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Illusions of Hope

Chapter 4

Sleep and hunger played a tug-of-war within the vampire. In any war, though, there was a victor and a victim. Sleep gave way to hunger, and Angel found himself in the kitchen. He warily eyed the skylights that made the floor a minefield, and avoided the boxes of sunshine as best he could. The refrigerator yet stood in shadow, and Angel quickly moved towards it. He pulled a bag of blood from the second shelf and closed the door. Kneading the bag caused a mesmerizing eddy of blood. The niceties of drinking through a glass were forgotten as the demon within Angel was aroused and the vampire's fangs sank directly through the plastic bag. The blood quieted the hunger and soon Angel was able to wrest control back from the demon. Sated, he returned to the living room.

The fire had gone out, and a chill permeated the loft. Angel added a log and stoked the fire until it blazed upon the hearth. He stared at the flames until the red-orange light was imprinted on his retinas, then turned abruptly away. Angel was charged with borrowed energy. The blood had made him restless and he couldn't be still. Sleep would be a while in coming. He paced around the loft, his natural curiosity driving him to examine Lina's possessions.

His dark eyes scanned the loft, settling on the desk, the shelves and the small collection of pictures arranged amongst the books. A photo album was wedged onto the shelf close to the pictures. Angel pulled it out to have a look. The album was large and white, and a familiar Mendelsohn melody played when he lifted the cover. A gold cross was embossed on the inside of the front cover and Angel nearly dropped the book in his haste to cover it up. He quickly turned the flyleaf and his attention was caught by the first of many wedding pictures. He was struck again by how jubilant Lina and Lif appeared. It brought the melancholy back up to choke him, and Angel had to close the cover on the album, a door that trapped the sadness inside. He shoved the album back in its slot on the shelf and turned abruptly away.

A baby grand piano stood on the far side of the loft, a brass lamp arched over its gleaming mahogany. A snatch of song invaded his mind, and Angel couldn't help running a finger over the smooth ivory keys. The notes were sharp and startlingly loud, musical gunshots breaking the early-morning silence. He could hear his mother's voice again, sweet and warm and alive. These days he had to strain to hear it over the memory of her screams for mercy. He covered the keyboard and moved on, following the wall around, past the front door and the guestroom, until he stood facing Lina's bedroom. Angel hesitated at the sill. The room was dark, yet the door stood open in mute invitation.

Lina's room was a study in contrasts. An oaken sleigh bed dominated the room, flanked by small chests that were topped by matching Mission lamps. A massive armoire shared the wall with the door and faced the bed; its round feet were set on the edge of a colorful Navajo rug. The right-hand wall held a sectioned mirror framed in oak, suspended above a triple dresser. A bay window took up the fourth wall, shutters drawn tightly closed to block out the sun.

The room could have belonged to any adult, except for the whimsical additions to the decor. A small Pooh Bear occupied a place of honor atop a mound of pillows on the bed, accompanied by a pig dressed in a matching sweater and scarf set and a sad-looking blue donkey whose tail was held on by a big pink button. Angel smiled at this proof of Lina's earlier confession. The three characters on the bed didn't complete the collection, though. Taking an entire corner of the window seat was a pile of stuffed pigs in various shades of pink and different sizes. A laugh was pulled from him and he couldn't help walking over and picking one up. It had a crooked nose and it's tag read Percy. Shaking his head in wonder, he set the pig back down. By closing the shutters in her bedroom, Lina had allowed Angel a glimpse farther into her private life. After one last look around the room, Angel walked out, closing the door behind him.

Curious about the song that played the night before as Lina fell asleep on his chest, he made his way to the stereo. He shuffled through the open jewel cases that were stacked haphazardly on the stand. There were several Celtic CDs but he found the one that had been playing and pulled the booklet from the case. Scanning the lyrics, both English and Gaelic, Angel was struck once again by the truth of the words. With a need to hear the songs again, he jabbed buttons on the face of the stereo until it came to life.

Two hours past dawn, Angel finally succumbed to the need for sleep. He lay down on the couch, lulled by the Celtic music. His rest was deep and undisturbed, even when the serviceman came bustling into the clinic below to repair the refrigerator.

The sun had just set when Angel awakened. Upon opening his eyes he experienced a moment of disorientation, unsure of his surroundings. The loft was dark and as quiet as a city dwelling ever was. Angel could see in the gloom, though, and his ears picked up the street sounds below the windows. He remembered where he was after a few seconds of concentration. He sat up but remained at the edge of the couch, unwilling to begin the process of getting up. Getting up meant leaving and even though he had made the decision to go, the actual execution of that decision was proving difficult.

With a strangled curse at his weakness, Angel propelled himself from the couch. He went to the window and slid aside the vertical blinds. The last remnants of the sun flowed wanly into the room but Angel stood a moment and admired the way the leaves were set aflame by the orange light.

He sighed inwardly. The time had come; he had to leave. He had no idea what time Lina would return from rounds or school, and he wanted to be long gone by the time she arrived. Lina had been so kind to him that he couldn't leave without trying to explain his reasons and his feelings for her.

Rooting around on her desk, Angel found an old computer printout whose back was yellowed but free of print. Further searching brought a pencil to hand. He sat down on the window seat, the wide paper resting on several journals against his drawn-up knees. The pencil moved in a sure hand and Lina's likeness quickly formed. Angel examined his work critically, touched up a few spots around the eyes, then put the drawing aside. He tore off another sheet of paper and wrote Lina a letter, the words pouring onto the paper directly from his heart. He folded the two sheets of paper together, then surveyed the loft for a likely place to leave them. Walking into her room, he propped the packet on the bed, along with the key to the loft.

Like Lina, his departure was an escape, a headlong flight away from a life he could never have.

Riana dragged herself up the stairs, eyes half-closed with fatigue. Groping in the dark for her keys and then the door, Lina found the lock and pushed the door ajar when the tumblers clicked open. Darkness was thick within; the only light came from the face of the stereo. There was an overwhelming feeling of emptiness in the loft.

"Angel," she called. Closing the door behind her, Lina kicked off her shoes and flicked the light switch up. A quick search of the loft failed to turn up her houseguest. Lina knew in her heart that he'd be gone, but facing the truth produced a keen disappointment and a heavy sadness. Her throat tightened but she kept herself from crying with a desperate act of will.

Gathering the pieces of herself back together, Lina headed into her bedroom. She wanted a hot bath with a fizzy bomb to soothe away the day's rigors but, fearing she'd fall asleep in the tub, Lina decided on a shower. She walked through her room in the dark and entered the bathroom. The fatigue she felt was bone-deep and she barely hummed as the hot water pounded the tension from her strained muscles. Her energy level came up a bit after the shower and she felt better physically if not emotionally. Lina snapped on the bedside lamp and reached under the pillows for her nightshirt, spying the folded papers that were being guarded by Pooh.

She unfolded them with a trembling hand. A key fell silently to the coverlet, but Lina's attention was caught by the topmost sheet of paper. A pair of matching eyes seemed to look back at her from the sketch. Angel had captured her at rest, seated by the window, with just the hint of a mischievous smile on her lips. The likeness was amazing, but the eyes were especially perfect and they shone with Lina's spirit. She put the sketch aside and picked up the other paper. A letter was written there in a beautiful, flowing hand, and it was all Lina could do not to smear the carefully formed words with her tears.

"Being alone for so many years has stolen the words from my mind, but I couldn't part from you without trying to tell you what these hours together have meant to me.
"I've been denied the sun for over two centuries, but in your presence I can bathe in the light, without danger. No danger to my flesh, but so much danger to my heart. I need that light so much, it's like a new drug, addictive and seductive.
"We're too much alike, you and I, to ever be good for one another. We share a pain that is soul-deep, raw and unhealed. I have come to care for you too much to inflict more pain on you. And I don't want to frighten you ever again.
"The safety you've shown me -- I haven't known since I was comforted in my mother's arms. Your trust surprised me and shocked me and made me rejoice. You gave me back my humanity, and for one moment I could dream about what life might be like. A life in the sun. A life full of love and companionship.
"I can't give that gift to you, Lina, and you're not ready to accept it.
"Maybe one day, fate will bring us together again in a better time and place.
"I will never forget your kindness to a stranger. I will never forget you.
"Be well.

Tears overflowed Lina's eyes and she suddenly found herself sobbing for the second time in as many days. The words blurred and the paper fell to the bed from nerveless fingers. Lina sank to the bed and, curling in a ball with Pooh clutched to her chest, cried herself to sleep.

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