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       Fledgling, p.2

           Octavia E. Butler
slower 1  faster

  I opened my mouth, cleared my throat, coughed, then finally managed to say, “I … am. Yes, I am all right.” My voice sounded strange and hoarse to my own ears. It wasn’t only that I couldn’t recall speaking to anyone else. I couldn’t remember ever speaking at all. Yet it seemed that I knew how.

  “No, you’re not,” the man said. “You’re soaking wet and filthy, and … God, how old are you?”

  I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I didn’t have any idea how old I was or why my age should matter.

  “Is that blood on your shirt?” he asked.

  I looked down. “I killed a deer,” I said. In all, I had killed two deer. And I did have their blood on my clothing. The rain hadn’t washed it away.

  He stared at me for several seconds. “Look, is there someplace I can take you? Do you have family or friends somewhere around here?”

  I shook my head. “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

  “You shouldn’t be out here in the middle of the night in the rain!” he said. “You can’t be any more than ten or eleven. Where are you going?”

  “Just walking,” I said because I didn’t know what else to say. Where was I going? Where would he think I should be going? Home, perhaps. “Home,” I lied. “I’m going home.” Then I wondered why I had lied. Was it important for this stranger to think that I had a home and was going there? Or was it only that I didn’t want him to realize how little I knew about myself, about anything?

  “I’ll take you home,” he said. “Get in.”

  I surprised myself completely by instantly wanting to go with him. I went around to the passenger side of his car and opened the door. Then I stopped, confused. “I don’t really have a home,” I said. I closed the door and stepped back.

  He leaned over and opened the door. “Look,” he said, “I can’t leave you out here. You’re a kid, for Godsake. Come on, I’ll at least take you someplace dry.” He reached into the backseat and picked up a big piece of thick cloth. “Here’s a blanket. Get in and wrap up.”

  I wasn’t uncomfortable. Being wet didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t cold. Yet I wanted to get into the car with him. I didn’t want him to drive away without me. Now that I’d had a few more moments to absorb his scent I realized he smelled … really interesting. Also, I didn’t want to stop talking to him. I felt almost as hungry for conversation as I was for food. A taste of it had only whetted my appetite.

  I wrapped the blanket around me and got into the car.

  “Did someone hurt you?” he asked when he had gotten the car moving again. “Were you in someone’s car?”

  “I was hurt,” I said. “I’m all right now.”

  He glanced at me. “Are you sure? I can take you to a hospital.”

  “I don’t need a hospital,” I said quickly, even though, at first, I wasn’t sure what a hospital was. Then I knew that it was a place where the sick and injured were taken for care. There would be a lot of people all around me at a hospital. That was enough to make it frightening. “No hospital.”

  Another glance. “Okay,” he said. “What’s your name?”

  I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it. After a while, I admitted, “I don’t know what my name is. I don’t remember.”

  He glanced at me several times before saying anything about that. After a while he said, “Okay, you don’t want to tell me, then. Did you run away? Get tired of home and strike out on your own?”

  “I don’t think so,” I frowned. “I don’t think I would do that. I don’t remember, really, but that doesn’t feel like something I would do.”

  There was another long silence. “You really don’t remember? You’re not kidding?”

  “I’m not. My … my injuries are healed now, but I still don’t remember things.”

  He didn’t say anything for a while. Then, “You really don’t know what your own name is?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Then you do need a hospital.”

  “No, I don’t. No!”

  “Why? The doctors there might be able to help you.”

  Might they? Then why did the idea of going among them scare me so? I knew absolutely that I didn’t want to put myself into the hands of strangers. I didn’t want to be even near large numbers of strangers. “No hospital,” I repeated.

  Again, he didn’t say anything, but this time, there was something different about his silence. I looked at him and suddenly believed that he meant to deliver me to a hospital anyway, and I panicked. I unfastened the seat belt that he had insisted I buckle and pushed aside the blanket. I turned to open the car door. He grabbed my arm before I could figure out how to get it open. He had huge hands that wrapped completely around my arm. He pulled me back, pulled me hard against the little low wall that divided his legs from mine.

  He scared me. I was less than half his size, and he meant to force me to go where I didn’t want to go. I pulled away from him, dodged his hand as he grasped at me, tried again to open the door, only to be caught again.

  I caught his wrist, squeezed it, and yanked it away from my arm. He yelped, said “Shit!” and managed to rub his wrist with the hand still holding the steering wheel. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he demanded.

  I put my back against the door that I had been trying to open. “Are you going to take me to the hospital even though I don’t want to go?” I asked.

  He nodded, still rubbing his wrist. “The hospital or the police station. Your choice.”

  “Neither!” Being turned over to the police scared me even more than the idea of going to the hospital did. I turned to try again to get the door open.

  And again, he grasped my left upper arm, pulling me back from the door. His fingers wrapped all the way around my upper arm and held me tightly, pulling me away from the door. I understood him a little better now that I’d had my hands on him. I thought I could break his wrist if I wanted to. He was big but not that strong. Or, at least, I was stronger. But I didn’t want to break his bones. He seemed to want to help me, although he didn’t know how. And he did smell good. I didn’t have the words to say how good he smelled. Breaking his bones would be wrong.

  I bit him—just a quick bite and release on the meaty part of his hand where his thumb was.

  “Goddamnit!” he shouted, jerking his hand away. Then he made another grab for me before I could get the door open. There were several buttons on the door, and I didn’t know which of them would make it open. None of them seemed to work. That gave him a chance to get his hand on me a third time.

  “Be still!” he ordered and gave me a hard shake. “You’ll kill yourself! If you’re crazy enough to try to jump out of a moving car, you should be in mental hospital.”

  I stared down at the bleeding marks I’d made on his hand, and suddenly I was unable to think about anything else. I ducked my head and licked away the blood, licked the wound I had made. He tensed, almost pulling his hand away. Then he stopped, seemed to relax. He let me take his hand between my own. I looked at him, saw him glancing at me, felt the car zigzag a little on the road.

  He frowned and pulled away from me, all the while looking uncertain, unhappy. I caught his hand again between mine and held it. I felt him try to pull away. He shook me, actually lifting me into the air a little, trying to get away from me, but I didn’t let go. I licked at the blood welling up where my teeth had cut him.

  He made a noise, a kind of gasp. Abruptly, he drove completely across the road to a spot where there was room to stop the car without blocking other cars—the few other cars that came along. He made a huge fist of the hand that was no longer needed to steer the car. I watched him draw it back to hit me. I thought I should be afraid, should try to stop him, but I was calm. Somehow, I couldn’t believe he would hit me.

  He frowned, shook his head. After a while he dropped his hand to his lap and glared at me. “What are you doing?” he demanded, watching me, not pulling away at all now, but looking as though he wanted to—or as though he thought he sh
ould want to.

  I didn’t answer. I wasn’t getting enough blood from his hand. I wanted to bite him again, but I didn’t want him afraid or angry. I didn’t know why I cared about that, but it seemed important. Also, I knew hands weren’t as good for getting blood as wrists and throats were. I looked at him and saw that he was looking intently at me.

  “It doesn’t hurt anymore,” he said. “It feels good. Which is weird. How do you do that?”

  “I don’t know,” I told him. “You taste good.”

  “Do I?” He lifted me, squeezed past the division between the seats to my side of the car, and put me on his lap.

  “Let me bite you again,” I whispered.

  He smiled. “If I do, what will you let me do?”

  I heard consent in his voice, and I hauled myself up and kissed the side of his neck, searching with my tongue and my nose for the largest blood source there. A moment later, I bit hard into the side of his neck. He convulsed and I held on to him. He writhed under me, not struggling, but holding me as I took more of his blood. I took enough blood to satisfy a hunger I hadn’t realized I had until a few moments before. I could have taken more, but I didn’t want to hurt him. He tasted wonderful, and he had fed me without trying to escape or to hurt me. I licked the bite until it stopped bleeding. I wished I could make it heal, wished I could repay him by healing him.

  He sighed and held me, leaning back in his seat and letting me lean against him. “So what was that?” he asked after a while. “How did you do that? And why the hell did it feel so fantastic?”

  He had enjoyed it—maybe as much as I had. I felt pleased, felt myself smile. That was right somehow. I’d done it right. That meant I’d done it before, even though I couldn’t remember.

  “Keep me with you,” I said, and I knew I meant it the moment I said it. He would have a place to live. If I could go there with him, maybe the things I saw there would help me begin to get my memory back—and I would have a home.

  “Do you really not have anywhere to go or anyone looking for you?” he asked.

  “I don’t think I have anyone,” I said. “I don’t remember. I need to find out who I am and what happened to me and … and everything.”

  “Do you always bite?”

  I leaned back against him. “I don’t know.”

  “You’re a vampire, you know.”

  I thought about that. The word stirred no memories. “What’s a vampire?”

  He laughed. “You. You bite. You drink blood. He grimaced and shook his head. “My God, you drink blood.”

  “I guess I do.” I licked at his neck.

  “And you’re way too young,” he said. “Jailbait. Super jailbait.”

  Since I didn’t know what “jailbait” was and I had no idea how old I was, I didn’t say anything.

  “Do you remember how you got that blood on your clothes? Who else have you been chewing on?”

  “I killed a deer. In fact, I killed two deer.”

  “Sure you did.”

  “Keep me with you.”

  I was watching his face as I said it. He looked confused again, worried, but he held me against his body and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do that, but yeah. I want you with me. I don’t think I should keep you. Hell, I know I shouldn’t. But I’ll do it anyway.”

  “I don’t think I’m supposed to be alone,” I said. “I don’t know who I should be with, though, because I can’t remember ever having been with anyone.”

  “So you’ll be with me.” He smiled and his confusion seemed to be gone. “I’ll need to call you something. What do you want to be called?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Do you want me to give you a name?”

  I smiled, liking him, feeling completely at ease with him. “Give me a name,” I said. I licked at his neck a little more.

  “Renee,” he said. “A friend of mine told me it meant ‘reborn.’ That’s sort of what’s happened to you. You’ve been reborn into a new life. You’ll probably remember your old life pretty soon, but for now, you’re Renee.” He shivered against me as I licked his neck. “Damn that feels good,” he said. Then, “I rent a cabin from my uncle. If I take you there, you’ll have to stay inside during the day. If he and my aunt see you, they’ll probably throw us both out.”

  “I can sleep during the day. I won’t go out until dark.”

  “Just right for a vampire,” he said. “How did you kill those deer?”

  I shrugged. “Ran them down and broke their necks.”

  “Uh-huh. Then what?”

  “Ate some of their meat. Hid the rest in a tree until I was hungry again. Ate it until the parts I wanted were gone.”

  “How did you cook it? It’s been raining like hell for the past few days. How did you find dry wood for your fire?”

  “No fire. I didn’t need a fire.”

  “You ate the deer raw?”

  “Yes.”

  “Oh God, no you didn’t.” Something seemed to occur to him suddenly. “Show me your knife.”

  I hesitated. “Knife?”

  “To clean and skin the deer.”

  “A thing? A tool?”

  “A tool for cutting, yes.”

  “I don’t have a knife.”

  He held me away from him and stared at me. “Show me your teeth,” he said.

  I bared my teeth for him.

  “Good God,” he said. “Are those what you bit me with?” He put his hand to his neck. “You are a damned vampire.”

  “Didn’t hurt you,” I said. He looked afraid. He started to push me away, then got that confused look again and pulled me back to him. “Do vampires eat deer?” I asked. I licked at his neck again.

  He raised a hand to stop me, then dropped the hand to his side. “What are you, then?” he whispered.

  And I said the only thing I could: “I don’t know.” I drew back, held his face between my hands, liking him, glad that I had found him. “Help me find out.”

  Three

  On the drive to his cabin, the man told me that his name was Wright Hamlin and that he was a construction worker. He had been a student in a nearby place called Seattle at something called the University of Washington for two years. Then he had dropped out because he didn’t know where he was heading or even where he wanted to be heading. His father had been disgusted with him and had sent him to work for his uncle who owned a construction company. He’d worked for his uncle for three years now, and his current job was helping to build houses in a new community to the south of where he’d picked me up.

  “I like the work,” he told me as he drove. “I still don’t know where I’m headed, but the work I’m doing is worth something. People will live in those houses someday.”

  I understood only that he liked the work he was doing. As he told me a little about it, though, I realized I would have to be careful about taking blood from him. I understood—or perhaps remembered—that people could be weakened by blood loss. If I made Wright weak, he might get hurt. When I thought about it, I knew I would want more blood—want it as badly as I had previously wanted meat. And as I thought about meat, I realized that I didn’t want it anymore. The idea of eating it disgusted me. Taking Wright’s blood had been the most satisfying thing I could remember doing. I didn’t know what that meant—whether it made me what Wright thought of as a vampire or not. I realized that to avoid hurting Wright, to avoid hurting anyone, I would have to find several people to take blood from. I wasn’t sure how to do that, but it had to be done.

  Wright told me what he remembered about vampires—that they’re immortal unless someone stabs them in the heart with a wooden stake, and yet even without being stabbed they’re dead, or undead. Whatever that means. They drink blood, they have no reflection in mirrors, they can become bats or wolves, they turn other people into vampires either by drinking their blood or by making the convert drink the vampire’s blood. This last detail seemed to depend on which story you were reading or which
movie you were watching. That was the other thing about vampires. They were fictional beings. Folklore. There were no vampires.

  So what was I?

  It bothered Wright that all he wanted to do now was keep me with him, that he was taking me to his home and not to the police or to a hospital. “I’m going to get into trouble,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

  “What will happen to you?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I don’t know. Jail, maybe. You’re so young. I should care about that. It should be scaring the hell out of me. It is scaring me, but not enough to make me dump you.”

  I thought about that for a while. He had let me bite him. I knew from the way he touched me and looked at me that he would let me bite him again when I wanted to. And he would do what he could to help me find out who I was and what had happened to me.

  “How can I keep you from getting into trouble?” I asked.

  He shook his head. “In the long run, you probably can’t. For now, though, get down on the floor.”

  I looked at him.

  “Get down, now. I can’t let my uncle and aunt or the neighbors see you.”

  I slid from the seat and curled myself up on the floor of his car. If I had been a little bigger, it wouldn’t have been possible. As it was, it wasn’t comfortable. But it didn’t matter. He threw the blanket over me. After that, I could feel the car making several turns, slowing, turning once more, then stopping.

  “Okay,” he said. “We’re at the carport behind my cabin. No one can see us.”

  I unfolded myself, got back up onto the seat, and looked around. There was a scattering of trees, lights from distant houses, and next to us, a small house. Wright got out of the car, and I looked quickly to see which button or lever he used to open the door. It was one I had tried when he was threatening to take me to a hospital or the police. It hadn’t worked then, but it worked now. The door opened.

  I got out and asked, “Why wouldn’t it open before?”

 
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