major relationship: f/m
homophobia, homophobic slurs
There are ways to make it easier to live with a secret. One of them is to keep yourself separate, and never get close to anyone. Except her animals, but they don't count, they won't breathe a word.
Not the best plan, maybe, but Tabitha has never found a better one. Until Ben comes along and disrupts all her plans with his curious eye for beauty and his terrible, exquisite, breakable human body.
While writing this, I really fell in love with the fabric of Tabitha's life, the way it breathes. It's an intentional romanticization of small town life and farming that gives a vivid window into who Tabitha is.
The other thing I like best about this book is the aesthetics. The story was based on an image I became preoccupied with and tried to draw many times. I think the book captures the feel of that image better than any drawing I ever did.
Tabitha received an honorable mention in the 2017 Rainbow Awards.
major relationship: f/m
homophobia, homophobic slurs
Tabitha’s body lay curled up at the bottom of the lake for most of the night.
It didn’t settle her the way it usually did.
The water was blind. It had no eyes to gawk at her, the way the rest of the world sometimes could. That was usually a comfort. She usually needed the escape. But—and this went against everything she’d ever known about survival—lately, Tabitha had just wanted to be seen.
She got no shortage of attention in Sunflower, when it came down to it. She was considered something of a character in the small, country college town. But that character, that was an act. That was a façade to cover up who she was down here in the dark.
She’d left the sunfish of the shallows behind at this depth, and the bigger fish stayed away. They could taste her, smell her, tell that she was predatory. Perhaps they’d adapted to her kind a long time ago. If they’d been curious, it would have been so easy to consume them and make the lake truly empty.
There was nothing to see at the bottom of the lake. Little to feel but the steady pressure of water. Little to hear but the faint, rhythmic shifts in the lake’s surface. The sensory deprivation left Tabitha alone with herself. Alone, she could be anything and anyone she wished.
Tonight, it only brought home the differences between wish and reality and made her miss all the things she denied herself by the light of day. She wished that she could be truly herself for once, out in the open, in the light.
When she’d had enough of that cradling nothingness, she got up and walked across the lake bottom, up its uneven slope and through the surface, to the little patch of beach by the lake where she’d set her things on a rock. Her internal time sense told her it was around 3:30 A.M.
She dried and dressed quickly in her plain work clothes. She was careful to brush away her footprints in the sand before leaving.
The gravel drive was rough under her bare feet, but it didn’t bother her—in fact, it was friendly, familiar, like the lack of breath under the surface of the water. Like her ability to see in crystalline detail in the darkness of the night. But it was another thing separating her from everyone else.
She pushed that thought aside in favor of the practicalities of the day. Milking was next, she reminded herself, and then she’d bake fresh bread. She always sold a lot of bread and sandwiches on days when the local college had a term just beginning and the new students were figuring out how to feed themselves.
Tabitha dried her short hair as she walked home in the darkness then quickly settled one of her older wigs onto her head, clipping it fast. She didn’t like to be without one for too long, even when she was by herself. It was one thing to not be presentable. It was another thing to know she looked so entirely unlike herself as she did without her wigs.
With her wig on, Tabitha was herself again, though she certainly wasn’t presentable. She still smelled of the lake, for one thing, but the sheep and goats wouldn’t care—they smelled of sheep and goats, after all. She’d shower properly once bread was in the oven.
In the middle of the night, at the bottom of the lake, with her sheep and goats, these were the parts of her life no one saw. No one ever could. It could compromise everything: her business, her place here, and her very life.
Silent on her bare feet, Tabitha slipped into the barn, put on her heavy leather milking apron, and greeted the first sleepy animal of the day with a scratch behind the ears.
She’d be lost without these creatures. They gave her what she needed to live. She had so much to be grateful for.
But some mornings, that just wasn’t enough.
Nights and mornings, those were the worst times. When everyone else was sleeping. When everyone else could be vulnerable beside their lovers and families. Unguarded.
Running the shop during business hours was good, she reminded herself. Evenings were better, often, between the classes she took at the college, Blue’s social invitations, and sewing club in the library twice a week.
Tabitha showered thoroughly, washing the smell of the lake off, and began donning her armor in layers. Thick, structured undergarments, petticoats, and padding. Some ruffled confection of a dress over top. An apron to coordinate, if she were manning the store, or a parasol for outdoors.
Her shoes really did need to be practical, but there she paid the money saved from making everything else herself to have sturdy shoes in styles that went with her dresses and in enough colors to match. High, laced boots, cowboy boots, and Mary Janes were her favorites.
Makeup, of course; one of her good wigs; hair accessories; and just a piece or two of jewelry. She loved ribbon chokers for more than just the fact that they obscured the line of her throat. She always wore one on a day when she felt the need to be put-together, extra-shiny and invulnerable.
She was going to need one today. She was already unbalanced and the crowds were going to be fierce.
The fantastic cowboy boots with sunflowers embroidered on them were the basis of today’s outfit. Yellow and blue: a yellow dress and classic blue gingham apron, a blue-ribbon choker with a tiny sun pendant, and blue bows in her curled and pulled-back hair.
She looked at herself in the mirror, cheerful and radiant. The way she wished she felt. At least the clothes got her in the right frame of mind.
She smiled, closed the door on her tiny, half-bare apartment, and went downstairs to open the shop.
Every morning, the shop smelled like the baking and like the wood of the building and like coffee and tea, like the night before had been scrubbed away. As the day wore on and people came in and out, it got messy and full of life.
There were advantages to the noise, as well as the clean quiet. She lost herself to the flow of it. Things were busy, and before she knew it, half the day was gone.
In the afternoon light, sun shone on the bright white window frames, on the twinkling wind chimes and bright porch railings outside, on the odd sliver of wall, making the space bright and cheerful. But no sunlight fell anywhere near the counter, the chairs, or the tables.
Two very familiar women were next in line: Blue, with her masses of curly black hair falling over an equally massive fuzzy magenta sweater, and Ellie, with her sleek blonde ponytail, peach button-down, and the patchwork bag hung over her shoulder. Tabitha still remembered how Blue had agonized over each scrap of fabric on its crazy-quilt surface.
“It’s lively in here today!” Blue commented with a grin, gesturing to two college boys who seemed to be starting an impromptu wrestling match in one corner.
Tabitha shrugged. “The shop’s seen worse.”
“What does it even take to ruffle your feathers, Tazz?” Blue asked.
Not as much as you think. “I hope you never have to find out.”
“But I wanna know!” Blue whined.
Tabitha shook her head. “What is your obsession with getting under calm people’s skin?”
Blue reached over to tickle Ellie. “Someone’s gotta do it,” she said.
Ellie swatted her, but she was smiling.
“If you say so,” Tabitha replied. “What’s your next play, then?”
Blue looked at her thoughtfully. “I’ve got your number,” she said. “I’m halfway to knowing all your secrets. I’ll figure it out.”
Tabitha didn’t let her smile slip as she insisted, “I have no secrets.”
“Oh,” Blue said, “everyone’s got secrets. And you’ve got some doozies. I can tell.”
“Ignore her,” said Ellie with casual good humor, elbowing Blue gently in the side. “She doesn’t know anything, not for sure.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, rat me out, why don’t you?” Blue said. “You can pay for the grilled cheese today.”
“You can’t alienate Tazz.” Ellie’s hands were folded primly in front of her as she stood next to Blue, showing no sign of being the type to throw an elbow someone’s way. “She makes the only interesting food in town.”
Ellie was going to school for nursing, and it was a good fit, too, because she seemed to be almost all solid sensible brains and charming bedside manner. Blue, beside her, was the quintessential theater major—although, officially, she was still undecided.
“Fine.” Blue sighed and dug out her wallet. She turned puppy eyes on Tabitha. “You know we love you deeply and would never stick our noses too far in your personal business, right, Tazz?”
Tabitha graced them with a small smile. “I know that about at least one of you.”
Blue, of course, just winked in response.
Internally, Tazz sighed. They had wits and determination enough for ten girls, and they would eventually figure her out.
Some days, Tazz was deeply worried about herself that she considered these girls her friends.
Tabitha’s hands were large, knobby, and work-hardened, and sometimes it seemed they always had been. Most days she didn’t mind. Her hands could do the tasks she put before them, and that was what mattered. They were good hands that way.
Some days she envied the slim, delicate fingers of the girls who came to her shop after school. She watched them, wishing her hands had that same grace. Wishing they didn’t look so alien beside feminine things like lace and the intricate silver charm bracelets that were all the rage with the young girls of the town.
Things were busy that day, with the start of the new school year; college kids newly moved to campus and out exploring the town came into her little shop in a near-constant stream. She didn’t have time to register much detail about any of them. So when a pair of hands passed her a credit card over the counter, long and graceful but sturdy, with the twinkle of purple nail polish standing boldly on them, she almost didn’t see that the card bore the name Benedict Rollins.
When her brain caught up, her head snapped up to look at them, but they were halfway out the door with their purchases, long black hair sweeping across their shoulders.
Tazz knew most everybody in town, except for the new students. But they were just usually… small-town people, local people. People embedded in the same kind of culture that had been growing here for years, like the Birch farmhouse. Sunflower Community College didn’t have much to attract people from far away.
This person, they were something new.
She couldn’t help probing her memory for the details that made her think so: the style of their clothes, mostly black and possibly practical for a life entirely different than one lived on a farm. An accent that was more like what she heard on TV than those of the people around her, missing the familiar hint of Northern Appalachian twang.
It was a small thing, but throughout the day it slowly ate at Tazz’s mind. She watched her parade of usuals come through the café, and she milked the goats as she did every evening. But all the while, the line of their jaw and the swish of their hair replayed themselves in her mind over and over. The sparkle of their fingernails haunted her field of vision.
Were they—was he he? Something in her gut told her that that pronoun was right, and that the name Benedict was right. That frame of reference suited him. She didn’t like to assume his appearance could tell his story, but for now, in the privacy of her own head, she thought of him as male and she used the name from the card, Benedict.
His frame had been wide and somewhat lanky, his walk more swagger than sway, and every sparkle and the refinement of his appearance sat opposed to that but didn’t overwhelm it. It fascinated Tabitha, in a way her own appearance never had. And she’d only caught a glimpse today.
Part of her hoped she got a chance to see more, but then, he might have just been passing through. There was no reason to think that there might be more to their paths crossing.
Either way, the small silver bracelet she’d seen around his wrist worried her. She didn’t know what it said, but she’d seen enough to know what it meant. Something was wrong with his body, something serious enough that anyone caring for him would need to know about it immediately so as not to hurt him further.
He fascinated her, but she knew it was a terrible idea for her to get close to anyone as fragile as that.
Why was she even thinking about it? The hot summer air of the past months must have been baking her brain. Fall, and heavier business, would eventually bring her back down to Earth.
Making human friends was a dangerous prospect, and she tried to keep things in the realm of casual acquaintances. Of course, she failed. Tabitha liked people. She didn’t know any other vampires, not anymore, but some of them, she suspected, were hunters by nature. Not Tabitha. Tabitha bred goats.
She liked to think she was like any other farmer with livestock. She took what she needed from them. The only real difference was that what she needed was blood.
She also milked them, made artisanal cheeses, and sold those along with baked goods and teas in her café. And she tried her utmost to remember that there was a great deal of difference between the rich but quiet social lives of the goat herds in her barns and the deeper, more important lives of the herds of college students tromping through Tabitha’s Tea House.
Occasionally, one of the new students ordered something containing an earthier cheese, spat it out, and said it tasted like goat guts. Occasionally, she had the desire to eat something herself that, for once, didn’t taste of goat guts. Like a mouthy college student.
But fortunately, not very often.
Given the options, goat guts really weren’t so bad.
The next day, she found that Ellie and Blue were smirking at her from their usual table.
“What?” she asked them, in lieu of taking their order.
“You seem… different today,” Blue commented, her smile only widening.
“Different how?” A little nervousness shot through her.
“A little distracted,” Ellie said.
“And you’ve got these little smiles at odd times,” continued Blue. “Did you meet someone, Tazz?”
Damn them and their perceptiveness. But then, they wouldn’t have wiggled their way into their status as her friends without a lot of perceptiveness and persistence. Tabitha certainly hadn’t been looking for friends. Friends were dangerous. Friends got under your skin and learned all your secrets and made you feel things.
But here she was, distracted, dwelling on the simple memory of a man’s hands. It was distinctly possible that isolation was just as dangerous.
“No?” Tazz said unconvincingly.
“Ooh, was it one of the new students?” Blue asked, heedless of her answer. “You should come to the party tomorrow night. Everyone’s invited. I put flyers up at the dorms. Should go on for most of the night.” Blue winked. “So if you’re looking for someone who likes the night life…”
Damn their perceptiveness to the depths. Even if they knew nothing for certain, they knew too much. “Bluebell, you know I’m a morning girl. Got to be up to milk the goats and bake the bread and mind the store. When’s a girl expected to sleep?”
“Don’t you call me that, Tazz! You know I hate it!”
Tabitha just gave her a pointed look.
“All right, okay, I’ll stop! You are a perfectly normal girl with a perfectly normal sleep schedule. Just… think about the party? We’d love to see you there.”
Tabitha sighed, considering them. “Okay, I’ll think about it, but don’t hold your breath. Now are you going to order, or are you just in my shop to look decorative?”
That night was sewing club.
Sewing club was always interesting. Not all the old ladies of the core group had welcomed her when she’d joined, with her over-the-top ruffled dresses and ever-present parasols. They seemed to take her style as an affront, some kind of mockery. They weren’t outright rude about it, but they were cold. But Cynthia, the sweet owner of the town’s only florist’s shop, had always seemed to see that Tabitha made and wore the clothes she did because she genuinely loved them. And so Cynthia was always ready with a little help or advice any time Tabitha asked.
Things had gotten better when Blue had joined the club—one other girl making dramatic dresses and costumes for the pure fun of it (although Bluebell tended to change styles every day rather than stick with one favorite theme, as Tabitha did). It had gotten even better when Blue had dragged Mira along. With the three of them and Cynthia forming their own little knot, it didn’t matter so much how often there was a dirty look shot their way from the other side of the room.
Blue always had something complimentary to say about Tabitha’s latest dress or skirt, and Mira often brought interesting problems to them for help: how to make a bathrobe that would be easy to put on even from her wheelchair, but still look like a bathrobe and not a blanket with arms, or how to make bags mimicking her favorite styles from magazines that were also practical to hang from the back of her chair.
Tabitha had joined the sewing club because she’d needed help with her projects, when she’d first moved back to Sunflower, but over time it had become something dangerously like having friends.
She didn’t want to give it up. That initial reason to stay was still there. She needed all the help she could get with these elaborate projects. And they weren’t just for fun—after all, one advantage of dressing the way she did, being what she was, was that it gave her an excuse to carry a parasol everywhere. But she made the clothes her own, loved them for all they had become a necessity.
Her dresses were her armor. They kept the world away from her secrets and her vulnerabilities.
Of course, letting Blue help her construct it all meant that Blue knew where the chinks were. And today Blue kept giving her looks.
Tabitha ignored them. She had enough trouble going on inside her head without Blue poking at the mess.
Bluebell’s parents had bought their land in Sunflower as a vacation home, a place to go to get away from Harrisburg, but Blue had always loved it. She was one of the few city girls who’d come to Sunflower College in all the time Tabitha’s Tea Shop had been in business. Blue mostly had the house to herself, vacant barn and large pond included. And there was nothing she loved more than gathering large groups of young people to make a mess of her barn and splash around in her pond. So long as she kept the house locked and didn’t provide alcohol, it never ended up being too much effort to put everything right in the morning.
Tabitha, a part-time student at the college, had occasionally been known to attend these parties. She carefully cultivated an appearance as a friendly and sociable person. And she did enjoy the dressing up, watching people, and especially swimming in the moonlit pond.
But today was the first time she’d actually felt excited to go to a party in a long time, and that scared her.
She always took great care with her appearance—she had a lot of waking hours to make use of, and really, any excuse to use them was good. Anything to distract from the long nights. A lot of thought, a lot of labor, and a great deal of her money went into her clothes. Bathing suits were especially challenging on her unchanging figure, but if she wore a one-piece with a skirt, she could just about make it work. It wasn’t exactly the hottest style, but then, the newest fashion wasn’t always what Tabitha wanted to achieve. Modern American culture had a lot going for it, but she would always miss some things about her childhood—her heartbeat among them.
She put up her hair, piling her vivid orange-red curls on top of her head and tying them with a red ribbon. Her red-and-white bathing suit looked like a halter dress, drawing the eye away from too-broad shoulders to her face and lightly padded chest. Her skirt flared out, obscuring narrow hips. And today, somehow, it mattered more that she genuinely liked the way she looked.
She shouldn’t even be letting herself think about him. It was too dangerous to get close to him. But it didn’t matter. Just the chance to see him again buoyed her spirits in a way she wasn’t used to at all. She wanted to know who he was, why he was here, what kind of person might choose to sparkle like that amid Sunflower’s dusty, earthy landscape.
And if she didn’t go, the girls would notice. They’d worry. They’d talk. And that would be dangerous for Tabitha as well. So she drove her truck out to the party in the empty barn, sternly scolding the butterflies in her belly.
The music in the barn was pounding, but she smiled through it and greeted the people she knew, especially the regulars from the tea house. Her eyes roamed, sorting through the faces, heads, shoulders, hands, looking for a familiar glimpse of long black hair and long, delicate, painted fingers. But he wasn’t in the barn.
Tazz tried not to let her face fall.
“Did you find him?” asked Ellie, now at her elbow, her bright pink racerback top and shorts immediately recognizable. “Or her?”
Tazz narrowed her eyes.
“No?” Ellie pouted. “Have you been out to the pond yet? If they’re anything like your type, they’ll head straight for the water. You know that.”
Tabitha sighed. Those two could see through her far too well. Far too well for their own good.
“Go swim.” Ellie patted her shoulder. “If it’s meant to be? You’ll find them.”
Tazz had more than once wondered how Ellie could have so much faith, so much trust in the pattern of things, when everything her family and her town said about God stood so starkly against what she and Blue were to each other.
Tabitha didn’t have much in the way of faith herself, but she stayed away from the church, from crosses and holy water, just on principle, to be safe. Because if she existed, a vampire, the dark side of the supernatural coin, then who was to say the light side wasn’t out there as well?
But she didn’t pray, because it didn’t seem like proper form to be asking favors from an organization that seemed determined to stamp out not just those like her, but also those like her friends, the inseparable Blue and Ellie.
Tabitha stepped outside into the dark, friendly night, where people and light were sparser and the noise of music didn’t press against her quite so much. The lapping of the water against the shore of the pond was all the rhythm she needed.
The tiny beach was full, but there was no sign of the person she remembered. Maybe she’d imagined him. Maybe he wasn’t here. Maybe he was ill. She wandered along the lakeshore and thought.
He was sitting on the dock.
Lit only by candle lanterns on each corner and the barely waning moon above, he was magnificent. His hair was inky and seemed to blend with the black of his clothes, the shadows of the dock, and the invisible depths of the water. But the light glinted on jewelry, rings and necklaces, the hardware of his boots, those midnight-purple glittering fingernails, and—and his eyes. Piercing and intense.
And, of course, that terrible bracelet. A warning, a talisman that should, by all rights, keep her away.
“Hello.” She smiled at him just a moment too late to be natural. “I’m Tazz. Of Tabitha’s. I’ve seen you at the shop, but I wasn’t sure if I would again. Are you starting at the college?”
“You’re Benedict, right?”
He laughed dryly. “God, call me Ben, if you have to call me anything.”
Ben didn’t say anything further. He didn’t seem like the type to enter into the kind of casual acquaintanceship that she had with so many of the students. Despite herself, Tazz liked that about him.
He hadn’t seemed disturbed by the use of his full name, just amused. “What if I think you look like a Benedict?”
He snorted and spread his arms wide. “This is what a Benedict looks like now?”
She noticed for the first time that he was wearing eyeliner.
“Definitely,” she said. “Definitely a Benedict.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “So, Tabitha, are you going to stand there all night, or are you going to sit down?” He patted the wood of the dock beside him.
“I’m going to swim,” she told him primly, and then began wading her way into the water.
He smiled back a little wistfully.
She wanted to know what that was about. Tazz loved the water, and some days she didn’t understand why not everybody was the fish that she was.
Maybe it had something to do with their need to breathe.
“You’re a little overdressed for a pond-hopping party,” she noted as the water inched up her thighs. She faked a shudder at the coolness of it.
“Well, I can’t, really,” he told her, jingling that little silver bracelet. “Not when I can’t see what’s in there. I could cut my toe on something, bleed out. That would be the end of Ben. Hemophilia.”
Now, Tazz really did shiver.
This was bad. One slip and he’d never stop bleeding. It was like a nightmare, playing out before her mind’s eye. Marina, all over again, but even more impossible to stop.
She couldn’t move. She froze in place, the shine off his bracelet the only thing in her vision.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Ben said, a hand reaching out. “It’s okay, really. I’m on medication and everything. But why take a chance, right?”
“No, of course,” said Tabitha, shaking herself back to the moment. “You’re right. You shouldn’t. I’m sorry.” She retreated further into the water.
“Well, maybe I will swim,” he told her. “As long as you’re here to save me, right?”
“Don’t,” she pleaded, her voice startled into an unpleasant croak that she usually hated, but tonight she couldn’t bring herself to care.
Damn it. Damn it all. Damn everything. How could she be so attached already?
“You’re really worried, aren’t you? You don’t even know me.”
“I worry about everyone.” She blew out a breath. “Besides, Blue would be devastated if someone got hurt at her party.”
“She’s the one with all that curly, dark hair, right? And the cute girlfriend?”
Tazz’s jaw tightened.
“Okay, I get it,” Ben said, holding up his hands. “No mentioning the irlfriend-gays.”
“Do you always head right for the most dangerous possible spot for you?” Tabitha asked, voice steely.
“Not the most dangerous,” Benedict said. “I just like being honest about what I see.”
Tabitha frowned. She’d known too many people for whom ‘honesty’ meant ‘judgment.’ “And what do you see when you look at me?”
As he looked her over, Tabitha tried very hard not to listen to the reaction his heartbeat had to her. Whatever it was, whatever it meant.
“A very graceful, very beautiful woman… who tries very hard to look like she’s seen less of the dark side of life than she has.”
She sighed in relief. “That’s all?”
“Well, I haven’t seen as much of you as I’d like to yet. A few minutes in the moonlight can only get me so far.”
Tazz smiled despite herself. Despite the bracelet. Despite everything. And she had the sudden and bizarre thought that she didn’t know what to do with her hands or her eyes.
She was in so much trouble.
“So I’ve been asking around about who knows the local caves the best,” he told her, “and your name came up.”
She froze again, just for a moment this time. “You?” she asked. “Want to visit the caves?”
He smiled at her, a smile that meant no good. “I’m an artist. A photographer. They’re kind of why I came. I like beautiful things.” That devastating smile flashed once again. “Think I came to the right place for that, just from what I’ve seen so far. But yeah, I still want to visit the caves. And I shouldn’t be going down there myself, and definitely not without someone who knows the safest ways in and out and what parts are the most dangerous.”
His eyes were wide and pleading now. This guy wasn’t kidding. He’d moved all the way out here just for this, wanted this. She studied him. This wasn’t a joke for him. He knew the dangers… some of them, at least.
“You aren’t afraid of anything, are you?”
He shrugged. “I’m not afraid to die, if that’s what you mean,” he told her. “I’ve kind of had a lot of time to contemplate that, since I first found out that it could happen pretty much any time.”
Isn’t that all humans? she found herself thinking. But how different it must be for him, his skin that much thinner, his blood that much more easily shed. No, it wasn’t the same, not at all. What he was asking for was impossible.
She shook her head. “There’s no way I’m taking you down into the caves, not with your condition.”
“I’m not going to let that stop me,” he said with a sly smirk. But his eyes were hard enough that she believed him profoundly.
“You’re kind of a bastard, you know that?”
He sighed, leaning toward her and propping his chin in his hands. “Tazz, I have a policy. I’ve had it for a long time. I don’t let anyone stop me from living my life.”
That hit her hard. She wished, sometimes, that she could live like that. So freely. So courageously. Quiet words escaped her: “Not even yourself?”
Their gazes met and held. The only sound was the rippling of the water against the dock.
“That’s the hardest,” he said, “but no. Not even me.”
He reached out to her, and she almost couldn’t help but take his hand, those graceful fingers that mesmerized her, the sparkle to them that appealed to her so much. She could feel the warmth of it, the pulse of blood in his fingers.
“I can’t.” She almost yanked her hand back, but she remembered to be careful, remembered to be sure not to hurt him.
“You can,” he called after her as she slogged her way back to shore. “I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure you can.”
The water dripping from her hands and body felt like the memory of blood.
Tabitha spent nearly the entirety of Thursday’s business hours watching the customers to see if any of them were Ben.
It was ridiculous. She clearly had too much time on her hands still, if she had become this preoccupied by a man with whom she’d only ever had a single, short conversation.
Blue, of course, was insufferable about the whole thing and stayed until past closing to help her clean up, just to get the chance to prod her about it. She asked Tabitha whether she’d found him at the party, how it had gone, what he was like. If she’d gotten a date out of it.
“No,” Tabitha finally snapped. “I didn’t.”
“It’s not a good idea,” Tazz said.
“But why not?”
“That’s none of your business, Bluebell Jones,” Tabitha said.
“Harsh,” Blue replied and took to pouting. But Tabitha knew from experience that the quiet wouldn’t last long.
When all else failed, she could always derail Blue’s freight train of nosiness with talk of new clothes. And she was expecting a package today, new fabric in two new prints she’d been especially charmed with, along with ribbons and lace and various notions.
“Want to come down to the post office with me?” she asked Blue. “I’ve got a package arriving from the fabric store.”
“Are you kidding?” Blue’s eyes bugged out. “Like you have to ask. Always.” She hooked her arm through Tabitha’s. “Let’s go! What are we waiting for?”
“Let me get my umbrella,” Tabitha said, laughing despite herself. “It looks like rain.”
It began to drizzle about halfway there, and the two women huddled together under Tazz’s umbrella, talking. Blue, as always, pushed.
“You should go out more. Whether it’s with him or not. Do more social things. I know you like people.”
“I do things,” she responded. “I do classes, and sewing club. And I always talk to plenty of people, running the shop.”
“Yeah, and you’re all business, all the time. I know. I’m usually there. So are you afraid of fun, or what?”
Yes, Tabitha didn’t say. “Maybe that’s just what I’m like when I’m having fun.”
“Sure, Tazz.” Blue jostled their shoulders together as they came inside and Tabitha closed her umbrella.
She’d forgotten it was Thursday, the day Anne was usually behind the counter by herself.
Anne, among other things, always wore a largish crucifix around her neck and always peered at Tabitha suspiciously when she came in for a package on a drizzly day.
Tabitha usually just tried her best to ignore her but kept her distance, just in case there was some truth to the myth about the power the cross had over vampires.
Tazz went to her post box first, found the expected package slip, and brought it to the desk. Anne had the package ready and looked vaguely impatient.
Blue grabbed up the box before Tazz could decide what to do. “Can I, can I, can I?” she asked, practically bouncing.
“Oh, all right,” Tazz said with a show of reluctance. In truth, this was exactly why she’d even brought Blue.
Blue ripped the box open and sank down on the floor right there to paw through it. “Ohh,” she said, pulling out a roll of cornflower-blue silk ribbon. “It’s so soft.” She set it aside gently to look at the rest. “Oh, look at the sweet little rabbits!” she cried, finding the printed material. “That suits you so well. The dress will look amazing on you!”
Anne seemed to have had enough, because she cleared her throat, and when that didn’t budge Blue, she said, “Okay, pack it up, take this somewhere else.” She turned back, vanishing further into the office, but not far enough to stop them from hearing her mutter, “Dirty dykes.”
That made Blue’s back straighten, made her face go tight. Tabitha and Blue took the large box between them and scrambled out, rain dripping on their shocked heads and on the open box before Blue pulled the package fully into her own grip and nudged Tazz’s hand to put up the umbrella.
She lifted it over them both and glanced up and down the deserted street before speaking. “I’m sorry, I should have thought harder about what that would have looked like.”
Blue waved a hand, brushing it aside. “It’s fine,” she said. “If you don’t mind, I don’t. I’m not ashamed of what I am. And I wasn’t exactly the most discreet, either.”
“Why do you mind when people suspect that you’re with Ellie,” Tabitha asked her, frowning, “but not when people suspect that you’re with me?”
“You can handle yourself,” Blue replied.
“I’m sure you know Ellie can, too.”
“Yes, but…” Blue twisted a curl of her springy black hair around her finger. “You always seem like you know how bad things can get. I’m always going to be a source of drama, no one in this town expects anything less of me by now, but Ellie… she’s a good, wholesome girl. The ladies in the sewing club, the ones who glare at us, they like her. Everyone here likes her. She doesn’t need that to change.”
“Does she know that you think like this?” Tabitha asked.
“We’ve… kinda talked about it,” Blue evaded.
“Let me guess,” Tabitha said. “She doesn’t like it any more than I do.”
Blue twirled her hair and looked away. “No, not really.”
“Blue.” Tazz looked her in the eye. “You can’t tell me to go out and live my life, be myself, and not be afraid and then turn around and stop Ellie from making her own choices about how to present herself to people. It’s not fair, to either of us.”
Blue sighed deeply. “I know. But it’s hard to want to be part of the story of Ellie losing everything she has here.”
“You know I have a lot here that I don’t want to lose either, right?” Tabitha asked, nudging her shoulder this time. “I like my life.”
“Yeah,” said Blue. “But do you love it?”
Tazz couldn’t think how to answer, but she steadfastly maintained to herself that Blue had not won the argument.
Tabitha could spend hours listing the reasons she shouldn’t form attachments like that. She was dangerous. Maybe not as dangerous as she had been those first few weeks, those first few years, but she knew from experience that her own viciousness could shock her. That years of control might suddenly come to nothing.
There were also hunters to worry about. She’d never encountered any directly, but she’d come far too close for comfort. Only her predator’s honed senses had warned her in time to stop a violent confrontation.
Tabitha knew that she would do whatever she had to for survival, when it came down to it, but she’d rather not get herself or any others of her species into trouble. When she heard the hunters before they heard her, she was cold enough to be gladder more for her own sake than for theirs. She felt hollow for that lack of kinship towards humans, and Tazz tried all the harder to think in terms of protecting humans, even if it was something she didn’t care about as much as she thought she ought to. She remembered being human, but it all got further away and more abstract every year. And the decades were starting to pile up.
It was a delicate balance, letting people close enough to remind her to care, but not the kind of close that had worked so badly for her before.
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