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       Fledgling, p.14

           Octavia E. Butler
“We were talking about that,” Brook said. “About how maybe this is all because someone doesn’t like the experimenting that your family was doing. Or someone envied your family for producing you and Stefan. I don’t know.”

  “How could it be about her?” Wright wanted to know. “Those guys were human, not Ina.”

  “They may be symbionts,” Celia said.

  “Or one of them might be a symbiont and the rest hirelings,” Brook added.

  Wright frowned. “Maybe. But it seems to me they could just as easily be ordinary human beings who imagine they’re fighting vampires.”

  “And who have focused only on my family,” I said.

  “We don’t know that. Hell, we’re in the same boat you are, Shori. We don’t really know anything.”

  I nodded and yawned. “We probably know more than we realize. I think we’ll be able to come up with at least a few answers after we’ve gotten some rest.”

  “Why are we in this parking lot?” Brook asked.

  “To get food for you,” I said. “After that, we’ll find a place to park in the woods. We can get some sleep in the cars. Later, when we’re rested, we’ll see what we can figure out.”

  “I thought we would go to your house,” Celia said to Wright.

  “His relatives’ home is too close by,” I said. “I don’t want them to get hurt or killed because someone’s after us—or after me. I don’t want that to happen to anyone. So no hotel for now.”

  The two women exchanged another look, and this time I had no idea what they were thinking.

  “Let’s go buy what we need,” Wright said. “Celia, while Brook and I shop for food, can you be Shori’s mother or her big sister? There’s a clothing store …” He opened the glove compartment, found a pencil and a small wire-bound notebook. “Here’s the address,” he said, writing. “And here’s how to get there. I did some work here in Arlington last year. I remember the place. This clothing store is only a few blocks from here, and it’s a good place for buying cheap casual clothes. She needs a couple of pairs of jeans, shirts, a good hooded jacket, gloves, and sunglasses that will fit her face. Okay?”

  Celia nodded. “No problem if you have money. I spent most of what Stefan gave me in Seattle. He’s going to—” She stopped, frowned, and looked away from us across the parking lot. She wiped at her eyes with her fingers but said nothing more.

  After a moment, Wright got his wallet out of his pocket and put several twenties into her hand. “I see an ATM over there,” he said. “I’ll get more—enough for a few days.”

  “We need gas, too,” Brook said. She looked at me, then looked past me. “I have my checkbook and a credit card, but they’re both Iosif’s accounts. I don’t know whether using them will attract the attention of the police—or of our enemies. I have enough money to fill our tank, but if this lasts, if we’re on the run for more than a few days, money is likely to become a problem.” There was an oddly false note in her voice, as though she were lying somehow. She smelled nervous, and I didn’t like the way she looked past me rather than at me. I thought about it, and after a moment, I understood.

  “Money will not be a problem,” I said, “and you know it.”

  Brook looked a little embarrassed. After a moment, she nodded. “I wasn’t sure you knew … what to do,” she said.

  And Wright said, “What do you expect her to do?”

  “Steal,” I said. “She expects me to be a very good thief. I will be. People will be happy to give me money once I’ve bitten them.”

  He looked at me doubtfully, and I reached up to touch his stubbly chin.

  “You should get a razor, too,” I said.

  “I don’t want you getting in trouble for stealing,” he said.

  “I won’t.” I shrugged. “I don’t want to do it. I don’t feel good about doing it, but I’ll do what’s necessary to sustain us.” I glanced at Brook, feeling almost angry with her. “Ask me questions when you want to know things. Tell me whatever you believe I should know. Complain whenever you want to complain. But don’t talk to other people when you mean your words for me, and speak the truth.”

  She shrugged. “All right.”

  My anger ebbed away. “Let’s go buy what we need,” I said.

  “Hang on a minute,” Wright said. He wrote something else in the wire-bound notebook. Then he tore out the page and handed it to Celia. “Those are my sizes. If you can, get me a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.”

  She looked at the sizes, smiled, and said, “Okay.”

  We left them. Celia and I took her car—one of Iosif’s cars, she said—and drove to the clothing store. She found it easily, following Wright’s directions, and that seemed to surprise her.

  “I usually get lost at least once and have to stop and ask somebody for directions,” she said. And then, “Listen, you’re my sister, okay? I refuse to believe I look old enough to be your mother.”

  I laughed. “How old are you?”

  “Twenty-three. Stefan found me when I was nineteen, right after I’d moved out of my mother’s house.”

  “Twenty-three, same as Wright.”

  “Yeah. And he’s your first. You did very well for yourself. He’s a decent-looking big bear of a guy, and he’s nice. That jacket of his looks like a way-too-big coat on you.”

  “When he found me, when he stopped to pick me up, I couldn’t believe how good he smelled. My memory was so destroyed that I didn’t even know what I wanted from him, but his scent pulled me into the car with him.”

  Celia laughed, then looked sad and stared at nothing for a moment. “Stefan would say things like that. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be one of you, so tuned in to smells and sounds, living so long and being so strong. It doesn’t seem fair that you can’t convert us like all the stories say.”

  “That would be very strange,” I said. “If a dog bit a man, no one would expect the man to become a dog. He might get an infection and die, but that’s the worst.”

  “You haven’t found out about werewolves yet, then.”

  “I’ve read about them on Wright’s computer. A lot of the people who write about vampires seem to be interested in werewolves, too.” I shook my head. “Ina are probably responsible for most vampire legends. I wonder what started the werewolf legends.”

  “I’ve thought about that,” Celia said. “It was probably rabies. People get bitten, go crazy, froth at the mouth, run around like animals, attacking other people who then come down with the same problems … That would probably be enough to make ancient people come up with the idea of werewolves. Shori, what did you get mad at Brook about a few minutes ago?”

  I looked at her and, after a moment, decided that she had asked a real question. “She touched my pride, I think. She worries that I can’t take care of the three of you. I worry that I won’t always know how to take care of you. I hate my ignorance. I need to learn from you since there is no adult Ina to ask.”

  “Before I saw what you did today, I figured we’d be the ones taking care of you.”

  “You will. Iosif called it ‘mutualistic symbiosis.’ I think it’s also called just ‘mutualism.’”

  “Yeah, those were his words for it. Before Stefan brought me to meet him, I’d never even heard those words used that way before. I thought he had made them up until I found them in a science dictionary. So you want us to be straight with you even if you don’t always like what we say?”


  “Works for me. Let’s get you some clothes.”

  I wound up with two pairs of boy’s blue jeans that actually fit, two long-sleeved shirts, one red and one black, a pair of gloves, a jacket with a hood, sunglasses, and some underwear. Then Celia used the last of her own money as well as the last of what Wright had given her to get him a pair of jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Then we headed back to the supermarket to meet Wright and Brook.

  “Brook and I are lucky we left our suitcases in the back of the car,” Celia said. “A Laundromat would b
e a good idea for us, but otherwise, we’re okay. Did you hear that saleswoman? She said you were the cutest thing she’d seen all day. She figured you were about ten.”

  I shook my head. I’d said almost nothing to the woman. I had no idea how to act like a ten-year-old human child. “Does it bother you that I’m so small?”

  She grinned. “It did at first. Now I kind of like it. After seeing you in action today, I think you’d be goddamn scary if you were bigger.”

  “I will grow.”

  “Yeah, but before you do, I’ll have time to get used to you.” She paused. “How about you? Are you okay with me?”

  “You mean do I want you?”

  “… yeah. You didn’t exactly choose us.”

  “I inherited you, both of you, from my father’s family. You’re mine.”

  “You want us?”

  I smiled up at her. “Oh, yes.”


  We turned northeast again and drove until we found a place where we could go off a side road and camp in the woods, far enough away from the road and the highway to be invisible. I took a look around before I went to sleep, made sure there was no one near us, no one watching us.

  After I got back, I asked Celia to stay awake and keep one of the guns handy until dark. She was a good shot, she’d had some rest, and she said she wasn’t very tired. We had the three guns I had taken from the gunmen and Celia’s handgun—a semiautomatic Beretta. She told me the gunmen had used silenced Heckler & Koch submachine guns. She said she’d never seen one before, but she’d read about them.

  “The gunmen meant to kill us all, but to do it quietly,” she said. “I don’t think anyone heard the shooting over the noise of the fire and the distance between houses. We need to avoid these people, at least until we find a few more friends.”

  I agreed with her. But at that moment, I just wanted to sleep. I went to sleep in the backseat of Wright’s car and woke briefly as Wright lifted me out and put me down in Brook’s car, where someone had folded the back seats down and spread clothing on them to make them less uncomfortable.

  “What are you doing?” I whispered.

  He climbed in, lay down beside me, and pulled me against him. “Go back to sleep,” he said into my ear. I did. The makeshift bed turned out to be not so uncomfortable after all.

  Then Brook lay down on the other side of me, and her scent disturbed me, made me want to get up and go sleep somewhere else. I tried to ignore it. Her scent would change, was already beginning to change. I slept.

  Sometime later, after dark, I bit her.

  She struggled. I had to hold her to keep her still and silent at first. Then, after a minute, she gave a long sigh and lay as I’d positioned her, accepting me as much as she could. She didn’t enjoy herself, but after that first panic, she at least did not seem to be suffering.

  I had only tasted her before. Now I took a full meal from her—not an emotionally satisfying meal, but a physically sustaining one. Afterward, I spent time lapping at the wound until she truly relaxed against me. She eased back into sleep and never noticed when I got up, stepped over her, and got out of the car.

  I closed the door as quietly as I could and stood beside it. Not being fully satisfied made me restless. I paced away from the car, then back toward it. I found myself wondering whether Brook, Celia, and Theodora would be better able to sustain me when they were as fully mine as Wright was. Would they be enough? I was much smaller than my father who had preferred to have eight symbionts. My demands must be smaller.

  Mustn’t they?

  I shook my head in disgust. My ignorance wasn’t just annoying. It was dangerous. How could I take care of my symbionts when I didn’t even know how to protect them from me?

  I stopped beside the car and looked through its back window at Brook and Wright, now lying next to each other, both still asleep. Both had been touching me. Now that I had moved, they were almost touching one another.

  My feelings shifted at once from fear for them to confusion. I wanted to crawl between them again and feel them both lying comfortably, reassuringly against me. They were both mine. And yet there was something deeply right about seeing them together as they were.

  Celia came up behind me, looked at me, glanced into the car, then drew me away from it. We went to the other car and sat there. “I long for a shower,” I said.

  “Me too,” Celia said. “You mind if I go to sleep now?”

  “Go ahead.” She had already climbed into the backseat of Wright’s car. She put her handgun on the floor and lay on her back on the seat.

  “I think I need to say something you won’t like hearing,” she said.

  “All right.”

  She closed her eyes for several seconds, then said, “Stefan told me what happened to Hugh Tang. He told me and he told Oriana Bernardi because he knew we both loved Hugh.”

  Loved? I listened to her with growing confusion. I didn’t know what to say so I said nothing.

  “The relationship among an Ina and several symbionts is about the closest thing I’ve seen to a workable group marriage,” she said. “With us, sometimes people got jealous and started to pull the family apart, and … well … Stefan would have to talk to them. He said the first time that happened, he was still living with his mothers and one of them had to tell him what to do, and even then he could hardly do it because he was feeling so confused himself. He didn’t say ‘jealous.’ He said ‘confused.’”

  I nodded. “Confused.”

  “I don’t really understand that, but then, we are different species.”

  “How did you wind up with Hugh?”

  She smiled. “Hugh had been with Stefan for a few years when Stefan asked me to join him. When I’d been there for a while, Hugh asked for me. Stefan said that was up to me, so Hugh asked me. It scared me because I didn’t understand at first how an Ina household works, that everyone went to Stefan, fed him, loved him, but that we could have relationships with one another, too, or with other nearby symbionts. Well, I didn’t go to Hugh when he first asked, but after a while, I did. He was a good man.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “I wish he hadn’t found me when he did.”

  “I know.”

  I looked at her lying there, not looking at me. “Thank you for telling me,” I said.

  She nodded and looked at me finally. “You’re welcome. I didn’t just say it for your benefit, though. I figure I might want to have a kid someday.”

  I wanted that—a home in which my symbionts enjoyed being with me and enjoyed one another and raised their children as I raised mine. That felt right, felt good.

  I left Celia alone so she could sleep, and I checked the area again to make sure we were still as alone as we seemed to be. Once I was sure of that, I set out at a jog, then a run to find out who our nearest neighbors were. I followed my nose and found a farm where two adults and four children lived, along with horses, chickens, geese, and goats. I found three other houses, widely separated along the side road, but without farm fields around them. I found no real community on the territory I covered.

  It seemed we had privacy and a little more time to recover and decide what to do. I could question Celia and, in particular, Brook.

  I went back to the cars and used some of the disposable wipes that Wright and Brook had bought to clean up as best I could. Then I put on clean clothes. As I got my jeans on, I heard Brook wake up and slip out of the car behind me. She made slightly different noises breathing and moving around than Wright or Celia did.

  “God, it’s dark out here,” she said. “If I weren’t a symbiont, I don’t think I could see at all. Aren’t you cold?”

  I wasn’t really, but I pulled on an undershirt, then put my long-sleeved shirt on, buttoned it, and pulled on my new jacket. “I’m all right,” I said. “I’m glad you’re awake. I need to talk to you.”


  “Eat first. Do whatever you need to do. This will probably take a while.”

  “That doe
sn’t sound good.”

  “I hope it won’t be too bad. Your neck okay?”

  She pulled her collar aside and showed me the half-healed wound. “It … wasn’t so bad this time.”

  “It will get better.”

  “I know.”

  She pulled open the white Styrofoam cooler they had bought and filled with ice and food. She took out a plastic packet of four strips of pepper-smoked salmon and a bottle of water. She made a sandwich with the salmon and some bread from one of the grocery bags. When she’d eaten that and drunk the water, she got more water from the chest and dug out a blueberry muffin and two bananas from one of the bags. It didn’t seem to bother her that I sat in the car watching her—that I enjoyed watching her.

  Finally she took the plastic can of wipes and went away into the trees to make her own effort to clean up. While she did that, Wright awoke and stumbled off in a different direction. A few moments later he came back and got another plastic can of wipes, scrubbed his face and hands, then got into the food.

  “You okay?” he asked me.

  “I’m fine. I’m going to see what I can learn from Brook. I need some idea where to find adult Ina. Now that I know what my parents’ communities faced—humans with gasoline and guns—I think I can ask for help without endangering other Ina or their symbionts.”

  “You didn’t think so yesterday.”

  “I do now. I still don’t want to stay at the cabin near your relatives. Anyone I go to will have to post guards, stop shutting down during the day, be willing to fight and kill, be able to plant false stories in the memories of any witnesses, and be able to deal with the police. Ina families with symbionts can do that if they know they should. They can survive and help remove a threat.”

  He shook his head. “I just can’t figure out why human beings would be killing your kind plus a hell of a lot of their own kind unless it’s some kind of misguided vampire hunting.”

  “It may be,” I said. “I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s something to do with my family’s genetic experiments. Will you sit with us and speak up whenever you think of anything useful?”

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