“Emma, is it?” I asked. “Why are you following my friend Leo?” My bag of croissants took the brunt of my surprise. I felt one squish flat under my coiling fingers.
“That’s what you want to ask me?” Emma smirked and looked intently at my face, like she was counting the tiny wrinkles around my eyes.
“If you aren’t going to answer me, then we have no reason to chat. Leave Leo alone. He isn’t interested in a relationship with you.” I spoke loudly, attracting the glances of a few patrons lingering around the doorway.
Emma smiled but seemed to be looking through me. “Aw, how disappointing. I haven’t entertained a wolf in my bed in decades. They’re so energetic.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” Years of lectures on how to deal with the accusations of strangers rushed to the tip of my tongue.” You are obviously very confused. I hope you can get the help you need.” It was a set of sentences I heard repeated many times over the years to dissuade overly astute humans.
Wild accusations brought ordinary people unwanted attention from the mental health community. Usually, you only needed to remind the accuser how ridiculous their claims sounded to stifle further comments about things that couldn’t possibly exist.
Emma stepped close to my ear. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled, and the pit of my stomach burned.
“Intoxicating. Can you feel the excitement rise in your blood?” Emma’s eyes glassed over with delight. “The hate in your DNA, the scent is like a magical sugar to me.” She took a step back and seemed to struggle to compose herself. “I’m aware of your lineage, Alerie. I’m here to arrange an introduction.”
“Well, I’m not interested in meeting any of your friends.” I found a break in the crowd and pushed my way onto the sidewalk. “I’m late for my nail appointment.”
“Sounds lovely. I’ll join you.” Emma fluttered her fingers in the sunlight, revealing a perfect set of deep-burgundy nails. “Did you have a recent growth spurt?” She wiped her cold fingertip across the hand I wrapped around my coffee cup.
Once we cleared the crowd, I shoved Emma against the brick building facade with enough force to knock the wind out of her. “What do you know about the train tracks and my nails?”
“Hm, you are so close to becoming my next meal, little girl.” Emma hissed in lower than human tones, tickling the hairs deep inside my ears.
“You’re actually bat-shit crazy?”
Emma peeled my hands off her coat with amazing strength, opened my bag of pastries, tore one in half, and smashed the flaky pastry into my mouth.
“I think you will live longer if you shut up for a few minutes.” Emma rubbed her forehead before walking toward my nail shop again. “Let’s get moving. You don’t want to keep Kim waiting.”
“How do you know who does my nails?” I asked as best I could with a mouth full of croissant.
“I’ve been watching you, idiot. I told you. I’m here to make an introduction.”
“We have apps for that sort of thing now. Why don’t you go fuck ...”
Emma snatched my face hard enough to bruise my cheeks.
“I found a suitable witch for you, and you already met my collector friend,” she whispered into my hair, blowing her nauseatingly sweet breath across my skin.
I wiped the bits of food and spit Emma smashed out of my mouth on my jacket cuff. “It was just a dream.”
“Nothing is just anything anymore.” Emma looked deep into my eyes and smiled.
I felt uncomfortable and hot in the cold morning air.
A smooth rock of wet fear rolled down my spine. “Who is this collector person?”
“It’s his green eyes, isn’t it? I told Pax your weakness is monochromatic, but he chose green anyway. He doesn’t want to date you, idiot. He wants to help you learn to kill demons,” Emma whispered.
Even I found the hushed tones barely audible.
“Uh, ha. Interesting, but I don’t have time for your cosplay group or whatever you do for fun. I’m busy.” I straightened my t-shirt and pulled my backpack to my chest to stash my remaining baked goods.
We reached the salon’s front door. The acrid fumes of nail glue slapped my heightened senses, making my eyes water. My regular girl, Kim, greeted me. I showed her my hands and how long my nails grew. She giggled and shook her head, yelling something in Vietnamese to her co-worker across the shop.
I removed my socks and shoes and rolled up my yoga tights. I settled into a massage chair and was left to soak my feet in hot water.
Emma was seated in the chair next to me. I couldn’t help noticing how pale her skin was and how muscular her thin frame looked in the sunlight. Emma’s dark hair reminded me of burnt coffee grounds. Her skin was smooth and flawless with a slight golden hew, like a professional model’s airbrushed photo.
Strangely occupied by her, I visually scanned Emma for every scrap of information I could gather. Only one small imperfection on the inside of her left wrist was exposed. A thin scar ran from the middle of her palm to almost her elbow.
Emma caught me staring. She exhaled softly and grinned.
“They don’t explain exactly how the process works up front.” Emma ran her finger along the thin scar slowly as if she were reliving the injury in real-time. “This mark is the only proof I have any of my past ever happened. One final sin that can’t be washed away. I suppose neither heaven nor hell likes a quitter.”
“What are you, Emma?” I whispered the question earnestly, even though my instincts told me precisely what she was.
“See, this is why you need to speak with Pax. He explains things so much better than I can.” Emma was sincere.
A simple label would not suffice for her. I supposed the same applied to me. No matter how much I wanted to be, I wasn’t entirely human.
“I’m busy today. I promised my time to a friend Saturday, but Sunday I’m free?”
Emma nodded, texting away on her phone.
“It’s all set then. Sunday night. I’ll send you a message with the details.”
The purple devil face emoji appeared on my phone. She knew my number. Likely my phone was how she tracked me.
I sat back in my chair and closed my eyes. Every chair in the salon was full. Emma finished her manicure before me. She paid for both our services in cash and left her card pinned to the wall of business cards next to the register before leaving.
When I left, I snapped a picture of Emma’s business card: a mobile blood-testing service. An experienced phlebotomist who would travel to your home for your convenience, providing private blood testing needs. A perfect occupation for a vampire.
My ridiculous situation was not going to keep me from having a normal life. I promised Henry I would go to his aunt’s wedding with him, which was exactly what I was going to do.
I picked apart a croissant and ate it as I scoured the campus parking lots for a place to park. I never seemed to make my Friday lecture on time. Something from this world or another always fucked with me on Fridays.
My sister posted pics of her morning spent shoveling horse manure in the family barn. I laughed at the sight. Not only were her overalls covered in horse shit, but she was living proof ordinary life experiences were possible for people like me.
Sitting in the lecture hall, I felt uncomfortable. Something was watching me. It felt like walking home last night, only Leo wasn’t standing beside me now. I took out my phone to call him but decided to ignore the odd sensation. The collector didn’t want me dead; that much I was sure of.
With class over, the rest of my day was open. I brought everything I needed to try on dresses in a tote bag.
I texted Henry. On my way! Need anything?
He replied quickly, Nope, just you, sandwiches on the way.
I was looking forward to my adventure in the city with Henry. I took a deep breath and cleared my mind of the day’s nonsense.
“I am entitled to have my own life. I am not crazy.” As I whispered the words, an old story of the human incubated in a hollow log came to mind.
The long fable was all about a man stuffed in a hollow old tree until his skin became as hard as the tree’s bark and unseen by all evil.
I quickly turned up the music in my car to clear the image from my mind.
I can have a normal life!