A/N: This chapter is a little short, but I thought it might help kick me into writing mode again if I put up something. Hopefully I'll get the next chapter up sooner than this one!
One page crackles, bursts into flames, and then another. A branch lights, briefly—but no, it's an illusion—it just smokes a little and dies down again. The log doesn't even singe.
Simon swears, which catches Darryl's attention, since the thin boy almost never does. He makes a questioning noise and Simon raises his head, smiles ruefully.
"I don't get it," he says. "Fires burn down hundreds of hectares here every year, but I can't even make one go for over five seconds."
His pile isn't stacked right. The big log is too close, and there aren't enough twigs. Darryl eyes it briefly, but decides not to point it out. Instead he just smiles. "Well, keep trying. I've got plenty of matches."
Simon grunts and turns back to the stove, but he doesn't seem displeased. He mutters, "maybe with a lighter," and pokes the twigs into a new position, trying again.
Darryl's stomach rumbles and he bites his lip thoughtfully. He goes to the cellar, doesn't bother to flick on the light because he knows it all by feel. He grabs his jug and knows something is wrong the moment his fingers touch the sides. His imaginative human mind wants to argue it, though, so he takes the jug into the light, peers down the neck, and shakes it experimentally in case that will help. Twice, hopefully. A third time, with cheerful desperation.
Simon's green eyes flash his way, filled with a hesitant questioning look. "Something up?" he asks. Darryl wonders if the edge of wariness he hears is just his paranoia acting up. Thinks, it's strange how the fire makes the young man's golden hair glow like that. Tension swirls through the air, lands heavily on his tongue, and he swallows it down.
He looks at the jar again. Darryl, brightly, "How do you feel about mutton tonight?"
Simon's brain fires a schooling's worth of information at him. Past articles on cultural values flash before his eyes; textbook passages running the gamut from oppressed societies and Ways We As A People Can Help and primers on respecting the differences of others to dialogs on racism and Wealthy White Male Authors; and philosophical pages on skepticism and string theory, which he doesn't think help at all. DO NOT BE CULTURALLY REPRESSIVE, blinking in neon letters high as the ceiling.
"Oh," he squeaks. "Sure thing."
The thing is, he has been a Pacifist with a capitol P since he was old enough to watch his first nature documentary. Killing anything from microbes on up makes him shudder. The idea of murdering a sheep, one of the fluffy, friendly creatures he has been assisting with these last weeks, makes him want to throw up. But Simon knows that expressing this might cause Darryl to take his words the wrong way. He would be Imposing His Own Culture on someone that Doesn't Have A Choice. He winces.
The vampire gets his blood from sheep. The vampire still acts like he might flee screaming any minute. If Simon rejects the sheep, he rejects the blood, he rejects Darryl. No more vampire.
They board the Ute after tea, and several more curses at the fire that won't be, and drive out to the far pasture. Clouds are gathering in the west, vast puffy piles of white and gray that arch over the green hills below. A kangaroo has gotten into the pasture along the track, and as they drive by, it effortlessly clears the meter-and-a-half fence, all sinuous motion and energy.
Darryl makes a noise, soft and low, and Simon glances at him. His friend's hands are tight on the steering wheel, his work-scarred knuckles alternately patched white and red. His mouth, his lined and sun-bleached lips, are a tight thin line. Simon laces his fingers together and decides to stay still and quiet, not sure if there's anything he can do to help. Thinks, if only I was better. If only those textbooks had more information on what to do about vampires.
Darryl says quietly, "Talk. It helps. That is, if you want to."
"Oh. Um." Simon's eyes dart across the landscape as he tries to think of something, anything to say. Something having nothing to do with sheep, or blood. He remembers Greek mythology, and sacrifices to the gods, eight heifers for Athena, nine bulls to Apollo. He remembers Carthage, babies thrown to the flames. The original dead baby joke. He wishes that college also had had a course on small talk. Simon, brightly, "So, I remembered an old idea I had for a story yesterday."
"Just a mental image, really, not a complete story. It's set in the future when the world is entirely a giant city, all Blade Runner industrial and the like, and it would be about this old man who out to hunt and kill the last spider in the world. He's trying to get an apprentice, some little kid, because his eyesight is going and he can't be sure he'd see the spider if he found it. Everyone in the story thinks he's insane, because they've never seen a spider before and don't know why he'd want to kill it anyway."
They contemplate the landscape around them for a minute as Darryl shifts the truck down so its engine won't scare the sheep as they approach. "The world, one paved-over city, huh?" he asks. "Seems unlikely."
Simon feels a little silly. The idea had seemed reasonable when he came up with it at the university. He remembers the teacher in Uni talking about dystopian futures, when technology rules everything and nature has been conquered, destroyed, or forgotten. More than that, he remembers other teachers talking about how everyone texts their friends and everyone is on the latest viral internet companionship client and everyone will someday have every convenience at their computer desktop. He realizes, his teachers have never been here. The Times writers haven't been here. The textbook authors haven't been here. They have never looked out on a landscape that will never be paved over.
"Yeah," he says. "Guess not."
"Might be pretty, though. All those glass windows, I reckon the sun would shine off of them."
"Onto the spiders below."
Simon still seems to carry a heavy air and Darryl hopes he hasn't offended. He wracks his brain hard and absently tucks his tongue around his teeth so that they stop impaling his lip. "Read something once," he says slowly, distracted, "in the paper. A review of some movie about robots that want to kill everyone. The article said it was optimistic thinking, because people can't even make computers work right, let alone be smart enough to kill people."
Now his friend smiles. "So you're saying my story is optimistic?"
"Sure thing." He shifts the truck down completely and knocks the door lock open with his elbow, or does it three times really, because he misses the first two. "So I'm thinking, better to be pessimistic and think that people won't be able to do it. Pave everything over and hunt down the last spider, I mean. You'll just have to accept that you're going to have to live in a world with spiders, I'm afraid."
Simon jumps out and leans against the warm side of the truck, letting the wind pick up his fine hair and do with it as it will. Wildflowers not yet eaten by the sheep blow into his boots, poking up among the bright strands of grass. The blue of the sky sears his eyes and the smell of rain's promise soaks into his skin. "Yeah," he says. "Guess I might. At least I've got you to take care of the ones around me, right?"
Only the sounds of the world greet him, but not Darryl's low voice. He spends another moment contemplating the rain clouds in the distance before he turns and says, "Right?"
Darryl is not there.
A buzzing begins high in Simon's ears and he feels the icy flow of adrenaline shoot across his limbs and face, making the world go bullet-time. He whips his head to the left, to the right, into the truck again. Doesn't know what to think. Doesn't know what to feel. Doesn't—and he feels its absence like a dog not barking into the night—think I'm alone. He thinks, Where is Darryl?
He does the smart thing finally and runs around the other side of the truck. His friend is there, of course, because vampires can't teleport, that's not in any movie at all, and how stupid he had been for thinking anything else.
Darryl is crouched on the ground, his hand over his mouth. Red, bright blood pours between his fingers into the dirt, turning it to mud. His eyes are glazed, focused on no sight before him. His free hand scrambles along the side of the truck, catches hold of the step up to the bed, grabs on until the fingers go pale with the strain.
"Shit," says Simon. He jumps from foot to foot and scans the horizon just in case some help is magically galloping towards them. It isn't. It isn't.
Then he remembers. He crouches down and lays his hand across the first bit of skin he can find, the back of Darryl's tanned neck. He holds on tight enough to leave bruises, but that's the least of their worries. Nothing happens, or at least nothing he can see, because Darryl is still covering his mouth and the blood is still tumbling down. "Open it!" he shouts, because Darryl doesn't seem like he's about to do something smart any time soon. "Open your mouth so you aren't impaling yourself!"
A muffled disagreement.
"What?" Simon is still shouting, still grabbing too tight, his heart slamming and skipping and rioting beneath his skin. This is the parent watching his child drown, this is the rabbit as the hawk swoops down. Nothing will help, so panicking might at least make the end come sooner.
Darryl reaches out, grabs the collar of Simon's shirt, and shoves him hard enough to knock him over. Simon lays in the dirt for a moment, shocked, his hand still aloft skyward. He stares between his knees at his friend. Darryl has now curled up, his face buried in the crook of the arm still grabbing the truck. He shakes, great tremors that flatten the grass around him.
Simon whispers, "what."
The shakes slowly calm and the fingers slowly slip off the truck until Darryl lays in a heap, all disorganized limbs and sweat-plastered clothing. It is wrong, so wrong for his confident, strong, able friend to be like this. Helpless and bloody. A discarded mannequin, all energy gone. Nothing remaing of the warm, quiet pulse of life that is Australia.
Simon pulls himself off the ground, knowing peripherally that he is moving too slowly but unable to help this. He leans over Darryl, not sure of what he will see. The needle teeth, those he's seen before, and at least the fall has opened the young man's mouth so that they stand out against the red dirt, not the brown skin of his chin. The wounds there are already closing.
Darryl's eyes are closed and he breaths in shallow gasps; Simon takes this to mean that he's conscious, since people unconscious in movies tended not to breath much at all, but he has no idea. Not really. He can tell the vampire isn't dead and that is his biggest worry. The idea makes him want to dissolve into hysterical laughter but he resists, barely. Badly.
He shouldn't have to be wondering if his friends are dead or not. That's not how it's supposed to go.
How is it supposed to go, anyway? If this is a movie, Darryl will choose that moment to open his eyes and go for Simon's neck. Simon wonders how he going to react when this happens. Respect Other's Culture, he knows, but he knows that those aren't movie teeth and it won't be all lustful bliss and painless drifting. It is going to hurt like nothing he's experienced before. He wonders, absently, when the screeching chord of horror fame is going to play.
But Darryl doesn't move. He just lays there, skin gray, haphazard limbs, yanking air in sharp pants.
After a moment, still braced every movement for the Hollywood attack and helpless to do anything more useful, Simon reaches out and gently straightens his friend out. Rolls him onto his back. Unfolds his bent arm and lays it at his side. Nudges a leg socially-acceptably with his boot and, when this has no effect, shyly places his hand against Darryl's knee and moves it straight. Very, very carefully he reaches out and tugs Darryl's lower jaw further open, so that his teeth stop piercing his lip.
Still there is no attack. Still his touch doesn't make a difference. Still his friend is laying there hurt, dying maybe, and he does not know what to do.
"So much for all of my questions," he says to himself, voice bitter venom. Instead of all his clever story-book queries, why not the stuff that mattered? Why not, what happens when it all goes wrong?
Darryl's mother, scars on her breast.
The sound shocks him so much that he takes to his feet, looking about wildly. The stupid sheep, the one Darryl always complains about, is standing there, chewing grass and ignoring them. Simon stares at it and shivers.
What does pacifism mean, he wonders, when the substance that's needed is blood? Because it's got to be blood. That much is clear. It's the one connection Darryl has with all the books. Vampires need blood to survive, and the sheep is blood.
Of course, Simon thinks, his mind turning in horrified circles, there is another source of blood around here. One that makes more sense on every level: personal, literary, maybe even divine. Of course the plot calls for the skeptical best friend to give up his own blood to feed the vampire.
But it's too bad that he's not just some vapid book hero, he thinks, eying Darryl's snake teeth, because then it would be easy. You can have my blood, the pretty girl says. It's easy because she's just glad to be close to the vampire, to feel his body heat and the smell of his sweat as he pulls her close and lowers his head sensuously to her neck. Simon thinks, it's never this way, with blood on the vampire's face already, his blood, and teeth that are going to be like voluntarily going and getting two spinal taps at once, administered by a first-day doctoral student. And the hero has never seen the vampire bring baby lambs into the world and do his taxes and laugh in the sunlight, his eyes bright and merry. In the books, the vampire is just sex and shadows and something that isn't quite real and therefore safe.
This would mean sticking his arm in his unconscious friend's mouth. Putting blood in that mouth, as unreasonable as spitting on his grandmother. You just don't bleed in your friend's mouth. It's not done.
Of course—he looks up—the alternative is somehow catching the stupid sheep, and, well, he doesn't quite know what he'd do next because Darryl is the one with the tools and presumably the idea of how you kill a sheep. Simon knows the theoreticals, of course, but it occurs to him that this sheep's throat is really fluffy and he wouldn't know how to find a jugular without some sort of anatomy textbook at the least. And just stabbing a sheep seems too absurd to contemplate after a lifetime's subscription to PETA and grocery-store meat. He images taking a knife, pulling aside the wool to see skin, and wants to throw up.
Of course—he looks down—the alternative is still cutting himself open with a needle.
Okay, he thinks, maybe there can be some sort of compromise. He's still going to have to do the unthinkable thing of polluting his friend's body, but maybe he can do this more rationally.
Simon takes a breath, checks to make sure Darryl is still probably-unconscious, and hesitantly goes through his friend's pockets in the most socially acceptable way he can manage. He doesn't want to think about how stupid it is to care about propriety at this time, but he feels it might be the only thing that's keeping him together at the moment. He's convinced that if he just acts right, maybe the world will be right too. It's always worked that way before.
He finds the pocket knife Darryl always carries, and although he's pretty sure Darryl would have something a bit more serious in the truck to do the actual sheep-killing, he's not going to leave his friend's side to go look for it.
Simon knows that in the movies, when someone needs blood for some reason or another, they always stab the center of their palm. In books, they slice the wrist veins, but he also knows that if he messes up it would be a much quicker way to end up just like the man on the ground. He touches the knife to the meat of his palm, swallows, and presses downwards.
A quick moment of eye-shuttered darkness closes off the world, and then blinding red pain sweeps over him and tears through his veins in a lightning flood. Simon decides for the last time to stop trusting movies.
The blue sky swirls into the red earth into the green grass, twisting, as he leans over his friend and lets the drops fall from his hand, one, two, ten. A breeze means he hasn't aimed quite right and some hit his friend's cheek, but enough make his mouth. It has to be enough, because he doesn't think he can do this again. Eleven, twelve, blood tumbling from the sky onto white teeth and a redder mouth.
No, he doesn't want to think about that mouth, this sin, this perversion in which he's acting. Do not bleed on people on purpose, so fundamentally built into the superego that there's no need to ever mention it. Blood diseases, the rancid smell of blood, the bloody and dying soldiers, always bad, don't give bad things to your friends. Darryl, telling him that other day, "I want to drink your blood about as much as you want to drink mine." He really does not want to think about blood after this day, ever, let alone drinking it.
And yet. And yet. Darryl's throat moves as he swallows. He takes his first normal breath in too long, holding onto the air briefly before releasing it again. Living. Takes in another breath, and sneezes as a blade of grass follows the air in and hits him on the nose.
The noise is so natural, so human, that Simon has to laugh, a hiccuping sound with too much water in it, but something that is not of grief. A kookaburra echoes the call off in the distance, cawing raucously. Darryl sneezes again and his eyes flutter.
Now that there is room for something besides the fear and helplessness, sudden panic sets into Simon's stomach. He realizes that in a few minutes he's going to have to explain his actions to Darryl. His protector, his friend, who had always seemed so against taking blood from him, who had just minutes before thrown him away rather than be tempted. He snatches his hand to his chest and freezes, not daring to move. He has screwed up unbelievably.
Except... Darryl hasn't seen anything. He furrows his brow and raises a hand to his forehead in a gesture of obvious pain, but he hasn't found out quite yet.
Simon swallows, reaches out, and uses the tips of his nails to brush the drops of blood away from Darryl's cheek, as if the man is going to be able to tell them apart from the rest of the red splotches that cap his chin. Simon wipes his cut hand in the grass, several times, hard, until it stops bleeding. He remembers the knife just in time and wipes it off too. Though there's no way to gracefully return it without the semi-conscious man noticing, he folds it up and puts it on the ground, so it looks it might have fallen out of Darryl's pocket.
He says, "Hey."
"Where am I?" Darryl's voice is so faint Simon can barely hear it; he can't be sure it's addressed to him, either, but he's not sure who will answer if he doesn't. The fear, the twisting shame in his gut, pollutes the integrity of his thinking.
"Probably not Kansas."
"Mm." Darryl sighs and his eyes flicker open at last, blurry, disoriented. "Good, since I was worried about that."
"Glad to be of help." If Simon's voice has cracked, neither mention it.
"What happened?" the vampire murmurs. He receives no reply. Simon has chosen that moment to drop his head between his knees, tug them close to his chest, and be still. Not to cry, of course, never to cry.
But Australia is in drought and has been for years. They say water is its lifeblood, what the land needs to survive. So maybe he does not cry, but he makes a donation. Water, lifeblood, blood, blood, into the land that needs it to survive, the red sands of its open mouth which waits to swallow him up and breathe again.