It sure didn’t feel like a goodbye kiss.
Jean shifted and moaned under my lips, then rolled away, her long dark hair fanning over the pillow like she was flying. I stroked it once, and she frowned in her sleep.
“Good night,” I whispered. I left the bedroom door open so she could hear the baby cry, then tiptoed down the hall in the dark, carrying my shoes to keep quiet.
The kitchen was clean, and empty except for a sandwich in wax paper sitting beside a stack of unopened mail on the counter. I pulled a bottle of Coke from the icebox and covered the top while I opened it, hushing the hiss. Little Donna slept so bad, a spider could wake her tripping over its own feet.
I bit into my sandwich as I pawed through the mail, realizing Jean must’ve been too tired that day to sort it for me like usual.
Suddenly my stomach twisted, chasing away my appetite. The envelope at the bottom of the pile was the same pale blue as the one that came the week before, and the week before that.
I dropped the sandwich and yanked the trash can out from under the sink. Today’s newspaper was on top with that same story as yesterday, about the Russians stopping our convoy in Berlin. I stuffed the envelope inside the paper and shoved it to the bottom of the trash, telling my hands to stop shaking.
I didn’t need to open the letter to know what it said, words Jean should never see. If she knew what they called me, what they said they’d do to me, she’d beg me to stop playing that music, maybe even move away from Memphis.
But I’d worked too hard for this bright little house that had everything she wanted-right down to the lace curtains and flower boxes, in a nice neighborhood with trees along the streets. Better’n them armpit south-Uptown apartments where we grew up.
The phone rang, killing the silence.
“Son of a bitch.” I stumbled over to pick it up before it could ring again.
Too late. From the other room, Donna started to wail.
“This better be important,” I growled into the receiver.
“Spencer, it’s me,” said Charlie, the station manager. “Just wanted to know your plans for tonight.”
I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes, trying to recall how much sleep I’d gotten that day, squeezed in around Donna’s crying fits. Two hours? Three?
I took a long gulp of Coke and asked, “What plans?”
“For Buddy and Ritchie and J.P. Figured you’d want to do one of them retrospectives.”
My breath stopped, and my hand tightened on the bottle so hard it felt like I’d shatter the glass. “A retrospective?” Maybe that word didn’t mean what I thought it meant. “Why?”
He was silent a long moment. “You didn’t hear?”
“Charlie, I just woke up a half hour ago.” I didn’t bother keeping my voice down—the baby was already up. “Hear what?”
“They’re dead, Spencer. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and—damn, I’m sorry. Your friend J.P., too. Plane crash last night. They didn’t find them ’til this morning.” Then he added, “Up in Iowa,” like that would somehow make sense of it.
I couldn’t speak. I just stood there, hearing Charlie going on about tributes and listener call-ins, and Donna screeching her little lungs out, and Jean cooing to her that everything’d be all right. Something in me had sunk, like the bottom of my chest wanted to be part of my feet.
After he hung up, I stood with my forehead against the wall, waiting for that heavy feeling to disappear.
It wasn’t just that J.P. Richardson (or “The Big Bopper” as most people knew him) was a fellow disc jockey and a friend. Tell the truth, I wasn’t even thinking of him. I was thinking of those kids, Buddy and Ritchie, and all the records they’d never make—that I’d never play. I felt robbed.
“Spencer? Honey, what’s wrong?”
I turned to see Jean, holding Donna against her shoulder, rubbing her back in little circles. Jean’s eyes were dark underneath.
“Nothin’, baby,” I said, still holding the phone. “Go back to sleep.”
“I would if I could.” Her lips went tight as she glanced at our daughter, then back at me.
“Sorry.” I hung up the phone. “I gotta go.”
No use telling Jean about the crash. She wouldn’t feel it the way I did, down in her gut and her toes. Her not feeling it would make me feel it less, too, would make it small.
So I didn’t kiss her on the way out the door, just grabbed my coat, making sure my switchblade was in the right-hand pocket. I left the car in front of the house, even though it was three miles to the station.
I needed to walk these streets tonight, make sure the music was still alive.
* * *
The cold February air had chased the street musicians inside—Beale Street was empty except for the people hurrying from bar to bar.
I passed the King’s Palace and made for one of the smaller clubs, where a young colored couple were coming out. They couldn’t have been much older than twenty. The lady stumbled on the bottom step and clutched her man’s arm to steady herself.
“Hoo, it’s cold out here!” She tossed the tail end of a moth-eaten fox stole around her neck. The fox’s dead-alive eyes glittered at me in the white streetlight.
The man took her free hand and rubbed it between his. “Let’s go home and get you warmed up, then.”
I watched them lurch down the sidewalk, laughing, and remembered the first time I talked Jean into coming with me to Beale Street. Got her drunk enough to marry me.
The bar door flapped in the breeze, missing the latch. Acoustic guitar notes floated from inside—odd to hear in ’59, since most everyone had gone electric years before. The sign on the window read,
One Week Only
Home from Chicago
“Mississippi” Monroe Jefferson
I held the door open, listening. That wasn’t no Chicago blues; heck, it sounded like that cat had never left the Delta.
I went in, even though I knew that the Tuesday bartender watered down the whiskey something fierce. In the back corner of the musty joint, a stage light gleamed off a man in a white hat and suit. I slid up the edge of the room, saying hello to those who knew me, which was most.
Monroe’s voice sounded young and old at the same time. His style of playing hailed from the early forties, but his ebony face was as smooth as the polished wood of his red guitar-he looked maybe late twenties, no older’n me.
He started in on Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” A pang of shame shot through my grief.
See, it wasn’t just rock ‘n’ rollers who got chased by the skirts. Disc jockeys, we delivered the music, we handed out that forbidden fruit, like rum-running bootleggers. The magic of Elvis and Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash rubbed off on all of us.
So even though I wasn’t much to look at, and I just worked the midnight shift at an itty-bitty westside station, a week didn’t go by when a chick didn’t promise me a little nookie, no strings attached. But I’d given Jean a vow, and I aimed to keep it.
Until Lillie, that is.
Just the night before, I was sitting in the studio, when all a sudden I felt the urge to go to the window. It wasn’t easy, getting around the equipment and the stacks of free records the labels had sent. I leaned over the table, pulled the shade, and saw her.
She was standing across the road, staring up at me. Hair so blonde it shone almost silver in the streetlight, but cut short above her chin in waves, the way I’d seen in pictures from the twenties. Her raincoat was tied at her waist, and I didn’t see a skirt under its hem. Just legs.
My head went swimming, and I grabbed the edge of the window to steady myself. She was crossing the street, gliding like the breeze was carrying her.
I never touched her, I swear. She wouldn’t let me. But Lillie touched me, with her hands cool as silk, and her mouth warm as velvet. It was a miracle I kept the show going.
She didn’t say much after she was done, and Lord knows I could barely breathe, much less talk. But she looked up at me, with eyes the pale blue of an August sky. Those eyes wanted more.
I reached for her, but she backed away so fast it was like trying to grab the wind.
“Tomorrow,” she said in a honey-sweet voice. “I’ll come back, and you can have me any way you want.” She untied her coat and let it fall open to show a short red dress. “But you have to ask me.”
I stared at the place where the tassels swept her thighs above her rolled-down stockings, and thought of the other girls I’d turned away. Why couldn’t I say no to this one?
The song faded, and I jumped out of the chair to cue the next 45. My hand shook as it held the needle above the spinning black vinyl. My mouth was too dry with panic to give an introduction, so I left the microphone off.
By the sheer grace of God, the song was Ritchie Valens’ “Donna,” the one we’d named our daughter for. I took a deep breath, silently thanking the music for saving my soul. What I’d let Lillie do to me was bad enough, but nothing compared to what I wanted to do to her, again and again.
I turned around, to tell her not to come back.
She was gone.
My heart slammed with a fear I couldn’t explain. “No…” I shoved open the door to see an empty hallway. I took the stairs three at a time, but when I got down to the lobby, there was nothing left of Lillie but perfume in the air.
I ran onto the sidewalk and called her name. It was drizzling, and the streetlight made a mist like a bridal veil.
The words seemed to leap out of my throat. “Come back.”
Unless she was hiding around the corner, she couldn’t have heard me. But I’d said it nonetheless, and damned myself.
Leaning against the wall now watching Monroe play, I realized I’d been with Lillie at the same time that little plane was tumbling into an Iowa cornfield. Somehow that made it worse.
As if he heard the guilt chewing at my gut, Monroe turned his head and looked straight at me. His pitch-black eyes made me dizzy, like the first time I saw Lillie. I pushed away from the stage and went to the bar, where I traded two quarters for a shot of whiskey on my way out.
About ten blocks from the station, far from the bright lights of Beale Street—or the bright lights of anything, for that matter—I heard two sets of footsteps dogging me. I kept going, a little faster but hopefully not enough so’s they’d notice.
It’s nobody, I told myself. It ain’t those letter writers making good on their promise. Just in case, I stuffed my hands in my pockets and gripped that switchblade tight.
The footsteps got closer, louder. The station was near enough I could almost make a run for it.
A giant shadow stepped out of a dead-end alley. I pulled my knife. The blade sprang just as a lead pipe slammed my gut. I dropped to my knees, breathless, and stabbed the air blindly. A man with a deep voice cursed in pain, then kicked my wrist, sending the knife flying.
Someone grabbed the back of my shirt and dragged me down the alley. I tried to get my feet under me, but moving my legs stabbed my right side with pain.
We stopped, way back where I couldn’t even see the street. “Why?” I choked out.
“Justice.” The big one’s gin-soaked breath swept over me. “For crimes against your race.”
The other two held me up while his fist smashed my face again and again. My glasses broke, the pieces spearing my eyes. They called me a traitor and a n**ger lover and worse.
Finally they dumped me on the ground, and the big one snarled, “We warned you to stop playing that jungle music.”
“Just doin’ my job,” I coughed out, trying to get up to find my glasses. A boot nailed me in the back, sending a roar of pain up and down my spine. I collapsed on the wet concrete again.
“You know where my sixteen-year-old daughter was last Sunday night?” he bellowed.
I wanted to say, In your bed? but knew it’d get me killed.
He spat out the words. “She went to that colored church.”
East Trigg Baptist. The white kids went to hear the gospel music I played along with the rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Most of my listeners didn’t know or care whether me or the singers I played were white or black. All they knew was the music fired them up, got them thinking about dancing and parking and other divine, dangerous things.
“My baby girl,” the man said, “with those animals jumpin’ around and clappin’ their hands, singin’ that garbage that’s an abomination of God.”
Now, I wasn’t no activist. I grew up in Memphis, and keeping the races apart in most places was just the way things were. I didn’t think to question.
But to say God hated the music that lifted people’s souls—well, that just wouldn’t stand.
Unfortunately I couldn’t think of nothing clever to say, what with my brain all sloshed up against my skull. So I just slurred around my broken teeth, “You’re the stinkin’ animal.”
I couldn’t see their eyes, but the silence told me I was dead.
“Gag him,” the big one said.
They shoved a handkerchief reeking of aftershave in my mouth, muffling my screams. I kicked out, but one of them sat on my legs while the other yanked my arms above my head. Then came the snick of a switchblade.
The knife exploded into my gut. I shrieked, but couldn’t get enough breath to scream again. Another stab, and blood filled my mouth.
I heard shouts from what felt like a distance, but I didn’t care. The darkness was reaching for me, pulling me to a painless place.
When I closed my eyes, I saw Jean’s face. When I opened them, I saw Lillie’s.
“I came back,” she whispered. “You called me, and I came.” She smoothed back my hair, pasted against my scalp with cold sweat. “We don’t have much time, Spencer. Do you want to live?”
What kinda question was that? I stared up at her, but her face was too blurry for me to see what she meant. So I focused every scrap of strength in my body into one word:
She kissed me. Her cool lips soothed the agony inside, and I figured she was just giving me something to cling to so I wouldn’t let death take me before the ambulance came.
But then…well, then things got kooky.
Lillie tore open my shirt, and the pain in my stomach spiked. Fingers of cold steel gripped my wrists, and my knees popped under a hard weight. I thought maybe those men had come back. I struggled harder, though I knew I couldn’t protect Lillie, with the state I was in.
“Don’t move,” she said.
Was she talking to me? I lifted my head to look at her, then wished I hadn’t.
Blood soaked the lower half of her face, so I couldn’t see where her skin ended and her lips began. But I could surely see that pair of long white fangs.
“Pipe down!” Her fist flashed. Pain exploded in my head. The back of my skull slammed the pavement, and my muscles went limp.
Another stab to the gut, this one smaller. The pain shifted out of my body, like it belonged to someone lying next to me.
“Not long now,” Lillie whispered, her voice slow and thick.
She lied to me, I thought. But this was better than a lonely, all-night death in a cold alley, or taking days to die in the hospital from infected wounds.
Lillie slipped her arms around my body. “Almost…” She rocked me, rubbing little circles on my back like I was a baby. “Just a little further away now.”
I slipped into the deepest sleep of my life, a long slide down a warm, soft tunnel. My heartbeat slowed. A white light pulled me on with no hurry. I could take my time getting there, just float forever until I—
“Come back,” she said.
Hot thick liquid filled my mouth and flowed down my throat. I swallowed it. I inhaled it. I made it a part of me, so I could make her a part of me.
Because it wasn’t just the blood. It was Lillie I couldn’t live without, from the moment I pulled that shade to see her standing in the streetlight. So I clutched her arm to my mouth and drank. My heart roared and throbbed with new life that those goons could never take from me again.
Her blood sang in my veins, like it was coming home.
* * *
When I was eleven, I grew three inches in one year. I’d wake up screaming every night from charley horses that tied my leg muscles in knots. Mamma called them ‘growing pains.’
The Change was like mashing a whole year of growing pains into one hour. My bones hardened and my muscles thickened. My eyes burned, my ears whistled, and the space behind my nose crackled and popped.
Lillie held me through it all, and told me what I’d become, how I’d be young forever, how I’d never see the sun, how we’d never be apart. The last bit was all I cared about, because I knew if she left me, I’d die again, and this time not so fast. This time forever.
When I opened my eyes, I saw light in every shadow. I heard a rat poking through garbage a block away.
And I smelled the blood. Not mine. Not Lillie’s. Prey.
I pushed her off and sprang toward the street. Three bodies sprawled across the alley, necks twisted and eyes glazed.
I hunched over the fat throat of the one who’d stabbed me. My fangs came out for the first time—long, sharp, and ready for revenge.
Lillie’s low growl froze me as my mouth touched his skin. Thirsty as I was, I would’ve starved before disobeying her.
I whimpered and sat back on my haunches, like a sad old dog. “Why not? They’re still warm.”
“We only drink the dead when we’re desperate.” She strolled over to me, hips swaying. “Besides, these twerps shouldn’t be your first meal.” She stroked my hair. “My man deserves better.”
I stood slowly and gazed down at Lillie’s face. Her skin glistened in the dim light, the stains wiped clean except for her red, swollen mouth.
I kissed her hard, thirsty for more than blood. Her lips were as hot and hungry as mine, and when my hand slid under her skirt, she moaned, grinding her hips with such need, I thought I’d die all over again.
Up against that brick wall, we finished what we’d started the night before. We bit and scratched and shrieked like alley cats, leaving wounds on each other that lasted long enough for a taste. I knew right then that I’d never call myself dead.
When it was over, Lillie stood trembling in my arms, like I was the strong one, though I knew she could snap me in half with two fingers.
She looked up at me with wet eyes. “You don’t know how long I’ve waited for this.”
I traced her lips with my thumb, wanting to kiss them again, feel them all over my skin. “Why me?”
“I’ve been stuck on you for weeks,” she said, “since I heard your show. It’s the first sound since ’29 that made me want to go on the make.” She slid her hands over my hips. “Made me feel alive again.”
“Was this part of the plan? Turnin’ me into a—” I couldn’t say the word vampire, not yet. “One of you?”
“Yes.” Lillie wiped away a mascara smear. “Then after we met, I changed my mind. I tried to resist.” She glanced at the ground behind me-at the bodies, I reckon-and her eyes got hard. “But when I saw them hurting you, I had to make you mine.” Her mouth turned into a shy smile, making my heart flop in my chest. “Like a stray puppy.”
I gave a low laugh and leaned close. “I ain’t no puppy dog,” I whispered against her lips, then kissed her deep and slow until she squirmed in my arms again.
Suddenly she pulled away. “You’re getting cold.” She touched my cheek, like a mother feeling a child for fever. “Spencer, you need to drink.”
I nodded and moved to bite her neck.
“Not me.” Lillie grabbed my face and made me look at her. “My blood’s no use to you now. Only they can feed you.” She shifted her gaze toward the street. “We have a whole city to hunt.”
I thought about my city—its streets, its music, its life. And then it was like I woke up from a dream and remembered who I was. Jean’s husband. Donna’s father. What the hell did I just do?
I stepped away from Lillie like she was poison. “I gotta see my family.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you crackers? That’s the last thing—”
“I gotta tell Jean.” I turned away from Lillie—something I didn’t think was possible—and lit out for the street.
“You can’t tell anyone!”
I took off, ignoring her call to come back. My legs ran faster than ever, but as I got near my neighborhood, strength started to dribble out of me like water from a leaky faucet. My throat burned with thirst, and I smelled human after human who’d ease that pain. But all I wanted was home.
The light was on in our kitchen, and a shadow moved behind the curtains. I stumbled up the porch steps to stand outside the door. I felt like I should knock, like it wasn’t my house.
Then it hit me like a freight train. Her scent. Jean’s skin, Jean’s hair, Jean’s clothes.
I didn’t knock, just tore open the door. The frame splintered and shattered, and the knob came off in my hand.
Jean turned and gave a little squeak, backing up against the stove. “Spencer—”
“Don’t scream,” I whispered, holding out a hand. “You’ll wake the baby.”
She touched her chest through her pink flannel nightgown and stared at my bloody shirt. “Good Lord, what happened? You need a doctor.” She reached for the phone.
“No, I don’t.” I shifted closer, cutting off her path to the hall. “I need you.”
She leaped back from me and the phone, her eyes wide. “Honey, what’s going on?”
God almighty, she smelled so good. And she looked—well, she didn’t look like my wife no more. I couldn’t see her face, just the vein in the side of her neck, so close to her creamy skin, calling to me.
I stepped closer. She stepped back. Soon she’d be up against the sink, with nowhere to run. I pulled in a breath, to taste her sweat in the air, then held that breath to hear her heartbeat, fluttering like a little bird. My jaw shook so hard, my teeth chattered.
The fangs came out.
Jean’s mouth fell open. “No…” Cornered, she slid open the drawer next to the sink and pulled out the scissors. “Stay back!”
I wanted to laugh. She might as well have come at me with a dishrag.
“Jeannie…Jeannie, it’s still me, baby.” I looked into her eyes, and her face went slack. Her hand dropped slowly, then let go of the scissors. They thumped on the linoleum floor at her feet.
“It’s not you,” she whispered. “I know it’s not you.”
I moved to stand an inch away, my hands shaking from the urge to grab her, rip her apart to make the blood come fast and hot. If she’d fought me or even flinched…
But she was frozen. “Don’t hurt Donna.” A tear slipped out of the corner of each eye. “Promise it’ll just be me.”
“I promise.” I held her gently by the waist and lowered my mouth to her neck. “Don’t move.”
She didn’t, except to tilt her head away, showing her throat. I let instinct and the heat of her pulse tell me where to pierce.
Suddenly Jean stiffened in my arms. “Who’s that?” she said with a sharp voice.
I looked over my shoulder to see Lillie standing inside the shattered doorway. She looked so out of place in that ordinary little kitchen, like a diamond on a slab of concrete.
I turned back to Jean, ready to share her with Lillie. My first gift to the woman who’d saved me.
But the spell was broken. The little-lamb fear in Jean’s eyes had turned to fury.
“How could you?” she hissed.
The blood surged hot under her skin, and I wanted to drink her worse than ever-not just to stop the burning in my throat, but to wipe that judgment off her face.
“Lillie’s with me.” I put my hands behind my back to keep them from Jean’s throat. “I’m leavin’ now.”
“Yes,” Jean said with the coldest voice I’d ever heard. “You are.”
I stepped back, and it was so hard, like scaling a brick wall with nothing but fingernails. Everything inside me craved her skin and her blood.
Lillie laid her hand on my arm. “Don’t pack a suitcase,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll get you everything you need.”
“I bet you will,” Jean spat. She was shaking all over, and I could tell she wanted to hurl herself at us.
I knew I’d pounce if she moved an inch, so I turned away. “Baby, I’m sorry.” I took a deep breath. “Tell Donna—”
“I’ll tell her you’re dead.”
I shuddered, then closed my eyes and strangled the last piece of the man I used to be. “Yeah.”
As I followed Lillie out the door, I saw her slip a wooden stake back into her purse.
* * *
We found someone else right after—it don’t matter who, except that he tasted like heaven and had a brand-new Mercury.
As we drove over the Mississippi River into Arkansas, I didn’t bother watching Memphis fade in the rearview mirror. Lillie was my home now.
We stopped at a juke joint off Highway 79, and danced to Buddy Holly until dawn painted the sky gray. The music crawled under my skin and throbbed in my veins, like I was hearing it with my whole body instead of just my ears. I was alive.
Later that morning, lying in a pure dark tornado shelter with Lillie’s arms around me, I thought I’d never, ever miss the sun.
Copyright © August 2008 Jeri Smith-Ready