Chapter 3 - Procession
Guilt is a powerful thing. I didn't want to be here, but despite a hastily planned and uncomfortable nine-hour drive from one lake-front town to another, here I was. It was six AM; the sun was just beginning to rise in the crisp winter morning but even still, I sat in my car outside of the church and caked on blob after blob of sunblock. It wouldn't do much, but it was better than nothing. As much as I hated the cold, despite the fact that it could no longer harm me, I appreciated the fact that I would not look out of place in my gloves, my scarf, my hat, my layers and layers and layers. Even sunglasses I could attribute to an avoidance of snow-blindness on a bright winter day. I had about five minutes, I figured, five minutes of direct exposure before the cracking, the disintegrating was not only desperate to me but noticeable to others. And the funeral wasn't until noon. I couldn't hide in the church; it wasn't the crosses that would bother me. That was nonsense. It was the stained glass. The refractive windows would offer me some protection, maybe buy me some time, perhaps as much as a half an hour if the sky was overcast or the sun was at a more favorable angle. But a half an hour does not five hours make - six, if I included the funeral itself.
I shook my head. What had I been thinking? This was a death wish. I had sun-shields for the car and I was ready to use them; I had a blanket I could pull over myself, a curiosity that wouldn't be a problem if no one tried to peer through the sun-shields. But a whole day... I didn't know if I could make it. Contemplating the parasol in backseat, once used for the sunniest of days at the beach, I laughed. This town already thought I was strange enough. What was one umbrella at a funeral in February? It might just save my life.
I blocked the windows as thoroughly as I could, locked the doors, and pulled the fleece blanket over my head. I set my wristwatch alarm for 11:45 and hoped no one would wonder about the green Nissan with the windows blacked out in the church parking lot. After all, it was early. Maybe for once, time was on my side.
It wasn't the sound of my watch that woke me, but the sound of voices, the scent of blood. I hadn't been around large groups of people in years and the sun seemed to bake them in a very similar, if much more gentle, way that it did me. Even the opaque winter light enhanced their life, their presence. I stirred under my blanket and checked my watch. 11:37. Not too far off, but I didn't want to press my luck. I waited under the fleece a few minutes more, turning off my alarm when it beeped.
Shuffling off the blanket, I looked haltingly at the sun-shields. I'd never exposed myself to direct sunlight before for more than a few seconds time. I had my estimates, sure, but they were best guesses. I'd have to do this slowly. Carefully. I'd been sure to park close to the church, but if it was too painful to even unblock one window, I knew I had to back out, to put the screen back up, and wait until nightfall to drive home. But I hoped it didn't come to that.
I reached up to the driver's side window; I'd had to create my own shields for all but the windshield and rear window, and these ones were just triple-layered construction paper, wider than the window and carefully duct taped in place. I wiggled my gloved fingertips under the tape; even through the thick fabric, I could feel the heat from the sun. I closed my eyes, flicked my sunglasses from my hair to my nose, and pulled the paper away.
The light hit my face like a hot shower on a cold morning. It wasn't pleasant but it wasn't painful, not immediately so. I adjusted my hat on my head and made a break for the church, eyes focused, squinting at the pavement, white from salt and snow. There were people around, probably people I knew, or who knew me, but I didn't dare look up to meet them. That could wait. It could wait forever, for all I cared.
The church was dim enough for me to lift my sunglasses, but I didn't remove any of my winter gear. I sat in a pew at the back with my head hung low, hoping I looked reverent instead of tired or ill, but the lower I hung my face, the darker it was, the better I felt. Every shaft of tired light that spilled in through the glass was one more place where I didn't want to allow my eyes to focus. I sighed, my shoulders raising and lowering heavily. At least the wood was dark; even the illusion of darkness was comforting to me. But my hair was staying on my head, my cheeks were tight but not dry. If I could at least wait until the pallbearers took my mother to the cemetery to make my escape, I would have done my part.
And this way I wouldn't have to look at my mother's body.
A Bible and a book of hymns were kept in a little shelf on the back of the pew in front of me. I picked up the hymnal and tried to distract myself.
"Opal?" A figure slid into the pew next to me and I closed my eyes, wishing her away. People were the one variable I hadn't accounted for. But the voice was familiar, even in the whispered resonance in the church.
"Cassandra." I didn't look up. I didn't have to. I heard another body sit down in the pew beside her and figured it must be Cameron, her ever-present boyfriend. The only two people more inseparable than Cassandra and he were Cassandra and I - or at least we used to be.
"I didn't think you would make it," she breathed, bowing her head to be closer to me. I looked to my left, to meet her soft, hazel eyes.
"Neither did I," I confessed. Her smile was thin, but honest. She knew what I was going through, but she lifted her head and spoke to Cameron as she reached down and reassured my, grasping my gloved hand.
"She's not feeling well," Cassandra excused me, and I knew then that she had kept my confidence. I wasn't even sure I would mind her telling Cameron, no. It wasn't that that I would mind. But Cameron would be harder to convince, or would think me - us - mad, or...
"Is my sister here?" I asked. I hadn't even thought about Liana. We were never close.
"She's at the front of the church."
"Don't let her see me," I said, cutting myself off before two more painful words slipped from my lips:
A hush fell over the church, previously occupied by whispers and sobs. A priest began to speak. I didn't recognise his voice. I'd never been much for church.
"It's late, Opal," Cassandra said, rubbing her red hair in the doorway. She might have seemed like she was deciding whether or not to let me in, but I knew she would. She always did. If I hadn't bothered knocking I could have just joined her on the couch, fallen asleep there before she had to leave for school in the morning. Her house was mine and mine was hers - or it had been. But I wasn't... available during the day anymore, and she had gone off to college. She commuted, but that didn't make it any easier for us to find time to spend together.
I stuffed my hands in my jean pockets and smiled abashedly up at her, my curly brown hair twisted haphazardly into an elastic behind my head.
"Oh, just come in, for Christ's sake."
"You said you wanted to talk to me," I reminded as I strolled across the familiar tile floor, past the sink and the stove and the cabinets, and took a seat where I always did: in an old wooden chair against the wall, on the left side of the kitchen table. Cassandra sat on the right, her bare feet tucked under the chair, toes resting on the legs.
"I did," she grumbled, "but I have class in the morning." She wiped her eyes with her palms and responsible Cassandra gave way to the Cassandra I'd always known. "You've been different, O'."
I reached out and fiddled with the salt shaker. It was shaped like a chicken and I rocked it back and forth to make it walk across the small table.
Cassandra slapped my hand and the little chicken fell sideways on the table, spilling a little pile of salt. "Stop that. Either you're here to talk, or you're not."
I sighed, righting the chicken and working the spilled salt into a little line, parallel with the grain of the wood. Then I looked up. "You're... right. Cassandra, something happened to me, and I -"
"Does this have to do with the break-in?"
My mother had found the door ajar the morning after I'd been turned. The lock wasn't broken so much as obliterated. I told her I'd been sleeping, but she questioned me about it for days afterward. She wasn't convinced I was telling the truth. She could always sense things like that in me, but her mother's intuition stopped at logic.
Cassandra's didn't. Or so I hoped.
"No," I stood, and turned in a little circle before sitting back down, unsure of how to present the situation. "Well, I mean, yes, but not..."
Now that I was talking, Cassandra let me gather my thoughts. She didn't pry or interrupt me as I tugged at the ends of my t-shirt, as I wiped my nose or reached to fiddle with the silverware drying beside the sink. I picked up a little paring knife and twirled it around on the iron side of the sink, making it spin on its point. I let out a deep breath and in one swift motion, I gripped the handle of the paring knife in my right hand, stiffened my left arm, wrist side up, and jammed the blade of the knife deep into my skin, dragging it from elbow to hand, wrenching it out and tossing the knife into the sink.
Cassandra shrieked. "Opal!" She stood and took a step toward me, but I held up my index finger, a motion for her to wait, and she froze. I used my right hand to present the wound to her, as though it were a work of art, and she watched in horror as not a drop of blood left the giant gash; instead, my veins, my arteries, my skin began to knit themselves back together. Within moments, the wound closed, leaving only a thin, red line as though I'd been scratched by the tooth of a comb. Even that would be gone in minutes.
Blinking, Cassandra put her hands to her mouth, fingertips resting tentatively on her lips. "My god," I heard her breathe, voice trembling. "Opal, what have you done?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. This was done to me, he bit me," and I took a solitary step toward her, to see if she would step back. She wanted to, I could tell she wanted to, but she remained firm, letting her hands drop slowly again to her sides. "And I can't..." I looked down to the yellowed tile. "There's nothing I can do about it." This time I walked to within inches of her. "I'm sorry, Cass. I should have told you sooner."
Her lip quivered. Was it pity or sorrow? Either way, she reached out, warm arms embracing me around my neck and for a moment I didn't know how to respond. I'd expected fear or hate or disbelief, even in the face of evidence. But instead she held me, and all I could do was return her embrace, holding her around the middle and letting my head rest on her shoulder. I should have known better. She was, after all, my best friend.
"I'm... Opal, what do I say?" she said against my ear.
"If I knew that, I would have been able to talk to you a lot sooner," I shrugged, but it didn't matter.
"I thought... maybe drugs, Opal, I'm sorry, I never could have thought -"
I laughed. "I wish. Drugs would be a lot more fun than this. We could have shared."
She let me go, chuckling weakly. Looking me in the eyes, she asked sincerely. "So... what are you? What do you call yourself?"
I put up my hands, fingers splayed. "Sunlight, silver, blood, I guess I'm a," it sounded stupid to say it out loud, though I'd been kicking it around in my head since that night, "a vampire. I don't have another word for it."
Cass pointed to the kitchen door, "So when you asked me to let you in -"
"I was being polite." For a moment I could tell she didn't know if I was being serious or glib, so I amended, counting on my fingers, "Crosses, bullshit. Running water, bullshit. Garlic and or onions, bullshit. But I can't eat anything, anyway. Having to be asked in, bullshit. I think Mister Breaking and Entering proved that one."
"But sunlight?" she asked. I nodded. "And silver, and b-blood?" she tried not to stammer, but I nodded twice. "And the salt on the table?"
"You... lined it up. You didn't speak until you did," she directed my attention to the single-grain-thick row of salt I'd made.
My mouth opened, but no words came out. I hadn't even thought about it. I hadn't counted them all, but I hadn't even noticed arranging the grains. Well, I figured, add another to the believe-it-or-not column.
Cass swayed her head back and forth. "So, I mean... what does a vampire do all day?"
As I sat in the pew, anger burnt in my heart. I couldn't focus on the words coming from the altar, I didn't even look up to see who was speaking. I was too angry. Angry at the beast who had done this to me. I watched Cameron put his arm around Cassandra; it seemed more like a protective gesture, as though he knew he had to defend her from something, though he couldn't know what, couldn't know it was me. I'd seen a lot of that, going out into a town on a Saturday night when the last of the regular citizens were returning to their homes. They'd shy away from me, though I was certainly nothing intimidating to behold. It was an instinct, one that Cameron shared, but it hurt doubly because he knew me. We'd never been close, no, but he knew I would do anything for Cassandra and still that human instinct kicked in: "I must protect the ones I love from horrors which have no name."
That's what I was. That's what I'd become. A nameless horror. It was why I sat here in this pew, in this funeral service. I'd killed my own mother, a woman who had never threatened me, who only did what she did because she thought she was protecting me from a different sort of horror. I swallowed hard against the anger and the tears. I was an abomination. I shouldn't even be here. This wasn't my realm, my realm was the night. I didn't belong - didn't deserve to be - among these people, normal people, people like Cassandra and Cameron, and one woman who would still be alive if it weren't for me. One kill that had nothing to do with hunger.
I stood and escaped from the pew, slinking out of the church as quickly and quietly as I could.
I'd nearly made it to my car when I heard Cassandra's voice behind me, shouting though she kept her volume at a whisper, "What are you doing?"
"I can't, I can't," I said, not turning around but raising one gloved hand in a sign of defeat.
"She's your mother!" Cassandra caught up to me and put her hand on my shoulder, spinning me around. She let me go quickly, lifting her hand to her face. I knew what she was seeing. Having been exposed even to dim sunlight in the church for so long, out here in the bright daylight, I was blistering. I was thankful for my sunglasses, thankful she couldn't see the bloodshot eyes of the monster I really was.
"I know that, Cassandra," I hissed back. "And she wouldn't even be here if it weren't for me."
Cassandra paused, "What do you..." but she knew what I meant. She might not have realised how or why, but I could see it becoming clear to her. She knew who had ended my mother's life. She was looking right at her. "Opal, please tell me -"
"Cassandra, I can't - I have to go;" my eyes were becoming dry, painfully so; the world was growing hazy. In a few minutes I might lose my sight. I turned my back on her and sprinted to the parking lot, to my car, my tiny sanctuary.
Blessedly, she didn't follow me. She went back into the church, to take my place. That one thought hurt me more than the sun on my peeling skin, and behind my sun-shields, under my fleece, bloodstained tears rolled down my burnt cheeks.