Dead Until Dark Chapter 7

THE NEXT NIGHT Bill and I had an unsettling conversation. We were in his bed, his huge bed with the carved headboard and a brand-new Restonic mattress. His sheets were flowered like his wallpaper, and I remember wondering if he liked flowers printed on his possessions because he couldn't see the real thing, at least as they were meant to be seen ... in the daylight.

Bill was lying on his side, looking down at me. We'd been to the movies;Bill was crazy about movies with aliens, maybe having some kindred feeling for space creatures. It had been a real shoot-em-up, with almost all the aliens being ugly, creepy, bent on killing. He'd fumed about that while he'd taken me out to eat, and then back to his place. I'd been glad when he'd suggested testing the new bed.

I was the first to lie on it with him.

He was looking at me, as he liked to do, I was learning. Maybe he was listening to my heart pounding, since he could hear things I couldn't, or maybe he was watching my pulse throb, because he could see things I couldn't, too. Our conversation had strayed from the movie we'd seen to the nearing parish elections (Bill was going to try to register to vote, absentee ballot), and then to our childhoods. I was realizing that Bill was trying desperately to remember what it had been like to be a regular person.

’’Did you ever play ¡®show me yours'with your brother?’’ he asked. ’’They now say that's normal, but I will never forget my mother beating the tarnation out of my brother Robert after she found him in the bushes with Sarah.’’

’’No,’’ I said, trying to sound casual, but my face tightened, and I could feel the clenching of fear in my stomach.

’’You're not telling the truth.’’

’’Yes, I am.’’ I kept my eyes fixed on his chin, hoping to think of some way to change the topic. But Bill was nothing if not persistent.

’’Not your brother, then. Who?’’

’’I don't want to talk about this.’’ My hands contracted into fists, and I could feel myself begin to shut down.

But Bill hated being evaded. He was used to people telling him whatever he wanted to know because he was used to using his glamor to get his way.

’’Tell me, Sookie.’’ His voice was coaxing, his eyes big pools of curiosity. He ran his thumbnail down my stomach, and I shivered.

’’I had a ... funny uncle,’’ I said, feeling the familiar tight smile stretch my lips.

He raised his dark arched brows. He hadn't heard the phrase.

I said as distantly as I could manage, ’’That's an adult male relative who molests his ... the children in the family.’’

His eyes began to burn. He swallowed;I could see his Adam's apple move. I grinned at him. My hands were pulling my hair back from my face. I couldn't stop it.

’’And someone did this to you? How old were you?’’

’’Oh, it started when I was real little,’’ and I could feel my breathing begin to speed up, my heart beat faster, the panicky traits that always came back when I remembered. My knees drew up and pressed together. ’’I guess I was five,’’ I babbled, talking faster and faster, ’’I know you can tell, he never actually, ah, screwed me, but he did other stuff,’’ and now my hands were shaking in front of my eyes where I held them to shield them from Bill's gaze. ’’And the worst thing, Bill, the worst thing,’’ I went on, just unable to stop, ’’is that every time he came to visit, I always knew what he was going to do because I could read his mind! And there wasn't anything I could do to stop it!’’ I clamped my hands over my mouth to make myself shut up. I wasn't supposed to talk about it. I rolled over onto my stomach to conceal myself, and held my body absolutely rigid.

After a long time, I felt Bill's cool hand on my shoulder. It lay there, comforting.

’’This was before your parents died?’’ he said in his usual calm voice. I still couldn't look at him.

’’Yes.’’

’’You told your mama? She did nothing?’’

’’No. She thought I was dirty minded, or that I'd found some book at the library that taught me something she didn't feel I was ready to know.’’ I could remember her face, framed in hair about two shades darker than my medium blond. Her face pinched with distaste. She had come from a very conservative family, and any public display of affection or any mention of a subject she thought indecent was flatly discouraged.

’’I wonder that she and my father seemed happy,’’ I told my vampire. ’’They were so different.’’ Then I saw how ludicrous my saying that was. I rolled over to my side. ’’As if we aren't,’’ I told Bill, and tried to smile. Bill's face was quite still, but I could see a muscle in his neck jumping.

’’Did you tell your father?’’

’’Yes, right before he died. I was too embarrassed to talk to him about it when I was younger;and Mother didn't believe me. But I couldn't stand it anymore, knowing I was going to see my great-uncle Bartlett at least two weekends out of every month when he drove up to visit.’’

’’He still lives?’’

’’Uncle Bartlett? Oh, sure. He's Gran's brother, and Gran was my dad's mother. My uncle lives in Shreveport. But when Jason and I went to live with Gran, after my parents died, the first time Uncle Bartlett came to her house I hid. When she found me and asked me why, I told her. And she believed me.’’ I felt the relief of that day all over again, the beautiful sound of my grandmother's voice promising me I'd never have to see her brother again, that he would never never come to the house.

And he hadn't. She had cut off her own brother to protect me. He'd tried with Gran's daughter, Linda, too, when she was a small girl, but my grandmother had buried the incident in her own mind, dismissed it as something misunderstood. She had told me that she'd never left her brother alone with Linda at any time after that, had almost quit inviting him to her home, while not quite letting herself believe that he'd touched her little girl's privates.

’’So he's a Stackhouse, too?’’

’’Oh, no. See, Gran became a Stackhouse when she married, but she was a Hale before.’’ I wondered at having to spell this out for Bill. He was sure Southern enough, even if he was a vampire, to keep track of a simple family relationship like that.

Bill looked distant, miles away. I had put him off with my grim nasty little story, and I had chilled my own blood, that was for sure.

’’Here, I'll leave,’’ I said and slid out of bed, bending to retrieve my clothes. Quicker than I could see, he was off the bed and taking the clothes from my hands.

’’Don't leave me now,’’ he said. ’’Stay.’’

’’I'm a weepy ol'thing tonight.’’ Two tears trickled down my cheeks, and I smiled at him.

His fingers wiped the tears from my face, and his tongue traced their marks.

’’Stay with me till dawn,’’ he said.

’’But you have to get in your hidey hole by then.’’

’’My what?’’

’’Wherever you spend the day. I don't want to know where it is!’’ I held up my hands to emphasize that. ’’But don't you have to get in there before it's even a little light?’’

’’Oh,’’ he said, ’’I'll know. I can feel it coming.’’

’’So you can't oversleep?’’

’’No.’’

’’All right. Will you let me get some sleep?’’

’’Of course I will,’’ he said with a gentlemanly bow, only a little off mark because he was naked. ’’In a little while.’’ Then, as I lay down on the bed and held out my arms to him, he said, ’’Eventually.’’

S URE ENOUGH, IN the morning I was in the bed by myself. I lay there for a little, thinking. I'd had little niggling thoughts from time to time, but for the first time the flaws in my relationship with the vampire hopped out of their own hidey hole and took over my brain.

I would never see Bill in the sunlight. I would never fix his breakfast, never meet him for lunch. (He could bear to watch me eat food, though he wasn't thrilled by the process, and I always had to brush my teeth afterward very thoroughly, which was a good habit anyway.)

I could never have a child by Bill, which was nice at least when you thought of not having to practice birth control, but. . .

I'd never call Bill at the office to ask him to stop on the way home for some milk. He'd never join the Rotary, or give a career speech at the high school, or coach Little League Baseball.

He'd never go to church with me.

And I knew that now, while I lay here awake - listening to the birds chirping their morning sounds and the trucks beginning to rumble down the road while all over Bon Temps people were getting up and putting on the coffee and fetching their papers and planning their day - that the creature I loved was lying somewhere in a hole underground, to all intents and purposes dead until dark.

I was so down by then that I had to think of an upside, while I cleaned up a little in the bathroom and dressed.

He seemed to genuinely care for me. It was kind of nice, but unsettling, not to know exactly how much.

se* with him was absolutely great. I had never dreamed it would be that wonderful.

No one would mess with me while I was Bill's girlfriend. Any hands that had patted me in unwanted caresses were kept in their owner's laps, now. And if the person who'd killed my grandmother had killed her because she'd walked in on him while he was waiting for me, he wouldn't get another try at me.

And I could relax with Bill, a luxury so precious I could not put a value on it. My mind could range at will, and I would not learn anything he didn't tell me.

There was that.

It was in this kind of contemplative mood that I came down Bill's steps to my car.

To my amazement, Jason was there sitting in his pickup.

This was not exactly a happy moment. I trudged over to his window.

’’I see it's true,’’ he said. He handed me a Styrofoam cup of coffee from the Grabbit Quik. ’’Get in the truck with me.’’

I climbed in, pleased by the coffee but cautious overall. I put my guard up immediately. It slipped back into place slowly and painfully, like wiggling back into a girdle that was too tight in the first place.

’’I can't say nothing,’’ he told me. ’’Not after the way I lived my life these past few years. As near as I can tell, he's your first, isn't he?’’

I nodded.

’’He treat you good?’’

I nodded again.

’’I got something to tell you.’’

’’Okay.’’

’’Uncle Bartlett got killed last night.’’

I stared at him, the steam from the coffee rising between us as I pried the lid off the cup. ’’He's dead,’’ I said, trying to understand it. I'd worked hard never to think of him, and here I thought of him, and the next thing I heard, he was dead.

’’Yep.’’

’’Wow.’’ I looked out the window at the rosy light on the horizon. I felt a surge of - freedom. The only one who remembered besides me, the only one who'd enjoyed it, who insisted to the end that I had initiated and continued the sick activities he thought were so gratifying ... he was dead. I took a deep breath.

’’I hope he's in hell,’’ I said. ’’I hope every time he thinks of what he did to me, a demon pokes him in the butt with a pitchfork.’’

’’God, Sookie!’’

’’He never messed with you.’’

’’Damn straight!’’

’’Implying what?’’

’’Nothing, Sookie! But he never bothered anyone but you that I know of!’’

’’Bullshit. He molested Aunt Linda, too.’’

Jason's face went blank with shock. I'd finally gotten through to my brother. ’’Gran told you that?’’

’’Yes.’’

’’She never said anything to me.’’

’’Gran knew it was hard for you, not seeing him again when she could tell you loved him. But she couldn't let you be alone with him, because she couldn't be a hundred percent sure girls were all he wanted.’’

’’I've seen him the past couple of years.’’

’’You have?’’ This was news to me. It would have been news to Gran, too.

’’Sookie, he was an old man. He was so sick. He had prostate trouble, and he was feeble, and he had to use a walker.’’

’’That probably slowed him down chasing the five-year-olds.’’

’’Get over it!’’

’’Right! Like I could!’’

We glared at each other over the width of the truck seat.

’’So what happened to him?’’ I asked finally, reluctantly.

’’A burglar broke into his house last night.’’

’’Yeah? And?’’

’’And broke his neck. Threw him down the stairs.’’

’’Okay. So I know. Now I'm going home. I gotta shower and get ready for work.’’

’’That's all you're saying?’’

’’What else is there to say?’’

’’Don't want to know about the funeral?’’

’’No.’’

’’Don't want to know about his will?’’

’’No.’’

He threw up his hands. ’’All right,’’ he said, as if he'd been arguing a point very hard with me and realized that I was intractable.

’’What else? Anything?’’ I asked.

’’No. Just your great-uncle dying. I thought that was enough.’’

’’Actually, you're right,’’ I said, opening the truck door and sliding out. ’’That was enough.’’ I raised my cup to him. ’’Thanks for the coffee, brother.’’

IT WASN'T TILL I got to work that it clicked.

I was drying a glass and really not thinking about Uncle Bartlett, and suddenly my fingers lost all strength.

’’Jesus Christ, Shepherd of Judea,’’ I said, looking down at the broken slivers of glass at my feet. ’’Bill had him killed.’’

I DON'T KNOW why I was so sure I was right;but I was, the minute the idea crossed my mind. Maybe I had heard Bill dialing the phone when I was half-asleep. Maybe the expression on Bill's face when I'd finished telling him about Uncle Bartlett had rung a silent warning bell.

I wondered if Bill would pay the other vampire in money, or if he'd repay him in kind.

I got through work in a frozen state. I couldn't talk to anyone about what I was thinking, couldn't even say I was sick without someone asking me what was wrong. So I didn't speak at all, I just worked. I tuned out everything except the next order I had to fill. I drove home trying to feel just as frozen, but I had to face facts when I was alone.

I freaked out.

I had known, really I had, that Bill certainly had killed a human or two in his long, long, life. When he'd been a young vampire, when he'd needed lots of blood, before he'd gained control of his needs sufficiently to exist on a gulp here, a mouthful there, without actually killing anyone he drank from ... he'd told me himself there'd been a death or two along the way. And he'd killed the Rattrays. But they'd have done me in that night in back of Merlotte's, without a doubt, if Bill hadn't intervened. I was naturally inclined to excuse him those deaths.

How was the murder of Uncle Bartlett different? He'd harmed me, too, dreadfully, made my already difficult childhood a true nightmare. Hadn't I been relieved, even pleased, to hear he'd been found dead? Didn't my horror at Bill's intervention reek of hypocrisy of the worst sort?

Yes. No?

Tired and incredibly confused, I sat on my front steps and waited in the darkness, my arms wrapped around my knees. The crickets were singing in the tall grass when he came, arriving so quietly and quickly I didn't hear him. One minute I was alone with the night, and the next, Bill was sitting on the steps beside me.

’’What do you want to do tonight, Sookie?’’ His arm went around me.

’’Oh, Bill.’’ My voice was heavy with despair.

His arm dropped. I didn't look up at his face, couldn't have seen it through the darkness, anyway.

’’You should not have done it.’’

He didn't bother with denying it at least.

’’I am glad he's dead, Bill. But I can't...’’

’’Do you think I would ever hurt you, Sookie?’’ His voice was quiet and rustling, like feet through dry grass.

’’No. Oddly enough, I don't think you would hurt me, even if you were really mad at me.’’

’’Then ... ?’’

’’It's like dating the Godfather, Bill. I'm scared to say anything around you now. I'm not used to my problems being solved that way.’’

’’I love you.’’

He'd never said it before, and I might almost have imagined it now, his voice was so low and whispery.

’’Do you, Bill?’’ I didn't raise my face, kept my forehead pressed against my knees.

’’Yes, I do.’’

’’Then you have to let my life get lived, Bill, you can't alter it for me.’’

’’You wanted me to alter it when the Rattrays were beating you.’’

’’Point taken. But I can't have you trying to fine-tune my day-to-day life. I'm gonna get mad at people, people are gonna get mad at me. I can't worry about them being killed. I can't live like that, honey. You see what I'm saying?’’

’’Honey?’’ he repeated.

’’I love you,’’ I said. ’’I don't know why, but I do. I want to call you all those gooshy words you use when you love someone, no matter how stupid it sounds since you're a vampire. I want to tell you you're my baby, that I'll love you till we're old and gray - though that's not gonna happen. That I know you'll always be true to me - hey, that's not gonna happen either. I keep running up against a brick wall when I try to tell you I love you, Bill.’’ I fell silent. I was all cried out.

’’This crisis came sooner than I thought it would,’’ Bill said from the darkness. The crickets had resumed their chorus, and I listened to them for a long moment.

’’Yeah.’’

’’What now, Sookie?’’

’’I have to have a little time.’’

’’Before ... ?’’

’’Before I decide if the love is worth the misery.’’

’’Sookie, if you knew how different you taste, how much I want to protect you...’’

I could tell from Bill's voice that these were very tender feelings he was sharing with me. ’’Oddly enough,’’ I said, ’’that's what I feel about you. But I have to live here, and I have to live with myself, and I have to think about some rules we gotta get clear between us.’’

’’So what do we do now?’’

’’I think. You go do whatever you were doing before we met.’’

’’Trying to figure out if I could live mainstream. Trying to think of who I'd feed on, if I could stop drinking that damn synthetic blood.’’

’’I know you'll - feed on someone else besides me.’’ I was trying very hard to keep my voice level. ’’Please, not anyone here, not anyone I have to see. I couldn't bear it. It's not fair of me to ask, but I'm asking.’’

’’If you won't date anyone else, won't bed anyone else.’’

’’I won't.’’ That seemed an easy enough promise to make.

’’Will you mind if I come into the bar?’’

’’No. I'm not telling anyone we're apart. I'm not talking about it.’’

He leaned over, I could feel the pressure on my arm as his body pressed against it.

’’Kiss me,’’ he said.

I lifted my head and turned, and our lips met. It was blue fire, not orange-and-red flames, not that kind of heat: blue fire. After a second, his arms went around me. After another, my arms went around him. I began to feel boneless, limp. With a gasp, I pulled away.

’’Oh, we can't, Bill.’’

I heard his breath draw in. ’’Of course not, if we're separating,’’ he said quietly, but he didn't sound like he thought I meant it. ’’We should definitely not be kissing. Still less should I want to throw you back on the porch and f*k you till you faint.’’

My knees were actually shaking. His deliberately crude language, coming out in that cold sweet voice, made the longing inside me surge even higher. It took everything I had, every little scrap of self-control, to push myself up and go in the house.

But I did it.

IN THE FOLLOWING week, I began to craft a life without Gran and without Bill. I worked nights and worked hard. I was extra careful, for the first time in my life, about locks and security. There was a murderer out there, and I no longer had my powerful protector. I considered getting a dog, but couldn't decide what kind I wanted. My cat, Tina, was only protection in the sense that she always reacted when someone came very near the house.

I got calls from Gran's lawyer from time to time, informing me about the progress of winding up her estate. I got calls from Bartlett's lawyer. My great-uncle had left me twenty thousand dollars, a great sum for him. I almost turned down the legacy. But I thought again. I gave the money to the local mental health center, earmarking it for the treatment of children who were victims of molestation and rape.

They were glad to get it.

I took vitamins, loads of them, because I was a little anemic. I drank lots of fluids and ate lots of protein.

And I ate as much garlic as I wanted, something Bill hadn't been able to tolerate. He said it came out through my pores, even, when I had garlic bread with spaghetti and meat sauce one night.

I slept and slept and slept. Staying up nights after a work shift had me rest-deprived.

After three days I felt restored, physically. In fact, it seemed to me that I was a little stronger than I had been.

I began to take in what was happening around me.

The first thing I noticed was that local folks were really pissed off at the vampires who nested in Monroe. Diane, Liam, and Malcolm had been touring bars in the area, apparently trying to make it impossible for other vampires who wanted to mainstream. They'd been behaving outrageously, offensively. The three vampires made the escapades of the Louisiana Tech students look bland.

They didn't seem to ever imagine they were endangering themselves. The freedom of being out of the coffin had gone to their heads. The right to legally exist had withdrawn all their constraints, all their prudence and caution. Malcolm nipped at a bartender in Bogaloosas. Diane danced naked in Farmerville. Liam dated an underage girl in Shongaloo, and her mother, too. He took blood from both. He didn't erase the memory of either.

Rene was talking to Mike Spencer, the funeral director, in Merlotte's one Thursday night, and they hushed when I got near. Naturally, that caught my attention. So I read Mike's mind. A group of local men were thinking of burning out the Monroe vampires.

I didn't know what to do. The three were, if not exactly friends of Bill, at least sort of coreligionists. But I loathed Malcolm, Diane, and Liam just as much as anyone else. On the other hand;and boy - there always was another hand, wasn't there? - it just went against my grain to know ahead of the fact about premeditated murders and just sit on my hands.

Maybe this was all liquor talking. Just to check, I dipped into the minds of the people around me. To my dismay, many of them were thinking about torching the vampire's nest. But I couldn't track down the origin of the idea. It felt as though the poison had flowed from one mind and infected others.

There wasn't any proof, any proof at all, that Maudette and Dawn and my grandmother had been killed by a vampire. In fact, rumor had it that the coroner's report might show evidence against that. But the three vampires were behaving in such a way that people wanted to blame them for something, wanted to get rid of them, and since Maudette and Dawn were both vampire-bitten and habitues of vampire bars, well, folks just cobbled that together to pound out a conviction.

Bill came in the seventh night I'd been alone. He appeared at his table quite suddenly. He wasn't by himself. There was a boy with him, a boy who looked maybe fifteen. He was a vampire, too.

’’Sookie, this is Harlen Ives from Minneapolis,’’ Bill said, as if this were an ordinary introduction.

’’Harlen,’’ I said, and nodded. ’’Pleased to meet you.’’

’’Sookie.’’ He bobbed his head at me, too.

’’Harlen is in transit from Minnesota to New Orleans,’’ Bill said, sounding positively chatty.

’’I'm going on vacation,’’ Harlen said. ’’I've been wanting to visit New Orleans for years. It's just a mecca for us, you know.’’

’’Oh ... right,’’ I said, trying to sound matter of fact.

’’There's this number you can call,’’ Harlen informed me. ’’You can stay with an actual resident, or you can rent a...’’

’’Coffin?’’ I asked brightly.

’’Well, yes.’’

’’How nice for you,’’ I said, smiling for all I was worth. ’’What can I get you? I believe Sam has restocked the blood, Bill, if you'd like some? It's flavored A neg, or we've got the O positive.’’

’’Oh, A negative, I think,’’ Bill said, after he and Harlen had a silent communication.

’’Coming right up!’’ I stomped back to the cooler behind the bar and pulled out two A neg's, popped the tops, and carted them back on a tray. I smiled the whole time, just like I used to.

’’Are you all right, Sookie?’’ Bill asked in a more natural voice after I'd plonked their drinks down in front of them.

’’Of course, Bill,’’ I said cheerily. I wanted to break the bottle over Bill's head. Harlen, indeed. Overnight stay. Right.

’’Harlen would like to drive over to visit Malcolm, later,’’ Bill said, when I came to take the empties and ask if they wanted a refill.

’’I'm sure Malcolm would love to meet Harlen,’’ I said, trying not to sound as bitchy as I felt.

’’Oh, meeting Bill has just been super,’’ Harlen said, smiling at me, showing fangs. Harlen knew how to do bitch, all right. ’’But Malcolm is absolutely a legend.’’

’’Watch out,’’ I said to Bill. I wanted to tell him how much peril the three nesting vampires had put themselves into, but I didn't think it'd come to a head just yet. And I didn't want to spell it out because Harlen was sitting there, batting his baby blues at me and looking like a teen se* symbol. ’’Nobody's too happy with those three, right now,’’ I added, after a moment. It was not an effectual warning.

Bill just looked at me, puzzled, and I spun on my heel and walked away.

I came to regret that moment, regret it bitterly.

A FTER BILL AND Harlen had left, the bar buzzed even harder with the kind of talk I'd heard from Rene and Mike Spencer. It seemed to me like someone had been lighting fire, keeping the anger level stoked up. But for the life of me I couldn't discover who it was, though I did some random listening, both mental and physical. Jason came into the bar, and we said hello, but not much more. He hadn't forgiven me for my reaction to Uncle Bartlett's death.

He'd get over it. At least he wasn't thinking about burning anything, except maybe creating some heat in Liz Barrett's bed. Liz, even younger than me, had curly short brown hair and big brown eyes and an unexpectedly no-nonsense air about her that made me think Jason might have met his match. After I'd said good-bye to them after their pitcher of beer was empty, I realized that the anger level in the bar had escalated, that the men were really serious about doing something.

I began to be more than anxious.

As the evening wore on, the activity in the bar grew more and more frenetic. Less women, more men. More table-hopping. More drinking. Men were standing, instead of sitting. It was hard to pin down, since there wasn't any big meeting, really. It was by word-of-mouth, whispered from ear to ear. No one jumped on the bar and screamed, ’’Whatta ya say, boys? Are we gonna put up with those monsters in our midst? To the castle!’’ or anything like that. It was just that, after a time, they all began drifting out, standing in huddled groups out in the parking lot. I looked out one of the windows at them, shaking my head. This wasn't good.

Sam was uneasy, too.

’’What do you think?’’ I asked him, and I realized this was the first time I'd spoken to him all evening, other than ’’Pass the pitcher,’’ or ’’Give me another margarita.’’

’’I think we've got a mob,’’ he said. ’’But they'll hardly go over to Monroe now. The vampires'll be up and about until dawn.’’

’’Where is their house, Sam?’’

’’I understand it's on the outskirts of Monroe on the west side - in other words, closest to us,’’ he told me. ’’I don't know for sure.’’

I drove home after closing, half hoping I'd see Bill lurking in my driveway so I could tell him what was afoot.

But I didn't see him, and I wouldn't go to his house. After a long hesitation, I dialed his number, but got only his answering machine. I left a message. I had no idea what the three nesting vampires'phone was listed under, if they had a phone at all.

As I pulled off my shoes and removed my jewelry - all silver, take that, Bill! - I remember worrying, but I wasn't worrying enough. I went to bed and quickly to sleep in the bedroom that was now mine. The moonlight streamed in the open shades, making strange shadows on the floor. But I only stared at them for a few minutes. Bill didn't wake me that night, returning my call.

* * *

B UT THE PHONE did ring, early in the morning, after daylight.

’’What?’’ I asked, dazed, the receiver pressed to my ear. I peered at the clock. It was seven-thirty.

’’They burned the vampires'house,’’ Jason said. ’’I hope yours wasn't in it.’’

’’What?’’ I asked again, but my voice was panicked now.

’’They burned the vampires'house outside of Monroe. After sunrise. It's on Callista Street, west of Archer.’’

I remembered Bill saying he might take Harlen over there. Had he stayed?

’’No.’’ I said it definitely.

’’Yes.’’

’’I have to go,’’ I said, hanging up the phone.

I T SMOLDED IN the bright sunlight. Wisps of smoke trailed up into the blue sky. Charred wood looked like alligator skin. Fire trucks and law enforcement cars were parked helter-skelter on the lawn of the two-story house. A group of the curious stood behind yellow tape.

The remains of four coffins sat side by side on the scorched grass. There was a body bag, too. I began to walk toward them, but for the longest time they seemed to be no closer;it was like one of those dreams where you can never reach your goal.

Someone grabbed my arm and tried to stop me. I can't remember what I said, but I remember a horrified face. I trudged on through the debris, inhaling the smell of burned things, wet charred things, a smell that wouldn't leave me the rest of my life.

I reached the first coffin and looked in. What was left of the lid was open to the light. The sun was coming up;any moment now it would kiss the dreadful thing resting on soggy, white silk lining.

Was it Bill? There was no way to tell. The corpse was disintegrating bit by bit even as I watched. Tiny fragments flaked off and blew into the breeze, or disappeared in a tiny puff of smoke where the sun's rays began to touch the body.

Each coffin held a similar horror.

Sam was standing by me.

’’Can you call this murder, Sam?’’

He shook his head. ’’I just don't know, Sookie. Legally, killing the vampires is murder. But you'd have to prove arson first, though I don't think that'd be very hard.’’ We could both smell gasoline. There were men buzzing around the house, climbing here and there, yelling to each other. It didn't appear to me that these men were conducting any serious crime-scene investigation.

’’But this body here, Sookie.’’ Sam pointed to the body bag on the grass. ’’This was a real human, and they have to investigate. I don't think any member of that mob ever realized there might be a human in there, ever considered anything besides what they did.’’

’’So why are you here, Sam?’’

’’For you,’’ he said simply.

’’I won't know if it's Bill all day, Sam.’’

’’Yes, I know.’’

’’What am I supposed to do all day? How can I wait?’’

’’Maybe some drugs,’’ he suggested. ’’What about sleeping pills or something?’’

’’I don't have anything like that,’’ I said. ’’I've never had trouble sleeping.’’

This conversation was getting odder and odder, but I don't think I could have said anything else.

A big man was in front of me, the local law. He was sweating in the morning heat, and he looked like he'd been up for hours. Maybe he'd been on the night shift and had to stay on when the fire started.

When men I knew had started the fire.

’’Did you know these people, miss?’’

’’Yes, I did. I'd met them.’’

’’Can you identify the remains?’’

’’Who could identify that?’’ I asked incredulously.

The bodies were almost gone now, featureless and disintegrating.

He looked sick. ’’Yes, ma'am. But the person.’’

’’I'll look,’’ I said before I had time to think. The habit of being helpful was mighty hard to break.

As if he could tell I was about to change my mind, the big man knelt on the singed grass and unzipped the bag. The sooty face inside was that of a girl I'd never met. I thanked God.

’’I don't know her,’’ I said, and felt my knees give. Sam caught me before I was on the ground, and I had to lean against him.

’’Poor girl,’’ I whispered. ’’Sam, I don't know what to do.’’

The law took part of my time that day. They wanted to know everything I knew about the vampires who had owned the house, and I told them, but it didn't amount to much. Malcolm, Diane, Liam. Where they'd come from, their age, why they'd settled in Monroe, who their lawyers were;how would I know anything like that? I'd never even been to their house before.

When my questioner, whoever he was, found out that I'd met them through Bill, he wanted to know where Bill was, how he could contact him.

’’He may be right there,’’ I said, pointing to the fourth coffin. ’’I won't know till dark.’’ My hand rose of its own volition and covered my mouth.

Just then one of the firemen started to laugh, and his companion, too. ’’Southern fried vampires!’’ the shorter one hooted to the man who was questioning me. ’’We got us some Southern fried vampires here!’’

He didn't think it was so damn funny when I kicked him. Sam pulled me off and the man who'd been questioning me grabbed the fireman I'd attacked. I was screaming like a banshee and would have gone for him again if Sam had let go.

But he didn't. He dragged me toward my car, his hands just as strong as bands of iron. I had a sudden vision of how ashamed my grandmother would have been to see me screaming at a public servant, to see me physically attack someone. The idea pricked my crazy hostility like a needle puncturing a balloon. I let Sam shove me into the passenger's seat, and when he started the car and began backing away, I let him drive me home while I sat in utter silence.

We got to my house all too soon. It was only ten o'clock in the morning. Since it was daylight savings time I had at least ten plus hours to wait.

Sam made some phone calls while I sat on the couch staring ahead of me. Five minutes had passed when he came back into the living room.

’’Come on, Sookie,’’ he said briskly. ’’These blinds are filthy.’’

’’What?’’

’’The blinds. How could you have let them go like this?’’

’’What?’’

’’We're going to clean. Get a bucket and some ammonia and some rags. Make some coffee.’’

Moving slowly and cautiously, afraid I might dry up and blow away like the bodies in the coffins, I did as he bid me.

Sam had the curtains down on the living-room windows by the time I got back with the bucket and rags.

’’Where's the washing machine?’’

’’Back there, off the kitchen,’’ I said, pointing.

Sam went back to the washroom with an armful of curtains. Gran had washed those not a month ago, for Bill's visit. I didn't say a word.

I lowered one of the blinds, closed it, and began washing. When the blinds were clean, we polished the windows themselves. It began raining about the middle of the morning. We couldn't get the outside. Sam got the long-handled dust mop and got the spider webs out of the corners of the high ceiling, and I wiped down the baseboards. He took down the mirror over the mantel, dusted the parts that we couldn't normally reach, and then we cleaned the mirror and rehung it. I cleaned the old marble fireplace till there wasn't a trace of winter's fire left. I got a pretty screen and put it over the fireplace, one painted with magnolia blossoms. I cleaned the television screen and had Sam lift it so I could dust underneath. I put all the movies back in their own boxes and labeled what I'd taped. I took all the cushions off the couch and vacuumed up the debris that had collected beneath them, finding a dollar and five cents in change. I vacuumed the carpet and used the dust mop on the wood floors.

We moved into the dining room and polished everything that could be polished. When the wood of the table and chairs was gleaming, Sam asked me how long it'd been since I'd done Gran's silver.

I hadn't ever polished Gran's silver. We opened the buffet to find that, yes, it certainly needed it. So into the kitchen we carried it, and we found the silver polish, and we polished away. The radio was on, but I gradually realized that Sam was turning it off every time the news began.

We cleaned all day. It rained all day. Sam only spoke to me to direct me to the next task.

I worked very hard. So did he.

By the time the light was growing dim, I had the cleanest house in Renard Parish.

Sam said, ’’I'm going now, Sookie. I think you want to be alone.’’

’’Yes,’’ I said. ’’I want to thank you some time, but I can't thank you now. You saved me today.’’

I felt his lips on my forehead and then a minute later I heard the door slam. I sat at the table while the darkness began to fill the kitchen. When I almost could not see, I went outside. I took my big flashlight.

It didn't matter that it was still raining. I had on a sleeveless denim dress and a pair of sandals, what I'd pulled on that morning after Jason had called me.

I stood in the pouring warm rain, my hair plastered to my skull and my dress clinging wetly to my skin. I turned left to the woods and began to make my way through them, slowly and carefully at first. As Sam's calming influence began to evaporate, I began to run, tearing my cheeks on branches, scratching my legs on thorny vines. I came out of the woods and began to dash through the cemetery, the beam of the flashlight bobbing before me. I had thought I was going to the house on the other side, the Compton house: but then I knew Bill must be here, somewhere in this six acres of bones and stones. I stood in the center of the oldest part of the graveyard, surrounded by monuments and modest tombstones, in the company of the dead.

I screamed, ’’Bill Compton! Come out now!’’

I turned in circles, looking around in the near-blackness, knowing even if I couldn't see him, Bill would be able to see me, if he could see anything - if he wasn't one of those blackened, flaking atrocities I'd seen in the front yard of the house outside Monroe.

No sound. No movement except the falling of the gentle drenching rain.

’’Bill! Bill! Come out!’’

I felt, rather than heard, movement to my right. I turned the beam of the flashlight in that direction. The ground was buckling. As I watched, a white hand shot up from the red soil. The dirt began to heave and crumble. A figure climbed out of the ground.

’’Bill?’’

It moved toward me. Covered with red streaks, his hair full of dirt, Bill took a hesitant step in my direction.

I couldn't even go to him.

’’Sookie,’’ he said, very close to me, ’’why are you here?’’ For once, he sounded disoriented and uncertain.

I had to tell him, but I couldn't open my mouth.

’’Sweetheart?’’

I went down like a stone. I was abruptly on my knees in the sodden grass.

’’What happened while I slept?’’ He was kneeling by me, bare and streaming with rain.

’’You don't have clothes on,’’ I murmured.

’’They'd just get dirty,’’ he said sensibly. ’’When I'm going to sleep in the soil, I take them off.’’

’’Oh. Sure.’’

’’Now you have to tell me.’’

’’You have to not hate me.’’

’’What have you done?’’

’’Oh my God, it wasn't me! But I could have warned you more, I could have grabbed you and made you listen. I tried to call you, Bill!’’

’’What has happened?’’

I put one hand on either side of his face, touching his skin, realizing how much I would have lost, how much I might yet lose.

’’They're dead, Bill, the vampires from Monroe. And someone else with them.’’

’’Harlen,’’ he said tonelessly. ’’Harlen stayed over last night, he and Diane really hit if off.’’ He waited for me to finish, his eyes fixed on mine.

’’They were burned.’’

’’On purpose.’’

’’Yes.’’

He squatted beside me in the rain, in the dark, his face not visible to me. The flashlight was gripped in my hand, and all my strength had ebbed away. I could feel his anger.

I could feel his cruelty.

I could feel his hunger.

He had never been more completely vampire. There wasn't anything human in him.

He turned his face to the sky and howled.

I thought he might kill someone, the rage rolling off him was so great. And the nearest person was me.

As I comprehended my own danger, Bill gripped my upper arms. He pulled me to him, slowly. There was no point in struggling, in fact I sensed that would only excite Bill more. Bill held me about an inch from him, I could almost smell his skin, and I could feel the turmoil in him, I could taste his rage.

Directing that energy in another way might save me. I leaned that inch, put my mouth on his chest. I licked the rain off, rubbed my cheek against his nipple, pressed myself against him.

The next moment his teeth grazed my shoulder, and his body, hard and rigid and ready, shoved me so forcefully I was suddenly on my back in the mud. He slid directly into me as if he were trying to reach through me to the soil. I shrieked, and he growled in response, as though we were truly mud people, primitives from caves. My hands, gripping the flesh of his back, felt the rain pelting down and the blood under my nails, and his relentless movement. I thought I would be plowed into this mud, into my grave. His fangs sank into my neck.

Suddenly I came. Bill howled as he reached his own completion, and he collapsed on me, his fangs pulling out and his tongue cleaning the puncture marks.

I had thought he might kill me without even meaning to.

My muscles would not obey me, even if I had known what I wanted to do. Bill scooped me up. He took me to his house, pushing open the door and carrying me straight through into the large bathroom. Laying me gently on the carpet, where I spread mud and rainwater and a little streak of blood, Bill turned on the warm water in the spa, and when it was full he put me in and then got in himself. We sat on the seats, our legs trailing out in the warm frothing water that became discolored quickly.

Bill's eyes were staring miles away.

’’All dead?’’ he said, his voice nearly inaudible.

’’All dead, and a human girl, too,’’ I said quietly.

’’What have you been doing all day?’’

’’Cleaning. Sam made me clean my house.’’

’’Sam,’’ Bill said thoughtfully. ’’Tell me, Sookie. Can you read Sam's mind?’’

’’No,’’ I confessed, suddenly exhausted. I submerged my head, and when I came up, Bill had gotten the shampoo bottle. He soaped my hair and rinsed it, combed it as he had the first time we'd made love.

’’Bill, I'm sorry about your friends,’’ I said, so exhausted I could hardly get the words out. ’’And I am so glad you are alive.’’ I slid my arms around his neck and lay my head on his shoulder. It was hard as a rock. I remember Bill drying me off with a big white towel, and I remember thinking how soft the pillow was, and I remember him sliding into bed beside me and putting his arm around me. Then I fell into sleep.

In the small hours of the morning, I woke halfway to hear someone moving around the room. I must have been dreaming, and it must have been bad, because I woke with my heart racing. ’’Bill?’’ I asked, and I could hear the fear in my voice.

’’What's wrong?’’ he asked, and I felt the bed indent as he sat on the edge.

’’Are you all right?’’

’’Yes, I was just out walking.’’

’’No one's out there?’’

’’No, sweetheart.’’ I could hear the sound of cloth moving over skin, and then he was under the sheets with me.

’’Oh, Bill, that could have been you in one of those coffins,’’ I said, the agony still fresh in my mind.

’’Sookie, did you ever think that could have been you in the body bag? What if they come here, to burn this house, at dawn?’’

’’You have to come to my house! They won't burn my house. You can be safe with me,’’ I said earnestly.

’’Sookie, listen: because of me you could die.’’

’’What would I lose?’’ I asked, hearing the passion in my voice. ’’I've had the best time since I met you, the best time of my life!’’

’’If I die, go to Sam.’’

’’Passing me along already?’’

’’Never,’’ he said, and his smooth voice was cold. ’’Never.’’ I felt his hands grip my shoulders;he was on one elbow beside me. He scooted a little closer, and I could feel the cool length of his body.

’’Listen, Bill,’’ I said. ’’I'm not educated, but I'm not stupid. I'm not real experienced or worldly, either, but I don't think I'm naive.’’ I hoped he wasn't smiling in the dark. ’’I can make them accept you. I can.’’

’’If anyone can, you will,’’ he said. ’’I want to enter you again.’’

’’You mean - ? Oh, yeah. I see what you mean.’’ He'd taken my hand and guided it down to him. ’’I'd like that, too.’’ And I sure would, if I could survive it after the pounding I'd taken in the graveyard. Bill had been so angry that now I felt battered. But I could also feel that liquidy warm feeling running through me, that restless excitement to which Bill had addicted me. ’’Honey,’’ I said, caressing him up and down his length, ’’honey.’’ I kissed him, felt his tongue in my mouth. I touched his fangs with my own tongue. ’’Can you do it without biting?’’ I whispered.

’’Yes. It's just like a grand finale when I taste your blood.’’

’’Would it be almost as good without?’’

’’It can never be as good without, but I don't want to weaken you.’’

’’If you wouldn't mind,’’ I said tentatively. ’’It took me a few days to feel up to par.’’

’’I've been selfish ... you're just so good.’’

’’If I'm strong, it'll be even better,’’ I suggested.

’’Show me how strong you are,’’ he said teasingly.

’’Lie on your back. I'm not real sure how this works, but I know other people do it.’’ I straddled him, heard his breathing quicken. I was glad the room was dark and outside the rain was still pouring. A flash of lightening showed me his eyes, glowing. I carefully maneuvered into what I hoped was the correct position, and guided him inside me. I had great faith in instinct, and sure enough it didn't play me false.


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