Note: It’s pretty evident to most readers by now, but Lilith has a drink problem.
On his way to work at the observatory, Chuck had managed to reach the winding, dark country lanes of Windenburg before the car ground to a shuddering halt.
This probably had something to do with the gravy boat light what had been illuminated on his dashboard for a day and the, likely related, grinding and whining noises that had started coming from his engine. He had hoped he’d be able to make it to work before it conked out completely, but luck really wasn’t favouring him lately.
He knew nothing about cars, so it seemed pointless to lift up the front flap thingy and have a look at the bits and bobs inside. Chuck patted his pocket, looking for his phone but coming up empty. He crawled inside the car, checking every cubbyhole, cup holder and crevice; finding a handful of loose change and half a chocolate bar that was probably as old as Melinda, but he didn’t find his phone.
As he stood in the open air, thinking, a car sped past. He waved to alert the driver to his predicament, but the driver merely waved back and sped on.
Chuck looked along the pitch dark, silent road. He drove this route most nights so he knew that there was a pub a little further along. They would have a phone. And at least it wasn’t raining; a small mercy—
Oh. Never mind.
Chuck approached the pub, soaked through from the spring showers that had suddenly cascaded from the sky. He’d stopped here a few times when he’d been suddenly struck down by the effects of his wife’s culinary efforts, sneaking into the building so that he wasn’t made to buy a drink in order to use the facilities.
He’d never even been in the bar area. He wondered if they had a dartboard or other activity he could occupy himself with while he waited for the rescue truck to arrive.
There was no dartboard. No pool table. Not even a television.
Just a familiar face that he owed a drink to.
When Caleb had said that the basement was small, he really wasn’t kidding.
Melinda stood in the close, damp space, biting her tongue, clawing at her gut and listening as Faith and April discussed holding innocent people captive down here and feeding off their life source, like it was all just some big game.
“There’s only one bed.” April pointed out the obvious. “So we can only keep two people down here. Do you think two people will be enough? Should we bring down the other beds from upstairs? We don’t really have use for them now we don’t sleep, do we?”
“I’m sure Fringey will want to show you the many alternative uses for his bed,” Faith snorted. “I’m still amazed that Fringey was allowed to have a bed. I was half expecting his bedroom here to contain nothing but a cold shower and a mural of Lilith in dark form.”
“That’s funny because he always takes such long showers, right?” April laughed. “I get it.”
Faith walked around the space, tapping her chin, before returning to her friends.
“I reckon that we can get twenty of ’em in here,” she said confidently.
“Twenty?!” Melinda said, aghast. “How? Where will they sleep?”
Faith smirked. “On the floor and hey, fighting over who gets the bed will give them something to do.”
“We can’t leave them down here with nothing to do!” Melinda protested. “They’ll go crazy!”
“What does it really matter?” Faith shrugged. “They’ll all be spending their lives in a post-drained daze anyway, probably won’t even notice that they’re face down on flagstone.”
Melinda physically recoiled at Faith’s comment; even April raised an eyebrow and she was hard-wired to agree with everything.
“That’s super mean, Faith,” April whispered. “We need to look after them properly; they will be feeding us after all and one should not bite the hand that feeds.”
“I think you’re forgetting which of us has the power here, Blondie.”
Melinda cleared her throat and Faith rounded on her. “Something to say, Mellybean?”
Melinda had noticed that Faith seemed off today. She put it down to what had happened with Seth. Faith was very good at hiding how she really felt, living behind her mask, and Melinda had seen some pretty dramatic highs and desperate lows from her fiery friend over the years. She was well used to Faith’s quick quips, harsh words and her defensive abrasion.
But this was cold, even for her.
Melinda was sure that this was just some sort of weird knee-jerk reaction to Seth leaving, that Faith would calm down and warm up when the hurt had lessened. When she’d had time to lick her wounds and realise that she was far better off without that rotting potato in her life, Faith would be back to normal.
Speaking of rotting potatoes, Caleb had arrived at the foot of the basement stairs, carrying an unconscious man across his shoulders. He hauled him over to the bed, the only furniture in the dank space, and placed him down upon it, releasing a huge cloud of dust.
Faith and April immediately rushed over to inspect their new quarry, Faith clicking her tongue approvingly.
“Very nice,” she purred. “Young, fit and a strong heartbeat. What do you think, Mel?”
Melinda thought she was going to be sick. “I don’t want him,” she said, stubbornly facing the wall and willing herself to stay put, despite the overwhelming urge to run to the bed, fangs bared.
“Mel! Now you’re being mean?” April called across the basement. “Caleb has very kindly been out and brought you a yummy dinner. You could at least say ‘thank you’.”
It’s all his darn fault that we’re in this mess, Melinda thought. But when April put it like that, Melinda did feel rather rude.
“Thank y—” Melinda started, turning around, her words cut off by the lump in her throat as she was greeted by one of her least favourite sights.
“It’s fine. But have him soon, he’s only knocked out,” Caleb said dismissively. “As for you,” he purred, leaning over April like some sort of lecherous tree. “You and I are going for a walk along the river. We’ll get a bite to eat, too.”
April nodded her agreement and he kissed her knuckles. “Did you have chance to check out my room yet? Our room,” he corrected throwing a quick sideways glance at Melinda.
Melinda rolled her eyes. She knew what he was doing. She wouldn’t be surprised if he lifted his leg and marked April with his scent. He might as well write ‘I belong to Caleb’ on her forehead.
Melinda wanted to scream that all this possessiveness was utterly pointless. Couldn’t he tell that April had no interest in her? She could see it in the dazed way April looked at him.
All those kisses, the sweet words, the soft sighs in the summer sun and the gentle touches. They hadn’t meant anything. Not to April anyway. Faith was right; Melinda had never had a chance.
Why would you want to keep someone who didn’t even like you that much?
Why indeed. Desperation? Hope? For faith’s sake.
“We only had a little peek,” April admitted. Did Melinda imagine it or did April tense in his embrace? “It’s not as boring as your room at the other house, but it’s still quite boring. The smallest bedroom is cute though, the one with the craft supplies. Melinda knows how to crochet, she’s going to teach me, aren’t you, Mel?”
Caleb tugged April’s hand, bringing her attention back to him. “Some other time. She needs to feed and there’s something up there I want to show you. Privately.”
“Fucking hell, Fringey. Hunting really gets you in the mood, huh? You keep talking like that and I’ll come check out your room,” Faith joked, but even April realised that it didn’t really sound like a joke. She glared at Faith, allowing Caleb to lead her upstairs by the hand.
As the couple closed the heavy basement door, the space fell silent, amplifying the sounds of the captive man’s breath and heartbeat that Melinda had been trying so desperately not to notice.
“Ba-bum, ba-bum. Sounds healthy, doesn’t he?” Faith said. “Let me know when you’re done; I want a little nibble on him.”
“You’re leaving me, too? Alone? But I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“You find a vein and stick your fangs in.”
“But what do I do afterwards?” Melinda asked, panicking. “What if he won’t stop bleeding? Or he wakes up? Or what if I’m… I’m,” Melinda covered her face, ashamed to even utter the next words. “What if I’m like Caleb and I can’t stop?”
“Eh, then I guess I’ll have to go find another one. My way,” Faith growled, clawing at the air in a way that made Melinda feel oddly violated. “Relax. You’ll be fine. And if you’re not well, whatever, he’ll be none the wiser…”
Everything about Charles Bucket was just lovely.
Even his boss was lovely. Charles had called up work, most apologetic for his lateness and promising to be along shortly in a taxi as it materialised that roadside assistance would be at least three hours away. His boss had told him not to worry and to take the night off – paid!
If Penelope had tried that, Lilith would have reprimanded her harshly, certainly wouldn’t have paid her and might have put her to work scrubbing the surgery floor with a toothbrush, just to really drill the message home.
But then again, Penelope stole from her, disrespected her and was constantly trying to undo her good work with Caleb. She couldn’t imagine Charles doing any of those things.
It had been a long time since Lilith had had a drinking companion that wasn’t Joe or Fred, and even longer since she’d had one she’d enjoyed the company of. She and Charles – no! Chuck, Lilith reminded herself, he prefers Chuck – had seated themselves on a plush sofa in the corner of the bar, right next to the jukebox so they could choose exactly what songs they wanted without getting up.
Chuck was pacing himself; he had only just finished his first drink and had tentatively started the second. Lilith however was almost inhaling her drinks, despite Chuck’s kind suggestions to slow down; she’d lost count of how many cosmopolitans she’d had. She was even almost enjoying them; she could smell the alcohol and identify every ingredient in the cocktail by its individual scent that emanated from the glass as she brought it to her lips.
So what if she couldn’t taste them, she could sure feel the effects of them, further numbing the tinges of emotion and turning her into someone she sort of liked. As Chuck finished his little story about how he’d met his wife at the space museum – bumping into Babs in three different exhibits before charming her with his cute pun about orbiting moons – something warm bubbled up inside Lilith. She clamped her hand to her mouth but it was no good. Out it came like a proclamation of her intoxication.
Lilith Vatore, the ‘frosty stuck-up bitch’ herself, was giggling.
Chuck, seemingly pleased with himself for making her splurge this most girlish noise, took another small sip from his glass.
“Do you have someone special in your life, Lilith?”
And… the giggle was gone. Lilith brushed her fringe from her eyes. Chuck picked up on her shift in mood immediately; he was trying to think of a change of subject.
Lilith always tried to avoid talking about her love life, about all of her life, really; not least because if anyone paid attention they’d figure out that she was much older than thirty-seven. But Chuck wasn’t asking this question for the reasons people usually did; ulterior motives or a way to steer the conversation to brag or lament about their own love life.
He genuinely wanted to learn about her. His curiosity was tinged with worry as he eyed her empty glasses.
That could be dangerous. “No. I’m cursed when it comes to love.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” he said kindly, with a small laugh. “What happened to make you think that?”
Just a hunch. “I seem to have a knack for picking men who die, run off screaming or, in the case of my most recent relationship, leave me with nothing but memories of how they were a massive twat.”
Lilith bit her lip. She hadn’t intended to swear, but it was hard not to when she thought of Seth’s face. Fortunately, Chuck did not seem offended. He did know Faith, she supposed. Probably used to it.
“A massive twat,” he repeated softly. “It sounds like he robbed you of a lot more than just your time together.”
Her words sounded so ill-fitting and ridiculous coming out of Chuck’s soft face, that Lilith would have laughed if she didn’t suddenly feel like she’d been stripped to the bone.
She could hear his thoughts again, thinking of another subject to talk about. This time she let him.
“So, any family?” he broached, carefully.
“My parents are long dead, but I have a younger brother,” she said, staring at the pink liquid in her glass, not sure if this topic would really help to put the flesh back on her exposed skeleton. “Caleb.”
“What’s Caleb like? Tell me about him.”
“He’s… um…” like realising, too late, that you’re in the path of another tornado and praying that this one would kick up a bit of dust rather than tear down the house and fling you into the abyss. “He’s always been a handful.”
Chuck laughed. “He sounds fun. I bet you have loads of stories about him,” he prompted.
She could hear Chuck wondering if this was also a no-go topic, but this time, before he could change the subject, Lilith responded, a grin spreading wide across her face.
“Do I ever! Where the hell do I start? Oh! There was one time, I was invited to a wedding…”