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Authors: A. M. Jenkins

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BOOK: Night Road
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ON
the way back he started shivering; he was cold, his clothes were wet through, and though it must still be early in the evening, he was exhausted. And the girl—he was weak now, and the connections wouldn’t go away. He’d thought he was in danger of being dead inside, but he’d been wrong.

Bess. He could still feel the raw emotion of loving her, how it raked over him till it was almost painful. His fingers had been on the smooth skin of her arm, and he’d thought how at this moment it was growing older, how it was shriveling—so slowly that he could not see it, but shriveling nonetheless, and how the hair floating in curly tendrils would turn lank and white like gauze. The hand in his would turn into a bony claw, and the eyes that were now sharp and precise would become vacant and confused.

Either that, or she would die and leave only a worn path through the synapses in his brain, a path that would disappear from lack of use. Memories didn’t last intact; he’d already known that, even then.

Every second he’d thought, a knot of panic growing in his chest, of how she was drifting further away.

He’d turned, so that he could look down at her, still nestled against him. She was watching him—many times afterward he had wondered how his face must have looked to her at that moment—but he couldn’t move his eyes from the skin under the curve of her jaw. It looked smooth, white, cold like a marble statue. But when he’d bent over her it was fleeting softness, fleeting warmth that made his breath leave him in one short sigh.

When he was done, he’d raised his head and, for some odd reason, couldn’t quite bring himself to look at her face.

Bess. She’d taken over every beat of his heart like an emotional Thirst. Even the smallest bared expanse of skin had burned into his brain, the slightest brush of her hand had clutched the breath out of his body, the steadiness of her clear eyes looking up into his had
melted his life into hers. He’d been as bad as Gordo, telling himself he could push it all away, trying through sheer will to force it not to exist, but the truth was that even after a hundred and seventy years of grief and love, he still didn’t know how to disconnect himself.

 

Sandor opened the door of 211 almost before Cole could knock. “There you are,” he said, obviously relieved. “Are you all right?”

“I need your phone,” Cole said, holding out his hand.

Sandor studied him for a moment—just a bare moment—then dug in his pocket and handed Cole the phone. He did not show surprise. He did not ask why.

He did not go back into the room, either. He glanced back over his shoulder and then stepped out into the hall, keeping one hand on the doorknob and his eyes on Cole, alert.

Cole pressed the 9, the 1, the 1 again—then hesitated. He wasn’t used to cell phones.

Sandor reached over and pushed a button for him. “It’s dialing now,” he said.

Cole held the phone to his ear. As soon as he heard a woman’s voice on the other end, he said quickly,
“There’s a girl passed out in a doorway. You need to send an ambulance.” He heard himself give the address, then repeat it, very clearly. “Send an ambulance,” he said again.

He didn’t know how to hang up, so he handed the phone back to Sandor.

Sandor pressed a button. He stuck the phone back in his pocket. Then he gave Cole a silent, measuring look, as if to say, “What next?”

Cole just stood there, arms dangling at his sides. All purpose seemed to have drained out of him. What
was
next? What
was
there to do?

“You seem a bit shell-shocked, my friend,” Sandor said. “And you look like something the cat dragged in. Why don’t you go to your room, get cleaned up, maybe take a little nap?”

But Cole remembered now. “Gordo,” he said, and was surprised to hear that his voice was suddenly hoarse.

For answer, Sandor held the door open just enough for Cole to see in.

Gordo was sitting on one of the beds. He’d propped a pillow against the headboard and was leaning comfortably against it, legs stretched in front of him, watching
TV. He glanced over at the door’s movement, saw Cole, and, after one abashed moment, lifted his hand in an embarrassed greeting.

It was as if nothing had happened.

Sandor pulled the door shut. “You were right; it was good for him to feel Thirst. We had a nice talk while you were out. And now it’s my turn to be on duty. Go on,” he urged. “You can check in with us later. Go home, mother hen.”

It took Cole a moment to process all this. He had the feeling of something heavy slowly dropping away. He’d always thought of relief as a sudden thing, but now he only gradually took everything in: the completed call, Gordo on the bed, Sandor’s words.

He was back safe, and his charge was safe as well, and Sandor had taken over for him.

Back in room 213, the air-conditioning was still running full blast, and his damp clothes made him shiver. He went into the bathroom and stripped them off while running hot water.

In the shower, he thought at first he had hurt something inside by overfeeding on the omni; he thought it was a pain working its way up from his chest. And then
he felt his face crumple, and he knew. He leaned against the steamy tile while the water poured over him and great, gulping sobs wrenched their way out of his chest. He was grateful for the rushing water, which covered every sound.

All in all, it was a very odd night.

 

Cole fell instantly to sleep as soon as he hit the bed—a delicious nothingness of dreamless sleep.

From the depths of that nothingness, his mind barely registered a slight noise, a soft click—but it wasn’t enough to really wake him. What woke him was a strange pressure, like a finger in the middle of his chest. Even that didn’t rouse him fully; he felt the discomfort, and sleepily tried to roll over, away from it—but the pressure concentrated and grew into pain, as if someone were pressing him down, trying to pin him to the mattress.

His eyes flew open to yellowish light. Someone had turned on the bedside lamp. And in a split second he saw it all. A ghostly face hovered over him—Royal, one skinny black-clad arm raising the paint-spattered hammer Cole had seen in the Civic’s trunk.

There was no time to feel fear—just to glimpse Royal’s coolly determined face and the descending hammer—before a crack of pain in Cole’s chest exploded into a crushing suffocation that shot into his arms, his neck. Everything was suffocating.

The last thing he thought was that he had completely overlooked this particular danger. And the last things he saw were Royal’s eyes, inches away, peering into his own with steady, clinical interest.

THEN
the pain was gone, and Cole was floating over a field filled with people. He drifted over the tops of their heads, thousands of them, as far as the eye could see, all moving slowly in the same direction. Not one of them looked up. The grass under their feet was a bright green that only comes in midspring when everything is fresh and new, well watered, hopeful, full of births and pleasant surprises.

As he floated lower and lower, he could make out more details: blond hair, brown, black, straight, kinky, braided; clothing of all shades and styles. Some people were barefoot, some high heeled; some wore scuffed boots or running shoes or sandals. He searched for a place to land, a place where he could gently and safely loft to earth, set both feet on that green grass and walk with the others.

But there was no room. They were all shifting, moving, and he could not keep up enough to find a place to land. He could only watch and feel as they passed him by and moved on. The peace of their passage was palpable, and it was real, as real as the light that shone among them.

He floated, heavy with sorrow and with joy, watching them pass. He understood now what heaven was. He was there on the edge but was unable to be part of it. It was a journey, not a place.

He could never go among them. He could never walk where they were walking.

Not in dreams. Not even in death.

AGONY
drew him back. Fierce, sucking, as if his heart were being ripped out of his chest, and he felt his throat and jaws open in a soundless spasm.

It all contracted quickly into a tremendous surge of pain, punctuated by heartbeat after heartbeat that shot along his body in waves, bullying their way through with each scrape of his pulse.

He felt his lungs fill with air, tightening his chest as if a band were being screwed around it.

He wanted to go back and float over the fields again, but he couldn’t; he was bolted and clamped by pain, flat on his back, unable to move or speak, unable to drift.

He did not know how long he lay like that. He was aware of familiar voices that he couldn’t quite identify, speaking in words that he couldn’t understand. It was all vaguely puzzling; and when the voices rose in
gentle questioning tones, only to be followed by a hanging silence, he knew, in sorrow and frustration, that the silence was his to fill and he was falling short.

 

When he finally opened his eyes, Johnny was there. Johnny, beside him, looking down into his face.

Next to Johnny, Sandor. And now Gordo came into his field of vision too, as if he’d risen from a seat on Cole’s right.

Cole felt a light pressure on his legs—a familiar pressure, of sheets and a blanket—and suddenly he remembered that he had seen heaven, and he opened his mouth to try to tell them.

But he was too tired. And it made no difference anyway.

“Are you with us, Cole?” Johnny asked.

Cole tried to nod. He couldn’t, but somehow it was enough, because Sandor smiled and leaned down, his words pouring over Cole.

“Your heart seems to be better now, and your sternum’s healed. It’s very good you’re not omni; you’d be lying there for weeks. Well, actually, if you were omni, you’d be dead, wouldn’t you? In any case, you must save your strength. I have to tell you that it was quite a shock to come in here and find you lying in bed with a
two-foot fence picket driven into your chest.”

“Royal,” Cole tried to whisper, but all that came out was a wheeze.

Still, Sandor understood. “Of course. Who else? Cole, he pulled the window curtain completely down before he took off! If Gordo hadn’t come over to talk to you, you’d be…well, you’d be—”

“Don’t worry about it right now,” Johnny said. “We’ll make sure nothing like this happens again.”

“Oh, yes,” Sandor said with enthusiasm, “when I find that little bastard I will crush him like a fly. I tell you, in Boravia we know how to deal with
strigoi.
I’ve been telling Gordo that this is what happens when one doesn’t belong to a community—one ends up getting one’s information from bad B movies. I hope you have learned a lesson here, Gordo.”

“You sound like Cole,” Gordo said, but his tone was that of the reasonable Gordo rather than the pouting teenager. “Everything’s a lesson.”

“Well,” Sandor said, “Cole is laid up for a little while, isn’t he? And so I must step in to fill his shoes.” He bent closer to Cole. “I tell you, Cole,” he said in a stage whisper, “if we had gotten Gordo a dog, none of this would have happened.”

PART THREE
The Heart of the Colony

THE
following evening they were able to start the drive home.

Cole was no longer in pain, but his body had exhausted its reserves of strength. Perhaps it was something to do with his blood pooling and clotting for hours as he lay on the bed, or perhaps his poor body had to work extra hard to get everything pumping and moving to all its cells again. In any case, Johnny had stolen one of the Vickery Moe pillows and Cole leaned against it, stretched out as much as he could in the backseat of the Accord.

Gordo was in the back too, crammed up against the other door. Cole felt bad for him but couldn’t summon the energy to sit up.

They’d decided to make the journey in one night.
Johnny had flown down to Baltimore, but he wanted to ride back with Cole. He sat in the front passenger seat while Sandor drove, and he kept a close eye on the rearview mirror.

“There’s no way to find out exactly where Royal has gone,” he told Cole without looking around, “but I can guarantee you one thing: he’s
not
following us now.”

“I don’t understand him,” Cole said. “If he wanted to do this, why wait till now? And where did he come from? I couldn’t get anything out of him,” he added, fretting. “I don’t know how old he is. No clue who created him. Maybe someone from out of the country.”

“It’s always the foreigners, isn’t it?” Johnny said dryly. “I don’t think you have to look that far afield.”

“There’s no one here who would do something like that.”

“No?”

“No,” Cole said with certainty. “No one in the Colony.”

“I was thinking about Bess.”

Usually when someone else said her name, it was like a little jolt, as if he’d been pricked with a knife. He waited for a moment now, but the jolt never came.

“Think about it, Cole. She was different the last time she came in. She’d always been a bit snappish, eh? Not
inclined to accept her situation—even after, what? Sixty years? Then all of a sudden she comes in in a downright funk, refusing to speak to anyone. Wouldn’t even look any of us in the face.”

“She was angry with me.”

“She was
always
angry with you. But didn’t she seem different that last time?”

“Well, she was sad.”

“She was
different,
lad. Suddenly different. That’s a bit odd for one of us, isn’t it? Doesn’t it make you think something happened to her? That maybe she did something she didn’t like, was dead set against? Something she’d always hated you for doing?”

Cole thought about it. Strange, to just pull the situation out and think about it as a theoretical problem, uncolored by guilt or shame.

“That’s quite a deductive leap,” he told Johnny. “To go from saying she was sad to saying she created a heme and abandoned him.”

“Yes. But it’s something to consider. A possibility.”

There was a lot to consider, and plenty of time in the backseat to consider it. Cole did a lot of thinking on that long trip back.

So did Gordo, apparently.

Cole had fallen asleep somewhere around Philly. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Gordo was watching him.

“Where are we?” he asked Gordo sleepily.

“I think we’re almost out of New Jersey.”

Cole nodded. He didn’t feel like trying to sit up.

“Hey. You awake?” Gordo asked.

“Yes.”

“Is it okay if I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“I’m, um…sorry about what happened to you.”

“So am I.”

“It was awful. Your eyes were open.”

“Really?” That must have been rather horrifying.

“Yeah. They didn’t look real; they looked like glass. And that thing sticking out of your chest.” Gordo shuddered. “I almost threw up.”

“Good thing you didn’t.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“You know hemes can’t die.”

“But you
looked
dead. And it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Cole told him. “It was mine. I was careless.”

“No, it was mine. I know it was. If I’d done everything like you told me to, he never would have…It wouldn’t have happened.”

“Maybe not, but the bottom line is that I misjudged. I was careless of my surroundings and made mistakes of timing—”

“Oh, you two,” Sandor said from the front seat. “Fault fault fault, blame blame blame. Can’t you just be kind to yourselves? Really, either one of you could easily beat yourself senseless with guilt. It’s very neurotic if you ask me.”

Cole wanted to retort, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. The annoying tiredness had begun to creep over him again. But there was something he wanted to know. “Gordo,” he said, “Sandor said you came over to talk about something, the night you found me.”

Gordo shrugged. “Well, yeah. I guess.” He sounded embarrassed.

“What was it?”

“It wasn’t important.”

“I’d like to know. If you hadn’t come in—how did you get in anyway?”

“The door was unlocked. I didn’t try it, though—I
wouldn’t do that. Sandor did.”

“I was concerned,” Sandor said from the front seat. “You’d had a rough evening. And then you didn’t answer the door for hours. It’s not like you to ignore people knocking.”

Cole kept his attention on Gordo. “So what did you want to say?”

“I dunno.” Gordo shifted in his seat. “It’s just that…well…okay.” He eyed Cole. “You told that lady I was a virgin, didn’t you?”

It was an accusation, and for a moment Cole didn’t understand.

Then he remembered: Crystal, the omni.

“Because it’s not true,” Gordo said with a wounded air. “You know?”

Cole
did
know, but he’d thought a helpful lie would make the evening go more smoothly. And it had. Crystal had approached Gordo gently and with patience.

“There’s no way you could be, Gordo,” Sandor commented. “Not after two weeks in the Building.”

“I just don’t think Cole should tell people something like that about me when it’s not true.”

Cole started to say he was sorry—but he wasn’t. He
was glad he’d told that particular lie, and that Gordo had been compelled to come over and correct him.

“I won’t do it again,” he told Gordo instead. “And,” he added, “I know it’s not true.”

Gordo nodded. “Damn straight,” he said.

Cole was very weary now and closed his eyes for what felt like a second. But when he opened them the car was no longer on the freeway. It had stopped at a traffic light, and Gordo was talking to Sandor and Johnny.

“…I could almost start to get used to living this way,” Gordo was saying. “But it’s dark when I go to bed, and it’s dark when I wake up, and I can’t get used to that.”

“You can leave a light on,” Cole said.

“He’s awake again,” Sandor commented.

“How are you feeling?” Johnny asked. “Any Thirst yet?”

“No,” said Cole. “Not yet.” He didn’t like to think how much he’d taken from that girl.

“It’s not the same,” Gordo told Cole. “The colors are different than they are in sunlight.”

“I guess I’ve forgotten.”

“They look…fake.”

Cole thought about it. In malls or stores, everything was too bright, lacking shadows. Bars and nightclubs were pools of dark punctuated by glaring neon or dim, recessed bulbs. “You can see sunlight in movies,” he pointed out.

“It’s still not the same. Sometimes I wish I could see a sunset. Just for a few seconds. I’d like to see all those colors. Do you think it would kill me?”

“No. I think it would tatter your skin and boil your brain, but I don’t think it would kill you.”

“Cole’s back in form,” Sandor remarked to Johnny.

Johnny just laughed.

BOOK: Night Road
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