Title: Week Without Blood
What are you writing? my friends asked.
The next great Australian novel, I replied.
Oh really? they asked.
It's a vampire romance, I replied.
Huh, they said, backing away quickly.
Wait! I exclaimed. It's not what you think! But they had already gone.
"I'll never get used to that," Simon remarks as Darryl taps his shoes against the porch. Sole in his hand, fingers wrapped hard against the toes and laces, tap tap.
"Used to what?"
"Checking shoes for spiders." Sun shines gold off his pale, stick-straight hair. Simon smiles, nervously but always charming. He's the blonde.
"Hm." Darryl, the tapper, has black hair, cut short, but it's the wilder of the pair.
"Can't you just keep them inside? Who knows what could get into them, out here."
"Spiders are inside, too."
Simon's smile falls into a grimace, but he laughs after a moment. "I suppose they are. Great." He leaps off the porch and lifts his hands up to the branches of the great gum that grows by the house, hooking his fingers beside hard brown nubs and drooping gray leaves. A field stretches out in front of them, full of browning grass and newly dug fence-posts, twisting wire. Darryl's shoulders ache just looking at the posts, but it's a good ache, he supposes.
Across the way a shaggy sheep raises its head and bahs at them. Given that the rest of the flock is nowhere in sight, he knows it must be the stupid one, a male he's contemplated giving away a hundred times now but never quite got around to doing so.
Simon watches the sheep too, silent for once. Then he shivers and shoves his hands into his pockets, pulling out a pair of Darryl's gloves and slipping into them. He grins over at his friend. "I need to get me some of these," he said, flipping his hands upwards. "Maybe a pair with a football logo on them, what do you say?"
"Just as long as it's the right team," Darryl replies. He pulls his shoes on, hard leather and torn rubber, and steps off the porch more sedately than Simon. They start towards the truck.
"Of course," Simon chirps. "What are St. Kilda's colors again?"
Darryl gives him a long, cool look. "It's a long way to walk to Canada, you know," he replies. He gets into the driver side and slams the door.
Bright, bright laughter. The sheep baas again and in the tree a magpie takes to wing, cawing. "Okay, okay! I was joking."
Simon clambers in next to him, sinks into the seat with contentment. He glances over from the corner of his eyes and sees Darryl smiling, slightly. It's the first time in a week he's done so, but the look fades as soon as he sees Simon watching. Simon shivers and stares forward as the truck growls to life and rumbles down the track.
"A week left, huh?" Simon says, softly, playing with the strap of the seatbelt.
"Bet you'll be glad to be rid of me." A sideways glance.
"Yeah." But a trance of that smile again, and Simon grins and thumps his boots against the floor of the truck.
"Ugh," he says, "I forgot to tap these out this morning. Think there'll be a spider in them?"
"I reckon if there was, he's dead now."
"Dead spider," Simon repeats unhappily. "Great. They'll stop me at customs and say, 'Son, do you realize that you are smuggling foreign species out of the country?'" He adopts a low, growling voice for the custom's officer, to match the growling of the truck. "And I'll say, 'Believe me, it's against my will, sir.'"
Shifts the truck to a higher gear. "They won't say that."
"You are a foreign species. You won't even get past the first gate."
"Hey!" Simon leans over and punches Darryl's shoulder. His fingers are pale and thin; his fist strikes ineffectually against the padded sheepskin and hard muscle of his friend's arm. He scowls, and Darryl smirks, briefly. He runs his tongue against his teeth and says nothing, tasting blood.
"I wonder how many species I'm going to be deporting in this jacket," Simon remarks, turning his head downwards and picking at the fleece lining his own coat. "I've got every kind of stick and seed in here, trapped from that job over at Jemma's. And probably fleas from her dog on top of that."
They pass station after station, herds of mooing cows, sleeping sheep. A goat sticks its head through its fence and stares after the rumbling truck, chewing the grass thoughtfully. Darryl's stomach rumbles and he squeezes the steering wheel tightly between his fingers, trying to concentrate on driving, trying not to think at all.
It doesn't work, and he has to say something to distract himself, has to start some sort of conversation. He isn't the talking type, though, and his mind is blank. Simon hasn't seen enough football yet to have a serious talk about that, and he doesn't know the first thing about sheep. Darryl's mind flashes to a magazine he saw his mum reading once, and blurts out, "Hey, what—what do you fear most? Of anything?"
Simon looks startled, and Darryl feels nervous sweat starting to bead on his hands, but after a moment the teen's pale face melts into a smile again. "Besides spiders?" he asks, grinning. The truck rattles over a series of potholes and his face bobs, becomes a blur in the rattling, fades. His pale lashes rise to the roof. His green eyes turn this way, that. "I'm afraid of writing nothing."
A questioning noise.
"Well, every author wants to pen the great novel, right, one that cuts through to the heart and exposes the truth of humanity? I'm afraid that I'm not ever going to have something original to say. I mean, everything's been done before. You have a character and they're going to interact with everyone around them in predictable ways. Well, unless they're insane, and then you've got a different book altogether, but that's been done too. Slaughterhouse Five. One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest. Clockwork Orange."
No flash of a smile, just wan paleness. "Lots of writers do their autobiography, because it's got to be unique in some way, and because it's what they know best. But nothing original is going to happen to me, and even if it did, who's to say I can do anything with it?" Red dirt beyond the window racing by, a few scraggly trees with white birds perched in the branches. The birds take to the air and race alongside them, and Darryl slows the truck briefly, lets them catch up. "How can I change the world when I have nothing to offer it? That's what I'm afraid of. Fear." That quick smile. "Aren't supposed to end sentences with prepositions, am I."
Darryl isn't sure he's heard of a preposition before, wonders if it's slang for a proposition, wonders what's being proposed. He turns the wheel left, towards town. "Can't you make a story up? You're inventive."
"Yeah, but audiences don't like that as much. Not what I'd write, it'd be all young adult fare." Sucks in his cheeks, draws in his lip. "Not that there's anything wrong with YA books. It's just that they don't become classics much."
"And you want to write a classic?"
"Something people only study in schools, leave on their shelves and never pick up? Yeah." Simon turns his head right and grins, the sun setting his golden hair on fire. Suddenly all Darryl can see are his blood vessels, tracing a map across his face, thudding strongly in his throat, strong and beautiful.
The truck slams to a halt, screaming. Simon yells and grabs for the dashboard, swinging forward dangerously. Darryl leans into his seatbelt and frantically adjusts the shift to the right gear.
"Rabbit," he mutters. Simon gives him a scandalized look, and they continue on their way.
"Right," he says, "now where—" He cuts himself off, because he finally realizes that he's been given the perfect straight line. "What are you afraid of?" he asks. He hopes it has something to do with this last week, hopes it's the reason his friend doesn't smile any longer. He hopes it isn't him.
Darryl taps his fingers against the steering wheel. His hands have calluses and they catch in the leather stitching, nothing painful, just gentle tugs. Reminding him why he moved into the country. Hard work and lots of livestock. Lots of people that don't ask questions. His mother's face, smiling, whenever she stops by for a visit, and they sit on the porch drinking out of mugs and watching the sun go down. The sunset, brilliant and red, or maybe that was the cups, maybe it was their teeth afterwards.
"What do I fear?" he asks, stalling. What doesn't he fear, he wonders. Exposure, screams, eyes turned away, lawsuits, divorce, loneliness, losing the footie pot, snakes, sharks—those he fears.
"Smiling?" Simon guesses, a touch reprimanding. Darryl smiles on reflex, then remembers and winces, frowning again. He snakes up his hand quickly, wiping blood off of his mouth.
"No," he says coldly. The truck cabin is cold, he notices, and so is Simon. He punches on the heat. "Plague going through the sheep."
"The thing you fear most is losing your flock?"
Well, there was that too. Darryl has mostly been picturing his mother, what could happen if she were to take a sip from a cup of stealthy poison, how she would crumble, and he. "Well..." he trails off, wondering if he should be more specific. Decides no.
They reach the store and he pulls up in front, puts the truck out of gear. He opens the door and hops out.
Simon tries to follow, struggling with his seatbelt. "You aren't getting away that easily," he calls. Darryl lets the screen door bang shut behind him.
"Carton of milk," he calls to Jan behind the counter. He glances over his shoulder, says, "Better make that two." She nods, smiling, and he goes to collect the rest of his groceries from around the store. Bag of grain for cereal, jar of locally collected honey, a few pears.
Simon goes up and chats with the shopkeeper. Darryl watches surreptitiously, envying him. He has never quite figured out how to talk to people, always found them mysterious and wonderful and completely beyond him. Simon is a rare and weird exception: some distant relative of his mother's neighbor, come for a country visit. The original plan had been for Darryl to keep him for a few days, "since you have so much space in that big lonesome farmhouse," "just until I find another place," "be nice to the poor boy for me, son, he's suffered something awful at Uni."
Somehow he just hasn't left yet, and Darryl has been trying to keep things going with desperate, tentative inertia. He greets each morning with a painful thud in his chest, knowing that each day the boy might wake up and say, "I think I'm going somewhere else now."
A fly makes a trip around the room and lands on Simon's shoulder. Jan brushes it off, motherly, and smiles sweetly at the boy; he laughs and says something back to her. Darryl watches the blood flow throughout all three, smiles, winces, sucks at another cut lip. Simon's been picking up the habit too, he's noticed, and desperately hopes it's not for the same reason.
Groceries collected, gossip given. Load them into the truck bed. Darryl hesitates at the truck door, his hand brushing faded brown paint, says, "Do you want to go for a walk?"
Simon, at his side so quickly it makes his head spin with wonder. "Yeah!" Never mind that it's sinking to ten degrees and his nose is starting to red. Darryl hands him a hat from inside the truck, a brown wide-brimmed acubra, and locks the truck.
"This way," he says. This way is sweeping gum trees, spreading eucalyptus, dense stone pine. He takes Simon down the trail to the gravel pit because he knows no one will be around, not on a day this cold and when everyone ought to be inside eating.
Simon dashes ahead, jumping onto the boulders in their path, whooping and swinging up into a tree. He doesn't want anything from it, ignores the gum drops and the bird nests, just climbs up a few branches and down again. He runs into the bush and out again, panting with the exertion. A mushroom is in his hands, red and striped.
"Hallucinatory," Darryl tells him, walking by. Simon laughs and tosses it into the trees.
"I wasn't going to eat it," he protests. "I just like the color." He shoves his hands into his pockets and walks comfortably beside Darryl, tossing his head back now and then as his pale bangs drop into his eyes.
"So why didn't you keep it?"
"Realized that I didn't have anywhere to put it." Sheepish smile. Suddenly sharp look. "So, what are you afraid of? Fear—damn it."
Darryl snaps off a branch from a low hanging gum, shreds it. Little green pieces float in the breeze behind them. "I'm thinking about it. Tell me why you think every story has been written already." Stalling tactics, sort of. Mostly he's curious.
"I did!" Simon kicks a stone ahead of them. "It's all human interaction. Or, human-like interaction, I guess, if you count fantasy stories. Did the butler do it? Does she love him? Are they going to get rescued in the end? It's all binary, you know. Either yes, or no. Every single possible option ever, and in the end all you're left with is how it's written. And if you try to get creative, it gets outlandish. So she's a half-witch-polar-bear-speaks-to-anteaters-transforming-fairy, so what?
"That's what I mean when I say everything's been done already. I could be the most creative person in the world, but I don't think I am, and I'm not sure it matters. I'm not sure anything I do is going to matter. But that's the oldest fear of all, right?"
"Half-witch-polar-bear? Witch a species now, something Canadian?"
"Nah, just—okay, something I wrote when I was about five in grade school. Just a normal witch. So what."
"So what," Darryl agrees.
He stops abruptly in the path, staring at the back of Simon's pale head, and after he turns around a few steps later, his face. Red scarf, fluttering in the wind, sheepskin vest over a green sweater, sturdy boots, brown hat. Simon really looks like he belongs now, like he's become part of the countryside.
But he leaves in a week. Only a week, Darryl thinks, and so what? "I'm a vampire," he says.
Golden lashes on cheeks, on sockets, up, down, up, down, down. A startled breath. Up. A tentative smirk. "Huh?"
Darryl starts walking again. "The brown jar in the corner of the pantry that I asked you not to move is full of blood." He clarifies, "Which I drink. To survive."
Simon might have started walking again, but maybe not; regardless, he's behind, he can't be seen. He makes a soft, questioning sound. Or maybe it's the wind, stirring up the frogs and the small birds. A blue wren flits by and lands on a swaying branch, chirps, flees.
"I wasn't going to say anything, but you're right." The vampire's babbling. "What does it matter? What did you say—binany options? Either you scream, or you don't. Maybe you're like one of those teenage girls you hear about in the news that think vampires are fair dinkum. Either you say its fine, or you don't. It's been done before."
Silence. Quietly, "Binary." Later, "Don't think I've heard you talk that much before." He is following, oh god, he is following. He hasn't left quite yet.
Mutters, "Don't think I've heard you keep silent that long."
High, nervous laugh. "Don't think I've ever heard someone say they're a vampire."
A kookaburra screams in the distance. "Don't think I've ever told anyone."
"Oh." A hand lightly, awkwardly touched to his shoulder. Darryl wants to start shaking and never stop. He knows if he starts he won't. Instead he smiles and sucks on his lip.
"Thanks, I think," Simon says. "Is that—was that what you feared most?" The hand retracts.
"No." It isn't. It hadn't even been especially hard, just something he hasn't done before. He says as much, then adds, "I would be more afraid of—making you afraid, I guess. Sorry about that if I have."
Simon draws up alongside him finally, lets out a big breath. He looks pale and red, but it could just be the cold. "Dunno," he says. He looks suddenly alarmed. "Has it been tough for you, having someone living in your house?"
The young man makes a gesture in the air, his gloved hands flashing like birds' wings. "Um, well, there's lots of books about vampires, but pretty much they all says vampires crave blood all the time and that it drives them crazy to be around people. And, well, sunlight, but that's obviously not true for you."
Darryl is not much of a reader. He's seen a few vampire movies with his mother, who giggles throughout them, clutching the quilt to her chest as she rolls helplessly on the couch. "Yeah," he says. "Sun's okay. And I get, eh, hungry, you know, but just like anyone else. It's nothing much. It's..." he lowers his voice a little, mutters, "it's like girls."
Simon jumps a little, puzzling him. "Oh," he says, "so that's why it's okay if a guy lives with you?"
It takes Darryl a minute to figure out where the confusion is. "No," he says, "that's not it at all. I mean it's like girls. Once a month." He is blushing. Simon throws back his head and laughs.
"So no crazed female longings?"
"No. No crazed anything. I don't—talk to people much." Baleful glance. A manly punch to the shoulder. Ineffectual, again.
"I forgot how shy you are," Simon says, grinning. "I thought you meant that you had some girlfriend hidden away, that here I've been preventing you from seeing by staying at your place."
"It figures." Snaps his fingers in the air. "I should introduce you to one of my sisters."
Darryl has heard all about Simon's family these last few weeks. He is sharply jealous sometimes, wondering what it would be like to have siblings and two parents and neighbors closer than five kilometers away. He pictures a girl with Simon's smile and his yellow straw hair, maybe cut to the chin like his, or maybe keeping it down to her waist. He waves the thought away. "They're in Canada."
"They can come here." A brief smile, a quick fade. The young man withdraws. Is he remembering what I've told him, Darryl wonders. Does he realize he contemplates sending one of his blood to a self-proclaimed vampire? "What is 'once a month,' if you don't mind my asking? I mean, what happens?"
Tan fingers across a tan nose, rubbing. "Hard to describe. Nothing—dangerous. Cramps, I guess."
"No wild nighttime ravages across the countryside?"
"Where do you get the blood for the jar?"
Crickets go abruptly berserk as the sun passes behind a cloud. Startled, Darryl raises his head, lets the wind sweep back his short-cropped hair, ruffle his jacket. For some reason, this question, of all of them, embarrasses him. "Sheep," he says.
A startled shout of laughter, like the crickets. Simon claps a hand over his mouth quickly. Fuzz from the gloves catches between his lips. "Sheep," he says through his fingers, muffled. "Crazy. Good use for a farm, I guess."
They walk. The gravel pit is a dead end; they have the obligatory glance into it, standing on the edge and peering critically down. There is gravel. They try not to look at each other. "So..." Simon says. "Is sheep blood okay?"
"I mean, you don't need human blood?"
"Nope." Feeling that he ought, needing to add more, "Doesn't interest me."
"Yeah." More peering. More avoiding. "So."
"I told you here because Jan has room in her house."
A quick flash of a head rising, Simon stares with wide eyes, green, fiercely green. "What?"
"In case." Darryl brushes dirt off of his jacket, spits into the pit. "If you were scared, and wanted to stay with her now instead."
Uncomfortable silence. "Well," Simon says. "Well. Are you kicking me out?"
A snort. "As if I would—" Darryl all but swallows his tongue. His words, mocking, sound all too sharply true, and now he desperately fears he has gone too far. He is so alone, and he so wants to not drive this brief visitor away from him early. He tries again, "No. Just if you were scared."
Simon's lips lift into a tentative, trembling smile. The scarf blows up into his face but he makes no effort to knock it away, as if he were hiding in, behind it. "Eh," he says. "Binary choices, right? Either I believe you, and you aren't interested in suddenly snacking on me, or I don't, and I don't believe you're a vampire. So." He claps his hands together to warm them, blows onto them. "Got any proof?"
"Which one do you want proof for?"
"That you're a vampire."
Darryl would smile, but he doesn't feel up to it. Instead he more grimaces, drawing back his lips. Simon, wide-eyed, draws back from him, and he shuts his mouth with an audible click. He winces.
"How did I not notice?" his friend murmurs. A widening of his eyes. "God. You stopped smiling."
Darryl lifts his shoulders, surprised—maybe, privately, flattered—the absence had been noted. "Hurts to."
"Huh." Simon's tongue runs across his own teeth, probing them carefully. "Wow. So, you're definitely a vampire, and you haven't exactly attacked me yet."
"I want to drink your blood about as much as you want to drink mine. Unless there's something you aren't telling me."
A grin is his reward. "Oh yeah. Crave it every night."
They head back along the track. Dusk is starting to creep across the sky, pressing the sun downwards and turning the path dangerous. Simon stumbles over boulders rather than clambers upon them.
"About what you said earlier," he breaks the silence, "it's not 'so what,' you know. Things that are cliché and trite in books aren't unimportant in real life. It usually matters quite a bit if the butler did it or if the pretty girl likes you if it's real."
Simon glances at his face, clouded with evening, and laughs. "So I guess what I'm saying is, knowing a football-loving vampire is pretty unique to me."
"Enough to write about?"
A mischievous glance. "Are you kidding? Vampires are only in trash novels."
That night, disorientation. A sudden awakening into darkness—that darkness that is complete, not like the city where streetlights cast an ever-present glow. But there is a glow suddenly, a bobbing torch in the doorway where Darryl stands. Simon blinks, rubs his eyes with the back of his hand. The warm flannel sheets are piled around him, tangled in his legs.
"What is it, mate?"
"Dunno." The torch wavers wildly, casting a spotlight around the room. Over the rocking chair, the bookshelf, the blue woven rug. It's the biggest room in the house. Simon tried to make Darryl keep it early on, but the young man had insisted. Later he realized, just from the smell on the sheets and the lack of black curls in the pillows, that Darryl never slept there. He always slept on the little cot by the stove, the barren, patchworn quilt. The room is his mother's and will stay that way.
He sees the light catch on the sweat on Darryl's skin. The torch is shaking because his hand is. Tentative, "You okay?"
"No." Sharply honest. Darryl is always subtle, remote, shy; the discrepancy sends Simon scrambling to his feet, still blinking sleep out of his eyes.
"What do you need me to do?"
"Need?" Darryl's eyes are heavy lidded. Puzzled. Maybe he is dreaming, Simon thinks. Dreaming—that he came to my room. His friend is still wearing all of his clothes, except for his socks, leaving his feet bare. Simon thinks, the pair of fluffy slippers that had been left by his suitcase was the man's only set. It's not really important at that moment, but it's something.
"Yeah. Darryl, what's wrong?"
The flashlight bobs again. After a moment, "Hurts." Darryl opens his mouth. Bile in Simon's throat, twisting in his stomach. The teeth are like snake's now, impossibly long, too long, too white in the darkness.
No, black. Blood falls out of his mouth, from his cut lips and tongue. The smell makes him want to wretch. He can't imagine what it makes Darryl want to do—really. He has no idea. Does it revile him? Does it make him crave more? The teeth are too long to fit in Darryl's jaw and he can't close his mouth all the way.
Don't get your tongue pierced at a shady place, Simon remembers stupidly. Major blood vessels there. Lots of people die every year, cut tongues. Japanese women biting them off to die honorably. What book had that been in?
A rope put in their mouth to keep them from suicide.
"Rope," he says. Ropey neck muscles, a common book description. Was Darryl looking at him hungrily or just desperately? Her rope-like, sinuous neck. The veins stood out like ropes. Ugh. He grabs his shirt from where he had tossed it onto the floor, starts to hold it out, thinks no, should do this proper. Grabs a clean shirt from the drawer, something black that might be saved later. "Come here."
Darryl does so immediately, and Simon tries to resist the urge to walk backwards. His friend is looking away, his eyes to the side. Shy, withdrawn as the blood drips down from his mouth with drool.
"Open up your mouth."
Hook the thick part of the material around the teeth. God they're sharp, going down like needles. Nothing like Halloween vampire teeth, those dull rounded things. These are no thicker than normal, just plummeting five centimeters and narrowing the whole way. Hypodermic. Use the rest of the cloth to mop up the blood.
Simon has to laugh after a moment, laugh even harder with Darryl's reproachful look above the cloth. "Sorry, man," he says, "it's just you look totally ridiculous." He adjusts the shirt. "Can you swallow okay?"
He's stopped shaking. Simon recalls vividly every trip to the dentist he's had, how damn much it hurt when she put the needle into his gums. Getting his wisdom teeth out. How the slightest toothache becomes the center of his world, a stupid effect of evolution that hasn't died out yet. How much pain his shy, withdrawn friend must be to come to him, wake him up in the middle of the night.
Simon does his best to smile a little. It would be easier if he wasn't so tired, so tired his cheek muscles hurt. Compassion at three in the morning is a rare substance. "Want to sit down, or something? I'm starting to freeze here."
"Gn..." A glance to the doorway and back. A moth flutters into the room, lands on the torch, spins a few happy circles.
"If you want to go, that's fine." Simon reaches out, lays a companionable hand on his friend's bare arm. "Any time you need help, though, don't hesitate to let me know—"
"Look." A startled exclamation, as the shirt drops downwards. Darryl's teeth are normal, fine. His lips are parted slightly, still speckled with blood. "Seems to be over early."
"Huh," says Simon, who wishes he knew more about vampires, real ones. The shirt drops to the floor and he bends over to pick it up.
A shrill noise of pain, his gaze jerks up, Darryl's tan skin is pitch white, the whites of his eyes showing, blood pouring from his chin. The damn teeth, back again, have gone through his jaw.
Simon shouts in horror, alarm, doesn't know what to do. Thinks, got to get to the hospital, thinks, can't go to the hospital, what to tell them. Got to get to the first aid kit. Grabs Darryl's arm and shouts, "Tell me where the aid kit is, where can we get some bandages!"
Normal teeth again. As he watches, as Darryl shakes and makes low animal noises, the pink flesh retracts to where it ought to be and skin slides over the two open holes. There is still blood all over his chin and down his shirt, puddling on the floor, but it's drying now. The moth flutters away, alarmed too.
"Eh," says Simon. Shocked into normality. "I hate to say it, but I think it's my touch."
Dry, hoarse, "Think so too." Darryl's face, bobbing in the lamplight, is still pale. Awkwardly he raises a hand to his mouth, tries to scrape away some of the blood with his knuckles and the back of his hand. It makes him look like he's been fighting someone really tough.
Simon realizes, suddenly, Darryl wouldn't hurt a fly. Or a moth. Doesn't know why he didn't see that before.
"Do you need that blood?"
"Huh? Oh. No." Weak, weak effort at a smile. "You want it?"
"Yum." Simon goes for the fallen shirt again, but can't figure out how to do it without letting go of Darryl's arm. "Kneel or something."
Does so. "You know..."
"Yeah?" Simon grabs the shirt and spits on it, then starts wiping off his friend's face, sharply, like his dad used to do to him. Darryl can't respond until he stops, his jaw being contorted into odd positions. "Good thing you heal like you're supposed to."
"Vampires always heal magically in the movies."
"Whatever you say."
"Yeah. Sorry, what were you going to tell me?"
"Just going to point out that it'll be hard for you to sleep if you've got to keep a hand on me."
"No kidding. Good thing it's a big bed, right? Here, take off your shirt, it's covered in blood and it'll be easier for me to keep a grip on you if I've got more options."
An awkward silence. "Actually... I was going to say, maybe we'd just better change back to your original shirt idea. I'll bite it and go sleep in my own bed."
"Oh." Simon looks at the shirt in his hand, sticky and crusting with blood. "I'm out of shirts, though."
"I have some, if you walk me over to my room."
Glance at the doorway, deeply sigh. "Naw, come on, this is stupid. Just lay down and I'll keep a hand on you. How are you going to sleep with a shirt in your mouth?"
"I usually don't." He has a significant lilt on the last note. Right, Simon realizes. Darryl didn't know to blunt his teeth with a towel or something, so he must just normally spend a night a month in agonizing pain. He thinks, he must be wrong. There must have been a girl, or something, on one of those nights, someone else touching his skin. Surely.
"Did you know if I touched you that your teeth would go away?"
"No. Might be different with different people. When I'm around my mum my cramps stop."
"You have cramps and the teeth too?"
"Can we just go get the shirt."
"No." Simon shoves his shoulder with his free hand. "Stop being stupid, you're staying here. I don't care how unmanly or not it'll be. Just take off your shirt and lay down."
"How will you keep touching me in your sleep?"
Simon feels his neck go red and is glad for the lantern light rather than revealing sunlight. Hopes his friend doesn't realize his faux pas. Tries to focus on the sound of the crickets outside, or the sight of the moth circling the light again, to get rid of his stupid embarrassment. Like he's five years old again and thinks fart jokes are funny. It's stupid. "Well, it's probably just my skin, right, not my hand in particular that needs to be touching you? So we can just sleep back to back, and wrap the blankets around us so we can't get apart in the night."
"This plan seems to have its flaws."
"Well, do you have another one?"
"Not really." Pause. "I guess you couldn't tie yourself to me."
"Yeah—no. Come on, shirt off before I have to take it off myself."
They lie down, arrange the blankets, always making sure only a slight and socially appropriate part is touching. Who is watching to notice that, Simon wonders, who are we afraid of offending. Each other, I guess. Isn't that how it always is. Hold to the patterns, obey the rules, and everything will be okay. Don't touch in any girly way. Don't give him the hug he obviously needs, because it's not quite right.
Tries to... give him a hug with his back, somehow, squeezing his shoulder blades together lightly. Feels Darryl do the same in return, doesn't know why.
"Your feet are freezing."
"Shut up." Quietly, so quietly. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it."
Shoulder blades squeeze. Faintly. Socially appropriately.
Kicking, baaing, stirring up a fuss. Simon eyes the struggling sheep warily, squeezes his gloved fingers together in a fist and releases them. The furry critter throws back its head, eyes rolling, and cries its distress to the air, the cold breeze, the blue and cloudy sky overhead.
"Hold its feet." Darryl, calm confidence in his element. He grips the sheep's front legs with thick tan gloves, bracing its head across his knee. His face is dusty and utterly concentrated. He always does his job well.
Simon doesn't know quite what to do, but he tries his best. He wants to be able to feel like the farmer does. He wishes he too had one thing at which he was truly good. He wants to know what it is to nod at the end of the day and say, "Yep, that was a good one."
He holds the feet. Awkwardly.
"What are we doing?"
A thoughtful consideration, Darryl briefly raises his gaze and squints at him. The dust is thick on his eyelashes and turns them orange. "You don't want to know," he says at last.
"Figures." Just hold the feet.
Darryl does something mysterious with the sheep and a sharp silver clippy thing. Simon starts to ask what, remembers, stays silent.
"Did you catch the score of the game last night?" He tries to retract his words at the last moment, wants to wince. Of course he hadn't.
"This morning. On the radio."
"Against Geelong? I thought they were a shoo-in."
"Yeah, well, they have eight blokes out on injury."
"Is that typical?"
"I reckon. I don't think there's a sport out there that causes more injury." Darryl seems sort of proud of that, but Simon doesn't think it's any bloody-mindedness on his part. More that everyone seems to talk about football the same way there. They look at the players coming off the field, streaming blood.
No pads, no helmets, not even pants, just shorts and the ugliest socks Simon has seen before, no comparison. He's tried to come up with metaphors for those socks and fails every time. Maybe an analogy: Footie socks are to fashion as tarantulas are to pie.
As leprosy is to kittens.
As genocide is to babies. No, that one is too easy.
As leaving is to Simon.
They let the sheep go, its torments ended for the moment. They watch it sprint off across the brown grass to the rest of the flock, who watch them suspiciously. They chew grass stupidly, and suspiciously. Chew and chew.
"So, do you have to bite the sheep?"
"Some people do, actually. I've seen it on documentaries."
Startling. "They have vampire documentaries?"
"Huh?" A perturbed look. Darryl reaches up and rubs off the orange dust from his face and eyes. "What are you—oh, no. No, I don't bite the sheep. Don't be a bloody idiot. What do you think I've got the jar for?"
Darryl punches him on the shoulder. His punches are much more effective, Simon notices with a double wince. He has both muscle and intent, and Simon is just bones. But there's nothing supernatural about it. There's just the teeth, which now seem fine in the daylight. A little sharp, maybe, but fine.
"Your mouth okay?" he asks. Feels stupid.
"Yeah." Darryl flicks his tongue self-consciously across his teeth. "Come on, let's go get the next sheep."
A tired groan. "Do we have to?"
"Yeah." Darryl smiles a little, and then glances at Simon. Simon's face is pale with weariness, although he is smiling. The sun seems to do nothing to his pallor, which Darryl thinks is good, because otherwise he'd be worried about skin cancer from the sun; the boy could do with a little tanning, though, he thinks, otherwise he'll be mistaken for bread and eaten by birds. "You can go back to the truck if you want. I don't normally have help with this job."
"Nah, I'll stick it out." Stubborn. Darryl hasn't decided if he likes that trait or not. Isn't sure if it's bravery or ornery. Simon sets his jaw and raises his chin, doesn't tell him.
"Fine." They you-don't-want-to-know the rest of the sheep that need it, the lambs from last year and the three new males from Ishka's. They go back to the truck. The waterbottles sitting on the seat are cooking, left in the sun as they were, even though the day is still cool. The oranges are starting to spoil and make the air smell pleasant, if too strongly. Simon sinks into the seat with a groan and Darryl smiles.
His teeth itch, but he ignores it. His leg itches too and he's not going to scratch that either. He's relieved, though, to find that his teeth only itch when he looks at the sheep, never when he looks at his friend. For all his fine speech about not ever craving human blood, he wasn't sure, not really, until the previous night.
Not until he stood in the doorway, watching the boy sleep, and thought never. Not gonna happen.
So that is all good now. Everything is fine. He wasn't quite sure about that until the morning, when he woke up and realized here is another morning where Simon could sit up and say "I think I'd better go now." Darryl had gotten up early—moving away from the bed tentatively, to make sure his teeth really were going to stay short, but it was always better in the daylight and they were fine—and set about preparing for just that damning phrase, just in case. Wrote the letter he had been meaning to write and tucked it inside his friend's suitcase. Swept the porch, carefully nudging away the spider that had moved in that night. Fished the caterpillar out of Simon's shoe.
But no. Simon woke up and said, "What's for breakfast?" And brekkie had been awkward, yes, with the boy making shy sideways glances the whole time and once, playfully, touching the side of his wrist and making some joke Darryl had gratefully laughed at. But no. He hasn't said it yet.
He burned the letter, too. Can always write a new one later.
"How's your teeth?"
"Sorry, is it a stupid question?"
"Nah." Tongue flick again, thinks, he's got to stop doing that, going to wear all his enamel away or something. Isn't sure if that will heal back like skin does. "Might be trouble again this evening but nothing so bad as last night."
"Good." Too much relief in the word. A little shyly, apologetically, "That was scary."
"I mean—not knowing if it was, you know, okay. If you were going to bleed to death or something. When they went through your jaw like that—"
"Not sure I want to talk about this."
"Oh. Yeah, sorry. Must not be great remembering."
"I know I wouldn't want to talk about it, if it were me. It'd be embarrassing, I guess."
"But, uh... do you always heal like that? Any kind of injuries, I mean?"
"No. Just mouth ones."
"All mouth ones, or just ones caused by your teeth?"
Darryl hasn't really thought about that before, because to him they are one and the same. He certainly had never had any cavities or the like in his life or sores. Thinks un-seriously sometimes that it's good he hasn't had any sex because if he got herpes he wouldn't be able to go to the doctor for it. He never did like people looking into his mouth.
"Teeth I guess."
"It makes sense, well, according to books at least. To keep their prey alive vampire wounds heal really quickly."
"Really don't want to talk about that either mate."
"Sorry, sorry." Simon slumps down in his seat, pulling his shoulders up about his ears. "I'm an idiot sometimes. I never know when to stop talking and it gets me into trouble all the time. I'm surprised you haven't thrown me out yet."
"You're useful to have around."
"Oh yeah. Best sheepholder in Canada, they call me."
"A grade-A dishwasher."
"Top notch weed-puller, hole-digger, dog-de-flea-er combination in the country."
"Handsomest bloke in the frozen north."
Simon's ears go bright red under his scarf. Darryl can tell, looking at his blood vessels and the way they pulse, that he must have said the wrong thing. "I was impersonating the Canadian girls," he clarifies.
"You must be talking to different girls than me, mate," Simon mutters into his coat.
"Oh come on. Aren't girls supposed to go for the scrawny, academic look these days?" There, he's back on solid ground, they're joking again. But he's skating too close to home and Simon doesn't do anything more but wanly smile.
"I think this is my subject I don't want to talk about."
"Sorry." A long silence. Darryl shifts the truck down. "Look at that."
Simon's gaze flickers left, out the window, forward stubbornly, then left again in surprise. "What the hell?"
A white cockatoo, yellow crested, does gentle loop-de-loops on the side of the road. It flutters about, cackling madly, then abruptly crashes into the ground. Simon gasps slightly and leans forward, hand on his seatbelt, as if he wants to do something but can't quite figure out what. The bird sits up soon enough though, wobbling, and launches into the air to do it again, flying in backwards circles.
"Drunk," Darryl says smugly. "Ate too many fermented berries, I reckon."
"A drunk bird," Simon marvels. He glances back towards Darryl, shakes his head. "Your country is insane."
"Yeah." He shifts the truck back up. It's on the tip of his tongue: "It's your country now." He knows that it's the right thing to say. He knows it's what Simon really needs to hear. But it's too much, too personal, too close, not socially acceptable, not, not, too too. Too. His hands shake, a little, on the steering wheel. He wants to say it. But the time is past now. It's been too many seconds. Cock-a-too.
Hit the gas, go home.