Eric n' Sooks - Summer of '69 One-shot Contest
Title: Waking Sleeping Giants
Your Pen name: Nyah
Characters: Sookie, Eric, mentions of Bill and a few historical figures to boot!
Disclaimer: The characters and the lovely world which they inhabit are owned by Charlaine Harris, her publishers, etc. No claims of ownership or affiliation here. The sleeping giants quote is modified from the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of America, was a real person, though probably not a vampire. General Westmoreland was also a real person. No defamation of these persons is intended, they are used only for historical atmosphere.
Note: This presentation of the S-69 competition is brought to you by mischievousmaya, lollirotxox, and my main beta-squeeze Rinklet. Final finesse by nycsnowbird. Yep, a village raised this child. Without them, this would read something like an acid trip. We hope you enjoy our show. Please read responsibly.
Waking Sleeping Giants
In summer, 2009, forty years after the fact, we'll get together at a diner to talk about the day the war ended for us and all the days it didn't. More of us will have died by then but Millie will pass on their contributions to the conversation. If she's in the mood. We'll get together and we'll reminisce; we'll shudder as we remember how they turned the ground of a little back-world country into the mud of hell and then dragged us through it. We'll laugh as we remember how different we all seemed to each other, how strange and frightening.
We'll raise a toast to who we are and who we could have been, as each of us silently wonders what the war had to do with the difference. When the food is eaten, we'll each give a nod and the floor will be mine. I'll smile and clear history out of my throat past the sticking points of what happened and what should have happened. I'll pass it around to each of us so each one can make his contribution, polishing, shining, sanding down the rough bits of the tale until it comes back to me ready to be spun out for more than it's worth.
Some of us will have to leave early—lives to get back to, you know. Some will come in late. But it won't matter; no one will need to be caught up on the details. We all know this story already. We know who lives and who dies. We know when all the great moments happen. We know how it begins, with a standoff and a jest. We know how it ends, with betrayal and a flight. And yet we want to hear it again because it is our story. The story that became ours. The story we watched while the war watched us. The story we created while it created us.
For some of us, it is the story that took the place of our childhoods. For some, it stood in for absent children and spouses. For all, it's the part of that year that doesn't live in our nightmares, the part we can look on without first hollowing out our eyes and checking our sanity in the mirror.
It's a true story too, as true as our collective magics can make it, as true as we can hope. It's her story. But it's ours too because it is the story that saved our lives. My life.
And who am I? I am the Storyteller. I am the collector of the tales we tell about ourselves to avoid becoming just another war story. I am the interpreter of signs (a dead man's hat, a shared mud smell, a mountain peak, the moon drowned in a bucket). I am Homer, spinning together a tale of the wine-dark sea and a woman who refused to be played by fate, and who cares if I am one man or the combined voices of a voiceless nation? I am 143 D of Corps 1. One Forty-Three Deviant. One Forty Three Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
And I was there on the day we'll look back to from summer 2009. I was there on the day, forty years before, when they met again.
She sits right in the mud, a has-been southern sweetheart not caring anymore that the wet soaks through her jungle fatigues to dampen one of six pairs of army-issued underwear. The tragedy is personal. Worse things have happened. She scratches at the heavy rope of her blond braid. It's coiled around its own oil. Were it clean and bright it wouldn't belong with year-worn boots and burst seams, sporting holes where the jungle's tried to creep through.
Across her knees is a student newspaper that had been smuggled in the last supply chopper. We'd rendezvoused with the chopper two days ago in our patrol of the southern edge of the DMZ. The paper had been passed around the unit for the intervening forty-eight hours. Like everyone else, she reads for a few minutes and then drops it in disgust. She stands.
The front page story goes like this:
V-Day: A Retrospective
On the morning of December 17, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked the United States' military base at Pearl Harbor. On the evening of December 17th, an uncrowned king stepped forward to pledge allegiance to his adopted homeland. When the bombs fell, the western world held its breath in shock and apprehension. When immigrant vampires stepped out of centuries of secrecy to declare for America, the Axis Powers restored the balance by drawing a panicked gasp.
A sensationalized account of the night claims that, upon hearing word of America's call to arms and her newest volunteers, Japanese General Yamamoto uttered the words, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and even the demons of hell bow to his resolve." Almost 30 years later, America's undead ... (Continued on page 4B)
There's a grainy photograph of the vampire who the aspiring journalist misnamed 'king.' He is Joshua Abraham Norton, Emperor of America. He had been granted the position of Emperor in 1776 when war in the Americas was imminent, though he did not exercise the power that accompanied the title until the attack on Pearl Harbor. For one hundred and fifty years no one knew America had an Emperor but I guess keeping a secret for a century and a half isn't really a big deal by their standards.
The other man in the picture is President Roosevelt.
The President and the Emperor are shaking hands. Both men are grinning. Emperor Norton's canines have been left out of the photo like the missing smoke in a cigarette ad. They are our allies, the photograph says; vampires, yes, but friendly ones, tame, muzzled, gelded. If you turn the page you'll find a full page ad of the iconic Uncle Sam pointing his "I want you" finger. Thanks to some joker's pen, it's Sam who's showing fang.
She walks off to the sluggish stream a few yards from camp to conduct the daily chores of a princess forgotten and moss-covered. A princess raised in poverty, under a curse, in hiding. She scoops up a liter of water into an army-issued canteen and adds an iodine tablet. In ten minutes the water will smell foul and taste tan and briny, like sea water passed through a conveyor belt on a Ford assembly line. But it will be safe to drink.
She's angry, we all are, about the article written by an amateur activist half a world away. When the page turns, the article turns with it, becoming another heartfelt protestation by a back-home boy who'll face the lottery draft come December. He rants and raves with fervor, crying out his plight and the plight of the American vampires who've been drafted one and all, yet another patriotic obstacle on their long road to citizenship. His pitch is fevered. His prose is purple. He reaches from the pages, groping clumsily but passionately for our heartstrings. We're out of his reach.
Twenty-eight years ago the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor. That same day, vampires came out of hiding. That same year something else happened that the article fails to mention. We happened. It fails to mention General Westmoreland, our own personal Hitler, who decided we owed our 'talents' to America. It fails to mention how we have been pulled like aces out of the sleeve of a nation who's always preferred to count only to ten and thrown down to match the vampire hand. Shifters, weather-witches, psychics and soothsayers, we were pulled from kitchens and classrooms, backyards and bayous, Wall Street offices and insane asylum cells. The vampires had stepped out of their hiding places in history, we'd been shaken out, a last mad proof that the human race wasn't irrelevant.
Unlike the bloodsuckers, we don't have a common denominator. We have no historically recognized name like 'vampire.' Perhaps that's why we get left out of protests and motions of congress. It's tough to speak about us. Conservatives find our insistence on being regarded as 'human' vexing. They whisper 'Deviant' behind their clenched fingers. Liberal student movements love the term, they put it on their signs and flags, they sew it in ink to their skins, forgetting that it was meant for those of us who will never blend seamlessly into psychedelic rave-riots for world peace. It was meant for those who wouldn't be drafted by lottery (a spell-binder there, a soul-walker here) but gleaned en masse, sorted through McCarthy's information gin, to be turned out on the front lines.
It was meant for here and now. Vietnam, in the summer of 1969. It was meant for us. 143-D of Corps 1, under the command of Captain Andre Boulain. It was meant for her, Sookie Stackhouse, pretty, blond, telepathic.
She's still waiting on the iodine when the radio in Sam Hawkins' pack (Hawkins, vanisher and radio man of 143-D) crackles to life. Ten minutes she waits for the water to go from poison to precious, so she doesn't know about the intersecting routes. She doesn't know her story is about to walk headlong into her.
But we do.
It's sundown and the vampires take the stage. A collective prickle runs across our skins like rain. They're quiet, quiet as the Viet Cong, quiet as death. But not our death. Not this time.
Sookie is surprised that they're here and surprised to see that she knows them. Under the moss green fatigues, sporting locks quickly clipped to uniform length every sundown, are the vampires of Louisiana. For most of us, the year of service is almost up and we can still count on one hand the number of times we've shared a camp with the vampires. Them. They make up the rest of our unit but we don't cross paths often. Their Captain and ours, Andre Boulain, enters a tent with our (non-Deviant) COs, two men assigned to march us circuitously through a war zone because (we suspect) no one has figured out yet how to use us.
As if on cue, we stand up from our timid fires, breaking the seal on envelopes of mosquitoes that don't mind one bit that we're Deviants. We square off, would-be humans facing used-to-be humans across a line drawn in history. We're here because they volunteered.
Sookie stands closest to the line that divides us. A line no one draws because it will soon be swallowed in monsoon mud. It will soon be swallowed, too, in pale white on loam black, in gasped breaths and great gulps of lust. But we don't know that yet.
Our backs straighten with approval. There are no secrets, not for long, in a file of men and women marching a circuitous route to the gallows. Months ago, en route between the names of places that stick in our throats, she told the story of her brother who spit-shined his boots, signed on the dotted line, and went to war the year before. Instead of 'the end' she only said, 'he won't be coming back.'
We also know that she's been a traitor. And more than once. She told the stories first to the women and then to the men when we forgot gender along with screen door slams and half-melted popsicles. We know that even in the decade of free love, she broke the rules. Our rules. We scan their ranks for the one she loved. We know his face from her memories lived out on the march, dark on pale, with a face from an old photograph.
He's missing from their ranks. We wonder, idly, if he's dead.
Sookie stands to face them. She's full of something. The war's made her bottomless but now she's full of something from the bottom up. By the time it reaches her eyes, it's defiance. A little lower, it comes out as humor.
"I hope ya'll aren't too hungry!" she calls, a little hostile. We laugh and why not? We're scared shitless and she's done us proud. Our cursed princess of the Deviants.
A tall vampire unslings his assault rifle. His grin is bright even in the dark. "We've eaten," he says smoothly. "Thank you for your concern."
We can only see the back of her head, toe-to-toe as she is with the line, but we think she might be smiling. We think she might be looking at the rules askance already, forgetting that we're here because they volunteered.
She sits up in the dark, one whose body never quite got the hang of being on the wrong side of the sun. We all sleep badly that night—our first with the vampires. They brought word with them from the outside. Westmoreland was taken a week ago in a surprise attack on Da Nang. We are uneasy. We've learned vertical allegiance. We look up to Westmoreland with the respect and jealousy the base of a mountain has for its peak. We try to toss and turn without disturbing our tent-mates who are trying not to disturb us. The air hangs hot and viscous like a soup, jungle sounds and bloodsucking insects drifting by like beans and barley.
It is past midnight when she creeps out of her tent. Perhaps there are better things to do in the night than pretend to sleep. She moves noisily through the camp, the deliberate, loud dance of one who has a right to be there. She finds the nearest sentry and relieves him of his post.
She paces her section of the perimeter, sending her mind off in a ring around the camp, searching for minds whispering fear in foreign tongues. We're camped on the fringe of the DMZ. She can't see the open tract of land in the dark but she thinks she should be able to sense the land mines waiting there like death leftover at the end of the day, packaged up to be taken home for later.
The jungle is as dense as a dream from which you can't wake. It breathes in big, monsoon wet gasps, wind rattling through the holes her boots have squelched in its skin. It's a living thing and it doesn't love her.
She tries not to think of the briny trickles of sweat running down her back and behind her knees. They'll soak and soften the fabric of her fatigues. The fabric will grind gently against her skin, dull teeth rubbing ceaselessly at her soft spots. She's gotten used to living in her own juices, for a year she's been pickling herself immortal. Soon she'll always be twenty-six and always at war.
Her mind runs across a bare patch, teeters on the rim of white noise.
We'll hold our breaths, there in the diner forty years from then, though we know the story. We'll hold our breaths and wonder who's it going to be.
"This is an impressive display of futility," the vampire says, blond on pale, honey poured over ice. "We have a perimeter twenty yards further out." Thick, yellow stubble covers his helmetless head. By sundown tomorrow his hair will have healed from the slash and burn maneuvers of clippers and razor, it will, once again, reach the middle of his back.
"Eric," Sookie says with a nod. She points at the block letters sewn over the left side of his chest. "Northman? That's new." He'd always just been 'Eric.' Too old to need to clarify which one.
The vampire's shoulders don't shrug but his voice does. "Something to be shouted in boot camp."
Sookie nods. She remembers her brother on the football field every time someone gives her an order.
The vampire looks down at her. She wears a thin film of dirt as if she's tried to camouflage her otherness in the foreign soil. Her second, dark skin is streaked with bright rivers of sweat—broad, shallow things that fork lazily and separate her into islands. A map obscured by borders of cotton. He thinks he'd prefer to fight a war on that landscape, to storm those peaks and valleys, than the sodden slopes and endless rice paddies of Vietnam. "Why are you here, Sookie?"
"Because of you," she replies immediately, the vengeful princess of mud islands and sweat rivers. "We're here because of you." She's never been a 'we' before.
The unfamiliarity of the unjust accusation takes him by surprise. Theirs has always been a business relationship. Supply and demand. If he had more demands than she was willing to supply, that was his problem. Her telepathy was for him— if he could pay. Her body was not. A pity. Her emotions were not. Perfection.
Except now ... he finds her anger intriguing. In the sharpness, the suddenness ... he senses weakness. He wonders how far he can push her. "Oh? Well it's been an eventful night but that's no reason to keep a lady waiting. Slip out of those greens and we'll see if the rest of you is as dirty as your face."
Sookie gives a very unladylike snort.
"The war doesn't look good on you, Sookie." It's only half true. Her hygiene's gone to hell, certainly. And though she'd seen death before, there's that persistent cling of rot hanging about her that follows those ill suited to life in an abattoir. Still, the war has trimmed naïveté that was never innocence off her like baby fat. He thinks the woman underneath might be a jazz song.
"You're not going to make me angry, Eric."
"I would if I cared enough to try."
She stares resolutely into the dark. She'd always thought anger had a natural progression. If it ran too hot, things got ugly. But by now she's seen so many ugly things that had nothing to do with anger. You don't need anger to kill. Just fear and orders.
"Your being here has nothing to do with me." He won't say 'us.' She might have become a 'we' but 'us' is too sticky for him. "You're here because they want to be rid of you."
But the tone of the secret goes wrong. His long life has grown like a rind between him and the world that still fears death. He cannot reach out and touch the alarm in her he means to raise. He can only touch her. He can feel a pulse near her collarbone, fluttering erratically under her skin like something that wants him to free it from a too small cage.
She looks at the hand gripping her shoulder. The tone is wrong. This isn't the secret he meant to tell. She is shocked, as always, to find that she wants him. The rules are only shallow cut in our princess's heart and now she's stubbed her toe against the line drawn in history.
But history stirs itself into the present. We've mixed ourselves into the Vietnamese mud and it wraps dutifully around her ankles. She sinks into it. Feet. Will. Voice.
She has nothing to say.
He leaves her in the dark.
It's been raining since before dawn when we find the camp. Being rained on in the jungle isn't like being rained on anywhere else. The rain comes down in torrents that can only last five minutes but somehow last hours. It lashes at the ground, long silver whips that kick up sprays of mud-and-water shrapnel. The storms howl between the hills like the clouds themselves are trying to cut new river valleys.
As she walks into the clearing she's listing all the spots she'll need to check for leeches later. Sometimes they worm all the way up from the tide pools of her boots to the backs of her thighs before biting. Half the time they fill up and, sated, fall off before she gets to them. Then there's nothing left but the horrifying blossoms of blood on her socks where they've fallen back into her boots and she's trod on them.
Probably she should have been paying more attention, we all should have. That was the point of the patrol, right? Find the enemy. We weren't slogging through calf deep mud for the hell of it. But, the thing is, it's hard to be on edge all the time. You wake up every morning surprised to find you aren't dead. It's better than caffeine. It's better than speed. But by the time the day turns into the march and by the time the march is half done you find yourself not caring too much if there's a sniper in the trees as long as not looking for him means you can stare at your boots and take the next step. You can't up the ante with a second hit of life.
And patrols in the rain? It's not until the first bullet hits that you can convince yourself that anyone could possibly be targeting you when you can't quite manage to blink a deluge out of your eyes.
Today there is no first bullet. Only a cold camp.
We're walking right past the camp when Maria-Star steps on the hat. She whimpers at the crunch, the sudden smooth-hard feel of an unnatural object under her boot. We stop as one and turn to look. Our faces are already wet, dressed for mourning, they won't need to change when she dissolves into gummy red mist.
A beat. I won't drag it out in the story because I won't be after suspense. We already know she lives.
She pulls at the hat cautiously like it still might fulfill its promise to be a mine. The hat, conical, made for farming rice, is half-buried in the mud. It's heavy. Perhaps the owner is still attached, planted under the ooze like a tulip bulb waiting for spring. We watch in tired slow motion, the scene half-lit by the storm, the light and shadow of film noir. Maria-Star leans back and uproots the hat. The body that's not attached is the first of the missing dead men.
We look harder and we see the shape of the camp the jungle's already swallowing up. Abandoned or camouflaged, who can say? The rain has truncated the shifters into mere men, sluiced over their sense of smell. We look at Sookie and invoke the rules of Us versus Them.
She closes her eyes and finds us alive at her back. Ahead of her, there is nothing but the sound of rain and one just-waking gap, an empty space in the universe. "Vampires," she says, but we check anyway, ducking into sodden tents to find them empty of anything but bloodstains. The relentless insects of the Orient have already had their way with the VC's supplies. Soldiers ants have carted off the makings of an army.
It is her predator's senses that laid in wait for years under civilized niceties that lead her to the one they left behind to meet us. Near a tree at the edge of the clearing she sees movement. In a flash of lightning something pale bursts from the ground. The wind howls as a dead man pulls himself from the womb of the Earth. It is not lost on us that he is being born at sunset out of the blood and ashes of vanquished enemies. It is not lost on us that death is his place and his art and here we are the uncouth Philistines.
The vampire stands, naked and streaked with mud. We stand far back in a semi-circle, fighting the urge to level our guns. We shiver in our sodden clothing. If the vampires hadn't come upon the camp first, the VC might have been waiting for us in the foliage. Bullets might have been falling on us instead of rain.
Dutifully, Sookie steps forward. This has been the procedure since word got out about My Lai, since men tried to blame the vampires for what happened there. She looks up at the tall vampire. She expects to see an apology on his face. But he did not stay to apologize for what he is. He is simply here to stake a claim. This is how we win the war. Deal with it.
For America, wars are events. Sweeping national tragedies that color entire generations. For the vampires, wars are something to mark the passage of time. Raisins in a bowl of oatmeal.
The vampire gestures behind the tree. The ground dips. In a neat line are the missing dead men. In death they look jaundiced, robbed of the tones of red from their brown skins. Only a little red remains over the ragged edges of the holes in their necks. A day's catch. A string of pale fish with bloody gills.
Sookie takes the Polaroid camera from her pack. Standard procedure. She makes a photograph of the dead men for the unit's log. This is not a massacre of civilians. It's war. The photograph will show dead men arrayed in a line drawn in history. It will prove that the non-humans have acted humanely. We are the witnesses. Consequences of them. Here because they volunteered.
Before the camera can dislodge its evidence, Sookie slaps her hand over the opening and turns the camera on Eric, double exposing the film. He'll appear as a bright figure hovering in the same ground as the dead. They'll be laid there at his feet. This is not standard procedure.
In his eyes there is an apology. He is sorry that she had to see this. Not because of what he is, but because of what she is.
Sookie shrugs. Worse things have happened.
There are small stories that nest inside of big ones. They twine through the big stories like creeping roots, reaching for life before once upon a time and after the end. We watch a small story grow through Sookie.
She sits alone in the dark. Another sleepless night. She should be at home in Louisiana now, dark against a pale summer dress. The sun should be so bright and hot that she agrees to endure the inner thoughts of some Bon Temps boy for an afternoon because he's got a pick up and they can drive around with the radio on and the windows down. There should be lemonade and ice cream and long days at the baseball fields. Tonight should be one where she gets tipsy and thinks, for once, about accepting JB du Rone's offer of a little grass. She should have her feet in the lake and her head in the stars and no idea at all that this is going to be one of the best nights of her life. She should have summer.
Instead she's got a pack of cigarettes because her chocolate's run out and she's got a candle burning in a bucket of water a few yards away to lure the mosquitoes from the human girl too foolish to spend the night inside. She's got the moon and stars, drowning in the bucket alongside the mosquitoes.
She can hear her camp in the back of her mind, dreaming the day instead of a nightmare. Today started around noon when Dave Sanderson, the perpetually stoned weather witch, tipped his canteen back for a drink. The sun caught it and gave us away to the VC. The pulpy mush where Dave's head had been gave the VC away to us. Sal Danko, one of our COs, took a bullet to the shin in the gunfight. Sandy Smith, the farseer, saw the business end of a grenade. We ran the enemy off and resumed the patrol. A few hours later they tried an ambush. Sookie pointed out the rice paddies before the VC could break cover.
Still, the numbers were with them. Both sides hit ground and we traded fire for more than an hour. A little after dark only silence answered our shots. That's when we knew the vamps were back.
Sookie won't hear him approaching through the jungle but if she looks up, for a second, she'll see him blotting out the stars. But Sookie doesn't look up. The stars are too perfect here, big, bright pictures in the sky that reflect as poor carbon copy constellations back home. Here a star seems to fall every minute. She's on the wrong side of the world and her wishes are dull things. New boots. Clean socks. Maybe a magazine.
Eric drops from the sky and she jumps, finger over a trigger she's promised herself never to push again. "Don't do that!" She spends a moment using the name of the Lord to drain excess adrenaline out of her body and finds herself scooting back toward the candle and its veil of insects.
He doesn't give her enough recovery time. "They're taking you across the DMZ tomorrow."
"America doesn't cross the DMZ." She swallows hard, wondering what the rules about shooting messengers are in modern warfare. Us versus Them.
"We've been crossing for months," he says. "It always confuses them. They think they're safe over there." He tells her about training camps and supply stores. She pictures Club Med for VC's getting gate-crashed by vampires.
She shouldn't be surprised. Everyone on this side of the Pacific knows the vampires are America's stormtroopers, pushing the land war forward while the human soldiers occupy themselves with endless patrols punctuated by bloody skirmishes. There were rumors circulating that the humans were actually taking routes around pockets of the enemy, marking their location so the vampires could be sent in later.
Still, for the past year, the DMZ has been the Arctic Circle, the edge of the map of our myopic world. "So we're going on an expedition to see what lays beyond the pole? At least they finally figured out what to do with us."
He doesn't laugh. If his expression changes at all, she can't see it in the dark. "Sookie, you should run." The warning is a broken in boot. We realize, for the first time, that they are older than us. They started speaking long before we started listening. Weeks, months, a lifetime ago.
She does laugh. "Run where? Maybe you can just pack up and fly out of here but I can't. My luck, an hour out, I'll trip over a mine and end up in a foxhole of hostiles."
She can't see the war raging upon his face but we can. It's not quite as easy for him as that. His service here will earn him a homeland, Them a homeland, desertion will get him a stake. "Stubborn human woman! That's where you're headed anyway."
"Every time I see you, you tell me to run, Eric. Are you jealous I'm in your war? Afraid I'll kill one you wanted?" Gallows humor has been winning the battle for months now against her former optimism.
"You were wounded today."
He's staring at her right shoulder where a bloody bandage lurks under the surface of her fatigues. X marks the spot. If they hadn't come across the end of the battle and fed that evening he wouldn't be able to help himself now. The wound, even fouled as it is with messy antibiotics, calls to him like a lover's lips painted red.
The war has been an exercise in gluttony, his self control is out of practice. He wonders if the men in office in America understand what they've done in introducing civilized vampires to the fighting pits. Can they possibly be ready for the new, even more bloodthirsty minority? Will they like the vampire version of a baby boom?
"I gave better than I got." She'd squeezed her trigger twice today and heard silence where once foreign fear had been. She was ashamed that she hadn't gone to find him after. But worse things have happened. He would have looked like any other dead Vietnamese boy and she was tired of forgetting them.
Eric flourishes a pale wrist and then there is a crunching sound.
"What are you doing?" She demands.
"Nightcap?" He quips around a mouthful of blood.
"You're crossing the DMZ and you're wounded." He's finished joking. "You'll get yourself killed."
"It's a war. It happens." It should have been a rash statement, jaded bravado, but it is just the truth.
The vampire shakes his shorn head, a wolf dressed up as a sheep. "This isn't a war."
"No? Well, you better tell that to someone in charge then, because they've flown me to the wrong country. I should have been doing more sightseeing." It's her turn to shake her head. She'd always dreamed of seeing someplace far away from Bon Temps. The war has fulfilled that dream, and in fulfilling, taken it away. It's not a dream anymore, just something else she's done.
She's really laughing now. Cracking up. "We're crossing the DMZ?" She giggles. "You know my brother, Jason, he would have given his left foot for the chance. Before he went to war, the idea of the DMZ drove him crazy. 'We just let them sit back there all they want and then sneak over and shred our boys up!'" Hesitant tears are peeking out of her eyes, taking in the landscape of her face.
"Sookie, you're laughing." He says it calmly as if her hysteria is a detail that's simply escaped her notice. Maybe it is, because she stops.
"Jason's dead. So's Bill." The second is a question masquerading as a statement just as she is a deviant princess masquerading as someone much more jaded and vindictive. Both are personal tragedies. They can't matter much. Worse things have happened.
"Yes." He trusts her to know the first. He already taken vengeance for the second. "Two months ago we cleared out a batch of hostiles just before dawn. Bill did not have time to conceal his resting place adequately. The enemy uncovered him at full noon and staked him." Gone were the days when the enemy regarded the vampires as chastising angels and threw their weapons down at undead feet.
Sookie looks appropriately appalled. "Does that happen often?"
The answer was important, in the Grand Scheme of Things. "More and more."
"Adapt or die." Neither of them is quite sure who she's talking about.
"And how are you adapting, Sookie?"
"I killed a man today," She says with only the briefest of pauses to consider whether or not 'today' was still accurate.
"That makes eight." She winces and he amends, "Only eight."
She rolls eyes that should be threatening to spill over and almost do when they realize they are dry. "That only makes me feel better if I measure myself against you."
She hates that he's also keeping count; she hates the numerical evidence of her own demise. She warns him that, when they get out of this, she won't want him around. She won't want the reminder of what she became on the wrong side of the world. He's impressed that she'll admit wanting the freedom to lie to herself. He replies that she has a lot of reasons for not wanting him around and none have stopped him yet.
"Before you were ... helpful," says she.
"You don't believe that," says he.
"You meant to be. At least partly."
This is a part of the story where I'll really shine. We don't know when this conversation started in their history. We see only the sap of it that flows through them, sustaining an old argument both thought dead. But we don't see the roots. We don't know what happened. We don't know who. But we've sewn on a patch of gossip and inference. The trick is to help my audience see it as whole cloth.
In the telling, I stick out my thumb in Louisiana moonlight and focus my gaze. Bill Compton hitches a ride south in the dark. His blood sings and threatens with a command from the one who made him. She's been collecting Deviants like Campbell's soup labels. She'll turn them in for her prize, a pat on the back from Senator McCarthy and a shiny new citizenship. The maker sent Bill to a silly little telepath. The girl's gift will undoubtedly help the maker to augment her list. All Bill has to do is get the slut to trust him.
The predatory expression doesn't quite fade from my face as I go from the maker to Eric. Eric exposes the plot and the lover who loved Sookie too late. I collapse to a tabletop strewn with crumpled straw wrappers, a heartbroken telepath who imagines a hint of triumph in Eric's eyes. I don't thank him. I've played the roles more times than they've lived them. So who can say our version is not the truth?
Back in time and forward in the story, Sookie holds Eric's gaze. The deaths between them settle into a kind of understanding. A dead man can mean more to her than the half dozen and more men she's killed. He's killed countless dozens, and still, this one live woman can be precious to him.
The candle flame, burnt down to the surface of the water, gutters out. Sookie takes a step toward the vampire, into the dark. She always thought that loving him would happen only when she'd uncovered the man trapped inside the vampire. She never thought that all she had to do was lose a little of her own humanity.
We don't know who they were or what happened to them before the war got a hold of our lives. But we do know this, with the certainty of a sudden detonation. She is not ours.
She reaches a hand out to lie on his chest. She wonders if he knows.
She follows her hand, breaching the perimeter of him, pressing the length of her warm, damp body against his. She looks up and grins a private, in the dark grin. She's giving up on many things tonight, among them, her resistance to the demands lurking behind his eyes. Her grin is almost apologetic, but not so much as it should be. She doesn't know yet what he'll give up for her. Everything. Does he know already, the impending, inevitable end? Perhaps. But he kisses her anyway.
Her hands are at the closure of his jungle greens and she retrieves the pearly buttons hastily. She focuses on her fumbling fingers and on how much she wants him instead of the eyes inside tents and inside half-asleep lids. There are no secrets in a camp of men and women marching to the gallows.
Parting his greens she leans in to smell the mud he sleeps in on his skin. She's lived in that mud too for a year now but it smells different on him. It smells wild ... but somehow, homey. War is his place and the ground welcomes him. It will bloom all the more for having been soaked in blood.
She steps out of her own greens, letting his eyes settle on the curves of her as she takes the time to unlace her boots. Her toes weave into the mud and the mud-smell weaves around her as she meets him again, skin to skin. His kisses draw as deeply as fangs do, constantly demanding kisses back.
He finds that she has shrunken inside her greens. There are more planes to her than he thinks should be there. She is a hand-blown hour glass, there are bubbles and imperfections. Flesh and folly have burned away. Underneath, as he always suspected, is a jazz song. Jazz in the time of rock and roll. Smooth and sad and improvised.
He pulls her hips against his so she knows, because jungle dark is not like other dark, there's not light pollution bleeding across the stars, there's only a burnt out candle and a bucket with the moon drowned in it and she cannot see how much he wants her. The mud accepts him with practiced ease. She can see her own knees faintly where they straddle his stomach, glowing slightly because the moonlight will not let one so beautiful as he go invisible. His lips are cool and soft as death. Maybe her death. Maybe this time.
The sandpapery stubble under her fingers is not the same as the golden locks she's often thought of running her fingers through. She introduces herself to the rest of him, in case it too might prove to be different. She slides wetly over his skin, across the marble of his stomach. War is not the ideal place for love. Hair, however blond, has reclaimed her body in wild tangles, marking her uncivilized. His own body shakes with the effort of not tearing into her throat as it has become accustomed. Both of them take time to adjust to their combined scent, they are steeped in loam and unwashed body.
Then he stops her urgent exploration, pulling her up to face him. He looks up at her through the tent of her hair that keeps the world at bay, cursed princess of the Deviants.
He raises his head up to claim her lips. She moans into the kiss, pouring her war into him because he can take it. Her hips circle back impatiently. She is a few inches from impaling herself on broken rules, splaying herself on the ruins of Us versus Them. We open our mouths in protest but she burns, burns, burns, cauterizing our wounds. She is here because she volunteered.
It is the vampire who stops her. He reaches out a hand and stops the hurried grind of her pelvis. His fingers dig into the soft flesh of her hip and she knows that she must feel to him like the boys she killed. Doomed. Breakable. He touches the wound on her shoulder then tears a gash in his wrist with fangs that have descended for her.
She leans back on shrunken haunches, panting with wasted need. She would have accepted him but she won't accept his charity. She tries to stand but his hand is still locked on her doomed hip. "Then I'll go first," he says as if she's only being polite. He sits, the hand on her hip dictating trajectory so that when he pulls he enters her, pressing a surprised, "oh!" out of her throat.
Her defiant, Deviant eyes try to take control but he grins and raises her hips away from him. She groans. "No. More," she demands. He kisses her because, right then, it's not at all what she wants. He knows. He wants more too but he'll always want more and for now he'll take his time getting it.
Well, not too much time. He releases her hip and she falls back onto him with another sound of surprise. He doesn't try to stop his laugh.
"You're not supposed to be laughing," she says but she's laughing too, between shallow breaths.
"Well," he says, taking her hips again and thrusting up into her, "you're not supposed to be fucking the vampires. So we're even."
Instead of arguing, she rides him into the mud, sliding in her own sweat, leaving ebony prints across the ivory of his back and shoulders. She delights in the shape of his body and the way her own shape changes to accommodate it, the way they have to force a perfect fit. Puzzle pieces that almost match.
So surprised is he when she reaches between them to touch herself in sharp circles, so surprised is he by the tossing of her head, the parting of her lips, that's only half his doing, that he can't stop himself from stilling her with his teeth on her neck.
There's is nothing at all that makes you realize what it means to be alive like sex. It's not the rush and the pleasure and the loss of control. It's seeing all the parts of another person at work. Seeing each muscle alive and straining toward release; it's knowing that all the parts of you are straining to provide it.
He pulls her strain into him through the wound he makes in her neck. He feels her moans bubbling up in his throat. He drinks down her screams. He stops long before he's had enough and that's part of the beauty of it all. With the easy grace of his race, he turns her away from him and pulls them down sideways to the ground. He hitches her top leg back and over his hip so he can enter her again almost before she knows he's gone. She hisses her approval.
He takes his time bringing her back to the edge. He rocks in and out of her slowly until she arches back against him, her forehead caught against his collarbone and under his chin. "Eric," she says amongst the dry rattle of shallow breaths. This time when he offers her a bleeding wrist, she clutches it in clawed hands, still writhing against him as she puts it to her mouth.
Her temple rests just below his jaw and he can hear her sucking at the wound. He thinks he might fall right through it and drown in her like the moon in a shallow bucket. Something changes, and we are certain now that things go back before our beginning.
As they trade fluids, a critical mass is reached. The numerical evidence of their demise has passed a threshold. There may be a first time for everything but this is not the first time.
It's not until after they come back to themselves that either notices they've bloomed into the other's mind. The change is unexpected but it cannot matter much in the Grand Scheme of Things. It is personal .... Things have happened.
The Deviant princess enters the cinderblock dungeon through a low door. There are no windows and the light inside would be dim even if it wasn't night time. The walls are dark with a second skin of tropical mold. The flora buds eagerly in the dungeon air that is damp and sour. An armpit prison.
Behind her are two silent vampires. One is Andre Boulain. When Eric said she'd be crossing the DMZ she'd been thinking in terms of 'we,' of Us versus Them. She didn't know she'd be going alone.
The place is a POW camp. The building is for high security prisoners. She's already seen the broken men in the yard that pace the barbed wire enclosure like caged lions. The life has been sweated out of them, scooped out of the hollows in their cheeks. They've forgotten that they're twenty one and it's summer.
But she's not at this zoo to see the lions. With unmistakable gestures, Vietnamese guards lead her down a low-ceilinged corridor. There are twelve guards and they're heavily armed. She wonders what their odds would be against the two vampires.
The corridor has heavy doors spaced ten feet apart. It smells like stale urine. The whole place is gangrenous, a festering clutch of decaying humanity. The guards open a door at the end of the hallway. A cell. Inside is a mountain peak. General Westmoreland, captured on the battlefield two weeks ago. She's been sent to photograph him like a tourist attraction.
It was not until a year ago that Sookie realized a man would have the kind of power this one has. His every movement defies physics, causing ripples that grow in strength to become a tidal wave. He twitched his little finger, beckoning, and the motion grew until it drew all the supernatural beings into his war. He whispered a suggestion and suddenly America needed, had to have the Deviants.
Now he's at the mercy of men who should have rolled over dead months ago. Sookie looks down at him where he sits on the floor. A mountain peak made the height of a man, compressed vertical allegiance. His cell is spartan.
"Private," he says with a curt nod, like she's entered his command tent, like there aren't hooks on the wall so he can be chained. "I assume this is not a rescue mission."
One of the guards steps up to the General and strikes him savagely with the butt of his rifle. In his head Sookie hears a boiling anxiety over the foreign words and what they might mean. The guard mimes taking a photograph. As Sookie retrieves her camera, a clear voice rings through her mind like a bell, like a call to prayer. Hello, Sookie Stackhouse. I have orders for you.
General Westmoreland? It is all Sookie can do to keep from speaking aloud. Are you ... you can hear me?
I can. Sookie knows then why she is the one that was sent to photograph the General. The Vietnamese had granted them permission to obtain proof that the General was alive and was not being mistreated. The pictures could have been taken by anybody. But for this, they needed her. You will return to your commanding officers and inform them that they are to proceed with Operation Sandcastle immediately.
Sir, what's ...? In her surprise at discovering the famed General to be another telepath, another Deviant, she forgot for a moment that he was also a mountain peak. Compressed, but a peak all the same. Yes sir. Of course, sir.
This is a good thing you're doing here, Private. Me and my boys are going home. He thinks of his wife and of his grandsons playing at the public pool. He thinks of America, safe and free.
And that's when the General slips up.He's not used to guarding his thoughts from other telepaths, and why should he be? As far as the rest of the world is concerned, he's no Deviant.
Sookie is not much better though and he knows immediately that she knows, that she has seen the ins and outs of Operation Sandcastle in his mind's eye. She opens the Polaroid camera and snaps a first picture. Eyebrows sit on the general's face like thunderheads. A guard prods Westmoreland with his rifle until he gives a clenched-tooth smile for the second photo. You're going to trade us.
The guard unbuttons the General's filthy fatigues to the waist, the man underneath is clean and just-scrubbed rosy. Unbruised, unbroken. This bunker is full of high ranking officers, men who know things that can make or break the war for America, Westmoreland thinks. And they're willing to replace one for one. His thoughts don't flinch, they are saturated with the greater good, with the Grand scheme of Things.
Sookie takes her photographs, evidence of Vietnamese humanity, with a calm she shouldn't feel. She is not alone after all. Underneath the calm is a mounting feedback loop of anxiety. The other vampire behind her shifts from one foot to another, a cliff acknowledging a fault line. Eric.
He knows that something is wrong. Her unease unsettles him which, in turn, unsettles her. The bond between them is new. It is tense and raw.
You're trading us for them. Sookie doesn't say this in words exactly. She shows him the collection of small lives that have been twisted into 143-D. She shows him Us, a fetal nation that still takes its cues from a human heartbeat. Sookie knows something else too. It's the vampires they want. It's the vampires who have been killing them so ... efficiently.
Yes. Yes, but you'll do. There is plenty of photographic evidence of the violence of the vampires, all conducted within the confines of war. The Deviants have no such evidence. They are an unknown quantity. They are dangerous and any crime at all can be laid at their feet. The rapes and murders of civilians, the napalming of villages. The world might even congratulate itself for this act of genocide. You have your orders, carry them out with expediency and you will be rewarded for the service to your country. She would ship out on the next plane home. Her name would be blotted out of every sort of registry.
But half of 143 would be traded to the Vietnamese for men with military secrets. The vampires would never stand for a trade of any number of their kind for humans. But 143 is also made up of Deviants. 143-Don't Ask, Don't Tell. 143-Without a Denominator. Our only connection to each other is that we're different and dangerous. Our only connection is that they've finally figured out what to do with us, we make excellent bargaining chips.
Sookie finishes taking her photographs, borrowing calm from the cliff face at her back. Inside her head, the General is shouting, but no louder than an air raid. When he tries to shout aloud, the guards bludgeon him into silence.
The guards escort them off the site of the POW camp. One human, two vampires, they make their way across the barren landscape of the DMZ. The congested hum of the jeep's engine is jarring in the face of so much empty space.
"Tell me," Andre says. He knows something of the purpose of Sookie's visit. Fear wraps around Sookie's guts like a slow poison.
"He wants the vampires to attack at midnight."
"Suicide," Andre replies, like it's a comment on the weather. "His. They'll kill him as soon as the attack begins."
"Maybe," Sookie replies as if this is a possibility the general has weighed dispassionately as the military man he is. "But the Vietnamese need to know we are ruthless. For every man we lose, we'll take a hundred of theirs."
"But this particular man is the one holding the war together."
Sookie shrugs. "Orders."
143 of Corps 1 waits in the war tunnels that the Vietnamese abandoned when the DMZ became a crosswalk for vampires. The vampires make their plans swiftly in the catacombs. Our part will be to wait at the fringes, to pick off any that escape, to stay out of the way.
In a neighboring tunnel, we Deviants keep our own counsel. Our princess whispers to us about crumbling sandcastles and telepathic Generals. We're at a loss. We've been fighting a war against ourselves.
We know she's changed the plan. There will be no exchange of prisoners. We will not become a deadly menagerie of exotic otherness. They will not be sent home to loving families who fear war almost as much as they fear peace; who fear communists almost as much as they fear would-be-humans and used-to-be-humans.
Not today at least.
When we finish speaking, it's nearing midnight and we assemble on the surface. The ranks of vampires are already moving out, running swiftly across the wet earth, drinking in air heavy with blood soon to come. They don't know yet that one is missing from their ranks. But we do.
A mile or so south, they climb to the surface, he and she, shaking the tunnel dirt off hands and knees. He takes her into his arms. The bond is new and tight around them, pressing them together, stopped only by the shape of them. There, for a moment, they feel safe, though there might be the most dangerous place they can be.
Eric holds her securely against him. He doesn't have to ask why they're here. He is giving up on many things tonight, among them, his dream for citizenship in his adopted homeland. But it was only ever a dream and he has a claim staked amongst sweat rivers and mud islands.
For a moment he feels something like remorse for the vampires of 143. They are walking into a trap. They will be responsible for the death of the General and who knows how many others.
He feels her resolve. She never flinched once from the sentence she passed on the vampires. They are here because they volunteered.
They both know that she is making a hypocrite of him. He wants freedom, he wants citizenship as much as any of them. But he would have made a hypocrite of himself. He would have followed her lead and broken the rules of Us versus Them. Worse things have happened.
He lifts smoothly off the ground. They can just fly away from all this.
Overhead the moon hangs undrowned in the sky.
They run and so do we.
In the diner we'll smile our triumphant smiles. It will be the fourth time we've met to remember the story of how we didn't die. It will be forty years since the summer we left the war behind. It will be thirty-one years since the Amendment was made to the Constitution. Some of us proudly manage to remember the number of the Amendment. Most of just call it the Deviant Act. The Act put an end to the blanket draft of persons with supernatural abilities. It gave us back our rights. It OK'd us to be human again.
But, in the Grand Scheme of Things, she had already done that.