MAN TROUBLES (part 3)
a short story by Alexis Morgan
Panic threatened to overwhelm Lydia. Studying the pool of blood on her floor, she fought to maintain control with everything she had. While unable to banish it completely, she managed to back down to a manageable level. Enough so that she found the presence of mind to risk touching the side of Silas's neck.
"You have a pulse. That's good. Really good."
Because if he hadn't, she'd have no choice but to call the police to report the dead body in her kitchen. How was she supposed to explain why she allowed a total stranger into the restaurant after hours, much less how he'd come to die there?
She still needed a plan. The obvious place to start was with a first aid kit and some rudimentary triage. If she couldn't stop the bleeding, then she would call 9-1-1 even though she suspected that's the last thing Silas would want.
After grabbing a handful of clean kitchen towels, she tugged up Silas's blood-soaked T-shirt and used one to wipe away the blood. The worst wound appeared to be the gash in his side which was still steadily seeping. Maybe she was imagining things, but it seemed to be slowing. She replaced the bloody towel with another clean one before leaving his side long enough to fetch the first aid kit from the shelf in the bathroom.
She been gone but a few seconds at the most, but she returned to find Silas awake and struggling to sit up. Crouching at his side, she fought to press his shoulders back down on the floor. He tried to resist, but she got right in his face and met his panicking gaze head on. "Stop it, Silas. Lie still before you start the bleeding again."
The confusion in his pale blue eyes slowly faded. "Lydia?"
"Yes, it's me. You went to show me your injuries and hit the deck hard. The wound on your side ripped open again, and you bled all over the floor. I went to get the first aid kit."
So was she, but it was too late now to regret letting him through the front door in the first place. Using the scissors from the kit, she cut away his T-shirt, exposing a whole lot of tanned skin. Judging by the number of faded scars scattered across his torso, this wasn't the first time Silas had been hurt this badly if not worse. Trying to sound much more calm than she actually felt, she said, "I'm guessing you don't want me to take you to the emergency room even if that would be the smart thing to do right now."
He answered with a quick nod. Even that small motion cost him some pain.
She pointed toward the blood on the floor. "Are you sure? I don't want you to risk getting an infection or, worse yet, dying."
His eyes drifted shut for a few seconds. When they opened, he stared up at her with grim purpose. "Infection isn't much of a risk for my kind. If you tape the wound shut, it should heal by tomorrow night."
Yeah, right. Who did he think he was? No doubt a super hero right out of a comic book with some kind of whiz bang healing skills?
Unless he and Joseph had more in common than knowledge of the gold coins. Only one way to find out, she stared at his mouth and said, "Let me see your teeth."
He did as ordered. Although his expression didn't change, she would have sworn that he was laughing at her. Regardless, it was a relief to know that she wasn't dealing with a vampire. While Joseph had never scared her, that didn't mean all of his kind were safe to be around.
"Okay, then. Let's get you patched up."
Now that she was reasonably sure he wasn't about to bleed out and die, she got a bowl and filled it with warm water and added a sizeable dose of the antibacterial soap her staff used to wash their hands. Silas might think he was immune to infections, but she wasn't going to take any chances.
As soon as she touched his wounds with the soapy washcloth, Silas cursed. Through gritted teeth, he growled. Literally growled. At first she thought she'd imagined that animalistic sound and kept working. She concentrated on making sure she got all the dirt out of the various cuts scattered across his chest when he did it again, this time louder and longer.
One glance at his face had her dropping the washcloth and scooting back away from him. A red sheen washed over his eyes, but that wasn't the scariest part. The physical structure of his handsome face had shifted in a matter of seconds, his jaw elongated and narrowed. And those normal teeth she'd just checked for herself had been replaced by those of a carnivore-a large one.
Once again, he closed his eyes, his muscular body trembling with effort. As she looked on with a mix of fear and queasiness, his face slowly returned to normal. When he looked at her, his eyes were once again their familiar blue.
She let out a long, slow breath and asked one question. "What the hell are you?"
Damn, this wasn't going well at all. If he'd had anywhere else to go to ground, he would have waited until his wounds healed before approaching Lydia. His one attempt to hide out in a motel on the outskirts of town hadn't ended well. Luckily, he'd been miles away eating dinner when his enemies had raided his room. They'd probably been long gone by the time he returned, but the cops were swarming the place. He'd driven right on past without slowing down.
The few things he'd left at the motel weren't worth the risk of trying to retrieve them. He wasn't sure which would have been the worst threat-that the pack had left someone close by watching to see if he returned or getting hauled in by the cops while they tried to figure out what the hell was going on. If that happened, he might be safe enough inside police headquarters, but dollars to dimes the pack would be waiting outside once the cops kicked him to the curb.
Right now, he had more pressing problems on his hands. Wolves like him hadn't survived this long by blabbing to every stray human who crossed their paths that there was an entire world of magical beings living among them. History was full of examples that proved humans didn't always have much tolerance of anyone who didn't fit their world view.
Differences in religion, politics, and race were enough of an excuse for humans to commit genocide. He had no doubt they would resort to the scorched earth policy to rid the world of shapeshifters, vampires, and all the others who carried magical gifts in their blood.
However, Joseph had made it clear that Lydia knew his secret, and he'd never had reason to think he'd been wrong to trust her with his truth. Of course, they'd been friends for years before he'd told her. Silas was going to have to make the same leap of faith after less than an hour's acquaintance, but he didn't see how he had any choice in the matter.
If he simply walked out of the restaurant now, there was a good chance he'd be dead by this time tomorrow. Despite the inherent risks, it might still be the smartest move, but he wasn't feeling all that bright right now. Something about Lydia's dark eyes and gentle touch called to him and made him want to stay as long as he could.
"You know Joseph was gifted with vampirism."
She nodded. "He has some pretty big regrets about making that choice. That's why he didn't offer to share that gift with me when we struck the deal about me buying the restaurant from him."
"Do you regret accepting his offer to sell it to you?"
She didn't even hesitate. "No."
He believed her. "I guess the closest terms you'd recognize for what I am is werewolf or shapeshifter, but I prefer the term twin-souled. I apologize for scaring you. The lack of sleep combined with the injuries and going without eating for so long, my control is shot all to hell. I swear upon my honor, I will not abuse your hospitality or cause you harm."
Might as well put all of his cards on the table. "If you want to verify what I'm telling you, call Joseph. He said that would be acceptable if it became necessary."
She immediately reached for the phone she'd left sitting on the counter. Funny that while he really couldn't blame her, he was also disappointed she felt compelled to check his story. He wasn't the kind of man who made a habit of scaring women and children. He was a protector, one who took pride in keeping those in his care safe.
His enhanced hearing made it impossible not to listen in on both sides of Lydia's conversation with Joseph even though she'd moved to the far corner once she'd punched in the old vampire's number. It didn't take long.
She disconnected the call. "He vouched for you."
He found the strength to push himself up off the floor. He burned up the last bit of energy he had making it back to the stool at the counter. "If you'd finish taping up the worst of my wounds, I'll leave if that's what you want."
Lydia stared at him from across the room for several long seconds. "No, that's not necessary. I'll get you patched up and then show you the apartment. You're welcome to stay as long as you need to."
He had to ask her one question. "Why?"
She didn't immediately respond, instead using the excuse of picking up the first aid kit and refilling the bowl with warm water and a fresh supply of the soap as a reason to delay answering. When she resumed washing away the dirt and dried blood, she took a slow breath and then spoke.
"I'm guessing Joseph didn't tell you how he and I met."
"No, he only explained the coins and that you two were friends."
Her mouth curled up just a bit at the corners. "I was fifteen and already living on the streets. My mother's latest boyfriend thought I should be one of the perks of moving into our apartment. I didn't. Since Leon was her drug supplier, Mom couldn't understand why I objected."
Silas managed to keep his hands flat on the counter, but the urge to hunt the bastard down and rid the world of this Leon's worthless presence was almost overwhelming. Lydia's mother, too, for that matter. He remained silent, willing to let her tell the story at her own pace. Besides, he found her touch soothing.
"I'd been on my own for several weeks when I discovered that the Dumpster behind this restaurant had the best food in the area." Her smile was soft as she got lost in her past. "Joseph used to leave several meals in Styrofoam containers sitting on top every night. First come, first serve, but the few times I scored one of his dinners were the high point of my week. One night he was waiting for me with the last container in his hand. He asked what my story was. To this day, I'm not sure why I trusted him enough to tell him, but I've never regretted that decision. When I was done talking, he offered me a place to live and a job if I wanted one."
"What did he want in return?"
Her dark eyes flashed hot with temper. "Not what you're thinking."
Silas held up his hands, palm out. "Slow down, lady. You don't know me well enough to guess what I'm thinking. Joseph would never touch a child, which is what you were at the time even if you were on your own. But I also know him well enough to know that he'd never give you a free pass, either."
The tension in her face faded. "If I agreed to go back to school, he'd give me a job here at the restaurant and advance me enough money to buy some decent clothes at a thrift shop. I could live in the apartment upstairs and eat two meals a day here at the restaurant free of charge as long as I maintained a B average until I earned a high school diploma. I got my GED within a year. He extended the deal when I enrolled in community college."
Unless he was mistaken, she had to blink back a few tears. "He promoted me to assistant manager of the restaurant when I earned my associate's degree and gave me a late model used car as a graduation present. Nothing fancy, but reliable. I still have it."
She started applying butterfly bandages to the largest of his cuts. "In short, I owe Joseph everything I am. I would have done all the favors he asked of me even without the coins."
Silas knew she had good reason to be grateful to Joseph for caring enough to give her a chance to improve her lot in life. However, she should also take credit for making the most of the opportunity that had been presented to her.
She was still talking. "I learned a lot during the time I worked for Joseph, but there was one thing I've never forgotten."
He winced a little when she pulled one of the bandages extra tight. "Which is?"
"When someone needs a helping hand, offer them yours."
She closed the lid on the first aid kit. "Now, if you can walk, I'll show you the apartment."