Natalie strode into Nick's cavernous loft, her heels clacking across the concrete floor. He had not answered her phone call nor her buzz from his elevator entryway, so she had climbed the stairs above the vacant warehouse and used the key he had only last week entrusted to her for emergencies. Seeing him safely home now, she supposed this was not an emergency after all. Her worry turned to frustration.
"So what's this all about, Nick? Your third night on the job, and you split like a banana in the middle of an investigation." Natalie tossed her coat down on his stuffed-leather chair and folded her arms as she glared at him. Dressed in the same black slacks and white dress shirt she had seen him in at the precinct earlier that night, he also still wore his leather jacket; apparently, he simply had not bothered to take it off before whatever binge left him sprawled on his sofa, one arm shielding his eyes from the lights she had turned on, surrounded by empty green bottles. Natalie shied from thinking about what he had consumed from those bottles. Would it ever become routine, acquaintance with a vampire? Certainly not if he kept behaving like this. "You went through the motions at that crime scene like a marionette, Detective Knight, then booked off so fast no one realized you'd left until Stonetree had a question on the case and couldn't find you. I don't know how you convinced the captain to let you solo in the first place, but believe me, he's going to stick you with a babysitter of a partner if you pull this again. If he even gives you a chance to pull this again. After everything we did to get you on the force, what were you thinking?"
Nick did not remove his arm from his eyes. "What are you doing here, Nat?"
"What do you think I'm doing?" Natalie resisted an urge to stomp her foot. "I'm checking that you're all right! You frequently do a two-thumbs-up impression of death warmed over, but tonight you looked like death with freezer burn. And then you vanished from your first fresh case in a dramatic puff of zilch!"
"I collared the killer. Witnesses, evidence. Everything was done. Too late for the victim." Nick's deep voice roughened. "I stayed as long as I could."
"But sunrise is still over an hour away," Natalie protested, puzzled. He did not answer. She sighed. "Look, your captain worried about you. So did your dispatcher. So did I. It's something people do, Nick." She took a deep breath and contemplated him for a moment. Then she stepped up and kicked one of the bottles on the ground, just hard enough to roll it into one of its companions with a hollow clink. She had never imagined he would imperil his tenuous new position in homicide for anything so trivial and counterproductive. "This isn't good for you. Do I need to tell you again that it's the blood that keeps you from coming back across? If you want to be human, you have to skip the sport, Nick."
"You can't know what it's like!" He sat up abruptly.
"No, of course not." She oozed sarcasm. "Humans have no desires."
He averted his eyes. "It's not the same thing."
"That's right, it's not the same. But it's not diametrically opposed, either. The only reason I don't know what it's 'like' is that you won't tell me!" Natalie bit her tongue to refrain from mentioning once again how his reticence made her search for his cure unnecessarily hard. In the year she had known him, Nick had seldom volunteered a fact about his vampirism beyond his longing to escape it. She had pried each precious piece of data out of him with the crowbar of her own observations. Still, when he had given her his key last week, she had hoped it marked a turning point in the mutual trust this project demanded.
"You want to know what it's like?" He snorted. "Wanting what the vampire wants, the blood and the hunt?"
"Yes. That's exactly the kind of thing I need to know, if we're going to cure your condition, not just treat its symptoms. And that is our mission statement, isn't it? Find a cure?"
She held his gaze as he searched her eyes. She wondered what he sought. Then he picked up the empty bottles around his feet, setting them upright on the coffee table in compact ranks. Quietly, he said, "I think about it all the time. There's not a night I don't think about it, hardly an hour. Usually, I can push it aside, brush past it on my way to whatever needs doing. But it's never far away. It always comes back. And in a moment when nothing needs doing, it can be irresistible."
Natalie had never imagined such scathing self-derision rolling so softly. She settled on the side of the chair and uncrossed her arms, trying to radiate neutrality as she stored away his words for later analysis.
Nick rose and walked to his tall, faded cactus, its pot on a stool in front of a window open to the night sky. With his back to her, his posture seemed to measure his awareness of her presence. "Sometimes," he continued, reaching out to stroke the smooth shaft of a cactus needle, "it seems to wane after I resist it, dying down a little, like I'm building to an escape over the top. But it's only waiting to ambush me when my guard is down." He withdrew his finger, careful not to prick it, and stared out the window. Natalie could see his bleak expression reflected in the dark glass. "When it gets so bad that I can't sleep, can't think, can't breathe, I reach for the cow blood." He tilted back his head to indicate the bottles on the table, his voice resigned and still so quiet that Natalie strained not to miss a word. "The cow blood doesn't hurt anyone but me. A lesser offense, maybe, though that's no excuse. But it's never enough, because it isn't what I want. It's never enough, and I know it won't be enough, but I drink, and I drink, and I drink until it's gone, and I never for a second think about the cold dead cow blood pouring down my throat." On the dark window, Natalie saw him close his eyes tightly. "I imagine it's human. Hot, alive, aware. Torn from fear. Cozened from lust. Flesh around my fangs, body in my arms, heartbeat pulsing through me, becoming my own for a moment, just a moment—" Suddenly, Nick stopped, sealing his mouth like his eyes, and breathing audibly through his nose. Then he did not breathe at all.
Natalie did not move. She remembered how inhuman Nick had looked as he woke on the autopsy table where she first met him last year, his beastly canines protruding and his monstrous eyes leering yellow as he told her he was something very different from her. She wondered if that were what he restrained now; she wondered why she was not afraid. But she also remembered how humanly he had come to that autopsy table, blown to pieces by a pipe-bomb while heroically stopping a gang robbery. And she recalled how he had crossed the lab to reach the bagged plasma in the cooler then, instead of taking her blood as she bent over him.
Finally, Nick opened his blue eyes and turned to her. Natalie thought his expression now lighter, relieved, if only slightly. She suddenly wondered if Nick had ever yearned to say those words, however appalling, yet had no one to listen. Somewhere, he found a small, apologetic smile, and hung it over his misery. "But that moment never comes, because it's just cow blood, after all, cold and dead and bottled. It's never quite enough, even on the best night. On the worst, it barely takes the edge off. Tonight's... not a good night."
"That crime scene earlier was particularly bloody," Natalie remembered. Sliced jugular. For the first time, she realized how that must affect the vampire in him. Maybe like a smorgasbord. Maybe like foreplay. She suppressed a shudder.
"Yeah." He stared out the window again, slumping against the ledge.
"And, given TOD, the victim died only minutes before you arrived and nabbed the murderer." So the blood was fresh. He nodded, his eyes shadowed. "You couldn't have gotten there any earlier, Nick! You beat the uniformed officers to the scene, and dispatch said they were on the way the second the call came through."
Natalie's eyes narrowed in surmise. "How did you get there so fast?" No answer came. She supposed he had flown; that was another discussion he avoided. Gently, she asked, "Does using its abilities make the vampire stronger? Hungrier?"
Nick started. For a second, surprise opened him to Natalie, and she read his flaring longing to be understood. Then, closed again, distant and despondent, he nodded.
As his coworker, Natalie had discovered why he had left so abruptly, and as his doctor, she had gained new insight into his malady. Those roles fulfilled, she wondered if she should leave. But he had said it was a bad night, and Natalie could see that in his expression and posture as well as in the cadre of empty bottles. "We all stumble, Nick."
"Not like me."
"Maybe. But not entirely unlike you, either. I guess the trick is to live in the spaces between falls, and to push those spaces as far as possible from the inside. It doesn't matter if the next fall is in a minute, or a month, or never to the end of your life. What matters is that it isn't now."
Nick looked at the empty bottles. He radiated self-disgust and despair.
Natalie guessed he was thinking that what was not now had been earlier tonight, and would be again all too soon. She considered praising the fact that it was only bovine, after all, not human, but immediately abandoned that approach, certain he would not appreciate it. Nick expected more of himself, and she could only admire his ideals. Then she looked around his living space — its high ceilings making it appear weirdly austere, despite the clutter — seeking something in which he could lose himself other than cow blood. Between books, videos, a half-finished painting and a half-disassembled motorcycle, he had seemingly no end of distractions. But none were distracting him. Natalie thought about her own worst nights and days — the losses and letdowns she supposed everyone suffered, but which felt so insurmountable when they landed on her — and recognized that those sorts of things had never helped her, either. What had pushed back the pain was a call, a hug, a visit... the bulwark of human contact.
Natalie had her brother, Richard. And she had friends. She suspected Nick had no one.
She slid off the chair's arm and walked to the phone on the console table behind Nick's couch. "I guess the thing is to not stare back at the last stumble. Really, it's no vampiric monopoly. Haven't you ever heard that to err is human? We all stumble; we all fall. And then we start over again. And again and again and again."
"What are you doing?"
"Ordering a pizza."
"You think I'm going to eat pizza?" he exclaimed, surging out of his slouch and grabbing the fireplace mantle for support.
Now that was distraction! Natalie grinned. "You're certainly welcome to a slice but, no, the pizza's for me. Protein shake or artificial blood for you, your choice." His confused expression led her to momentarily set down the receiver. "I'm not going to leave you to stew alone, Nick. I'm staying right here. We can, uh—" she looked around again, considering then dismissing the chess set, card deck and boxed putting green. "We can watch videos. Have a marathon. So what shall it be to start?" She squinted at the shelf across the room, scanning for titles she recognized.
"Nat... it's not safe for you to stay."
She could hear fear in his voice. She also heard hope. It seemed worth the risk. "Stick Star Wars in your VCR while I negotiate extra cheese, okay?"
— End —