Lonely is the Night by L.A. Harper
Morning dawns as a promise: a new day. A fresh slate free from the shackles of yesterday, in which your opportunities are as limitless as your imagination. All you need to change your current situation is the drive to do so.
Some may consider my current situation as one in which I spend an inordinate amount of time alone, keeping odd hours and stranger hobbies. That is what I enjoy, and what I am used to. There comes a tipping point, however, when the silence echoes too loudly, and one seeks to fill it with something new. Something fresh. Something close to the heart.
Having fallen into an unusually deep slump about the depth of my loneliness, I decide to trace my family tree. I spend many days glued to my computer, combing through archive after archive to find anyone out there that may seek to want to know me based on nothing but shared blood. After admitting partial defeat and paying a genealogy website to do all the harder legwork for me, to my surprise, there is one living relative. To my even greater surprise, after some lengthy internet searches I find her address.
The real problem is, she doesn’t know who I am. She is far-removed family, but family nonetheless. She isn’t anyone special in the grand scheme, not a politician or a doctor or anyone with any substantial clout. She had been a teacher, and doing so for as many years as she put in touches many lives. I want to touch hers, want to go and meet this long-lost branch on this barren family tree. I want to be known. I have a sudden, powerful urge to see her, to meet her -- for a while, I resist. I have no business nosing into her life. The online photo I find of her retirement pictures her as short, a little stout, but with the eyes of someone trustworthy. Simple elegance, a rare trait, radiates in her warm smile. Cotton-white hair, cropped into a smart bob, transitions into a face lined with the valleys of age. She just looks kind, and kindness was perhaps a blessing that I need right now. I need a compassionate heart to bring me back into humanity’s fold.
I find myself at her house right at sundown; the sun is gone but the horizon is still painted by broad strokes of sorbet pink and orange. Her porch is clean of clutter but littered with leaves. She is rather old, I think. Perhaps the chill makes it hard for her to go outside much. As if on cue, a September wind whips down the street of neatly lined houses, blowing more leaves around the yards. I knock and wait.
There is no answer. Frowning, I knock once more, my confidence in meeting the woman waning with every second. What if she doesn't want to know me? What if I am awkward and put her off like I do everyone else?
“Who ah ya?” A thick accent issues from behind me, and I startle and turn around. I must have been very lost in thought if someone as large as the man before me could have snuck up on me.
“Oh, I’m just looking for the woman that lives here. She is long-lost family that I would like to reconnect with.” I offer this information far easier than I want to, but I am so flustered I don’t even think. He looks at me over his large nose, hand on his rotund belly as he scratches it rudely.
“She been in da hahspital since las' Satuhday.” He shrugs, jerking his thumb in what I assume is the direction of the nearest one. “Ya won’ find no one heah.”
Well, that puts a bit of a dampener on my plans. I thank the portly man and head in the direction he had indicated, into the deepening darkness.
I find myself at the large glass sliding doors of the hospital, at a crossroads with myself. Should I bother an ailing woman? I don’t even know why she is here. It could be anything; from flu to a broken hip, or any number of ailments in between. The deep urge to see her persists. Did she need a stranger nosing in on her? I feel like I am perhaps coming on too strongly, seeing her here.
There is a security guard eyeing me under the brim of his cap, and as he comes closer he gives me a once-over, assessing me. He must sense my hesitation because he gives a knowing smile.
"Ain't nothin' worse than not goin' in and regrettin' it," he says, opening the door for me. I suppose I passed muster, and his slow Southern drawl is a refreshing change from the usually gruff accents of the locals. "Best of luck to you, boy." He nods as I pass and I give him a wan smile. Boy, I think, smiling to myself. Haven't heard that one in a while.
The nurse at the front desk is nice enough, and when she asks if I am family my heart skips a bit. I reply in the affirmative and give her my name.
"Okay, look at this camera for your badge," she directs, pointing at the device. I oblige, and she snaps the picture. She looks at it and pauses.
"Something wrong, ma'am?" I ask, wondering if I can move yet. The longer it takes to find her, the less brazen I feel.
"Ah, yes, the thing's just acting up again." She says, frowning. She clicks it again, the badge prints -- another frown. "Do you have contacts in?"
"Ah, okay. Look slightly to the side, please? One more."
I do, and the printer whirrs. She looks at it and sighs defeatedly. She then affixes the clip to the badge and hands it to me with an apologetic smile. "Sorry for the picture, but between the glare, the contacts and the bad equipment it's really not the greatest. I apologize."
I inspect the picture, and the eerie silver glow, not unlike a nocturnal animal, flashes back. Interesting malfunction. I clip it to the bottom edge of my button-down shirt so it won't scare the old woman I am about to go visit.
It is like any other hospital -- shiny floors, standard pastoral paintings, and rows and rows of light wooden doors. I have been directed to room 1119, and so wander through the labyrinthine halls until I find it.
I knock on the door, palms sweating. I expect no answer; after all, it is well past dark now and she is ill, likely resting. My confidence wanes even further and I regret knocking for the briefest of moments. A small part of me hopes no one stirs.
"Come in," a weak voice calls. It is harsh, tired. I have woken her. I enter, closing the door behind me.
"I'm very sorry to have bothered you so late."
"Well, you aren't the nurse or the doctor, then. They never apologize no matter what time it is." She chortles, then coughs a bit. "So who are you?"
I feel the need to introduce myself before I even open the privacy curtain.
"I am Holden. I found your name on a genealogy website and you are my last living relative." I pause, waiting. "May I enter?"
"You may. I want to see you."
I slide the curtain aside to reveal a waif of a woman, no longer the stout form she had been in her photo. Her cotton-white bob, now to her shoulders, is mussed from the pillow.
"You have grandpa's jaw," she says breathlessly, "and auntie's eyes. Whose line are you from? Gianna?
"You caught me," I smile. Clever lady.
"Why are you here," she says slowly, eyeing me like a mouse would watch a cat.
"I assure you it's not at all what you are thinking. I am merely trying to retrace our family tree," I say, patting her hand as I sit in the chair by the bed. I see her wince as I do so, though she tries to hide it.
"Are you in pain? Shall I page the nurse?"
"No, no. There isn't anything that works anymore." She sighs heavily, wearily. We lock eyes and I feel a chill run through me. A sharp odor punctuates my short breaths, and my eyes widen. I feel her shift. She knows that I know. I can smell it on her, a veil like a funeral shroud.
She only hums her agreement.
"These bodies, so frail," I sigh. "Vestigial organs I wish we had no use for.” At my words, she sits up, taking my hand in hers.
"I...I know we just met, Holden, but I'd like you to help me."
"The only way." My heart drops at her words. Surely she could not expect that of me so soon.
"You must. Otherwise I will sit here for ages, just rotting away on the inside, in constant agony. Please. I beg of you."
"But we are the last," I sigh heavily and my voice hitches. My eyes sting sharply and I realize, for the first time in a long time, that I am weeping. Weeping for a stranger I only just met, but who is like me. Two lost ships in a dark ocean, both with lights doused.
"Are you truly Gianna's great-grandson?" She questions me, her eyes framed by waxy wrinkles as they bore into mine.
"No," I say, and I feel her hand tense on top of my own, "I am her great-great grandfather."
She exhales, awed. "So pure." A hand touches my face lightly. "From before our blood was thinned. No wonder you look like a young man."
"The school children kept you young for quite a long time, I would assume," I counter, and she only smiles crookedly, knowingly.
"Just a little at a time, just tastes. Amuse-boûches." She waves a hand airily. "That has been beyond me lately.”
We chat in hushed whispers for a long time, hours, finding a bittersweet sort of comfort in each other’s company. We talk of the past, but I desperately avoid talk of the future. As the conversation winds to a natural pause, she stares at me for a while. I see the pain in her eyes, and my heart feels a sympathetic sting. When did I get to be this emotional?
“Please, won't you help me? I can't stay like this."
I sigh. This trip has not gone at all like I had envisioned it. I didn't even expect her to know of our family secret, let alone be able to utilize it herself. I am not sure what I expected. Closure? Hope?
"If I do, I shall be truly alone."
"Make more, as our ancestors -- as you -- did. Make the bloodline strong again. Why did you breed it out, why eschew the old ways?"
"I became scared of what we would become. Hedonistic. Unstoppable. I gifted my family's future with lives where they could grow old and not watch everyone they love die around them. Much like I am doing with you, dear one."
"Then maybe you should end it with us." Her anger at my words seethes in her voice, a thinly hidden venom. She does not approve, and I do not blame her. It is my fault that she is dying, in a long, meandering sort of way. Poetic, even.
"You are angry with me. Perhaps I should." The pain and anger in her gaze become too much, and I look away before I am brought to tears again.
"Then guide me into Death's embrace, I beg of you." Her hands are back on mine, pleading with her body as well as her voice.
"What of me? Shall I be doomed to walk alone forever?"
"Only if you choose," she says. “Make more, or do not. I no longer care. You are not what I thought you would be. You are sad, pathetic. Your soul is weak, though your body is strong. What I would give to be strong again.” She sighs heavily, closing her eyes.
I see her ears prick, and I feel it, too. That curious, nagging sensation that warns me of the approaching dawn. The forbidden goddess, gatekeeper of my freedom, is nearing the horizon once more. "Oh, but you must hurry. It shall be morning soon. We have talked too much."
I exit the hospital through the same glass doors, sped away from its sterile bosom with a hiss and a click. Copper layers my tongue, thick and luxurious -- the intimate act made me feel sleepy and indolent, as always. I wonder how my once-lost great granddaughter will fare with my blood -- my strong, powerful blood -- coursing through her veins. It was in this act that I returned to her the strength she so desperately craved. I gave her my essence, the cursed gift of my bloodline, and in return I took from her. I drank from her, cleansing her of her poisonous, traitorous own blood. As she adapts to this new power, her body will follow, allowing her to be whole once more. A parting gift from a doting grandfather.
She will handle being the Matriarch with the simple elegance I sensed from her before we even met. After all, how different is it than her role as teacher? She will once again guide the young, show them the true colors of the world and how to exist within it. How to claim it for their own without fear, the same fear that I have lived shrouded under for so long. She will do a fine job in my stead, much finer than I have managed on my own.
It is time to leave the mantle to someone else. Looking at the sky, I feel like the decision has been made for me, but I am surprisingly calm about it. There is acceptance there, rather than the fear and trepidation I have imagined countless nights before. It is time. I am too old, and the world moves too fast for me now.
The sky is tinged a pale blue on the horizon as I walk from the hospital, and the same night guard still posted outside nods at me as I pass.
"Go well?" He drawls, thumbing his belt.
"Oh yes. Enlightening," I reply.
The sun crests over the horizon, blanketing me in warm rays. A pain -- fiery, intense -- erupts in my entire being and my skin is set aflame. I get a final, beautiful look at my long-lost star before the fire takes my eyes, and blackness reigns.
As one of those children that always had a nose in a book, LA Harper found out how amazing it was to create her own worlds when assigned school writing projects. The words flow easily and she enjoys the challenge of pulling out the pictures in her head and painting them onto paper with her words. She found a love for creative writing in elementary school, and it just never went away. She still very much has the same passion, admittedly with much better delivery.
Still writing 20 years after that first spark, she has found her home in dark fantasy, speculative fiction, and motherhood. In the meantime, she hopes to one day share all the bubble universes floating around in her head with the world, if only her children would stop plotting cookie jar domination for long enough to allow her to finish a project.