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40 Forty

    "It's the end of the story, today," I said.

    Dr. Parrish sat up straight, set aside his notebook and pencil. He would be itching to take notes, I knew, but he wouldn't today, and I appreciated it.

    "Go ahead," he said.

    I breathed in and out and tried to relax. I wanted to tell this story, and I wanted to do anything to keep from telling it. But I needed to hear myself say it, and today was the day.

    Keats and I celebrated his tenth year as a vampire alone. Will wanted to throw a party, but Keats and I had faded from the party scene years ago, and we had lost touch with almost everyone. Instead, we agreed to meet up with him over the weekend, just the three of us.

    But on the day of the anniversary, Keats and I wanted to celebrate alone. We went out to a movie, went bowling, pretended to be a normal young couple in a world of normal young couples.

    Keats allowed me to plan everything, went along with it, but the depression that seemed to have been creeping behind him since we met had closed its hands finally around his throat. He hardly breathed all night, hardly smiled.

    "Are you okay?" I kept asking.

    "Fine," he kept answering.

    In the light of the theater, his face looked dry and tight, like the skin of a dehydrated apple.

    Had I stopped insisting that he hunt with me? Sometimes I remember that I had, sometimes not.

    Sometimes I remember that night, and I'm sure that every body we passed must have been hell for him. Sometimes I wondered if my body was hell for him.

    As the sun rose, Keats and I slept in the bed we'd shared for ten years.

    When I woke up, hours before sunset, Keats was gone.

    At some point while Keats was working on his fourth family, his self-awareness overcame the thirst.

    His mind had blanked for the second time since he became a vampire. The first time, he'd been new and lacked the self-control that came with time. The last time, he hadn't fed, not a drop, in five weeks.

    I can picture him in that last house, his mouth around an artery, face and hands dripping with fifteen, sixteen, seventeen people's blood. I can see his stomach firm with it all, sloshing around inside and waiting to be absorbed into the rest of the body, to keep it moving, to keep it lifelike.

    I can see the drinking slow. I can see his eyes closing. I can see him dropping the body, stepping away, looking around at corpses, looking out the window and knowing there were more next door, and next door, and across the street.

    I can see him counting, recounting, wishing he had names to give them, glad that he doesn't know their names, glad that he's never met these people, afraid that the others watched as their family was sucked dry, afraid that they heard their neighbors scream, that they heard the screams getting closer, house by house, that they had gathered here in the largest bedroom so that they could feel safe, together.

    I would've run, sure that if I got far enough away, far enough separated from this, I could live my life as though it had never happened. I would be wrong, but I would've tried it, would've tried anything.

    Keats knew that running would do no good.

    Maybe he'd been running all the time, since the moment he first looked at a young woman and smelled her blood instead of her perfume.

    I can feel what he must have felt, the grief and horror and sickness fountaining inside. I would've run.

    Keats knew better. He knew that this second life had gone on long enough, and that he couldn't control it and couldn't live with what it forced him to do.

    He found a stainless steel butter knife in a china cabinet drawer and drove it into his chest, pounding his palm against the handle's end until it was flush with his skin, a line of steel through his heart, the tip of it poking out of his back.

    The reaction began at once. The skin swelled, and as the blood ran through the body, across the steel and infected cells, the infection continued into the rest of the body. Soon, pain and swelling and the liquid in his joints made him incapable of movement.

    But that's all I know for sure. I don't know if he was conscious in the next hours, when all the blood he'd ingested flowed from his chest. Or in the hours after that, when his bloodless body digested all its own liquids. Or in the hours after that, when his skin grew tight, when the incredible metabolism of the vampire began to digest his own muscles and bones for sustenance. And then his skin.

    The police came after neighbors reported breaking sounds and screaming. They went into the house across the street first, after the night and the morning and most of the afternoon had passed, when a friend realized that neither the man nor the woman had shown up for work, giving no explanation, and that the son, too, had been missing from school, and swore she saw blood through the dining room window.

    The other three houses were left alone for three days, until friends called in with similar

    concerns: missing from school, from work, and no word from anyone in the family.

    When the houses were opened, when gurneys were rolled in and out, in and out, every other house within miles locked up tight and hardly slept.

    Fifteen remarkably undamaged corpses. One mangled beyond recognition.

    Keats was gone.

    It was the worst thing that had ever happened, the most terrible thing the world had ever seen, and I couldn't cry. I screamed instead. Broke everything I could lift high enough to throw. Sobbed dry sobs. Roared an animal roar when anyone came near the house. Paced, growled, destroyed.

    I could see everything that happened. I replayed it again and again until it was as vivid as though I'd been there. I knew what pictures hung on the walls in that last house, what the children looked like, how the oldest one had new calluses on her fingertips because she was learning to play guitar, how the youngest had a Cabbage Patch doll with black, braided hair.

    I never felt for any living children the way I felt for those dead ones, not until Humphrey. But I felt for them because they saw the monster in an otherwise kind and honorable man. Kind and honorable. And every other beautiful word I can think of.

    Most of all, I see Keats, standing among the bodies, unable to accept what Will and I and every other vampire we knew had accepted within days of our transformation: the monster is not just within. The monster is not separate, is not containable or destroyable. We are the monsters.

    Will says that all human beings are monsters, but few ever have to face it.

    Keats couldn't.

    When I had broken everything there was to break, when I had cut long slashes on my thighs to watch them bleed someone else's blood, and cut them again when the slashes healed, when I hadn't slept or bathed or hunted in a week, Will found me. He had to break in the back window because I wouldn't open the door.

    I must have been terrifying-bloody, unwashed, half bald from ripping out my own hair as I slept, flicking a Bic lighter, trying to catch the carpet on fire. I was sobbing or screaming or growling, and I'm sure that when Will came in, I attacked him.

    But Will took me in his arms, and as always, always, held me, and whispered in my ear something I only half understood. All I remember now is the word, "hunt."

    So I hunted. I hunted at all times of day, women and men and children, barely registering their faces, hardly taking time to touch my lighter to their clothes before I hunted again.

    I grew strong. I ran between meals, feed and sprint, feed and sprint, until I was exhausted, then I slept wherever I was, devouring whoever woke me, whether policeman or social worker or potential thief. I slept, then fed and ran again.

    A cycle that seemed endless, but that never grew dull. And I never thought of stopping. I might never have stopped.

    But Will came again, again held me, again whispered, the voice forever in my head, "Come home, Annie."

    And I did.

    I went to Keats's and my little house, which Will had paid rent on for the year I spent wild in the city. Could it have been a whole year? He said it was, so it must have been.

    I went to the house, our house, and this time, I did get the carpet to catch fire. Carpet, then curtains, then furniture. Last, the sheets on our bed.

    I stood and watched until I was sure that every room would burn.

    I stood until the clothes on my body burned away and my flesh crackled.

    And I took nothing with me when I left, dropping even my lighter into the flames to hear the pop as the pressure changed, to see the burst of fire when the lighter fluid ignited.
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