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Lights Out

July 1, 2009

By Erin Fanning

“Listen to this,” Maddie said, tapping the worn paperback she held in her hands.

Her voice mingled with the shouts of children running up and down the beach. They whooped and screamed as Maddie read aloud from Twilight. She used honeyed tones for Bella’s dialogue and deepened with Edward’s, growing almost harsh then sometimes silky, but always dead-on.

Maddie paused and sighed. “Why can’t I meet someone like Edward?”

She jumped back into the book as I closed my eyes and watched the romance unfold in my imagination. The sun bore into me, drilling away all memory of the cold spring. The children’s calls drifted farther away until all that remained was my best friend’s voice and Edward murmuring his love for Bella.

In my mind, though, I heard Antonio repeating my name, Crystal, over and over.

Suddenly, Maddie smacked me in the stomach.

“Ouch!” My eyes popped open. “Why’d you do that?” I struggled to a sitting position, still groggy from too much sun and the Edward-Antonio combination.

“Because the biggest mosquito in the world was getting ready to devour you,” she said, pointing at my stomach.

Smashed mosquito guts and blood decorated my midriff like a scene straight from a Chain Saw Massacre marathon.

“Pests love me.” I shrugged. “I must smell good to bugs or something. If there’s a tick, deer fly, or mosquito within a mile, they seek me out. That goes for guys too. I mean, look at the losers I’ve dated.”

“Until now.” Maddie wagged a finger at me. “Come on, you know that Antonio is as hot as Edward. Maybe even hotter.”

“What can I say?” I said, gesturing to the mess on my stomach. “When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.”

Maddie shook her head. “Kill the sarcasm, okay? Things are looking up for you.”

“For now. But don’t worry, something will go wrong soon enough.”

“Knock it off, Miss Negativity. You just don’t have any confidence. I mean look at you…. I would kill to have your body.” She paused and took a breath. “And clean that junk off your stomach. You’re grossing me out.”

“Okay, okay. Mellow out.” I jumped up and headed to the water.

Lake Michigan stole my breath away as I dived in. The water washed away the smashed mosquito and brought back memories of the long cold winter and spring. Chilling in so many ways—Mom moving out, Dad’s long silences—but with summer had come Antonio.

Why had he chosen me and not Maddie?

There she sat with her golden hair falling across high cheekbones. Sunglasses perched on her button nose, and her long legs crossed at the ankles. Even her toenails, painted Fiesta Fuschia, glistened in the sun.

Typical—I ended up with bug guts decorating my stomach while Maddie was untouched. Earlier that day, a seagull had even crapped on my forehead. My hair was probably frizzy from the humidity, and I could feel a zit popping out on my chin.

And now fat jiggled on my stomach as I washed myself off in Lake Michigan. How Maddie had talked me into wearing a bikini, I didn’t know.

Still, Antonio had sought me out and not her, introducing himself to me at the Dairy Queen almost three weeks ago. Maybe Maddie was right—maybe I didn’t see myself the way other people did.

“You’re Rubenesque,” Antonio had said the other day. “So lovely.” He always said stuff like that; it made me blush just thinking about it

Sand plastered my feet as I walked back to Maddie, and I noticed for about the hundredth time how pale I looked. The whiteness also sank into my lips, making them look almost blue. Even my afternoon of sun-worship hadn’t penetrated my alabaster skin. I shivered as a breeze flitted across the beach. Goosebumps sprinted across my arms.

When had I first noticed this paleness? Soon after I met Antonio? My parents hadn’t said anything, but they were too busy tormenting each other to notice anyone else. Mom was always rushing off to AA, and Dad spent most of his time in an airplane jetting off to some business meeting that always got extended and extended.

With the paleness had also come a problem with my memory, as holey as a slice of Swiss cheese.

I flopped down on my towel. Maybe I should get Maddie’s opinion. She’d probably just laugh me off and tell me to stop being a worrywart. Before I could say anything, though, she picked up Twilight.

“Ready for some more?” she asked. “Or should we read Metamorphosis?” She nodded at the paperback sitting next to her. On the cover, an enormous black beetle lay on a bed covered with crisp white sheets.

Maddie tapped her chin. “Hmmm. Let’s see. A book about this guy called Gregor who transforms into a giant dung beetle or a teenager who’s actually a hot vampire. I vote for sexy. The dung beetle can wait. We have all summer before we need to finish it for senior English.

When I didn’t respond, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s just that, look at me.” I stuck out my right leg. “I mean, I’m deathly white. And, well, I don’t remember everything from last night.”

“What? Like you fainted or something?”

“I don’t know. Antonio and I went to the movies then back to his house. His Dad was gone, and I remember him bending toward me – I thought to kiss me – and then everything went black. The next thing I knew he was driving me home, just chatting away like normal.”

Maddie’s sunglasses slid to the tip of her nose, and she studied me, finally saying, “This is so typical of you, Crystal. Something great finally happens and you twist it all around. You’re just making yourself sick from nerves. This gorgeous guy is totally into you, and you can’t handle it. Your subconscious is trying to ruin it because, for some nutty reason, you think you don’t deserve it.” She elbowed me in the ribs. “Believe me, I’ve seen you do this before. Like the way you puked before the softball championship and practically hyperventilated before the chemistry final.”

“Maybe you’re right, Dr. Maddie,” I said.

“Of course, I’m right. You’ll see, everything will be fine. More than fine. Fantastic.”

A shadow blocked the sun, followed by Antonio’s deep voice, “Who is fantastic?”

Maddie whipped around.

Tilting my head back, I forced myself to smile up at Antonio and pushed away my worries of some dreaded disease.

“You are fantastic. That’s who,” I said.

His black eyes softened. A slash of red appeared on his pale cheeks as he dipped his head. A dark curl fell across his forehead, and he pushed his hair out of his face.

Maddie giggled. “You’ve got to quit sneaking up on people, Antonio. You’re so quiet, it’s like you float on air. It’s freaky.”

Antonio furrowed his brow.

“It’s a joke,” I said.

“Ah, Signorina Maddie is always telling the joke,” Antonio said, wrapping his words in a delicious Italian accent.

Sometimes he didn’t get American humor. He and his dad were in town for the  University’s summer institute, where his father was teaching a course on entomology and genetics. They’d be gone by the end of the summer.

Maddie was probably right—worrying about Antonio leaving was making me sick.

“So what’s up?” I asked, patting the towel next to me.

“Last night I said I’d pick you up from the beach, maybe get an ice cream. Do you not remember?”

That was the problem—I didn’t. “Oh sure. I think the sun has just made me a little woozy.” I gathered my stuff and pulled on shorts and a t-shirt.

Turning to Maddie, I asked, “Want to come?”

“Nah. I still have to work on my tan.” She winked at me, and when Antonio turned to leave, made a smooching face.

I stuck out my tongue at her as Antonio and I headed to the parking lot.

“Your swimsuit is too revealing, yes? I do not like all these people to see so much of you.” Antonio twisted my wet hair in his fingers, but I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. Either way, his words made my heart race.

He pulled me close, his height and broad shoulders dwarfing me, as if I’d disappear. His clinginess at times seemed symbiotic, like he had to be constantly in touch with me. At first, I found it romantic but now I wasn’t so sure. I pushed him away and threw my stuff into the back of his mud-splattered Jeep.

“Doing some four-wheeling?” I asked, turning around and bumping into him. Again, Maddie was right—he did seem to float on air.

“What?” he said, sounding flustered. “Ah, four-wheeling. Yes, I help my Dad with his research this morning.” He opened the passenger door for me, and I clambered inside.

Antonio sang softly as he steered out of the parking lot, bouncing over ruts in the dirt road. I couldn’t make out the words—probably Italian or one of the other languages he spoke. His voice took on a buzzing quality like white noise, which I found strangely soothing. Leaning back, I relaxed, almost dozing as we rushed by a green blur of soaring pine trees and spiky ferns.

Antonio drove with one hand, his long fingers turning the steering wheel, while the other rested on my leg. His beaklike nose made me think of a Roman warrior, but his pale skin ruined that image. How could he stay so white with all the time he spent outside?

I repeated the question in my mind and stiffened as an answer took form.

Who else had been so pale? So utterly gorgeous? Graceful and silent? Old-fashioned and courtly?

Edward!

Could my boyfriend be a vampire? Was he sucking my blood and then somehow erasing my memory?

“Get a grip,” I whispered to myself. Stuff like that only happened in books and movies. Tomorrow I’d make an appointment with a doctor and have my head checked out, but for now I’d just enjoy the afternoon with a gorgeous Italian who was totally into me. I squeezed Antonio’s knee, a little harder than I’d intended

He turned in my direction and raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“Just glad to be here,” I said, snuggling closer

“Me too,” he whispered and picked up his song again,

Its cadence was so rhythmic, I swayed with the beat. The tune seemed to come from nature like birdsong or crickets chirping. It made my thoughts of vampires seem even more foolish.

I remembered his lips on my wrist, then his kisses traveling up the inside of my arm, tickling as he explored my flesh. How could I return to dating the local boys with their raunchy jokes and pathetic fumbling, as if I’d let them do anything with me anyway?

I sighed and rested my head on Antonio’s shoulder.

“Maybe we skip the ice cream, yes?” His voice turned huskier. “My father, he is gone for the afternoon. The house is empty.”

He cleared his throat. “We need to talk about the future. What will happen after I leave?”

“Yes,” I whispered. “We need to talk.”

We continued in silence, even the road and car noises seemed to disappear as if we were enclosed in a bubble, completely separate from the rest of the world.

Antonio turned off the pavement onto a narrow dirt road. We bounced along, finally stopping at the stone cottage he and his father were renting for the summer. Behind it, white birches marched toward Lake Michigan, which merged into the cloudless sky as a seamless blanket of dusky blue. The sun slipped on the horizon.

Twilight had arrived.

Antonio climbed out of the Jeep and held my door open for me. His lips grazed my cheek and eyelids as I slipped out of the car. He murmured something in my ear, yet all I could make out was a soft humming.

He took my arm and led me to the cottage. Beach grass dotted the yard, and sand drifted across the fieldstone walkway.

Inside, the house’s small windows let in little light and darkness settled over the interior like a cloak. We continued into the living room. Leather furniture and a towering oak bookshelf, filled not only with books but also trophies, driftwood, and shells, dominated the room. French doors looked toward Lake Michigan. The light outside had grown even softer now; the colors more muted.

Antonio stood behind me. “I feel as if I’ve known you forever.” He paused. “And, well, I don’t want to lose you. You come with my father and me when we leave, yes?”

I froze. “Go with you? I still have to finish high school and watch over my kooky parents. Maybe I could visit or something.”

He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed hard. Too hard. I pushed away, but he wouldn’t let me go. Suddenly he released me and I staggered into the French doors, resting my hands against the glass to keep my balance.

“We can email and stuff. Visit next summer,” I said.

He frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “You must come with me.”

“I must?” I lifted an eyebrow, allowing some of my old sarcasm to creep into my voice. His possessiveness was creeping me out. Maybe I should just call it day—gorgeous or not, he was giving me the crazy vibe.

I stiffened when he wrapped me in his arms again.

“It’s just that I never meet anyone like you before,” he said. ”You live always in my thoughts.”

No guy had ever said that to me before, and my nervousness melted away. Maybe he was really the one. What did high school matter? You never knew when love would strike.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I come on… How do you say? Too strong?”

“Maybe just a little overpowering.”

I could feel his muscles beneath his shirt, and I wondered about his strength, which he was obviously holding back. Like Edward in Twilight? There it was again—my imagination wandering into loopyville.

“You must be thirsty after your afternoon in the sun,” he said. “A lemonade, yes?”

“That’d be great.”

He nodded and clicked his heels together, something I’d only seen people do in movies. When he headed to the kitchen, I leaned against the window. I felt shaky, too overwhelmed for this to be just some ordinary summer romance.

He returned a few minutes later with a tumbler of lemonade in one hand and his vibrating cell phone in the other. I took the drink from him.

He flipped open the phone then glanced at me. “Back in a second.” He left the room.

Why the secrecy? I sipped the drink, which was perfect, both tart and sweet, and chugged it half way down. I wandered into the kitchen to top off my glass.

The pitcher of lemonade sat on a butcher-block table, and after refilling my glass, I wandered to several pots of herbs sitting on a windowsill. One of the plants smelled like mint. Finding the scent soothing, I bent and sniffed. Behind the pot, half-hidden by leaves, sat a plastic pill bottle.

Curiosity forced me to grab it. I squinted at a hand-written label, reading the word out loud, “Rohypnol.” I’d seen enough cop shows to know that it was also called the date-rape drug.

“Oh My God,” I muttered. “That explains my blackouts.”

I knew the drug could make you feel drunk, but its best-known side effect was amnesia. Antonio could do whatever he wanted, and I’d know nothing about it. Had he raped me? Or was he really a vampire and somehow slowly feeding on me?

I had to get out of there before the drug took effect. I dumped the rest of  the lemonade down the sink and put the pills back in their hiding place.

Icy tendrils of fear dripped inside me. Could I make it to the main road before I lost control or passed out or whatever?

I sprinted to the kitchen door.

As I turned the knob, Antonio grabbed my arm and spun me around

“Where do you go?” He leaned his shoulder against the door.

I stumbled into the wall, its stones pressing into my back. Be cool, be cool, I chanted inside my mind. “I’m feeling a little woozy. I think from the sun. I thought I’d step outside and get some fresh air.” My voice wobbled, and I tried to smile, but I’d never been good at fake-smiling.

“Something is wrong,” he said.

His eyes seemed larger and blacker; his nose longer. Was the drug making me hallucinate?

“You must rest.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but he covered it with his hand. He scooped me up and carried me into the living room, placing me on the couch. He knelt next to me on the floor and stroked my forehead.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Maybe you should take me home.” I tried to sit up, but I felt uncoordinated and my arms flopped around me. Antonio gently, yet firmly, pushed me down.

He kissed me on the cheek, his lips traveling down my neck.

“Help!” I screamed, knowing that no one would hear me—the closest neighbor lived too far away.

“Shhhh,” he murmured. “My pet, so lovely, so juicy.”

And that was the last thing I heard before tumbling into blackness.

I came to hours or minutes later, I wasn’t sure. Moonlight bathed the room in light. Where was I? What was going on? Then I remembered the pills and Antonio carrying me into the living room.

I slowly became aware of a pain on my thigh.

I sat up, surprising Antonio, from where he bent over my leg.

I screamed when he turned to me. Giant compound eyes filled what was left of his face. Two long tubes had replaced his mouth and nose. Their tips were covered with blood. Antennae wobbled from his neck, along with six jointed legs protruding from his engorged torso.

Screaming, I jumped up. What the hell was he? A mosquito? No, not quite. A tick?

He staggered backward and tried to cover his face with his still-human hands. He seemed drunk. I guessed from my blood. He suddenly surged toward me, this time more sure on his feet. His insect legs and arms reached for me.

Without thinking, I grabbed a stone paperweight from the coffee table and flung it at him.

It caught him in the stomach and he stumbled, falling into the bookcase, which tipped over. Books, trophies, and wood tumbled down on him.

He vanished below it, his bug parts erupting all over the carpet.

I shut my eyes tight. My emotions rolled between revulsion and sadness, finally landing on the former with a pinch of fear. Some people found hot vampires; others woke up with dung beetles lolling around in their bed. It was obvious where I fell on the spectrum.

But there was no time for self-pity. I had to get out of there before Antonio’s dad, the genetic mastermind behind the tick-splat on the carpet, got back. I ran to the door and sprinted into the deepening shadows, twilight long over.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 2, 2009 8:01 PM

    Courtly, freaky Antonio and suspicious but naïve Crystal! What a pair. I may never look at another mosquito quite the same again. 🙂

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