The doorbell pulled me back from the edge of sleep, the equations and calculations beneath my cruel red pen long reduced to an incomprehensible haze of scribbles. I peered at the clock, praying that no one else would be roused by the unwelcome chimes. “This had better be an emergency,” I muttered, hoping of course that it wasn’t.
The light in the front porch stayed resolutely dark. Not for the first time, I cursed the dodgy electrics of our new house. I peered out at a shadowy figure wreathed in almost impenetrable blackness. This has been a deeply unpleasant winter, cold enough to keep the ancient boiler rattling along continuously, not cold enough to turn the unending rain into blanket of Christmas snow.
Rain lashed against the glass last night as I wrestled with the key, and with my own misgivings. Was I a fool to open the door in the middle of the night to this unknown person? There was no security chain, nothing to bar entry if my visitor proved hostile. Unhappily, I opened the door a crack.
“Can I come in?”
The voice told me what my eyes could not. “Of course,” I said, opening the door fully and stepping back.
She was the ghost of the young woman I used to know so well. Her cheeks once flushed and full of life were pale and gaunt, her grey-blue Audrey Hepburn eyes fragile and haunted, bereft of the familiar merriment. Her long, red hair that once curled like wild fire now draped darkly about her face and shoulders, and as soaked from the rain as her black jeans and violet coat.
Sighing, she kicked off her ankle boots and unwrapped herself from the violet, revealing a flower-design T-shirt wet enough to make her lack of a bra very apparent. Her exposed arms were densely inked with arcane glyphs and symbols. She had never looked more like the witch she claimed to be. “I’ll explain everything,” she said. “I promise. But first, I need a shower. And dry clothes. Please.”
It was not the first time Alyth had turned up on my doorstep begging a shower and fresh clothes, and there was something reassuring in the familiarity. I held my tongue patiently as I showed her how to use the shower, and found her a towel, and clothes from my sleeping wife’s wardrobe, and by the time she came downstairs again I had a cafetière ready for us, and two chairs pulled close to the fire.
Alyth curled her hands about the mug I handed her, her pale, trembling fingers absorbing its heat, but looked down at its black contents with an expression of distaste. “I don’t suppose you have wine,” she said. “Red, preferably.”
I nodded, and returned a minute later with a newly opened Chianti and a glass. I poured for her, then sat back and waited. Our kitten chose this moment to introduce himself, jumping up onto the arm of Alyth’s chair, nearly sending the untouched contents of her mug flying. She recovered quickly. “Well, hello there,” she said, laughing. “What’s your name?”
“Mr Mistoffelees,” I supplied, prompting another laugh, and I caught a glimpse of the Alyth I used to know.
The moment passed, however. “I shouldn’t have come,” she said, not looking at me. “I wouldn’t have come, but I had to. I’m sorry. I need my stuff. Lindsay says you have it.”
“So Lindsay knows you’re alive?”
Alyth squirmed uncomfortably in her chair, and nodded. “I returned on the solstice. Only my family knows. And now you.” She looked at me with a sudden intensity. “No doubt you will feel compelled to write a blog post updating the world about my status…”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
She shrugged. “By the time you do, I’ll be gone again.”
“Gone where, Alyth? Where the hell have you been for the past two years. I’ve been worried sick. We all have.”
“I’m sorry,” she said with a sigh. “I lost track of time. Quite literally. From my perspective, I was there only a few days. A week. Two at the most. I was delirious for much of it.”
“But where?” I insisted, wondering whether she had been some anonymous coma patient for the past two years, although surely the police would have been able to put that two-and-two together in their search for her.
“Alyth,” she said. It took me a moment to understand that she meant the village she was named for. “I went looking… For help. After Tina…”
“Tina?” I hadn’t seen Alyth since the night I interviewed her vampiric ex-girlfriend, Tina, and her message the following morning was the last anyone had heard from her.
Alyth swapped the untouched mug of coffee for the wine glass and breathed in the warm Tuscan aroma with her eyes closed. “She bit me,” she said, her voice almost inaudible. “That was the third night I’d been bitten by a vampire. Once by Lily, once by Tina, once by both of them together. Not exactly three bites, but…” She sipped the wine, letting it sit in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing.
“I felt so restless, so impatient to see her again, despite my fear of her. I had no idea where to find her, or I would have shot off in search. Despite a growing hunger – I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before – I had no appetite for breakfast. Eventually, tired of bouncing off the walls of the flat, I went out, thinking to do some shopping, maybe see a film, but my heart wasn’t in it. The day was too hot, and my skin itched in the sunlight, far worse than usual.
“By the time I retreated to my flat, in the middle of the afternoon, I was exhausted – and suspicious enough to search my books for spells to counteract vampiric infection.” She bared her arms to show me the tattoos. “What do you think?”
Alyth laughed, and covered her arms again. “Yes. And not very effective. They only slow down the transformation. They don’t stop it. But they bought me time. Time to get the hell out of this city before Tina or Lily came looking for me again. And, most importantly, time to go looking for a better solution.”
“So you fled all the way to Alyth.”
“Where I sat in a circle of candles under the arches and tried every summoning spell I could think of, calling on the stars, on the winds, on Mother Earth herself, until the night shattered around me and I fell screaming into an existence that –” She stopped abruptly, her arm caught mid-gesture. Shaking her head, she relaxed into the chair and took a sip of wine. “The memories are tricky. They slip away when I reach for them. But someone was there, helping me, burning my soul with powerful enchantments unlike anything I’ve ever sensed before.”
The kitten adjusted itself in Alyth’s lap, purring as she tickled under his chin. “I am not healed,” she said. “There is a war in my flesh and I cannot tell what the end will be. I dare not stay where Tina or Lily might find me, and I certainly don’t want to put you or your family at risk. If you’ll give me my stuff, I’ll be on my way at once…”
I persuaded her to stay a few more hours, but she was gone long before sunrise.