Characters: Mathurin LeBlanc, Margot Belleview, Ru Fenmore, Austin Leroy, Louis the Chow Chow
Word Count: 8,333
Summary: The Sterling branch of the Vampire Outreach Service attempts to spread good mental health and friendship to a skittish new member, with a little help from a fluffy lion dog and a friendly ASL interpreter.
Disclaimer: Work is all from my own imagination. Any resemblance to other characters or situations is coincidental.
Notes: Original work, a follow-up to The Best Parts of Existing". I wanted to play around with my characters some more, and work on world-building and creating a cast of OCs, and all that jazz. As a result, this is sort of a simple story, lengthy due to having to explain more than I would if it were an established verse people were familiar with already. I think my basic MO in all the things I write is, instead of Ordinary People Having Extraordinary Adventures, I write Extraordinary People having Ordinary Adventures. I'm still working out all my Rules for this universe, but I'm having fun with it.
Sterling, Ontario does not exist (though Stirling, Ontario does). I created it based on what I needed for the setting, but I imagine it being up in the Sudbury area of the province, but a little closer to the Québec border.
Also, my mom was very concerned about Mat's fictional dog's welfare, so, for the record, when Mat works nights, his tenants come to make sure Louis has everything he needs before bed. The fictional dog is fine, Mom!
Thanks to everyone who commented on the first story and showed interest in it. It made me very chuffed.
Technically speaking, I don’t need to sleep. Whatever force that allows my body to keep moving after death allows my brain to keep going without recharging itself on a twenty-four-hour cycle. I don’t get tired as such, but sometimes I get weary--just a bit sick of being awake. And I think it’s good for my mental health to let my brain take a break for a while. I try to sleep at least once a week and ideally three times. It’s good to dream and, thankfully, my brain still does that.
I don’t sleep in a coffin, before you ask. Or in the soil of my native land. I sleep in my bedroom with my Chow Chow, Louis, at my feet, guarding the door against intruders. Keeping a pet is also good for one’s mental health and I’ve had many a man’s best friend over the years. Also cats and parrots and bunnies, and, once, accidentally, a small pack of wolves. Louis is a shelter dog that I adopted when he was still a pup. Chows are independent souls that need a firm hand and his previous owners weren’t strong-willed enough to train him. He kept growling at their children. Louis and I had to reach a meeting of the minds, but now we respect one another. He’s learned his manners, even if he is still aloof and stubborn.
He answers the alarm clock on my phone by pushing it off my bedside table with his nose and then turning to smile at me when I open my eyes at the thud it makes. ‘Do you see? I’ve solved the problem’ is what that smile means. ‘It made a funny noise and I’ve vanquished it. Pet my head.’
I oblige (even though I shouldn’t reward wanton destruction) and reach under his furry chin to retrieve the phone and shut down the alarm. 17:20; time to get up for the day.
I don’t often set alarms, as I don’t often sleep long enough to need them, but I have plans tonight that I don’t want to be late for. Each year during the weeks where January turns into February, Sterling has a ‘Winter Blues’ festival in the evenings down the main streets. As far north as Sterling is in Ontario, we see even less sun than other parts of the province during the winter months, which is good for vampires and bad for humans who suffer winter sadness. So, the city decided to do something to perk up the population during the time when Christmas is over and the sun is still hidden and winter seems to be dragging its feet about leaving.
The park is all lit up, there’s a skating rink, an ice castle, concerts in the bandstands, places to buy hot chocolate and other treats, the shops have their window displays done up, and it’s all very quaint and happy. At the age I appear to be, around thirty years old, I should be a jaded young man above such things. But I am not a jaded young man in spirit, I am an ancient man who finds it all magical and heartwarming. My friend Ru and I go each year, and this year we’re attempting to wrangle a new friend, Lee, to come with us.
Judging from the emoji of a thumb’s up Ru has sent me while I slept, we’ve been successful.
I encourage Louis to get down from the bed (suggestions are better with a chow than orders, best to let him think it’s his idea) and get up to give him supper before we hit the town. Eating is another thing I technically don’t have to do; I can survive on blood alone. I only drink animal blood and have only ever drunk animal blood, aside from a handful or two of emergencies when I had no other choice. I get it from the butcher, who puts it aside for me. I also have a supply of coconut water. The idea of it being a blood substitute is a myth (too much potassium, not enough sodium), but my body handles it much better than other non-blood food and it comes in so many flavours that it breaks things up a little. Everything tastes blander when you’re dead, which is odd because everything smells much more strongly. I’d rather smell food than eat it, though I do know a vampire who bakes like I knit, so I suppose it’s an individual thing. My mini-fridge only has a selection of coconut drinks and Louis’ gourmet dog food in it. One of us should be having proper meals.
He eats his chicken teriyaki with his usual dignity, as though it is merely what he deserves for existing. I finish getting ready, sipping away at my pineapple coconut water as I put my hair back and find a sweater to put on. I still have to dress as though I feel the cold, even if I don’t.
“T’es prêt?” I ask Louis, who shows mild interest in what we might be doing. His tail swishes when I grab his leash, betraying the shameful notion that he might even be a touch excited about it. “On y va, Lou Lou.”
I put on my gloves and scarf, heading out of my apartment with Louis padding sedately beside me. He jumps up the steps to the road and waits for me at the top. I live in the basement of an old townhouse and rent out the main and upper floors, an arrangement that has mostly earned me university students home for the summer or young people starting out in the workforce as my renters. For the last three years, however, my tenants have been Shirley and Corazon, a pair of septuagenarians who were looking for an easily maintained place to reside in their elder years until they go off to the retirement home together. Which I suspect will still be a while, as they remain active and full of life and in good health. They’ve mistaken me for a ‘nice young man’ and my only complaint as their landlord is that they keep trying to feed me because I’m 'too thin'. Otherwise, they’re excellent people and it’s nice to have folks who stick around for more than just a short let.
Louis thinks we’re going in the car and trots off to get in the front seat. I politely suggest we walk instead, and he consents to the plan. After ten minutes, we’re at the coffee shop Ru and I agreed to meet at. She’s standing outside it, unmistakable in her red jacket, her long black braids tumbling out of the toque I made her last year.
Ru is one of the great generation of Victorian vampires, a ‘baby boom’ of sorts born out of the many epidemics that arose in the industrial era of packing people into cities like sardines, working them to the bone, and denying them proper food and sunlight. Prime ground for people trying to cheat death. Ru was wasting away from consumption when she was turned, only twenty-four and unlikely to see twenty-five. Now she’s well over a hundred, a great lively pixie of a woman, all ideas and plans.
“There’s my boy,” she says and ignores me to greet Louis, bending over to rub his head, her crimson fingernails disappearing amidst the cinnamon of his fur. Ru’s favourite colour is red and she celebrates the fact that a woman (especially a black woman) can wear it now without being ‘loose’, the same reason her makeup is always so heavily--but tastefully--done. False lashes rim her lovely Van Dyke brown eyes, she has rouge on her round, full cheeks and raspberry red lips smile at me as they head in to fait le bec with me. “And my other boy. Hello, Mat.”
“Bonne soir,,” I reply, putting my arms around her. “It’s good to see you again. You’re looking very bright, as always.”
“Thank you!” she says. She pulls back and dusts my cheeks off. “You’re looking on fleek yourself. I like your hair like that. It reminds me of ‘70’s you.”
A shudder runs through me. 70’s me was not a fashion choice I’d like to repeat. As a person who has lived through many eras of fashion, I count the 70’s and 80’s low on the list, along with the time period when women tried to look as much like bells as possible to the extent of not being able to sit, and the period of time when we thought long curly wigs were the way to go.
“70’s me was more scruffy, I think. Didn’t I have a moustache?”
Ru slaps her hand over her mouth, a high-pitched shriek muffled behind it, her eyes widened in mirth. “I’d forgotten that! Ha! No, you looked good with it, though. And I had my afro. We were rocking.”
“That’s not the word I would use,” I say, and she giggles again.
We have a little chat to catch up. I haven’t seen her in some time, maybe months, maybe not since last year at this time. It makes little difference when you’ve known each other as long as we have and will continue to know each other for as long as time carries on. We e-mail and text, and Ru wanders in and out of my life, and that’s fine because she’ll wander by again. I’m settled for now; she’s still roaming. She’s a freelance journalist for a living, writing under many different names about whatever she feels like. Her stories usually do well (she’s won awards for them) and are picked up by many newspapers and magazines and websites. She can go wherever she likes and do whatever she wants and not have to worry about pleasing any one boss or editor. She’s been in Toronto, her home base, for the last few months, but before that was all over Europe, and she tells me about her travels as we loiter about the cafe, waiting for Lee to arrive.
Louis sits his large backside on the sidewalk while we talk, observing the other merrymakers as they wander by, giving the evil eye to those who might think it a good idea to pet him, which doesn’t stop some people from trying. I’ve trained him to be patient about it, and he’ll sit without snarling, only showing his distress with the look of great consternation on his face as yet another person coos about his soft fur and tells him how handsome he is.
“Good boy,” I tell him, and I swear he rolls his eyes at me.
Ru looks down at her watch, which is nearing 18:00 now. Lee is supposed to meet us then, and she’s worried he’ll chicken out on us. But right on the dot, I pick out his form shuffling through the crowds of the sidewalks, head ducked down as though his towering, broad-shouldered build could be unobtrusive.
Lee is a young vampire, only about twenty years into it, and not yet comfortable with himself. In terms of lifespan, he’s still a toddler, and as awkward and clumsy as you’d expect of that age. Becoming a vampire is to be reborn and proper sires should stay to help their offspring through the ‘I’m immortal, now what?’ phase, but many don’t bother. There’s an instinct to close oneself away in those first days, as you have suddenly become very ‘other’, something outside of humanity.
And if you were somewhat shy and socially awkward before your turning, becoming a vampire doesn’t help that at all. Being a vampire doesn’t cure anything except death; it doesn’t make you more handsome or smarter or more seductive or more confident or less of a bastard. You remain yourself, just stuck with an eternity ahead of you, so you best find a way to fill it. I never felt I really ‘found’ myself until I started medical school and that was centuries after I was turned. Lee has time to explore life and work away at his flaws if he’d like to correct them.
Ru lifts her hand to wave at him, and he shrugs one shoulder up in acknowledgement of it, hands still in his pockets as he jogs to close the gap between us. They’re still in his pockets when Ru hugs him, and by the time he gets them out to return the hug, she’s finished it. I slide my hand into his for a handshake hello so they have something to do while they’re out.
“Glad you could make it,” I say.
“Yeah, hi,” he says, giving my hand a shake with some enthusiasm. “Thanks for inviting me.”
I’m about to say it was Ru’s idea, but stop as I realize that could be construed as me not wanting him there, and with how skittish he is, that might be disastrous. “It’s nice to see you again,” I say, instead.
I’ve only met him once before, maybe a few months ago, maybe over a year now (time really does mean nothing to me), but I’ve e-mailed and texted with him in the meantime to check-in. The internet has been a godsend for vampires. I’ve no idea of the number of us that exist in the world, but we are most certainly a minority and, until the arrival of the World Wide Web, it was merely chance if you bumped into one. We tend toward colder climes, away from the sun, but we’re spread out all over, and now we can meet up on Facebook and keep in touch. Ru even found her sire on there a few years ago, a woman she hadn’t seen in a century. While we don’t exactly have a subreddit, there’s a community out there, and it makes us--or at least me--feel more connected.
Ru discovered Lee somewhere in the depths of cyberspace and found out that he lived not far from me, so put us in touch with one another as a sort of vampire outreach service. Lee seems a pleasant fellow, if a bit shy, and while it’s fine to be alone if you aren’t lonely, it’s also good to know if you need help there’s someone nearby to provide it. Having contacts is good for one’s mental health.
“Sorry if I’m late, I had a hard time finding a place to park,” Lee explains. “I didn’t know it would be so busy.” His eyes look around at the crowds, apprehensive.
“You’re right on time,” Ru assures him, patting his shoulder. “We’ll head down to the park. There’s more space to spread out there.”
One side of Lee’s mouth goes up in a smile and he nods. He’s a very classically handsome fellow, square in shoulder and jaw, with long arms and legs. At 5’11 1/2”, I was once an unusually tall man, but now I’m average and nothing on Lee’s 6’4” frame. He’s trying to stoop his way into obscurity, and the sandy-red stubbly beard he sports is probably an attempt to blend in even more. He has his toque pulled down to his eyes, which are a denim blue and provide the only colour on his face. He’s still very grey-blue pale in skin tone, something that fades over time of being undead. I am merely a man who doesn’t see the sun and Ru’s antique brass skin has strong blue undertones that dull it somewhat (all that red helps put the illusion of flush back) while Lee still has the look of a man who crawled out of the grave. We’ve never gotten into how and why he was turned--one waits to be informed of that sort of thing--but I’d say he was in his early thirties at the time. If he stood straighter and was less tense he’d be an intimidating fellow, but his casual slouch and puppy face make him more of an awkward giant than a threat.
Speaking of puppies, Louis goes up to sniff at him and say hello. It’s the nature of a Chow to be disdainful of those who want to adore him and friendly to those who aren’t as sure. He looks up at Lee with expectation, nudging his knee until Lee bends down to pet his head.
“You’re just like a cat,” I tell Louis in French. He doesn’t seem to care.
Louis and I take up the rear as we walk down to the park, giving tiny Ru and big Lee the non-symmetrical front line. Ru keeps up a patter of conversation, which Lee responds to but doesn’t initiate on his own.
“Are you staying in town or going back home tonight?” she wonders.
“No, I’ll go home,” Lee says. “It’s about an hour on my bike, so it’s no big deal.”
Ru glances over her shoulder at me. “Are you going to give him the Motorcycle Lecture?” she asks, blinking her long lashes coyly.
“I give the Motorcycle Lecture to people who can be injured by them,” I reply. “People who will wind up on my table, brain dead and with their organs missing because they were donated, or with their organs there even though they should have been donated. People who don’t wear helmets because they want to look cool. People who argue with me that the number of head injuries in motorcycle accidents went up since helmet laws were introduced. Because people survived the crashes! Because they aren’t dead from their heads being smashed open on the pavement, hein?!”
“Mat feels so strongly about motorcycles that he gets 95% more French-Canadian when he speaks of them,” Ru informs Lee.
I do seem to have lost my ‘th’s’ somewhere in there. I have seen far too many young people who have died from avoidable injuries not to have strong feelings about it. Occupational hazard. “I support your right to ride a motorcycle,” I tell Lee.
“Thank you, that means a lot,” he says, his snark a little uncertain. When I laugh he manages a smile with both sides of his mouth and something brightens up in his brow for a moment. “I promised my mom I would always wear a helmet, so I still do.” He pats one of his leather sleeves. “And my jacket.”
“What kind of bike do you have?” Ru asks, and it’s as though she’s hit some sort of switch. Lee starts chattering away about the custom model he built in his garage and the parts he sourced for it and the difficulty of finding this piece, which he saw when he was sixteen and has waited forever to locate, but it turned out that someone was selling it on Craigslist and he drove down to the States to get it in person because it was too heavy to ship. Everyone has at least one thing, that thing that gets them going and Ru has found Lee’s. She turns to wink at me. “Sounds like you’re good with your hands.”
One of Lee’s shoulders comes up to his ear, head shrugging sideways in modesty. “I like to take things apart and put them back together again.”
“Me, too,” I say. “Only I do it with people.”
“No one wants to hear about that, LeBlanc,” Ru cuts me off, with a breezy wave of her hand. Even the dead are squeamish about the dead. It’s really very foolish. “It’s good to have a hobby, Lee. Keep yourself busy. You could probably make money off it if you wanted. You could work from home if you have space and do repairs or restore bikes. You’d just need a website, really, so people could look you up. I have a friend who--”
I give her a sharp poke to her back before she gets too far ahead of herself. Ru is full of plans, a take-charge person who thinks you should have started yesterday, despite her having the whole of time ahead of her. Lee, I can see, is more tortoise than hare, and I don’t want him to be frightened away or coerced by her enthusiasm.
He seems to be considering it, at any rate. “Maybe.”
We reach the park, which is lit up for the occasion, strings of blue lights wrapped around the bare trees and sparkling stars tied around the lampposts that line the lazy paths through the area. There’s a large skating rink enclosed by wooden boards where people glide around, and I can hear some music from the pavilion at the end of the park where the bandstand is--The Pink Panther Theme played on brass instruments.
Members of the historical society are dressed up in Victorian garb to wish us good evening; ladies in muffs and velvet capes and gentlemen in beaver hats carrying walking sticks. A man tips his top hat to me, and I instinctively bow back, making him chuckle, even though it isn’t facetiousness on my part. It’s just programmed somewhere in my brain, even if it’s been out of fashion for a century and more.
There are many tables and stalls set up throughout the park selling hot chocolate, cookies, treats--groups and charities hoping for a donation. I pass some money to the Cancer Society and Lee nips away to buy a pin from the MS Society. Ru pops off to give some toonies to the Brownies, who hand her a cup of cocoa in return. She takes a gulp of it and then discreetly dumps the rest in a garbage can and tosses the styrofoam cup in a recycling bin.
“Chocolate never tastes as good as I hope it will,” she laments.
“At least you’re supporting a good cause,” I say, hugging her to my shoulder in sympathy.
“Spicy things still taste kind of good,” Lee says. “Sometimes I put cajun seasoning in my…” he looks around and lowers his voice. “Uh, drinks.”
Paranoia is rampant amongst new vampires. After a while, you realize even if you walk down the street openly talking about that how you fought in WWII and you thought that movie was a ridiculous portrayal of it while sipping red liquid through a straw, people are going to assume you’re being irreverent while enjoying a slushy. If people want to believe, they will, and if they don’t, they’ll find every excuse not to. If that weren’t the case, we’d be more than legend by now. We’d be fact.
“Blood and chocolate do not mix,” Ru says, with a sad shake of her head.
“Coconut water,” I say. “Try it. It tastes heavenly and it comes in chocolate.”
“Shut up about your damn hipster coconut water,” Ru says. “You’d think you’d discovered mana.”
“I have been drinking blood for three hundred years, give me a break for being excited for a little variety,” I reply. “God bless hipsters and their coconut water.”
Lee is starting to look like he’s waiting for the mob of townsfolk with pitchforks to appear, so I make an effort to change to less controversial subjects. I go with the safest option:
“Did you see the hockey game on Wednesday?”
And yes, Lee’s inner Canadian rises to the magic word of ‘hockey’ and we discuss the NHL season thus far as we walk further through the park. Ru sighs and takes Louis from me to take a wander through the snow castle the city does each year. It’s not that Ru doesn’t like hockey, it’s just that she claims the worst part of being alive for eternity is just how many times she has to watch her team of choice lose the Stanley Cup or fail to even qualify. That’s her fault for being a Leafs fan. Go Habs!
“I hope she’s not coming on too strong,” I say to Lee. “Ru has ideas about how people should be, but that doesn’t mean you have to conform to them.”
“No, no, she’s great,” Lee assures me, his dimples showing as he smiles good-naturedly. “I probably need a good kick in the rear.”
“If you ever need anything at all, don’t be shy about asking,” I tell him. “I know it can be overwhelming at times, and I have plenty of questionable advice to give. And if you ever need a place to stay or a loan or...something to eat, I really would like to help.”
Lee’s hands stuff into his pockets, head ducked. “That’s really nice of you, thanks. I appreciate it. I’ll let you know.”
I clap his shoulder, and we go back to hockey. He’s a Bruins fan, but I can only do so much to help him. Some mistakes people have to make on their own.
Ru joins back up with us when she’s done being the queen of the snow castle, flakes glittering in her hair--still frozen because she hasn’t body heat to melt them. Louis’ fur is wet from his romping and he’s panting with pleasure at the adventure she’s taken him on.
“I am far too old to get as much enjoyment out of that as I do,” Ru says. “But damn if I don’t feel like a Disney princess when I’m in there. They did a nice job this year.”
“Louis was bred to guard royalty, so you had a good companion,” I say, taking his leash back from her.
“What the hell is he doing with you then, LeBlanc?” Ru says, and there’s an odd sound that it takes me a moment to realize is Lee’s laughter. He looks as shocked as us about it. Ru links her arm through his before he can get bashful and tugs him over to join us as we walk on.
The music coming from the pavilion has switched from a brass band to voices, and we follow it to join the crowd gathered around the lit bandstand. A group of singers with songbooks in their hands is arranged to sing acapella as a man with all the eccentric movements of a conductor waves his arms in front of them, producing a beautifully harmonized version of ‘Both Sides Now’. Louis sits himself down to listen attentively. He’s always liked music; even as a puppy, he would come to lie down in front of the speakers when there was music playing.
As I’ve mentioned, my sense of smell has been heightened and, as a result, people are often stored by scent in my mind as much as the image of their faces or the sounds of their voices. Right now, Ru is giving off her precise scent, a mixture of her own blend of pheromones that we all give off (you smell them, too, you just don’t know it), the shea butter she keeps the roots of her hair moisturized with, and the woodsy, floral scent of her perfume. Lee, I don’t know well enough to pick out of a crowd yet, but he wears a cologne that has a fresh, sharp smell that makes me think of the colour green. Somewhere in the crowd of people that surrounds me is another smell I know: Margot, a friend from the hospital I work at, who, aside from her pheromones, smells of the shampoo she uses, which is a cinnamon and rosemary scent that I once picked out while passing by a Lush store in the mall.
I look around me to see if I can pick out her dark blonde head amongst the people. She’s on the shorter side, so she might be hidden by the others, and it takes me a moment to find her across the crowd, her ponytail bobbing to the music out of the top of her ear warmer, a pair of ice skates hung by their laces over her shoulder.
Margot is an interpreter for the hospital. If there are patients or patients’ family members who communicate with American Sign Language, she comes in to translate for them. She’s somewhat new to the job, only a couple of years, but her strong stomach in the face of dead bodies means she’s often been in my morgue to help me speak to patients’ families, and she’s become a friend along the way. She’s aware of my undead status and, after the initial shock and disbelief wore off, has accepted it. Once I promised I had no intentions of exsanguinating her, at any rate.
After a few moments, she notices me, and there’s a flash of recognition, followed by a saluting motion from her head. ‘Hi!’
I raise my hand back to return the greeting.
‘How-you?’ I sign back. I’m slowly picking up ASL under her patient tutelage. It’s different from any other language I’ve learned; so much is nuance and expression. It requires tremendous concentration, and I’m always amazed by how she translates so quickly.
‘Fine, you?’ she replies.
‘Fine,’ I say.
She gestures with her palm facing me (‘your’) and then fingerspells D-O-G, with her eyebrows up to show me it’s a yes/no question. I look down at Louis and then back up, nodding with my head and my fist to confirm.
‘L-O-U-I-S,’ I fingerspell. ‘My D-O-G.’
She makes the sign for ‘cute’ and then puffs her cheeks out and makes grabbing motions in the air. I shake my head, not familiar with that sign, so she fingerspells instead. ‘F-L-U-F-F-Y.’
I make the sign for yes again and then repeat her sign, exaggerating it to make it ‘very-fluffy’. ‘L-O-U-I-S very-fluffy D-O-G.’ It’s so embarrassing when one is learning a new language, being reduced to simple sentences like a child, but it’s the only way to learn, I suppose. “Hair-everywhere. Always-I-clean.” I make a motion of brushing fur off my clothes.
She gives me a warm smile, then signs again, making the manual alphabet K with her hand and shuffling it back and forth in the air, then raising her eyebrows and signing ‘friend’. ‘Are those two people your friends?’ is what that means. ASL is very efficient.
‘Yes,’ I say. I put my pointers up and flick them toward me, then bring my hands to bump into each other. ‘Come you-meet-them’.
She waves her hand in a motion that means a bunch of different things depending on the context. In this case, it means ‘no, I couldn’t’. She signs something else that I don’t know, and she changes it to ‘busy-you’ when I indicate as such.
‘Busy-not,’ I argue. ‘Alone-you? Come, talk. Fine.’
Ru’s picked up on this now and gives me an odd look, waving her hands in the air aimlessly. “What’s that all about?” she asks.
“Don’t do that, it’s rude,” I tell her, pushing her hands back down. “I’m signing. Don’t speak gibberish.”
“I wasn’t, I didn’t know what you were--” she peers around me. “Who are you signing to?”
“The blonde lady with the ponytail,” I say. “I work with her.”
“The one who’s coming over here?” Ru asks.
And yes, the one who’s coming over here. Margot is coming around behind the crowd toward us. I smile in anticipation and lightly take hold of her arms to peck her cheeks in greeting.
She’s a girl of about twenty-six, pretty more than beautiful, with a heart-shaped face and pointed chin and large hazel eyes that hold a steady, curious gaze when she’s listening to you. It’s an aesthetic that was popular in the 1940s but which doesn’t quite fit into today’s standards of beauty that favours something sharper and more defined. Her skin is reddened by the cold tonight, cheeks and nose pinker than their usual warm buff, and she’s dressed for the rink, leggings and a fuzzy sweater to keep her warm.
“Nice signing there,” she says, giving my shoulder a squeeze before she lets go. “You’re getting faster.”
“Thank you,” I say. “It must have made enough sense, you came over.”
“I’m just waiting for my family, but I don’t want to--” she makes the sign I didn’t understand earlier, crossing her hands over each other and catching one between the thumb and index finger of the other one, “--interrupt you.”
“No, no, nonsense, I invited you,” I say. I step back to let Ru and Lee in on the conversation. “Margery Belleview, this is Ruthanne Fenmore and Leon Austin.”
“Margot,” Margot corrects.
“Ru,” Ru replies as she leans in to kiss her cheek.
“Lee,” Lee adds, offering a hand to shake.
I really need to stop introducing people as though they were having their names called out at a ball. Jean-François Mathurin Bonet dit LeBlanc is enough of a mouthful that you would think I’d be more understanding about name preferences.
Margot’s eyes widen slightly as Ru’s lips hit her cheek. She's not surprised by the kiss; it’s old-fashioned and not as common here in Ontario as it is in Québec, but not unheard of. I think it’s the cold of Ru’s skin that’s surprised her. She expects me to be ice cold. Maybe she didn’t realize Ru and Lee would be the same.
“Nice to meet you,” she says, a little too brightly, to cover herself.
She makes a gesture that could be interpreted as a plain nervous movement: two fingers to the neck like fangs, the (in my opinion) rather offensive sign for ‘vampire’. I nod to confirm, and she gives a large gulp. For some reason, there tends to be a second phase of shock when people realize there’s more than one vampire out there. Academically, they know that there’s more out there than just me, but then they meet them and there’s another wave of terror.
‘Nice’ I sign to reassure her. Just like literally any group of people out there, there are good and bad members and the bad ones ruin it for everyone else. There are those of us who attack and drink human blood, but the majority of the vampires I’ve met are content to stick to animal blood or human blood voluntarily given. You’re more likely to run into a friendly vampire than an unfriendly one. You may already have.
“And this is Louis,” I add, to give her something else to think about for a moment.
“Hey there, Louis,” she says, crouching down and offering her hand for him to sniff. “You’re just like your daddy described you. Such a handsome boy.”
For once, Louis forgoes the aloofness to stick his face into her hand, a few wags of his tail letting her know she’s been approved as acceptable company. Margot gives him a good rub, running her fingers through his fur, and then, when she stands up, she seems to be more steady about it all. She recovered fast from learning about me, I think she’ll be fine to handle Ru and Lee.
“Margot works at the same hospital as me,” I offer, as a conversation starter.
“Do you cut people up too?” Ru wonders.
“No!” Margot says, quickly. “No, I’m an American Sign Language interpreter. I don’t touch the bodies, I just relay what other people are saying about them. I don’t even see them that often. Mat just lets me bother him when I have downtime at the hospital. No dead bodies needed.”
It’s in her nature to be self-deprecating and I know she doesn’t mean it, but I tell her, “you don’t bother me” anyway, just in case there are any doubts on the subject, adding, “she has a very strong stomach,” to Lee and Ru. Which, before I said it, sounded like a compliment in my head. Aloud, it sounds more weird than flattering.
“Sounds like you two are kindred spirits then,” Ru says, and mischief and curiosity are all over the look she shoots me.
I stare her down, willing her not to be coy. I have no notions on Margot as anything other than a lovely young woman who I can sit and knit and chat with on quiet nights in the mortuary, and I doubt Margot has any designs on me. I think by now I would have picked up on something, even if I can be admittedly obtuse on occasion. Ru can get stuffed.
“Are you being Barbara Ann Scott tonight?” I ask, nodding toward Margot’s skates in hopes of changing the subject.
“Jeez, Mat, she’s not going to know who that is,” Ru says. “Sometimes you sound like an old man, man.” She doesn’t know Margot knows. I wonder if I should just lay out everything on the table for those present to save time, but first:
“Barbara Ann Scott was a lovely woman!”
Both Margot and Ru burst into laughter, Margot making a vague effort to hide hers, Ru not bothering. Lee just looks confused, his smile more to join in than in understanding.
“I do know who she is,” Margot says when she’s recovered. “And, despite my figure skating lessons when I was a kid, I’m nowhere near her level. I’m just waiting for my family to join me. We do it every year, it’s a stupid tradition.”
“Traditions aren’t stupid,” I say. “Traditions are important. Ru and I come here every year, that’s a tradition, right, Ru?”
“Sure is,” Ru agrees. “Traditions are sometimes the only way you know time is passing.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s true even for...uh, everyone,” Margot says. She doesn’t know if Ru should know she knows. I really need to sort this out before we’re in some sort of awful 1960’s BBC spy thriller. “Every year Christmas comes around, I think ‘wow, it’s been a whole year already’. How was your Christmas, Mat? I haven’t seen you since then.”
Hasn’t she? I should pay more attention to calendar dates. Sometimes I feel like Peter Pan, coming back to get Wendy only to find decades have past and she’s all grown up. If I don’t watch out, I miss life going by for people who have a shorter one than I do. “It was good. I worked both the Eve and Day, but I was invited up to watch the Royal Variety Performance on the CBC with my tenants on Boxing Day, so that was nice.”
Margot puts her hand on my arm, to tell me, seriously. “Mat, that sounds really, really sad.”
“Oh.” Perhaps it does. “It wasn’t. I like working so other people have the holidays off. I don’t have anywhere to be, after all.” No, that doesn’t sound better. “It’s fine. I’ve had plenty of nice ‘together’ Christmases with people, I can miss a few without lamenting them.”
“Please tell me you at least celebrate your birthday!” Margot says.
“At least once a decade,” I promise. “Ru makes sure of it.”
“Mmmmhmmm,” Ru says, with a fervent nod.
Then, at last, everyone realizes everyone knows what’s going on, and there’s a moment of horrified silence where they all stare at each other, and Lee’s eyes start to dart around in search of a clear path to flee. Then it’s over, and there’s an awkward laugh between Ru and Margot, even if Lee is still uncertain. Ru gives me another Look. ‘Oh, she knows, does she?’ Stuff it, Ru.
“Besides, it’s on New Year’s Eve,” I go on. “So, really, the whole world celebrates for me every year.”
“Crap! I didn’t know! Happy late Birthday,” Margot says. She narrows her eyes at me. “You worked then, too, didn’t you?”
“It’s not like I could have drunk champagne,” I defend myself. Out of desperation, I add, “I always take Dominion Day off.”
“What’s Dominion Day?” Margot asks.
“Canada Day,” Lee says, then looks away when Margot looks towards him in her interested, probing way. It comes from signing, where eye contact and listening with expression is part of the culture, but it can be intense, especially for someone like Lee, who doesn’t want the attention. I wish he’d relax his posture a little and settle down. I feel bad for him.
“July 1st, before it was cool,” Ru adds.
“Was it ever cool?” Margot wonders.
“It was a pretty big deal at the time,” I assure her. Definitely one of the cooler things I’ve experienced, helping to build a colony and then watch it be declared officially its own country. She’ll be 150 years old this year, and I’m very proud of how she’s grown-up. Plenty of rough patches, of course, and many flaws still to work on, but in those frigid first years in New France, I couldn’t have imagined we’d be 35 million people one day.
Margot shrugs, and I have a stab of irritation that I force down. If I allowed myself to get angry at every person who didn’t appreciate history, I’d be furious all the time. Most young folks today can’t know what the world has gone through to get them here, and it’s not their fault they don’t. Still, I do worry we’ll forget completely one day. To be fair to Margot, she cares more than most about the past or is patient about listening to me ramble, at any rate.
“I’m not really sure about vampire etiquette, so stop me if I’m being rude, but is it cool to ask how old you two are?” Margot wonders. “Or is that, like, uncouth?”
“It’s totally couth,” Ru assures her. “I’m 147...ish. To be honest, I’m not sure about it. It wasn’t like now when they ask your birth year every time you visit a website. We all kind of knew how old we were ‘cause our mommas told us, but if Momma’s got a bunch of kids all close together, you might be confused with another one. I’m around 147.”
Margot’s face takes on an expression of half-awe, half-disbelief, and she makes a gesture like flicking water from one of her hands--the ASL version of ‘wow’. “What’s that like?”
“Same as being 47, but now I get to wear pants,” Ru says, and Margot chuckles.
“I’m only 54,” Lee says when attention goes to him.
“Oh, so you’re just a baby then,” Margot teases, probably unaware how accurate that is. “You still don’t look it. You and Mat look about the same, and he’s what…? 400ish?”
“380, as of December 31st,” I say.
“God, I feel young and stupid,” Margot says. She looks down at Louis. “I’m at least older than you, huh?” Louis has had enough of socializing and is lying in the snow at my feet, looking morose. “I know, pal, life is strange.”
“It’s still strange, even at my age, hun,” Ru says. “That never changes.”
Margot is soon off to join her arriving family, waving to a girl who looks very much like her, but more square in the face where Margot is round--her sister, I presume. Us old folks move along, finishing up our tour of the park.
“She seems nice,” Ru says, conversationally.
“Yeah,” Lee says before I can answer. Poor fellow, Ru’s head whips around from teasing me to look at him so fast that a few of her braids hit my shoulder. Lee’s lost in thought and doesn’t realize he’s dancing close to the edge of having his love life invaded in the name of Great Justice. “I didn’t know...she seems okay with you and...us.”
“Margot is very accepting,” I reply.
“How did she find out?” Ru asks me, now torn at who she wants to meddle with.
“A series of unfortunate events,” I say. “Little things that gave her pause but she wrote off, until the day when I spilt a thermos full of blood on the floor in front of her, and she realized it was blood and not the tomato juice I had been telling her it was. Then I had to come clean or have her think I was some sort of serial killer or cultist.”
“So, the usual way it happens,” Ru says.
I nod. “The usual way it happens.”
“And she wasn’t afraid? What if she told other people?” Lee asks, his brows knit together under his toque.
“She was petrified. But I’d never given her a reason to fear me before, and she’s smart enough to trust her instincts. And, as much as it makes me sound like some horrible abuser, there was very little chance anyone would have believed her if she told them. She left and I assumed she’d either find a reason to justify it in her head or believe me and come back. And she came back.”
“That was a risk, though,” Lee says.
“It’s always a risk,” I say, with a shrug. “But it doesn’t backfire as often as you’d think. There’s no reason to hide away. It’s like anything, if you find a good friend, they’ll remain a good friend. If they don’t remain a good friend, they were never truly a good friend in the first place.”
“And Margot’s a good friend?” Ru probes, eyebrows arched up in suggestion.
“A good friend,” I say, firmly.
Ru’s lip juts out in disappointment. I don’t know what it matters to her. I’ve had plenty of relationships in my life, when and if I want another, I’ll seek one out. I’m no monk.
“How do you know when the right time is or who the right person is?” Lee asks.
“It’s something you’ll learn over time,” Ru tells him. She takes his arm and squeezes it. “And hey, you got plenty of that.”
I don’t know how much of a dent Ru and I have made in Lee’s shell, but I think it’s good that we bumped into Margot to show him that it’s possible to make connections, even when you feel you’re on the outside looking in. We cover the rest of the main street, looking at the displays and popping into some of the shops. Ru buys a pashmina in (what else?) shades of red as an early Valentine’s present to herself, and Lee buys some sort of hot blend of spices at the organic food store. I buy Louis a new bone, which he refuses to take interest in. He’ll decide he wants it later when I’ve put it out of his reach.
We stop to listen to a concert on the way back, a local group that performs the ‘Golden Oldies’ of the 1950s and 60s. Lee and Louis sit down on a bench while Ru drags me out to dance amongst the other couples cutting a rug in the cleared area near the stage, despite the cold and the layers of clothing they’re wearing. We do a hybrid charleston/shag/lindy (Ru was quite the jazz hall baby at one point) with a modern twist, slipping a little on the slush and not risking anything too fancy as a result. Ru tries to get Lee to join her for the next set on her dance card, but he insists he can’t dance, not even a little and definitely ‘not like that’, so we watch the rest of the concert on our backsides instead of our feet.
Lee’s had enough after the band takes their last bows, and Ru and I don’t try to make him stay any longer, accepting his excuse of not wanting to be out on the road late at night, despite it barely being 20:30. We walk him to his bike and see him off. I feel a little like a parent trying to get his grown child to keep in touch more often. Lee promises to e-mail, and I think he will. I can’t do much more than I’ve done so far. It’s up to him to take the hand we’ve offered and pull himself up.
“He’s a nice boy,” Ru says.
“Back off of him a little now,” I warn. “You know you push. Let him figure it out on his own.”
Ru pouts. “I don’t like when I know what’s right for people and they don’t follow my advice.”
“You were as much a mess at his age.”
“I was flawless, Mathurin LeBlanc, don’t you pretend otherwise.”
Ru’s train back to Toronto doesn’t leave until the early morning, so she and I have the rest of the night to spend time together. We head back to my place, Louis flopping down in his bed with an exhausted sigh. I have given him quite a walk tonight. I sometimes forget he’s doesn’t have unlimited energy like I do.
Ru takes over my apartment, getting us drinks and browsing my Netflix account for something good to watch. I don’t mind. I do the same at her place.
She checks her phone for messages as the opening credits crawl up the television screen. “Oh, Candy’s replied! Great.” Her fingers tap the screen with alacrity.
“Who’s Candy?” I ask.
“She’s a woman down in New Orleans,” Ru says. “There’s a newborn in Baton Rouge that I’m trying to get someone to check on. Candy’s going to e-mail her and see if she wants to chat.”
I shake my head and pick up some knitting to work on. I’ll let the Louisiana chapter of the Vampire Outreach Service handle that problem. The Ontario chapter has already done its duty for the time being. Making new friends may be good for one’s mental health, but there’s something to be said for spending time with the ones you already have.