Squish… It’s Better Than Cross-Stitching

They all laughed at him, he knew they did, but the truth was he’d learned more about humans in five weeks at Super SellMart than they’d ever known alive. Let those self-righteous hypocrites walk this lemming-covered rock a third as long as he had. See how well their sanity fared if they failed to think up a few little games, safe distractions to keep their minds from wrapping around the idea of eternity in an endless tangent.

The newest sampler topping sales in their domestics department, currently being cross-stitched by bored housewives who weren’t quite up to cheating, read “Experience is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.” Jeremiah knew they were just words, useless X’s worth no more than the gaudy scarlet thread used to blazen them across a scrap of cheesecloth. He’d known at least six vampires he would have labeled wise in his youth. They were all dead. Wisdom had become a vastly overused term in the twenty-first century, brandied about until it was as bloated and useless as Arizona roadkill in summer. Experience, the act of living, that was the real treasure; it wasn’t a means to achieve a goal, it was the goal, the missing link between connecting to this age and running screaming into the sunlight. No running, not for Jeremiah. He preferred chasing, driving his food like cattle until all that remained was a souveneir… a blood-filled sensible shoe, a lovely hank of blonde hair with a bit of scalp attached, a memory of how their posture changed when the spinal cord snapped near the end.

The fun that lay ahead pushed Jeremiah’s somber mood into reverence as he stalked through cheerful French doors that reminded him of his SellMart’s heavy glass doors. They opened to greet him like magic, but he knew better, had known for years now it was just technology.

The dying sun’s rays irritated his fair skin, but nothing the sun could throw at him past high noon did much more than give him a bad case of heat rash, easily cured by medicated talcum powder, sold on aisle thirty-seven at work. A madonna on the wall lay bathed in the eerie orange of fading sunlight, reminding him for one anachronistic moment of Arabella. Her eyes seemed to cut, follow him as he slipped across the cluttered living room with what the slightly psychic stock boy he loved to torment would call the stink eye. A strange illusion. He’d learned through his cable television that the sister he’d burned as a wtich hadn’t really cursed him – he’d had a kidney stone. An honest mistake, that. A man peeing blood and passing rocks with the pain of childbirth? Come on, who could blame him for thinking that wasn’t natural. Sorry, Arabella.

The house alarm continued to chirp weakly, the faint smell of ozone coloring the air. Part of his charm, he supposed. The detectors flanking the entry doors at work alarmed and blurped when he passed, but the greeter had learned to ignore it, having realized weeks ago he wasn’t smuggling condoms, screwdrivers, CD’s, or any of the other crap humans liked to steal. She wouldn’t meet his eyes when he glided silently to the back of the store to clock in, nor would anyone else, although he wasn’t sure why. He washed his vest at least twice a week, cleaned his face and hands, even wore underwear, and he hadn’t killed any employees, not one. His greasy auburn hair plastered tidily down, but his icy blue eyes… couldn’t do much to change that gleam. A predator is a predator. They probably wouldn’t have kept him on, honestly, if he hadn’t worked a shift so difficult to fill. Four times a week he came in at eleven p.m., relieving a cashier who worked an eight hour shift, and worked until three a.m. when the usual twelve hour person arrived.

Almost three hours into his shift last night she came to his register, her presence a sigh of relief when his hunger had almost driven him to choose someone who’d bought generic cheese. He’d heard the employees one night when he’d come to buy bleach, listened raptly as they judged the customers based on what they slung into their carts, and he’d understood. This was it, a way to delve beneath the carefully sculpted outer faces, to discern the quality blood from the peasant now that the castes had fallen. It was simple. It was brilliant.

It was something to do.

Her lips had tugged politely upward as she carefully slid her purchases across the scanner, a charity smile to cover what she perceived as baseless nervouseness. Point for her. He’d ignored her face, her hair, the green surgical scrubs she wore and turned his attention to the real issue at hand. Generic soft drinks, reasonable. Brand name organic juice, classy. Bagged cereal, lightly salted peanuts, two-percent milk… ooh, ribeyes, nice taste there. Maybe he should have waited a few more days, until after she’d had them? No, too hungry for that. The puppy kibbles, though, hadn’t panned out – they’d promised a good, tender appetizer waiting at the door to greet him, but no panting pooch in sight.

He’d frowned heavily when his eyes fell on the jumbo package of Huggies, almost scrubbed the whole thing. He’d had to dump one of his chosen into the mighty Mississippi last week after ignoring diapers. Turned out she’d been breastfeeding, and the hormones made the blood… uugh. No word he’d learned in three hundred years could describe it, just uugh. Live and learn.

“Anything wrong?” she’d asked hesitantly, unable to pull her gaze away from his.

He’d looked closely at the package. Thirty-four pounds and up. What a relief, the baby was most likely too old to be breastfed. He would take her back to his place, where he wouldn’t have to worry about neighbors with sensitive noses or the footprints left behind as he walked barefoot on blood-soaked carpet. He loved the way it felt, squishing between his toes.

“I had to do a price check on these earlier,” he’d said with a practiced smile as he’d dragged them across the scanner with a tinny beep. “Good. That’s all? Okay, that’ll be $72.16.”

His pulse had roared in his ears despite how long it had been since he’d last eaten when she’d pulled out her checkbook, which meant he wouldn’t have to take a break and follow her out. He’d stared at the elegantly scripted address and compared it to the one on her offered license.

“Everything here correct?”

She’d nodded and he’d gone through the motions of running the check through until finally he’d handed her a receipt with tremblling hands and an unctious smile. It was all he could do not to tell her he’d see her later, but no, then she might not go home. He’d ignored the next person in line as he pulled the check free from the register, scribbling down the last name and address on a small notebook he’d bought using his employee discount. He never stole – it wasn’t right.

He’d glanced up to see her looking over her shoulder as she stepped into the warm Memphis night, jittery despite herself. He knew the type, knew she’d discount her intuition as silly and head on home to sleep with the lights on, just for him.

Maybe that’s why he didn’t hear the other vampire coming, because he was distracted looking for lights and dogs and babies that should have been there but weren’t. He still managed to pin the other daywalker against the far side of the room, the cheaply paneled wall giving way beneath the force of the blow. His prey’s fierce intake of breath before letting loose a yowling scream only increased his anger. Now he would have to finish her here, before anyone called the authorities — no leisurely trek back to his house, which meant no blood between his toes or anything else that felt… interesting.

Jeremiah found that very irritating.

“How did you sneak in here?” he snarled.

The mysterious vampire squeeked a wheezing breath past his crushing hand, but could not pull in enough for words. Instead he shifted his chin up and to the right, revealing a tatoo that curled around his neck like a snake; meanwhile, the woman’s scream died and Jeremiah heard a drawer being pulled roughly open, slamming against the wood facing as she franticly scrambled its contents. The faint smell of gun oil polluted the air.

“I’m not looking to join a clan,” Jeremiah hissed, his face so close to the recruiter’s face that pink-tinged spittle flecked his cheek, “so stay out of my territory.”

In a blink he was gone, the hollow-cored door leading to the bedroom swinging crazily off one hinge in his wake. A woman’s scream rose and abruptly died, glass shattered, and the recruiter sat down heavily on the floor.

His boss would not be happy he had lost Jeremiah.

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