underneath the skin there's a human
buried deep within there's a human
despite everything i'm still human
…but i think i'm dying here

{daughter, 'human'}

x

Tulip finds Cassidy propped up against the front doors of the church, smoking like a recently doused campfire. She winches at the sight of him. She didn't expect this. She expected extinguisher fluid, a bloody nose, maybe even some missing teeth, but not this. Jesse didn't just turn Cassidy out; he left him to die. It churns her stomach imagining he was the one to drag his own burnt corpse to shelter, lying there like a dog waiting for death.

She hunkers down on her haunches and inspects him. He's burnt beyond recognition; only thin strips of red, blistered skin display any colour other than black. And then there's the smell. There's nothing more distinct than the scent of burnt flesh. Her stomach rolls in mutinous waves, but she swallows the bile down. Somewhere in the pit of her subconscious, she registers that a normal person would be throwing up their dinner right about now. They would see Cassidy as a corpse, an abomination, a lost cause. But Tulip isn't wired that way; she's not sure if she ever was.

Somehow she knows he's alive even before she throws the hoodie over his head and grabs his arm, slinging it over his shoulder. He moans pitifully For a sickening moment she thinks she's going to pull his arm out of its socket like it's some slow-cooked pulled pork falling off the bone, but he manages to stumble to his feet and take some of the weight off as she drags him towards the car.

They say nothing. There's only the sound of her grunting and the tiny whimpers of pain escaping him as his flesh is jostled and torn with every effort. At one point his head dips down and touches her shoulder; her grip on his waist tightens. Her throat suddenly feels pinhole thin. She has to remind herself that what she's sensing, what she's feeling right now, is simply ridiculous. There's no point in her feeling sorry for him. He's a vampire, not a person. Not human. But deep inside herself she knows—he's the most real, most human person she knows.

She's almost to the car when she hears a door slam. It's Emily, another sheep cast from the flock. She doesn't see them as she heads the other way, lost in her own world. Tulip, however, is very much in this world. She looks back at the door and waits. She waits for Jesse. She waits for a miracle. She waits in vain because neither one comes.

The air hangs heavy with aggression now. She's getting the jitters. She doesn't know what's going on or what's going to happen. With Jesse. With the town. What she does know is that this world keeps getting a little more evil, a little more rotten and decayed. And try as she might, she can't abandon Jesse, just like she can't stop thinking of Cassidy as a person.

"C'mon you burnt up sack of shit!" she cusses, pulling the vampire up with a groan. "You need to help me out here. You're heavy as fuck."

It's a miracle she's carried him this far, but she's strong and she works quickly, and well. She's helped carry Jesse out of bars before. Dragged him out when he was dead drunk or in a murderous rage. Cassidy might be as tall and lanky as a pole, but he's half the weight of Jesse and a third of the weight of her uncle. She can handle it. But then she's never had to drag a charred corpse around, worrying if bits of him would fall off.

With one hand she cradles his body to her hip while the other opens the back door. She feels a strange moment of terror when Cassidy's voice crackles in her ear.

"Tulip." His voice smoulders against her cheek like a seeping whisper of death. "You gonna pray fer me again?"

Every ache, every pain and scar that litters her body breaks into a unanimous roar: No, I won't! This damn vampire shouldn't make her feel so lost, like she has done fuckall with her life up until this very moment. It defies logic.

"No need to pray for you, Cassidy," she grunts, as she manoeuvres him around. "You're gonna make it, remember?"

"I dunno 'bout tha'," he replies, the sadness in his voice cut by a moan of pain.

His resignation angers her, and she ends up dropping him into the back seat. His moan turns into a tortuous howl and it cuts through her like a knife. Everything feels wrong. Jesse throwing Cassidy out like that, throwing O'Hare in her face—something everyone else did but him. And now a dying vampire has shown her more compassion and understanding than anyone has in a long damn time. It's like an omen or something. And in a way it scares her; he scares her, more than Jesse's recent words or deeds.

A short sigh of resignation breaks from her lips and she spares Cassidy's sickly body a long, hard stare, as if steeling herself for what she must do next. She turns quickly and slams the door, heading for the driver's side. When she gets inside, she checks the church in the rearview mirror. It stands above the town like a prophet atop a mountain, awaiting the descent of God. She grimaces at the irony. Jesse isn't coming for her. He isn't coming to help. He isn't asking her to stay. Her eyes shift to Cassidy, a lump of bloody blisters and ash falling apart in the back of her 1972 Chevy Chevelle. She holds the wheel so tightly she can feel the leather buckling under her grip.

"Let's get the fuck outta here," she finally says. The sound of the tires crunching gravel echo throughout the car. "We need to get you a drink."

It takes her ten minutes to convince the local butcher to let her buy several gallons of cow's blood. She tells him she's a chef; he believes she's a Satanist. However, a grand in cash is a grand in cash, so he lets her take the blood with only silent, judgemental scrutiny as his protest. When she gets Cassidy back to her uncle's, she's all but spent. Still, she closes all the curtains and lugs him and the blood inside, manoeuvring him as gently as she can onto the bed. She pours the blood into a dirty glass she finds on the nightstand and puts it to his cracked lips. It misses and a great glob of blood dribbles down his cheeks and neck, spilling onto the sheets below. For a heart-pounding second, she thinks she might be too late.

"C'mon, Cassidy!" She slaps his face and his skin pulls away with her hand. He doesn't flinch, doesn't make a peep, and her stomach bottoms out. "Drink the damn blood, Cass! Please."

Desperate, Tulip forces Cassidy's mouth open and pours the blood directly down his throat. She pulls the empty cup back and draws a breath, and waits. And waits. She doesn't know what will happen, and for once it terrifies her.

"C'mon, Cassidy. Stop playing around now!" she threatens. "I ain't gonna kiss you this time."

She watches his face for a sign, for a flicker of life. Her fingers tighten painfully around the glass; it feels like it's going to shatter in her hand. She turns introspective, then nostalgic. She remembers the first night they first met: accidentally beating his naked ass out the window and then holding his bleeding ass in her lap in the back of her car, praying to God to make things right. She remembers how desperate she felt then. Now, it doesn't even compare.

Please, God...

Then she sees it. At first she isn't even sure what she's seeing. The blackened skin on his face starts to flake off, moulting like a snake shedding its skin. Underneath the black is new skin, red hot, knitting itself back together like the threads of a spiderweb. He groans softly and his throat begins to undulate, seeking sustenance. She hurriedly pours him another glass, the blood sloshing over the rim and spilling onto her hand.

"Here, have some more."

She puts the glass to his lips and he opens his eyes. Hazel eyes, warm eyes, focussed solely on her. She swallows hard, expecting something, but he doesn't say a word; he just allows her to feed him. After the first gallon of blood is consumed, the black shit has completely fallen off and the blisters are gone. He's already sitting up on his own, drinking blood from a gallon jug like a man dying of thirst.

Tulip slumps down at the edge of the bed. Relief and exhaustion hit her all at once. She leans forward, head in her hands, and takes a deep breath, then another. Slowly, she threads her fingers through her hair before turning back to look at Cassidy again. It's like she's got to make sure he's still alive, still real. Dead men don't walk, they say. Tulip believed that once, but after meeting Cassidy, she knows that what should be dead never stays that way. What should be an unholy abomination is what might be the only something in this world still holding compassion in his heart.

She exhales shakily with a snort. Now that the crisis is over, now that she's got time to think, she's suddenly angry. She's angry with Jesse—with what he's done to her and Cassidy. She's mad at herself too, and how Cassidy's been right about her all this time. But mostly she's mad at this town and the goddamn human condition. Every time she breathes in, she savours the poison that is Annville, and every time she breathes out, she expels her own rage. For when Jesse falls, and he will, nothing in this town will survive. Including her. And the most depressing thought of all is that maybe she was never meant to survive without him.

It's in that momentary flare of anger at her inevitable fate that her tears are finally triggered. She can feel them welling in her eyes, tearing away every emotional wall she has erected over the course of her shitty life.

"Tulip?" Cassidy's voice cracks, unused, breaking through her thoughts. Suddenly everything stops—the pain, the loneliness, the self-loathing. Cassidy, damn Cassidy. "Don't cry, love." He touches her cheek tenderly, planting a bloody fingerprint there. His affection is reverent as it is condemning. "Please don't cry."

She trembles; part sadness, part relief and part rage. She doesn't say anything; she can't, so she bows her head.

"It's not his fault, love," he tells her. "There's a disease inside 'im." He reluctantly drops his hand and offers her a feeble smile. His skin is pink like a newborn infant. "It'll be okay, though. Jesse'll be okay."

Tulip takes a deep breath, then another. And another. She lifts her head and looks at him—really looks at him. He has no idea. No idea that the tears aren't just for Jesse; they aren't just for herself.

"Cassidy, you're a friggin' idiot!" He flinches. "And if you do not shut the hell up about Jesse this instant, I am going to throw you back out into the sun to burn. You got that?"

He must think her a little extreme, hissing at him with such unmitigated fury, but he says nothing. He accepts her judgement, for there are tears in her eyes and they're tracking down her cheeks covered in the ash of his own flesh. And there is a look of sadness and relief on her face that he's never seen on someone before—not over him. So he has little choice but to accept her harsh and empty threats with an upturned smile, because she's saved him.

Again.

"That's fine by me, love," he says, flashing a disarming smile as he folds his arms behind his head. "But later d'ya think we could visit the tattoo parlour?" He glances down at his naked chest. "Looks like I'm gonna need some new ink."

Tulip bites the inside of her cheek to stop from smiling, but a grin escapes regardless. She shakes her head and leans over him, gently cupping his cheek. His eyes pop open in wonderment.

"You're an idiot, you know that?"

He nods dumbly, cradling his cheek in her hand. "Aye," he croaks. "That I am."

"So I guess I'm stuck with you for a little while longer, huh?"

He hazards an anxious glance. "Would that be so bad?"

"No, I suppose not." She rubs her thumb in circles along the line of his jaw and he closes his eyes, content as a purring kitten. "I guess I can keep you for a little while longer." After all, she needs a little more humanity in her life.

x