After taking yet another tiny, barely thirst-quenching drink from Danny, Melinda had tucked the poor boy up into the basement bed and retreated to the living room with April. Caleb had yet to return from his job interviews and Faith had been upstairs all day, obsessing over her outfit for her date with Seth the Sociopath.
Melinda knew that the ‘date’ would involve questionable hunting techniques and possibly murder – and Melinda felt absolutely awful about allowing that – but her protests to Faith were falling on deaf ears and they certainly wouldn’t stop Seth.
She was tired of painstakingly picking up the fragments of Faith and gluing her back together just to have her drop herself from the shelf again five minutes later. If watching whatever grisly scene Seth was planning was what it took to jolt Faith to her senses then – Melinda couldn’t even finish that sentence.
She knew that Faith had been doing questionable stuff for a while and had tried to understand, but there was only so much that Faith’s excuse could excuse.
Melinda was always proud of herself for having her ship together, so how, in the space of two weeks, had her whole life had been completely turned on its head? She’d always been the smart one in the group, the one they looked to for solutions, but these days she felt clueless.
She felt like the only one drowning.
Especially now, despite all her plans to leave and even though she knew that April was not romantically interested in her any more – perhaps never really was – when April curled up next to her on the sofa, rested her head on her shoulder and reached for her hand like it was the most natural thing in the world, Melinda could not pull away.
How could so much have changed and yet still so much remain familiar?
The too grown-up perfume that Sandy made April wear, that she still dabbed delicately on to her inner wrists and behind her ears each morning, out of habit. Her pale, golden hair that even without the expensive conditioners and fancy styling was still somehow so silky that it would slide straight out of a hair tie. How impossibly soft and unblemished her skin was. The weight of her head, the sound of her soft sighs, her blue eyes and sweet lips…
It was all too much.
“Please don’t leave me,” April whispered as Mel fought to get up. Those darn words. They stopped Melinda dead as they collided with the invisible wall between the girls, looking for any way through. “I know you’re going to leave us, Mel. Please, please don’t.”
Melinda wanted to ask how April knew, wanted to blame her, hurt her. She wanted to be strong, resilient, let her know that she wasn’t buying her ‘helpless little girl’ act. But when Melinda opened her mouth all that came out was a plea.
“Come with me.”
Lilith had slowly consumed one bag of O-negative, put the rest in her inventory and calmly shut up her surgery for the last time. She had jumped into a taxi and serenely listened to the driver talk about his day as they’d crawled through the Del Sol Valley rush hour traffic and only now, as her finger released its pressure on the doorbell did Lilith stop and ask herself what the actual hell she was doing here.
This was madness! She’d berated Caleb for visiting the house of humans and stopping for dinner, and now here she was, doing exactly the same thing. OK, so she was highly unlikely to attack these people or bind them to her for eternity, but still.
Lilith turned to leave just as the door opened and Chuck greeted her. His warm smile and kind eyes somehow simultaneously dissipating half her fears and amplifying the rest, tenfold.
She followed him into the overly bright house, reeling slightly at the scent of dinner cooking. Perhaps this was one of the worst parts of being an undead, law-of-nature defying creature; her sense of smell was far more sensitive than that of her human counterparts. Yet, no matter how good something looked, smelled or how much she remembered enjoying it from her human days, it would always taste at best, like nothing and at worst, like ash on her dead tastebuds.
For once, however, she was grateful for this fact; ash was probably preferable to what she could be tasting this evening, which smelled like burnt fish, leftover curried porridge and… marmalade?
“Good afternoon, Lilith,” Babs trilled. “How was your day?” Did you save anyone else’s husband?
“Oh, it was fine,” Lilith replied, trying to focus purely on Bab’s bouncy spoken words rather than her hostile thoughts, whilst also remembering how small talk worked. “I was interviewing for a new administrator. Had a few non-surgical procedures.”
“Yes, I saw on your website that you were advertising bloodletting as a treatment for aging? That’s,” a load of money-grabbing codswallop, “fascinating! Do you get many clients for that? I might have to give it a go!” When hell freezes over, “Things really do go south after fifty.” Not that you’d know, Little Miss Perfect, with your flawless face and gravity-defying boobs.
Babs was not a bad person, not by any stretch, but she was the worst kind of person for someone like Lilith to be around. She wasn’t alone in having thoughts that contradicted her words; it was human nature to bend the truth to paint oneself favourably, especially around someone new. The problem with Babs was how skilled she was at ignoring it. She had mastered how to beat down and contain her inner bitch, which was admirable, but she hadn’t managed to fully internalise that goodness, to truly become it.
Babs was very much not aware of this, or just how threatened she was by Lilith’s presence in her home.
But she did know full well that vegetarians did not eat fish.
“What an amazing coincidence that you found your way to Lilith’s doorstep after your run-in with a mugger!” who didn’t even mug you. “What are the odds? Slim to none? Astounding.” Bullpoop, more like.
“There aren’t any many houses in that neck of the woods, so it’s not that unlikely,” Lilith explained.
Don’t patronise me, just because you have more letters after your name. “I suppose not. Still, I am so very glad that he found you. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without him. How is the fish, Chuck?”
“It’s a really interesting mix of textures and flavours; I can’t get it in fast enough!” Because this way I hardly have to taste it!
Lilith covered her laugh with a cough. She had actually been having more fun than she thought she would. How nice it was to be in the company of two regular people who expected nothing from her. They spoke about their work, their life and told her a hundred cute stories about what was clearly a very happy marriage.
Lilith kept waiting for the subject of Melinda to come up, but it didn’t, although their daughter did flicker through their minds regularly, especially through Chuck’s.
Chuck must have warned Babs that Lilith wasn’t one for answering personal questions, because they hadn’t delved below the superficial, which was an added bonus. And the food did have some interesting textures, so even that wasn’t completely awful.
Lilith had been to many functions over the years where she’d been offered canapes and various fancy dishes and was well-practiced at the subtle ‘chew and spew’ method. Alas, now her napkin was full of half-chewed food, so she was forced to take as many dainty forkfuls as she thought her withered innards could handle then politely excuse herself.
Oh dear. Eating disorder? I knew that no one could be that naturally skinny. “When you’re back, you must tell me what made you go vegetarian? And why would a professional young woman like yourself choose to live in the sticks of Forgotten Hollow instead of a fancy city centre apartment? I’m so curious about you!” You’re hiding something.
“Bathroom is at the end of the corridor, Lilith,” Chuck said. Please do be swift because this stuff is already repeating on me.
“I want to come with you,” April admitted. “But I can’t leave Caleb.”
She wants to. Melinda clung to this sliver of hope. “You can. You can leave him.”
“No, I really can’t,” April murmured, looking around conspiratorially. “He told me that I’m not allowed to leave this house without him.”
What the heck? “You don’t have to do everything he says,” Melinda explained gently. “Why do you?”
April fell silent. Melinda thought that maybe she’d pushed too far but just as she was about to backtrack, April spoke, “I can’t explain it. When he tells me to do things, I feel like I have to do them. Like, my brain is a puppet and he’s holding the strings and all I can think is ‘I have to do this thing’ even if I don’t want to. Does that make sense?”
Melinda pouted. That made no sense at all. She tried to see it from April’s ‘always caged’ point of view but it still didn’t sit right. April had often successfully disobeyed her mother; sneaking out, sneaking her friends in, eating banned foods and watching banned movies. She always found a little way to defy control. So, what was different about her relationship with Caleb?
Was it obligation stemming from the title of ‘girlfriend’ perhaps? Something to do with him being her sire, ergo, ‘master’?
Wait a second. What did April just say she felt like… a puppet?
I turned her the wrong way, into my doll. Now we’ve had sex we’re connected and she belongs to me, I can control her.
“Oh my gosh. He actually told us he did this,” she whispered.
“What?” April asked. “What do you mean? What did he do?”
“He told us that he could control you because he’d turned you ‘the wrong way’. The night we ran away from Lilith’s when you were upstairs and wouldn’t come down… oh my goodness, you couldn’t come down, could you?”
April shook her head. Melinda’s mind was racing, pulling together all the pieces into a horrible bigger picture. “We thought he was just being a sexist dork but what if… what if he did turn you ‘the wrong way’ and that somehow means that he does control you?”
“How can you turn someone ‘the wrong way’? Aren’t you either vampire or not? Am I not a real vampire?”
“I don’t know. April, what you told me before, about not remembering him turning you, that was true? You don’t remember drinking from him?”
“No! Yuck. I didn’t drink from him,” April said adamantly. “I remember him drinking from me, thinking that I was going to die. He was feeling my bum and then I was on the floor. I’m sure he could see my underwear. Then nothing,” she babbled. “I woke up in my bed feeling like death. Oh! There was a random bowl of fruit—“
“So ‘the wrong way’ can’t be that you drank from him first or something.” Melinda scratched her head, looking again at all her pieces. “What am I missing?”
I lack restraint… I was never allowed to drink alone. She supervised me.
“Oh my gosh. Of course,” Melinda said. “When he drank from you, he couldn’t stop—“
“No, he did stop when I asked him to.”
“But then you passed out?”
“Remember what he said to us back in that first motel? That Lilith had to supervise him when he drank?”
“How could I forget?” April huffed. “I have to time him every time we hunt or he just drains everyone like some sort of bottomless blood vacuum.”
“Exactly. So, once you’d passed out, who was there to supervise? Who would stop him then? But that would mean that he… ” Melinda shook her head, fuming, as something dawned. “What if ‘the wrong way’ is that he turned you after he’d… he’d…”
April’s eyes were like saucers. “You think he killed me?”
“Is that even possible?” Melinda asked, desperately hoping that it wasn’t. “To turn someone after they’ve died?”
“I don’t know,” April said. “But even if it was, why would he do that to me? Why would he bother to turn me. Because he’s been with loads of women and drank from loads of women and he hasn’t turned any of them,” April said. “Oh my goodness! Unless he has! Maybe there are hundreds of us puppet girls!”
Melinda thought for a second. What was that Caleb had said, the first night she’d met him? I’ve never had a human actually offer themselves to me before.
“No. I don’t think he has. I think you were the only one to ever offer.”
April looked mortified for a moment before bursting into tears. “Of course I was the only one to ever offer because I’m Stupid, Weird April! I deserve this! I deserve everything!” April sobbed, thumping her tummy. “I’m surprised I even have enough brains for him to control!”
“Don’t tell me that I’m not stupid, Mel! I offered myself to a vampire without any question. Who would do that except for a big stupid fucking idiot?”
“I also offered myself to a vampire without question,” Melinda cooed soothingly. “So, I guess I’m a big effing idiot too.”
April laughed around a hiccup, wiped her eyes and nuzzled against Melinda. “No, you’re not. You’re amazing. You’re the only one who’s not going totally insane—“
I wouldn’t put money on that, Melinda thought, fighting the urge to find out if April’s lipstick tasted like ash. Which was just as well, as at that moment, Caleb stormed in. Almost instinctively, April leapt to her feet, leaving Melinda cradling the air.
“H- hi Caleb!” she stammered, too cheerfully. “Did you get a job?”