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Prudence, Chapter 10

Steven was waiting for them, having taken off his shoes and put another glass on the table, full of red, sticky stuff. Mark also noticed that he'd moved, taking the chair across from the couch.

Mark sat down on the couch, slightly to one side, leaving the choice of how close to sit to him for Kristen.

She stood awkwardly, not knowing what to do.

Her father sighed. "Sit down, honey." He motioned to the couch and Kristen sat, as close to Mark as she could get without actually touching him, and clutching the pillow to her chest like a security blanket.

Steven stared at them silently for a moment, then asked, "So, how long have you known?"

"Tuesday," Mark answered. "When I came over to check on her, we . . . erm . . . and she was looking, well, totally healthy by the time I went home a few hours later. Well, more like eight hours. But she was looking healthy within one. Which was physically impossible."

Steven frowned. "And why was she in that shape to start with?"

Mark sighed guiltily. "I think it was my fault. I talked to her this weekend, and told her that she should control who she had sex with. That it was fine to have sex with people, but that she should do it because she wanted to, not because she needed to. I had no idea that she literally needed to, or . . . well, Wednesday, around noon, when she started looking . . . hungry, again, I spent a good ten minutes convincing her that I really wouldn't mind if she drug one of her friends into a storeroom, so to speak." He paused before continuing firmly, "And I didn't. I still don't. Though as far as I know, she hasn't since around midnight last night." He glances over at Kristen. "Unless someone stopped by? But you aren't glowing, so I assume no one did."

"Glowing? You managed to make her glow? Oh, thank god, I was afraid she couldn't." Steven sounded seriously relieved.

"Yes. Although . . . " Mark hesitated, looking at Kristen for some hint of how he should say things.

Kristen buried her face in the pillow and tried to make the world go away. "Love?" Mark asked quietly.

She shook her head. "This is too weird for me."

Steven sighed. "I know, honey. That's my fault. I was a coward, and I'm sorry."

Kristen raised her head to look at him. "So what's going on? If you know, then tell me, what am I?"

Mark shifted uncomfortably on the couch, thinking that Kayla really ought to be there, but unable to simply say so. He didn't want to out the girl to Steven, and furthermore, if he said anything, Kristen would want to know why he felt she deserved to be there.

Steven rubbed his forehead wearily. "It's a long story. Get comfortable honey, I'm not going to kill him or have him arrested if you touch him. Especially since he probably saved your life."

Mark looked at him, eyebrow raised in surprise.

"Tuesday," Steven clarified. "Could you have made it out of the house before Mark came to check on you, Kris?"

"Um. No, I don't think so. I couldn't have made it very far, anyway. Maybe the end of the driveway."

He closed his eyes. "God, I'm sorry honey. I had no idea you'd ever just stop, or I would have told you a long time ago."

Kristen sighed. "So tell me now," she said, voice tinged with frustration.

Steven nodded. "Some of it you've already figured out. Some of it I'm not sure about. I don't know what your mother was, and neither did she. She grew up in an orphanage in California. I met her when she was eighteen, and was one of about a dozen guys she went out with for several months."

"I started falling in love with her. It was easy. Jarai was beautiful, smart, graceful, charming, sweet, funny . . . everything anyone could ever want. Except faithful, and I honestly didn't give a damn. It wasn't as if I could keep up with her on my own, anyway."

"It was when she started to love me back that she started glowing. Not all the time, just sometimes." He paused, smiling at the memory. "God, she was beautiful. And when she glowed, she was just . . . more herself. Like she could finally spare the energy to be herself. She was so happy."

"She started sleeping with fewer and fewer guys, until it was just me. I asked her to marry me, she accepted."

Mark listened quietly, his arm holding Kristen close.

"It was wonderful. My family had always had money, and a year off for a honeymoon didn't phase them. They liked Jarai. Everyone did. In that year, we never spent a day apart. We found out she was pregnant when she started glowing and it just never quite faded all the way."

"It didn't fade until after you were born and she was healed, and by then we were having sex again. We didn't know what caused the glow. We thought it just happened when she was happy."

"How'd you find out?" Mark asked.

"I went out of town on a business trip, right after we were married, and came back to find her looking half-starved and twenty years older. I rushed her to the ER, they couldn't find anything. I took her home and she was crying because she thought she was ugly. I showed her that she wasn't in the best way I knew how . . . and she healed."

"We figured it out from there. I didn't make trips anymore. I told her that I'd rather have her cheat on me than lose her. I told her I didn't care. It happened a couple of times. Once when I was in an accident and hospitalized for a few days, again when she just got hit one day with no warning and couldn't help herself. I didn't give a damn, but it hurt her both times."

Steven broke off, staring into space.

Mark nodded, then looked at Kristen. "You do know that I don't want you to feel bad if you have to do something like that?"

Kristen wrapped her own arm around his waist. "I know."

He kissed her forehead. "Your survival is more important to me than what others think, and you already know I don't care if you sleep with others." He looked back at Steven to see if he was ready to continue.

The older man took a deep breath, then went on, "We decided to go on vacation in the mountains . . . just get away together. I didn't mind her having sex if she needed it, but I did want some time with my pretty wife, alone for a change. The baby was wonderful, but hard. We left her with my parents, just for a week."

"We were just going to stay in the cabin, talk, cuddle, make love. We both liked hiking, and we hiked in, and planned on hiking back out, but mostly we were just going to be together." He closed his eyes, pain etched on his face. "But I fell . . . tripped in loose gravel, and slid down the side of the damned mountain."

"I busted my leg, three ribs, and my skull. Jarai was tiny . . . there was no way she could carry me out of that damned gully. And I was out cold and couldn't help her. She wouldn't leave me." His voice cracked, broke, tears seeping out the corners of his closed eyes. "They found me, still unconscious, food and water stacked beside me, covered in blankets, with her lying next to me, apparently dead of starvation, three days later." He covered his face with his hands, leaning forward over his lap. "I killed her," he whispered, "My Jarai." Mark stared at him in horror. "Oh, gods, Steven . . . that had to be . . . I can't imagine how horrible that would be. But you didn't kill her."

Steven took a deep shuddering breath. "I did, son. I took her away from the help she needed because I wanted her to myself. And then I slipped on loose rock like a damned fool."

"Oh, Daddy . . . " Kristen was crying, too.

Mark wrapped his other arm around her, almost pulling her onto his lap. "No, Steven. She was doing fine before you were injured. She gave her life to try to save you. You didn't kill her."

Steven just shook his head sadly. "So, when I saw the same things in Kristen that I had in her . . . there are physical signs . . . I moved to a place where I knew she could get what she needed, as safely as possible. Country boys might be jerks, but they're not normally drug-using gang members, and the illness rate is lower . . . though Jarai never caught anything, and Kristen hasn't had so much as a case of the sniffles since she was born."

"And out here, there are no curfews. It was safe to let her take her 'walks'. It protected her from the more exotic sort of things she might run into in a larger city. And there were fewer of the type of adults who would see her as a tasty treat to devour."

Mark stared off into space, thinking, before coming to a conclusion. He turned to Kristen. "Kristen, love?"

"Yes, Mark?"

"If you ever end up in that situation . . . where you can stay with me, and starve, or leave, stay alive, and risk my death . . . leave. I want you to promise me."

"I can't do that, Mark. I've already promised not to lie to you."

His arms tightened around her. "Kristen, please. I couldn't take it if . . . if . . ."

"I'm only half . . . whatever . . . love, I doubt I would starve as fast. It might not even kill me at all."

Mark stared at her, suddenly terrified. "Kristen, you'd have died before Wednesday morning. That's less than three days. Please."

Steven nodded. "Honey, I think it would kill you faster because you're only half. You seem to have greater . . . needs . . . than your mother did, as if you don't get as much from it. Sweetheart," his voice cracked, "If you really love him, don't make him ever have to live with that."

"I can't! I couldn't!" Her eyes filled with tears. "I don't blame her, I don't blame her at all. It would be easier to die than to be alone again." Mark stared at her helplessly. "What makes you think you'd be alone?"

"I don't want anyone else! I told you that."

"Even if they love you?"

"Even if. If you die, I don't care if I starve to death." She stared back at him, eyes determined. "And I would, too. Even if I had to lock myself in a vault or something. So you'd better not die, understand?"

"You'd let them suffer like that?" he asked quietly.

"Anyone who fell in love with me would have to do so knowing full well that I loved you, that I'd already made a commitment to you. They'd know how I felt before things ever got that far." Mark stared out into space for a long moment, the stood abruptly. "Steven, is there someplace I can use a phone, privately? I need to make a call."

Kristen looked up at him, confused and hurt. "Mark, what the hell?"

"Love, I'll be back in just a minute. I -- I'm coming perilously close to -- No. I can't say that either. Love, if you love me, trust me, please, for just a few minutes? I'm not mad at you, I'm not upset, except at the thought of you dying. Trust me. Please."

She curled up on the couch, leaning on the arm and clutching her pillow to her stomach. "I hate this. Okay, sure, why not? Phones in the kitchen."

He looked down at her for a second. "I love you, Kristen," he said quietly, and headed for the kitchen, dialing Kayla's number.

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