Blood will flow.
Claire hated thoughts like that, the ones that came when she was alone, the ones that almost felt like memories. She pressed her fingertips into her forehead and ran them up into her hairline before dropping her hand to the table and tossing her hair over her shoulders. Why would she think such things? If she was honest, she’d admit they scared her. But she didn’t feel like being honest.
Her right foot twitched up and down. She uncrossed her legs and pressed both feet into the ground to keep still. The bones of her spine dug into the hard slats of the cafe chair and she shifted as she closed her eyes and took a drink, allowing the aroma of warm coffee and cardboard to surround her, to remind her that this was just another day and she was just any other girl in any other cafe.
The couple at the table next to her looked out the window and up to the third floor of the tall building across the street. They smiled and pointed at the ballet dancers swathed in multi-colored warm ups oblivious to the pedestrians who strode down the sidewalk below, a steady stream of black coats and heads down and feet hitting the pavement with purpose.
Claire focused on the plastic lid of her coffee. She flicked its thin edge with her fingernail, the tiny snick of sound kept time with the bouncing of her right knee until she realized she’d begun to fidget again. She leaned forward. The pressed wood of the table dug into her elbows.
She let her gaze wander out the window. The faded gray sidewalk matched the faded gray afternoon sky and it all suited her just fine. She checked the time out of habit. She had nowhere to be.
…rocks clattered under her feet as gnarled hands clamped down on her wrists…
…a drop of water landed upon stone, the sound echoed and reverberated…
…It’s all off track. All gone wrong. She’ll kill me if she finds me….
Butterflies somersaulted in her belly and she interlaced her fingers, locking them together, and pressed her hands to her mouth in a tight fist. The bells over the door jangled and Claire shook her head, trying to shake free of the thoughts and images that echoed and distorted like faded memories.
They mean nothing. They’re not you. You’re not in danger. Lately, those three sentences were on repeat in her mind, a mantra of reassurance. Glad for the distraction, she turned to see who had come through the doors and froze, certain she’d seen him before. He scanned the empty cafe. His electric blue eyes passed over her, not seeing her so much as that she occupied a chair.
I know him.
The waitress indicated a table on the other side of the room and he turned in the direction she pointed, the smile she tossed his way fell to the floor, wasted. Claire studied him as he took his seat, continuing to ignore his waitress as she shifted her weight back into her heels and launched into her litany of today’s specials. He opened the menu while she spoke, never once making eye contact, and her plain features bunched together in indignation.
Why did even his nonchalance seem familiar? Claire leaned forward and searched his face for the answer to that question.
Shadows covered his eyes from view, which only accentuated the sharp perfection of the rest of his face. His hair, a mess of golden curls, hung too long for business and too short for rock and roll. He absently reached up to tuck some behind his ear.
He lowered the menu and caught Claire staring. His jaw clenched and his face darkened with…anger? Confusion? She couldn’t quite tell. Cheeks reddening, her focus darted back to the thin lip on the lid of her cup. She flicked it back and forth a few times and took a long drink, careful not stare at the man on the other side of the cafe even though she stayed aware of him through her peripheral vision, his presence demanding her attention.
In an attempt to distract herself, she let her eyes wander back out the window and up the side of the building across the street until they settled on the arched windows of the third floor. Josh and Kate leaned on the barre inside the ballet studio, his brown hair falling into his eyes, their hands waving with life and animation, laughing over a whispered joke, heads together, nearly touching. A lifetime ago, Claire had leaned on that barre with them and she’d have pushed the hair out of Josh’s face.
The scar on her left ankle, the reason she sat alone in a cafe instead of taking class with her friends, began to ache. She forced her attention back to her coffee on the pale fake wood of the table. Her stomach hollowed out. A dull ache settled into the back of her head.
Somewhere in the kitchen, a plate hit the floor. She jumped, the crash and jingle of broken glass shattering her thoughts, and turned towards the sound, instantly regretting the movement as pain stabbed up the back of her neck. She brought her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, pivoting her head back to a neutral position before she opened them again.
The light had changed.
Claire’s mouth opened in shock as she looked out the window only to see darkness, pools of light from the streetlights dotting the sidewalk. Night had fallen. Hours had passed. The cafe bustled with light and activity, tables filled with people, waitresses bouncing between the kitchen and their customers. Her coffee had long gone cold. She studied the cup, certain she’d find her lost afternoon somewhere inside.
What the hell?
Her cell phone shrieked at her from the depths of her purse. “Shit,” she whispered, rummaging through months of collected receipts and bits of paper until she found her phone and flicked it open, pressing her free hand against her other ear to drown out the clinks and clanks of forks on plates and too many murmured conversations.
“Claire?” The happy sound of Josh’s voice pressed against the pain in her head.
“Yea, it’s me.” How long was I sitting there like that? What was I doing?
“You ok? You sound upset.”
“Just a headache. What’s up?” She took one last worried look around the busy cafe and gathered her things. A man three tables over burst into laughter and Claire grimaced.
“Where are you? At a party?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m at Front Street, across from the theater. I’m just now leaving.” She threw her now cold cup of coffee into the trash and left, thankful to shut out the sound and commotion.
“Well, I’m having a bunch of the dancers over to my house tonight. Gonna make a fire in the fire pit, have some beers. Nate talked about bringing his guitar. You should come by.”
“This isn’t a good night. My head hurts, I’m tired…” I lost an entire afternoon somewhere in my coffee cup.
She found her car in the lot nestled between the cafe and an archaic hotel. A tall chain link fence, an ineffectual guard against vagrants, connected the two buildings and filtered the street lights into crisscrossing shadows beneath her feet. She unlocked her car door and slid into the driver’s seat, thankful for the first time that the interior light didn’t come on anymore. When she leaned her head back against the headrest, the pain in her head reprimanded her for taking such a liberty.
“It’s never a good night anymore, Claire. I miss you. Kate misses you.” She wanted to hang up the phone and shut out the disappointment in his voice.
“Look, I know you have the best intentions in the world, and I miss you too, but I really don’t have it in me.”
“Why? I think it’d be good for you to get out and spend some time with us. Smile. Laugh. Give me one good reason why it isn’t and I’ll leave you alone.”
“Honestly? Hanging out with all of you just makes it clear that I’m not really part of things now that I can’t dance anymore. I’m like a mascot. You keep me around cause you feel like you’re supposed to.”
“That’s not true in the least!”
Claire smiled at the protective tone in her friend’s voice. “Ok, maybe not you, but the others do for sure. Plus, I really do have a ferocious headache,” she continued. “I just want to go home, take a bath, and go to bed.”
“What if we make some time, just you and me? Or just you, me, and Kate? Would you do that?”
“That actually sounds really nice. Just not tonight, ok?”
“Yea, ok. We’ll make plans for that soon. I’ll see you tomorrow at work, I guess.”
“It’s a date.” She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners, and he chuckled as they said their goodbyes. She tossed the phone into her purse, took a deep breath as she brought the engine to life, and wrenched the car into gear.
The drive out of the city and into the rural suburbs soothed her. The number of cars lessened. The buildings grew shorter and more spread out, trees took up more and more real estate. The smell of exhaust and the constant rustle of footsteps and half heard conversations bled away. Silence stretched out in front of her headlights and she relaxed her grip on the steering wheel.
Gravel crunched under the wheels as she turned into her driveway and parked in front of her small white house. The light over the front door pooled on the porch and the line of trees that nestled themselves against the back yard rustled in the wind, welcoming her home. She’d received a gift from a patron the year before her injury. An unsigned note accompanied the check.
Your movement renders me immobile. I cannot look away.
She’d read the note over and over, heavy hand writing scrawled in black ink. She’d studied the cashier’s check for any sign of who to thank for such generosity. Her house, while old and in need of windows and gutters and paint and an infinite list of things that were broken or breaking, was the product of that astounding generosity. She loved her home. It made her feel connected to someone in the safest way possible, connected without actual connection. She could hide here, like a child hides under her blankets from monsters in the closet, and feel the love and care of a nebulous someone, but never get close enough to have to reveal the parts of herself she kept hidden from view.
She shook her head to knock away the encroaching memories, those images from years ago that brought nothing but questions without answer. She pushed them back into their hiding place deep in her heart and climbed up the creaking wooden stairs and into bed.
Her last thought before she crossed the line into sleep was of the blonde haired man with the electric blue eyes at the cafe.
Sunlight pierced through a crack between her curtains and dragged her from sleep. She groaned and rolled over, not ready to be awake. Her head pounded and her back ached, not the ideal way to start a day. She tried to fool herself into falling back to sleep, but it was pointless. She was miserable and she was awake and there was nothing to be done about it.
Her eyes burned, red and puffy. Her hair hung limp and lifeless on one side and matted itself to her head on the other. Her back rounded forward and her shoulders hunched up near her ears as she pulled herself into a sitting position. She sat for a moment and tried to massage some of the knots out of her upper back. The more she pushed on the sore spots, the more her head pounded in protest.
She slid off the edge of the bed, feet grudgingly making contact with the floor, and made a beeline for the coffee pot downstairs. The red walls of her kitchen pushed against her eyes and she dug past her favorite blue mug – a gift from Josh last year – to the back of her cabinet for a plain white one. She filled the mug to the top, accidentally banging the pot against the rim of the cup, and hot coffee sloshed all over her hand and the counter.
“Ow!” She flinched and dried her fingers on her pajama pants, chuckling as she cleaned up the mess. After dropping two ice cubes into her coffee and watching them dissolve, she downed half the mug before refilling it and carrying it back upstairs to get ready for work.
Her back ached as she got dressed. Last year, soreness was a part of every day, a side effect of making a living as a ballerina. But the twangs of protest her body made as she bent to put on her shoes had nothing to do with physical activity. Claire had a new habit of holding herself tight, her muscles bunched up as if she were ready to take off at any minute.
“Come on, girl,” she said to herself. “Shake it off. Let’s get this day rolling.” Closing her eyes and inhaling through her nose, she lifted her arms overhead and stretched, fingers splayed. As she opened her eyes, a set of bruises on her upper arm caught her attention. Sighing with resignation, she crossed her arms over her chest and dropped her fingers one at a time onto each tiny bruise, lifting her arm and finding the one that matched her thumb on the inside of her bicep.
The bruises had started showing up recently, too. Even in her sleep she held herself tight, her fingers leaving minute reminders to find in the mornings. She pulled on a sweater and mulled over the bruises on her way to the car, but the crisp fall air worked wonders on her mood during the drive to work and she was singing along to the radio as she pulled into the parking lot across from the studio.
“You again?” Kate scowled as Claire put her bag down near the piano bench. “I’m going to have to talk to the director. I simply cannot work under these conditions! You play as if you were missing two fingers on each hand.” Claire wrapped her arms around her middle and pretended to glare, catching Kate’s mood and matching it with her own.
“Well, with your cloddish dancing to inspire me, how would you expect me to play?” They laughed and Kate resumed stretching, draping her thin body over the barre. Claire readied her music and threw Kate a smile.
As she played for class and rehearsal, Claire kept her eyes averted from the dancers. If she let herself watch, she’d get lost in the movement and the inevitable desire to get up and dance would hollow out her stomach and bury bitterness in her heart. She’d had enough bitterness. Better just to keep her eyes on the piano and her thoughts locked up tight. As soon as rehearsal ended, she gathered her things and headed straight to the cafe across the street as she had after work for the last five years.
The blonde man with the electric blue eyes looked up when she walked in, held her gaze for a moment, and inclined his head in greeting, eyes burning at her from under his brow. She smiled and nodded in his direction – a socially programmed auto-response – and took her traditional seat near the window. Her waitress brought her a coffee without being asked, shooting the blonde a look full of frustration and wishful thinking. A few seconds later the chair across from her scraped backwards and the blonde took a seat, leaned his elbows into the table, and placed his chin into his hands.
“May I join you?” He managed not to disturb his perfect face as he spoke. His baritone voice, wrapped in a rolling British accent, rumbled out from between his lips without so much as a wrinkle disturbing his porcelain skin.
“You already have.” Her voice was clumsy and rough in comparison to his. He tilted his head lightly to one side and lifted his eyebrows.
“So it would seem,” he said. “William. My name is William Foley.” He continued to lean his chin on his hands and kept so still, she began to fidget, flicking the edge of her lid, the familiar snick snick snick kept time with the bouncing of her right knee. Silence sat between them longer than she could handle.
“Claire. I’m Claire.” He remained still and silent. His eyes held hers captive. “Claire Jacoby.” Discomfited, she furrowed her brow and sat back in her chair. “Look, is there something I can do for you? Otherwise, I’d like to return to my coffee.”
His hand shot out – a cobra striking its prey – and grabbed her wrist. Even through the fabric of her sweater, she could feel the chill of his fingers, like steel pressing against her bones. He leaned in close enough for her to notice the sweet smell of his breath. Even though her heart took off like a rabbit in her chest, she stayed put, studied his beautiful face as intently as he studied hers. What was so familiar about him?
“Many apologies, Claire.” He freed her wrist and looked out the window, his face closed and void of all emotion. She stood and gathered her things.
“Well, Mr. Foley, it’s been highly unusual meeting you, but I think I’ll be going now.” She slung her bag over her shoulder.
Just turn and leave, Claire.
William turned his gaze to her, his blue eyes coming back into focus, sending a jolt of adrenaline through her body. “Claire, please… I’m sorry. I’ve been rude and unsettling.”
“Well, yes, you’ve been both of those things.” She started to head towards the door and he stood up. She paused at his movement, wondering if any woman could walk away from this man.
“Can I walk you to your car?”
No. Say no, she thought before nodding her acceptance to his offer and turning towards the door, surprised by her own response. The sun, which had been hesitant this morning, was high in the sky and the buildings cast long shadows across the street. William offered her his arm and she took it, another social auto-response, although the quaint gesture brought a hesitant smile to her lips.
They walked in silence, for which she was grateful, and arrived at her car quickly. Too quickly? Not quickly enough? She untangled her arm from his and rustled in her purse for her keys.
“I’d hoped to make a better impression than the one I fear I’ve given you,” he said. “Would it be out of line for me to ask for another chance to leave a better impression?” She turned her keys over in her hand, thankful to look at something other than those bottomless blue eyes.
“You only get one chance to make a first impression.” She cringed.
Get in the car, Claire, she thought. You’re no good at this. Amazingly, he grinned at her.
“True, but if given the chance, I can prove that most cliché’s are only true most of the time.” He tilted his head to the side and lifted his eyebrows, playful and coy.
“What did you have in mind?”
What are you doing? She thought. Get in the car and go home.
“I’d like to come to your house.” Something in his voice made it clear this option wasn’t up for negotiation. Her eyebrows jumped into her hairline.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” The words reverberated and stretched in her head as she spoke, an echo, a distortion of time. Her eyebrows knit together and she pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead.
…Bring me to your home…
His eyes locked onto hers. His lips hadn’t moved but she couldn’t be sure he hadn’t spoken. The world swam around her and she swayed on her feet. What had he asked her?
“It’s a wonderful idea,” he replied, his eyes the only thing that mattered.
Yes, he should come to my house. That would be lovely, wouldn’t it? She shook her head, a tiny movement. The thoughts were hers, or were they his? But how could they be his? Her mind skittered and hissed, an incoherent babble of half formed thoughts.
She blinked and they were in her car in her driveway, the familiar white siding nestled against the line of trees in her backyard frighteningly normal. She turned to see William sitting in the driver’s seat, pulling her keys out of the ignition of her car. His eyes had hardened and he kept them focused to the front, staring straight ahead, while her heart thundered in her chest.
How did we get here? Why do I keep losing chunks of time? Claire swallowed, her mouth dry and her hands sweaty.
When William finally looked at her, she gasped at the change in his face, the darkness in his eyes, the menacing line of his jaw. She drew away and the armrest of the car door dug into her back. She turned and yanked on the door handle, lurched out of the car, and headed towards her front steps.
And ran straight into William.
He leaned into her, taking hold of her face with both hands, and turned it up to meet his own. Anger rolled from him in waves, black turbid clouds seeping from his every pore. His blue eyes flashed into hers.
“How familiar am I, Claire?”
They hung like that, frozen, outside of time. Anyone passing by would avert their eyes, a secret smile creeping across their face as they witnessed a private moment between lovers.
And then he lunged forward, his teeth on her neck. Pain spread warmth throughout her body. The tremendous pounding of her heart sounded in her ears. William groaned and began to drink as her blood flowed from the wound. Shadows crept into the edge of her vision and cold overtook her limbs. She looked up at the sun in the sky as if from the bottom of a deep well. Her thoughts scattered and swirled disjointedly – dry leaves caught in the wind. The light grew dim.
One coherent thought swam to the surface as darkness overtook her.
My throat burns.
I need something to drink.
My eyes won’t open.
A thousand voices whispered in her head. She plummeted through the blackness surrounding her. Skeletal hands like vice grips clamped down and pulled on her ankles and wrists.
I’d cry out but I’ve lost my mouth. It’s a dream.
Make it stop.
She curled her fingers, the creaking joints leading her back to consciousness. Her head rolled to one side and the world swam. She ached. An intolerable burning assailed her throat, the wound on her neck a constant pounding concern.
Her vision smeared into focus as her eyes slid open.
She was in her own room, in her own bed, neatly tucked under the covers. William sat near her feet, still as stone. Her breath caught and a cough racked her body. Everything hurt.
“I didn’t intend this.” His eyes fixated on the window across the room. Night had fallen. “It wasn’t my intention, when I found you, to kill you. ” William laughed. “It wouldn’t seem that way now, I suppose.” He stood, his movement smooth and quick. “You’ll die. If I leave you now, as you are, you’ll be dead by dawn. I’ve killed you.” And then he was before her, his nose pressed to hers.
Her heart thumped and skittered, lost its rhythm and didn’t care to find it again. Her eyes widened.
I can’t breathe!
“The pallor of death is on you already,” William whispered in her ear.
Her heart stopped beating.
The silence in her chest pressed against her head and she was light, floating up and away. She watched from above as her eyes rolled back into her head and her hands gave a quick spasm before they fell to her side. From afar, she saw William bite into his wrist and blood swelled from the wound, a trail of rubies dropped upon new snow.
“You need to drink. I can’t lose you now.” He pressed his wrist to her lips and a small drop of blood passed through to her tongue.
Heavy and black, burning with thirst and pain, she slammed back to her body. She clamped on to his arm and drank, her chest heaving, her heart roaring in her ears. A low growl sounded from deep within her throat. Too soon, too soon, he pulled his wrist from her and clutched it to his chest.
“No more, Claire.” She sat up and cupped his face in her hands, drunk with exhilaration.
“I know you.” Her words tripped from her lips, golden tones, like bells. She trailed off, mesmerized by the sound of her voice. William removed her hands from his face and placed them in her lap.
“We have a lot of talking to do,” he said. She lay her head against his shoulder, thrilling at the contact of her skin against the fabric of his shirt as each individual fiber made itself known against her cheek.
“Yes, Claire?” His chocolate voice rolled over her in great waves and a languid smile stretched across her face.
“Should I be afraid of you?”
“This very day, I bit into your throat, rejoiced in the way your heart faltered in my ear. I drank your blood. Then I filled you with my own.”
“But I’m not afraid of you,” she said as she lifted her head from his shoulder and met his eyes. “I feel…better…just being near you.” He studied her face, searching her eyes as if trying to get to the very truth of her.
“What do you remember of your childhood?” Her eyebrows knit together. Her typical answer would include a sweet smile and a generic outline of the American dream. Dad worked, Mom stayed home. A little brother and a dog. However, she opened her mouth and the truth fell out.
“I don’t remember my childhood. As far as I know my life began seven years ago.” Several emotions crossed William’s face in rapid succession.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged one shoulder towards her cheek, her open mouth betraying both her need to share and her hesitation to speak. She took a deep breath and dove head first into the story. “I remember being lost and confused. My first memories are more like pictures. Trees, a forest. Dirt under my nails. An ER. They kept me there for a long time running test after test after test. I saw so many doctors, shrinks, needles, clipboards. We got nowhere. My memory never came back. Certain things I just knew how to do. I could read. I could write. I could dance and play piano. I can form new memories. I just can’t get to the old ones. They released me. I’m supposed to see a shrink.” She trailed off, embarrassed. She’d exposed her insides for examination only to remember that she didn’t want to be examined.
The lids of his eyes lowered as he studied her. He watched as her embarrassment melted away while she studied the skin on the back of her hands, the powerful effects of his blood leaving her unable to hold on to a thought for more than a moment.
“Am I …? Did you …?” She couldn’t finish the sentence. Couldn’t say the word.
“No. I didn’t make you a vampire. Two more times just like that and yes. But for now, you’re mortal.”
“Will I feel like this forever? Disconnected? Distracted? Vibrant?”
“In most cases, no. It’d fade. Your case is different.” William’s voice smoothed with tenderness and he tucked a bit of his hair behind his ear. Something in the gesture was endearing, comforting.
“So ominous.” Laughter bubbled up from inside her and overflowed onto the conversation. She reached up and pulled his face to hers, brushing her lips against his. He threaded his fingers through her hair, and pressed into her. The muscles in his back were hard and cold under her hands. Marble. Stone. His lips though, they left trails of fire as he moved from her mouth to her jawline and down to her neck. Unsure if he was going to kiss her or bite her or which of the two she wanted more she ran her fingers up into his hair, pulled him closer.
“Enough!” He hissed through clenched teeth. “You need to sleep.” She flinched from the sharpness of his words.
Her eyes grew heavy. She wrinkled her nose as she lay her head down on her pillow. She didn’t want to sleep. Oh, yes, but wait. Sleep would be delightful, wouldn’t it? She was tired, so very tired. If only she could remember what she was doing, who she was talking to. Her eyes closed.
In the darkness, William stood and stared down at her. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. And then he left, the ancient wooden stairs silent under his feet.
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