasing, her smell still sweet though tinged by the bitter sun, and I wanted to groan as something sweet and heavy inside of me hummed.
Before I knew what was happening, we were breathing the same air and I began to draw in huge gulps of it, as if I was trying to pull her very essence in with it. The anticipation grew into a dense fog that settled over my thoughts to allow my body to take over, but as her hands tangled in the hair at the nape of my neck to close the distance, I opened my eyes and snapped out of my stupor.
I hadn’t meant to, but I shoved her back, my chest heaving as I looked around for a safe place to hide. There just wasn’t one. I could flee into the sunlight but she’d already shown me that she couldn’t be trusted alone. And no matter how much I wanted to run, I wouldn’t abandon her; I just couldn’t. Otherwise, I could end this…
Her thoughts mirrored my own as I slammed a fist into the stone wall in front of me.
‘Why?’ I looked over at her in anger. ‘Why can’t I just be done with you?! You represent everything that I hate and nothing that I believe in!’
I snapped forward and grabbed her by her neck, trying to find the will to just tear her apart and end it all. I had already destroyed her emotionally, why couldn’t I do it physically?
She didn’t try to fight me as fat tears rolled down her cheeks, and while my hand may have been around her neck, I was the one choking.
‘You love me and I love you…,’ she said simply.
The thin thread that had been holding me together snapped and I released her angrily as an empty feeling pervaded the deepest, darkest, and most desperate parts of me. My arms fell and hung listlessly at my sides but Tina wasn’t giving up.
She gripped my face and gazed into my eyes, but the violent torrent of thoughts there couldn’t reach me even as she pleadingly said, ‘Bette, no… don’t you get it yet? You keep choosing but you aren’t considering your options! Accept me, accept us, and you won’t hurt so much anymore.’
I didn’t have to block her out to stop feeling anything. All feeling had drained away.
‘Bette, please… don’t do this… it doesn’t have to be this way…’
I stepped away from her and broke her hold, aware that I wouldn’t be able to hold her out completely, but I could ride the fine line of keeping her at a distance. Well, maybe I couldn’t, but it was really the only option. I couldn’t face any of it, not yet.
I just couldn’t.
She still wouldn’t give up on me and a part of me knew that she never would, and maybe counted on that fact.
‘What have you got to lose in being happy,’ she tried.
I considered her words, truly considered them. What would I lose if I loved her?
The answer seemed obvious to me. I would lose her as surely as I’d lost everything else that mattered. Why was I the only one who could see it? It would mean facing my entire life only to lose it.
Her compassion filled me and I almost wondered if the sun had risen in my very chest.
‘You won’t lose me, Bette,’ she was in my thoughts. ‘I’m right here…’
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to know what it would be like to step out of the shadows and truly feel that sun in my face, in my heart. I knew that she would be that sun. I knew that I wouldn’t just be warmed, but that I’d be changed, marvelously and irrevocably.
I wanted that so badly…
I wanted her so badly…
I considered it, truly considered it. My life was over anyway. Would it be so bad to at least get a taste of it before it was gone? I could just speak the words and take the fall and as sure as Lilith would eventually stamp us out, Tina would be there to catch me until such a time.
What was there to really lose?
Her eyes were open, warm, hopeful, and maybe even expectant, and I wanted so badly to bask in the soul that I knew was waiting there for me and for me alone.
I took a step towards her, shaking but ready to just throw all of it to the wind, but a dark cloud drifted in as I recalled what it would mean. The light would burn with the intense pain of regret and sorrow and suffering… so much suffering. It would kill me before I could even glimpse the light.
Her hope faded as I failed her and myself. I meant to tell her that I loved her – that I had always loved her – that I wanted to be the sort of person that she deserved – that I not only accepted it, but embraced it.
But all I could stammer out was, “I think it’s time to do the ancient rites. We need to keep moving anyway. We might as well gather everyone’s personal items for the ritual as we travel.”
She gazed hard at me for a moment before closing her eyes against the tears that I had caused. She shook her head and turned to leave me, but her foot hit the corner of the book that lie forgotten on the ground.
It was my turn to close my eyes.
She picked it up and gazed down at what lay open in her hands. I had done so many sketches of her over the course of the last several months that it didn’t even matter which page it had landed on, except for one.
She touched the image of the two of us sitting by a campfire and I couldn’t bear her thoughts. It was an intensely private dream, and we both knew what it meant. But that didn’t stop her from tearing it from the book and folding it.
Her voice was detached as she pocketed the drawing and I frowned at her, but how I could tell her that it was mine when it wasn’t?
Something that warm and genuine could only have come from her.
Her voice was detached as she said, “Fine. I know where mine is, but I’m not sure if it survived.”
She handed me the book and fidgeted with her fingers, unwilling to meet my eyes. Normally, I wouldn’t have wanted to see into the hazel orbs because they had the destructive powers of a wrecking ball, but at that moment, I needed to see into them. Of course, she denied me, and I knew that I deserved it.
“We’ll have to go back to the Wentworth plantation in Georgia. Alice already has hers, and I’ll have to find out where Dana’s is. I’ll let you know.”
She turned, a soul-rending weariness deeply engrained on her heart, and I again considered if even a glimpse would be worth it. Given how crushed she was – I was – at that moment, I couldn’t be sure.
I reached a hand out to stop her only to hesitate and drop it. She stiffened expectantly for a moment before exhaling heavily and going back to her pallet by the fire to lie down. For the first time, her thoughts were firmly her own, and my world started to narrow in.
I looked down at the book in my hands and opened it. The empty page stared back up at me mockingly and I realized that it was precisely what my life had become, and would always be. I had no idea how to fill the pages and survive it, but I wanted to. She had to at least know that I wanted to. That meant something, didn’t it?
I looked back over at her, tears were glistening on her face in the firelight, and I had no way of knowing just how egregious the damage I’d just caused was.
She’d shut me out. She’d truly… shut me out.
My tenuous tether to life snapped and I felt myself start to scatter to the wind. I was beginning to figure out that no matter which way I went, Tina would undoubtedly be the end of me, one way or the other.