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Someone knocks at the door of the Las Vegas home where I stand. It is late evening; the living room is dimly lit, four walls of blurred shadows. I don't know who this person is. For that matter, I'm not sure who I am. I have just awakened from a dead alchemist's experiment. My mind is foggy and my nerves are shot. But before I embarked on the experiment, only hours ago, I was a steelwilled vampire the last vampire on earth. Now I fear and hope that I may once again be human. That I may be a young woman named Alisa, the humble offspring of a fivethousand- year-old monster called Sita.
The person continues to knock.
"Open the door," he says impatiently. "It's me."
Who is me? I wonder. I do not recognize the voice, although it does sound familiar. Yet I hesitate to obey, even to respond. Of those few I call friends, only Seymour Dorsten is supposed to know I am in this Las Vegas home. My other friends well, a couple recently perished in the Nevada desert, in a nuclear blast. A lot has been happening in the last few days, and most of it has been my doing.
"Sita," the person outside the door says. "I know you're in there."
Curious, I think. He knows my ancient name. He even says it like he knows me. But why doesn't he tell me his name? I could ask him, but some emotion stops me. It is one I have seldom known in my five thousand years.
Fear. I stare down at my hands.
I tremble with fear. If I am human, I know, I am practically defenseless. That is why I do not want to open the door. I do not want to die before I have had a chance to taste mortality. Before I have had the opportunity to have a child. That is perhaps the primary reason I employed Arturo's alchemetic tools to reverse my vampirism to become a mother. Yet I am still not a hundred percent sure the experiment has succeeded. I reach down with the nails of my right hand and pinch my left palm. The flesh breaks; there is a line of blood. I stare at it.
The wound does not immediately heal.
I must be human. Lord Krishna save me.
The knocking stops. The person outside takes a step back from the door. I hear his movements, even with my mediocre human ears. He seems to chuckle to himself.
"I understand, Sita," he says. "It's all right. I'll return soon."
I hear him walk away. Only then do I realize I have been standing in the dark with my breath held. Almost collapsing from relief, I sag against the door and try to calm my thumping heart. I am both confused and exalted.
"I am human," I whisper to myself.
Tears roll over my face. I touch them with my quivering tongue. They are clear and salty, not dark and bloody. Another sign that I am human. Moving slowly, striving to maintain my balance, I step to the living room couch and sit down. Looking around, I marvel at how blurred everything is, and wonder if the experiment has damaged my eyesight. But then I realize I must be seeing things as a human sees, which means to see so little. Why, I can't even distinguish the grain in the wood panel on the far wall. Nor can I hear the voices of the people in the cars that pass outside. I am virtually blind and deaf.
"I am human," I repeat in wonder. Then I begin to laugh, to cry some more, and to wonder what the hell I'm going to do next. Always, as a vampire, I could do anything I wished. Now I doubt if I will ever leave the house.
I pick up the remote and turn on the TV. The news they are talking about the hydrogen bomb that exploded in the desert the previous night. They say it destroyed a top-secret military base. The wind was blowing away from Las Vegas so the fallout should be almost nonexistent. They don't say anything about me, however, even though I was there and witnessed the whole thing. The experts wonder if it was an accident. They don't connect it to the mass police killings I committed in Los Angeles a few days earlier. They are not very imaginative, I think. They don't believe in vampires.
And now there are no more vampires to believe in.
"I beat you, Yaksha," I say aloud to my dead creator, the vampire who sucked my blood five thousand years ago and replaced it with his own mysterious fluids. "It took me a long time but now I can go back to an ordinary life."
Yet my memories are not ordinary. My mind is not either, although I suddenly realize I am having trouble remembering many things that hours ago were clear. Has my identity changed with my body? What percentage of personal ego is constructed from memory? True, I still remember Krishna, but I can no longer see him in my mind's eye as I could before. I forget even the blue of his eyes that unfathomable blue, as dear as the most polished star in the black heavens. The realization saddens me. My long life has been littered with pain, but also much joy. I do not want it to be forgotten, especially by me.
"Joel," I whisper. "Arturo."
I will not forget them. Joel was an FBI agent, a friend I made into a vampire in order to save his life. An alteration that caused him to die from a nuclear bomb. And Arturo, another friend, a hybrid of humanity and vampires from the Middle Ages, my personal priest, my passionate lover, and the greatest alchemist in history. It was Arturo who forced me to detonate the bomb, and destroy him and Joel, but my love for him is still warm and near. I only wish he were with me now to see what miracle his esoteric knowledge has wrought. But would the vampire blood-obsessed Arturo have still loved my human body? Yes, dear Arturo, I believe so. I still believe in you.
Then there was Ray, my Rama reincarnated. My memories of him will never fade, I swear, even if my human brain eventually grows forgetful. My love for Ray is not a human or vampire creation. It is beyond understanding, eternal, even though he himself is dead. Killed trying to kill a demon, the malignant Eddie Fender. There are worse reasons to die, I suppose. I still remember more than a few of them.
Yet, at the moment, I do not want to dwell on the past.
I just want to be human again. And live.
There comes another knock at the front door.
I become very still. How quickly frightened a human can become.
"Sita," this person calls. "It's me, Seymour. Can I come in?"
This voice I definitely recognize. Standing with effort, I walk to the front door and undo the lock and chain. Seymour stands on the porch and stares at me. He wears the same thick glasses and hopelessly mismatched clothes of the high school nerd I met in a stupid PE class only a few months before. His face changes as he studies me; his expression turns to one of alarm. He has trouble speaking.
"It worked," he gasps.
I smile and open the door all the way. "It worked. Now I am like you. Now I am free of the curse."
Seymour shakes his head as he steps in the house and I close the door. He liked me as a vampire, I know. He wanted me to make him a vampire, to poison him through the metamorphosis, an act that was strictly forbidden by Krishna five thousand years ago. Now Seymour is upset. Unable to sit, he paces in front of me. There are unshed tears in his eyes.
"Why did you do it?" he demands. "I didn't think you would really do it."
I force my smile wider and spread my arms. "But you knew I would. And I want you to be happy for me." I gesture for him to come to me. "Give me a hug, and this time I won't be able to squeeze you to death."
He hugs me, reluctantly, and as he does so he finally does shed his tears. He has to turn away; he is having trouble breathing. Naturally his reaction upsets me.
"It's gone," he says to the far wall.
"The magic is gone."
I speak firmly. "It is only Yaksha's blood that has been destroyed. Maybe you don't like that. Maybe your fantasies of being a vampire are ruined. But think of the world it is safe now from this curse. And only you and I know how close it came to being destroyed by it."
But Seymour shakes his head as he glances at me. "I am not worried about my own personal fantasies. Yeah, sure, I wanted to be a vampire. What eighteen-year-old wouldn't want to be one? But the magic is gone. You were that magic."
My cheek twitches; his words wound me. "I am still here. I am still Alisa."
"But you are no longer Sita. The world needed her in order to be a place of mystery. Even before I met you, I knew you. You know I knew you. I wrote my stories late at night and your darkness filled them." He hung his head. "Now the world is empty. It's nothing."
I approach and touch his arm. "My feelings for you have not changed. Are they nothing? Good God, Seymour, you speak to me as if I were dead."
He touches my hand but now it is hard for him to look at me. "Now you will die."
"All who are born die," I say, quoting Krishna. "All who are dead will be reborn. It is the nature of things."
He bites his lower lip and stares at the floor. "That's easy to say but it's not easy to live through. When you met me, I had AIDS. My death was certain it was all I could see. It was like a slowmotion horror film that never ended. It was only your blood that saved me." He pauses. "How many others could it have saved?"
"Now you sound like Arturo."
"He was a brilliant man."
"He was a dangerous man."
Seymour shrugs. "You always have an answer for everything. I can't talk to you."
"But you can. I'm a good listener. But you have to listen as well. You have to give me a chance to explain how I feel. I'm happy the experiment has succeeded. It means more to me than you can imagine. And I'm happy there's no going back."
He catches my eye. "Is that true?"
"You know it is true. There is no more vampire blood, anywhere. It's over." I squeeze his arm and pull him closer. "Let it be over. I need you now, you know, more than I needed you before." I bury my face in his shoulder. "You have to teach me how to be a nerd."
My small joke makes him chuckle. "Can we have sex now?" he asks.
I raise my head and plant a wet kiss on his cheek. "Sure. When we're both a little older." I shake him, but not so hard as I used to. "How dare you ask me a question like that? We haven't been on a date yet."
He tries hard to accept the loss of his world, the death of his magic. He forces a smile. "There's a vampire movie in town. We could see it, and eat popcorn, and jeer, and then have sex afterward." He waits for an answer. "It's what most nerd couples do every Saturday evening."
I suddenly remember. It has taken me this long. There must be something wrong with my mind. I turn away and swear under my breath. "Damn."
"What is it?" he asks. "You don't like popcorn?"
"We have to get out of town. We have to leave now."
"There was someone here a few minutes ago. A young man he was knocking at the door."
"Who was it?"
"I don't know. I didn't open the door. But this guy he called me by name. He called me Sita. He kept insisting I open the door."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because I didn't know who he was! Because I'm human now!" I pause and frown. "His voice sounded familiar. I swear, I knew it, but I just can't place it."
"What makes you think he's dangerous?"
"Do you have to ask that question? No one alive, except you, knows me by the name Sita." I stop again. "He said he would come back. He laughed as he said it. He sounded so sure of himself."
"What else did he say?"
"He called himself my darling."
Seymour was thoughtful. "Could Arturo have survived the blast?"
"But he was a hybrid. Half human, half vampire. It's possible. Don't dismiss the possibility."
I shake my head. "Even Yaksha could not have survived that blast."
"But you did."
"I floated away at the last minute. You know, I told you." I turn toward the kitchen, my car keys. "The sooner we leave the better."
Seymour grabs my arm. "I disagree. You have said there are no more vampires. What do we have to fear from this person? Better we stay and find out who he is."
I consider. "The government must have known Arturo was using this house. Such records were probably kept somewhere else besides the army base I destroyed. The government might be watching this house now."
"But you said you knew this person."
"I'm not sure about that. There was something in his voice, though..."
"What?" Seymour demands when I don't finish.
I strain to remember through my newfound human fog. "His tone it gave me a chill."
Seymour acts like a wise guy. "In the real world not everybody who comes to the front door wants to kill you. Some guys just want to sell you a vacuum cleaner."
I remain stubborn. "We're getting out of here now." Grabbing the keys off the kitchen table, I peer out the back window and see nothing significant. In the distance, the lights of the Strip come alive and shimmer, colored beacons in a desert wasteland. A nuclear bomb just exploded but human vice will not be postponed. Of course the wind was blowing the other way, but I do not judge. I have always been a gambler. I understand better than most why the atomic dice did not betray the city of sin. Why the fallout fell the other way. Still, I swear again. "Damn. I wish I had my old vision right now. Just for a minute."
"And I bet your old hearing." Seymour comes up at my side and pats me on the back. "You're going to make that same wish a lot of times in the next few days."
Phantom copyright © 1996 by Christopher Pike
I own houses all over the world, some modest places to relax when I enter a foreign country in search of fresh blood, others so extravagant one would think I was a princess. My home in Beverly Hills, where we drive after leaving Las Vegas, is one of the most opulent ones. As we enter the front door, Seymour stares in wonder.
"If we stay here," he says, "I have to get new clothes."
"You can have the clothes, but we're not staying. Ray's father knew about this house, so the government might as well. We're just here to get money, credit cards, clothes, and fresh identification."
Seymour is doubtful. "The government knew you were at the compound. They'll think you died in the blast."
"They'll have to know for sure that I died. They were obsessed with my blood, so they'll research every possible lead concerning me." I step to the window and peer outside. It is the middle of the night. "They may be watching us now."
Seymour shrugs. "Are you going to get me fresh ID?"
I glance at him. "You should go home."
He shakes his head firmly. "I'm not going to leave you. Forget it. I mean, you don't even know how to be human."
I step past him. "We can discuss this later. We don't want to be here a minute more than we have to be."
In the basement of my Beverly Hills home, I pick up the things I mentioned to Seymour. I also take a 9mm Smith & Wesson equipped with a silencer and several rounds of ammunition. My reflexes and vision are not what they used to be, but I believe I am still an excellent shot. All my supplies I load into a large black leather suitcase. I am surprised how much it weighs as I carry it back upstairs. My physical weakness is disconcerting.
I don't let Seymour see the gun.
We leave Beverly Hills and drive toward Santa Monica. I let Seymour drive; the speed of the surrounding cars disturbs me. It is as if I am a young woman from 3000 B.C. who has been plucked from her slow-paced world and dumped into the dizzyingly fast twentieth century. I tell myself I just need time to get used to it. My euphoria over being human remains, but the anxiety is there as well.
Who was at the door?
I can't imagine. Not even a single possibility comes to mind. But there was something about that voice.
We check into a Sheraton hotel by the beach. My new name is Candice Hall. Seymour is just a friend helping me with my bags. I don't put his name down on the register. I will not stay Candice long. I have other ID that I can change my hair style and color to match, as well as other small features. Yet I feel safe as I close the door of the hotel room behind me. Since Las Vegas, I have kept an eye on the rearview mirror. I don't believe we've been followed. Seymour sets my bag on the floor as I plop down on the bed and sigh.
"I haven't felt this exhausted in a long time," I say.
Seymour sits beside me. "We humans are always tired."
"I am going to enjoy being human. I don't care what you say."
He stares at me in the dimly lit room. "Sita?"
I close my eyes and yawn. "Yes?"
"I am sorry for what I said. If this makes you happy, then it makes me happy."
"I just worry, you know, that there's no going back."
I sit up and touch his leg. "The decision would have been meaningless if I could have gone back."
He understands my subtle meaning. "You didn't do this because of what Krishna said to you about vampires?" he asks.
I nod. "I think partly. I don't think Krishna approved of vampires. I think he just allowed me to live out of his deep compassion for all living things."
"Maybe there was another reason."
"Perhaps." I touch his face. "Did I ever tell you how dear you are to me?"
He smiles. "No. You were always too busy threatening to kill me."
I feel a stab of pain. It is in my chest, where a short time ago a stake pierced my heart. For a moment the area is raw with an agonizing burning, as if I am bleeding to death. But it is a brief spasm. I draw in a shuddering breath and speak in a sad voice.
"I always kill the ones I love."
He takes my hand. "That was before. It can be different now that you're not a monster."
I have to laugh, although it is still not easy to take a deep breath. "Is that a line you use to get a girl to go to bed with you?"
He leans closer. "I already have you in bed."
I roll onto my side. "I need to take a shower. We both need to rest."
He draws back, disappointed. "You haven't changed that much."
I stand and fluff up his hair, trying to cheer him up. "But I have. I'm a nineteen-year-old girl again. You just forget what monsters teenage girls can be."
He is suddenly moved. "I never knew the exact age you were when Yaksha changed you."
I pause and think of Rama, my long dead husband, and Lalita, my daughter, cremated fifty centuries ago in a place I was never to know.
"Yes," I say softly. "I was almost twenty when Yaksha came for me." And because I was suspended so long between the ages, I add again, "Almost."
An hour later Seymour is last asleep beside me on the king-size bed. But despite my physical exhaustion, my mind refuses to shut down. I can't be free of the images of Joel's and Arturo's faces from two nights earlier when I suddenly began to turn to light, to dissolve, to leave them just before the bomb was detonated. At the time I knew I was dead. It was a certainty. Yet one last miracle occurred and I lived on. Perhaps there was a reason.
I climb out of bed and dress. Before leaving the hotel room, I load my pistol and tuck it in my belt, at the back, pulling my sweatshirt over it.
The hotel is located on Ocean Ave. I cross over it, and the Coast Highway that separates me from the ocean. Soon I am walking along the dark and foggy Santa Monica Beach, not the safest place to be in the early morning hours before the sun rises. Yet I walk briskly, heading south, paying little attention to my surroundings. What work it is to make my legs move over the sand! It is as if I walk with weights strapped around my ankles. Sweat drips in my eyes and I pant audibly. But I feel good as well. Finally, after thirty minutes of toil, my mind begins to relax, and I contemplate returning to the hotel and trying to sleep. It is only then that I become aware that two men are following me.
They are fifty yards behind me. In the dark it is hard to distinguish their features, but it is clear they are both Caucasian and well built, maybe thirty years old. They move like two good ol' boys, one dark featured, ugly, the other bright as a bottle of beer foaming in the sunlight. I think these boys have been drinking beer and stronger and are feeling uncomfortably horny. I smile to myself as I anticipate the encounter, even imagine what their blood will taste like. Then I remember I am not who I used to be. A wave of fear sweeps through my body, but I stand and wait for them to come to me.
"Hey, girl," the one with dark hair says with a Southern accent. "What are you doing out at this time of night?"
I shrug. "Just out for a walk. What are you guys up to?"
The blond guy snickers. "How old are you, girl?"
"Why?" I ask.
The dark-haired one moves slightly to my left. He flexes his fists as he speaks. "We just want to know if you're legal."
"I'm old enough to vote," I say. "Not old enough to drink. You boys been drinking tonight?"
They both chuckle. The blond guy moves a step closer. He smells of beer, whiskey. "You might say we've been looking at the wrong end of a few bottles tonight. But don't let that worry you none. We're still fully capable of finishing what we start."
I take a step back. Perhaps it's a mistake that I show fear. "I don't want any trouble," I say. And I mean it, although I feel as if I can still take them. After all, I am still a master of martial arts. A series of swift kicks to their groins, their jaws, should settle any unpleasantness. The dark-haired guy steps off to my left, and wipes at his slobbering mouth with the back of his arm.
"We don't want trouble either," he says. "We're just looking for a good time."
I catch his eye, and really do wish that my stare was still capable of burning into his brain. Seymour was right my wishes have already settled into a pattern of wanting what I have lost. Yet I do my best to make my voice hard.
"Sometimes a good time can cost you," I say.
"I don't think so," the blond guy says. "You agree, John?"
"She looks like a freebie to me, Ed," John responds.
They've used their names in front of me. That is a bad sign. It means they're either too drunk to know better, or else they plan to kill me. The latter seems a distinct possibility since they clearly intend to rape me. I take another step back, and am tempted to reach for my gun. Yet I don't really want to kill them, especially since there is no need for their blood. Knocking them unconscious is my preference.
Actually, it is my second preference. Surviving is my first.
"If you touch me I'll scream," I warn them.
"No one's going to hear you down here," John says as he reaches out to grab me. "Take her, Ed!"
They go for me simultaneously, John close on my left, Ed three feet in front of me. But it is John who reaches me first. He has pretty good reflexes for a drunk. Before I can twist away, he catches me in a bear hug. Briefly I struggle, and then go limp. When Ed closes within two feet, however, I shove back against John and jump up, lifting both my feet off the ground. Lashing out with the right, I catch Ed in the groin. He shouts in pain and doubles up.
"The bitch got me!" he complains.
"Goddamn it!" John yells in my ear. "You're going to pay for that."
In response I slash backward and up with my left elbow. The blow catches John square on the jaw and his hold on me loosens as he staggers back. In an instant I am free. Since Ed is still bent over, I do him the favor of kicking him in the face, breaking his nose. He drops to his knees, his face dark with blood.
"Help me, John," he moans.
"Help him, John," I mock as John regains his balance and glares at me with death in his eyes. I gesture with my little finger. "Come on, John. Come and get your good-time girl."
John charges like a bull. I leap up and lash out with my left foot in order to kiss his jaw with the heel of my boot. The only trouble is that my timing and balance are all off. I have not risen far enough off the ground. Instead of striking him in the face, I hit him just above the heart, and the blow has not nearly the power I anticipated. John is a big man, over two hundred pounds. He grunts in pain as I strike but he doesn't stop. The momentum of his charge brushes aside my leg and now it is me who is suddenly off balance.
Frantically, I try to bring my left leg back in beneath me before I land but I am too late. With a thud, I topple on my right foot and hit the sand with the right side of my face. John is on me in a second, grabbing me from behind and pinning my arms midway up my spine. He's strong. My upper vertebrae feel as if they will explode. With his free hand he smacks me on the back of the head.
"You are one nasty bitch," he swears as he presses my face into the sand. Straining, I twist my head to the side so that I can breathe and see what is going to happen to me. "Ed, give me a hand with this whore. She looked like a good sport to begin with but I'm afraid when we're done pleasing ourselves we're going to have to bury her in this spot."
"We'll let the crabs eat her," Ed agrees as he staggers over, still bleeding profusely from his smashed nose. Behind me, John reaches around for the button on my pants. That is something of a break because if he had just tried to pull my pants down from behind, he would have found the gun. Also, reaching around as he is, I realize, John is slightly off balance.
Digging in with my right knee and pushing off with the tip of my left foot, I shove up as hard as possible. The move catches John by surprise, and I momentarily break free and roll in the sand. But my freedom will be measured in fractions of a second if I don't take drastic action. Squirming onto my back, I see both John and Ed staring down at me with stupid grins. They look ten feet tall and as ugly as highway billboards. Together they reach for me.
"Wait!" I cry as I move my right hand slowly under my lower back. "If I lie still and cooperate will you please not hurt me?"
They pause to think about that. "You better lie still, bitch," John says finally. "But you've messed up my friend too much to just walk away from tonight."
"But we might give you a chance to crawl away," Ed says, wiping at his bloody face and picking at his broken nose all in the same move.
"I won't leave here crawling," I say in a different tone of voice as my hand finds the butt of the gun. Leaning slightly to the left I whip it out and point it at the good ol' boys. They stare at it, frankly, as if they have never seen a gun before. Then they both take a step back. Maintaining my aim, I take my time getting back to my feet. I speak gently. "That's right, boys," I say. "No sudden moves. No screams for help."
John chuckles uneasily. "Hey, you got us, girl. You got us good. We give you that. But you know we didn't mean you no harm. We just drank a little too much and didn't know what we were doing."
"We weren't going to hurt you none," Ed adds, sounding scared, as well he should. Still taking my time, I step within a foot of Ed and place the barrel of the gun between his eyebrows. His eyes get real big, and he wants to turn and run but I stop him with a faint shake of my head. To my left, John stands frozen in wonder and horror.
"You are both liars," I say in a cold voice. "You were not only going to rape me, you were going to kill me. Now I am going to kill you because you deserve to die. But you should be grateful I'm using a gun. A few nights ago I would have used my teeth and nails, and you would have died much slower." I pause. "Say goodbye to John, Ed."
Ed is consumed with murderer's remorse. "Please!" he says, his voice cracking. "I have a wife and kid back home. If I die, who will take care of them?"
"I've got two kids back home," John says passionately.
But I am unmoved. Being human has not made me more gullible.
Yet, I usually do not kill when I have the upper hand. I do not kill for pleasure. But I know these two will harm others in the future, and therefore it is better that they die now.
"It is better for your children not to grow up having to imitate trash like you," I say.
Ed's face is awash with tears. "No!" he cries.
"Yes," I say, and shoot him in the head. He falls hard.
I turn the gun on John, who slowly backs away, shaking his head.
"Have mercy," he pleads. "I don't want to die."
"Then you should never have been born," I reply.
I shoot him twice in the face. In the eyes.
Yet that is all I do. The ancient thirst is gone.
I leave their bodies for the crabs.
Phantom copyright © 1996 by Christopher Pike