Home > Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse #1)(16)

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse #1)(16)
Author: Charlaine Harris

"Yes, ma'am."

"Hmmm. Well, well." Gran began smiling while she put the plates on the table. I was trying to think of what to wear while we ate our sandwiches and fruit salad. Gran was excited about the meeting, about listening to Bill and introducing him to her friends, and now she was in outer space somewhere (probably around Venus) since I actually had a date. With a human.

"We'll be going out afterward," I said, "so I guess I'll get home maybe an hour after the meeting's over." There weren't that many places to have coffee in Bon Temps. And those restaurants weren't exactly places you'd want to linger.

"Okay, honey. You just take your time." Gran was already dressed, and after supper I helped her load up the cookie trays and the big coffee urn she'd bought for just such events. Gran had pulled her car around to the back door, which saved us a lot of steps. She was happy as she could be and fussed and chattered the whole time we were loading. This was her kind of night.

I shed my waitress clothes and got into the shower lickety-split. While I soaped up, I tried to think of what to wear. Nothing black and white, that was for sure; I had gotten pretty sick of the Merlotte's waitress colors. I shaved my legs again, didn't have time to wash my hair and dry it, but I'd done it the night before. I flung open my closet and stared. Sam had seen the white flowered dress. The denim jumper wasn't nice enough for Gran's friends. Finally I yanked out some khaki slacks and a bronze silk blouse with short sleeves. I had brown leather sandals and a brown leather belt that would look good. I hung a chain around my neck, stuck in some big gold earrings, and I was ready. As if he'd timed it, Sam rang the doorbell.

There was a moment of awkwardness as I opened the door.

"You're welcome to come in, but I think we just have time - "

"I'd like to sit and visit, but I think we just have time - "

We both laughed.

I locked the door and pulled it to, and Sam hurried to open the door of his pickup. I was glad I'd worn pants, as I pictured trying to get up in the high cab in one of my shorter skirts.

"Need a boost?" he asked hopefully.

"I think I got it," I said, trying not to smile.

We were silent on the way to the Community Building, which was in the older part of Bon Temps; the part that predated the War. The structure was not antebellum, but there had actually been a building on that site that had gotten destroyed during the War, though no one seemed to have a record of what it had been.

The Descendants of the Glorious Dead were a mixed bunch. There were some very old, very fragile members, and some not quite so old and very lively members, and there were even a scattering of middle-aged men and women. But there were no young members, which Gran had often lamented, with many significant glances at me.

Mr. Sterling Norris, a longtime friend of my grandmother's and the mayor of Bon Temps, was the greeter that night, and he stood at the door shaking hands and having a little conversation with everyone who entered.

"Miss Sookie, you look prettier every day," Mr. Norris said. "And Sam, we haven't seen you in a coon's age! Sookie, is it true this vampire is a friend of yours?"

"Yes, sir."

"Can you say for sure that we're all safe?"

"Yes, I'm sure you are. He's a very nice ... person." Being? Entity? If you like the living dead, he's pretty neat?

"If you say so," Mr. Norris said dubiously. "In my time, such a thing was just a fairy tale."

"Oh, Mr. Norris, it's still your time," I said with the cheerful smile expected of me, and he laughed and motioned us on in, which was what was expected of him. Sam took my hand and sort of steered me to the next to last row of metal chairs, and I waved at my grandmother as we took our seats. It was just time for the meeting to start, and the room held maybe forty people, quite a gathering for Bon Temps. But Bill wasn't there.

Just then the president of Descendants, a massive, solid woman by the name of Maxine Fortenberry, came to the podium.

"Good evening! Good evening!" she boomed. "Our guest of honor has just called to say he's having car trouble and will be a few minutes late. So let's go on and have our business meeting while we're waiting for him."

The group settled down, and we got through all the boring stuff, Sam sitting beside me with his arms crossed over his chest, his right leg crossed over the left at the ankle. I was being especially careful to keep my mind guarded and face smiling, and I was a little deflated when Sam leaned slightly to me and whispered, "It's okay to relax."

"I thought I was," I whispered back.

"I don't think you know how."

I raised my eyebrows at him. I was going to have a few things to say to Mr. Merlotte after the meeting.

Just then Bill came in, and there was a moment of sheer silence as those who hadn't seen him before adjusted to his presence. If you've never been in the company of a vampire before, it's a thing you really have to get used to. Under the flourescent lighting, Bill really looked much more unhuman than he did under the dim lighting in Merlotte's, or the equally dim lighting in his own home. There was no way he could pass for a regular guy. His pallor was very marked, of course, and the deep pools of his eyes looked darker and colder. He was wearing a lightweight medium-blue suit, and I was willing to bet that had been Gran's advice. He looked great. The dominant line of the arch of his eyebrow, the curve of his bold nose, the chiseled lips, the white hands with their long fingers and carefully trimmed nails ... He was having an exchange with the president, and she was charmed out of her support hose by Bill's close-lipped smile.

I didn't know if Bill was casting a glamor over the whole room, or if these people were just predisposed to be interested, but the whole group hushed expectantly.

Then Bill saw me. I swear his eyebrows twitched. He gave me a little bow, and I nodded back, finding no smile in me to give him. Even in the crowd, I stood at the edge of the deep pool of his silence.

Mrs. Fortenberry introduced Bill, but I don't remember what she said or how she skirted the fact that Bill was a different kind of creature.

Then Bill began speaking. He had notes, I saw with some surprise. Beside me, Sam leaned forward, his eyes fixed on Bill's face.

"... we didn't have any blankets and very little food," Bill was saying calmly. "There were many deserters."

That was not a favorite fact of the Descendants, but a few of them were nodding in agreement. This account must match what they'd learned in their studies.

An ancient man in the first row raised his hand.

"Sir, did you by chance know my great-grandfather, Tolliver Humphries?"

"Yes," Bill said, after a moment. His face was unreadable. "Tolliver was my friend."

And just for a moment, there was something so tragic in his voice that I had to close my eyes.

"What was he like?" quavered the old man.

"Well, he was foolhardy, which led to his death," said Bill with a wry smile. "He was brave. He never made a cent in his life that he didn't waste."

"How did he die? Were you there?"

"Yes, I was there," said Bill wearily. "I saw him get shot by a Northern sniper in the woods about twenty miles from here. He was slow because he was starved. We all were. About the middle of the morning, a cold morning, Tolliver saw a boy in our troop get shot as he lay in poor cover in the middle of a field. The boy was not dead, but painfully wounded. But he could call to us, and he did, all morning. He called to us to help him. He knew he would die if someone didn't."

The whole room had grown so silent you could hear a pin drop.

"He screamed and he moaned. I almost shot him myself, to shut him up, because I knew to venture out to rescue him was suicide. But I could not quite bring myself to kill him. That would be murder, not war, I told myself. But later I wished I had shot him, for Tolliver was less able than I to withstand the boy's pleading. After two hours of it, he told me he planned to try to rescue the boy. I argued with him. But Tolliver told me that God wanted him to attempt it. He had been praying as we lay in the woods.

"Though I told Tolliver that God did not wish him to waste his life foolishly - that he had a wife and children praying for his safe return at home - Tolliver asked me to divert the enemy while he attempted the boy's rescue. He ran out into the field like it was a spring day and he was well rested. And he got as far as the wounded boy. But then a shot rang out, and Tolliver fell dead. And, after a time, the boy began screaming for help again."

"What happened to him?" asked Mrs. Fortenberry, her voice as quiet as she could manage to make it.

"He lived," Bill said, and there was tone to his voice that sent shivers down my spine. "He survived the day, and we were able to retrieve him that night."

Somehow those people had come alive again as Bill spoke, and for the old man in the front row there was a memory to cherish, a memory that said much about his ancestor's character.

I don't think anyone who'd come to the meeting that night was prepared for the impact of hearing about the Civil War from a survivor. They were enthralled; they were shattered.

When Bill had answered the last question, there was thunderous applause, or at least it was as thunderous as forty people could make it. Even Sam, not Bill's biggest fan, managed to put his hands together.

Everyone wanted to have a personal word with Bill afterward except me and Sam. While the reluctant guest speaker was surrounded by Descendants, Sam and I sneaked out to Sam's pickup. We went to the Crawdad Diner, a real dive that happened to have very good food. I wasn't hungry, but Sam had key lime pie with his coffee.

"That was interesting," Sam said cautiously.

"Bill's speech? Yes," I said, just as cautiously.

"Do you have feelings for him?"

After all the indirection, Sam had decided to storm the main gate.

"Yes," I said.

"Sookie," Sam said, "You have no future with him."

"On the other hand, he's been around a while. I expect he'll be around for a another few hundred years."

"You never know what's going to happen to a vampire."

I couldn't argue with that. But, as I pointed out to Sam, I couldn't know what was going to happen to me, a human, either.

We wrangled back and forth like this for too long. Finally, exasperated, I said, "What's it to you, Sam?"

His ruddy skin flushed. His bright blue eyes met mine. "I like you, Sookie. As friend or maybe something else sometime..."

Huh?

"I just hate to see you take a wrong turn."

I looked at him. I could feel my skeptical face forming, eyebrows drawn together, the corner of my mouth tugging up.

"Sure," I said, my voice matching my face.

"I've always liked you."

"So much that you had to wait till someone else showed an interest, before you mentioned it to me?"

"I deserve that." He seemed to be turning something over in his mind, something he wanted to say, but hadn't the resolution.

Whatever it was, he couldn't come out with it, apparently.

"Let's go," I suggested. It would be hard to turn the conversation back to neutral ground, I figured. I might as well go home.

It was a funny ride back. Sam always seemed on the verge of speaking, and then he'd shake his head and keep silent. I was so aggravated I wanted to swat him.

We got home later than I'd thought. Gran's light was on, but the rest of the house was dark. I didn't see her car, so I figured she'd parked in back to unload the leftovers right into the kitchen. The porch light was on for me.

Sam walked around and opened the pickup door, and I stepped down. But in the shadow, my foot missed the running board, and I just sort of tumbled out. Sam caught me. First his hands gripped my arms to steady me, then they just slid around me. And he kissed me.

I assumed it was going to be a little good-night peck, but his mouth just kind of lingered. It was really more than pleasant, but suddenly my inner censor said, "This is the boss."

I gently disengaged. He was immediately aware that I was backing off, and gently slid his hands down my arms until he was just holding hands with me. We went to the door, not speaking.

"I had a good time," I said, softly. I didn't want to wake Gran, and I didn't want to sound bouncy.

"I did, too. Again sometime?"

"We'll see," I said. I really didn't know how I felt about Sam.

I waited to hear his truck turn around before I switched off the porch light and went into the house. I was unbuttoning my blouse as I walked, tired and ready for bed.

Something was wrong.

I stopped in the middle of the living room. I looked around me.

Everything looked all right, didn't it?

Yes. Everything was in its proper place.

It was the smell.

It was a sort of penny smell.

A coppery smell, sharp and salty.

The smell of blood.

It was down here with me, not upstairs where the guest bedrooms sat in neat solitude.

"Gran?" I called. I hated the quavering in my voice.

I made myself move, I made myself go to the door of her room. It was pristine. I began switching on lights as I went through the house.

My room was just as I'd left it.

The bathroom was empty.

The washroom was empty.

I switched on the last light. The kitchen was...

I screamed, over and over. My hands were fluttering uselessly in the air, trembling more with each scream. I heard a crash behind me, but couldn't be concerned. Then big hands gripped me and moved me, and a big body was between me and what I'd seen on the kitchen floor. I didn't recognize Bill, but he picked me up and moved me to the living room where I couldn't see any more.

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