I've resisted the urge to write a Christmas story. It wasn't easy. I managed to omit all the trees and lights but this week's story does have some family themes. Games, drinking, obligations, blood.
Well, it is a family of vampires.
Brown eyes bored into her. Sweat itched a trail between her shoulder blades and prickled the skin at her hairline. “Anything?” Callie asked when she couldn’t stand it anymore.
Rex nodded, finally blinking, heavy eyebrows low and serious.
She sat back in her chair and it skidded a few inches over the tile. “Damn.”
“Yeah, I got all three verses of Hotel California. You couldn’t pick a good song?”
She stared at him; not realizing her mouth was open, then she straightened and kicked him under the table. “Asshole. It’s like you’re trying to wind me up first.”
He pushed his chair back and held out his hand.
It was rough and colder than hers. Despite her height her head fit neatly under his chin when she stood.
“You could just stay home. We’ll unplug the phone,” he said.
She pressed an ear to his chest, arms tucked around his waist, and enjoyed the silence trapped between them. “Pretend we lost our cell phones too and don’t answer the door?”
“Exactly.” He squeezed her too tight.
She turned her head and rubbed her pointed chin against the center of his chest until he stepped back. “You know I can’t.”
“But you’re tired and you’re nervous.” He frowned and rubbed his chest.
Her eyes narrowed and her hands went to her hips. “You said you couldn’t read my thoughts.”
He rolled his eyes. “I can smell you sweating and your eyes are puffy.”
She touched the skin under one eye. “But you can’t read-”
“Just that damn song,” he nodded, dark hair falling into his eyes.
Her eyebrows rose. “You’d rather I memorized that one about drugs and sex?”
He smiled, his sharp teeth glinted in the low light. “That would throw the old woman off.”
She slapped his stomach with the back of her hand hard enough to sting. “Respect.”
He snorted through his thin nose. “What she has you doing is dangerous and frankly ridiculous. I’ll start respecting the old bat when she starts respecting you.”
She closed the space between them and put both hands on his waist, rubbing soothingly through his thin sweater. “It’s keeping her alive and she’s too proud to take more,” she bit the side of her tongue just enough to feel her own teeth. “You wouldn’t want me to go back on my word?”
He stared at her for a long moment, eyes hard in his thin face. Then he sighed and touched his forehead to hers. “You fight dirty.”
She smiled a smile she didn’t feel. “I do. And I need to go.”
His wiry arms were steel around her. “What about me? Can you feel anything?”
She looked into his eyes again and reached out to touch his consciousness, bright and swirling. He really was worried. And thirsty. And tired. “Pretty clear,” she said, careful as always, to shield her deeper thoughts. Rex was always an easy read but she would be the last one to tell him.
He took her hands and kissed her knuckles where the veins showed bluest. “Call if you can’t drive.”
“We’ve been working on this for weeks. I’ll be able to drive,” she said, irritated by his obvious doubt.
He held up both hands. “Eternal pessimist.”
“Eternal something,” she agreed and kissed his cheek. “I’ll call when I’m done.”
She shook off Rex’s worries, the too bright sun through her tinted windows, everything but her eyes on the road and the steady lyrics running in her mind. Her concentration was iron until she pulled into the large covered drive, the castle looming over her, casting shadows on shadows. “Maybe a song about involuntary captivity wasn’t a great idea.” She sighed shakily when the valet opened her door. She accepted his hand and followed the familiar shaded path, over the gravel, up the stone steps.
“Miss Calandra,” Jacob, the day butler said, taking her coat and gloves.
“Is everything ready?” she asked, her eyes adjusting to the dark interior with relief.
He nodded. “Nurse Winard is waiting for you.”
He said the nurse’s name with a casual expression that Callie couldn’t match as she walked down the hall. She was sweating again. The lab was at the far end of the east wing, opposite the forest, as far away from the gardens as it was possible to be. To keep the smell downwind from the rest of the house.
“Callie, you’re early,” Doreen said brightly, not turning from her hunched position over the lab bench in the corner.
Callie closed her eyes at the scent of blood and rubbing alcohol that permeated everything in the room. “I thought a little recovery time might help,” she said, sitting on the edge of the heavily padded draw chair.
Doreen laughed, shoulders shaking under her starched lab coat. “Worth a shot I guess.”
Callie stuck her tongue out at the nurse’s back. “You’re as bad as Rex.”
“Oh no. I think you’ll beat her one day,” Doreen said. She shut down her microscope and started the centrifuge next to it.
The sound made Callie’s shoulders lift an inch. It was supposed to cover a much worse sound, but she’d learned to associate the steady hum of the machine with needles. “I could win today, you know,” she said, surprised when her voice didn’t waver.
“We could do a practice hand if you want,” Doreen offered, and patted Callie’s shoulder with a gloved hand that left a stink of latex in the air.
Callie laughed tightly. “No deal. I’m not about to go in two pints down, I know who you practice with.”
“Practice with, get regularly slaughtered by, whatever you want to call it,” the nurse agreed. The alcohol on the swab she dabbed over the crook of Callie’s arm cut across the smell of latex. “You know I don’t play your kind of stakes anyway.”
Callie turned her head to avoid seeing the needle. “I’m not giving you my money either.” She bit her tongue hard as the needle went in. She tasted blood and ran her tongue along the roof of her mouth to push the hot liquid back so she could swallow it. She felt the tubing jerk the needle as it was attached.
“Ok, twenty-five minutes,” Doreen said and patted her shoulder again.
Callie waited until she heard the snap of the gloves coming off to look at her arm. The needle was taped down and the sluggish blood was burgundy in the tubing that led to the bag. “Can I get herbivore?” she asked over the audible rush of blood leaving her body.
“We got a good draft off one of the deer this morning, still in the warmer,” Doreen said, thumbing through the tags on the side of the storage unit.
“Sounds fine,” Callie said. She flexed her tongue, which was tingled as it healed. She reached out and touched the nurse’s mind. She was surprised to find Doreen salivating over the phantom taste of deer blood, humming in her head, until she realized it was her own thoughts reflected back at herself. Callie swallowed, watching the nurse pour the blood with a new kind of nervousness.
Doreen turned with her usual smile, her pink fingers around the glass. “Here you go.”
Callie took the warm glass in her free hand and sipped it, trying again, just lightly reaching out. She saw her own nervousness, felt the taste of the rich deer blood doubled up on her tongue. “Who taught you to block?” she asked.
Doreen blinked in surprise then smiled, blunt teeth making a neat white line. “Oh, I totally forgot I was. Mrs. Pomeroy was showing me. Am I any good?”
“You got me,” Callie admitted, taking another gulp of blood with no pleasure. If a human could block her out so easily she was losing her edge.
“If you’re so far gone we could always play cash stakes,” a clear high voice said from the doorway.
Callie jerked in the chair, jarred her tubing and winced. “You’re not supposed to be downstairs.”
The skeletally thin woman leant white knuckled on her cane and raised both dark eyebrows until the disappeared beneath her hair. “That’s some greeting young lady.”
Callie flushed. “Désolé, grandmaman.”
Her grandmother waved her hand. “English please, you know how I feel about modern French.”
Callie nodded, “A chair, Doreen.” She watched the careful progress of slippered feet and cane across the marble floor. “You’re feeling well today?”
The ancient woman shrugged shoulders as wide and straight as Callie’s. “Well enough to sit with you while this vampire sucks you dry,” she said with a wink at Doreen.
Callie didn’t smile, her face drawn in concern. “Grandma, you know I do it because I want to.”
She received another impatiently waved hand as her grandmother lower herself into the plush chair that looked so out of place in the middle of the lab. “Your Rex doesn’t want you to,” the old woman said, one long finger tapping the carved ivory top of the cane.
Callie couldn’t deny that. “If his brother needed his blood-”
“He would donate every day, I’m sure, and that idiot brother of his would let him,” the older woman agreed and watched Doreen’s progress across the room until the door shut behind her. “If your sisters helped…” she trailed off with a wistful look.
Callie didn’t sigh but she did take a long drink from her glass and rolled the rich blood around in her mouth before she swallowed. “I make sure you get what you need, don’t I?”
The imperious brown eyes softened, her grandmother nodded and covered her hand with a thinner colder one. “You take good care of me,” she agreed.
“But?” Callie asked, turning her hand to hold the fragile fingers.
“We don’t have to play.”
Callie felt her breath rush out of her when her grandmother wouldn’t meet her eyes. Her grip tightened. “We’ll play.”
Her grandmother regarded her from beneath her white lashes. “It takes so much out of you.”
Callie huffed, indignant. “It might take something out of you one of these days.”
They stared at each other before Callie shrugged ruefully and her grandmother smiled. “One day you’ll win, I’m sure. But for now I don’t know.”
Callie didn’t roll her eyes; she didn’t even dare think it. They had had this argument before, about the blood, about how much her grandmother really needed. “We’ll change the stakes. If,” she held up her glass, “I come in three times a week.”
The old woman’s eyes went wide and wet. She skimmed a finger under each eye before a tear could form. “You’re so busy,” she said, a distinct waver in her voice.
“Grandma, go set up the damn cards,” Callie said with a snap of command.
Her grandmother’s spine stiffened so suddenly Callie was sure she was going to get slapped. Instead the older woman levered her cane under her and heaved to her feet in one fast motion. She swayed but kept her balance with a firm grip on the cane. She nodded, a hint of a smile at her lips before she turned away. “Half an hour. Get some control of those thoughts if you plan on winning.”
Callie sighed when the door shut. She finished her blood and leaned her head back to stare at the chandelier above her. There was no doubt it would be easier on her, donating a single pint three times a week. It wouldn’t feel like a real game though, if they didn’t play for that second or third pint. Only humans played for money. “At least you won’t have to throw anymore games,” she murmured with a small smile.