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       Fledgling, p.3

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “I locked it,” he said. “I didn’t want you smearing yourself all over the pavement.”

  “… what?”

  “I locked the door to keep you safe. You were trying to jump from a moving car, for Godsake. You would have been badly hurt or killed if you had succeeded.”

  “Oh.”

  He took me by the arm and led me into his house.

  Once I was inside, I looked around and immediately recognized that I was in a kitchen. Even though I could not recall ever having been in an intact kitchen before, I recognized it and the things in it—the refrigerator, the stove, the sink, a counter where a few dishes sat on a dish towel, a dish cabinet above the counter, and beside it, a second cabinet where my nose told me food was sometimes stored. I remembered the blackened refrigerators and sinks at the burned ruin. But this was what a kitchen should look like when everything worked.

  The kitchen was small—just a corner of the cabin, really. Beyond it was a wooden table with four chairs. Alongside the kitchen on the opposite side of the cabin was a small room—a bathroom, I saw when I looked in. Beyond the bathroom was the rest of the cabin—a combination living room-bedroom containing a bed, a chest of drawers, a soft chair facing a stone fireplace, and a small television on top of a black bookcase filled with books. I recognized all these things as soon as I saw them.

  I went through the cabin, touching things, wondering about the few that I did not recognize. Wright would tell me and show me. He was exactly what I needed right now. I turned to face him again. “Tell me what else to do to keep you out of trouble.”

  “Just don’t let anyone see you,” he said. “Don’t go out until after dark and don’t …” He looked at me silently for a while. “Don’t hurt anyone.”

  That surprised me. I had no intention of hurting anyone. “All right,” I said.

  He smiled. “You look so innocent and so young. But you’re dangerous, aren’t you? I felt how strong you are. And look what you’ve done to me.”

  “What have I done?”

  “You bit me. Now you’re all I can think about. You’re going to do it again, aren’t you?”

  “I am.”

  He drew an uneven breath. “Yeah. I thought so. I probably shouldn’t let you.”

  I looked up at him.

  He took another breath. “Shit, you can do it right now if you want to.”

  I rested my head against his arm and sighed. “It might hurt you to lose more blood so soon. I don’t want to hurt you.”

  “Don’t you? Why not? You don’t even know me.”

  “You’re helping me, and you don’t know me. You let me into your car and now into your house.”

  “Yeah. I wonder how much that’s going to cost me.” He put his hand on my shoulder and walked me over to the table. There he sat down and drew me close so that he could open one of my filthy shirts, then the other. Having reached skin, he stroked my chest. “No breasts,” he said. “Pity. I guess you really are a kid. Or maybe … Are you sure you’re female?”

  “I’m female,” I said. “Of course I am.”

  He peeled off my two shirts and threw them into the trash can. “I’ll give you a T-shirt to sleep in,” he said. “One of my T-shirts should be about the size of a nightgown for you. Tomorrow I’ll buy you a few things.”

  He seemed to think of something suddenly. He took my arm and led me into the bathroom. There, over the sink, was a large mirror. He stood me in front of it and seemed relieved to see that the mirror reflected two people instead of only one.

  I touched my face and the short fuzz of black hair on my head, and I tried to see someone I recognized. I was a lean, sharp-faced, large-eyed, brown-skinned person—a complete stranger. Did I look like a child of about ten or eleven? Was I? How could I know? I examined my teeth and saw nothing startling about them until I asked Wright to show me his.

  Mine looked sharper, but smaller. My canine teeth—Wright told me they were called that—were longer and sharper than his. Would people notice the difference? It wasn’t a big difference. Would it frighten people? I hoped not. And how was it that I could recognize a refrigerator, a sink, even a mirror, but fail to recognize my own face in the mirror?

  “I don’t know this person,” I said. “It’s as though I’ve never seen her before.” Then I had another thought. “My scars are gone.”

  “What?” he asked. “What scars?”

  “I was all scarred. A few nights ago … three nights before this one, I was scarred. I remember thinking that I must have been burned—all over. And I couldn’t see for a while when I first woke up, so maybe my eyes were scarred, too.” I sighed. “That’s why I hurt so much and why I was so hungry and so tired. All I’ve done is eat and sleep. My body had so much healing to do.”

  “Scars don’t vanish just because wounds heal,” he said. “Especially not burn scars.” He pushed up the sleeve of his right arm to display a shiny, creased patch of skin bigger than my hand. “I got this when I was ten, fooling around our barbecue pit. Caught my sleeve on fire.”

  I took his arm and looked at the scar, touched it. I didn’t like it. It felt the way my own skin had when I examined my scars. I had the feeling I should be able to make his scars go away too, but I didn’t know how. I turned his hand to look at the bite mark I’d made, and he gasped. The wound seemed to me to be healing as it should, but he snatched his arm from me and examined the hand.

  “It’s already healing!” he said.

  “It should be healing,” I said. “Are you hungry?”

  “Now that you mention it, I am. I had a big meal at a café not far from the job site, but I’m hungry again.”

  “You should eat.”

  “Yeah, but I’m not into raw meat.”

  “Eat what’s right for you. Eat what your body wants.”

  “But you ate raw meat to heal?” he asked.

  His words triggered something in me—a memory. It felt real, true. I spoke it aloud: “All I need is fresh human blood when I’m healthy and everything’s normal. I need fresh meat for healing injuries and illnesses, for sustaining growth spurts, and for carrying a child.”

  He put his hands on my shoulders. “You know that? You remember it?”

  “I think so. It sounds right. It feels right.”

  “So, then,” he said, “what are you?”

  I looked up at him, saw that I had scared him, and took one of his huge hands between mine. “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know why I remembered just now about flesh and blood. But you helped me do it. You asked me questions and you made me look into the mirror. Maybe now, with you to help me, I’ll remember more and more.”

  “If you’re right about what you’ve remembered so far, you’re not human,” he said.

  “What if I’m not?” I asked. “What would that mean?”

  “I don’t know.” He reached down and tugged at my jeans. “Take these off,” he said.

  I undid the shirt that I had twisted and tied around me to keep the jeans up, then I took them off.

  He first seemed frozen with surprise that I had done as he said. Then, slowly, he walked around me, looking. “Well, you’re a girl, all right,” he whispered. At last, he took me by the hand and led me back to the main room of the cabin.

  He led me to the chest of drawers next to the bed. There, in the top drawer, he found a white T-shirt. “Put this on,” he said, handing it to me.

  I put it on. It fell past my knees, and I looked up at him.

  “You tired?” he asked. “You want to go to sleep?

  “Not sleepy,” I said. “Can I wash?” I hadn’t minded being dirty until the clean shirt made me think about just how dirty I was.

  “Sure,” he said. “Go take a shower. Then come keep me company while I eat.”

  I went into the bathroom, recognized the shower head over the bathtub, and figured out how to turn the shower on. Then I took off the T-shirt and stepped in. It was a hot, controlled rain, wonderful for getting clean and feeling be
tter. I stayed under the shower longer than necessary just because it felt so good. Then, finally, I dried myself on the big blue towel that was there and that smelled of Wright.

  I put the T-shirt back on and went out to Wright who was sitting at his table, eating things that I recognized first by scent then by sight. He was eating scrambled eggs and chunks of ham together between thick slices of bread.

  “Can you eat any of this?” Wright asked as he enjoyed the food and drank from a brown bottle of beer.

  I smiled. “No, but I think I must have known people who ate things like that because I recognize them. Right now, I’ll get some water. That’s all I want.”

  “Until you want to chew on me again, eh?”

  I got up to get the water and touched his shoulder as I passed him. It was good to see him eat, to know that he was well. It made me feel relieved. I hadn’t hurt him. That was more important to me than I’d realized.

  I sat down with a glass of water and sipped it.

  “Why’d you do that?” he asked after a long silence. “Why’d you let me undress you like that?”

  “You wanted to,” I said.

  “You would let anyone who wanted to, do that?”

  I frowned, then shook my head. “I bit you—twice.”

  “So?”

  “Taking my clothes off with you is all right.”

  “Is it?”

  I frowned, remembering how badly I had wanted to cover myself when I was naked in the woods. I must have been used to wearing clothes in my life before the cave. I had wanted to be dressed as soon as I knew I was naked. Yet when Wright had taken my shirts, I hadn’t minded. And I hadn’t minded taking off the jeans when he asked me to. It had felt like what I should do.

  “I don’t think I’m as young as you believe,” I said. “I mean, I may be, but I don’t think so.”

  “You don’t have any body hair at all,” he told me.

  “Should I?” I asked.

  “Most people over eleven or twelve do.”

  I thought about that. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I don’t know enough about myself to say what my age might be or even whether I’m human. But I’m old enough to have sex with you if you want to.”

  He choked on his sandwich and spent time coughing and taking swallows of beer.

  “I think you’re supposed to,” I continued, then frowned. “No, that’s not right. I mean, I think you’re supposed to be free to, if you want to.”

  “Because I let you bite me?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe.”

  “A reward for my suffering.”

  I leaned back, looking at him. “Does it hurt?”

  “You know damn well it doesn’t.”

  He drank a couple of swallows more, then stood up, took my hand, and led me to his bed. I sat on the bed, and he started to pull the T-shirt over my head.

  “No,” I said, and he stopped and stood looking at me, waiting. “Let me see you.” I pulled at his shirt and unbuttoned one of the buttons. “You’ve seen me.”

  He nodded, finished unbuttoning his shirt, and pulled his undershirt over his head.

  His broad chest was covered with a mat of brown hair so thick that it was almost like fur, and I stroked it and felt him shiver.

  He kicked off his shoes and stripped off his pants and underwear. There was a great deal more fur on him everywhere, and he was already erect and eager.

  I had seen a man this way before. I could not remember who he had been, could not recall a specific face or body. But all this was familiar and good to me, and I felt my own eagerness and growing excitement. I pulled the T-shirt over my head and let him push me back onto the bed, let him touch me while I petted and played with his fur and explored his body until, gasping, he caught my hands and held them. He covered me with his huge, furry blanket of a body. He was so tall that he took care to hold himself up on his elbows so that my face was not crushed into his chest.

  He was very careful at first, afraid of hurting me, still afraid that I might be too young for this, too small. Then, when it was clear that I was not being hurt at all, when I had wrapped my arms and legs around him, he forgot his fears, forgot everything.

  I forgot myself, too. I bit him again just beneath his left nipple and took a little more blood. He shouted and squeezed the breath from me. Then he collapsed on me, empty, spent.

  It bothered me later, as he lay sleeping beside me, that I had taken more blood. If I didn’t find another source of blood soon, I would weaken him too much.

  I got up quietly, washed, and put on his T-shirt. I would not let myself be seen, but I had to go out and look around. I had to see who and what else might be nearby.

  Four

  Wright lived in an area where houses were widely scattered along a road. They sat well back from the road, and sometimes they were surrounded by trees. It was as though the people in each of these houses were pretending they lived alone in the woods. Most of the other houses were much larger than Wright’s cabin. His closest neighbor was one of these larger houses—a two-story house made of wood, painted white, and now full of light. This must be where Wright’s aunt and uncle lived. I could hear people talking downstairs and music coming from upstairs. Best to let these people alone, at least until they slept.

  Three houses away there were no lights, and the people were already asleep. I could hear the soft, even breathing of two of them upstairs in a front bedroom.

  I went around the house looking for a quiet way in. The house had plenty of windows, but the ones on the lower floor were closed and locked. On one side, though, where the trees screened the house from the road and the neighbors, I found a little platform next to a second-floor window, and the window was partly open. I stared up at the platform, recognizing it, remembering that it was called a “balcony,” but knowing nothing about it beyond that. Things kept coming to me in this frustrating, almost useless way.

  I shook my head in annoyance and decided that I could leap the distance from the ground to the balcony. I’d made longer leaps on my two deer hunts, and the balcony, at least, wasn’t moving. But I was concerned that I might make too much noise.

  Well, if I awoke more than one person, I would run. If I were quick enough, maybe no one would catch me.

  That’s when I remembered that more might happen to me than just capture. I might be shot. I recalled being shot once before—perhaps more than once. This, like the balcony, proved to be another of my limited, nearly useless slivers of memory. I remembered the hammering impact of the bullet. I remembered that it hurt me more than anything had ever hurt me. But who had shot me? Why? Where had I been when it happened? Did it have something to do with my winding up in the cave?

  Nothing.

  No answers.

  Just slivers of memory, tormenting me.

  I stood slightly back from the balcony, seeing and understanding how far up it was, how I must grasp the somehow familiar wrought iron, hold it, and haul myself up. It was like watching a deer and figuring out where to leap so that I could seize it, or at least run it down with the least effort.

  I stooped, looked up at the place on the balcony where I intended to land, jumped, landed there, caught the wrought-iron railing, pulled myself up and over it. Then I froze. Had anyone heard me?

  I didn’t move for several seconds—not until I was sure no one was moving nearby. The breathing I could hear was the even, undisturbed breathing of sleeping people. The room I slipped into was occupied by one person—a woman, sleeping alone. I crept closer to her bed and took a deep breath.

  This woman didn’t smell as enticing as Wright had. She was older, no longer able to have children, but not yet truly old. For her age, though, she was healthy and strong, and from what I could see of her body stretched out on the bed, she was almost as tall as Wright, but slender. I didn’t like her age, and I thought she was too thin, but her height and her good health beckoned to me. And her aloneness was good, somehow. There were other people in the house, but none
of them had been in her room for a long time. She didn’t smell of other people. Perhaps it was only because she had bathed, but I got the impression that no one had touched her in a long while.

  Most important, though, she could feed me without harm to herself. Wright was larger and could give more blood, but this woman had possibilities. I needed to know several more people like her.

  I moved closer to the bed and the sleeping woman—and knew suddenly that there was a gun in the room. I smelled it. It was a terrifyingly familiar smell.

  I almost turned and ran out. Being shot had apparently done me more harm than I realized. It had left me an irrational fear to deal with. The pain had been very bad, but I was not in danger of being shot now. No one was holding this gun. It was out of sight somewhere, perhaps in one of the drawers of the little table that sat next to the head of the woman’s bed.

  I stood still until my fear quieted. I would not be shot tonight.

  When I was calm, I lay down beside the woman and covered her mouth with my hand as she woke. I held on to her with my other arm and both my legs as she began to struggle. Once I was sure of my hold on her, I bit into her neck. She struggled wildly at first, tried to bite me, tried to scream. But after I had fed for a few seconds, she stopped struggling. I held her a little longer, to be sure she was subdued; then, when she gave no more trouble, I let her go. She lay still, eyes closed.

  I fed slowly, licking rather than sucking. I wasn’t hungry. Perhaps tomorrow I would come back and take a full meal from her. Now I was only making certain of her, seeing to it that she would be here, available to me when I needed her. After a while, I whispered to her, “Is it good?”

  She moaned—a satisfied little sound.

  “Leave your balcony door unlocked from now on, and don’t tell anyone about me.”

  “You’ll come back?”

  “Shall I?”

  “Come back tomorrow.”

  “Maybe. Soon.”

  She started to turn to face me.

  “No,” I said. “No, stay as you are.”

  She obeyed.

  I licked at her neck for a while, then asked, “What’s your name?”

 
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