She resisted the crushing sorrow that started to work its way into her mind and strangle the hope that sweetly lulled her to sleep. It was a challenge to distract her thoughts. Meg hadn’t returned from where she disappeared for the evening. Jackie was already out of the house by the time Lizzie brought herself down to the kitchen. Not that Jackie was the company she sought… but any conversation… even an aggravation was better than the empty pillow that haunted her.
She didn’t understand. Why did he say he would stay? She was already lying naked next to him. He could have stayed silent and had the two more hours of sex she gave him readily before falling asleep. She wouldn’t have refused him, even if her heart was disappointed. It wouldn’t have been half so disappointing as the waking.
Lizzie tried to eat some toast, but lost her appetite before swallowing her first bite. She drank some juice before dressing herself for a run. She ran for eight miles, twice her average. Eight miles to lose her mind to the music of her headphones and the determination to each benchmark. Eight miles to avoid going back home to her empty home to figure out what to do next.
The run exhausted her. It was after dawn when she closed her eyes on Ben. It was only two hours later when she opened them and found him gone. She took her water bottle and sat herself on the couch, where she sat mindlessly in front of the television for six straight hours.
She heard the key in the lock, but didn’t bother to prop herself up when she heard footsteps on the stairs. “So, how did it go?” Meg poked her head around the door frame.
Lizzie leaned her head away from the television. She saw the tall frame of Alec shadowing behind Meg and decided a simple answer was best. “It went.”
“We have pizza,” Meg indicated her confusion. “Do you want any?”
“I’m not hungry,” Lizzie muttered, even though her stomach ached and she still felt the drain from her run.
Lizzie didn’t say anything as Meg and Alec brought their pizza and beer into the living room. She didn’t protest when they put in a DVD. She didn’t offer up the couch, forcing them to sit close together on the loveseat. She could have gone upstairs and avoided them. But for some strange reason, she decided to stay there and observe Meg and her boyfriend.
Lizzie had known Alec for three years, but she was still startled at the obvious age difference between him and her friend. It almost made her uncomfortable to see Alec touch Meg with affection. She knew they had sex. She knew that Meg enjoyed the sex. But Alec – mostly because of the aging of his smoking habit – looked old enough to be her father. It didn’t stop the sight of them together from stinging. To see them whisper and laugh together or find some reference Meg could use for her thesis was more than a little irritating.
At some point during the second movie, Lizzie fell asleep. She woke in the darkened living room. Someone slammed the front door and was walking up the stairs. Lizzie smelled Jackie’s perfume as she looked in to see who was on the couch. Lizzie breathed in slowly, pretending to be asleep. She waited for a quiet half hour until Jackie left the bathroom and closed the door to her bedroom.
Lizzie pried herself off the sofa, her joints stiff from not properly stretching and lying on the couch for so many hours. She went to the kitchen and refilled her water bottle, quickly swallowing it before filling it again. She found a few remaining pieces of Meg’s pizza in the refrigerator. She stood by the window, picking off the anchovies and doing her best to not swallow it in one bite.
There was a full moon. Her silly small talk wasn’t completely off base. Full moons made people do foolish things. Like confess feelings. Or lie about them. Lizzie forced her eyes shut. She didn’t want to hurt like that. Not again. No. This was a lot worse. It was worse because this time she actually believed that it might be.
She heard something drop on the ceiling. Meg and Alec apparently stayed at the apartment… and weren’t asleep. They probably weren’t going to sleep any time soon. That made the idea of going upstairs even less appealing.
Lizzie went back to the couch and altered her position from her thirteen hour sloth. She turned on the television to shield her ears from any reminders of upstairs. She mindlessly surfed through all the channels, finally settling on a documentary about the American Revolution. She drifted in and out of concentration, mixing up the details of the show with her tour at the Fulton house and Meg’s latest thesis description and the echo of Ben’s empty promises. Her semi-conscious wandered to Harriet’s chair and fell against the cushions as someone bit into her neck. She opened her eyes and saw Ben watching from the doorway.
In the quiet of early dawn, she returned to her room and the bed she left untouched since the day before. She ripped up the sheets and removed the smell of him from her pillows and then went back to sleep.
She checked her email after waking in the afternoon. She knew there wouldn’t be anything from Ben, but looked anyway. She logged onto Facebook just to make sure no feed indicated where he went. She knew her phone was somewhere… in a pocket… or her purse. She could check to see if anyone called on Saturday, but the effort to sift through the pile of clothes on her floor was too depressing. She tried to read a book but just drifted back to a vacant stare towards her window. The constant inactivity slowed her mind, allowing the time to pass with surreal speed. There was nothing accomplished as her weekend drew to a close. Merely, she managed to stop thinking.
The phone startled her ears at four o’clock. She followed the sound to the jeans still on the floor from Friday night. It was probably Nora, searching for her own distraction from stress to hear about Lizzie’s outing with Ben. WHY had she told her friends? Why hadn’t she learned that all the men she wanted never wanted her… and to tell anyone differently was just a fanciful story?
She flipped the phone without bothering to confirm Nora’s identity. “Hello?” she greeted with moderate pleasantness.
“Hi, Elizabeth. This is Ben.”
Lizzie sat slowly on the edge of her bed. “Hi Ben,” she let her voice return to her actual mood.
“I’m… I regret that… I really enjoyed seeing you on Friday.”
Lizzie felt a calm chill in her mind take over. ‘You did,” she inflected no emotion in her voice.
“I would like to see you again,” his explanation was kind but equally distant. “I think I should explain some things.”
“Explain what?” Lizzie released meanness into her words.
“Are you available tonight?”
Lizzie paused, letting a few moments slip into silence while she contrived possible excuses. She could call Nora, or see if Meg and Alec wanted more pizza, or even invite Eric over for a one night reunion. Anything would be better than seeing him again so soon. “I have to work tomorrow.”
“It doesn’t have to be a late night,” he hesitated. “I just want to talk to you.”
Lizzie wrestled between disappointment and insult. “I can meet you for coffee.”
“Um…” Lizzie felt her brain clear and reconsidered. “I really shouldn’t have caffeine that late. Why don’t you come back here and I’ll think of somewhere else to go.”
“I can be there by 6.”
Lizzie closed her phone and paused in her seat. He was going to tell her whatever it was he was avoiding. Or he was going to try to avoid it again and lure her … to… she had to keep her head. She was in too deep now. He could really hurt her.
She was pleased to see both Meg and Jackie disappeared again. She took a quick shower, but didn’t put much effort or thought into getting dressed. She threw on the jeans from the floor and a t-shirt with paint stains. He wasn’t worth any more of her time that weekend. But it left her with idle time. She finished cleaning up her bedroom and remade the bed. She tidied up the sofa, the cushions and blankets still a mess from her campout in front of the television.
At 6 o’clock exactly, the doorbell rang.
Lizzie led him up the stairs silently. They paused in the hall. “Let me get my jacket. We can get ice cream,” she made the decision on her feet.
“Can we stay here?” he put his keys on the table by the radiator.
Lizzie breathed in deeply, knowing she should insist on more neutral territory. “Sure,” she didn’t make an attempt at pleasure with her answer. She led him across the hall into the dining room, the most formal of all the rooms in their house. She pulled out a chair and looked at him as he took the one opposite. “Can I offer you some coffee – or tea?”
“I’m all right. Do you want to get yourself something?”
Lizzie looked at the bar and determined she would save that until he was gone and her heart was broken. She waited for him to settle in the chair and sat rigidly to face him.
“I can tell you are not happy with me,” he looked down.
“I don’t understand…” Lizzie breathed out her anger and her sorrow.
“Of course you don’t.”
“Are you married?”
“But there is someone.”
“Not someone else,” he met her eyes. The gray green was filled with that burning she saw in the darkness of her room. “There is you.”
“So you like me?” Lizzie couldn’t stop herself from asking such a desperate question.
“I like you very much,” he revealed a pained smile.
“Then what’s wrong?”
He continued to look at her, letting several minutes pass into silence. Lizzie felt uncomfortable under his watchful gaze, but was frozen in the expression of her last sentence. She heard the clock tick in the kitchen and felt the light of the evening sun slip slowly behind the trees outside the window.
“You are a very intelligent, perceptive individual,” Ben finally broke the quiet of the dining room.
Lizzie released an annoyed sigh. That was neither an explanation nor a compliment. She turned in her chair away from him, feeling the urge to leave the room and the frustrating conversation. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You see the world and maintain a certain amount of skepticism and doubt.”
“About you, yes.”
“About what I am finding incredibly difficult to even start to tell you.”
Lizzie turned back to face him. He was struggling. “You are going to tell me something about how you like me, but don’t think we should be together.”
“It could be,” he nodded. Lizzie glared at him, tossing aside any swell of sympathy she felt at his grief. “The other night you said you were looking at my yearbook photos and thought I looked the same as I do now.”
“Except for the hair.”
“Except for the hair,” Ben repeated. “I haven’t changed since high school,” he paused and took in a deep breath. “I haven’t changed for two and a half centuries.”
“WHAT?” Lizzie shouted, more in anger than anything else.
Ben reached across the table and took hold of her hands to stop her from leaving her seat. “I know this is quite incredible, Elizabeth,” he hesitated again. “I don’t look older because I haven’t aged for over two hundred years.”
“What? Are you a vampire or something?” she clenched her fists under his grasp.
Ben caught her eyes and looked at her with more gravity than she had ever seen in him. “Yes.”
Lizzie squared her jaw. Was this some sort of demented joke he contrived with Meg? “That stuff isn’t real,” she wanted to move her arms, but felt fear creep into her stomach. A fear to do anything to make him angry. What if he really believed it? What if he was psychotic enough to try to open up her veins and kill her?
“It’s very real.”
“But you… you… you are Ben Cottingham. You went to Springs Regional High School. Vampires don’t go to Springs Regional. Or live in Coldbrook.”
He laughed, lightening the severity of his look. “You think I should live in Bavaria?”
“I don’t… I think you are full of shit,” she hardened her eyes, still unable to move her arms.
“You’re scared,” Ben sighed sadly. He relaxed his grip on her arms and slowly unclenched her hands to clasp them in his own.
“I’m scared because you are delusional. No wonder you were attracted to Sara. You both live in fantasy worlds,” Lizzie still couldn’t move.
She decided to not say the next thing that came in her mouth. She bit into her lip, not sure what she could say. What would anger him. What would anger her. What was or was not completely crazy. Her mind swelled with confusion and could no longer fight the tears that filled her eyes.
“Elizabeth,” he repeated.
“Why?” she wept. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I feel if I am going to include you in my life, you need to know this about me.”
“You don’t feel like it’s something you should keep to yourself?”
“Not from you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It wouldn’t take you long to notice that I don’t eat anything. Or drink anything.”
“But all that wine… and at the bar you had beer.” Lizzie hissed. He was always getting her drunk.
“Did you ever really see me drink?”
“No,” Lizzie assented weakly thinking of the unfinished bottles. Her fingers fell limp in his grip. “Do you want to suck my blood?”
“Yes,” he shut his eyes and bent down his chin.
Lizzie retreated her arms quickly and folded them across her chest. “I think you should go.”
“Is that what you want?” he lifted his eyes back to her, but they still burned.
Lizzie felt the tremble of her lip rattle all through her bones. She was terrified of what he could do to her. But there was something deep within her that was terrified if he left, she would never see him again. “I don’t know what I want,” she hugged herself to calm the trembling.
“I won’t hurt you,” his voice was calm.
“But you want to kill me,” she articulated the reality she couldn’t grasp.
“No,” he shook his head and tried to reach out his hand, but retrieved it on a second thought. “Not at all.”
“You just said,” Lizzie shut her eyes, unable to repeat his confession. “You said you wanted to.”
Ben sat back in his chair and looked as though he was choosing his words very carefully. “You’ve taught yourself to not eat when you aren’t hungry, haven’t you?”
“Most of the time,” she couldn’t look at him.
“You’ve taught yourself portion control?”
“More or less,” she was still crying. How dare he hit that nerve in the middle of this conversation.
“It’s the same way for vampires.”
“This is insane,” Lizzie stood up from her chair. She looked at the bar and thought about getting a drink. She also measured how close the bottles were if she needed to defend herself.
“It isn’t insane, Elizabeth,” Ben’s voice was still calm. “Think about everything you taught yourself about diet. A person needs a certain amount of nutrients and calories to function well.”
“And many people overeat.”
“And become ill,” Ben continued. “It’s the same way for me. If I drink too much blood, then it doesn’t do me much good. If I drink a regular schedule, then I won’t overeat.”
“Do you keep a regular schedule?”
“Until this week,” Ben hesitated. “You might say I was too distracted.”
Lizzie looked at his eyes. He was hungry. “How much is a serving?”
“That’s what I give at the hospital,” Lizzie muttered.
“Exactly. Nature isn’t illogical. If I keep a steady feeding pattern, I never need take more than a pint… which is precisely how much the human body can lose without any consequence.”
“What if you don’t feed regularly?”
“Then there are tragic costs for the source,” Ben said quietly.
“Source? You mean people? Or do you drink from animals?”
“Animals work in a desperate situation. It isn’t healthy. One tends to mimic qualities of the source. Vampires who feed on animals tend to be more like animals.”
“And you become more human by feeding on humans?”
Lizzie allowed herself a lengthy look at him. He was the same Ben. With the freckles under his eyes and the strong shoulders. He didn’t look like a monster. She didn’t even see if he had sharp teeth. She kissed him and had been inside his mouth… but never felt the cut of fangs. She saw so much of his body, his perfect ageless body. Was he – could he – really be immortal? Lizzie was in disbelief. But to disbelieve this would mean disbelieving everything else he told her. Was she that desperate to have this man love her? That she was willing to buy into his fantasy just to feel the thing she wanted to feel?
“When was the last time you ate?”
“How often do you need to eat?”
“Once a week.”
“What happened yesterday?”
“I lost my appetite.”
Lizzie thought of the pair of blemishes she saw in the mirror just below her neck. And the other mysterious bug bites. “Did you bite me?”
“There is a sort of venom in our fangs that is like anesthesia. It just… numbs… the person… so they don’t feel pain. I wanted you to sleep so I could leave quietly,” he confessed awkwardly.
“But you didn’t…”
“I didn’t take anything. Just a touch to prolong your sleep.”
“Why did you leave?” the question brought Lizzie back to the reality before this strange conversation started.
“Because…” Ben breathed out slowly. “Because I wanted very badly to take your blood. All three times, Elizabeth. I never knew if I would be able to resist in the morning.”
“But you could resist at night?”
“Because you had alcohol.”
“Alcohol weakens the blood and bitters the flavor.”
“So my intoxication stopped you from …” Lizzie struggled with the completion of the sentence. “All that red wine put you off?”
“From drinking your blood. Not from you,” he said with determination.
“You made sure that I had wine,” Lizzie looked at him.
“I didn’t know I was going to tell you this, Elizabeth,” he paused. “I haven’t tried to see you with the intention of making you a source. So I needed to take precaution… because there was always that desire. I never take without consent of the source.”
Lizzie uncrossed her arms and allowed them to fall to her side. “How many sources do you have?’
“I’m pretty good at figuring things out.”
“Yes,” he looked amused and worried at the same time. “You are.”
“So how many?”
“I go to a clinic.”
“Oh,” Lizzie thought of a hundred new questions, but didn’t have the energy to start asking them. A part of her was willing to accept this bizarre and strange new way of seeing things, of seeing Ben. She let herself look at him again and saw his gray green eyes. Those hadn’t changed. They were still hungry. They still looked at her with the same look that glanced across the library table at Springs High School.
“Do you want me to go?” he asked as Lizzie remained frozen by her inability to select a question.
“No,” she shook her head. She felt as though she was in a dream she was writing as she was dreaming. Maybe she spent too many hours on the couch. Maybe Meg had put something on that pizza. And yet it was starting to feel as if she knew this all along… as if she had just been waiting for him to say something so they could move on to the next step.
“You have fangs?” Lizzie blurted out. Tangible proof to his identity could confirm once and for all whether or not she was in some grief laden psychosis.
“My teeth are a necessary tool for feeding,” he answered. “I can’t just … I don’t think I should take that risk right now.”
“Because you would try to feed?” Lizzie met his gray green eyes.
“Do you want to?” Lizzie let that question articulate before she had a chance to talk herself out of it. She saw his breath quicken the rise and fall of his chest. He was looking at her. She didn’t know where on her body he was focused. She wondered if he had some extrasensory ability to see the blood rapidly coursing through her veins and was allowing himself to imagine something he had been fighting so fiercely.
Lizzie laid her left wrist across the table. “Maybe I’m as crazy as you are, Ben. I don’t know that I am sane… or even awake. But more than anything… right now… I want to believe this thing you are telling me. I want to believe you,” she stretched so her fingertips almost touched the fabric of his shirt.
He curled her fingers into her palm and slid her arm back towards her torso. “This isn’t why I told you.”
“You’re hungry,” Lizzie pushed his hand back and turned her wrist up on the table.
He sat back in his chair and put distance between them.
“Are you afraid?” she looked directly at him.
“Why? Will you kill me?”
“No. It’s…” he flickered his eyes up, looking confused and pained. He drew in a breath and revealed a smile of deeper admiration. “You are brave.”
“And stupid,” she lifted up her left arm. “I want a Twinkie when you’re done.”
He laughed and took hold of her wrist. He stroked the inside of her arm gently. His fingers were neither warm nor cold, but left an electric sensation along her skin. He pulled her hand towards his mouth and kissed her palm with delicate eagerness. He kissed the base of her palm, then her wrist. He rested his lips there for a few moments. Lizzie resisted the urge to clench her fist shut and forced her fingers to relax. She saw him pull back his lips and expose his fangs before they plunged into her skin. She shut her eyes quickly, expecting to feel pain. She immediately opened them to see if it really happened. She felt something move down her arm, but no pain at all.
She wasn’t sure how long he bent over her wrist. She heard the clock ticking in the kitchen, and saw the last ribbons of sunlight stream through the large windows. She felt her heart beating fast like in the last leg of her runs. She was terrified and yet calmly aware that it was real. It wasn’t a ridiculous story he made up as an excuse. He was really a… vampire. He was really drinking her blood.
He lifted his eyes and gently rested her hand back on the table. His lips were closed. She couldn’t see if there was anything dripping from his teeth… his fangs. She looked at her wrist and saw two red marks the same distance apart as the mysterious bug bites. She touched the marks with her right fingers. “It doesn’t hurt.”
Ben was breathing slowly and watching her. He wasn’t ready to speak. He looked as though he just came back from a ten mile run. “I’m not even bleeding,” she lifted her arm closer for inspection. “How…” she looked to Ben’s satisfied stare.
“The chemical in our fangs cauterizes the wound,” he said slowly.
“No more magic than amino acids or chromosomes. The body is an amazing machine.”
“But you aren’t human.”
“I’m a different genus of human.”
Lizzie perked up her ears as she heard the front door. Neither she nor Ben spoke as someone climbed the stairs to the foyer. Jackie looked through the doorway. “Hi Lizzie.”
Lizzie tucked her arms in her lap. “Jackie, you remember Ben?”
“The guy who carried you home,” Jackie smirked and then turned back into the hallway. Lizzie looked at Ben silently until she heard the door close at the top of the stairs.
“I can go get you a Twinkie.”
“I don’t eat Twinkies. “
“Are you okay?” Ben asked softly.
“I honestly don’t know,” she looked at her wrist again. “I… am glad you aren’t married.”
Ben took hold of her hand. The burning look was gone from his eyes. His cheeks had more color and his skin looked smoother. Did she really do that to him? “I won’t ever hurt you,” he said softly.
She wanted to believe that, but there was still a small part of her that was scared. A much larger part of her was mesmerized by this new Ben. He was still the old Ben, the guy who carried her home. She didn’t want him to go away. If this was another one of her strange dreams, she didn’t want to wake up. Not alone. “Will you stay here tonight? Will you stay until the morning?” she asked. “Can you?”
“Will you burn up in the sun?”
“Um, no,” Ben laughed. “You’ve seen me in daylight, Elizabeth.”
“Right,” Lizzie nodded, feeling a little lightheaded.
“I will stay,” he squeezed her hand. It was warm and sent a sensation up the length of her arm.
Lizzie smiled across the table. At Ben. A vampire.