I drive around for an hour before ending up at a local park. There are a couple of basketball courts, a baseball diamond, a circular pond with white ducks in it, and a wide field where children fly long-tailed kites. Sitting between the pond and the basketball courts, I try to think how I can fix my miserable life in one brilliant stroke.
For the last twenty-four hours I have considered taking Kalika to Arturo's secret laboratory, where the paraphernalia that completed my transformation is located: the crucifix-shaped magnets, the long copper sheets, the colored crystals. Yet the attempt, I know, to make Kalika into a human, would be a desperate act at best. One of the few times Arturo experimented on a boy--dear Ralphe--the results were disastrous.
Ralphe was transformed into a flesh-eating ghoul, and I had to break his neck with my own hands to stop him from killing. No, I realize, I cannot experiment on Kalika, not until every other alternative has been explored.
Which means I need human blood. Now.
A young man on the basketball court glances over at me. I may not be a vampire anymore, but I know I'm cute. This guy is maybe nineteen, with blond hair and a strong build, an easy six-two. His size is important to me. The more pounds he has, the more blood he can stand to lose. Yet the more difficult he will be to contain. But my daughter is screaming at home. I heard her screams as I drove away in the car, echoing in my ears like the cries of a thousand past victims.
I catch this young man's eye and smile.
He flashes me a grin. He is interested, doomed.
When his game finishes, he strolls over to say hi.
"Hi," I say in response, nodding to the court, to his companions. I sit with my profile to them-- I don't want them to get a good look at me. "You know, you're pretty good. You have a great jump shot."
"Thanks. I still enjoy these pick-up games."
"You used to play in high school?"
"Yeah. Just got out last year. How about you?"
I laugh softly. "I was too short to play basketball."
He blushes. "I mean, did you just graduate?"
"Not long ago." I pause, let my eyes slide over him. "What's your name?"
"Eric Hawkins. What's yours?"
I stand and offer him my hand. "Cynthia Rhodes. Do you come here often?"
"I usually play at Centinela. This park--I haven't been here in ages."
That's good, I think. "What brings you here today?"
He shrugs. "Nothing in particular. I was just out driving around."
That's also good. The other guys he's playing with--they're not close friends.
"I was just doing the same," I say.
He glances at the ground, fidgets shyly. "Hey, would you like to go have a Coke or something?"
"Sure. I'm not doing anything."
We go to a coffee shop, and I order coffee. I have become a big coffee drinker since becoming human. It does wonders for my insomnia. Eric has a hamburger and french fries. I am happy he eats heartily. He will need his strength. Yet as he talks about himself, I begin to feel sad. He seems like such a nice boy.
"I'm taking a year off from college, but I'll be in school next year," he says. "I just got accepted to SC. I'm going to major in pre-med. My old man's a doctor and he's encouraged me to follow in his footsteps since the day I learned to talk."
"Why didn't you go straight to college?"
"I wanted to travel a little, work a little. I spent the summer in Europe. Spent a month in the Greek islands alone. You ever been there?"
I nod as I sip my coffee. "Yes. Did you visit Delos?"
"The island with all the ruins?"
"Yes. It's supposed to be the most sacred island in the Aegean Sea. Apollo was born there." I lower my voice. "At least, that's what the stories say."
"Yeah, I was there. When were you there?"
"A few years back." I pause and catch his eye, and hate myself for the blatant manipulation. "I'm glad I went to the park today."
He smiles shyly and stares down at his hamburger. "Yeah. When I saw you sitting there all by yourself--I don't know--I just felt like I had to talk to you." He adds, "I don't usually go around hitting on girls."
"I know, Eric."
We chat a while longer and he finishes his food, and then glances at his watch. "Boy, I better get going. My dad's expecting me at his office. I help out there Tuesday and Thursday afternoons."
I feel a moment of panic. I cannot imagine return?ing to Kalika's screams empty-handed. Reaching across the table, I touch his hand. "Could you do me a quick favor?"
"Sure. What is it?"
"It's kind of embarrassing to explain. You see, I have this ex-boyfriend who is sort of stalking me. He's not violent or anything like that, but if he sees me return home he immediately jumps out of his car and runs over and starts hassling me." I pause. "Could you follow me home in your car? Just to make sure I get in OK." I add, "I don't live far from here."
"You don't live with your parents?"
"No. Both my parents are dead. I live alone."
Eric is troubled. "Sure, I can come. But I won't be able to stay."
"I understand. If you can just walk me to my door."
Eric is agreeable, although his reluctance remains. As a human, I'm not the actress I used to be. He likes me, but he is slightly suspicious of me. I have to wonder exactly what I'm going to do with him once he's in my house.
To my immense bad luck, Paula is standing on my front porch as I drive up and park. Waving to her, I quickly run back to Eric's car, which is in the middle of the block. I ask if he can wait a minute, but he's anxious to get to his father's office.
"He loses his temper if I'm even ten minutes late," he explains.
"I'm grateful you followed me this far," I say. "But I'm still worried my ex is around. He could even be in the house."
Eric nods to Paula, who waits patiently for me. "Who is she?"
I snort, and feel another layer of guilt. "She's just this pregnant girl who stops by from time to time looking for money. I have to get rid of her, or she'll stay all afternoon." I touch his arm. "Please stay. Give me two minutes."
Eric hesitates. "OK."
Paula flashes me a warm smile as I hurry toward her. "What are you doing here?" I ask.
"I was worried about you. I haven't heard from you in so long." Paula studies me, and I know how perceptive she is. "Have you been sick? You look pale."
"I've had a bad flu. Look, I can't talk right now. That guy in the car--he's my boyfriend's brother, and he's in deep trouble that I can't go into right now. He needs my help."
Paula is hesitant. "Fine, I can go. I was just out for a walk." She glances at Eric. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, no problem." I gesture to her swollen belly. "It won't be long now."
Paula is radiant. "No. Another three weeks is all."
"That's great." I nod to my door. "Did you knock? Did you talk to Ray?"
"I knocked but no one answered."
"Oh." That's strange. Ray is almost always at home. He would have to be at home, with Kalika and all. I can't imagine him taking her out. But perhaps our daughter is the reason he didn't answer. I cannot hear either of them inside. I add, "I'll talk to you soon, Paula. I promise, we'll have lunch."
Paula is gracious as she carefully moves down the steps. "You take care. I'll be thinking of you."
"Thanks. Say a prayer for me."
"I always do, Alisa."
Paula leaves, and I gesture for Eric to join me on the front porch. He parks in my driveway and approaches reluctantly. He has antennae of his own. I am defi?nitely giving off bad vibes. His car will have to be moved quickly, I think, before if makes an impression on my neighbors. I fumble for my keys, like I'm nervous. And I am nervous--I can't imagine hurting him. For that matter, he might end up hurting me.
"Sometimes my ex comes in a back window," I say as I put the key in the lock.
"You should lock your windows," Eric mutters.
"Can I get you something to drink?" I ask as we step inside. A quick look around shows neither Ray nor Kalika. Maybe he did go out with her. Eric stays near the door.
"I really should be going," he says.
"At least have a lemonade. I made some fresh this morning." I move toward the kitchen. "I really appre?ciate you doing this for me."
Eric feels trapped. "I'll have a small glass," he says without enthusiasm.
In fact, I did make lemonade that morning, from concentrate. Pouring a couple of glasses, I hurry back to the living room. My resentment toward Ray con?tinues to grow. For seducing Eric to come into the house, it is good Ray is out of sight. Yet I could use Ray to knock Eric unconscious. I mean, I am a hundred-and-ten pound blond chick who just had a baby. Eric accepts his drink and I toast him with our glasses. Eric drinks without relish.
"It's good," he mumbles.
"Thanks. We have lemon trees in our backyard."
"They give fruit this time of year?"
I smite. "No, but they do in the summer."
Eric finishes half his drink and sets the glass down on the coffee table. "Well, my dad's waiting. Let's talk another time. It was nice to meet you."
I jump slightly, and speak in a hushed tone. "Did you hear that?"
Eric is puzzled. "What?"
I point down the hall. "I think he's here."
Eric frowns. "I don't hear anything."
I am a picture of fear. "Would you check? Just to be sure."
"Cynthia, really. I don't think anyone's there."
I swallow heavily. "Please? It's terrible when he sneaks up on me like this. I can't get rid of him by myself."
Eric eyes the hallway. "You're sure he's not violent? Why does he break into your house?"
"He's never violent. He's just a pest. I hope I'm imagining the whole thing."
Eric starts up the hallway. I follow close behind him, silently. Even as a human, I can move like a cat. As he reaches for the last bedroom door on the left, I lash out with my right foot, striking behind his right knee. There is a mushy tearing sound--the spot is especially vulnerable. Letting out a painful cry, Eric topples to his knees. Before he can recover, I slash out with my left hand and catch him in the left temple, which is the thinness part of the skull. The blow stuns him but does not knock him out. Disgusted, I strike again, at the opposite temple, hitting as hard as I can, the side of my hand throbbing from the effort. Still on his knees, he sways precariously. Yet he refuses to go down. Quite the contrary, he grasps at the near wall, trying to pull himself up. He is a fighter and it breaks my heart not to let him go. But I'm committed now. Backing up a step, I jump in the air and kick him in the back of the head with the heel of my left boot. That does the trick. Eric falls forward like a sack of flour. Blood drips off the back of his head, staining the carpet. Just what we need.
"I'm sorry," I whisper as I kneel by his side, checking the pulse at the side of his neck to make sure I haven't killed him. His face against the floor, Eric breathes heavily but his pulse is strong.
Suddenly I am aware of someone at my back.
"Good job," Ray says.
I turn on him angrily. "Yeah, it's good I was able to handle him all by myself. Where have you been?"
He shrugs. "I was in the other room."
He nods to the door Eric was about to open. "In there. I told her to remain silent."
"And she listened to you?"
Ray speaks seriously. "She always listens to me."
"Lucky you." I nod to Eric. "Where are we going to put him?"
"In the spare room. Well tie him up and gag him, and take only as much blood as our daughter needs."
"That might be more than he can give," I say, stroking Eric's hair.
"We'll have to worry about that later." Ray pauses. "How should we withdraw the blood?"
"We need needles, syringes, tourniquets, tubing, flasks. I have them at my house in Beverly Hills." I stand, wiping Eric's blood from my hands. "I'll go now."
Ray stops me. "That house might be watched, you said."
I don't like being stopped. "I'll have to risk it I'm not breaking into a drugstore to get this stuff."
"I want you to help me tie him up before you leave."
"Can't you tie him up? The sooner I leave, the sooner I can get back." I glance at the bedroom door. My daughter hasn't made a peep. "Kalika must be starving by now."
"It won't take us long if we work together. Then I can go with you to the other house."
"No," I say. "I'm going alone."
Ray hesitates. "Fine. But I think it's better this guy sees only one of us."
"Isn't it obvious? If he can identify me, it doubles our chances of being caught."
I stare at Ray. "You really have changed."
He shrugs. "Maybe it was Eddie's blood."
"Maybe." I hold his eye. "All right, I'll deal with him, like I deal with everything else. As long as we both understand that we're not pushing Eric beyond his limit. This boy is not going to die."
Ray nods his head, but his eyes do not seem to agree.
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