“Before the Blood” by T.D. Edge
Still, the blood-driven memories rip through my mind; so I leave the bed, put on my one set of Earth clothes and go down to the hotel bar.
This late, just a handful of people sit in the generic pine chairs, conversations punctuated by the occasional yelp of alcohol-fuelled insistence. I wonder again if I should have taken this extra night here, with my blood driving so hard at me. But I want to re-acclimatize, at least a little, before I see her again.
I sit on a high stool at the counter and wait for the barman to notice me. As he taps the keys on his cash register, my blood, without asking my permission, runs a scan over his blood map, preparing to adapt my voice and body language to his.
He comes over to me, smiling. “What can I get you, sir?” he says.
“Double whiskey with ice, please, mate, and can I buy you one?” I say, trying not to laugh at the fact my blood could’ve taken a rest, because his accent is familiar to me anyway, being the same as the one I’d actually grown up with. Of course, this only triggers my blood to again take me back in time, keen to feast on previously blocked personal material.
So, in the moment before the barman replies, I experience once more the sweet, slightly sickly odor of unwashed hair, mud-crusted vegetables wrapped in newspaper in the greengrocer’s shop, the teeth-gritting irritation of nylon bed sheets catching in my toe nails . . .
“Cheers, don’t mind if I do,” the barman says, relaxing around my Essex accent.
He pours himself a whisky, puts the two drinks on the counter. He looks to be in his late twenties — short, gelled hair, dressed in black jacket, white shirt, and bow tie. My blood, reading his, thrusts into my mind images of a red Volkswagen Golf, a fading old lady in a cancer ward, a young boy, singing, holding a West Ham United scarf above his head — with effort, I cut them off.
“You from round here?” he says.
“Originally,” I say. “But I haven’t been back since the late ‘60s.”
His gaze flicks to the other guests, sees they’re not likely to need drinks for a while. “Where have you been?” he says.
“Everywhere. I was a hit man, an assassin.”
His eyes twinkle. “Yeah, sure. You don’t exactly have that East End gangster look about you.”
“They kidnapped me, actually, made me work across a thousand inhabited planets. Wired me in to a ship, my veins full of blood that can change my appearance, that can read other people’s blood, so my hits never saw me coming.”
He shakes his head, smiles. “I thought you looked more like a bleedin’ writer than a villain. You into all that science-fiction shit? I ain’t a fan but I’ve read a few Star Wars novels, and I quite fancy Doctor Who‘s new bit on the side.”
“No really — it’s not just Essex I’ve been away from for nearly forty years, it’s the entire soddin’ Earth.”
“Okay, okay. So, what was your last memory here before they turned you into Luke Skyfuckingwalker?”
“The girl, of course. She was thirteen, I was two years older. She was my best mate’s sister, but he was at his grandmother’s that night.”
“Was she pretty?”
“No, mate, she was beautiful.”
I stood in the Thompsons’ hallway, at the bottom of the stairs, Mr. Thompson smoking in the front garden.
“You coming?” I shouted up to Laura, guessing she was probably staring goopy-eyed at her damn Monkees poster again.
She didn’t reply and I was about to shout again when she appeared at the top of the stairs, paused, smiled.
She wore a white dress, fashionably short, white tights, white shoes. Her black hair shone, hanging unrestrained just above her shoulders. She stepped down the stairs, body turned slightly so her posture remained graceful. As she passed, she glanced sideways at me.
I sat between her and Mr. Thompson at the amateur theatre group’s show, and while at first we maintained the proper interested expression, Laura and I couldn’t stop laughing at the bad American accents and the corny songs. When the leading man put one foot up on a shaky hay bale, slapped his thigh at the “Oke” in “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oke-lahoma!” we had to bite our fingers, eyes streaming, laughing even harder at Mr. T’s twitching lips in his unconvincing straight face.
On the way home, Mr. Thompson sang the highlights for us, slapping his thigh, singing, “Oh-oh-oh-oh-ouch-lahoma!” Laura, walking next to me, slipped her hand into my coat pocket, to hold mine, the tender intimacy of her touch almost too much to bear. This was the second signal to them of my readiness. The first, of course, was when my breathing had stopped at the sight of her at the top of the stairs.
The third occurred about half an hour later. Laura and I stood in the porch of her house, a summer moon silvering the rose bushes.
“I had a really nice time,” she said.
“See you, then.”
“Yeah, see you.”
The beat of my heart seemed to drown out my consciousness, but I managed to make my head do the right thing, which was to lean toward her. Incredibly, magically, she closed her eyes and leaned her head too. Just before I closed my own eyes, I felt the wet touch of her lips on mine, then I disappeared.
“And you ain’t seen her since back then?” says the barman. “Oh, sorry, I forgot: you bin slitting the throats of little green men all this time.”
“I’m aiming to see her tomorrow.”
“But she must be married with kids and shacked up God knows where by now.”
I let my blood remind me. “Actually,” I say, “she’s lived in her parents’ old house since they died a few years back, just round the corner from here. She’s divorced and her kids are grown up with their own families.”
He frowns and I realize I’ve said too much. It had been simple enough to let my blood rummage Earth’s electronic records for this information — minus any images, that is, since I didn’t want to see her before…well, before I saw her — but for a normal citizen to gather this kind of information must appear a little freaky.
“I phoned my old mate, Jim, her brother,” I say, and he nods, relieved. “Made him promise not to tell her, before I . . . ”
In fact, I’d learned that Jim now lives in Canada, but there’s no time to contact him anyway. I only have about another day left before my blood finally claims me.
“So, it’s a big day for you tomorrow,” the barman says, straightening, needing to attend to the guest who’s appeared at the bar a few feet away.
“The biggest,” I say. “Thanks for listening.”
He smiles, gaze connecting across the years and the universe between us, dreaming perhaps about his own first moment with a girl. “No problems, mate — good luck!” he says.
I finish the drink, return to my room and the now rampant blood dreams.
It wasn’t always slitting throats, in fact; there were explosions, too, and poisons and lasers. All the time, my blood became quicker and cleverer, and I struggled more to keep back its dark tide of driving purpose. I hadn’t been told so — my masters thereby keeping alive my hope to be released long before — but forty years was the limit of my usefulness and my resistance. Reaching it, they finally let me go, with three parting gifts.
The next evening, I send the ship over her roof, invisible, to land in the back garden, then walk to the front door, heart thumping. It is a summer’s night, and the garden thrums with white roses. The house itself looks more modern, with clean, white-edged, double-glazing where there used to be thick blue paint — yet it also still glows with Thompson family vibes. My blood tells me she is home and it wants to tell me much more but I block it.
Then I knock and wait a lifetime in the twenty seconds or so before she opens the door.
Blood screams in me, desperate to assess and read and analyze, to tell me all about her life, to find her strengths and, particularly, her weaknesses. But she is not a target and I refuse its information.
Instead, I quickly take in the deeply freckled face, the angled lines around the eyes, the brown gaze showing, I am pleased to see, some curiosity and the beginnings of cognizance, along with understandable caution.
“Who are you — oh, my God!”
I nod. “It’s David,” I say, then, rather pointlessly: “I’ve been away.”
She opens the door wide to reveal a mature woman’s full breasts and thickish waist. She’s dressed in black trousers and a blue cotton blouse. She puts a hand to her cheek, shaking her head. “We thought you were dead.”
“Can I come in?”
She steps aside. “Of course — can I get you something to drink? This is just so weird.”
We sit in her living room, a mixture of cool grace and personal warmth — framed family pictures on the mantelpiece, a few soft toy animals on the sofa — and she tells me all about my disappearance. The police had searched everywhere, posters had been up all over town, but no one found a clue and, although she didn’t say it, eventually I was all but forgotten.
“Did you see me go? I mean, did I just disappear?”
She shakes her head. “It was strange — as you started to kiss me, suddenly there was nothing and I fainted, fell on to the porch. Dad found me a few minutes later, and by then you’d gone.”
I put down my coffee mug and stand. “I need to show you something,” I say.
I open the French doors to the garden and we go outside. When we’re on the lawn, I take her elbow gently, flick a mental command into my blood, and the spherical outline of the ship slips into view.
“Bloody hell,” she says, and I wait for her shock to pass, acutely aware it may not do so; that she may simply block out the amazing new reality I’ve faced her with. But it is less than fifteen seconds before she turns to me, determined. “Show me,” she says.
I lead her inside and we sit together while I take the ship up a few hundred yards, invisible to anyone below. I let some of the controls drift into view, so she can see this is technology, not magic.
She says nothing as I take us down again, and remains quiet until we return to the living room. Then she says, “Why were you taken?”
“It was as much when as why.” Time is running out, my blood pounding at me. “They have a kind of galactic police force — individuals who are connected to a ship through their blood: enhanced blood.”
I don’t say they only take those who are alien to them, because they would never be so cruel as to connect one of their own.
“But why you?”
“They like people who are open to new things, whose blood hasn’t yet thickened to their home world. Back in the ‘60s, here on Earth, young people had never been so open, and that night we went to the musical — ”
“Oh, David, they took your life.”
“Yes, and my first moment of being completely open to another person, too, when my blood was wide open. They filled it with tiny machines that can change my body according to present needs, and connect my thoughts with a semi-living ship.”
Her gaze is both distant and tender. “You must have seen some amazing things,” she says. I know she is holding back from asking what I actually did.
“And why didn’t you come back before?” she says.
“They program our blood and ship to prevent it.”
“So why now?”
“Let’s just say they’ve allowed me this trip as a retirement gift.”
I tell her more as the night wears on. I don’t want to actually say I haven’t met another human in forty years, and so have never had a relationship, but I suspect she guesses as much, and am grateful she doesn’t question me about it.
Of course, she’s changed in many ways, and yet the same individuality fills the determined set of her shoulders and the way she swings her head to get the black hair out of her eyes.
We drink wine and she tells me about her life, her children, and her divorce, and finally the time comes when she has to ask me, “So, why did you come back here, David?” — meaning, of course, why did I come back to her.
And so it is time to tell her about the agency’s second gift to me.
“Did you ever wonder — ?” I begin, and her face lights up as she anticipates my question.
“Of course I did! Why do you think I put on my party dress and make-up? Then, just as I started to get my first proper kiss, you only go and get abducted by aliens. They never prepared me for that in Jackie magazine’s problem page.”
“I mean, did you ever wonder what would have happened afterwards?”
She glances around, at her world. “We were kids,” she says. “And, anyway, my parents would never have let us get together — you know that, don’t you?”
I do, but hearing it still hurts. My folks lived in the poorer part of town and while her parents treated me like one of their own, it was on the unspoken condition that I didn’t actually become one of their own. “I guess I was okay as a friend but not good enough for the family, right?”
“Yes, but Dad really loved you. He was never the same after you disappeared. And Mum shed a lot of tears — we all did.”
“We’d have fought for it, though, wouldn’t we? You and I?”
She holds my gaze. “Look what happened to us,” she says. “You went around the universe while I stayed here in Essex.”
“But I didn’t have a choice.”
“You’d have gone off somewhere, anyway. You always had a restless spirit — isn’t that how they were able to take you?”
I stand, take two small glass bottles from my pocket and hold them up.
“Laura — the liquid in these bottles will give us back that moment. It’ll clean our blood maps so we can have our first time again. This is the agency’s gift to me: to put back what they took all those years ago.”
She stands, walks to me, takes the bottles from my hand, puts them on the coffee table, shakes her head.
“I don’t believe them,” she says, “no potion can do that. And even if it could, I’m not going to take it.”
I feel forty years of defiance crumble, my eyes filling with tears.
“Kiss me,” she says. “Now, here, as I am.”
I lean forward, she does, too; we close our eyes and her lips join mine, and never before have I felt such complete, uncomplicated joy. I put my arms around her and she holds me, too. Her mouth and mine seem to be the same mouth, so I hope the flaring of my nerves is what she feels too.
Eventually, we pull slowly apart. We sit on the sofa and I put my arm around her shoulders, feeling immense pride at the weight of her head against my chin, the clean smell of her hair.
And yet I know it isn’t the same and never will be. Of course, she knows it too.
We watch the moon through the French windows and I don’t tell her about the third gift, the one they said I wouldn’t need.
I’d hoped that mutual love would over-print my blood, but now there is nothing to stop it completely subsuming my essential self; after which it will grow its own identity, perhaps even find ways to replicate itself in other Earth bodies, thereby fulfilling the eternal dream of all sentient things, which is to exist forever.
And yet, in the end I have my human instinct to tell me that this is a lie the agency makes to the blood; in fact, the machines will soon run down, decay, and eventually be replaced by my ordinary blood, all evidence of their existence gone. Still, I’ll never be free of their memories, forever poisoning my own with the hundreds of crimes I committed.
I’ll tell her that I’m leaving for a friendly planet to retire on. But when she sees that flash of light at the top of the night, it won’t in fact be the interstellar engines firing, it will be the agency’s final gift: the only possible final cleansing of my blood, and of me.
My last dream will be of her kiss.
|T. D. Edge won a Cadbury’s fiction competition at age 10, but only did it for the chocolate. His short fiction has appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Arc, Realms of Fantasy, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Flash Fiction Online. Terry has been a street theater performer, props maker for the Welsh National Opera, sign writer, soft toy salesman, and professional palm-reader. More information at: www.td-edge.com.|