The freckled blonde girl was thinking, I am invisible. No one can see me but him. He doesn’t need to crush my arm like this. I won’t run. Where would I go? He’d just find me and drag me back. I learned my lesson. I’m invisible. Nobody sees me.
Her boyfriend had his fingers wrapped around her elbow, and every few feet he gave her a jerk to remind her she was with him. She kept her gaze downcast on the rainy London pavement, but made no attempt to evade the puddles that splashed over her worn brown boots and soaked the cuffs of her fraying jeans. Once, she kicked up a spray of droplets that spattered his jeans, and he twisted her arm, a savage snarl of glee and fury distorting his mouth.
She paled until the freckles on her face stood out in sick relief, but not a word or a cry escaped her lips. Of course not. Noise drew attention. Made him angrier. And in a world where nearly everything was done to her, she could control what sounds she made.
Men and women jostled around them, barely registering their presence.
Stephen had once marched me through the wet Parisian streets with the same bruising grip on my arm. I hadn’t looked down; I’d looked around, begging somebody to notice me and ask me if they could help. They never did. I used to fantasize about what I’d do if he let go of me for even one instant. I would sprint through the crowd, dodging French women in their sophisticated dresses and rainbow-colored umbrellas. Rush past French businessmen carrying briefcases, and marveling American tourists in jeans and T-shirts who stopped every ten yards to gaze into shopwindows or point at something they couldn’t see in New York or Boston or the little town in California where they lived.
If I just got the chance, I would run. In my mind I made a swift journey to the Gare du Nord metro station, took the escalators to the train tracks clutching a ticket that spelled freedom, and from there I—
That was where my fantasies always crashed and burned. I had nowhere to go. My mother, in a drunken rage the one time I’d gotten up the courage and the privacy to call her from a Paris pay phone, had screamed at me I was dead to her and good riddance. And she hoped I got VD and rotted from the inside out whoring myself on the streets.
My chance to run had eventually come, not on a Paris street when Stephen’s heroin-addled attention had wavered, but one dreary autumn afternoon in our grimy apartment.
I’d killed him. So it was a heroin overdose, not a knife in the chest or a bullet to the brain, but I’d murdered him just the same. I knew the fix was stronger than he was used to. Marcel, his dealer, warned me to tell when he pressed the baggie into my hands after I finished giving him a blowjob. By then Stephen had no money to pay for his drugs, but he had me, and Marcel had always liked me.
I’d had plenty of chances to run on the metro back to the apartment, but nowhere to go. Plus I wanted to get the taste of Marcel’s sweaty dick out of my mouth. All I wanted was to go into the bathroom and smear toothpaste over my teeth and tongue, and rinse and rinse and rinse.
But I was late getting back, and Stephen punched me in the stomach so hard I couldn’t catch my breath for several moments. The world spun in a crazy-house whirl of black and silver stars. By the time I could stand, he was in the bathroom shooting up. I thought about telling him to go easy, the fix was strong, but a wave of sullen hatred had dried the words in my throat. Instead I watched French commercials on the television. I could follow almost all the words, and people talked machine-gun fast in commercials. Even Marcel, after the blowjob, told me my French was getting better.
“Better than that
dingue boyfriend of yours,”
he’d said with a laugh as he zipped his jeans and gave my hair a ruffle.
I held no illusions the gesture meant anything real. More like a man would pat his dog for coming when she was called, but still my throat had ached. The touch was gentle, not a slap. I didn’t get many of those.
So I didn’t tell Stephen about the heroin. I watched television instead.
When I couldn’t stand the rancid taste in my mouth one minute longer, and I hadn’t heard any movement from the bathroom for at least half an hour, I crept to the door. Ear pressed to the wood, I tried to hear him breathing or moving. Nothing. He was passed out on the floor again. Nothing new.
I didn’t realize he was dead right away. I noticed the needle sticking out of his arm. His long, skinny legs blocked the sink. I’d have to step between them if I wanted to brush my teeth. The awkward tilt of his neck as he slumped against the side of the chipped claw-foot tub was nothing new either. But the stillness was. No rise and fall of his chest. And then I saw his eyes. Open and staring at nothing.
I looked at him for a terrifying moment, and my heart squeezed tight. But after the first swell of panic came the sweet, exquisite relief. I smiled and stepped over his legs to get to the sink and the toothpaste.
I waited and waited for the guilt to swamp me. It never came until much later, maybe not even until the night Parker broke my heart. He might not have known the particulars, but he could see inside me in a way nobody else ever had. Vampire eyes saw more than mortal eyes. He judged me, and I came up short.
But then I always did. Ask my mother.
The man shoved the girl onto a dirty bench outside Kew Gardens. “Stay the fuck here until I get back.” His voice was as coarse as his face. This man was no attractive schemer like Stephen or Parker.
He let out a sharp cry of alarm when he turned and I stood six inches away from him. “The fuck you come from?”
“Never mind,” I said. “Go for a walk. Half an hour. Get your cigarettes and smoke three of them. Come back here when you’re done.” His blue eyes glazed as I drew on my power. My skull tingled as the pressure built, and I gave him a psychic nudge. He stumbled away, muttering to himself.
The girl had her knees drawn up to her chest, eyes wide with terror.
“Robert?” She looked after him, her expression a mixture of love, hate, and crippling sorrow.
“Your sister will take you in,” I said as a summer breeze gusted the hair around my face.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, dull despair making her ugly. “But Robert will find me there. I can’t bring trouble to my sister. She’s got little kids.”
“You’ll never see him again,” I said, and the flare of hope and fear on her face made my heart hurt. How many times had I looked in the mirror and seen this exact expression? Too many. I dug a fifty-pound note out of my pocket, and she took it, fingers trembling. “Go home and get your things. He won’t be back for hours.”
She stood, clutching the money to her chest as if I might change my mind and take it away.
I really looked at her, let my power surge, and her green eyes grew dazed. “You won’t remember me,” I told her. “You’ll just remember you finally found the courage to get out, and you’ll never let yourself fall for a man like Robert ever again. Ever, Sylvia. Now go. Run.”
I took a seat on the bench and read the tattered advertisements on backs of taxis as they drove by until Robert’s slouching form appeared out of the darkness.
“Come here.” I patted the seat beside me. He sat. Eyes still glazed, he reeked of cigarette smoke. I grimaced and tried to breathe through my mouth. Since Turning, certain smells triggered headaches and nausea. Cigarette smoke was one of them. Citrus scents, especially if they were perfume based, were another.
“You kicked Sylvia out,” I said. “You’re sick of shoving her around. You can’t be a good man around her, and you want to be a good man, Robert. Don’t you?”
“Want to be a good man.” His voice slurred, and he shook his head as if to clear the haze away.
“You will never hit another woman again. Ever,” I said as I took his hand. He curled his fingers around mine, an automatic response, and I gently disentangled my fingers from his so I could bring his wrist to my mouth.
My fangs burst through my gums in front of my incisors. Saliva spurted into my mouth in anticipation of the blood feast to come.
Taste buds cramped at the first gush of Robert’s sweet blood. God, there was nothing like the gorgeous taste of mortal blood. Salty, thick, with the hint of sugar. I swallowed greedily, weaving a cocoon of privacy around us. Several mortals passed us by as I drank, but their gazes slid over us, their memories skipped a beat, and they were gone without ever registering we were there. Their thoughts tickled the back of my skull, but Robert’s blood smoothed them over, made them just background static.
My power had distinct advantages. Parker had to work twice as hard to mask his intentions when he fed, which is why he preferred to do it naked with a willing woman beneath him. Distracted as hell by the orgasm rocketing through her body, she wouldn’t notice as he sank his fangs into her thigh or her throat. Until he’d given me permission to hunt alone, probably thinking I would be lost and uncomfortable—two things he loved to see me suffer—we’d hunted together. He knew I could read minds, but he had no idea I could make people do what I wanted or erase their memories. He would have exploited that just as he did my mind reading. This part of my power was mine alone. I controlled it. And I used it to help women like me. Gave them a second chance and hoped like hell theirs worked out better than mine. I would never make up for killing Stephen, but I could do good things. At least that was my working theory.
* * * *
No one was home when I walked into the Holland Park house an hour later. Still high on Robert’s blood, I took the basement stairs three at a time and rushed through the kitchen to the back door. Stepping outside into the garden was like entering another world. No more wretched, loud mortal thoughts. No car exhaust, diesel fuel, or unwashed bodies. Clean, sweet. On the flagstone terrace I stopped to take a deep breath. Lavender, basil, and rosemary grew in ceramic pots I’d placed on the boundary between the terrace and the grass.
I rubbed my fingers along the spiky edges of the English lavender. Such a heavenly scent.
The azalea bushes needed weeding and mulching. I had no mulch in the potting shed, but I could weed. After I donned thick gardeners’ gloves, I sank to my knees in the cool grass and set to work. Robert’s blood hummed a song in my veins that I could sing to myself.
When I became a vampire, I had this romantic notion that the world would morph and shift, and through my vampire eyes everything would be transformed. Beautiful. Especially me. Mainly me. Sometimes I have to laugh at myself and the things I think…
* * * *
The night I was Turned, Oliver’s fingers were cold on my elbow as he guided me into a large conference room with breathtaking views of London’s wharves from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Three men and a woman were waiting for us. The woman was gorgeous. She’d coiled her black hair in an elegant knot and wore a flame-red dress with a plunging neckline. No necklace, which was strange, but maybe she wanted to emphasize her exposed cleavage. She looked like a princess.
I smiled at her, but she didn’t even blink. I wondered if she’d be my master.
Oliver told me I would be apprenticed to one of these vampires, who would guide and protect me for at least thirty years until I was ready to be a master myself. This vampire would be my teacher, Oliver, said. I would not be a servant, so I shouldn’t be afraid of the term “master.” It was used in the old-fashioned sense, not a literal one.
All three men were achingly attractive. I noticed the one with blondish-brown hair first because he’d smiled at me. When he did, his entire face transformed, and I was blown away by a thrill of desire. Maybe he’d
be the one who would be my master.
The one with the thick brown hair to his shoulders looked as though he could have been in a boy band, only he was in his late twenties. Solo career time. His brown eyes were very kind and crinkled at the edges when he grinned. Being in the presence of so many vampires was terrifying and exhilarating. Was I really about to become one of them? Shed my mortal skin and leave all the crap behind? Could it be that simple? That sublime?
Then I really looked at the man at the end of the table, the one sitting apart from the others. He was…beautiful. My heart beat so fast I wanted to put a hand to my chest to keep it from bursting through my skin. I’d found beauty in so many people, places, and objects, but this man was the most gorgeous creature I’d ever seen. Black-haired and blue-eyed, he was just divine. I’d heard the phrase “Greek-god good looks” and always thought it was a complete exaggeration. Nobody human could ever look that perfect. Only he wasn’t strictly human.
His intense eyes were so light they were almost turquoise. When he looked at me, I’d forgotten my own name.
“Claire, this is my Circle.” Oliver’s voice broke into my entranced reverie, and I wondered if my expression had given me away. By the sly smile on the perfect man’s face, I suspected it had. One by one Oliver introduced them. First names only. The man with the transformative smile was Andre. The woman was Ursula, and the long-haired man was Gareth. Parker was the perfect man. I liked that name. It suited him somehow. As unusual as he was.
“Claire, do you agree to be Turned of your own free will? Do you understand that you will be apprenticed to a master in my Circle and answer to him in word and deed for the next thirty years or more?” Oliver’s voice was solemn, but I’d felt like dancing. He said “him
.” Maybe I would be apprenticed to Parker.
“I do,” I replied. The same answer I would have given if this had been my wedding day. I supposed in a way it was. Thirty years was a long damn time. Would there be sex? Did masters and apprentices sleep together? Did they fall in love? Was it magical and beautiful? Could my past really be brushed aside so I could start over again without thoughts of my mother or Stephen? Their names had called up a tidal wave of filthy memories and feelings that nearly swept me under, but then Oliver beckoned to Parker.
When he stood, I’d been struck dumb with lust and a thrill of hope that rang through me, making me feel alive and special. I would be different. In a few moments I would leave the shell of the old, lost me behind and be new again. Pure. I could begin again at the side of this breathtaking man, and everything would be beautiful, not just some things. Transient things. Insubstantial things that never lasted and went away. I would be immortal like him. Nobody could ruin the beauty for me. It would be there, shining and gold, all the time.
The more I looked at Parker, the more my blood pounded. Oh, he was so hot
. Tight black pants. White button-down shirt that looked wickedly expensive, and he’d unbuttoned it to expose his amazing body. He had very little chest hair, but I saw the line of hair down his flat stomach as it disappeared into the waistband of his pants. Was he going to Turn me naked? Did we have to have sex in front of everyone, maybe? Could I do that? I’d thought, Yes, I could, if it meant his
hands on my body, his
mouth exploring places I hadn’t let a man near in ages.
But he kept the shirt on, just unbuttoned it all the way and untucked it. Sexier maybe than if he’d shrugged it off. He knew what an effect he had on women. I could tell by the smile and the sparkle in his incredible eyes. Who cared? Tonight he was with me. For thirty years he’d be with me. He’d talk with me and teach me, and I would transform into someone different than I had been.
I had no recollection of seeing movement, but the next thing I knew, he was right in front of me, and Oliver was at the black table.
“Hello, Claire.” Parker’s voice was as perfect as his face. Smooth and slippery as silk.
When he’d touched my face, I gasped. His fingers trailed a warm path from my cheek to my chin, and then he tilted my head so my throat was exposed. I’d worn my hair up at Oliver’s request, although I usually let it fall to my shoulders. Sometimes I pulled back the front with an antique silver barrette I’d found at a vendor’s table at the flea market on Portobello Road. It was my emblem of a new start. That night it, as well as silver bobby pins, held my hair up in tight bun. My dress was new. In anticipation of having my financial needs taken care of by my master and Oliver, I’d blown almost all of my meager savings. Sleeveless with a flaring short skirt and a spiderweb lace inset on top, my dress was black as the nighttime sea with silver sparkles in the shiny material. In comparison to the designer dress the vampire woman wore, it was cheap, but I’d loved it. I hadn’t spent that much on a dress since my senior prom.
What had Parker thought when he looked at me? All my psychic powers happened after I Turned, so I couldn’t read his mind. His eyes were the kind that gave nothing away unless he wanted them to. He’d studied me, fingers still holding me by the chin, and my heart thumped so hard it hurt.
The lights dimmed slowly. The woman, Ursula, stood by the switch. Candlelight flickered from sconces on the dark walls and from votive holders on the tabletop. The glittering lights from the wharves outside illuminated the room in an unearthly glow.
Parker smiled at me, and then I could read his eyes. He wanted me. Longing tinged with wistfulness. He’d been almost fragile like glass, and I thought I could break him with a word if I wanted. Such a weird thought to have just before I was Turned into a vampire. They were the strong ones, not me. I was mortal. I wanted to be strong like them. I would
be strong like them. Besides beauty, that was what this was all about. A new start and strength. Two things I needed desperately.
“You’re beautiful,” Parker said with an odd catch to his voice. “I wonder about you, Claire. Who you are. Who you’ll become. You sure you want this?”
I nodded because I couldn’t speak. I glimpsed his fangs behind his lips. They hadn’t been there two seconds ago. How had he done that?
“I want to taste your mortal blood. Turning you will change the taste, and I want to know both flavors.” Parker seemed to be asking my permission as if he had to. Did he?
For an answer, I exposed my throat and squeezed my eyes shut when he lowered his face. I braced myself for the pain of his fangs, but instead his lips traced featherlight kisses across my flesh. My pulse leaped in response, and my legs hollowed as if the bones were disintegrating. I grabbed on to him so I wouldn’t fall, and his arms curved around me.
That’s when he bit me. One tiny prick of pain, and then the oddest sensation of something leaving my body. My blood? My soul? I had no idea, but it was over almost before it began, and then Parker looked at me again. This time his lips were rouged with blood. I put a fingertip to his mouth to catch a sliding red drop, and he swallowed, his throat muscles rippling.
He smiled at me again and very gently pushed my hand away from his mouth. He had a razor in his hand. Where had it come from? How had he moved so fast? It must have been in his pocket, but I’d never seen him take it out. I gasped when he sliced open his chest.
Blood, dark as night, spilled down his chest and disappeared beneath the waistband of his pants. I had one second to marvel at the gorgeous rush before he pushed my face into the flow so my mouth was level with the wound.
“Drink it,” he said and cradled the back of my head with both hands. Pins scattered, and the thump of my silver barrette was a soft thud
on the carpet at our feet. My hair cascaded down in a heavy spill, and I opened my mouth so I could taste his blood.
I’d expected it to taste metallic—nasty—but it was not. Chocolate, dark and decadent, mixed with earthy wine. And yet not that either. I’d never tasted anything like it, and I swallowed greedily. Gulp after gulp, first from his chest and then his wrist. I gripped his forearm and dug my nails into his skin without meaning to hurt him. I couldn’t help it. I could not let go.
Blood roared in my ears and burned like fire in my veins. I lifted up and out of the shell of my body and watched myself drink. Parker radiated with a supernatural light. I was bright blue that shaded to purple the more I drank. Parker’s face twisted with pain and pleasure, and beyond us at the conference table, the others were at rapt attention, leaning forward, eyes glowing. The man, Gareth, laughed, a joyous, unfettered sound, and it reverberated in my ears like no other laugh had ever done.
When Parker took his wrist away from my mouth, I’d cried out and tried to bring it back again. My puny strength was nothing against his power. In an instant he was halfway across the room, and I was alone. The lights from the wharves were a visual symphony of notes strung together in a song I could see. I forgot about Parker’s wrist and the rapturous taste of his blood and rushed to the light.
I hit the windows and bounced back, my senses reeling. Andre caught me before I fell.
“You can’t touch the lights, angel,” he’d whispered in my ear. “Look at them instead. Feel them with your eyes.” He stood with me at the window for a moment and then faded back into the middle of the room. I didn’t care. The lights were so fucking beautiful, and everything was different.
Parker’s blood churned in my stomach, invaded my veins, merged with my blood, and tingles rose all over my body. I itched from the inside out, and just when I thought I would scream from the maddening distraction of it, Oliver took me in his arms. His throat was bleeding, and when I smelled the blood, a fierce hunger raged inside me. A burst of surprising pain in my mouth. Fangs. I had fangs. How had I done that? I explored their pointy tips with my tongue, but then instinct rammed into me, and I lunged at Oliver’s throat. The rumble of his laughter was soothing against my body as I sucked frantically at the wound in his throat. The Circle mark burned bright and hot against the skin on my back. Later I would discover a small black X on the side of my back just above my right hip—the Circle mark we all had. All I felt then was fiery agony. My scream pierced the silence of the room, and every vampire started, including me.
“It hurts,” I whimpered, and Oliver put his hand on my back, exactly where the pain was, and somehow cooled my skin with his touch.
“Welcome to my Circle, Claire.” Oliver’s handsome face was grave, yet his amber eyes had gleamed. “As Circle Master, I apprentice you to Parker. May your time with us be well spent…”
* * * *
At that moment, it was just like I’d thought it would be. Everything was beautiful. Oliver was a shimmering god flanked by his Circle, each member more gorgeous than the last. Their heartbeats thumped in unison, stunning me with the voluptuous sound of rushing blood. I could have listened to that sound for hours, but so many other exquisite things waited for me to discover them. For once in my life I was safe. The vampires in this room were my Circle, and I was no longer cut apart or cast aside.
Of course it didn’t last. But for that brief, shining moment I took a look around the world, and everything I saw was magnificent.
Amy Lee Burgess