Crescendo by Konstanze Kwiet Cho

Title Design: Sylvia

Author’s Note

This book was written for my sister, Shoshi Kwiet, an ardent fan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. There are two main reasons why it is not a sequel – it would be a flagrant infringement of copyright and I have not read any of the Twilight novels. More a “freequel”, it is set in Forks and mentions some of the characters created by Meyer, but my protagonists and their dramas are not connected to hers. I should acknowledge however that the Swans, the Hales and the Cullens, of whom only Sergeant Swan plays a role in Crescendo, were all created by Meyer and that I do not want to pass them off as my invention. Even writing a freequel put limitations on me – it predetermined the genre, the characters and the rating –, but within these restrictions, I have taken some liberties. While Meyer and Charlaine Harris have reinvented the vampire legend (Vampires in the sun? Vampires weakened by silver?), I have returned to the traditional vampire archetype of Bram Stoker and, well, Buffy. For this, and for a myriad of mistakes, my sister will be angry with me. But I beg you, dear Shoshi, to see this as a book inspired by, but not to be judged against Twilight, and as a sign of my love for you. K. March 2009

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For Shoshi. The original Sophia.

I tore myself away from the safe comforts of certainties through my love for the truth, and the truth rewarded me. - Simone De Beauvoir

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Prelude
All I could see were his dark eyes and his pale teeth. I moved so he could come closer. My skin was vivid-white against the darkness of his bed, except for the strange markings on my legs and stomach. “Happy birthday” he whispered. I had almost forgotten it was mine. “Same to you” I answered. He held me against him and kissed my cheek. “Sophia”, he said, “Are you sure?” “Yes”, I whispered, holding his face between my hands. We kissed. “Sophia, my darling”, his words were soft, “Are you ready?”

Audition
My dad drove me to the station with the radio on. He was in a great mood, slapping me on the leg, congratulating me on my achievements and making plans for my trip. I did not have the heart to explain that I had not achieved anything yet: He was driving me to an audition, where more than thirty trumpet players from all over NSW were competing for two places in the State School Jazz Band which was visiting the USA for six weeks over summer. I was a good 4

trumpet player, but lately my once-daily practice regime had been eroded by television, phone calls with girlfriends, work, shopping, and plain old procrastination. Some days I did not feel like doing anything – I would lie on my bed listening to music and, before I knew it, five hours had gone by. My music teacher showed me the advert for the audition. “Play The USA”, the flyer screamed. I put it in my bag and forgot about it until my mum cleaned out my stuff and came running up the stairs. “What is this, Sophia?” she waved the pamphlet at me. I was about to say – truthfully- that I had not read it yet, when she answered the question herself. “There’s an audition, it’s on next week!” I read the flyer and calculated my options. A paid six-week trip to America sounded good; spending the summer holidays lying on my bed sounded dismal. I cleaned up my trumpet and rang my teacher. I spent that week practising hard. Every day I worked on the two pieces I would play at the audition – a mad piece by Miles Davis and one of Chet Baker’s. My father, who never listens to anything we say, was so impressed with my dedication that he took it as given I had already been accepted. He would tousle my hair and say “Ach, my little blow horn. Going to America all by yourself.” He was convinced the audition was just to work out “where I would play”, as if this was a random band and we would be placed in completely new positions. It was sweet and kind of infectious. Soon I too started thinking that I had already been chosen. Not only did I plan what I would take, I started packing my bags. It was weird in a The Secret kind of way, but it meant I was not nervous at all. At the station, Dad handed me my trumpet and gave me a hug. I caught the train to the Conservatorium of Music and followed the signs and students to the recital hall. Auditions take ages and I started checking out the other students. One boy, about my age, but taller, was adjusting his trombone. He was very good-looking and dressed in the ‘cool muso’ uniform of faded jeans and a grey T-shirt. He had nice arms and a small tattoo. I could not quite make it out, but it looked like a sword. But what drew my attention was his turban. It was bright orange and completely at odds with his grungy look. I kept staring at him until the judges called out “Anupan Singh” and he ambled up to the stage. His performance was excellent and drew muted applause. I could not get over the turban. “Get a grip, Sophia”, I said to myself, “You have a pierced eyebrow and cannot talk”.

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The guy called Anupan was still there when the judges called out “Sophia Bloom”. I walked onto the stage, fixed my eyes on him and absolutely nailed my two pieces. There was more applause, Anupan did a slow handclap and smiled cheekily. I was so pumped I gave a small ironic bow and jumped off stage. Packing away my trumpet, even before the judges called us back an hour later to confirm the winners, I knew for sure that both he and I were going to America.

Bridge
Mum and I argued for a good three hours over what I should take on the trip. She had bought me a new suitcase and packed twelve underpants, twelve singlets, three stockings, three dresses, six T-shirts, three jumpers and three pants in it. Every item was brightly coloured and size 12. The idea was obviously to make me look like Dora the Explorer. I threw it all out and put in my old leggings, two jeans, a good coat, loose tops, some of my brother’s shirts and a beautiful cashmere cardigan my sister had given me. This was an ambit claim and I was ready to negotiate after the three-hour stand-off, but Dad intervened and shouted “Ach, let her take what she wants. She is old enough to freeze.” Riding my luck, I added some lacy underwear, a hoodie top and my favourite black leather boots. I took both my B Flat and my Piccolo Trumpet. The three months between the audition and the flight seemed to stretch into years. We had to organise our passports and visas, get health checks, listen to a man in a suit from the Department Music Unit lecture us about opportunity and responsibility and representing our country. Everything but a drug test really. There were three teachers going with us, one Mr Stone was in charge, we were all flying to Seattle and staying in flyspeck towns in Washington State. We were to be billeted with local families, attend the local high schools and meet up for a number of workshops and concerts every few days. At this stage, I was ready to give up: I had expected a whirlwind tour of North America, performances in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, that sort of thing, not some enforced student exchange program which would see me going to school in my summer holidays. When I received the details of my billet, my mood worsened: Dr E and L Whitebridge; daughter Skye, seventeen; son Michael, thirteen and cat Fifi. They lived at 12 Guthrie Drive in a place called Forks. I was going to spend my holidays with some white-bread nuclear family and their horrible cat in a place named after cutlery.

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Six weeks of lying on my bed suddenly sounded good. At that moment I felt someone breathe over my shoulder. “Dr E and L Whitebridge of Forks” a male voice drawled, “Now that sounds like fun.” I turned and came face to face with Anupan, who was trying hard to look serious. “Ha bloody ha. Where are you staying?” I said sulkily. Anupan’s face was a triumphant grin. “Jasmine Potter, no husband listed, and her three lovely children -” He looked down to check “Kelly, Tessa and Yvonne. Eighteen, seventeen and fifteen. Have you seen the movie Belle Époque? I am the man.” I couldn’t help it, I had to laugh. “In Forks I hope?” “Yes Sophia Bloom”, he said, “I am the man in Forks you hope”. We met again at the airport check-in. By the time we had dropped off our luggage, he was Anu and I was Soph and we did not stop talking till we landed in Seattle. I was a bit upset knowing he was off to some Little Women hippie household, but things looked up once we got to Forks. For a start, the town was pretty: misty, green and freezing cold. It was like being in an ice forest or one of those souvenir snow domes. Then my host family proved an unexpected surprise. The mother was Dr Emma, who worked at the hospital, dad Leroy was a firefighter (“It’s a quiet town for fires, not like your Sydney”), Skye and Michael were bickering like normal siblings and the cat was really called Hagrid. Their house was nice and – this was a real bonus – I got my own room. Skye ran up the stairs shouting at me to follow her and to Michael to bring my suitcase. At the top of the landing, she pointed to four different doors: “That’s my room. That’s Michael’s. It’s putrid. The bathroom. OK cause I cleaned it. This one’s yours”. She swung open the door and we peered in. It was a little attic room with an angled roof and a window over parkland. There was a bed, a wardrobe, a desk and a chair. Everything was bathed in green light. It was lovely.

Duet
After dinner, Skye helped me unpack. She took our desserts with her and made me eat my waffles on the bed while she looked through my clothes. “Oooh”, she said when she spied the cute underwear and “Oh my” when she saw the boots. She had a beautiful face that could crease into an ugly ball or a frown in a nanosecond, almost like rubber. It was quite disconcerting. One minute she looked like Kirsten Dunst, the next, when she was animated or goofing about, she was the spitting image of Mr Bean. 7

She put away my clothes keeping up a running commentary about life in Forks. It was a small town, always overcast and reasonably wealthy. Her family had moved here four years ago after a previous doctor, Culleen or something, had left. There had been a fire at their house. These doctors had been a mysterious family - “Not like the Sopranos, more like the Adams Family” and Skye was sure that townspeople were disappointed that the Whitebridges were so normal. “I mean, Mum’s pure Dr Patch Adams”, she said scrunching her face so she looked exactly like Robin Williams. The school was OK, their football team sucked, they had an excellent music department and she herself played the double bass. We chatted about friends and music and teachers, swapped mobile numbers and I only missed Anu a little. Which is why I almost missed Skye’s question. She had been talking about the School Band and their new conductor, making me laugh a lot, and then I swear she asked, “Have you ever tried to kill yourself?” I looked at my fingers – maybe she asked if I had ever tried to drill a shelf? Was she parodying a counselor? Was it a line from a song? – but got nowhere and had to settle for the most basic response - “What?!” At this she stopped moving and sat down next to me. I saw that she was fighting back tears and dragged myself into serious mode. “No, I have never tried to kill myself”, I said, “I may have thought about it. Not planned it or anything” Skye’s words came through the tears “I know it’s a cowardly act and wrong I suppose, but I love him so much and he says he cannot feel like that about me”. Whoa, I must have missed some crucial information here. I took her hands in mine and said “Who? Who do you love?” She looked at me bright-eyed and I realised it was because she wanted to say his name. “Ruben. Ruben de Valera. The conductor I was talking about”. “The conductor?!” I was imagining white-haired sixty-year olds with Polish accents. “But he’s a teacher!” “No”, Skye shook her head “Ruben is a senior at Forks, he is one year older than me. The music teachers put him in charge of all the school bands and the School Orchestra. He is an amazing musician.” “No doubt” “Don’t be like that. He is. Since he has taken over the bands, we have become the best in the North-West. Forks students are winning music scholarships left, right and centre. He has helped my playing no end.” “Fine. So he’s Mozart. Why can’t he go out with you?” 8

Skye started sobbing again, twisting her hands and shrugging her shoulders. I went through some of the options. “Is he gay?” “I don’t think so” “Taken?” “No” “Celibate?” “Yes, but why?” “Religious?” “Definitely not” “De Valera sounds Catholic” “But he isn’t” “Diseased?” “Not obviously” “Impotent?” A small smile “I wouldn’t know” “Then we are going with impotent”. We were interrupted by Skye’s parents knocking on the door. They told us to get some sleep, called out good night and wished me luck with the jetlag. When we heard them go back downstairs, Skye continued her lament. “Ruben came to Forks about two years ago. When he walked into the music room, it was like an electric shock. Everybody there, girl or boy, just gaped. Nobody could say a word.” I mouthed a “Why?” “Well, he is beautiful, I mean, jaw-droppingly good-looking. Maybe like a young Daniel DayLewis. The closest I’ve seen is an early black and white photo of Rudolf Nureyev. “Tasty” I admitted. “Gay” Skye shook her head. “But it only works because he seems to have no idea of his impact on others or, if he does, he never acknowledges it. He is very reserved, awfully polite, but he never seeks out friendship or even contact, let alone a relationship” “You know what? He sounds depressed. Melancholy. Is that why you asked about suicide?” “Yes and no”, Skye bounced her head again, possibly to signify ambiguity. “I think he is depressed and of course there may not be a reason, but I have been obsessing about him for two years and probably know him more than anyone else here, which means nothing really, and I can’t understand why he does not even want to be friends.” “Has he had any relationship that you know of? Male, female, animal, vegetable, mineral?” “None whatsoever. And it’s not like he’s not passionate and generous and soulful – when we play music, Ruben is…I can’t explain it…you’ll see him tomorrow.” This was exciting news. I quizzed Skye a bit longer about Ruben, more so she could say his name another two hundred times, and then warned her not to go thinking about suicide. I promised I would take a closer look at the ethereal conductor and we would discuss what to do after that. 9

Nocturne Part 1
I was asleep by 9, but the jet lag hit anyway and, by 2 am, I was wide awake and wired. I dragged my blanket and the chair to the window and looked out over the town. There was a small park behind the Whitebridge property, beyond that a street, another reserve, more houses and then the main road. I could make out lights, cars and a few neon signs but it was eerily quiet. A dark figure moved across the reserve. I froze. The person - I was sure it was a man was tall and slim and walking towards a corner of the reserve. He stopped in front of something I could not make out. Then, as deliberate as a dance, as if in slow motion, he laid down on the ground, his arms outstretched and stayed there. My heart started racing and I began to sweat. After what seemed like ages, during which I fiddled with my phone and paced to the door and back, the man got up and walked away. I rushed to the window and, when he passed under a street lamp and brushed the hair off his face, I was sure I knew who he was.

Intermezzo
I did not see him again until the afternoon. Emma drove Skye and me to school while it was still dark (“Just this once, save you carrying your instrument and everything”) and we dumped my trumpet in the music department. The bell rang for Morning Assembly and we ran to the hall. It was a different world – no school uniform, the US National Anthem and a full flagraising ceremony. The Head Master gave a welcoming address, introducing us as “our friends from Australia” who have come to “taste life and music at Forks High”. When he called us up on stage, Anu came over to stand with me. He squeezed my hand. “How’s it going?” he whispered. “Yeah, cool” I said “How about you?” “Fine. Tessa’s nice, Yvonne’s nuts and Kelly’s a guy”. I started to laugh “There goes your plan of seducing all three Potter siblings…” “Says who? Kelly’s probably the best looking. He’s the fit bloke over there”. Anu pointed to the side of the hall at a big, red-haired senior. He had a handsome, open face and was obviously cut. “Nice build” I said “Introduce me later?” Anu smiled “He won’t know what hit him.”

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After Assembly, Skye and I had Biology, then Maths - she called it Math - and English. At lunch, Skye took me to the cafeteria and all my visions of high school cafeterias from Hollywood movies – Grease, Mean Girls, Heathers – came true. It was the biggest déjà vu ever. I was fully expecting Zac Efron and Lindsay Lohan to wander in. Skye introduced me to her friends - Sarah, Rachel, Tasch and Zac (Bingo!) - and we sat down at their table. I saw Anu walk in with Kelly and waved him over. Sarah and Rachel stared at me “Do you know them?” Sarah asked, “Oh my God, Kelly’s coming over!” Kelly took his time, greeting friends and introducing Anu to everyone. Anu still looked cool, but I could tell he was a bit nervous. He was getting a lot of stares. I had to give him credit: He was wearing a dark red turban. I was not up with Forks demographics, but there were not many crimson turbans in the school cafeteria. Kelly was relaxed and attractive. He was wearing an Amnesty International baseball cap on his head, demographically a fair bit safer. He took it off at our table. “Hi Skye, hi everyone”, he said, “This is Anu, he’s in the Aussie band and he’s staying at my place” Skye introduced me and the boys sat down. Anu squeezed next to me, which meant I was facing Kelly. I felt almost as flustered as Sarah and Rachel who were practically palpitating. “Do you play an instrument, Kelly?” I asked, immediately regretting the double entendre. Anu loved it “Why, Sophia, do you want to see it?” I punched him on the leg and could see Skye shake with laughter on the other side. Only one way to go. I looked at my fingers, then at Anu and said, “Yes, I was hoping Kelly would let me practise on it”. Anu and Skye screamed, Sarah and Rachel gasped and Kelly smiled. “No, Sophia” – he remembered my name! – “I can’t play anything. Tessa, my sister, plays the piano, but I am more your dumb jock. I love listening to music of course”. “I hear you have great school bands here. And an amazing conductor.” I said innocently. To my surprise, everyone nodded. “Yeah”, said Kelly, “Ruben is a fantastic muso and the bands are awesome. They win everything.” “Not like your football team”, Skye said. Kelly shook his head sadly. “Too right. We are a sorry bunch. Maybe we should get Ruben to coach us. Hey -” The paper plane missed Kelly and hit Anu. We all looked around and saw a table of jocks doing a really bad job of looking disinterested. One had wrapped his scarf around his head like a mock-turban. Kelly swore at them. He was explicit and threatening and I was impressed. “Sorry, Anu”, he said “please ignore the idiots”. Anu nodded and muttered “Wankers”. 11

Skye was interested “What’s a wanker?” Anu smiled at her “Sorry, it’s a rude word for someone who plays with themselves” The bell rang and we packed up to go to Music. Show time.

Rehearsal
It was clear that the Forks High Music Department had more clout than the Forks High Sports Department because they had taken over the gym for band practice. There were at least twenty students getting ready, tuning up and moving music stands. I found my trumpet and took my position near Anu in what I presumed was the horn section. Skye moved to strings. A tall student came in carrying a pile of sheet music and I felt a jolt of recognition – and of pleasure. This was Ruben. This was also the young man I had seen last night. Skye was right – he was stunning to look at. He had very pale, very fine skin and his features were generous – a wide mouth, full lips, big grey eyes, even his nose was on the large side. His hair was dark and longish, it fell over his eyes and, when he brushed it back, I saw that his hands were slender and fine-boned, like a female pianist. They looked out of place on him – he had a tough body, not as cut as Kelly, but sinewy like a dancer’s. He was wearing a loose black jumper, black pants and really tattered black Converse boots. When he moved to the front, everyone fell quiet. Without any posturing, he welcomed “the musicians from Australia” and introduced himself: “My name is Ruben, I’m a senior here, and I will be your conductor today”. He named the music piece we were going to play and I almost dropped my trumpet. It was an instrumental arrangement of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, probably my favourite song. He handed out the sheet music and, I couldn’t help it, when he got to me, I beamed at him “Thanks, I love this song”. He looked surprised, drew back a tiny bit, but recovered quickly. “Oh good”, he said and moved on to Anu. We started almost immediately so I did not have time to get embarrassed. Leave it behind; I told myself, concentrate on the music. Ruben explained the structure of the song, how he would guide us and what he was expecting. It worked beautifully. He was easily the most skilful conductor I had ever seen. He used his face, his arms, his hands and we knew exactly what to do. Because I had played the piece before, I could watch his face longer and was moved by how it changed during the performance. He had looked pre-occupied, troubled, but 12

as we played, his features softened, his muscles relaxed and he started smiling to add emphasis to a movement or to show appreciation. We had a clean sound and it made him happy. When it finished, Ruben smiled and nodded. “That was wonderful”, he said, “Let’s go back to the chorus”. He gave some instructions to different players and told Anu to watch his start. I felt Anu stiffen and turned to reassure him. He was not looking at me, but I could see him glance at Skye, as if he was worried she would be disappointed. When she too looked at him and smiled, he relaxed. We played it again, capturing the gloomy, painful quality of the song, and again, to get it note and tone perfect. It was, as Skye had said, amazing. At the end of the lesson, Ruben spent some time with the saxophonist and the regular Music teacher, a Mr. Hale, came out to take us. He was ridiculously young and cute for a teacher and very pale, like Ruben, but he was not as intuitive and confident a conductor. When the bell rang, Mr Hale reminded us that Ruben wanted the Jazz Band to start rehearsals at 7 am on Friday. Skye screwed up her face, but I found myself smiling. I walked over to where Anu was packing away his trombone “What do you think of Ruben?” I asked. “Good conductor”, he admitted, “I don’t warm to him personally. And what’s with the 7 am start?” “Yeah”, agreed Skye, “You know who would make us get up that early? A wanker.” Anu’s eyes almost popped out of his head and then he threw back his head and roared with laughter. I caught a glimpse of Ruben. He was watching Anu and Skye laughing together and his face creased into the gentlest smile imaginable.

Nocturne Part 2
On the walk home, Skye did not stop talking about Anu. How long had we been friends? Did he have a girlfriend? Would he date a non-Sikh girl? I tried to steer the conversation towards Ruben, but all Skye said was “Anu’s right. What’s with the 7 am rehearsal?” I made a crack about true love not surviving an early start and she punched me. The house smelt lovely when he got home. “I’ve made a cake and the chicken’s in the oven!” Emma called from the kitchen. “Dinner in an hour!” It might have been the early nightfall or 13

the cold or the travel, but I was starving. Skye and I flopped on the sofa, switching between 125 television channels and talking about Kelly and Anu, until Emma called us in. That night I did not take chances with the jet lag. I set my mobile phone for 1:50 am and borrowed some books from Skye to read if I woke up earlier. By 2 am, I had been up one hour and halfway through the latest Evanovitch. He appeared on time, wearing similar clothes and carrying what looked like a book. He walked across the reserve to the same place and knelt down. He placed the object on the ground in front of him. Then, as softly as a father caressing his baby, he touched his fingers to his lips and placed them on the ground.

Breve
At breakfast the next morning, I asked Skye about the park and the reserve behind her house. Did they have any civic or social significance? Skye scrunched up her face and waved her head to signify ‘No’, but Michael piped up “The park’s just a park sponsored by Rotary. I don’t think it’s old. The reserve used to be called The Church Green and it was the site of one of the first churches in town.” Skye stared at her brother and I played it cool “Oh, are there, like, people buried there? Or the remains of an altar?” “No”, said Michael, “only a few memorial signs and a plaque”. It was snowing so Leroy offered to drive us to school. Skye whooped and hugged her father, then turned to me seriously “Sophia, you will have to stay here forever. Mum’s baking cake, Dad’s driving us to school, Michael’s answering questions. I cannot give that up”. The day was a letdown. It did not seem to get light at all, just grey skies and snow. I did not see Kelly or Ruben and we spent all afternoon meeting up with the Australian teachers and band members to talk about upcoming concerts and rehearsals. The only highlight was teasing Anu about Skye. The first thing he said to me was “Did Skye say anything about me?” I started giggling and made up mean answers like “She did not notice you” or “Only that you have a great bum”, but then gave in and told him that, yes, she asked heaps of questions and I was sure that she really liked him. He did this crazy Riverdance-style Irish jig and the teachers told us to be quiet. When they weren’t looking, I whispered “Did Kelly say anything about me?” Anu clapped his hands. “I knew it!” he said way too loudly. “One look at that body and you want to get into his pants. You are such a hussy”. Everyone around us was now looking at me 14

and grinning. “Thanks heaps, Anu”, I said, “Everyone really needed to know that.” Anu glanced around and, to give him credit, he did look a bit guilty. “Sorry, Soph”, he lowered his voice; “I got carried away. And yes, Kelly did ask about you: age, boyfriend, bra size, that sort of thing” “He did not ask about my bra size!” I said petulantly “OK, he didn’t, but I volunteered it anyway.” It was already getting dark on the way home, but I asked Skye if we could go via the reserve. She was in a great mood, because I had told her about Anu’s questions and his Irish jig, so she agreed as long as she could keep walking. There was really nothing to the reserve, only a few plaques and memorial tablets listing important members of the community. In the place where I had seen Ruben lying prostrate, there was only grass and snow. I dropped my ring, so I could kneel down and sift through it. I rolled away the snow, found the break in the grass, slid my hand underneath and pulled out a CD. I stuffed it in my coat and glanced over at Skye. “Hey, what are you looking for?” she shouted. “I dropped my ring making a snowball and now I can’t find it” I called back. The second part was unfortunately true. I could not see my ring anywhere. Skye helped me look, but I kept her away from the doctored grass and we did not find it. She asked whether the ring was really expensive or had special sentimental value. It was an Irish Cladagh ring given to me by my oldest sister, but losing it wouldn’t kill me. We rolled some more snowballs and then raced each other home.

Fugue
That evening, Skye and Leroy made lasagna and I helped Michael with his schoolwork. We started dinner without Emma; she came in as Leroy was serving up ice cream. “Sorry, I’m late” she said, “We had an awful emergency five minutes before my shift finished and I had to stay”. Leroy took her coat and bag and gave her a hug. He placed a large bowl of lasagna in front of her. “Eat, darling”, he said, “You can talk later”. Emma ate two bowls of lasagna and waited till Michael had gone to watch television before she told us what had happened. Two sportsfishermen had found the body of a young woman near the Calawah River. She had a stake through her chest. The men wrapped up the girl, stake and all, called the ambulance and brought her into emergency. Emma said that the young woman had lost a lot of blood and was

15

suffering from hypothermia, but the stake had just missed her heart and there was hope she would survive. Emma put one hand on my face and one on Skye’s and sighed, “Oh, my babies, she was only a bit older than you girls. Lying alone in the dark with a stake in her heart, who would do such a thing?” We interrogated Emma about the girl’s identity and any possible suspects, but all she knew was that the young woman was a college student from Bellingham who was visiting the Olympic Natural Resources Centre. She may have been walking by the river or hitchhiking or taken there by someone she knew. Police were looking for clues, but it had been raining and snowing, so some of the evidence would have been lost. They were also hoping to question the girl when she improved. Emma did not say ‘if she improved’, but it hung in the air. Skye and I went upstairs and I asked to borrow a CD player. I said I wanted to listen to music to take my mind off what Emma had told us and this was at least partially true. She asked what the CD was and I said Jazz Standards, thinking that was probably a lie. When she left, I made myself comfortable. I put on my pyjamas, turned the lights off, hopped under the doona and checked the headphones. I had no idea what was on Ruben’s CD and, although a part of me felt guilty for listening, I rationalised that it was not a diary or a letter. But it was. “Hello Rachel”, it began. Hearing Ruben’s voice so close gave me such a start, it was a good five seconds before I exhaled. I pressed play again and Ruben’s voice came back: “Although I think of you everyday, it’s been a while since I left you a present. I am in my final year at Forks High. Jasper is the music teacher there and he has been nice enough to let me live with them and make me the chief conductor. I am still treading water a bit, biding my time before I can leave school and wrap up the unfinished business around here. I have a feeling he’ll come back to this godforsaken town. His will to power and all that.” There was a pause and I closed my eyes. I could hear Ruben breathing. “I am not unwell”, he continued, “Obviously I don’t sleep and I still have urges, but I have not been on a bender since Japan, almost two years now.” A pause. “I am practically a saint.” There was a small laugh and I smiled in the dark. “Yes, fully reformed, it seems. One local girl professed her love for me, she is actually sweet, and I did not so much as touch her. I did the full Lancelot thing, turning away and proclaiming ‘I cannot feel like that about you’. You would have been proud. Or maybe you would have laughed.” Another pause and I thought about Skye. “There has been no-one else, although just today I met a girl who seemed to throw out a challenge. She’s from Australia of 16

all places.” I pressed the stop button so quickly, I knocked the CD player over. My hands were shaking as I pressed rewind, then play. He had definitely said Australia. “I made the school band play ‘Wicked Game’ and she told me she loved that song. It reminded me so much of you and I did not know what to say to her. Of course nothing will happen, I’ll make sure of that, but it was a small spark and made me remember when I felt other things. Anyway, I taped the song, because I know you loved it and because it is all I can give you these days. Goodbye Rachel, I love you.” There was a break and then the version of Wicked Game we had played yesterday came through the headphones. I listened to it again and again, thinking of Ruben’s face when we had played it.

Nocturne Part 3
My mobile phone rang in the middle of the night. I must have fallen asleep with the headphones on because I almost strangled myself trying to reach it. I was confused as to who would call me but it was only the alarm. I dragged myself to the window. Ruben was just entering the reserve. This time he remained standing for a long time and then bent down as if to kiss the ground. Something stopped him and I saw his hand reach out and pick up a small object. He held it up and then he put it in his pocket. Suddenly, almost manically, he knelt down and cleared the grass. When he realised that the CD was not there, he seemed to give up. I saw him check his pocket again and walk away.

Improvisation
The next morning Skye and I walked to school in pitch-blackness and sub-zero temperatures. We had barely spoken since getting up and it was horrible trudging through the dark, cold town knowing what had happened. When we finally reached the music room - all lit up and warm -, it seemed a magical place. There was a hot water urn and a plate of biscuits. Ruben was sitting on a chair holding a mug in his hands. His hair was messy and his eyes looked tired. He waved at the biscuits “Help yourself, it’s an old family recipe”. “Did you make them?” I asked surprised. “No”, he smiled, “I found them in the cupboard. Emphasis on old” I took one anyway; it was warm and tasted good. “You did make them”, I accused, then relented “They are very nice, thanks. By the way, my name is Sophia.” “Yes, I know”, he said, smiling again, “and you love ‘Wicked Game’”. 17

I did not know what to say so I looked at my fingers again. Skye misinterpreted my gesture. “Don’t worry, Sophia”, she said, “We’ll find your ring”. Ruben looked up sharply. It took all my willpower to keep looking at my fingers as if I was missing my ring. “I probably lost it when we had that snowball fight in the park.” I said lightly. I did not look at Ruben again, but I felt his eyes. Luckily Skye piped up “What are we doing today?’ Ruben shook himself, put down his mug and got up to speak to everyone. “Today I would like to try some improvisation. We will start with a basic piece and take it from there.” It was a blast. Ruben played the piano and we were free to suggest movements and try some solos. It was fun and funky and we were jamming nicely when Anu walked in. His face was ugly with anger and hurt. Skye stopped playing and Ruben stood up. “So sorry I am late”, Anu said aggressively, “but the Forks Police Department thought I might be a crazed killer and picked me up for questioning on the way here. It’s a wonder they did not keep me for being a terrorist, what with the turban and all.” He was close to tears and Skye moved over to him quickly. She touched his arm “Are you alright?” she said I could tell that Anu’s first reaction was to snap back “No, I am bloody well not alright”, but he looked at Skye and stopped himself. “No”, he said quietly, “I feel awful”. Skye looked at Ruben and he came over “Why don’t you and Sophia take Anu into the practice room next door and come back when you are ready?” Anu crumpled into a chair. “I left Kelly’s house at six thirty which was the middle of the night, it was so dark and cold, and I was waiting at the bus stop when a police car pulled up. I actually thought they’d give the Aussie tourist a lift, but they wanted me to come to the station and answer some questions. It was like in the movies, I got one phone call, I called Kelly and he came in wearing his pyjamas and a coat. I love that guy. The cops wanted to know where I was yesterday afternoon, between 4 and 7 pm, I said at Kelly’s, he confirmed that, they rang Jasmine and she confirmed it too. They asked what I was doing in Forks and, when I explained the Jazz Band visit, they sort of gave up. Right at the end”, Anu gave a sad smile, “it got so ludicrous it was almost funny. This young cop asked me if I carried a weapon. I said ‘Of course, I’ve got a knife, I am Sikh’. He said ‘You are sick, are you? That excuse won’t wash here. Hand it over.’ ‘No’, I said, ‘I am Sikh like Seek, it’s a religion and we are meant to carry a knife’. He called in another officer, mentioned the words ‘terrorist activities’ and they said they wanted the knife. Look, I would have handed it over if they’d been OK about it, but they were being idiots. So I reminded them of the right to bear arms. They started getting narky and 18

threatening to revoke my visa, and finally Kelly says ‘Anu, just give them the knife’. So I placed it on their desk. And this is the best bit. They began shouting at me, swearing, ‘Was I trying to be funny?’” Skye was smiling. “I think I know why. Have you still got it?” Anu nodded and pulled out a tiny metal knife with a filigree handle. It looked as menacing as a letter opener. “It’s only a ceremonial knife of course,” Anu said. “By this stage I was over it, so I didn’t bother explaining. Luckily Kelly was there and he talked to them. Then the Police Chief came in and he had actually been to India and he sort-of apologised, you know in that cop-speak, without actually saying sorry.” Skye nodded “The Chief is OK apparently, the Potters once had some trouble, an abusive boyfriend of Jasmine’s, I think, and he was very helpful. Oh, Anu -” she gave him a flirtatious smile “I think you are so courageous. You dealt with that really well.” Anu preened. “But you know what upset me most?” he added, “When I was leaving I asked the Chief why they had picked me up. Was it because of the turban? Or being from elsewhere? He said, no, they were looking for a man who had driven a wooden stake through a young woman’s heart and left her next to the river to die. I was so shocked I actually vomited. Who would do such a thing? And they thought it might have been me.” “I am sure they did not think it was you”, Skye said, “They just saw a guy they didn’t know waiting at a bus stop in the dark and they thought better ask him some questions.” She touched Anu’s arm and his face softened. “Ok”, he said, “I’m over it. What were you playing when I came in?” “Just jamming”, I said, “Impro. Want to join in?”

Cadenza
We had finished the session and I was about to leave when Ruben asked “Sophia, could you hang back a minute please?” Skye looked surprised, but obviously decided that Anu was in greater need of her company, because she waved goodbye and told me to meet her in the gym. I took a while to clean and pack away my trumpet, trying to prepare myself for what might be an ugly scene. Ruben cleared away the urn and the biscuits and then got his coat. “I’ll walk you to the gym”, he said.

19

It was freezing outside, and overcast. We were walking together quiet closely and, at one stage, when Ruben reached out to show me where to turn, our arms touched. Ruben slowed down and said lightly “Back there Skye said you lost a ring. What did it look like?” “It’s an Irish Cladagh ring, you know, the two hands holding a heart” Ruben put his hand in his pocket and pulled out my ring: “I found this one in the reserve near the Whitebridge house. Do you think it’s yours?” “Most probably” Ruben stopped completely “Do you have anything of mine you want to swap?” “Yes”, I conceded, “I found the CD you made. I am sorry I took it, but I just assumed it would be music.” “So you listened to it?” “Yes, sorry again. I put it on and I could not turn it off. I must have listened to the Wicked Game version twenty times. I fell asleep with the headphones on.” Ruben smiled, just a bit, but enough to make me feel a lot better. His next question was unexpected: “Do you want to ask me who Rachel is?” I shook my immediately: “She’s someone you love” He sighed, “True. Do you want to know why I talk to her like that? I nodded “Yes, I do” As soon as Ruben started talking, I realised that this was probably the first time he had spoken about the subject. His expression, usually so precise, was rushed and his thoughts were random. “Rachel is, was, my sister. She, she, is dead. She died four years ago in a house fire. A violent death. Right here in Forks. I was in Ireland when it happened and came back afterwards. When I get lonely or sad, I record music for her. Music is the only thing that helps me. I have fears, emotional problems if you like, which would destroy me if I did not play music. Rachel loved music too and I communicate with her that way. I leave them in the reserve, because she used to read books and listen to songs there.” I nodded, unsure of when or what to reply. “She did not even like Forks, she was only visiting some friends who –‘ “Hey, you guys, hurry up!” Skye was standing in the door to the gymnasium. “It’s cold out here.” I turned to hear Ruben out and to say goodbye, but he was already walking away. That stung – there was no need for a Heathcliff-like hissy fit. “Thanks for the ring”, I called out to him. He raised his hand in acknowledgement, but did not turn around. I pushed it. 20

“Wicked Game was great. What song’s next?” I did not wait for the reaction, but turned into the gym.

Medley
Skye was waiting. “What did he want?” she asked “He found my ring,” I explained. It was only then I realised that he had not given it back. Luckily I did not have to participate in Skye’s sports classes. I sat in the stands watching the girls play basketball and listening to music. When Skye came off for a break, she checked her mobile for messages and then took the phone onto the court with her. She hovered in the back half of the court texting until the coach roared at her and confiscated the phone. I was still chuckling when someone sat down next to me. “Hi, what’s so funny?” Kelly asked. His presence was not as unsettling as Ruben’s, but I got a start nonetheless. His hair was damp and he smelt of soap. The back of his T-shirt was a bit wet; he must have come straight out of the shower. I smiled and looked at my fingers. “Skye got busted for texting on the court”, I told him. He grinned and watched the game for a minute or so. His right arm was resting on his knee. I could not stop looking at his muscles, which were lean and smooth, not gross at all. It was as close as I’d come to sitting next to an action figure, GI Joe or the Han Solo figurine from the Star Wars collection. Kelly turned back to me. “Are you enjoying your time here?” I snapped my eyes up to his. “Yes, I’m having a ball. Skye’s great and everyone’s been friendly…’ I trailed off because I could not well add “and the guys are hot”. We talked about Anu’s encounter with the police and I told him that Anu appreciated all his support. He waved away the compliment: “The guys went over the top, but the Chief is fair and he worked it out” was all he said. After a pause he went on “The same guy once saved my mum’s life. When I was thirteen. Of course I developed a burning desire to become a police officer.” I waited to see if he was going to explain what had happened to his mother, but he did not seem to want to go on, so I asked a different question: “Do you still want to join the police now?” He shook his head. “I am hoping to get a sports scholarship to college next year and study at North-Western University, maybe at the Seattle campus.” 21

“Seattle”, I said, “Imagine that. What do you want to study?” He smiled coyly and looked at his feet. I was expecting a politically incorrect answer like “nuclear engineering” or “mining”, but his response was “Can you not laugh?” When I nodded, he replied “Librarian Studies”. Convinced he was playing me, I was about to yelp, but his face was serious and he was not fully gauging my reaction as you would if you were teasing someone. “Great”, I managed lamely. “Can you really get a sports scholarship to study that?’ “Yeah, you get them for everything. My marks are OK, but not good enough for a full academic scholarship and we certainly can’t pay for college, so I’ll play football if I have to.” This cracked me up. I reached out to steady myself and managed to touch a tendon on his arm. Smooth. The bell rang and Kelly stretched “I’ve got a Maths test now. Wish me luck” I showed him my crossed fingers. “Do you and Skye want to come back to my place after school today?” he asked, “We could watch some videos or play some games.” “I can’t play a single computer game”, I warned him, “Not even on a Wii” He grinned again. “I bet you’re ace at Trivial Pursuit”. It might have been the muscles, or the damp hair, or the invite, or Kelly’s compliment, but I walked out of the gym on a complete high. Kelly and Anu were waiting for us after school. Skye had spent a good part of the Geography lesson checking her hair and applying lip-gloss. It was the first time I had seen her head completely still for more than eight seconds; she really was very cute. Anu held the back door of Kelly’s car open for us, but pushed me out of the way once Skye had climbed in. I tried not to giggle and got in the front next to Kelly. For the next ten minutes, he pointed out various places of interest in Forks and I stared at his arms. Kelly’s house was smaller than the Whitebridge’s and more chaotic. There were books and videos on the living room floor and dishes in the sink, but it looked comfortable and smelt nice. “Sorry about the mess”, Kelly said when we came in, “It’s always a bit like this”. “It’s fine”, I said, “What’s that lovely smell?” Kelly smiled and Anu put an arm around his shoulders. “Go on mate, ‘fess up”, he said. “I have been making clove pomanders with Yvonne”, Kelly said 22

Seeing my blank face, he went to get one; it looked like an orange with brown pins in it. “It’s basically an orange rolled in cinnamon and covered in cloves”, Kelly said, looking a bit embarrassed again. “They used them instead of room fresheners in the olden days. Yvonne and I like to make them and try out intricate patterns.” “They look great”, I said “and they smell divine. Can you show me how to do it?” It was a great afternoon. We made clove oranges and listened to music and drank Russian Caravan tea until it got dark. At one point, Kelly got a call to pick up Tessa and Yvonne from dancing lessons (“They normally walk, but with that stalker on the loose, I’m not taking any chances”) and they joined us at the table. We were still busy when a nice-looking, redheaded woman walked in. “Mum!” Kelly shouted, “Why didn’t you call? I would have gone to get you!” “Calm down”, Ms Potter said, tousling his hair, “I got a lift with Jane. And anyway, Rob says they’ve arrested the man who attacked the girl.” “That’s welcome news”, Skye said, “Hello Mrs Potter” “Hello Skye. And how many times have I told you kids to call me Jasmine!” Kelly introduced me to his mother and we moved over to make room for her. Anu poured her a cup of tea and Tessa showed her our pomanders. Jasmine looked like one of those foxy mums on television sit-coms, Samantha from Bewitched or Peggy from Married with Children, but with red hair. I told her she looked like Kelly’s older sister. Her face broke into a huge smile and she cuddled her son. “Do I really look like my gorgeous boy?” she asked. Kelly squirmed in his chair and I nodded. Without thinking, I said that she looked too young and attractive to have had three children. Anu censured me: “Sophia!” but Jasmine smiled again. “Thanks”, she said, “I have actually had four children. I lost my youngest, Max, to cot death five years ago.” “Oh, I am sorry”, I wanted to say something sensitive, “That must have been heart-breaking.” Jasmine reached out and touched my hand. “You never get over it of course and I was a writeoff for almost a year, but I have done some serious grieving since then and I want to live for my three beautiful children here.” I looked at Kelly, Tessa and Yvonne who were staring at their mother with open mouths. It seemed that Jasmine did not usually talk about their brother. I nodded and said “And they are lovely children”. I meant it seriously, but it made me sound like a nun and Anu burst out laughing. Everyone joined in, admittedly at my expense, but it was nice. We talked about the

23

Jazz band and life in Forks until Skye got a call from Emma telling her that dinner was almost ready. Kelly and Anu drove us home and walked up to the front door of the Whitebridge home with us. It felt weird, like we had been on a double date, a sensation compounded when Anu pulled Skye close and gave her a proper kiss. Kelly and I stood to one side pretending not to notice and trying not to stare. I was both relieved and disappointed when he gave me a soft kiss on the cheek and pulled Anu back into the car. Over dinner, we dissected the day with Emma and Leroy. A male student from the University had been arrested for the attack on the woman and the police were hoping she could identify him. Emma said that the young woman was still in Intensive Care, but conscious. Skye told them what happened to Anu at the police station and then how much fun we had at the Potter’s. She left out the kiss goodnight.

Nocturne Part 4
I did not check my mobile phone until after dinner. There was really no need here, as only Anu and Skye had my number. But I had one new message from an unknown number. I pressed view and read the seven words with my stomach in my mouth: You owe me some kind of love. And I knew immediately who had sent it. Ruben walked into the reserve at 2 am. Instead of stopping at his usual spot, he turned to the Whitebridge house, looked up at the second floor and raised his hand in a mock-salute. Admittedly, I was the one spying, but that was a bit rude. Challenge? I thought, I’d show him challenge. Grabbing my coat and the CD, I made for the door. Even though they had arrested that guy, it would be scary outside and so I took my Piccolo trumpet as well. I crept down the stairs and was out the back door in under a minute. Ruben was not expecting me. He scowled and swore, then growled, “What the hell are you doing here, Sophia?” I played it straight “I saw you wave. I thought I’d come and return the CD” He did not say anything, and when I came closer I saw he was counting. “Are you counting to 10 to control your temper?” I asked bitchily. 24

“No, I am repeating Latin incantations” I took the bait. “Really?” When he smiled, I knew he’d got me. Putting down my Piccolo, I explained, “I did come to return the CD” No response, so I kept talking “Sorry for taking it. And for listening to it. I’ll give it back now and then I’ll leave you alone…” He remained silent and I started feeling like an idiot. Pull yourself together, I thought, don’t be embarrassed. I held the CD up and, when he did not move, I took a step forward. I was right in his space now and I could feel his closeness. “Shall I put it in your coat?” I asked. His eyes widened slightly, but he did not answer. It was as if my arms were separate from my body. I saw them reach out and unbutton his coat and open it to reveal his T-shirt. The right hand holding the CD moved between his coat and his T-shirt and slid the disc into the inside pocket. His chest was cold and I almost faltered. No shame, I repeated. I pulled my hand back and closed his coat, but did not button it up. My breath was more ragged now and the mist from our mouths was almost covering our faces, so I could not see his expression clearly. But I swear he looked like he was in pain, like he was starving and I had not brought any food. “What are you doing to me?” he whispered. It was my turn to be silent. The contrast between his open chest and his hurt eyes had thrown me and I did not know what to do. I looked down at my fingers: “My trumpet!” I said stupidly. I moved to pick it up. When I turned back, everything was different. Ruben was smiling and he was leaning with one hand in his jeans pocket. “I was going to ask, Sophia, why do you have your trumpet?” “In case someone tried to attack me. I wanted something like a whistle.” Out loud it sounded ridiculous. Ruben’s grin widened. “Oh yeah? Were you going to scare them off with some Chet Baker?” When I did not respond, he added, “Your playing’s not that bad!” “Ha bloody ha” It was fun, this teasing and seeing him smile; he had moved closer again. “I got your text message”, I said, “Should I take it literally?” “You asked for the song after Wicked Game and I checked the record” When I smiled back, Ruben reached for my hand. The contact was so unexpected and thrilling, it almost floored me. The Piccolo dropped to the ground. Ruben saw my surprise and moved his hand away. “Sorry, Sophia, I didn’t mean to freak you out.” He handed me the trumpet. “Your weapon of choice, m’ lady.” 25

All I wanted was his hand back. “Thanks” I took the trumpet “I didn’t even need it seeing they’ve caught the staker” Ruben jerked back. “You mean stalker,” he said slowly. I shook my head and wondered where I’d gone wrong. “Both are right, I suppose, the girl by the river had been attacked with a stake. It just missed her heart” Admittedly, this was a horrific revelation, but the effect on Ruben was awful. He lurched forward, his eyes bulged and he gasped for breath. A sense of dread washed over me. He looked for all measure, and it broke my heart, like a drowning man. I caught his arm. “Ruben, what’s wrong?” He was staring at me “Are you sure? How do you know? It wasn’t in the papers.” “Skye’s mother was at the hospital when they brought the girl in and told us about it when she came home. Why are you so freaked out? – They’ve arrested the guy who did it.” Ruben brushed the hair off his face and rubbed his eyes. “Do you remember I told you about Rachel?” I nodded “Your sister” “And I said she died in a house fire here in Forks.” I nodded again. “She was visiting some friends, a woman called Bella and her family, who lived with the Cullens, doctors at the hospital.” “Oh, wait a minute, Skye told me about them. She said that they were unusual, like the Adams Family, and that townspeople were disappointed when her mum was so normal!” Ruben’s face softened a little, but tensed up again as he continued. “One night, they were all out except Rachel and a cottage on their property burnt down. The police found her body, lamps and wax everywhere and concluded that the fire had started accidentally.” He closed his eyes and I touched his arm. “I came back from Ireland and stayed with the Cullens for a while, but we soon moved to Japan. After I received the photograph.” He stopped and rubbed his eyes again. “It was a photo of Rachel lying on a table with a stake through her heart”. “Oh my God. Did you show the police?” He turned away abruptly. “It’s not evidence. No date, no witness, no suspect” “Didn’t they examine her body? Do an autopsy?”

26

“Yes, Dr Cullen said she had a chest injury and a punctured lung. The cops explained it by the falling chandelier.” “But do you know who did it, put the stake in her I mean?” “I do”, he said quietly. “It was a local man who had become obsessed with her. His marriage had broken down and he started stalking Rachel. At first he tried to sleep with her and, when she rejected him, he went nuts. She wrote to me about it, laughing at this small-town loser who thought she was possessed of the devil and had worked black magic on him. She sent me some of his letters, all written in blood, dreadful things like I will make you suffer and Die, Satan’s whore. He wrote me a message as well, on the back of the photograph; it read only You will be next.” I shivered. “But how do you know it was him?” “Because the message on the photograph was written in the same blood as the letters to her.” This conversation was doing my head in. I was standing in a park with the most beautiful boy in the world and we had talked about nothing but murder and letters of blood. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the story, but I could not bear to leave Ruben. “Did she tell you his name?” I asked “Yes, he’s called Furcht. German for fear, of all things. Mr Josef Furcht of Forks. Although he hasn’t been seen here for years” “Is that what you meant when you talked about unfinished business on the CD? You think he’ll come back here and you…what will you do?” “I don’t know. It’s not a revenge fantasy if that’s what you are worried about. I’ve always known he would strike again, I just assumed he would go after me first. Not some poor student.” “But they’ve arrested her attacker!” “A fellow student from the university? I don’t think so.” He looked around suddenly “What am I doing keeping you out here? I’ll take you home right away.” Without another word, he took hold of my arm, stiffly, like a court officer escorting a suspect, and led me back to the Whitebridge house. I protested, but he did not answer, looking straight ahead and half-pulling me along. He was silent until we got to the back fence. “This is a warning, Sophia. You played me back there and a part of me responded. But I am a damaged man and they are never fair. Go inside before something happens and leave me alone.”

27

He must have waited for me to get upstairs. When I looked out the window, he turned around abruptly and walked away. I crawled into bed. The tears came then and I sobbed like a baby for what I could not have and could not understand.

Segue
I woke up feeling like crap. At least it was Saturday, even if it was cold and grey, and Skye bounced in, announcing that she was making pancakes. She gawked at my red eyes. I made up some excuse (“probably allergy”) and told her not to worry. I did not think I could eat anything, but when she brought in a big plate of pikelets, we both wolfed them down. We were still in our pyjamas when Anu called. He and Kelly wanted to take us to the movies – or to paintball. Skye screwed up her face: “In your dreams” she said, “But we will go see the new Bond.” It was fun getting dressed and dolled up together. Skye put some cream on my eyes to reduce the puffiness and offered to do my hair. As she was straightening the back, I read the label of the cream she had put on me: Hemoheal it read, Cream for Hemorrhoids and Anal Fissures. I screamed and she jumped. “What? What is it?” she yelled. “You put bum cream on my face” I shouted back “I have to rub it off” Skye started giggling. “Calm down” she said “It’s hemorrhoid cream alright, but all the supermodels use it on their eyes to reduce swelling after late nights. It’s a secret beauty tip.” “That is disgusting” “It’s made for bums, not from bums.” Skye lectured me. “Get over yourself” An hour later, looking dewy-eyed and straight haired, I had to admit she was right. The boys were suitably complimentary when they saw us. “You look gorgeous”, Anu told Skye. He grinned at me “And you’ve scrubbed up well too, scooter”. We did the full day-out-in-town thing – movies, lunch, window-shopping. Anu and Skye spent most time wrapped up in each other, but Kelly was easy to talk to and it was fun flirting again. After the previous night, a day working on maths questions would have been fun.

28

We stopped for coffee in Port Angeles on the way home and were walking down the main street arm-in-arm, when Kelly froze. His sudden stop halted my momentum so that I bounced back into his body. He reacted gently; “Whoa”, he whispered wrapping his arms around me, “Sorry about that” “No worries” I said “It felt good” He smiled distractedly, then turned his head to look down the street. Maybe he was checking out a new car. “Seen something?” I asked “I just thought I saw the truck my stepfather used to drive. His truck I mean” “Is that unusual?” He nodded. His face had lost all its humour and he was reaching for his phone. “My ex-stepfather is a psycho arsehole. He bashed my mum to within an inch of her life and fled the state before police got him. It may not have been him, but seeing the truck freaked me out. Excuse me, I’m going to call mum” It was a horrible story, but not my business and I was only half-listening to the phone conversation. “Hi mum, its Kelly… Yeah, we are having a great time…Mum, I, um, I just saw Josef’s truck”. Both of us stopped and my brain kind of imploded. Kick in, I told myself, remember something. I stared at Kelly but he did not notice. “Yes, it was definitely his truck, same colour and decorations...I saw a male driver with a hat; it could have been him…Yes, I am sure…yes, it was in Port Angeles…No, he didn’t see me…yes, I‘ll come straight home. Call the Chief and get someone to come over. Bye Mum” He put the phone in his pocket and turned to me “Sorry about this. We have to go straight home”. There was no music or conversation in the trip back. Anu and Skye fell asleep, Kelly stared at the road, keeping right on the speed limit, and I tried to work out what this could mean. Finally, I worked up some courage. “Kelly?” A curt nod meant I should keep going. “Ruben thinks that his sister Rachel was killed by someone called Josef Furcht. Is that your ex-stepfather?” Another nod “Yeah and I wouldn’t put it past him” he said “Burning down a house with a woman in it sounds just like him. He had left us by then, but he could have come back to do more damage”

29

He said no more until we pulled up outside Skye’s house. “Do you think Mr and Mrs Whitebridge would let Anu stay here for a few nights?” he asked Anu opened his eyes. “That’s sounds like a great idea. Let me ask them if I can share their daughter’s bed” Skye giggled and Kelly smiled. “I think I’ll try a different tack” he said We all went inside and Kelly asked to speak to Emma and Leroy alone. They went into the kitchen together, while Skye and I strained to hear what they were saying. Anu and Michael had bonded over some Playstation or X Box game and were oblivious to our efforts. A few minutes later Kelly came out. He motioned to us to be quiet and then informed Anu in a matterof-fact voice: “Anu, you’re camping here for a few days while we sort out some matters with the police. It’ll be safer in this house.” Anu’s face split into a huge grin and Skye started dancing behind the sofa. When Emma and Leroy walked in, we were acting normal again. Kelly introduced Anu and Emma stretched out her hand: “Hi Anu, welcome to our house. Skye has been talking about you. I hear you’ve already met Forks’ finest, if not most sensitive!” Anu smiled. He was very gracious about her, Skye and even the police. Leroy went to get a camp bed from the garage. There was some discussion where to put it. Skye rejected the living room (“Everyone will wake him up”), Michael offered to share his room (“Thanks mate”, said Anu, “but I snore”) and finally we agreed that I would sleep on the camp bed next to Skye in her room, so Anu could have mine. We were all sitting at the dinner table, when Leroy’s mobile rang. He took the call, grunted and turned to Emma: “Police are on their way”, he said. Anu looked up, but Leroy waved reassuringly and we continued eating. The cops arrived ten minutes later, an older man whom Leroy introduced as the Chief, Sergeant Swan, and two younger officers. They greeted Emma and Leroy warmly, nodded at Anu and ignored the rest of us. We managed to hear the entire conversation from the living room. The young woman in hospital was called Saskia Miller. She had identified the arrested man, but as a friend and not as her attacker. She had given police a brief description of the man who had abducted and bashed her – Caucasian, tall, dark-haired - and the police had to release their young, African-American suspect. When the Chief said this, Anu almost exploded “What the hell! Did they just arrest the second black person they could find?” and even Skye shook her head in dismay. The Chief had been in contact with Kelly and his mum and they were worried 30

that the description matched that of Jasmine’s ex-husband, whose truck Kelly had seen in Port Angeles. There was no current warrant out for Furcht’s arrest, but police considered him a dangerous man. The Chief lowered his voice. “I have Jasmine’s permission to tell you this. She and Furcht were married for three years. The relationship deteriorated after their baby son died” A pause, then “Yes, horrible. Cot death. Furcht became increasingly unstable and violent. One night he bashed Jasmine; Kelly, only a young lad then, managed to escape and call us. Josef fled the scene and has not been seen since. Jasmine is of course very afraid that he will return. We are taking no chances. The two girls are staying with friends and we appreciate you letting Anu sleep here. Kelly and Jasmine will remain in the house and I am providing a police guard.” The police chatted to Emma about Ms Miller’s injuries and recovery and then moved on to budget cuts at the hospital. When we heard their chairs move, we turned as one to the television, which Skye managed to switch on just in time. Sergeant Swan came in and gave us a two-line summary of the investigation: “We are still looking for the man who assaulted Ms Miller. He is considered dangerous and I urge you to stay inside tonight”. Staring at the screen, all I could think about was Ruben It was eight pm now and I knew only where he would be at 2 am. A deluded part of me liked to think that I would have gone to meet him there, even with the staker on the loose and Furcht back in town, but I knew my limitations – and fear of psychos was one of them. Even if I had the courage to creep out in the middle of the night, our new sleeping arrangements were going to make this more difficult, if not impossible. And what if Furcht was waiting for him before that? I sent Ruben a text message: police have released staker suspect, victims id matches furcht, furchts truck seen in port angeles, be careful, then another one I will leave you alone now. I checked my phone constantly, but there was no return message. As we were traipsing upstairs, I grinned at Anu. “Guess who is sleeping next to Skye tonight?” I quipped. Anu managed to give Skye a goodnight kiss and punch me at the same time. As we were doing our teeth, I asked Skye if she wanted me to swap with Anu. She sighed and shook her head. ”It doesn’t seem right” She replied “One, it’s too early; two, Anu said that my parents have been nice and generous and he doesn’t want to piss them off”. She rinsed her mouth “And three, the walls up here are paper thin.”

31

Agitato
Breakfast the next morning was a real treat. There were croissants, eggs, bacon, pancakes, and even a fruit salad. Skye and Michael must have got it all ready, because they were sliding a tray of bread rolls out of the oven when Anu and I came down the stairs. “We have a proper breakfast on Sundays” Skye explained “Tea or coffee?” We both opted for tea. Anu walked over and gave Skye a kiss on the cheek just as her dad walked in. They froze, but Leroy only nodded and sat down. “Morning everyone”, he said. Michael rushed to get him a cup of coffee and put the rolls on the table. “Mum!” he shouted, “Breakfast’s ready!” We ate for almost an hour and talked about our plans for the day. Skye wanted to show Anu the National Park and Leroy said he’d drive them out if they took Michael. She was about to protest, but Anu intervened “Thanks, Mr Whitebridge” he said, “That’d be great”. Emma had to see some patients at the hospital and I asked if she could give me a lift into town. Emma dropped me at the library. I wanted somewhere quiet and hushed and found the Non Fiction - Natural History section. There was nobody else around. I grabbed some random bird books and leafed through the pictures of blue grouse and winter wrens. I tried to get my head around the last week. But no matter how I looked at it and even taking my jet lag, hormones and the cultural differences between Sydney and Forks into account, one thing was blindingly obvious: Things did not add up. There was the mystery of Ruben and the horror of Furcht, intertwined – allegedly - through the death of Rachel. If I accepted everything Ruben told me at face value, crucial questions remained: Why did Furcht threaten to kill Ruben? How did he even know about him? Why did Ruben and the Cullens not force the police to investigate the stake photo and threatening letters? Why had Ruben gone to Japan with the Cullens? What was he doing in Ireland as a fourteen year old? Indeed where were his parents? Then there were minor niggles: Why won’t he go out with anyone? When does he ever sleep? I could answer none of these. If Ruben was lying, I could not see why: Why make up such a story? What advantage would he gain blaming Furcht for Rachel’s death? Putting aside the bird books, I decided to do some research. It was frustrating going through the back issues, but I found the local newspapers from four years ago. I was hoping for a big 32

headline like “Addams Family House Burns Down” and the Forks Forum did not disappoint. The February 12th edition led with “Woman Dies in Tragic Doctor’s House Fire”. Presumably it was up to the reader to decide whether the doctor, his house or the fire was tragic. I was going with all three. The article matched most of what Ruben had told me. There was no mention of a staking and Sergeant Swan was quoted frequently: “Terrible tragedy”, “extremely careful this time of year”, “the importance of smoke alarms”, etc. One week later, the paper reported on Rachel’s funeral. Under the heading Family Mourn Fire Victim, there was a paragraph and a photo. It was the strangest picture. I had expected the Cullens to look like freaky old professors, but the people in the photo were all young and quite gorgeous. They looked sad of course, Ruben’s face in particular was a study in anguish, but the heading could have read Hollywood A-Listers Farewell Young Star. There was a third article one month later explaining that the Cullens had taken up an offer to work in Tokyo and that Forks would soon welcome a new doctor from Portland. One other announcement caught my eye: “Forks Library Now Has Free Internet, Broadband”, the Forum reported from March that year, “making it a state-of-the-art research centre”. No way, I thought, this library had been frozen in 1977. I took the article with me to ask at the counter. It was five minutes before the librarian, a skinny woman in her fifties with neat red hair, came over to see what I wanted. I showed her the article and asked whether I could take advantage of the Internet access. She raised a bony finger “You are not allowed to remove newspapers from the reading area.” I put the paper back and repeated my question. “Have you booked?” she scowled I shook my head. “No, I am here to book” Her face was stony. “You will have to book”, she said. “I understand that”, I said “I would like to make a booking now”. Reluctantly, as if she was handing over one thousand dollars, she pulled out a form. It had Bookings on the top, and squares underneath. It was completely blank. I checked my watch and wrote my name in the boxes Sunday 11 –12 and 12 – 1. The witch pounced “You cannot book it for two hours. Other people are allowed to use it too, you know”. I scratched out 12 – 1 and sighed. The sooner Kelly got his librarian degree, the better for Forks. “Could you please show me where the computers are?”

33

“Computer” she corrected me “There is only one. It’s over there. You will need to turn it on.” She leaned closer “The password is RHYTHM. You must know how to spell it properly and don’t tell anyone.” The computer was ancient but working. I typed in Furcht + Staking + Forks and got nothing useful. There was no information on Furcht at all and staking brought up thousands of pages on vampires. This was a write-off. I was about to get up, when the librarian came over. “Is everything alright?” she snarled. “Yes, great”, I lied. No way was I giving up this computer till 12. I clicked on the first site listed. It was called “How To Kill A Vampire” and even better than it sounded. Apparently vampires could only be killed by a silver bullet or a stake through the heart, although some people believe they could also be shredded by the teeth of a werewolf and burnt. This was useful information, particularly if you were carrying a werewolf tooth and a lighter. On a roll, I linked to “How to Recognise a Vampire”. It said that they looked normal, but did not age, had very pale skin and were nocturnal beings. Ha, I said out loud, sounds like someone else I know. Shaking my head at this nonsense, I sensed movement to my left. I killed the screen and steeled myself for another librarian-attack. “Internet porn?” It was Ruben, smiling sardonically, “Young people these days” “Ruben”, I said just as dryly, “What a coincidence” “Not really”, he admitted, “I texted Skye to ask where you were and she said you had agreed to meet her mum here at 12”. “So I did. What do you want?” Ruben raised his eyebrows. He looked hurt but covered it well. “I was going to thank you for your text last night. Maybe take you out for a coffee. But I can see that you’re busy so I’ll leave these with you and get going.” He put a paper bag and my ring down on the desk and turned to go. ‘Ruben, please wait”, I said, “You asked me to leave you alone. I was just following orders.” He raised his eyebrows. “You following orders? That is funny.” But he sat down, quite close, and put the ring back on his little finger. “I’ve been wearing it all the time” he said “It reminds me of Ireland” “How long did you live there?” I asked. Might as well keep up the research. “I was born there”, Ruben answered immediately, “My parents, like so many Irish, left and I moved between America, Brazil, France and home”. 34

He had said ‘I moved’, not ‘we moved’, and I got the feeling he did not want to talk about his parents again. “Which one did you like the most?” “Ireland probably, but Brazil has a wonderful culture of music and dance. It’s the most exciting.” The thought of Ruben dancing the samba was sublime. “You do not dance”, I said. “I’ll have you know I am an excellent dancer” Ruben said, “I can dance the tango, lambada, rumba, cha cha, you name it.” I shook my head grinning and saw the paper bag “What’s in here?” I asked Ruben opened it and brought out two croissants. They were warm and, to my delight, looked like they had chocolate in them. “I really appreciated the text” Ruben said softly, “I got it on the way to Seattle for a gig. I played there till midnight, drove home and baked them early this morning.” He looked at me “You know, instead of going out.” I was about to ask why he never seemed to sleep, but this was the most forthcoming and candid he’d been with me and I did not want to push it. “We won’t be allowed to eat them here” I warned, “That librarian is just waiting for a chance to throw me out” “Ms Mears?” Ruben was amused “It’s amazing that she even let you use the computer. I have never seen anyone on it. She hates all humans, although she loves me” I was incredulous “As if she does. I might just believe the dancing claim, but you and the scary book witch, never” Ruben raised his eyebrows. “A bet perhaps? If I prove to you that Ms Mears adores me, will you go out for coffee with me?” I smiled “And if you fail?” “I’ll take you out for dinner.” Woot-bang. “Looks like I can’t lose.” Ruben got up and walked to the desk. When Ms Mears saw him, her face broke into a delighted smile. They chatted for a minute, before Ms Mears looked over in my direction. Thirty seconds later, she was behind my chair. “Excuse me, um, Ms Bloom, I am afraid that there has been a misunderstanding. This computer has been double-booked. One of our senior students requires it urgently and I will have to ask you to vacate it immediately.” That was a quick victory. I stormed back to the Natural History section without a word or a glance. He could have proven Ms Mears’ adoration in a less humiliating fashion. In revenge, I decided to eat both croissants. 35

They tasted great and my mood improved no end. Coffee with Ruben was not a bad outcome at all. I glanced over to the computer, hoping he was going to make good his win soon. It was all wrong. Instead of lounging in his chair, smiling at me, Ruben was glaring at the screen. I saw him brush the hair from his face, and then smooth it back, almost nervously. He was clicking the mouse button loudly and I could not help thinking: He is checking what web pages I visited. This seemed a touch paranoid, but I had not moved three metres before Ruben got up and walked out. This time I followed him. “Excuse me”, I said, “I think I owe you coffee”. He turned then and I could see that he was struggling to control his temper; his face was shifting between anger and hurt and what he wanted to achieve: arrogant indifference. “Is something wrong?” I asked “What were you searching?” he asked back “Hang on”, I said, “Why were you looking at my pages?” Arrogance won. “You minimised the screen. I clicked to open it. I am not that interested in you.” I closed my eyes, just for a moment, his words smarted and I did not want to cry. When I opened them, he had turned his back and was walking down the street. Avoiding a confrontation? Who was he kidding? “Ruben” I called out, “This is your fight” I may have been a bit loud and it was the main street; he stopped. I didn’t. “You brought it up. I typed in staking and all I got are web nutters raving about Dracula! That upsets you, that is not my problem!” I marched back inside and went straight to the computer. Just try and stop me, I silently goaded Ms Mears, but when I glanced back at her, she looked inexplicably sad. Twelve on the dot, I switched off the computer, waved at Ms Mears, who was looking practically suicidal, and went outside to meet Emma. She was parked on the other side and I started to cross the road. A shout of “Stop!” sent me hurrying backwards, just in time to see a blue ute speed by. Oh God, only eight lives left. Emma came running over to me. “Are you alright?” she asked, “I was terrified that man was going to hit you.” “Thanks, I’m OK”, I said. “And thanks for calling out ‘stop’” “It wasn’t me”, Emma said, “It came from your side”

36

I turned around but there was no one on the pavement. Emma helped me into the car and we drove home listening to Mozart. At dinner, Emma told everyone how close I had been to getting hit, but what impressed Skye and Michael was my earlier triumph. “Ms Mears let you use the computer in the library?” Michael was gobsmacked. Skye bobbed her head incredulously “She never even turns it on. And she hates everyone.” Not quite.

Staccato
On Monday morning, Emma drove Skye, Anu and me to school. As we were leaving, Anu pulled me aside. “Need to tell you something,” he whispered. Making sure the others could not hear, he recounted: “Last night, I woke up about 2 or 3 in the morning and could not get back to sleep. I sat at the window and looked out through the curtains. Someone, a man I’m sure, was standing behind the house, not hiding or anything, in full view, looking up at the window.” My heart started beating very fast “What did you do?” Anu looked at me closely. “I opened the window and told him piss off” I nodded “And did he?” “Yes”, Anu replied, “He walked away the moment he saw me” I did not say anything. “You know what was strangest about the whole thing?” Anu asked. I shook my head, but knew what he was going to say. “I could have sworn it was that conductor dude, Ruben.” The day did not get better. We had a band meeting after Assembly and the Australian teachers droned on about personal safety and risk-taking behaviour. They gave examples of the latter in case we weren’t sure, like not getting into cars with strangers or walking by ourselves at night. If we took risks or, worse, “behaved badly”, we would face “serious consequences”. They spelt these out too – we might be sent home, at the expense of our parents, or worse, find ourselves in grave physical danger. Mr Stone peered at us before delivering the ultimate argument “I need not remind you what happened to the foolish young woman who was walking by herself after dark”. This was shocking. When they reeled off their “highest expectations” again, I closed my eyes and mouthed blah blah blah. “Do you feel these rules do not apply to you, Sophia?” Mr Stone’s voice snarled. 37

“No” I stared straight back at him “Are you implying it was the girl’s fault she was bashed by the river?” Mr Stone’s face turned red. “I made no such suggestion. I was merely warning you young people that there are dangers lurking everywhere, even in nice towns like Forks, and you must be sensible.” Skye had told me to meet her in Biology, but I got lost and spent most of the first period in an art room. It smelt like every other art room, of paint and glue and wood, and was oddly comforting. I was contemplating another attempt to find the Science labs, when the door opened and two men walked in: Ruben and Mr Hales. Immediately I felt like an intruder – guilty and lurking in the wrong place. They were deep in a serious conversation and I heard only one incongruous sentence – Mr Hales said “Love is ridiculous, Ruben” – before I stood up to show myself. “Excuse me, Sir”, I spoke to Mr Hales “I was looking for the science rooms and got lost. I gave up and stayed here, sorry.” Mr Hales raised his eyebrows. “I have always preferred art over science myself” he said “Far more creative. But there are rules and your Mr Stone will get angry with me if I do not send you away. There may even be Serious Consequences.” He was hilarious. I grinned and moved to the door. “Ruben” said Mr Hales “Could you please take Sophia to the Science rooms?” He turned to me “And no risk-taking behaviour on the way there!” Ruben held the door open for me and indicated that I should turn left. We walked down the corridor together. I glanced at him, trying to gage his mood. He looked rough and his hair was untidy, but he appeared quite calm. “Mr Hales seems like good value”, I said, “As far as teachers go” Ruben nodded “He is great value as far as people go”. We turned into a stairwell and I contemplated that last sentence. Ruben had hesitated ever so slightly before the word ‘people’. I wondered what other word he had been about to use. A minor mystery compared to the bigger questions. “Anu said he saw you outside the Whitebridge house last night”, I said, “Why did you come?” Ruben did not deny it. He stopped and pointed to a steel door. “Go out here and it’s the block directly in front. They are probably in the bottom lab.” “Thanks. Do you want to answer my question?” “No. I am not going to talk about it here” 38

“Maybe over the coffee I owe you?” “That’s not a good idea at the moment. It’s probably best if we don’t see each other again” I reeled as if struck. My hands flew up, my mouth opened, but my brain could not get words out in a working order. Tears blurred my vision. And then I lost it completely. I stood in front of Ruben, getting louder and growing taller as the rage set in. “Fine!” I shouted “But this is your hang-up. What are you afraid of? Girls? Love? Sex?” I asked that because every guy would bristle at the suggestion they were scared of sex. Ruben’s response was a sad smile: “All three of course. Who isn’t?” It took me a second to reload. “But why play me then? Why flirt at the park, then push me home? Why ask me out for coffee, then storm out? Why wear my ring, if you never want to see me again?” Ruben touched the ring. “It’s not a matter of not wanting.” I was glad he seemed to be struggling to order his words as well. “I thought it might work out. I was hopeful, for the first time, but I can’t put you through this. I’m sorry, Sophia” He took the ring off and held it out. With his other hand, he reached for my fingers and in that moment, Kelly walked in. Two periods of English washed by me. The sick feeling in my stomach remained. I did not mind making a fool of myself in the main street of town, but yelling at Ruben was ridiculous and embarrassing Kelly, that was unforgivable. He had been very nice about it, apologising for intruding and leaving just as quickly with no dark looks or headshakes. Just as quickly I pulled my hand back - I could not bear Ruben touching me, it made me want to kiss his fingers - and ran out the door without another word. There was a big band rehearsal scheduled just before lunch. I avoided going in until the last minute, then picked up my trumpet and slipped into position. I only looked up when Ruben tapped the stand. His face, always tense before we started, was even paler than before. He rubbed his eyes, brushed the hair out of his face and told us what we would be playing – Leap Frog by Charlie Parker. When he raised his hands, we started properly, but it was a ragged performance. We were all over the place and I could see straight away that Ruben was not paying attention. He was staring at me. I refused to cringe. I kept playing, concentrating on the notes and looking at the sheet. When we finished, I glanced at him with a bright, expectant “What now, conductor?” kind of look. It worked. Ruben’s jaw tightened and he dropped his gaze. He dismissed us without thanks. 39

Anu must have seen the exchange. He did not miss much and he was ready to counsel me the moment we are alone in the corridor. “What the hell was that all about?” He asked, “Why is Ruben pissed off with you?” I gave him very sketchy details of my meetings with Ruben in the library and the stairwell. He was not impressed. “Sophia, I know you are a free spirit and all, but I thought you liked Kelly?” I grimaced and made an inarticulate sound. Whenever Skye did this, people knew what she meant, but Anu looked at me as if I was an alien. “Yes, Sophia? No, Sophia?” “Yes”, I admitted, “Of course I like Kelly. He is gorgeous and funny and has those mad arms. But I am not sure how I feel about Ruben” “Do you want my advice? Leave him alone. He is bad news” “He doesn’t want to see me again anyway” I sulked “But why don’t you trust him?” Anu looked straight at me. He was dead serious. “Because he is not motivated by sex” “What?!” My voice was way too loud. “What are you talking about?” “Hear me out. From what you’re telling me, he does not seem interested in relationships.” I was about to protest, but he held up his hand. “Skye told me how she had a crush on him and tried to make a move and he said ‘I cannot feel that way about you’. What is he – the pope? Healthy, heterosexual blokes my age would not knock back an attractive girl like that.” “Just because you love Skye doesn’t mean all blokes do” “Sophia, I am not talking love, I’m talking sex. I would trust him more if he had been a bit sleazy, if he had tried to exploit her crush and sleep with her.’ “That is ridiculous. You would trust a sex-obsessive over a decent guy” “I did not say that. Obsession is always bad; I’m talking objectives. Think of the alternatives. If he is not driven by sex –or lust if you prefer-, what motivates him? Power? Money? Religion?” “Integrity?” I don’t know why I was defending him. “Maybe he just wants to do the right thing by women.” “And not go out with any of them – ever?” He was winning; I tried a dirty trick. “Are you saying that you are only interested in sex with Skye? Or with me for that matter?” He grinned. “You gave no indication that you were interested, so I did not pursue it. But look at it this way. I adore Skye. I think she is the coolest, smartest girl I have ever met and standing

40

next to her gets my heart racing. What would you think if I told you that I did not want to sleep with her, that I have no interest in getting her naked?” “I’d say you were lying” ‘And if it was really true?” “I’d say there was something wrong with you” “Exactly. And that is my point” Game, set and match Anu. This exchange did nothing to cheer me up. If there was something wrong with Ruben, what was it? Maybe he was still grieving for Rachel, maybe he was sick, maybe he just had major commitment issues. I decided to let it lie for a while, a choice made easier when I saw Kelly in the school cafeteria. He came over with two hot chocolates and asked if I’d drink them outside with him. It was freezing and cloudy, but we walked out to the sports field. Kelly put the drinks down and took my hands between his. “I missed you, Soph”, he said, “I’m sorry our day out was cut short by freaky dramas” We talked about his mum and how she was holding up. I started telling him about Ruben and the ring, but he gently pulled me towards him and raised his fingers to his lips. “You don’t have to explain yourself, Sophia, I’m not into control” It felt so good standing close to him with his hand on my arm that I closed my eyes. Before I knew it, I had leant against him and fitted my face into his neck. His skin was warm and he smelt nice, of oranges and cinnamon, and I could feel myself smiling. He wrapped his arms around me and bent his head down. He traced one finger down my cheek and under my chin, tilting my face up. When I was looking at him, he smiled. “OK with you?” he murmured. “OK with me” I whispered and we kissed. It was awesome, feeling desire and heat and a boy’s body again. It was the best I had felt in ages and it lasted for a good six minutes until I turned to see Ruben walking through the doorway towards us. When he saw me, he stopped and walked back inside, but not before I had seen his pained, hungry face. It was ridiculously easy to wag the last two periods. I went back in with Kelly and got my stuff, then texted Skye that I was not feeling well and walked out the front gate. It was probably a cop-out, but I wanted to get away from school, from Ruben’s pain and Kelly’s sweetness, from 41

Anu’s advice and Skye’s concern. Outside, it was beautiful: Tiny snowflakes were falling and it was very quiet, almost muffled – no traffic, no birds, no wind. I tried to think about what had happened – kissing Kelly, goading Ruben – but I got nowhere. The more I thought about, the less resolved it seemed and the more confused I felt. I needed a wiser soul than me to help on this one. “Hello!” A middle-aged man came running up behind me. He was wearing overalls and an anorak. “Could you please tell me how to get to the high school?” I pointed out some directions and turned to go. The man followed me. “I have to deliver something to Ruben de Valera. Do you know him?” My neck felt cold. “He’s the school conductor” I said blandly. “Is he your boyfriend?” An icy spider crawled up my back and wrapped its legs around my throat. I knew who this was and I was five minutes from safety. “No!” I said, trying to sound amused and not hysterical, “My boyfriend is Australian. Like me.” “But I saw you and Ruben in the library yesterday. You had an argument in the street! I drove by later, but he had gone” “Oh that!” I waved away the suggestion of a lover’s spat as casually as if it were a fly. “He wanted me to come to band rehearsal on Saturday but I have a date with my boyfriend and told him I wouldn’t go” The man nodded, as if in approval. “You said you’re Australian. Is it hot there?” The ice spider was in my mouth. “Yes, it’s very hot and sunny” Keep talking, keep walking. “Highest skin cancer rate in the world apparently.” Again he nodded in approval. Then he leaned closer “You wouldn’t have a problem with vampires then?” The spider was clawing my eyes. “No” I said, “Well, I’ve never seen one. Thankfully” Skipping a bit now, like this was a breezy conversation. Three minutes to home. “You are very lucky” the psycho said, “I will make sure that you do not meet one here.” “Thanks”, I said brightly. I prattled on about the weather in Sydney, not asking any questions and not stopping for a second. The man kept following me, looking around and moving his hands in his pockets. Only then did I remember that I had no keys to the house. It was an excruciating minute. As soon as I saw the Whitebridge cottage, I shouted “LEROY! I’M

42

HOME!” as loud as I could and then ‘Goodbye’ to the man behind me. In what was probably the luckiest moment of my life, Leroy stepped out of the front door and waved at me. I ran across the street and tumbled into the doorway, the last thing I heard was the nutter calling out “I will protect you!” Leroy caught me and closed the door. He had seen scared people before and he knew exactly what to do. “First thing you need to do is go to the toilet”, he said, “I’ll be right here”. When I came out, he handed me a glass of water and asked whether he should call the cops.

Exposition
Leroy drove me to the police station. He had called Sergeant Swan, then Emma, Skye, Michael, Jasmine and the High School. “Better safe than sorry” he told me, “We have to assume it was Furcht”. There was something reassuring about the procedure at the station. I had seen so many cop shows that it was quite fun to play a role in one. The weary desk sergeant, the fresh-faced rookie, the competent chief, they were all here. The young policeman wrote up what happened and showed me about fifteen different photos, asking if I could recognise any of them as the man who had followed me. I pointed to the third photograph and the officer called out “It’s him alright, Chief”. Sergeant Swan jumped into action, barking “Get it onto the air right away. Immediate pick-up” and then “Get Rob down to the hospital for a possible ID. Be gentle about it”. He read my statement while Leroy and I followed him into his office. We had just sat down, when Jasmine arrived, followed by Emma. Swan waved them in and looked around: “I tried to call Ruben” he said “I have left a message”. He continued with the cop show. “As you know”, he started, “A young woman called Saskia Miller was attacked by the Calawah River four days ago. The assailant knocked her unconscious and drove a stake through her heart. Thanks to a fortunate combination of co-incidence, quick-thinking and excellent medical work’ – here a nod at Emma – ‘Ms Miller survived and has recovered to the point where she can help us with our investigations.” He shuffled some papers and went on. “The day after the attack, we arrested a young man, reasonably confident that he was the attacker. Witnesses had seen the two leave the Olympic Park Resource Centre together and walk to the car park. Once she regained consciousness, Ms Miller gave us a brief description of the man who attacked her and it did not match that of our 43

suspect, so we released him immediately. We put together a profile of her attacker. We know that Ms Miller declined the offer of a lift and decided to jog into Forks to get something to eat. She left the centre at 5:30 pm and the fishermen found her body at 6:30; the call to the ambulance coming at 6:33 pm. In that hour she was abducted by a man, whom she described – a glance at his papers – as ‘dark-haired, white and psycho-looking’, and taken three kilometres to the river where she was assaulted and dumped. From the nature of her injuries, we estimate that she was attacked shortly after 5:30 pm, suggesting that the man had watched her leave the Centre and picked her up soon after. Two days ago, we received a call from Ms Jasmine Potter, worried that her ex-husband, Josef Furcht, who is known to the police here, had been seen in Porto Angeles. Kelly Potter had in fact only seen Furcht’s truck, but Ms Potter has reasons to be apprehensive. This afternoon, Sophia Bloom, who is staying with the Whitebridges, was followed home from school by a man. She had been in Port Angeles with Kelly and he had told her about Furcht. When the stranger began to ask her questions about Ruben de Valera, Ms Bloom became suspicious. Showing courage and intelligence, she got herself home without a confrontation and called us immediately. A few minutes ago, Ms Bloom identified the man who followed her as Furcht” Jasmine gasped and Emma reached out to touch my hand. “This is unfortunately proof that Furcht is in Forks, that he is still obsessed with some of the residents here and that he is a likely suspect in the staking of Ms Miller. I have sent Officer Freeman down to the hospital with a photograph of Furcht, hoping that Ms Miller can identify him as her assailant. If that happens, I can get an arrest warrant for attempted murder and we will all breathe a lot easier”. Sergeant Swan exhaled wearily. Jasmine was crying and Emma tried to comfort her. When the phone on Swan’s desk rang, we all jumped. “Yep, Swan speaking…What have you got?...Full ID…definitely him…Thanks, Rob, well done” As an afterthought, he added “Is she OK?...Not in shock…Good. Come in with the statement.” He put the phone down and looked at us. We all stared back at him. “It’s Furcht all right. We’ll need a proper statement from Ms Bloom.” Leroy left to drop off Jasmine and pick up Skye, Anu and Michael. Emma stayed with me while I gave a full statement and answered Swan’s questions about Furcht. What had he said? What did he look like? What was he wearing? He asked whether I had seen his truck and I shook my head. Emma piped up “Sophia was almost run over by a blue truck outside the library yesterday”. 44

I frowned “No, that was a ute”. Swan frowned too and pulled out a photograph “Did it look like this?” It was a photo of a blue ute. “Yes, that’s it. That’s the ute” “We call these vehicles trucks or pick-ups”, Swan explained and sighed, “I’m going to need a full statement on that incident as well, possible hit-and-run by a murder suspect.” Twenty minutes later, Swan came in to read the statement. He asked a few more questions, then put a hand on my shoulder. “Sophia”, he said, “If I may call you that, I have a daughter myself. Her name is Bella and she is only a few years older than you, the same age in fact as Saskia Miller. Once you have children, a part of your heart is always captured, and you feel the pain if they are hurting.” He smiled sadly “There are two families here Furcht has targeted – the de Valeras and the Potters. I do not know how far your friendship with Ruben and Kelly extends, but if you spend a lot of time with either of them, you will attract Furcht’s attention again. I must ask you to stay away from them.” He did not spell out the Serious Consequences, for which I was grateful. I said thanks and goodbye, but he was already looking past me. Ruben was standing in the doorway, his pale face tightly drawn and gaunt. When he saw me, he blinked, keeping his eyes closed for a fraction longer, as if he was in pain. “Ruben,” Swan said, “please come in. Sophia, Dr Whitebridge, thanks for your time”. It was clear we were being shunted. Leroy was waiting outside the station to take Emma back to work. On the way home, he fussed over me. Was I feeling faint? Was I thirsty? I shook my head and, at the next traffic light, held up my wrist so he could check my pulse. “Normal count”, he said, “You are handling this really well”. “I felt like crying when the Chief said I shouldn’t see Ruben or Kelly again!” Leroy grinned. “That is bad luck. Skye says they are probably the finest-looking guys in the school.” He turned a corner and added “But that Ruben is a strange fish.” I looked at him with raised eyebrows and he pointed to a cross street. “About a year ago, we were called out to a chimney fire. On the way back, just over there, I saw a man lying on the pavement. It was three in the morning and freezing. I stopped the truck and jumped out, hoping

45

against hope that he was not dead. He wasn’t. I recognised him as Skye’s conductor, Ruben. He got his eyes open. When he saw me reach out to check his pulse, he managed a whisper” “What did he say?” I asked “I do not consent” My eyebrows went up even further. “What did he mean?” “He did not want me taking his pulse or checking his capillary pressure or performing any First Aid. I asked him what he wanted me to do and he whispered ‘Get me home’.” “And you did?” “We drove him to the Hales house and I rang the doorbell. Everyone was up, it was like it was midday, and Mr Hales came out and said ‘Oh thanks, he just needs to eat something’ as if he’d skipped breakfast, not collapsed in the middle of the night. They took him inside and Skye says he was back at school first thing the next day.” “Very strange” I admitted “According to Skye, he doesn’t date girls or do sport or go to parties. I’ve got no problems with any of that – each their own, it just makes him an outsider.” When we got in, Skye and Anu were helping Michael with his homework. Leroy looked at them, then at me and grinned “At least she got over the strange fish pretty quickly!” They listened to my story with open mouths. Skye was beside herself “Oh my God!” she shrieked “Furcht is here! What if he is still outside?” She checked the windows and would not sit down again until Leroy locked the backdoor and Anu put a chair in front of the main entrance. I told them about Swan’s warning. “Bummer, Soph” was all Anu said and Skye patted my hand in sympathy. “Why does he care about Ruben?” Skye asked “Ruben thinks that Furcht killed his sister. No idea why Furcht is till pursuing him.” I answered. “It’s all a bloody mystery. And you dad told me that he once found Ruben lying semi-conscious on the street in the middle of the night.” Skye screwed up her nose. “I did not know that” she said, “but he once fainted at school. A junior found him on the floor of the music room. They wanted him to go for a blood test, check his iron levels or blood sugar or something, but he refused. He won’t see any doctor but Dr Cullen” “Maybe he is scared of needles. Or of blood.” Anu suggested.

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Michael looked up “I think he has a blood disease. Or leukaemia. Maybe AIDS. That’s why he is so cagey around medical stuff.” Skye aimed a punch at her brother, but Anu put up his hand. “If he had AIDS, it would explain his reluctance to date or sleep around or get tested, in case it comes out. Maybe Dr Cullen knew and Ruben felt comfortable with him, but not with anyone else.” “But that doesn’t explain Furcht’s obsession” I countered “And Ruben does not look ill” “Sophia, the man is pale as a ghost” Anu said. “And a hermit. Not to mention a complete insomniac. Besides, you can live for years with the HIV virus and not be sick. And Furcht might be obsessed with HIV infected people, a lot of nutters are, scourge of God and all that crap.” “This is ridiculous”, I said “Ruben does not have AIDS. And I need a shower” Anu’s suggestion bugged me. Ruben with AIDS might explain some of his oddities - his rejection of relationships, his fear of exposure – and possibly Furcht’s hatred, but it would not solve the mystery. Even a serious and vilified disease like AIDS did not prevent a young person from having friends or, for that matter, lovers, as long as they were careful. It did not explain why Ruben was alone in Ireland at the age of 14 or dancing in Brazil at some other time. And it gave no clue as to why Furcht was obsessed with vampires and staking young women. I had showered and changed when the doorbell rang. Anu must have answered it because he called up the stairs “Sophia, get yourself decent. Kelly’s here.” “Come up” I yelled, singing the rest of the song to myself “- and see me, make me smile”. When he walked into the room, now half-filled with Anu’s stuff, I gasped. It was disconcerting seeing someone as physically prepossessing as Kelly look shaken. It was as if he had forgotten that he had all these muscles or realised that they were of no great use to him. He sat in the chair and smiled, a tight smile. “Sorry to hear what happened. How are you feeling?” “OK”, I said, “Fine”, and, a bit flirtatiously, “Swan thinks I should keep away from you for a while”. Kelly nodded “Mum’s taking the girls to stay with her sister in Cleveland” “What about you?” Now he looked sheepish. “I am staying with Sergeant Swan. He’s got a spare room and I can keep going to school here.” I grinned. It was going to be difficult sneaking past the top copper in town, the very man who had warned me to stay clear of Kelly. But Kelly’s next announcement killed all hope. 47

“We won’t be able to see each other again for a while.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he went on. ”I have seen Furcht in action and, believe me, there is no way I am risking your life. I also talked to Ruben and he is very concerned that Furcht has targeted you. He is going to stay in Seattle for the next few weeks to try and lure Furcht out of Forks.” Kelly was smart enough to read my reaction. “I was kinda hoping that would not bother you” he said. I looked at my fingers “Kelly, I felt good today, really good, but it seems a lifetime ago now. I meet two great guys, kiss one and then the police chief forbids me to see either again. You gotta admit, that’s a disappointing outcome” “Not as disappointing as being attacked by Furcht” He looked as if he was about to leave. “One thing I want to know”, I said “Why do you think Furcht is obsessed with Ruben?” Kelly grimaced. “We are not talking about a sane man here, so I am not sure what twisted delusion drives him, but Mum says I can tell you a bit of what happened”. I was expecting the same awful story Sergeant Swan had told the Whitebridges, but Kelly went further. “Our dad died when I was ten and Mum did it tough. She met Josef two years later and married him fairly quickly. Loneliness can make you do funny things, I suppose.” He smiled, sadly now, and I sat on my hands so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch him. “The marriage was rocky but they had a son, Max. He was a little guy, cute as a button, and, for a few months, it looked like things would work out. One morning Mum found him dead in his cot. The verdict was cot death and of course there is no real explanation. Mum was beside herself – What had she done wrong? Why did this happen? – but Josef became psycho. The pain of losing Max unhinged him completely. He was always controlling, but now he became obsessed with finding an answer. He was going to work out what had killed his son.” I shook my head. “Oh no, poor Jasmine” I said. Kelly’s face was grim. “It was awful. I remember it clearly. He came home – we all ran into our rooms when we heard the car – but he called us out. He had something to tell us, he knew what had killed Max. Therese and Yvonne were shaking with fear, but we all sat down to listen to him. Maybe he was going to say ‘the room was too cold’ or something sort of understandable. But he stared at Mum and said ‘Max was killed by vampires’”. “What?” “He said that he saw a small red mark on Max’s neck when they found him dead. And he remembered someone coming in the window. And he knew there are vampires in Forks.” 48

I shivered “What did you do?” “Mum was appeasing, she had to be. But she made the mistake of saying that Max had lots of red spots – he did, like a milk rash – and Josef exploded. He went for her and Mum screamed at us to run.” “And you ran to the police station?” “Yes. I literally chucked the girls over the neighbour’s fence and ran to the station. Sergeant Swan sent a patrol car over immediately. He saved Mum, but Josef got away. For the next few months, Swan kept an eye on us. We got an emergency button, good locks, regular police patrols, counselling, you name it. Mum even got a job at the station, doing admin, and that was in many ways another life-saver.” He turned to go. I got up to walk him out, but he waved me back. We had not touched since our kiss; it was as if it had made us strangers rather than lovers. A three hour relationship, admittedly without sex, that was a new low. I moved over to the door – he would have to get past me first. He hesitated, then reached for my hand. “You’re here for a bit longer” he said “When this is over, we’ll catch up again.” He kissed my fingertips and I closed my eyes. But he did not pull me closer and, when I opened them again, his hand was on the door. “Be in touch” he promised. After a silent and uncomfortable dinner, Emma suggested we all watch the latest Harry Potter film. She was obviously strict about movie ratings, because she would not let Michael watch The Dark Knight, no matter how much he whinged. We grumbled about having to sit through a kid’s movie, but it was good fun. At one stage, Skye and I caught sight of Anu’s face – he was completely engrossed and staring at the screen with an open mouth – and we laughed so much, we had to put pillows over our faces.

Poco a Poco
I was not looking forward to the night. Emma thought I would be scared of being alone, but in fact that was all I wanted. My room back, somewhere to mope and listen to music and stare into space. No matter how much she tried to be quiet and sensitive, Skye could not stop herself from jiggling and squealing and grinning. We were finally lying in our beds, when she turned to me “You and Anu can swap tonight”

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I raised my eyebrows and she pouted “Nothing is going to happen! But I can see that you need your own space for a while” I smiled “You are too kind” She got it. “I know”, she said “When I see Anu tonight, I’m doing it all for you.” Half an hour later, I was in my own room. The swap was quite loud, I felt, with Skye calling for Anu to bring his I-Pod, but maybe Emma and Leroy trusted her enough not to hear everything. I got into bed and tried to work out what had happened. Kelly had a point: Why did it bother me that Ruben was leaving Forks? Why could I not stop thinking about him? One text to Ruben wouldn’t hurt, I rationalised, and I certainly needed to apologise. A minute later, I had sent a message: Sorry about this morning. Swan says I can’t see you or Kelly again. Wasn’t going to follow orders but too late anyway. Your S. I did not expect a reply, but I got a text back straight away. It read I could play you some music. This was more like it. After a brief celebratory dance, I texted back (Yes please. asap) and waited. My phone rang a few seconds later. All I could hear was background noise, like at a party. Then a band started playing, the chatter died away and I was in a jazz bar listening to Thelonius Monk. I put the phone next to me on the pillow and closed my eyes. Radioactivity be dammed, this was worth it. After a smooth version of ‘Round Midnight, I heard a voice, not Ruben’s. “Good evening Seattle”, a man said, “You’ll all recognise this one. Time for the brothesr to dance”. The band cranked into Max Roach and I smiled in the dark. This was the best present; nothing would have soothed me more. I fell asleep listening to Miles Davis. Every night that week I fell asleep to the sounds of Ruben’s band. And everything else fell into place. If I was tired in the mornings, I dozed during class – no one was going to hassle the tourist – or in the afternoon. Every day Emma drove us to school and I sleepwalked through lessons, band practice and lunch. Twice, Mr Stone organised band visits to Tacoma and Olympia, but we were home by nightfall. Michael, bless his soul, moved to a friend’s, so Anu shifted into his room and I got the attic back. Furcht did not reappear and I stopped thinking about Kelly. In the evenings, I took the first opportunity after dinner to go up to my room, where I spent the next three, six, hallelujah, eight hours with Ruben and his music. He called about eight each night. After the first night, we started talking, before, during and after his sets. They were different each night, mostly jazz standards, but sometimes the band performed Blues or Latin pieces. Ruben played guitar or piano or saxophone, he would 50

whisper what instrument to me, so I could hear out for him. It was beyond me how someone so young, even a musical genius, could play that many instruments well, but this was a nice mystery. One night, the singer, whose voice I had heard the first night, called Ruben onto the stage. “This does not happen very often”, he told the audience “But Ruben wants to sing for someone”. There were shouts and whistles, some shuffling, and then I heard Ruben say “Good evening. This is for Sophia” My whole body tingled – Yes! Yes! Yes! - and I snuggled down to listen to I Ain’t Got Nobody. You would think that a pale teenager could not cover a Bessie Smith song, but it was awesome. He had a wonderful bluesy voice and he was singing for me. After the gigs, he walked home – only a few minutes – and we kept talking. I listened to the final applause, the packing up, shouts of goodbye, hand slaps, doors opening and, finally, a sharp intake of breath as the cold night air hit him. Then I’d hear cars, more doors, what sounded like stairs, and a few minutes of silence while he put away his instruments and got a drink. Every night he drank a big glass of something (“It’s not alcohol if that’s what you’re thinking” he said the second night) and I made a joke of guessing what it was. Milk? Water? Horlicks? He cracked up when he heard the last one, I had to explain that it was an Australian milk powder. We did not talk about Forks or school or Furcht, but about family and music and books we liked and places we wanted to see. Well, I did, he seemed to have been to most of them already. Every night he’d tell me a little about some part of his life – growing up in Ireland, living in Brazil, working in Paris, the two years with the Cullens in Japan – and play some music he picked up in that time. He left much out and I did not ask any questions, partly because these were exciting and generous revelations and partly because I did not want to turn a dreamy dialogue into an interrogation. Occasionally he would put on an obscure recording, but most nights he got out an instrument, usually his guitar and, if I asked, sang as well. He could play anything - Flamenco pieces, slide guitar, folk music. He would sing in English, French, Irish, Portuguese and once in a language I could not make out (“Canto” he explained. “What? Like opera?” “Sorry, Cantonese”) Some nights I would fall asleep after a few hours and wake later to hear him still playing. I asked if he minded and I felt him smile. “No” he said “It’s great if you can sleep.” When I asked him if this was getting too expensive, he laughed “Let’s just say I’m on a high capped plan”. It must have cost him a fortune, but it was a divine gift. He was offering me his music. 51

It was his form of courtship. Or seduction. And it was working. On the fifth night, he called during the gig “Sophia, I learnt an Australian song for you today. Stay awake and I’ll play it when I get home. You might know it, although it’s a bit old”. I giggled, expecting him to launch into a convict ballad or Waltzing Mathilda. But it was a Nick Cave song, Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For? He spoke rather than sang it, making it as close to an intimate conversation with guitar strings as a song played over a mobile could be. Until then, I had made a conscious decision not to read anything into his choice of music. If he was going to play a love song, I did not want to spend the next four minutes worrying whether it was for me. But now I was shaken. He certainly sang the song as a direct question. Did he want an answer? When he finished, there was a short pause, as if he did not know what to expect either. “Ruben” I heard myself say “When will I see you again?” “I’m playing here all weekend”, Ruben said in a level voice “and I don’t want to go back to Forks until they catch Furcht”. It wasn’t the worst smackdown, but it wasn’t an invite either. I closed my eyes and I heard Ruben go on “Do you want to come here?” I sat up “Come to Seattle you mean?” “Yes” he said “It’s Saturday tomorrow, I’m free all day. It’s hard to get out of Forks without a car, but I could pick you up from somewhere” He played some more Nick Cave, but this time I could not concentrate. I was planning my trip to Seattle.

Consonance
It wasn’t too hard. At breakfast the next morning, I raised the possibility of going to Seattle. Skye and Anu were not interested, but Leroy was supportive. Apparently the bus connections were ridiculous and he offered to drive. He rang his brother who lived just outside Seattle to see if we could stay the night. If we left after breakfast, we’d get there three hour later and I’d have the afternoon to go sightseeing. All I had to do was promise to call Leroy by six. Driving into Seattle was a thrill. Like other US cities, New York or Chicago, it had become a synonym; to me it represented grunge and Nirvana and coffee shops, a backdrop to music or 52

protest or movies. Leroy dropped me at the Pike Place Market, “downtown” as he called it, and I spent half an hour walking around, happy to be in a big city and in joyous anticipation of seeing Ruben again. I got my bearings and texted him. He arrived five minutes later, wearing a boudi and a duffle coat. His place was nearby, he explained, at the corner of Bell and First. I asked him if he lived in a flat and he grinned. “Flat? That’s good. Everyone here calls it a condo. Or a loft. Flat sounds a lot less pretentious.” It was a loft. We walked up three flights of stairs (“The lift is slow, I’ll carry your bag” Ruben compromised) and Ruben unlocked the door to the top, front-facing apartment. It was fantastic, not huge – one bedroom, an open-plan living/kitchen area and a big bathroom –, but light and spacious. I wandered around, gawking at the art works, the sculptures, the view, the large leather sofa, and then pulled myself together. I was acting like Elizabeth Bennett when she saw Pemberton. How shallow to be impressed by a boy’s real estate. How Sydney. But my older sister would be excited and I had to stop myself from snapping some photos on my mobile and texting them over. “Great place Ruben” I said. “Do you own it?” He raised his eyebrows. “Yes, I came into some money a while ago. Do you want something to drink? I have water” It was only when I turned back into the kitchen area that I noticed the contrast. While the living room looked inviting and inhabited - there was sheet music on the table and random books and these amazing pictures on the wall - ; the kitchen was spotless and completely empty. The benches were bare and when Ruben opened the fridge, I saw there was nothing but two ceramic jugs in it. He took one out, found a glass and poured me some water. “Thanks” I said “The paintings are wild” He was happy to talk about them; there was a real Chagall and what looked like a genuine Dali. I stopped in front of a beautiful nude, a young dark-haired woman sleeping in bed. It was a dreamy, seductive painting; you could almost smell her skin. “Whoa” I said “This is gorgeous. Anyone famous?” “It’s a painting of Rachel if that’s what you mean” It wasn’t, but Ruben kept going. “By a French painter whose name I have forgotten. It’s called ‘The Impossible Dream’” His tone was light. “As in unattainable?” 53

Ruben smiled, more to himself “In more ways than one. Painters, always so ambiguous” I walked into the bedroom. There were two books on the bedside table, a paperback version of All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir and an old leather-bound volume. Ruben pointed to some lovely charcoal drawings on the wall. “I could look at these for hours” he explained “Probably why I don’t have a television”. I had not noticed the absence of a screen but it made sense. This was in many ways an old-fashioned apartment. There was no visible modern technology – I presumed he had state-of-the-art speakers but they were hidden – no TV, no microwave, no computer, no phone. But there were sculptures and photo books and even ashtrays. This was a 1920s bachelor pad. Ruben purred when I told him as much. “That’s me”, he grinned “Errol Flynn” “If that is so, you need to serve cocktails and canapés”, I said “Sorry” he replied, “I haven’t shopped. You hungry?” Ruben suggested a Chinese restaurant nearby. It was hidden in an alley off a side street. You had to know it was there and hundreds of Chinese did. There was a queue thirty metres down the alley, but Ruben strode past them, nodding to a few people, and walked in. “Did you book a table?” I asked incredulously. The place did not look like it had tables, let alone bookings. “I know the owner from way back. She will always make room for me.” An ancient Chinese woman came over. She was tiny and cute and looked about 1000, like a wizened elf or Yoda. Her face lit up when she recognised Ruben and she started chattering in what I assumed was Chinese. Poor biddy, I thought, she has no idea he can’t understand her. But Ruben leant down – he had to bend over double – and whispered in her ear. She giggled and looked at me. I could have sworn she was sizing me up as a rival. “Sophia, this is Har-Ching” Ruben was enjoying himself. He spoke Chinese to her and I recognised only my name, at which point I nodded in what I hoped was a friendly manner. HarChing showed us to a table and an old man came over with one cup of tea. He placed it in front of me, then waited expectantly “What do you want to eat?” Ruben asked There were no menus and no pictures and the old man did not say a word, so I asked for a vegetable and noodle dish. Ruben translated and the man nodded. Our food arrived quickly. My noodles tasted good but Ruben’s dish was a shocker. It was a thick broth with the dark red texture and sickly sweet smell of blood. There were a few onions

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swimming in it and drops of vinegar on top, but I had studied Ancient History, I knew what this was. “What are you? Spartan?” I asked Ruben looked straight at me. “Melas Zomos. You know your classics. I’m afraid I love blood broth and blood pudding. It must be my Irish background” This was a reasonable answer, but he seemed uncomfortable eating after that. I had not meant to put him off, what he ate was none of my business. I dug into my noodles and smiled at him. Then I pointed at his soup. “Great food, Ruben, definitely not kosher.” Har-Ching came over to refill my cup. She chatted to Ruben and then brushed his hair back. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone touch him. He did not seem to mind. “How do you know Har-Ching?” I asked when she had gone. “She loves you. And where the hell did you learn to speak Chinese?” Ruben put his spoon down. He was serious. “It will be a strange answer. Please do not laugh. It would be humiliating.” I nodded. This sounded good. Maybe she had saved his life. Maybe he owned the building. Maybe she had adopted him. His answer was even stranger “I once went out with her” When I looked uncomprehending, he sighed. “Har-Ching and I used to be lovers” This was the most surprising thing I had ever heard, but I did not scream. Because as he said the word ‘lovers’, he touched the Cladagh ring and I knew he was thinking of me. It took some effort not to swear or wrinkle my nose, but in the end I could not stop smiling. “Here’s to you, Har-Ching Robinson”, I said raising my cup. “And to you” Ruben smiled “I have never trusted anyone enough to tell them that” he said “I was hoping you wouldn’t get too jealous” This time I could not stop myself. Tea spurted out of my mouth and nose, my eyes started watering and I flung my hands up. “Ruben!” I spluttered, “Don’t make me laugh like that! I’m all wet now.” He was grinning. “The toilets are way out the back. Do you want me to show you?” “No, it’s OK, I’ll find them” I said He got up with me and lightly touched my wrist. I paused and he kissed my hand. It took a lot of effort to keep walking. The toilet was through the kitchen, past the larder, out the back and down a side alley. It took me ages to negotiate the boxes, food scraps, feral cats and broken chairs, but I was in and out 55

of the tiny toilet in a flash. I was shaking water off my hands when I heard a noise. Spinning to my left, I came face to face with a mask. People in masks are my only real phobia. They all look like executioners. And in this case, the man in an anorak wearing a black leather mask, that was a legitimate assumption. No weapon, no escape route, I could feel my body start to panic. Breathe in, I told myself, breathe out. You know who this is, you are not powerless. “You said you would protect me” I said to Furcht “and here you are.” He could not answer without taking off his mask. It was almost comical. He rolled it up and I could see he was a goner. His eyes were pinned and he had foam in the corners of his mouth. But anything was better than the mask and I forced myself to look at him calmly. “What are you doing here? He whispered hoarsely “Why are you with Ruben?” He came closer. “You said you weren’t friends” His hands were clenching. I raised mine. “I have found out something very important about Ruben” I said slowly, emphasising very word. He stopped and I swayed with relief. “What?” he asked “Ruben” I said “is a vampire” That one hour spent reading crazy websites about vampires was finally paying off. There are nutters who believe in vampires and Furcht was one of them. This was a gamble, but if I could direct his psychosis towards Ruben, I could get back inside and warn the others. There was no way Har-Ching was going to let anyone harm Ruben. Furcht’s eyes lit up and he leaned back on his heels. “How did you find out?’ he asked. “I had my doubts because he is so pale and cold”, I answered conspiratorially, “Luckily you mentioned to me that there were vampires in Forks, so I kept a closer eye on him. He never sleeps” “Does he know you know?” Furcht looked worried ‘No! Of course not” I said firmly. I sounded like the Supernanny. “I am trying to get close enough to expose him.” “It is too dangerous” the nutter said “You must leave here. But rest assured, I will kill him soon. I got rid of the vampire bitch by the river, Ruben is next.” What was the etiquette to leaving a psycho who had confessed to a staking? I did not want to turn my back on him, so I stood my ground and waved. “Thanks!” I said “You are a real slayer” 56

He loved it. Rolling down his mask, he jumped over the trash cans and ran down the alley. I heard one final shout “I will save you!” Ruben looked up with a delighted face, which crumpled when he saw mine. He jumped to his feet. “Sophia, what happened? Are you OK?” “That obvious, huh?” I sat down “I just met Furcht. He came at me wearing a mask but I talked him out of it.” Ruben’s face could not get any paler, but his whole body seemed to collapse. He closed his eyes for two seconds before gathering himself. “Sorry about my reaction, Sophia, I can’t believe this. I will call Sergeant Swan immediately. The police can send someone to get us.” Har-Ching would not let us leave until two plain-clothes detectives arrived and, even then, she sent six Chinese waiters out to make sure we got into the cop car safely. The senior detective called Sergeant Swan and they agreed that we should return to Forks immediately. I called Leroy to tell him that Ruben was driving me home and that we were getting a police escort. He was livid and I don’t blame him. I had stuffed up. Ruben and I drove through dusk and then darkness. He had a new, quiet car and all I could hear was Paul Robeson coming softly through the speakers. After the tension at lunch, the drive was strangely calming. I watched the snowflakes fly against the windscreen, like tiny ice explosions, and fell asleep soon after Olympia. When I woke up, Ruben was singing to himself. We had never been this close for so long and I wished we could have driven to Mexico. He saw that I was awake and his face darkened. “I am so sorry, Sophia, I stuffed up badly. I should never have asked you to come to Seattle. All this is my fault.” “Hang on a minute”, I interrupted, “I am not a puppet. You don’t have to take responsibility for my actions. If Swan and Leroy are pissed off with me, I will just have to wear it.” “But to put you at risk like that! What was I thinking?” “I got away from him, Ruben” I tried a soothing tone. “Let’s leave it behind. What are you going to do back in Forks?” “I will stand guard outside your window again. That is what I was doing the night when your friend saw me. I want to make sure that Furcht does not visit you.” 57

“Ruben” My mood was considerably lighter now “I appreciate the chivalry, but what makes you think you can stop Furcht? He is evil and probably armed.” Ruben’s fingers twitched. “I don’t know how to say this, but I am a reasonably strong fighter.” I turned to him in glee and he went on “I have certain powers” “No!” I was cracking up “Like Batman? What can you do? Leap over tall buildings?” “That is Superman. They are more like skills” My hand flew to my mouth to stop the laughter. “Skills?” I purred as seductively as I could. “Anything you’d care to show me?” He did not smile. “Stop making fun of me” I put my hands up. “Ruben, I am not joking. I’d love to see your skills.” He relented a bit. “I am an orphan hermit. People don’t mock me”. A short pause. “Well, not to my face, they don’t. In fact, nobody treats me less seriously than you” He said it like a compliment, I smiled at my fingers. “You really are the most challenging girl I have ever known” We drove on in an intimate, dreamy silence and I took the chance “How many girls have you known?” Ruben thought for a full five seconds before I realised he was counting. “About 150” he said “I’d have to check some of my diaries” This was the most preposterous thing I had ever heard, but maybe he had taken me literally. “I meant in the Biblical sense?” “So did I” Ruben said and now he was grinning at me. Barefaced cheek. “150 girlfriends and no lovers in the last two years?! What were you – David Duchovny as a fifteen year old?” This got a pout. “You doubted that I was a fighter and now you want to disrespect my life as a lover. You got to pay at least one.” “Would you prefer to be a lover?” Ruben smiled “Yes, Sophia” He reached for my hand and I felt a surge right through my body “I most certainly would”

Dissonance
There were two police cars parked in the Whitebridge driveway. Ruben made a phone call and two officers came out of the house to escort me in. This was ridiculous, I felt like a gangster. As I got out of the car, Ruben touched my arm. “Sophia, I will be on guard. Please don’t come 58

out tonight. And I want you to have this.” He handed me a book, it was the paperback from his bedside table. “It’s important” He didn’t say why. And I had no time to find out, because as soon as I got in, the recriminations started. Swan, Emma and Leroy stared me down and did the full guilt trip: They were dreadfully disappointed, very concerned and worried enough to have contacted my parents. That freaked me out. I turned to the phone, thinking I would have to justify myself in German to my mother and father, but it was too late. Emma’s next words cut my heart: “Having spoken to Sergeant Swan and considering the danger Furcht poses, your parents have decided that you should return to Sydney immediately. They have booked a flight on Monday”. I would run away. I would pack my things, grab my trumpets and meet Ruben in the middle of the night. Then we would drive to Mexico in his nice, quiet car and live off his mysterious and considerable fortune. We could play music in bars and he’d teach me to dance. And once Furcht was caught, we could come back to Seattle. The dream lasted all of three minutes. Alone in my room, looking at my stuff, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere but Sydney. My parents would be too heartbroken, my sisters too angry and it still wouldn’t be safe with Furcht on the loose. I curled up on the bed and started to cry. Skye knocked on the door to see if I wanted to talk (“I have chocolates with whiskey in them” she offered) but I fobbed her off. I tried to work out what I could have done differently. It always came back to one omission. Of all the things that I had risked and mishandled in Forks, and even considering the great danger I had placed myself in today, all I regretted was that I had not kissed Ruben. I sent him a pitiful text about Swan, my parents and the booked plane and he called back immediately. “I’m on my way” he said, “Keep talking, do not come out” When he walked into the reserve, wearing his ridiculous duffle coat, the phone cradled to his right shoulder, I smiled for the first time in an hour. We discussed and discarded some of the options: Ruben talks to Swan, I talk to my parents, Ruben talks to my parents - that would be almost worth it for comic value - and Ruben captures Furcht, so that they would let me stay. “Yeah, that sounds good”, I said “You do that tomorrow”

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“Look, if it doesn’t work out” Ruben said, pretending it was a legitimate hope, “you’ll just have to go back to Sydney and we’ll try and stay in contact. I promise to come over as soon as Furcht is caught.” This was a nice offer but I was still morose. “But that might take ages” I moaned. There was a pause before Ruben responded. “It will be OK” He added “Have you started the book?” “No” I said, “I have been a bit hysterical” “Try and read it” Ruben said. “It would mean a lot to me”. The book was about an Italian noble who becomes immortal and then realises the horror of his fate. His life loses all meaning and all he wants is to be able to die. I read about half of it until the words started blurring and I had to crash. It was a powerful story, but I could not work out why Ruben wanted me to read it or why he thought it so significant. As I was falling asleep, I thought of one dark explanation, but it was exhaustion and melancholy. Skye woke me by putting one hand on my arm and one hand over my mouth and shaking them both. I pushed myself up and she whispered quickly “Swan’s downstairs, they’ve caught Furcht, you can stay” The relief was so sweet, it was as if she’d flooded my body with painkillers. I lay back on the bed, looked out the window and saw something I hadn’t seen in two weeks – sunshine. This was an omen. When I got downstairs, Michael gave me a thumbs-up and even Leroy looked pleased. Swan was nursing a coffee cup like all police officers seem to do. “We have some good news for once, Sophia” he said “Seattle Police picked up Furcht in Belltown last night and he has been officially refused bail.” “Good to hear” I said “Congratulations” It got better. “I personally rang your parents this morning to inform them of the arrest” Swan said “I told them that there was no reason why you had to return to Sydney so quickly. They have agreed to let you stay until the band’s scheduled departure” Yes! I clapped my hands, high-fived Michael and shook Swan’s hand formally. “Thanks very much for everything, Sergeant” This called for some contrition and gratitude. “I am very sorry I disregarded your warnings about staying away from Ruben. Please accept my apologies” Swan grinned “Apology accepted”

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I did the same with Leroy and Emma. Emma hugged me and Leroy punched my arm “Next time you want to go on a date with Ruben, it’s a seven hour commuter bus trip for you” he warned. Swan stayed for breakfast. He ate half the table and told us how Seattle Police got a call from an old Chinese woman, reporting a suspicious man in an alley near Bell Street. The squad car arrived a few minutes later and found Furcht crouching behind a dumpster, gibbering about Chinese gangsters and blood-sucking vampires. “Have you told Ruben?” I asked Swan “Yes, I went over early this morning. He keeps long hours, that guy, he was playing piano at 6 am” Ruben did not want to meet in town, but he invited me over to his place. I got directions from him and a bicycle from Skye and set off through Forks. It was bliss feeling the sun on my hands and not having to worry about Furcht. It seemed a bit agoraphobic of Ruben to insist on staying inside on a day like this, but maybe he was looking for some privacy. The thought made me smile even more. Mr Hale’s house was massive, grey and about as inviting as a bus stop. I walked up the stone steps and knocked on the “ugly oak door” Ruben had described. Inside was a different matter. Ruben showed me into a music room, which was as big as a ballroom, with long windows and a beautiful carved day bed. There were guitars, a grand piano, a double bass, didgeridoos and an incredible display of drums and percussion instruments. “I have collected them for ages” Ruben explained when he saw my face. He poured me a cup of tea and offered me a cupcake “I can’t cook much” he said, “Only cakes and bread. I like dough” This seemed a weird thing to say, but no stranger than an eighteen year old with 150 lovers and an art and instrument collection to rival a gallery. We played around with the instruments but I couldn’t really do justice to any of them. I stood behind a huge, standing drum and tried to get a clean, deep sound out of it. “Help Ruben” I called over my shoulder “Can you show me what to do?” I was hoping he’d stand behind me and take my hands, like in the pottery wheel scene from Ghost, but he moved to the other side of the drum. He showed me how to hit the skin with the side of my hand. I was getting into it, 61

working up a reasonable rhythm, eyes closed, when I felt his hands take hold of mine. I looked up and he was staring at me, as if he was hungry again, and this time, I did not have time to think about it, I clasped his hands and pulled him towards me and, leaning over the drum, I raised my mouth to his. My sisters liked to talk about the wonders of childbirth and my brother gets his greatest high from surfing, but I would bet that kissing Ruben was better. I kept my lips on him while I inched around the drum and let him envelop me. He was looking ravenous now, his hands in my hair, nuzzling my neck and pulling me against him. Whenever he kissed or sucked a spot on the side of my throat, I felt like I was going to faint. It made me think shocking and desperate things and I grabbed his face and buried my mouth in his neck. “Sophia” It was no more than a moan and Ruben looked in pain “Wait. Stop” I pulled back, it was probably better we didn’t lose it completely in Hale’s house, and smiled up at him. “Thanks for showing me what to do” His face had lost some of its tension. He picked up my hand and kissed the fingers. “I spent all night trying to work out how I could keep you here safely. When Swan came over to tell me that they caught Furcht, well, I was ready to pray!” “Do you believe in God?” I was surprised. He shook his head, sadly I thought. “It’s hard for an Irish boy to lose all his faith” he said. That did not really answer the question, but I didn’t push it. My feelings towards faith and Judaism were not clear-cut either. We moved to the day bed and sat facing each other, leaning against the sides with our legs intertwined. This was better than the Mexico option. “You never told me why you got so angry with me at the library” “You never told me how you got away from Furcht” I wavered. “Do you promise not to have another hissy fit?” Ruben grinned; he looked almost goofy “What on earth is a hissy fit?” “Like a temper tantrum” “Oh thanks” Ruben said, “No hissy fit, I promise” This time I watched him closely. “I told him that I knew you were a vampire” Ruben was quick but not quite fast enough. He forced his face to soften and smile, but not before I had seen his lips tighten and his eyes narrow slightly. “Quick thinking” he said and his voice was pleasant. He moved his legs however and I felt the rebuff. 62

“So why did you get angry with me when you saw what I was reading at the library?” This time he closed his eyes. “I don’t like people believing old superstitions” “What made you think I believed anything?” He looked up “You don’t believe it?” This conversation was losing me. “What? What don’t I believe?” “You don’t believe I am a vampire?” I stared at him. My mind was obviously not processing input fast enough, because I could make no sense of what he was saying. Could it be that the boy I loved, the best kisser in the world, was nuts? Trust was a risk and I had to take it. “Ruben” I held up a closed hand and raised my fingers as I counted off “I think you are an insomniac, I might accept that you are depressed, I am convinced you are a music genius. From what you’ve told me, I assume you used to be a player and I’ve deduced that you are some kind of heir. These assumptions may be wrong, but they are plausible and rational. Believing that you are a vampire is not.” This speech was meant to put Ruben at ease, but he looked defeated. What on Earth had he expected me to say? He rubbed his eyes and made a strange pronouncement, almost to himself “Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologise for the truth” “Sorry? Is that a quote?” “Benjamin Disraeli. I didn’t even like him” And in that moment I knew. “You are” I whispered “You really are” Maybe I’d known all along. His history, his sleeplessness, his ethereal beauty, these were all pointers to a strange fate. I had felt it much earlier, but a part of me would not accept a mystical or a supernatural explanation. How could a feeling be the truth? “Ruben” I said “I do not believe it” Ruben’s expression showed hope, then relief, tenderness and, finally, surprise. He touched my leg; the physical sensation was thrilling and strangely reassuring. It was tangible, he was here. Finally he spoke “Ever since I met you, Sophia, I have played this scene in my head. How would you react? With fear? Anger? Revulsion? I never thought I’d have to convince you of my predicament” I actually grinned “I will need convincing” Ruben took his hand off my knee and lifted up his shirt. I sat in shock, staring at his skin, the muscles in his stomach, his chest; it was all I could do to stop myself from touching him. I had

63

a terrible urge to take off my own top. But while his eyes were dark and he was looking ravenous, he made no moves to undress me. Instead he took hold of my hand “I am going to ask you to come over to me and put your hand on my chest. And then tell me what you feel” He pulled me towards him and I crawled over until I was sitting across his legs, as conscious as I’d ever been of my body and his closeness. He had not let go of my hand, very gently, he placed it over his heart. His chest was cold to the touch and his skin had a strange tautness to it. And because I was so caught up in the intimacy of the contact, it took me a few seconds to realise that I could not feel a heartbeat. I moved my hand to try and feel a movement and he groaned. “But that’s -” I started “Impossible” He finished Well, here was the scientific proof I wanted. I looked at Ruben and he was holding his breath. “150 lovers” I moved my mouth to his ear “Heartless bastard” And I kissed him. This time he responded with abandon. He crushed me against him and I ran my hands over his chest. After the longest kiss, we looked at each, I could not stop smiling. He held my face gently and whispered “I have never met anyone like you before” “And I have?” This got a smile from him. “Ruben”, I went on “Can you tell me everything?” We cuddled together, I lay across his lap and he held me close, speaking into my hair. “Probably not everything, but I’ll try”. We settled together and he started.

Nebenstimme
“I was born in Ireland on the 1st of May 1830. My father was a farrier and my mother’s father owned a tavern. She had seven children, I was the fourth son. My parents were not poor, not like the tenant farmers, but it was a humble, closed existence.” “Ruben” I interrupted “All that other stuff you told me about growing up in Ireland, swimming in the river and playing fiddle in the pub, were they lies?” He shook his head; I could feel his lips brush across my hair “Everything I told you was true. It just happened 160 years earlier” “Ruben” I sounded like Skye “What’s a farrier?” He kissed my head “It’s someone who shoes horses” 64

I nodded and he went on “If you know any Irish history, you will have heard of the Great Famine that devastated Ireland in the late 1840s. My parents, like so many others, decided to leave, they would sail to America with me and my three younger sisters. Have you heard of the coffin ships?” I shook my head and he explained “They were unseaworthy vessels, full of Irish refugees desperate to get to the New World. Many of them sank, but, even if they made it to America, a lot of passengers didn’t. My parents died within a day of each other somewhere on the Atlantic in July 1848” “I’m sorry” I touched his hand. “It’s OK” he said “It was a long time ago” “What happened to you and your sisters?” “They survived. But you can imagine the dark thoughts and fears hurting me. There I was, seventeen, eighteen years old, responsible for three young girls under twelve. I had very little money, no contacts in America and nothing more than some carpentry skills and a good ear for music to get me through. It was a dreadful time and I could not bear to think about the future. All I did was play music. Another Irish woman, Joan O’Byrne, bless her soul, helped me with the girls. The moment they were tucked into their cot at night – three on one mattress – I would sneak onto the upper decks and find the band. They could always use an extra musician and I could play fiddle, piano, accordion, you name it.” “So you have always had a talent for music? It’s not something to do with your…” I did not know how to say it without sounding weird or offensive “Vampirism?” He buried his face into my hair and I could feel him chuckling. “No, Sophia, I could always play music, I have just had more time to practice.” He shushed my incredulous response. “One of the musicians, a violin player from Slovenia, took me under his wing. I learnt a lot from him, he talked about philosophy, religion – I only knew about Catholicism and the Church of England – and, of course, music. He gave me books to read and taught me card tricks. After two weeks, I had a whole array of dodgy skills to complement my sweet Irish looks. The violin player – his name was Sol – gave me a life.” There was a pause and Ruben shifted, as if in pain. “He also destroyed it” I waited, my skin crawling. “One night, I finally talked to the musicians about my future. Would I find work in America? How would I get rooms for the girls and me? They admitted that my prospects were slim and that I should appeal immediately to the Church or the charities, warning in the same breath that these institutions were flooded with cases. I was desperately worried and Sol counselled me. He explained that he had a possible solution, it was irrevocable and unappealing – his words were ‘it is an inhuman choice’ if I recall –, but that it 65

would free me up in many ways. I thought he was talking about prostitution or castration, God knows why, that’s what seventeen year old boys worry about, I suppose, or joining a crime gang. For a minute I thought he was going to recruit me into the British Army, but it was an even worse initiation.” His words chilled me, but I could not stop sweating. Ruben felt the dampness on my neck and froze. “I am sorry to scare you, Sophia. Do you want me to stop?” I shook my head, I needed to hear this. “As you have worked out, Sol was a vampire. He had been initiated sometime in the 15th Century and he offered to make me immortal. This choice, admittedly he called it a curse as well, would give me certain powers and abilities, it meant I did not require food or sleep, I could not be killed and as such I would be able to support my sisters far more readily than a teenage refugee with no money. Sol also outlined the downside – I would live forever, I could never have children, I would cease to be a complete human. He gave me six hours to work out what my life was worth, whether it had a meaning and what I was going to do with it. I walked the ship all night and just before dawn, I told him I was ready.” “Did he, did he … bite you?” “Yes, it is a painful process, not pleasant, but, by the time we arrived in New York, the venom had worked and I was a fully fledged vampire.” “So you did it for your sisters?” “That is the most honourable interpretation. I was of course disturbed by the death of my parents and leaving the only home I’d known, so I could plead shock, I suppose, but I know that I also thought of the power and uniqueness it would bring me.” He shook his head, he must have it done it a million times since. “Poor bairn” “Oh, Ruben” I did not know what to say “I am so sorry” “The first years were actually quite good. I made a bit of money on the boat scamming and stealing and quite a lot in New York working by day and bare-knuckle fighting by night. More from the bets of course, no one would put money on a lanky white eighteen year old. But I could outlast the biggest African and if people didn’t pay up, claiming a fix or set-up, well, I could get the money out of them as well. I paid Mrs O’Byrne to look after my three sisters and set them up in a nice house in Boston. I had succeeded in becoming a provider, but I was not much of a brother. Until Joan’s death thirty-five year later, she was the only family my sisters had. They married Irish-American and Polish policemen and, at least, their children had more opportunities there than back home. In 1853, I inherited some property from a rich heiress who liked my skin and my piano-playing. Don’t worry, I did not kill her, she was 87 when we met.” 66

I was about to object, but Ruben explained. “I do not want to turn this into a confession or an exorcism, but I have done many things I regret and some that were very bad. The first years, I was quite literally intoxicated with power. The mind of a child and the body of a God: that is an unfortunate combination. I wreaked havoc, not least among the women I met. The ones who loved me, I hurt even more” Something tore at my heart. “Were you violent? Did you bite them?” “No!” He was upset. “I have never bitten or hit a woman and I have never forced myself on anyone. Bu these are only the most obvious pains a man could cause and I was talking about coldness and desertion. I am sure I tormented and hurt women in ways I cannot begin to imagine. This sounded a tad extreme. “Call me shallow, Ruben, but I’d prefer to be dumped or ignored than raped or bitten. Maybe you are being too hard on yourself.” As if I could erase a century of guilt in one sentence. Ruben sighed “Maybe not. But you have probably worked out already, things fell apart for me quickly. I had to keep moving, to avoid exposure, to evade relationships and to still the tedium of a frozen existence. Once my sisters were grown up and then dead, nothing bound me to America. In 1893, I moved back to Europe” “Ireland?” “No, there was nothing there for me. I no longer had a life, in the normal sense of the word, but I needed a hold, some meaning. Family, religion or nationalism would not do and, in the end, I decided to search for two things – music and death” “No! Ruben!” I actually cried out. “They are opposite” “I know, Sophia, I know. By death I meant mortality. I would look for a way, any way, to become human again. I wanted the promise of certain death, preferably not immediately, but I would take that risk.” “So you have been looking for a cure?” “Yes” “Have you found one?” “No. But my friend has come close.” I sat up “Sol?” He shook his head “I never saw him again. Last I heard he was back in Ljubljana” “Then who? I thought you said you evaded relationships?” He pulled me even closer and touched the Cladagh ring. “I will have to tell you about the women who knew” 67

Amoroso
“There have been six. The first woman I loved, completely and painfully, was called Natascha. She was a Russian émigré I met in Zurich in 1893, a harpist and a communist and all of twenty one years old. We do not have the time and you probably don’t have the inclination for me to tell you all about her, suffice to say, I confided in her and she tried in vain to help me. Russian folk remedies, painful Rumanian cures, ancient curses, nothing worked. She died in 1918 in the Spanish Flu and I punished myself by moving to Russia. Maybe I was trying to keep her alive by learning her language and her music and by fighting for something she believed in, but it did not work either. She was dead, communism was deadly and I could not die. I spent the 1920s in Paris and fled East when Europe went mad” “World War Two?” “Fascism. I never thought that cultured countries would elect the worst kind of barbaric, hateful rulers, hell, even the British had improved, but seeing the good people of Spain and Germany and Italy fall behind the fascist leaders so eagerly, I had to leave. By 1934, I was in Shanghai. And there I met Har-Ching. She knew from the beginning, she figured something was wrong and took me to her grandmother, a terrifying woman who shrieked when she saw me and threw peppercorns in my face. It was very disconcerting, but kind of liberating, because I did not have to pretend with them. Har-Ching’s grandmother tried a number of Chinese medicines and Mongolian remedies to cure me. One recipe I seem to remember called for camel’s blood, which was hard to get, but very tasty and unfortunately not effective. HarChing and I fled Shanghai before the Japanese invaded – honestly, the whole world had gone insane – and I took her to America. We spent the war in Los Angeles, where I worked on movie scores and sound recordings. But Har-Ching wanted to start a family and I had to let her get on with her life. I bought her a business and, as you know, we kept in contact. In Brazil, I met Giuliana. She was a fine singer and an excellent dancer, we worked together in a Rio hotel. Her life was not easy – two sons from a previous relationship, a night-time job one step away from prostitution and an appearance that marked her as disadvantaged in a hierarchical society. But she was a strong character who taught me a lot. She refused to believe I was a vampire, she was convinced it was a Voodoo curse. As a consequence, I was subjected to a whole range of Haitian and African rituals to cleanse me and exorcise the spirits. But all the chicken blood in the world wasn’t going to help me. Guiliana left me for an entirely human reason – she fell in love with her manager. We still exchange Christmas cards. After the break-up, I travelled to 68

Africa, searching for music and possible cures. Lots of the former, none of the latter. I went back to Paris in 1965 and first saw Rachel on stage at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. It was, I suppose, recognition at first sight. I had met other vampires in my travels, but I made a point not to consort with them. The Cullens are among a handful of vampires I would consider friends, but Rachel, I recognised as kin” “You felt she was your sister?” “Yes, here was someone whose life and outlook and experiences mirrored my own. We were never lovers, but I loved her dearly. Again there is no point going on about her.” He stopped. “Natascha, Har-Ching, Guiliana, Rachel” I counted them off “What about the other two?” Ruben stretched. “Although a part of me would have loved to have gone to Liverpool in the 1960s and London in the 70s or even Manchester in the 80s, I could not bring myself to live in England. It is bad enough being undead without subjecting myself to the British every day. And with the arrival of air travel, I could move easily and quickly. Berlin, Tokyo, Toronto, I played music and searched for a remedy. In Amsterdam of all places, I ran into a backpacker, of all things, a Welsh girl called Katie and, for her sake, I moved to Cardiff” He shook himself “Strange place that. Katie became a librarian and we were together for twelve years. In the end she grew suspicious and I had to tell her”. “Because you did not age?” “Believe me, I tried. I dyed my hair grey, I lined my face, I shaved my widow’s peaks, I walked with a stoop, which was ridiculous for someone supposed to be all of thirty years old. No, what brought it on was her desire to have a child. She was beating herself up over her perceived infertility and I had to tell her it was my fault. She has forgiven me now.” “When did you last see her?” It was an innocuous question, but his answer threw me completely. “Last Monday” “What?!” I twisted my head to glare at him “Where?” “She lives in Forks now. I introduced her to the Cullens years ago and she is friends with Alice, Jasper’s partner” He smiled slyly. “I seem to remember you meeting her as well” “Ruben, stop playing games. Who are you talking about?” “Why, the Forks County Librarian, Ms Katie Mears” I gaped at him, open-mouthed, until he kissed me on the lips. “And you, Sophia, are the sixth”

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It was cold in the room, pitch black outside and I was famished. My phone was beeping, stupid battery, and, when I checked, there were three calls from Skye and two from Anu. Ruben offered to drive me back for dinner: “The sun’s gone, I can go out again” In the car, listening to Don Juan, I thought about what he said. “Ruben, this might make me seem really shallow, but your life sounds exciting. Travelling the world, sleeping with heaps of women, never having to worry about ageing or dying or even getting sick” Something else struck me “And no periods! Ever! That has to be a good life” He smiled, half indulgently, half in pain “Sophia, it’s not a life, it’s a curse. If you are mortal, you can live for power or for pleasure or for your family, and you can prepare for the after-life. You can believe that, when you die, you will go to Heaven or Nirvana or Valhalla and live forever in happiness and youth. If you have eternal life, there is only one option – you seek its end” “Death” I whispered, more to myself “What a goal” “I know it is hard to get your mind around something this strange and awful, Sophia, but think about what I have lost. After the rush of the first few years, I have seen everyone I ever loved die. It’s like being a parent who knows that they will outlive all their children, the English don’t even have a name for that. Knowing that you can never live for anyone else. It’s a long time to be lonely.” “Have you tried to end it? Would sunshine kill you?” “It probably would, but, to be honest, I have been too chicken to try. I don’t seek death so much as mortality. But after Natascha’s death, I gave myself one hundred years to find a cure or else I would do as the Roman vampires do and fall on my own stake.” My maths was good enough for that calculation. “You don’t have a long time left” He parked outside the Whitebridge home and I pulled him towards me. We could not stop kissing. My brain and my body had been rewired. It would take physical force to pull me away. As it happened, Skye jerked open the passenger door and shrieked “Guys! Stop it! The windows are all fogging up and it looks really dirty!” She called back over her shoulder to a figure on the porch. “It’s OK, Mum, they’ve got clothes on!” Turning back to Ruben and me, she lowered her voice slightly “Dinner’s ready. Come in and we can finally start” Ruben and I were laughing so much, we had to hold each other up, but we got inside.

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Everyone moved over to make room at the table for us, but Ruben waved away the dinner invitation. He was as gregarious and friendly as I’d ever seen him “Dr Whitebridge, Mr Whitebridge, I am so sorry, I am already expected somewhere else for dinner. What a pity – this smells great” He shook hands with everyone (“Sorry, my hands are so cold”) and turned to Leroy “I never thanked you for picking me up on Bremertown Road last year. Appreciate it, sir” Leroy nodded stunned, Anu looked shocked and Skye giggled. Ruben said goodbye, touched my hand and walked out. I sat down and ate three helpings without looking up, fully aware that everyone was staring at me.

Sotto Voce
Finally I met Skye’s eyes. “Sorry” I said “I am just so hungry” “Didn’t he feed you?” Anu asked “It’s never going to last if he doesn’t provide food” “Ha ha” I did not respond further and accepted a big bowl of icecream. No point going on the defensive, this was small fry. We had finished and were clearing up when the doorbell rang. Everyone jumped and Leroy moved to the door. I turned in the dreamy hope that it was Ruben to see Michael open the door first and freeze in shock. Leroy did not react at all. He exchanged a few words with the visitor, who was obviously not dangerous, and gently pushed Michael, still frozen and gaping, out of the way. Then he turned to me “Sophia, someone here to see you”. Everyone stared – again – and I dragged myself to the door. There, standing in the doorway, huddled in a long coat and with a sad smile on her face, was Ms Mears. Nobody moved when she walked into the living room, pulled out a box of biscuits from her bag and smilingly offered them around. I felt a bit sorry for her – she must have felt like she’d walked into a wax works museum. Finally, Leroy helped her out of her coat and accepted a biscuit. “I have just come to have a chat to Sophia” she explained “About Ruben” I tried not to sound too panicky “Is everything alright? He was just here an hour ago” Ms Mears smiled, I was getting used to her melancholy face, it wasn’t too bad when she talked about Ruben. “He’s fine. He had dinner at my place and I have come over to act as a gobetween if you like. It’s another country up here, we do things differently”. Emma laughed and Michael, Skye and I continued to look like Easter Island statues - it must have been one of those clever adult references that made no sense unless you have read the

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book or seen the movie. In any case, Ms Mears making light-hearted jokes about herself was just wrong. “Sure” I said “we can go upstairs to my room” Ms Mears followed me and I pulled out the chair for her to sit down. I perched on the bed. This was going to be awkward. “Sorry about this, Sophia”, Ms Mears said, “You’re probably thinking that this is very awkward” “It’s a surprise” I admitted “What did you want to see me about?” Ms Mears tapped her fingers together and then looked at me with a beatific smile, as if she was holding a new-born baby. “Ruben told me that he confided in you today, so you know that we have been friends for over thirty years. He talked about you and I wanted to meet you myself” I raised my eyebrows "What exactly has Ruben said about me?” She beamed again, the delighted smile of a happy mother “He told me that you are going to save him” An announcement like that will always be hard to counter, I smiled in agreement and waited for her to make sense. It took a while: “As you know Ruben is suffering from an affliction” She made it sound like he had chicken pox – “and he has been searching for a remedy. Since he told me twenty years ago, I have dedicated a large part of my life to helping him in this quest” She stared at me intently and I felt my skin prickle “I believe I have found a cure.” I stared back at her. “What is it?” I asked “It is an old formula, first recorded by Venetian monks in the 12th Century, they may have heard it from Eastern travellers, hence its name – The Venetian Formula or the Venetian Remedy. From my research – literally, two decades of reading and interviews – this is the most promising remedy. It has three advantages over all other cures. One -” She held up a bony finger “There are reliable sources which record its success. Admittedly not many, but I found four documents which mention that a vampire has been redeemed, including a medical note. Two -” Another finger. “It is the least dangerous and therefore most appealing of the different methods. The others require blood-letting or the administration of poisons, flagellations, transplant, mutilations, you name it. Some call for drugs that I cannot get or do not want to use. A lot of these so-called cures were concocted or recorded by crackpots and perverts. They all seem to require exposed breasts or virgins. They love virgins” She fell silent. “You said there were three reasons. What was the third?” “You” 72

“Me?” “You. I have found someone who loves Ruben” Again, there was nothing I could do but smile. If Ruben was in on this, there would be hell to pay. Ms Mears was undeterred. “I need someone who loves Ruben and whom Ruben loves. I loved Ruben and he has great affection for me, but he does not love me. Natascha is long dead, Guiliana remarried, Rachel for obvious reasons could not help and Har-Ching is too old. I had almost given up hope of finding someone. Who was he going to meet in Forks? My heart leapt when he pointed you out to me in the library and I realised that you had made an impression on him. When you two had the fight, I began to worry. That is why I was so upset when he stormed off. And why I followed you out…” “You called out ‘Stop!’ when Furcht tried to run me down?” “Yes, that was me. I have something to ask of you. It will require -” A knock on the door interrupted her. I was disappointed and relieved, even more so, when I heard Ruben’s voice. “Sophia, it’s me. Is Katie there?” I watched Ms Mears’ face as I answered yes. She looked like a burglar caught stealing, she was glancing around, as if she wanted to hide under the bed or sneak out the window. When Ruben came in, she refused to meet his eyes and knotted her hands together nervously. He on the other hand was seething was rage. This was going to be really awkward. “What are you doing here?” Ruben turned on Ms Mears. His voice was strangled with fury. “I told you not to get involved” “Ruben, she’s our only hope. I have to ask her” This called for my input. “Ask me what?” Ruben shot back “Nothing”, at the same time as Ms Mears answered “To save Ruben” “Steady on” I tried to look serious. “You are losing me. Ruben, I realise that you did not have anything to do with Ms Mears’ visit and I appreciate you trying to shield me from whatever it is she‘s going to ask, but I would like to hear what she has to say” Ms Mears was too nervous to look smug, she kept rubbing her hands. Finally Ruben sighed and raised his hands. “This is not my doing” With renewed energy, Ms Mears reached into her bag and pulled out an old book; it was tatty, but pretty, with a metal filigree spine and strange Gothic–looking letters. She opened it and pointed to a line. “Here it is” she whispered “The Venetian Formula. Eight words only. There

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are various translations and interpretations, all of them open to question. I of course do not have a definitive answer” “What does it say?” Ms Mears recited the formula as if it were a prayer or chant. Her voice was reverent. “In English, it’s ‘mix blood, open seed, with love, offer redemption’” I swallowed a “What?” and settled for a “What do you think it means?” She held up four fingers. “There are four 2-word actions and all must be followed, presumably in close order or simultaneously. ‘Mix blood’ could mean stirring blood in a pot, it could mean blending the blood of two or more people, like in a transfusion, or it could refer to a person of mixed blood, although I doubt that. ‘Open seed’ suggests ejaculation to me, but it might be the harvesting, grinding or eating of plant seeds, pods or fruits. ‘With love’ implies that love, physical, spiritual, romantic, altruistic, your guess is as good as mine -, is present. You cannot achieve success through force or payment. It must be done for love. ‘Offer redemption’ is also puzzling. Does the vampire have to offer redemption? Does this suggest a Christian or religious component? Or will they be offered redemption if the first three requirements have been met?” This was all too ethereal for me. “Yes, but if you are trying to use this remedy, this formula” I asked “What will you actually do?” “Not me” Ms Mears shook her head gravely and Ruben squirmed “You, Sophia” she said “We need you.” “Sure” By now I was intrigued “What then will I actually do?” Ruben shook his head, but he was smiling, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said. Ms Mears was looking sad again. “Sophia” she said “it is wonderful to see you so enthusiastic, but this is a grave undertaking, probably the most frightening and meaningful thing you will ever do” She corrected herself immediately “Other than childbirth and death of course” before going on “We have to explain all the disadvantages and risks to you before you agree to it.” I waved away the fine print. “Keep it brief. If I can help Ruben, it’s OK with me”. Now it was Ruben’s turn to look at me with a concerned, serious expression “No Sophia” he said “I have to warn you. The remedy will be painful, it will be certainly be messy and there is no guarantee it will work. You do not have to agree to anything.” “Yes, Yes, consent freely given and all that but can you explain what I am expected to do?” At this point, Ms Mears coughed “I will excuse myself now. You will probably want to talk about the Remedy by yourselves. But Sophia, thank you for listening to us. You are a girl of character.” 74

With that strange compliment, she walked out the door, leaving Ruben and me alone with the book. He was flustered, a strange sight. I motioned him to sit down next to me, but he would not meet my eyes. “Ruben” I whined “Get on with it” He braced himself “None of this is one hundred certain and Katie and I still have a lot to research. Bu the reference to blood, love and seed seems to refer to body fluids and the literature suggests the more mixing, exposing and diluting, the better.” He looked up and I could feel my eyes darken. “Kissing? Biting? Sex?” It was the most shocking question I had ever asked and I felt elated. “Yes” he whispered, but his face was pained. “Ruben” I put my hand up to touch his cheek. “What’s the downside for me?” I could see he was about to lecture me again on nobility and sacrifice, but he must have got it, because his eyes softened and his lips curled. “You are a playing with me again” He relented: “OK, I’ll do the full spiel. Normally there are health risks associated with unprotected sex and the mixing of bodily fluids, so I understand if you do not want to go ahead with it. Dr Cullen can talk to you about my blood – it contains no live pathogens and I would not infect you or get you pregnant, but still, its’s a risk you might not want to take. Secondly, if I bite you, it will hurt. I will need to take blood and that can be painful too. I will not inject venom into you, so you will be spared that pain, but the process is not pleasant. And lastly, you may not want to have sex with me for that reason, or even sex with me full stop.” “It’s a tough job” I smiled “But I can handle it” He shook his head again “Sophia, this is a gift, a sacrifice. I would never ask you to do something you did not really want. Please think about it.” I waited three seconds, then spoke “Ruben, I am more than prepared to do this. I am not scared of the biting, it will be like getting a tatoo and I’ve always wanted one. But what about the sex?” “Why would sex hurt?” As soon as he’d said it, he caught himself. It was like a switch turning on, changing his face from puzzlement to realisation. “Sophia, darling, you have not had - ” “No” I said “I’m a bona fide virgin.” “Oh Sophia, that makes this very difficult, to be honest, impossible” “But Ms Mears said that the men who came up with the cures loved virgins” “For the remedy, sure, but not your psyche, or mine for that matter.” I must have looked dubious, because he went on “Sophia, you must know how much I love you. Going to bed with 75

someone you love is a wonderful experience and anytime, but particularly your first time, it should be remembered for tenderness and trust, not spices and bloodletting and the fact that you are trying to make me human.” He had a point “At least it will be memorable” I quipped. “But for the wrong reasons” He was stubborn “It can’t happen” This was ridiculous. Here I was, offering up my virginity to the boy I loved and who professed love for me, only to be rejected for some noble and selfless reason. Noble shnoble, I was having none of that. I put my hand on his leg and raised my lips to his, not quite touching them. “I have an idea” I whispered “We could have sex beforehand, so that when we attempt the remedy, I won’t be a virgin”. He almost smiled. “You are very clever, Sophia, but your Jedi mind games won’t work on me this time” I punched his leg “Snap out of it, Ruben. If I don’t have a problem with it, neither should you. Ms Mears said that the guys who came up with the cures loved virgins, so we will only be wasting it, so to speak.” Ruben continued to shake his head. He was not going to give up on his 1850s Irish morality so easily. Any minute now, he’d be proposing marriage. “OK, we’ll sleep on it” he conceded. We kissed goodbye, long enough to last me the whole, dark night. Call it fate, symbolism, bad luck or the confines of a small town, but the first person I saw at school the next day was Kelly. He was waiting near the hall and went to hug me when I walked over. It sunk in only then that I had not seen him in a week, that he did not know that I had been to Seattle and spent all the previous day with Ruben. When he asked how I’d been, I ‘fessed up. “Sorry, Kelly, I spent all day yesterday with Ruben. I should have told you, but it was an impulse thing” Very very weak. The poets might be able to express desire and pain and ambivalence and guilt and every other bloody feeling in verse, but I was struggling. Kelly was sweet as ever. “Are you telling me that Ruben has fallen for a real life human girl?” When I nodded sadly, he shrugged his shoulders, still a sight to behold. “I should not have listened to Sergeant Swan, serves me right. But much as I’m suffering here, it’s good for Ruben. The guy hasn’t dated since he got here. That’s a long time to be lonely.” It was the second time in a day I had heard that line. And I made my decision.

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Ruben met me outside Maths and we walked into the cafeteria together. Everyone stared – Anu’s appearance a few weeks ago was nothing to this –, they must never have seen Ruben outside the Music rooms. He seemed oblivious to the shock. “Ruben, good to see out with the plebs”, Skye said warmly, “but still a bit weird”. Ruben smiled at her and put his arm around me gently “Sophia has this crazy idea about hanging out in public. Apparently they do it a lot in Australia” I gave him a kiss on the cheek and whispered in his ear “I will definitely do it. Start planning”

Scales
It took a whole fortnight. We made a tentative plan to attempt the remedy on the night of my birthday and the closer it got, the less we could move it. We called the planned date “The Birthday”, because as Ms Mears said “You’re turning seventeen and Ruben’s being re-born” We consulted books, medical records, diaries, church documents; we trawled the internet, libraries, hospitals and archives. Ms Mears narrowed down the spices and seeds to a dozen and ordered everything on-line. I had to eat a number of seemingly random healthy foods, including celery, lemon, parsley and garlic. (“But I thought vampires didn’t like garlic” I said to Mears. “He’ll just have to deal with it” she responded.) I wasn’t allowed to eat eggs or margarine or take any drugs – “Absolutely no aspirin and no alcohol between now and the birthday” Ms Mears warned, as if I was some pill-popping dipsomaniac. Ruben and Ms Mears mixed potions, crushed seeds, chanted incantations and it wasn’t until they put everything away and looked happy, that I remembered something. “How am I going to get away from my host family and spend time with Ruben on the birthday?” I asked. “It’s not like Emma and Leroy will let me spend the night here.” Ruben hit his forehead “Damn. The devil’s in the detail. We’ve got enough potions to turn all of Transylvania into Salt Lake City, but we can’t get Sophia out past nine.” “Maybe I could talk to Emma” Ruben and Ms Mears looked aghast. “Or to my parents” This provoked another lecture from Ms Mears on discretion and secrecy, but none of them had a better idea. I was spared having to explain or lie to anyone by some fortuitious timing. Emma was scheduled to work the night shift on my birthday and Leroy was rostered on nights for the 77

whole weekend. He offered to move it, so he could celebrate my birthday with us, but Skye poo-poohed the idea. “Dad” she shrieked, twirling her hands, “Sophia wants to eat pizza with Ruben and Anu and me, people her own age, not have a birthday dinner with her host dad. You two working that night is a good thing.” “Thanks Skye” Leroy said “Nice to know we are wanted” But she was right. It was a very good thing. In many ways it was the best week of my visit. Ruben and I could be open about our relationship and we spent as much time as possible together. When alone, we did not talk about the remedy, it was only on Ms Mears’ insistence that we kept reading and planning. The day before the birthday, we were enjoying a last pre-remedy date. It was time to raise my only fear: “Ruben, I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I don’t want to become a vampire. Are you sure you won’t turn me when you bite me?” Ruben looked even more worried. “There are no sources suggesting that. I promise I will not inject venom when I draw blood, please trust me, I don’t want you to be scared.” We were kissing softly when Ms Mears stormed in. She was distraught, even her hair was crazy. “I can’t get the cloves!” she cried “They didn’t arrive and noone stocks them here! This is horrible” “Do we definitely need them?” Ruben asked “Yes!” Ms Mears was freaking out “The Trieste Note mentions them directly” I pretended that sentence made sense and gave her a reassuring pat. “Don’t worry, Ms Mears” I said “I can get cloves straight away” The moment she’d mentioned them, I had thought of Kelly, sitting at his mum’s table, making pomanders. It was not faithlessness on my part, more a nostalgia for a recent and dreamy past. Ms Mears stared at me, smoothed her hair and asked stiffly “How? Where?” “I know a guy here who has cloves, whole jars of them”. When Ruben raised an eyebrow, I added “Kelly Potter” “Who is Kelly?” Ruben asked. “Kelly – the sporty guy I kissed on the oval” Ms Mears breathed in sharply “You kissed a guy called Kelly in front of Ruben?” Ruben thought this hilarious. “She had to check out the talent before she would settle for me” he quipped. Ms Mears was not impressed. Her mouth was a firm line and she glowered at me “Are you sure that Kelly will give you some?” 78

“Of course” I was close to retorting that, for heaven’s sake, they were only cloves, but let her think I juggled boyfriends all the time “We parted on good terms.” I texted Kelly and arranged for Ruben to pick up a jar after he drove me home. It would have been fun seeing the two guys together, just for the physical thrill, but the Whitebridges had arranged an early birthday dinner for me and I had to get back.

Prima Volta
The birthday arrived and I fielded phonecalls from my parents and my sisters. Skye gave me some coconut body cream and I immediately packed it in my toiletries bag. She did not miss a thing: “What are you doing?” she asked. I took hold of her arms and closed the bathroom door. “Skye, you have to trust me. Ruben will come over for dinner as planned, but then I am going back to his place. I will be home at 6 am, before Emma comes back.” Skye was speechless and, for one second, perfectly still. Then she started jerking her head and squealing “Oh my God! You are going to do it with Ruben! You are so wicked, you’ve only known him, like, two days!” “Hang on” I was close to clapping my hand over her mounth, her shrieks were too loud, “I met Ruben the same day you met Anu” But she wasn’t listening: “Have you got protection?” she whispered. I nodded and she hugged me. “You must text me at 11 and at 5. If not, I will call you. If you are not home by 5:30, I’m calling Sergeant Swan. And Mum. And your parents.” “OK, OK, but I am planning on getting some sleep” “Sure Sophia, of course you are” Ruben arrived just as Emma was leaving. She hugged us goodbye, leaving the pizza money on the table and wishing me another happy birthday. I scoffed a pizza, grabbed my bag and practically dragged Ruben out the door. It was only hugging Skye goodnight and walking out into the cold night air, that I started feeling nervous. There was something about the quiet darkness and the tiny snowflakes that made me uncomfortable. It reminded me of Furcht.

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When we got to Ruben’s place, he seemed even more self-conscious and excited than me. I knew it was about the remedy, not the sex, but it was sweet nonetheless. “Are you nervous about the remedy?” I asked lightly. He grinned at me “That too” My embarrassment faded when I walked into Ruben’s bathroom. It was the maddest thing I had ever seen, a gorgeous room with a huge sunken bath and an antique mirror, a wall of bottles and roses. On one side of the bath was a sofa with towels and gowns, on the other a long sink. There was no neon lighting, only tea lights floating in vases, and oil burners exuding the scent of sweet orange and lime. It was so unexpected and out of place in Forks that I started giggling. If I was going to take off my clothes in front of a boy, it would be in a candle-lit room, smelling of orange, which looked like the bath chamber in George Clooney’s Italian villa. I just could not get embarrassed in a room as over the top as this. It was a theatre stage, a film set, a dreamscape, completely surreal and strangely reassuring. We had a bath. Ruben filled it with oils and salts and stepped in. He kept his eyes half-closed while I undressed and I smiled at him once I was underwater. It was still surreal. Ms Mears had explained what scrubs and oils we had to use and Ruben dried me gently. He applied the poultice to my legs and stomach, the oils to my temple, telling me several times how gorgeous I looked. I could see that it was costing him some effort to concentrate on the poultice and not start kissing me again. I took it seriously too, sitting straight-backed and not flinching, even when he touched my neck and stomach. “There” he looked at me “You are a work of art. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen”. And he picked me up and carried me to the bedroom. All I could see were his dark eyes and his pale teeth. I moved so he could come closer. My skin was vivid-white against the darkness of his bed, except for the strange markings on my legs and stomach. “Happy birthday” he whispered. I had almost forgotten it was mine. “Same to you” I answered. He held me against him and kissed my cheek. “Sophia”, he said, “Are you sure?” “Yes”, I whispered, holding his face between my hands. We kissed. “Sophia, my darling”, his words were soft, “Are you ready?”

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It was nothing like I’d imagined. I was caught up with waiting for the pain and the biting, but Ruben was gentle and slow and the sensations were all good. My sisters had not talked to me much about sex, but they loved to rave on about childbirth. “The last thing you need to worry about when giving birth” they had told me helpfully when I was thirteen “is the mess or the noise or what you look like”. Then they added, somewhat randomly, “that goes for sex as well”. This was good advice, because things got messy, we were loud and I did not want to know how wild I looked. In all honesty, I’d stopped thinking about the Remedy; my body had taken over and we were so caught up in the rush, that neither of us saw or heard anything until it was too late. Maybe we should have known that things would not go this smoothly. The birthday, the cloves, the sex – everything had worked out so far and maybe we should have expected a glitch. Bur even accepting the laws of karma or coincidence or Murphy, I maintain that we could never have foreseen what happened. Which is why, lying next to my first lover, both of us saturated and delirious, the last thing I expected to see over the bed was the leering, twisted face of Furcht. I screamed as the stake sliced into Ruben’s shoulder. I also lost control of my bladder, but the adrenaline kicked in well before the shame and I had jumped up at Furcht before I even finished weeing. Furcht was hanging onto the stake and I got my fingers into his eyes and one hand to his throat and pressed as hard as I could. It was enough for Ruben to get up, pull the stake out and wrestle Furcht to the ground. In a split second of sadness, I realised that the remedy had not worked. There was no blood coming from the stake wound and Ruben’s strength was undiminished. In fact, he looked demonic. Standing over Furcht, for the first time, I could see the vampire.

Requiem
Ruben hit Furcht’s head against the stone floor and then turned to me. He got his face and voice under control. “Are you OK?” he asked. “I’m fine” I said “Sorry I weed on you” 81

He did not care, he had turned back to his captive and he was holding the stake. Furcht was looking up at him, in horror and abject terror. “You” hissed Ruben “are going to die.” He raised the stake. “No!” I screamed, “Ruben, stop!” Furcht registered me too. His mouth opened and Ruben paused. “Ruben” I whispered “You said you did not harm people. Don’t start now” “I seem to remember saying that I had never hurt a woman. This bastard deserves all he gets” “Of course he does. But you don’t!” I did not really know what I was saying. “Ruben, it looks like you have not been cured. Do you want to go on forever with even more guilt and pain?” Ruben looked at his hands. He felt the puncture wound on his shoulder, frowned when his fingers came back dry and pressed the stake against Furcht’s throat again. He sneered at Furcht and his words were awful. “Bad luck for you. I am beyond redemption.” “Ruben!” This time I grabbed hold of the stake. “If you don’t care about yourself, I beg you to spare his life for me. I don’t want to watch you -” “You can leave” I swore. “I don’t want the one I love to kill another man in cold blood” “Another man?” He turned around. “Look at me, Sophia. I am a monster.” “Ruben, no. Monsters kill, you can spare him.” He hesitated for forty days and forty nights and I exhaled once. Finally, beautifully, he put down the stake and grabbed Furcht by the throat. “Sophia has asked me to spare your life. I will do it for her sake. But one move and I will kill you happily.” In the silence that followed Ruben’s warning, we all heard the sirens. And I remembered that I had not called Skye. The Forks Police had pulled out the full siege set-up: squad cars, spotlights, and Sergeant Swan with a megaphone. “Ruben” we heard his booming voice “this is the police” It was Ruben’s turn to swear. “Haven’t they heard of a telephone?” I got Ruben’s phone and called Swan. “We’ve got Furcht. He’s injured, but alive. Ruben will bring him out. Don’t shoot” “I wasn’t going to shoot Ruben” Swan said “You on the other hand I might consider.” I burst out laughing. Ruben looked up shocked and even Furcht seemed confused. “Swan is thinking of shooting me.” I explained. Ruben’s face softened “You are unbelievable” He reached out to touch me, then pulled his hand back. “Alright, I’ll get this arsehole out” 82

It was only then I registered that we were both still naked. “Do you want some clothes?” I asked him. This time he grinned. “I don’t mind. You put something on if you are cold.” I ran to get some clothes for me and jeans for Ruben. Keeping his foot on Furcht’s throat, he wrangled into them. Then, as if Furcht was no heavier than a newspaper, he picked him up and flung him over his shoulder. Furcht must have weighed 90 kilos, but Ruben’s muscles did not even stretch. He carried him across the corridor and out the oak door. Standing behind them, I could see the whole set-up: police cars, an ambulance, a fire engine, what looked like a camera crew and Sergeant Swan at the bottom of the stairs. Ruben carried the crumpled body of his sister’s killer down the stairs. He was moving slowly, not because Furcht was heavy, but because the stairs were icy and the spotlights were blinding. A beam hit his torso and I realised, more painful than any bite, that he would never be human. I had barely registered that thought and the pain it brought on, when Ruben seemed to falter. He swayed slightly as if he was getting tired. And then I saw it. Ruben’s shoulder had split open and blood was gushing out. It was flowing like a tap. I screamed, the police moved and Swan pulled out a gun. Ruben took one more step and collapsed. Furcht jumped up and aimed a savage kick at Ruben’s head. I heard the crack of bone, the strangled sound of a drowned voice and a gun shot. The next second was the most awful. That is how long it took to persuade my body to rush forward. But when I reached Ruben, he smiled up at me with the most ridiculous, happy, toothless grin I had ever seen. “Sophia” his voice was delirious “I am bleeding!” The ambos shoved me out of the way to get to him, one whacked a bandage on his shoulder and another checked his pulse. Leroy and Swan rushed over to see how he was and the first ambo gave them the thumbs up. They moved him onto a stretcher, but let me hold his hand. It was warm and clammy. Ruben opened his eyes and recognised Leroy: “I consent” was all he said. Leroy stood next to me while they loaded Ruben in the ambulance. “Are you alright?” he asked.

83

I looked down at myself. The clothes covered most of my body and I hadn’t been staked or kicked, but still it was uncanny: There was not a mark on me. “Yeah, I’m fine”

Pausa
No one believed me of course, so they took me to the hospital anyway. This was cool by me, because I wanted to see Ruben. Instead I saw Emma standing in the Emergency Department with the World’s Most Furious Mum Face and I regretted not being firmer about my lack of injuries. I was going to get roasted. Much later, Leroy told me that the ambulance officers had never seen a sweeter or more grateful patient than Ruben that night. He didn’t complain, he didn’t cry (“And he must have been hurting”), he lay on the narrow bed, feeling his wounds. If he had a fault, it was only his incessant questioning. “What is my blood pressure? 180 over 70? Is that normal? But isn’t it better than too high? And my heartbeat? Can you please check? What about this wound? Is it clotting well? And my teeth? Can I get new ones?” The paramedics reassured him that everything was OK, he had a deep stab wound on his shoulder, but they’d put a butterfly clip over it and he’d be sewn up at the hospital. They offered him painkillers. “No way” Ruben had answered “I want to feel everything”. They had never seen this euphoria outside birthing. We were taken to different wards. Emma stitched Ruben’s shoulder, then stopped by my room. After a full check and some pretty personal questions, she seemed relieved. “You are staying right here, missus, where I can see you. I will take you home with me at 6. Try to get some sleep.” “Can I see Ruben?” She relented, a tiny bit “Maybe later. He is asleep now”. “Yes!” I couldn’t help it, I punched the air. “That’s fantastic!” Emma looked at me as if I was a nutcase. “Yes, it is a good outcome.” Seeing her with that concerned, perplexed Mum-face reminded me of my own mother. I reached for her hand. “I am sorry I sneaked out and I am sorry I betrayed your trust and I want to thank you for all your love and help. But can you please tell me what happened tonight?” She was professional again. “It’s a sorry saga. There was a bureaucratic bungle in Seattle yesterday afternoon, which saw Furcht released on bail. When Swan heard, only by coincidence, mind you, around 10 pm, he called me, Leroy and the house. He was worried that he could not contact you, because he wanted you somewhere safe. Skye covered for you for a 84

while, but caved in when she released how dangerous the situation was. Furcht must have got here quickly – the police put up road blocks and sent out alert bulletins, but I think he was already here. He smashed a window in Mr Hale’s house and went for Ruben. You saw him attack Ruben; I am still amazed that you two were able to fight him off. At this stage Ruben could not feel the wound and was operating on a fight or flight response. It appears that, with the adrenaline of the fight, Ruben believed he could carry Furcht down the stairs. He was wrong and, when he collapsed, Furcht attacked him. Swan fired a single shot at Furcht and killed him instantly. I have just signed the death certificate.” There was nothing I could say about Furcht, my thoughts went straight back to Ruben. “Is Ruben alright?” “He has lost a bit of blood and he needed 24 stitches, not to mention some new front teeth, but he’ll be OK. Lucky he’s such a fit guy, eh?” She gave me a big hug and I held on for a while. And when she left, I fell asleep immediately. I slept till Emma woke me at 6, in the car going home and till 10 in my own bed. The person who woke me was not Skye or Anu, but Ms Mears knocking at the door, and I had never seen anyone more nervous. “Sophia, are you OK? Can you tell me what happened?” She was desperate to know about Ruben, but at least she was nice enough to ask about me first. I decided to put her out of misery. Taking her two hands in mine, I started “Ms Mears -” “Please call me Katie” “Um, OK, Katie, I am fine. Ruben is in hospital with 24 stitches in his shoulder and a silly toothless grin. His heartbeat is normal.” It was mad being able to make someone so happy. Her eyes were wide open and her mouth was agog and when I finished the bit about the heartbeat, she burst into tears. I did not know whether I should hug her or give her more information or leave her alone for a while, so she could lose it in private. Fortunately, for me at least, she pulled herself together pretty quickly, wiped her face with some tissues and beamed at me with her red face. “I will never be able to thank you enough” she said I told her what had happened, leaving out all the good bits and cutting straight to the horrible moment when Furcht loomed over the bed. “How did he get out of prison?” 85

“Bureaucratic bungle in Seattle” “How did he get into the house?’ “He smashed the window of the music room” “And when Ruben lifted him up, he was not bleeding?” “Ruben’s skin was unbroken. And he carried Furcht easily” She considered this: “Meaning the Remedy was not successful.” I shook my head. “Ruben seemed to lose strength carrying Furcht down the stairs. And his shoulder wound opened and the blood gushed out.” “So the Remedy kicked in then? Why?” This got a shoulder shrug from me. “Who knows? Maybe it takes a while, maybe he needed to be outside, maybe it needed another step” She stared at me “That’s it. ‘Offer Redemption’. The last step. Ruben spared Furcht’s life, he offered redemption, he needed to make that final gift to be redeemed himself.” She started crying again “Oh my God, we could not have planned that in a million years.” I must have looked confused, because she sniffed back the tears and tried to explain: “Ruben had to be given a life, we were, I suppose, arranging a kind of birth. So we needed sex, blood, love and the opposite of death – life. You two could provide the first three and Furcht got given the last.” I tried to get my head around this. “So all the spices and love-making in the world would not have worked if Ruben had staked Furcht.” “No of course not, you cannot stop being undead by killing another. You have to spare their life.” “But Furcht is dead anyway. Why did that not affect Ruben?” “Ruben was redeemed once he let Furcht live. He cannot be made to suffer if Furcht attacks him and gets shot by police. That was not his doing.” We talked a little while longer, but I could see that she wanted to get to the hospital. And I was starving. Ruben stayed in hospital for five days. Emma said he was alright to leave after three, but the nurses would not let him go; he had a mini-harem right there in Ward Two. They fussed over his stitches, admired his body, marvelled at his bravery (“The killer? You just carried him out the door?”) and catered to his every whim (“Would you like chocolate? Milk, dark, white, nut?”) He said it was embarrassing, but I think he loved it. When he expressed concerns about his health, they were understanding and of course more than happy to give him a complete 86

check-up. Apparently his body and organs were in ace condition, his skin superb (“No sun damage, not even a freckle”), only his teeth they pronounced less than perfect. The front two were missing, the canines too sharp and the molars worn down. “I think I grind my teeth when I sleep” Ruben explained to the nurses in one multiple lie and they swooned as if this was an incredible achievement and one they wouldn’t mind witnessing. On Emma’s stern direction, Mr Stone released me from most of my band duties and I was allowed to help Ruben once he went home. Maybe Emma realised that he needed more help than previously thought, maybe he had charmed her the same way he had charmed the nurses, but I was given a free rein to come and go when I wanted. In many ways, it was a strange week. After the excitement of the birthday and the joy of the successful Remedy, Ruben now had to adjust to a human life and the two of us to a human relationship. He was exhilarated and frustrated in turn. On the one hand, he tried new things; if allowed, he would have eaten everything in the shop; on the other he had to get used to a strange body and tons of normal everyday stuff he’d never used before: Tissues, toilet paper, condoms, band aids, toothbrush, it was all a shock to him. He cut himself shaving, he overate and got heartburn (“My heart! My heart! It’s hurting like fire!” he exclaimed like some Shakespearean hero), he fell asleep listening to music and he was always cold. Three days before my scheduled departure, I cycled over to Ruben’s place with some dips and Camembert. He had promised to bake some bread and I found him standing in front of the oven, warming his hands.. “How do people do this?” Ruben asked “I am freezing” “Ruben, this house is built for vampires. Most houses have heaters.” “OK, we’ll get one of those tomorrow.” I gave him a hug, “Where I’m from, it’s always warm. You could go there.” Ruben kissed me. “Let’s have lunch under the blankets and then talk about my upcoming trip to Australia.” It would take at least six months. I still had one full year of high school to go, but Ruben was due to graduate in the Northern Summer. He showed me his music scholarship offers, whole handfuls of lucrative invitations. He had already rejected some: "San Diego because it’s too sunny and Oxford because it’s in England, but I am now considering the Con in Sydney.”

87

This was a nice thought, but I was devastated nonetheless. Maybe I was suffering from a form of post-natal depression. I did not want to stay in Forks, but I could not bear to think about leaving Ruben. I wanted to go back and do my HSC, but it seemed impossible to return to a normal school life. I was looking forward to seeing my family and friends again, but I didn’t know how much they’d understand. Ruben too was at a loss. The Hales were happy for him, but he was in a lonely position. “Once I graduate” he said “I’m out of this town. We will be together soon.” That promise saw me through the last days in Forks.

Coda
It seemed to take a full two days to say goodbye to everyone. Kelly and Jasmine, Sergeant Swan, Mr Hale, Ms Mears, all dropped by to wish me farewell and all looked touchingly sad. The Whitebridges had organised a special farewell dinner for all of us, Ruben and Anu included. Ruben brought an orange cake and we had a great time feasting and reminiscing. We got to tease Ruben about his teeth – tacky temporary fakes that made him look like a soap star. “I hope you know that you are making fun of a bona fide hero. The Forks Forum said so on page 2 and the good Sergeant Swan has even recommended me for a Bravery Medal. And I have the scar to prove it!” “Can I see it?” Michael asked, expressing what Emma, Skye and I were thinking. Ruben stretched his shirt to expose his shoulder and a nasty-looking scar. “Wow!” Michael was impressed “That looks wicked!” He was good at this expressing gig. It was bad enough saying goodbye to Kelly, but the farewell at SeaTac Airport was heart wrenching. We were like the worst opera ever. Anu and Skye were kissing and crying, Emma was sobbing, Ruben and I could not let the other go. Even Michael had tears in his eyes. Ruben gave me a long, gentle kiss goodbye. He wiped his eyes. “I have not cried since 1848” he whispered in wonder “How freaky is that?” I could not answer; he reached into his pocket, then took my hand. “Here is a music player, a letter and a present. If you can, listen to the player on the plane. I put your favourite songs on it. The letter can keep till Sydney, it’s not really personal, but I would like you to wear this.” It was a ring, silver and simple, with a strange and beautiful stone in it. “Bloodstone” he explained, kissing my fingers, “Our birthstone” We kissed and I could taste the salt. 88

They made Anu interrupt us. He tapped me on the shoulder. “We have to go” he said sheepishly. Ruben shook Anu’s hand and then grinned, quite cheekily for someone with red eyes. “There might be a surprise on the plane” he said “Hope you enjoy it”. In the flurry of late goodbyes, I forgot to ask what he meant. Besides, everyone was sobbing.

Encore
In contrast, the scene on board was almost comic. Once Anu and I got our boarding passes, it became apparent that Ruben had had us upgraded. Showing little solidarity with our fellow State Band members, we scooted to the tip of the plane. Anu took in the seats, the cashmere blanket, the cute stewardess. “I love Ruben” he said and his face made me giggle until take-off. It was the bomb. Anu and I ordered food and mocktails and tried out the flat beds. The attendants brought us pyjamas, slippers and proper toiletries. I was enjoying myself so much, it was a good hour before I started crying again. Anu touched my hand. “Nice ring” he commented, then “Why don’t you listen to the music player Ruben gave you?” I scanned the player’s menu. Ruben was right – it was full of awesome music. All the stuff he had played in Seattle, Chris Isaak and Leonard Cohen, Paul Robeson, Mozart and a sound file marked ‘For Sophia’. Ruben’s voice came through as if he was next to me: “Sophia, there is obviously nothing I can do or say which will ever express my gratitude for what you have done, my awe at your generosity and spirit and my complete and utter love for you.” This was making me cry more. I looked at my ring and blinked back the tears. “I have spent hours wondering how I can thank or repay you. It is difficult finding the time to think now that I am sleeping each night and I know you will try and dissuade me, but I want to give you a token, a reward, a sign, if you like, of my love.” A short pause. “In the letter are legal documents transferring the title deeds to the Seattle loft, a New-York-based trust fund and a number of shares and accounts to you.” Surprise didn’t come close. “My lawyers and accountants, bloodsuckers all of them, though not vampires, have drawn up the papers; they should be watertight. Last I checked, everything was worth $6 million; of that, I’ve given you half.” I ripped off the headphones and ripped open the envelope. Pages of official-looking documents spilled out and I stuffed them back in. This was too much to take on. Anu was staring at me: “Are you alright?” he asked 89

“No, I am in shock” I answered “I think Ruben has given me some money and shares” “Nice” He shrugged his shoulders. “Different. But hey, it’s Ruben. For a minute, I thought you were opening blood test results” “That is not funny” But I grinned back “You don’t think it cheapens our relationship, Ruben giving me money?” Too late. Anu was not going to let an opportunity like that go by. “Cheapen you say?” His smile was sardonic. “That depends on how much he is paying!” I shook my head and looked at my fingers. Anu gasped. “Oh. Dear. You are embarrassed! Sophia, he’s given you a busload, hasn’t he?” “I can’t take it. It’s wrong!” “What? Racism is wrong, cruelty is wrong, enjoying McDonalds is wrong, giving money to someone you love is fine.” “It doesn’t feel right” I whined “What do you think I should do?” “Anything. Nothing. It’s the thought that counts. You can leave it in the bank, you can hand it over to your parents, give it all to charity, spend it on antique trumpets and silk lingerie. OK, maybe that’s just me.” “What would you do? Honestly?” Anu put his hand on his chest. “Honestly? I’d keep it. As I always say, bank the money, thank your honey.” I had to laugh “You have never said that before in your life!” He winked at me and reclined his seat. “This first class seat must have cost Ruben $5000 and I certainly did nothing to deserve it. But I’ll be dammed if I knock it back. So, if you are quite over your little ethical dilemma, I’m going to get some sleep.” In all honesty, I was excited about the present as well. It was a really nice thought. Listen to Ruben’s songs, I told myself, pretend he’s right here and deal with it later. I reclined my seat and selected Wicked Game. Listening to the music and touching the ring Ruben had given me, I waited for the crescendo.

90

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