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       Fledgling, p.7

           Octavia E. Butler
 

  I jogged back toward the ruin. Eight chimneys, much burned rubble, a few standing timbers and remnant walls. That’s what was left. Why did it need guarding? The guarding should have come before the fire when it might have done some good.

  Finally, I jogged over to the unblocked part of the private road, coming out where Wright and I had parked the night before. I heard him coming—heard him stop down at the gate, then start again. I waited, making sure it was his car and not some stranger’s. The moment I recognized the car and caught his scent, I could hardly wait to see him. The instant he stopped the car, I pulled the passenger door open and slid inside.

  He was there, smelling worried and nervous. And somehow he didn’t see me until I was sitting next to him, closing the door.

  He jumped, then grabbed me and yanked me into a huge hug.

  I found myself laughing as he examined me, checked my leg, then the rest of me. “I’m fine,” I said, and kissed him and felt alarmingly glad to see him. “Let’s go home,” I said at last. “I want a hot bath, and then I want you.”

  He held me in his lap, and I was surprised that he had managed to move me there without my realizing it. “Anytime,” he said. “Now, if you like.”

  I kissed his throat. “Not now. Let’s go home.”

  Seven

  A week later, we went back to the ruin.

  I wanted Wright to park the car beside the gate to the private road. I thought it would be safest for him to stay with the car while I went in alone. But I had told him the little that Raleigh Curtis had told me, and Wright was adamant. He was going with me.

  “You don’t know what this guy will do,” he said. “What if he just grabs you and takes you away with him? Hell, what if he’s the one who torched those houses to begin with?”

  “He’s of my kind,” I said. “Even if he doesn’t know anything about me, he’ll probably know someone who does. Or at least he can tell me about my people. I have to know who I am, Wright, and what I am.”

  “Then I have to go with you,” he said. “And I think I’d better take my nice new rifle along.”

  I had not made any effort to get Raleigh Curtis’s rifle back to him. If he didn’t have it, he couldn’t shoot some exploring stranger with it. Wright had kept the gun and had gone out and bought bullets for it.

  “This guy is a man of your kind,” he told me. “An adult male who is probably a lot bigger and stronger than you. I’m telling you, Renee, he might just decide to do what he wants with you no matter what you want.”

  He was afraid of losing me, afraid this other man would take me from him. He might be right. And he was probably right in thinking that the man would be bigger and stronger than I was.

  That last possibility was enough to make me want Wright to stay with me and keep the gun handy. We left his cabin well before sunset because he wanted to get a look at the ruin in something more than starlight. To be sure he would be able to see well, he took along a flashlight zipped in his jacket pocket—the pocket that wasn’t full of bullets.

  With my jeans, my shirt, and my hooded jacket, I was reasonably well covered up so I didn’t mind the daylight. It was a gray day anyway, with rain threatening but not yet falling. That kind of light was much easier on my eyes than direct sunlight.

  “He won’t be there yet,” I told Wright as he drove. “If he’s coming, he’ll show up after sundown.”

  “If?” Wright asked.

  “Maybe Raleigh didn’t see him and couldn’t pass along my message. Maybe he’s not interested in meeting me. Maybe he had something else to do.”

  “Maybe you’re getting nervous about meeting him,” Wright said.

  I was, so I didn’t answer.

  “You should have gotten Raleigh’s phone number. Then you could have called and asked him if he’d passed on your message.”

  “He might not tell me,” I said. “I’m not sure I’d trust him to tell me the truth on the phone.” I stopped suddenly and turned to face him. “Wright … listen, if this guy bites you, you tell him whatever he wants to know. Do that, okay?”

  He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll be letting him bite me.”

  “But if he does. If he does.”

  “Okay.” And after a moment, “You don’t want me to suffer like Raleigh did, is that it?”

  “I don’t want you to suffer.”

  He gave me a strange little smile. “That’s good to know.”

  We went on for a few minutes, then turned down the side road. By the time we reached the gate, we should have been close enough to the ruin for me to get a good scent picture of it, if only the wind had been blowing toward us.

  “Wait here,” I said when we reached the gate. “I’m going to make sure Raleigh or someone else isn’t waiting for us with another gun.”

  He grabbed me around the waist. “Whoa,” he said. “You don’t need to be shot again.”

  I was half out of the car, but I stopped and turned back toward him into his arms. “I’ll circle around and get whatever scents there are,” I said. “Stay here. Don’t make noise unless you need help.” And I slipped away from him.

  I ran around the area, stopping now and then, trying to hear, see, and scent everything. As I expected, there was no helicopter yet. Raleigh had not been near the place recently. Someone else had, but I didn’t recognize his scent. It was a young man, not of my kind, not carrying a gun. But he wasn’t there now. No one was there now.

  I went back to the gate where I’d left Wright and managed to surprise him again. He’d gotten out of the car and was leaning against the gate.

  “Good God, woman!” he said when I caught his arm. “Make some noise when you walk.”

  I laughed. “No one’s there. This whole night might turn out to be a waste of time, but let’s go in anyway.”

  We got back into the car and drove in. At the ruin, we spent our time looking though the rubble and finding a few unburned or partially burned things: a pen, forks and spoons, a pair of scissors, a small jar of buttons … I recognized everything I found until I discovered a small silver-colored thing on the ground near where Wright had piled burned wood to wall me into my shelter. It must have been under the wood that I had pushed aside when I broke out.

  “It’s a crucifix,” Wright told me when I showed it to him. “It must have been worn by one of the people who lived here. Or maybe the arsonist lost it.” He gave a humorless smile. “You never know who’s liable to turn out to be religious.”

  “But what is it?” I asked. “What’s a crucifix? I kept running across that word when I was reading about vampires, but none of the writers ever explained what it was except to say that it scared off vampires.”

  He put it back into my hand. “This one’s real silver, I think. Does it bother you to hold it?”

  “It doesn’t. It’s a tiny man stuck to a tiny “†” -shaped thing. And there’s a loop at the top. I think it used to be attached to something.”

  “Probably a chain,” he said. “Another perfectly good vampire superstition down the drain.”

  “What?”

  “This is a religious symbol, Renee—an important one. It’s supposed to hurt vampires because vampires are supposed to be evil. According to every vampire movie I’ve ever seen, you should not only be afraid of it but it should burn your skin if it touches you.”

  “It isn’t hot.”

  “I know, I know. Don’t worry about it. It’s just movie bullshit.” He went to look around the chimneys and examine broken, discolored remains of water heaters, sinks, bathtubs, and refrigerators. As I looked around, I realized that some of the houses were missing sinks and tubs, and I wondered. Perhaps people had come here when Raleigh wasn’t on guard and taken them away. Or perhaps Raleigh and his relatives had taken them. But why? Who would want such things?

  Then Wright found something outside the houses more than half buried in the ground near one of the chimneys: a gleaming gold chain with a little gold bird attached to it—a crested bird wi
th wings spread as though it were flying.

  “I’m surprised something like this is still here,” he said. “I’ll bet plenty of people have been through here, picking up souvenirs.” He wiped the thing on his shirt, then let it side like liquid into my hand.

  “Pretty,” I said, examining it.

  “Let me put it on you.”

  I thought about whether I wanted the property of a person who was probably dead around my neck, but then shrugged, handed it back to him, and let him put it on me. He wanted to. And he seemed to like the effect once it was on.

  “Your hair is growing out,” he said. “This is just what you need to decorate yourself a little.”

  My hair was growing out, crinkly and black and about an inch long, and my head was no longer disfigured by broken places. I’d had Wright trim the one patch of hair that hadn’t been burned off so that now it was all growing out fairly evenly. I thought I almost looked female again.

  “Did you ever think I was a boy?” I asked him. “I mean when you stopped for me on the road that first time?”

  “No, I never did,” he said. “I should have, I guess. You were almost bald and wearing filthy, ill-fitting clothes that could have been a man’s. But when I first saw you in the headlights, I thought, ‘What a lovely, elfin little girl. What in hell is she doing out here by herself?’”

  “Elfin?”

  “Like an elf. According to some stories, an elf is a short, slender, magical being—another mythical creature. Maybe I’ll run into one of them on a dark road someday.”

  I laughed. Then I heard the helicopter. “He’s coming,” I said. “It’s early for him to be awake and out. He must be eager to meet me.”

  “I don’t hear a thing,” Wright said, “but I’ll take your word for it. Shall I get out of sight?”

  “No. You couldn’t hide your scent from him. Let’s wait over by that largest chimney.” It was a big brick chimney that rose from a massive double fireplace. It might shelter us if our visitor decided to try to shoot us.

  The copter didn’t bother about landing in the meadow this time. I wondered why he had landed there before. Habit? Or was this stranger someone who would have come to visit the eight houses when they were intact and occupied?

  The copter, looking like a large, misshapen bug, landed in what Wright said must have once been a big vegetable garden. He had been able to identify several of the scorched, mostly dead plants. The copter crushed a number of the survivors—cabbages and potatoes mostly.

  The pilot jumped out, ducked under the rotors, and looked around. Once he spotted us, he came straight toward us. Wright, who had been checking the rifle, now stood straight, watching the stranger intently. I watched him, too. He was a tall, spidery man, empty-handed, and visibly my kind except that he was blond and very pale-skinned—not just light-skinned like Wright, but as white as the pages of Wright’s books. Even so, apart from color, if I ever grew tall, I would look much like him—tall and lean, probably not elfin at all.

  “Shori?” the man asked. I liked his voice at once, and he smelled … safe somehow. I mean his scent made me feel safe, although I couldn’t say why. Then I realized that he was looking at me, had spoken to me. And what had he meant by that one word?

  I stood away from the chimney.

  “How did you survive, Shori? Where have you been?”

  He was calling me “Shori.” I let out a breath. “You know me, then,” I said.

  “Of course I do! What’s the matter with you?”

  I breathed a little more, trying to decide what to say. The truth seemed humiliating, somehow, admitting such a significant weakness to this stranger, telling him that I knew nothing at all about myself. But what else could I do? I said, “I woke up weeks ago in a cave not far from here. I have no memory of anything that happened before then. And … I don’t know you.”

  He reached out to me, but I stepped back out of his reach.

  “I don’t know you,” I repeated.

  Off to one side, I saw Wright come to attention. He didn’t point the rifle at the stranger, he pointed it downward. He held it across his body in both hands, his right forefinger near the trigger, so that aiming it at the man would only be a matter of moving it slightly.

  The man dropped his hand to his side. He glanced at Wright, then seemed to dismiss him. “My name is Iosif Petrescu,” he said. “I’m your father.”

  I stood staring at him, feeling nothing for him. I didn’t know him. And yet he might be telling the truth. How could I know? Would he lie about such a thing? Why?

  “And I’m … Shori?”

  “The name your human mother gave you is Shori. Your surname is Matthews. Your Ina mothers were distant relatives of mine named Mateescu, but in the 1950s, when there was a great deal of suspicion about foreign-sounding names, they decided to Anglicize the name to Matthews.”

  “My mothers …?”

  He looked around at the rubble. “Listen,” he said. “We don’t have to talk here in the midst of all this. Come to my home.”

  “I lived … here?”

  “You did, yes. You were born here. Doesn’t this setting stir any memories?”

  “No memories. Only a feeling that I’m somehow connected to this place. I came here when I was able to leave the cave where I woke up, but I didn’t know why. It was as though my feet just brought me here.”

  “Home,” he said. “For you, this was home.”

  I nodded. “But you don’t live here?”

  He looked surprised. “No. We don’t live males and females together as humans do.”

  I swallowed, then asked the question I had to ask: “What are we?”

  “Vampires, of course—not that we call ourselves by that name.” He smiled, showing his very human-looking teeth, except for the canines, which looked a little longer and sharper than the other people’s, as my own did. If his teeth were like mine, they were all sharper than other people’s. They had to be. He said, “We have very little in common with the vampire creatures Bram Stoker described in Dracula, but we are long-lived blood drinkers.” He looked at Wright. “You knew what she was, didn’t you?”

  Wright nodded. “I knew she needed blood to live.”

  Iosif sighed, then spoke wearily as though he were saying something he had to say too many times before. “We live alongside, yet apart from, human beings, except for those humans who become our symbionts. We have much longer lives than humans. Most of us must sleep during the day and, yes, we need blood to live. Human blood is most satisfying to us, and fortunately, we don’t have to injure the humans we take it from. But we are born as we are. We can’t magically convert humans into our kind. We do keep those who join with us healthier, stronger, and harder to kill than they would be without us. In that way, we lengthen their lives by several decades.”

  That got Wright’s attention. “How long?” he asked.

  “How long will you live?”

  “Yes.”

  Iosif took a deep breath, then said, “Barring accident or homicide, chances are you’ll live to be between 170 and 200 years old.”

  “Two hundred … I will? Healthy years?”

  “Yes. Your immune system will be greatly strengthened by Shori’s venom, and it will be less likely to turn on you and give you one of humanity’s many autoimmune diseases. And her venom will help keep your heart and circulatory system healthy. Your health is important to her.”

  “Sounds too good to be true.”

  “It is mutualistic symbiosis. You know you’re joined with her.”

  Wright nodded. “It scares me a little. I want it to be with her, need to be with her, even though I don’t really understand what I’m getting into.” After a moment, he asked, “How long do your kind live?”

  “Long,” Iosif said. “Although we’re not immortal anymore than you are. How old do you think your Shori is?”

  “I’ve been calling her Renee,” he said. “I’m Wright Hamlin, by the way.”

  “How old is s
he?”

  “I thought she was maybe ten or eleven when I met her. Later, I knew she had to be older, even though she didn’t look it. Maybe eighteen or nineteen?”

  Iosif smiled without humor. “That would make things legal at least.”

  Wright’s face went red, and I looked from him to Iosif, not understanding.

  “Don’t worry, Wright,” Iosif said after a moment. “In fact, Shori is a child. She has at least one more important growth stage to go through before she’s old enough to bear children. Her child-bearing years will begin when she’s about seventy. In all, she should live about five hundred years. Right now, she’s fifty-three.”

  Wright opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. He just stared, first at Iosif, then at me. I knew that Wright was twenty-three, sexually mature, and aware of much that went on in the world. If Iosif was telling the truth, I was almost twice Wright’s age, and yet I knew almost nothing. Someone had taken away most of my fifty-three years of life.

  “Who did this?” I asked, gesturing at the ruin. “Who set the fire? Did anyone else survive?”

  “I wasn’t here,” Iosif said. “I don’t know who did it. And I haven’t found … any other survivors. I’ve arranged for the other people who live in this area to keep their eyes open.”

  That got my attention. “You were careless. Raleigh Curtis wasn’t just keeping his eyes open. He was going to shoot Wright. He did shoot me.”

  “Accident. He didn’t know you were one of us. If he’d seen you clearly, he wouldn’t have fired.”

  “Why would he want to shoot Wright?”

  “He didn’t know Wright was with you.”

  “Iosif, why shoot anyone over this rubble? Only the people who did this should be punished.”

  He stared at me. “Someone burned your mothers and your sisters as well as all of the human members of your family to death here. They shot the ones who tried to get out, shot them and threw most of them back into the fire. How you escaped, I have no idea, but we found the others, burned, broken … My people and I found them. We were coming for a visit, and we actually arrived before the firemen, which meant we were able to get control of them and see to it that they recalled this place as abandoned. When the fire was out, we cleaned up and covered up because we didn’t want the remains examined by the coroner. We searched the area for several nights, hunting for survivors and questioning the local humans, finding out what they knew and seeing to it that they only remembered things that wouldn’t expose or damage us. In fact, the neighbors didn’t know anything. So we didn’t catch the killers. We thought, though, that some of them might come back to enjoy remembering what they’d done. Criminals have done that in the past.”

 
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