The 4:15 AM alarm woke Erica with the too familiar feeling that something crowded her mind, dislodging it by closing sharp teeth in under her cerebellum to snap onto her spinal cord and tear it out. She placed the crucifix she had hugged through the night onto the nightstand and got out of bed, the blankets mostly on the floor. She knocked on the door.
“Harriet. I’m up. Let me out.”
From outside the door Harriet called, “Why do you want out?”
It was the test question. Vampires don’t understand the ‘whys’ of volition. Ask them why an engine broke down or the stock market fell, and they can work it out, but ask them why they did something or why someone painted a picture and they fall into complete incomprehension.
“Because I love the morning.” It was true once. Erica always rose early for a run or bike ride, relaxed with a light breakfast, music, a novel, then got an early start setting up her bakery for customers. Leisure and accomplishment. That’s what mornings were made for.
“Don’t be cranky.” The deadbolt slid and Harriet opened the door, sheepish smile under baggy eyes. Strands of garlic hung from the door frame, the sharp odor violating Erica’s nose. She stiffened her back and walked through waving them to the side with her hands, ignoring the sticky venom.
Erica hugged her sister. “Good morning.” Her sister still winced when she did it, but willingly embraced her back, the warmth on Erica’s cold, clammy skin like a welcome hot towel after a long flight. It was the best part of her day, and every morning felt like the last time. The pumping fluid under Harriet’s skin sent her into slight vertigo, but the blood craving was still a distant nag, like cigarettes a year after she quit. She let out a bitter laugh.
“What’s funny?” Her sister pulled her by the hand to the next room. Fresh clothes were laid out on the chair.
“Nothing, really. I just remembered telling myself that if I could quit cigarettes, I could handle anything.”
Harriet left her to shower and change, something Erica insisted on each morning because it was what made her feel most human. Before dressing, she covered herself in Harriet’s homemade lotion, with aloe, herbs, and oils.
Harriet, bless her heart, had a perfect breakfast ready. Eggs, pork chops, spinach, and vegetables. High protein and high energy, all of which she would need to get through her day. Since this started, she had lost thirty-five pounds, one of the few happy things until she started looking gaunt. She ate everything in front of her, the perfect amount as usual, for too much would also go badly. Harriet sat with her and read a Jodi Picoult novel aloud.
Erica sipped her Irish breakfast tea and watched the clock. At precisely 4:56 she stood, resolving to do what she had to.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
Every day Harriet asked, and every day Erica declined. “Thanks. No.” She forced herself to the door.
The cold air barely registered to her. The back of the house, a remote and lonely house in the Great Basin Desert, faced the east. She went to the cushion set up for her on the patio and sat on it, facing the east, crossing her legs, hands upon her thighs, she closed her eyes and struggled to control her breathing. She settled her mind to endure whatever came. The fear was building, and like Christ in Gethsemane she begged for the cup to be taken from her.
She prayed a Hail Mary and an Our Father. She entreated the Saints for intercession, and prayed through the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. She ended with the Prayer of Saint Michael just as the sun peaked over the horizon.
Searing pain burned over her scalp, face, chest, down to her legs. She tried to stop her body from resisting, to relax her muscles and just let it course through her, but she trembled wildly, barely able to stay sitting, moans escaping, tears forming. Her eyes stung, her ears seemed to melt. As the sun came further into view, the fire streamed through her muscles in cascades of blistering agony.
Her moans turned to wails, tears to weeping, but it was only the beginning. The pestilent curse ran deep within her, flowing to the surface to renew the burn and as the sun penetrated deeper, bringing fire to her belly, her kidneys, her womb, streaming through her bones and cooking her heart. The worst came last when it seeped through her skull into her brain, scorching every sense of her essence, as if her skin had been sliced open while she soaked in an acid bath.
Erica was in that other place now, the pain so horrible her mind could no longer comprehend it, and some far corner of her mind examined the experience in puzzlement, wondering what it meant.
The pain eased off, little by little, eventually reduced to the sting of sunburn. Erica’s mind had been pushed so far, far away, it took her several minutes to find her way back, slowly noticing the steam rising off of her. When she finally gathered herself, she took a moment to feel the benefits of her suffering. An unmolested mind was her reward. The oppression was gone, and the curse no longer threatened to sever her mind from her body.
Harriet came out with a tub of cool water, towels, and her lotion. She immersed the towels and wrapped one around Erica’s head, then handed her one to soothe her legs while she draped another over her back.
“It doesn’t look too bad today,” Harriet said. “A little red, but I don’t think you’ll peel.”
“I’ve had worse.”
“It’s so hard to stay inside when I hear you.” Tears flowed down her cheeks. She did that sometimes. But they’d had this conversation so many times, and Erica wanted to enjoy the day that banished the curse until the night took back over and allowed it back in, so she stayed quiet.
“You’re so strong,” said Harriet. Erica knew she was trying to bolster her will, but it made her feel unworthy. “I would rather die than do what you do.”
Erica couldn’t help a laugh. “Me too. But some deaths are worse than others.”