I looked down at my arm as if it had suddenly appeared there. I stared at the mound of scar tissue at the inside of the elbow, the cross-shaped burn scar just below it, the knife cut, and the newer bite marks between the two. Those bites were still sort of pink, not white and shiny like the rest. Okay, the burn wasn't white, darker actually, but... "Which one?" I asked, looking up at him.
He smiled then. "The cross-shaped burn scar."
I shrugged. "I got captured by some Renfields--humans with a few bites--who belonged to a master vampire. The Renfields chained me up as a sort of snack for when their master rose for the night, but while we were waiting they decided to have some fun. The fun was heating up a cross-shaped branding iron and marking me."
"You tell the story like it doesn't mean anything to you."
I shrugged again. "It doesn't. Not really. I mean it was scary and horrible, and hurt like hell. I try not to think about it. If I dwell too much on the things that could go wrong or have gone wrong in the past, I have trouble doing my job."
He looked at me, and he was angry. I didn't know why. "How would you feel if I told my story the same way?"
"Tell your story any way you want, or don't tell it, Micah. I'm not the one forcing us to play true confessions."
"Fine," he said. "I was eighteen, almost nineteen. It was the fall I went away to college. My cousin Richie had just gotten back from basic. We both came home so we could go hunting with our dads one last time. You know, one last boys' weekend out." His voice held anger, and I finally realized that he wasn't angry at me.
"At the last minute, Dad couldn't come with us. Some hunters had gone missing, and Dad thought one of his patrols had found them."
"Your dad was a cop?"
He nodded. "County sheriff. The body they found turned out to be a homeless guy who got lost in the woods and died of exposure. Some animals got to him, but they hadn't killed him."
His face had gone distant with remembering. I'd had a lot of people tell me awful truths, and he told it like most of them did, no hysterics. No anything, really. No effect, as the therapists and the profilers would say. He looked empty as he told his story. Not matter-of-fact the way I told my story, but empty, as if part of him wasn't really there. The only thing that showed the strain was that thread of anger in his voice.
"We were all armed, and Uncle Steve and Dad had taught Richie and me how to use a gun. I could shoot before I could ride a bike." He set his silverware down on the table, and his fingers found the salt shaker. It was real glass, smooth and elegant for a salt shaker. He turned it around and around in his fingers, giving it all his eye contact.
"We knew it might be the last time the four of us got to hunt together, you know? College for me, the army for Richie--it was all changing. Dad was really upset that he didn't get to come, and so was I. Uncle Steve offered to wait, but Dad told him to go ahead. We wouldn't all get our deer in one day. He was going to drive up and join us the next day."
He paused again, this time for so long that I thought he'd stopped for good. I gave him the silence to decide. Stop, or go; tell or not.
His voice when it came was emptier; no anger now, but the soft beginnings of something worse. "We'd gotten a doe. We always got two buck tags and two doe tags, so between the four of us, we could shoot what we found." He frowned, then looked at me. "You don't know what a deer tag is, do you?"
"The deer tag tells you what you can shoot, buck or doe. You don't get a choice some years, because some years there are more does than bucks, so they give out more doe tags. Though usually it's buck that's more plentiful."
He looked surprised. "You've been deer hunting."
I nodded. "My dad used to take me."
He smiled. "Beth, my sister, thought it was barbaric. We were killing Bambi. My brother, Jeremiah--Jerry--didn't like killing things. Dad didn't hold it against him, but it meant that Dad and I were closer than him and Jerry, you know?"
I nodded. "I know." And just like that he'd told me more about his family than I'd ever known. I hadn't even known he'd had siblings.
He kept his eyes on my face now. He stared right at me as he said the next part, stared so hard that even under normal circumstances it would have been difficult to hold his gaze. Now, like this, it was like lifting some great weight just to meet the demand in his eyes. I did it, but it was hard work.
"We had a doe. We'd field dressed it and put it on a pole. Richie and I were carrying it. Uncle Steve was a little ahead of us. He was carrying Richie's gun and his. I had my rifle on a strap across my back. Dad always told me that if it was my gun, I needed to hold on to it. I had to control it at all times. Funny. I don't think Dad really liked guns."
His face started to break, not badly, but around the edges. All the emotions that he was trying not to have chased around the borders of his face. If you didn't know what you were looking at, you might not have understood it, but I'd had too many people tell me too many awful things not to see it.
"It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm, the sky was blue, the aspens were like gold. The wind was gusty that day. It kept blowing the leaves around in showers of gold. It was like standing inside a snow globe except instead of snow, it was golden, yellow leaves. God, it was beautiful. And that was when it came for us. It moved so fast, just a dark blur. It hit Uncle Steve and he just went down, never got back up." His eyes were a little wide, his pulse jumping enough in his throat that I could see it. But other than that his face was neutral. Control--such tight control.
"Richie and I dropped the deer, but Richie didn't have a gun. I got my rifle almost to my shoulder when it hit Richie. He went down screaming, but he drew his knife. He tried to fight back. I saw the knife sparkling in the sunlight."
He stopped again, and this time the pause was so long that I said, "You can stop, if you want to."
"Is it too horrible for you?"
I frowned and shook my head. "No, if you want to tell it, I'll listen."
"I made a big deal out of this, not you. My own fault." He said that last word with more feeling than it needed. Fault. I could taste the survivor's guilt on the air.
I wanted to go around the table and touch him but was afraid to. I wasn't sure he wanted to be touched while he told the story. Later, but not now.
"You know how time can freeze in the middle of a fight?"
I nodded, wasn't sure he saw it, and said, "Yes."
"I remember the face, its face, when it looked up at me from Richie's body. You've seen us in half-man form. The face is leopard, but not. Not human, but not animal either. I remember thinking, I should know what this is. But all I could think was Monster. It's a monster."
He licked his lips and drew a breath that shook when he let it out. "I had the rifle to my shoulder. I fired. I hit it. I hit it two or three times before it got me. It ripped me with its claws, and it wasn't a sharp pain. It was like being hit with a baseball bat--hard, thick. You know you're hurt, but it doesn't feel like you'd imagine claws would feel--do you know what I mean?"
I nodded. "Yeah, actually, I know exactly what you mean."
He looked at me, then down at my arm. "You do know what I mean, exactly what I mean, don't you?"
"More than most," I said, voice soft and as matter-of-fact as I could make it. He had so much emotion that I gave him none back. It was the best I could do.
He smiled at me. Again it was that sad, wistful, self-deprecating smile. "The rifle was gone. I don't remember losing it, but my arms wouldn't work anymore. I lay there on the ground, with that thing above me, and I wasn't afraid anymore. Nothing hurt, nothing scared me. It was almost peaceful. After that it's only snatches. I remember voices, being on a stretcher. I remember being put in a helicopter. I woke up in the hospital with Agent Fox on one side and my dad on the other."
I realized then what had sparked the trip down memory lane. "Seeing Fox today brought it back." Some days I'm just slow.
He nodded. "It scared me to see him, Anita. I know that sounds stupid, but it did."
"It doesn't sound stupid, and it didn't show. I mean, even I didn't pick up on it."
"I wasn't afraid in the front of my head, Anita. I was afraid in the back of my head. And then you didn't like the room, and--"
I went to him then. I wrapped my arms around him, pressed his face against my chest. He hugged me back, tight, so tight, as if he were holding on to the last solid thing in the universe.