Everything bad happened in summer. It was a fact of life somewhere between truth and superstition which Lena had long ago come to accept. She still marked the passing of seasons with vigilant caution, for it took only the smallest mistake to bring catastrophe. For whatever reason, hemomancers like her seemed somehow more likely to fall victim to such lapses of discretion when the sun was high and the blood ran hot and bewildering. Even in the mild climate of Seattle’s sprawling suburbs, the curse of summer loomed over her, challenging her to drop her guard and throw everything she’d won away, the price for her birthright.
The rain had been falling off and on all day, and the afternoon’s close brought with it a new curtain of discontinuous downpours. The frosted glass windows of the kitchen were dark with gloom, though Lena found the pattering of droplets on the roof and walls of the condo soothing. The radio on the countertop buzzed with the dueling sounds of static and The All-American Rejects. The reception was always shit when it rained, but Lena didn’t care. She was only using it as background noise anyway. Cooking was mentally numbing, and without suitable distraction her mind was liable to plunge toward dark memories she’d built her five-year lie of normalcy upon.
Dinner was half-finished when the front door of the condo swung open and a joyful sputter of laughter greeted her. Her heart sang a little song at her fiance’s return from work. She smiled broadly to herself and listened to the rustling of a raincoat being hung up and boots being pulled off. A moment later, Ben appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. His brown hair was drenched but his suit was dry, save for a few splatters that were probably inflicted by the removal of his raincoat. “Hey, baby,” he said with a grin.
“Help. A strange man is in my kitchen.”
Ben barked a laugh as he made his way over to her. His arms snaked around her hips and pulled her close to him. She giggled as his lips found her neck. “What do you say we have a little dessert before dinner?” he breathed into her ear.
She frowned. “Dammit, you should’ve texted me. I put the gratin in like five minutes ago. After?”
Ben sighed into her skin. “Fine.” His stubble rubbing against her cheek invited her chin upward, and he gave her a brief but deep kiss, infusing the distant taste of cigarettes into her lips. And just like that, he was retreating toward the living room, peeling his suit jacket off.
Lena gagged slightly once he was gone. She wished he’d stop smoking already. Her tongue scraped against her teeth, as though the lingering taste of tobacco and nicotine would come off like a crusty rash. “How was work?” she called after him. He gave back an answer which she couldn’t hear over the radio’s blaring.
Ben was a lucky man. He was barely out of college, but his future had been handed to him on a silver platter. His father, a first-generation Polish immigrant, had built himself a tiny construction empire with no more than a shovel and a handful of coins. An unfortunate heart attack had made Ben the owner of the entire enterprise, turning his father’s American dream into a fitting frame for his bachelor’s in business.
Lena thumbed the radio off, no longer reliant on its company. She cleared the cutting board of the iceberg lettuce before grabbing an onion and a cucumber from the basket of vegetables further back on the counter. Should’ve gone shopping before the rain started. It’s just not salad without carrots.
Ben returned a minute later sans his formal attire. “Do anything interesting today?”
“Just the usual.” Looking for a job that required zero skills and zero experience was a full-time job in its own right. It was times like this she bitterly wished she’d been financially able to continue college instead of dropping out like the social outcast she secretly was.
“Hmph. I’m telling you, I can give you a secretary position at the office. You could stop stressing yourself out so much, and the pay beats anything you can possibly find in the Recycler’s wanted section.”
“That’s called nepotism. You don’t want to go to jail, do you?” She hacked the end of the cucumber off and began to chop the rest into thin slices. “I don’t want a job I didn’t earn.” If she was going to maintain employment, she at least wanted to feel good about it.
He laughed and sidled up behind her again. “Forget work and jobs for a sec,” he said, once more slipping his arms around her waist. “Here’s what I was thinking. Let’s take a vacation.”
Torn between the comfort of his arms and the tangible obstacle they presented, she struggled slightly against his grip. “Dammit, I’m cutting.”
“You can cut and listen at the same time. I was thinking Italy, maybe. A couple weeks, just the two of us. How does that sound?”
She allowed herself to be taken in by his embrace. She rolled her head back against his chest and considered him from below. She navigated the knife by feel and carefully resumed chopping the cucumber. “Sounds like a lofty idea worth developing into something a bit more concrete.”
“Couple weeks in Italy’s pretty concrete, ain’t it?”
“Remember last time you said we should take a vacation? Like a month ago?”
She could feel him thinking by the subtle rhythm with which his fingers played at the top of her jeans. “Yeah. Guess I kinda forgot that, didn’t I?”
“You sure did.” She chopped the last of the cucumber up and pushed it into a pile off to the side with the blade. “Get back to me when you’ve got something likely to actually happen.”
Ben chuckled and kissed her cheek again. “Alright, fine, let’s make it happen this time. What do you think? Italy or France?”
She hummed in thought, rocking back into him slightly. She rolled the onion to the center of the cutting board. “I have to be honest. I’m not much of a Europe fan.”
“That’s because you’ve never been there. Once you’ve seen the Rio Grande with your own eyes, you’ll feel like a citizen of Italy.”
“The Rio Grande’s in Mexico.”
“Ouch. Guess I need to polish my sense of humor a bit.” He came in for another kiss on her neck, and Lena’s breath stuttered.
Half-distracted by her fiance’s appetite, she pressed the knife into the onion. But the skin was too thick. The onion rocked violently, and the blade slipped. All the force she’d put into the slice guided the blade right into the side of her hand, and the pain immediately brought her out of her Ben-induced stupor.
“Ahh, fuck!” she spat, her hand clawing around the pain. A steady stream of blood sputtered from the stab wound onto the counter and cutting board, shining like melted garnets in the incandescent lighting.
Ben released her and leapt away in shock. “Jesus, I’m sorry! I didn’t--”
“It’s fine,” she answered, injecting some calm into her tone. “My fault.” She did not hesitate before letting her mind rustle over the shed droplets and take control of them. In one mental motion, she pulled the blood into a single small puddle and then reabsorbed it into her wound. It was an act of singular familiarity, one she had performed a thousand times before without a second thought. She only realized her mistake when she heard Ben’s shock and concern vanish into an awed silence. It took only a second and a half, but it was a second and a half that she immediately knew would change everything.
Her whole body went rigid, except for the fingers gripping the edge of the counter. The blade danced against the cutting board as the nervous tremors traveled up and down her arm. She dared to exhale and gradually turned to where Ben stood.
His tenseness matched her own, and it was apparent in each sculpted limb. His eyes were wide, his complexion drained of all color. “What. The fuck. Was that.”
Holy shit, she thought to herself, very nearly whispering the words aloud into the thickening air. What was I thinking? All it took was one mistake, her father had warned her time and time again. She’d tried to believe that she had enough self-awareness not to do something so stupid as to use hemomancy in Ben’s presence. But it was too late. She had to diffuse the situation, somehow.
Her mind reeled in a panic, and she hit upon an idea that she knew was moments too late to change anything. Without recourse, she forced herself to discard the ingrained habit that kept her blood flowing safely. It seeped out slowly at first, and then in a torrent that she hoped contained the proper amount of blood for such a wound. The sound of the fluid slopping to the floor filled her stomach with nausea. “Don’t just stand there,” she choked out, trying to contain the warble of helpless terror that overtook her. “I need bandages.”
But Ben’s gaze drilled right through her. His face was wan, and his glistening eyes begged her to deny the truth. His jaw gaped, teeth angled toward a dawning realization that even the fountain of blood splattering against the pristine floor could not distract him from. “Hemo,” he whispered. “You’re a hemo.”
She shook her head. The trembling had moved to her shoulders and hips. “Ben, I...”
“Tell me it’s not true.” His voice shook with loss, as though he’d walked in on her in the midst of a torrid affair with his best friend. Lena would have done anything to soothe him, to convince him that it wasn’t what it looked like. But the sting of her betrayal invaded his features and consumed him from within. The look of supreme pain and vulnerability gave way to a grimace. “I knew it was too good to be true,” he hissed. “I knew there was something fucking wrong with you!” He turned and tore out of the kitchen. “But a fucking hemo!?”
“Ben, don’t do this!” Though she meant to say it in a reassuring tone, it came out in the same hysterical warble that ran through each thought. Her legs almost refused to move as she chased his retreating back. The flow of blood stopped and reversed. There was no hiding it anymore. But maybe there was still a way to walk away from it. “I didn’t... I didn’t want you to have to know,” she called at him. “Ben, listen to me. I didn’t mean to trick you. I just... Ben, stop, just talk to me for a minute.”
He didn’t pause for even a second. He rounded the couch and advanced with silent purpose toward the bedroom. Not a single word answered her desperate cry for reason.
“Ben, come on! Wait!” She willed her legs to move her faster, but something was fighting her. On some level, she knew she had only a small window to escape. But love was the gravedigger of logic. She chose instead to stay and chase, and so she pursued him down the hall, crying his name and trying to stop the tears that were already forming.
He disappeared behind the door of the bedroom, and a loud clatter rang from within.
She was almost to the door when it swung back open and he reemerged. In his hand, he held a pistol--and he was pointing it square at her. Tears and sobs transformed his face into something hideous and unrecognizable. “Monster,” he barked, his hands quaking and making the barrel of the gun bob erratically from side to side. “You fucking monster! Give my Lena back to me!”
Her breath left her vacant. There was no fear in her heart. Only an ache she knew she deserved. Her own tears came hotter than before, blurring the sight of his face. “Ben. Don’t do this. Please. I love you.”
“Love?” A hysterical, rage-filled sob cut the word to shreds. “You’re a fucking hemo! What do you know about love!?” Clumsily, he racked the slide of the pistol and aimed it straight at her head.
One mistake is all it takes, she heard her father saying again. Quiet indignation, self-loathing, resignation. As she stood there, staring down the barrel of her fiance’s gun, she was horrified to find Ben’s terror-stricken visage warped unrecognizable by his fear and hatred. It was an expression burned into her brain, one that by its very recollection proved what she knew about love--and about hate. That expression transported her back to a night five years earlier. Moments, separated by years of placebos and lies, bled together. The unthinkable happened: the face of her beloved had become the face of Tyler Lamm.