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12 Twelve

    Will's apartment vibrated with bodies. People stood, sat, leaned, lay, and walked on every surface but the ceiling, which was annoyingly out of reach.

    I used to walk through all the rooms when I got to Will's, see who had shown up, which bedroom had turned into a strobe-lit orgy, and whether Will had given up serving his disgusting cocktails.

    Two steps into the living room, and I knew all the answers. Everyone, the larger of the two (the door to the smaller bedroom stood open, and I could see someone dealing cards), and no.

    Will was standing in the far corner of the living room, one arm resting on a shelf of a full dark oak bookcase. His back was to me as he talked with someone I couldn't clearly see, and I thought that if I hurried and inserted myself in a subgroup, he could think that I'd gotten here on time.

    A group clustered around Lydia and lemur-eyes Kevin in the dining room, so I went to join them. I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen Lydia or Kevin or any of the faces around them, but we'd all been tight once, back in the day.

    Lydia saw me walk over, and her smile held surprise and more welcome than I'd expected. I never thought that I would be missed from this clan.

    They were a smushed-together group, each trying to get a look at whatever Lydia was holding, and they all made ooh and ahh noises that might not have been out of place in most of the world, but which were never heard at a vampire birthday party.

    "Want to see?" Lydia handed me Kevin's wallet. In the picture in the little plastic sleeve, a pudgy baby reached out with fisted hands and stared at me. Its wide eyes and mouth looked ready to suck on anything that came near. I shivered.

    "How...." I pointed to Lydia, then to Kevin.

    "Oh, we adopted," she said, beaming.

    Oh, man. "It's human?"

    She nodded.

    Telepathy is a funny thing. Sometimes you really wish you could have it (the first time you sleep with someone, college exam week, whenever politicians speak), and other times, you know what everyone's thinking without having it. At the moment, their minds broadcasted with the clarity and sound of professional equipment: "What the **?"

    But they stayed silent beyond their oohs and ahhs, content to let Lydia and Kevin do whatever they wanted. They had their own worries. But then, they probably didn't have to make themselves show up tonight. They weren't shaking dead memories awake. They weren't still preoccupied with the thought of biting their therapists.

    Despite all that, I was the only one who said it aloud.

    "What the **? How did you get someone to agree to that? You know you have to feed it right? God, what's going to happen when you wake up thirsty and no one's around to watch it? One of you watches it while the other hunts? Hope you don't get too desperate in the meantime.

    What about when it grows up? Won't it notice that you haven't gotten any older in its entire life? You going to keep moving around, changing its schools, so that no PTA mom gets suspicious and decides to swipe at you with a steel knife just to make sure you're not disciples of the dark prince?"

    After I stopped talking, I realized I'd been a little loud, and I now had the attention of half the apartment. Not Will's though. He was still in the corner in deep conversation with someone's breasts.

    "We've thought about all that," Lydia said, her voice defensive.

    But she hadn't thought about it. It was Lydia. She hadn't thought about anything, and now she had an infant, for as long as she could keep it alive. Surely there would be social services people checking in now and then, to make sure the thing was being fed and changed and entertained with moronic goobling words, wouldn't there?

    I leaned in close to her. "It's just a baby, Lyd. Why don't you give it away before you break it? You know how upset that would make you."

    Her voice wavered when she answered. "But I want to be a mom."

    She looked near tears, and I knew she was glad, as I had been on several occasions, that crying in public was no longer something she had to worry about.

    But she wanted to be a mom. What do you say to that? You'd be a lousy mom, totally screw up whatever chance the kid has of a normal life, even if you don't eat him before he's grown?

    "I'm sorry," I said.

    Kevin helped her to her feet, and they left.

    I should check up on them in a couple of days, I thought. They would get rid of it. They knew it was the right thing to do. No decent creature likes killing babies.

    It's a shame that when the vampire in us robbed us of the ability to have kids, it didn't also rob us of that need to love and nurture something. But Lydia would be okay. She would buy a plant.

    The rest of the oohing and aahing crowd dissipated into other parts of the party after that, none of them wanting to talk to me. I wondered if they would hold it against me permanently. I found that I didn't care.

    Will had said he would invite Hyuck-Joo, and I didn't doubt that he had invited him, but Hyuck-Joo still hadn't shown up. I wasn't surprised. He was already starting to fade from the crowd when I stopped coming. Disturbing how much the vampire community resembled high school, with its shifting cliques and transfers of power that meant nothing because none of us had any.

    Will had also promised to talk to me during the party, but it was three hours before he finally made his way over to me in the kitchen, where I stood examining his refrigerator magnets and wondering exactly how magnetism worked-something I'm sure I was taught once and forgot, if I understood it to begin with.

    "Do you think there's a connection," I asked when Will entered the kitchen, "between the magnetism of magnets and Hyuck-Joo not being here?"

    "Yes," he said. "Want to try my new creation?" He took a pitcher from the freezer, stirred it, poured a glass, and lifted it up. "Frozen daiquiris!"

    "How is it different from a Bloody Mary?"

    "No celery," he said.

    "Sounds good."

    "And a prettier glass."

    I took it from him and sipped it. "Disgusting," I said. "But, an improvement. Happy birthday, by the way."

    He glanced around to make sure no one heard, then said, "Thanks."

    I followed him back into the living room and sat with him on the squishy sofa.

    "Speaking of strange connections, I have a new conspiracy for you," Will said.

    "Great! It's been awhile. Does this one have ogres and beams of heavenly light and secretly programmed DNA and eerie coincidences?"

    "Just eerie coincidences. And maybe the eeriest ones yet." Then he was serious. "I've been thinking about it for awhile. Annie, look at us," he said, gesturing at all the people in the room, all with their pale skin, their tinge of shadow under their eyes, as though they didn't sleep well. I wondered if that's what he meant. Then I started thinking about how few non-vampires there were here tonight. I guessed that only two or three of the people I could easily see were cows, though of course, I couldn't know for sure without asking them. Still, they looked too tan to be nightwalkers.

    Only three. Supply must be getting low.

    I looked back at him and shrugged. Will's parties always looked like this, like a gathering of slightly ill people drinking dark cocktails.

    "We're young," he said. "We're all young."

    "So?" I asked, tracing the lines on the sofa with my fingertips.

    "So becoming a vampire doesn't reverse the aging process. You were eighteen when it happened, weren't you? Did you get younger after it happened, develop knobbly knees and acne?

    Neither did I. No one did. But there are none of us, none that I've seen among any vampire group, ever, who was younger than fifteen or older than twenty-seven when they changed."

    "Geez, Will. Is this what you've been working on when you put on your little lab coat and disappear for days at a time? It's the judges, of course. They've controlled the process for as long as anyone knows."

    "Not as long as anyone knows," Will said. "The judges have only been in power for two hundred years or so. That's nothing."

    "So there's a vampire conspiracy," I said in my shady undercover agent voice.

    "Maybe," he said, unsure now, turning on the sofa so that he faced the rest of the room, not only me.

    "Vampires were created by an evil scientist to make a bloodthirsty young army for his own dastardly plans."

    "Stop," he said. "Don't make fun of this."

    "But we turned against him, and now we secretly rule the world through mind control devices in potted plants in the office of every president and prime minister and dictator on earth."

    He was glaring at me now.

    I thought he might be really angry, so I only added, "Kim Jong Il is not going to be happy about this. He's going to have to get rid of his yucca," then stopped.

    Will seemed to want to keep glaring in silence, but he really wanted to talk about this, I could tell. And I realized that I was probably the only person with whom he'd shared these ideas. There were much smarter vampires out there, and there were a freaking plethora of vampires who were more interested in conspiracy theories than I was. But there weren't many vampires Will trusted.

    "So what you're wondering," I said, leaning further into the back of the sofa, pretending that I had never mentioned Kim Jong Il, "is where all the older vampires are."

    Will struggled with it, deepened his glare, then gave in. "Right. Or, sort of right. I can accept that people who don't fit into the age range might just not survive the process. I can see how there might be a part of the brain or of our DNA that allows our age group to accept the change, and I'm sure there are exceptions out there. I don't have proof that that's the reason we're all young, and I may never have proof, but that's enough of an answer to let me sleep at night."

    I tried not to snort.

    "Okay, sleep at day. Whatever. But what really bugs me is where all the older vampires are."

    I stared at him. Hadn't I just said that?

    "Two hundred years," he said, and I understood. The older vampires. Not older when they were turned, but older in our terms, vampires who had been vampires for more than just a decade or two.

    No one knew how old the judges were, but there were only twenty of them. Or, there were twenty of them according to other vampires, none of whom had any firsthand knowledge of the judges. But the age thing, that was something to think about. Of the dozens of other vampires I'd met, not one of them was more than two hundred years old. Even if all the judges were ancient, which was what most of us assumed, there should still be many, many more ancient vampires.

    "You think the judges killed them all," I said.

    Will's eyes went wide. "No," he said, leaning toward me and glancing out into the crowd. "Fuck, Annie. Are you nuts? Don't say things like that out loud. And no, actually, that thought hadn't occurred to me."

    I thought about that. "You think that's the end of our natural life span? About two hundred years? And the judges aren't ancients?"

    He nodded. "Maybe. Or maybe a thousand other explanations." Will paused and sighed, pressing the back of his head into the squishy sofa. "You know," he said, "until a few years ago, when I first started noticing this, I had been really looking forward to some answers."

    "Answers?" I asked. Someone across the room said something over the music, and everyone around him laughed.

    "Who built the pyramids? Was there really an Atlantis? How did it all start-was the first vampire really the Indian goddess Kali? Or was it something else, some genetic mutation or virus that we haven't yet detected?"

    "You know what I wondered about for years after I became a vampire?" I asked.

    Will shook his head.

    "Whether male blood and female blood really tasted different or if it was just my imagination."

    He laughed, but I didn't. I wanted, weirdly, to cry. I felt like something had been lost. And I wasn't sure if it was because I'd never thought to ask those questions, or if it was because now I knew there was no point in asking them. God, had I never thought about any of this at all? Had I been so overwhelmed with the coolness of what I was that I never asked the hard questions, the good questions?

    But when I remembered how so much of my vampire life had passed-with whom I'd passed it-I felt a little better. I'd been in love for ten of those years, and grieving for five more.

    But I still didn't know if it was grief or a new awareness of my self-centered, uninquisitive nature that made me want to crawl under the coffee table and hide there until everyone left.

    "But now," he was saying, "Now, Annie, I know there's no one who can tell me anything about the past. I might talk to someone who knew Dickens, but that's about all I can hope for."

    "And Dickens is pretty dull," I mumbled.

    "Right," he said.

    Could those ancient vampires have told me something about the meaning of existence? Particularly, why I was so happy to be miserable and had no plans to try to emerge from the goo of that misery? I mean, I was pretty sure that if I ever did pull myself out of the muck, I'd be a better creature than I was before. I would've evolved.

    But there's something about near-immortality that just makes decisions like that impossible-do I grieve for another day, another year, or do I decide that this un-life is precious, too precious to waste in wallowing? And do you ever make a decision like that, anyway? Or do you just keep doing what you're doing and one day realize that you've already swum up and out of the muck and are now working on Wall Street and taking out a second mortgage on your McMansion? Who could tell me if any of that was true? No one, I thought. But if someone knew, if anyone could tell me, I had an idea who might.

    "You could ask the judges," I said. "Maybe they know about Atlantis and the pyramids and vampire history, though if it really is a genetic mutation or a disease, I doubt they'd tell you that."

    He grinned at me. "Can you imagine that? 'I'd like to request an audience with the judges.

    My reason? Well, I just don't think that entire countries usually sink into the ocean without help.' They'd probably jab a steel bar through my chest for asking."

    I flinched before I had time to consider that I shouldn't. And all other thoughts-all other ponderings about the judges and what they could tell me, or what questions I should be asking-every thought drowned itself in that part of my mind that had been screaming for years, until that's all I heard in my head. Screams.

    "I'm sorry, Annie," he said, his voice soft. He put a hand over mine, and it was larger and older-looking than a twenty-year-old's hand should be, as though the wisdom of Will's sixty years was housed there.

    I opened my mouth to tell him what I was thinking about because suddenly there was a thought there, an image to go with my mind's unstoppable radio, but then I realized, I'd told him this story before. I couldn't remember when, but sometime in our near-twenty years as friends, I'd told him everything.

    Maybe one of the first stories I told him was that I was ten when my grandfather died of a stroke. My grandfather had been magnificent-tall and strong and willing to listen to endless inane stories about my school friends.

    When my parents told me that he had passed away, I didn't know what to do. I paced. I tried to distract myself by kissing Tony Edwards behind the high school band hall. I put my hands over my ears whenever my parents talked about Granddad or about the funeral or about Grandma, who was alone now.

    I was opening my math book on my desk at school when it hit me, that he was gone from me forever.

    So many tears came, so fast, that I was drenched before I made it to the classroom door.

    I spent two days at home in bed, sobbing, enduring the glasses and glasses of water my mother left on my nightstand.

    And when it was finally over, when I had cried out every tear my body held and when I had exhausted every muscle with my sobs, I slept without dreaming all night and half the next day. And when I woke up, I could think about him again. I could remember him. It still made me want to throw myself off the roof, but I could hear their plans for the funeral and pick out my dress and open my math book again.

    But when (I wasn't saying anything; Will was looking into my face now, looking horrified, looking as dejected as he had on the day it happened) Keats died, I had no tears, no Tony Edwards. I sobbed, but my tear ducts were dry, empty. I never felt more dead than I did then.

    But, I remembered, it had been Will who had given me the solution, and Will who saved me from the solution he gave.

    So I gripped the hand he gave me and said, "Don't worry about it. Tell me more about your theories. Who killed JFK?"

    Will ignored his guests for an entire hour, told me who he thought had killed JFK, plus what he really thought about the moon landing, the CIA, and this one brand of imported beer.

    And I told him what Lydia and Kevin had done, and what I'd said to them, which was far more interesting to him than the JFK assassination was to me.

    "So they're really going to find the kid another home?" he asked.

    "Sure, they are," I said, clasping my hands so he couldn't see that they shook. "They just needed someone to help them see how crazy an idea it was."

    He got this look on his face that I recognized because I'd made that face before, more often to Keats than to Will, and more often accompanied by the explanation, "Wow, you're naïve for a vampire."

    "I'll check up on them in a couple of days," I said. "Just to be sure."

    Will nodded. "I know a couple who take in foster kids, in case they haven't found anyone yet."

    I nodded, too, paused, and said, "Do you think it's crazy for them to want a kid?"

    Will stared out into the party of people that we'd nearly forgotten as we talked. "Of course not. It makes sense, doesn't it, Annie? Every other creature lives to produce offspring. Every other kind of being can. But us...well, we're a genetic dead-end, aren't we? We aren't meant to exist."

    "God, that's depressing. I just wanted to know if you ever wanted kids of your own."

    He gave me a half-chuckle, half-sigh. "Sure. But I can't imagine that any vampire would make a decent adoptive parent."

    "Few of us even have pets."

    "Right. I should get back to hosting, Annie."

    "Of course."

    "Are you going to be around for awhile?"

    "Of course."

    He tilted his head and looked at me the way you look at a stack of dishcloths when someone tells you it's art.

    He went back to the crowd, and I went straight for the door.
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