The transformation has worked and I am indeed a vampire again. Yet I am different, in a variety of ways, from what I was before. It was largely Yaksha's blood that filtered the sun's rays into my aura, and no doubt that is the main reason for the great increase in my strength. If I could jump fifty feet in the air before, I can leap a hundred now. If I could hear a leaf break and fall a mile away, now I can hear an ant crawl from its hole at twice that distance. My sense of smell is a wonder; the night air is an encyclopedia of fragrant information to me. And my eyes are like lasers. Not only can I see much farther than before, I feel the fire in my gaze, and I seriously doubt if even Kalika can withstand the power of it. Yet these refinements are not confined to strength and power. There is something else that has entered my life, something that I have never known before. I don't even have a word for it. I just feel--lucky, as if good fortune will smile on me. A white star seems to shine over my head, or maybe it is blue. I have to wonder if this is the effect of what I added to Yaksha's blood.
I am confident as I race toward the pier.
Santa Monica Beach, by the pier, is deserted as I drive up. I find that fact curious; it is, after all, only ten in the evening. The night is cold, true, but I have to wonder if there is another force at work. It is almost as if a psychic cloud hangs over the area, a fog of maya wrapped in astral matter. I clearly sense the force and my confidence wavers. For only my daugh?ter could create it, and it is like nothing I have ever seen before. It seems to suck up life itself, which is why people have shunned the place. As I park my car down the block from the pier, I see not a soul. They may all be in their homes, trying to explain to their children that nightmares are not real. I myself feel as if I'm moving through a dream. My newly regained powers are physically exhilarating, but my dread of confronting Kalika is a heavy burden.
I see them, the two of them, at the end of the pier.
Seymour is looking out to sea. Kalika is nearby, in a long white dress, feeding the birds crumbs of bread. I am a half mile distant yet I see their every feature. Seymour pretends to be enjoying the view but he keeps glancing at Kalika. The muscles in his neck are tight; he is scared. Yet he appears unhurt and I am grateful for that.
Kalika is a mystery. There is an almost full moon, which shines through her long black hair like silver dust blowing on a black wind. As she feeds the birds, she is fully focused on them as if nothing else has greater meaning to her. This is a quality I have noticed in Kalika before. When she is doing something, nothing else occupies her mind. No doubt when she opened Eric's throat she was with him a hundred percent. It is a sobering thought given the fact that she has a hostage beside her. Kali and her string of skulls. Will my daughter have three fresh ones to add to her necklace before the night is over?
I think of Paula, who caught a cab from the hospital. Running out into the night with twenty thousand dollars in cash and a beautiful baby boy wrapped in a hospital receiving blanket. All because a new friend told her she was in danger. Then again, she had her dreams to warn her. Odd how the old man she described in her dream looked like the guy who was guarding the ice-cream truck.
"You look very nice tonight. But I know you're in a hurry."
Who was that guy?
It is a mystery that will have to be solved another time.
I make no effort to hide my approach. I know it would be useless to do so. Nevertheless I move as a human moves. My steps are tentative, my breathing tight. The muscles of my face are pinched with anxiety and my shoulders are slumped forward in defeat. Yet my performance goes unheeded as Kalika continues to feed the birds and doesn't glance up until I am practically on top of them. I pause twenty feet short of the end of the pier. By this time Seymour is looking at me with a mixture of hope and terror. He cannot help but notice I don't have the child with me. The sight of Eric's spurting arteries must have dug deep into his brain. He has little of his usual confi?dence, although he struggles to make up for it. He forces a smile.
"I'm glad you're not late," he says, and gestures to the moon, which was full the previous night, when Paula's child was born. "Lovely evening, isn't it?"
"I am here," I say to Kalika. "Let him go."
She stares at me now, a handful of pigeons still pecking at the crumbs beside her sandaled feet. Her long white dress--I have never seen it before--is beautiful on her flawless figure, the silky material moving in the moonlit breeze, hugging her mature curves. The birds scatter as she brushes her hands and slowly rises.
"I did not think you would bring the child," she says calmly.
"But I came myself. Release Seymour."
"Why should I?"
"Because I am your mother and I'm requesting this. That should be reason enough."
"He's young. He should not be brought into our affairs."
At that Kalika smiles faintly. "I am young as well, Mother. I should be forgiven any indiscretions I might have committed during my short life."
"Do you need my forgiveness?"
"I suppose not." There is one bird that continues to eat at her feet. Kalika bends back down, plucks it into her hands, and straightens. She strokes the pigeon's feathers and whispers something in its ear. Then she speaks to me. "You should know by now that it's not a good idea to lie to me."
"You force me to lie to you," I say. "Your complaint is absurd."
"Still, it's your habit. You have lied through the ages. You see nothing wrong in it."
"I would have told a million lies to have saved that boy's life." I add, "But you must know I hate to lie to those I love."
Kalika continues to stroke the bird. "Do you love me, Mother?"
She nods in approval. "The truth. Do you love Seymour?"
"Would you be upset if I ripped off his head?"
"I hope this is not a trick question," Seymour mutters.
"You must not hurt him," I say. "He's my friend, and he's done nothing to you. Let him go now and we can talk about the child."
Kalika is once again the master manipulator. She holds up the pigeon. "What about this bird? Should I let it go? Just let it fly away and complete this particular birth? You should know, Old One, that it doesn't matter if I do or if I don't. Whenever the bird dies, the bird will simply be reborn. It is the same with humans. If you kill one, it will in time be reincarnated in another body. Perhaps Eric and Billy will both be reborn in better conditions. Eric was not in the best shape when he died." She pauses and coos in the bird's ear again. "What do you think, Mother?"
There is something disturbing in her question, in her examples, besides the obvious. Maybe she is honestly trying to tell me something about her inner state, who she is, what she really is. It is said many times in the Vedas that whenever a demon dies in Krishna's hands, that demon gains instant liberation. But there are fewer books written about Kali's incar?nation, her many exploits; and I am not yet ready to accept that my daughter is in fact the real Kali. Of course, I could ask her directly but the mere thought of doing so fills me with apprehension. Many things do: the way she holds the bird close to her mouth; her quick glances at Seymour; the steadiness of her gaze as she studies me, missing nothing. It is impossible to gauge what she will do next, and when she will do it. I try as best I can to answer her, trying to think what Krishna would say to her. Really, I am no saint; I cannot preach morality without sounding like a hypo?crite.
"There is a meaning behind each life," I say. "A purpose. It doesn't matter if humans or birds live thousands of lives before they return to God. Each life is valued. Each time you take one, you incur bad karma."
"That is not so." She brushes the bird against the side of her face. "Karma does not touch me. Karma is for humans, and vampires."
She reproaches me, I realize, for being exactly what I tried not to be. "These last few centuries I have seldom killed without strong reason," I say.
"Eric and Billy died for a reason," she says.
"For what reason did Eric die?"
"To inspire you."
I am disgusted. "Do I look inspired?"
"Yes," she says. "But you did not answer my earlier question, about Seymour's head." She takes a danger?ous step toward him. Seymour jumps and I don't blame him. But I catch his eye; I don't want him to make any more sudden moves. Kalika continues, "Would you be upset if I ripped it off?"
I have a choice to make and I must make it quickly. Before she can move any closer to Seymour, I can attack. If I leap forward, I can kick her in the nose and send her nasal cartilage into her brain and kill her. Seymour wouldn't even see my blow. Kalika would simply be dead. But I am still twenty feet from my daughter, not an ideal distance. She could react in time and deflect my blow. Then, before I could recover, Seymour would die.
I decided to wait. To be patient.
I wonder if my patience is grounded in my attach?ment to Kalika.
She is my daughter. How can I kill her?
"Yes," I say. "You know I would be upset."
Kalika squeezes the pigeon gently. "Would you be upset if I ripped this bird's head off?"
I am annoyed. "Why do you ask these silly questions?"
"To hear your answers."
"This sounds like a trick question," Seymour warns.
I hesitate. He's right. "If there is no reason to kill it, I would say you should leave it alone."
"Answer my question," she says.
"I would not be upset if you killed the bird."
Kalika rips the bird's head off. The tearing bone and tissue make a faint nauseating sound. Blood splashes over the front of my daughter's pretty white dress. Seymour almost faints. Casually, while still watching me, Kalika throws the remains of the bird over her shoulder and into the dark water below. It is only then I catch a glimmer of red light deep inside her pupils. The fire at the end of time, the Vedas call it. The smoky shadow of the final twilight. Kalika knows I see it for she smiles at me.
"You look upset, Mother," she says.
"You are cruel," I say. "Cruelness without rational thought is not far from insanity."
"I told you, I have my reasons." She wipes the blood on the left side of her face. "Tell me where Paula Ramirez's child is."
I glance at Seymour. "I can't," I say.
"Damn," he whispers, and he's not being funny.
"Why do you assume I am going to harm this child?" she asks.
"Because of your previous erratic behavior," I reply.
"If I had not killed Billy, you would not be here tonight. If I had not killed Eric, you would also not be here tonight."
"I didn't need Eric's death to survive the last twenty-four hours."
Kalika teases without inflection. "Really?"
She may be hinting at the fact that I am now a vampire, that I would never have gone through with the transformation without the motivation Eric's hor?rible murder gave me. She would be right on that point, if it is what she is hinting at. But I continue to hope she thinks I'm helpless. I feel I must attack soon, favorable position or not. The bird's death has not increased my faith in her nonviolent nature. She waits for me to respond.
"I cannot trust you around Paula's baby," I say, taking a step closer. "Surely you must understand that." When she doesn't answer right away, I ask, "What did you do to the police?"
"I fulfilled their karma."
"That's no answer."
Kalika moves closer to Seymour, standing now five feet from his left side. He can't even look at her. Only at me, the creature who saved him from AIDS, who inspires his stories, his savior and his muse. His eyes beg me for a miracle.
"What if I promise you that I will not hurt the child," Kalika says. "Will you take me to him?"
"No. I can't."
She acts mildly surprised. But there is no real emotion in her voice or on her face. Human expressions are merely tools to her. I doubt she feels anything at all, while eating or reading, walking or killing.
"No?" Kalika says. "Have I ever lied to you before?" She moves her arms as if stretching them. Blood drips from her sharp fingernails. In a microsecond, I know, she can reach out and grab Seymour and then it will all be over. She adds, "I am your daughter, but I do not have your habit of lying."
"Kalika," I plead. "Be reasonable. You refuse to tell me why you want to see this child. I can only conclude that you intend to harm it." I pause. "Is that not true?"
"Your question is meaningless to me."
I take another step forward. She is now only twelve feet away, but I want to be closer still. "What is so special about this child?" I ask. "You can at least tell me that."
She is subtly amused. "It's forbidden."
"Oh, and killing innocent people isn't? Forbidden by whom?"
"You wouldn't understand." She pauses. "Where's Ray?"
I freeze in midstep. "He's gone."
She seems to understand. "He was forbidden." She glances at Seymour, smiles at him actually as a pretty girl might while flirting. But the words that come out of her mouth next are far from nice. They sound like a warning. She says, "Certain things, once broken, are better left unfixed."
The decision is made for me. Something in her tone tells me she is going to reach for Seymour and that his head will go over the railing as the bird's did--and with the same emotional impact on Kalika, I attack.
My reclaimed vampiric body is no stranger to me. I have not needed time to readapt to it. Indeed it feels almost more natural than it used to. But I definitely decide to stick with an old technique of killing--the nose into the brain thrust. It is straightforward and effective. My only trouble--as I tense my muscles to respond--is that I still love her.
Kalika begins to reach out with her right arm.
I leap up and forward. My lift off the ground is effortless. If I were taped and the video later slowed down for viewing, the human eye would assume that gravity had no effect on me. Of course this is not true--I cannot fly. Only strength is responsible for the illusion. I whip toward Kalika, my right foot the hammer of Thor. I cock it back--it will soon be over.
But somewhere in the air I hesitate. Just slightly.
Probably it makes no difference, but I will never know.
The red flames smolder deep in Kalika's eyes.
My divine hammer is forged of crude iron ore. My daughter grabs my foot before it can reach her face. Real time returns, and I begin a slow horizontal fall, helpless as she grips my foot tighter. Seymour cries in horror and my own cry is one of excruciating pain. She has twisted my ankle almost to the breaking point. I hit the asphalt with the flat of my back and the back of my skull. Kalika towers over me, still holding onto my boot. Her expression is surprisingly gentle.
"Does it hurt?" she asks.
I grimace. "Yes."
Kalika breaks my ankle. I hear the bones snap like kindling wood in a fire, and a wave of red agony slams up my leg and into my brain. As I writhe on the ground, she takes a step back and patiently watches me, never far from Seymour's side. She knows vam?pires. The pain is intense but it doesn't take long before I begin to heal. The effect of Yaksha's blood on my system no doubt speeds up the process. In two minutes I am able to stand and put weight on the ankle. But I will not be kicking her again in the next few minutes, and she knows it.
Kalika grabs Seymour by the left arm.
His mouth goes wide in shock.
"I will not ask you again what I want to know," she says.
I try to stand straight. Insolence enters my tone. "You know what bugs me most about you? You always hide behind a human shield. I'm here and you're there. Why don't we just settle this between us? That is, if you've got the guts, girl."
Kalika seems to approve of my challenge. She smiles and this particular smile seems genuine. But I'm not sure if it is good to push her into too happy a mood for she suddenly readies over, picks Seymour up with one hand by grabbing his shirt, and throws him over the side of the pier. The move is so unex?pected that I stand stunned for a second. I hurry to the railing in time to see Seymour strike the water. She threw him hard and high--he takes a long time to return to the surface. He coughs as he does so and flays about in the dark but he seems to be all right I hope he is not like Joel who couldn't swim.
"Seymour!" I call.
He responds with something unintelligible, but sounds OK.
Kalika stands beside me. "He has a sense of hu?mor," she says.
"Thank you for sparing him." The pier is long and the water is cold. I hope he is able to make it to shore. I add, "Thanks for giving him a chance."
"Gratitude means nothing to me," she says.
I am curious. "What does have meaning to you?"
"The essence of all things. The essence does not judge. It is not impressed by actions, nor does it reward inaction." She shrugs. "It just is, as I am."
"I can't tell you where the baby is. I deliberately told Paula not to tell me where she was going. They could be in Canada by now or in Mexico."
Kalika is not disturbed by my revelations. "I know there is something you are not telling me. It relates to future contact with the child. You told Paula one other thing besides what you just said. What was it?"
"There was nothing else."
"You are lying," she says.
"So I lie? What are you going to about it? I'm not going to tell you anything. And if you kill me you still won't get the information you want." I pause. "But I can't believe that even you would kill your own mother."
She reaches out and touches my long blond hair with her bloody hand. "You are beautiful, Sita. You have lived through an entire age. You have out-smarted men and women of all nationalities, in all countries and times. You even tricked your creator into releasing you from his vow to Krishna."
"I did not trick Yaksha. I saved him."
She continues to play with my hair. "As you say, Mother. You have faith in what you know and what you remember. But my memory is older, far older, and death or the threat of death is not the only means of persuasion I have at my disposal." She tugs lightly on my hair. "You must know by now that I am not simply a vampire."
"What are you then?"
She takes my chin in her hand. "Look into my eyes and you will see."
"Look, Mother." She twists my head around and catches my eyes. There is no question of my looking away. It is not an option. The blue-black of her eyes have the pull of a black hole, the grip of the primordi?al seed that gave birth to the universe. The power that emanates from them is cosmic. They shine with colors the spectrum has forgotten. Yet they are such beautiful eyes, really, those of an innocent girl, and I fall in love with them all over again. From far away I hear my daughter's voice, and it is the voice of thunder echoing and also the mere whisper of a baby falling asleep in my lap in the middle of the night. "Behold your child," she says.
I look; I must look.
There are planets, stars, galaxies, and they are seemingly endless. Yet beyond them all, beyond the backbone of the sky, as the Vedas say, is the funeral pyre. There sits Mother Kali with her Lord Kala, who destroys time itself. As each of the planets slowly dies and each sun gradually expands into a red dwarf, the flames that signal the end of creation begin to burn. They lick the frozen asteroids and melt the lost comets. And there in that absolute space Kali collects the ash of the dead creation and the skulls of forgotten souls. She saves them for another time, when the worlds will breathe again, and people will once again look up at the sky and wonder what lies beyond the stars. But none of these people will know that it was Kali who remembered them when they were ash. None of them will know who buried them when there was no one left to cover their graves. Even if they did remember, none of them would worship the great Kali because they would be too afraid of her.
I feel afraid as I remember her.
As she asks me to remember.
There is another voice in the sky.
I think it is my own. The shock breaks the vision.
I stumble back from my daughter. "You are Kali!" I gasp.
She just looks at me. "You have told me the phone number Paula will call in one month." She turns away. "That's all I wanted to know."
It is hard to throw off the power of the vision.
"Wait. Please? Kalika!"
She glances over her shoulder. "Yes, Mother?"
"Who was the child?"
"Do you really need to know?"
"The knowledge will cost you."
"I need to know!" I cry.
In response Kalika steps to the end of the pier. There she kneels and pulls a board free. It is an old board, long and narrow, but as she works it in her powerful fingers it begins to resemble something I know all too well from more superstitious eras. Too late I realize she has fashioned a stake. She raises the tiny spear over her head and lets fly with it.
The stake goes into the water.
Into Seymour's back. He cries out and sinks.
"No!" I scream.
Kalika stares at me a moment. "I told you it would cost you." She turns away. "I don't lie, Mother."
My ankle is not fully recovered but I am still a strong vampire. Leaping over the side of the pier, I hit the cold salt water not far from where Seymour flounders two feet below the surface. Pulling him up for air, I hear him gasp in pain. My eyes see as well in the dark as in the daylight. The stake has pierced his lower spine. The tip protrudes from where his belly button should be. His blood flows like water from a broken faucet.
"This hurts," he says.
"Seymour," I cry as I struggle to keep him afloat, "you have to stay with me. If I can get you to shore, I can save you."
He reaches for the stake and moans in pain. "Pull it out."
"No. You'll bleed to death in seconds. I can take it out only when we reach the beach. You must hold on to me so that I can swim as fast as possible. Listen to me, Seymour!"
But he is already going into shock. "Help me, Sita," he chokes.
"No!" I slap him. "Stay with me. I'll get you to shore." Then, wrapping my right arm around him, I begin to swim as fast as I can with one free arm and two boot-clad feet. But speed in the water is not Seymour's friend. As I kick toward the beach, the pressure of the passing water on the stake makes him swoon in agony. The rushing water also increases his loss of blood. Yet I feel I have no choice but to hurry.
"Stop, Sita," he gasps as he starts to faint. "I can't stand it."
"You can stand it. This time you're the hero in my story. You can write it all down later. This pain will not last and you will laugh about it in a few days. Because tonight you're going to get what you've always wanted. You're going to become a vampire."
He is interested, although he is clearly dying. The beach is still two hundred yards away. "Really?" he mumbles. "A real vampire?"
"Yes! You'll be able to stay out all night and party and you won't ever get old and ugly. We'll travel the world and we'll have more fun than you can imagine. Seymour?"
"Party," he says faintly, his face sagging into the water. Having to hold his mouth up slows me down even more but I keep kicking. I imagine an observer on the pier would think a power boat were about to ram the beach. The sand is only a hundred yards away now.
"Hang in there," I tell him.
Finally, when we are in five feet of water, I am able to put my feet down. I carry him to the beach and carefully lay him on his right side. There is no one around to help us. His blood continues to gush out around the edges of the wooden stake, at the front as well as at the back. He is the color of refined flour. He hardly breathes, and though I yell in his ear I have to wonder if he is not already beyond hearing. Already beyond even the power of my blood. The situation is worse than it was with Ray and Joel. Neither of them had an object implanted in them. Even vampire flesh cannot heal around such an object, and yet I fear I cannot simply pull it out. I feel his life will spill out with it and be lost on the cold sand.
"Seymour!" I cry. "Come back to me!"
A minute later, when all seems lost, when he isn't even breathing, my prayer is mysteriously answered. He opens his eyes and looks up at me. He even grins his old Seymour grin, which usually makes me want to laugh and hit him at the same time. Yet this time I choke back the tears. The chill on his flesh, I know, is from the touch of the Grim Reaper. Death stands between us and it will not step aside even for a vampire.
"Seymour," I say, "how are you?"
"Fine. The pain has stopped."
"But I feel cold." A tremor shakes his body. Dark blood spills over his lips. "Is this normal?"
"Yes. It is perfectly normal." He does not feel the stake now, or even recognize how grave his condition is. He thinks I gave him my blood while he was unconscious. He tries to squeeze my hand but he is too weak. Somehow he manages to keep talking.
"Will I live forever now?" he asks.
"Yes." I bury my face in his. "Forever and ever."
His eyes close. "I will love you that long, Sita."
"Me, too," I whisper. "Me, too."
We speak no more, Seymour and I.
He dies a minute later, in my arms.
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