(click the title to see the entire chapter)
And then Aileen was standing. The young man, Caleb, was moving towards her, and they were smiling as though genuinely happy to see each other. They embraced, the man holding her too tightly. Va couldn’t see Aileen’s face; Caleb’s shoulders hid it. Va dropped the cloth napkin onto the table and stood up.
Finally, Caleb released her. She took a step back, and placing a hand on his elbow, urged him to turn towards Va.
“Va,” she said still wearing a beatific smile, “this is Caleb, an old friend.”
Va’s eyebrows rose at the succinct introduction, but he extended his hand, as did Caleb. He waited, but Aileen didn’t add anything to the “old friend” statement.
Caleb shook Va’s hand, but turned immediately back to Aileen.
“It’s been what? Five or six years?” he asked her.
“Nearly six,” she said.
“I was one of Caleb’s models when I was in school,” she said to Va.
“My favorite model,” Caleb said, “and then she got a job and abandoned me. Didn’t I pay you enough?” he asked pretending to pout.
“You paid very well,” she said placing her hand on his forearm.
Caleb’s hand covered hers.
“Now that I’ve found you,” he said, “I refuse to let you disappear again. Where are you staying now?”
“I’ve got an apartment in Indian Village just off Jefferson.”
“You’re not far from me. I just moved into a new studio in the Eastern Market. We’ll have to get together soon. I’d love to paint you again. There’s so much more to you now.”
“Really?” she laughed, “I’m the same weight,” she finished her statement by swatting at him playfully.
“I meant depth. You’ve grown, matured. It would be like painting a whole new woman. You were beautiful then, now you are exquisite.”
This Caleb had gall, Va thought. He was flirting with her openly as though Va wasn’t even standing there. Va’s canines itched and a furry ripple ran the length of his back.
“Are you meeting someone here or were you just leaving?” Va asked. He felt it was a safe question because this wasn’t the kind of restaurant where one ate alone. If he had any luck, Caleb had a date waiting.
“I was just on my way to the john. I’m here having a drink at the bar with a friend,” he said to Va before turning back to Aileen. “Look, I’ve got a show coming up at the Inner State Gallery on Gratiot next week. You should come.” He searched his pockets and pulled out a pen and a business card. “The opening is next Saturday at 7.” He wrote something down on the back of the card. “I’m giving you my cell, just in case. Bring your friend,” he said tilting his head in Va’s direction as he handed her the card. Then he leaned in and brushed his cheek against hers. “It really is good seeing you again,” he said.
“It was nice meeting you,” Caleb said politely to Va as he turned to leave.
Va said nothing.
Aileen sat down first, Va followed suit only more slowly.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “It’s just that I haven’t seen him in years. His work is brilliant. You’d like it.”
The waiter arrived with their dishes and, with a slightly exaggerated flair, placed the warm plates in front of them.
“It looks delicious,” Aileen said.
Va nodded his approval and the waiter disappeared.
“Were you lovers?” he asked.
“I don’t want to spend tonight discussing Caleb,” she said. “We’re here together. I only want to think of you.” She ate a forkful of salmon. “Ah, it’s heavenly and piping hot. You told the truth.”
“I rarely lie,” he said and dug into his own meal.
“Why did you marry father?” Vesta asked her mother.
“What do you mean?” Cen asked as she pulled up into the driveway. She and Vesta had just come from shopping to take Vesta’s mind off of the changes that were occurring in her body and to give them time alone so that Vesta could ask whatever questions she needed to. The backseat of the car was laden with shopping bags.
“I love him, silly,” Cen said turning the car off and unbuckling her seatbelt.
“But if you knew that he would die and you would still be young and continue living long after him, why . . .?” she trailed off.
“Because I love him,” Cen said again.
Vesta looked at her mother strangely and then she nodded. “Well, what are you going to do when it happens, when he starts to age and you just . . .?”
“There are ways of appearing to age more rapidly, and besides, we have years and I plan to enjoy all of them.”
“I can’t bear to think of it,” Vesta said, “I mean there’s a good chance Jon will become Reveler, isn’t there?”
“We have to wait and see.”
“Isn’t there some way you can tell? You know, through DNA, a mouth swab or something.”
“If he isn’t, I wouldn’t want to alert him to the difference, and I wouldn’t want to be deceptive and do anything without his permission. It’s like not knowing the sex of your child before the birth. I’d never ask. I wouldn’t want to know beforehand. I’ve always been happy just enjoying the idea of the child.”
“I want to know.”
“Why?” Cen asked.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Vesta said sulkily as she gathered shopping bags from the back seat.
“You aren’t alone. You have me and there are many others.”
“Are there any my age?” Vesta asked.
“Of course. Although most would have aged differently.”
“Can I meet some of them?”
As she walked across the stone walkway to the front door, shopping bags dangling from both hands, Cen stopped and turned to her daughter. She looked subdued, but hopeful, an odd look for the usually recalcitrant Vesta.
“I’ll see what I can arrange,” Cen said.
Vesta grinned up at her mother and to Cen it felt like a hug.
Although Stem looked like a young man of eighteen or so, Cen knew that he had lived three full cycles on this earth. She stood cup in hand looking out of the third floor window of his spacious, but sparsely furnished studio apartment while she considered how to ask for what she needed. The long slightly dusty window looked out over Gratiot Avenue as the street wound its way into the center of town. Taking a sip from the mug, she watched as parishioners leaked out of Historic Trinity Church, which was across the street. It was a sturdy stone building; its aging façade well kept. It anchored the narrow boulevard of scarred storefronts and newly renovated coffee shops and galleries. She turned back to Stem who was sitting at the Formica dinette table, his bare feet propped up on one of the matching chrome and vinyl chairs as he sipped his tea and watched her.
He shook his head. “I am truly honored by your presence. No one has seen you in what . . . I don’t know how long. What brings you to my humble abode?”
Cen gave him the motherly smile she’d learned to give Jon when she wanted to show tolerance. She moved toward the table and sat opposite Stem still holding the mug taking solace in its warmth.
“How do you do it? I mean resist the change . . . conceal your glow. Why would you do it?” Stem said shaking his head. “Is it because of Va like everyone says? Was he cruel to you? If so, there are other ways to handle a situation like that,” he said looking at her with sympathy.
“Va is good,” she said, “it has nothing to do with him.”
“Then why?” Stem asked, his face full of confusion and concern.
“I love someone else,” she said simply.
Stem’s mouth dropped open. “I didn’t know that was possible. I mean our kind are blood mates. How can you deny the compulsion? For that matter, how can you resist the desire to change?”
She knew he’d have questions and she’d thought about her answers, but she was still uncomfortable talking about it. She hadn’t had to explain her choices to anyone except Va and he’d known most of it anyway because he loved her and could read her.
“It just happened,” she said and took another sip of tea.
He looked curious, but said nothing, waiting for her to say more.
“I met him a few weeks before the Sanga Harvest and I couldn’t leave him so that fall I just didn’t go. It was difficult. I mean I was really sick, but I closed my ears and my mind to the call. That first time there was pain and nausea, the ache in my joints was almost intolerable.” Than Cen smiled remembering. “Gavin thought I had the flu. He nearly went out of his mind when I refused to see him for three days. I told him I didn’t want him to catch it, but I really didn’t know what to expect, if I could resist the call . . . but I did. And although it was still painful, it was easier the second time because I knew what to expect.”
“Gavin is the guy? He’s human?” Stem asked.
Cen nodded. “We have two children,” she said finally getting to what she needed.
Stem looked shocked. “Are they . . .?” he began.
“My daughter, Vesta, is capable of change. I’m not sure about Jon yet.”
“Wow,” Stem said, “I would have never considered . . .” He shook his head and took a large swallow of tea.
“I know this is asking a great deal of you, but I want you to keep my secret. I need to remain lost for awhile longer.”
“But why have you come to me?” he asked.
“I’ve know you since you were a cub. You’ve always been sensitive and caring and your mother was my mentor. She taught me all that I know of our history and culture. She taught me how to be Reveler.”
“Yeah, and I don’t think she’d be pleased with your current choices. What you’ve done to Va . . .”
“Va knows,” Cen assured him.
“He knows and he hasn’t said anything?” Stem asked incredulously.
“I came because of my daughter. She wants to meet others like us. She knows Va, but she want to meet someone her age. I thought of you because I know that your mother trained you well. And I hoped that you would share your knowledge with Vesta. It would make her transition . . . easier.”
Stem sat up in his chair and removed his feet from the adjoining chair, but he didn’t say anything. Cen waited.
“She is new and uncertain and she only knows human ways. I want her to find joy in being Reveler, but I am only her mother. I’m trying, but young ones tend to rebel against those close too them . . . she might wonder at my . . .”
“Defection,” Stem accused.
“I chose love,” she said.
“And you no longer love Va?”
“I love Va, but Gavin’s light is so ephemeral, so fleeting that it feels much more intense.”
“You craved it more than the change, more than Va,” Stem said finally beginning to understand.
A tear ran the length of Cen’s cheek.
Stem nodded, “I’ll meet this daughter.”