Fledgling, p.6
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       Fledgling, p.6

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  I shook my head. “I’ll heal. I just need meat. Fresh meat.”

  He looked at the gunman. “It’s a shame you can’t eat him.”

  I stared down at him. “I can,” I said. The gunman didn’t wash himself often enough, but he was young and strong. His bite wound was already beginning to close. He wasn’t going to die, even though I’d taken quite a bit more blood from him than I would from Wright or Theodora. If he had managed to shoot Wright, I would have made sure he died. “I can,” I repeated. “But I really don’t want to.”

  Wright smiled a little as though he thought I was joking. Then, still looking at the wound, he said, “Renee, you’ll get an infection. There are probably all kinds of germs already crawling around in that wound and maybe pieces of your jeans, too. Look, I’ll get you fresh meat if you’ll just see a doctor.”

  “No doctor. I’ve been shot before. Some of the wounds. I woke up with in the cave were bullet wounds. I need fresh meat and sleep, that’s all. My body will heal itself.”

  There was a long silence. I lay where I was, feeling leaden, wanting to sleep. I had taken perhaps twice as much blood from the gunman as I would have dared to take from Wright or Theodora, and I still wasn’t satisfied. I needed to sleep for a while, though, and let my body heal a little before I ate flesh.

  The gunman would awaken thirsty and weak, maybe feeling sick.

  And how did I know that?

  It was one more sliver of memory, incomplete, but at least, this time, not useless.

  “Shall I take you home?” Wright asked finally. “I can stop at the store for a couple of steaks.”

  I shook my head. “I don’t want to be with you when I wake up. I’ll be too hungry. I might hurt you.”

  “I don’t think there’s much chance of that,” he said with just a hint of a smile.

  He didn’t understand. “I’m serious, Wright, I could hurt you. I … I might not be thinking clearly when I wake up.”

  “What do you want me to do?”

  “Look around for a sheltered place here in the ruins. I’ll need to be out of the sun when it comes up. You might have to heap some of the rubble up around me to make enough shade.”

  “You want me to leave you here? You want to spend … what, tonight and tomorrow out here?”

  “I will spend tonight and tomorrow out here. Come back for me Sunday morning before sunrise.”

  “But there’s no need—”

  “Don’t buy steaks unless you want them for yourself. I’ll hunt. There are plenty of deer in the woods.”

  “Renee—!”

  “Build a shelter,” I said. “Put me in it. Then go home. Come back Sunday morning before sunrise.”

  There were several seconds of silence. Finally, he said, “What about this guy?” He nudged the gunman with his foot. “What do we do with him? Why did he want to shoot you anyway? Was it just because you scared him?”

  “Me?” I said surprised. “He was aiming at you when I hit you. I couldn’t reach him in time to stop him from shooting you. That’s why I knocked you down—so he’d miss. Then I went after him.”

  He took a moment to absorb this. “God, I didn’t know what the hell happened. What if he’d killed you?”

  “He could have, I guess, but I didn’t think he’d be fast enough. And he wasn’t.”

  “He shot you!”

  “Annoying,” I said. “It really hurts. You’d better take his gun and keep it.”

  “Good idea.” He picked it up.

  “Find me a place that will be out of the sun. Otherwise, I’ll have to heal a burn as well as a bullet wound.”

  He nodded. “Okay, but you haven’t answered. What about him?” He nodded toward the gunman.

  “I’ll talk to him. I want to know why he tried to shoot you.”

  “You aren’t afraid to have him here?”

  “I don’t want him here, but he’s here. I’ll try not to hurt him, but if I do, I do.”

  “When you’re asleep, he might decide to finish what he started.”

  “He won’t. As long as you’ve got his rifle, he can’t.”

  “You bit him. That’s why you aren’t afraid of him, isn’t it?”

  “I’m afraid for him. I’m afraid I might not be able to stop myself from killing him.”

  “You know what I mean.”

  I did know what he meant. He was beginning to understand his relationship with me—as I had already begun to understand it. “Because I bit him, he’ll obey me,” I said. “He won’t hurt me if I tell him not to.”

  He fingered the place where I’d last bitten him and stared down at me.

  I took a deep breath. “I think you can still walk away from me, Wright, if you want to,” I said. I wet my lips. “If you do it now, you can still go.”

  “Be free of you?” he asked.

  “If you want to be free of me, yes. I’ll even help you.”

  “Why? You want to get rid of me?”

  “You know I don’t.”

  “But you want to help me leave you?” He made it a flat statement, not a question.

  “If that’s what you want.”

  “Why?”

  I took a deep breath, trying to stay alert. “Because I think … I think it would be wrong for me to keep you with me against your will.”

  “You think that, do you?” Again, it wasn’t a real question.

  So I didn’t bother to answer it.

  “How?” he asked.

  “What?”

  “How can you help me leave you?”

  “I can tell you to go. I think I can make it … maybe not comfortable, but at least possible for you to go and have your life back and just … forget about me.”

  “I didn’t know what it would be like with you. I didn’t know I would feel … almost as though I can’t make it without you.”

  “I know.” I closed my eyes in pain. “I didn’t know what I was starting when I bit you the first couple of times. I didn’t remember. I still don’t remember much, but I know the bites tie you to me. That comforted me—that you were with me. But now, maybe you don’t want to be with me. If that’s what you’ve decided, tell me. Tell me now, and I’ll try to help you go.”

  There was nothing from him for a long time. I felt as though I were drifting. My body wanted to go to sleep, demanded sleep, and somehow, I did doze a little. When he put his palm against my face, I jerked awake.

  “I’m going to take you to one of the chimneys,” he said. “I’ll make a shelter for you there.”

  “If you want to go,” I said, “you should tell me now.” I paused. “I won’t be able to stay awake long. And … Wright, if you don’t take this chance, I don’t think you’ll be able to leave me. Ever. I won’t be able to let you, and you couldn’t stand separation from me. I know that much. Even now, it’s probably hard for you to make the decision, but you should go if you want to go. It’s all right.”

  “It’s not all right,” he said.

  “Wright, it is. You should—”

  “No!” He shook his head. “Don’t tell me that. Do not tell me that!” He grasped my face between his hands, made me look at him.

  “What shall I do?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. I don’t want to lose you.”

  “Freedom, Wright. Now or never.”

  “I don’t want to lose you. I truly don’t. I’ve only known you for a few days, but I know I want you with me.”

  I kissed his hand, glad of his decision. It would have been hard to let him go—perhaps the hardest thing I could recall doing. I would have done it, but it would have been terrible. All I could do now was make things as safe as possible for both of us.

  “Okay, then. Choose a good spot and build a shelter around me—something that won’t let the sun in.”

  He walked around the ruin, stumbling and cursing now and then, but not falling. Eventually he found a reasonably intact little corner with two wall fragments still standing. That was better than a chimney because
it was less of a potential trap. There was no part of it that I couldn’t break through if I had to. It might once have been part of a closet. I drifted off to sleep while he was cleaning the debris out of it. I awoke again when he lifted me and put me in the corner.

  Once I had found a comfortable position, he walled me in with stones, pieces of charred wood, tree branches, and pipe. After a while the little shelter he was building was perfect for keeping the sun out. When he finished, he reached in through the small opening he’d left and woke me up again.

  “Go home,” I told him, and before he could protest, I added, “Come back Sunday morning. I’ll have found something to eat by then. Deer, rabbits, something.”

  “Just in case, I’ll bring you a steak or two.”

  “All right.” I wouldn’t be wanting the steaks, but it had finally occurred to me that getting them and bringing them would make him feel better.

  “What can we do to make you safer from this idiot?” he asked about the still-unconscious shooter.

  “Take the gun. That will be enough.”

  “He could knock this shelter down at high noon while you’re asleep.”

  “If he does that, I’ll kill him. I’ll have no choice. I’ll get a nasty sunburn, and it will take me a little longer to heal, but that’s the worst. Let me sleep, Wright.”

  I listened and heard him leave. He didn’t want to, but he left.

  Two or three hours later, the man who’d shot me finally woke up. He coughed several times and cursed. That’s what woke me—the noise he made. Because I didn’t dare confront him yet, I kept quiet. He got up, stumbled fell, then staggered away, his uneven steps fading as he moved away from me. He didn’t seem to notice that his rifle was gone. And he didn’t come near my little enclosure at all.

  I slept through the rest of the night and the day. By the time the sun went down, I was starving—literally. My body had been hard at work repairing itself, and now it had to have food. I pushed away the wall of rubble that Wright had built and stood up. I was trembling with hunger as I fastened the jeans that Wright had pulled up after he examined my leg but had left loose for comfort. I took a few deep breaths, then first limped, then walked, then jogged off in the one direction I didn’t smell human beings.

  Hunting steadied me, focused me. And hunting was good because it meant I would eat soon.

  I wound up eating most of someone’s little nanny goat. I didn’t mean to take a domestic animal, but it was all I found after hours of searching. It must have escaped from some farm. Better the goat than its owner.

  Relieved and sated, I began hiking back toward the ruin to wait for Wright. Then I caught the scent of other people nearby. Farms. I had avoided them while I was hunting, but now I let myself take in the scents and sort them out, see whether I recognized any of them.

  And I found the gunman.

  It wasn’t midnight yet—too early for Wright to have arrived. I had time to talk to the man who had caused me so much pain and nearly cost Wright his life. I turned toward the farm and began to jog.

  I came out of the woods and ran through the farm fields toward the scent. It came from a one-story, gray farmhouse with a red roof. That meant I might be able to go straight into the room where the gunman was snoring. There were three other people in the house, so I would have to be careful. At least everyone was asleep.

  I found a window to the gunman’s bedroom, but it was closed and locked. I could think of no way to open it quietly. The doors were also locked. I went around the house and found no open door or window. I could get into the house easily, but not quietly.

  I went back to the gunman’s bedroom window—a big window. I pulled my jacket sleeve down over my hand and closed my hand around the sleeve opening so that my fist was completely covered. This was made easier by the fact that the jacket, like the rest of my clothing, was a little too big. With one quick blow, I broke the window near where I saw the latch. Then I ducked below the windowsill and froze, listening. If people were alerted by the noise, I wanted to know at once.

  There was no change in anyone’s breathing except the gunman’s. His snoring stopped, then began again. I waited, not wanting there to be too many alien sounds too close together. Then I reached in, turned the window latch, and raised the window. The window opened easily, silently. I stepped in and closed it after me.

  At that point, the man in the bed stopped snoring again. The colder air from outside had probably roused him.

  As quickly as I could, I crossed the room to the bed, turned his face to the pillow, grabbed his hands, dropped my weight onto him, and bit him.

  He bucked and struggled, and I worried that if he kept it up, he would either buck me off or force me to break his bones. But I had already bitten him once. He should be ready to listen to me.

  “Be still,” I whispered, “and be quiet.”

  And he obeyed. He lay still and silent while I took a little more of his blood. Then I sat up and looked around. His door was closed, but there were people in the room next to his. I had heard their breathing when I was outside—two people. On the other hand, because his closet and theirs separated the two rooms, I could barely hear them now. Maybe they wouldn’t hear us.

  “Sit up and keep your voice low,” I said to the gunman. “What’s your name?”

  He put his hand to his neck. “What did you do?” he whispered.

  What’s your name?” I repeated.

  “Raleigh Curtis.”

  “Who else is in this house?”

  “My brother. My sister-in-law. Their kid.”

  “So is this their house?”

  “Yeah. I got laid off my job, so they let me stay here.”

  “All right. Why did you shoot me, Raleigh?”

  He squinted, trying to see me in the dark, then reached for his bedside lamp.

  “No,” I said. “No light. Just talk to me.”

  “I didn’t know what you were,” he said. “You just shot out of nowhere. I thought you were some kind of wild cat.” He paused. “Hey, do that thing again on my neck.”

  I shrugged. Why not? He would definitely be sick the next day, but I didn’t care. I took a little more of his blood while he lay back trembling and writhing and whispering over and over, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

  When I stopped, he begged, “Do it some more. Jesus, that’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

  “No more now,” I said. “Talk to me. You said you shot me because I scared you.”

  “Yeah. Where’d you come from like that?”

  “Why were you aiming your rifle at the man? He didn’t scare you.”

  “Had to.”

  “Why?”

  He frowned and rubbed his head. “Had to.”

  “Tell me why.”

  He hesitated, still frowning. “He was there. He shouldn’t have been there. It wasn’t his property.”

  “It wasn’t yours either.” This was only a guess, but it seemed reasonable.

  “He shouldn’t have been there.”

  “Why was it your job to drive him off or kill him?” Silence.

  “Tell me why.” After three bites, he should have been eager to tell me. Instead, he almost seemed to be in pain.

  He held his head between his hands and whimpered. “I can’t tell you,” he said. “I want to, but I can’t. My head hurts.”

  Something occurred to me suddenly. “Did you see the man in the helicopter?”

  He put his face into the pillow, whimpering. “I saw him,” he said, his voice muffled, barely understandable.

  “When did he come? Thursday night?”

  He looked up at me, gray-faced, and rubbed his neck, not where I had bitten him, but on the opposite side. “Yeah. Thursday.”

  “Did he see you, talk to you?”

  He moaned, face twisted in pain. He seemed to be about to cry. “Please don’t ask me. I can’t say. I can’t say.”

  The man, the male of my kind, had found him, bitten him, and ord
ered him to guard the ruin and not tell anyone why he was doing it. But what was there to guard? What was there to shoot a person over?

  In spite of myself, I began to feel sorry for Raleigh. His head probably did hurt. He was torn between obeying me and obeying the man from the helicopter. That kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. Just thinking about it made me intensely uncomfortable, and, of course, I didn’t know why. I waited, hoping to remember more. But there was no more, except that I began to feel ashamed of myself, began to feel as though I owed Raleigh an apology.

  “Raleigh.”

  “Yeah?”

  “It’s all right. I won’t ask you about the man in the helicopter any more. It’s all right.”

  “Okay.” He looked as though he hadn’t taken a breath for too long, and now, suddenly, he could breathe again. He also looked like he was no longer in pain.

  “I want to meet the man in the helicopter,” I said. “If he comes to you again, I want you to tell him about me.”

  “Tell him what?”

  “Tell him I bit you. Tell him I want to meet him. Tell him I’ll come back to the burned houses next Friday night. And tell him I didn’t know that you … that you knew him. If he asks you any questions about me, it’s okay to answer. All right?”

  “Yeah. What’s your name?”

  Good question. “Don’t bother about a name. Describe me to him. I think he’ll know. And don’t tell anyone else about either of us. Make up lies if you have to.”

  “Okay.”

  I started to get up, but he caught my hand. Then he let it go. “That thing you did,” he said, touching the spot I’d bitten. “That was really good.”

  “It will probably make you feel weak and sick for a while,” I said. “I’m sorry for that. You’ll be all right in a couple of days.”

  “Worth it,” he said.

  And I left feeling better, feeling as though he’d forgiven me. Whoever I was before, it seemed I had had strong beliefs about what was right and what wasn’t. It wasn’t right to bite someone who had already been claimed by another of my kind. Certainly it hadn’t been all right to drain Raleigh to the point of sickness when he wasn’t truly responsible for shooting me. Why on earth would one of my own people take the chance of being responsible for a pointless shooting, perhaps even a death?

 

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