Monday, September 24, 2012

Tooth and Claw: Chapter One


                Della Swain walks through the streets of North Las Vegas, her head weighed down with thoughts.  She was trying to draw what happiness she could from the last few days she would be able to enjoy, but her mind turned constantly to how wrong everything in her life was going.
                When she was a child, she had felt special.  Her parents were devoted to her, busy though they were, and she had relished their attention.  She was something extraordinary, then – or so she had felt.  Then her little brother had been born, and she saw with bitter jealousy that they raised him with the same care and attention with which they had raised her.  “Of course you’re still special, my love,” her mother had told her.  “But Virgil is special, too, in his own way.  You both are.”  She found in time that everyone was special to their parents – and if everyone was special, then no one was.
                And so her parents’ love had been stolen from her.  Oh, they still loved her – of course they still loved her – that hadn’t changed.  But what had once seemed to make her special was now tainted with the dulling ordinariness that threatened to swallow everything in her life.  She had read some of the child-rearing books on her parents’ shelves, attended some of the seminars where they learned How to Be Good Parents, and found that no matter who she was, no matter how she turned out, they would have treated her with the same care and love regardless.  “Praise” and “attention” were “positive reinforcements” that were part of a “strategy.”
                That wasn’t special, that was so ordinary it was a slap in her face.
                She went through puberty, and all the attendant changes it brought, and boys had begun to look at her in that special way.  But when she watched more closely, she saw that they looked at other girls in the very same no-longer-special way – not just other girls, but all girls, and men were no different.  That lusty, appraising gaze wasn’t for her, it was simply how men looked at women.  Nothing special there at all.  She got the undeniable impression, whenever a boy would ask her if she was going to a ballgame or a dance, that she wasn’t being asked for who she was but only because she was a girl.  Any girl would do, and that wouldn’t do for Della.  She wasn’t just any girl, and so she made up her mind that no boy looking for any girl would stand a chance with her.
                Nevertheless, the world seemed Hell-bent on treating her like any girl, the same way it treated every girl:  sit down, cross your legs, hands in your lap; don’t speak too loud, it’s unladylike; go here, do this, just like all the other girls.  Wear makeup.  Buy perfume.  Smile.  Just like all the other girls.  She was determined to be unlike all the other girls, but no matter what she did, it seemed that someone else was always doing it, too.  Even the girls who didn’t want to fit in with the “mainstream” managed to fit in with each other, and what was that but another kind of mainstream?  Come on down and be the first to conform to the brandest-newest style of non-conformity!  No matter who you are or what you do, you fit in somewhere, and Della didn’t feel like she fit in anywhere.  You’re into boys?  That’s normal.  You’re into girls?  That’s normal.  You’re into both?  Also normal.  Don’t like either?  Don’t worry – you’re still normal.
                She didn’t want to be normal.  She didn’t want to fit into any category, she wanted to be beyond them.  She wanted to be beyond them all, to be utterly unique, she wanted people to know when they looked at her that she was absolutely unlike anyone else they had ever seen.  But no matter how she dressed, or spoke, or acted, the world always seemed to have yet another place for her to fit in to its horrible, ugly, every-day normal.
                She reached the end of the block, crossed Bonanza Road and left the Nature Park golf course behind her to the South.
                So she had turned to her studies, hoping to find something special about herself there.  She raised her grades from Bs and Cs in junior high to straight As in high school, and found that this, too, was yet another of the endless forms of Ordinary that the world had laid out.  Oh, you’re a genius?  Here, we have these “accelerated” classes, where you can be a genius among geniuses.  There, doesn’t it feel good to be normal?  Nobody understood.  How could they?
                That was how she figured out the way the world works:  whoever doesn’t fit into a box, you just gather them up and put them in another box.  She wanted to be unboxable, out of the ordinary, someone who you could never describe as “Just another (fill-in-the-blank).”  But that was what the world did, because that was what the world wanted:  to have a bunch of cogs in its well-oiled machine.  Kids who were good at math became adults who did math for their bosses; kids who were good at science became adults who did science for their bosses; kids who were good at art became adults who did art for their bosses; kids who were good at sports became adults who did sports for their bosses; and kids who were good at being bosses?  Why, they became adults who bossed around employees for their bosses, who were called “customers” or sometimes “clients.”  Whoever you were and whatever you did, society already had a place carved out for you, and all you had to do was fit in.  And even if you managed to invent a new machine, design a new product, make a new kind of art that nobody had ever seen before – why, then you were just another innovator, right back to fitting in.
                Bell curves were her nightmares – she hated bell curves with a passion.  Everyone just falls into a position along the curve, and those that didn’t seem to fit were just called “outliers” or “anomalies,” and they went in the box with all the other outliers and anomalies.  It’s normal to find outliers and anomalies, don’t you know, so don’t go thinking they’re special.  We can measure everyone and everything with our scales, scales for this and scales for that, and if it’s not on the scale, then don’t worry your pretty little head – one of those innovators will make a scale for it, eventually.
                Della wanted off the scale.  She wanted off all the scales.
                So there she had been, seventeen and already seeing the whole awful world in front of her – in broad strokes, if not in fine detail – and wanting nothing to do with it.  Bright, sure, but there were a ton of bright kids at her school, so that wasn’t special at all.  Decent at sports, but not the best; reasonably pretty, but not the prettiest; average height, average weight (and actual average, not the phony puffed-up “average” that they told the fat kids so they’d feel better about being fat), average everything.  Unbearably ordinary.  Her parents thought she might have been depressed, but there was nothing wrong with her, what was wrong was with the world.  That’s not depression, that’s a shitty world.
                Then he showed up.
                Edward Cochran wasn’t from Las Vegas, he was from Chicago.  Sure, lots of people in Las Vegas were from somewhere else, originally; but still, there had been something special about him.  She knew it, she could see it, even though she didn’t know he was a vampire right away.  Hell, if he hadn’t told her, she probably never would have guessed.  He looked eighteen-to-twenty-one, and it was normal for guys that age to have a job (there it is again), so seeing him only at night wasn’t anything suspicious.  But she had seen that spark of the extraordinary within him, and he had managed to convince her that he saw it in her, too.
                And she had fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker.
                Drives out to the desert to name the stars for her (That’s Cygnus, the swan, and oh it’s so beautiful).  Dinner with her folks and slipping sly winks at her between good impressions for her parents (You’re an accountant in a casino, and oh you must be the rock star of accountants).  Showing up at a school ballgame and taking her to Cirque du Soleil (I won these tickets on the radio, and oh I’d love it if you could come with).  He made everything seem about her again, like she was the only girl in the world (Well I’ve had girlfriends before, but oh they were never quite like you).  The way he’d turn his head away and brush his thumb across his chin, and only then lick his lips when he’d thought of something to say right after.  That bashful manner he had when he acted like he was tricked into complimenting her – and then complimented her, anyway.
                But it had all been an act, an act honed over more than a century of experience, and now Della Swain fell neatly once again into a stupid little box, this one labeled Conquests of Edward Cochran.  “But don’t worry,” one of the bloodkin had told her as Edward was dragged screaming down the hall by Herman’s goons, “He’s like a professional at this bullshit.  You couldn’t have been expected to see it coming, and that’s what makes him so dangerous.  It’s normal to feel like you’ve been had.”  Is it, now?  And how was that supposed to make her feel better?
                She came up to the part where Mojave curves toward the West, stepped through the gate in the fence into Freedom Park.  The football fields and baseball diamonds were empty, it was Tuesday just after noon, and she should have been in school but fuck it.  School would soon be something she couldn’t do any more.  And for what?  So she could be just another vampire.  Edward had even managed to steal the specialness from that, too, telling her that there were precious few bloodkin in the world, let alone tiny Las Vegas.  But at his trial, there had been over a hundred in attendance.
                Della looked up from her inner monologue and saw Mike Smith, the school’s attendance officer, walking her way.  Had he seen her?  He was a ways off, yet.  She turned to her left, trying to look inconspicuous, but he picked up his pace.
                “Della?  Della!”  She heard his footsteps breaking into a run, tried to ignore him – but it was no good.  “Jesus, Della, you’re red as a lobster!  Have you been out here all day?”
                “Lobsters are only red once you cook them, Michael.”  She rolls her eyes.
                “Yeah, I know, and you look pretty cooked.”  She looks down at her arms.
                “Holy shit, I just thought it was hot out.”
                “C’mon, we should get you to the nurse.  I’m parked right on Harris.”  He reaches for her arm instinctively, then draws back at the last moment.  No use trying to run off; he’d just chase her down and grab her, and that would be extra painful.  She follows him to his car.
                “Your parents are worried sick about you,” he says as she shuts his passenger door.  He pushes the start button, and sweet Freon chills the air and her red skin.
                “What for?  As far as they knew, I was in school.”
                “Yeah, until your homeroom teacher called to see if you were sick.  Christ, Della, what if some predator had snatched you off the street hours ago?”
                “Whatever,” she says, staring vacantly out the window, “I can take care of myself.”
                “Is that a fact, Red?”
                “I… whatever.”
                “Wow.  I didn’t see that coming.  Great comeback.  Is that what you’re going to tell your parents when they ask where you’ve been?”  He looks across the lanes and merges into the light afternoon traffic.
                “I must be confused – are you my truant officer, or my prosecuting attorney?”
                “That’s more like it,” he says blankly, focusing on his driving.  “At least you’ve got your head in the game.”
                “Bribing me with more positive reinforcement?  Is this another ‘strategy’ to get me to shape up how you want?”
                “OK, now you’re meta-gaming.  That’s no fair.”
                “Aren’t you?”
                “Look,” he says with a sigh, “I know you’re upset, that you think all the adults are trying to manipulate you with rewards and punishments, but it’s not all carrots and sticks.  We really do care about you.  We just have to care about all the other kids, too, so you can’t take it personally when you’re not the center of attention.”
                “The carrot’s on a stick.”
                “What?”  He turns into the school drive.
                “You don’t reward with a carrot and punish with a stick.  You dangle the carrot from the stick.  That’s how you make the turtle go, because he can’t see that it moves with him.  And it’s just like you guys:  you dangle these rewards in front of us, and there’s no consequence for failure.  No child left behind, and all that.”
                “Come on, we just want you kids to succeed.”
                “But who cares about success when there’s no such thing as failure?  That’s not succeeding, it’s just status quo.”
                “Jeez, you sound like you’d turn your nose up at a gourmet meal unless you knew someone was starving somewhere.”
                “That’s not the same thing, and you know it!”  She’s getting angry.  He’s just arguing with her, he’s not listening to her.
                “OK, you’re right.”  He pulls into a parking spot, turns off the car.  Flexes his fingers over the wheel, breathes deep.  “You’re right.  I know it’s tough.  I was a teenager, too, you know.  It was a long time ago, things weren’t like this.  But you have to believe me, we really do want what’s best for you.”
                “I think I’d be the best judge of that.”
                “Della, you’re a teenager.  You don’t even know who you are yet.  You might not even know until you’re thirty.”
                “What makes you so sure?”  She crosses her arms, but her sunburn hurts too much, and she uncrosses them again.  Hands in your lap, young lady.
                “Because,” he closes his eyes, exhales sharply through his nose, “Everything here is fake.  No point hiding it from you, you’ve figured it out already.  It really is jumping through hoops.  But the point of those hoops is to gradually ramp you up to the real world – grade school ramps up to junior high, ramps up to high school, ramps up to college, ramps up to the real world.  And the idea is, if you can do well all along the way in here, then you can do well out there.  And that’s what the accelerated classes are for:  so you can get ahead of the curve, and do more of what you want, since you’ve dealt with what you need earlier on.  But if you don’t give a shit in here, then everybody’s going to think you won’t give a shit out there.”
                “And if I really don’t give a shit anyway?”
                “Then for the love of Pete, act like you do, because that will at least make it easier to get your way.”  He stares directly into her eyes, frustration practically written in the lines of his forehead.
                “Great pep talk.  You really inspired me.  Are we done here?”
                Mike sighs.  “Yeah.  I guess we are.  Let’s get you to the nurse.”  They step out of the car, shut the doors in unison.
                “I can walk myself, thanks.”
                “Yeah, and right out the other side of the school, I bet.  Nice try.”

                At the nurse’s office, Della takes a seat opposite Mike after signing in.  She had wanted not to be next to him, but now she’s directly across from him.  Stupid.  It would be too awkward for her to move, and she’d now be moving closer to him in any event, so she grabs a magazine.  Stupid.  The magazine’s about dumb celebrities and their dumb celebrity problems.  Ooh, the Dusky Heartthrobs stars started dating, and surprise, it didn’t work out.  The other magazines are for children.  She sets the celebrity magazine down anyway, swallows the awkwardness, resists the urge to twirl a finger into her hair.  She feels hedged in, like any move she makes is just transparently obvious.  I’m sick of trying to plan my moves.  I just want out.
                “Come on back.”
                Her temperature’s fine, 98.1 degrees.  A bit low, but within normal range.  Some people run hot, some people run cold.  Blood pressure normal.  Really bad sunburn, though.
                “How long were you out there?”
                “I don’t know, I was just taking a walk before school, and lost track of time.”  Oh, and I’m a vampire now, if that has anything to do with it.
                “You’ve gotta be more careful.  That desert sun is cruel.”
                “Yeah, I just wasn’t thinking.”  Oh, and I’M A VAMPIRE.  DUH.
                “All right.  Well, lesson learned.  Get some aloe gel, that will soothe the burn, and try not to scratch when it starts itching.  You’ll be fine in a few days.”
                “OK, thanks.”
                The nurse sends Della on her way, and tells Mike in the waiting room that she ought to be sent home with a burn that bad.  Mike calls her parents back on his cell and she hears his half of the conversation.  Her mother comes to pick her up, standard lecture on the brief drive home.  As they turn on to Guinevere Avenue, her mother takes on a shriller-than-normal tone.
                “Are you even listening?”
                “Yes, I… sorry, no.  Sorry.  I’m just… look, I’m in pain, I’m not myself today, I just spaced out.  Autopilot.  Sorry.”  Her mother reaches for her, recoils – Sunburn, Della can practically hear her think – opens her mouth.  Two heartbeats pass before she speaks.
                “No, it’s OK.  Look, you’re a teenager.”  Sigh.  “These things happen.  Dad’s getting some aloe gel from the store, he’ll be home soon.  I keep thinking I can set you straight, but – well, Hell, I was a teenager, too.  Nothing my parents could’ve said would’ve set me straight.  I don’t know why I keep thinking I can do better with you.  Can’t blame me for trying, though?”  Della thinks on the question.  Blinks back a tear.
                “No, I can’t blame you for trying.”  She manages a smile.  But I can blame you for how it turns out.
                “I love you, baby.”
                “Love you too, Mom.”  She tries to blink the tear back again, but there it goes, right down her cheek.  Stupid.
                There’s a blur as she gets a glass of water, drinks it down, draws her bedroom blinds, and takes a nap.  She feels on her last legs as she drifts off to sleep.

                Della opens her eyes.  The red digits of her clock read a quarter past one.  Moonlight streams in through her window.  Didn’t I draw the blinds?
                As she peers out the window, a face stares back from the shadows.  She gasps.
                “Sshh.”  A finger raised to lips – I couldn’t hear that, it’s just the gesture.  Just the same, maybe she did hear it.  A single finger beckons, come hither.
                After recognizing the face, Della slides open her window.
                “Sorry.  What’s up?”
                “You’ve been missed.  Come on.”  So this is it, then.
                “Hold on, let me grab some things.”
                “No.  No grabbing.”  The hushed whisper carries a sense of urgency.  Della tries to meet Jamie’s stare – but no, of course there isn’t time.
                “OK, let’s go.”  She shimmies out the window, follows Jamie into the night.

                “What the Hell, Della?”  Thomas stares wide-eyed as he reads over the sheets of paper before him.  “Seriously.  You have a few nights  to sort out your affairs and prepare for your exit from daily life.  And what do you do?  Acquire an absurdly conspicuous sunburn, go home sick, and piss off the school’s truant officer.  Marvelous.”
                “I didn’t mean to,” she protests.  “I was just – look, I needed some time to think.  That’s all.”
                “No, it’s – “ Thomas sighs.  “It’s fine.  We can use this.  Erratic, careless behavior will actually work to our advantage in staging your death.”
                “Death?”  Della gasps.
                “Faking your death, I should have said.”  He tugs at the collar of his plain white dress shirt.  “You obviously can’t continue your daily life.  I should hope your skin is reminding you of that.”  She looks at her forearm.
                “Yeah, but is faking my death really necessary?”  Thomas stares at her for a moment, takes a deep breath.
                “Have a seat,” he says at last.  He leans back at his desk, runs both hands through his salt and pepper hair.  “Let’s say we don’t fake your death.  What happens?”
                “Well,” Della pauses, thinks a bit.  “I don’t suppose I could tell my parents I’m a vampire.”
                “You can’t tell anyone.  But sunlight will be absolutely lethal to you in a night or two.”
                “OK.”  She mulls this over.  “Night school?”
                “Even if you could convince your parents to enroll you only in classes after sundown, what about family vacations?  What about friends?  What if your mom says, ‘Enough of this clownhouse nocturnal horse-shit,’ takes the garbage bags off your windows, and draws your blinds at high noon?”
                “Jeez.  Edward made it seem so easy.”
                “Edward was a stranger to you.  You and your friends weren’t close to him the way you were with each other.  You have family and friends who care about you and would find it highly unusual for you to develop a sudden allergy to daylight.”
                “And there’s no way to make them take my word for it?”
                “Suppose you did.  Then what?  You think they’d let the issue drop?  They’d take you to a doctor.  The doctor would find plenty unusual about you, and try to make a career on your case study.  Government spooks with the power to make you a non-person could even come after you.  And don’t even get me started on the Hunters.”
                “Hunters?”  A look of concern crosses Della’s face.
                “Not now.  We’ll talk about them later.  But yes, there are people who know there are vampires and will try to kill you for it.  Edward didn’t do you any favors by inducting you into our little club.”
                Della slouches in her chair, lets out a big sigh, closes her eyes for a few seconds.
                “There has to be some way,” she says, looking Thomas in the eye once more.  “There just has to be.”
                “Sorry.  If you only ‘disappeared,’ the case would remain open for a long time, there’s no telling what kind of media circus there could be.  It’s quicker and easier by far for you to officially die.”
                “Fine,” she says after a moment, “But then what?  What if there’s still a media circus?  How can I go out in public, even at night?  Won’t people recognize me?”
                Thomas leans back in his chair, steeples his fingers with a slow nod, purses his lips and arches his eyebrows in that “you have a good point” fashion.
                “Yes, indeed.  But we have ways around that.”
                “What, like plastic surgery?”
                “No, nothing so extreme as that.  It’s complicated.”  He waves his hand dismissively.  “We’ll talk about it when the time comes.  In the meantime, though, you’ll have to stay in the building until your death blows over.”
                “You mean I’m stuck here?”
                Thomas rolls his eyes.  “What have we just been talking about?”  He fixes Della with a stare, she buckles under his gaze, gives up on whatever she had been thinking.  “We’ve got a lot here, though, so you don’t have to worry.  I’ll have Herman show you around tonight.  Jamie will also get your sizes and buy you some new clothes.”
                “I have clothes at – “ something crosses her mind, the way Jamie was able to just change her mind with that stare – “Hey, there’s something that’s been bugging me.”
                “What’s that?”
                “When Jamie came to get me, I wanted to grab some things before we left.  She said there wasn’t time – no, she didn’t say it, but she made me think it.  What’s up with that?”
                “Hmm, yes.”  Thomas chuckles softly.  “Good catch.  That’s one of the things we’ll be talking about later.  For now, it will suffice to say that, as predators who live in the midst of our prey, we have certain tricks that make it easy for us to navigate social situations.”  Della thinks this over.
                “Fine,” she says at last.  “But still, I have clothes at home.”
                “And they would need to be found with your ‘body’ or it would look suspicious, wouldn’t it?  Trust me, the fewer loose ends to tie up, the better for all of us.”
                Loose ends, Della thinks.  Lots of loose ends.  “Wait,” she says after a few moments’ thought.  “Isn’t it hard to fake a death?”
                “For a single person?  Almost insurmountably.  For a large and well-connected organization with deep pockets, such as our own?  Not so much.  It mostly involves clever paperwork and a dirty deed or two.”
                “For the body, I assume.”
                “You’re catching on,” Thomas says with a nod.  “And on that note,” he says, standing to his feet, “I have a few matters in need of attention.”  He presses the intercom on his desk.  “Herman?”
                “Yeah, boss,” the intercom says back.
                “I’ll be out of the office the rest of the night.  Have Jamie take Della’s measurements, then show her around the building, please.”
                “Sure thing.”
                Thomas smoothes out his shirt and dons his sport coat.  “Anything else,” he asks her, “Before we part ways?”
                “What about my parents?”
                “Hmm,” Thomas frowns.  “Sad.  But what can you do?”  He shrugs.  “These things happen, though,” he says as he buttons his jacket.
                Herman enters the room, dressed in a simple suit and tie, Jamie at his side in her jeans and t-shirt.  Thomas nods, bids the three of them a good night, and they part ways.

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