Grace had so few memories; her childhood, her real family, all shadows, unknown to her, all were lost. She had so many questions, but the one constant was the unknown. The only thing she knew with any certainty was that she was alone and different. She’d always been alone, at least as far back as she could remember. Now each day was much the same, working the night shift at Doctors Hospital and leaving before sunrise.
Early on in her employment, Grace’s managers gave her a difficult time because she refused to work day shifts. She was given written warnings and she quietly accepted their reprimands and threats of dismissal. But the managers had no real intentions of firing her. It was too difficult to find people willing to work nights and even fewer as highly skilled as Grace. They stopped asking her to work overtime, or to change shifts, and stopped considering her for promotions, which was exactly what she wanted. Promotions were of no interest to her; she just wanted to be left alone to do her job.
The managers didn’t understand Grace’s refusals to be more accommodating to shift needs because in every other respect she was an exceptional employee. She didn’t take sick days, was never late and willingly covered for others on the night shift. But she couldn’t share her fears with them. She couldn’t tell anyone. What could she say, that she was allergic to the sun? True, but it was more than that. She believed she was a vampire, or some freak of nature. Telling someone would mean a quick trip to the booby hatch. They would study her; try to find ways to fit her condition into a human illness, physical or psychological. No doubt, the doctors would want to test their theories and prove that her fears were without merit, maybe by taking her into the sun. They’d probably diagnose her as having polymorphic light eruption or sensitivity to sunlight. But her differences were so much more than that and her concerns were not unfounded. She’d felt the sun burn her skin badly, but no doubt, what would really give the medical professionals pause was her diet. It was mostly liquid, blood.
Over the years, she’d learned how to take care of herself which meant two things; first, not allowing anyone to get close enough to notice her differences and two, keeping a low profile. She was good at both, which necessitated her being a loner. Grace never knew her biological family. She was found wandering the streets, dirty and hungry. They’d estimated her age to be about eight or nine, at the time. She wasn’t able to give the police any information and they weren’t able to find any relatives so she was placed in the foster care system. Grace learned quickly what happened to kids like herself, abandoned and truly alone. She was shuffled from one home to another, like a gypsy, moving always moving, another new school, another set of foster parents, another set of foster siblings, always another set of combatants to deal with. Because she had no family checking on her, trying to get her out of the foster system she knew abuse well. Like so many others in the same situation, she was misplaced like an old pair of shoes and forgotten. There were just too many kids in the system needing attention and not enough social workers. And many of the social workers they had were over worked and burned out. So, for years Grace was lost in the muddy whirl of the foster care system fighting to survive. But, she’d been lucky, smart, and very strong. She was stronger than the average human, so when attempts were made to have her sit on “uncle’s lap” or “daddy’s lap,” she’d been able to fight off her attackers. But she paid a heavy price for those victories, for her defiance, with physical punishment, having food withheld and vicious verbal abuse. But she survived!
Around the age of twelve, she began having difficulty with sunlight, complaining about it hurting her eyes and burning her skin. Grace had always cherished the times she could be away from that terrible home. Whether at school, the library, or the playground on the rare occasions she was permitted to go, she took every opportunity to escape the confines of that house. But, as her skin and eyes grew more sensitive, she dreaded leaving the house and worse, she began craving blood. Grace continued to complain to her foster parents about her sensitivity to light but didn’t reveal her dark cravings. Her complaints were dismissed as attempts at getting attention until one day she received first-degree burns while walking home from school. After that, her foster parents disliked her a great deal more; and shortly considered tossing her back into the foster care system to be someone else’s problem. But they were greedy and keeping her meant an additional $350 a month in their pockets. So their greed won the day. They petitioned the school district to home school Grace, citing her medical condition as cause. And that’s when things went from bad to worse.
“Grace, hello Grace… Earth to Grace.”
She jumped and looked up at JJ as she pulled back from her memories. JJ stood in front of her looking down at her plate with a questioning glance and wondering what she was thinking about to be so far away. She’d been trying to get her attention for a while. JJ knew Grace was a loner, with no family. She felt sorry for her and didn’t think she was the snob considered by many of the staff. Why Grace chose to keep herself at a distance, she had no idea. But JJ knew Grace was lonely no matter how hard she tried to hide it and so she tried to be her friend. But, Grace never let her guard down. There was a barrier between them, things that Grace would never share with her, things that made her look sad when she didn’t know anyone was looking. Sensing Grace was proud and wouldn’t take well to what she perceived as pity; JJ didn’t pry, instead she accepted the boundaries of their relationship.
“Oh, hey, sorry, I was daydreaming. I love the rain but it makes me sleepy; and it seems like it’s been raining for days. If this keeps up, we’ll need to start building arks,” Grace said smiling in invitation. “Sit, sit.”
JJ twisted her face in a playful scowl as she pointed at what Grace washaving for dinner. “Is that all you’re having? No wonder you’re so...fit,” she said putting emphasis on the word fit as if it was a curse. “I wish I had your self-control, when it comes to food, pizza and cheeseburgers are my best friends.”
Grace just laughed, liking JJ and her ability to offer friendship without being intrusive. She was shapely and very womanly. At five feet two inches tall, she carried a mass of brown hair with blonde highlights, like a lion’s mane. She was funny and self-deprecating and Grace enjoyed spending time with her but she didn’t fool herself. She couldn’t share her secrets with JJ, not with anyone. So they were work acquaintances, office friends, with no interaction outside the work place.
Smiling inwardly, Grace watched as JJ tore into her food knowing she wouldn’t like her diet, which now consisted mostly of blood and a little food from time to time. “I’m not very hungry. Besides, you know I don’t like to eat big meals here.”
JJ snorted while gesturing at the meager contents of her tray. “That’s what you always say. But to tell the truth, in the three years you’ve been here, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you finish anything on your tray. What do you live on anyway, air?” Grace forced laugher not wanting JJ to notice she found her observations unsettling. “I’m glad you’re so concerned about my diet but that’s not going to change the fact that I prefer to eat light on the job. You know, I never know what I’m gonna see or smell down there. Do you want me heaving on a full stomach?”
Grace said while making an exaggerated grimace. “It’s just easier to deal with all that stuff with less in my stomach, okay?” Then in an attempt to move the focus of the conversation from herself, Grace added, “I can’t wait to get off duty, my feet are killing me.” That simple statement was invitation enough for JJ to launch into what seemed like a never-ending monologue about her job and her jerk of a boss. Grace only needed to nod her head, or say “you’re kidding” or some such to keep up her side of the conversation. Finally, JJ stood up gathering her tray and belongings. “I gotta go. I’m a little behind in my work and don’t want or need a talking to because he gave me the project late. If it’s not done on time it’s my butt not his. It’s good to be the king!” she added, full and brimming with sarcasm.
Grace looked at her watch as she came to her feet. “Me too, I have to get back. See you later.”
“Later,” said JJ as she moved away.
Grace dumped her tray and left the cafeteria ignoring the glances. She never understood the attraction men felt for her nor had she ever felt that kind of attraction for any man or woman. She knew that her asexual attitude only further confirmed her difference from everyone, from normal people. She often overheard her co-workers going on and on about some man or woman they wanted to date, wanted to have sex with, or thought they were falling in love with. Her lack of interest and input didn’t go unnoticed; it only added to her isolation. Many employees thought she was arrogant because she kept to herself, and refused all comers. No one got to first base with the frost maiden, no dates, no nothing. Let them think whatever they want! Grace thought as she quickly made her way out of the cafeteria and down the three flights of stairs to the first floor.
From the first floor, Grace took the employee elevator to the basement where she worked as an autopsy assistant, cutting, and suturing bodies, preserving specimens and supporting the medical examiners’ efforts in determining cause of death. Her first stop was the ladies room. She washed her hands as she thought back to the many schools she’d been shuffled through. From her earliest memories, she’d always been fascinated with the sciences, biology, chemistry, and human physiology. She’d always been an excellent student in spite of the lack of continuity in her education. Grace had stolen every moment of study she could knowing that someday it would be her means of escaping the foster system and a way of supporting herself. Her second greatest area of study had been computers and programing. Grace used those skills to create an identity for herself and a paper trail most people would have. Using the false identity, she laid the foundation for her escape, which by the time she was about 17 was imperative. She’d grown into a beautiful young woman and was fighting off more and more advances. She knew that eventually she would lose. So, when the opportunity presented itself, she took it. She found a small-furnished studio apartment, stole the ATM card of her foster parent, and took $2,000. She was lucky, finding a job quickly. Then she enrolled in an online Forensic Science Program and at the end of two years; she graduated at the top of her class and found the job she now held. Mindful of the crime she’d committed by stealing the money that funded her escape she saved tirelessly. When she had enough money, Grace sent her foster parents a money order for the entire amount with a simple note that said, “Thanks for the loan.”
Reflections set aside, Grace mentally readied herself for the tasks she would have to perform as an autopsy assistant. Leaving the bathroom Grace made her way to the second autopsy suite. It was quiet. The graveyard shift usually was quiet although you never could tell how many patients there might be on any given night. Grace took a deep breath in the quiet and knew immediately there were two new bodies in the freezer, as Dr. Martingale came in. His hazel eyes were kind and intelligent. His hands were thick and strong, yet he was always gentle with his patients. He smiled in greeting and started giving instructions on how to prepare their first patient, although they both knew she didn’t need supervision. Grace was the most accurate and proficient technician. She knew the routine well and set to work collecting specimens.
They worked expertly together as Grace anticipated Dr. Martingale’s needs, moving the process along effortlessly and soon the night shift drew to a close. She worked quickly wanting to make sure she fulfilled her duties before leaving. She took pride in her work and didn’t leave unpleasant tasks for the next shift, as some technicians did. Grace slid the little girl into the refrigerated drawer and made sure her solutions and instruments were all cleaned and returned them to their proper places. The day shift would find everything in order.
Grace placed her protective gear in the laundry bin and grabbed her handbag heading out of the dressing room. She passed Wilson and Doreatha in the hallway, waving her hellos and wishing them a good day as she headed for the bathroom, always her last stop before leaving the building. Having spent the first years of her new life as Grace Stone constantly looking over her shoulder she never completely let down her guard. This meant no one could know where she lived; so she avoided leaving the hospital by normal means. When she thought about the lengths she took to enter and leave the hospital by such a circuitous method she didn’t kid herself. It was overkill, but she couldn’t bring herself to stop. She listened at the door for a few minutes, checked the corridor to make sure no one was there and then entered the doorway to the subbasement after keying the code on the access pad. The door closed silently behind her. She kept the door well-oiled and balanced to make sure there would be no creaking noises to draw attention to its use. There was no chance anyone in security would notice the unauthorized entry; she’d made sure of that with some creative manipulations to the security system program.
The subbasement was the perfect method for entering and leaving the building without being seen. No one was going to follow her into the maze of corridors without her knowing it. While she could use the normal entrances and exits, she wouldn’t take the chance of anyone finding out where she lived. The abuses of her early life and the unintended loan by her past foster parents left her wary and always looking over her shoulder.
After reaching the bottom of the steep stairs, she walked quickly through the winding pathways in almost complete darkness. A cacophony of sounds peppered her sensitive ears, pipes hissing, mice scampering and machines surging in action. She knew the pathways well and hurriedly traversed the zigzagging maze until reaching the door that led to a lower level, the subbasement. After several minutes, she arrived at the service pipe entrance to the massive storm drain.
Years ago, the hospital had undergone major renovations and the construction of a new connection to the storm drain system. The old pipes were deemed unsafe, water removed and closed off. She moved through the walkway arriving at the emergency maintenance entrance to the old storm drain system. She entered the door and sped the few hundred yards in the passageway that went under the service rode of the expressway and exited two blocks from the hospital. From there she had a fifteen-minute walk to reach her basement apartment.
Malachi stood just inside the door of Grace’s apartment. His nostrils flared, drawing the scent of the room deeply into his lungs. It smells of vampire, and human, different. I have found her! He thought as he moved around the room, viewing the space as if he’d entered a shrine. Upon entering the apartment immediately on the left side, it opened into a small galley kitchen. The walls were painted a soft creamy yellow and the cabinets were the brightest white. In the drain board, he saw one plate and glass. He opened the refrigerator and what he saw gave him pause. Several packets of blood lay on a shelf. He picked up a packet and sniffed it, his nose crinkling at the odor. Looking at the items Malachi was momentarily overcome with sorrow for the loneliness they both had endured.
He understood all too well, what it meant to be lonely. With no life mate, the decades had worn on him. But he’d refused to choose another mate even though he was told Sapphira had gone into the Void. No one would have frowned on him for finding another mate. In fact, it was expected that he would mate again, after all near immortally was too long for a solitary existence. It didn’t make sense, at times not even to himself; but he’d clung to his hope and belief that she lived. Malachi wasn’t the only single male; although his father acted as if he were and that it was something to be ashamed of. But he cared nothing of what was expected of him. He believed Sapphira lived and had continued to search. His father, Ephraim, had aggressively urged him to Bind with another and his refusals had widened a growing rift between them.
Malachi moved into the main living area of her apartment. The walls were painted with a beautifully intricate forest scene. He knew instinctively that she’d painted the design. She was truly gifted and he was moved by the breadth of her talent. Near the left wall sat a small table with two chairs. On the right wall, there were two closets and a chest of drawers before the bend of the L-shape of the room turned into the sleeping area. In the far left corner of the room behind the table, a small television sat on a stand. To the right of the television there was a three-tier bookshelf, on which lay a laptop. Moving to the computer Malachi stroked the keys with the lightest touch picking up the oil secretions from her skin and sniffed before his eyes shifted to the bed covered in a forest green, moleskin quilt. He stood staring at the bed, remembering his dreams, dreams of finding her. Then his eyes flickered to the clock on the night table.
He glided into the small bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. It held few items, a container of thick body cream, rose oil, toothpaste, some hair clips, a hair brush and a few combs. That was it; there was no makeup and none of the frilly items human women were supposedly known to use. And while she was not completely human, she’d been raised among them so he expected to find the typical trappings of a female human. He was wrong.
Malachi closed the cabinet door and looked at the fluffy white towels neatly stacked on the laundry hamper. He closed his eyes and for a moment, he swayed, jealous of her towels. They’d been wrapped around her body, his life mate. “Now, is not the time for this!” The sound of his own voice helped to break the spell he’d fallen under. She will be home soon. I must prepare to reveal myself to her. There are things to be done before I go, Malachi thought. Quickly, he moved around the apartment purposefully confiscating her weapons, and then he vanished.
Grace walked hurriedly; the sun was coming up, less than an hour away. She could smell it coming but as she turned the corner to her block she hesitated, unsure why, something was off. Okay, now I’m imagining things. I’m getting more paranoid by the day. Just stop this! I’m finding things to worry about. Just relax and go home! Grace thought, berating herself.
Moving quickly, she went to her door and entered. She looked around her small basement apartment meticulously checking to make sure everything was secure. Unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong; she removed her shoes and began undressing. She felt restless and uneasy; the same way she’d felt when she’d first run away from her foster parents.
Grace checked the contents of the refrigerator and started to take out a packet of blood, but returned it. Her nerves had her stomach churning so she finished removing her pants and shirt and returned them to their hangers. Tired she lay across the bed and turned on the television mindlessly flipping through channels as she reclined. Weary, she dropped off to sleep, but woke up some hours later and turned off the television. Powerless to determine why she was still jumpy, she ran water for a bath. Grace pressed the button on the CD player and Vivaldi began to play softly in the background. Music always had a soothing effect on her or up until now, it had. As the bathtub filled, Grace hummed along, brushing her long hair, trying to calm down. It had been a long time since she felt this spooked.
The tub filled and she climbed in sighing as the hot water enveloped her. She lay there a long time allowing the water to cool and then adding more hot water, repeating the process several times. She slowly began to relax; she dozed, and then sat up suddenly. The lights were off in the other room. I left the lights on. I know I did! she thought. Her heart began to race and she was scared. She looked out the bathroom door into the shadows of the next room and knew someone was there.Then she heard a voice say, “I will not hurt you.” The voice was deep and rumbling. Grace thought her heart would burst from her body as a tall man stepped from the shadows into the doorway. She tried to scream; her mouth was open, but nothing came out. For that moment Grace was so afraid she didn’t think of her nakedness, didn’t even try to cover herself. She only felt fear. The huge man stood there quietly staring into her eyes and made no attempt to get closer. He was tall, stooping to peer in at her, his eyes never moving from her face. “I have need of speaking with you. There is much to be discussed. For the moment, I hold your voice so that you do not scream, so that you do not attract attention,” his voice gentled as he continued. “I know you are frightened. But, I will not hurt you,” he said punctuating each word for effect. “I will wait for you in the other room. Clothe yourself, and then come to me so we can talk,” he paused staring at her with his penetrating eyes and Grace felt as if he were looking in her soul, examining her thoughts and feelings. She felt completely and utterly vulnerable, naked in more than the literal sense. “I know what you are thinking.” His violet eyes narrowed, penetrating further. “I know about the weapons you have hidden in various places of your dwelling. They have been removed so that you cannot hurt yourself or attempt to harm me. Before I leave, I will return each to its proper place. Please clothe yourself,” he said before stepping into the shadows and closing the door behind him.
The water grew cold again. Grace sat there chilled with fright trying to calm herself and then reached for the knife that should have been taped to the underside of the bathtub. She felt for it in a craze, but it wasn’t there. She stepped out of the bathtub and hurried into her clothes grabbing a pair of old jeans and sweatshirt she left hanging on a nail that she used as a clothes hook. She spun around looking at the confines of the room and then plopped down on the toilet seat, taking deep breaths trying to think of what to do. She looked for anything she could use as a weapon and then checked for the knife again. It should have been there, but it was gone.
Grace forced herself to calm down breathing deeply and concentrating on trying to hear movement from the next room. She heard nothing. She tried speaking again, to scream, to yell, but she still had no voice. She rubbed her elbows and forearms while looking around the room searching for weapons, but knew there were none there. What should I do? I can’t stay here forever and if I bang on the walls to get the landlord’s attention, that could bring another kind of trouble...the landlord comes to the door…maybe gets into a fight with that man…police are called...police require reports…maybe a trip to the precinct…I can’t go out...they might look around and find the blood in the refrigerator...What am I gonna do? She sat a while longer and then accepted the fact that she had no other choice than to go see what he wanted. She looked at the clock and saw that more than an hour had passed since he closed the door, but it felt like seconds. Slowly she stepped to the door, placed her trembling hand on the knob, took several more deep breaths, and opened it.
He’d turned on the lights and was sitting at her small table. He dwarfed the table with his massive size and presence. She gave the man a quick glance and saw that he was staring at her, before looking away. He said nothing and she felt herself growing angry, really and truly mad. I’ve worked hard to make this place of safety and refuge for myself and now this! Why is this happening? This isn’t right. Why can’t I just be left alone!
Malachi felt the buildup of her aggression and braced for her verbal tirade. The room was heavy with silence for so long Grace heatedly let loose on the stranger, without thinking of the possible consequences. “Do you mind telling me how the devil you got in here and what you want?” she demanded, feeling surprise and relief at hearing her voice.
Her voice washed over him like silken strands, low and husky. Malachi was so distracted by the sound of her voice that momentarily he didn’t respond to her question. Forcing himself to focus, he said “Later I will explain by what means I was able to enter your dwelling, but first let me introduce myself, my name is Malachi and I have been looking for you for a very long time. We have much to discuss.”
He made every effort to keep his voice even, but his heart was racing and he was looking at her with the eyes of a man long starved for the very reason for his existence. Malachi watched Grace step further into the room as he used every self-discipline method he ever learned to reign in his galloping emotions.
She angled into the corner where her chest of drawers made an -shaped alcove. While standing there she tried to move as casually as possible, placing her hands behind her as if resting against the wall but actually she was searching for the knife she kept taped to the back of the chest of drawers, but found nothing.
“It is not there, your knife,” Malachi said quietly. Grace started at his words before bringing her hand out. Her brows knotted in confusion and anger. She was so very confused. What was going on? He didn’t seem to be robbing her or attacking her, so what did he want? She stilled, waiting for what, she didn’t know. She knew she should be trying to get away, but her feet wouldn’t move, couldn’t move. Suddenly she felt as if whatever he was about to tell her would change her life for all time; his words would change her destiny.
Malachi just watched her, amazed at her beauty. He’d searched so long he’d almost acquiesced to the belief of his people that she had gone into the Void, that he was wasting his time. But, they were wrong! He’d dreamed of her all his life and now here she stood, tall, with long legs, full breasts, pale cappuccino colored skin, high cheekbones and intense gray eyes. Her long copper-auburn hair still wet from her bath, hung almost to her waist. He thought he’d known what to expect, but here she was and more stunning than he’d been capable of imagining, more beautiful than in his dreams. Overwhelmed, he found it difficult to say the words he had practiced saying so many times. So, for a moment, he put his head down into his hands, just breathing.
When he looked up, his violet eyes were glowing with emotion so intense that Grace trembled. “Will you sit with me?” he asked.
But, she didn’t move; Grace wanted to hear what he had to say. No she needed to hear what he was about to say, but she wasn’t a complete fool. She wasn’t getting any closer to the Goliath of a man. She remained standing in her corner. When she didn’t move, he began to reveal the secrets that he’d waited decades to tell her.
“You will find it very difficult to believe and accept what I have to say. I only ask that you listen to me and when I finish I will leave you, if that is what you wish.”
He took another deep breath and jumped off the precipice. “I knew your parents. I know your people. I am like you, different, a blood drinker.” As he spoke of knowing her parents her face furrowed in disbelief. She stared into his eyes as her heart accelerated, not because of fear, but out of hope.
“I have been searching for you all my adult life and at many times feared you had gone in the Void. But I did not give up; I could not stop searching for you. In my soul, I knew you still lived.”