A/N: I bet you didn't believe I was really still doing this! Well, I was. I've been busy as a bee (well, maybe not quite to that extent) reworking and revising and rehashing and generally tearing my original story to pieces so that I could put it back together again and post it here. I'll be updating much more recently that last time, obviously, because I don't have to worry about getting the next chapter written; it's all done, folks. I might leave a day or two between chapters, simply to allow people the time to read it and comment before I post the next.
A lot of things are very different... This first chapter comes to mind. Then again, a lot of things are exactly the same, because I liked them quite well enough the first time around. Hopefully, I've weeded out all the bugs, contradictions and unnecessary chapter breaks (not to mention the boring and confusing bits).
However, this is not to say that the story is now perfect. I am positive that there are many, many places where I could improve things, whether it's a big tweak or a little tweak... I just can't look at the words anymore because they just swim before my eyes. So I need fresh eyes. (Your eyes). Please let me know of any ideas you have: suggestions, criticisms, things that work well and I should do more of. Additionally, I'm well aware that my Spanish is only half-assed. If anybody out there is a native speaker please let me know if there is anything I've screwed up on.
That being said, I give you Madrugada: Sucking Significantly Less
Mom was waiting. Had she even moved? Sitting there at the table with her tea—always her tea—and listening to the gravelly radio play something classical and vaguely familiar, as if it was something that she had played back in Spain. She was even in the same chair as that morning, holding the same teddy-bear mug in her hands.
No; there was the difference: her ancient violin was sitting on the table in front of her, with its chinrest still strapped across its back and keeping the fine old wood away from the hard table. She must have been playing. As always.
Aleda tossed her backpack at the stairs and walked into the living room, then to the small dining area that was barely big enough to hold a table and chairs. To be perfectly honest, the tea was starting to sound like a good idea, especially after being outside. It was so damned cold out there, Aleda had nearly frozen to death in the ten minutes it took her to walk from the high school to this stupid house. There was no way September should be this freaking cold, damn it. Sure as hell Andalusia wasn't this cold in September.
The water was still hot in the teapot, left steaming on the gas stove. There were clean mugs in the cupboard and the box of tea bags sat open on the counter; thus, tea was brewed.
Mom watched her with some interest as she moved around the kitchen, looking like she had something up her sleeve. Aleda ignored her, as she always did, while she got her tea ready, although inwardly she wondered what Mom was waiting for. Ah, well, might as well succumb to the inevitable.
Aleda settled into a chair on the other side of the table. Her tea was still a little too hot to drink, although it felt wonderful held in her frozen hands, so she blew across the top while she waited. If Mom had something to say, she should say it already. There was no reason for Aleda to speak first and let her win.
"How was school?" Mom asked. Aleda could tell that wasn't what she wanted to say, though.
"School was alright," she replied noncommittally. "What's for dinner?"
"Chicken and asparagus."
Ugh. Despite the heat, she gulped down the rest of the tea and rose from the table, then walked the few steps into the kitchen to drop the empty mug in the sink.
"Don't look at me like that," Mom chided her. "Asparagus is good for you."
Aleda wrinkled her nose in response and looked through the mail that had been stacked on the kitchen counter. There was nothing good there, though—just a few credit card offers and assorted junk—so she abandoned the stack and headed instead for the refrigerator.
"Don't even think about it."
Damn. There went one idea.
"…I got a call from Fioralba today," Mom said from the table.
Ah. There it was.
Aleda grinned and turned back to her mother, grateful at least that it was good news. She hadn't heard from her aunt since the move a little over a month ago. "Aunt Firi? How is she?"
"As good as always," Mom assured her. "And apparently she's made a new friend."
That twinkling look in her eyes was suspicious…
Might as well ask. "Yeah? Who?"
"Oh, you know. A very nice young man… friend of the family…" Mom paused, took an extra-long sip from her dwindling tea. "Works in the department of motor vehicles…"
"Dep… Really? You mean…?"
Mom finally let loose the grin she had been holding back. "We've had your license transferred over to Delaware. Your Papá should be getting everything soon."
Aleda couldn't help herself; she shrieked with delight. Oh, sure, her parents had gotten all their new identification papers and whatever delivered way back a month ago, when they first moved there from Andalusia. They had cousins to take care of all that… But she was only seventeen—not a cousin yet. She had thought she would have to wait and do everything the slow and obnoxious way. Driver's Ed? No, thank you.
"When?" she asked eagerly. "Today?"
Mom laughed. "Maybe. We'll see." She laughed again when she saw the expression on her daughter's face. "Don't worry, honey. Fioralba's good at … 'convincing' … her young men." Mom paused thoughtfully. "Although from what she tells me, it's not exactly a burden. Apparently he's very good at…"
"Mom!" For goodness sakes, she did not need to hear that about her aunt! She made for the stairs, snatching up her backpack as she went. "I have homework!"
"Okay, honey," Mom called after her, "Dinner's at six!"
Alejandro pushed his front door open roughly. His wife looked up at the noise and hurried over to him when she saw his face. He had already thrown his coat at the couch and started to undo his collar.
"What's wrong?" Aria asked, her eyes widening at his harsh demeanor.
"We must hunt tonight." He didn't even pause on his way through the house.
She trailed him to their bedroom. "Alejandro, querido, what happened?"
"I got a call today." He tossed his tie onto the bed. "Guess what I was told."
Aria picked up his tie nervously, fussing with it a bit before smoothing it out and hanging it with the rest. She waited.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. "Talia Kavanagh is in town," he finally managed to grit out. "She is scouting—from Elkton to Wilmington."
"But… that's good." Aria had a puzzled expression on her face, and for good reason: Talia had always been a dear friend of theirs, even if they hadn't seen her in several years.
Apparently that didn't concern her husband, however. Alejandro quickly finished off the last of the buttons of his dress shirt, nearly tearing them off in his agitation. "If Talia is in town," he told her, throwing his shirt at the bed, "Then there is a reason that she is in town. That was the call."
"Twenty nests." He yanked a drawer open with enough force to make it rattle. He stood there for a moment, breathing heavily, hands braced against the edges of the cheap wood. "Twenty nests," he said a little more quietly. "Between Elkton and Wilmington. That is what she found."
Aria sighed. So that was what all the fuss was about. It always came back to this. Eighteen years later, and it always came back to this. She put a hand on his shoulder and wished he would look at her.
"I know it's not going to be like it was in Málaga," she said gently. "I know. But we couldn't stay there forever. You know that, right?"
"It was safe in Málaga. Our family was in Málaga."
"Our family is here, too," she reminded him.
"Not our relatives. Not my grandfather, and not my sister."
Aria moved away from him and sat on the edge of their bed. "We couldn't stay there forever," she repeated. "We'd already stayed too long."
He picked a sweater at random from the drawer and pulled it over his head, then kicked off his shoes. A pair of jeans was fished out of another drawer and replaced the slacks he had worn to work that day. Still he did not answer her.
"Alejandro, we're hunters." She stood up and walked to him again, trying to instill a little of her calm into him. "We have to hunt."
"Yes, we do," he agreed. "Tonight, and every night after. I will not allow my only child to live in a place with so many nests." With that, he walked out of the bedroom and down the short hall.
Aria watched him go. "We can't protect her forever," she said, to herself as much as anyone.
He walked past the bedroom door again a few moments later, this time carrying the coat that he had flung at the couch on his way in. She raised an eyebrow at him, and his face cracked into a wry smile. Not as good as putting it away properly the first time, but at least he was learning. She met him in the hallway.
"Well, aside from that…" She did her best to smile. "How was work?"
"Work was good," he said. He looked at his wife and felt his tension melt away. "The company is very grateful for their new computer temp. I will have to be careful, or they will want me all to themselves."
Aria pouted and fussed with his sweater. "I want you all to myself."
He put his hands over hers and smiled faintly. "I know, I wish I could be here all the time, too. But we must eat, after all." He kept walking, past the hall closet and into the kitchen. Something smelled good. "How was your day?"
"It was okay," she told him. "I spent most of the day getting the rest of our things unpacked. There's not going to be much for me to do after that, though. I was thinking of joining the PTA at Aleda's school, at least until I find some students."
"Dígame que tú bromeas, por favor," Aleda said—Mom had better be joking. She had come down when she heard Papá come in. "Hola, Papá."
"Hello, my little angel. But I have told you to practice your English."
"¿Por qué?" She was just as fluent as Mom, and she'd grown up here.
"Alright, alright! Only English. Got it."
Papá smiled wanly. "That is better. How was school?"
"Fine." She shrugged. "We're having chicken and asparagus for dinner," she told him, mimicking her mother's trademark pout. Maybe she could get an ally.
Papá laughed and came out into the living room to hug her properly. "Poor girl. I do not know why you do not like it, your mother cooks wonderful asparagus."
Mom ducked her head out into the small dining area. "Thank you, dear," she said. "Oh! I have to check on the chicken."
Aleda turned to her father hopefully, and he had to bite back a smile. "Yes, little angel?" he asked. "Did you need something?"
Aleda pouted again. "Papá!"
He grinned, producing a thick envelope from behind his back. "Yes, it came. My boss, Mr. Newell, gave it to me this morning. This is for you."
Finally! She squealed and grabbed the envelope, ripping it open. Several documents tumbled out onto the carpet… as well as one shiny plastic card. "My license!" she exclaimed. "Oh, Papá, can I go try out the car?"
"Later, yes. But I think your mother would not be very happy if we missed dinner."
Damn it. Well, it had been worth a shot. Papá walked back into the kitchen to say something to Mom, and Aleda knew well enough to leave the two of them alone. She walked to the stairs, studying her new Delaware driver's license. She had a place all ready for it in her purse; the rest of her papers—the birth certificate and all that—would go with Mom and Papá's. By the time she got back downstairs, they were still in the middle of completely failing to actually 'say' anything.
"Hi," she said, a little loudly. Mom turned and winked, and Aleda had to resist the urge to roll her eyes yet again. Papá straightened his sweater and made a point of checking the chicken again.
"Is dinner ready yet?" Aleda asked. If it wasn't, it smelled like it.
"Almost, honey. Can you set the table, please?"
Already on it. Hell, the quicker they ate the quicker she could choke down that damned asparagus and get it over with. The cramped quarters of their tiny kitchen made her life unnecessarily more difficult for a short time while three people tried to navigate themselves and the food around each other, but soon enough both dishes and people had managed to get themselves to the table.
As it turned out, the asparagus actually wasn't half bad… although of course she'd never admit as much to Mom. There was no need to encourage her, after all. Aleda finished off her dinner quickly, more aware than usual of the sun dropping swiftly towards the horizon, while both of her parents took their time finishing off the last of the food on their plates. Having run out of chicken, Aleda chewed nervously on her fork. It was about time, after all. So what if she'd never asked to go before. Papá was always talking about how bad it was over here. Not like Málaga, where there was hardly any point to go out anyway, seventeen years old or not. And after all, she wouldn't be seventeen forever.
She swallowed. "Mom?"
"I was wondering something…"
"What is it, sweetie?"
"Well, um…" Aleda swallowed again, finding her throat uncomfortably dry. "I was wondering if, since I'm going to be eighteen soon, less than eight months, maybe I could…" To hell with it. "Can I come with you, tonight?"
Papá suddenly jammed a fork into his chicken and left it there. She flinched and glanced at him. Come on, now, no nervousness. Mom would never let her go if she was going to be nervous. She was almost eighteen—it was time to act like an adult, even if she didn't exactly feel like it at the moment, so she composed herself as well as she could. Mom studied her for a moment, surprise registering on her face.
"Well, I don't know, sweetie," she said slowly. "It's a new neighborhood, and you don't really know the area yet. You never came with us back in Málaga."
"I know," Aleda said, trying to ignore the note of warning in Papá's voice. "I… I guess I figured now's a good a time as any, and it's time I started. And if I decide I don't like it, there's still time to send in my college applications."
That, at least, got a smile out of Mom. "You do have a point. I was actually wondering when you'd start asking," she admitted. "I just don't want you to get hurt."
"I'll be fine, Mom," Aleda insisted. "I'll stay out of the way, I promise. Please?"
"I guess so. But I want you to just stand back, don't get involved, at least for tonight."
Aleda jumped from her seat threw her arms around her. "Thank you! Thank you, thank you!"
Mom smiled. "Better go get changed, then." Aleda nodded and dashed upstairs. "Remember," she called after her daughter, "Comfortable shoes!"
"So… where are we going?" Aleda kicked at a loose pebble on the sidewalk.
"The shopping center, just down the street," Mom said. She reached out to readjust her daughter's coat; Aleda batted her hand away. She was already seventeen—she could zip her own damned coat. "Stay close to me. Your papá is going on ahead to scout things out."
"I thought he was a merc."
Mom half-grinned. "He is, honey. But we need somebody to look around for us."
"If we're going to the shopping center, can I get a coffee?"
Mom laughed. "Not until afterwards. If anything happens, you'll need your hands free."
Wait a minute—If anything happened? What was that supposed to mean?
Aleda was distracted from her thoughts, however, when she looked up and saw what lay ahead. There was the shopping center: the parking lot, ringed with stores, sitting just off the main road. There were trees behind there, dark places where she'd prefer not to go at night. It only took just a few minutes more to walk there, yet in that time the sun sank fully past the horizon.
Shadow engulfed the streets; the breeze turned cold, and Aleda had to stifle a shiver.
Papá walked up ahead, reaching the shopping center first. Aleda wasn't sure he was too happy about her coming along on this hunt. Come to think of it, he hadn't said a word to her or even so much as looked at her since they left the house, although she had overheard some faint whispering between her parents before they'd left. She wondered a little what was wrong.
She put it out of her head, and turned her attention back to what lay ahead. There were a lot of people out, still, all the good consumers wandering in and out of the stores. Aleda and her parents joined the rest of the crowd, blending in easily with all the rest. Aleda herself had no idea what they were looking for. It didn't really matter—Mom and Papá knew, and that was enough.
There were way too many people.
Papá went into one of the stores by himself, leaving Aleda and her Mom to wander elsewhere. Aleda kind of wished that he would have stayed with them, but it was important that they look as many places as possible, and he couldn't very well run in and out as if he were looking for someone.
Time drifted along slower than she would have liked. Aleda walked through the shopping center with Mom, although they never stopped for long, and never bought anything. They looked like any other mother and daughter out for new shoes or ice cream. They found Papá in the next store, but he shook his head. Nothing yet. Aleda didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. Some nights, there was nothing, but they always had to try. Always had to hunt.
Mom moved away, towards the store's entrance. There were too many people in the way; Aleda grabbed her hand so she wouldn't lose her. Almost out of the crowd, almost to the door.
She yelped and let go of Mom's hand. Four angry marks bloomed red on her palm. Mom looked back at her. It was close. Aleda stepped back, rubbing her hand anxiously, while Mom scanned the crowd.
Four angry marks: four fingernails. Look at her hands. Sharp claws now extended from Mom's delicate fingertips. It was very close. They had to find it before somebody saw, though it was hard to see among this many souls. Where is the darkness?
There, by the women's dress shoes. Aleda could see him. There was something wrong. His eyes were wrong. Dead. Nobody else noticed. Mom moved to him, looked at some shoes, smiled. Back at the shoes, smile again. He would follow now. Leave the store, not too quickly. Where would she lead him? Out of the way, must stay out of the way. But she could not look away.
She nervously followed her out the store, around the side. Headed towards the dark. Dead eyes followed her. Aleda paled and shrank away when he passed her. The darkness. It poured from him like fog. She didn't know what she had expected, but his presence almost overwhelmed her. Swiftly, smoothly, he followed Mom.
Where had she gone? She couldn't find Mom. She had gone behind the store. Quickly, follow. Follow Mom. Have to stay out of the way but have to see. There, next to the back door. Looking through her purse. Her back faced approaching death. Should she shout? Surely she couldn't see—but Mom knew what she was doing.
Almost there. He reached out…
Mom spun. Cast aside the purse, ducked his grasping hand. Her leg shot out to sweep him off his feet. A lunge. He was gone before he had a chance to look surprised.
Mom stood. Claws were gone now, leaving only bloodstained fingertips. Picked up her purse. Aleda could only stare at her in awe. For a moment she would have sworn she could see a glint of light in her eyes… but it was only the reflection of a streetlight.
"Are you alright, honey?"
Aleda nodded, mute.
"Here, let me see your hand."
She gave Mom her hand, wincing a little to see a few drops of blood escaping from the cuts. Sharp claws, indeed. Her hand stung. Mom smiled reassuringly at her. "It's not bad," Mom said. "Do you want me to fix it?"
Another mute nod.
Mom turned her own hand over and opened a shallow cut in her palm with a briefly sharp nail. Turned it over again and pressed it against Aleda's hand, with a whisper. As always, Aleda could not tell what was said.
Now her hand tingled. She looked at it. The cuts were gone, the last traces of red blood disappearing into the skin. Mom looked at her carefully, worriedly. The first hunt… it… well, it hadn't really gone the way she'd thought. Aleda just wanted to go home.
"Maybe we should call it a night," Mom said. "Let's find Papá. Do you still want that coffee?"
Aleda shook her head. "No, thanks," she said quietly. "Let's just go home."