Charity’s little blue Honda Civic chugged up Highway 12 through the Sonoma Valley. Tommy in the back seat sang, “To day yis, da day I, go fwine!”
Beside her in the passenger’s seat, the male vampire (who had given his name as Peter) was strapped tightly in, paralyzed by the day. Every time a wing of sunshine drifted across his right arm, he moaned and his pants visibly tented in a raw sexuality that left Charity flustered and frightened.
Fortunately Tommy couldn’t see any of that. He had commented once, “Da man makin’ yotta noise!” Then he ignored the sounds altogether.
Why had she thought this a good idea? She’d hoped to kill two birds with one stone (a locution she’d always hated): curing another vampire and finding a great place for Tommy to fly. But of course Peter had collapsed on her living room floor when dawn first broke. She would have left him there but he was determined to help her, having offered. So she’d fetched her car from three blocks away and dragged him out the front door and down the red concrete front steps.
Fortunately he was small and lithe or she’d never have managed it. As it was, a couple of other early risers saw her dragging a man to her car and she nearly died of shame; they probably thought he was drunk and that he’d slept with her. Thank goodness for morning fog! Because when they got north of the Bay Area and the slanting sunlight hit him, he started gasping and moaning, practically having sex with the empty air.
But they’d made it this far, with Peter calling out directions from where he lolled in his seat. She’d tilted it back and strapped him in tightly, but shoulder strap seatbelts weren’t really made for holding corpses in place.
“Y’ lookin’ f’ Lawndale Road,” his thin voice came, just decipherable over the noise of the old engine. “Sh’d be on the left soon.”
“Aunt Chatty? We be dere soon?”
“Soon, my angel.” She scanned the road ahead. A winery on the left, a winery on the right. You’d think that people would never be able to drink dark red fluid again after five years of vampires! Charity never drank and couldn’t understand why anyone ever would. To her, wine tasted like moldy grape juice.
They sped past more lines of grapevines behind quaint wooden fences. There were numerous left turns, none of them Lawndale.
The vampire gave off a pleasant smell which reminded Charity of her grandmother and the Christmas baking she used to do every year. Sugar cookies and candied walnuts, round Russian Tea Cakes rolled in powdered sugar and tasting like buttery heaven, creamy fudge. Charity had never been happier than at her grandmother’s house, away from crazy Sasha Bernstein.
But a pleasant memory of her mother came to her: Sasha, having just painted her nails as purple as grape wine, danced around the living room waving them in the air to dry. She could be so funny, and she had a good voice as she sang one of the old songs from the forties which she loved. “Whe-e-e-n I went a dancin’, no special lad I was encouragin’,” she sang. “Every likely laddie was ma Heeland Flame!” If only those times could have been the only times! No pawing boyfriends, no sharp smell of drunken vomit, no crazy eyes darting left and right.
A truck backed out of a driveway on the left and into her lane. Charity started to brake. Then, mad with sudden courage, she pulled into the middle lane, the lane for turns, and passed the truck, waving at the driver. She felt good! She felt peace inside. She was doing something worth doing and she felt good. They passed a gas station and a few houses.
Then they saw a sign for Sugarloaf Ridge State Park on the right. “Kay, ‘kay, it’s comin’ up,” the vampire whispered, his eyes flicking left and right. But they drove on around a curve and on and still further and Charity began to wonder what she was doing.
But suddenly, there it was, like a miracle: a green sign that said “Lawndale Road,” just like the vampire had said. She felt triumphantly vindicated for her faith as she turned left onto the country lane. Straight as a schoolbook rhyme it cut between fields, lined with Live Oak trees and past a weeping willow which draped itself over thick telephone cables as if it were crying on their shoulder or whispering confidentially in their ear.
A sharp right, then a sharp left: this was one of those country roads which went around farmer’s fields, not across them. Then suddenly it wasn’t fields but hills on their right and Peter was wriggling in his seat. “Here, here, turn right here. This is the lot. Awww, man.” Was he crying? She swung right into a small, empty dirt parking lot. The sun was already bright on the white gravel. The day was going to be hot.
The silence rang when she shut the engine off. There were indeed tears in vampire Peter’s eyes. “Aww, Jean,” he said sadly, wistfully. Tommy bounced up and down in the back seat. Charity started to say, shyly, “Jean was … your wife?” But Tommy unbuckled his seatbelt and nuzzled his head against her shoulder like a kitten. “Tum on, Aunt Chatty, yet’s go!”
Peter struggled with all his might, then sank back into the seat. “Cain’t do it. I don’t know how you do it, little guy.” He looked so sad that Charity said, “I’d carry you but I’m just not strong enough.”
“Cawwy me, Aunt Chatty, cawwy me.”
She ruffled his hair. When she opened the car door, the lot smelled of heat and the rubber from her tires and old horse droppings. While Tommy ran back and forth and squirmed between the bars of the gate at the head of the fire road, Charity went around and opened the passenger door. “One try, just one more try. I’d like you to be able to come with us, if you can.” Where had the old quiet, helpless Charity gone? She liked this new Charity. But though she took his hand and pulled and encouraged him, she couldn’t get him to move. And with the sun full on him, he lost his mind with the pleasure. She was suddenly scared: if he could move, she would be raped! Instantly she was ashamed: just like a white girl, to automatically think that about a black man! Thank god he was so lost in pleasure that he didn’t notice. She stroked his face, which was warmer than it had been.
She was just about to shut the door when Tommy appeared at her elbow. “Tum on, yet’s go! You tuming, Uncle Peter?” At his question, “You coming?” Charity blushed. He was so cheerily unaware that Peter was in sexual ecstasy. Uncle Peter was making noise and that was just that. He tugged at the vampire’s elbow. But Peter still couldn’t get up and walk. “G’wan, g’wan, leave me here, I’ll be fine. Go. Up that trail, ‘s the only trail you can take. Go.”
She felt bad about locking him in the car, which was bound to get uncomfortably hot. But if a stranger came along and found him alone there, helpless in the daytime, he might get killed. And she cared about the souls she’d taken under her wing.
So she and Tommy headed up the trail without him, Tommy calling out, “I walk into da woods, ho-kay?” She looked back once at her tired old brown car in the bright morning sun. But she soon lost herself in the pleasure of walking under cool trees, Tommy holding her hand, or skipping on ahead and cartwheeling back.
She was at peace, except that something tugged at the back of her mind. Her face went red as she remembered Peter’s raw sexuality and her automatic fear that he would hurt her. Racist! The man who actually had raped her a year ago had been white with a trucker’s face and handlebar moustache and that cockily arrogant look which still made her boil with helpless rage.
Underneath her fear and shame, she realized that she felt … aroused? She had had very few love affairs and all had been with people of her color. She found herself furtively thinking about a black man as a lover, stealing a guilty glance at the oblivious Tommy. She couldn’t go quite so far as to imagine making love with Peter. She was not so ignorant as to think someone black would be (she blushed) bigger in size or have any (she blushed again) secret lovemaking techniques. But it would be exotic and slightly wicked – or should she even think like that?
And besides, he was a vampire. So did that mean it wouldn’t count? But she wasn’t that kind of soul, she was helping these vampires, she wasn’t doing this for her pleasure. Anyway, could a human even do that with a vampire? But there was that sweet girl Sally with that big woman who was clearly her girlfriend and she, the girlfriend, was a vampire. What did they do together?
“Soon, Aunt Chatty?” Tommy’s voice drifted from up ahead. He was sitting on a picnic table in a grove.
“Soon, my lamb.” And as she answered him, the source of her discomfort swam up and bit her. In order to fly like Lavinia had done, Tommy would have to take off his clothes and get the sun on him. Would he stand there with a little boy erection? Would he be jerking and spasming like Peter had done? How could she watch that?
She still one of her mother’s boyfriends: she couldn’t have been more than five and he had started to lift her dress. Sasha Bernstein had slapped his hand away, saying “Cut that out, she’s too young,” like it was a big joke. The boyfriend had winked at her, Charity, so that her mom couldn’t see. She had run to cling to her mother’s leg and her mother had pushed her away, saying “Cut that out,” in exactly the same tone of voice.
She didn’t want to see a naked little boy with a hard little penis, she didn’t. But with a courage which was as great as she had shown when she let the vampires in, she resolved to do whatever she had to. She had promised. She had promised, she had given a little boy her word. She would help him fly and she would watch him and praise him and never blush. They would certainly be alone, there would be nobody else to see; not one other car had been in the parking lot and they had chosen this place because it was so isolated.
The trail passed the picnic area, hugged the side of the hill, crossed under power lines which hummed far overhead, turned a sharp switchback where the hillside had eroded into red powder. Charity sweated but her strength was good. She walked steadily. Her feet were sure, though they hurt and her white tennis shoes were turning brownish red. She was going to do this thing for Tommy.
At last, a trail on the left led to Ledson Marsh. They came out from under the trees and found themselves in a high green bowl with a wet, verdant floor. Hills rose on every side. Peter had been right. This was a very special, isolated place. They might have been a thousand miles from any city. There was not another soul in sight, not a sound to be heard. High overhead a hawk circled.
There was no more delaying. Nobody else would see.
“Guess what, my little man,” she said, in her best wonderful secret voice.
“I go fwyin? Wight heeyoh?”
“Right here, right now, absolutely.” She spied a faint trail leading deeper into the middle of the bowl where lush green plants grew tall. “Actually, let’s go this way, just a little off the main path.”
“Ho-kay!” He scampered where she had pointed. She followed, the scrape of her shoes on dirt and gravel replaced by noiseless padding on spongey grass. Her jaw was tight. Real mothers see their little boys without clothes all the time, she reminded herself. It doesn’t mean anything wicked. Guiltily, she realized she still had done nothing to try to find the boy’s real parents.
“I tum into da mawsh, dat ho-kay?” his high voice chirruped.
“Oh, don’t jump into any puddles, dear, you’ll get all wet!” She rounded a curve and found that the faint path ended at the edge of a sparkling pool. Tommy was as still as a supplicant waiting for the blessing of a priest, his hands by his sides, his head cocked to the right. Twenty feet out in the late morning marsh, the sun gleamed on a magnificent bird which had to be a great blue heron but which looked like an embodiment of an earth god.
Charity’s heart beat fast and her fingers tingled, and not from nervous anticipation. After her Catholic grandmother had taken over the raising of her once and for all, and just before her confirmation, she had felt the presence of God or an angel standing by her bed and had flung herself onto her knees and prayed fervently, thankful that she didn’t have to live with her mother anymore, praying forgiveness for her wish that her mother would die. She remembered that sense of being in the presence of love, of a being who cherished her, of something beyond her understanding.
Now, watching Tommy struck still at the edge of the marsh, she felt again that sense of something beyond her other senses. She saw nothing and the impression was fleeting but her heart hammered and her eyes filled with tears. Tommy, she understood, had not asked her if it was okay for him to enter the marsh. He had asked permission to enter from some protective spirit of this place. She realized he had done the same thing (I walk into da woods, ho-kay?) when he had entered the forest.
Sally Yan, had she been there, would have nearly seen her little cat goddess fairy. Tommy, although Charity could not know this, saw a great big golden ball like the sun.
And Charity sensed, at the edge of a 7th sense of hearing, the keening whine of an anguished scream, so subtle that she never identified it as the source of a shiver which couldn’t begin to mar the perfection of this moment.
Then the tableau broke and Tommy threw off his clothes in a non-stop whirlwind, pushing off pants, socks and shoes in one motion as only a child can. He panted as if he had just run twenty times around the marsh with his little elbows pumping. Charity kept her eyes firmly on the back of his head as his pink (with new blood?) body appeared fully.
He flipped into the air like a leaf. “Yeee-heee-heeeeee!” His energy was sexual and completely asexual at the same time, the utterly innocent sexuality of a child who has never had adult sexuality forced on him. Yes, his little penis was as hard as a pencil; she saw that although she tried not to. But as he spun and fluttered in midair, crying, “Yook at me, I’m a ‘paceship!” she realized that there was nothing for her to be embarrassed about.
She couldn’t stop sobbing. Every child should have their sexuality be this this sweetly innocent. God Damn the grownups who stole this magical experience from children!
“Why cwyin’, Aunt Chatty?” With a mastery that would have made Lavinia swear in amazement, Tommy zipped over to Charity and hovered like a little fairy, eyes in front of hers, small warm hands reaching out to stroke her hair.
“It’s, oh my little man, you’re such an angel, it’s nothing you’ve done wrong. Sometimes grownups cry even when they’re happy.” She sniffled and put on a smile. “Silly, huh?”
He cocked his head, thinking about it, then nodded gravely.
Charity laughed. “You go play, my little man. Be careful, don’t fly too high, but—”
“How high c’n I fwy?”
“Um, don’t go higher than the tops of the hills. Come down at once if you see anybody, okay?”
“Ho-kay!” And he zipped off like a pink bumblebee.
I must tell others about this, Charity realized, but who and how? She was fiercely protective of Tommy. Nobody was going to use him as a laboratory animal! She didn’t know how to reach Sally or Lavinia.
But she did know how to reach Jesse and Walter. She thought of sweet vampire Walter, who would never harm a fly. If he could see the boy fly like a master with no practice or training, he might know what to do. She would call Walter when she got home, she decided, and ask his advice.
“Watch, Aunt Chatty,” Tommy’s voice piped from far above. “You watchin’?”
Her heart stopped as he plummeted but he swung through a swift arc like a hummingbird and was high above her again before she could scream.
“Did you see?” he cried. “Did you, did you?”