Aguaclara sat down on a wooden bench under the shade of a beautiful tree whose name she didn’t know. A man rode by in a weird-looking bicycle, but no one appeared to question his transport. Along the boardwalk people walked with careless abandon, looking for all the world like this coastal town in New England was totally normal. It totally wasn’t. What the sign on the road had advertised as a charming little town, had actually turned out to be a ridiculous parade full of crazy characters.
She tapped her forehead in frustration. “We should’ve gone to Hawaii instead,” she bemoaned.
“Agreed,” a voice said above her. She looked up to see Laster as he sat down next to her. “Although all twenty islands are just one giant tourist pit, I’ll take a Hawaii sunset over this weird town and that awful storm that came out of nowhere on the way here.”
They had flown in from California, but as they had descended over the Appalachian Mountains they’d barreled through a thunderstorm that no weather monitoring bot had predicted.
“That storm was awful, right?” Aguaclara agreed. “And this town … yeah. Everyone talks so funny and acts so strange. I think they’re going for quaint, but it’s remarkably archaic.”
“Yes! Oh my gosh, this place is nuts!” Laster held up his hands in frustration. “The people are crazy! Just now, I saw a balding man asking for money. He said he didn’t have anywhere to live.”
“What? Where does he sleep?”
“I don’t know! It doesn’t make sense, but I didn’t want to pry. Well, I tried to give him money, and he didn’t have a scanner. He even asked me, ‘why would I have a scanner?’ What! How does he expect people to help him? Can you believe that?”
Aguaclara nodded sadly. “Laster, I believe you, but only because I went into a little store where a woman was selling handwoven goods, and she also said she didn’t have a scanner. She did have a hand computer that looked like a scanner, but when I waved my wrist over it nothing happened. She took back the scarf I meant to buy and said she didn’t weave for free. I said I didn’t want it free; I meant to pay but her scanner didn’t work! And then she acted really confused and said her computer was a phone and not a scanner. Okay, crazy lady, bye. I left.”
Laster shook his head. “This whole town is crazy. While you were shopping I went by the beach. I stopped to watch a small group of people stretching in unison. I wondered out loud why they would do that. A woman next to me heard me and said they were doing yoga and that it was a great way to keep their bodies flexible.”
“Why would they need to exercise for that? That’s why we have metaxalone in the water. Ooh …” Aguaclara snapped her fingers. “Maybe these people drink untreated well water. So they’re all stiff. That’s crazy.”
“Right? But that’s not as crazy as the other thing she said.”
“What else did she say??”
“She said she was a better teacher than the guy teaching the class, and had more experience. But she quit when she found out that he made more money than she did.”
“What! How come? If she was better, she must have been getting paid more.”
“I asked the same question, and she just shook her head and mentioned the gender gap.”
“The gender gap in population? What has that got to do with salaries?”
“No clue. She was wearing tight pants printed to look like leopard spots, though, so I just assumed she wasn’t right in the head.”
Aguaclara shook her head. “These people are crazy.”
“Definitely,” Laster said. “Maybe we should just head back.”
“I’m hungry, though. Let’s find some food. Someone is bound to have a scanner.”
“Let’s hope. I’m hungry, too.”
They walked along the boardwalk until they reached a small shop with a sign that read: All forms of payment accepted. They walked up to the counter eagerly and read the menu. Attempted to, anyway.
“I have no idea what any of this means,” Aguaclara confessed after a minute.
“Me neither,” Laster said. “Bacon, ham? Drumsticks? What’s that?”
“And what about this chicken, fish, lobster? Why call food after an animal?”
At that moment a young man came out of a door in the back and smiled at them. “Hi, welcome to Ed’s Lobster House. What can I get you?”
“Um, we’re not sure yet,” Aguaclara answered.
“How ’bout our famous lobster? Ed just brought them in this morning and they’re super fresh.” Seeing their confused expressions, the young man added, “Ed’s the owner and also the lobsterman.”
Laster frowned, extra confused. “You mean like a superhero? Like Spider-Man?” He’d heard of Batman and Spider-Man, but not Lobsterman.
The boy looked confused. “No…? I meant like … a lobsterman? You know, a person who catches lobsters?”
“Why does he catch lobsters?”
“Uh, maybe to serve them—” he said in an infantile tone, as he pointed to the restaurant sign “—in his Lobster House??”
Aguaclara and Laster looked at each other in horror as the light bulb turned on in their heads. And they ran away. Out of the town and across the road, and into the clearing where their monojet was parked. Only when they were back inside their jet did they stop to catch their breath.
“These people eat animals, Laster.”
“What crazy town did we stumble into, Clara?”
But Aguaclara’s gaze had drifted to a banner that was hanging from a tree. The large, bright letters were printed over depictions of fireworks. She read the words, but they didn’t make sense.
Happy New Year! 2020
“Gosh in Heaven, Laster,” she finally whispered, horrified. “You know that crazy storm we went through on the way here?”
But Laster couldn’t answer, because he had too seen the sign, and had lost his voice.
“I think it warped us back through time,” she concluded miserably, “… to the 21st century.”
The bright orange glow from tonight’s full moon glowed over the mostly empty benches on Jackson Square. It was a cool, autumn evening in the French Quarter. Most of the tourists and artisans headed home over an hour ago and were now missing the magical ambience that situated on the old cobblestones.
“Are you ready, Sybella Rose?” I shivered as Demien’s hand came to rest in the small of my back, reassuring me that this idea of a date, a date with a vampire, wasn’t crazy.
I held up a heavy picnic basket my friend Aloysius had filled and smiled. “Sure.”
Like me, Demien loved to go down to the river at night, to watch the waters of the Mississippi roll by in rippling shimmers, so I didn’t even ask him where we were heading for our lunch date at 2:00 a.m. Over the levee, towards the moonwalk, we had a spot.
He made no sound as he moved, guiding through shadows. Only his long dark hair, ruffled lightly in the breeze. The sweet, citrusy scent of bergamot assaulted my senses with every step he took, and I fought the irrational urge to reach out for him, to pull him into a kiss that he may not even want.
Recently, I’ve made a career at throwing myself at the almost five hundred year old vampire walking gracefully beside me. I physically could not stop myself. I needed to touch him, to consume him, to be consumed by him.
As he showed no signs of insatiable attraction, I can only assume he is not afflicted by the malady, a curse known as The Binding, as I was. This, too, his ability to ignore the urges pressed upon us, drove me even more insane.
Someone listened to Trombone Shorty in one of the cars that pass by on Decatur Street. This town, my beloved New Orleans, embraced its culture like no other place.
“Where are your thoughts?”
I hadn’t realized that Demien had paused at the crosswalk, waiting for the signal to cross over Decatur, and now scrutinized my temporary silence.
“I was just thinking about New Orleans and its artists. Such a special place.”
The walk light flickered, and we crossed the street. I did not even bother with why a vampire cares about crosswalk procedures at two in the morning. Demien was filled with so many conundrums, keeping up with them was impossible.
“That’s why we locals fight so hard to keep outsiders from ruining it.”
I panicked for a moment, right in the middle of the road, when it occurred to me I no longer held the heavy picnic basket. Demien urged me along, shaking the picnic basket he must have grabbed from me at some point as he guided me towards our lunch destination.
Nerves assaulted me. No matter how long this went on, I continued to find myself baffled at the way Demien’s presence both calmed me and shot my nerves to frazzled. I could never predict what he would do next. His actions caught me off guard.
So, I stood there on a grassy patch near the moonwalk and the river, watching him spread out a checkered picnic blanket for me to sit upon while we dined…well, while I dined.
His movements held my attention as he carefully unloaded the basket–a bowl of fruit salad, a po’ boy dressed, a few bottles of Abita Amber. The snacks kept coming, more food than I could eat.
My mouth draped open as Demien opened each item of food, arranging it beautifully before me, and then held his hand out to help me sit in the Victorian skirt I had chosen to wear tonight.
This man, this vampire, was ruthless. Terrifying. I had seen him kill. I’d felt his violent rage against me, and I could not reconcile the horror with his heart.
“How was your day?” He motioned for me to begin eating as he stretched out his impossibly long legs and leaned back on his hands.
“You’re beautiful.” I murmured, then cursed. I hated this curse. I took a breath, then I answered his original question like a normal person. “JoJo taught me how to draw a few veves today, but I had to promise not to catch anything else in the shoppe on fire.”
“Again?” There was a smile in his tone. I could not control the magick inside of me, everyone knew it. Asking me to not let my emotions take over, to not magickly ignite the voodoo shoppe or anything else into roaring flames was almost a joke.
“Look, Mr. Vampy-Pants, this is your fault.” I was teasing, but his dead body lost whatever semblance of pretend mortality he acted out as it froze into complete stillness and his gaze settled onto the water.
He had slipped back into the dark place where he resided, and I had to do something before my stupid comment ruined our lunch date.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, you know. Believe it or not, even though you are a huge pain in my ass…I enjoy your company.”
“You’re not eating.”
“Jerk!” I whispered under my breath but picked up the po’ boy and took a huge bite.
He scoffed but relaxes somewhat, and I focused on my food to keep from crawling into his lap and begging him to take me right there in public.
The moment between us was peaceful, enjoyable even, until a whirring sound and a warning yell pulled me from my happy place.
Demien scooped me up in a blur, and the eruption of thuds and thwacks in the place where we’d just been sitting took me by surprise.
“What the bloody hell?” I declared, though I’m less concerned with what interrupted our moment than the loss of Demien’s arms when he released me.
I took in the tenseness in Demien’s shoulders, the way he ever-so-slightly crouched, and looked beyond him to see that some punk had been out on the Moonwalk in the middle of the night in roller skates and had lost control, careening through the grass straight on top of our picnic.
Demien’s anger froze the kid into place. Having let his guard down with me, he’d slipped straight into predator mode at the first hint of me being in danger.
I stepped around my solid hunk of vampire and offered a hand to the kid who’d plummeted upon our lunch. “Here, let me help you up. Are you hurt?”
He stuttered and stammered, “N…no. I’m fine. I’m so-sorry.”
“Okay,” I said calmly. “You should go.”
Like any rational person, I thought that if anyone should get bitten here, it damned well better be me, but I kept my thoughts to myself and aided the kid to his feet.
“Sorry, again. I didn’t mean to…” The kid’s preservation instinct kicked in and he took off into the night.
I took a deep breath and began picking up the remnants of our lunch date gone wrong, and then pulled on the bond between us. “Demien, come to me.”
I didn’t know if he’d succumb to my request. He was just as likely to disappear into the night. I packed everything away except the blanket, which I flipped over.
“Demien, come and sit.”
He didn’t look at me. Deep down, I knew he couldn’t. He was fighting the demon inside of him, the predator that had wanted to kill, that still wanted to kill. But he once more found a place on the blanket.
Relief rushed through me…then insanity. Without any hesitation, I maneuvered my body until I was sitting between his two legs with my back up against his chest. My bare neck waiting, beckoning just below his mouth.