As I prepped my notes for work on Ties of Blood, I noticed that I have a lot of side characters who, for one reason or another, don’t get any “me” time. so, I’ve decided to remedy that in a collection of short stories called…
(You can find Alexander and his family in Shades of Gray. As for Mr. Smit, well, heh-heh. This story takes place in 1831. The rebellion that is mentioned is Nat Turner’s rebellion.)
“Who goes there?” the potted fern demanded and shook its leaves threateningly. “Friend or foe?”
The dark, pale woman glared at the foliage and snapped, “Alexander! I have I told you to stay out of the plants. They are not here for your amusement!”
The fern rustled again, and a smaller voice pleaded, “But, mother, it’s not me! It’s one of the talking plants in the magical forest of Brisbinay! You can be the queen, if you want.”
“Alexander.” There was a note of warning in her tone. “I do not wish to repeat myself. Get out of the plants this moment and find some other diversion with which to amuse yourself.”
Alexander watched her glide away and disappear through a large, carved doorway. Then, with a resigned sigh, he climbed out of the plants, oblivious to the dirt he tracked on the shiny floor. He marched down the hallway, past the family portraits, and up the shiny, curving staircase to the second floor. He stopped outside the door to his room, unwilling to go inside and face the dreaded monster boredom.
“I’ll slay you, you foul creature!” he whispered and then brandished an imaginary sword. He pretended that he was in a grand castle in one of the fairytale stories Nanny Hannah told him. He would slay the monster and save the beautiful princess, and she would reward him with jewels and a kiss. He’d have to put up with the latter, whether he like it or not, because it was just the way fairytales went.
“Take that!” he cried. “And that! And-”
He spun around and knocked into his aunt Torina. She caught his arm and crooked an appraising eyebrow. “What ever are you doing?”
“Fighting the monster, ma’am,” he answered. “I was playing magical forest, but mother said I mustn’t.”
Torina released him and brushed her skirts straight. “Before you go dashing about willy nilly you should clear a passageway first. You could have knocked me off my feet!”
“I’m sorry, aunt Torina,” he murmured with a heavy sigh. “I’ll go play somewhere else.”
“Yes, you should.” She looked thoughtful and then added, “Why don’t you go find Martha’s daughter to play with? She’s too young to do anything else of use except keep you occupied.”
Alexander’s shoulders sagged. “I’m not supposed to play with her. Mother said-”
“Oh, your mother.” Torina gestured away the importance of the order. “You may do as you wish, of course. Just mind where you’re fighting monsters in the future.”
She swished away in a swirl of green skirts, leaving Alexander alone. The large, gilded clock in the hallway said it was only ten, and he imagined the long hours of his day stretching out like one of the plantation house’s corridors; full of silent paintings, carved wood and echoey noises that sounded like “shush!”.
He turned over his aunt’s words and with new resolve he wandered down the back stairs and into the kitchen. The smell of baked bread greeted his nose, but did nothing for his appetite. However, he noted with delight that Eucey was sitting under the table counting buttons. Martha and Prudence were too busy to notice him, so he slid neatly under the table to join her.
“What are you doing, Eucey?”
She turned her large chocolate eyes on him and smiled brightly. “I’m countin’ buttons. You wanna count ‘em, too?”
Alexander turned a shiny red button over in his hand, then dropped it into the little bowl. “How would you like to play outside? It’s plenty warm out, so you don’t even need any shoes.”
“How come we never go play in the sunshine?” Eucey asked as she counted off five small buttons. “It’s lots prettier then.”
“Because I can’t go outside in the sunshine,” he answered patiently. “You know that. None of us can, not Mother, or Father, or Aunt Torina, or Uncle Fabian or me, or even baby Tristan.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” She wrinkled her nose. “But why not?”
“It’s just the way it is,” he answered with growing impatience. “Do you want to come play or not?”
Eucey peeked out from under the table towards the two women at their work. “Mama won’t like it.”
“I imagine not,” he agreed. “So we had best hurry.” Before Eucey had a chance to say anything further, he grabbed her hand and tugged her out from under the table. They dashed out of the kitchen, down the hall, and out one of the side doors. They stopped on the wide wraparound porch and Alexander took in a lungful of air and held it. The night was cool and the silver moon hung in the sky like a thumbnail clipping. He could smell fresh cut alfalfa on the breeze and the bugs droned lazily in the trees.
“Come on,” Alexander instructed, and pulled the little girl after him. They kicked through the wet grass towards the outbuildings, but stopped when they saw that the stables were lit up. In the doorway, Alexander could make out his father and the shapes of two other men. His curiosity got the better of him, so he and Eucey crept close, taking shelter behind a pile of neatly stacked wood.
“Who is it?” Eucey asked. “What are they saying? I can’t hear.”
Alexander motioned her to silence. If they were detected, he’d be sent back inside to find something else to amuse himself with. Slowly, their words filter to him, and he paraphrased for his friend. “There’s father, his friend Mr.Smit, and another man. I don’t know him. They’re saying something about a massacre…” he trailed of and squinted into the night, as if that would improve his understanding.
Eucey waited patiently for more information, but Alexander made the mistake of leaning too far out from the wood pile. Someone pointed in his direction and, though he tried to hide, it was too late.
He looked up and found his father peering down at him. “Yes, sir?”
“What are you doing?”
“Sir, Eucey and I-”
His father’s face stayed passive, but his tone was severe. “Alexander, have we not discussed your choice of playmates before?”
“Yes?” Alexander answered uncertainly. Perhaps he could say he’d forgotten?
His father cleared his throat loudly and looked at the little girl who was crouched down next to him. She hid her face with her skirt, as if that would make her invisible. “Go back to the kitchen, child,” he ordered. “And Alexander, you will accompany me to the drawing room to see your mother.”
The words filled the small boy with an unreasonable amount of dread, but there was nothing they could do except follow orders. Eucey stood quickly and curtsied and nodded all over herself before she turned and ran back towards the safety of her mother’s skirts.
Alexander climbed to his feet and squared his small shoulders in an effort at bravery. “Father, I know Mother doesn’t want me to be friends with any of the slaves, but there’s no one else to play with. Aunt Torina said-”
His father scowled darkly. “I have no care for what your aunt said. You’ve been warned about appropriate company, before. Now, come.”
Alexander trailed behind the three men to the house. They wiped their feet and the two guests took off their hats and traveling coats and left them with Martha. Then the four of them made their way to the drawing room where Alexander’s mother and aunt Torina were already seated. His mother held his baby brother, Tristan in her arms, but at the site of guests she stood and quickly deposited him in the small rocking crib nearby.
Alexander’s father moved to his wife and offered her his hand. “We have guests, Jesslynn,” he said quietly.
She allowed him to help her straighten up, her face all politeness. Though, for just a moment, Alexander thought he saw a dark look pass between her and his father. “Yes, I see that we have guests. Good evening, gentlemen.” She eyed the third man, but he offered her a polite smile that revealed a pair of vampire fangs. The sign that he was one of them; appropriate company.
With that gesture the tension in the room dissipated. Torina stood and eyed the dark haired Mr. Smit. “Yes. A lovely evening to you, sirs.” Though she spoke to all of them, Alexander had the distinct impression that her greeting was only meant for one.
The men made the appropriate return greetings, and soon everyone was seated stiffly in the ornate furniture. His mother ordered refreshments brought, and welcomed Mr. Smit back from his trip. “What news do you bring?”
The dark haired man cleared his throat. “It is not news for a lady.”
Torina pouted prettily behind her beribboned fan. “Oh, come now. I am sure our delicate sensibilities will be able to handle it.”
From his perch in the chair, Alexander‘s feet didn’t reach the floor, and it was with great effort that he refrained from swinging them. All of the adult niceties bored him. He wished his mother would scold him so he could go find something else to do.
“Perhaps,” Mr. Smit agreed. “But there are children present.” His eyes met Alexander’s briefly, and then moved away again. Mr. Jorick Smit had never been unkind to him, but neither had he been particularly friendly. He was simply there, like the leaves in the autumn or the snow in the winter. There was no malice in him, but neither was their love, just the ever present “there-ness”.
The third man, introduced as a Mr. Riley, also turned his attention to Alexander. His eyes registered surprise. “Upon my soul, is he-”
Before he could finish Jesslynn was on her feet . She snatched Alexander from the chair. “If you will excuse us, gentlemen? Perhaps this is not the place for children.” She shot a commanding glance to her husband, and then dragged the small boy through the shadowy house and into the dining room.
“What have you been doing?” Jesslynn demanded, but before Alexander could answer, his father appeared, and she turned her unhappiness on him. “Who is that man, Riley, Oren? Can he be trusted?”
“He’s a friend of Jorick’s,” Oren answered.
“A friend?” Jesslynn questioned sarcastically. “I didn’t think he was capable of friends.”
“An acquaintance then,” Oren said impatiently. “If he were not trust worthy, Jorick would not have brought him to our home.”
Jesslynn didn’t look convinced. “And what news do they bring that is unsuitable for our ears?”
Alexander tried to remain as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. By being quiet he could find out all kinds of interesting things, including the news he was too young to hear.
“There was a slave uprising, in Southampton County. They killed 50 or more.”
“Mortals?” Jesslynn demanded.
“Yes, of course.”
“Then why would we care?” she asked haughtily.
Oren stared at her incredulously. “Southampton County is only seventy miles south of us, Jesslynn. If they can rebel there, what is to stop them from doing so here? Would it not be best to simply free them and send them on their way? We don’t need the plantation, anymore-”
She met his eyes challengingly. “Why do you say that? Do you think the neighbors will simply ignore it if our fields go wild? Do you think they won’t question?”
Oren ground his teeth together angrily. “Do you think they do not already question? They have neighbors that they never see, and when they do we never change! For the love of God, we have children that never age!”
Alexander caught his breath, and the sound reminded them that he was there. Oren stepped back quickly, and his face fell to his usual cool, impassive expression. “We have guests waiting.” He started for the doorway, but stopped and looked back. “Alexander, go to your room and study your reading. Stay away from that slave child.”
He wanted to argue, but his mother’s sharp tone silenced him, “Slave child?” She grabbed Alexander’s arm, and bent to stare him in the face. “Have we not discussed this?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He could argue about Eucey another time. “What did Father mean children that never age?” She pressed her lips tightly together and he stared into her eyes, willing her to answer, but her dark gaze overwhelmed him and he was forced to look away, defeated.
“We will not discuss this further,” she snapped. “Do as your father says.” She straightened up and swept from the room, her long skirts rustling behind her.
Alexander sighed heavily and did as he was told, though the prospect was a bleak one. He’d read the primer from start to finish more times than he could count and had most of the stories memorized. It was the same with his other studies; the same books, the same lessons, over and over and over. His days were a long circle of the same rituals repeated again and again with seemingly no progress.
He was sitting at his desk, the worn books spread out before him with a flickering lamp for light when the clock struck twelve. Moments later, he heard his father’s footsteps in the hall, and he paused from his daydreaming to wait for him. He appeared uncertainly in the doorframe and then plunged into the room, his hands held stiffly behind his back and his face unreadable. “Have you done your lessons?”
Alexander pointed to the opened book on the desk. “Yes, sir.”
Oren nodded crisply and turned back for the door. “Good. When you’ve finished come down and have your meal. Your mother is planning for your birthday, tomorrow.”
“How old will I be?”
Oren stopped on the threshold and Alexander could feel him cringe. “You know very well.”
He nodded to himself because he did, or he suspected that he did. He’d noticed something wrong several birthdays ago. “I’m never going to grow up, am I, Father?”
Oren’s shoulders tightened like a clenched fist and then he relented and turned back. He met his son’s dark doe eyes and answered calmly, “No, no you won’t.”
“And Tristan?” Alexander pressed.
Oren sighed heavily and nervously smoothed his long, tawny hair. “No,” he said at last. “Tristan will never grow up, either.”
Alexander looked at his small hands folded in his lap and struggled to come to grips with his father’s words. Suspecting the truth and knowing it were two very different things. He’d watched slave children grow up, but they were different than him; their skin was darker and their teeth weren’t pointy. They ate the food that was cooked in the kitchen. He’d accepted that they grew up differently than he did because they were different. He just hadn’t fully realized how different.
“Eucey,” he began, but his father cut him off.
“Eucey will grow up. She will have children, she will grow old, and she will die. Her children will have children, and they too will grow old and the cycle will continue. But not for us. We are removed from their cycle, my son. We stand outside it.”
Alexander swallowed hard. “How long do we stand outside it?”
Oren drew a tight breath and released it slowly. “Forever, Alexander. We will continue as we are, incorruptible and whole, forever. Do you understand?”
He nodded slowly, though the concept was one he only half understood. When he spoke his voice was barely audible. “How many birthdays have I had?”
“Fifteen,” Oren answered without hesitation. “Tomorrow will be the sixteenth.”
Alexander nodded again and turned to the stack of books on the desk. “I see.”
Oren waited, but Alexander had nothing else to say. What else could he ask? “Why are we different? What are we?” He already knew the answer. They were vampires. That was why he must stay away from the sunlight, though Eucey didn’t have to. That was why he drank from Nanny Hannah while Eucey ate bread and taters in the kitchen. That was why she would get older with every birthday, and he wouldn’t. That was why he was supposed to stay away from them.
Oren cleared his throat loudly. “If you’ve finished your lessons then come downstairs and feed.”
He turned back to the door, but Alexander called after him, “How old will I be tomorrow, father?”
“Five,” Oren answered softly. “You’ll be five.”
And then he disappeared into the hallway, leaving Alexander alone.