Dead to the World (TV Tie-In)
A Sookie Stackhouse Novel
When telepathic cocktail waitress Sookie Stackhouse sees a naked man on the side of the road, she doesn't just drive on by. Turns out the poor thing hasn't a clue who-or what-he is, but Sookie knows. It's the vampire Eric Northman-but now he's a kinder, gentler Eric. And a very frightened Eric, because it soon becomes obvious that whoever took his memory now wants his life.prologue
I found the note taped to my door when I got home from work. I'd had the lunch-to-early-evening shift at Merlotte's, but since we were at the tail end of December, the day darkened early. So Bill, my former boyfriendthat's Bill Compton, or Vampire Bill, as most of the regulars at Merlotte's call himmust have left his message within the previous hour. He can't get up until dark.
I hadn't seen Bill in over a week, and our parting hadn't been a happy one. But touching the envelope with my name written on it made me feel miserable. You'd thinkthough I'm twenty-sixI'd never had, and lost, a boyfriend before.
You'd be right.
Normal guys don't want to date someone as strange as I am. People have been saying I'm messed up in the head since I started school.
That's not to say I don't get groped at the bar occasionally. Guys get drunk. I look good. They forget their misgivings about my reputation for strangeness and my ever-present smile.
But only Bill has ever gotten close to me in an intimate way. Parting from him had hurt me bad.
I waited to open the envelope until I was sitting at the old, scarred kitchen table. I still had my coat on, though I'd shucked my gloves.
Dearest SookieI wanted to come over to talk to you when you had somewhat recovered from the unfortunate events of earlier this month.
"Unfortunate events," my round rear end. The bruises had finally faded, but I had a knee that still ached in the cold, and I suspected that it always would. Every injury I had incurred had been in the course of rescuing my cheating boyfriend from his imprisonment by a group of vampires that included his former flame, Lorena. I had yet to figure out why Bill had been so infatuated with Lorena that he'd answered her summons to Mississippi.
Probably, you have a lot of questions about what happened.
If you'll talk to me face-to-face, come to the front door and let me in.
Yikes. I hadn't seen that one coming. I pondered for a minute. Deciding that while I didn't trust Bill anymore, I didn't believe that he would physically harm me, I went back through the house to the front door. I opened it and called, "Okay, come on in."
He emerged from the woods surrounding the clearing in which my old house stood. I ached at the sight of him. Bill was broad-shouldered and lean from his life of farming the land next to mine. He was hard and tough from his years as a Confederate soldier, before his death in 1867. Bill's nose was straight off a Greek vase. His hair was dark brown and clipped close to his head, and his eyes were just as dark. He looked exactly the same as he had while we were dating, and he always would.
He hesitated before he crossed the threshold, but I'd given him permission, and I moved aside so he could step past me into the living room filled with old, comfortable furniture and neat as a pin.
"Thank you," he said in his cold, smooth voice, a voice that still gave me a twinge of sheer lust. Many things had gone wrong between us, but they hadn't started in bed. "I wanted to talk to you before I left."
"Where are you going?" I tried to sound as calm as he.
"To Peru. The queen's orders."
"Still working on your, ah, database?" I knew almost nothing about computers, but Bill had studied hard to make himself computer literate.
"Yes. I've got a little more research to do. A very old vampire in Lima has a great fund of knowledge about those of our race on his continent, and I have an appointment to confer with him. I'll do some sight-seeing while I'm down there."
I fought the urge to offer Bill a bottle of synthetic blood, which would have been the hospitable thing to do. "Have a seat," I said curtly, and nodded at the sofa. I sat on the edge of the old recliner catty-cornered to it. Then a silence fell, a silence that made me even more conscious of how unhappy I was.
"How's Bubba?" I asked finally.
"He's in New Orleans right now," Bill said. "The queen likes to keep him around from time to time, and he was so visible here over the last month that it seemed like a good idea to take him elsewhere. He'll be back soon." You'd recognize Bubba if you saw him; everyone knows his face. But he hadn't been "brought over" too successfully. Probably the morgue attendant, who happened to be a vampire, should have ignored the tiny spark of life. But since he was a great fan, he hadn't been able to resist the attempt, and now the entire southern vampire community shuffled Bubba around and tried to keep him from public view.
Another silence fell. I'd planned on taking off my shoes and uniform, putting on a cuddly robe, and watching television with a Freschetta pizza by my side. It was a humble plan, but it was my own. Instead, here I was, suffering.
"If you have something to say, you better go on and say it," I told him.
He nodded, almost to himself. "I have to explain," he said. His white hands arranged themselves in his lap. "Lorena and I"
I flinched involuntarily. I never wanted to hear that name again. He'd dumped me for Lorena.
"I have to tell you," he said, almost angrily. He'd seen me twitch. "Give me this chance." After a second, I waved a hand to tell him to continue.
"The reason I went to Jackson when she called me is that I couldn't help myself," he said.
My eyebrows flew up. I'd heard that before. It means, "I have no self-control," or, "It seemed worth it at the time, and I wasn't thinking north of my belt."
"We were lovers long ago. As Eric says he told you, vampire liaisons don't tend to last long, though they're very intense while they are ongoing. However, what Eric did not tell you was that Lorena was the vampire who brought me over."
"To the Dark Side?" I asked, and then I bit my lip. This was no subject for levity.
"Yes," Bill agreed seriously. "And we were together after that, as lovers, which is not always the case."
"But you had broken up…"
"Yes, about eighty years ago, we came to the point where we couldn't tolerate each other any longer. I hadn't seen Lorena since, though I'd heard of her doings, of course."
"Oh, sure," I said expressionlessly.
"But I had to obey her summons. This is absolutely imperative. When your maker calls, you must respond." His voice was urgent.
I nodded, trying to look understanding. I guess I didn't do too good a job.
"She ordered me to leave you," he said. His dark eyes were peering into mine. "She said she would kill you if I didn't."
I was losing my temper. I bit the inside of my cheek, real hard, to make myself focus. "So, without explanation or discussion with me, you decided what was best for me and for you."
"I had to," he said. "I had to do her bidding. And I knew she was capable of harming you."
"Well, you got that right." In fact, Lorena had done her dead level best to harm me right into the grave. But I'd gotten her firstokay, by a fluke, but it had worked.
"And now you no longer love me," Bill said, with the slightest of questions in his voice.
I didn't have any clear answer.
"I don't know," I said. "I wouldn't think you'd want to come back to me. After all, I killed your mom." And there was the slightest of questions in my voice, too, but mostly I was bitter.
"Then we need more time apart. When I return, if you consent, we'll talk again. A kiss good-bye?"
To my shame, I would love to kiss Bill again. But it was such a bad idea, even wanting it seemed wrong. We stood, and I gave him a quick brush of lips to the cheek. His white skin shone with a little glow that distinguished vampires from humans. It had surprised me to learn that not everyone saw them like I did.
"Are you seeing the Were?" he asked, when he was nearly out the door. He sounded as though the words had been pulled out of him by their roots.
"Which one?" I asked, resisting the temptation to bat my eyelashes. He deserved no answer, and he knew it. "How long will you be gone?" I asked more briskly, and he looked at me with some speculation.
"It's not a sure thing. Maybe two weeks," he answered.
"We might talk then," I said, turning my face away. "Let me return your key." I fished my keys out of my purse.
"No, please, keep it on your key ring," he said. "You might need it while I am gone. Go in the house as you will. My mail's getting held at the post office until I give them notice, and I think all my other loose ends are taken care of."
So I was his last loose end. I damned up the trickle of anger that was all too ready to bubble out these days.
"I hope you have a safe trip," I said coldly, and shut the door behind him. I headed back to my bedroom. I had a robe to put on and some television to watch. By golly, I was sticking to my plan.
But while I was putting my pizza in the oven, I had to blot my cheeks a few times.
The New Year's Eve party at Merlotte's Bar and Grill was finally, finally, over. Though the bar owner, Sam Merlotte, had asked all his staff to work that night, Holly, Arlene, and I were the only ones who'd responded. Charlsie Tooten had said she was too old to put up with the mess we had to endure on New Year's Eve, Danielle had long-standing plans to attend a fancy party with her steady boyfriend, and a new woman couldn't start for two days. I guess Arlene and Holly and I needed the money more than we needed a good time.
And I hadn't had any invitations to do anything else. At least when I'm working at Merlotte's, I'm a part of the scenery. That's a kind of acceptance.
I was sweeping up the shredded paper, and I reminded myself again not to comment to Sam on what a poor idea the bags of confetti had been. We'd all made ourselves pretty clear about that, and even good-natured Sam was showing signs of wear and tear. It didn't seem fair to leave it all for Terry Bellefleur to clean, though sweeping and mopping the floors was his job.
Sam was counting the till money and bagging it up so he could go by the night deposit at the bank. He was looking tired but pleased.
He flicked open his cell phone. "Kenya? You ready to take me to the bank? Okay, see you in a minute at the back door." Kenya, a police officer, often escorted Sam to the night deposit, especially after a big take like tonight's.
I was pleased with my money take, too. I had earned a lot in tips. I thought I might have gotten three hundred dollars or moreand I needed every penny. I would have enjoyed the prospect of totting up the money when I got home, if I'd been sure I had enough brains left to do it. The noise and chaos of the party, the constant runs to and from the bar and the serving hatch, the tremendous mess we'd had to clean up, the steady cacophony of all those brains… it had combined to exhaust me. Toward the end I'd been too tired to keep my poor mind protected, and lots of thoughts had leaked through.
It's not easy being telepathic. Most often, it's not fun.
This evening had been worse than most. Not only had the bar patrons, almost all known to me for many years, been in uninhibited moods, but there'd been some news that lots of people were just dying to tell me.
"I hear yore boyfriend done gone to South America," a car salesman, Chuck Beecham, had said, malice gleaming in his eyes. "You gonna get mighty lonely out to your place without him."
"You offering to take his place, Chuck?" the man beside him at the bar had asked, and they both had a we're-men-together guffaw.
"Naw, Terrell," said the salesman. "I don't care for vampire leavings."
"You be polite, or you go out the door," I said steadily. I felt warmth at my back, and I knew my boss, Sam Merlotte, was looking at them over my shoulder.
"Trouble?" he asked.
"They were just about to apologize," I said, looking Chuck and Terrell in the eyes. They looked down at their beers.
"Sorry, Sookie," Chuck mumbled, and Terrell bobbed his head in agreement. I nodded and turned to take care of another order. But they'd succeeded in hurting me.
Which was their goal.
I had an ache around my heart.
I was sure the general populace of Bon Temps, Louisiana, didn't know about our estrangement. Bill sure wasn't in the habit of blabbing his personal business around, and neither was I. Arlene and Tara knew a little about it, of course, since you have to tell your best friends when you've broken up with your guy, even if you have to leave out all the interesting details. (Like the fact that you'd killed the woman he left you for. Which I couldn't help. Really.) So anyone who told me Bill had gone out of the country, assuming I didn't know it yet, was just being malicious.
Until Bill's recent visit to my house, I'd last seen him when I'd given him the disks and computer he'd hidden with me. I'd driven up at dusk, so the machine wouldn't be sitting on his front porch for long. I'd put all his stuff up against the door in a big waterproofed box. He'd come out just as I was driving away, but I hadn't stopped.
An evil woman would have given the disks to Bill's boss, Eric. A lesser woman would have kept those disks and that computer, having rescinded Bill's (and Eric's) invitations to enter the house. I had told myself proudly that I was not an evil, or a lesser, woman.
Also, thinking practically, Bill could just have hired some human to break into my house and take them. I didn't think he would. But he needed them bad, or he'd be in trouble with his boss's boss. I've got a temper, maybe even a bad temper, once it gets provoked. But I'm not vindictive.
Arlene has often told me I am too nice for my own good, though I assure her I am not. (Tara never says that; maybe she knows me better?) I realized glumly that, sometime during this hectic evening, Arlene would hear about Bill's departure. Sure enough, within twenty minutes of Chuck and Terrell's gibing, she made her way through the crowd to pat me on the back. "You didn't need that cold bastard anyway," she said. "What did he ever do for you?"
I nodded weakly at her to show how much I appreciated her support. But then a table called for two whiskey sours, two beers, and a gin and tonic, and I had to hustle, which was actually a welcome distraction. When I dropped off their drinks, I asked myself the same question. What had Bill done for me?
I delivered pitchers of beer to two tables before I could add it all up.
He'd introduced me to sex, which I really enjoyed. Introduced me to a lot of other vampires, which I didn't. Saved my life, though when you thought about it, it wouldn't have been in danger if I hadn't been dating him in the first place. But I'd saved his back once or twice, so that debt was canceled. He'd called me "sweetheart," and at the time he'd meant it.
"Nothing," I muttered, as I mopped up a spilled piña colada and handed one of our last clean bar towels to the woman who'd knocked it over, since a lot of it was still in her skirt. "He didn't do a thing for me." She smiled and nodded, obviously thinking I was commiserating with her. The place was too noisy to hear anything anyway, which was lucky for me.
But I'd be glad when Bill got back. After all, he was my nearest neighbor. The community's older cemetery separated our properties, which lay along a parish road south of Bon Temps. I was out there all by myself, without Bill.
"Peru, I hear," my brother Jason, said. He had his arm around his girl of the evening, a short, thin, dark twenty-one-year-old from somewhere way out in the sticks. (I'd carded her.) I gave her a close look. Jason didn't know it, but she was a shape-shifter of some kind. They're easy to spot. She was an attractive girl, but she changed into something with feathers or fur when the moon was full. I noticed Sam give her a hard glare when Jason's back was turned, to remind her to behave herself in his territory. She returned the glare, with interest. I had the feeling she didn't become a kitten, or a squirrel.
I thought of latching on to her brain and trying to read it, but shifter heads aren't easy. Shifter thoughts are kind of snarly and red, though every now and then you can get a good picture of emotions. Same with Weres.
Sam himself turns into a collie when the moon is bright and round. Sometimes he trots all the way over to my house, and I feed him a bowl of scraps and let him nap on my back porch, if the weather's good, or in my living room, if the weather's poor. I don't let him in the bedroom anymore, because he wakes up nakedin which state he looks very nice, but I just don't need to be tempted by my boss. The moon wasn't full tonight, so Jason would be safe. I decided not to say anything to him about his date. Everyone's got a secret or two. Her secret was just a little more colorful.
Besides my brother's date, and Sam of course, there were two other supernatural creatures in Merlotte's Bar that New Year's Eve. One was a magnificent woman at least six feet tall, with long rippling dark hair. Dressed to kill in a skintight long-sleeved orange dress, she'd come in by herself, and she was in the process of meeting every guy in the bar. I didn't know what she was, but I knew from her brain pattern that she was not human. The other creature was a vampire, who'd come in with a group of young people, most in their early twenties. I didn't know any of them. Only a sideways glance by a few other revelers marked the presence of a vampire. It just went to show the change in attitude in the few years since the Great Revelation.
Almost three years ago, on the night of the Great Revelation, the vampires had gone on TV in every nation to announce their existence. It had been a night in which many of the world's assumptions had been knocked sideways and rearranged for good.
This coming-out party had been prompted by the Japanese development of a synthetic blood that can keep vamps satisfied nutritionally. Since the Great Revelation, the United States has undergone numerous political and social upheavals in the bumpy process of accommodating our newest citizens, who just happen to be dead. The vampires have a public face and a public explanation for their conditionthey claim an allergy to sunlight and garlic causes severe metabolic changesbut I've seen the other side of the vampire world. My eyes now see a lot of things most human beings don't ever see. Ask me if this knowledge has made me happy.
But I have to admit, the world is a more interesting place to me now. I'm by myself a lot (since I'm not exactly Norma Normal), so the extra food for thought has been welcome. The fear and danger haven't. I've seen the private face of vampires, and I've learned about Weres and shifters and other stuff. Weres and shifters prefer to stay in the shadowsfor nowwhile they watch how going public works out for the vamps.
See, I had all this to mull over while collecting tray after tray of glasses and mugs, and unloading and loading the dishwasher to help Tack, the new cook. (His real name is Alphonse Petacki. Can you be surprised he likes "Tack" better?) When our part of the cleanup was just about finished, and this long evening was finally over, I hugged Arlene and wished her a happy New Year, and she hugged me back. Holly's boyfriend was waiting for her at the employees' entrance at the back of the building, and Holly waved to us as she pulled on her coat and hurried out.
"What're your hopes for the New Year, ladies?" Sam asked. By that time, Kenya was leaning against the bar, waiting for him, her face calm and alert. Kenya ate lunch here pretty regularly with her partner, Kevin, who was as pale and thin as she was dark and rounded. Sam was putting the chairs up on the tables so Terry Bellefleur, who came in very early in the morning, could mop the floor.
"Good health, and the right man," Arlene said dramatically, her hands fluttering over her heart, and we laughed. Arlene has found many menand she's been married four timesbut she's still looking for Mr. Right. I could "hear" Arlene thinking that Tack might be the one. I was startled; I hadn't even known she'd looked at him.
The surprise showed on my face, and in an uncertain voice Arlene said, "You think I should give up?"
"Hell, no," I said promptly, chiding myself for not guarding my expression better. It was just that I was so tired. "It'll be this year, for sure, Arlene." I smiled at Bon Temp's only black female police officer. "You have to have a wish for the New Year, Kenya. Or a resolution."
"I always wish for peace between men and women," Kenya said. "Make my job a lot easier. And my resolution is to bench-press one-forty."
"Wow," said Arlene. Her dyed red hair contrasted violently with Sam's natural curly red-gold as she gave him a quick hug. He wasn't much taller than Arlenethough she's at least five foot eight, two inches taller than I. "I'm going to lose ten pounds, that's my resolution." We all laughed. That had been Arlene's resolution for the past four years. "What about you, Sam? Wishes and resolutions?" she asked.
"I have everything I need," he said, and I felt the blue wave of sincerity coming from him. "I resolve to stay on this course. The bar is doing great, I like living in my doublewide, and the people here are as good as people anywhere."
I turned to conceal my smile. That had been a pretty ambiguous statement. The people of Bon Temps were, indeed, as good as people anywhere.
"And you, Sookie?" he asked. Arlene, Kenya, and Sam were all looking at me. I hugged Arlene again, because I like to. I'm ten years youngermaybe more, since though Arlene says she's thirty-six, I have my doubtsbut we've been friends ever since we started working at Merlotte's together after Sam bought the bar, maybe five years now.
"Come on," Arlene said, coaxing me. Sam put his arm around me. Kenya smiled, but drifted away into the kitchen to have a few words with Tack.
Acting on impulse, I shared my wish. "I just hope to not be beaten up," I said, my weariness and the hour combining in an ill-timed burst of honesty. "I don't want to go to the hospital. I don't want to see a doctor." I didn't want to have to ingest any vampire blood, either, which would cure you in a hurry but had various side effects. "So my resolution is to stay out of trouble," I said firmly.
Arlene looked pretty startled, and Sam lookedwell, I couldn't tell about Sam. But since I'd hugged Arlene, I gave him a big hug, too, and felt the strength and warmth in his body. You think Sam's slight until you see him shirtless unloading boxes of supplies. He is really strong and built really smooth, and he has a high natural body temperature. I felt him kiss my hair, and then we were all saying good night to each other and walking out the back door. Sam's truck was parked in front of his trailer, which is set up behind Merlotte's Bar but at a right angle to it, but he climbed in Kenya's patrol car to ride to the bank. She'd bring him home, and then Sam could collapse. He'd been on his feet for hours, as had we all.
As Arlene and I unlocked our cars, I noticed Tack was waiting in his old pickup; I was willing to bet he was going to follow Arlene home.
With a last "Good night!" called through the chilly silence of the Louisiana night, we separated to begin our new years.
I turned off onto Hummingbird Road to go out to my place, which is about three miles southeast of the bar. The relief of finally being alone was immense, and I began to relax mentally. My headlights flashed past the close-packed trunks of the pines that formed the backbone of the lumber industry hereabouts.
The night was extremely dark and cold. There are no streetlights way out on the parish roads, of course. Creatures were not stirring, not by any means. Though I kept telling myself to be alert for deer crossing the road, I was driving on autopilot. My simple thoughts were filled with the plan of scrubbing my face and pulling on my warmest nightgown and climbing into my bed.
Something white appeared in the headlights of my old car.
I gasped, jolted out of my drowsy anticipation of warmth and silence.
A running man: At three in the morning on January first, he was running down the parish road, apparently running for his life.
I slowed down, trying to figure out a course of action. I was a lone unarmed woman. If something awful was pursuing him, it might get me, too. On the other hand, I couldn't let someone suffer if I could help. I had a moment to notice that the man was tall, blond, and clad only in blue jeans, before I pulled up by him. I put the car into park and leaned over to roll down the window on the passenger's side.
"Can I help you?" I called. He gave me a panicked glance and kept on running.
But in that moment I realized who he was. I leaped out of the car and took off after him.
"Eric!" I yelled. "It's me!"
He wheeled around then, hissing, his fangs fully out. I stopped so abruptly I swayed where I stood, my hands out in front of me in a gesture of peace. Of course, if Eric decided to attack, I was a dead woman. So much for being a good Samaritan.
Why didn't Eric recognize me? I'd known him for many months. He was Bill's boss, in the complicated vampire hierarchy that I was beginning to learn. Eric was the sheriff of Area Five, and he was a vampire on the rise. He was also gorgeous and could kiss like a house afire, but that was not the most pertinent side of him right at the moment. Fangs and strong hands curved into claws were what I was seeing. Eric was in full alarm mode, but he seemed just as scared of me as I was of him. He didn't leap to attack.
"Stay back, woman," he warned me. His voice sounded like his throat was sore, raspy and raw.
"What are you doing out here?"
"Who are you?"
"You known darn good and well who I am. What's up with you? Why are you out here without your car?" Eric drove a sleek Corvette, which was simply Eric.
"You know me? Who am I?"
Well, that knocked me for a loop. He sure didn't sound like he was joking. I said cautiously, "Of course I know you, Eric. Unless you have an identical twin. You don't, right?"
"I don't know." His arms dropped, his fangs seemed to be retracting, and he straightened from his crouch, so I felt there'd been a definite improvement in the atmosphere of our encounter.
"You don't know if you have a brother?" I was pretty much at sea.
"No. I don't know. Eric is my name?" In the glare of my headlights, he looked just plain pitiful.
"Wow." I couldn't think of anything more helpful to say. "Eric Northman is the name you go by these days. Why are you out here?"
"I don't know that, either."
I was sensing a theme here. "For real? You don't remember anything?" I tried to get past being sure that at any second he'd grin down at me and explain everything and laugh, embroiling me in some trouble that would end in me… getting beaten up.
"For real." He took a step closer, and his bare white chest made me shiver with sympathetic goose bumps. I also realized (now that I wasn't terrified) how forlorn he looked. It was an expression I'd never seen on the confident Eric's face before, and it made me feel unaccountably sad.
"You know you're a vampire, right?"
"Yes." He seemed surprised that I asked. "And you are not."
"No, I'm real human, and I have to know you won't hurt me. Though you could have by now. But believe me, even if you don't remember it, we're sort of friends."
"I won't hurt you."
I reminded myself that probably hundreds and thousands of people had heard those very words before Eric ripped their throats out. But the fact is, vampires don't have to kill once they're past their first year. A sip here, a sip there, that's the norm. When he looked so lost, it was hard to remember he could dismember me with his bare hands.
I'd told Bill one time that the smart thing for aliens to do (when they invaded Earth) would be to arrive in the guise of lop-eared bunnies.
"Come get in my car before you freeze," I said. I was having that I'm-getting-sucked-in feeling again, but I didn't know what else to do.
"I do know you?" he said, as though he were hesitant about getting in a car with someone as formidable as a woman ten inches shorter, many pounds lighter, and a few centuries younger.
"Yes," I said, not able to restrain an edge of impatience. I wasn't too happy with myself, because I still half suspected I was being tricked for some unfathomable reason. "Now come on, Eric. I'm freezing, and so are you." Not that vampires seemed to feel temperature extremes, as a rule; but even Eric's skin looked goosey. The dead can freeze, of course. They'll survive itthey survive almost everythingbut I understand it's pretty painful. "Oh my God, Eric, you're barefoot." I'd just noticed.
I took his hand; he let me get close enough for that. He let me lead him back to the car and stow him in the passenger seat. I told him to roll up the window as I went around to my side, and after a long minute of studying the mechanism, he did.
I reached in the backseat for an old afghan I keep there in the winter (for football games, etc.) and wrapped it around him. He wasn't shivering, of course, because he was a vampire, but I just couldn't stand to look at all that bare flesh in this temperature. I turned the heater on full blast (which, in my old car, isn't saying much).
Eric's exposed skin had never made me feel cold beforewhen I'd seen this much of Eric before, I'd felt anything but. I was giddy enough by now to laugh out loud before I could censor my own thoughts.
He was startled, and looked at me sideways.
"You're the last person I expected to see," I said. "Were you coming out this way to see Bill? Because he's gone."
"The vampire who lives out here? My ex-boyfriend?"
He shook his head. He was back to being absolutely terrified.
"You don't know how you came to be here?"
He shook his head again.
I was making a big effort to think hard; but it was just that, an effort. I was worn out. Though I'd had a rush of adrenaline when I'd spotted the figure running down the dark road, that rush was wearing off fast. I reached the turnoff to my house and turned left, winding through the black and silent woods on my nice, level drivewaythat, in fact, Eric had had re-graveled for me.
And that was why Eric was sitting in my car right now, instead of running through the night like a giant white rabbit. He'd had the intelligence to give me what I really wanted. (Of course, he'd also wanted me to go to bed with him for months. But he'd given me the driveway because I needed it.)
"Here we are," I said, pulling around to the back of my old house. I switched off the car. I'd remembered to leave the outside lights on when I'd left for work that afternoon, thank goodness, so we weren't sitting there in total darkness.
"This is where you live?" He was glancing around the clearing where the old house stood, seemingly nervous about going from the car to the back door.
"Yes," I said, exasperated.
He just gave me a look that showed white all around the blue of his eyes.
"Oh, come on," I said, with no grace at all. I got out of the car and went up the steps to the back porch, which I don't keep locked because, hey, why lock a screened-in back porch? I do lock the inner door, and after a second's fumbling, I had it open so the light I leave on in the kitchen could spill out. "You can come in," I said, so he could cross the threshold. He scuttled in after me, the afghan still clutched around him.
Under the overhead light in the kitchen, Eric looked pretty pitiful. His bare feet were bleeding, which I hadn't noticed before. "Oh, Eric," I said sadly, and got a pan out from the cabinet, and started the hot water to running in the sink. He'd heal real quick, like vampires do, but I couldn't help but wash him clean. The blue jeans were filthy around the hem. "Pull 'em off," I said, knowing they'd just get wet if I soaked his feet while he was dressed.
With not a hint of a leer or any other indication that he was enjoying this development, Eric shimmied out of the jeans. I tossed them onto the back porch to wash in the morning, trying not to gape at my guest, who was now clad in underwear that was definitely over-the-top, a bright red bikini style whose stretchy quality was definitely being tested. Okay, another big surprise. I'd seen Eric's underwear only once beforewhich was once more than I ought to haveand he'd been a silk boxers guy. Did men change styles like that?
Without preening, and without comment, the vampire rewrapped his white body in the afghan. Hmmm. I was now convinced he wasn't himself, as no other evidence could have convinced me. Eric was way over six feet of pure magnificence (if a marble white magnificence), and he well knew it.
I pointed to one of the straight-back chairs at the kitchen table. Obediently, he pulled it out and sat. I crouched to put the pan on the floor, and I gently guided his big feet into the water. Eric groaned as the warmth touched his skin. I guess that even a vampire could feel the contrast. I got a clean rag from under the sink and some liquid soap, and I washed his feet. I took my time, because I was trying to think what to do next.
"You were out in the night," he observed, in a tentative sort of way.
"I was coming home from work, as you can see from my clothes." I was wearing our winter uniform, a long-sleeved white boat-neck T-shirt with "Merlotte's Bar" embroidered over the left breast and worn tucked into black slacks.
"Women shouldn't be out alone this late at night," he said disapprovingly.
"Tell me about it."
"Well, women are more liable to be overwhelmed by an attack than men, so they should be more protected"
"No, I didn't mean literally. I meant, I agree. You're preaching to the choir. I didn't want to be working this late at night."
"Then why were you out?"
"I need the money," I said, wiping my hand and pulling the roll of bills out of my pocket and dropping it on the table while I was thinking about it. "I got this house to maintain, my car is old, and I have taxes and insurance to pay. Like everyone else," I added, in case he thought I was complaining unduly. I hated to poor-mouth, but he'd asked.
"Is there no man in your family?"
Every now and then, their ages do show. "I have a brother. I can't remember if you've ever met Jason." A cut on his left foot looked especially bad. I put some more hot water into the basin to warm the remainder. Then I tried to get all the dirt out. He winced as I gently rubbed the washcloth over the margins of the wound. The smaller cuts and bruises seemed to be fading even as I watched. The hot water heater came on behind me, the familiar sound somehow reassuring.
"Your brother permits you to do this working?"
I tried to imagine Jason's face when I told him that I expected him to support me for the rest of my life because I was a woman and shouldn't work outside the home. "Oh, for goodness sake, Eric." I looked up at him, scowling. "Jason's got his own problems." Like being chronically selfish and a true tomcat.
I eased the pan of water to the side and patted Eric dry with a dishtowel. This vampire now had clean feet. Rather stiffly, I stood. My back hurt. My feet hurt. "Listen, I think what I better do is call Pam. She'll probably know what's going on with you."
It was like being around a particularly irritating two-year-old.
He was going to ask another question, I could just tell. I held up a hand. "Just hold on. Let me call her and find out what's happening."
"But what if she has turned against me?"
"Then we need to know that, too. The sooner the better."
I put my hand on the old phone that hung on the kitchen wall right by the end of the counter. A high stool sat below it. My grandmother had always sat on the stool to conduct her lengthy phone conversations, with a pad and pencil handy. I missed her every day. But at the moment I had no room in my emotional palette for grief, or even nostalgia. I looked in my little address book for the number of Fangtasia, the vampire bar in Shreveport that provided Eric's principal income and served as the base of his operations, which I understood were far wider in scope. I didn't know how wide or what these other moneymaking projects were, and I didn't especially want to know.
I'd seen in the Shreveport paper that Fangtasia, too, had planned a big bash for the evening"Begin Your New Year with a Bite"so I knew someone would be there. While the phone was ringing, I swung open the refrigerator and got out a bottle of blood for Eric. I popped it in the microwave and set the timer. He followed my every move with anxious eyes.
"Fangtasia," said an accented male voice.
"Yes, how may I serve you?" He'd remembered his phone persona of sexy vampire just in the nick of time.
"Oh," he said in a much more natural voice. "Listen, Happy New Year, Sook, but we're kind of busy here."
"Looking for someone?"
There was a long, charged silence.
"Wait a minute," he said, and then I heard nothing.
"Pam," said Pam. She'd picked up the receiver so silently that I jumped when I heard her voice.
"Do you still have a master?" I didn't know how much I could say over the phone. I wanted to know if she'd been the one who'd put Eric in this state, or if she still owed him loyalty.
"I do," she said steadily, understanding what I wanted to know. "We are under… we have some problems."
I mulled that over until I was sure I'd read between the lines. Pam was telling me that she still owed Eric her allegiance, and that Eric's group of followers was under some kind of attack or in some kind of crisis. I said, "He's here." Pam appreciated brevity.
"Is he alive?"
A long pause, this time.
"Will he be a danger to you?"
Not that Pam cared a whole hell of a lot if Eric decided to drain me dry, but I guess she wondered if I would shelter Eric. "I don't think so at the moment," I said. "It seems to be a matter of memory."
"I hate witches. Humans had the right idea, burning them at the stake."
Since the very humans who had burned witches would have been delighted to sink that same stake into vampire hearts, I found that a little amusingbut not very, considering the hour. I immediately forgot what she'd been talking about. I yawned.
"Tomorrow night, we'll come," she said finally. "Can you keep him this day? Dawn's in less than four hours. Do you have a safe place?"
"Yes. But you get over here at nightfall, you hear me? I don't want to get tangled up in your vampire shit again." Normally, I don't speak so bluntly; but like I say, it was the tail end of a long night.
"We'll be there."
We hung up simultaneously. Eric was watching me with unblinking blue eyes. His hair was a snarly tangled mess of blond waves. His hair is the exact same color as mine, and I have blue eyes, too, but that's the end of the similarities. I thought of taking a brush to his hair, but I was just too weary.
"Okay, here's the deal," I told him. "You stay here the rest of the night and tomorrow, and then Pam and them'll come get you tomorrow night and let you know what's happening."
"You won't let anyone get in?" he asked. I noticed he'd finished the blood, and he wasn't quite as drawn as he'd been, which was a relief.
"Eric, I'll do my best to keep you safe," I said, quite gently. I rubbed my face with my hands. I was going to fall asleep on my feet. "Come on," I said, taking his hand. Clutching the afghan with the other hand, he trailed down the hall after me, a snow white giant in tiny red underwear.
My old house has been added onto over the years, but it hasn't ever been more than a humble farmhouse. A second story was added around the turn of the century, and two more bedrooms and a walk-in attic are upstairs, but I seldom go up there anymore. I keep it shut off, to save money on electricity. There are two bedrooms downstairs, the smaller one I'd used until my grandmother died and her large one across the hall from it. I'd moved into the large one after her death. But the hidey-hole Bill had built was in the smaller bedroom. I led Eric in there, switched on the light, and made sure the blinds were closed and the curtains drawn across them. Then I opened the door of the closet, removed its few contents, and pulled back the flap of carpet that covered the closet floor, exposing the trapdoor. Underneath was a light-tight space that Bill had built a few months before, so that he could stay over during the day or use it as a hiding place if his own home was unsafe. Bill liked having a bolt-hole, and I was sure he had some that I didn't know about. If I'd been a vampire (God forbid), I would have, myself.
I had to wipe thoughts of Bill out of my head as I showed my reluctant guest how to close the trapdoor on top of him and that the flap of carpet would fall back into place. "When I get up, I'll put the stuff back in the closet so it'll look natural," I reassured him, and smiled encouragingly.
"Do I have to get in now?" he asked.
Eric, making a request of me: The world was really turned upside-down. "No," I said, trying to sound like I was concerned. All I could think of was my bed. "You don't have to. Just get in before sunrise. There's no way you could miss that, right? I mean, you couldn't fall asleep and wake up in the sun?"
He thought for a moment and shook his head. "No," he said. "I know that can't happen. Can I stay in the room with you?"
Oh, God, puppy dog eyes. From a six-foot-five ancient Viking vampire. It was just too much. I didn't have enough energy to laugh, so I just gave a sad little snigger. "Come on," I said, my voice as limp as my legs. I turned off the light in that room, crossed the hall, and flipped on the one in my own room, yellow and white and clean and warm, and folded down the bedspread and blanket and sheet. While Eric sat forlornly in a slipper chair on the other side of the bed, I pulled off my shoes and socks, got a nightgown out of a drawer, and retreated into the bathroom. I was out in ten minutes, with clean teeth and face and swathed in a very old, very soft flannel nightgown that was cream-colored with blue flowers scattered around. Its ribbons were raveled and the ruffle around the bottom was pretty sad, but it suited me just fine. After I'd switched off the lights, I remembered my hair was still up in its usual ponytail, so I pulled out the band that held it and I shook my head to make it fall loose. Even my scalp seemed to relax, and I sighed with bliss.
As I climbed up into the high old bed, the large fly in my personal ointment did the same. Had I actually told him he could get in bed with me? Well, I decided, as I wriggled down under the soft old sheets and the blanket and the comforter, if Eric had designs on me, I was just too tired to care.
"What's your name?"
"Sookie. Sookie Stackhouse."
"Thank you, Sookie."
Because he sounded so lostthe Eric I knew had never been one to do anything other than assume others should serve himI patted around under the covers for his hand. When I found it, I slid my own over it. His palm was turned up to meet my palm, and his fingers clasped mine.
And though I would not have thought it was possible to go to sleep holding hands with a vampire, that's exactly what I did.
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