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Charleston, South Carolina, May 2012

“Dear Lord,” a woman called to heaven, “such a young man.  So near death.  What could have happened to you?”

My body was one long, cold ache, but a hot center throbbed in my chest.  Wet and shivering, I craved only sleep and the blackness that held me.

Sirens wailed to a crash of thunder.  Somewhere, someone was in trouble.

I drifted on the ebb and flow of pain until the woman gave me a gentle shake.  Forcing my eyes open, I blinked to focus on the indistinct shapes materializing from fog.  Rainbow angels battled demons in a stained glass window.  Marble statues leered at me from the shadows.  An ornate crucifix cast its silhouette on the ebony saint bent over me.  Her countenance was round and full, her nose broad.  Pity glistened in her black eyes.

“You’re awake.” A smile trembled on her lips.  “Thank you, Jesus.”

She seemed to be in close communication with the man on the cross.  My upper body rested on her lap, my legs stretched on a shiny wooden floor.  Lush breasts cradled my head.  Her red blouse smelled of fresh baked bread, the tiny pearl buttons mesmerizing.

“I do declare you had me worried you been so still like.”

Her thick dialect called to me from the past, but I didn’t know if it was yesterday or years ago.  I don’t know who I am.  I frowned, trying to remember.  A trill of music scrolled through my mind.  The woman gave a tentative smile.  I started to smile back, but the scent of fear distracted me.  My clothes reeked of fear.

Another fragrance—dusky red and delicious—sent a shiver through me.  The rich aroma of her blood appealed to me on levels I didn’t understand.  The sensation was raw hunger mingled with passion.  Beyond the blood-scent, the musk of old wood and incense, the perfume of religion, summoned a vision of a blond boy in black velvet and white lace kneeling at an altar.  As I grasped at the memory, like a wave retreating from the shore, something important slipped away from me.

The woman’s admiring gaze drifted over my face.  I wanted to touch her, tell her how much…how very much…I ached to kiss her, but when I tried to lift my hand nothing happened.  Terrified, I glanced at my hands.  The bleached fingers were curled into dead claws.  The hands once considered magic and beautiful were horrible.

Panic drew my knees toward my chest. “Oh God, my hands can’t be paralyzed.”

The blow was physical, knocking the breath from me.  If I’d been struck blind even deaf, I could still play, but if my hands were paralyzed—I was lost.  Music was my beloved mistress.  My piano alone stood between madness and me.

My companion shook her head, refusing to meet my wild-eyed gaze.  “Shush now, you going to be all right.  Mother Superior’s gone to call for help.”

“Mother Superior?” Was I lying in a nun’s lap? I was in a church, and that seemed totally absurd for some reason, but I was too terrified to laugh.  Crisp dark curls peeked from beneath a blue bandana not a wimple. “You’re not a nun.”

She stiffened as if I’d offended her.  “I come help the sisters out.  I might be a nun some day.”

The woman’s expression softened.  Lips pursed, she shook her head, dark eyes sad.  Her pity mortified me.  No one, since I’d been that boy in velvets and lace, had seen me cry.   Swallowing tears, I squeezed my eyes closed.  The other feelings she excited, I couldn’t deal with now.  She stroked my cheek, and I remembered to breathe but refused to open my eyes.  I couldn’t bear the sight or the scent of her.

An internal map—an anatomical image of flesh, muscles and veins—spread across my eyelids.  Hours, days, years might have passed, but it was probably only a moment or two. Tingling needled my numb arms, swept into my fingertips, relaxing the ugly claws.  Breath held, afraid to hope, I willed my right hand to lift, felt the sensation of movement and opened my eyes.  The hand rose, hovered, flopped on my stomach.  Dried blood crusted a jagged hole in my black velvet coat.  Fresh blood warmed the center of the wound.

Ah, another shade of the dusky red fragrance.  My blood possessed a wild bouquet, almost feral, and completely different from the woman’s blood.

“See.  Your hands is okay.  You want a drink of water?”  She rested a warm palm on my
forehead, reached behind her with the other to produce a gold chalice, set with garnets.  “You’re not feverish.  Chilled more like.  Try to drink a little, Hon.”

Relief made me giddy.  I smiled, imagining a geyser of water gushing from the hole below my chest.  Mustn’t laugh or I’d never stop.  To be sure, my situation was no laughing matter.

The water smelled mountain-spring fresh, and I was parched.  When I placed my hands over hers, she inhaled, surprised how cold they were.  I took a deep drink, the molten liquid searing my throat and bursting into flame in my stomach.  Agony folded me over her arm. Bloody water spewed between my clenched teeth.  She stroked my back while I retched, trying to vomit my guts on the church floor.  At last, shuddering and weak, I collapsed in her lap.

“Poor angel.”  She fished a paper towel from her pocket and mopped my lips.  “We found you on the river bank, legs in the water.  When we pulled you out, we thought you was—” she trapped her lip between her teeth, biting off the last word.

Dead whispered in my mind as if I had heard her thoughts.  I glanced at the man on the cross.  What miracle is this?

“We was looking for a little girl.  Her momma called and said was coming this way.  Lucky I was here.  I’m strong.  I helped them get you up to the church.”

The woman who’d rescued me struggled for words of comfort.  None came.  Her gaze shifted.  We both watched her fingers untangling blood-matted blond hair stuck to my jacket.  As she worked, she hummed the hymn, Just As I Am.

“You’re very kind.” I brushed my fingers to her hand.

Her gaze lifted to mine, a wistful smile on her lips. “Are you English?”

“I think I am,” I said, frowning with the effort to remember. “Yes.”

“You talk like it.” As gently as a mother with a child, she stroked the hair back from my forehead.  “Do you hurt bad?”

“No.”  The pain had lessened with each heartbeat.  No longer warm and wet, the wound tingled, and I’d seen it healing.  Was I delirious?

“Talk to me some more if it don’t hurt.  I do just love an English accent.  I used to dream of going off to England, meet a handsome man, you know.”

Dreams misted the dark eyes drifting over my face.  Her memories came to me clear as images on a movie screen.  She thought I resembled a British musician in the rock band she’d been watching on television the day the lawyer delivered adoption papers.  That sinful day Mary Jones had cast her illegitimate son away, like little Moses, on a river of legal documents.  She considered taking vows to atone for that sin.

My heart segued to the rhythmic throb of her pulse.  I was too sick to question why I could hear her thoughts and simply closed my eyes to listen.  In the limbo between wakefulness and sleep, the sorrow in her soul lapped at me.  I wished somehow I could ease her pain.

Razor-sharp memory sliced through me, jerking me bolt upright.  “God’s Teeth!”

Before the fall, I was shot.

Rapid-fire images snapped before my eyes.  I saw my Jag plunging over the guardrail at the top of the Cooper River Bridge.  Now, in the silence of a church, I felt the wind whistling past my face as the force of the fall sucked the breath from my lungs and tried to pluck me from the convertible.  Irrationally, I’d clung to the wheel while my beloved roadster sank, in a slow rocking ballet, to the river bottom.

During that interminable swift plunge, I hadn’t been afraid of dying.

Mary touched my arm.  “Be still, Hon, or you’re gonna start bleeding again.”

I was in no danger of bleeding to death or dying from any natural cause.  I knew why I’d heard her thoughts, why the aroma of her blood bedeviled me.  I knew who and what I am.

Morgan D’Arcy is a classical pianist, an English lord and a vampire…

TO BE RELEASED BY DOUBLE DRAGON PUBLISHING FALL OF 2013.

The photograph, of course, is of the beautiful Travis Fimmel.

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