Story:

Without the Middle

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"Will we die?" she asked, since there was nothing else left to do. He shrugged.
"Very probably. But I told you that at the beginning, didn't I?" A blinding light flowered suddenly just above their heads, he ducked instinctively and, for some reason, pulled her after him into the shelter of the car.
"Yes," she gasped, realising belatedly that the shots were real: the car window was no more. "You did. At the beginning. But everything seemed so different then."
He laughed, his long white teeth glittery even in the shaded light of the evening. "It often happens like that, yeah," he murmured. "Can't be helped." Another tiny explosion sprained the car door; it hung sadly like a torn spider's leg. "Run for your life," he said calmly, gave her a quick peck on the cheek and sprang to his feet. It took her a moment to take it in, watching him disappear down the soft slope, towards the sea. The reality of his betrayal… Only she couldn't very well call it betrayal, actually, could she? He did tell her exactly what would happen, at the very beginning.
At the beginning…

The pub was too noisy, too smoke-filled, too dark, too everything, and even the beer didn't taste as it should have. She had wandered in with a vain hope that it would take her back to another place and time, but the magic simply wasn't there. She hadn't really expected it to be, anyway, so it was without regret that she paid her bill to the haggard waitress who seemed like she might be fifteen and pulled up the lapel of her jacket in homage to the drizzle outside. It was one of those stifling summer evenings when rain seems to permeate more than actually fall, and she didn't like bothering with umbrellas even when there was more reason for one. She breathed in the musty smell of the still-hot street and closed her eyes for a moment, for no good reason, simply to do something. That was what being alive seemed to be about, most of the time: doing inexplicable things for no good reason. She took a step, eyes still closed, thinking about that, enjoying it a little. And walked into another body.
"Sorry," she muttered, confused from a half-formed dream into expensive after-shave scent of reality. Her eyes fluttered open, for a moment all she could see against the aura of street lamp light was a faceless dark form and a glitter of white teeth framed with a smile.
"It's all right." He had grabbed her arms, whether to steady himself or her she wasn't sure, but it didn't really matter much. His hands were long-fingered, firm, somehow warm. Without letting go of her, he switched their places, so that now he was standing in the doorway of the pub. His hair was black, eyes pools of shadow beneath long black lashes. His face reminded her irresistibly of someone, but she couldn't quite pin it down. Young Bowie minus the Ziggy hairdo? No, not exactly, though there was something in that, too. But more like… she gave up with an unconscious shrug.
"You don't care?" he said, and she realised he had asked her something. His voice was a velvety corridor leading to an unknown place.
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."
"I said I supposed you wanted to leave this place." His eyes encompassed the excuse for a pub, or maybe the street, too. Maybe more, it was difficult to tell with the black veil of the eyelashes.
"Well. Yes, I think I do," she said uncertainly. A butterfly woke just under her lungs and fluttered its wings experimentally, not sure it would be allowed to leave its chrysalis. She looked at him, hesitated, still half-trying to finish the comparison. If his hair were white… no, that wasn't quite it, either.
"Do you?" she heard herself ask. "Want to get in, I mean."
He smiled again, a brief dazzling moment, while his still unseen eyes descended to her cheeks, caressing them like the stroke of dead violets, intoxicating but disturbing, the sweet smell of decay.
"Oh, yes," he answered, lighting a tiny speck of brilliance at the end of his corridor-voice. "Very much." His hands slid down her arms and rested on her elbows, not really holding her any more, just touching. "Would you care to be my doorway?"
She blinked, her brain incapable of understanding. Her butterfly stretched to its full length, feeling the first breeze of spring billowing its wings, though. She felt she should blush, or stammer, but she did neither.
"Perhaps," she said cautiously. "Let's talk about it."
Another smile. "By all means. Let's."

 

The next few shots shook her out of the car and rolled her down the slope. He was nowhere to be seen, she knew he must have reached the path that led down the cliff. But she was out in the open… and that was bad. Shaking her head to clear it of the last tremors of the detonation, she scrambled to her feet and started zigzagging across the turf. She saw a big rock protruding from the grass on her left, and made for it. Just in time, too: her progress was followed by bullets, and as she dove behind the rock one scratched her ankle, the last bit of her to disappear in the stone lee. She checked the wound, but it was a mere scuff, only a tiny trickle of blood to mark the place where skin was cut. It wouldn't even slow her down. Fine. She looked around. There was another rock, though smaller, half-way between the one that sheltered her now and the edge of the cliff. Strange how she hadn't noticed it before; when they'd arrived, the ground seemed level, nothing between them and the distant line of the horizon, the only thing visible beyond the cliff. But then, of course, she didn't even know how they'd got here, or where exactly here was, so she shouldn't be surprised at other unexpected details. Expect the unexpected, he'd told her, among other things, by the end of that first night.
At the beginning…

First, there had been drinks, in one, two, three different places. The noise, and the lights, drove them on, in search of a haven. Then, dinner, expensive and discreet and fabulous, in a small, near-empty restaurant, one of those places which do their best not to advertise their trade. In their lamp-lit booth, among the smells of wicker thick with oil, leather from the seats and the single rose on the table, he fed her mushrooms from his plate, stole carrots from hers. They couldn't decide on a dessert, so they ordered four or five different things and shared them from a single crystal saucer, each delicacy tiny and amazing, a world onto itself rich with creams and tastes. They had champagne with desert, too, tingly and smooth and hinting at smoke. And all the time they talked. They talked like two death-row convicts with seconds left to save their souls. Like childhood friends who hadn't seen each other in years. Like teenage girlfriends on the phone. Like magic. His voice wove spells, distant stars twinkled in it through the thick cashmere of space, painted fantastic sunrises only to dismiss them in a flurry of coloured paper. The light at the end of his tunnel-voice never got any closer, but flickered and pulsed invitingly, the door leading to that other place occasionally opening a bit more on some warm inner wind, only to retreat again. It was a siren song, and she knew it, but enjoyed it never the less. Just like she enjoyed the touch of his fingertip on her upper lip, the warmth of his knee against her thigh, the clear ring of his laughter in her ears. The doors of the restaurant had barely closed after them and they were against the wall and against each other, no preamble, no hesitation, too ravenous to wait.
"Your place or mine?" he murmured against her teeth, letting her feel his smile at the cliché. "Or here?"
"Yes," she replied. The world burst.

The shooter must have been refilling the gun, or maybe waiting for her to step out into the open, to recognise her defeat. Whatever the reason, the bullets stopped. Taking a deep breath, she plunged for the next stone, not letting herself think about the third assumption. It was the correct one, of course; as soon as she emerged from the shelter, another shot cracked the air. Again, it didn't do more than graze her, this time her shoulder. She murmured half a curse, more with annoyance than any real pain, and rolled behind the second base. Were the misses deliberate? Suddenly, she realised where her thoughts have jumped in search of conclusions. Could that be it? It made sense, in a way. Not a very pretty sense, admittedly, but prettiness was never a part of the bargain. Not even before the bargain was struck.
At the beginning…

Eventually, they ended in a wide, black satin-covered bed that whispered with their every move until it, too, had to admit defeat, once they had moistened it sufficiently to shut it up. It was his bed, and it got its turn after the restaurant wall, the taxi seat combined with another wall, the elevator, the carpet, a wide table and an old-fashioned armchair. It was nearly morning by then, the sun knocking beggarly on the deep black curtains over the windows, here and there wheedling its way in through cracks between the heavy cloth and the white wall. As she sat at the afore-mentioned table, sipping the last of the champagne, he stripped the bed of its black shroud and replaced it with a fresh set, dove grey this time. The defeated sheets he left around the bed like a black pool on which the bed floated. He stepped to the table, leaned on it, took a sip of her wine, gathered her in his arms, returned them to the freshly made bed. Laid her down on it, lay over her resting his elbows on each side of her head. Looked at her for a long time. Kissed her mouth, eyelids, the tip of her nose. Said:
"Okay, almost-sleeping beauty. Favour time."
She blinked at him without understanding, but soft, malleable. His voice was still a corridor, very long now and covered in moss. The light at its end was a campfire of traders in the desert, orange and inviting, deceptively close.
"Did you mean what you said earlier?" he asked. She smiled. In the half-light, he still reminded her irresistibly of someone, and she still couldn't identify the likeness. The last of the Mohikans? Mmm, no, not quite that, either.
"Which part?," she replied. "Aah, Ooh, or Yes?"
He rewarded her by another glass trinket of his laughter. "None of the above. That bit about the doorway."
For a moment, she couldn't remember. "I suppose I did," she tried uncertainly.
"Not good enough, I'm afraid. A yes or a no." There was something frighteningly sombre in his shadowed eyes, crouching and ready and waiting, taut, to pounce upon her answer. But before she could voice it, he straightened, kneeling over her like a priest. "No," he murmured. "Don't say anything just yet. I'm going to be excruciatingly honest here. The only way."
She frowned despite herself, confused. He smiled at her as if to reassure her, but his grin was a lazy, predatory thing. He passed a hand through his hair to get it out of his eyes, and took a deep breath.
"Would you let a monster loose into your world?" he asked. And, when she didn't reply, "Meaning me, of course." He lowered his hands to her breasts, circled them with his fingertips, slithered down to her waist, gently, gently. The tunnel suddenly lit with a thousand faint little lamps, all aflicker. "Would you let me drink your blood?"

 

The silence stretched over the top of the cliff like a gauze veil. She could hear her own heart beat, a deep bass played under water, and drops of blood slobbering from her shoulders, glass beads falling on tiled floor of a dance hall and splintering with tiny, pathetic notes, each a shade different. All she had to do now was take a deep breath and dash for the edge of the cliff. There would be a path there, he'd told her, and their only chance of survival was to go down that path and find the cave at the bottom. A very slim chance, that, too, but all they had. Risky, but no other way. He'd said. Now, she wasn't sure any more she believed that… or anything else he had said. Then, she had lapped his words like a parched adventurer who'd just crawled into an oasis. But that had been then.
At the beginning…

She should have chuckled, but somehow she didn't. Only her frown deepened. "You mean, like a vampire?"
His smile spread, showing long, immaculately white teeth. "Yes, my lovely," he said huskily, the tunnel coiling around her like a huge snake. "I mean exactly like that."
The natural reaction would have been something on the lines of, "What kind of perversity is this?" or perhaps, more humorously, "Aren't you afraid of AIDS?", but she didn't opt for either of them. What she did do, though, was to raise her upper body towards him and finger the pendant around his neck, a small, intricate silver cross with what might have been a long-uncleaned ruby in its centre.
"Shouldn't this be upside down, then, or something?" she asked.
He extricated the medallion from her fingers, carefully, and touched it to his lips, the upended cross momentarily blotting out a ghost of a smile that had been lingering there. He closed his eyes as he did it; when his skin met with age-blackened metal a shudder ran through him, like the lick of a whip. He let the pendant fall back to its place between his collar bones.
"Not everything is as it's thought to be," he whispered, all the lights in the corridor dimmed, the exit at its end only a chimera, a fairy kingdom glimpsed from the corner of the eye but never reached. His palms settled on her shoulder blades, hot and dry. "Will you?"
She wanted very much to see into his eyes, but they were well hidden behind the lee of his long lashes. Tiny fireflies seemed to flutter, caged behind them, that was all. His face was still, like a mask carved in alabaster. Who was it that he reminded her of? Duerer's self-portrait, the handsome one? No, definitely not. Well, she'll think of it, sooner or later.
"Why?" she heard herself ask. "I mean, you do eat, I've seen it."
"Oh, yes. But I still need it."
"Not just want?"
"Want is you. Need is blood."
Despite the elliptical form, she understood. Actually, it felt as if she'd understood from the first and was only playing for time. Time to think of the right question to ask.
"What's in it for me?"
His smile brightened, the tunnel lights cheered. He had won, and he knew it, so he would let her have it her way. He could afford magnanimity, now. "One hell of a good time. Some fabulous lays. My magic. A horrid death." He wet his lips. "More or less in that order."

 

The veil of silence, stretched for too long, finally tore, leaving diminutive wisps of hush here and there. The rest disappeared before a voice, lonely and small in the soft-smelling dusk like a bulb that dies last in a building condemned to demolition.
"Stop running! You are in no danger!"
Despite herself, she answered: "Now that doesn't sound very convincing, I don't know why!"
"If you are not in league with him, you've nothing to fear!" The words were cliché, the stuff that Z-rate dreams are made of, and yet they had a certain allure, struggling with the twilight as they were, a tiny handkerchief trying to wipe off a racist proclamation on the wall, succeeding only in smearing the swastika and making it larger than before. So pathetic, it would be easy to believe them, to let go, fall back into the world that didn't realise grains of sand on its home beach were little bits of the Sahara. All the time -- well, most of the time, really -- that was exactly what the problem was. There were no one-way streets with him. She could turn back, if only she wanted to, really wanted to. But she didn't, and he knew it, played his puckish jig of rapacity on it, placing pixie-like exits all over the place and watching her head straight for the heart of the labyrinth like a well-trained rat. He'd known from the start how it would end, and sometimes she thought she had, too.
At the beginning…

She swallowed. Slowly. The butterfly under her lungs laid a thousand eggs, and they all hatched at once. Despite appearances, she still had time to back out of it all. To say no. He would let her go, she knew that. Let her go to pubs that weren't pubs but travesties of public houses, to memories that weren't memories at all but fantasies based on possible experiences, to a life that was a progression of inexplicable things done simply so that something would happen, at least. To men with nice, comfortable, soft voices like battered beach chairs, leading nowhere but deserted autumn after the overcrowded summer. And he offered—not much. His hands, conscientiously neutral on her back, were just ten damnably adept fingers, the flowers that had bloomed on her body in their wake withered now. Pale pinkish lips hid a set of ominously white teeth, greedy, lurking, and a mouth that would suck her soul in if she let it… which she might, once he releases the turmoil of his fireworks voice upon her again, anointing her with it like with scented oils, washing her self away. And she still hadn't seen his eyes, only the long, almost doe-like lashes that sheltered behind them two vortices of difference, showing only now and then a sparkle of light, candles at the bottom of a pool, struggling to overpower the dark eddies that covered them. And… and she still couldn't say who it was he reminded her of. A huge cat stalking through the jungle night, immense and dangerous… Yes, that too, but not quite.
"Yes," she breathed. His palms slid up to her shoulders, he leaned towards her face, as if he wanted her to see his eyes... or not to see them.
"Are you sure?" he asked, the dark tunnel suddenly transformed into a hospital corridor, complete with fluorescent lights. "I don't love you, I don't promise life eternal, no rubbish like that. I'll betray you in the end."
She smiled light-heartedly, having died already. "Just tell me it's a long way off."
His grin was boyish, mischievous. "Sort of." He nuzzled her cheek, inhaling her, maybe guessing at the one taste of her he still didn't know, then suddenly jerked away, remembering the magic word still hadn't been spoken properly. "Well?"
Until then, her hands had been folded in her lap, demurely, an acolyte beneath the thighs of her priest and master. Now, they rose, gathered her hair, pulled it over one shoulder, in economical, precise movements. Looking at his pendant, she slowly closed her eyes, the last thing she saw one ruby-red eye that watched her from the centre of the cross.
His palms cupped her face, fiery, ablaze. He kissed her, taking possession of her mouth with passionless, deliberate slowness, his tongue a seal on the contract, the clink of their teeth a muted, cautious applause for the successfully concluded deal. She felt him graze the inside of her lip, sensed the tiny trickle flow to him, into him, and chortled in surprise, a half-gagged sound; he was pushing her head backwards, her torso swaying, giving in to his impetus.
"Sssh," he hissed, answering her unvoiced question. "It's just the beginning."

 

"Will you tell me something?" she asked, buying time, for herself or for him she wasn't sure, wasn't curious to know. A surprised pause: the shooter hadn't expected that reaction. It was good to surprise somebody, after all.
"Ask," came at last, a tentative lookout sent to investigate the terrain.
"Why? Why all this? What is, actually, going on?" She sounded convincing, she knew that; she was asking questions she'd been longing to ask anyway. The other voice must have heard that, for it quickly transformed into someone Richard Chamberlain might play, a comforting hand on your shoulder, accompanied by a reassuring, sincere look of dark eyes.
"A tough one, that. It'll take some time."
She heard the clicking of a zippo and the hissing lighting of a cigarette. So she might really get a reply. Which was more important? An answer to a riddle or her life? Her life, she decided, and ran to the edge of the cliff. Almost unexpectedly, the path was really there, she could even see the small land-slides that his passage had left. Scrambling down the cliff, she couldn't suppress a tender, indulgent smile. He always left traces of his passage. That was part of his charm, she supposed, that he had marked her in a single night.
At the beginning…

His tongue slid from her mouth, slithered over her bleeding lip, down her chin, leaving a wet trail which led to her throat. His fingers travelled from her cheeks, over her ears and to the back of her head, then suddenly dug into her shoulders, pinning her in place with painful force. She thought she heard a growl emerge from deep inside his throat, like a lion's roar electronically distorted, then he lanced her, she felt two neat little stabs followed by a strange sensation, so sweet, the first soft drops of rain after the long months of desert drought that will bring forth the most delicate of flowers, to blossom and die in a single afternoon. Her arms floated weightlessly in the air as he bent her back almost double, boring into her. Her head was light, filled with soft, drowsy wool that tenderly smothered all thought. A single tiny rivulet escaped him; he followed it on its way, breathing on her like a child breathes on frost-engraved windows. Joy, joy, joy.
Over her heart, he stopped the flow, licked her breast clean, looked up, smiled, teeth still pristinely white. Bit her again, hands behind her back to lift her up to him like a chalice, the holy grail full of steaming life. She cried out then, more with surprise than with pain, he sucked the sound into him together with the rest. He looked up again, head still bent over her, she felt the rapacious touch of his eyes on her face while he toyed with her, slowly pulling her legs out from under him. Her weakened arms dropped behind her to propel her closer; she sucked at the cut he'd made on her lip, needing the outflux. Suddenly, his hands seized her waist; as his mouth tugged at her heart, he thrust into her, savagely, bruising her, hurting, tearing. She screamed understanding while his lips travelled down her, to savour this latest fountain. She thought she might have called upon someone to save her, then, but there was no one there. No one except him, who turned her to her stomach and lay on her, stabbing her again, gently this time, his three spears in perfect concert, their movements infinitesimal and rackingly thrilling, until they both exploded, howling in the artificial darkness, a lonely wolf and his pliant prey, together.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him lift his head, and there was blood on his lips and chin, at last. Somehow, that made it all right, and she let herself fall down and her eyes close, spent, terminated, finished. Sleep.
Through half-closed eyelids, she saw him step over her and down from the bed. He went to the window and reached for the thick black curtain with a slightly trembling hand. For a moment, he just stood there, motionless, then he took a deep breath, wiped his mouth with the back of the other hand and, suddenly, pulled the curtain aside. The last thing she remembered before falling asleep was his silhouette, utterly black against the bright daylight sky, and the sound of pigeons timidly calling their morning song to each other. His head was tilted slightly backwards, and he seemed to be basking in the sun.

 

The path, ravaged by his passage, was slippery, treacherous, and her grazed ankle gave up on her after only a few steps. She rolled down, but managed to stop her fall on a spiky, solitary plant. It scratched her palms, but she didn't dare let go of it. Her feet took a while before they could find a solid hold, the gravel kept on sliding from under her. As she struggled to hold herself in one place, half an ear listening for sounds of pursuit from above, she couldn't ignore the appropriateness of the image. That was what she'd been doing ever since she met him, really: losing the ground beneath her feet. And knowing it, too, all the time. Even then.
At the beginning…

After a while—she didn't know how long—he picked her up in his arms, a tender father carrying his sleeping daughter, and lowered her into a brim-filled bath. She whimpered as liquid embraced her, struggling through the haze to free herself from the unexpected.
"You were very brave," he murmured softly, as if in encouragement, "very brave, very good."
She had a feeling he meant it as "tasty," but preferred not to know. His hands were rocks of reality, holding her afloat, all she could rely on, she just couldn't permit herself to start doubting them or she would drown.
He washed her, gently, resting her head on his shoulder to allow her to slumber on. The water was tingling hot, it trickled over her body in small, steaming streams that seemed to remind her of something, only she couldn't remember what exactly, she was too sleepy to think straight.
Everything smelled of sandalwood and lime, stinging as it spattered his signs on her. The wounds had healed, she noticed drowsily, leaving only tiny marks of slightly darker pink on her skin, like old traces of red felt tip. He lifted her from the water like a newly christened infant, and dried her in thick, fluffy towels. It was too sweet to bear, an act of love so pure she was ready to die, wrapped in the warm yellow softness of the towel and the slightly warmer, pale softness of his arms. Until:
"I can't stand the stench of dried blood in the morning," he said, carrying her back to the bed. Her sapped pitcher of a heart cringed under its washed-out pencil mark. But she was too weak to kill him, right then. She rolled to her side and curled up, seeking pre-natal security of confined space.
"I hate you," she muttered helplessly. He lay down next to her and let out a deep, satiated sigh.
"Good," he said.

 

The last bit was impossible to pass on her feet, it was too steep, throwing itself in an almost vertical line towards the scattered, sharp outcrops of rock protruding from the sea, scattering its pebbles like fireworks into the roaring, hungry waters below. She wedged herself between another biting plant and a slightly larger stone to get her breath back, and think. There was, always, the possibility to call out towards the top of the cliff, she supposed. Their pursuer would see her helplessness and would probably assist her. He might even have been telling the truth when he'd asked her to stop running. So she might be risking her neck for nothing, really. Because she was, still, somehow unable to resist his pull, to fight him off with reason and electric lights. Just the thought of him cut her lungs in half, still, foolishly, the butterfly he'd created still alive and fluttery, though its wings were now enfeebled and wet with blood and lies. He never managed to kill it completely, though he'd started crushing it very early on.
At the beginning…

She woke to the smell of coffee and opened her eyes cautiously, half-convinced she would find everything had been a dream, a tipsy fantasy she had woven to herself to blot out the grim reality of a too casual fuck. He was sitting on the bed, teeth smiling, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and his expensive after-shave.
"Good morning," he said, and the corridor was a glass-covered walkway leading to a sunlit greenhouse. Her hand went to her neck, uncertainly, he lowered his gaze and shook his head in amusement. "Yes," he murmured. "All true." He looked at her from under his lashes, bright hidden torches offering her a momentary twin blaze, and licked his lips. "True," he added, and carnivorous things lifted their heads from among the flowers, silently triumphant.
She reached for the mug before her, a brown clay thing that could have been stolen from a museum, and discovered it was too heavy for her to lift. He leaned towards her, propped her on the pillows, raised the mug to her lips. "You'll feel better in a moment. Drink." Behind him, the curtains were drawn back to let the sun douse the room in brilliance. She didn't know what day, what time, what season. Shaky thoughts of responsibilities tried to flutter through her head, but it was too hot in the room for them to survive. She let him fill her with coffee, wipe her mouth with his fingers, kiss her cheek. "See?" he asked, and the magic worked, her head was less heavy and she could lift her hands. She used the ability to cover her face, trying to get a hold on herself. The satin sheets rustled, he had turned away; perhaps to give her a moment of privacy. The silence lasted uncomfortably long, but: What does one say to someone who had fed on one's blood?
"Here." His voice made her look up, unexpectedly close. He was offering her a cluster of unmarked white tablets nesting on his palm like migrating birds catching a moment of rest on their long voyage south.
"What's that?" she asked feebly.
"My magic."
She was truly angry now, betrayed, lied to, used, desperation gave her the strength to grab the mug from his hand and spill it into his face.
"That's your magic?! Cheap barbiturates, or whatever? That is what you offer me for my blood?"
He wiped his face with the back of his hand, calmly, casting half of a regretful glance at the chest of his ruined shirt. "You want to get out of here, don't you?" he said in a reasonable voice.
He'd asked her that before, and she had said yes. It seemed petty, now, somehow, to go back on her word. The clay cup fell from her fingers and vomited the last of the coffee on the sheet, pathetic like a drunkard too weak to get up from his own filth. She hid her face in her palms, waiting for death that wouldn't come. "Monster," she muttered to herself, desolate, alone.
He leaned to her and kissed her cheek, whispering to her ear: "I did tell you." She could smell coffee on his face, mixed with the after-shave, so ordinary, so marriage-like, so humdrum, so…
After a while, he reached out and wiped her tears with coffee-smelling long fingers. The latticework of lashes over his eyes seemed, again, so familiar, yet she still didn't know. A vision of Heathcliff from a dream… No, close again, but not quite, not quite. He offered her a conciliatory smile and proffered the nameless white birds again. Obediently like a child, she drank his tablets, washed, dressed. Went.

From behind, she heard the unsure steps in cross-country boots stumping over the delicate, insidious gravel. The time for thinking was over; the zippo and the gun were getting closer. She had to decide, now, immediately. Like so many times. The sheer descent frightened her, she was convinced she would end up in the sea, body torn on the sharp rocks. She could just barely see the narrow part of the beach that sidled between the cliff and the waves. The noise of the pebbles trying their best to dislodge the hunter from their trail neared dangerously. And he was nowhere to be seen; he must have already reached the entrance of his cave. Leaving her outside, as a decoy to give him time to get to safety. Perhaps that was all that she had ever been: a handy repository of blood, enabling him to face the sun, to waylay the trackers. A tool. Suppressing a cry of—she didn't know what of, just a sound that wanted out of her throat—she decided, and took the plunge.
At the beginning…

Walking home from work in her summer dress, raw, sensitive, a freshly hatched dragonfly still wet from its chrysalis, she thought. He was just a perverted, devilishly handsome man, a peculiar variety of sadism, decorated with old-fashioned iconography and a surplus of funds. The whole thing was simply a sick episode she would soon forget, and think of it as a dream in later years. That was all… if it hadn't been a dream to begin with.
As she neared her house, she saw a tall, slim figure leaning on the wall of the building opposite hers. The shirt was clean, that was all the difference. He looked at her from under his lashes, a sketch of a smile widening his lips into an impish expression, from across the street, making no move to stop her going into her doorway, obviously expecting her to make the decision, to cross on her own. She wouldn't, she wouldn't.
"Leave me alone," she said, looking at the pavement between his feet.
"I've come to fulfil my part of the bargain," he said, unruffled, the corridor wood-panelled and warmly lit. "But if you want me to, I'll go away. You'll heal, it will be like nothing ever happened. If that's what you want."
"Yes," she said, choking.
He unstuck himself from the wall. "Okay."
He should have at least turned, given her one last look. Something, anything that would have prevented her from clutching at his elbow like a zealous peddler. His grin was a gratified cat with canary feathers sticking from its mouth, his hand on her shoulder a heavy shackle of pure gold.
"You'll have to invite me in, you know," he told her, nostrils flaring, as she opened her door.
"Won't you come in?" she obeyed numbly. Even his shaded eyes beamed.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I will."

She rolled down the cliff and landed on her hands and knees, leaving bloody traces behind herself. The hunter was still stuck someplace high above, the tiny landslides that slowed him down mocking him in thin, childish voices. She looked around, blowing her hair from her eyes. The path followed the cliff-line snugly, stretching to both sides with no indication which route to take. She could see it disappear around a corner behind her back, thought about it, decided on the other side. Never go back, that was one of the things he'd told her, when her nerves would give up on her every now and then, while the magic lasted.
At the beginning…

The good times: Strawberries dipped in chocolate on his firm white belly, surrounding the hairs, forming the outline of a cross. Sunrises in high, deserted places, just the two of them and a small fire over which they leaped like creatures from a legend. Vertiginously expensive dinners, followed by excursions to shady parts of the city and beers in dark, conventionally dangerous places where he arm-wrestled with truck-drivers and hell's angels while she played old songs on the juke-box. Conversations with birds he would talk into perching on his finger and release by a kiss on the beak. Once, stealing a car and leaving it, wrecked, on top of the hill that loomed over the town, then walking home, hand in hand, innocent and cruel like Hansel and Gretel who'd pushed the witch into the oven. The amethyst of his laughter, after he'd read Byron as if he'd written it, reducing her to a spluttering blob. The magic, as promised. The fabulous lays, ditto. And, every two or three days, the new marks on her body that always healed cleanly, announced by the synthesised lion's roar which was his trademark. She cried after it, inevitably, sometimes he would hold her until it passed, whispering meaningless reassurances into her ears. Sometimes, he stood in the window, pitiless and strong.
Once, she took a fork and stabbed it fiercely into his hand. He bled, fingers spread on the hitherto white damask, and watched her, intrigued, waiting. She dipped a fingertip into his blood. Wiped it on her trousers; it had burned her. He smiled his lazy, predatory grin and patted her knee.
"It takes…" he said, almost gently. "… madness."
She dreamed, that night, of who it was he reminded her of. When she woke up, she'd forgotten.
Then, one day:
"It's time, my lovely. He's found me."
She didn't ask who, what, why. Following his directions, she got into the car—his own, this time—and sat silently as he drove, to the top of the cliff. About halfway there, she noticed another car in the rear-view mirror. It was a jeep, khaki and green like something from a Camel commercial. She didn't need to ask. The first bullets hit just behind their back wheels as he stopped the car and opened its door.
"Will we die?" she asked, since there was nothing else left to do.

Her running steps halted before a protruding edge of the rock that blocked her path. She couldn't hear her pursuer any more, but that was simply because her heart beat so savagely, all she heard was its thumping and the waves committing suicide on the boulders on her left. The shadow of the outcrop seemed to be shielding something… she squinted, crouched, saw an entrance. It had to be it. On her knees and elbows, she crawled inside.
The room behind the narrow entrance was spacious, wide and tall and imposing like a cathedral. He was sitting on the ground before another opening, deep inside, his back to the wall, elbows on his knees, smoking a cigarette.
"So you've made it," he said. "Good. Is he close?"
"I don't know."
He murmured something, it might have been "stupid bitch," she wasn't sure.
"What now?" she asked, because there was again nothing else to do.
"Now we wait," he explained unexpectedly. "Maybe he'll pass by. In that case, we're home free. Or he'll find us. Then we fight."
"How?"
The corridor lights all went out suddenly, leaving her in complete, cold darkness. "To win."


Her cuts and bruises were bleeding profusely, she was dripping blood on the stone floor. He must have noticed -- after all, that was what he was about -- but didn't say a word. She sat down, far from him, just to the left of the entrance passage. Time took its time passing, curled in silence. How long? she wanted to know, but didn't dare ask any more. After a while, he got up, went to her, offered her a cigarette, lit it with his golden lighter.
"You've been… very brave," he said, an echo of already spoken words resounding down the darkened tunnel. "Very good."
He stepped back and turned to the wall, leaning on it with both hands. Something rustled in the back room. Alarmed, she got up as well, the burning cigarette still in her hand. Something whitish and indeterminate was entering the cave, crawling through the low passage. Slowly, like fog coalescing into a mirage, it straightened, and it was a human figure, of course. Female, perhaps, once, judging from the tattered white dress that hung from it in mouldy rags. It was impossible to see its face, because of the dark and the absurdity of it, half-rotten tissue like in a cheap horror.
"This is ridiculous," she said, casting an imploring glance to his turned back. The thing walked towards her, painfully, as her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and the special-effects appearance she saw earrings, small, intricate crosses with dimmed rubies in their centres, and choked. "No," she muttered, shaking her head. "No, no, no…"
The creature stopped a few paces before her, the relics of the nose sniffing. "I'm sorry…" it whined, and it seemed to mean it, too. "But I can't… resist…"
It took a surprisingly firm step towards her, claw-like hands reaching for her shoulders. She ducked, trying to find a way to escape. The long nails grabbed again, she used the hand with the cigarette to defend herself, the glow touched the parched skin and it hissed and started to smoke, eliciting a high, wailing sound from the creature. He turned with a gasp, in time to see the white form stagger, burning hand and sleeve flapping in panic. He cried out, a word in a foreign language or maybe a name, and ran towards the thing, but it staggered away from him, towards her, fell on its knees before her, looked up with surprisingly clear, lake-green eyes.
"Please," it whispered. "Please…"
It took her a moment to understand, but she'd seen enough late-night reruns to figure it out. Nodding, she went to him and stood between him and the smouldering thing on the floor.
"Your lighter."
"No."
"Fuck you, you egotistic sadist! Your lighter, I said!"
He shook his head, eyes helplessly glued to the smoke that was rising from the ancient wedding dress. "No…" he whispered, suddenly weak, falling to his knees. "No…"
Disgusted, she bent down and reached into his pocket. She found the lighter, pulled it out, lit it, tossed it at the form behind her. He threw his head back and keened, a dying deer with an arrow in his flank, then tried to fight his way towards the burning creature. She managed to hold him back for a while, then found herself pushed aside brutally, almost mindlessly. On her hands and knees, she turned to see, realising as she did that there was something wrong with her right arm, not caring very much about the fact.


He was struggling with the flames, flailing at them with his hands, but he was too late. Finally, she got up from where he'd pushed her, grabbed his shoulders, pulled him away with all her might. They rolled down, she felt his tears on her cheeks and chin. His fingers and face were singed, patches of skin falling off. They lay in silence for a while, breathing heavily, alive, then she asked in a whisper:
"Will you heal?"
He nodded wearily, as if disinterested, and rolled onto his back. The next question, "Will I?" died in her throat. Lying with his eyes closed, he looked like a body on an altar, perfection strangely unmarred even with the burns, an inversion of all the fairy-tales, the prince for once waiting for the princess. Vaguely uncomfortable, she sat up and undid the first few buttons of her shirt, pulling her hair away. The thing in white had burned down, the fire died.
"Here," she said softly, coaxingly. He looked at her, reached out a shaking hand towards her. She bent down to let him drink blood, sweat and tears, his, hers. When he let go, sniffing like a boy, she took a deep breath.
"That's what it was all about."
It wasn't a question, he didn't answer it.
"What did it to her?"
His eyes were closed again, his voice too, a low, narrow pathway leading to damp earths and hidden places that Hamlet would have liked, or at least his author. "The sun." After a moment, as a sort of explanation: "It takes a lot of blood… the sun."
"I see." She hesitated. "Would… I… have helped her?"
She saw his throat work before he answered her. So vulnerable, all at once.
"No. Kept her alive, that's all."
"And you think you loved her?" She shuddered. He sat up, took a cigarette from his pocket, toyed with it, put it in his mouth, took it out, crushed it in his fingers. Said nothing.
"Why couldn't you have just seduced me, tempted me down here with false promises? Why not give me at least a few lies, when you were ready to sacrifice me?"
Unexpectedly, he grinned, looking at her from behind his long, wet lashes. "You know, the nature of the beast." A small drop of blood was still on his lips, she wiped it off.
"I see. You bastard."
Like her, once, at the beginning, he answered her huskily: "Yes."
"And the guy outside?"
"Her brother."
She thought for a while. Smiled bitterly.
"You don't love me."
Silence.
"You want to die, now."
Silence, again.
"Fine. So that's that, right?"
He shrugged, that was all, and raised his head. A single, last ray of the sun impossibly fought its way through the low entrance, giving her the first look at his eyes. He squinted quickly, but it was enough: she remembered.
"Let's go," she said. "It's getting late."
She reached out a hand towards him. He got up without taking it, said her name. When she turned, his shirt was undone, the fingernails of his left hand poised just above his heart. He looked at her for a long time, wetting his lips once or twice. Asked, through a misty, dark hatchway, no corridor this time, the road so short, the other side so close: "Do you think you're ruthless enough?"



Somewhere, high up in the sky, the ghost of Vincent Price looked down on the unfinished story.

And smiled.