Dead Until Dark Chapter 5

I CERTAINLY HAD a lot to think about the next couple of days. For someone who was always hoarding new things to keep from being bored, I'd stored enough up to last me for weeks. The people in Fangtasia, alone, were food for examination, to say nothing of the vampires. From longing to meet one vampire, now I'd met more than I cared to know.

A lot of men from Bon Temps and the surrounding area had been called in to the police station to answer a few questions about Dawn Green and her habits. Embarrassingly enough, Detective Bellefleur took to hanging around the bar on his off-hours, never drinking more alcohol than one beer, but observing everything that took place around him. Since Merlotte's was not exactly a hotbed of illegal activity, no one minded too much once they got used to Andy being there.

He always seemed to pick a table in my section. And he began to play a silent game with me. When I came to his table, he'd be thinking something provocative, trying to get me to say something. He didn't seem to understand how indecent that was. The provocation was the point, not the insult. He just wanted me to read his mind again. I couldn't figure out why.

Then, maybe the fifth or sixth time I had to get him something, I guess it was a Diet Coke, he pictured me cavorting with my brother. I was so nervous when I went to the table (knowing to expect something, but not knowing exactly what) that I was beyond getting angry and into the realm of tears. It reminded me of the less sophisticated tormenting I'd taken when I was in grade school.

Andy had looked up with an expectant face, and when he saw tears an amazing range of things ran across his face in quick succession: triumph, chagrin, then scalding shame.

I poured the damn coke down his shirt.

I walked right past the bar and out the back door.

’’What's the matter?’’ Sam asked sharply. He was right on my heels.

I shook my head, not wanting to explain, and pulled an aging tissue out of my shorts pocket to mop my eyes with.

’’Has he been saying ugly things to you?’’ Sam asked, his voice lower and angrier.

’’He's been thinking them,’’ I said helplessly, ’’to get a rise out of me. He knows.’’

’’Son of a bitch,’’ Sam said, which almost shocked me back to normal. Sam didn't curse.

Once I started crying, it seemed like I couldn't stop. I was getting my crying time done for a number of little unhappinesses.

’’Just go on back in,’’ I said, embarrassed at my waterworks. ’’I'll be okay in just a minute.’’

I heard the back door of the bar open and shut. I figured Sam had taken me at my word. But instead, Andy Bellefleur said, ’’I apologize, Sookie.’’

’’That's Miss Stackhouse to you, Andy Bellefleur,’’ I said. ’’It seems to me like you better be out finding who killed Maudette and Dawn instead of playing nasty mind games with me.’’

I turned around and looked at the policeman. He was looking horribly embarrassed. I thought he was sincere in his shame.

Sam was swinging his arms, full of the energy of anger.

’’Bellefleur, sit in someone else's area if you come back,’’ he said, but his voice held a lot of suppressed violence.

Andy looked at Sam. He was twice as thick in the body, taller by two inches. But I would have put my money on Sam at that moment, and it seemed Andy didn't want to risk the challenge either, if only from good sense. He just nodded and walked across the parking lot to his car. The sun glinted on the blond highlights in his brown hair.

’’Sookie, I'm sorry,’’ Sam said.

’’Not your fault.’’

’’Do you want to take some time off? We're not so busy today.’’

’’Nope. I'll finish my shift.’’ Charlsie Tooten was getting into the swing of things, but I wouldn't feel good about leaving. It was Arlene's day off.

We went back into the bar, and though several people looked at us curiously as we entered, no one asked us what had happened. There was only one couple sitting in my area, and they were busy eating and had glasses full of liquid, so they wouldn't be needing me. I began putting up wine-glasses. Sam leaned against the workspace beside me.

’’Is it true that Bill Compton is going to speak to the Descendants of the Glorious Dead tonight?’’

’’According to my grandmother.’’

’’Are you going?’’

’’I hadn't planned on it.’’ I didn't want to see Bill until he called me and made an appointment to see me.

Sam didn't say anything else then, but later in the afternoon, as I was retrieving my purse from his office, he came in and fiddled with some papers on his desk. I'd pulled out my brush and was trying to get a tangle out of my ponytail. From the way Sam dithered around, it seemed apparent that he wanted to talk to me, and I felt a wave of exasperation at the indirection men seemed to take.

Like Andy Bellefleur. He could just have asked me about my disability, instead of playing games with me.

Like Bill. He could just have stated his intentions, instead of this strange hot-cold thing.

’’So?’’ I said, more sharply than I'd intended.

He flushed under my gaze.

’’I wondered if you'd like to go to the Descendants meeting with me and have a cup of coffee afterward.’’

I was flabbergasted. My brush stopped in midswoop. A number of things ran through my mind, the feel of his hand when I'd held it in front of Dawn Green's duplex, the wall I'd met in his mind, the unwisdom of dating your boss.

’’Sure,’’ I said, after a notable pause.

He seemed to exhale. ’’Good. Then I'll pick you up at your house at seven-twenty or so. The meeting starts at seven-thirty.’’

’’Okay. I'll see you then.’’

Afraid I'd do something peculiar if I stayed longer, I grabbed my purse and strode out to my car. I couldn't decide whether to giggle with glee or groan at my own idiocy.

It was five-forty-five by the time I got home. Gran already had supper on the table since she had to leave early to carry refreshments to the Descendants meeting, which was held at the Community Building.

’’Wonder if he could have come if we'd had it in the fellowship hall of Good Faith Baptist?’’ Gran said out of the blue. But I didn't have a problem latching on to her train of thought.

’’Oh, I think so,’’ I said. ’’I think that idea about vampires being scared of religious items isn't true. But I haven't asked him.’’

’’They do have a big cross hung up in there,’’ Gran went on.

’’I'll be at the meeting after all,’’ I said. ’’I'm going with Sam Merlotte.’’

’’Your boss, Sam?’’ Gran was very surprised.

’’Yes, ma'am.’’

’’Hmmm. Well, well.’’ Gran began smiling while she put the plates on the table. I was trying to think of what to wear while we ate our sandwiches and fruit salad. Gran was excited about the meeting, about listening to Bill and introducing him to her friends, and now she was in outer space somewhere (probably around Venus) since I actually had a date. With a human.

’’We'll be going out afterward,’’ I said, ’’so I guess I'll get home maybe an hour after the meeting's over.’’ There weren't that many places to have coffee in Bon Temps. And those restaurants weren't exactly places you'd want to linger.

’’Okay, honey. You just take your time.’’ Gran was already dressed, and after supper I helped her load up the cookie trays and the big coffee urn she'd bought for just such events. Gran had pulled her car around to the back door, which saved us a lot of steps. She was happy as she could be and fussed and chattered the whole time we were loading. This was her kind of night.

I shed my waitress clothes and got into the shower lickety-split. While I soaped up, I tried to think of what to wear. Nothing black and white, that was for sure;I had gotten pretty sick of the Merlotte's waitress colors. I shaved my legs again, didn't have time to wash my hair and dry it, but I'd done it the night before. I flung open my closet and stared. Sam had seen the white flowered dress. The denim jumper wasn't nice enough for Gran's friends. Finally I yanked out some khaki slacks and a bronze silk blouse with short sleeves. I had brown leather sandals and a brown leather belt that would look good. I hung a chain around my neck, stuck in some big gold earrings, and I was ready. As if he'd timed it, Sam rang the doorbell.

There was a moment of awkwardness as I opened the door.

’’You're welcome to come in, but I think we just have time - ’’

’’I'd like to sit and visit, but I think we just have time - ’’

We both laughed.

I locked the door and pulled it to, and Sam hurried to open the door of his pickup. I was glad I'd worn pants, as I pictured trying to get up in the high cab in one of my shorter skirts.

’’Need a boost?’’ he asked hopefully.

’’I think I got it,’’ I said, trying not to smile.

We were silent on the way to the Community Building, which was in the older part of Bon Temps;the part that predated the War. The structure was not antebellum, but there had actually been a building on that site that had gotten destroyed during the War, though no one seemed to have a record of what it had been.

The Descendants of the Glorious Dead were a mixed bunch. There were some very old, very fragile members, and some not quite so old and very lively members, and there were even a scattering of middle-aged men and women. But there were no young members, which Gran had often lamented, with many significant glances at me.

Mr. Sterling Norris, a longtime friend of my grandmother's and the mayor of Bon Temps, was the greeter that night, and he stood at the door shaking hands and having a little conversation with everyone who entered.

’’Miss Sookie, you look prettier every day,’’ Mr. Norris said. ’’And Sam, we haven't seen you in a coon's age! Sookie, is it true this vampire is a friend of yours?’’

’’Yes, sir.’’

’’Can you say for sure that we're all safe?’’

’’Yes, I'm sure you are. He's a very nice ... person.’’ Being? Entity? If you like the living dead, he's pretty neat?

’’If you say so,’’ Mr. Norris said dubiously. ’’In my time, such a thing was just a fairy tale.’’

’’Oh, Mr. Norris, it's still your time,’’ I said with the cheerful smile expected of me, and he laughed and motioned us on in, which was what was expected of him. Sam took my hand and sort of steered me to the next to last row of metal chairs, and I waved at my grandmother as we took our seats. It was just time for the meeting to start, and the room held maybe forty people, quite a gathering for Bon Temps. But Bill wasn't there.

Just then the president of Descendants, a massive, solid woman by the name of Maxine Fortenberry, came to the podium.

’’Good evening! Good evening!’’ she boomed. ’’Our guest of honor has just called to say he's having car trouble and will be a few minutes late. So let's go on and have our business meeting while we're waiting for him.’’

The group settled down, and we got through all the boring stuff, Sam sitting beside me with his arms crossed over his chest, his right leg crossed over the left at the ankle. I was being especially careful to keep my mind guarded and face smiling, and I was a little deflated when Sam leaned slightly to me and whispered, ’’It's okay to relax.’’

’’I thought I was,’’ I whispered back.

’’I don't think you know how.’’

I raised my eyebrows at him. I was going to have a few things to say to Mr. Merlotte after the meeting.

Just then Bill came in, and there was a moment of sheer silence as those who hadn't seen him before adjusted to his presence. If you've never been in the company of a vampire before, it's a thing you really have to get used to. Under the flourescent lighting, Bill really looked much more unhuman than he did under the dim lighting in Merlotte's, or the equally dim lighting in his own home. There was no way he could pass for a regular guy. His pallor was very marked, of course, and the deep pools of his eyes looked darker and colder. He was wearing a lightweight medium-blue suit, and I was willing to bet that had been Gran's advice. He looked great. The dominant line of the arch of his eyebrow, the curve of his bold nose, the chiseled lips, the white hands with their long fingers and carefully trimmed nails ... He was having an exchange with the president, and she was charmed out of her support hose by Bill's close-lipped smile.

I didn't know if Bill was casting a glamor over the whole room, or if these people were just predisposed to be interested, but the whole group hushed expectantly.

Then Bill saw me. I swear his eyebrows twitched. He gave me a little bow, and I nodded back, finding no smile in me to give him. Even in the crowd, I stood at the edge of the deep pool of his silence.

Mrs. Fortenberry introduced Bill, but I don't remember what she said or how she skirted the fact that Bill was a different kind of creature.

Then Bill began speaking. He had notes, I saw with some surprise. Beside me, Sam leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Bill's face.

’’... we didn't have any blankets and very little food,’’ Bill was saying calmly. ’’There were many deserters.’’

That was not a favorite fact of the Descendants, but a few of them were nodding in agreement. This account must match what they'd learned in their studies.

An ancient man in the first row raised his hand.

’’Sir, did you by chance know my great-grandfather, Tolliver Humphries?’’

’’Yes,’’ Bill said, after a moment. His face was unreadable. ’’Tolliver was my friend.’’

And just for a moment, there was something so tragic in his voice that I had to close my eyes.

’’What was he like?’’ quavered the old man.

’’Well, he was foolhardy, which led to his death,’’ said Bill with a wry smile. ’’He was brave. He never made a cent in his life that he didn't waste.’’

’’How did he die? Were you there?’’

’’Yes, I was there,’’ said Bill wearily. ’’I saw him get shot by a Northern sniper in the woods about twenty miles from here. He was slow because he was starved. We all were. About the middle of the morning, a cold morning, Tolliver saw a boy in our troop get shot as he lay in poor cover in the middle of a field. The boy was not dead, but painfully wounded. But he could call to us, and he did, all morning. He called to us to help him. He knew he would die if someone didn't.’’

The whole room had grown so silent you could hear a pin drop.

’’He screamed and he moaned. I almost shot him myself, to shut him up, because I knew to venture out to rescue him was suicide. But I could not quite bring myself to kill him. That would be murder, not war, I told myself. But later I wished I had shot him, for Tolliver was less able than I to withstand the boy's pleading. After two hours of it, he told me he planned to try to rescue the boy. I argued with him. But Tolliver told me that God wanted him to attempt it. He had been praying as we lay in the woods.

’’Though I told Tolliver that God did not wish him to waste his life foolishly - that he had a wife and children praying for his safe return at home - Tolliver asked me to divert the enemy while he attempted the boy's rescue. He ran out into the field like it was a spring day and he was well rested. And he got as far as the wounded boy. But then a shot rang out, and Tolliver fell dead. And, after a time, the boy began screaming for help again.’’

’’What happened to him?’’ asked Mrs. Fortenberry, her voice as quiet as she could manage to make it.

’’He lived,’’ Bill said, and there was tone to his voice that sent shivers down my spine. ’’He survived the day, and we were able to retrieve him that night.’’

Somehow those people had come alive again as Bill spoke, and for the old man in the front row there was a memory to cherish, a memory that said much about his ancestor's character.

I don't think anyone who'd come to the meeting that night was prepared for the impact of hearing about the Civil War from a survivor. They were enthralled;they were shattered.

When Bill had answered the last question, there was thunderous applause, or at least it was as thunderous as forty people could make it. Even Sam, not Bill's biggest fan, managed to put his hands together.

Everyone wanted to have a personal word with Bill afterward except me and Sam. While the reluctant guest speaker was surrounded by Descendants, Sam and I sneaked out to Sam's pickup. We went to the Crawdad Diner, a real dive that happened to have very good food. I wasn't hungry, but Sam had key lime pie with his coffee.

’’That was interesting,’’ Sam said cautiously.

’’Bill's speech? Yes,’’ I said, just as cautiously.

’’Do you have feelings for him?’’

After all the indirection, Sam had decided to storm the main gate.

’’Yes,’’ I said.

’’Sookie,’’ Sam said, ’’You have no future with him.’’

’’On the other hand, he's been around a while. I expect he'll be around for a another few hundred years.’’

’’You never know what's going to happen to a vampire.’’

I couldn't argue with that. But, as I pointed out to Sam, I couldn't know what was going to happen to me, a human, either.

We wrangled back and forth like this for too long. Finally, exasperated, I said, ’’What's it to you, Sam?’’

His ruddy skin flushed. His bright blue eyes met mine. ’’I like you, Sookie. As friend or maybe something else sometime...’’

Huh?

’’I just hate to see you take a wrong turn.’’

I looked at him. I could feel my skeptical face forming, eyebrows drawn together, the corner of my mouth tugging up.

’’Sure,’’ I said, my voice matching my face.

’’I've always liked you.’’

’’So much that you had to wait till someone else showed an interest, before you mentioned it to me?’’

’’I deserve that.’’ He seemed to be turning something over in his mind, something he wanted to say, but hadn't the resolution.

Whatever it was, he couldn't come out with it, apparently.

’’Let's go,’’ I suggested. It would be hard to turn the conversation back to neutral ground, I figured. I might as well go home.

It was a funny ride back. Sam always seemed on the verge of speaking, and then he'd shake his head and keep silent. I was so aggravated I wanted to swat him.

We got home later than I'd thought. Gran's light was on, but the rest of the house was dark. I didn't see her car, so I figured she'd parked in back to unload the leftovers right into the kitchen. The porch light was on for me.

Sam walked around and opened the pickup door, and I stepped down. But in the shadow, my foot missed the running board, and I just sort of tumbled out. Sam caught me. First his hands gripped my arms to steady me, then they just slid around me. And he kissed me.

I assumed it was going to be a little good-night peck, but his mouth just kind of lingered. It was really more than pleasant, but suddenly my inner censor said, ’’This is the boss.’’

I gently disengaged. He was immediately aware that I was backing off, and gently slid his hands down my arms until he was just holding hands with me. We went to the door, not speaking.

’’I had a good time,’’ I said, softly. I didn't want to wake Gran, and I didn't want to sound bouncy.

’’I did, too. Again sometime?’’

’’We'll see,’’ I said. I really didn't know how I felt about Sam.

I waited to hear his truck turn around before I switched off the porch light and went into the house. I was unbuttoning my blouse as I walked, tired and ready for bed.

Something was wrong.

I stopped in the middle of the living room. I looked around me.

Everything looked all right, didn't it?

Yes. Everything was in its proper place.

It was the smell.

It was a sort of penny smell.

A coppery smell, sharp and salty.

The smell of blood.

It was down here with me, not upstairs where the guest bedrooms sat in neat solitude.

’’Gran?’’ I called. I hated the quavering in my voice.

I made myself move, I made myself go to the door of her room. It was pristine. I began switching on lights as I went through the house.

My room was just as I'd left it.

The bathroom was empty.

The washroom was empty.

I switched on the last light. The kitchen was...

I screamed, over and over. My hands were fluttering uselessly in the air, trembling more with each scream. I heard a crash behind me, but couldn't be concerned. Then big hands gripped me and moved me, and a big body was between me and what I'd seen on the kitchen floor. I didn't recognize Bill, but he picked me up and moved me to the living room where I couldn't see any more.

’’Sookie,’’ he said harshly, ’’Shut up! This isn't any good!’’

If he'd been kind to me, I'd have kept on shrieking.

’’Sorry,’’ I said, still out of my mind. ’’I am acting like that boy.’’

He stared at me blankly.

’’The one in your story,’’ I said numbly.

’’We have to call the police.’’

’’Sure.’’

’’We have to dial the phone.’’

’’Wait. How did you come here?’’

’’Your grandmother gave me a ride home, but I insisted on coming with her first and helping her unload the car.’’

’’So why are you still here?’’

’’I was waiting for you.’’

’’So, did you see who killed her?’’

’’No. I went home, across the cemetery, to change.’’

He was wearing blue jeans and Grateful Dead T-shirt, and suddenly I began to giggle.

’’That's priceless,’’ I said, doubling over with the laughter.

And I was crying, just as suddenly. I picked up the phone and dialled 911.

Andy Bellefleur was there in five minutes.

JASON CAME AS soon as I reached him. I tried to call him at four or five different places, and finally reached him at Merlotte's. Terry Bellefleur was bartending for Sam that night, and when he'd gotten back from telling Jason to come to his grandmother's house, I asked Terry if he'd call Sam and tell him I had troubles and couldn't work for a few days.

Terry must have called Sam right away because Sam was at my house within thirty minutes, still wearing the clothes he'd worn to the meeting that night. At the sight of him I looked down, remembering unbuttoning my blouse as I walked through the living room, a fact I'd completely lost track of;but I was decent. It dawned on me that Bill must have set me to rights. I might find that embarrassing later, but at the moment I was just grateful.

So Jason came in, and when I told him Gran was dead, and dead by violence, he just looked at me. There seemed to be nothing going on behind his eyes. It was as if someone had erased his capacity for absorbing new facts. Then what I'd said sank in, and my brother sank to his knees right where he stood, and I knelt in front of him. He put his arms around me and lay his head on my shoulder, and we just stayed there for a while. We were all that was left.

Bill and Sam were out in the front yard sitting in lawn chairs, out of the way of the police. Soon Jason and I were asked to go out on the porch, at least, and we opted to sit outside, too. It was a mild evening, and I sat facing the house, all lit up like a birthday cake, and the people that came and went from it like ants who'd been allowed at the party. All this industry surrounding the tissue that had been my grandmother.

’’What happened?’’ Jason asked finally.

’’I came in from the meeting,’’ I said very slowly. ’’After Sam pulled off in his truck. I knew something was wrong. I looked in every room.’’ This was the story of How I Found Grandmother Dead, the official version. ’’And when I got to the kitchen I saw her.’’

Jason turned his head very slowly so his eyes met mine.

’’Tell me.’’

I shook my head silently. But it was his right to know. ’’She was beaten up, but she had tried to fight back, I think. Whoever did this cut her up some. And then strangled her, it looked like.’’

I could not even look at my brother's face. ’’It was my fault.’’ My voice was nothing more than a whisper.

’’How do you figure that?’’ Jason said, sounding nothing more than dull and sluggish.

’’I figure someone came to kill me like they killed Maudette and Dawn, but Gran was here instead.’’

I could see the idea percolate in Jason's brain.

’’I was supposed to be home tonight while she was at the meeting, but Sam asked me to go at the last minute. My car was here like it would be normally because we went in Sam's truck. Gran had parked her car around back while she was unloading, so it wouldn't look like she was here, just me. She had given Bill a ride home, but he helped her unload and went to change clothes. After he left, whoever it was ... got her.’’

’’How do we know it wasn't Bill?’’ Jason asked, as though Bill wasn't sitting right there beside him.

’’How do we know it wasn't anyone?’’ I said, exasperated at my brother's slow wits. ’’It could be anyone, anyone we know. I don't think it was Bill. I don't think Bill killed Maudette and Dawn. And I do think whoever killed Maudette and Dawn killed Grandmother.’’

’’Did you know,’’ Jason said, his voice too loud, ’’that Grandmother left you this house all by yourself?’’

It was like he'd thrown a bucket of cold water in my face. I saw Sam wince, too. Bill's eyes got darker and chillier.

’’No. I just always assumed you and I would share like we did on the other one.’’ Our parents'house, the one Jason lived in now.

’’She left you all the land, too.’’

’’Why are you saying this?’’ I was going to cry again, just when I'd been sure I was dry of tears now.

’’She wasn't fair!’’ he was yelling. ’’It wasn't fair, and now she can't set it right!’’

I began to shake. Bill pulled me out of the chair and began walking with me up and down the yard. Sam sat in front of Jason and began talking to him earnestly, his voice low and intense.

Bill's arm was around me, but I couldn't stop shaking.

’’Did he mean that?’’ I asked, not expecting Bill to answer.

’’No,’’ he said. I looked up, surprised.

’’No, he couldn't help your grandmother, and he couldn't handle the idea of someone lying in wait for you and killing her instead. So he had to get angry about something. And instead of getting angry with you for not getting killed, he's angry about things. I wouldn't let it worry me.’’

’’I think it's pretty amazing that you're saying this,’’ I told him bluntly.

’’Oh, I took some night school courses in psychology,’’ said Bill Compton, vampire.

And, I couldn't help thinking, hunters always study their prey. ’’Why would Gran leave me all this, and not Jason?’’

’’Maybe you'll find out later,’’ he said, and that seemed fine to me.

Then Andy Bellefleur came out of the house and stood on the steps, looking up at the sky as if there were clues written on it.

’’Compton,’’ he called sharply.

’’No,’’ I said, and my voice came out as a growl.

I could feel Bill look down at me with the slight surprise that was a big reaction, coming from him.

’’Now it's gonna happen,’’ I said furiously.

’’You were protecting me,’’ he said. ’’You thought the police would suspect me of killing those two women. That's why you wanted to be sure they were accessible to other vampires. Now you think this Bellefleur will try to blame your grandmother's death on me.’’

’’Yes.’’

He took a deep breath. We were in the dark, by the trees that lined the yard. Andy bellowed Bill's name again.

’’Sookie,’’ Bill said gently, ’’I am sure you were the intended victim, as sure as you are.’’

It was kind of a shock to hear someone else say it.

’’And I didn't kill them. So if the killer was the same as their killer, then I didn't do it, and he will see that. Even if he is a Bellefleur.’’

We began walking back into the light. I wanted none of this to be. I wanted the lights and the people to vanish, all of them, Bill, too. I wanted to be alone in the house with my grandmother, and I wanted her to look happy, as she had the last time I'd seen her.

It was futile and childish, but I could wish it nonetheless. I was lost in that dream, so lost I didn't see harm coming until it was too late.

My brother, Jason, stepped in front of me and slapped me in the face.

It was so unexpected and so painful that I lost my balance and staggered to the side, landing hard on one knee.

Jason seemed to be coming after me again, but Bill was suddenly in front of me, crouched, and his fangs were out and he was scary as hell. Sam tackled Jason and brought him down, and he may have whacked Jason's face against the ground once for good measure.

Andy Bellefleur was stunned at this unexpected display of violence. But after a second he stepped in between our two little groups on the lawn. He looked at Bill and swallowed, but he said in a steady voice, ’’Compton, back off. He won't hit her again.’’

Bill was taking deep breaths, trying to control his hunger for Jason's blood. I couldn't read his thoughts, but I could read his body language.

I couldn't exactly read Sam's thoughts, but I could tell he was very angry.

Jason was sobbing. His thoughts were a confused and tangled blue mess.

And Andy Bellefleur didn't like any of us and wished he could lock every freaking one of us up for some reason or another.

I pushed myself wearily to my feet and touched the painful spot of my cheek, using that to distract me from the pain in my heart, the dreadful grief that rolled over me.

I thought this night would never end.

T HE FUNERAL WAS the largest ever held in Renard Parish. The minister said so. Under a brilliant early summer sky, my grandmother was buried beside my mother and father in our family plot in the ancient cemetery between the Comptons'house and Gran's house.

Jason had been right. It was my house, now. The house and the twenty acres surrounding it were mine, as were the mineral rights. Gran's money, what there was, had been divided fairly between us, and Gran had stipulated that I give Jason my half of the home our parents had lived in, if I wanted to retain full rights to her house. That was easy to do, and I didn't want any money from Jason for that half, though my lawyer looked dubious when I told him that. Jason would just blow his top if I mentioned paying me for my half;the fact that I was part-owner had never been more than a fantasy to him. Yet Gran leaving her house to me outright had come as a big shock. She had understood him better than I had.

It was lucky I had income other than from the bar, I thought heavily, trying to concentrate on something besides her loss. Paying taxes on the land and house, plus the upkeep of the house, which Gran had assumed at least partially, would really stretch my income.

’’I guess you'll want to move,’’ Maxine Fortenberry said when she was cleaning the kitchen. Maxine had brought over devilled eggs and ham salad, and she was trying to be extra helpful by scrubbing.

’’No,’’ I said, surprised.

’’But honey, with it happening right here...’’ Maxine's heavy face creased with concern.

’’I have far more good memories of this kitchen than bad ones,’’ I explained.

’’Oh, what a good way to look at it,’’ she said, surprised. ’’Sookie, you really are smarter than anyone gives you credit for being.’’

’’Gosh, thanks, Mrs. Fortenberry,’’ I said, and if she heard the dry tone in my voice she didn't react. Maybe that was wise.

’’Is your friend coming to the funeral?’’ The kitchen was very warm. Bulky, square Maxine was blotting her face with a dishtowel. The spot where Gran had fallen had been scrubbed by her friends, God bless them.

’’My friend. Oh, Bill? No, he can't.’’

She looked at me blankly.

’’We're having it in the daytime, of course.’’

She still didn't comprehend.

’’He can't come out.’’

’’Oh, of course!’’ She gave herself a light tap on the temple to indicate she was knocking sense into her head. ’’Silly me. Would he really fry?’’

’’Well, he says he would.’’

’’You know, I'm so glad he gave that talk at the club, that has really made such a difference in making him part of the community.’’

I nodded, abstracted.

’’There's really a lot of feeling about the murders, Sookie. There's really a lot of talk about vampires, about how they're responsible for these deaths.’’

I looked at her with narrowed eyes.

’’Don't you go all mad on me, Sookie Stackhouse! Since Bill was so sweet about telling those fascinating stories at the Descendants meeting, most people don't think he could do those awful things that were done to those women.’’ I wondered what stories were making the rounds, and I shuddered to think. ’’But he's had some visitors that people didn't much like the looks of.’’

I wondered if she meant Malcolm, Liam, and Diane. I hadn't much liked their looks either, and I resisted the automatic impulse to defend them.

’’Vampires are just as different among themselves as humans are,’’ I said.

’’That's what I told Andy Bellefleur,’’ she said, nodding vehemently. ’’I said to Andy, you should go after some of those others, the ones that don't want to learn how to live with us, not like Bill Compton, who's really making an effort to settle in. He was telling me at the funeral home that he'd gotten his kitchen finished, finally.’’

I could only stare at her. I tried to think of what Bill might make in his kitchen. Why would he need one?

But none of the distractions worked, and finally I just realized that for a while I was going to be crying every whipstitch. And I did.

At the funeral Jason stood beside me, apparently over his surge of anger at me, apparently back in his right mind. He didn't touch me or talk to me, but he didn't hit me, either. I felt very alone. But then I realized as I looked out over the hillside that the whole town was grieving with me. There were cars as far as I could see on the narrow drives through the cemetery, there were hundreds of dark-clad folks around the funeral-home tent. Sam was there in a suit (looking quite unlike himself), and Arlene, standing by Rene, was wearing a flowered Sunday dress. Lafayette stood at the very back of the crowd, along with Terry Bellefleur and Charlsie Tooten;the bar must be closed! And all Gran's friends, all, the ones who could still walk. Mr. Norris wept openly, a snowy white handkerchief held up to his eyes. Maxine's heavy face was set in graven lines of sadness. While the minister said what he had to, while Jason and I sat alone in family area in the uneven folding chairs, I felt something in me detach and fly up, up into the blue brilliance: and I knew that whatever had happened to my grandmother, now she was at home.

The rest of the day went by in a blur, thank God. I didn't want to remember it, didn't want to even know it was happening. But one moment stood out.

Jason and I were standing by the dining room table in Gran's house, some temporary truce between us. We greeted the mourners, most of whom did their best not to stare at the bruise on my cheek.

We glided through it, Jason thinking that he would go home and have a drink after, and he wouldn't have to see me for a while and then it would be all right, and me thinking almost exactly the same thing. Except for the drink.

A well-meaning woman came up to us, the sort of woman who has thought over every ramification of a situation that was none of her business to start with.

’’I am so sorry for you kids,’’ she said, and I looked at her;for the life of me I couldn't remember her name. She was a Methodist. She had three grown children. But her name ran right out the other side of my head.

’’You know it was so sad seeing you two there alone today, it made me remember your mother and father so much,’’ she said, her face creasing into a mask of sympathy that I knew was automatic. I glanced at Jason, looked back to the woman, nodded.

’’Yes,’’ I said. But I heard her thought before she spoke, and I began to blanch.

’’But where was Adele's brother today, your great uncle? Surely he's still living?’’

’’We're not in touch,’’ I said, and my tone would have discouraged anyone more sensitive than this lady.

’’But her only brother! Surely you...’’ and her voice died away as our combined stare finally sank home.

Several other people had commented briefly on our Uncle Bartlett's absence, but we had given the ’’this is family business’’ signals that cut them right off. This woman - what was her name? - just hadn't been as quick to read them. She'd brought a taco salad, and I planned to throw it right into the garbage when she'd left.

’’We do have to tell him,’’ Jason said quietly after she left. I put my guard up;I had no desire to know what he was thinking.

’’You call him,’’ I said.

’’All right.’’

And that was all we said to each other for the rest of the day.


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