Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water
The year is 1947, and some boys are still coming home from the war.
The blind veteran moved carefully up to the front of the bus, white cane tapping lightly at the seats on either side of the aisle. The other passengers moved their legs and bags aside, helping him pass.
Sparing a glance in the rear-view mirror, the bus driver shook his head. Just a kid, for Christ's sake. Should have had his whole life ahead of him. Like my Aaron. He focused on the road again, as the boy made his way to the strut pole at the corner to the steps. Probably not a few girls had fallen for that shock of unruly blond hair the kid had. A bit long for the service, but he'd probably not seen a proper barber since he was discharged. Damn fine figure of a boy. Though maybe in need of a month of good meals. If not for the darkened spectacles that branded him for what he was, sitting so stark there against his face ... And the pain. You could see it in the set of his mouth. The driver wondered what else had been taken from him, and how long he'd lain in a VA hospital, to be that pale.
The boy spoke. "I'd like to get off up ahead there, mister, if it's no trouble."
The driver glanced again to the mirror. He knew the olive drab of the worn field jacket well enough. Army. Funny that it didn't fit quite right. Maybe it had belonged to a buddy.
"You know where we are, son?"
"Yes, sir." The boy cracked a smile. "Right about the middle of nowhere."
Damn if he wasn't charming as all get out.
"Sure you don't want to get off in town?" the driver offered. There was a stop up ahead, barely visible in the pre-dawn light, but it was nothing but a sign plate in the midst of rolling fields and woods.
"Thank you kindly, I've got family here."
The driver doubted that. The boy's soft voice had just the hint of a south of the Mason-Dixon drawl to it. He wasn't from around here, that was certain. But he was well-spoken, and the stop was coming up quick. The bus slowed.
"Don't see anyone here to meet you."
"I 'spect they'll be along shortly. Not like I've got somewhere to be."
The brakes creaked, and some of the dozing passengers jostled awake.
"You sure about this, son?"
"Yes, sir, I am."
Not much more to say after that. The driver opened the door and watched the young man step down, cane tapping and leading the way. The rucksack on his back was mighty thin. Probably hadn't got more than a pair of undershorts and a toothbrush in it. But that was life, now, wasn't it?
"There'll be another bus along here about noon, in case you've a mind to go into town."
The boy smiled briefly, and waved in the direction of the bus driver's voice. Then the door's hydraulics hissed closed and the engine growled to life. With a hot burst of exhaust, the bus rolled away.
The young soldier stood stock still for a long time after the bus left. He looked up at the sky at last. It was getting brighter by the minute, but was grey with cloud from horizon to horizon. Yesterday, the weather forecaster on the radio had said it would rain today. Fair enough. The bus ride had been an ordeal. He needed a place to lie down and collect himself. Form a plan. His strength was boundless, but he was tired, so tired. He turned away from the road, and started walking.
It was almost planting time, and the waiting fields were muddy. He chose a grassy pasture at last, sharing it with a small herd of cows, who immediately crowded to the furthest corner. His dark glasses and white cane didn't mean anything to them. His smell did. When he lay down and made no move toward them for an hour or more, their lowing stopped. Thank the Lord. He wasn't ready to deal with a human just yet. He would have to, eventually. His irises were as black as pitch. But he dreaded the thing that he wanted and needed so terribly badly.
Leaving Maria had been right. He had been ravaged beyond all endurance by the violent life she'd led him to. But being alone was its own brand of hell. The blood haze had cleared, with time, but the memories were etched into him as deeply as every scar he bore. Indelible. Savagery, lust, terror, pain. Everyone's pain. And the hatred. Hatred and despair. They carved a map on his inside to match the one on his outside. But now he was alone. Alone with his thoughts and his memories. Shuttling between cities, where the press of thousands of hearts drowned out his own, even as it suffocated him with their cares; and then the empty places, where he found quiet, and his past, endlessly replayed. As for his kills, there was no berserker frenzy, now. Only feeling, fully and completely, each victim's death.
He dreaded it, even as he ached and burned with thirst.
At eleven o'clock, more or less, the rain began. He lay in the field, arms stretched out like a dead scarecrow, letting it soak him to the skin. He thought of standing upright, to tempt lightning to strike him. The cane was metal, it should make a tolerable good lightning rod. But today was not the day. The clouds held no fire, only the soft, soaking rain.
At mid-afternoon he got up. Time to find his next meal before he was so far gone that he couldn't even choose whom to kill. As if that meant anything. But how horrible it would be if he should meet a child. He had to act before he got so desperate that he would take anyone at all.
It was still raining when he stepped onto the little dirt road, an ankle-turning mess of mud and gravel now. But not for him. He kept his disguise, in case he might need to go indoors to find what he needed.
He smelled her before he felt her. The damp air carried scent well. A young woman. Sweet, clean-smelling. Healthy. He felt her before he saw her. Something had vexed her, deeply. Heartache and sadness and sorrow, unendingly fine … but there were strands of sterner stuff as well, protectiveness and anger, frustration at an injustice, perhaps. As on the bus, scent and emotions pulled at him. But this one was alone. A straggler from the herd. Fair game. Yes, a fair damsel was fair game. Gallantry was dead; along with the young Confederate soldier who'd stopped to help three lost women on a Texas roadside, long ago.
As was the way with his kind, he made almost no noise, even in the squelching mud. By contrast, the rain on her umbrella was loud to him. The spiked shroud hid all of her, almost to the waist. She stood leaning on the rail of a small stone bridge over a rushing brook. He stopped just to gaze. This all would end so soon, now. She wore a forest green skirt that fanned softly from her waist to mid-calf. It was the 'new look', so much more feminine than the boxy silhouettes that the war years had put into vogue. His old-fashioned eyes liked it. A heavy cable-knit sweater covered her on top. The galoshes on her feet were incongruous, but he found them sweet.
The black umbrella, the raindrops bouncing off of it, the stone bridge above, the rushing water below, the skirt and the sweater and the galoshes, the first green on the trees and brambles, glowing so brightly as the drizzling dusk rose around them. He began to mourn this one already. Or was that her feeling? She had entangled him, and he needed to find calm. Some day he would call for it and there would be none left. All spent on quieting his prey, easing them as best he could. Easing himself afterward. But for now …
The young woman looked up. She had felt his influence across the small distance that separated them. A gasp escaped her. She hadn't heard him approach. The spring flood below her had filled her ears.
He almost darted to her. End it quickly, before she has a chance to be truly afraid. But her emotions caught him. Remarkably quickly for a human she had taken in everything about him: the black glasses, the thin, white cane, the bare head, the hair and clothing plastered tight to his skin. She had almost darted to him, then caught herself and called, "Hi there!"
He remembered to startle at her voice. If he were what he pretended to be he should not know of her presence until she spoke.
"You're soaked. My name's Christi. I'm walking toward you now …"
The kindness of her intention filled him and his knees nearly buckled right then and there. How long had it been since anyone … anyone … had touched him with that? And still two arm's lengths separated them.
He closed his eyes behind the glasses. The rain falling on him stopped. She had put the umbrella over him. He could feel the heat from her body washing against him as she stood near enough that it would shelter them both. Her scent. Like clover and honeysuckle, with an edge of sandalwood. He wanted her blood so badly that the venom nearly drooled from his mouth. It took two swallows to choke it all down.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am."
"I'm not a 'ma'am', I'm a 'miss'. And you can just call me Christi. Really."
"Miss Christi. Jasper Whitlock, at your service." He had been taught such things, once. It lived inside him. Even when he would kill and drink in the end. The turmoil that had been coming from her was set aside, now, he could feel it, replaced by a single-minded concern for his welfare. And he became aware of the reserves of patience and strength that lay beneath all of her feelings of the moment.
"Don't be startled, I'm just … I …"
He had to open his eyes now. The scent, the emotion, the heat. Seeing gave him distance, and he desperately needed it. The new onslaught was coming from her cheeks, which blazed with blood, even in the waning light.
"I'm going to … oh heavens, your hand is so cold!"
Hers was so warm. And soft. Her touch communicated her feelings instantly, and for him, intensely. Kindness, gentleness. Caring, not pitying. He'd felt pity aplenty, given his chosen disguise since this most recent war. This was different.
She was talking rapidly, the backs of her fingers brushing his forehead.
"Please, you must come home with me. You need dry clothes and a warm meal."
If she knew what she was inviting across her threshold.
"Even your face is cold … maybe I should call a doctor …"
The back of her tender hand passed down alongside his cheek, and he could not stop himself from leaning into it with a small cry of pain. Instantly her hand turned, her palm fitting his face perfectly. Sweetly.
The girl swayed and almost fell before he could catch her. "Oh" was all that she said. He had leaked, no, flooded her. It was too late to call it back. Whatever had troubled her before was back with a vengeance, mixing and swirling with his own sorrow, and desolation, and shame and despair. They neither spoke, only held each other, swaying still, but not falling, the umbrella stem clasped between their bodies. He could feel her trying to comfort him with the melting circle of her embrace. He did his best to return and amplify her emotion for her, and for them both.
The rain drummed on the black canopy above them, while the world around grew dark. Slowly, slowly, they created something more precious than blood. Solace. As the last light of day died, he felt her realize that only one of them was breathing.
She looked up at him. Her hand was cradling his cheek once more. She was cold, now, too. He had held her too long.
"You're not really blind, are you," she asked.
"No, Miss Christi, I'm not."
"But you still need a change of clothes. And some warm food in your stomach."
"Yes." And he could not lie. No matter how much he wished it were not true. "I do."