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       Fledgling, p.4

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “Theodora Harden.”

  “I’ll see you again, Theodora.”

  “Don’t go. Not yet.”

  I left her, content that she would welcome me when I came back. I wandered up and down both sides of the road until I had found four more—two men and two women—who were young enough, healthy, and big enough. One by one, I collected them. I would stay with Wright but go to these others when I needed them. Were they enough? I didn’t know.

  I went back to Wright’s cabin, still wide awake, and sat at his table. I wanted to think about what I had done. It bothered me somehow that it had all been so easy, that I had had no trouble taking blood from six people including Wright. Once I had tasted them, they enjoyed the way I made them feel. Instead of being afraid or angry, they were first confused, then trusting and welcoming, eager for more of the pleasure that I could give them. It happened that way each time. I didn’t understand it, but I had done it in a comfortable, knowing way. I had done it as though it was what I was supposed to do.

  Was there something in my saliva that pacified people and pleasured them? What else could it be? It must also help them heal. Wright had been surprised with how quickly his hand was healing. That meant healing must normally take longer for him. And that meant I could at least help the people who helped me. That felt important.

  On the other hand, it felt wrong to me that I was blundering around, knowing almost nothing, yet involving other people in my life. And yet it seemed I had to involve them. I hadn’t hurt anyone so far, but I could have. And I probably would unless I could remember something useful.

  I thought back as far as I could remember, closed my eyes and thought myself back to the blindness and pain of the little cave. I had emerged from it almost like a child being born. Should I go back there? Could I even find the place now? Yes, I thought I could find it. But why go back? Could there be anything there that would help me remember how I’d gotten there?

  I had gone from the cave down to the site of the burned houses. I had found nothing that looked familiar at the houses, but maybe it would help me to know when the houses burned and why and who had done it. Also, it might help to know who had lived at the houses. I had found no burned bodies, although there had been places that smelled of burned flesh. So maybe the people who lived there had been hurt but had gotten away, or maybe they had been killed and were taken away. If I had lived there, I had certainly gotten away. Maybe in the confusion of the fire, we’d gotten separated. But why hadn’t the others—whoever they were—looked for me, searched the forest and the hillside? Why had I been left to fend for myself after being so badly injured? Maybe they were all dead.

  I went back again, to my memory of the cave. I had awakened in terrible pain—blind, lost, naked. And then some animal had come to me, had come right up to me, making me a gift of its flesh. And I had killed it and eaten it.

  I thought about the animal and its odd behavior. Then, in memory, I saw the remains of the animal, scattered around the cave. I had seen it briefly, just before I left the cave. I had been able to see then, but I had not been aware enough to understand what I was seeing. What I had killed … and eaten … in the cave had not been an animal. It had been a man.

  I had not seen his face, but I had seen his short, straight black hair. I had seen his feet, his genitals, one of his hands …

  A man.

  He had come up through the trees and spotted me in the shallow cave. He came to me. He touched my face, sought a pulse in my wrist, then my throat. It hurt when he touched me because my burns were still raw. He had whispered something. I hadn’t understood the words at the time, hadn’t even understood that they were words. He bent over me. I could feel him there, warm—a large, edible-smelling patch of warmth—so tempting to my starving, damaged body and to my damaged mind. Close enough to touch. And I grabbed him and I tore out his throat and I ate him.

  I was capable of that. I had done that.

  I sat for a long time, stunned, not knowing what to think. The words that the man had whispered when he found me were, “Oh my God, it’s her. Please let her be alive.” That was what he said just before I killed him.

  I put my head down on the table. The man had known me. He had cared about me. Perhaps I had had a relationship with him like the one I was developing with Wright. I must have had such relationships with someone—several someones.

  How could I have killed such a person?

  I couldn’t kill Wright. Could I? I’d been with him for only one night, and yet there was a bond between us. But I had not recognized the other man. I couldn’t see his face—had no memory of ever seeing his face—but his scent should have told me what he was. How was it that he had smelled only like food to me and not like a person at all?

  I heard Wright wake up. Heard his breathing change. After a moment, he got up and came over to me. The room was dim but not dark. There was a window in the kitchen area where the moonlight shone in.

  “What’s going on?” he asked. He put his hands on my shoulders and rubbed me pleasantly.

  I sat up. “I’ve been trying to remember things,” I said.

  “Any luck?”

  “Pain, hunger, bad things. Nothing from before I woke up hurt and blind in the cave.” I couldn’t tell him about the man I’d killed. How could I ever tell him about a thing like that?

  “Give it time,” he said. “You’ll get it back. If you’d see a doctor—”

  “No! No hospital. No doctor.”

  “Why?”

  “Why?” I stood up, turning to face him. He stepped back, startled, and I realized I had moved too quickly—faster than he expected me to move. No matter. It helped me make my point. “Wright, I don’t know what I am, but I’m not like you. I think maybe … maybe I look a lot more human than I am. I don’t want to draw attention to myself, maybe have people try to lock me up because they’re afraid of me.”

  “For Godsake, girl, no one’s going to lock you up.”

  “No? I look like a child. I might be locked up for my own safety even if they weren’t afraid of my differences. You thought I was a child.”

  He grinned. “I don’t any more.” Then he hugged himself, hands rubbing his furry forearms a little.

  I realized that he had gotten cold standing naked in the unheated room while he talked with me. “Come back to bed and get warm,” I said.

  He got back into bed, pulling me against him as I slid in beside him.

  “Can you get information for me?” I asked.

  “Information?”

  “About memory and not being able to remember things.”

  “Amnesia,” he said, and just like that, the word was familiar to me.

  “Amnesia, yes. And about vampires,” I said. “Most of what you told me … I don’t think it has anything to do with me. But I do need blood. Maybe there are bits of truth mixed into the movies and folktales.”

  “I’d like to know how old you are,” he said.

  “When I know, I’ll tell you. But, Wright, don’t tell anyone about me. Don’t tell your friends or your family or anyone.”

  “You know I wouldn’t. I’m more likely to get into trouble than you are if anyone found out about you.”

  “I think your trouble would be shorter-lived than mine,” I said.

  “I won’t say a word.”

  After a while, I thought of something else. “There was a fire, Wright. Some houses surrounded by farmland and woods. Eight houses not far from where you picked me up. Do you remember hearing about it?”

  He shook his head. “Sounds big, but no, I don’t remember hearing anything about it. Do you know when the fire happened?”

  “No. I found the ruin when I was able to get up and walk around. There weren’t any bodies or bones or anything. It was just a burned-out ruin.”

  “How close is it to where I picked you up?”

  “I don’t know. I had been wandering away from it since just after sundown when I met you. I wasn’t going anywhere in particul
ar. I was feeling frustrated. I’d been hunting, eating, sleeping, and going over the ruin for three days, not even knowing what I was looking for.” I shook my head against the pillow. “I believe I could find the place because I’ve been there. It seems that I have a very good memory for the little I’ve done and sensed in the past few days.”

  “Maybe this weekend you could show me the ruin.”

  “All right.”

  “Meanwhile, it’s almost time for me to get up and get ready for work.”

  “It’s not dawn yet.”

  “Yeah, how about that? But before I go, I’m going to show you how to use my computer. Do you remember computers?”

  I frowned, then nodded. “I remember what they are. Like refrigerators. But I don’t think I know how to use one.”

  “Like refrigerators?”

  “I mean, sometimes when you say something or I see something—like when I saw your refrigerator—I know what it is, what it’s for, but I don’t remember how I know or if I’ve ever had one.”

  “Okay. Let’s get you online, and you can gather some information yourself.” We got up again, and he put on a white terry-cloth robe and put one of his vast plaid shirts on me. I wasn’t cold, but I didn’t mind. His computer was a slender laptop that he took from the back of the black bookcase where I had not noticed it. He opened it on his kitchen counter where there was an electrical outlet and a phone jack. He turned it on, making sure I saw everything he did and what he typed in to get online. Then he shut everything down and made me do it. It all felt vaguely familiar to me. I was comfortable with it. When I’d gone through the process, he was happy.

  “I don’t use the thing much anymore,” he said. “I thought for a moment I’d forgotten my password.”

  It occurred to me just then that his memory would improve. I managed not to say it, but, yes, his memory should improve because I was with him, because now and then, I would bite him, injecting whatever I injected into people when I bit them. I didn’t say anything about it because I didn’t want him to ask me questions I couldn’t answer—like what other changes might be in store for him.

  “I’m going to stop by the library on my way home,” he said. “I’ll see what I can find for you about vampires and amnesia. Maybe I can even scare up something on your fire.”

  “Thank you.”

  He grinned. “We aim to please.” He went off to take a shower and get dressed.

  By the time he came out, clean and shaved, dressed in blue jeans and a red plaid shirt like the one I had on, I had already looked through a huge amount of nonsense about vampires. Apparently they were in fashion with some people. There were television shows, movies, plays, and novels about them. There were groups devoted to talking about them endlessly in online chat groups. There were even people who tried to look the way they thought a vampire should look—a cloaked figure with long, sharp teeth, and long, dark hair …

  “Anything useful?” Wright asked me.

  “Nothing,” I said. “Worthless stuff.”

  He nodded. “Stay away from the TV stuff and movies. Go with folklore and mythology, maybe anthropology. And there are some medical conditions I’ve heard of. There’s one that makes people so allergic to sunlight that they only go out at night, and maybe superstitious people of the past thought they were vampires. There’s also a disease or a psychological condition that makes people think they’re vampires.”

  “You mean they’re insane?”

  “I don’t know. If a psychiatrist found out what you eat and drink, he might think you’re insane.”

  “Even if I bit him?”

  He looked away. “I don’t know. I think that might convince him whether he liked it or not. Renee, are you going to go unconscious during the day?”

  “I’ll probably sleep for a while.”

  “But will it be normal sleep? I mean, would you be able to wake up if the house were on fire or if someone broke in—not that either of those things is likely?”

  “I just sleep,” I said. “Normal sleep. The sun hurts my eyes and my skin, and I seem to prefer to sleep during the day—the way you prefer to sleep at night. I don’t catch fire or turn to ash or dust or anything like what I’ve read about so far on your computer. Anything that would wake you up would wake me up.”

  “Okay, good. Lock the door when I leave. Nobody should be coming in here when I’m not home. If someone knocks, ignore them. If the phone rings, don’t answer it.” He started to leave, then turned back, frowning. “Ordinary sun exposure burns your skin even though you’re black?”

  “I’m …” I stopped. I had been about to protest that I was brown, not black, but before I could speak, I understood what he meant. Then his question triggered another memory. I looked at him. “I think I’m an experiment. I think I can withstand the sun better than … others of my kind. I burn, but I don’t burn as fast as they do. It’s like an allergy we all have to the sun. I don’t know who the experimenters are, though, the ones who made me black.”

  He became intensely interested. “Do you know if the experimenters were like you—sort of vampires—or were they like me?”

  “Don’t know.” I looked at him. “But keep asking me things. Whenever you think of a question, ask me. Sometimes it helps.”

  He nodded, then kissed me. “I’ve got to go.”

  “Breakfast?” I said.

  “I ate it last night. I’ll pick something up on the way to work. I’ve got to go grocery shopping this evening. It’s a good thing you don’t eat.”

  And he went out the door and was gone.

  Five

  I spent most of the day at the computer making no real progress. There were diseases that people might once have mistaken for vampirism. One of them was called porphyria. It was probably what Wright thought of as a sun-allergy disease. In fact, it was a group of diseases caused by pigments that settled in peoples’ teeth, bones, and skin. The worst of the porphyriac diseases made people so vulnerable to light that they developed huge sores as parts of their flesh eroded away. They might lose their noses or their lips or patches of their cheeks. They would look grotesque.

  That was interesting, but it awakened no memories in me. After all, I had already proved that if I were badly burned or wounded, I would heal.

  There were river-borne microorganisms that caused people to develop problems with their memories just as there were microorganisms that could cause people to look hideous and, in the past perhaps, be mistaken for vampires. But that had nothing to do with me either. Whoever and whatever I was, no one seemed to be writing about my kind. Perhaps my kind did not want to be written about.

  I wandered from site to site, picking up more bits of interesting, but useless, information. Finally, I switched to hunting through information about recent fires. I found a couple of articles that probably referred to what I was coming to think of as “my fire.”

  They said the houses had been abandoned. The fire had happened three weeks ago and had definitely been arson. Gasoline had been splashed about liberally, then set alight. Fortunately, the fire had not spread to the surrounding forest—as it probably would have if the houses had truly been abandoned. There would have been plenty of bushes, vines, grasses, and young trees to carry the fire straight into the woods. Instead, there had been a broad clearing around the houses, and there had been farm fields, stubbly and bare.

  The houses had not been abandoned. I was not wrong about the scents of burned flesh that I had found here and there in them. Those houses were close to the cave where I had awakened. I had gone straight to them from the cave as though my body knew where it was going even though my memory was gone. I must have either been living in one of those houses or visiting one. And there had definitely been other people around at the time of the fire. Why would the articles deny this?

  Wright had said we could go back to the ruin on the weekend. According to the computer, today was Thursday. The weekend was only a day away.

  I wanted to go back now, on foo
t, and comb through the ruin again. I was more alert and aware now. My body had finished healing. Maybe I could find something.

  But it was daytime, almost noon. I felt tired from all my running around the night before and stiff from sitting for hours at the computer. I turned it off, got up, and decided to soak for a while in the tub before I went to bed. That may have been a mistake. Someone knocked on the door while I was filling the tub. I turned the water off, afraid they’d already heard it, afraid they would know someone was in the cabin when it was supposed to be empty.

  The knock came again, and a woman’s voice called out, “Wright? Are you home?”

  I kept quiet. After a while, I heard her go away. I soaked nervously in the water I had already drawn and went to bed.

  When Wright got home—long after sunset—he brought groceries, an “everything” pizza, a library book about vampires written by an anthropologist, and some clothing for me. There were two pairs of jeans, four T-shirts, socks, underwear, a pair of Reebok athletic shoes, and a jacket with a hood. Everything except the shoes were a little big. Somehow he’d gotten shoes that were just the right size. He’d held each of my feet in his hands, and that must have helped. And he’d bought a belt. That would keep the jeans up. The rest of it worked fine even though it was a little large.

  “You’re even smaller than I thought,” he said. “I’m usually pretty good at estimating the size of things I’ve seen and handled.”

  “I’m lean,” I said. “I feed on blood most of the time. I don’t think I could get fat.”

  “Probably not.” He stowed the groceries in his refrigerator, then turned and looked at me. “My neck is completely healed.”

  “I thought it would be.”

  “I mean, no scar. Nothing. No scar on my hand, either.”

  I went to him and looked for myself. “Good,” I said when I had seen. “I don’t want to leave you all scarred. How do you feel?”

  “Fine. I thought I might feel a little weak, like I did when I donated blood, but I’m fine. I don’t think you took very much.”

 
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