Avenari - Chapter 2
The Cone of Uncertainty was relatively new, more the result of various accidents than careful planning. Originally, the property had been a New Age shop, selling everything from incense to astrology books. Due to poor money-management in the eighties, however, the owner had gone bankrupt and joined a convent. The Cone itself had begun as a project headed by a couple of sisters from New York City, who one day decided to bring the flavor of their city to our cold, isolated little—“practically Canadian,” they called it—locale.
Personally, I wasn’t entirely sure if their view of Marquette as “practically Canadian” could count as a flaw. I’d pretty much always considered the Upper Peninsula to be Canada’s pants, and Marquette was like a shiny belt buckle. Despite the isolation, it was a nice place to live, and the population was generally very friendly.
Regardless of the sisters’ reasoning, I couldn’t argue with good coffee.
In the beginning, the Cone had struggled. After all, the concept of a stylish café was a bit beyond the understanding of the down-home folks who lived here. It had remained this way until a disillusioned lawyer exiled from Hollywood—along with a massive savings account—decided to pool his money into creating a new, modern face for the building.
Today, it was an entity all its own, expanding into the two lots on either side and showing no signs of slowing down. No longer just another coffee shop, it had become a major hangout for almost every local between the ages of sixteen and thirty.
The twins and I entered through glass double doors beneath the blue neon sign for the café’s name, written in futuristic text emblazoned across the foreground, while spiraling white LED lights filled the background. Inside, it was warm and comforting, a welcome transition from the chilly October air.
Royal blue vinyl booths took up most of the walls, save for gaps at counters and doors. Whatever wall remained visible was soft and dimply to the touch, as though someone had upholstered it with velvet seat cushions, interrupted in places by darkly tinted circular windows.
Individual tables occupied the floor, with neon green Formica tops which glowed radioactively under the black lights, and cushy designer chairs in matching colors—whereas barstools pervaded the majority of the counter space between the four registers. Various-sized orbs hanging from nearly invisible cords of assorted lengths provided faint blue lighting, bright enough to see everything but dim enough to give each individual booth and table a sense of privacy. The sweet, thick odor of every coffee concoction ever devised by the human race perfumed the toasty atmosphere.
This was the busiest time of night for The Cone. Most of the regulars were already in, but I still saw a few new faces scattered throughout the crowd. I estimated the total room occupation at around a hundred.
“Grab our booth while I get us some drinks,” I told the twins, already headed for the register with the shortest line.
While waiting for the line to diminish, I studied the people around me and took note of who was new and who wasn’t in preparation for the game. In the other line, I spotted one who was bit younger than my physical age, with dark, careless hair overgrown past his ears, and large, deep gray eyes. He was skinny, clearly not the tough-guy type, and wore baggy clothes which accentuated not only his slight form, but also his oddly pallid complexion.
As my interest flickered, so did my mental abilities, and in a flash I knew that his name was Nick, like someone had whispered it into my ear. Further probing revealed that his health had been failing until only recently, which accounted for his physical appearance. He was what I tended to refer to as an anemone, a human trapped in one spot for his entire life, groping around for something new and exciting but finding nothing but empty space each time.
I reached the front of the line and was greeted by one of the most unpleasant people I had ever been unfortunate enough to see on a semi-regular basis.
“Oh, I thought you were gone for good,” sniffed the world’s grumpiest cashier.
I gave her an unfriendly frown, which conveyed more information than she would ever understand. She treated customers like insects. People like her weren’t even worth the effort of rehabilitation.
“Nuclear winter will take this planet before I’m ever ‘gone for good,’” I said, half to myself.
Her nose wrinkled in distaste. “What was that?”
“Cinnamocha, Coconut Rum, and Chocolate Suicide—all small,” I said flatly, watching her hands tap across the keypad. I placed a twenty on the counter and stepped aside. “Keep the change.” I was happy to shorten the encounter by abandoning the money, but she still seemed confused as to why I would allow her any kind of tip. It fascinated me.
I wasn’t really sure why Candice seemed to hate me so much. From first encounter, she had always been snippy to me. I could only guess that maybe she thought I was some kind of competition, but I usually tried to avoid getting into the minds of people like her. At this point, she was like a test subject. Every once in awhile, when I was really bored, I would intentionally do weird or outrageous things just to see how she reacted.
I didn’t have much of a life, sadly, and I didn’t get to interact with very many people on a regular basis, other than her.
I glanced over to see the twins had take possession of the booth in the farthest corner from the entrance, sitting across from each other and whispering conspiratorially. Just watching them behave like normal brothers made a smile sneak its way onto my face. It was like a scene in some sappy romantic comedy, where the wild, raucous brother kept trying to help the kinder, quiet brother get the girl.
But those years were far behind us now.
One of the mixers called my number, the kind young man from Ecuador struggling to save up for a new stereo system, and I turned back to the counter and inspected the whipped cream-topped mugs for tampering. Satisfied, I pulled out another twenty and folded it up, catching his eyes and winking.
“Make sure it has good bass,” I whispered, grinning when he stammered his thanks and hastily shoved the bill into his apron pocket. I did it partly for my own amusement, and partly to just help the poor guy out. He really was saving up, so I couldn’t help perking up his nights.
If only I could find a way to be around humans and not have to stand on the sidelines. I would have loved to make a difference without breaking every rule in the book.
Again, I saw that Nick kid over in the other line, ordering a round of iced coffees for his little posse of high school friends, and wondered why he wasn’t happier. Sure, illness was a bummer, but there was so much out there to be experienced. At least he had friends, right?
Hypocrite, my blood said with what sounded an awful lot like an amused snicker. How is that any different from what you have been doing? It tended to grow steadily more forthright when I didn’t feed, less of a tag-along and more of a devil on my left shoulder.
Balancing the tray easily on one raised palm, I wove through the forest of chairs and tables and chattering loiterers, silently telling the voice in my head that boredom was much less serious than the loss of hope. It seemed to contemplate this, retreating when I reached the booth and set the three steaming mugs on the table.
Such agreeable blood was a blessing among my kind.
“Hey!” Sam said with a grin, as sarcastic as ever. “And here I thought that all your stupid moping around like a sad little baby would make you forget all the small things.”
I took a seat beside Ivan, facing the crowded room in preparation for the game. “If you’ll recall, I’m the strongest here, so naturally I can remember your sick little chocolate fetish.”
“At least I’m not a cinna-maniac,” he said, using his spoon to press the whipped cream into the scalding, thick liquid. “Or a coco-nut,” he added for good measure, arching bewildered brows at his brother to convey his utter inability to fathom how anyone could like coconut.
“Drink your damn coffee,” I said.
He chuckled, but obeyed anyway and brought the spoon to his lips, licking the dripping coffee concoction from the black utensil.
“It still bugs me that we can’t just down these,” Sam sighed after savoring the first drops.
I mixed my own drink until the cream melted and left a pale layer of sweetness on top. “Quit whining. We’re lucky to even taste them. I have to say that it’s a relief to enjoy this much.”
“Actually, I prefer it this way,” Ivan said, spooning a few drops onto his tongue and smiling. “Drinking too fast means we don’t get to enjoy all of it.”
“So poetic.” I elbowed him lightly and sipped the succulent chocolate-cinnamon flavor of my favorite drink in the place. It washed down my tongue and filled my mouth with irresistibly heady sweetness, though I knew that if I ever tried to swallow a normal portion I’d probably end up puking my guts out. So many irritating little rules...
Something caught Ivan’s eye out in the middle of the room and he went still. “Twenty-five and married with one kid—a boy. Works at the new bagel shop—she’s wearing perfume, but I know the smell of a good bagel.”
The game was on.
“Ooh, good judge,” Sam said, playing referee by scanning the human’s mind for correct answers while Ivan and I used only the five senses we had been born with. “Lynn?”
I licked another layer of mocha from my spoon then pointed it toward the far end. “That chick in white: sixteen and juggling two boyfriends and a job at...”—I sniffed the air—“Burger…no, wait, it’s Wendy’s. Also, she wears glasses with one of the guys and contacts with the other. The pores on her nose are all closed up.”
Sam chuckled, “Way to get the gory details. Anything you want to add, bro?”
“One of her boyfriends is a certified nerd,” he said, smirking at me in challenge.
Lick. “Boyfriend number two, the guy next to her, is filthy rich—but she doesn’t know so she pays for everything because she thinks he’s pretty. He just goes along for the ride, the jerk.”
Ivan’s smirk faded as he looked toward the other side of the room. “Really?”
His brother sighed in disdain. “Crap, Ivan, I’m betting on you! Get it together, man!”
“That’s okay. We have lots of time to even up the score: Lynn, one; bro, zilch.”
This went on for about three hours as we sized up almost every newcomer, judging their ages and occupations and family life, then probing deeper and deeper until one of us slipped or admitted defeat. We called it “Hazard the Guess” when humans weren’t listening—which they usually weren’t. We always made sure to speak below the level of human hearing, only coming back up when we knew for certain that nobody could misinterpret our words.
I led by two points, but later in the game Ivan got his second wind, chasing right behind and keeping a pace even with mine while Sam cursed himself for betting against me.
“Okay,” Sam groaned at last when we reached a tie. “This next one’s my pick, and it’s a really good one.” He scooped up the last of his chocolate-on-chocolate concoction before continuing, “For the game, I pick that kid over there in the baggy clothes.”
“Which one?” Ivan asked, scanning the crowd. “There are about fifteen to choose from.”
“Oh, you idiot—the one in dark blue! You don’t have to turn off the telepathy with your own brother.” He slid his empty mug and saucer to the side in exasperation.
“Ah, I see him...and I’m not an idiot, idiot.”
I located the kid and frowned. It was Nick. I’d been wondering when he might pop into our little game.
“I’ll start this one,” I offered, splitting up their little scuffle.
Ivan smiled obligingly. “Proceed.”
“Alrighty then. He looks like a Nick; eighteen, single, and unemployed. His parents aren’t separated, but may as well be, and he’s an only child.”
“Crap, she got a name right?!” Sam uttered a string of Russian curses under his breath. “Ivan!” He glared menacingly at his twin.
“Sheesh, give me a break!”
“You don’t understand! I don’t have five hundred dollars!”
Ivan rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “And how is that my problem?”
I interrupted before it became ridiculous, “Quit fighting and play the game, already.”
His eyes rolled down to me, then traced over to Nick. “He lives with his mom while his dad takes long business trips. Those kids aren’t his friends—they’re buffer to keep him from looking like a complete loser.”
Frowning, I watched the poor guy while he sat off to the side at one of the tables with his head on a fist, listlessly observing his surroundings like an old dog on his last leg.
“He’s depressed, but no one notices,” I murmured, unable to look away. “He’s one of the few who eventually slip through the cracks and disappear forever.”
“His blood is very weak,” Ivan added, sounding surprised. “I just caught the scent. It’s as thin as water—probably would have to drain him to get any effect—leukemia, I suspect.”
“Ugh, morbid.” I smacked his arm. “Be nice. The poor kid’s in a bad way.”
“No kidding,” muttered Sam, clearly utilizing all of his mental abilities to comb Nick’s mind. “Now finish the game! Chop-chop! The suspense is killin’ me.”
I snorted. “Nothing short of nuclear apocalypse could get rid of you, damn cockroach.”
He chuckled and folded his arms haughtily. “Oh, I think I’m flattered, but the hero worship is unnecessary, little underling.”
“Don’t call me little. I’m smack at the average mark—a hundred and sixty centimeters tall, even—permanently. Don’t go deluding yourself now with aspirations of world domination.”
“Who said anything about the world? What if all I want is you, eh?” A quick, wily smirk planted itself on his face while his eyes glittered with suppressed laughter. He loved teasing me about the fact that his brother and I had once been a couple.
“Huh, I believe you’ve missed the mark, old timer. Ivan beat you to it years ago, and it’s been years still since all of the humanity-bound fun stopped applying to us. Ivan, do you think Alzheimer’s can affect mentally unsound vampires?”
I looked up at my friend and saw that he was frowning deeply, staring hard at Nick again. “Ivan, what’s up?”
He blinked several times in rapid succession, then turned to me with a worried crease in his otherwise smooth, pale brow. “He’s going to kill himself. I heard him.”
A shock snapped down my spine. “Eh? Who, Nick?”
He returned to staring, murmuring as though caught in a trance:
“Tomorrow night, his mom won’t be home, as usual—girls’ night out or something. His dad’s on a business trip to Taiwan for the month...I can’t believe he’s planning it out loud!”
My eyes narrowed of their own accord. “How is he going to do it? What time?”
“How? Painkillers. His mom has migraines, and a lot of prescriptions. I can’t tell what time. Maybe when his mom plans to leave. The bars are most active around ten.”
This was certainly news. He was lost, already committed to dying and leaving behind the mortal coil, so to Shakespeare. This opened possibilities, indeed. Perhaps...
“Game point goes to Ivan!” Sam cheered gleefully, slapping his hand palm-up on the table in front of my mug. “That’s five hundred smackers, loser!” He could be such a cold-hearted twit sometimes, and this was one of the rare moments when I was in no mood for his inappropriate outbursts.
“Shut up,” I said. “You’ll get your winnings when I’m good and ready.”
He recoiled in mock terror. I could sense a spout of Elizabethan coming on. “O mighty fledgling of ancient Simone, ‘twere not mine wish to impart offense upon thee. ‘Twas folly to assume such trait’rous thoughts! Wouldst thou forgive thy humble servant of the night?”
My eye twitched in his general direction, exceedingly glad that we could keep below the ambient volume and still hear each other. “Keep it up, and I’ll take my meal from you, ass-hat.”
He scoffed dismissively at my threat. “Please, spare me the melodrama. He’s just some punk kid with no future. Better he offs himself now before further depleting the limited natural resources of far more deserving individuals. Besides, what are you going to do about it? You know the rules better than any of us: one meal per night—less if we can manage, avoid prolonged social contact, and under no circumstances interfere with the natural order. As I recall, you helped Simone devise our chains.”
“How can you call that natural?” I hissed. “Suicide isn’t natural! It’s stupid!”
“It’s a perfectly normal human mechanism!” he argued right back. “For millennia, it was considered the polite thing to do when you were dishonored or became obsolete, but modernism invented medicine to cure illness and psychologists to pick apart the human mind. Only lately has it become taboo.”
“Or maybe you’re just an ass-hat.”
He paused to just frown at me. “Lynn, what the hell does ‘ass-hat’ mean?”
“It means you,” Ivan answered for me. “You’re being an inconsiderate fool.”
“And you’re a bleeding heart,” his brother retorted. “Please, Lynn, enlighten me. What do you intend to do about this kid? Are you going to defy Simone’s rules and interfere?”
I frowned at my Cinnamocha. What, indeed? What sort of punishment would I incur if I disobeyed Simone? Then again, which was the lesser evil? My mores refused to accept that turning a blind eye to this kid’s self-imposed fate was the lesser evil. Hell, humans were my food, and I still cared about them. I would never be able to live with myself if I stood on the sidelines while this young man took his own life.
But, that being the case, what could I do about it?
Sam let out an exasperated grumble and stood abruptly. “Philistines, the both of you!” This time, he was loud enough to earn himself a few uncertain stares from the chattering crowd. He snatched up his empty mug and proceeded to bring it over to the counter.
“Um, how does that make us a couple of Philistines?” asked Ivan, staring after his brother in consternation and making sure that the humans became distracted by other things.
I shrugged. “He’s obsessed with the morbid from a scientific standpoint, but he still thinks that there’s an artistic aspect to outdated traditions. He’s a total nut, that brother of yours.”
He smiled and cast a sidelong glance my way. “I still have my doubts as to whether or not we’re related. However, I have to ask: what are you going to do? You don’t know that kid.”
“I don’t know anybody,” I said, pouting a little and licking off my spoon. “That’s part of my dilemma. I want to help him, but when was the last time I conversed with anyone other than you or the others?”
“Well, it’s not as if we’re like them. I wouldn’t know where to begin, conversation-wise.”
“My point, exactly. Plus, there’s apparently a time constraint on this.” Dammit, I was going to worry constantly until sunrise.
“Did you ever consider that maybe you have no choice but to ignore it? Don’t get me wrong,” he added quickly when I shot him an enraged glare. “I agree with your philosophy, but what if you saved him and he talked? What if Simone ended up having to kill him, anyway? You know he’s against it, but he does what he has to for our protection.”
“I do know...but I’ll feel guilty forever if I don’t at least try.”
He sighed and wrapped a supportive arm around my shoulders. “You know how we feel, and you know that we completely lack the willpower to deny you. I won’t say anything to Simone, and I’ll coerce my other half into doing the same—probably through blackmail. If Simone finds out anyway, however...”
He let it hang, the only variable in the problem. Simone was practically my father, and I respected him immensely. Going against his explicit orders wasn’t my favorite hobby.
I would never lose my inner child, but I was mature enough at this point to know the difference between harmless games and dangerous choices. The question now was whether or not I could use this opportunity to make some much-needed changes in not only Nick’s life, but my own as well—without getting into trouble.
Once Sam returned, we hung out until most of the people had gone, with Ivan and me finishing our drinks and taking as long as we felt like. I didn’t want to rush. I didn’t want to sit around uselessly back at the Manor for five hours. The sooner the sun rose, the sooner it would set, and the sooner I could put my plan into motion.
* o * o *
We didn’t need to alert Simone to our presence when we returned. It was almost sunrise, so the other three were already at rest, but Simone’s bloodline was gifted with the capacity for staying up until the fiery ball actually began to peek over the edge of the horizon. As his fledgling, I also had this ability, which only aggravated me further on nights like this when the only thought in my mind was focused on that relieving time-skip.
“You two should go to rest,” my Maker told the twins as he descended the wide marble grand staircase. I had sensed his presence, and wasn’t at all surprised to see him waiting for us, already wearing the fine wool pants and sweater set which he used as resting clothes.
“Spoilt rotten,” I thought I heard Sam grumble as he headed toward a door in the far corner of the living room. It led to the second basement, where he and Ivan rested during the day. The entrance to the first basement had been converted from one of the coat closets on the first floor, and was where kept our mementos and albums alphabetized under lock and key.
Ivan hesitated and planted a gentle kiss on top of my head. “Rest well,” he whispered, hugging me briefly before following his brother like a fleeting shadow.
He would always be there for me. I felt like an idiot for making him worry.
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” Simone said. “Everybody is entitled to solitude, should one choose it. But it is our job as a family to bring you to your senses when necessary.”
“Yeah, but what about the people who have no choice? I can’t imagine life without people who care about me. The world is a cold place.” I took his arm and pressed my cheek to his stone-solid shoulder. My hungry blood calmed in his presence. He was the source. He was the master. If he willed me to feel the pangs more sharply, he could make it happen, but I trusted him with my life. I trusted the father of my second life.
“You could not imagine the extremes to which loneliness can take a person, my little one,” he sighed. He was the only one who could call me “little” and get away with it. “There are those with no one on this earth close enough to trust. Shimaren who were once good, but turned wicked because the weak feared their power.”
“Shimaren,” I said groggily, feeling the sun begin its climb up the side of the planet. So close. “Why don’t humans call us that? I feel like I’m the only one who knows the back story…though, I suppose that doesn’t count when I never get to meet new people.”
“Because we left no written records available for human perusal. Today, very few fledglings are aware of the old language, and the Brood Manors stopped making it mandatory centuries ago.” He began to lead me away up the steps, toward my room. “I taught you what I know because this is the work I do for Ivanarke. Perhaps you will one day follow my footsteps.”
“Huh...Simone, can I rest with you today? I don’t think I should go back to my room.”
He gave me an uncertain look. “You have not fed. Tomorrow you will be ravenous. Your own room will help you relax.”
“Please? I don’t want to be left alone. I don’t want to wake up wanting to be alone.” I pleaded with my eyes, clinging to his sleeve like an overzealous toddler. It didn’t always work, but Simone had a soft spot for me. No one else got away with the amount of havoc I created.
After the briefest pause, he gave up. “Very well. On one condition, however: I want you to do me a favor tomorrow night.”
I brightened. “Really? Anything! You name it, I’ll do it.”
“Good. I’ll tell you about it when the time comes, but for now please go get dressed. Quickly—the sun is near.”
I hurried off to change into my nightgown, mildly disconcerted by the sharp contrast between my room and the rest of the manor. The large chamber seemed so dark and isolated compared to what was right outside the door, done in shades of red and black. It felt more like a dragon’s den than a bedroom.
Simone’s room was white and golden, with his solid diorite sarcophagus set in a customized mechanism which sealed it inside the wall during the day. He was old-fashioned, like most ancients who lived in modern times. Coffins weren’t a necessity, and I didn’t like the somber imagery. I had blackout curtains for a reason; I just slept in my own bed.
Occupying the room itself was a richly carved oak desk and a matching bed and furniture, all of which had been around since at least the 1800’s. He preferred older things, so this was his version of keeping up with the times, though the desk outdated even me.
His room always made me feel young again. Wrinkles weren’t the only thing that could make a person feel old, as I had come to understand during my life as a Shima. Time itself carried the weight of age, which was the primary reason why ancients were usually so stiff and jaded. I had yet to meet an ancient as animated as the twins and I were. I would have loved to, but visits were rare these days, and our territory was protected so that such people couldn’t enter without Simone’s explicit permission. He had friends in high places, so to speak—friends who could conjure protective barriers against our own kind and give him control over admission.
“Is there anything else you have to do before we settle down?” he asked knowingly, pressing a concealed button on the underside of the desk. It started the silent mechanism, which slowly brought the sarcophagus into sight and raised the lid high enough for a person—or vampire—to slip through.
I stood to the side, frowning slightly. “Well...”
“Um, may I have some of your blood? I know you don’t like to share because it increases my strength too quickly by your standards, but it’s whispering again. It’s quiet whenever you let me take from you.”
He smiled fondly. “It’s an incredibly rare power you have developed.”
I fidgeted, humbled by his compliment. “Yes, well, it has its uses. I can resist the thirst, but it doesn’t change the fact that I feel like a fish out of water if I resist for too long. I just don’t want to make a mistake tomorrow night when I go hunt.”
“So you have at last decided to break your fast?”
I smirked. “Yeah, I’ll have breakfast tomorrow.”
“You must do this quickly, then. Sunrise is almost upon us.”
Amazed that he had actually given me permission, I walked over to him in a daze and stared when he knelt down on one knee, freely offering his throat.
The blood sighed, releasing its stranglehold on my thirst. In an instant, I was overwhelmed with total, arrant need. Bloodlust was the only thing left—normal lust was a ghost of its former self, limited to fraternal and filial affection while the blood flowed in me.
My heart sped, and suddenly I had my arms around his shoulders and my lips pressed to his carotid. The cold pulse beat slowly beneath his skin, but the powerful scent beckoned to me. My veins tightened to the point of pain, but it was the pain of satisfaction, of knowing that I was millimeters away from what I wanted most. I could almost see it through him, just beneath the surface. The scent of power itself emanated from his skin.
And then I drew back my lips, biting deeply and groaning softly when the first gush of cool blood washed down my throat. It flowed into my veins and filled my aching limbs with marvelous satisfaction. It was as though I had been doing backbreaking labor all day long, and now I could take a hard-won bath in cool water to ease my tired muscles.
As soon as the blood reached my mind, the link closed around me, spilling me into darkness for a brief moment before opening me up to his memories.
Simone was always cautious with his memories. In the beginning, he had often told me that a deluge of memories from an ancient could easily send my young mind into a downward spiral, forcing me to experience thousands of years in only a few seconds. It might push me to the brink of madness. Handling the surge of power simple enough, but if my mind aged too soon, my will to live could fade and abandon me to an eternity of emptiness.
I accepted this, and took what memories he did offer with gratitude. In reality, he gave very little about his past, but I was content to live harmoniously by his will.
I drank deeply, relishing the sharp, coppery taste for as long as I could before gradually withdrawing my fangs from his throat and resting my chin on his shoulder, limp as a doll and languid under the blood’s spell. I licked my fangs, those little diamond razors that offered a world of power and darkness, and smiled to myself. Being a vampire wasn’t all bad, I supposed.
I barely noticed when he gathered me into his arms and arranged me in the sarcophagus. Then he settled down beside me, holding me close to his steady heartbeat.
“Rest well, Lynn,” he murmured.
“I love you, Simone,” I said tiredly.