I would like to dedicate this book to my wonderful children, without whose support I couldn’t have done this. They are the light of my life. I would also like to dedicate it to my forever love, Ron. He gave me the space and love I needed to complete this project. He is always there for me. He is my rock.
I would like to acknowledge my dear friend and mentor, Mian Mohsin Zia, who gave me the opportunity to spread my wings and fly to new heights with this work. He has taught me what a good friend really is.
After walking down to the water’s edge, Willa cupped her hand in the fast flowing water to get a drink. Since she was at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, she felt it was safe enough to drink without her filtering water bottle. She stood up and looked around her. This was a truly pristine area she had chosen for a backpacking trip. It was early spring, and there was a light sprinkling of snow on the ground, but the weather forecast called for warm temperatures, possibly even hitting the 60s the next day. The trees around her already had tiny buds on them, ready to shoot out new growth. The grassy field she had just passed had hundreds of tiny wildflowers in bloom.
Willa looked up at the mountains around her. They were capped in white, and there was a soft lenticular cloud off to the side of the top of Mt. Shasta. It was beginning to get a pinkish glow to it as the sun went down. It was getting late. Time to set up camp. She turned towards the meadow and walked over to a copse of evergreen trees, stunted because of the high altitude. This, she thought, would make a nice place to put her small tent.
After slinging her heavy backpack to the ground, Willa began the routine setup of her camp. She started by collecting twigs and fallen wood for a fire. There were some rocks to make a circle around it. As she built the fire, tears stung her eyes as she thought of her son, Nick, who had lost his life two years before as he rode his bike into the path of a drunk driver. She let the tears come this time. It was one of the reasons she liked to come all the way out here into the deep woods. Nobody to judge her here, or offer sympathy. She could just be alone with her pain.
Willa heard a twig snap and turned her head in the direction of the sound. A mother deer and two large fawns had come down to the stream to drink. She wondered if they’d noticed her. She sat down where she was and watched them. The smallest one lifted up its head as if testing the air. Its body quivered. The threesome moved on down the bank, away from where Willa sat, almost as if they sensed it wasn’t safe there. Maybe they smelled her human scent. Or maybe it was just their highly tuned defense system telling them that they needed to keep moving to stay alive. Whichever it was, it made Willa sadder because the deer could only see her kind as an enemy. She’d have liked nothing more than to have gone right up to the deer and hold one around the neck. To let her tears fall on its soft fur until no more tears would come.
How she missed her son. His crooked smile with teeth missing. His dark brown hair so soft like his dad’s. Willa let the feelings flow. She and Jake couldn’t stay together after what had happened. Something had broken between the two of them. They lasted almost a year after the tragedy of losing their only child. They stopped making love almost right away. It just didn’t feel right to enjoy each other anymore when they were in such pain. Jake started sleeping in the den and worked until he could barely stand up. Willa had more time on her hands with her part time job at a day care for elderly folks. Jake still worked at the ad agency in the city. Willa felt sorry for him because she knew he was trying to work off the pain rather than deal with it. They still spoke from time to time, but never for long. It was more a touching of bases than anything else, really. The love was gone from between them. Love was something stunted and half-dead to her now. It was from a different world; a world before her precious son had been taken away.
Willa realized something in that moment. She saw herself as a waxen statue, only existing until her time in this life came to an end. The tears were dry now. She felt as cold as the snow on the mountains inside. The moment was held for eternity in her heart and mind and soul. Sitting there for a while longer, Willa came to life once more as the cold infiltrated her clothes.
She needed to set up the tent and tend to the fire if she wanted to survive the night. She thought that living another day was okay. She could do that much. So she collected her tent and the stakes, and set up. Then she rolled an old log up into the fire and fed it until it warmed her. After heating up some water for her instant food pack and a cup of coffee, she ate and drank, almost mechanically. Then she got into her sleeping bag and looked for the way to sleep, but couldn’t find it at first. It finally found her and she began to dream.
The sound was deafening. Willa jumped up and out of her sleeping bag. Her heart was racing like a stallion’s. She had no idea what the sound was that woke her, except that it was something big. Could it have been a bear? That made the most sense, but didn’t quiet her heart. In fact, if it were a bear, she was in trouble. Big trouble. She didn’t carry any weapons and felt completely defenseless. She waited a moment to see if she could hear anything else. Then there was a whoosh! And a roaring sound. Fire?
It took every ounce of courage to get herself to move. But move she did. She threw on her boots and jacket. Standing up from her crouched position on the tent floor, she reached for the door zipper and slowly unzipped it. She pulled back the flap ever so slowly and peeked her head out into the darkness. To the south she saw a soft glow beyond some deer brush. Inching her body further out of the tent, she tentatively made her way over to the outcropping near to where she had set up camp where she could see better. Yes, it was a fire. But it was only in one spot. Then she heard a cry as if someone were in pain. Willa stumbled back to the tent to grab her flashlight. Investigating the scene seemed like a really bad idea, but how could she leave someone who might be in need of help?
By the time she came back to the spot outside, the glowing fire was almost gone. Willa flicked on her flashlight and headed for what was now just a low glare. Sticks and pine cones crunched under her feet. Other than that there was only silence surrounding her. Then she heard the cry again. Hurrying now, she pushed herself through some thicker brush that she guessed was Manzanita since it was so tightly grown together. Finally, Willa broke free and came into a clearing and saw a wondrous sight. It was a small pod that looked like some kind of airplane without wings that had seemingly crashed into the ground. Smoke arose from it, but parts of it were still on fire. She couldn’t take her eyes off of it. She was mesmerized.
Then she heard a low groan to the left of the strange looking plane. Her eyes turned towards the sight of a young man, about her age, lying on the ground and in obvious pain. He was trying to sit up, but kept falling back down again.
“Are you okay?” she called from where she stood.
He looked up at her, startled.
“I’m hurt,” he said.
Willa took a few steps towards him. He didn’t seem like he was dangerous. For now anyway.
“What happened here?” she asked.
The man groaned again.
“My plane crashed,” he said, but something came across his eyes, like he was lying.
Finally Willa walked over to where he lay and crouched down to look more closely at his injuries. He was wearing a uniform she’d never seen before, but it was torn and burned away in places, especially his left arm and leg.
“It looks bad. Let me go get my first-aid kit from camp. I’ll be right back,” she assured him. She began to turn away to go, but he held her arm with his good one. Willa felt a strange sensation crawl up her arm. It felt like electricity.
“Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it very much.” And he let go of her. She stared into his eyes a moment longer, then took off. The excitement she felt inside her was giving her an incredible energy rush. Willa quickly made her way back to her tent and retrieved her high tech deep woods first-aid kit, which even contained sutures should the need arise. She threw the pack over her shoulder and returned to the crash site. The man was still lying on the ground, moaning. She sat on the ground to his left and asked him if he could pull up his sleeve so she could get a better look. He tried, but cried out. She went for the scissors in her kit and began to cut away the cloth. He grimaced.
“I’m sorry this hurts you,” she said.
“It’s okay,” he replied, sucking air through his teeth.
What she saw shocked her. She had expected red blood to be coming from the wound. Instead, it was the color of an orange. She sat back on her heels.
“Look,” he said, “I’m not from around here. I should tell you that Earth is not my home. I come from another planet. I promise, though, I would never hurt you.”
As he was talking, it was as if Willa were hearing his words from down a long tube or something. She couldn’t move, and her arms and legs felt like jelly.
“Please. You’ve got to help me. Nobody knows I’m here.”
Willa blinked at him. What was he talking about? This person sitting next to her in agony was an alien? It couldn’t be true. He reached out and touched her arm. She flinched.
“My name is Paul. Or at least here it is. I’ll understand if you want to run the other way right now and not help me, but I’m really in trouble here.”
Willa started to come back into herself. She felt a deep sympathy for this person. It began to surpass her fears about the frightening situation she found herself in. She dug into her kit for burn dressings and came up with several that were marked. Cautiously cutting the rest of Paul’s sleeve off, she placed the pieces of saturated cloth over his burns. Although she was trembling, she did a neat job of it. Next she went to his leg and cut away the burned cloth. Some of it stuck to his skin, so she used the saline solution in the kit to moisten it and pried it off. Paul tried to stay quiet, but he almost passed out from the pain. His eyes closed.
“Stay with me here, Paul,” she said. “We’re almost done.”
Willa was able to get past the color of Paul’s blood, and take care of his wounds. She had taken some first-aid classes in college for her job at the day care, so she knew what she was doing. When she was finished she put everything away and stowed the garbage in a bag. Her hands stopped their shaking, and she washed them off with sanitizer. What was she supposed to do next?
Willa thought about getting the young man who called himself Paul and said he was from outer space, back to her campsite and maybe letting him use her sleeping bag for warmth. Even though the temperature was not very cold, Paul had started shivering.
“I’m going to bring you back to my tent if you can make it,” she said.
“I don’t know if I can walk, but I’ll try,” he said.
Willa reached for his right arm to help him up. He cried out. This wasn’t going to be easy. She thought of running away from the scene and never looking back. What was she supposed to do in this strange situation?
“I’m fine,” said Paul, “just give me a little lift and maybe I can get my feet under me.”
Willa could feel the strength of his muscles as she helped pull him to his feet. His left leg was obviously in a lot of pain. He probably needed antibiotics for burns like these, she thought. Unfortunately, none came with her kit.
Paul put his arm around her shoulder and dragged his left leg as they slowly managed to get through the tangled undergrowth and back to her camp. It took a while, but they finally made it. Willa helped him get into her sleeping bag, and the shivering lessened.
“You are a very kind person,” Paul said as he looked up into her eyes. She looked away. His stare was intense. He had deep blue eyes that seemed to know her.
“Thanks,” she said. “What else could I do?” Willa was scared to ask him any questions, but her mind raced with them.
“I know you must be wondering about me,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I can since you’ve practically saved my life.”
Not knowing where to start, Willa couldn’t think of what to say. What do you say to an alien being who just crashed to Earth? Speechless, she just stared at the ground near her feet.
“Come on. Ask me whatever you’d like to know, and I’ll try to answer you as truthfully as I can.”
“Well,” she began, “Where do you come from?”
“I come from a planet a lot like this one. It’s called Panterra in your language. It has plants and animals and water, too. We’re very low on carbon, though, so we come here to extract it.”
Willa thought this over. It seemed reasonable. So he wasn’t here to do experiments on humans or anything like that. Good. That was a relief. Of course he could be lying. But his eyes seemed so truthful. She wanted to believe him. She needed to believe him.
“Now, what else would you like to know?” he asked.
Willa could tell by his voice that it was paining him to talk. At least he had stopped shivering.
“You just stay quiet now,” she told him. “We can talk more in the morning. You need to sleep and heal right now.”
“Are you sure? I’m healing quickly you know. Ten times faster than you would. I don’t want you to feel you’re in any danger from me.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine for now. By the way, my name is Willa.”
Paul held out his good hand and offered it to her. “Nice to meet you, Willa. Very nice indeed.” They shook hands, and Willa felt that electric feeling she had felt from before when she had touched his bare skin. It reminded her of when she was a kid when her cousin Rosie had dared her to put her tongue on the tip of a battery. The difference here was that she felt it through her whole body. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling at all. In fact, it felt rather nice.
“You just need to rest,” she said. “I’ll be right outside by the fire if you need me.” With that, she grabbed her extra blanket and went outside to tend to the fire. Then she curled up next to it and closed her eyes. Sleep wasn’t soon in coming, however. How could it when a real live space man was only a few feet away with who knew what intentions? Her heart sped up with every new thought or possibility that entered her head. Her imagination began to run wild.
Finally, she must have worn herself out because the next thing she knew, the sun was shining on her closed eyes. Willa looked at her watch. It was 7:30. Her head was clouded with sleep. She thought she had had a dream last night, but she couldn’t quite get the memory of it to come into her mind. Then she remembered the crash. It startled her at first, and she felt afraid. She got up abruptly and went to the tent to see if it was true. There he was, sleeping peacefully. She could hardly believe it. So it wasn’t a dream. Her heart beat so fast she felt hot flashes flow through her chest. How could this be real?
Willa had always believed there must be other beings like humans on other planets. But that was just a theory. Now that she was faced with the fact that it was true, she couldn’t seem to digest it. Yet here he was; a real-life alien being. As she stared down at him, he slowly opened his eyes, those way too deep blue eyes of his. He smiled up at her.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” she automatically replied back.
Paul pulled back the sleeping bag and began to peel away the dressing on his arm. She knelt down beside him, quickly telling him not to do that. “You still need to keep that on,” she said.
He smiled at her and pulled the dressing all the way off.
“See,” he said. “All healed up.”
Willa couldn’t believe what she saw. What had probably been the worst third-degree burns she had ever seen were now a soft pinkish glow on his skin. Paul unzipped the sleeping bag all the way down and removed the dressings from his leg. It looked the same. It was still pinkish and had no hair where he’d been burned, but it was healed.
“Oh my God,” she said under her breath.
“I know,” said Paul. “Pretty interesting, eh?”
Willa stared at the spot on his leg. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.
“Don’t be scared,” he said. “I’m a very fast healer, that’s all.”
He got up from the ground and stood tall beside her. “Now let’s go assess the damage to my craft.” And he was off. Willa thought twice about following him before she finally left the tent. He seemed to know where he was going, which she thought a bit strange because of the condition he had been in the night before. His clothing looked ragged where the fire had gotten to it and she felt a string pull at her heart.
They arrived at the scene of the crash. Paul looked it over, then began pulling away large pieces of a metal Willa didn’t think she’d ever seen before. It was seamless for one thing. For another it had a dull sheen that didn’t reflect the now rising sun. It seemed as if it absorbed the light instead.
Paul finished his inspection of the craft. “Well, I guess I won’t be going anywhere soon,” he said sadly. “My ship is destroyed. I’m lucky I lived through the crash.”
“What are you going to do now?” asked Willa.
“I’m not exactly sure. The communications are out. There is a place on the coast where I can meet up with a contact, but I don’t know how I’ll be able to get there without transportation.” Paul looked at Willa with those eyes of his. “You wouldn’t want to give me a ride, would you?”
Willa was thrown off balance. This guy seemed okay, but he was not only a stranger, but one from outer space.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “I have a lot to do.” A lie. But what did he expect from her? For her to skip out on her life and go on a road trip with him? True, it was only a few hours to the coast, but still.
“Do you have any money? You could take a bus.”
“I do have some money, but just look at me. I’m a mess.”
“Look,” she said, “I can give you a ride to my place and maybe some of my ex’s clothes will fit you, although you’re a little taller than him. Okay?”
Paul’s face brightened. And when he smiled, she felt that electricity go through her again. He was the most handsome man she had ever met. He was almost beautiful. She stared at him too long until he said, “What?” She looked away, embarrassed.
“Nothing,” she said hurriedly, and backed away. She kicked herself for staring at him.
They went back to her campsite and Willa began packing up. She had wanted to stay in the wilderness for a few more days. She needed it. But now things had changed. Oh, how they had changed! Paul helped her break down the tent and insisted on carrying it back down the long trail to her car. Willa carried her backpack. She shared her water bottle with Paul on the way down.
“So you’ve come to Earth a lot before?” she asked.
“Oh yes. Many times. Usually with my father or mother. They’re going to be worried about me. The sooner I can get to the contact the better.”
In a moment of craziness, Willa spurted out, “I’ll take you.”
Why she said it she didn’t know. All she knew was that she wanted to spend more time with this strange visitor to Earth. She felt as if she had to learn everything about him. He was unique. Somehow he pulled her out of her depression about her son, Nick. She felt needed by someone for once. Of course the old people at the adult daycare had needed her, but somehow this was different; more personal. She decided she would do this thing.
Paul looked into her eyes. “Are you sure?” he asked.
Of course she wasn’t sure, but she was committed now, to herself and to this stranger.
“Yes. We just need to stop by my house before we go so you can get cleaned up and I can pack a few things.”
Paul smiled at her. He looked boyishly expectant. Willa looked away before she got caught up in those eyes again.
Willa and Paul were on the road by noon. They drove down the narrow and curving mountain roads until they reached her house. It was right on the river and surrounded by forest. Willa lived on five-hundred pristine acres left to her by her beloved grandfather, James Goodman. And he had been a “good man”. He raised a large family doing carpentry work during the heydays of the many mills that had run practically non-stop during his life. Willa wondered what he would have thought if he’d ever met someone from another planet. It seemed to come right out of one of the hundreds of stories he used to tell her and her cousins when they were growing up in these hills and mountains.
They used to take big family camping trips up into the Marble Mountains way back when. Grampa always had a good one up his sleeve, it seemed. Come to think of it, there did seem to be the memory of a few UFO stories mixed in. The creatures he dreamed up didn’t seem to have much in common with Paul, though. Except for the color of his blood and his ability to heal quickly, he seemed just like anyone else. Grampa’s aliens were usually monstrous creatures that ate small children for a snack. They were here for no good reason but to terrify and control the world. Grampa told them the story of “The War of the Worlds” because he said when he was young they had thought it was really happening. They truly believed the Earth was under attack by evil space creatures. It was really only a fake radio show, but the announcer sounded very convincing as he relayed what was supposedly happening. People took their own lives the night of the broadcast. They caused huge traffic jams as they tried to flee the cities. Willa pondered this as she took the sharp curves back to her house.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said Paul.
Willa laughed nervously. “I guess I’m just a quiet person,” she said.
“Would you mind telling me about yourself? I so rarely get an opportunity to learn about Earth people up close.”
“I guess that would be alright. What do you want to know?”
Willa was taken aback.
“He was my husband a while ago. But not anymore.”
“What happened to him?”
“It’s a long story, but the short version is that our son was killed by a drunk driver while he was on his bike. After that… things just were never the same between us. Jake left about six months ago. I think he’s just working himself to death now. I don’t really like talking about it if it’s okay with you.”
“Of course. I understand. Could you tell me one thing, though? What’s a bike?”
She looked over at Paul and smiled. “It’s this small vehicle with two wheels that you ride.”
“Oh. I forgot. They teach us all about Earth where I’m from on Panterra, but I don’t remember anything about bikes.” He sat back looking quizzical. Willa looked down at her lap and smiled.
“What did you do for fun when you were a kid?” she asked.
“We used to tease the Sertos sometimes. But we had to be fully protected or they would try to eat us.”
“What in the world is a Serto?”
“It’s a slow, short-legged creature that hates to be teased. But when you tease it, it turns all these beautiful colors, not unlike your peacocks here on Earth. You can’t imagine how incredible they look.”
“Wow, they sound amazing.”
Willa turned the last corner and drove up her mile long driveway.
“Well, here we are,” said Willa. She tried to sound cheerful, but the truth was she felt uncomfortable letting this very strange stranger into her home. She lugged her backpack into the house while Paul grabbed the tent and a few other things. She struggled with her keys, dropped them twice, and was finally in the door. Paul followed quietly. He must have sensed her discomfort. He stood just inside the doorway with his arms full.
“You can just put that stuff on the couch,” she told him. He obeyed immediately, apparently knowing what a couch was. It was difficult for Willa to realize that he knew so much more about her world than she did about his. She wondered what his native language sounded like. He had a slight accent of some sort.
“Please, sit down,” she said. “It’s been a long trip and we have a lot of road to cover before the day is up.”
He did as she asked and looked thoughtful for a moment before asking, “What do you mean ‘before the day is up?’ Isn’t the day up already? It certainly isn’t night yet. I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
Willa tried to hide her smile, but was unsuccessful.
“It means when the day comes to an end, silly. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t make fun of you.”
“No. It’s quite all right. I’m still getting used to the way people talk here on Earth. The only way I can learn is by asking questions.”
“That’s so true,” she said. Then she went to her bedroom to find Paul some clothes.
“You just make yourself comfortable,” she called back to him.
Opening Jake’s closet for the first time since he’d left sent a cold shiver down her spine. She hadn’t expected to feel this way. He had not left much, but she found herself wondering why he’d left anything at all. There were a few pair of undershorts, some T-shirts, a couple of very nice shirts and pants, and an old pair of blue jeans. She got a set of clothing for her extra-terrestrial guest, including the blue jeans, and stuffed the rest into the backpack. When she went back into the living room she found Paul looking at her paintings all over the walls.
“These are quite good,” he said.
“Thanks,” she said. “I haven’t painted anything since my son passed away, though.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Anyway, here are some clean clothes for you. I think they should fit pretty well.”
Paul began to remove his ruined suit right there in the living room.
“Wait!” shouted Willa. “You can change in the bathroom. First door on the left.”
Paul looked so completely innocent that she instantly felt sorry for freaking out on him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I forgot you have taboos on nudity here.”
“That’s okay. I’m sorry I yelled at you. It’s just that… I don’t know. I guess we are pretty uptight about things like that.” She smiled sheepishly at him.
He smiled back at her with those beautiful eyes. She returned to the bedroom where she packed a few simple things. The backpack wasn’t even half full now. Making sure she grabbed an extra toothbrush for Paul, she swung the pack over her shoulder and returned to the living room.
Willa was shocked when she saw Paul in Jake’s old clothes. The tears tried to come, but she refused to let them.
“You look great,” she said.
“Thank you. So do you.”
She had changed into a tank top and shorts. Her hair fell softly around her face. Paul stared at her until she broke the hold his eyes had on her.
“We should get going. Just let me put out extra food and water for my cat.”
Paul looked mystified. “What kind of cat?”
“Just a little house cat, that’s all. What did you think it was? A tiger?”
“Maybe,” he answered quietly.
Willa laughed. “That would be a first,” she said.
“Before we go I need to eat something, if that’s all right with you,” he said.
Why hadn’t she thought of that? Of course he must be starving.
“What would you like? I can make us some sandwiches. Or I have some leftover pizza”.
“Actually, my diet is pretty different from yours, Willa. If I could step outside, what I’d really like is some squirrel”.
Willa blinked. Squirrel?
“Or some deer if I can find any,” he said.
Willa didn’t know what to say, but this scared her. Somewhere deep inside she felt sick.
“It’s the blood I need, actually,” he said. “I don’t mean to frighten you, but that’s what I am. You might call me a vampire.”
Willa squirmed. Her guts felt tight and churned in her belly. What was to stop him from drinking her own blood?
“I told you I would never hurt you, and I won’t. I never feed on humans. It’s against my religion. I’m a rackonist. This means I’ve taken some extremely solemn vows never to hunt human life forms. Do you think I’m evil Willa?”
Willa ran for the door. She couldn’t help herself. Her fight or flight response was in full gear now. In an instant he was at her side, holding her arms so she couldn’t get free. His strength was immense. He whispered in her ear, “Please understand, Willa. Don’t be afraid. No harm will come to you. Now I’m going to let your arms free. But you have to promise not to run. I could get in a lot of trouble just for telling you about myself.”
Paul slowly loosened his grip. Willa made a choice. It seemed the only one she could make. She stayed.
“No. I don’t think you’re evil, Paul. I just don’t understand this. How can you live like this?”
“I was born this way. This is what we are on my planet. I should tell you, though, that there are some who choose to come here to hunt humans. They are the undesirables from Panterra. They crave human blood. But I was brought up on animals’ blood. It’s all I’ve ever known. But I must feed soon. I’m feeling weak.”
“Okay. I’ll wait for you here. But don’t be long. We’ve got to get going if we’re going to get to the coast today.” Truthfully, Willa couldn’t wait to be rid of this vampire alien now.
“I’ll be quick. Thank you for being so understanding, Willa.” And he was out the back door it seemed as if in a flash of movement. She’d never seen anyone move that fast. She tried to stay calm while he was gone, but the truth was she was terrified. How could she even stay on the winding twisty roads when she was shaking so much? She only had a short time to think as he was back before she knew it. He was only gone for maybe ten minutes. She was afraid, but curious to ask him what he’d caught.
“There are plenty of ground squirrels out there,” he told her. “And a couple of fat crows.” He seemed embarrassed as he told her of his kills. Yet proud in a way, too.
“When will you need to… eat again?” she asked.
“Not for a while,” he said. “Probably tonight.”
“Well, I guess we’d better get going then,” said Willa.
She locked the door to her little cabin in the woods and they put the gear in her car. They were on the road again by early afternoon. Luckily, and strangely, Willa’s shaking had stopped and she was able to maneuver easily down and around the steep curves that led to the coast. She was quiet, though and Paul asked her what she was thinking about.
“What do you think I’m thinking about?! This is crazy. Before last night my world was quiet and mundane. Now it’s completely out of control. I never even thought about a planet of vampires before in my life. Now I’m sitting right next to a monster.” That hit Paul hard.
“I’m not a monster, Willa,” he said sadly. “I’m nothing like what you are imagining me to be. I’ve never hurt anyone in my life unless you count the play fights I had with my brother when we were little. Let me tell you some things about myself and maybe you won’t think of me that way anymore, okay?”
“I’m sorry, Paul. I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t really think you’re a monster. It just came out that way. You’re just so strange to me.”
“Well, maybe if you get to know me a little better you won’t be so intimidated by me and others like me. First of all, Panterra is about a third of the size of Earth and lies just inside the Milky Way Galaxy. We don’t have many trees and not much water compared to Earth. I grew up in the Mapot Mountains near the Sea of Donag. I have a great mother and father, a brother, and two sisters. I’m the oldest, so when I turned 18 of your years I entered the Academy of Space Exploration. When I was a kid, all I ever wanted was to come to this planet called Earth that sounded like paradise to me. I read every book on it I could find. I loved looking at the pictures especially. It looked so different from Panterra. So exquisitely beautiful. My parents started taking us here on trips just so I could see my dream come true. Then, after I entered the Academy, I was sent here with others to study the planet and make sure we weren’t overusing its resources. Carbon is the main resource we take deep out of the ground. Water is another, but only from places not used by humans. Unfortunately there has been political unrest, and some of the Sayers are pushing to get more and more. They don’t have a large following, but there is a trend. I hope they won’t overthrow everything we’ve achieved until now. We’ve created a good balance.
“But enough about all that stuff. I want you to get to know the real me most of all. I love the Earth and everything on it. Even the creatures I have to kill to feed on. I always say a prayer for the being I have killed to send it on to a better place. I honor each one’s spirit. I believe that each spirit is sacred, from the mouse to the jaguar, from the bird to the human.”
Willa looked over at him. It sounded to her that he was similar in his beliefs to the American Indians. She knew because she had Cherokee blood from her father’s side. She had always felt a strong kinship with Native beliefs. Now she was hearing similar things from the mouth of a vampire. Things were getting stranger and stranger. She didn’t know what to think.
“What was it like growing up on Panterra?” she asked him.
“It was usually good, but sometimes hard. There wasn’t always enough food to go around. Grave robbers were common. Some of our people had themselves buried in impermeable crypts. I just want to be cremated, myself. I don’t want to think about maggots and Fradons eating me up bit by bit.”
“What’s a Fradon?”
“They’re little multi-cellular organisms that break down tissue.”
Willa made a face. Paul laughed. They drove along the winding, muddy Trinity River on highway 299. Willa hadn’t eaten anything after having lost her appetite earlier back home, but now she was feeling some grumbling in her stomach. There was a small town up ahead not too far, so she decided to stop at this little sandwich shop they had there to get something to eat. It was called Sandy’s Eatery, and they had the best blended mochas in the county, as well as all sorts of organic sandwiches.
“I’m pulling over here so I can eat. Do you want to come in or wait out here?” she asked Paul.
“I think I’ll come in also,” he said. “I enjoy being around your people. And don’t worry, I know how to behave.” He said this with a slight twinkle in his eye.
They got out of the car and went into the restaurant. Paul was looking at everything very curiously. Willa wondered if he’d ever been inside a restaurant before. He certainly wasn’t acting as though he had. The waitress told them to sit wherever they liked, and Paul made a beeline for a booth near the window. Willa followed. They got their menus, but Willa knew what she wanted and ordered.
“And what would you like, sir?” asked the waitress.
“Um, nothing for now, thank you,” he said.
“All right, then,” she said, “I’ll be right back with your mocha, Miss.”
Willa smiled as she looked down at her lap.
“What’s funny?” Paul asked her.
Willa looked up. “If she only knew!” And she started to laugh. Paul frowned at first, then smiled at her.
“I guess it is ironic. Me being in a place like this.”
“You can say that again.”
Two tall, mean looking truckers came in. They took seats at the counter and ordered a couple of beers, then started looking at the menu.
“So, does it make you feel uncomfortable seeing people eat regular food?” asked Willa.
“Not anymore. Although it used to make me sick to my stomach.”
“I can understand that,” she said.
“I actually haven’t had much interaction with your people until recently. I’ve always come here with my parents and stayed in the woods or the desert. This is my first solo trip, as a matter of fact. And now look what’s happened. I hope my parents aren’t too worried. I should have contacted them yesterday.”
There was a ruckus up front. One of the truckers was raising his voice to the waitress saying, “What kind of fucked up kind of food are you cooking in this place, anyway?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to keep your voice down please. We have a very small variety of food. I’m sure if you don’t like it you can go over to the pizza place across the street and find something you’d like,” said the waitress. But the trucker had just seemed to get started with her. He was obviously drunk.
“I just want me a nice beer and a meat loaf. Is that so much to ask, sweetheart?” He went to grab her wrist. Paul was out of his seat like a flash of lightning. Willa could barely see him as he jumped between the trucker and the waitress. He took the man’s hand off of hers and twisted it until the trucker was on his knees.
“Hey! What the fuck?!” The trucker looked up into Paul’s eyes and sat there mesmerized. Paul just held his arm and stared at the trucker. The waitress called for somebody named Jack from somewhere in the back. Slowly Paul let go of the guy’s arm, and he fell to the floor in a daze. The other trucker stood up then and grabbed Paul from behind. He grabbed him around the neck with his arm. “You shouldn’t have done that to my friend,” he said evenly. “But for that you will pay dearly, my friend.”
Willa realized she was holding her breath. She got up and started to go help Paul somehow, and the guy named Jack was coming around the counter to subdue the situation. But before either of them could even decide how to fix things, Paul twisted out of the choke hold the trucker had on him and rounded around with his leg to deliver a swift kick to his jaw. Then he put his finger to the guy’s forehead and he, too, fell to the floor. Paul straightened out his shirt and wiped his hands on his pants. He hadn’t even broken a sweat. Willa looked at the waitress and told her, “I’ll take my food to go, please.”