Dead Until Dark Chapter 2

I GOT UP very late the next morning, which was not too surprising. Gran had been asleep when I got home, to my relief, and I was able to climb into my bed without waking her.

I WAS DRINKING a cup of coffee at the kitchen table and Gran was cleaning out the pantry when the phone rang. Gran eased her bottom up onto the stool by the counter, her normal chatting perch, to answer it.

’’Hel-lo,’’ she said. For some reason, she always sounded put out, as if a phone call were the last thing on earth she wanted. I knew for a fact that wasn't the case.

’’Hey, Everlee. No, sitting here talking to Sookie, she just got up. No, I haven't heard any news today. No, no one called me yet. What? What tornado? Last night was clear. Four Tracks Corner? It did? No! No, it did not! Really? Both of'em? Um, um, um. What did Mike Spencer say?’’

Mike Spencer was our parish coroner. I began to have a creepy feeling. I finished my coffee and poured myself another cup. I thought I was going to need it.

Gran hung up a minute later. ’’Sookie, you are not going to believe what has happened!’’

I was willing to bet I would believe it.

’’What?’’ I asked, trying not to look guilty.

’’No matter how smooth the weather looked last night, a tornado must have touched down at Four Tracks Corner! It turned over that rent trailer in the clearing there. The couple that was staying in it, they both got killed, trapped under the trailer somehow and crushed to a pulp. Mike says he hasn't seen anything like it.’’

’’Is he sending the bodies for autopsy?’’

’’Well, I think he has to, though the cause of death seems clear enough, according to Stella. The trailer is over on its side, their car is halfway on top of it, and trees are pulled up in the yard.’’

’’My God,’’ I whispered, thinking of the strength necessary to accomplish the staging of that scene.

’’Honey, you didn't tell me if your friend the vampire came in last night?’’

I jumped in a guilty way until I realized that in Gran's mind, she'd changed subjects. She'd been asking me if I'd seen Bill every day, and now, at last, I could tell her yes - but not with a light heart.

Predictably, Gran was excited out of her gourd. She fluttered around the kitchen as if Prince Charles were the expected guest.

’’Tomorrow night. Now what time's he coming?’’ she asked.

’’After dark. That's as close as I can get.’’

’’We're on daylight saving time, so that'll be pretty late.’’ Gran considered. ’’Good, we'll have time to eat supper and clear it away beforehand. And we'll have all day tomorrow to clean the house. I haven't cleaned that area rug in a year, I bet!’’

’’Gran, we're talking about a guy who sleeps in the ground all day,’’ I reminded her. ’’I don't think he'd ever look at the rug.’’

’’Well, if I'm not doing it for him, then I'm doing it for me, so I can feel proud,’’ Gran said unanswerably. ’’Besides, young lady, how do you know where he sleeps?’’

’’Good question, Gran. I don't. But he has to keep out of the light and he has to keep safe, so that's my guess.’’

Nothing would prevent my grandmother from going into a house-proud frenzy, I realized very shortly. While I was getting ready for work, she went to the grocery and rented a rug cleaner and set to cleaning.

On my way to Merlotte's, I detoured north a bit and drove by the Four Tracks Corner. It was a crossroads as old as human habitation of the area. Now formalized by road signs and pavement, local lore said it was the intersection of two hunting trails. Sooner or later, there would be ranch-style houses and strip malls lining the roads, I guessed, but for now it was woods and the hunting was still good, according to Jason.

Since there was nothing to prevent me, I drove down the rutted path that led to the clearing where the Rattrays'rented trailer had stood. I stopped my car and stared out the windshield, appalled. The trailer, a very small and old one, lay crushed ten feet behind its original location. The Rattrays'dented red car was still resting on one end of the accordian-pleated mobile home. Bushes and debris were littered around the clearing, and the woods behind the trailer showed signs of a great force passing through;branches snapped off, the top of one pine hanging down by a thread of bark. There were clothes up in the branches, and even a roast pan.

I got out slowly and looked around me. The damage was simply incredible, especially since I knew it hadn't been caused by a tornado;Bill the vampire had staged this scene to account for the deaths of the Rattrays.

An old Jeep bumped its way down the ruts to come to a stop by me.

’’Well, Sookie Stackhouse!’’ called Mike Spencer, ’’What you doing here, girl? Ain't you got work to go to?’’

’’Yes, sir. I knew the Rat - the Rattrays. This is just an awful thing.’’ I thought that was sufficiently ambiguous. I could see now that the sheriff was with Mike.

’’An awful thing. Yes, well. I did hear,’’ Sheriff Bud Dearborn said as climbed down out of the Jeep, ’’that you and Mack and Denise didn't exactly see eye to eye in the parking lot of Merlotte's, last week.’’

I felt a cold chill somewhere around the region of my liver as the two men ranged themselves in front of me.

Mike Spencer was the funeral director of one of Bon Temps'two funeral homes. As Mike was always quick and definite in pointing out, anyone who wanted could be buried by Spencer and Sons Funeral Home;but only white people seemed to want to. Likewise, only people of color chose to be buried at Sweet Rest. Mike himself was a heavy middle-aged man with hair and mustache the color of weak tea, and a fondness for cowboy boots and string ties that he could not wear when he was on duty at Spencer and Sons. He was wearing them now.

Sheriff Dearborn, who had the reputation of being a good man, was a little older than Mike, but fit and tough from his thick gray hair to his heavy shoes. The sheriff had a mashed-in face and quick brown eyes. He had been a good friend of my father's.

’’Yes, sir, we had us a disagreement,’’ I said frankly in my down-homiest voice.

’’You want to tell me about it?’’ The sheriff pulled out a Marlboro and lit it with a plain, metal lighter.

And I made a mistake. I should have just told him. I was supposed to be crazy, and some thought me simple, too. But for the life of me, I could see no reason to explain myself to Bud Dearborn. No reason, except good sense.

’’Why?’’ I asked.

His small brown eyes were suddenly sharp, and the amiable air vanished.

’’Sookie,’’ he said, with a world of disappointment in his voice. I didn't believe in it for a minute.

’’I didn't do this,’’ I said, waving my hand at the destruction.

’’No, you didn't,’’ he agreed. ’’But just the same, they die the week after they have a fight with someone, I feel I should ask questions.’’

I was reconsidering staring him down. It would feel good, but I didn't think feeling good was worth it. It was becoming apparent to me that a reputation for simplicity could be handy.

I may be uneducated and unworldly, but I'm not stupid or unread.

’’Well, they were hurting my friend,’’ I confessed, hanging my head and eyeing my shoes.

’’Would that be this vampire that's living at the old Compton house?’’ Mike Spencer and Bud Dearborn exchanged glances.

’’Yes, sir.’’ I was surprised to hear where Bill was living, but they didn't know that. From years of deliberately not reacting to things I heard that I didn't want to know, I have good facial control. The old Compton house was right across the fields from us, on the same side of the road. Between our houses lay only the woods and the cemetery. How handy for Bill, I thought, and smiled.

’’Sookie Stackhouse, your granny is letting you associate with that vampire?’’ Spencer said unwisely.

’’You can sure talk to her about that,’’ I suggested maliciously, hardly able to wait to hear what Gran would say when someone suggested she wasn't taking care of me. ’’You know, the Rattrays were trying to drain Bill.’’

’’So the vampire was being drained by the Rattrays? And you stopped them?’’ interrupted the sheriff.

’’Yes,’’ I said and tried to look resolute.

’’Vampire draining is illegal,’’ he mused.

’’Isn't it murder, to kill a vampire that hasn't attacked you?’’ I asked.

I may have pushed the naivete a little too hard.

’’You know damn good and well it is, though I don't agree with that law. It is a law, and I will uphold it,’’ the sheriff said stiffly.

’’So the vampire just let them leave, without threatening vengeance? Saying anything like he wished they were dead?’’ Mike Spencer was being stupid.

’’That's right.’’ I smiled at both of them and then looked at my watch. I remembered the blood on its face, my blood, beaten out of me by the Rattrays. I had to look through that blood to read the time.

’’Excuse me, I have to get to work,’’ I said. ’’Good-bye, Mr. Spencer, Sheriff.’’

’’Good-bye, Sookie,’’ Sheriff Dearborn said. He looked like he had more to ask me, but couldn't think of how to put it. I could tell he wasn't totally happy with the look of the scene, and I doubted any tornado had shown up on radar anywhere. Nonetheless, there was the trailer, there was the car, there were the trees, and the Rattrays had been dead under them. What could you decide but that the tornado had killed them? I guessed the bodies had been sent for an autopsy, and I wondered how much could be told by such a procedure under the circumstances.

The human mind is an amazing thing. Sheriff Dearborn must have known that vampires are very strong. But he just couldn't imagine how strong one could be: strong enough to turn over a trailor, crush it. It was even hard for me to comprehend, and I knew good and well that no tornado had touched down at Four Corners.

The whole bar was humming with the news of the deaths. Maudette's murder had taken a backseat to Denise and Mack's demises. I caught Sam eyeing me a couple of times, and I thought about the night before and wondered how much he knew. But I was scared to ask in case he hadn't seen anything. I knew there were things that had happened the night before that I hadn't yet explained to my own satisfaction, but I was so grateful to be alive that I put off thinking of them.

I'd never smiled so hard while I toted drinks, I'd never made change so briskly, I'd never gotten orders so exactly. Even ol'bushy-haired Rene didn't slow me down, though he insisted on dragging me into his long-winded conversations every time I came near the table he was sharing with Hoyt and a couple of other cronies.

Rene played the role of crazy Cajun some of the time, though any Cajun accent he might assume was faked. His folks had let their heritage fade. Every woman he'd married had been hard-living and wild. His brief hitch with Arlene had been when she was young and childless, and she'd told me that from time to time she'd done things then that curled her hair to think about now. She'd grown up since then, but Rene hadn't. Arlene was sure fond of him, to my amazement.

Everyone in the bar was excited that night because of the unusual happenings in Bon Temps. A woman had been murdered, and it was a mystery;usually murders in Bon Temps are easily solved. And a couple had died violently by a freak of nature. I attributed what happened next to that excitement. This is a neighborhood bar, with a few out of towners who pass through on a regular basis, and I've never had much problem with unwanted attention. But that night one of the men at a table next to Rene and Hoyt's, a heavy blond man with a broad, red face, slid his hand up the leg of my shorts when I was bringing their beer.

That doesn't fly at Merlotte's.

I thought of bringing the tray down on his head when I felt the hand removed. I felt someone standing right behind me. I turned my head and saw Rene, who had left his chair without my even realizing it. I followed his arm down and saw that his hand was gripping the blond's and squeezing. The blond's red face was turning a mottled mixture.

’’Hey, man, let go!’’ the blond protested. ’’I didn't mean nothing.’’

’’You don't touch anyone who works here. That's the rule.’’ Rene might be short and slim, but anyone there would have put his money on our local boy over the beefier visitor.

’’Okay, okay.’’

’’Apologize to the lady.’’

’’To Crazy Sookie?’’ His voice was incredulous. He must have been here before.

Rene's hand must have tightened. I saw tears spring into the blond's eyes.

’’I'm sorry, Sookie, okay?’’

I nodded as regally as I could. Rene let go of the man's hand abruptly and jerked his thumb to tell the guy to take a hike. The blond lost no time throwing himself out the door. His companion followed.

’’Rene, you should have let me handle that myself,’’ I said to him very quietly when it seemed the patrons had resumed their conversations. We'd given the gossip mill enough grist for at least a couple of days. ’’But I appreciate you standing up for me.’’

’’I don't want no one messing with Arlene's friend,’’ Rene said matter-of-factly. ’’Merlotte's is a nice place, we all want to keep it nice.'Sides, sometimes you remind me of Cindy, you know?’’

Cindy was Rene's sister. She'd moved to Baton Rouge a year or two ago. Cindy was blond and blue-eyed: beyond that I couldn't think of a similarity. But it didn't seem polite to say so. ’’You see Cindy much?’’ I asked. Hoyt and the other man at the table were exchanging Shreveport Captains scores and statistics.

’’Every so now and then,’’ Rene said, shaking his head as if to say he'd like it to be more often. ’’She works in a hospital cafeteria.’’

I patted him on the shoulder. ’’I gotta go work.’’

When I reached the bar to get my next order, Sam raised his eyebrows at me. I widened my eyes to show how amazed I was at Rene's intervention, and Sam shrugged slightly, as if to say there was no accounting for human behavior.

But when I went behind the bar to get some more napkins, I noticed he'd pulled out the baseball bat he kept below the till for emergencies.

G RAN KEPT ME busy all the next day. She dusted and vacuumed and mopped, and I scrubbed the bathrooms - did vampires even need to use the bathroom? I wondered, as I chugged the toilet brush around the bowl. Gran had me vacuum the cat hair off the sofa. I emptied all the trash cans. I polished all the tables. I wiped down the washer and the dryer, for goodness's sake.

When Gran urged me to get in the shower and change my clothes, I realized that she regarded Bill the vampire as my date. That made me feel a little odd. One, Gran was so desperate for me to have a social life that even a vampire was eligible for my attention;two, that I had some feelings that backed up that idea;three, that Bill might accurately read all this;four, could vampires even do it like humans?

I showered and put on my makeup and wore a dress, since I knew Gran would have a fit if I didn't. It was a little blue cotton-knit dress with tiny daisies all over it, and it was tighter than Gran liked and shorter than Jason deemed proper in his sister. I'd heard that the first time I'd worn it. I put my little yellow ball earrings in and wore my hair pulled up and back with a yellow banana clip holding it loosely.

Gran gave me one odd look, which I was at a loss to interpret. I could have found out easily enough by listening in, but that was a terrible thing to do to the person you lived with, so I was careful not to. She herself was wearing a skirt and blouse that she often wore to the Descendants of the Glorious Dead meetings, not quite good enough for church, but not plain enough for everyday wear.

I was sweeping the front porch, which we'd forgotten, when he came. He made a vampire entrance;one minute he wasn't there, and the next he was, standing at the bottom of the steps and looking up at me.

I grinned. ’’Didn't scare me,’’ I said.

He looked a little embarrassed. ’’It's just a habit,’’ he said, ’’appearing like that. I don't make much noise.’’

I opened the door. ’’Come on in,’’ I invited, and he came up the steps, looking around.

’’I remember this,’’ he said. ’’It wasn't so big, though.’’

’’You remember this house? Gran's gonna love it.’’ I preceded him into the living room, calling Gran as I went.

She came into the living room very much on her dignity, and I realized for the first time she'd taken great pains with her thick white hair, which was smooth and orderly for a change, wrapped around her head in a complicated coil. She had on lipstick, too.

Bill proved as adept at social tactics as my grandmother. They greeted, thanked each other, complimented, and finally Bill ended up sitting on the couch and, after carrying out a tray with three glasses of peach tea, my Gran sat in the easy chair, making it clear I was to perch by Bill. There was no way to get out of this without being even more obvious, so I sat by him, but scooted forward to the edge, as if I might hop up at any moment to get him a refill on his, the ritual glass of iced tea.

He politely touched his lips to the edge of the glass and then set it down. Gran and I took big nervous swallows of ours.

Gran picked an unfortunate opening topic. She said, ’’I guess you heard about the strange tornado.’’

’’Tell me,’’ Bill said, his cool voice as smooth as silk. I didn't dare look at him, but sat with my hands folded and my eyes fixed to them.

So Gran told him about the freak tornado and the deaths of the Rats. She told him the whole thing seemed pretty awful, but cut-and-dried, and at that I thought Bill relaxed just a millimeter.

’’I went by yesterday on my way to work,’’ I said, without raising my gaze. ’’By the trailer.’’

’’Did you find it looked as you expected?’’ Bill asked, only curiosity in his voice.

’’No,’’ I said. ’’It wasn't anything I could have expected. I was really ... amazed.’’

’’Sookie, you've seen tornado damage before,’’ Gran said, surprised.

I changed the subject. ’’Bill, where'd you get your shirt? It looks nice.’’ He was wearing khaki Dockers and a green-and-brown striped golfing shirt, polished loafers, and thin, brown socks.

’’Dillard's,’’ he said, and I tried to imagine him at the mall in Monroe, perhaps, other people turning to look at this exotic creature with his glowing skin and beautiful eyes. Where would he get the money to pay with? How did he wash his clothes? Did he go into his coffin naked? Did he have a car or did he just float wherever he wanted to go?

Gran was pleased with the normality of Bill's shopping habits. It gave me another pang of pain, observing how glad she was to see my supposed suitor in her living room, even if (according to popular literature) he was a victim of a virus that made him seem dead.

Gran plunged into questioning Bill. He answered her with courtesy and apparent goodwill. Okay, he was a polite dead man.

’’And your people were from this area?’’ Gran inquired.

’’My father's people were Comptons, my mother's people Loudermilks,’’ Bill said readily. He seemed quite relaxed.

’’There are lots of Loudermilks left,’’ Gran said happily. ’’But I'm afraid old Mr. Jessie Compton died last year.’’

’’I know,’’ Bill said easily. ’’That's why I came back. The land reverted to me, and since things have changed in our culture toward people of my particular persuasion, I decided to claim it.’’

’’Did you know the Stackhouses? Sookie says you have a long history.’’ I thought Gran had put it well. I smiled at my hands.

’’I remember Jonas Stackhouse,’’ Bill said, to Gran's delight. ’’My folks were here when Bon Temps was just a hole in the road at the edge of the frontier. Jonas Stackhouse moved here with his wife and his four children when I was a young man of sixteen. Isn't this the house he built, at least in part?’’

I noticed that when Bill was thinking of the past, his voice took on a different cadence and vocabulary. I wondered how many changes in slang and tone his English had taken on through the past century.

Of course, Gran was in genealogical hog heaven. She wanted to know all about Jonas, her husband's great-great-great-great-grandfather. ’’Did he own slaves?’’ she asked.

’’Ma'am, if I remember correctly, he had a house slave and a yard slave. The house slave was a woman of middle age and the yard slave a very big young man, very strong, named Minas. But the Stackhouses mostly worked their own fields, as did my folks.’’

’’Oh, that is exactly the kind of thing my little group would love to hear! Did Sookie tell you...’’ Gran and Bill, after much polite do-si-doing, set a date for Bill to address a night meeting of the Descendants.

’’And now, if you'll excuse Sookie and me, maybe we'll take a walk. It's a lovely night.’’ Slowly, so I could see it coming, he reached over and took my hand, rising and pulling me to my feet, too. His hand was cold and hard and smooth. Bill wasn't quite asking Gran's permission, but not quite not, either.

’’Oh, you two go on,’’ my grandmother said, fluttering with happiness. ’’I have so many things to look up. You'll have to tell me all the local names you remember from when you were...’’ and here Gran ran down, not wanting to say something wounding.

’’Resident here in Bon Temps,’’ I supplied helpfully.

’’Of course,’’ the vampire said, and I could tell from the compression of his lips that he was trying not to smile.

Somehow we were at the door, and I knew that Bill had lifted me and moved me quickly. I smiled, genuinely. I like the unexpected.

’’We'll be back in a while,’’ I said to Gran. I didn't think she'd noticed my odd transition, since she was gathering up our tea glasses.

’’Oh, you two don't hurry on my account,’’ she said. ’’I'll be just fine.’’

Outside, the frogs and toads and bugs were singing their nightly rural opera. Bill kept my hand as we strolled out into the yard, full of the smell of new-mown grass and budding things. My cat, Tina, came out of the shadows and asked to be tickled, and I bent over and scratched her head. To my surprise, the cat rubbed against Bill's legs, an activity he did nothing to discourage.

’’You like this animal?’’ he asked, his voice neutral.

’’It's my cat,’’ I said. ’’Her name is Tina, and I like her a lot.’’

Without comment, Bill stood still, waiting until Tina went on her way into the darkness outside the porch light.

’’Would you like to sit in the swing or the lawn chairs, or would you like to walk?’’ I asked, since I felt I was now the hostess.

’’Oh, let's walk for a while. I need to stretch my legs.’’

Somehow this statement unsettled me a little, but I began moving down the long driveway in the direction of the two-lane parish road that ran in front of both our homes.

’’Did the trailer upset you?’’

I tried to think how to put it.

’’I feel very ... hmmm. Fragile. When I think about the trailer.’’

’’You knew I was strong.’’

I tilted my head from side to side, considering. ’’Yes, but I didn't realize the full extent of your strength,’’ I told him. ’’Or your imagination.’’

’’Over the years, we get good at hiding what we've done.’’

’’So. I guess you've killed a bunch of people.’’

’’Some.’’ Deal with it, his voice implied.

I clasped both hands behind my back. ’’Were you hungrier right after you became a vampire? How did that happen?’’

He hadn't expected that. He looked at me. I could feel his eyes on me even though we were now in the dark. The woods were close around us. Our feet crunched on the gravel.

’’As to how I became a vampire, that's too long a story for now,’’ he said. ’’But yes, when I was younger - a few times - I killed by accident. I was never sure when I'd get to eat again, you understand? We were always hunted, naturally, and there was no such thing as artificial blood. And there were not as many people then. But I had been a good man when I was alive - I mean, before I caught the virus. So I tried to be civilized about it, select bad people as my victims, never feed on children. I managed never to kill a child, at least. It's so different now. I can go to the all-night clinic in any city and get some synthetic blood, though it's disgusting. Or I can pay a whore and get enough blood to keep going for a couple of days. Or I can glamor someone, so they'll let me bite them for love and then forget all about it. And I don't need so much now.’’

’’Or you can meet a girl who gets head injuries,’’ I said.

’’Oh, you were the dessert. The Rattrays were the meal.’’

Deal with it.

’’Whoa,’’ I said, feeling breathless. ’’Give me a minute.’’

And he did. Not one man in a million would have allowed me that time without speaking. I opened my mind, let my guards down completely, relaxed. His silence washed over me. I stood, closed my eyes, breathed out the relief that was too profound for words.

’’Are you happy now?’’ he asked, just as if he could tell.

’’Yes,’’ I breathed. At that moment I felt that no matter what this creature beside me had done, this peace was priceless after a lifetime of the yammering of other minds inside my own.

’’You feel good to me, too,’’ he said, surprising me.

’’How so?’’ I asked, dreamy and slow.

’’No fear, no hurry, no condemnation. I don't have to use my glamor to make you hold still, to have a conversation with you.’’

’’Glamor?’’

’’Like hypnotism,’’ he explained. ’’All vampires use it, to some extent or another. Because to feed, until the new synthetic blood was developed, we had to persuade people we were harmless ... or assure them they hadn't seen us at all ... or delude them into thinking they'd seen something else.’’

’’Does it work on me?’’

’’Of course,’’ he said, sounding shocked.

’’Okay, do it.’’

’’Look at me.’’

’’It's dark.’’

’’No matter. Look at my face.’’ And he stepped in front of me, his hands resting lightly on my shoulders, and looked down at me. I could see the faint shine of his skin and eyes, and I peered up at him, wondering if I'd begin to squawk like a chicken or take my clothes off.

But what happened was ... nothing. I felt only the nearly druglike relaxation of being with him.

’’Can you feel my influence?’’ he asked. He sounded a little breathless.

’’Not a bit, I'm sorry,’’ I said humbly. ’’I just see you glow.’’

’’You can see that?’’ I'd surprised him again.

’’Sure. Can't everyone?’’

’’No. This is strange, Sookie.’’

’’If you say so. Can I see you levitate?’’

’’Right here?’’ Bill sounded amused.

’’Sure, why not? Unless there's a reason?’’

’’No, none at all.’’ And he let go of my arms and began to rise.

I breathed a sigh of pure rapture. He floated up in the dark, gleaming like white marble in the moonlight. When he was about two feet off the ground, he began hovering. I thought he was smiling down at me.

’’Can all of you do that?’’ I asked.

’’Can you sing?’’

’’Nope, can't carry a tune.’’

’’Well, we can't all do the same things, either.’’ Bill came down slowly and landed on the ground without a thump. ’’Most humans are squeamish about vampires. You don't seem to be,’’ he commented.

I shrugged. Who was I to be squeamish about something out of the ordinary? He seemed to understand because, after a pause, during which we'd resumed walking, Bill said, ’’Has it always been hard for you?’’

’’Yes, always.’’ I couldn't say otherwise, though I didn't want to whine. ’’When I was very small, that was worst, because I didn't know how to put up my guard, and I heard thoughts I wasn't supposed to hear, of course, and I repeated them like a child will. My parents didn't know what to do about me. It embarrassed my father, in particular. My mother finally took me to a child psychologist, who knew exactly what I was, but she just couldn't accept it and kept trying to tell my folks I was reading their body language and was very observant, so I had good reason to imagine I heard people's thoughts. Of course, she couldn't admit I was literally hearing people's thoughts because that just didn't fit into her world.

’’And I did poorly in school because it was so hard for me to concentrate when so few others were. But when there was testing, I would test very high because the other kids were concentrating on their own papers ... that gave me a little leeway. Sometimes my folks thought I was lazy for not doing well on everyday work. Sometimes the teachers thought I had a learning disability;oh, you wouldn't believe the theories. I must have had my eyes and ears tested every two months, seemed like, and brain scans ... gosh. My poor folks paid through the nose. But they never could accept the simple truth. At least outwardly, you know?’’

’’But they knew inside.’’

’’Yes. Once, when my dad was trying to decide whether to back a man who wanted to open an auto parts store, he asked me to sit with him when the man came to the house. After the man left, my dad took me outside and looked away and said, ¡®Sookie, is he telling the truth?'It was the strangest moment.’’

’’How old were you?’’

’’I must've been less than seven'cause they died when I was in the second grade.’’

’’How?’’

’’Flash flood. Caught them on the bridge west of here.’’

Bill didn't comment. Of course, he'd seen deaths piled upon deaths.

’’Was the man lying?’’ he asked after a few seconds had gone by.

’’Oh, yes. He planned to take Daddy's money and run.’’

’’You have a gift.’’

’’Gift. Right.’’ I could feel the corners of my mouth pull down.

’’It makes you different from other humans.’’

’’You're telling me.’’ We walked for a moment in silence. ’’So you don't consider yourself human at all?’’

’’I haven't for a long time.’’

’’Do you really believe you've lost your soul?’’ That was what the Catholic Church was preaching about vampires.

’’I have no way of knowing,’’ Bill said, almost casually. It was apparent that he'd brooded over it so often it was quite a commonplace thought to him. ’’Personally, I think not. There is something in me that isn't cruel, not murderous, even after all these years. Though I can be both.’’

’’It's not your fault you were infected with a virus.’’

Bill snorted, even managing to sound elegant doing that. ’’There have been theories as long as there have been vampires. Maybe that one is true.’’ Then he looked as if he was sorry he'd said that. ’’If what makes a vampire is a virus,’’ he went on in a more offhand manner, ’’it's a selective one.’’

’’How do you become a vampire?’’ I'd read all kinds of stuff, but this would be straight from the horse's mouth.

’’I would have to drain you, at one sitting or over two or three days, to the point of your death, then give you my blood. You would lie like a corpse for about forty-eight hours, sometimes as long as three days, then rise and walk at night. And you would be hungry.’’

The way he said ’’hungry’’ made me shiver.

’’No other way?’’

’’Other vampires have told me humans they habitually bite, day after day, can become vampires quite unexpectedly. But that requires consecutive, deep, feedings. Others, under the same conditions, merely become anemic. Then again, when people are near to death for some other reason, a car accident or a drug overdose, perhaps, the process can go ... badly wrong.’’

I was getting the creepies. ’’Time to change the subject. What do you plan on doing with the Compton land?’’

’’I plan on living there, as long as I can. I'm tired of drifting from city to city. I grew up in the country. Now that I have a legal right to exist, and I can go to Monroe or Shreveport or New Orleans for synthetic blood or prostitutes who specialize in our kind, I want to stay here. At least see if it's possible. I've been roaming for decades.’’

’’What kind of shape is the house in?’’

’’Pretty bad,’’ he admitted. ’’I've been trying to clean it out. That I can do at night. But I need workmen to get some repairs done. I'm not bad at carpentry, but I don't know a thing about electricity.’’

Of course, he wouldn't.

’’It seems to me the house may need rewiring,’’ Bill continued, sounding for all the world like any other anxious homeowner.

’’Do you have a phone?’’

’’Sure,’’ he said, surprised.

’’So what's the problem with the workmen?’’

’’It's hard to get in touch with them at night, hard to get them to meet with me so I can explain what needs doing. They're scared, or they think it's a prank call.’’ Frustration was evident in Bill's voice, though his face was turned away from me.

I laughed. ’’If you want, I'll call them,’’ I offered. ’’They know me. Even though everyone thinks I'm crazy, they know I'm honest.’’

’’That would be a great favor,’’ Bill said, after some hesitation. ’’They could work during the day, after I'd met with them to discuss the job and the cost.’’

’’What an inconvenience, not being able to get out in the day,’’ I said thoughtlessly. I'd never really considered it before.

Bill's voice was dry. ’’It certainly is.’’

’’And having to hide your resting place,’’ I blundered on.

When I felt the quality of Bill's silence, I apologized.

’’I'm sorry,’’ I said. If it hadn't been so dark, he would have seen me turn red.

’’A vampire's daytime resting place is his most closely guarded secret,’’ Bill said stiffly.

’’I apologize.’’

’’I accept,’’ he said, after a bad little moment. We reached the road and looked up and down it as if we expected a taxi. I could see him clearly by the moonlight, now that we were out of the trees. He could see me, too. He looked me up and down.

’’Your dress is the color of your eyes.’’

’’Thank you.’’ I sure couldn't see him that clearly.

’’Not a lot of it, though.’’

’’Excuse me?’’

’’It's hard for me to get used to young ladies with so few clothes on,’’ Bill said.

’’You've had a few decades to get used to it,’’ I said tartly. ’’Come on, Bill! Dresses have been short for forty years now!’’

’’I liked long skirts,’’ he said nostalgically. ’’I liked the underthings women wore. The petticoats.’’

I made a rude noise.

’’Do you even have a petticoat?’’ he asked.

’’I have a very pretty beige nylon slip with lace,’’ I said indignantly. ’’If you were a human guy, I'd say you were angling for me to talk about my underwear!’’

He laughed, that deep, unused chuckle that affected me so strongly. ’’Do you have that slip on, Sookie?’’

I stuck out my tongue at him because I knew he could see me. I edged the skirt of my dress up, revealing the lace of the slip and a couple more inches of tanned me.

’’Happy?’’ I asked.

’’You have pretty legs, but I still like long dresses better.’’

’’You're stubborn,’’ I told him.

’’That's what my wife always told me.’’

’’You were married.’’

’’Yes, I became a vampire when I was thirty. I had a wife, and I had five living children. My sister, Sarah, lived with us. She never wed. Her young man was killed in the war.’’

’’The Civil War.’’

’’Yes. I came back from the battlefield. I was one of the lucky ones. At least I thought so at the time.’’

’’You fought for the Confederacy,’’ I said wonderingly. ’’If you still had your uniform and wore it to the club, the ladies would faint with joy.’’

’’I hadn't much of a uniform by the end of the war,’’ he said grimly. ’’We were in rags and starving.’’ He seemed to shake himself. ’’It had no meaning for me after I became vampire,’’ Bill said, his voice once again chilly and remote.

’’I've brought up something that upset you,’’ I said. ’’I am sorry. What should we talk about?’’ We turned and began to stroll back down the driveway toward the house.

’’Your life,’’ he said. ’’Tell me what you do when you get up in the morning.’’

’’I get out of bed. Then I make it up right away. I eat breakfast. Toast, sometimes cereal, sometimes eggs, and coffee - and I brush my teeth and shower and dress. Sometimes I shave my legs, you know. If it's a workday, I go in to work. If I don't go in until night, I might go shopping, or take Gran to the store, or rent a movie to watch, or sunbathe. And I read a lot. I'm lucky Gran is still spry. She does the wash and the ironing and most of the cooking.’’

’’What about young men?’’

’’Oh, I told you about that. It's just impossible.’’

’’So what will you do, Sookie?’’ he asked gently.

’’Grow old and die.’’ My voice was short. He'd touched on my sensitive area once too often.

To my surprise, Bill reached over and took my hand. Now that we'd made each other a little angry, touched some sore spots, the air seemed somehow clearer. In the quiet night, a breeze wafted my hair around my face.

’’Take the clip out?’’ Bill asked.

No reason not to. I reclaimed my hand and reached up to open the clip. I shook my head to loosen my hair. I stuck the clip in his pocket, since I hadn't any. As if it was the most normal thing in the world, Bill began running his fingers through my hair, spreading it out on my shoulders.

I touched his sideburns, since apparently touching was okay. ’’They're long,’’ I observed.

’’That was the fashion,’’ he said. ’’It's lucky for me I didn't wear a beard as so many men did, or I'd have it for eternity.’’

’’You never have to shave?’’

’’No, luckily I had just shaven.’’ He seemed fascinated with my hair. ’’In the moonlight, it looks silver,’’ he said very quietly.

’’Ah. What do you like to do?’’

I could see a shadow of a smile in the darkness.

’’I like to read, too.’’ He thought. ’’I like the movies ... of course, I've followed their whole inception. I like the company of people who lead ordinary lives. Sometimes I crave the company of other vampires, though most of them lead very different lives from mine.’’

We walked in silence for a moment.

’’Do you like television?’’

’’Sometimes,’’ he confessed. ’’For a while I taped soap operas and watched them at night when I thought I might be forgetting what it was like to be human. After a while I stopped, because from the examples I saw on those shows, forgetting humanity was a good thing.’’ I laughed.

We walked into the circle of light around the house. I had half-expected Gran to be on the porch swing waiting for us, but she wasn't. And only one dim bulb glowed in the living room. Really, Gran, I thought, exasperated. This was just like being brought home from a first date by a new man. I actually caught myself wondering if Bill would try to kiss me or not. With his views on long dresses, he would probably think it was out of line. But as stupid as kissing a vampire might seem, I realized that was what I really wanted to do, more than anything.

I got a tight feeling in my chest, a bitterness, at another thing I was denied. And I thought, Why not?

I stopped him by pulling gently on his hand. I stretched up and lay my lips on his shining cheek. I inhaled the scent of him, ordinary but faintly salty. He was wearing a trace of cologne.

I felt him shudder. He turned his head so his lips touched mine. After a moment, I reached to circle his neck with my arms. His kiss deepened, and I parted my lips. I'd never been kissed like this. It went on and on until I thought the whole world was involved in this kiss in the vampire's mouth on mine. I could feel my breathing speeding up, and I began to want other things to happen.

Suddenly Bill pulled back. He looked shaken, which pleased me no end. ’’Good night, Sookie,’’ he said, stroking my hair one last time.

’’Good night, Bill,’’ I said. I sounded pretty quavery myself. ’’I'll try to call some electricians tomorrow. I'll let you know what they say.’’

’’Come by the house tomorrow night - if you're off work?’’

’’Yes,’’ I said. I was still trying to gather myself.

’’See you then. Thanks, Sookie.’’ And he turned away to walk through the woods back over to his place. Once he reached the darkness, he was invisible.

I stood staring like a fool, until I shook myself and went inside to go to bed.

I spent an indecent amount of time lying awake in bed wondering if the undead could actually do - it. Also, I wondered if it would be possible to have a frank discussion with Bill about that. Sometimes he seemed very old-fashioned, sometimes he seemed as normal as the guy next door. Well, not really, but pretty normal.

It seemed both wonderful and pathetic to me that the one creature I'd met in years that I'd want to have se* with was actually not human. My telepathy limited my options severely. I could have had se* just to have it, sure;but I had waited to have se* I could actually enjoy.

What if we did it, and after all these years I discovered I had no talent for it? Or maybe it wouldn't feel good. Maybe all the books and movies exaggerated. Arlene, too, who never seemed to understand that her se* life was not something I wanted to hear about.

I finally got to sleep, to have long, dark dreams.

The next morning, between fielding Gran's questions about my walk with Bill and our future plans, I made some phone calls. I found two electricians, a plumber, and some other service people who gave me phone numbers where they could be reached at night and made sure they understood that a phone call from Bill Compton was not a prank.

Finally, I was lying out in the sun turning toasty when Gran carried the phone out to me.

’’It's your boss,’’ she said. Gran liked Sam, and he must have said something to make her happy because she was grinning like a Cheshire cat.

’’Hi, Sam,’’ I said, maybe not sounding too glad because I knew something had gone wrong at work.

’’Dawn didn't make it in, cher,’’ he said.

’’Oh ... hell,’’ I said, knowing I'd have to go in. ’’I kind of have plans, Sam.’’ That was a first. ’’When do you need me?’’

’’Could you just come in from five to nine? That would help out a lot.’’

’’Am I gonna get another full day off?’’

’’What about Dawn splitting a shift with you another night?’’

I made a rude noise, and Gran stood there with a stern face. I knew I'd get a lecture later. ’’Oh, all right,’’ I said grudgingly. ’’See you at five.’’

’’Thanks, Sookie,’’ he said. ’’I knew I could count on you.’’

I tried to feel good about that. It seemed like a boring virtue. You can always count on Sookie to step in and help because she doesn't have a life!

Of course, it would be fine to get to Bill's after nine. He'd be up all night, anyway.

Work had never seemed so slow. I had trouble concentrating enough to keep my guard intact because I was always thinking about Bill. It was lucky there weren't many customers, or I would have heard unwanted thoughts galore. As it was, I found out Arlene's period was late, and she was scared she was pregnant, and before I could stop myself I gave her a hug. She stared at me searchingly and then turned red in the face.

’’Did you read my mind, Sookie?’’ she asked, warning written in her voice. Arlene was one of the few people who simply acknowledged my ability without trying to explain it or categorizing me as a freak for possessing such an ability. She also didn't talk about it often or in any normal voice, I'd noticed.

’’Sorry, I didn't mean to,’’ I apologized. ’’I'm just not focused today.’’

’’All right, then. You stay out from now on, though.’’ And Arlene, her flaming curls bobbing around her cheeks, shook her finger in my face.

I felt like crying. ’’Sorry,’’ I said again and strode off into the storeroom to collect myself. I had to pull my face straight and hold in those tears.

I heard the door open behind me.

’’Hey, I said I was sorry, Arlene!’’ I snapped, wanting to be left alone. Sometimes Arlene confused telepathy with psychic talent. I was scared she'd ask me if she was really pregnant. She'd be better off buying an early home pregnancy kit.

’’Sookie.’’ It was Sam. He turned me around with a hand on my shoulder. ’’What's wrong?’’

His voice was gentle and pushed me much closer to tears.

’’You should sound mean so I won't cry!’’ I said.

He laughed, not a big laugh, a small one. He put an arm around me.

’’What's the matter?’’ He wasn't going to give up and go away.

’’Oh, I...’’ and I stopped dead. I'd never, ever explicitly discussed my problem (that's how I thought of it) with Sam or anyone else. Everyone in Bon Temps knew the rumors about why I was strange, but no one seemed to realize that I had to listen to their mental clatter nonstop, whether I wanted to or not - every day, the yammer yammer yammer. . .

’’Did you hear something that bothered you?’’ His voice was quiet and matter-of-fact. He touched the middle of my forhead, to indicate he knew exactly how I could ’’hear.’’

’’Yes.’’

’’Can't help it, can you?’’

’’Nope.’’

’’Hate it, don't you, cher?’’

’’Oh, yes.’’

’’Not your fault then, is it?’’

’’I try not to listen, but I can't always keep my guard up.’’ I felt a tear I hadn't been able to quell start trickling down my cheek.

’’Is that how you do it? How do you keep your guard up, Sookie?’’

He sounded really interested, not as though he thought I was a basket case. I looked up, not very far, into Sam's prominent, brilliant blue eyes.

’’I just ... it's hard to describe unless you can do it ... I pull up a fence - no, not a fence, it's like I'm snapping together steel plates - between my brain and all others.’’

’’You have to hold the plates up?’’

’’Yes. It takes a lot of concentration. It's like dividing my mind all the time. That's why people think I'm crazy. Half my brain is trying to keep the steel plates up, and the other half might be taking drink orders, so sometimes there's not a lot left over for coherent conversation.’’ What a gush of relief I was feeling, just being able to talk about it.

’’Do you hear words or just get impressions?’’

’’Depends on who I'm listening to. And their state. If they're drunk, or really disturbed, it's just pictures, impressions, intentions. If they're sober and sane it's words and some pictures.’’

’’The vampire says you can't hear him.’’

The idea of Bill and Sam having a conversation about me made me feel very peculiar. ’’That's true,’’ I admitted.

’’Is that relaxing to you?’’

’’Oh, yes.’’ I meant it from my heart.

’’Can you hear me, Sookie?’’

’’I don't want to try!’’ I said hastily. I moved to the door of the storeroom and stood with my hand on the knob. I pulled a tissue from my shorts pocket and patted the tear track off my cheek. ’’I'll have to quit if I read your mind, Sam! I like you, I like it here.’’

’’Just try it sometime, Sookie,’’ he said casually, turning to open a carton of whiskey with the razor-edged box cutter he kept in his pocket. ’’Don't worry about me. You have a job as long as you want one.’’

I wiped down a table Jason had spilled salt on. He'd been in earlier to eat a hamburger and fries and down a couple of beers.

I was turning over Sam's offer in my mind.

I wouldn't try to listen to him today. He was ready for me. I'd wait when he was busy doing something else. I'd just sort of slip in and give him a listen. He'd invited me, which was absolutely unique.

It was kind of nice to be invited.

I repaired my makeup and brushed my hair. I'd worn it loose, since Bill had seemed to like that, and a darn nuisance it had been all evening. It was just about time to go, so I retrieved my purse from its drawer in Sam's office.

T HE COMPTON HOUSE, like Gran's, was set back from the road. It was a bit more visible from the parish road than hers, and it had a view of the cemetery, which her house didn't. This was due (at least in part) to the Compton house's higher setting. It was on top of a knoll and it was fully two-storied. Gran's house had a couple of spare bedrooms upstairs, and an attic, but it was more like half a top story.

At one point in the family's long history, the Comptons had had a very nice house. Even in the dark, it had a certain graciousness. But I knew in the daylight you could see the pillars were peeling, the wood siding was crooked, and the yard was simply a jungle. In the humid warmth of Louisiana, yard growth could get out of hand mighty quick, and old Mr. Compton had not been one to hire someone to do his yard work. When he'd gotten too feeble, it had simply gone undone.

The circular drive hadn't gotten fresh gravel in many years, and my car lurched to the front door. I saw that the house was all lit up, and I began to realize that the evening would not go like last evening. There was another car parked in front of the house, a Lincoln Continental, white with a dark blue top. A blue-on-white bumper sticker read VAMPIRES SUCK. A red and yellow one stated HONK IF YOU'RE A BLOOD DONOR! The vanity plate read, simply, FANGS 1.

If Bill already had company, maybe I should just go on home.

But I had been invited and was expected. Hesitantly, I raised my hand and knocked.

The door was opened by a female vampire.

She glowed like crazy. She was at least five feet eleven and black. She was wearing spandex. An exercise bra in flamingo pink and matching calf-length leggings, with a man's white dress shirt flung on unbuttoned, constituted the vampire's ensemble.

I thought she looked cheap as hell and most likely absolutely mouthwatering from a male point of view.

’’Hey, little human chick,’’ the vampire purred.

And all of a sudden I realized I was in danger. Bill had warned me repeatedly that not all vampires were like him, and he had moments when he was not so nice, himself. I couldn't read this creature's mind, but I could hear cruelty in her voice.

Maybe she had hurt Bill. Maybe she was his lover.

All of this passed through my mind in a rush, but none of it showed on my face. I've had years of experience in controlling my face. I could feel my bright smile snap on protectively, my spine straightened, and I said cheerfully, ’’Hi! I was supposed to drop by tonight and give Bill some information. Is he available?’’

The female vampire laughed at me, which was nothing I wasn't used to. My smile notched up a degree brighter. This critter radiated danger the way a light bulb gives off heat.

’’This little human gal here says she has some information for you, Bill!’’ she yelled over her (slim, brown, beautiful) shoulder.

I tried not to let relief show in any way.

’’You wanna see this little thing? Or shall I just give her a love bite?’’

Over my dead body, I thought furiously, and then realized it might be just that.

I didn't hear Bill speak, but the vampire stood back, and I stepped into the old house. Running wouldn't do any good;this vamp could undoubtedly bring me down before I'd gone five steps. And I hadn't laid eyes on Bill, and I couldn't be sure he was all right until I saw him. I'd brave this out and hope for the best. I'm pretty good at doing that.

The big front room was crammed with dark old furniture and people. No, not people, I realized after I'd looked carefully;two people, and two more strange vampires.

The two vampires were both male and white. One had a buzz cut and tattoos on every visible inch of his skin. The other was even taller than the woman, maybe six foot four, with a head of long rippling dark hair and a magnificent build.

The humans were less impressive. The woman was blond and plump, thirty-five or older. She was wearing maybe a pound too much makeup. She looked as worn as an old boot. The man was another story. He was lovely, the prettiest man I'd ever seen. He couldn't have been more than twenty-one. He was swarthy, maybe Hispanic, small and fine-boned. He wore denim cut-offs and nothing else. Except for makeup. I took that in my stride, but I didn't find it appealing.

Then Bill moved and I saw him, standing in the shadows of the dark hall leading from the living room to the back of the house. I looked at him, trying to get my bearings in this unexpected situation. To my dismay, he didn't look at all reassuring. His face was very still, absolutely impenetrable. Though I couldn't believe I was even thinking it, it would have been great at that point to have had a peek into his mind.

’’Well, we can have a wonderful evening now,’’ the longhaired male vampire said. He sounded delighted. ’’Is this a little friend of yours, Bill? She's so fresh.’’

I thought of a few choice words I'd learned from Jason.

’’If you'll just excuse me and Bill a minute,’’ I said very politely, as if this was a perfectly normal evening, ’’I've been arranging for workmen for the house.’’ I tried to sound businesslike and impersonal, though wearing shorts and a T-shirt and Nikes does not inspire professional respect. But I hoped I conveyed the impression that nice people I encountered in the course of my working day could not possibly hold any threat of danger.

’’And we heard Bill was on a diet of synthetic blood only,’’ said the tattooed vampire. ’’Guess we heard wrong, Diane.’’

The female vampire cocked her head and gave me a long look. ’’I'm not so sure. She looks like a virgin to me.’’

I didn't think Diane was talking hymens.

I took a few casual steps toward Bill, hoping like hell he would defend me if worst came to worst, but finding myself not absolutely sure. I was still smiling, hoping he would speak, would move.

And then he did. ’’Sookie is mine,’’ he said, and his voice was so cold and smooth it wouldn't have made a ripple in the water if it had been a stone.

I looked at him sharply, but I had enough brains to keep my mouth shut.

’’How good you been taking care of our Bill?’’ Diane asked.

’’None of your f*king business,’’ I answered, using one of Jason's words and still smiling. I said I had a temper.

There was a sharp little pause. Everyone, human and vampire, seemed to examine me closely enough to count the hairs on my arms. Then the tall male began to rock with laughter and the others followed suit. While they were yukking it up, I moved a few feet closer to Bill. His dark eyes were fixed on me - he wasn't laughing - and I got the distinct feeling he wished, just as much as I did, that I could read his mind.

He was in some danger, I could tell. And if he was, then I was.

’’You have a funny smile,’’ said the tall male thoughtfully. I'd liked him better when he was laughing.

’’Oh, Malcolm,’’ said Diane. ’’All human women look funny to you.’’

Malcolm pulled the human male to him and gave him a long kiss. I began to feel a little sick. That kind of stuff is private. ’’This is true,’’ Malcolm said, pulling away after a moment, to the small man's apparent disappointment. ’’But there is something rare about this one. Maybe she has rich blood.’’

’’Aw,’’ said the blond woman, in a voice that could blister paint, ’’That's just crazy Sookie Stackhouse.’’

I looked at the woman with more attention. I recognized her at last, when I mentally erased a few miles of hard road and half the makeup. Janella Lennox had worked at Merlotte's for two weeks until Sam had fired her. She'd moved to Monroe, Arlene had told me.

The male vampire with the tattoos put his arm around Janella and rubbed her breasts. I could feel the blood drain out of my face. I was disgusted. It got worse. Janella, as lost to decency as the vampire, put her hand on his crotch and massaged.

At least I saw clearly that vampires can sure have se*.

I was less than excited about that knowledge at the moment.

Malcolm was watching me, and I'd showed my distaste.

’’She's innocent,’’ he said to Bill, with a smile full of anticipation.

’’She's mine,’’ Bill said again. This time his voice was more intense. If he'd been a rattlesnake his warning could not have been clearer.

’’Now, Bill, you can't tell me you've been getting everything you need from that little thing,’’ Diane said. ’’You look pale and droopy. She ain't been taking good care of you.’’

I inched a little closer to Bill.

’’Here,’’ offered Diane, whom I was beginning to hate, ’’have a taste of Liam's woman or Malcolm's pretty boy, Jerry.’’

Janella didn't react to being offered around, maybe because she was too busy unzipping Liam's jeans, but Malcolm's beautiful boyfriend, Jerry, slithered willingly over to Bill. I smiled as though my jaws were going to crack as he wrapped his arms around Bill, nuzzled Bill's neck, rubbed his chest against Bill's shirt.

The strain in my vampire's face was terrible to see. His fangs slid out. I saw them fully extended for the first time. The synthetic blood was not answering all Bill's needs, all right.

Jerry began licking a spot at the base of Bill's neck. Keeping my guard up was proving to be more than I could handle. Since three present were vampires, whose thoughts I couldn't hear, and Janella was fully occupied, that left Jerry. I listened and gagged.

Bill, shaking with temptation, was actually bending to sink his fangs into Jerry's neck when I said, ’’No! He has the Sino-virus!’’

As if released from a spell, Bill looked at me over Jerry's shoulder. He was breathing heavily, but his fangs retracted. I took advantage of the moment by taking more steps. I was within a yard of Bill, now.

’’Sino-AIDS,’’ I said.

Alcoholic and heavily drugged victims affected vampires temporarily, and some of them were said to enjoy that buzz;but the blood of a human with full-blown AIDS didn't, nor did se*ually transmitted diseases, or any other bugs that plagued humans.

Except Sino-AIDS. Even Sino-AIDS didn't kill vampires as surely as the AIDS virus killed humans, but it left the undead very weak for nearly a month, during which time it was comparatively easy to catch and stake them. And every now and then, if a vampire fed from an infected human more than once, the vampire actually died - redied? - without being staked. Still rare in the United States, Sino-AIDS was gaining a foothold around ports like New Orleans, with sailors and other travelers from many countries passing through the city in a partying mood.

All the vampires were frozen, staring at Jerry as if he were death in disguise;and for them, perhaps, he was.

The beautiful young man took me completely by surprise. He turned and leapt on me. He was no vampire, but he was strong, evidently only in the earliest stages of the virus, and he knocked me against the wall to my left. He circled my throat with one hand and lifted the other to punch me in the face. My arms were still coming up to defend myself when Jerry's hand was seized, and his body froze.

’’Let go of her throat,’’ Bill said in such a terrifying voice that I was scared myself. By now, the scares were just piling up so quickly I didn't think I'd ever feel safe again. But Jerry's fingers didn't relax, and I made a little whimpering sound without wanting to at all. I slewed my eyes sideways, and when I looked at Jerry's gray face, I realized that Bill was holding his hand, Malcolm was gripping his legs, and Jerry was so frightened he couldn't grasp what was wanted of him.

The room began to get fuzzy, and voices buzzed in and out. Jerry's mind was beating against mine. I was helpless to hold him out. His mind was clouded with visions of the lover who had passed the virus to Jerry, a lover who had left him for a vampire, a lover Jerry himself had murdered in a fit of jealous rage. Jerry was seeing his death coming from the vampires he had wanted to kill, and he was not satisfied that he had extracted enough vengeance with the vampires he had already infected.

I could see Diane's face over Jerry's shoulder, and she was smiling.

Bill broke Jerry's wrist.

He screamed and collapsed on the floor. The blood began surging into my head again, and I almost fainted. Malcolm picked Jerry up and carried him over to the couch as casually as if Jerry were a rolled-up rug. But Malcolm's face was not as casual. I knew Jerry would be lucky if he died quickly.

Bill stepped in front of me, taking Jerry's place. His fingers, the fingers that had just broken Jerry's wrist, massaged my neck as gently as my grandmother's would have done. He put a finger across my lips to make sure I knew to keep silent.

Then, his arm around me, he turned to face the other vampires.

’’This has all been very entertaining,’’ Liam said. His voice was as cool as if Janella wasn't giving him a truly intimate massage there on the couch. He hadn't troubled himself to budge during the whole incident. He had newly visible tattoos I could never in this world have imagined. I was sick to my stomach. ’’But I think we should be driving back to Monroe. We have to have a little talk with Jerry when he wakes up, right, Malcolm?’’

Malcolm heaved the unconscious Jerry over his shoulder and nodded at Liam. Diane looked disappointed.

’’But fellas,’’ she protested. ’’We haven't found out how this little gal knew.’’

The two male vampires simultaneously switched their gaze to me. Quite casually, Liam took a second off to reach a climax. Yep, vampires could do it, all right. After a little sigh of completion, he said, ’’Thanks, Janella. That's a good question, Malcolm. As usual, our Diane has cut to the quick.’’ And the three visiting vampires laughed as if that was a very good joke, but I thought it was a scary one.

’’You can't speak yet, can you, sweetheart?’’ Bill gave my shoulder a squeeze as he asked, as if I couldn't get the hint.

I shook my head.

’’I could probably make her talk,’’ Diane offered.

’’Diane, you forget,’’ Bill said gently.

’’Oh, yeah. She's yours,’’ Diane said. But she didn't sound cowed or convinced.

’’We'll have to visit some other time,’’ Bill said, and his voice made it clear the others had to leave or fight him.

Liam stood, zipped up his pants, gestured to his human woman. ’’Out, Janella, we're being evicted.’’ The tattoos rippled across his heavy arms as he stretched. Janella ran her hands along his ribs as if she just couldn't get enough of him, and he swatted her away as lightly as if she'd been a fly. She looked vexed, but not mortified as I would have been. This was not new treatment for Janella.

Malcolm picked up Jerry and carried him out the front door without a word. If drinking from Jerry had given him the virus, Malcolm was not yet impaired. Diane went last, slinging a purse over her shoulder and casting a bright-eyed glance behind her.

’’I'll leave you two lovebirds on your own, then. It's been fun, honey,’’ she said lightly, and she slammed the door behind her.

The minute I heard the car start up outside, I fainted.

I'd never done so in my life, and I hoped never to again, but I felt I had some excuse.

I seemed to spend a lot of time around Bill unconscious. That was a crucial thought, and I knew it deserved a lot of pondering, but not just at that moment. When I came to, everything I'd seen and heard rushed back, and I gagged for real. Immediately Bill bent me over the edge of the couch. But I managed to keep my food down, maybe because there wasn't much in my stomach.

’’Do vampires act like that?’’ I whispered. My throat was sore and bruised where Jerry had squeezed it. ’’They were horrible.’’

’’I tried to catch you at the bar when I found out you weren't at home,’’ Bill said. His voice was empty. ’’But you'd left.’’

Though I knew it wouldn't help a thing, I began crying. I was sure Jerry was dead by now, and I felt I should have done something about that, but I couldn't have kept silent when he was about to infect Bill. So many things about this short episode had upset me so deeply that I didn't know where to begin being upset. In maybe fifteen minutes I'd been in fear of my life, in fear for Bill's life (well - existence), made to witness se* acts that should be strictly private, seen my potential sweetie in the throes of blood lust (emphasis on lust), and nearly been choked to death by a diseased hustler.

On second thought, I gave myself full permission to cry. I sat up and wept and mopped my face with a handkerchief Bill handed me. My curiosity about why a vampire would need a handkerchief was just a little flicker of normality, drenched by the flood of my nervous tears.

Bill had enough sense not to put his arms around me. He sat on the floor, and had the grace to keep his eyes averted while I mopped myself dry.

’’When vampires live in nests,’’ he said suddenly, ’’they often become more cruel because they egg each other on. They see others like themselves constantly, and so they are reminded of how far from being human they are. They become laws unto themselves. Vampires like me, who live alone, are a little better reminded of their former humanity.’’

I listened to his soft voice, going slowly through his thoughts as he made an attempt to explain the unexplainable to me.

’’Sookie, our life is seducing and taking and has been for centuries, for some of us. Synthetic blood and grudging human acceptance isn't going to change that overnight - or over a decade. Diane and Liam and Malcolm have been together for fifty years.’’

’’How sweet,’’ I said, and my voice held something I'd never heard from myself before: bitterness. ’’Their golden wedding anniversary.’’

’’Can you forget about this?’’ Bill asked. His huge dark eyes came closer and closer. His mouth was about two inches from mine.

’’I don't know.’’ The words jerked out of me. ’’Do you know, I didn't know if you could do it?’’

His eyebrows rose interrogatively. ’’Do ... ?’’

’’Get - ’’ and I stopped, trying to think of a pleasant way to put it. I'd seen more crudity this evening than I'd seen in my lifetime, and I didn't want to add to it. ’’An erection,’’ I said, avoiding his eyes.

’’You know better now.’’ He sounded like he was trying not to be amused. ’’We can have se*, but we can't make children or have them. Doesn't it make you feel better, that Diane can't have a baby?’’

My fuses blew. I opened my eyes and looked at him steadily. ’’Don't - you - laugh - at - me.’’

’’Oh, Sookie,’’ he said, and his hand rose to touch my cheek.

I dodged his hand and struggled to my feet. He didn't help me, which was a good thing, but he sat on the floor watching me with a still, unreadable face. Bill's fangs had retracted, but I knew he was still suffering from hunger. Too bad.

My purse was on the floor by the front door. I wasn't walking very steadily, but I was walking. I pulled the list of electricians out of a pocket and lay it on a table.

’’I have to go.’’

He was in front of me suddenly. He'd done one of those vampire things again. ’’Can I kiss you good-bye?’’ he asked, his hands down at his sides, making it so obvious he wouldn't touch me until I said green light.

’’No,’’ I said vehemently. ’’I can't stand it after them.’’

’’I'll come see you.’’

’’Yes. Maybe.’’

He reached past me to open the door, but I thought he was reaching for me, and I flinched.

I spun on my heel and almost ran to my car, tears blurring my vision again. I was glad the drive home was so short.


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