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Another Story about a Phone Call, a Photograph, and a Family Bible

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In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, he called the number Lestat had left before he departed for Buenos Ares. The phone was disconnected, but Louis was not particularly surprised; Lestat was a notorious loser of cell phones, and he forgot his bills almost as often as he paid them. He’d realize it a few weeks down the line, but by then it might be too late.

Annoyed at the prospect, but without another alternative, Louis sent a text to Quinn Blackwood. The reply came back promptly: a new phone number and a foreign post office box. There were no awkward solicitous attempts at conversation, no “How have things been?” or “Is it cold on the coast yet?”, and for that Louis was grateful. He had always suspected something disingenuous in Quinn’s politeness, perhaps a mirror of his own unease around the younger man, or simply good old-fashioned Southern passive-aggression.

Louis did the math in his head. The sun would be coming up in Buenos Ares soon, the sky just lightening with the first blue of the morning, but Lestat would still be awake. Perhaps engaged in some last minute business, something too urgent or fascinating to abandon to take a phone call; perhaps he’d already moved on to another number, another place, losing himself in the great porous vastness of the world. Maybe he didn’t give a damn, which seemed to Louis the most likely possibility of all.

He dialed the number quickly, before he could change his mind.

Lestat picked up on the third ring. His voice had a tinny, far-away quality. “Yes?”

He said it in English, but Louis replied French. They’d always spoken French when they were alone. “C’est moi.”

There was a pause, a moment of un-recognition, and then Lestat said, “Louis? It’s late…”

“I know.” He let it take shape in his mind, the image of Lestat rising, his white linen shirt undone at the neck; of him pulling back the corner of the heavy curtains, already drawn in anticipation of the day. The pre-dawn glow catching him just so, like bruises stamped across his face.

Louis touched his fingertips to his lips, and was surprised by how cold they were. “I needed to talk to you about the properties in Nouvelle Orleans.”

“Damn it,” Lestat said. “They’re flooded, aren’t they?”

“No, actually, they’re all fine. But I’m getting rid of them.”

There was a curious silence on the other end of the line. He couldn’t even hear Lestat’s breathing, the movement of saliva in his mouth, all the unsettling too-intimate sounds that he noticed now even when he wasn’t listening for them. They reduced the great scope of the world to a series of moments, microcosms.

“I’ve donated most of them to the city and the Historical Society already,” he went on. “There’s only the townhouse on the Rue Royale left. If there’s anything there that you want, you should come back soon and get it.”

Louis didn’t know when he had moved, but he was perched on the edge of his chair now in an attitude of predation. His senses were strained; his heart was like a bell in his breast, and the wale of his corduroy pants felt like tread beneath his hand.

“There’s nothing there,” Lestat said at last. “There hasn’t been anything of ours there in years. The properties are yours, Louis. You don’t have to get my permission.”

“I thought you should know.”

“And now I do. Thank you.”

“Lestat…”

“The sun’s coming up. I have to go.”

“I’ll be there, Lestat. I’m driving out tomorrow.”

And he knew that Lestat had heard him, because there was a moment of silence before the click on the other end of the line that swept them apart again. Louis lowered the phone slowly.

On the desk before him, he had arranged all the deeds and contracts and bills of sale which he had pulled lovingly out of storage earlier that day. His accounting software sat open on his laptop. He’d had them all ready, as if he’d expected Lestat to have questions. As if Lestat weren’t as clueless about the mechanics of business as he was about all the sacred keeps of the past.

Louis paged through a few of the documents, not reading them, only letting the cold practicality of the numbers lull him into a state of comfort.

Talking to Lestat had always been difficult. Their best moments had always been the quiet ones, before logic or excuses or reason kicked in. These days, those moments came with increasing infrequency. It had been months since the last time they’d been alone together, longer still since Louis had felt any of those old passions, those inclinations towards depthless love or boundless hate.

He closed his eyes and again conjured up Lestat’s image. He would be wearing black and white, like he always did. The cuts of his suits varied with the years, and the fabrics changed with the season, but the colors were always the same.

Lestat would have denied it, of course, but he was actually a very conservative person. Louis had known this for centuries, but he had never said anything about it. After his one foray into modern music, Lestat had retreated back into the old familiar realms of the opera and the concerto, never to venture out of them again.

He’d never make it as a sleek and sneering hipster, not with his earnest constitution, Louis mused. But, hell, even Marius owned a copy of The White Album.

For all his love of the new and novel, the hedonistic and the decadent, what Lestat really wanted was a future that would come at the pace he set for it, and a past that wouldn’t fade away until he was utterly prepared to let it go. And Louis knew already that the loss of their old home was going to hurt Lestat in a way that he wouldn’t be able to articulate, and that it might drive him away entirely. Angry, and frightened by his anger.

Louis gathered up the contracts and slipped them back into their file folder. As he returned them to the document safe, it occurred to him, not for the first time, that perhaps Lestat’s sudden departure to South America had been, not an impulsive act, but rather a conscious effort to distance himself from all of them. Maybe he no longer saw a place for himself amidst Armand’s casinos and endless real estate ventures, with Quinn Blackwood’s artistic friends down in Austin, or even in Louis’ immaculate Victorian Row house full of bookshelves and cedar furniture, the kitchen always fully stocked even though no one ever went in there.

If that was the case, then it was too damn bad for him. It wasn’t as if Lestat could really get away from them forever. Their kind had never been very good at hiding from one another, and besides, for all his wanderlust, Lestat had only ever lived in about a dozen different cities. New York, LA, New Orleans, Paris, Berlin, Florence, Tokyo, Rio, Buenos Ares. Maybe up to Helsinki or St. Petersburg to enjoy the long winter nights. He was a creature of dreary habit, though no one would dare tell him that to his face.

The sun was rising. Louis pulled the curtains, blinking against the coming daylight. He planned to leave first thing in the evening tomorrow, eat on the road. Get a hotel in Denver after the first leg, but, if luck was on his side, he could be there by daybreak on the second day.

***

For Louis, driving had always been a fairly underrated pleasure. He didn’t have a taste for sports cars like Lestat did, or luxury sedans like Armand, or classic cars rebuilt from the ground up like Quinn Blackwood; Louis preferred something sensible, something less conspicuous. And he preferred the darkness that pressed him on all sides as he drove; the highway unspooling before him, revealed by degrees in the wedge of yellow light from his headlamps; the most recent playlist that Daniel had made for him; the sudden cheerful oases of small towns and truck stops bellied up to the side of the road.

It was a little after three in the morning on his second night of driving that Louis passed into the New Orleans city limits. The air was damp, and it smelled of the ocean in a way that it hadn’t since he had left San Francisco behind and crossed the great central belt of the country. It was an unpleasant, pungent odor - salt, and wet rot, and dead fish – but Louis realized that he had missed it immensely.

He wasn’t sure what he had expected to find, returning to the place after so long an absence, but it was not this silence. This heartbreaking, pedestrian quiet that seemed to penetrate every street and alleyway. The windows of the houses stood dark; all the shades were drawn. And Louis felt utterly alone, as he did when he visited ruins or very ancient cities.

He parked on the street – no trouble finding a space for once – and took the spare key to the townhouse out of the glove compartment. He knew the place was empty. No one had lived there since the Talamasca had taken it over. They kept the house vacant and sent teams in once in a while to sweep for DNA samples or set up night vision cameras and EMF detectors, but they’d never turned up anything. As far as Louis was concerned, they could keep searching as long as the new owners permitted it; he would be more than satisfied if he and the Talamasca could both continue politely feigning ignorance of each other’s existence.

The inside of the house was dark, but Louis didn’t bother trying any of the lights; he knew the power had been disconnected for a long time. He waited a moment, and his eyes adjusted.

It wasn’t what he’d expected to see. The parlor had been turned into something reminiscent of an archeological site. All the furniture had been moved out. The carpet had been pulled up to reveal the bare floor, which still bore the black marks of the fire that had raged there a century and a half ago. Around these marks, chalk lines had been carefully draw, arrows and abbreviations that Louis did not understand. He gathered that it was an arson investigation of some kind, though; notes on the intensity of the blaze, the direction the flames had taken, where they had encountered an impediment.

On the walls, the paper patterns had been peeled back, each layer tagged with an index card stating the date and the pattern maker. There were more chalk lines on the walls where the scorched beams showed through.

Louis scowled. He didn’t like it, this reduction of his life to so many artifacts and curiosities. In a moment of petty irritation, he hoped that the new owners turned the place into a Starbucks.

He went on into the rear of the house. The damage was less back here; the carpet was still in place, and even some of the old furniture. In every room was the same bisecting of the wallpaper, and in the bathroom the hammered silver fixtures were dated, too. Claudia’s boudoir was hung with video cameras attached to motion sensors. Louis’ keen eyes detected them from out in the hall, and he didn’t go in.

He went, instead, a little further down, to the narrow interior room that had once served as his study. He’d kept a secret safe there, concealed behind the molding that crowned the fireplace. He wasn’t surprised to see that section of the plaster carefully removed, set aside in the corner of the room with a card taped to it stating its age. The combination to the safe was written on a piece of masking tape above the dial.

Louis expected the safe would have been emptied long ago, but when he opened it he found its contents riffled but intact. The wallet full of bills, the travelling papers under false names (nine in all; three for each of them), the brittle envelopes full of documents and letters. Underneath them all, the family Bible with its accumulation of names inside the front cover: branching out, flourishing, and then abruptly coming to an end.

Some of these things he’d known were here; others, he had forgotten entirely. Louis pulled everything out of the safe, and, lacking a proper desk, spread it out on the floor. He began to leaf through it, separating the old legal and banking documents from the personal ones, marveling at the immaculately forged signatures on the travelling papers, at the lavish penmanship of his letters. No, he didn’t write like that anymore. He wondered when he’d lost the talent for it.

He ran his hand down the inside cover of the Bible, attaching names to faces, to stories older even than he was. On impulse, he took the pen from his breast pocket and filled in the names of his sister’s husband and children, then of their descendants. Then he realized he could go no further, and, deeply shaken, he set the Bible aside.

It was as he was going through one of the packets of letters that a small brown folder tumbled out. It was bound in cloth and tied with a yellow silk ribbon, and Louis didn’t recognize it at all. He slipped the ribbon off and opened it. A sheet of delicate rice paper lay just inside the front cover, and once he had removed that he saw that it had been placed there to protect a stack of portraits.

The first took his breath away. It was a watercolor miniature of two young men, dressed in the style of the late 1700s. The seated one was blond, lithe; he seemed barely able to suppress a smile out of respect for the somber nature of eighteenth century portraiture. The one who stood behind his chair was a little darker, a little more somber, a little more serious.

Louis was embarrassed. For a moment, he had not recognized his own face.

He turned the picture over; the date penciled on the back said 1791. It was the year they had met. Which of them had commissioned this picture? He could no longer remember. Nor could he remember why he had sat for it. Was it to commemorate a new friendship, or a business partnership?

Louis set the portrait aside; beneath it was another similar to it, this one dated 1792. Beneath that was another that read 1793, and another after that, which seemed at first to not have a date, but then Louis found the faded and smudged pencil marks in the upper corner: 1794.

The style was a little different, indicating that each successive portrait had been painted by a different artist. Little details were altered: the color of a ribbon, the molding of a hand, the angle of a hat; but they were the same men. He flipped through the stack of pictures, watching the older cuts of clothing and hair give way to newer, but the faces never changed. There was always his own timid, slightly pained expression, and Lestat’s distantly amused half-smile.

After a while, Claudia began to appear in the pictures with them, a small pillar of white silk there by their black-clad legs. Soon after that, the painted miniatures became still photographs. The first few were black and distorted, ruined by time, and Louis could barely make out anything but the ghostly shapes of two men and a girl, but soon after that the images became clear again.

He could see his own face once more, only now his lips seemed even more twisted, his eyes even duller, his gaze perpetually downcast. Perhaps the photographs captured something the painter couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or maybe he had simply begun to grow weary. At last, Louis turned the stack over to the last picture, a sepia-toned photo dated to 1861. This one had come through quite clearly, and the immobility of Lestat’s uplifted left hand sent a strange shock of pain through him. His elbow was crooked on the arm of the chair, his wrist loose, as though at any moment he would flick it dismissively. As if at any moment, he would come to life.

At his side, Claudia was a mass of ringlets and ribbons so dense that at first the unnerving cunning expression on her face wasn’t apparent. She, too, had a strange life to her that suggested a soul, once, behind the face in the photograph.

Louis could not say the same of himself. Standing there behind the armchair, he seemed little more than a charcoal sketch upon a white wall. His lips were a horizontal line, with neither an upward nor downward tilt in their corners. His eyes were like glass eyes; his hair like horsehair.

He lifted the photograph so he could see it better, but as he held it before his face a sudden languor seized his limbs. His fingers uncurled and the photograph fluttered down to the carpet. Louis tried to look at the time on his phone, but his eyes refused to focus. He knew already, though, the sun was rising.

The study had no windows; the front door was locked. He knew that he was safe here, but still he felt a growing horror. He had never slept out in the open before, and it seemed to him a terrifying prospect. Yet even now his sight was dimming; he could no longer see the walls of the study.

Louis pushed himself back, around to the west side of the fireplace, and with that great marble slab between his back and the rising sun he felt the tension flowing out of him. Yes, yes, to sleep here, amidst all the ghosts of the living, and the phantoms of the dead…

***

As he came slowly awake the next evening, Louis was keenly aware that he was being watched. It frightened him at first, then merely annoyed him, but by the time the last of torpor shook loose from his limbs and he could open his eyes, he knew that all was well.

Louis turned his head so his cheek lay against the cool marble of the fireplace. Lestat was stretched out on his stomach on the floor, his chin resting on his folded arms and his legs bent upward at the knees. His ankles were crossed, and he swung his feet a little. When their eyes met, his lips curled into a smile.

“How long have you been there?” Louis asked groggily. He tried to suppress a smile of his own, but had little luck with it.

“Just a few minutes.”

He bounded to his feet and offered Louis a hand. Hesitant, as if expecting some trickery, Louis took it, and Lestat hauled him up. Forward then, and into his arms, and Louis did not know if Lestat had pulled him there, or if he had closed the gap between them himself. But he was here now, feeling the shape of Lestat’s body through his clothes, that cold cheek against his. Lestat had no scent of his own, but there was the faint smell of detergent clinging to his clothes, the musk of cured leather exhaled from his belt and his wallet and his shoes.

Their lips were close now, but it seemed to Louis their very closeness was an illusion, and if he attempted a kiss he would find Lestat standing suddenly on the opposite side of an impassible gulf.

Then Lestat kissed him anyway, and Louis felt his heart beat a little faster.

“You must be hungry,” Lestat said, releasing him.

“I’ll live.”

Lestat smiled at him indulgently. He stepped back, his arms sliding away from Louis’ waist, lingering a moment on the points of his hips, as if reluctant to be separated from him. He crouched down amidst the fan of papers that Louis had pulled out of the safe the night before. “What have you found?”

“Just some old things,” Louis replied, making a great attempt to sound careless, and, he knew, probably failing miserably.

He looked at Lestat’s turned back. Inside the unbroken black lines of his suit, it was hard to make out the shape of him; the waves of yellow hair that boiled around his collar only complicated the illusion. Louis tried hard to remember whether or not he had missed Lestat. He was glad to see him now, but he wasn’t sure that was the same thing.

The black of his coat seemed suddenly a blank screen, upon which any manner of illusions might be projected, and Louis caught himself wondering about a world with no vampires in it. He knew that there had been a time when he had been blissfully unaware of their existence, that almost everyone lived in ignorance of them, and yet he could not quite get the premise to stick. No, he was too deeply entrenched in this reality now.

Better to try something simpler: a world where Lestat had never been turned. That he could manage; that was something he could make sense of. He wondered if they would have met in such a place. It seemed unlikely. There had been Lestat’s prospects in France, Louis’ own vices, his reticence, Lestat’s poverty… And yet, how insignificant all these obstacles appeared. How inevitable their coming together seemed.

Something like fate, Louis thought, if one was to believe in such a thing. But then again, from this vantage point, belief came easily.

He let the images come as they would. An evening – no, no, a sunny afternoon – when they first chanced to lay eyes on each other. Lestat would be a little older, Louis reminded himself, perhaps with a few wrinkles showing around his eyes. He would think that his looks were beginning to go, but in truth he was only becoming more distinctive.

Lestat would speak first, and Louis knew that he would stammer, would blush, confused as to what could possibly affect him so. He had known nothing of passion back then, nothing of lust. Lestat would teach him in time; that part, at least, would stay the same.

Eventually, they would make love, Louis thought. Or perhaps they wouldn’t. Louis knew how ignorant he had been of such matters, how likely to mistake even the most insistent of caresses for friendship and nothing more. Lestat would be stubborn, though. And so, maybe… There would be a lot of dead ends, of course. A lot of false starts. They would have to redraw every map, rediscover the ancient knowledge of each other’s bodies without a guide. Then, at last, that sweet thrill. They’d walk around puffed up with pride with weeks. They’d act like they’d invented the damn thing.

He could see further still, could see many years go by the wayside. He and Lestat were old then. They still had the plantation; they lived there together, a pair of venerable old bachelor men. The air smelled of magnolia, and they drank whiskey with beads of cane syrup suspended in it. War was not even a whisper.

They took on a ward. She grew up to be a poet.

But what came after that, Louis could not say. He struggled to think of something, to conjure another vision, but he saw only darkness. It was death, he realized: a mortal death.

Death by sickness, death by accident, death by misadventure, death by consumption, death by fever, death by a weakness of the heart, death by murder. It was so common. More common than love, or prosperity, or shifts of fortune. More common than almost anything, he supposed. And yet it seemed so strange; a very poor ending to what had otherwise been such a nice story.

Lestat glanced over his shoulder then, and tilted his head curiously. “Alas, what have I done to deserve such a look?”

“What look?” Louis murmured, lowering his eyes.

“I don’t know,” Lestat replied, but he winked in a way which indicated Louis should know exactly what he was talking about. Though really, Louis had to admit he had no idea.

Lestat got to his feet and pulled him close once more. He kissed him, and Louis’ lips were slack beneath it. They parted easily. He remembered the Talamasca surveillance cameras, and wondered how many angles they were capturing this from now. He almost pulled away, but he knew Lestat would not allow it.

Louis didn’t know when they had moved, but his back was up against the wall now. Lestat’s hands were buried in his hair, pressing against the sides of his face and tilting it up to his own. Louis could feel his pulse in the big vein on the underside of his tongue, and he liked its steady throbbing.

His legs were parted a little, and one of Lestat’s thighs was bent up between them. It rubbed against his crotch, doing nothing, evincing almost no feeling at all. And yet it was so nice to pretend sometimes. So nice to imagine…

At last, Lestat pulled away. His eyes were closed, Louis realized, and he was ashamed, for he had kept his own open the whole time. He licked his lips, tasting blood where Lestat’s teeth had cut him. He didn’t mind.

“I missed you, too,” he whispered. Lestat did not open his eyes, but his mouth quirked into a smile.

Louis lifted a lock of Lestat’s hair. He tucked it behind his ear, but it fell almost at once back into disarray. “I want to burn all of these things,” he said.

Lestat cracked one eye open and scrutinized his face. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Lestat did not protest, did not even try to question him. He only breathed a little sigh and then knelt down again and began to gather up the papers. Together, they tossed everything in the fireplace. Louis pulled apart the Bible; its brittle old pages coming loose easily in his hands. He touched a match to the edge of the pile, and watched the fire blaze up. It burned spectacularly, but only for a moment. The flames died away quickly, and in the last moments before they sputtered out, they turned bright green, the color of burning ink.

Louis stirred the ashes with his boot until he was certain that everything had been consumed. When he looked at Lestat, he saw that he was watching him with an eager, curious expression. As if he wanted nothing more than to ask what had just happened, like it was killing him to not ask…

“I’ll tell you about it someday,” Louis said. “I promise.”

He slipped an arm around Lestat’s waist, and they went out together. And Louis was so grateful, so hopelessly, helplessly, overwhelmingly glad, that he almost forgot to drop the key back through the mail slot as he left.

~ The End