Hey there, americnxidiot and Pastiche Pen here. The lovely lts29 bid on a one-shot from us for FGB. Thanks so much for donating and for giving us a fun prompt to work with. Extra thanks go to ElleCC for making this cohesive and dealing with us both at the same time: and on your own personal unholy pairing, no less ;) The title comes from the 1947 film Out of the Past.
Written on a Cloud
Before she could smell the air or make out the black-brown backs of her own eyelids, she saw him: tall and dark in the dim light of the western horizon.
She could make out his eyes, blood mixed with vile mahogany. It was like he was looking right at her, the way he stared. She could trace out the slope of his nose, the hunger-sharp cheekbones cupping the bruises beneath his lashes, his just-parted mouth. All of it made her want to reach out, wipe the too-long bangs out of his eyes and tickle a smile out of his chin. Somehow she knew she could, if only she could reach him.
She watched his face in her mind until the pain of her new body became too much, until she was choking on the burn in her throat, and her muscles were flinching with untested strength.
What came next, she remembered: thirst, blood, wet warmth crushed in her hands. A traveling salesman with a creaky-hinged suitcase full of perfume, all but two bottles shattered and soaking through the leather box. She would never be able to stand the smell of cologne afterwards. Yet, she would always remember what came right after her first breath, the sickly crunch of her first kill.
She would let her guilt go. It was what was coming that she held onto.
Him. Him. Him.
Almost immediately after the blood flushed her body with impossible warmth, she began to see other flashes. She watched herself mow down half a barn of cotton-soft sheep before she actually went and did it. It was another image that made her go to the barn: one that involved a blue-eyed child on a creaking teeter totter in an apple-green Sunday dress. She chose the barn over the child, and even with the mess made from the wool and blood, she was happy with her decision. Another time, just before her first trip into town, she saw the screaming face of a young man as he noted the horror of her red-orange eyes. On the outskirts of the small village, she swiped a summer hat from an absentminded woman's yard. She saw such moments constantly.
Although it was hard at first, Alice adapted. Eventually some visions became mundane: her next meal, what dress she was going to find to wear, or how the clock would hang its hands before the day's storm let go. But the ones where she saw him never did.
The visions of him gave her a mission. She saw the splatter of silver scars down his neck in the moonlight, almost like wrinkles the way they distorted the serene layer of skin. She saw those scars, some of them not yet made, and she knew that in some future vision she'd be touching them. She wouldn't just hear them or see them. She was going to smell them. Taste them. Know them more intimately than she'd known anything.
That was what she held onto. That's what burned as she searched and searched, etching each pebble and building and every seemingly insignificant detail into her memory, anything that could bring her closer. Each vision of him was a marker on the map.
She knew she was going to find him.
She just didn't know how.
As time went on, Alice learned about him in fragments. Seconds of his life without her flickered across her vision as she ran or browsed through clothing. She absorbed everything she could. The way his irises darkened in shadow before a hunt. His preference for a ratty white shirt, stained with dirt and browned blood. The fact that he never smiled, not really. She grew to understand the man who inhabited her every thought. She knew him well. Or so she believed.
Until the first time she saw him and wished she hadn't.
Alice was running. She spent much of her time running, pursuing rarer prey and biding her time until a flash among the trees lead her in another direction. Sometimes it was just a feeling, an undeniable instinct pulling her along the length of the Appalachians, but other times it was more concrete: a street sign or a landmark flashing with perfect clarity. Just a few years into the only life she'd known, she could not yet control when they would come, when that feeling would tell her to change her course.
So she waited. And while she waited, she hunted.
Just as her fingertips grazed the stiff hair of a panther, it happened. The world dissolved into something stranger. The lush forest of central Pennsylvania became darker, dust-storm dizzy until a crack of sunlight lit up the small room, and she was no longer in her present. She was somewhere in his future.
The first clear object she saw was a shirt. It was white, or at least, it used to be. It was his shirt. It was the one Alice knew well, the one he wore nearly every day, and a woman's fingers were bunching the fabric like tissue paper. A woman that she also knew from previous visions. Maria.
Jasper was feeling those fingers, her fingers, as they pushed through old holes and scratched his skin while his moving body made her whimper. Nothing outside of blood felt better than this.
"It had to be done, mi amor," Maria breathed against his ear. "No te sientas mal. " Jasper fell harder against her body until all she could remember was her native Spanish, until her pleasure drowned out the guilt, and he could no longer picture the look on the face of the young vampire he'd executed only hours earlier at her command: the admiring smile when Jasper'd entered the room, the realization that his time was up, the shrill horror as Jasper's hands immobilized then removed his head. He had done this numerous times over the years and still it never got easier—the screams, the grind of skin ripping from skin...
"Demuéstreme que usted me ama, Jasper."
His hips pushed and pulled against Maria's, and at the keen in her low voice, his pale lips found her paler skin, his teeth leaving marks that faded almost as soon as they formed. Her neck was covered in small nicks and toothmarks, a map of every man who'd been there before him.
"Bueno, mi amor. Tan bueno."
Her sharp teeth nicked his earlobe, and his victim's face was gone. Everything was gone except her cool body sprawled beneath him, writhing with sensation.
On the stone floor of a house filled with no one but the dead, he made her crumble. With each sharp thrust, her burgundy eyes rolled back in her head. Spotted with the blood of a fresh kill, the bunched taffeta of her dress made a cushion between them, while his pants stubbornly clung to one ankle. Pale and wide-eyed a few feet away, the bodies of the home's former owners were still warm to the touch.
"Más duro, por favor, más duro."
Like always, Jasper complied. Tugging her hands over her head, he sunk his teeth into her neck like he would his prey. Her clenched fists made cracks in the floorboard. "Apenas como eso."
Every few pounding seconds, he inhaled. The lingering scent of blood made him crazy, and he moved faster over Maria, pushing, thrusting, sucking and relishing the way her wet skin took him in again and again.
Sex was best right after feeding, and this time was no different. Her slightly darker skin gave her a flushed appearance against his. Her blood-stained lips parted mid-gasp while her tight grip on his shoulders reminded them both who was in control here. He claimed her because she let him. He claimed her because there was no other way, no more effective method to eradicate the horror from the kill—the sobbing memory of the woman's eyes as he snapped her neck. Sex seemed to sweat it out. Maria's teeth tugged at his scarred ear, and he groaned, his mind distracted again.
There was familiarity in the way he nudged her legs farther apart with a shift of his hips. Despite the palpable pleasure that left his muscles twitching, he never smiled. His mouth set in careful concentration, he stared at the limp hand of one of the dead humans and pressed Maria farther into the floor, eyes flat and seemingly unfocused.
This was physical. This was empty heat. They groaned and moved and clung together until everything was pushed away, and Jasper was no longer tormented by the heightened emotional trauma of constant war, and he couldn't remember how miserable he'd been only minutes earlier. Until they were just two civilized monsters clinging together in the shadows.
Maria moaned, her body sang out to "mi mejor soldado"...
... and then the dark brown of the room fell away. Green filled Alice's vision, and then brown, and then she was back in the moment of her hunt, though her prey was long gone. Alice didn't care. Her stomach tightened with jealousy and arousal, breaths coming in sharp gasps despite her body's apathy toward oxygen. Beams of sunlight piercing through the canopy stung her eyes until her muscles finally unclenched and she was free to fall apart.
Alice collapsed against the forest floor with a slow shudder. The scene played before her closed eyes in violent flashes, even as she tried to push it away. She hadn't prepared for this. It would take her several minutes to comprehend that she would never have him entirely, that her love had shared his mouth, his marked flesh, his everything with another woman, gasping and trembling with her in a ragged house in the desert.
In the wilderness of Pennsylvania, with her once blue dress torn and stained from the chase, she experienced for the first time the heavy feeling of something missing, of having no one and no thing to hold her close, to touch her sadness away. She held a clenched fist over her heart and wondered why her throat felt so constricted, why it hurt when she swallowed, and why her eyes still stung though her lids were closed. Then she realized: this was loneliness.
And for the first time in her short life, Alice felt alone.
It was another year before she saw Jasper again.
Well, that wasn't true. Despite Alice's efforts to save herself from another moment involving Maria, she saw his face constantly. Each time she blinked, he'd appear. Frowning as he walked, cheeks tossing off light like a gemstone in the hot sun—brief flashes that grounded her as she wandered her way across the country.
She spent months in her slow journey from Appalachia to the plains of the Midwest. She bought dresses with cash she'd swiped from strangers, learned how to style her scissor-mangled hair from an elderly housemaid with locks too thin to comb, and realized that she preferred jack rabbit to livestock. Through each and every moment, Jasper was by her side or, at the very least, in her head.
Alice never saw him for more than a few seconds, but that way okay. If she felt anxious or isolated, she'd close her eyes and remember her first vision, her skin on his, their half-golden eyes trapped together in silent conversation. It was enough.
The next time she truly saw Jasper, she was hungry. Horribly, cramps-twist-your-stomach hungry. Wandering through the streets of Phoenix on a cloudy evening, she had decided to test herself in a crowded town for the first time, though it had been three days since she'd felt the rush of an animal's blood down her throat.
She opened the door to a shop at the same time she saw Jasper doing the same damn thing. Just, it was a different shop. Who knew where?
Jasper'd drank some sagging cattle-boy a week ago, so his throat was purring with only a low simmer as he stepped out of the rain and entered the general store with Peter and Charlotte.
There was only one human inside, a frail girl standing behind the counter. Jasper was struck first by her smell, the wisps of faded chamomile, and then by her emotional state. Blank. Yet when he studied her, he saw that she didn't look blank so much as she looked dead. She was thin, even by the standard of these lean times. Despite the goose bumps stippled down her arms, she didn't spare the coven a glance as they strode in with squeaking boots, still dripping from the downpour. From the frayed seam on her sackcloth apron, it was obvious the girl was poor.
Charlotte paid the girl no mind. She headed directly toward the folded frocks, her slim fingers finding the base of the hem and trailing the thin fabric. Jasper felt the longing and annoyance stewing in her emotions, and he understood. The thin muslin wouldn't hold up on the trails. Charlotte loved it—she hadn't lost her affection for pretty things—but owning such luxury would be pointless in their errant lives.
Peter had gone for the local paper, and Jasper felt the hum of wheeling of interest, surprise, and frustration as he sorted through the headlines. This was comfortable and routine for Jasper. As he always did, Peter looked up when he got to the weather report.
"Old Gus and his almanac say it's going to be sunny for the next three days."
Jasper trailed his finger around the curve of a Mason jar filled with dried maize. "It's always sunny out here this time of year—except today. We lucked out."
Peter lowered the paper. "We'll need to clear out, regardless."
"That's what we were planning on."
"True." Peter nodded, already returned to flipping through the pages.
Jasper decided to follow his routine as well. He headed toward the counter with careful steps, breath held as he approached the shopgirl. He ducked his hat before he asked, "You got any books for sale behind the desk?"
The sales girl looked up with a snap of the eyes, as if registering for the first time that there were customers in the shop. She was already responding with a quick incline of her chin when she stopped. She stopped and oh, how those blue eyes stared.
But it wasn't fear. It wasn't lust. It wasn't any of those run-of-the-mill emotions.
There was a swoop of disbelief followed by the blind rage of joy, and then confusion. The girl was shaking her head. "You're not..." she started, but then she turned away, her eye lids slamming shut. "Sorry, sometimes I catch a—" She pulled a handkerchief off the counter and covered her face, dabbing at the tears. "Just look the slightest bit l—" She closed her eyes. "Like someone I used to know is all."
Jasper didn't even really notice the girl's tears, instead he felt the shock—the seeping flood of her grief, as if he was being suffocated in a pit of tar. Jasper tried to force it back. Not here. Not with manners and human normalcy and the tin of one-cent peppermints staring him down.
It was all he could do to repeat the word, "Books?"
The girl nodded, wiping her eyes with her pink calloused knuckles, and then stooped down behind the counter. The shaky lean of her figure caused Jasper to step forward, almost afraid she was going to melt into the floor. She didn't. Although when she rose with the case in her arms, Jasper swirled in tune with her dizziness and the weight of her pain.
She didn't say a word, she just set the box on the counter, pushed it toward him. Jasper made his eyes scan over the titles, somewhat agonized when he found nothing new to distract him.
To the side of the room, Charlotte had finished her perusal of the dresses. All were either too ugly or too delicate. Peter had reached the end of his paper and was watching Jasper's exchange with the girl with curiosity.
"You all done?" Jasper asked over his shoulder.
"Yeah," Charlotte called, waving her hand in dismissal, already headed to the door. She wanted to head on to the next town, find something she could wear that'd make Peter stare more than he already did.
Peter and Charlotte could go. They should. But Jasper wasn't ready, never was.
"You two go on ahead, then. I'll be right out," he urged.
He got a matching pair of suspicious eyes. They knew. They'd been watching him the past year or so. They knew he was on the verge of leaving them. He was a burden. He was dragging them down, and despite their protests to the contrary, Jasper knew it was their sense of loyalty that was fueling their arguments.
"See you outside," Peter said, smooth as a cat but with eyes just as wary.
Both Charlotte and Peter cast final glances at the girl on their way out onto the porch, but she didn't seem to notice. The shopgirl's eyes were moving in a constant circuit from the books to Jasper to her hands and around again.
He shouldn't have done it, but he began contemplating the smell of her blood. Up close, as close as he was now, the chamomile smell of her blood went deeper: a rich tea of trailing herbs, the smell of clean cotton.
The girl interrupted the silence. "So, you want one? A book?" She gave a finger push on the crate and edged it an inch closer to him.
Jasper didn't say anything. He merely reached into the crate, caught a spine between his fingers and lifted it. "So who was he?" Jasper asked.
"Who was who?" She was trying to keep her voice polite. She needed this job, yet her tone was undeniably accusatory.
"The one you loved. The one in the cemetery you're hankering after."
"The one—" She paused and gritted her teeth. Anger. "I asked you if you wanted a book."
Jasper almost welcomed the new emotion. Almost. But then there was the rest of it: the slow thrum of heart beat heating up, her cheeks flaming, her eyes hardening into a tough stare.
Jasper trailed his finger along the wayward pages of the book open on the counter. He softly said, "Let's say I'm considering a book, but this one here... it looks like one I've already read. Cover looks about the same."
"They're a real bargain for these parts."
They both knew the conversation about books was a farce—and Jasper was done with farces. He leaned forward on the counter. The girl tried to back away, but there was less than a foot and a half between the counter's edge and the wall. Her back was against the wall, and Jasper had her full attention. "I look like him, don't I?"
"No." A half-whimper. The girl's eyes looked right and left like she was looking for an escape.
But the "no" wasn't real, so he pressed on. "How long ago was it?" he whispered.
His breath hit her, and he watched her inhale the luring pheromones. When she said, "That isn't your business," it sounded like the lightest of admonishments. She wanted to believe in this dream. Her eyes were bright with tears and delirium.
"A year?" Jasper guessed. He reached out and caught her chin in his hand. It must have felt cold, but she didn't draw back or turn away. She didn't even flinch.
"Six months. The mine collapsed," she answered in a rasp. The tears in her eyes were spilling down her cheeks and along the crease in her chin, pooling in the well of his palm.
He stroked her wet jawline with his thumb. "You haven't let go of him. Not an ounce, have you?"
"Not an ounce."
"You should," he told her, and he ran his hand through her hair. Despite their lack of shine, the strands were soft.
"Feel this," he said, and he let it go. He let go the wave of hate and love and emotion and dark aching fever that'd been choking him since he left behind Mexico and Maria. The chains that had trailed behind with each step. The shopgirl yelped and then she crumpled, falling forward and gripping the sides of the crate as her forehead pressed into the spine of the thickest book.
"Wh-What was...?" she sobbed into the bound leather.
"You feel that every day?" he asked. His voice was so soft, but it caught unexpectedly, and Jasper realized how unstable he'd become. He was not in control anymore.
"Every day," she said, "every goddamn day. It doesn't matter who's plying me with church, casseroles, or a new fellow come into town—I can't let him go. It's not in me. I see him. I reach out like I can touch him—but he's not there. And it's supposed to go away. But it's not. It won't. Every goddamn day."
Jasper wanted to offer her an out. Leaning closer, he suggested, "Maybe you should leave."
She was shaking her head as she lifted it. "I tried. That's me being here without a penny to m'name. Didn't work. I still hate the air."
Jasper walked behind the counter. He pushed through the oak door flap with a creaking of brass hinges. The girl watched him, the tears falling as silent and slow as the droplets on the window pane.
"I can make it go away," he whispered, taking a step back and looking her square in the eyes. He tried to blunt the charm in his voice as he made the offer. He didn't want to seduce her. He wanted to give her a choice.
"How?" So desperate.
"Come here," he said, and he opened his arms wide like an angel.
It was awful how quick she ran toward him. One minute, she was looking at him askance, the line of drips falling from her eyes, and the next minute her eyes blurred with hope as she took the step, as she rushed into his cold embrace. Her eyes were hazed, like she thought the other "he" had come back to her. She pressed her face into the crook of his neck. She squeezed her arm across his stone flesh. As she sobbed, her tears folded down and into the lapel of his jacket.
He held her for one long second before he gave in, before he took away the air, her life.
When he no longer felt the despair—when he only felt nothing—he left. He shook her off him, laid her on floor, and headed out the back door.
Charlotte and Peter were to the east, but Jasper walked west. As he moved along, he felt what he always felt. With each step he felt the deadweight dragging after him. The iron lead that weighed him down. This time there was a new ball, a new weight, another addition in the seemingly endless chain.
When he looked back on the girl, he didn't feel regret or anger or even blood lust. Rather, he felt longing. He almost wished he could leave the air as well. Fold into the arms of another. Let her take it all away.
It was months before Alice saw Jasper's face set in anything but sorrow. She wandered along the streets of Santa Fe after sunset, cringing every time she caught a glimpse of red eyes, tooth-scarred lips stuck in an unconscious frown. Jasper was as alone as she was. He was miserable—and she could do nothing. She couldn't find him.
And then one day, it was different.
Alice was sitting on a park bench, enjoying a rare cloudy day in California. Beside her rested a small cactus in a terracotta pot, prickled arms stretching out to find some sunlight. Alice ran her fingers as gently as she could over its pink flower. It was entirely delicate and matched the exact shade of the ribbon holding her hair away from her forehead. With a silent apology to the plant, Alice reached behind it and plucked the bloom from the top of the cactus, tucking the small flower behind her ear with a smile. Her fingers remained unscathed, though she couldn't same the same thing for the cactus. Her cactus was sadly bald where her impermeable skin had broken off the thorns.
Suddenly Alice felt a soft thump against her shins, followed by the floral scent of human. A small girl stood at her feet. Despite the rush of venom into her mouth, Alice managed a smile.
"Margaret!" a woman called from several yards away. The young mother struggled with her stroller at the park's entrance, her brown hair frizzy and her forehead damp with strain. "Get back over here right now."
Her daughter, who Alice assumed could not be older than eighteen months, ignored her. "Flower!" the little girl squealed.
Her chubby fist was reached up toward Alice, and her soft blond hair was drifting around her head in the breeze, when she began to fade. The child, the woman, and the entire park faded until all Alice could see was another town, in a future time, where another child was capturing Jasper's attention.
On the busy sidewalk, Jasper looked out of place. Instead of moving at a casual human pace, he walked with too much focus, his stiff legs making everyone around him uncomfortable. Despite the walking traffic, Jasper reveled in the cushion of space around him. Humans naturally steered clear of vampires, but his uncomfortable gait earned him a few extra feet.
The man ahead of him, posture taut with nerves and fear and—strangely enough—happiness, made Jasper question his resolve, but he knew he needed this afternoon. A solitary existence, while liberating, was also staggeringly lonely. He might have been free from the strangling fears of others, but without any companionship, he wasn't really free. He missed conversation. He missed the feel of another person standing beside him. Even damned men such as himself weren't meant to wander the landscape alone.
So with his hands fisted in his pockets and his body singing from last night's kill, Jasper let the sights and sounds of civilization overwhelm his senses. Dust turned his auburn boots tan, but the slight feeling of company, hell, of just not being alone, made it worth it. If he made trips like this into town every few months, he would be okay.
He wasn't breathing—better safe than sorry—but Jasper couldn't help but let out a small sigh of relief when the anxious man veered off onto a side street, taking his muddled emotions with him. Jasper's muscles unclenched with the freedom, and he clung to the simple contentedness of the middle-aged woman a few yards ahead.
And then, just as Jasper had finally calmed enough to let his arms swing free, the short hairs on the back of his neck rose up as a rush of excitement bombarded him. He barely had time to recover before a small child ran past him, clomping his booted feet along the sidewalk. The boy's voice had gotten lost in the murmur of the crowd before, but now Jasper was focused on him as he shouted and waved around his arms like he was struggling to keep his balance.
"Stop there, yah varmint!" the boy cried, aiming the small wooden gun he held in his right hand at a sleeping dog. The mutt's lack of consciousness didn't seem to affect the boy. Jerking his hand twice, he yelled, "Pew, pew! You're dead!" and blew on the end of his toy gun. He only took a moment to tighten the string on his straw hat before running ahead to his next target.
As he watched the child play, Jasper felt his lips twitch with an inkling of amusement—amusement that he was surprised to find was his own and not simply the result of his proximity to a cheerful person. The boy's khaki slacks were tucked sloppily into a worn pair of child's cowboy boots, and the red bandanna tied around his neck completed his outfit. The child looked as if he'd wandered off the set of a western movie.
After "slaying'" both an old cat and its older owner—a nice gentleman who played along and closed his eyes as the child aimed and pretended to shoot—the boy looped back around, gun still slinging. And while he didn't always get the cliché lines right, his enthusiasm filled Jasper with a warmth he hadn't felt since Mexico. The vampire stopped to lean against a post while the child ran toward him, face set in a careful scowl.
"I'm gonna get you, yah yellow-berried… uh, cowpoke! You're… whoa." The boy's right hand dropped to his side and his brown eyes widened as he looked up at Jasper. For a moment, they both stood frozen. This child looked no older than five or six, but he was old enough to fear him, old enough to panic and scream and run away, leaving Jasper with nothing but his terror. Luckily for Jasper, that particular instinct hadn't kicked in yet for this child.
"Are you a cowboy, too?" the boy asked, forcing his wooden gun back into the belt loop acting as a holster.
Jasper smiled and felt the lines in his eyes crinkle, an unfamiliar sensation after all this time alone. Despite the fact that he knew better, that he knew humans were only in danger around him, Jasper bent his knees, evening out the height difference significantly. "You betcha, kid," Jasper answered with a serious nod.
The boy frowned. "If you're a cowboy, why don't you have a hat?"
Glancing down at his dirty cream shirt, Jasper gave an exaggerated sigh. "A robber stole it."
"Really?" The boy's eyes sparkled, his small hand once again removing his gun from his belt. Jasper smiled and ducked his head down, running his hand over his messy hair.
"Yep, took it right off my head after he looted a general store." Jasper let out another well-placed sigh for good measure. "We got back the money, but the scoundrel got my hat."
"Wow," the boy whispered, glancing down to the toy gun in his hand. Hooking his pointer finger into the hole where the trigger would be, the boy attempted to spin the gun around in a circle, only managing a half spin before he had to grab it with both hands to stop it from tumbling to the ground. Then he glanced up at Jasper with red cheeks. Jasper felt the boy's desire for his approval, and once again, he found himself doing something he knew he shouldn't.
"Here, let me show you."
With a feather-like grip, Jasper removed the toy gun from the boy's hands. Just as the boy had done, he slid his finger into the hole and used a flick of his thumb to spin the gun twice around, easy as pie. With a flip of the wrist, Jasper stopped its rotation and held the gun out, butt-first toward the child. Gun tricks were second-nature, a lingering reminder of his human life, and by the look on the boy's face, they were just as impressive now as they had been in the 1850s.
With a wide smile, the boy reached to grab back his gun. The tips of his tiny fingers just barely grazed Jasper's, and almost immediately, Jasper felt the confusion as the boy's brow creased and he pulled his hands close to his chest, examining Jasper's face more closely than he should have. The smile all but melted from the boy's face.
Jasper's own dread made his cold body feel colder. Please, please, walk away, he thought to himself. Please, don't question anything. I don't want to hurt you. If the boy was observant, he wouldn't have a choice.
"Why are your hands so chilly?" the boy whispered, clutching his gun. His eyes jumped up to Jasper's face as he took a step back. His heart lub dub, lub dubbed a little faster. The smell of adrenaline made Jasper's bloodlust stir, but he willed it away, just as he willed the child to ask more questions about the Wild West instead of fixating on Jasper's frigid skin.
Before Jasper could think up a response, a set of loud and approaching footsteps distracted them both. Seconds later a young woman with modest clothing and hair frizzy enough to show stress ran past Jasper and gathered the boy in her arms.
"Jonathan! I told you not to run off!" she scolded, pulling back his hat to kiss the top of his blond head. "I can't look away from you for a second!"
The boy, Jonathan, blushed, and Jasper swallowed a fresh mouthful of venom. "Sorry, Ma," he muttered. He allowed his mother to plant one more kiss on his brow before he yanked his cowboy hat back onto his head, pulling on the brim.
"I'll let your father deal with you, later." Jonathan's mother glanced up to Jasper, ready to thank the man who watched her son, but her face blanched when she saw Jasper's. Blindly reaching for Jonathan's hand, she whispered, "Let's go, sweetie," patting him on the head.
With a swift tug on his hand, Jonathan's mother pulled him down the street until they disappeared into the crowd. She took with her the most innocent happiness that Jasper had felt in years.
A blink later, Alice was back with the small toddler whose eyes had grown bright with tears as she stared at the cacti flower still tucked behind Alice's ear. One sticky hand rubbed at her eye, and Alice felt dead heartstrings tug at the sight.
"Flower," the girl blubbered once more. Taking care to move slowly, Alice removed the pink flower from her hair and dropped it into the girl's waiting hand. The tears halted as she gripped the flower with both fists, crumpling a few petals in the process. A bright laugh erupted from her mouth, and Alice smiled.
"Go give that flower to your mama," Alice whispered.
As Margaret nodded and stumbled back to her frazzled mother, Alice remembered the look on Jasper's face as he spoke to Jonathan, the little cowboy. She knew she'd make him smile like that someday. If fate was kind, that someday would be soon.
She'd been seeing him along the eastern seaboard. Every so often, there'd be the blurred change from Baltimore to Philadelphia and then Pittsburgh, but Alice knew she was closing in. Step by step, she knew she was drawing closer. The years and years of waiting were coming to an end.
For some time, Alice had been seeing something new in Jasper's expression. Though loneliness continued to pull at him, she saw that he smiled more. Months of these small grins had allowed Alice to learn the subtleties of his expressions: how elderly couples brought a gentle longing to his red eyes while temperamental teenagers made him smirk, the grim contentedness that came to him with fresh blood, the way he always slicked his hair back away from his face when it rained. For months, Alice had buzzed with anticipation as he became clearer and clearer. Now, it was time. It was finally time.
With her back resting against a tree in Fairmount Park, Alice let the visions run through her head as she considered her options one by one. The pre-dawn quiet made it easy to think. She knew instinctively that she shouldn't approach him in a private setting. She'd seen how he'd reacted to the male vampire in Detroit. Then there'd been the New York City subway incident with that tall female. Alice knew she had to do it just right.
That's why when she saw the vision of the red seat cushions and the wide screen, she knew what she needed to do. She saw herself flirting with the usher as he blushed and promised to do exactly what she said, her gloved hands gently touching his arm before sliding what she needed into his waiting fingers, the waiting booth several blocks south from the theater...
She rose to her feet and laughed as the first drops of rain tumbled to her cheek.
Jasper went to the cinema palace in part because it had started to rain—and in part because he'd just read the newspaper. He always told himself that he shouldn't do it. He should stick to his books and catch up on human events twenty years after the fact, but part of him just wanted to know... So he'd read the week's edition.
It was January of 1948. The war had ended just three years prior, and yet, the same farce was happening all over again. On one side of the world, Bevin was gearing up the Europeans to stand against the Soviet Union—then on the other side of the world, the young lawyer Mahatma Gandhi was fasting to stop the Partition violence in Delhi. Jasper cared, intellectually, but mostly he hated that humans were no better than vampires—that this idiotic violence went on and on and on, one squabble after the next.
He was reading the paper with such intensity that he didn't notice the onset of the afternoon storm until the ink on his paper started to run. He looked up, realized that the street was clearing and more importantly, that he was drawing attention to himself. That was why he made the bee line to the cinema palace.
He wanted a petty distraction. He took the cinema ticket without really peering over the poster for Out of the Past. A quick glance told him what he needed to know: no soldiers, no army nurses, and no international espionage—it looked like a film noir. The poster featured one pissed off looking fellow in a suit, and a rather smug but striking blonde front and center, holding a half-burnt cigarette. Good enough.
Jasper swept into the theater, ducking his head when the lobby lights hit him. His eyes detected the refractive glimmer of the red. A woman—probably thirty-five—looking weary from the length of the day was watching him. She didn't react to his gaze though, and he realized she hadn't noticed the red gleam. Instead there was the slow projection of lust—which stopped short when a man—her husband, Jasper concluded—poured out of the men's room and uttered a terse, "I'm done," before walking past her and pushing through the doors into the theater.
It was enough to make Jasper cringe. The woman didn't so much react as lose the force of her emotions from before. She pulled her ticket out of her bag and grabbed for the door handle, but Jasper was there—holding the door.
"After you," he said.
The woman gulped before giving him a shy smile and heading in. Jasper watched her pat the back of hair, grinning softly as she headed toward her husband. It was so easy with some people. Just a small gesture or two, and her day was made. The husband was an idiot.
Jasper didn't even bother looking at his ticket. He handed it to the usher and waited to follow. The usher lead him down the center aisle, a few seats to the left.
Jasper spread his weight over the red cushion, leaned back, closed his eyes, and took in the feel of the theater. On the whole, it was a good collection of emotions. Some older folk generally interested in the film. The groups of girls excited to be out on the town. The young guy who wanted to steal a kiss—or a feel—from his date. Jasper could handle all of that.
When the curtains opened and the scratchy speakers kicked in, the film began. The plot seemed typical enough: "mystery man" in the small town. Good-looking. Unknown background. Jasper nodded along when Jeff Bailey, the protagonist, muttered, "It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it."
It was when the plot headed backward to the past that Jasper started to cringe. It was even worse when the man headed down to Mexico. On one hand, Jasper was humored by the ridiculous depiction of the country, but on the other, the beautiful young actress—with her red lips and the haughty drape of her cigarette—Jasper could almost see the trail of bodies. Taste her red lipstick and savor the smear of blood.
He should have left then. He could feel the effect he was having on the couples around him. The young couple who had been cuddled behind him was now sitting apart, each of them with clenched fists. Jasper tried to rein it in—but he was getting angrier.
He watched the movie like one watching a freight train roll toward them at top speed on the double-line of the tracks. He couldn't look away.
Another empty promise. The blonde had lied to Jeff again—and he was about to go with her again—when Jasper felt the approach of the usher. The man was apologetically holding the bottle out to Jasper when Jasper caught the smell. It was light, airy, and so pleasantly sweet—but it was vampire.
Jasper took the bottle—almost happy for distraction, even as he searched the room for an opponent—and popped out the first of the thin curls of parchment pieces inside. He'd expected some of the usual territorial bullshit, but instead what he read surprised him:
"You know, maybe I was wrong, and luck is like love. You have to go all the way to find it."
But that wasn't what was shocking. What shocked him was that at the same time that he read the words, the distraught Jeff Bailey was pronouncing them on screen.
Jasper almost choked on his own venom when the small town girlfriend answered, "You do to keep it."
Jasper was in such a state that he almost dropped the bottle. There was no way... No way anyone could have known, unless... Jasper scanned the room again, looking for any sign—even as his instincts told him that there would be none.
The coast clear, Jasper found himself smirking as he shuffled the next slip out of the bottle.
There's a little cafe off S. 10th street, just down past the bakery. Smells like cheese and Ovaltine from a mile away. Care to join me?
Jasper did laugh at that. He knew the cafe. No way not to. Cheese and Ovaltine was a mild description for that stench. He had needed to hold his breath when he walked by that morning—and more importantly, there was no way the cafe could be a trap. It was neutral ground. Public. Whoever his correspondent was, she wasn't trying to trap him. Jasper fished the final slip out the bottle.
Don't take long.
He laughed—and then he didn't hesitate. He stood and headed for the aisle. There was something that felt so totally right about every step he took. With each stride, he felt like the manacles were falling off him: Maria, Mexico, his break with Peter and Charlotte, the countless dead...
On screen, above him, the protagonist and the blonde were arguing over a dead body:
"I think we deserve a break," the blonde said.
Jeff Bailey barely blinked as he replied, "We deserve each other."
Jasper didn't know what he deserved, but as he left the theater, he could feel the aftermath of his emotions. Hands reached toward hands. Kisses were pressed into hair. Everyone was smiling.
Alice fiddled with a small tin of powder as she waited. She knew she had two minutes, fourteen and five tenth seconds based on the clock and her visions... but still. That was why she held the powder tin. She wanted to pretend for this moment like she was a normal girl—powdering her nose while waiting for her date at some small cafe. At this point, she couldn't not pretend—she'd been imagining this for years and years and years.
She'd managed to straighten the menu, arrange her purse, and brush every last crystal of salt off the booth table when the clock struck. That was when she looked up, when she first saw him.
He was like she'd seen him before—but this time there wasn't just the vision. The rain was falling, dripping down his nose and spreading dark stains across his shoulders, and she could feel the moisture in the air—smell the frying potatoes behind the cafe counter, and there was the hint of sweet, salty sunflower. She could hear the near-silent pad of his footsteps.
When he opened the door, he stopped. She saw his head duck low, even as he eyed her up and down.
Alice knew about this. She knew what she needed to do.
She sat there. She smiled. Then she sent every last ounce of her joy at him.
He walked over to her booth with slow, careful steps, confusion evident on his face. His nose was wrinkled due to the stench of the cafe.
"You've kept me waiting a long time," Alice said. She had to restrain her smile. The visions in her head were going wild. He liked her. He would love her. This was a moment forged in unbreakable stone.
Jasper ducked his head, still somewhat at a loss as he said, "Sorry, ma'am."
Alice held out her hand.