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Grave Expectations

By Sherri Browning Erwin, Charles Dickens

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CHAPTER 1

THERE WAS NO POSSIBILITY of continuing my walk that night. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour after dark, but since Mrs. Reed had picked up a scent (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, hunted early), I was sent home so the others could stalk their prey.

I was glad of it. I never liked long walks, especially on chilly evenings. Dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw midnight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the death of the poor thing they’d dined on, raw, right in the middle of the wood. Not that I frequently watched as they took their meal. I avoided accompanying them on the hunt as often as I could.

In fact, I interfered with their efforts by inadvertently making noises to scare off whatever beast they’d settled on draining for their dinner. Unlike my cousins, my senses didn’t sharpen at night. My inability to see in the dark, combined with my natural lack of physical grace, led me to trip over tree roots, branches, fence posts, or even my own two feet. Most often, once Mrs. Reed’s nostrils flared to indicate a scent on the air, I ran home alone to face the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, both humbled by my consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed, and delighted I didn’t share their condition.

The said Eliza, John, Georgiana, and their mama had returned and were now clustered in the drawing room. Mrs. Reed lay on a sofa by the fireside and, with her darlings about her (for the time sated), looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group, saying, “I regret to be under the necessity of keeping you at a distance; but until I hear from Bessie and can discover by my own observation that you are endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more fierce and bold disposition, a more athletic and controlled manner—something quieter, stealthier, more unnatural as it were—I really must exclude you from privileges intended only for ruthless, bloodthirsty little children.”

“I don’t like blood,” I responded matter-of-factly. “And I wouldn’t be as clumsy if we could go out during the day.”

I’d returned home without disturbing their hunt. I’d eaten my steak as rare as I could stand for my dinner, which was admittedly not very rare indeed. Though Mrs. Reed longed for me to develop some tolerance to blood, I preferred my potatoes and spinach to anything that had actually lived. Bessie was often required to recount what I’d left on my plate or if I’d woken before dusk to steal a glance of sunlight out the window.

A breakfast room adjoined the windowless drawing room. I slipped in there and lit a lamp. The Reeds preferred to keep the house dark, even during their waking hours in the night. I found the bookcase and soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one filled with pictures. I mounted into the window seat and sat cross-legged. Having drawn the red velvet curtain nearly to a close, I did my best to confine the lamp’s light to my hiding spot. Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating, me from the drear November eve. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that moonless winter night. I couldn’t see far for the rain, and thank goodness. Who knew what dead thing they’d left out on the lawn for the servants to remove in light of day?

I returned to my book—Bewick’s History of British Birds. Sometimes, during the daylight hours through which I was demanded to sleep, I could hear the birds outside caroling and carrying on. I longed to see them in the daylight, to watch them twitter and flit. Once, in a late afternoon, I’d chanced to move the heavy curtains and catch a glimpse, but John Reed had also been awake and sneaking up on me right in time to be singed on the hand by a ray of sunshine streaming in through the folds. His screams roused the entire household and I had quite the thrashing for it. Was I trying to kill my cousin? He who was so kind to let me live and not drink my blood at tea?

Mere pictures of the birds, mixed in amongst sunlit images of foreign lands, were to content me. Each picture told a story of life lived during the daytime hours, mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting. As interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings, when she brought her ironing table to the nursery hearth. She allowed us to sit about it and, while she got up Mrs. Reed’s hunting habit, fed our eager attention with passages of murder and mayhem passed down by her own Romanian grandmother. Sometimes, if I woke in the afternoon and she chanced to be awake and in good humour, she would tell lighter stories for my ears alone, tales of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales or folk songs.

With Bessie busy elsewhere, I contented myself with the Bewick’s on my knee. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon. The breakfast-room door opened.

“Boh! Madam Mortal!” cried John Reed. He paused. He found the room apparently empty. “Where the devil is she! Lizzy! Georgy! Jane is not here. Tell mama she is run out into the rain—bad human!”

It was well I drew the curtain, and I wished fervently he would not discover my hiding place. John Reed would not have found it out himself. He was not quick of any sensation that normally served his kind at the hunt; but Eliza just put her head in at the door and said at once—

“I smell her from here. She is in the window seat, to be sure, Jack.”

And I came out immediately, for I trembled at the idea of risking close contact with the said Jack at a time when he’d barely finished his dinner and probably thirsted for more.

“What do you want?” I asked with feigned boldness.

“Say, ‘What do you want, Master Reed?’ I want you to come here.” Seating himself in an armchair, he intimated by a gesture that I was to approach and stand before him.

John Reed retained the form of a schoolboy of fourteen years old, four years older than I, for I was but ten. Large and stout for his age, with a greyish pallor, wide features, heavy limbs, and large extremities, he gorged himself habitually of prey, which gave him consistently red eyes and a leonine awareness, as if he were always on edge, ready to pounce on his next snack. He ought now to have been at school, but a fiendish child was used to waking at night and sleeping during the day. Besides, he would have frightened the others in class, and it would have been a tad suspicious had he risen through the ranks but remained all of fourteen in appearance.

John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy for me that I suspected derived from hunger. He pulled me close and sniffed me, not two or three times in the week, or once or twice in the day, but continually. Every nerve I had feared him, and every drop of blood in my veins coursed faster when he came near.

Some moments I was bewildered by the terror he inspired. I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions. The servants feared offending their young master lest he devour one of them, and Mrs. Reed was blind and deaf on the subject. She never saw him lick or bite at me, though he did both now and then in her very presence, more frequently, however, behind her back.

Though it was my habit to obey him, I did not approach. Something in his glowing eyes hinted at a craving not yet sated. It was possible that he didn’t get his fill of the stag or bear or whatever creature they’d feasted on. One day, I feared he would not be quenched with just a taste of my blood but would drink me dry or, worse, make a monster of me as he had one of the footmen, James, a poor lad who had once thwarted him and now had to forage in the night for bats or barn rats to eat his fill, being too small of stature to hunt effectively on his own.

“Hold out your hand,” he ordered. I stood my ground, hands behind my back. “Approach,” he repeated, louder, sounding slightly annoyed, “and hold out your hand.”

The room was small and no one would answer my screams. Whether I went to him voluntarily or waited for him to get me made little difference if my fate was to be John Reed’s dessert. Disobeying him might only fire his blood and force him to stop toying with me at last and do the deed.

I approached and, as ordered, held out my hand. He smiled the leering half smile he used when we were alone.

“Very good, my dear canapé.” He took my arm and roughly forced my sleeve up. His bulbous nose met my skin and traced a slow, damp trail up my forearm to the tender inner elbow, as far up my arm as my sleeve would expose.

Sighing, he paused a moment as if to take in my essence or to gather his wits. As he had no wits to gather, it must have been my essence giving him pause. Abruptly, he jerked me down into the chair, onto his lap, pulling my head to the side to better access my neck. With the pad of a finger, he stroked my throat.

“Your blood. I feel it thrumming through your veins.” His breathing slowed. I couldn’t see his face, but I imagined his pupils narrowing, a predator going in for the kill. I knew he would soon strike, and while dreading the bite, I mused on what it might be like to be one of them, to live forever in the dark with no hope of ever returning to the light. While Mrs. Reed did not give me leave to go out of doors in the daytime, in the back of my mind I kept the notion that I could. One day, given the right conditions, I would walk out and turn my face to the sun. John Reed was not going to take that dream from me.

I jerked free of his hold and sprang across the room.

With his superior build and skills as a hunter, he was on me immediately, shoving me to the floor and rolling with all his weight atop me. No doubt he read fear in my face, for he fed on it, twisting my arms up over my head and pinning me motionless beneath him. He licked my cheek, his tongue burning a path from chin to brow. I closed my eyes, squeezing tight, as if not seeing him would make him go away, but his breath was hot on my face and redolent with the smell of blood and entrails, his earlier repast. My stomach lurched.

“You taste sweet for such a vile, bitter little thing,” said he, “sweet enough to be my reward for catching you sneaking around before you could hatch another scheme. Perhaps I should make you one of us and force you out into the sun. Then you’ll understand the pain you cause when you lift the curtains during the day.”

“I was only reading,” I said in my own defence. I was not in habit of answering John Reed’s accusations. My care was in how to endure whatever punishment he sought to inflict upon me. But now, his tone held new seriousness. I had always known he was on the edge of carrying through with his most severe possible threat, and at last he seemed ready to do his worst.

“Show the book.” He let me up to fetch it, both of us well aware that he would pin me down again, mouse to his cat, at his convenience.

I retreated to the window seat and returned to offer him the volume.

He flipped the pages, pausing at a scene of a gull soaring over a turbulent sea, clouds just beginning to cover a high midday sun. His eyes widened with an unmistakable look of envy. He slammed the book shut and threw it to the hearth, nearly pitching it into the fire.

“You have no business to take our books. You are a dependent, Mama says. You have no money. Your father left you none. You ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us.”

“Soulless fiend children,” I corrected boldly, drawing a gasp from Georgiana and Eliza, who stood watching just inside the door.

He nodded, unfazed. “You’re disgustingly mortal. We’ll live forever while you age and rot.”

I would not be so certain, I thought, and did not know from whence such a strong supposition took root. I suddenly had an image of myself standing over John Reed, a wooden stake in hand. I had no idea where I would acquire a stake, let alone find the strength to plunge one through John Reed’s heart, but the idea brought a queer little smile to my lips.

“Was that a laugh, Jane Slayre? At me?”

I shook my head, the smile departing.

“Georgiana and Eliza, did you not hear it as well? The wretched little mortal thinks she has a reason to laugh! I’ll teach you to respect our power. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows.”

The Reeds could not stand to be near reflective surfaces, to find no self-image staring back. Most of the mirrors in the house had been removed, but the servants kept one in the breakfast room, a room seldom used by the Reeds since nature had forced them into the habit of hunting their meals out of doors.

I did as told, looking around futilely for a weapon as I crossed the room. I looked up just as he sprang to action, landing on me with enough force that we rolled several times to the side until I struck my head on the corner of the door. It made me dizzy, but I maintained consciousness enough to know the blow had left a cut, and the blood enticed John Reed to quiet contemplation of my head. My anger flared along with his nostrils at my scent.

“Wicked and cruel boy!” I said. “You are like the monsters from Bessie’s tales, like Vlad the Impaler!”

Bessie often told of Vlad, of his cruelty and thirst for blood. I suspected she told the tale as a subtle warning to me not to thwart the Reeds, especially John; but suddenly, I was not afraid. He could do his worst, kill me even, but he could not force me to become one of his kind. I would not sacrifice my soul, as no doubt all of the Reeds had given theirs.

“What! What!” he cried. “Did she say that to me? Did you hear her, Eliza and Georgiana? Won’t I tell Mama? But first—”

I felt him grasp my hair and my shoulder and lick at the drop or two of blood that had trickled down my neck.

“So sweet,” he said. His fangs pierced my neck, a quick, sharp burn, and I was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering. These sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort. He drank until I began to weaken, and I had the vision again of my standing over him, victorious at last. I had no weapon, barely any consciousness, and yet I knew that I could fight. Fight! Something in me screamed. Fight! Live!

I rammed my knee up and connected with tender flesh.

“Rat! Rat!” he bellowed.

Aid was near him. Eliza and Georgiana had run for Mrs. Reed, who had gone upstairs. She now came upon the scene, followed by Bessie and Mrs. Reed’s maid, Abbot.

I lived in dread of Abbot. She frightened me far more than the vampyres, for I wasn’t certain what she was. I only knew that her limbs frequently detached and she had a devil of a time putting them back on. Sometimes, when Abbot nodded off for a nap and the Reed children were feeling especially naughty, they took delight in rearranging her as if she were a puzzle. Unfortunately, Abbot nodded off frequently, as she was not very vigorous, and the Reeds were always naughty. But what Abbot lacked in enthusiasm she made up for in strength. She held me by the collar with toes where her fingers should have been and pulled me away from John.

I heard, “He’s going to eat her, Mama! May we all join in?”

“No, no, dears! Her common blood will bring on fevers, maybe apoplexy! We only eat what we kill out of doors, or nobility!” Mrs. Reed’s insistence on purity of blood kept the servants feeling safe in her presence, but John Reed had occasionally shown that his appetite could overcome even this prejudice.

“But she smells tolerable,” Eliza said. I imagined her inching closer, fangs extended.

“She laughed,” Georgiana pointed out, as if to add to her mother’s argument about my disgusting common nature. “She nearly drove us all out of mind with her unmitigated mirth.”

“What a wanton to tempt Master John with laughing and bleeding.” This from Abbot, monotone as ever but dutifully indignant on her mistress’s behalf. “As if she wanted to be eaten.”

Then Mrs. Reed subjoined, “Take her away to the red room and lock her in there, away from my children.” Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs.

© 2010 Sherri Browning Erwin

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