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Strawberry Red by Catherine Grant Printer Friendly

Jeff leaned against the frigid, crumbling concrete and hid himself as much as possible in the shadow of the archway. He'd seen homeless people hunkering down at night in a similar fashion for as long as he'd lived on Westminster Street with his fiancee. His ex now, he admitted, and a wave of loss almost knocked him over.

He hugged himself, tightening his appendages against his core for warmth. The building would at least provide some protection against the wind, and keep him from getting jumped from behind. Jeff didn't have anything but his wallet and his phone on him to steal, the rest was still up in the apartment. He'd have to get it later. In the meantime, there was six hours until morning. Shops would open and he could wander somewhere for a cheap breakfast where he could figure out his next steps. He'd need to find a new place, and a job, too, since Carrie had been supporting him.

Jeff wore jeans, a tee shirt and his antique black leather jacket he'd had since high school. His upper body was warm behind the layers of fabric, but his skinny ass was starting to go numb and sore at the same time. He tried to ignore it and concentrated instead on how he was going to get Carrie back so that he didn't have to do this again tomorrow night or re-arrange his entire damn life.

"How could I royally fuck my life up this bad?" he muttered. Nobody was on the street to hear him, but it felt good to admit it out loud. Maybe if he confessed his sins to the Universe, karma would pay him back for his honesty. He'd wake up in the morning and Carrie would be standing over him with a cup of coffee, asking him to come inside so they could talk things out. Then they'd shower and spend the rest of the afternoon in bed together.

He didn't believe in karma though, and he suspected the Universe didn't give a shit.

***

Carrie Jones was the best thing to ever happen to Jeff in his whole miserable, degenerate life. She was one of those hipster girls that Jeff always liked--her hourglass, plump flesh dressed in plunging necklines, leggings, tall boots and glasses. She wore crazy jewelry and lip stain that kept her juicy mouth red like strawberries, sweet and yielding. Jeff thought Carrie was the hottest thing he ever saw.

He met her at the Brown University book store on Thayer Street. She sat with her laptop and a pile of books in the cafe, sipping coffee and reading Joyce Carol Oates. Her face was adorably confused, her mouth twisted in a frown, her eyes lit with a spark of intelligence that pulled Jeff over to the table. He walked over with a confident swagger, breaking into a peacock song of explanations about the book she was reading and why she should go downtown with him immediately to watch the bonfires on the river together.

Carrie corrected him on all of his observations about the book, having actually read it rather than just skimming, and then accepted the invitation anyway, despite what an ass he made of himself. She told him later that he'd been cute and kind of lost, like an abandoned puppy. He was never been sure if that was a compliment or not.

Jeff kissed Carrie on the Water Street bridge while they watched Waterfire and then they stumbled back to her downtown loft apartment, an expensive, antique-furnished vision that he tried not to let intimidate him. He turned to ask Carrie if she was sure about what they were about to do, and the look of naked lust on her face wiped away any other thoughts. They made love in front of her big screen television watching The Last Starfighter. Jeff still remembered the orgasm that ripped through him at the exact moment Alex Rogan said "I'm not any of those guys, I'm a kid from a trailer park."

That night sealed it for Jeff. He crashed at the apartment every day that week. Carrie's parents paid for the loft. He wasn't sure what they did, but between Carrie's ivy league tuition and the rent, he imagined they had to be well off. He wasn't with her for her money though, and to avoid the appearance of gold digging, he never asked about them and their wealth.

After a month of seeing each other, Jeff kept a toothbrush at the loft. Six months later, he gave up his room with his flatmates and proposed. She said yes, her eyes lit from the inside by joy and glossy with tears. When he apologized for being unprepared, she told him with her chin raised, "Don't worry, I don't need a ring."

He stroked her unadorned fingers and kissed each digit.

***

A year went by, and Carrie had avoided all talk about a wedding. Jeff had no family to give a shit about his relationship status, but he figured Carrie would have a gaggle of friends back home squealing like piglets about being bridesmaids. She kept repeating that it was because she wanted to finish school first. When Jeff had asked why he hadn't met her parents yet, despite being their future son-in-law, she shut down the conversation.

He kept pressing gently, and her reactions became more explosive and the aftermath progressively lasted longer. If he asked about events to gear up for the wedding, or an engagement party so their families could meet, she wouldn't talk to him. The coldness between them frosted over anew every time Jeff asked when they'd be taking the next steps toward spending their lives together.

They stopped having sex. Three months went by and she hadn't even touched him, and when he confronted her about it she burst out crying and sobbed hysterically about how terrible she was to him and how he deserved better.

Jeff loved Carrie, but he found himself spending more and more time away from the apartment, feeling like the relationship must have an expiration date. She probably regretted the engagement, or her uptight, rich, parents didn't approve. It was the only thing that made sense to Jeff when things were going so well for so long. As soon as Carrie graduated from college next year, she'd be gone and he'd be out on the street when she broke up with him. There was no way he could take over the loft apartment even if he wanted to.

A contingency plan, the logistics of heartbreak, began to build up in Jeff's subconscious like an ice floe. He looked for rooms for rent on Craigslist, maybe a one bedroom shithole on the North end that he could afford. He started sending out his resume to get a job again and snagged a part-time gig at a coffee shop. When he mentioned going back to work, Carrie got quiet.

Jeff sighed. “Spit it out already.”

"Nothing. Just―aren't you worried that your grades will go down?" She'd already been helping him with some of his math and science classes just to get him through the year. She was so much better at, well, everything than he was. "Why would you want a job right now?"

Jeff refused to feed the argument. Her silver spoon-fed ass had probably never worked an honest day in her life. He shook his head. “You wouldn't understand. This is just something I have to do. I can't let you support me anymore.”

She growled in frustration. He normally thought it was cute, his adorable girl growling like a bear, but it wasn't precious anymore. He'd found it disturbing and childish, dismissive, and admittedly, a little creepy. The hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention at the sound.

“Stop it.” he spat.

She looked wounded. "Don't you give a shit about school, Jeff?"

He shrugged and had lifted both hands in the air. "Why the hell do you even care, anyway, Carrie? Your life is set. Mine is the one that could implode at any second. I don't have a backup plan, or a cushion. If something happens, I'm fucked. You have no clue what that's like."

She blinked, shook her head in disgust, and then went back into her room. Jeff slept on the couch that night. It was just as cold and lonely as sleeping in Carrie's bed had been the past six months.

***

Jeff's favorite bar was on Angell St near the university, an English tavern in a dingy basement with a couple of pool tables. He drank some sort of cheap local brew the waitress recommended and was feeling that twilight buzz between pleasantly drunk and outright blitzed, when in through door walked the lovechild of Elvira and Tank Girl, shaved bald, tattooed and marked deep with black makeup and steel jewelry. She also had what Carrie liked to call "resting bitch face."

The girl scanned the room and zoned in on Jeff. She swaggered toward him and sat at the bar, glancing sideways his way to gauge any reaction. The frat boy bartender was on her immediately and she flashed a smile and ordered some French beer that rolled off her tongue like honey and sounded sexy as fuck.

"Hey." She took a sip of the amber liquid in her glass when it arrived and turned on her stool slightly to face Jeff.

He looked around to see if she was talking to someone else. Nope. She was leaning toward him, waiting for a response. A slight curl of a smile appeared.

Jeff felt his face flush a bit, not with shyness but with shame. It had been almost two years since he'd done this--and that was because he was with Carrie. He was still with Carrie. His mouth turned dry.

"I haven't seen you around here before." He ordered what she was having. The words that were so gorgeous in her mouth just a few moments before fell from his like rusty paperweights. The beer was strong though, and tasted like chocolate silk.

The girl smiled and it lit up her whole face. Her dark eyes were steady as they rested on Jeff, like a wildcat intent on catching a limping rabbit. "I don't normally hang out at college bars. But I was feeling a bit peckish. Really glad I did now, though." Her tongue flicked out and licked her lips as she gave him an elevator glance, the pink of her mouth an explosion of color against the dark gray lipstick.

They shared another beer together. Then the girl paid the tab for them both, took Jeff's hand and led him out the door.

***

Jeff blacked out some time after he and the girl took a taxi back to her place. The last thing he remembered was they'd done a few shots of scotch in her kitchen. He woke up in a strange bedroom, his head feeling ten times too large for his body and his stomach a roiling pit of snakes.

He lay on a bare mattress on the floor, the rest of the room decorated in heavy metal posters and littered with miscellaneous trash and dirty laundry. He was nude, his clothes nowhere within arms reach. Worse than the hangover, his entire body felt sore, the fatigue soaking down into his bones. He looked to the other side of the bed and the girl with the shaved head lay on top of the moth-eaten covers, completely naked and staring at him with a grin he couldn't read.

"Morning, Jeff." she said, her tone flat. "Thanks for the great night. Now, would you kindly get the fuck out?" She pulled the blankets off him and kicked him with one long, slender foot toward the edge of the bed.

Jeff picked up his underwear and went scouting for the rest of his clothes. He'd stood up too fast and his head pounded. He touched his temple and tried to remember how many beers he'd had the night prior, and how many shots they'd finished off in her kitchen. Not nearly enough to feel like this.

The girl frowned. "Awww, I hurt your widdle feelings?" She stuck her bottom lip out. It was rubbed clean of lipstick. Her eyes were a smeared ruin of eyeliner and mascara.

"You don't have to be such a bitch about it. I'm just hungover. And I'm leaving." Jeff snatched his shirt off the floor and dumped everything on the bed and began putting them on as quickly as he could.

"You look like shit. How do you feel?" She rubbed her tongue over her teeth. "I've never had such a lousy fuck. You could barely get your dick up."

His face burned scarlet and he didn't answer. He made sure his wallet, cell phone and keys were all in his pockets before turning and letting himself out of a dingy apartment and into a hallway that smelled like onions and old farts. He heard the girl laughing as he closed the door.

It took Jeff a minute to figure out where he was once he got outside. He was on Federal Hill, a good distance from home. He'd need the time to think about what he would do once he saw Carrie. He rehearsed telling her that he'd cheated. He'd been fairly drunk, but he knew what he was doing when he went to the apartment. His heart literally hurt when he thought about how Carrie would feel. She'd be angry at first, and then her lip would quiver and she'd cry.

Jeff slapped the heel of his hand against his forehead. It hurt like fuck, but he deserved that. He didn't even remember sleeping with the girl from the bar. He realized he didn't know if they'd used protection or if he came, and the thought of having his dick in that bitch with no condom made him feel ill. The memories of the prior night were dream-like and muddled. He remembered drinking a couple more beers with the bar girl, and then they were coming through her apartment door and she had his clothes off and her tongue in his mouth.

Jeff touched his mouth and realized that he had lipstick all over him, probably on his clothes, too, that would be filled with the musk of sex and the stink of that shithole apartment. More flashes of memory crept through as his mind cleared from the hangover. That fancy beer must have been some crazy nightmare fuel, because he remembered dreaming of a woman, crowned in sharp antlers. She had no eyes above a smiling mouth of needle teeth, the gums gray and bleeding. She rode Jeff to orgasm, her breasts weeping blood from underneath, her sex a gash leaking black fluid, thick and dark as oil. He'd felt an orgasm tear through him in he dream, and his seed had pumped deep into the thing that rode him as it squeezed him until Jeff had felt like his cock would pop like an engorged tick.

Avoiding the gaze of strangers passing by, Jeff reached down and touched his jeans just to make sure his dick was still there. He felt dizzy and stopped in the middle of the sidewalk near the trash, ready to puke into it if needed. The feeling passed and he kept moving.

***

A cup of cold tea, the milk curdled on the top, sat on the coffee table and a book was propped on Carrie's chest. Jeff leaned forward and slid the book to the floor. He pulled a blanket up over her and tucked it around her. He might as well let her sleep before his confession ruined her day.

He went to the bedroom and took off all of his clothes and buried them deep in the hamper, then went to the bathroom to shower off the smell of the bar girl. It felt like a coating on his skin, and Jeff wondered if maybe infidelity was like that on the inside, too. His regret felt more like a stone in his gut, and he hovered over the toilet and tried to expel some of it. All that came up was bile and half-digested booze, but he felt a bit better afterward.

Jeff turned on the shower and stepped into the jet. He took Carrie's loofah off the hook on the far wall of the shower and soaped it up and scrubbed himself with it. He raked the mesh ball over his skin as hard as he could. It hurt like hell after about ten minutes, and he cursed and grabbed the soap off the little shelf and worked it over his crotch, trying to get it in every crevice. He cranked the water as hot as it would go and let it rinse away the soap and scorch his body red.

Jeff felt hands touch his back and he screamed and turned around to see Carrie. She was naked and coming in to join him. She frowned and her hands hovered between them, unsure of the best action."Holy shit. I didn't mean to scare you."

He shook his head, not wanting to confront her here, not like this. He began to wash his hair as Carrie slipped into the shower and she embraced his back. Her soft, yielding flesh was a comfort against his and he almost cried out at how good it felt.

"Jesus, sweetie." She turned the temperature down on the water. When he turned around, she looked into his face and then wiped some soap from the corner near his eye. "I'm sorry things have been stressful lately.” she said. “I've just been in a bad place. A really bad place."

Jeff wasn't sure what to do. He wanted to hug her, but it felt wrong.

She smiled and it turned into a frown as she traced a scar on his chest. "You have to understand that I never thought I'd meet someone I loved. I'm not really prepared for this."

He shook his head and pulled her hands away from him. "That's silly, Carrie. You're wonderful. I'm the total shithead here." He choked on his words and turned around before she saw his face collapse into a sob and rinsed the shampoo from his hair.

"I love you." She pressed herself against his back. Jeff let her hold him, and when he turned around, she kissed his mouth and pressed her breasts against his chest. He always loved Carrie's body and was hard almost instantly. Soon they were against the wall of the shower, her hands stroking him to an achingly hard erection.

She turned the water off and led him into the bedroom.

***

Two weeks later, Jeff noticed it burned when he peed. He didn't think much of it. One downfall of not having health insurance was that he didn't go to the doctor, so he knew all the tricks to self-treat a mild urinary tract infection. He bought a bottle of cranberry juice at the drugstore on the way home.

Carrie stayed home from class that morning, too, claiming she felt tired. When Jeff opened the door to the apartment, he dropped the bottle of juice on the floor and it smashed against the tile. She looked awful. Her skin was gray and her lips were colorless and chapped.

After the third day of feeling progressively worse, she could no longer get out of bed.

"I'm never sick." Carrie said repeatedly. She took a couple of Aspirin and lay on the couch, trying to concentrate on a book. It slipped from her hand and fell to the floor. She didn't even look at it or try to retrieve it. Her skin shone with sweat that plastered her hair to her forehead. "I think I need to go to the doctor." she croaked.

Jeff stared at her, not wanting to move a muscle, as though it would betray his thoughts. He shook his head. "It's probably just a weird flu or something. I'll get you some stuff from the drugstore."

Carrie lifted an arm toward Jeff, then put it back down. "You don't--understand."

Jeff did though. He went to the walk-in clinic and asked for a full spectrum of tests for sexually transmitted diseases. The nurse that took his blood was an older woman with a severe haircut that matched her personality. Her tone was clipped, precise. "How many sexual partners?"

He hesitated. "Two. But one of them, I didn't want to have sex with her. I...I think she drugged me."

The nurse looked at him over her glasses and wrote something down on the paper. "So are you saying you were sexually assaulted?"

He hadn't called it that and he didn't want to answer the question out loud and give it life.

The woman waited for him to answer and then pursed her mouth like she'd just eaten a lemon, raised one shapely eyebrow, and made a few more checks on her paper.

“Did you have anything to drink that night?" The nurse asked. Her pen hovered over the page.

"Are you going to ask me what I was wearing next?” He snapped. “Never mind these questions. Can we just get this over with, I have places to be."

She nodded and in a few moments, a needle was plunged into Jeff's arm. He felt sick as he watched the vial fill with thick, red fluid. Inside him and that vial, there was something he'd passed it on to Carrie. If he looked at it underneath a microscope, what kind of things would he see swimming around, doing the backstroke?

After he left the clinic, Jeff lmade his way down Eddy Street, then back toward Westminster. The entire way, he looked for the girl with the shaved head. He'd been doing that for days, he realized. Looking for her, wanting to get back at er somehow. Part of him was desperate to ask her what the fuck she did to him, maybe even hurt her. He thought about heading down to Angell St and seeing if anyone at the bar knew her. If that yielded no results, he could go back to her apartment and banging on the door until she answered or called the cops.

He stopped at Carrie's favorite Chinese restaurants and picked up some chicken soup and a can of ginger ale. The building they lived in was quiet as he made his way up the elevator, but it was so peaceful that Jeff could hear the hum of lights and the grinding of the brakes on the elevator as it stopped at their floor.

The hallway had a thick, coppery tang that hung in the air. When he opened their apartment door, he expected to see Carrie hurt, or worse. Instead she was sitting up in the living room in the dark. Her couch was a massive cream colored sectional in the heart of the open living room and kitchen, and Carrie sat directly in the center with the shades drawn. The only light was what little sun was left of the day. Jeff knew it was just a trick of the lighting, but it looked like Carrie's eyes were glowing orange, like that of a cat, reflecting the light from the window like lamps.

"Hey, baby. You okay?"

She didn't move. They sat there for a moment in total silence, the only sounds the beating of Jeff's heart in his ears.

"No, I'm not. I'm very sick."

"I know that, baby." He put the soup down on the kitchen table and tried to go to her.

"Stay over there." She sounded like she was commanding a dog, and it worked. Jeff stopped where he was. "Don't you come near me. I'm sick because of you. You were with her. Now it's in me and I can't get it out."

Neither one of them breathed as she waited for him to respond.

"You did this." she whispered.

He didn't know what to say. Carrie wasn't making any sense. There was no way she could know some random chick he'd hooked up with in a bar, yet she'd flung the word her at him like a knife. Like she knew the bar girl and was--jealous?

"Get out."

He flinched at the naked hate in her voice.

"Don't come back."

He did as he was told and left, feeling hollow. He went to Kennedy Plaza and sat down on one of the benches for a random bus. He felt stupid. If he'd never gone to the bar and had drinks with some random woman, he wouldn't be in this situation. You didn't go there to cheat though. You were just flirting. You were drugged.

Every excuse for why it wasn't his fault played out in his head. Jeff had gone to the bar feeling sorry for himself, with a knot of dissatisfaction in his gut and his hormones raging to get off. He loved Carrie, and part of him wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, but another part had wanted to lose control that night. His heart ached, thinking about how stupid that was.

He also thought about that last shot of scotch. Bar girl had brought the bottle out from underneath a cabinet. It had tasted strange, but Jeff didn't have much experience with fancy booze. He'd thought it was supposed to taste that way.

Jeff got up to find the stop for the bus up to Federal Hill. He glanced across the plaza, into the park, and swore he saw the girl with the shaved head. Just a profile of scalp and black makeup. He headed toward her, not taking his eyes off her.

Jeff stepped right in front of an oncoming bus and the breaks screeched. His heart beat so hard in his chest that his body felt electrocuted and he jumped back onto the curb, falling over. The bus driver cursed at him through the glass while people gawked and milled about. Nobody offered to help him up. When he looked back up, the girl had slipped away. He dusted himself off and sprinted across the road to the park, but she was gone.

Jeff grabbed a bus up to Atwells and went wandering Federal Hill, and then made his way to her apartment. The building smelled like farts and onions even from the outside. He rang the buzzer, then when nobody answered he pounded on the door until it shook on its hinges. A man in a greasy tee shirt and a bathrobe opened the door across the hall, the slack, droopy-eyed expression curling into a frown as he spotted Jeff.

"Sorry man." said Jeff. He waived a hand at the door. "I'm looking for this girl. Skinny, shaved head."

"You mean Corinne? She was just here. Probably went out to get a drink. You wanna wait for her inside?" The dude scratched at his balls through his bathrobe and shifted his weight from leg to leg, his motion a bit impatient. Jeff decidedly did not want to go in the apartment with this smelly rando.

"Nah. I'll come back. Just let her know I was looking for her. It's important."

The rando nodded and shut the door, looking a bit disappointed at the lack of company. Jeff took the bus back down to the financial district and made his way to Westminster. When he tried his key on the door to the apartment he and Carrie shared, it didn't work. She'd already called to have the locks changed.

There was no answer when he knock again, so Jeff banged at the hard, dark wood until his fist ached. After twenty minutes, someone tapped him on the shoulder. It was the security guy. “Hey, buddy, cut the shit and get the hell out of here.”

When Jeff refused to go, the sizable man hauled him out by his arm until they were out the front door. The guard shoved him a little and Jeff lost his footing and fell hard onto the sidewalk. When he stood and took a few steps toward the entrance to the building, the guard raised a hand, blocking him. "Get the fuck out of here, kid. I am not screwing around with you."

"I just want to make sure my girlfriend is okay."

The guard snickered and went back inside the building. Jeff wasn't going anywhere though. He would sleep outside and wait for Carrie to come out. He would throw himself at her feet and worship her if that was what it took to get her back.

***

Jeff's ass went numb and his body grew used to the cold around two o'clock in the morning. He was in the place between sleep and awake, his consciousness slipping into a dream more vivid than the nightmare that happened that day.

In the dream, he'd gone upstairs to the apartment again. This time there were no guards to keep him out. He went right upstairs to Carrie's apartment and found the door unlocked and went inside. There were no lights on, and when he tried the switch, it was dead. The only light coming in was from the street light filtering through the windows and curtains, and it let him see that Carrie was still on the couch, the blankets rising and falling with her shallow breaths. He heard her wheezing, and he remembered that he was supposed to bring her medicine. She was sick. So terribly sick.

He went to couch. Carrie's back was turned and she had the covers pulled up over her head. She looked like a caterpillar that had gone inside its cocoon.

"Hey, sweetie. It's me. I'm back. I brought you something to make you better."

Carrie's breathing stopped.

Jeff sighed. "I know you tried to keep me out, but I can't let us end like this. I'm sorry for what I did."

Silence.

"Carrie? Please don't shut me out. I'm begging you."

A thin, raspy laugh came from Carrie's shrouded form on the couch. It began so soft, that Jeff wasn't sure what he was hearing. It sounded like air being let out of a balloon and increased in volume, like a groan from a parched throat. It deepened into a laugh that made Jeff's back stiffen. Carrie pulled the blanket down a bit and turned around toward him simultaneously.

Jeff was thankful for the inadequacy of light. The thing lying on the couch was not the beautiful girl with pale, perfect skin that he'd gladly been with. Carrie was so beautiful to him that it made his heart ache, but she was gone. Her face was split from above her brow to the center of her neck, the flesh flayed, bloody and raw. Underneath the torn shreds of her face was a row of teeth where each pale blue eye should be, and where her lips should be, were at least two dozen sets of blinking eyes. From the mouths at each side, the thing on the couch whispered to Jeff in a language that sounded guttural and profane.

The mouths smiled too wide, splitting the flesh around them and bleeding. Jeff screamed and jumped back as the creature stood to greet him, blood leaking down its chin like juice. In his head, the thing promised Jeff death for what he stole. He screamed until his vocal cords ached, and just like in most dreams, it was not enough to save him when the creature took the first bite.

***

Jeff woke on the street, the bells from the church nearby tolling for three o'clock in the morning. He could feel their vibration in his head, and on his numb ass, and in his chest that still felt sore and hollow.

Jeff stood on stiff, aching legs and walked down Westminster to the church, toward the vibration that brought him out of the dream. The doors were open and the soft, warm light promised heat and comfort. It pulled him forward involuntarily like a siren-song. Jeff stumbled up the stairs toward the door ringed in dark mahogany and stone angels. The city was dark, gray and quiet. Stepping inside the church felt like piercing a soap bubble into another world.

When Jeff entered, the temperature difference sent a feverish chill up his spine and he twitched violently. When he looked to the middle of the church toward the altar, there was a man standing in the center of the isle. He wore a black suit and a black tie. His face was unremarkably Caucasian, with shadows around his eyes, his hair a shock of brown, badly in need of cutting and taming. When the man smiled, Jeff found him familiar.

"Hello, Jeffrey. I thought it was time we met." The man's voice was a deep baritone, clear and commanding.

Jeff felt his face flush, the heat of the church in contrast to outside suddenly oppressive, and he swallowed a mouth full of air that tasted of incense. "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

The man smiled, and it reminded Jeff of the grinning eyes in his dream. He tried to suppress a shiver, but it came as a tremor. Jeff hugged himself and rubbed his arms, focusing on the floor until the memory faded. When he looked back up, the man was smiling at him again, the candlelight reflecting in his eyes. They looked like they were aflame.

"You don't know me." said the man. "But you know my daughter." He took a step forward toward Jeff. The man's hands were at his side and one of them twitched and then both quickly disappeared behind his back. "I believe you were engaged?"

Jeff swallowed and looked behind him toward the door. He didn't see any other exits in the church. He turned back to the man in black. "Sir, please, I can explain--"

The smile came back, this time it looked too large, like the false smile of a clown. "No need to be so formal, Jeffrey. My name is Sam. Sam Jones. Please, sit."

Jeff shook his head. "I really should be--"

"Sit."

The word was a command, and Jeff obeyed, his legs shaking as he took a seat on one of the wooden benches.

"You actually know both of my daughters." said Sam. "Corinne and Carrie are sisters. Constantly fighting, those two. Some days, I'm at a loss for what to do about them." He shook his head and chuckled.

Jeff shifted in his seat, running over the features of each girl in his mind. It seemed unlikely those two were related. "Sisters? Sir, I--"

"My darling girls. They are quite different from one another, aren't they?"

"Yes, sir."

"Call me Sam, please." He flashed that grin again. It made Jeff visibly shrink, which elicited a chuckle. "Oh, my. You not family material, my dear boy. Just a puff of vapor in a meat sack. Not proper son-in-law material at all, I'm afraid."

Jeff shook his head. "Please, I love your daughter." He corrected himself. "I love Carrie."

Sam's smile faded, and he bared his teeth. They were black around the gums. "Carrie can't bear children because of you. You carried the spoor and infected her, and she's barren now. How is that love?" Sam's hands were balled into fists at his side. "Corinne wanted to be my favorite daughter, and now she will be the only one to give me grandchildren. She's pregnant."

Jeff focused on the floor, his hands. Anything to keep himself from looking at Sam. "Are you saying that I'm the father?"

Sam clasped his hands in front of him, and the monstrous smile returned. "Yes. She has yet to lay her eggs, but when they hatch, I will be a grandfather to a legion of dark children. They will need to feast and you must provide for them, Jeffrey. You must go find devotees that are willing to let my young ones drink their blood until they are strong. That's why I'm here tonight, to make sure you are ready for your responsibilities to them, and to Corinne."

Jeff felt trapped on the bench, but he said what was on his mind regardless. His love for Carrie made him bold. And stupid. "You're crazy." he shouted. Jeff wondered if this was even Carrie's father, but he knew it was. The resemblance was the first thing he'd noticed when he saw the man. "I'm going to leave now. In the morning, I'm going to see Carrie and we're going to work everything out, and you and Corinne will leave us the hell alone. And I'm not acknowledging any children without a blood test."

Sam's upper lip curled. "You stole Carrie's womb from her and refuse to acknowledge the children from her sister and make these idle threats? I should turn your skin inside out and keep you alive until you feel the depth of pain that my daughter feels right now, knowing her womb is barren because of you."

Jeff noticed as Sam grew closer that his eyes were not just dark, but black. His fingernails were long and pointed, the tips a dark gray. He smelled like copper, the same scent was in the air right before Carrie kicked him out.

"You convinced your daughter to break up with me, didn't you?" said Jeff.

The smile came again, but this time it was impossibly large, stretched from ear to ear. The skin at the corners split and Jeff saw a trickle of blood ooze down onto the lapel of Sam's suit. The teeth inside were even darker and sharper now. Jeff felt like screaming at the sight and he looked away, toward the altar and the cross.

Sam sighed. "My daughter has been disobedient as of late, but she knows better than to disobey her father. You, on the other hand, are just a fly waiting to be swatted." He stepped forward and placed a hand on Jeff's shoulder.

Jeff felt a jolt of cold, and his heart stopped beating in his chest. The edges of his vision began to darken when he heard a female voice, loud and commanding, utter a single phrase.

"Stop it, father."

Sam's hand came away from Jeff, and immediately his heart began to beat again. The blood pumped and his head swam. Jeff gasped, and coughed, and turned around to see Carrie standing in the doorway. She looked remarkably better than she had the day before when he left to go to the doctor. Her skin was still pale, but her eyes were clear.

"That's enough." she said.

Sam bared his teeth at his daughter in a scowl. "You are overstepping, little one."

"You told me you'd let me handle this, and I have. I even took care of Corinne and her children."

Sam's head cocked in curiosity. "Oh, really? Where are they?"

Carrie raised an eyebrow. "In another hundred years she'll make her way back here, looking for my blood and wanting to fuck everything in sight. My nieces and nephews are contained." Carrie drew a large white stone out of her pocket. "They are still unhatched, waiting for a father to take care of them. I have someone suitable in mind, but you might not like it. If you want them to live at all though, you'll stop this."

Sam turned to Jeff. "This one refuses the honor of guardianship. It's an insult."

Carrie nodded. "He's unworthy, but he is mine. I will put him back to sleep."

Sam looked back and forth from Jeff to his daughter, and then sighed. "If you wish. I'm bored of him anyway, and I could never say no to you. Take care of it, daughter, or I'll have to come back and finish my conversation with young Jeffrey.” He kissed his her on the forehead and strode past her and out of the church, slamming the door behind him.

Carrie motioned for Jeff to move over on the bench. They sat in silence for a while. She held the stone in her hand, letting the light from the candles glow inside it. It looked like a gigantic diamond to Jeff. He glanced at Carrie's empty finger and knew that it was better now that he didn't buy her a ring, but he should have. It was a dick move to propose to a girl with no ring. She deserved someone who would buy her diamonds and worship her.

"That's not what I'd wanted though, Jeff."

He looked up at her in alarm. "Did you just read my mind?"

She nodded.

"Could you always do that?"

Carrie looked away, blushing with guilt. "No, not always. I kept from doing it with you. I didn't want that."

Jeff nodded. "Right. I guess I have no room to be angry."

"Basically. You still cheated on me with my sister."

He reached over and took Carrie's hand. It was so cold.

"You know that I'm going to make you forget the past two years, right?" she said. "It's either that, or you can spend the next hundred years as guardian to my nieces and nephews. When my sister comes back and you're old and useless, she'll devour you. I don't want you to waste your life like that."

Jeff let out a nervous laugh. "I'm not ready to be a father this young, right?"

Carrie shrugged. "Not just that. I want you to finish college, too."

He laughed at the absurdity of something like college after what he'd experienced tonight. He felt marked. When he looked at Carrie's face, the smile died on his lips."I will, Carrie. I'll finish school."

She put her other hand into his and nodded. It was painful to him that the closest he'd ever felt to her was now, and they had to say goodbye. He leaned in and kissed her lips for what he expected to be the last time. Not that he would remember it later. She tasted sweet, but there was a faint aftertaste of copper on her tongue, and Jeff realized that she'd probably been drinking blood, which is why she looked so much better. He drew away and wiped his lips with the corner of his jacket.

Carrie leaned in and kissed him again, this time more urgent, and when Jeff looked into her eyes, they glowed orange. The light was dazzling, and he felt himself fall, and then he was asleep.

***

Jeff locked the one bedroom apartment on Ives Street and walked down to The Arcade for his shift. He was on time, something that he'd tried to keep a habit since almost losing his job three months before. His boss, Adam, had complained Jeff hadn't shown up for a shift. Jeff had woken up in bed at the apartment and had gone about his day when Adam had called and asked where the heck he'd been the past two days.

That time was a bit of a blur, and Jeff blamed his drinking. When STD screening results came in that Jeff hadn't even recalled going to the doctor for, he'd stopped cold-turkey and felt better for it, if not grateful that fate had intervened to nip a bad habit in the bud before the booze really screwed up his life. The tests had all come back negative, thank the gods.

Jeff walked into New Harvest Coffee & Spirits and said hello to the familiar faces before getting behind the bar and making fresh coffee and replenishing some of the stock. Traffic through the mall had been slow that day, but there was still a decent group of students studying or talking about their summer vacations. Jeff sighed, wondering when he'd be able to afford to even take just a day off.

While he worked, he saw a hipster girl in the corner at one of the tables, a curvy, dark haired goddess wearing black glasses, galaxy leggings and a navy blue dress. He hadn't worked up the courage to talk to her, but he told himself he would before his shift was over. She typed away furiously on her laptop.

While he stared at her, she looked up and made eye contact and held it. Jeff flashed his best smile, and her amusement at his attention was visible in her eyes and the half-smile on her strawberry red lips.


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