I examined the dried blood from the now-healed gash on my forehead in my refection of the rear view mirror.
I sighed. That had been close, too close.
I pushed aside the nagging yet insistent voice in my head that always brought feelings of self-doubt with it at times like these and got out of the car. The bag of take-out food managed to survive intact yet it had long since lost its appeal. Perhaps Wendell my elderly neighbor would want it. It was late—almost eleven in the evening—and I felt slightly guilty for not having stopped by earlier today to check in on him. Wendell and his little terrier mongrel Benita were a much-needed source of companionship in my life. He was the only living person who knew fully and completely what I was, yet not only did he know what I was, but he didn’t hold it against me or judge me for doing what my nature compelled.
My pass card made a slight snick of sound as the door opened to admit me into my apartment complex, and while it wasn’t the most upscale or modern it was home, at least for now. The carpeted stairs creaked slightly as I made my way up to my third floor apartment—I hated confined spaces and avoided the elevator whenever possible—and even before I hit the landing I knew that Wendell was awake and had been waiting up for my return. Benita ran out to greet me, tail wagging and thumping dully on the floor and I stooped to pet her behind her ears.
“Hey, there. At least someone is glad to see me alive.”
“That makes two of us.” I glanced up in time to see Wendell get up from the camp chair he had set up outside his door. I knew that the simple action pained him despite his attempts to hide his wince from me, and I noted that his joints seemed more swollen and stiff than usual. He took in my slightly harried appearance and then his watery blue eyes fixed on a spot right above my left temple. “Ran into a little trouble tonight?” He pointed to his own temple. “Whoever it was must have given you a heck of shiner—everything turn out all right?”
“It’s nothing. Look, it’s healed already.” I moved my hair away to show him that the wound was indeed gone, but he seemed unconvinced. I took his arm and helped guide him back inside his apartment and into his favorite easy chair, which was parked strategically right in front of the television. He settled into it with a weary sigh but made no protest. Wendell knew better than to refuse my assistance, primarily since he knew how much it meant to me to be needed by someone.
He watched intently as I checked Benita’s food dish, watered the trailing ivy above the kitchen sink, and then finally laid out his mail on the worn Formica counter top. “I brought your mail up, oh, and I also brought you some pie—lemon meringue.”
“Just keep bringing yourself home every night. That’s more important. Oh, and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, try doing it at a decent hour—my days of waiting up for people are long since over.”
I smiled at his remark. I knew that Wendell cared for me like a daughter—he admitted as much during one of our many conversations—yet I couldn’t help but notice that his comment held a trace of wistfulness. I brought the pie into the living room along with two forks and took a seat on the couch to his left. Benita immediately took up a position at my feet, knowing that I’d eventually give her some of my food.
Wendell brought a forkful of pie to his lips and I couldn’t help but notice that the tremor he had in his hands was especially bad tonight. I looked away so that he didn’t notice me staring.
“You’re being awfully quiet; are you going to tell me what happened, or do I have to wring it out of you one word at a time?”
I set my fork down and stared at my hands, which were still stained with blood. Careless of me to be walking around like this, even this late in the evening. “I killed another one tonight—a young guy, probably no older than twenty. This one was a killer long before he was turned, which couldn’t have been all that long ago. He got the jump on me and gashed my forehead pretty good, but he underestimated me.” I scoffed bitterly. “They all do in some way.”
Wendell also set his fork down and seemed to be turning over what I had just said. “That makes what? Four…five this month alone? And the last couple of months had around three as well. Seems to me like there are more and more of these bastards, which even in a city this size is never a good thing.”
I nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. Whoever is fostering these beings is doing so at an alarming rate. That means that it’s either one Font of considerable age and power doing it, or for some reason or other, prodigies are flocking to this city completely unattended. Frankly neither scenario sits well with me and I’m beginning to worry.”
“But you’ve encountered a situation—or at least a Font—like this before, haven’t you? Surely this is not the first time.”
I shook my head. I had indeed encountered just such a situation three-hundred-and-fifty-eight years ago in my native village in Hungary. Amaris had swept in and taken everything that had meant anything to me during my human life away, and in a moment of twisted curiosity had decided to force me into undergoing the change against my will. Not every mortal who undergoes the change—the alchemical mingling of blood, body, and soul with their maker—survives the ordeal, and the fact that I did was immensely satisfying to Amaris. Amaris then made it his mission to destroy my will and crush my resolve, to see me reduced to nothing more than a mindless killing machine, but he had died by my hand within a day of my being turned.
I started. I had been so caught up in the web of painful memories that made up my past that I hadn’t even realized that Wendell had been talking to me. I glanced up and met his gaze, so full of love and concern for me that I felt as if I were on the verge of breaking down. Instead I swallowed thickly and forced my face to not betray my true emotions. “I’ve seen this kind of pattern before.”
I smiled bitterly. “I survived.”
He didn’t respond but continued to slowly eat the last few forkfuls of pie. Benita was eyeing the plate so intently it was like she was almost in a trance. All that remained was the edge of crust, which I knew neither of us wanted. A look passed between Wendell and I and he sighed, resigned. He knew that I adored Benita and didn’t put it past me to sneak the crust to her when he was not looking, despite my denials of ever having done such a thing. The crust was gobbled up within seconds and with a grateful snuff, she settled into her customary spot by the window overlooking the parking lot below.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and let the ambient sounds of the night sooth our mutually jangled nerves. Two floors below us I could hear the sounds of Mrs. Parker watching a televangelist on her little color television, could hear the cars passing by in their ceaseless rhythm outside, could hear the humming of Wendell’s refrigerator a few feet away. All of these sounds were peaceful in their own right: unremarkable, predictable, normal.
“Another year has gone by.” It is I who spoke first. Wendell continued to stare off at nothing in particular and nodded sympathetically. He knew that I was speaking of the anniversary of my being turned, of that one time of the year when my body—my immortal and eternally youthful body—would undergo an excruciating and drastic change within the space of several minutes. During that time my body would age as it naturally should have, before my fate was irrevocably altered by forces well beyond my control. Every year that I lived beyond the normal span of a human only added to the horror that I must endure during this time, which was why there were so few of us who were truly old. The pain and trauma were simply too much to bear as the centuries progressed, and many willingly took their own lives to escape the torture. Those that lacked the courage deliberately placed themselves at the mercy of others, pleading for release. I had dispatched many such beings during my lifetime yet I took no pleasure in the act. The fact that I fed off of their considerable life force caused me no guilt, as it had given me the strength to fulfill the solemn oath that I had sworn to my family centuries ago, the oath that I would honor until the end of time itself.
“It never gets easy, does it?”
I shook my head. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. It’s a burden yes, but a necessary one.”
“Yes, it must be a burden to have to live with the weight of something like that on your conscience.” His voice trailed off as if he were unsure how to continue. Something in the way that his eyes stared seemingly at nothing and of his uncharacteristically-quiet attitude tonight suddenly had me on edge. As if sensing my growing anxiety, he reached across the space between us and clasped both of my hands in his.
I almost pulled away—after all, they were still stained with my blood—but the sheer randomness of the act stilled me. “Wendell…?”
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. The comment was so completely unexpected that for a split second I thought that perhaps I had misheard him. Before I could say anything in response, he motioned for me to be quiet and to just listen.
“Lung cancer; can you believe it? After everything else that I survived during my lifetime, the same thing that took my mother and my beloved Helen is going to do me in too. Now, before you go all teary-eyed on me, consider this: I’ve lived for seventy-eighty years. Not bad for a mortal you might say, and the years have been good to me. I married my high school sweetheart, saw my children grow up and have children of their own, and now I have you. You, who have shown me that there are still mysteries out there that make life all the more interesting. I would have gone soft upstairs a long time ago if it wasn’t for you. Don’t get me wrong, Benita is a fine companion but she isn’t much in the way of stimulating conversation.”
I chuckled softly even though the tears were threatening. Whatever else I had been holding back tonight has been overshadowed by these newest developments, and I let them come. Wendell produced a Kleenex from the depths of his shirt pocket and I took it gratefully. I inhaled the scent of Irish Spring soap and Vicks VapoRub along with his warmth and he held me close while I cried softly. He seemed so fragile to me in these moments yet oddly strong and resilient. I, who would never know old age or disease in any context, marveled at how he could bear such a thing with dignified calm.
“How much time?” I dabbed the tears away with the Kleenex and tried to compose myself. If Wendell could bear this knowledge with grace and dignity, then it seemed only fair that I do the same and be strong for him.
“A few months, six at most.”
“How long have you known?” I regularly drove him to his physician for checkups and other routine medical appointments, and he had never once let on that anything was amiss.
He ran a hand along his chin, causing the stubble to rasp. He sighed. “My lab results back in October came back as abnormal—hell, I’d suspected that something was wrong for a while already—and the latest scans this past month pretty much confirmed what Dr. Carter and I both had come to suspect. He went over all my treatment options to hopefully stop or at least slow down the spread of it to other organs, but I told him that I didn’t want to go through all that. Seeing Helen go through that process years ago convinced me that the quality of my life would not improve even with treatment. Damn side-effects of the drugs, you know.”
I nodded even though I didn’t know.
“I want you to do something for me.”
“I want you to help handle part of my estate—it’s not much, but I worked hard for what little I do have. My children—God bless them—have absolutely no sense when it comes to financial matters or how to properly liquidate my assets. Knowing them they’d just as soon box up everything I own and cart it down to the dump. I know that despite that rough exterior you present to the rest of the world that you’d never be able to refuse an old man’s last request. Most of what I own is junk, to be fair, but I have a few items that deserve more than being sold off at a garage sale.”
I nodded again. Wendell did have few possessions but there were some that he’d inherited from his mother that he treasured and kept prominently displayed. They included personal effects like jewelry, a hand-carved oak bedroom set and a vanity set made of delicately-wrought silver. I had admired them many times throughout the years we had known each other and understood what he was asking me to do even without him having to say anything.
His eyes watched my expression carefully before continuing. “I’ve already boxed up the items that I’d like to be placed on consignment. Financially, everything will be left in the hands of my children and grandchildren, and while I doubt that they’d cause any ruckus over you handling this aspect of my passing, I’ve already amended my will to say that I’m entrusting you with this particular task. If anything, they’ll be grateful to have one less thing to do. As for who I have in mind, I’m leaning towards Crossman Estate Sales—they’ll know just what to do when it concerns these items.”
“Crossman Estate Sales?”
Wendell’s eyes crinkled mischievously. “I’m surprised that you haven’t heard of them, you with your passion and expertise for all things collectable and antique.”
“That’s because I am an antique.”
“You and I both, although you’ve held up considerably better than I have.”
I considered his words. “Crossman Estate Sales. If you trust that they’re reputable, then I agree. Leave everything to me.”
“Thank you, Katrina.” The sincerity and relief in his voice was undeniable and I was touched and honored that he was entrusting such an enormous responsibility to me.
Wendell knew that I valued trust and companionship over material goods and that I would do everything in my power to ensure that not only were his family looked after, but the possessions that meant so much to him.
He patted my arm reassuringly and pointed a gnarled finger towards the kitchen countertop. “My attorney helped put together a packet of the necessary paperwork along with some information on Crossman Estates’ credentials and other gobbledy gook that makes absolutely no sense to me.”
I nodded and told him that I would go through it all later on tonight. I wasn’t a legal expert or anything, but I did have a fair bit of experience navigating the complicated ins and outs of not only conceiving new identities over the centuries, but of creating all the requisite documentation that each incarnation in each decade demanded.
We didn’t say anything after this, each of us lost in our own thoughts and hidden worries, and I set about clearing the dishes from the coffee table. It was now nearly midnight—well past Wendell’s regular bedtime, and the signs of fatigue were clear. He allowed me to help him up from his chair and into bed without protest, and before leaving I reassured him that he needn’t worry and to leave everything to me. I lingered in the doorway until his breathing became heavy and his sleep was deep, and then I turned to go. Benita gave me a half-hearted tail wag as I gathered my purse up off the counter, shut off the lights, and then closed the door behind me.
I was bone tired in mind and spirit, but in the physiological sense my kind did not need to sleep on a regular basis. We rarely engaged in the act, and even then it was only if we had been pushed to the absolute limits of exhaustion or had suffered significant personal injury. I knew that I would spend the remaining hours of the night contemplating my conversation with Wendell and what the future without him would be like. He was the closest thing I had to a friend and was like a father to me and was the main reason that I had decided to stay in one place for so long. Ordinarily I moved from place to place and city to city every few years, but my friendship with him had caused me to break my own cardinal rule: Never remain in one place for too long and never, never get too attached to anyone.
The fact that I hunted down others of my kind who were indiscriminate killers tended to put me in the crosshairs and put anyone close to me in a precarious situation. I already harbored enough guilt over what I was and did not want to have the blood of innocents on my hands, innocents who had done nothing wrong other than try to befriend me and who had become the unwitting victims of retaliation against me.
I sighed and then scanned my apartment with its contents that were strictly utilitarian and ultimately meant little to me. Moving out after his inevitable passing would be the easiest part of the whole endeavor, but finding myself once again alone with no one to confide in would be the hardest part of all.
I turned on the lamp near my roll top desk and then clicked on my laptop to begin looking up information on Crossman Estate Sales. The website was tasteful enough and the mission statement made it seem as if they genuinely cared about their clients, but I knew enough from experience that saying something and actually doing it were not the same thing. I shut off the laptop and let the sounds of the apartment complex that were audible only to me fill my ears and then stood up. I could hear Wendell’s slow and regular breathing as he slept in his bedroom across the hallway, and satisfied that he was comfortable and his sleep was untroubled, I made my way to the bathroom to change and wash away all trace of the violence that I had committed this evening.