Chapter 8 – Old faces, new lives
Gran looked at me the way she did the first time I’d mistakenly spoken out loud what someone had thought to themselves.
“I’m sorry, dearie; I think you have me mistaken for someone else.”
Claude tugged my arm and pulled me to his side. “We’re sorry, she caught a little of the sun yesterday and hasn’t quite recovered yet.”
I just nodded lamely while scrutinising every wrinkle, every pore and every wisp of hair that had fallen out of the bun at the back of her head and drifted to frame her face under her the long scarf she had wrapped over her head and around her neck. I definitely couldn’t remember her looking this old. She was wondering why she hadn’t seen us around these parts before. She was also thinking we both looked like we could use a good meal.
“I see.” Gran continued to look at us oddly. “Are you waiting for someone?”
Thinking quicker than I considered myself able to, I answered her. “No ma’am, we just got dropped off from the Tampa Network. We don’t know anyone here and we don’t know where we’re going … we’re lost, pretty much.”
Claude nudged me and hissed in my ear. “You’re taking a very big gamble, cousin.”
I shushed him and smiled back at Gran; she was nodding and thinking about lost souls. I felt a little bad that I was hoping that Gran in this universe would still have the desire to help people as she did in my universe. A car horn sounded outside the building and Gran came closer to us.
“Well, my ride is here.” She unwound the scarf from her head and neck to reveal a reverend’s dog collar. “Are you kids willing to put your trust in God?”
We both nodded without hesitation and picked up our bags. She walked in front of us, leading us to a station wagon with blacked out windows and opened the trunk for us to put our bags inside. The sun was barely up and I could feel the discomfort of it against my skin. I had a vague thought that this Universe had turned everyone into Vampires – where daylight was concerned anyway. Me and Claude piled into the back of the station wagon as Gran got in the passenger side. Our driver was a weather-beaten old man with an easy smile and a curious eye.
“Well hello!” He greeted us happily before nodding to Gran. “I see you’ve been picking up more strays. Adele, honey, if our flock gets any bigger we’ll need a tunnelling machine!”
Before we had the chance to question what he meant, the car jerked into motion and sped down the dusty roads. The windows were tinted so dark it would be impossible to drive at night but I figured those kind of questions could wait a while. As we bounced over the bumps in the road, Gran turned back to look at me and Claude.
“How rude of me, I didn’t even introduce myself! I’m Reverend Adele Mackie and this is my husband, John.”
“I’m Sookie Stackhouse, thank you so much for offering to help us out.” I smiled and gave Claude a soft kick with my foot.
“And I’m Claude Crane. We really appreciate your assistance.”
I shrugged mentally, it was better than Claude could usually bring himself to say, but nowhere near as thoughtful as he’d been at other points in our ‘Bogus Journey’. Bill and Ted we weren’t, although a guide like Rufus as we hopped around parallel universes would have been great! We sat quietly as Adele talked about her trip to Dothan and how much they were charging for supplies. If anything it confirmed that they still used money to buy things in this universe, even better was that they still used dollars. Not that either me or Claude had any of those. We hadn’t been driving long when the landscape took on a different appearance. The ground looked dry as a bone and there were small buildings amongst piles of rubble. It reminded me of when the news would show footage of Beirut or Iraq. Dust and destruction as far as the eye could see.
John passed a large, hand painted sign that stated we should travel straight ahead for The Church of the Cherished Lord. Not five minutes after that, we were pulling into a large carport – or a small hanger. I guess it depended on your point of view. It was open at either end but there were a few other cars parked there and the shade that it offered was very welcome. When we got out of the car, I knew Claude was doing the same thing I was – looking around for the church we’d been heading for. All I could see on the side I was looking at was the few cars and some scripture that had been artfully painted around the walls of the parking area.
Claude tapped my shoulder and I turned around to look in the same direction he was, immediately noticing the two large crosses with a hatch between them. Sure enough, John and Adele wandered over and John threw open the hatch. Bags in arms, Adele smiled at us and jerked her head in the direction she was walking.
“What are you waiting for? God welcomes everyone in his house – you don’t need an invitation.”
Claude raised an eyebrow at me and I frowned at him. He might not be a Christian but I certainly was, even if sometimes I wasn’t a very good one. I smiled at Adele; it was so hard not to think of her as Gran. “Thank you for giving us somewhere to shelter from the day, we’ll be out of your hair when the sun goes down.”
She pursed her lips and scowled. “They keep you in the dark in more ways than one out on the Tampa Network. Let’s get you inside and some food in your bellies and I’ll explain why it’s dangerous to go out at night.”
“Um … okay. Some food sounds great right now.”
We followed Adele and John down the stairs and through cinderblock tunnels with other corridors shooting off to the left and right. It was a labyrinth of grey concrete splashed with posters that I never got to have the chance of really looking at. We turned left and right, my eyes desperately searching for signs telling us where we were going or where we had been. I noticed that a lot of the doors had little plaques on them – that would come in useful if we were walking at a speed that let me pause to read them.
John opened a door and stood back smiling at us. “You can toss your bags in the dorm here, they’ll be safe and there’s a shower room through the blue door. When you’re all ready just come back out here and through the door at the end of this corridor – we’ll have some scran ready for you.”
“Scran?” I blinked and looked at Claude, who was just as confused as me, before looking to Adele.
“He means food. John, here, thinks it’s hilarious to throw some of his Grandaddy’s Scottish words around to confuse folks.” She bumped her hip against his and jerked her head toward the direction John had just told us to go. “Come on Joker, you can wear your new ‘Bless the cook’ apron.”
I stood there, watching them walk away. Gran wasn’t Gran, but she was alive and seemed happy as a clam. She was a woman of the cloth with a humorous husband and a purpose in life. Claude called my name as my eyes misted over; I blinked away my emotions and turned to see him walking, naked, into the shower room. Sighing, I went over and put my bag on one of the cots and decided to lie down until he was finished. I must have drifted off to sleep; Claude was shaking me to let me know the shower room was free. Nodding, I pulled a change of clothes out of my backpack. The t-shirt and shorts felt rough after being soaked in seawater and then dried, but they were cleaner than what I had on. I decided to take the clothes I was wearing into the shower with me and rinse them through with some clean water.
We entered a large kitchen area with a huge dining table twenty minutes later. John smiled and waved to us from the stove and Adele looked up from the conversation she was in the middle of with a small girl on her lap.
“Well, hello! Louise, say hello to our visitors – Sookie and Claude.”
“Hi.” Louise said quickly before burying her face in Adele’s shoulder.
“Can you go and spend some time with your Momma, Louise? I need to talk to Sookie and Claude about grown up things.”
Louise nodded and leapt off Adele’s lap, running past us through the door. Adele was smiling and looking in the direction the little girl went in as we sat down at the table. Not knowing what else to say, I decided that our surroundings would make a good ice-breaker.
“This is an interesting church. All these tunnels and rooms and I haven’t even seen the pulpit yet!”
Adele nodded. “Oh it started as a basic church, way back when I was a little girl. My Daddy set up here after the evac – in the little town we passed through. When the bombs got dropped, the world went through so many changes and so many people were praying. People who were strangers at first but once Daddy led them in prayer a few times they looked to him as their religious guide. When the heat got too much and they found a big basement, they converted it into a church.”
I nodded blew out a breath. “And when it got hotter, the basement got bigger.”
“That’s right. We shelter a lot of people here, get government funding for it too. We bring in folks passing through, folks who want to join the commune and folks with nowhere else to go – like you.”
“You mentioned something about it being dangerous to go out at night.” Claude leaned forward and put his elbows on the table. I winced, because it was always one of Gran’s pet hates. Sure enough, she cleared her throat and stared at him until he got the hint and moved them.
“Out on the rigs, they don’t care what happens on the mainland as long as we can supply them with food.” She got up and plucked a couple of posters off the wall and put them in front of us. “This is what the government wants you to believe.”
I frowned a little as I picked one up. Bright, blood red letters proclaimed that we should protect ourselves against Mengeles’ Monstrosities and urged people to report all sightings of possible Nazi Genetic experiments to the authorities. Glancing over at the poster Claude was looking at, I saw much the same theme – Nazi terrorists in the good ol’ US of A. Nazi terrorists who were pasty white with fangs.
Taking a deep breath, I put the poster on the table and turned to Adele. “So this is what the government wants us to believe – but what’s the truth?”
“Smart girl.” She smiled. “People go missing at night here on the mainland. Sometimes bodies get washed up with holes in various parts of their bodies – and not bullet holes. Then there was the time that my Dad went missing and turned up twenty years later, still looking like the forty year old that went out that door – except with fangs and the desire to drink people’s blood.”
Claude and I just looked at each other. Adele leaned back in her chair and regarded us carefully before speaking again.
“That’s not the reaction of people who aren’t aware of the fact that Vampires exist. So, from that, I can deduce that you’re also aware of how to protect yourself against them. It also proves that you’re lying to me about where you’re from. I’ve sheltered a lot of kids who grew up on the Tampa Network and decided come to the mainland to experience new things – their reaction was completely different to yours.”
I sighed and slumped in my chair, Claude nudged me. “It’s your turn to explain, Cousin.”
His blasé attitude about how many times we’d had to repeat our story made me laugh. It was highly inappropriate for me to laugh like that right at that moment, but I just couldn’t help myself. When I was calm, I started our tale and managed to finish it just as a small boy came into the kitchen to ask why the lunch bell hadn’t been rung yet.
The room filled with people as soon as John had pressed a button on the wall to signify that the food was ready. Claude and I were met with curious glances and timid smiles by most and bright, friendly ‘hellos’ by others. I was surprised that a plate of beef casserole was put in front of me, and after we’d held hands and said grace, I dug in heartily. The meat tasted salty but it was better than the chowder we got at the rig. I’d have to ask where they kept animals in this world – there was no way they’d survive out in the open fields.
After we’d all finished eating; John and Adele introduced us to everyone at the table. There were transient people, like me and Claude, and some were regulars to the church who stayed every time they passed through Thomasville. I was more interested in the amount of people that were family though. My greetings got stuck in my throat as Adele pointed out the four children she and John had had and then the six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren they’d been blessed with. Seeing the love and pride shining in her eyes made my crazy smile reappear. It took the world being ruined for my Gran to get the family she always dreamed of having.
The room emptied in a haze of handshakes and kisses on the cheeks. Adele asked us to go and get the map we’d been using so she could help us out; John said he’d get everything ready for us. I wasn’t sure what John would need to be getting ready, but I was neither in the position or emotional state to ask questions. I went back to the dorm with Claude and locked myself in the bathroom for a few minutes to decompress a little. By ‘decompress’ I mean ‘sob like little girl’. I splashed water on my face and calmed myself down before coming back out.
My nostrils were assaulted by the smell of garlic and onions coming from the kitchen and by the time we got to the table, both Claude and my eyes were watering freely. At least it covered up my little pity session. The map was spread out on the table and Adele marvelled at it, it had been a long time since she’d seen a map of America like that. There was a portal about a hundred miles north of where the Church was, but it was off the beaten path when we compared our map to one from this universe.
The general plan was that we’d rest up and try to nap before an early dinner, get some more food inside us and then John would drive us as far as he could in their ‘night time’ car. The portal looked to be maybe ten miles away from the main road but we had no idea if the terrain would allow for John to drive us any closer. I was perfectly fine with this plan – excited, even, but I was very interested in what these people did to avoid Vampire attacks.
I found out how they did that a few hours later. I closed my eyes and tried to pretend I was in a spa, having a mud bath or something, but the smell was too much. Claude looked a little green around the gills at the other end of the big tin bath that was sitting in the kitchen.
“You should stay in here for at least twenty minutes.” Adele spoke as she rubbed sage leaves between her hands and then dipped them in the water.
I felt like a leg of lamb. “And has this worked, before?”
John nodded. “Oh yeah, I take an anti-vamp bath before going out after dark all the time. There have been a couple of incidents where I’ve see things following me but I’ve never been attacked.”
I looked at Claude and wondered if this ‘anti-vamp bath’ would even disguise his fairy scent – if it could then it would be worth keeping in mind. By the time we’d finished marinating and gotten our things together, complete with some bottles of sweet tea and some cured sausages that Adele gave to us, we went back up to the surface. The carport was unlit and I could barely see anything until John switched on a flashlight. The heat of the day hadn’t quite dissipated yet and the air was suffocating. The cover was pulled off of a large vehicle, revealing it to be a big silver truck.
“It’s silver in more ways than one.” John looked very serious. “The paint job was infused with silver powder, silver plated handles and silver plated bull-bars.”
Claude smiled and I nodded. When we opened the doors a strange smell wafted out, but I guessed it was probably the stale smell of previous occupants after their special baths. John started the engine; it sounded very powerful, and turned on the headlamps.
“Headlights have been modified to use UV bulbs – we don’t know if it does them any harm but they seem to get dazzled by them. Whatever slows ‘em down, right?”
We pulled out of the carport and into the night. The roads were dead and John was going at a fair speed. He explained that there wasn’t a police presence in smaller towns and communes; they were pretty much left to their own justice because there wasn’t anywhere for criminals to hide. The speedometer climbed – seventy, eighty, ninety … one hundred and forty. My knuckles were white from clinging to the sides of the seat. It was clear that John had driven this road many, many times. He knew every bump, every pothole and every curve.
“In the name of the wee man, what the hell is that?” The truck screeched to a halt, more than likely leaving a trail of skid marks on the road, and John looked over his shoulder as he reversed back along. “Someone’s been hurt, left lying on the road.”
A memory clicked at the back of my mind, but before I could stop him, John was out of the truck with his flashlight. I clambered out, checking on this ‘injured’ person with my mind and, sure enough, it was a void.
“John! Don’t, just leave them there, it’s a trap!”
Just as John turned to towards us, the vampire was on his feet and had John Mackie in his grasp in seconds. The way he was holding John made the flashlight shine right on his face. Recognition flashed in Claude’s eyes, much the same as I guessed it did in mine’s.
“Bill Compton – you let him go right this minute!”
Vampires generally didn’t show surprise, but at that moment, you could tell Bill was shocked that I knew him. Adele might not be my Gran in this universe, but she’d already lost her Daddy to vampires. I’d be damned before I let them take her husband.