The destiny of man is in his own soul. -Herodotus
Anatomy is destiny. -Sigmund Freud
San Francisco, The Castro District
They don’t seem like sisters. They appear generations, possibly even species apart. Asia, the eldest, is gaunt and grim, her bones prominent beneath thin, pale, taut skin. Her dress, black, long, and tight as flesh, falls like water straight to the ground. A large scissors dangles round her waist on a heavy chain. It is worn and used, but the blades gleam, sharp as endings.
Decima, the middle sister, is brown as soil, solid as earth. She sits behind a wooden table, twisting a tape measure round and round her hands.
Nona, the youngest, is beautiful. She sits before a large wooden loom. Her hands, smooth and pale as milk, flutter like doves, continually drawing woof through warp, creating intricate designs.
The sisters sit in a dim backroom of a small shop, on a dark alleyway.
“I have never woven anything like this,” says Nona. “I don’t have a pattern. I don’t know what thread to use.”
Decima frowns. She prefers plain, simple fashions.
“It is odd,” Asia says, staring at the lopsided fabric, “I’ve never seen one like it.”
San Francisco – 1986
I’m unequivocally a night person. I think sunrise looks better in reverse.
He was a morning man. You might think our love was doomed, but no, it was just the reverse. We meet at twilight and so never tire of each other.
He is crepuscular, I vespertine. Crepuscular creatures are lively at dawn and at dusk. But the vespertine do not wake until twilight – the hour of vespers.
I expand the word to mean anything that comes alive only at nightfall; neon for example, or nightlights, or my soul.
My Love is strong, healthy, with almost white-blond hair and eyes clear as a cloudless sky. He smells of sunlight. His skin is warm.
Not I. I am pale, hair black, hands cold as coffin nails.
We meet in the grey hours of transformation, when the world has lost its light but not discovered darkness. My teeth have not yet lengthened, although they are always a tad pointy: Audrey Hepburn with razor incisors, Claudette Colbert with fangs. I am not yet thirsty and my hot sun lover can bare his throat to me with no fear.
He has the strong, white, flat teeth of an exceptionally well-groomed horse. As he tosses his head in the glooming I feel the heat and see the light of a small sun. He is as close as I will ever get to daylight. I am as close as he will ever get to death. In his arms, I can imagine a sunrise without pain.
We don’t talk, there is too little time. Besides, what could he tell me that I have not learned from his being? I know that he sweats under a bare clear sky, that tiny flying insects are attracted to his moisture and his scent. I know he does not enjoy this, but I am fascinated. Insects fear me. They drop from the night and lie unmoving at my feet. Only the bats enjoy my company, bats, owls and the occasional nightjar.
My body tightens with longing even as my incisors lengthen. My Love yawns. Luckily for him our time together is almost over.
If only the night would not come, making me thirsty. Making me lust for other pleasures. If only the sun would not rise denying me my love… I imagine I could be happy. I think he could be content. But that is fantasy. I know that sun will rise and that night will come.
I never mention it, but I can’t help noticing that he has never invited me into his home. I cannot enter without permission. Though once inside, I can forever come and go at will, through keyholes or under doors.
We do not dine together. He likes pasta with garlic. I like blood. He does not give me rings of silver. Even if they did not burn my flesh I could not admire myself, because I have no reflection. He cannot marry me… at least not in a church.
We clasp each other in these few hours between dusk and dawn. Wishing that vampires really do sparkle in the sun, that flesh rots not and that love lasts. Wishing that this time will be different.
One night my Love comes too early, or maybe he stays too long.… I don’t remember, although I can still recall the intoxicating sun scent and taste the rich warmth of his blood.
My love affairs eternally end so. I always long for them to turn out differently. It’s so disheartening. If only I did not fall in love so often with these warm-blooded vessels of nutrition. I constantly swear I’ll convert. Become a celibate bloodsucker, a monastic mosquito, a vamp nun. But then I see some sun-glazed man smelling of day and it begins again.
Chemistry. Alchemy. Love Potion Number 9… Blood… locked in the body, like a coffin, like a grave, changes color in the air, binding oxygen, absorbing different wavelengths; blue blood turns to red desire.
My men end up as pale as I, but much more finite and more still. I’d weep if I had tears, but we have no water in us and no salt. We are dry ice, we creatures of the night.
You probably think that I could make my Love immortal with a bite. But it’s not that easy. First, they need to be healthy and dead, which is difficult. Then they need to have ingested some vampire blood and, lastly, within twenty-four hours, they need to drink copious amounts of human blood. My lovers are decidedly unpeckish when they’re dead. I can’t even get them to swallow. Not that I try that hard — if I’m completely honest — once they lie before me, still, pale and bloodless, I lose affection for them. I’m like an old man with a trophy wife — I’m not proud of it — but there it is.
Not that I have never changed anyone. I did, once. Jeremy was his name. I can still see his face. He was pale for a human, hair sleek as a seal’s and emerald eyed. I followed him one night. He smelled of smoke. He tasted of sorrow.
Reviving him was even more unpleasant than I’d imagined. I cut my wrist but he would not suck. I had to rub my wound against his, fusing blood to blood, marrying plasma.
From the first moment, I had been turned I had sucked eagerly. I hunted easily and with fervor. But not Jeremy, he lay limp, barely undead. I had to stun four late-night partiers and present them, unconscious and practically giftwrapped before he would drink. Even then he was ill. It was two weeks before he began to hunt on his own.
We parted; or rather, I did, disappearing one night, drawn to new blood and more finite lovers.
San Francisco — 1986
Endings and Beginnings
One midnight I go to a discothèque… a new one. They have flashing crystals, but luckily no silver. They serve drinks and finger food, but happily no garlic. On the dance floor, Sumo wrestlers, huge men, over 300 lbs. each, butt each other like hippos.
Between bouts, one lumbers outside. Quicker than a dance step I am upon him. Who would have thought that the fat man had so much blood in him? I am more than sated. While not as tender or tasty as my lovers it is nice to be so filled. Inside, I can enjoy the night without hunger pangs.
I dance with abandon, baring my white neck to the flashing disco ball.
A pale man, eyes cobalt as twilight, unfathomable as belief, joins me. He does not smell of sun or day, but of secrets. He whispers his name, “Aidan,” into my ear, tickling the fine hairs on my neck, making them rise.
I tell him mine, “Jasmine.”
Together we walk into the night, down dark streets glowing with neon, to an apartment. His apartment. He invites me in. Love has never been like this. I know it must be love because my circadian rhythms, usually so finely tuned, are silent.
We rest in each other’s arms. I do not sleep at night. But I watch him slumber and still my breath to match his, pretending, just for a while, that this will last.
I look upon his face, memorizing his perfectly carved features, imprinting this time forever in my mind. Suddenly, I realize that he is not asleep. His indigo eyes are wide open.
The only things that can kill a vampire are sun and werewolves. Not really much to boast about for a creature with supernatural power. Being staked through the heart or attacked by a werewolf will put an end to pretty much anything. Why two creatures governed by dark should be at such odds with each other is a mystery. But there it is.
Silver, garlic and crosses, while definitely not pleasant are rarely lethal. I’ve known more than a few of my kind who’ll gladly bear some pain, to wear a pair of glittering earrings or carry a silver bullet. A silver bullet, after all, is the only foolproof way to kill a werewolf. And silver is no more painful than a pair of tight stiletto heels. It’s much less painful than foot binding, circumcision or any of the myriad ways humans find to torture their own.
Aidan is no werewolf; he is a man like any other… I have the power. I know his name. He has invited me into his home.
He is beautiful — fine chiseled features, eyes so deep an indigo you can forget time in his arms. And I do. Day and dark seem of no more urgency or import to me now than to the living.
A pliable light steals across him, delicate and tender. It is much different than a sunset.
I thought I was immune to the pain love brings. Being undead should make one infinite, but even we creatures of the night have our soft spots. The sun is one, a big burning white hot one. Under his gaze I cannot flee to that good, dark night. He holds me in this new day. It burns. It scorches. It blazes onto my retina a last vision of his even flat white teeth. Who would have thought that the lust of an omnivore could be deadly?
Beginnings: Neil and Aidan
“Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness…
We only exist … in the zone where black and white clash.”
— Louis Aragon
San Francisco 1980 — Healdsburg 1961
Aidan wakes besides Jasmine. She is ash and dust. He is elegance and grace, his skin pale as pearls.
Aidan has murdered forty-five so far, more than Jack the Ripper, but fewer than Vietnam…far fewer. Still, impressive, considering he’s an army of one. No Rambo either. No heavily muscled behemoth. He is slender and lean, a dancer of death to the undead.
He is estranged from his family. His father’s people unknown, his mother’s people as fair and ruthless as he, but oh so different.
Aidan was born under a new October moon in the golden hills north of San Francisco. He is a mutt. His mother was a vampire. His father died in childbirth, bite marks still bleeding. He had gone looking for romance and found death, or perhaps death had found him. He had been seeking perfection, drawn to Aidan’s mother by her unearthly beauty. If only he’d been satisfied with someone more flawed, something more attainable, he might have survived. Nothing is as dangerous as transcendence, nothing so deadly as desire.
Vampires rarely give birth. Usually they just bite someone. They are not alive, so it is impossible for them to create life, although they can create immortality.
Aidan’s birth is much more unusual than virgin birth. Granted, human virgin birth is miraculous, but in many species of fish, lizard, insect and shark, virgin birth is the norm. It is helpful to remember that a miracle is not necessarily good, it is simply unnatural.
Some say there is an order to the universe. The earth revolves, turning day to night, summer to fall. Things sprout and die with precision. There is a master clock, perhaps a master clockmaker. If so, Aidan is an un-clockmaker. He is a crossbreed, a rare twining of DNA
He dropped from his mother cold and odd as ice in the desert. His mother gazed at the small kicking bundle, fists balled, pale and un-crying. She considered abandoning him, biting him, even leaving him in the vicinity of a church, but, instead she stayed, watching his hungry body twist and squirm. She did not know, would not know until first light, that he had already poisoned her circadian watchdogs.
Healdsburg — October 1961
Seven-year-old Neil races home from school. Summer vacation is only a week away. His feet dance with the anticipation of so much freedom so near. The field is already dry, yellow with wild barley. Hairy spikes of seeds top the grass, bushy as the tails of tiny golden foxes. They cling to Neil’s white cotton socks.
Ryan, Neil’s favorite uncle knows all about such things. “Those seeds are hitching a ride on you Neil.” Ryan had told him. “Just like the guys you see with their thumbs out on the Highway.”
“Varoom, varoom” Neil says, pretending he’s a truck picking up freeloading grains.
“They hitch rides from animals too.” Ryan had said. “It’s a great plan for wild animals, they have short fur and the foxtails fall off after a brief trip. It doesn’t work as well for pets though; their fur can be too long. Sometimes, instead of falling out, the foxtails dig into the animal’s body.”
Neil shudders, imagining the points burrowing inside his flesh. He bends to pull one of the irritating needle-sharp barbs out of his socks. At his feet lies a naked baby, unscratched, pale and bright as a cold sun. The infant is cradled in the charred arms of a black shape that resembles a human log.
Neil freezes. His heart beats fast and loud. The quiet of the meadow echoing through him like a cold, distant sea is pierced by a long, high wail. It hurts Neil’s ears. He wishes it would stop.
Large hands grip his shoulder. He twists round, breath held, heart frozen. Ron Jackson, the town Sheriff, stands behind him, solid and strong. Neil’s throat explodes with pain. Only then does he realize that the howling, so painful, so filled with fear, is coming from his own throat.
Jackson calls Neil’s mother, Alma. She comes, running through the field. She rocks him in her arms, pulling him back from nightmare.
“There, there,” she coos. “I am here now; there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Normally Neil would have objected. He is too old to be cuddled like a baby, too mature to be embraced in front of grown men. But now he wants only to hide his face in his mother’s arms and forget.
Jackson lifts the silent baby, his fingers brushing the arm of the charred figure. It crumbles at his touch. Ashes rise into the air. Cinders blacken the gold field. Nothing remains except two pointed crystals that capture the sunlight, dividing it into rainbows. Although the baby is obviously a newborn, there is no blood or afterbirth.
Sherriff Jackson takes the baby to the nearest orphanage, cradling it in his lap as he drives.
“Hey, baby,” he says softly. “Everything is alright now, you are safe.”
The baby stares up at him out of unblinking bottomless eyes of endless winter. Even though the day is sticky with heat, Jackson shivers.
The orphanage is in Healdsburg, an hour and a half north of San Francisco, embraced by golden rolling hills, surrounded by ancient, gnarled oaks. It is run by the Sisters of Perpetual Memory. It is not a cheerful place. All stark wood and white paint, bare of ornament, carpets or pillows. The Order believes the purpose of existence is to contemplate Christ’s martyrdom… continually. The only decorations, if they can be called that, are large wooden crosses which hang on every wall, in every room.
The crosses do not bother Aidan. In fact, the effect even on full blooded (or bloodless) vampires is vastly over rated. They don’t like them, but most can tolerate a cross so long as it is not staked through their heart. Nothing likes being staked through the heart.
The baby is christened Aidan. During the eighteen years that Aidan lives with the sisters, he protests only once. It is on that first day, when he is baptized and holy water touches him. The droplet sizzles as it falls, burning a small white scar, like a fallen star onto his forehead. It is his only flaw.
Doubtless the priest who baptizes him should have noticed. Doubtless the nuns gathered round the newly consecrated should have seen, but at the moment of impact, an unexpected storm darkens the sky. Lightning flashes, power surges through taut wires, the altar is cast into night. Water hisses, the baby screams. The only light is Aidan’s scar, shining like a tiny votive candle out of the shadow. Perhaps this is why the priest, blinded by sudden darkness, sees the baby as a sign of hope. Possibly this is why the nuns, deafened by thunder, imagine the infant’s wail to be the sound of faith, rising from an abyss.
Healdsburg — 1961
Loss and Longing
Neil grows up in the sleepy town of Healdsburg, only a few miles west of the orphanage of the Sisters of Perpetual Memory. He’d been a happy carefree child, hair sandy as foxtails, eyes clear blue with a cloudless nature. But, after his discovery in the field, everything changes. There are some things that mark you forever, leaving a scar no one can see. Neil cannot forget the quiet white baby lying next to the charred body. It keeps him awake most nights. When he sleeps, it wakes him screaming.
His home, which has been happy, changes.
Ryan disappears the night Neil finds Aidan, leaving only space where once was laughter, space and the small greenhouse that Ryan has filled with orchids — flowers so alien and exotic, they look like they’ve dropped from another planet. On days too hot, or nights too cold to venture out, Neil sits with Ryan in the humid room, watching the moisture gather and the walls weep, listening to the life histories of orchids, more fantastic than fairy tales.
No one talks about Ryan’s disappearance. Neil can feel secrets lurking behind closed doors. He hears the house whisper in the night.
When Neil returns from school, he runs to the greenhouse. Surely Ryan must be there. It’s not possible that he’s really gone.
The greenhouse is empty; windows damp, shelves dirty and bare. It smells of decay. The only remnants of life are the fragments of sphagnum moss that litter the floor, disintegrating into dust with the slightest touch.
“I knew they’d just die anyway,” Alma says from behind Neil. “It’s better this way. Less stench. Less clean-up.
“Ryan spent way too much time and money on plants — plants you can’t eat and flowers you can’t pick,” Alma puts a hand on Neil’s shoulder.
“Here,” she says holding out a plate, “Have a cookie — chocolate chip — your favorite.”
Neil shakes off her hand and runs into the woods.
How can Ryan be gone? Ryan— so full of life and curiosity, he could tell you about plants, and bugs, and make them more interesting than any horror story. He could reveal the history behind history, opening doors into the past like a human time machine.
Alma called Ryan ‘a rolling stone,’ and ‘a heartbreaker’. Neil wonders if that means he had rolled a stone onto someone and crushed their heart, but he can’t imagine Ryan killing anyone. Ryan didn’t even like to step on bugs.
The ground beneath Neil’s feet has ruptured. An earthquake has cleaved a meadow into a chasm while he slept leaving him stranded on a precipice, lost and alone.
Neil’s father Joseph misses Ryan, his baby brother, almost as much as Neil. Ryan was the yang to Joseph’s yin. Joseph was sturdy and unimaginative, but Ryan had been a breeze, following fancies and desires wherever they blew him. Now Joseph feels off kilter, out of balance, adrift and confused in a isolated country.
A week later Ryan’s body, or rather pieces of it, is discovered in a field. Ryan is identifiable only by two gold fillings and the treads of his shoes.
Joseph begins drinking, trying to numb his soul, to forget and find respite. Each night he comes home later and later.
“Go find your father,” Alma says, pushing Neil out the door, even though it is nightfall and he is only seven, even though he has had no supper and is hungry. Neil does not protest. Their house smells of blood and fear. It is filled with unspoken words. Neil is happy to escape. He tracks Joseph to Jay’s, the only tavern in town. Soon Neil is almost as familiar a visitor there as Joseph.
“It’s your boy again, Jo,” says the bartender whenever he sees Neil, “Time to go now.”
Neil silently holds out his hand, leading his father home like a stray dog. Some nights Joseph sings his way home, some nights he is maudlin, but more and more often he refuses to leave the bar, drinking steadily and sullenly as a winter rain.
One night on his way to the tavern, the moon rises full and bright. Out of the woods rises a howl that tickles the hair on the back of Neil’s neck. Even though he is beneath a streetlamp and only a block from home, he feels as lost and hollow as if he is falling into nothingness. He races home, not looking to either side. Crashing into the house he burrows under his covers.
“What’s wrong?” Alma asks, “Did you find your father?” Neil does not answer, he cannot speak, he is shivering as violently as if he has malaria.
Alma takes him in her arms, “Oh my poor, poor baby,” she cries, “My sweet, little boy, how could I have sent you out into the night and the dark? Let mama kiss your fears away.” But her kisses burn like lies, and the next night she sends him out again.
San Francisco — 1961
Music and Moths
Aidan never cries, even as a baby. He grows into a strange silent child, given to night wanderings. He rarely speaks. He eats little. He is beautiful, hair glossy black, eyes bottomless indigo, teeth straight and perfect. He never has a cavity. He is in fact, abnormally healthy, never catching a chill, a cold, or even getting a pimple. He has no friends. Nor is he bullied. Something about him scares the other children. If anyone had stood beside him in the crowded dormitory bathrooms or crammed changing rooms they would notice that he has no reflection. If the nuns had made him play ball in the noonday sun, as they do the others, they would see that he has no shadow. But all keep their distance.
Aidan does not mind. He does not long for friends. He is the only orphan who does not care that the sisters do not allow pets. Why would he? Any time Aidan walks by a tree, birds drop round his feet, their small feathered bodies still as leaves. Insects turn to dust and flowers wither. Creatures large or fleet enough run, the smaller burrow underground. Aidan is unmoved.
The only time Aidan shows interest is when the sisters’ ancient record player breaks down. It is not Sister Agnes’ grief that moves him, nor Sister Maria’s cry of distress. He does not care for temporal sorrow. Rather it is the expiry of that which seems immortal. Black plastic and cold metal which should eternally sing, have become as silent as bone. He glides toward the mute turntable. If the nuns had not had their eyes filled with tears they might have noticed that his feet do not touch the ground. But they are so trapped in loss that they do not even try to stop him. He does not even touch the record player before it begins to revolve. The needle presses down. Music fills the air. But the melodies are not the same. The harmonies are slightly off; all the hymns play in minor keys. They sound more like laments than halleluiahs, more like dirges than rejoicing.
When the record player wafts Ave Maria out into the night, Luna moths, wings spanning seven inches, flock round the orphanage. They hover in the air like jade dreams, before drifting lifeless to the ground.
Entomologists gather their bodies in awe. Lunas, native to Canada and the northeastern states, have never been seen as far south as Healdsburg. It is taken as a sure sign of climate change. In the twilight, bats circle, plucking the stunned insects out of the air before they even hit the ground.
Two weeks later, when the sisters sell the record player at the church bazaar, the moths disappear. But when the children are taken out for a night’s star gazing, the Lunas return, raining down on them like soft, green tears.
A Cry in the Night
When the next full moon rises, topping the trees with silver, Neil, enroute to the tavern again, hears a nightmare cry. He runs home, afraid to pause, afraid to hear velvet tread padding behind. At the door Alma is waiting, lips tight and white.
“Where is your father?” she shrieks. “You didn’t look, did you? Why are all the men in my life useless? What have I ever done to deserve this?” Her tears scald Neil’s icy cheeks.
One night, Joseph disappears. After that, Alma takes in laundry and does housekeeping at local hotels. It is slow in the winter when the fog hangs thick in the redwoods, always cold and damp.
Alma tries to branch out, hoping to supply cakes and pastries to the nearby B & B’s, but she mistakes powdered sugar for flour and her cinnamon spice cake burns, scenting the house with bitterness and disappointment. Her pie dough, which should rise light as dreams, sticks in the throat like heartache. Even the packaged custard she buys does not gel and must be flushed down the toilet.
Healdsburg — 1970
Soundtrack to Nightmare
Despite his great beauty, Aidan is never adopted for long. The nuns occasionally take him to foster homes but his silence unnerves people. He is as wordless and impossible to ignore as death. When he is placed in a home, quiet men begin beating their wives. Teetotalers start drinking. Gaunt men become gluttons. After he has left, his presence remains in the house like the scent of decay, impossible to eradicate. Two of his would-be parents commit suicide.
The only place that keeps him more than a week is that of a fix-it man, who repairs stereos and blenders. All Aidan has to do is drift near a broken object and it works again, good as new. The fix-it man’s business booms. He becomes successful. He becomes wealthy. No one seems to notice that the refurbished stereos only play in minor keys or that the small curious fingers of children get caught more often than usual in the whirling blades of repaired blenders.
One day when the fix-it man is driving home, his truck skids into the trunk of the giant oak that has arched over Dover Lane for more than one hundred years, providing shade from the sun and shelter from the rain. The fix-it man never awakens. He sinks into a coma, a sleep so like death that dreams fear to enter. Due to his recent financial success, he has enough money to afford a place in a renowned rest home in San Francisco, The Quiet Dignity Coma Care Residential Facility.
The oak’s trunk is gashed so deeply that for a month, sap leaks from its heart onto Dover Lane. It seeps into the pavement, dying it such a dark, lasting, red that even after the tree is cut down and carted away, the stain remains.
Whenever it rains, the road becomes so slick, drivers skid wildly out of control, flipping their cars, overturning in nearby fields, and occasionally sliding onto the Dover bridge and somersaulting into the shallow, rocky river below. In fact, if you take into account the auto accidents, suicides and matricide that Aidan induces, his death count would reach well into double digits.
At eighteen, when Aidan leaves the orphanage, the sisters breathe a sigh of relief. He has never been trouble. Never talked back; indeed, rarely talked at all. He is obedient, clean and scentless. The nuns can find no fault in him, but, neither can they feel affection. He makes them forget Christ and contemplate Aidan. He induces guilt. His very silence screams for attention. He is a shadow in the soul.
Healdsburg — 1976
Pity and Friendship
Neil roams the woods after school collecting mushrooms and looking for animals. He takes whatever jobs he can, wherever he can find them, giving one quarter of the money to Alma. The rest he wraps inside an old wool sock and hides it beneath a loose floorboard by his bed.
He splits logs for firewood, growing strong and muscular. After school and weekends, he works for the local veterinary. Neil has healing hands, at odds with his appearance. Wounded animals find comfort in his arms. He brings orphaned kittens, puppies and even an occasional rabbit home to foster.
“I cannot stand the smell of that stuff you feed them,” Alma says. “They are dirtying my sheets. I want you to get rid of them right now.”
Neil looks at her with steady, emotionless eyes and says nothing. Alma retreats, wondering why her life has become a series of misunderstanding and bad fortune.
On Neil’s birthday, Alma bakes him a flourless chocolate cake. She tries to be careful, reading the recipe twice through before she even begins to mix four ounces of bittersweet chocolate, butter, and eggs. But the cake is so bitter even Neil’s growing puppies, who eat spoiled refuse, will not taste it.
When there is a parent meeting at Healdsburg High, Alma goes hoping for the pity of friends. She does not realize that pity and friendship never reside under the same roof.
Over punch and cookies, the mothers chatter like quails. Only Alma’s banana bread, sour with resentment, is left untouched.
“My Jenny just spends all her time doing homework,” Sally Parsons says. “I really worry if it’s normal for her to not have more social life… but she is determined to get all A’s.” Sally sighs and opens her palms in a ‘what can you do’ gesture. Alma hates Sally and her oh-so-perfect daughter. She never has to worry about bills or wonder if the mixture in the blender contains puréed rats.
“Neil spends all this time in his room with tiny animals he brings home from the vet,” Alma says. “He even takes them to bed with him, that can’t be healthy, can it? They dirty my sheets, and lord knows, I spend enough time washing as is.
“He uses saucepans, my sauce pans, supposed to be used for humans, to make baby formula for dogs, cats and rodents. It smells horrible. Really, it makes me feel ill. Once he even got ringworm. But does he listen when I tell him to get rid of all those animals? No. He looks at me as if …”
“He loves animals — that means he’s got a good heart, dear,” Sally Parsons says, patting her hand. “You should thank God for having such a boy.”
Of course, Alma thinks, it’s easy for Sally Parson’s to bless Neil’s heart. Sally Parson’s girl would never dirty a sheet or bring home vermin. She would never boil odd concoctions late at night or ignore her mother.
“You don’t know how lucky you are to have a boy who never gets into trouble,” sighs Mrs. Jackson, the sheriff’s wife.
“And he even has a job and brings home money, I hear,” says Sara Kelly. “With my Chip, it’s all football, football, football and girls, girls, girls — you really are blessed.”
But Alma can see the pride behind Sara Kelly’s eyes. She knows Sara would never trade her football star for a boy who suckles rodents. She tightens her lips and says nothing.
San Francisco — 1986
Aidan hitches his way to San Francisco. Truckers desperate for company, or lonely men drawn by his shining beauty, pull over and throw their doors open wide. But, after only a few miles, they turn off into small towns, muttering about relatives to visit or business to attend to. Some wait in roadside diners for hours before sneaking back to their cars. They take small dirt roads, adding days to their trip, in order to avoid Aidan’s bloodless presence and bottomless eyes.
Aidan arrives in San Francisco at dusk. He is dropped off in the Tenderloin by a man desperate to be rid of him. Aidan’s presence in his car is like the scent of mortality. In the twilight, large red and blue neon breasts flash from dirty bars, igniting the night. Giant muscled men guard dark, curtained doorways.
The Tenderloin has always been a rough neighborhood, hot with neon and prostitutes. It gets its name from police captain, Alexander S. Williams, who said, “On a policeman’s salary, I can only afford chuck steak. But after transfer here, I make so much in bribes, I eat tenderloin every night.”
Most of the buildings contain single-occupancy hotels and studio apartments After the Vietnam War, refugees from Southeast Asia; Chinese from Vietnam, Khmer from Cambodia and Hmong from Laos moved in. Studio apartments became vertical villages, overflowing with entire extended families. Asian restaurants, Vietnamese sandwich shops and ethnic grocery stores blossomed. But the strip clubs remained.
Aidan, of course knows nothing of this. If he had, he would not have cared. He stands beneath the yellow and red glow of “Club Vamp” lit like a Halloween tree.
Frankie, Club Vamp’s manager, is in a hole. His current bouncer, Lou, has just staggered off the job. Lou had gotten soused and punched out a patron who’d been making eyes at a waitress that Lou fancied.
Despite Aidan’s spare frame, despite the fact that Aidan has no resume, no work history, not even an address or a telephone number, Frankie hires him on the spot. Aidan does not look like someone who would ever get drunk, or lose his head over a girl. He does not look like a fighter. Nor does he look like a bouncer. He is lean and esthetic. Yet, despite his leanness, Aidan radiates menace. Frankie thinks that this is good. It is not. Prospective clients, looking into Aidan’s fathomless indigo eyes bring no trouble… and no business. They skirt the doorway of the Vamp, trying to avoid Aidan’s gaze.
Frankie is in a bind. He does not want to lose business, nor does he fancy firing Aidan. He fears the space that seems to fall away into forever behind those eyes.
One night, a D.J. doesn’t show.
“Hey,” says Frankie smiling, his eyes move side to side searching for escape. “How’d you like to try your hand at D.J.-ing tonight?”
He reaches up to pat Aidan on the back, but stops. His hand remains flat in space as if he’s miming a wall.
He knows putting Aidan in the booth is a stupid thing to do. He knows that if Aidan breaks his equipment he cannot afford to buy more, but he must, if only for a moment, get away from those bottomless eyes.
It turns out to be a perfect solution. Behind the glass, Aidan is no more visible than a dream. And Aidan spins disks as naturally as breath. In fact, under Aidan’s fingers, the ancient stereo that has always skipped and sputtered skims smooth as a bird over water. The Vamp is loud, and its patron’s drunk, so perhaps it is not surprising that no one realizes that the songs are all slightly slow. The customers do not connect the melodies that begin to haunt their dreams with the background noise that accompanies their nightly binges. Pop tunes, so distorted by tempo, so twisted by harmonics as to be unrecognizable. They are the soundtrack to nightmare.
Healdsburg — 1976
Sometimes Neil finds a baby squirrel, possum or crow that he nurtures. Some of the babies live, most do not. Neil releases the survivors into the woods. One of the crows, though fully fledged, refuses to leave. He returns each night to Neil’s window, pecking on the glass and crowing loudly until Neil lets him in. When Neil sleeps, the crow rests on his head. Neil is awakened by needle claws digging into his head, dark green and white guano oozing thickly down his face. Cursing softly, Neil lines a cardboard box with twigs, hair from his comb, old socks and sets it on the window ledge. Neil names the crow Huck.
Now when Neil wanders the woods, looking for mushrooms or animals, Huck flies above him or perches on his shoulder. They are constant companions. In fact, Huck is Neil’s only companion. Neil has no friends and rarely dates, although due to a detachment alluring as the memory of a lover’s embrace, he is desired. He is unaware of how many girls watch him, how many dreams he has starred in, or how many hearts he has broken.
Huck often follows Neil to school or work, flying low, searching the ground for food and shiny objects. Huck is particularly fond of silver — silver coins, silver wrappers, even the tiny silver minnows sold at Chip & Bill’s Bait & Tackle. Sometimes they leap from a careless fisherman’s pail and lie twisting on the ground like fractured sunbeams, beckoning to Huck.
Neil buries the fish in the garden, letting their frail bones nourish his vegetables. That year, the marigolds that Neil plants in between his crops to ward off pests and which have always blossomed large and orange as a setting sun, have a silvery gleam to them. His green summer squash grow bigger than ever, glinting like stars in a moonless night. The squash are delicious, even raw, and melt like candy in Neil’s mouth. They are so sweet that Alma, who has begun to avoid the kitchen, makes a soup from the last of them, but when cooked, they turn bitter and tough, tasting of vinegar and resentment.
Huck also scavenges at school. Many a misplaced ring or dropped coin ends up tucked into the nest box. Neil always tries to return the jewelry, which gains him even more secret admirers. His brooding good looks, strength and faraway air have always made girls sigh. And when Neil, Huck perched on his shoulder like a noisy, ebony angel, presses a missing earring or lost necklace into outstretched hands, the girls are spellbound. More than one keeps a secretly snapped photo of Neil beside her bed. Huck objects to the division of his treasures. Cawing and hopping about, flapping his glossy wings in disgust.
“I know, I know boy, you think ‘finders keepers,’ but trust me, you’ll get more treats out of the girls if you give them jewelry.”
And it is true. Many a girl happily divides her lunch with Huck in hopes of garnering favor with his master. Neil, to make amends for stealing Huck’s stolen treasures, lets Huck keep his wrappers and coins. Sometimes he even contributes a stray dime to Huck’s hoard.
San Francisco — 1981
The Thirteenth Floor
Aidan has rented a room in a nearby dive, The Hotel Tailgate. It is a tall building. It was orange once, but now wears an overcoat of grime. Outside, drunks and beggars harass passers-by, but not Aidan. He shines like a cold earth star, beautiful and untouchable.
The Hotel Tailgate rents rooms by the day, week, or month. The manager, Marcus, is a large man, dark and hairy. His brows join together in a single line, shading suspicious, tiny, watery eyes. Thick black whorls curl out over the top of his dirty Tee shirt. They twist out of his ears and nose in dark, greasy ringlets.
When a guest is due to check out, Marcus sends in a complimentary farewell cocktail. The guests, being patrons of Hotel Tailgate, are never the type to refuse free liquor.
“He must have a touch of generosity in him after all,” they mutter.
“Will wonders never cease,” they say, raising chipped mugs in mock salute. “Free booze from Marcus-the-Miser.”
The cocktail is a Hotel Tailgate special, concocted from cheap tequila, lime, syrup and a touch of Special K. It’s guaranteed to make for a good night’s sleep and more, resulting in a very late checkout and an extra day/week/month of rent owed, depending on the lease agreement. Arguments and protests are met with rock hard retorts from Marcus’ fist. As, post-cocktail, even athletic guests, are not in prime fighting shape, the fee is usually paid.
Aidan’s apartment is a single. He shares a bathroom with his next-door roomer, Mark, and with old Mr. Flannery, who lives in the apartment across the way.
Aidan lives on the thirteenth floor, ascended by means of a creaky elevator which has always complained as antique pulleys hoist and lower. But after Aidan moves in, the elevator glides up and down on soundless cat paws. It only gets stuck once, when Mr. Flannery, who has lived in the building for almost forty years, long before it was disreputable, is traveling up to his apartment. He is trapped for almost an hour and never completely recovers. After that harrowing excursion, he refuses to get back in the elevator. Attempting to navigate the dank stairway that leads to the street, he trips and breaks his hip. Unable to care for himself and having no family willing or able to take him in, he is sent to a state facility and soon sinks into unconsciousness. A mysterious windfall enables him to be moved to a private clinic, The Quiet Dignity Coma Care Residential Facility, a discrete hospice in one of San Francisco’s best residential neighborhoods.
Aidan’s other bathroom-mate, Mark, had been an actor in light years past. He’d been handsome and vital, but that was long, long ago. Now he is a broken creature, pale and sad.
A week after Aidan moves in, Mark leaps from the window. He hangs in the air, twisting for a moment like an autumn leaf, before falling thirteen floors onto the hard, hard pavement. Miraculously, he survives. Incredibly, he is unhurt.
He awakes in the hospital. Doctors and nurses are bending over him in uniforms green as the pistachio ice-cream he loved when he was young. They are wearing caps, faces covered by masks.
They must have put some drops in my eyes, thinks Mark. He cannot close the lids. It’s probably some procedure to check my reflexes.
“I feel ok,” he says. They have him restrained, bound with cloth so soft he cannot even feel the ties.
“I’m fine,” he says again. How typical of them to ignore me, as if being a doctor makes you God.
“Really”, he says, “you can let me up.”
He is beginning to wonder if they’ll let him go or insist on holding him for psychiatric tests. Pinching and probing his mind as they are pinching and probing his body, even though, due to the numbing agents coursing through his system, he cannot feel it.
“His spinal column is completely shattered,” says one of the pistachio-suited men. “He’ll never move again.”
“Well it doesn’t much matter,” says another. “His EEG is flat. No brain activity at all. Unless there’s a miracle…”
“Wait,” Mark cries, “that’s not true. I can think. I can talk. I’m fine!” But the words might as well be echoes in the wind. The doctors turn to go. Mark tries to turn his head to watch them but he can’t
“Wait,” he screams. “I’m in here. Come back!”
The three sisters sit in the small shop where it is always dusk. Asia tightens her lips, thin as a seam. Her iron-grey hair is twisted into a tight knot that rests on the nape of her neck. Her dress lacks ornament of any kind. She wears a carpenter’s apron, the leather pockets brimming over with scissors. There are fine gold manicurist’s clippers; others sport black handles and silver blades strong as knives. There are few children’s toys with dull blades and plastic handles, colorful as jellybeans. From a chain round her waist, dangles a much-used seamstress’ shears, sharp as razors, ready for use.
Decima sits at a table; her faded jeans are shopworn. White threads stretch over sturdy knees. Her plaid flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up past her elbows, is also worn. Her clear hazel eyes contract with concentration. She is measuring a thread as insubstantial as morning light.
Nona is weaving. The pattern’s end, or perhaps the beginning, is pale pastel. It builds to a crescendo of brief wild color before descending into rain-cloud shades of grey.
“Are you cutting the thread? Nona asks.
“Just a notch, sister,” Asia says, delicately fraying the warp with a fine silver knife, “just a slight notch.”
This is an excerpt from a novel, Blood Prism, by E. E. King.
Edited by Marie Ginga
E.E. King is cohost of the MetaStellar YouTube channel's Long Lost Friends segment. She is also a painter, performer, writer, and naturalist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. Ray Bradbury called her stories “marvelously inventive, wildly funny and deeply thought-provoking. I cannot recommend them highly enough.” She’s been published widely, including Clarkesworld and Flametree. She also co-hosts The Long Lost Friends Show on MetaStellar's YouTube channel. Check out paintings, writing, musings, and books at ElizabethEveKing.com and visit her author page on Amazon.