Kyle knew that by the end of the week he would either kill someone or die.
He'd been on the streets for two weeks, keeping to back alleys to minimize the chance that he'd run into another person, but there was no getting away from the scent of blood. He smelled it everywhere. The closer he was to that scent, the colder he felt, and the hungrier he became.
Two weeks now since it all started. Two weeks of fighting the urge. A third week wasn't in the cards. In a few more nights, it would all be over, one way or another.
He crouched in an alley, staring at his hands. The skin was so pale it was nearly transparent. His joints felt stiff, and his fingers had started to curl in. His nails looked like they might split. His stomach twisted and his veins screamed, and he knew exactly what would put a stop to it.
Just a little would help, he thought. I could take just a little without really hurting someone. But he knew it wasn't true. Once he started, he wouldn't be able to stop. If he closed his eyes, he could just imagine what it would taste like when it hit his tongue...
"You look lost."
A woman's voice made him jump. Someone had snuck up on him. He should have smelled her coming from fifty yards, but somehow she had no scent at all. She was completely blank, even now, while less than five feet away.
This strange, blank woman was on the short side, most of her form obscured by a heavy fur coat with a hood. He saw pale blue eyes and a few stray strands of brown hair. Her voice was soft but husky.
"You look lost," she said again.
"I know where I am." He hunched, ducking his head. His voice sounded like a sputtering engine.
"Are you sure about that?" She took down the hood of her coat, and Kyle saw her face; hard lines etched on pale skin. Too pale to be normal.
He scooted back on his knees. "I don't want any trouble. If this is your turf I'll leave. I didn't know." He tried to stand, but halfway up he stumbled and almost fell. The woman made a clucking noise with her tongue.
"You poor thing, just look at you. You're starving, aren't you?"
"Nothing to worry about," he said. It was hard to talk with his head pounding, and his words came out slurred. He had no idea who this woman was, but he wanted away from her, far away. The only thing that made him more uncomfortable than the thought of being around a normal human being was the thought of being around another person like him. Unfortunately, it appeared he wasn't in any shape to make a quick getaway.
The woman knelt next to him and touched his face with fingers that felt like glass. "You're new," she said. "You must be, or I'd recognize you. You're new and you don't know what to do. When did it happen?"
There was something strange about the way she talked. He realized that her breath wasn't clouding like it should on a cold night like this.
"When did what happen?"
"When did you die? That's always how it starts. You die and then for some reason you wake up again and things are never the same. Everyone has their story about how they died."
"Car accident," he muttered. "Two weeks ago." The faint smell of blood wafted by the other side of the alley. Someone must have walked by. Both of them darted their eyes in that direction.
"Two weeks," she repeated. "Just a baby. A poor, helpless baby."
"I'm not helpless," he said. He really wanted her to stop touching him. He tried to push her away, but his arms didn't want to move.
"The beginning is always the hardest. Let me help. I know where we can go."
He opened his mouth, but the only thing that came out was a gargling noise. She slid a skinny arm under his and lifted him as though he weighed nothing, like picking up an empty bag. He leaned on her, and she felt solid and rigid, like a post.
"I'm Erica," she said..
"Kyle? You don't look like you could be more than twenty years old."
"Were. You were twenty one. Now you're not anything. You'll get used to the idea." She was half-pulling, half-carrying him through the alley.
"Where're we going?"
"Somewhere we can get help."
"...rica," was all he managed, and at that point he must have blacked out, because the next thing he knew he was somewhere else.
It was still dark and cold, but the air smelt stale, and there was no more breeze, so he thought he must be inside. He was lying on his back on a mattress, and although it was pitch black he knew he wasn't alone, because he could hear voices, dozens of whispering voices.
One of them spoke up. It was Erica: "Kyle? Are you awake?"
"Yes," he said. It was almost all he could do now to talk. He felt like he'd swallowed his tongue. He tried to turn his head around, but couldn't. "Where are we?" he asked.
"Somewhere safe, which is the best you could hope for in your condition." Erica said. "You're lucky I found you, and that I'm the compassionate type. Drink this, it's fresh."
A scent filled his nostrils, raw and red. She was pressing a cup to his lips. He tried to turn away. "Drink!" she said again. "You need it. You're dying. You won't last until dawn."
"Don't...want," he said, with difficulty.
The voices in the dark laughed. Erica's reply was gentle but firm: "Don't be stubborn. You won't save anyone by turning it down."
"We won't let it go to waste," said one of the voices. There was more laughter, and Erica shushed them.
"Drink," she said, pushing the cup to his lips again, and although he wanted to turn away, he didn't have the strength. Blood flowed, thick and hot, into his mouth.
It didn't taste at all like he'd imagined; it was ripe and earthy, a taste that made him think of dark places underground, or of fruit that had grown soft underneath the peel. No sooner had he swallowed a mouthful than he felt it spreading through him, so hot that he thought it would burn him inside.
Feeling began to return to his extremities almost immediately, and the throbbing pain in his head faded into a distant ache. He sat up, but became dizzy as soon as he did.
"Careful! The first time is a lot to handle. Go slowly."
Kyle heard a splashing noise, and the cup was at his lips again. The longer he stared into the darkness, the easier it was for him to see, and he could now make out Erica's silhouette, a shadow somehow more substantial than those around it.
He drank, trying not to think about he was doing. When the cup was empty, he was able to sit up, and after a third he was strong enough to stand, but Erica chided him to relax, pushing him back down onto the mattress. It was only at this point that he realized he was naked.
"Feeling better already?" she said. "You've been through so much. Let me take care of you. You deserve to have someone to look after you, for a little while."
One of her hands was on his bare chest, and he flinched to feel how cold it was, so much colder than a moment ago. It's because now I'm warm again, he realized. Erica must have noticed his reaction, because he saw her raise the cup to her own lips, and as she drank her touch became first warm, then hot. Her cold skin grew smooth and soft, and now he could smell her, the aroma of blood mingling with her natural scent.
"Is that better?" she whispered, rubbing her hands down his chest. She was leaning against him, her body draped over his, and he wasn't surprised to find that she was naked too. The other voices were murmuring, to themselves or to each other, sounding excited.
Her lips touched his, and he tasted blood on them, and on her tongue. He'd read about "hungry" kisses, but this was the first time he realized what that meant, as Erica's mouth seemed intent on consuming him. Her tongue darted forward, then drew back. Her lips were soft, teasing, pressing down fully for only half a second before drifting away.
Her hands moved over him, and her fingertips had been dipped in the blood, tracing lines of it down his bare chest. She teased lower, then drew her hands back, giggling as he squirmed. The scent was everywhere, so heavy he thought it might suffocate him.
Kyle's head was swimming again now. Not the beleaguered misery of near-starvation that he had felt only an hour ago, but now a headiness and impulsiveness stemming from his recovery. His mind, his senses, and most notably his body, had been dying, slowly, over the course of days, but now they were all alive again, overwhelmingly alive, and he felt as though he'd been plunged into an ocean of sensations.
He wanted to feel the extreme most verge of everything: He wanted to wrap his arms around this woman and embrace her so hard she was crushed. He wanted to lick the very last drop of blood from her lips. He wanted to feel her fingers claw his body until the flesh was stripped.
He had stopped caring where he was, who she was, or what was going on. He had been exiled from the world, and now that he was back, mind and body craved stimulation to the exclusion of everything else.
Erica swung one leg over his hips, straddling him, then pinned his shoulders. Kyle wasn't sure if he was still weak or if she was just bizarrely strong, but he felt trapped. He wrapped his hands around her forearms, struggling, his attempts half serious and half playful. She seemed amused.
In one quick motion she leaned down and sank her teeth into the side of his neck. He gasped and moaned in response, and the voices in the darkness all laughed in concert.
"She's opened the poor dear up," said someone nearby. "Get him a refresher before she eats him up completely!"
Erica took his hand by the wrist, pressing it to the neck wound (it was steady, but she hadn't opened an artery), and soon his fingers and palm were coated with hot blood.
"Touch me," she said. "Here." She guided his wrist to the curve of her hip, letting him trace the slope of it. In the dark he could imagine the crimson smear on the white canvas of her skin.
"Touch me," she said again. "Touch me here," she pressed his hands to the hollow of her throat, her tongue darting out to lap a few red drops from his fingertips.
"And here," she pushed his hand lower. Her petite, perfectly formed breasts were tender and inviting, nipples swollen and alert. He imagined the bleeding stain he left behind crowning the tip of each.
"Touch me here," she said, and he did.
"Now here," she said, and he did.
"Touch me everywhere," she said, and he did.
"Do you feel it?"
"Feel what?" he said. His voice was shaking.
"The connection. Us. Our bodies. The blood. In you, in me, on you, on me. Before we were empty vessels, and now we're full, full of life, the same life in you and in me. The same life in two different bodies. Do you feel it?"
Whispers in the dark. The crowd, whoever they were, were very close now.
"Do you feel it?" she asked again.
"Yes," he said. And he did.
She threw herself down on top of him, lips bound together, and now she didn't draw away from his kiss. He held her so close that even he eventually forgot the line between her body and his. The entire night they were together, one thing, one being, sharing life, sharing their selves.
In the dark, the others whispered..
Kyle woke to find he was alone.
It was pitch black and he felt something on top of him. He put his hands up and they encountered crinkly plastic; a tarp. He pushed it aside, and winced at the tiny amount of light that was leaking through the windows overhead. It was just barely sundown.
He must have fallen asleep, and they had covered him with the tarp to keep him safe from the sun. But where were they? In the half light, he saw that he was, and apparently had been the whole time, on the floor of an empty warehouse. Other than the tarp and the mattress, there was nothing else here.
Where the hell are my clothes? he wondered.
His body felt sticky and it was uncomfortable to move. It took him a second to realize it was because he was still covered in blood! It had dried to a hard crust on skin, and the smell had turned sour. He gagged.
Get it together, he thought. First he would find his clothes, then he would get cleaned up, and after that he would start worrying about what the hell happened last night and who that woman was, who any of those people were. Right now just deal with the simple stuff.
He found his clothes neatly folded by the door. Although the warehouse was empty, it was apparently not abandoned, because he could see the remains of a new, expensive-looking lock nearby, broken into pieces.
And he saw something else too. A shape on the floor, in the corner furthest from the light...
Of course, he knew what it was before he even turned it over. The corpse's face was broad and fat, sallow flesh bunched up around the neck, with watery blue eyes and a pinched nose beneath a receding hairline. It was the kind of face that made Kyle think of substitute teachers in high school.
He stared at the dead man for a full ten seconds, wondering what to do, and then he checked the man's pockets, helping himself to the hundred and twenty dollars in his wallet while being careful not to look at the ID.
He left the warehouse through the broken door and found a gas station with a bathroom a few blocks away. There, with cold water and toilet paper, he cleaned the caked blood from his body. As he did, he remembered how the woman's hands (Erica, was that her name? It was so hard to remember anything now) had felt when she'd touched him, like her skin was made of fire, and so was his. Had that been real? What had actually happened?
He thought about the face of the man who was even now still lying on the filthy floor of that warehouse. He thought about that face and about the taste of the blood last night and he felt...
Nothing at all. Shouldn't he feel guilty? Remorseful? Horrified, at least? He had almost starved himself to death because he was sure that he wouldn't be able to deal with the reality of another person's death. But he didn't feel any different now that it was done. He only felt better. Someone else was dead, but, somehow, that didn't matter. He was alive. Not much else seemed important.
He finished cleaning up. It was early in the evening and he wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to go somewhere with a crowd. He felt like he could be around people again, for a while. He had two hundred dollars, counting what he had taken from the dead man. Despite living on the streets, he didn't have a hard time keeping cash on hand anymore. There was less to spend it on.
He went into the first bar he found. The smell of so many warm human bodies in an enclosed space made him nervous, but he sat down anyway, ordering a beer he couldn't drink. The room was full, and he felt like people were staring. He supposed even after cleaning up he must look like a mess, still pale and shaking. They probably think I'm crashing on something, he thought.
He watched the crowd, flat faces and dull eyes under dim yellow lights. Their movements looked stiff and jerky, their flesh waxen, voices sounding scratched and hollow like an old record. For some reason, it didn't look like a room full of people at all. It was more like a room full of dolls.
There was a girl about twenty years old watching him from the end of the bar. Kyle shifted in his seat. Did he know her? Was she one of the ones from last night? He watched until he saw drink and swallow her beer, but even then he didn't relax.
He had just made up his mind to leave when she sat down across from him. She was pale (though not as pale as him), with chestnut hair down to her shoulders. She was a skinny thing, too small even to be called petite. She was pretty, but her smile showed too many teeth and there were the hints of bags under her eyes.
"Nice night," she said. "I'm almost empty, so I'll let you buy the next." Her laugh sounded like a firecracker. Kyle wanted to leave, but being this close to her transfixed him. He could see (or thought he could see) the patchwork of blue veins running just beneath the surface of her skin, and although he realized he was staring, he didn't look away.
The echo of her heartbeat sounded so loud inside her little chest that he thought it might burst at any second. He watched the pulse throbbing in her throat and wrists with horror and enchantment. For a second it seemed like every separate part of her was moving of its own accord. He found himself paying for her drink and introducing himself.
"Kyle, huh? I'm Tanya."
"That sounds like a working name." He said it before he even thought about it.
Her smile almost went away, but she recovered. "Yep, it is. You caught me. How did you know?"
He wasn't sure. The question had been out of his mouth before he even realized what it was.
Tanya looked self-conscious, but giggled. "Well, do you still want to talk to me?"
Kyle wasn't sure he had ever wanted to talk to her in the first place, but he said yes. He scrutinized her more closely; she must really be desperate to approach someone who looked like he did, but she didn't look like a junkie. Maybe she owed someone?
Tanya made small talk and he gave half answers for a few minutes. He couldn't believe how long it took her to catch on to his impatience. Or maybe she was just waiting until she had finished the drink he'd paid for? He tried not to stare at the gulping motion of her throat as she drained the glass.
"Look hon, it's been fun meeting you, but I have work to do. I have a place right around the corner if you're interested." She leaned in close, her voice a stage whisper. "What do you say? We could get to know each other?" This close, he could see the yellow from the lights mixing with the brown in her eyes.
Kyle hesitated. Nothing but trouble could come out of this. But it was the first time in two weeks that a person, a real, living person, had talked to him. He wanted more of her company. Not because he was interested in her, but because he wanted to know if he even could be around normal people again, having something like a normal life, if only for a few hours.
He licked his lips. "Well..."
Kyle pressed his mouth to Tanya's thigh, sticking out the tip of his tongue to tickle the bare flesh. She shrieked and laughed, swatting at him playfully. "Your lips are freezing, did anyone ever tell you that?"
"Just one person," he said. In the dark, in the tiny bedroom of her tiny apartment, he was enveloped in the scent of her body. Her naked skin radiated heat, like a blush he could see in the dark. As his lips moved across her, he imagined he could taste the blood saturating her flesh.
She was lying back on the bed, naked, splayed, her too-skinny form illuminated by the half-light from the streetlamps outside. He could see her cupping her breasts in her hands, stroking her dark, swollen nipples as she watched him, head cocked to one side, smiling in a lopsided way as he slid further up, tongue extended to trace the curve of her thighs, until he was a few breaths away from the place that they met.
"I'm not sure I expected quite this level of -OH!- enthusiasm..."
"I like to surprise people," Kyle said, flicking his tongue again. When she jumped, she flushed across her cheeks and breasts.
He hadn't spoken the entire time she was leading him to her apartment. He could tell by her body language that it was a cold night, so he made a show of shivering even though he couldn't feel it.
Her place had hardly any furniture and no decoration. They had gone through the awkward ritual of exchanging money, then she lead him to the bedroom, shedding her clothes into a single pile on the floor and beckoning him to the bed.
He lapped at the swollen outer lips of her sex, his mouth full of the warmth of her body. It wasn't what he really wanted to fill his mouth with, but maybe it was close enough. Maybe if he indulged in one thing, he would stop wanting the other. Most of the elements were the same; a body, warm flesh, being able to taste and, almost, consume another person.
He heard his pulse pounding in his ears as he pushed his mouth tight against her, her hips buck and squirming in response. Something about the way her body thrashed around seemed alive in an obscene way that both repelled and titillated him. She felt warm, soft, and fragile. The taste of her sex, achingly close to what he really needed, was sharp and wet. When she moaned, her whole body shook.
He thought back to last night and his preternatural encounter with Erica; the two women couldn't be more different. Erica had been an inferno, beautiful and alluring but terrible, and always changing. Tanya felt comforting, open, and, in a very strange, very human way, fixed, as though her body had been prepared expressly for him and was now receptive to his wants as a matter of kind.
The way she was splayed on the bed, and the ease with which she invited him in, combined with her relaxed, luxuriating pose as she stroked the curves of her naked body and panted at his every touch, made her seem like she had always been his. He was aware, of course, that this was probably nothing more than a professional talent on her part, but it still seemed no less credible, at least in the moment. When she whispered his name, his thrill was genuine. Her fingers knotting in his hair and the catch in her voice when she gasped told him that her physical reaction, if nothing else, was genuine as well.
So he buried himself deeper into the cradle of her body, lips massaging while his tongue parted her, sliding up and down. It seemed he absorbed the heat from her body, until she was no longer complaining about the coldness of his touch, only insisting that it be faster, harder, deeper.
She was writhing now, and he increased his pace to match. In the dim light, he could just make out her face; eyes closed, biting her lip, brow pinched in concentration. During his two weeks in oblivion he had trained himself to concentrate on one sensation so intensely that it almost completely overrode all others, and he put that skill to use again now, shutting out everything except that one point of contact, deep, dark, and intimate.
She was thrashing wildly now, almost losing control. Her back contorted while her hips bucked again and again, mouth open in a noiseless gasp that was never quite audible. Her hands pushed down on the back of his head, never allowing him to break off for more than an instant.
"Godgodgodgodgodgodgodgod...!" she whispered, overflowing with the raw power of the feeling that was coursing through her, almost ready to burst.
Just as Kyle had compressed all of his thoughts and sensations down to one physical point, it seemed that the entire night had become this one instant for her, the one, solitary, fleeting moment of pure and absolute satisfaction and all-annihilating bliss. As she came down, Kyle watched her frame relax, like a fist unclenching one finger at a time.
After, she gave him some of the money back. He tried to refuse, but she insisted. "After all, you didn't even get to home," she said, laughing and giving him an indecipherable look. He stuffed the money back into his jacket pocket as he stood at the bottom of the apartment steps. There were still a lot of hours until dawn. He wondered what he should do.
The wind shifted, and Kyle stopped dead in his tracks. How did he feel now? In the moment, he had felt exactly how he had wanted to: connected, in a way that was more complex than words. But now, standing in the dark, looking back, it was just another memory, indistinguishable from all the others. The present was such a brief thing, and the past might as well never have happened.
He saw that the light in the apartment's one window had gone out. It's so easy, he thought, to just switch a light off.
Before he realized what he was doing, he was vaulting up the steps two at a time. He reached the front door just as she was coming out again.
She jumped, frightened, until she saw who it was. She grinned at him. "Came back for more?"
He touched the side of her neck. "Yes."
The hot water felt strange on his skin, like it wasn't quite touching him. He felt like he was wrapped in plastic. He stayed in the shower for a long time, almost an hour, watching the red drip off of him and pool at his feet. He'd meant to scrub himself, but instead he just stood and let the heat and the water pressure strip everything off of him.
After, he checked his reflection in the foggy mirror. He looked healthy for the first time in weeks. His eyes were still a bit hollow, but his skin was flushed and his features sharp. He wasn't shaking anymore either. He looked like a new man.
There was blood caked under his fingernails and he took a minute to scrub them. As soon as they were clean, he forgot they'd ever been dirty. He stepped out of the bathroom, wrapping a towel around his waist while feeling ridiculous about modesty of it.
He was clean, but his clothes were ruined. Nothing gets out blood, he thought. The clock told him it was now a quarter past four in the morning; not much time to get situated before sunrise. Should he just stay here for the day? It probably wasn't smart to sleep at a crime scene, but where else could he go?
He glanced at the bedroom door, still open a crack. The carpet at the threshold was stained red. He had left the light on and he could see the crimsoned sheets and the unmoving form wrapped up in them. He decided that the living room would be the best place to sleep.
Somehow, he wasn't surprised to find Erica waiting for him when he got there. She sat in the easy chair, legs crossed. There was a dab of red on her chin, just below her mouth.
"I helped myself to some of the leftovers, " she said. "I hope you don't mind."
He shook his head, still standing in the doorway.
"You made a terrible mess, but that's normal. The first time always does hurt the most." Her smile looked like a painting She gestured to the seat across from her. He was still only wearing the towel, an he soaked the chair when he sat. She was dressed in a stunning blue evening dress, but if she noticed the difference in their attire, she didn't say anything.
A minute passed in silence.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Fine," was all he could think to say.
"What do you feel?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You just murdered a woman. You must be having some feelings about that."
He shrugged. "How would you feel?"
"I don't know, I didn't do it."
"But you've done it."
"Well those were other people. They're not all the same. This one is yours. It's an experience no one else will ever have. So I'll ask again: what do you feel?"
He leaned forward. "I don't feel a thing. Is that what you want to hear?"
"It's what I expected to hear. It's how things are."
"How did you find me?" he asked.
"I followed you. It wasn't hard. I've been following you all week."
"Because I wanted to see what you would do. And because I like you. I'm so bored of all the others. I need someone new."
"Did you make me like this?"
"No honey, that's not the way it works. I couldn't make people like this even if I wanted to. It's just a thing that happens sometimes. Certain people, we don't die right, so we don't stay dead."
"That's all there is to it?"
"Well, everyone has their own idea about why it's certain people and not others. But no one knows, and it doesn't matter. This is who we are, and this is what we do, and now you know what it's like."
"I don't feel anything. I haven't all along. Will it always be like this?"
"Sometimes. Maybe. Why so many questions anyway?" she uncrossed and recrossed her legs.
"What is it you want to do with me?"
"Keep an eye on you. Help you. For as long as you keep amusing me."
She waved a hand. "After? Who knows about after? Who cares? Is there an after at all? You don't have to think about the future anymore. Tomorrow night and the next and the next will be just the same as this one. You don't have any future any more than you have a past. You're just present. Enjoy the moment. It's all there is."
She stood up, stretching like a cat. "It's almost morning. We should go somewhere with fewer windows. Take me to bed?"
"The bed is a mess."
"I adore bloodstained sheets. White and red are such a beautiful contrast." She brushed the hair away from his forehead with one fingertip. "Come along darling. Come hold me until it's night again. And tomorrow night, and tomorrow night, and tomorrow night."
"You said there is no tomorrow night?"
"Then it'll be tonight again. What do you say, dove? Do you want to come with me?"
The grey of morning was starting to creep along the streets outside. He felt his body contract away from the window
"We could do that," he said. very slowly and deliberately.
"We could." He watched the shadows on the floor get longer. "Or we could do something even more romantic."
"And what's that?"
He looked into her eyes. "We could watch the sunrise."