Illusions of Hope
"Um, I could do with a shower," Lina began stiltedly, "and so could you." Angel frowned, then nodded, disgusted at his own stench. "Come on, follow me."
Lina entered a narrow, dark corridor that terminated in an equally constricted stairway. She knew the way, and often walked it in the dark, so she didn't bother to snap on the light switch. Angel remained behind, surprised yet again. She had turned her back to him and walked blithely into the unlit corridor. It had been so very long since he'd had real contact with anyone -- sometimes months went by without even a word between him and his fellow vagrants -- that he didn't know exactly how to make a connection. He wanted to reach for that contact, didn't realize he had missed it so much, until he had a glimpse of what true friendship might be like.
With her foot on the first riser, Lina glanced back, realizing she was alone. She took the few steps back towards the examination room that would put her into the light. "Aren't you coming?" she asked airily.
Angel was startled out of his reverie. "Just trying to stay downwind," he joked.
"Gee, that's nice of you," Lina replied in kind, the corners of her mouth curling into a sprightly grin. She jerked her head in a "come on" gesture and pointed to the stairway with her chin.
They climbed the stairs in the dark, Lina leading the way. She stopped before a red steel door and swept her hand along the wall to its right. "Light coming," she warned. Angel shielded his eyes just in time. Lina blinked a few times, adjusting to the sudden brightness herself, then dug out her keys again. She unlocked the door and swung it inward on well-oiled hinges. Lina kicked off her shoes and left them next to the doormat; Angel followed suit. Stepping inside, she turned and invited Angel in. "Welcome to my home, Angel." She beckoned him across the threshold.
"Thank you, Dr. Russo."
"My friends call me Lina," she informed him. "Let me give you the ten cent tour."
Lina showed Angel her apartment, her sanctuary from the hectic world of a doctor and a teacher. The loft was airy and spacious, with large windows and high ceilings. The decor was tasteful and subtle, most of the furnishings belonging to the Mission style, with a few notable exceptions. A large Tiffany lamp dominated the living room; it cast a soft pink glow, bringing out the beauty of wisteria, when Lina switched it on. An oaken roll-top desk, situated between the west windows, sat atop a sumptuous carved wool rug, its top strewn with an odd assortment of medical journals, catalogs and comic books.
"This used to be two separate lofts, but I tore down the walls when I bought the building," she explained, pointing to the marks left by the dividing wall. "So, two showers, no waiting." Lina glanced over at Angel. "Hopefully there's enough hot water."
"You go first, then," he offered politely. "The cold water doesn't matter to me."
"It's okay. I'm used to it, too."
Lina flung open a couple of doors, all the while giving a running commentary. "Master bedroom, bath, linen closet..." She turned away and walked to the opposite side of the loft. Angel followed in her wake. She pointed. "Guest room, guest bath. There should be everything you need," she said as she opened the door and poked her head in. "Yup," Lina mumbled to herself, satisfied that all was in order. Facing Angel, she sized him up with a discerning eye. "I have something that should fit you. My husband...was about your size. Be right back."
Angel watched, bemused, as Lina dashed across the loft and disappeared into her bedroom. She returned several minutes later, after much draw-slamming and muttering, with a V-neck pullover in a soft charcoal grey fleece and black jeans. Handing Angel the pile of clothes, she withdrew, disappearing into the master bath after one last look in his direction.
Angel was still standing there a moment later when he heard the song old pipes make and the water begin to flow. Spurred to action, he entered the bathroom and added a few notes of his own to the impromptu symphony. The hot water was a long-forgotten luxury, but mindful of Lina, Angel showered quickly but thoroughly. He was done in less than ten minutes. While he dressed in the clothes Lina had provided him (right down to a new package of underwear and socks), he listened to her sing. The tune was familiar -- he had heard it from passing cars and the occasional personal stereo turned up too loud -- but he couldn't place the title. Her voice was a soothing balm and he found himself gravitating towards it, but along the way he became distracted by a wall filled with books.
Shelves lined the entire south wall from ceiling to floor. Most of the books were neatly stacked or arranged, and they seemed to run the gamut from art to zoology, but there was a large section piled haphazardly and Angel was drawn to these. They were dog-eared but cared for, the way well-loved books sometimes are, and they were all of a kind: vampire fiction. Angel couldn't help the impulsive smile that tugged the left corner of his mouth as he chose one at random and studied its cover.
Books had been a companion throughout the many decades he had spent alone -- apart from humans and demons alike. His access was limited, due to the lack of funds and early library closing times, but every so often he'd find a discarded paperback on a park bench or in the trash. Most of what Angel knew of the modern world he had learned from books. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Roald Dahl, even Anne Rice -- these authors were his teachers.
Placing the book back where he'd gotten it, he glanced around the cavernous living room. A grouping of photos caught his eye and he wandered over to look at them. There were a few breathtaking shots of what he guessed to be the Grand Canyon and that massive geyser that was the focal point of Yellowstone National Park; he'd seen pictures in an old copy of National Geographic. The bulk of the pictures, though, were family shots: Lina and a man with a kind face, who regarded her lovingly; a tow-headed little boy with Lina's green eyes and the man's round face; even a Dalmatian, whose tags hung over the frame and named him Domino. Lina looked so different in these pictures. Happy, unburdened, full of joy. The woman who had fallen into Angel's life was no less beautiful than the woman in the pictures, but there were haunted shadows lingering in her eyes, and a veil of sadness hung between her and the rest of the world.
Angel was drawn back to the shelves. He picked up the same book he had chosen earlier and began leafing through it. He was well into chapter one when Lina emerged from the bathroom.
Lina watched Angel for a few minutes, then broke the silence. "So, um, I see you found my collection." Angel startled and half-turned to face her, then nodded. "Do you like to read?"
"'A good book is the best of friends, the same today and forever,'" she quoted. Lina pointed to the book in his hand. "That's one of my favorites," she admitted a bit sheepishly.
He gave her a glimpse of that quirky little smile, and she nervously changed the subject by giving him the once-over. "You sure clean up good." His eyes darted away; it was his turn to be embarrassed. "My friends say I like the sound of my own voice," Lina told him apologetically.
"I like the sound of your voice."
A confused look passed over her features. "What?"
"You were singing," he clarified.
"I was? It's an old habit," Lina explained, chagrined.
"You have a sweet voice," Angel complimented.
"You are too much kind, sir." Lina dropped a playful little curtsy.
With the vestiges of his youth and even older habits than those to which Lina had just admitted, Angel bowed gallantly and murmured, "Milady."
The conversation came to another awkward pause after that, as they both retreated inside their own personal fortresses. Angel placed the book back on the shelf. Having nothing to occupy his hands, he shoved them into his pockets. Lina twined her fingers in the gold chain that hung around her neck, a revenant habit from her childhood that she thought she'd long outgrown. Her eyes came alive with curiosity, dispelling some of the sadness that hung there like a shadow. Questions about his existence bubbled up but were stopped at her lips.
Angel had spent little time in the company of others - - especially mortals -- over the past several decades, and Lina had been alone, with few close friends and even less time for socializing, since the tragic accident that stole her family and cut her off from the world. The vampire and the doctor were very much the same, really, as unlikely as that fact seemed. Both had imposed an artificial isolation on themselves, erected a protective wall to keep them from further harm. But in shielding themselves from whatever caused them pain, they had also blocked out the joy.
"I had the feeling you wouldn't be here when I came out of the shower," Lina ventured shortly, "that you were just a symptom of shock." Whether Angel himself didn't fully understand or simply didn't want to admit why he had remained, he made no answer. "You're not supposed to exist, you know," she accused him.
The combination of her hair in a messy ponytail, the oversize sweats and fuzzy socks and the wide-eyed expression, set her apparent age at about twelve. That vulnerability sparked some protective instinct that had been buried deeply inside of him, dormant, a place in his heart that had gone untouched for so long. It spoke to his own doubts and fears, but it also called him out of his isolation.
"Sorry." Angel took a step forward, his hand outstretched to comfort her -- or perhaps to convince her that he was real -- but her eyes widened even further. Though she didn't back away, her whole body stiffened in apprehension. Angel stepped back and dropped his hand. He twisted the gold ring he wore on the middle finger of his right hand, though he didn't seem conscious of the restive movements. "Sorry," he repeated soulfully.
Lina couldn't help the anxious laughter that bubbled out of her; stress always gave her the giggles. This delayed reaction to the events that had happened earlier were catching up to her. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but the laughter continued to spill out. Lina was afraid Angel would take offense but, like Reader's Digest always stated: "laughter is the best medicine," and he let a chuckle or two slip out himself. Lina felt the tension in the room subside several notches, and soon she was able to get a handle on her unsettled emotions. Just as she calmed herself, her stomach took the opportunity to growl. That set her off on a fresh set of giggles. And Angel understood, at least in part; the situation was ridiculous.
"Oh, God," she moaned. "I'm sorry, Angel. For everything."
Another rumble caused her to smile, but she had truly overcome her unease and finally had the nervous laughter under control. In reality, the humor had saved them both.
"I'm starved. You must be, too."
She turned away abruptly, missing the strange emotional acrobatics that swept across his features. Angel followed, as though compelled by some need that transcended food. By the time he shuffled into the kitchen, Lina already had two places set at the table and she was well into making a stack of pancakes. The pot was brewing an herbal tea, the green canister on the counter confirming his guess.
"Have a seat," she offered, glancing briefly over her shoulder. "What can I get for you, Angel?" she asked, once he had pulled a chair out and straddled it.
"Whatever you're having is fine."
Lina whirled to face him, an eyebrow raised in disbelief. "You can eat real food?"
"Um, yeah, though it has no --um-- nutritional value," he replied awkwardly.
Angel grew uneasy beneath her steady scrutiny, but the smell of burning pancakes pulled her attention away from him and back to the stove. He watched her efficient movements as she salvaged the pancake, transferred it to a plate warming on the back burner and poured a perfect circle of batter into the center of the griddle.
She grabbed two heavy bistro glasses from the cabinet above her and moved off to the refrigerator. After seeing her pull out a bottle of cranberry juice, Angel looked away, curiously studying the large kitchen. He completely missed her surreptitious glance in his direction, and the crimson liquid she poured hurriedly into his glass from one of many plastic bags crowding the middle shelf of the refrigerator, before she closed the door.
Lina's kitchen was outfitted with professional appliances, speaking to her love of cooking, from a wide JennAir stove and double ovens to a massive brushed stainless steel refrigerator. Skylights and terrace doors let in the moonlight and a glimpse of stars, and probably quite a bit of sunlight during the day. That would account for the number of flourishing plants that were crowded on several wrought iron baker's racks placed where the light would do them the most good. A solid table, fashioned from natural oak and inlaid with Spanish tile, dominated the center of the room; the matching high-backed, padded chairs were inviting and comfortable.
By the time Angel turned his attention to his hostess, she was at the stove once again, the glass of juice at her elbow. His glass sat before him on the table. He lifted it to his lips, uncertain if he'd like cranberry juice, but the scent that filled his nostrils was far from tart berries. Copper and salt, the familiar metallic tang of blood went straight to his brain. The vampire surged to his feet abruptly, fighting hard to contain the demon, but he won that battle. He sat down and carefully placed the glass back on the table an arm's length away, another victory dearly won.
Angel realized Lina was regarding him worriedly, unsure she'd done the right thing. His look of confusion in return broke her out of her stasis, and she moved forward to stand before him. Lina pushed the glass closer to him. He turned his face away.
"You don't have to be ashamed to drink this in front of me, Angel," she assured him. "To a doctor, blood is a staple of healing; it saves and sustains lives." Lina picked up the glass and proffered it to her guest. "It's good for what ails you."
Angel caught the scent once again, and before he could arrest the movement, he had taken the glass from her hand and upended the contents into his mouth. The blood was cold and viscous, but it was human. Strength poured into him with the blood, suffusing his starving veins. He didn't lower the glass until the last drop had been drained and swallowed.
Lina had busied herself at the sink, sensitive to his distress. "I have more if you need it," she said quietly without facing him.
Angel rose and came to stand beside her. He passed the glass through the running water to rinse it out before placing it in the sink. "Thank you, Dr. Russo."
"Lina," she reminded him.
"Lina," he repeated, investing her name with his gratitude.
"Pancakes?" she asked cheerily.
They sat together and ate. Angel hadn't eaten pancakes in more than a century. He'd forgotten how much he liked them, especially slathered with butter and warm syrup. And the tea -- Rainforest she'd called it -- was alive with vanilla and cinnamon and a host of other flavors he couldn't place or even pronounce, once she'd handed him the canister to read. Angel rose with Lina at the meal's end, and helped her with the dishes. It was a quiet time, which sometimes cements friendships -- new and old alike -- more than conversation. But Angel had a burning curiosity about Lina, rivaling hers about him, one he couldn't easily put to rest without asking at least one question, the one that plagued him the most.
"Why do you trust me?" he asked suddenly. His voice conveyed his vulnerability and the restless movement of his fingers betrayed his disquietude.
"Why?" She shrugged. "Who can quantify trust? It just exists." Angel looked her steadily in the eyes until Lina realized just how important the question was to him. "All right. Listen: you were wounded, so was I--" And her return look made him realize that she was aware of the danger all that blood could have posed. "We're strangers, yet you saved my life and you never tried to hurt me.
"A lot of people come through here every month. You get a sense, a feel, for who's right and who's wrong. And you don't feel wrong to me, Angel.
"As absurd as it sounds, I feel safe with you, the safest I've felt in a long while."
Lina realized she might have said too much. She didn't want to frighten him away. Looking into his eyes she saw there was no fear in them, and the pain and loneliness seemed marginally less. Somehow that lifted a small amount of her melancholy away as well.
"Why are we sitting around in a drafty kitchen, when a comfortable living room stands empty?" she asked rhetorically.
Lina went through the swinging door that led from the kitchen to the living room. The soft pink light from the Tiffany lamp was lost in the brighter orange glow from the streetlamp pouring through the sheer curtains, yet the greater part of the large room was draped in long shadows. Lina led Angel to a plush sectional, upholstered in a deep moss green brushed cotton. The pieces ringed a massive fireplace, its facade decorated with Spanish tile that matched the kitchen table, but fit into the decor of the living room so well.
The day had been warm and sunny, but sunset had cooled the air considerably. Autumn in New York City had arrived. "Is a fire all right?" she asked tentatively.
He nodded. "I'll do it."
Angel knelt before the fireplace and bent to his task. He was larger through the chest than her husband, so the soft material of the pullover outlined the sharp planes of his shoulder blades. Lina glanced away, surprised at the sudden heat that rose to her face, but she couldn't keep her eyes away from him. He fascinated her. Taking several steps to the side, she watched his hands, the way his tendons corded and stretched as he easily crumbled the hard wood in his fingers. He built a small pyramid of logs, filling in the gaps with kindling and wadded up sheets of The New York Times he took from a basket beside the hearth. Striking a long fireplace match and, after checking the position of the flue, Angel set the paper and kindling ablaze. He tossed the match into the flames, then slid the mesh curtains closed. His movements were easy and comfortable, as if he'd built countless fires. Dusting his hands together, he stood, task complete.
Finally, Lina forced herself to move away. She lit a few chunky candles, colored like an angry sea; an ocean breeze wafted from the scented wax. She hit the remote and the stereo came to life; a CD of nouveau flamenco music filled the loft, the guitar solos sensual and evocative. Lina curled up on her favorite section, a wedge that was deep and inviting. She patted the cushion beside her, and for a moment Angel was caught in indecision, but he seated himself on the opposite end of the sofa. He stared into the fire and cleared his throat, his body language bespeaking his unease.
"Hey." He met her eyes. "I don't bite."
The chuckle died in her throat as she realized that he might be offended at the joke. Surprisingly, he chuckled warmly, and she released the breath she'd been unconsciously holding. Angel didn't move any closer, but he turned towards her, lifting a leg and laying his arm along the back of the sofa. His fingers, always restless, toyed with the round satin cording that edged the upholstery.
Speaking over the crackle of the fire, she asserted, "It must be difficult." His eyes widened, questioning her statement. "Being a va-- being alone."
Angel was silent for a long time, and when he finally answered, his voice was low and a palpable anguish deepened it. "Yeah, it is."
"I didn't think I'd make it at first," she offered, her voice oddly calm and detached, as if she spoke about someone else's pain. "I was so happy. Lif was my best friend, brought to me by a chance meeting, and our marriage was a heaven on earth. I had always thought that was a trite cliche, until I found him. I loved him -- from that little lock of hair that never behaved to the holes in his socks. His voice soothed me when nothing else would and the touch of his hands made me tremble. I didn't think our life could be any happier, until we had Nicholas. I guess it was just too good to be true."
Out of words, and shocked at the way she'd opened up to a virtual stranger, Lina turned away to watch the flames dance. They offered no comfort, but only reminded her of the fire that had consumed her happiness until there was nothing left but blackened metal and charred bone. She pulled her eyes away, then picked up a pillow and hugged it to her chest.
Angel didn't want to intrude, but he knew what it felt like to harbor such pain. "What happened?" he asked as gently as he could.
"Wet road, reckless teen in Daddy's borrowed car, oil tanker," she recounted bitterly. "Not a desired combination."
"Me, too. More than I can say."
Lina drew herself in, and all the little walls went back up, though they weren't quite as thick as before. He let her have the time out, watching as she pulled the scrunchy out of her hair, smoothed the wayward strands, then bound it up again, a waterfall of copper.
"I understand that loss, Lina."
"I can see the ghosts in your eyes, Angel." She caught his gaze. "Talking helps."
Angel shook his head, not denying her statement but unable to put his own personal horror into words. "Not this."
"You never know until you try," she offered generously, putting aside her own painful memories for the moment.
"I was young," he began slowly, hesitantly. "I wanted to see the world, exotic places beyond our small town, and that one unguarded wish led me here -- made me the man I am today." His bitterness exceeded hers, the decades making it sharper, more acute. "A beautiful woman offered me the world, a life of excitement, but all she really gave me was death." Angel studied Lina's face, looking for some sign that he'd said too much. There was concern etched on her features, but it was compassion for him, not fear for herself. "For a hundred years I was..." He couldn't go on.
"What?" she prompted. Angel's only response was to gesture across the loft to the piles of vampire books she'd amassed. "An animal?" she guessed.
"A killer," he answered honestly.
Lina clutched the pillow more tightly against her body, but she didn't move away from him. "And now?"
"Not for more than a century. My last...victim saw to that." Angel was quiet a moment and Lina didn't push, letting him tell what was obviously something terrible and life-altering his own time. "The Romany cursed me for taking one of their own from them. A curse and an unbelievable gift, rolled into one. They gave me back my soul."
The horror roiled from him and Lina recoiled, but the heartache that clouded his eyes mirrored Lina's own suffering so closely she couldn't abandon him. He was drowning and she realized she could be a buoy in the middle of a great sea, that they could support each other.
Lina reached out and laid a hand on his arm, squeezed it once before letting go and leaning back. That one touch was enough to anchor him. Angel came back to himself, the horror still lingering just behind his eyes, but it no longer suffocated him.
The day had been long for Lina, and she tried to stifle a yawn behind her fist. Angel glanced out the windows and realized that dawn was fast approaching. He didn't want to leave; there was comfort here and a level of warmth he hadn't experienced in decades, though he felt undeserving.
"You should sleep and I should go."
"Go?" she repeated dully.
"It'll be dawn soon."
"Angel, you can stay here as long as you want. I thought...," she trailed off uncertainly. "I have an extra bedroom."
Fear burst from his eyes, a fear of being trapped. Lina took a small measure of comfort from the fact that a creature as powerful as legend painted a vampire could be afraid.
She looked up at him, hurt. "Don't you trust me?"
"It's not that," he solidly denied.
"Then why are you leaving?"
"I shouldn't stay. It's too dangerous."
"Why? Are you going to hurt me?"
"No," he answered quickly. "No," he stated again more deliberately. "That would be a poor way to repay your kindness. But..."
"Then you must think I'd hurt you," she broke in. "Angel, I took an oath to succor the living."
"I'm not alive," he countered.
Lina regarded him like a specimen on a slide. "Hmmm. Let's see: walking, talking, bleeding, running away." She paused dramatically to consider. "Yup, sounds alive to me," she diagnosed. "And I have a license that says I'm qualified to judge that sort of thing." Lina spoke quickly, over his protests. "Please stay. You'll be safe here." A naked desire swam in his eyes that was almost painful to behold. His resolve wavered and she poured on the heat. "This isn't the Plaza, but it's a roof and four walls. The bed's clean and comfy, there's heat and hot water and indoor plumbing. And books." She continued immodestly, "The company's top-notch, and I'm a great cook."
She faltered then, and ground to a flustered stop. Lina couldn't quite meet his eyes as she pleaded, "Say something."
Angel raised her eyes to his with a crooked finger beneath her chin. He caressed the curve of her cheek with his knuckles and simply said, "Thank you."
Before Lina could draw breath to utter another word, Angel was gone, leaving her alone with the crackle of the fire and the ghostly remains of his touch.
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