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       Fledgling, p.5

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  “I think I probably took more than I should have from you yesterday. Who did you donate blood to?”

  “Friend of mine was in a car wreck. They saved him, but he lost a lot of blood.”

  “He took blood from you?”

  “No, nothing like that. He … do you know what a transfusion is?”

  I thought about it and then realized that I did know. “In the hospital, blood was sent from a container directly into your friend’s veins.”

  “That’s right, but it wasn’t my blood. He and I aren’t even the same blood type. I just gave to offset a little of what he had used.” He bent, picked me up, and kissed me. “It isn’t nearly as much fun as what you do.”

  I had already found that I enjoyed any skin-to-skin contact with him. For a few moments, I gave myself up to that enjoyment. Then, reluctantly, I drew back. “Someone was here today,” I said. “A woman came to the door while I was filling the tub for a bath. I think she heard the water running. She knocked and called your name.”

  “Older woman?” he asked.

  “I couldn’t see her.”

  “My aunt, maybe. My aunt and uncle live it the big house out front.” He gestured toward the front of the cabin with the arm that wasn’t holding me. Then he put me down. “You probably saw it last night. They had company so it was all lit up.”

  “Can she get in here? Does she have a key?”

  “Yeah. My uncle does anyway. But they don’t snoop. I think you’ll be okay in here.”

  I wasn’t so sure, but I let it go. If the woman ever came into the cabin while Wright was at work, I would bite her. Then she would accept my being here, keep it secret, feed me, and then maybe help me find some of the answers I was looking for.

  “I’m glad we’re going back to the site of the fire this weekend,” I said. “I found articles that said the place was abandoned and that vandals set it afire.”

  “Good work,” he said. “I thought you’d find something online.”

  “But why would it say that?” I demanded. “I’m sure it wasn’t abandoned. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was there. It was close to the cave where I woke up and not really close to anything else.”

  He thought about that, then shook his head. “I found articles at the library that said the same thing,” he said. “They were from two small newspapers in the area. The reporters wouldn’t have any reason to lie.”

  I shook my head. “If I can find them, I can get them to tell me why they lied. But first I want to go to the ruin. I’m connected with that place somehow. I’m sure I am. And Wright, the clothing I was wearing when you found me, I got it at one of the burned houses. It had been folded and put away … maybe in a drawer or on a shelf. When I found it, it was at the bottom of a big pile of half-charred clothing, and it had only been burned a little. Why should an abandoned house have piles of clean, folded clothing in it?”

  Wright nodded. “I’ll take you back there then,” he said. “Saturday?”

  “Friday night.” I stood on tiptoe and still could not reach him. I was annoyed for once that he was so tall, but he picked me up again and held me against him. I bit him a little at the base of his throat, drew a few drops of blood. It wasn’t necessary, but we both enjoyed it. He stood still, holding me, letting me lick at the wound.

  After a while, he sighed. “Okay, Friday. Are you going to let me eat my pizza while it’s hot?”

  I licked once more, then pulled away from him reluctantly and slid down his body. “Eat,” I said, and picked up the vampire book. “I’ll read and wait for you.”

  The book was interesting but not that helpful. Many cultures seemed to have folklore about vampires of one kind or another. Some could hypnotize people by staring at them. Some read and controlled people’s thoughts. It would be handy to be able to do things like that. Easier than biting them and waiting for the chemicals in my saliva to do their work.

  Not all vampires drank blood according to the book. Some ate flesh either from the living or from the dead. Some took in a kind of spiritual essence or energy—whatever that meant. All took something from their subjects, usually not caring how they injured the subject. Many killed their subjects. Many were dead themselves, but magically reanimated by the blood, flesh, or energy they took. One feeding usually meant the taking of one life. And that made no sense, at least for those who took blood. Who could need that much blood? Why kill a person who would willingly feed you again and again if you handled them carefully? No wonder vampires in folklore were feared, hated, and hunted.

  Then my thoughts drifted back to the man I had killed at the cave. I killed and fed as viciously as any fictional vampire. I ate a man without ever recognizing him as a man. I’d not yet read of a vampire doing that, but I had done it.

  Did others of my kind do such things? Had I done such a thing before? Had someone found out about us and tried to kill us back at the ruin? That would seem almost … just. But what about the other people who had been at the ruin? Had they been like Wright or like me? Had the ruin been a nest of vampires? I could still remember the scents I had found here and there around the ruin where flesh had been burned. Now I tried to sort through them, understand who was who.

  After a while, I understood that some of them had been like me and some like Wright—vampires and other people living and dying together. What did that mean?

  Wright got up, came to stand beside me, and took the book out of my hands. He laid it open, its pages facedown on the table. “I think I’m strong enough to take you on now,” he said.

  Perhaps he was, but I took only a few drops more of his blood while I enjoyed sex with him. It seemed necessary to take small amounts of his blood often. I felt a need for it that was something beyond hunger. It was a need for his blood specifically. No one else’s. I took it slowly and gave him as much pleasure as I could. In fact, I took delight in leaving him pleasurably exhausted.

  I went out later when Wright was asleep and took a full meal from Theodora. She was smaller and older than Wright, and she would probably feel a little weak tomorrow, tired perhaps.

  “What work do you do?” I asked her when she looked ready to drift off to sleep.

  “I work for the county library,” she said. Then she laughed. “It doesn’t pay very well, but I enjoy it.” And then, as though my question had opened the door for her to talk to me, she said, “I didn’t think you were real. I thought I’d dreamed you.”

  “I could be just a dream,” I said. I stroked her shoulder and licked the bite. I wondered what work was done in libraries, then knew. I had been in libraries. I had memories of rooms filled with books. Theodora worked with books and with people who used books.

  “You’re a vampire,” she said, breaking into my thoughts.

  “Am I?” I went on licking her bite.

  “Are you going to kill me?” she asked as though she didn’t care what the answer might be. And there was no tension in her.

  “Of course not. But you shouldn’t go to work tomorrow. You might be a little weak.”

  “I’ll be all right. I don’t like to take time off.”

  “Yes, you will be all right. Stay home tomorrow.”

  She said nothing for a moment. She moved restlessly against me, moved away, then came back, accepting again, at ease. “All right. Will you come back to me again? Please come back.”

  “In a week, maybe.”

  “That long?”

  “I want you healthy.”

  She kissed me. After a moment of surprise, I kissed her back. I held her, and she seemed very comfortable in my arms.

  “Be real,” she said. “Please be real.”

  “I’m real,” I told her. “Sleep now. I’m real, and I’ll come to you again. Sleep.”

  She went to sleep, happily fitted against me, one arm over and around me. I lay with her a few moments, then slipped free and went home to Wright’s cabin.

  On Friday evening after dark, Wright drove me back along the road where he had found me. The roa
d was almost as empty on Friday as it had been when I walked it, barefoot and soaking wet. One or two cars every now and then. At least it wasn’t raining tonight.

  “I picked you up near here,” Wright said.

  I looked around and couldn’t make out much beyond his headlights. “Pull off the road when you can and turn your lights off,” I said.

  “You can see in the dark like a cat, can’t you?” he asked.

  “I can see in the dark,” I said. “I don’t know anything about cats so I can’t compare myself to them.”

  He found a spot where there was room to pull completely off the road and park. There, he stopped and turned off his headlights. Across the road from us there was a hillside and, on our side of the road, a steep slope downward toward a little creek. This was a heavily wooded area, although there was a clear-cut area not far behind us.

  “We’re not far from the national forest,” he said. “We’re running parallel to it. Does anything look familiar?”

  “Nothing yet,” I said. I got out of the car and looked down into the trees, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.

  I had walked this road. I began to walk it now, backtracking. After a while, Wright began to follow me in the car. He didn’t turn his lights on but seemed to have no trouble seeing me. I began to jog, always looking around, knowing that at some point it would be time for me to turn off onto a side road and go down into the woods.

  I jogged for several minutes, then, on impulse, began to run. Wright followed until finally I spotted the side road that led to the ruin. I turned but he didn’t.

  When he didn’t follow, I stopped and waited for him to realize he’d lost me. It seemed to take a surprisingly long time. Finally, the car came back, lights on now, driving slowly. Then he spotted me, and I beckoned to him to turn. Once he had turned, I went to the car and got in.

  “I didn’t even see this road,” he said. “I had no idea where you’d gone. Do you know you were running about fifteen miles an hour?”

  “I don’t know what that means,” I said.

  “I suspect it means you should try out for the Olympic Games. Are you tired?”

  “I’m not. It was a good run, though. What are the Olympic Games?”

  “Never mind. Probably too public for you. For someone your size, though, that was a fantastic run.”

  “It was easier than running down a deer.”

  “Where are we going? Don’t let me pass the place.”

  “I won’t.” I not only watched, I opened my window and smelled the air. “Here,” I said. “This little road coming up.”

  “Private road,” Wright said. “Open the gate for me, would you?”

  I did, but the gate made me think for a moment. I had not opened a gate going out. I had climbed over it. It wasn’t a real barrier. Anyone could climb it or walk around it or open it and drive through.

  Wright drove through, and I closed the gate and got back into the car. Just a few moments later, we were as close to the ruin as it was safe to drive. There were places where rubble from the houses lay in the road, and Wright said he wanted to be careful with his tires.

  “This was a whole community,” he said. “Plus a lot of land.”

  I led him around, showing him the place, choosing the easiest paths I could find, but I discovered that he couldn’t see very well. The moon wasn’t up yet, and it was too dark for him. He kept stumbling over the rubble, over stones, over the unevenness of the ground. He would have fallen several times had I not steadied him. He wasn’t happy with my doing that.

  “You’re a hell of a lot stronger than you have any right to be,” he said.

  “I couldn’t carry you,” I said. “You’re too big. So I need to keep you from getting hurt.”

  He looked down at me and smiled. “Somehow, I suspect you would find a way to carry me if you had to.”

  I laughed in spite of myself.

  “You’re pretty sure this was your home, then?”

  I looked around. “I’m not sure, but I think it was. I don’t remember. It’s just a feeling.” Then I stopped. I’d caught a scent that I hadn’t noticed before, one that I didn’t understand.

  “Someone’s been here,” I said. “Someone …” I took a deep breath, then several small, sampling breaths. Then I looked up at Wright. “I don’t know for sure, but I think it may have been someone like me.”

  “How can you tell?”

  “I smell him. It’s a different scent—more like me than like you even though he’s male.”

  “You know he’s male? You can tell that from a smell?”

  “Yes. Males smell male. It isn’t something I could miss. You smell male.”

  He looked uncomfortable. “Is that good or bad?”

  I smiled. “I enjoy your scent. It reminds me of all sorts of good feelings.”

  He gave me a long, hungry look. “Go have the rest of your look-around on your own. You’ll finish faster without me. Suddenly I want to get out of here. I’m eager to get back home.”

  “All right,” I said. “We can go as soon as I find out about our visitor.”

  “This other guy, yeah.” Suddenly, he sounded less happy.

  “He may be able to tell me about myself, Wright. He may be my relative.”

  He nodded slowly. “Okay. When was he here?”

  “Not that long ago. Last night I think. I need to know where he came from and where he went. Stay here. I won’t go far, but I need to follow the scent.”

  “I think I’ll come with you after all.”

  I put my hand on his arm. “You said you’d wait. Stay here, Wright.”

  He stared at me, clearly unhappy, but after a moment he nodded. “Watch yourself,” he said.

  I turned away from him and began to zigzag through the rubble until I felt I had the direction of the scent—the direction from which the man had come and in which he had gone. It was like a thread that drew me.

  I followed it as quickly as I could to the opposite end of the ruin and beyond, through a stand of trees and on to a broad, open meadow. It ended there. I walked through the trees and into the meadow, confused, no longer understanding what I was looking for. I found marks on the ground, marks that were wrong for a car or a truck. There were two of them—long, narrow indentations too narrow and far apart to be tire marks. The word helicopter occurred to me suddenly, and I found that I knew what a helicopter was. I had a picture of one in my mind—clear bubble, rotor blades on top, metal structure sweeping back to the tail rotor, and two long runners instead of wheels. When had I ever seen such a thing?

  Had a helicopter landed here, then? Had a man of my people gotten out and looked around the ruin, then gotten back into the copter and flown away?

  That had probably happened. I couldn’t think of any reason why it would be impossible.

  Would he come back, then? Was he my relative? Had he been looking for me? Or had he had something to do with setting the fire?

  If I had stayed in the area instead of wandering out to the highway and getting into Wright’s car, I might have already been in contact with people who knew who I was, knew much more about me than I did. Or I might have been hurt again or killed.

  I walked around where the copter had landed, looking to see whether anything had been dropped or thrown away. But there was nothing except that faint ghostly scent.

  Then I caught another scent, fresh this time. Two scents. Another person—a male like Wright, but not Wright. And there was a gun of some kind. Where had the man come from? The wind—what there was of it—came to me from beyond where the helicopter had landed. That was how I had come to notice the scent of the first stranger. This new man must have passed me on his way to the ruin. If he had passed far enough away, I wouldn’t have noticed, focused as I was on the helicopter and its occupant. But now I thought he must be somewhere near Wright. He and his gun must be somewhere near Wright.

  I turned, ran back through the trees toward Wright. I spotted the man with the gun before I
got near him. He was moving closer to Wright, not making himself known, watching Wright from hiding.

  I meant to confront the man with the gun and perhaps take his gun away. I was intensely uncomfortable with his having it and being able to see Wright while Wright could not see him. I saw him as I emerged from the trees. I saw him raise the gun—a rifle, long and deadly looking. He pointed it at Wright, and I was too far away to stop him. I ran flat out, as fast as I could.

  I headed toward Wright and tried to put myself between him and the gun. I expected to be shot at any moment, but I had time to hit Wright in his midsection and knock him down, knock the air out of him just as the rifle went off. Then, with Wright safely on the ground, I went after the shooter.

  He fired once more before I reached him, and this time, in spite of my speed, he hit me. An instant later, I hit him with my whole body. And while I could still think, while I was aware enough to be careful, I sank my teeth into his throat and took his blood—only his blood.

  Six

  I didn’t care whether I hurt or killed the gunman. I had knocked him unconscious when I hit him. Now I took his blood because he’d spilled mine, and because suddenly, I was in pain. Suddenly, I needed to heal. He was lucky I was aware enough not to take his flesh.

  Moments later, I heard Wright’s uneven steps coming toward me, and I was afraid. I went on taking the gunman’s blood because it seemed to be the least harmful thing I could do at the moment.

  I let the man go when Wright stood over us. I looked up at him then and, to my relief, did not in the slightest want to eat him. He stared at me, eyes wide.

  “Are you shot?” he asked.

  “My right leg,” I said.

  He was on his knees, lifting me, pulling my jeans down to examine my bloody leg. It hurt almost too much. I screamed, but I didn’t harm him.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I thought you might be bleeding—losing too much blood.” He hesitated. “Why aren’t you bleeding more?”

  “I don’t ever bleed much.”

  “Oh.” He stared at the wound. “That makes sense, I guess. Your body would know how to conserve blood if anyone’s did. The bullet went all the way through. You have to go to a doctor now.”

 
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