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2008-06-24 | |
Vampires in the family Chapter 7 "The boy in the basement"
Keys. I needed the keys to the manacles so that I could release Emmanuel's hands. Where in the world did Mother keep them?
I tried to remember, tried to force myself to think. I'd seen her with them before. I could picture them in my mind; a flat, iron circle with three keys attached: one for the manacles, one for the leg shackles, and a third for the basement door. Mother kept the last one for whenever she had to kill the men. With it, she could lock the door and keep me from accidentally witnessing anything. She knew it upset me to see her slit their throats. It had ever since I'd been a little girl.
I tore through the kitchen first, thinking that maybe she kept them upstairs with the car keys, but no luck. Neither were they in her bedroom or in the closet with all the knick-knacks.
That left the next room on my list, which was also the most obvious place to search: the basement.
I didn't like going down into the basement. Don't get me wrong. I would occasionally go down there if I was searching for Mother, but other than that, I pretty much kept out.
It crept me out. The basement had a dirt floor where Mother buried the bodies of the men after she was done with them. Every time I took a step, I would wonder how many dead people I was walking over. The walls were made of gray stone, and, whenever the manacles were empty, I could see a dark, human-sized discoloration behind them. Since the manacles were bolted to the wall, I guessed that the sweat and blood of the various men had seeped into the stones over the years, forever staining it as a permanent reminder.
Right now, Emmanuel was dangling, pale and weak, in that exact same spot where so many other dead men had hung. But unlike Mother's other victims, Emmanuel was young. He was seventeen, only a year older than I was. Mostly, Mother attracted single, middle-aged men. I'd never seen her bring home anyone younger than thirty.
But that wasn't the most important fact. The thing that bothered me the most, the thing that was forcing me to tear apart the house, looking for the keys to release him, was the fact that I knew him.
The other men were strangers, people that I'd never met and never cared about. But Emmanuel was someone I'd talked to. I mean, jeez! I'd dated him, for heaven's sake! I didn't care about the strangers who died to keep Mother alive; I was okay with that, for the most part. Mother was more important to me than them.
But someone I knew?
No. No way. Mother would just have to find another man to take his place. Emmanuel wasn't going to die here.
I opened the basement door and ran down the stairs. I'd grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen, which I turned on as I descended. Unlike the rest of the house, Mother hadn't installed any lights in the basement. She was able to see perfectly in absolute darkness, better than any cat. Since she was so quiet, the men would never even know what was hurting them or when to expect it.
I had pretty good eyesight, even in the dark, but I wasn't nearly as good as Mother. To find something as small as the key ring, I needed electric light.
"Please," Emmanuel whispered as I reached the bottom of the stairs. "Help me."
"I said I would," I replied breathlessly as I looked around the room. On the far side of the room, away from the light beaming down from the open basement door, Mother had set up a workbench and tool cabinet.
She used many different implements to encourage the blood to drip out of her victim's veins. She'd needed a place to keep them, so she'd installed it herself.
I opened the first cabinet door and poked around inside. No good. This was where she kept the various bowls that she placed underneath the victim's wrist to collect the dripping blood. I started to go on to the next cupboard, but stopped midway as something caught my eye.
Sitting near the back of the shelf was a small, white bowl decorated with painted honeysuckle blossoms. It'd been my absolute favorite bowl when I was little. Mother would bring me down into the basement, sometimes, to get used to the idea of the men being there. Whenever she did that, I'd insist that she use the flowered bowl to collect the blood, because it was the prettiest.
I touched it with my fingers, feeling the coldness of the porcelain underneath my skin. It was still the loveliest bowl in the collection, I thought, before shutting the cabinet door and moving on to the next one. Still no luck there; those shelves were stacked with tourniquets and anticoagulants.
I methodically searched through all of the cabinets before going through the numerous, tiny drawers built into the stand of the workbench. Mother had all sorts of tools: knives, syringes, scalpels, IV drips, rubber tubing, and so much more.
Finally, in the second-to-last drawer at the bottom, I found the key ring.
I snatched it up and ran over to where Emmanuel was hanging. He moaned as I touched him and shifted a little. I saw a second wound that I hadn't noticed before, just behind the curve of his neck. It was bigger and nastier than Mother's usual cuts. There were streaks of red underneath his skin, all branching away from the wound. Mother hadn't even cleaned the lesion with antiseptic, as she usually did after she bled the men; that way, she could keep them healthy and alive for as long as possible. Instead, she'd allowed Emmanuel's wound to become infected.
She must have been a lot angrier with Emmanuel this morning than she let on.
"Hold on," I whispered. "I'll get you out of here."
I wasn't sure which one would open the manacles, so I picked the first key and inserted it into the slot.
Okay, then. I grabbed the second key and lifted it up to the lock. I was about to insert it when three things happened simultaneously:
Emmanuel moaned in terror.
A shadow stepped in front of the light from the doorway.
And I heard a voice, a very familiar voice, speak from behind me. "Sylvia? What on earth are you doing?"
Mother had finally come home.
I spun around, instinctively hiding the keys behind my back. It was stupid, of course; Mother had already seen them. I couldn't help myself. I didn't want to get in trouble.
"I..." I started.
She walked down the stairs and grabbed my arm, gently forcing it out in front of me. The iron key ring dangled damningly from my fingers.
She took it from me, and I let her have it without struggling. It wasn't like I'd get very far by doing so.
Very slowly, she dropped the keys into her pocket and stepped back, her face tight and unreadable. "Trying to let him out, Sylvia?"
"Mother, he's practically my age. He's just seventeen. He's way too young to be in here and -"
She interrupted me. "Were you trying to free him, Sylvia?"
I stopped my blathering explanation mid-sentence. "I...yes. Yes, I was."
She paused and I stood there, wondering what she was thinking. Mother stood in front of me, the light from the hallway shining behind her, outlining her figure like a silhouette. That obscured my vision of her a little, but I could still make out her basic features: her long, brunette hair that hung in natural curls; her sharp, pointed nose; her almond eyes and high-set eyebrows.
Not once in my life has anyone ever said that Mother and I look alike. On the occasions when we were out in public together and we were stopped by a teacher, or one of my friends, nobody ever referred to us as similar. And why would they? The only thing I had in common with Mother was my hair; I was also a brunette, but instead of my hair being dark and rich like hers, it was a mousy brown, thin and stick-straight. My nose was wide and flat, my eyes were way too big for my face, and I was already six inches taller than her. I stuck out like a sore thumb whenever I stood in line with my classmates. Only the school basketball team was taller than I was.
But even though we looked nothing alike, even though people often thought Mother was my elder sister, or my aunt, she was still the only parent I'd ever had. She was my mother and, in the course of a week, I'd almost betrayed her twice.
"Mother, I'm sorry, I really am," I said, lowering my head towards the dirt floor. I didn't care how many broken bodies were buried beneath my feet anymore. They'd died for Mother's sake. Who cared about them? At least Mother was still alive.
"Don't be," Mother said, lifting my head up so that I had to look her in the face. Her eyes were filled with understanding, compassion. She recognized why I'd tried to free him.
As though he knew I was thinking about him, Emmanuel groaned again and whispered, in his horridly wretched voice, "please."
I winced. I'd heard the sound of begging before from the basement, but never from a familiar voice.
"Can't we just let him go?" I asked her. "Just this once?"
She shook her head slowly, looking upset. "I can't, darling. He's seen too much. He'd report me, report us. We'd be put into danger."
"No, he wouldn't," I argued. "Emmanuel would promise not to. He'd keep his word. He'd have to!"
"I won't tell," Emmanuel rasped from beside me.
Mother glanced at him, her face growing cold at the sight of his sad, pale frame and his scared eyes. "I don't believe him," she said bluntly.
"He left you alone in the dark, Sylvia," she said. "He abandoned you to the dark, and everything, everything that I feared nearly came to pass. You met a vampire, darling. A vampire who, had he not been in a good frame of mind, could have killed you as easily as you can blink an eye.
"And not only that," she continued, her eyes so narrowed that I took a step back, afraid that she'd turn her glare onto me. "Not only was Byron in an excellent position for an easy hunt, but we had not parted on the best of terms. He had a more than sufficient reason to want to see me suffer.
"Believe me, Sylvia," she said, grabbing me by my shoulders so that she could look me in the eye. "the greatest, most effective means to torment me, to absolutely devastate me to my very soul, would be to injure my daughter."
"But I'm okay..." I whispered.
"You have no idea how lucky you were last night, Sylvia. You have no idea."
She hugged me, digging her face into my shoulder, her arms wrapping so tightly around me that I had trouble breathing.
I hugged her back, trying to give her comfort.
"It's okay," I murmured. "Everything's okay."
She let go of me, still keeping on hand protectively on my arm. "I know you are, darling, with no thanks to Emmanuel. His...negligence almost ended in disaster. I warned him. I told him all the rules. All he had to do was keep you entertained for a few hours before driving you safely home." She paused, her lip sneering as she looked at him. "He will pay for being so careless."
"Mother, please!" I begged, grabbing her hand. "Just let him go! Just this once. For me. Please?"
She paused, looking at me as the hallway light flowed behind her like a halo. "I'm sorry, Sylvia. Not this time. I know that he's young and that you know him, but it's too dangerous. He already broke his word to me once, risking your life in the process. I cannot trust him to keep our secret. Not this time."
She stared at me, her eyes searching mine for understanding, for forgiveness. "I am sorry, Sylvia. If you want, after I drain him, I can make his death painless, for your sake. Although," she turned towards Emmanuel, her fists clenched, "he doesn't deserve it."
I couldn't say anything. She wasn't going to change her mind. Emmanuel was going to die and I couldn't stop it. I couldn't do anything.
I pushed past Mother and ran up the stairs and through the hallway, up the main staircase and into my room. I slammed the door as loudly as I could behind me and threw myself into bed, weeping helplessly into my pillow.
What could I do? I could go back downstairs and argue with her, demand that she take her keys and open Emmanuel's manacles, but it wouldn't work. She'd made her decision. As much as she said she regretted it, she'd never change her mind. I knew her. As much as I loved Mother, she was incredibly, unbendingly stubborn. Arguing wouldn't work.
And she'd already caught me once trying to free him. She'd keep a closer eye on me now to make sure I didn't try it again. There was no way. I couldn't free him. He was doomed and it was all my fault. Why hadn't I been faster to find the key? Why hadn't I hurried?
A fresh wave of despair washed over me and I pulled the soaking pillow tighter against my face as the tears, endless tears, drenched the soft cotton with their unceasing flow.
He was going to die. I'd never felt more useless in my life.
Opening my mouth, I began to sob, the sound audible in the room even though I tried to muffle it with my pillow.
"I see your mother told you the news."
I jerked up so suddenly that I pulled a muscle in my back. Spinning my head around, I could only gape as I saw Byron standing casually in my room, leaning against the wall like he had every right to be there.
"Wh-what?" I managed to ask, choking down a sob. Still trying to get a grip on things, I grabbed a tissue from the box on my bedside table and wiped my eyes.
"I can only imagine that you are crying sweet tears due to the fact that your mother, for some inexplicable reason, refused to let me move into the house. In fact, she spent the last hour finding me a suitable habitat within the city, after being persuaded that I would not, in fact, consider moving on to a different part of the country. It's as though she doesn't want me around or something." He rolled his eyes, as if mocking the very notion of such a crazy idea.
"However, there is very little one can do within an empty domicile, so shortly after your mother left to return to her home, I decided to follow, if only to see how my favorite granddaughter is doing."
He smiled at me, his white teeth glinting in the artificial light. "I can only assume that your mother informed you that I would not be staying here, thus rendering you inconsolably sad." He swooped down onto the bed, throwing his arms around me in an exuberant gesture of comfort. "But you needn't fret, granddaughter. I'm here now. Be comforted."
I was so upset that I didn't even mind that he was holding me. Emmanuel's fate was too heavy on my mind. "I'm not crying over you," I explained, grabbing another tissue so that I could blow my nose.
Just as quickly, Byron removed his arms and sat back on my bed, although he still looked at me with an expression of compassion.
"Then what in the world are you sobbing over, if not for my housing arrangements?"
"It's Emmanuel," I managed to choke out, trying not to burst into tears again at the name.
"Emmanuel, Emmanuel..." Byron said, mulling over the word. "You don't mean that funny little boy from last night?"
"Yeah," I sniffed.
"Ah, yes. I was there when your mother hunted him down. It was a rather easy capture, no challenge at all."
"You saw that?" I cried, fresh tears coming to my eyes.
"Of course. I needed to talk to your mother anyway - plead my case, if you will, as to why she should allow me to stay in the family home - but she flew out the door the moment the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. I wasn't done trying to convince her, so I accompanied her on the hunt, and tried again as she dragged him back here to the basement."
He paused, idly amusing himself with his thoughts. "She's a rather vicious creature, isn't she? The boy won't last a week if she insists on stabbing him that deeply. All the blood will go to waste, which in itself is a tragedy of epic proportions."
He looked at me from the corner of his eye, speculation written on his face. "Could it be that you are weeping your pretty little heart out over that sad specimen of humanity? Based on what I saw of your interaction last night, I can't imagine that you two were so close."
"We're not," I protested. "It's just that...well, I know him! And he's so young, he's practically my age, and...."
"But that's not it at all," Byron interrupted, leaning in closer. "Is that really what you've convinced yourself? While those are certainly good reasons, by themselves, for having sympathy for that young man, I don't believe that those are the real motivation behind your tears."
I blinked at him. "Of course they are. Why would I lie about something like that?"
He smiled and patted me on the head like I was a toddler or a friendly dog. "You can tell me what's in your heart, Sylvia. After all, I'm your grandfather."
It was really, really weird to hear a man with a 21-year-old body call himself my grandfather. Nobody's grandfather should have a face like a Calvin Klein model. It was just wrong.
His words got to me, however, and I sat back, still holding my sodden pillow. What was I really upset over? I mean, it sucked that he was so young, and the fact that I'd known him prior to Mother capturing him added a whole layer of badness over the entire situation, but maybe Byron was right. Maybe there was another reason, a deeper reason why I really, really didn't want Emmanuel to die.
"I guess..." I whispered.
"Yes?" Byron encouraged.
"I guess because it's my fault."
"Well, I'm the idiot who opened her big mouth to Mother about Emmanuel!" I said. "I told her exactly what happened without even explaining Emmanuel's side, so of course she was angry! Of course she wants to kill him!" I shook my head, not looking at Byron. "If I'd just stayed quiet, or at least brushed over the whole thing, then Emmanuel wouldn't be down there."
I sniffled, trying to keep from crying again like a big baby. "If Emmanuel...dies, if Mother kills him, then it'll be all my fault."
My heart began to pound as I spoke the words, the true reason why I'd taken Emmanuel's capture so hard. If he died, I'd be the guilty one. His death would be on my conscience.
"And this upsets you?"
"Well, yeah. Of course."
Byron wrinkled his eyebrows in confusion. "But you'll be responsible for many more deaths than that when you become a vampire. Why let this one bother you?"
I stared at him. "Wait. What?"
"Well, you'll certainly need a fresh supply of blood, and one man a week won't support both you and Octavia. Eventually you'll have to do your hunting on your own, although I imagine your mother would help you at first."
"Wait a minute," I said. "I'm not going to become a vampire."
Byron stared at me like I'd just announced I was going to cut off my own arm. He looked as if I'd just said the craziest thing on the planet, like I'd gone absolutely insane.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Well," I shrugged. "I'm not gonna be one. I don't want to, and Mother would never make me. We talked about it. She knows how I feel."
"But...what about immortality? What about the gifts of strength and beauty?"
I shook my head. "I don't care about that. It's not worth hurting people over. Mother needs to do it to survive and I don't mind that, but I'm not going to kill anyone. Not if I can help it."
Byron's jaw literally dropped. He looked like he'd been run over by a train.
He blinked a few times, getting his bearings, and then he turned to me and smiled with a new, obvious appreciation.
"I can see that coming here was an excellent decision on my part," he announced. "I am going to enjoy getting to know you, young Sylvia. Very much so."
"Um, okay," I said.
"And," he continued, "now that you've so considerately explained your feelings to me, I will help you in your quest to save Emmanuel from certain death."
"Oh my gosh! Really?" I breathed, unable to believe my ears.
"Of course, young Sylvia. After all, I have in my repertoire certain...talents that could be used to improve his situation."
He was going to talk to Mother. Of course! He knew her from long before I'd been around; he knew different angles to persuade her, to make her see things my way.
Maybe with both him and me against her killing Emmanuel, maybe she would change her mind and set him free.
For the first time since Mother had caught me in the basement, I felt a ray of hope.
"Thank you! Oh my goodness, thank you so much!" I said.
He chuckled and, once again, patted me on the head, although this time I didn't mind it as much. "It's no trouble at all, granddaughter. I'll just go see what I can do."
He got up and left the room. I threw my pillow aside and took a deep breath. I couldn't just patiently wait here to see what Byron could do, but I didn't want to follow him, in case he decided I was bothering him by hanging around too much. He was my best chance of getting Emmanuel free and I didn't want to risk it.
I glanced at the phone, wishing Micah would call. I really wanted to talk to him. I couldn't tell him everything, of course, but I could go around the truth and just say that Mother was really angry at Emmanuel and she wasn't seeing reason and....
No, I couldn't do that. The whole reason why Micah was mad at me in the first place was because I'd gone on the blind date with Emmanuel. To mention him again, so soon after our fight, would just be stupid.
Shoulders sinking, I wandered out of my room and down the hallway, eventually heading into the library. The room was really big, stacked floor to ceiling with bookshelves. Comfortable couches sat in the middle of the floor, with tiffany lamps and varying degrees of lighting to make for the best possible reading environment.
I picked out a book - some nonfiction thing on medieval weaponry that at least had plenty of pictures - and sat down on the couch to wait.
Maybe everything would be all right. Maybe Emmanuel would be okay.
The grandfather clock in the corner ticked unceasingly, the sound reminding me of heartbeats, of Emmanuel's heartbeat that could, at any minute, suddenly stop cold.
"Donâ€™t think about it," I whispered to myself and forced myself to concentrate on my book.
Byron's intervention would work. It had to. Mother would be made to see reason and set him free.
Suddenly, the grandfather clock gonged, again and again, each boom resounding loudly in my ears.
It sounded like a death knell.
Forcing myself not to worry, I bent over my book and concentrated. Everything was going to be okay.
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