[From the alternate universe where Edith promised to tell and Ben was super uncomfortable lying for her in the meantime which didn't happen in the normal universe because Edith didn't do anything that would create such a convoluted and painful/dangerous to all parties situation.]
Edith closed her eyes, I got the impression she was listening to something very carefully when she was satisfied she sat down in front of me cross legged, "I wanted to thank you for keeping your word first, so: thank you."
"How do you know I kept my word?" I asked.
"Because that chord never sounded in the cacophony -" she seemed to notice she'd lost me because she stopped and said, "Never mind. We'll get to that."
She paused a moment.
"So the truth is at once simple and complex and there's some question as to the best way to explain such that you'll believe me and I've decided to just cut to the central point and work backward from there."
She paused and looked at me.
"Ok..." I said, letting the word drag out and hopefully getting the confusion I was feeling into my voice where it belonged.
She looked nervous, or doubtful, or something. Then reached into a pocket and pulled out a bag. It was either intended for a hospital or evidence that Capri Sun had decided to start going with clear bags and V-8.
She bit a hole in the bag, near the top, and then swiped her finger across it to catch a drop. "It's human blood," she said, offering the finger to me, the red standing out against her impossibly white skin, some of it tracing the intricate patterns of her fingerprint. The skin was too white, as always, and I again looked to her face, her eyes and hair, to remind myself that the only reasonable explanation, albinism, wasn't the correct explanation.
"Do whatever you want with it if you don't believe me. Taste it, smell it, whatever." There was a short pause then she added, "It's perfectly safe, it's been screened for diseases and come up clean."
"I believe you," I said. And I did. But I ran my finger along hers anyway to pick up a sample anyway, and on tasting it said, "That's blood."
Another pause, an awkward silence, the kind I hate. "This relates to anything how?"
She sighed, and I could not, at all, place the emotion behind it. "Watch my eyes." She bit down on the bag and I watched her eyes as it began to drain. Their amber color became darker, less yellow, more red. Somehow, without ever passing through orange, by the time the bag was empty, every drop of blood sucked out of it, her eyes had become as red as the blood in the bag had been.
"For some reason, one we haven't been able to work out yet, drinking the blood of one's former species makes the eyes turn the color of the blood, any other species and it's the color of tree resin..."
"And what makes black?" I asked, and then before she could answer it hit me and I asked, "Former species?"
"No easy way to say it. None at all." There was a sharp intake of breath on her part, and then she quickly said, "I'm a vampire." Shortly after she added, "And black is starvation. Go too long without eating and it's black.
"I was having some... digestion problems when you first met me and was just coming out of a fast. I'm sorry I wasn't the nicest, but it was sort of like being starving and looking around at your companions thinking of all the meat they represent. I never should have been in school but I was too stubborn and wouldn't listen to calmer voices." She didn't seem to know what say after that and for a time we just sat there.
"So," I said.
"You're a vampire."
"And that explains everything how?"
"It's a sort of package deal. Immortality, provided no one kills you, eternal youth provided you were still young when you became a vampire, incredible strength, impossible sprint speeds, improbable endurance, changing eye colors, colorless skin, that sort of thing."
"And the ability to maneuver on ice?" that was really the problem, that was the impossibility. Even if someone could have closed the gap between us, without slowing down on a surface that gave no purchase I'd have been hit by as much force as the van on a smaller area. More PSI, I still die. I didn't die. Thus the problem.
"If you'd been less concerned about my cold hands and looked lower you'd have seen I was barefoot."
"That seems conspicuous."
"You would think so, but seriously--" that "seriously" had an intonation that wasn't Edith's. I knew where it came from so I finished the quote:
"how often do you really look at a mans shoes?"
"Have you ever seen it in theaters?"
"No. I was six."
"That's a shame." A pause. "I was 91."
"And you said you're seventeen."
"Well there's this whole facade of normalcy that has to be-"
"I've heard a lot of people lie about their age, but never on that level."
"It gets easier with time," she said in the tone of a confession. "And it is true that I only lived seventeen years as a human."
There was a quiet. The kind of quiet kindergarten teachers dream of hunting down, taming, bonding with, and bringing into their classrooms as something somewhere between a friend and a pet. Or an attack dog I suppose. Definitely not a pack animal.
Anyway: quiet. I guess we had a lot on out minds.
It was finally broken by me when I remembered something earlier in the conversation and the word, "Cacophony?" escaped my lips as if it were a well thought out and reasoned question in spite of me having spent no time thinking it over and having no reason to expect an answer from a single word stated as if it were a question.
"It's what I call the sum total of everyone's internal voices. Not just voices, images too, and other things that there are not words for, they exist only as the stuff of thought. And for some people smells too ... and I've gotten ahead of myself again. You have no idea what I'm talking about."
"None whatsoever, but you seemed to be on a roll."
"One of the things that comes with being a vampire is... well we don't know what it is. We think that it's an enhancement of preexisting powers. Senses or abilities that barely manifest in ordinary humans and so can be dismissed as intuition or persuasiveness or tricks of perception.
"They tend to be different for every vampire, though some are extremely similar, and so we speculate that they're different for every human.
"When one becomes a vampire it goes from being something that's within the margin of error to a full blown... whatever it happens to be.
"For me it was telepathy. I can pick up on other people's thoughts the way most people can hear other people's conversations. It's like standing in a crowded cafeteria, except not just sound. All senses, and some things that aren't even senses.
"I call it the cacophony. The sum total of what everyone within sensing range is thinking. Mostly it all blends together into this background..." She seemed at a loss for words.
"Noise?" I offered.
"Thanks, but no. That's too limiting. It's just this thing. Noises yes, but also images, ideas, the stuff dreams are made of, things without words, aches and pains, smells and tastes, feelings after a fashion--"
"After a fashion?"
"I can't sense feelings, but thoughts about feelings, including --notably-- memories of feelings, those I can sense."
"So you know what everyone is thinking."
"No. No, no, no." Short pause. "No." Long pause. "I've learned to tune it out. I don't think my sanity could survive everyone else's voices in my head. Though not everyone thinks in voices. It's mostly just white noise to me, sometimes something rises above the murmur and makes itself known. But for the most part I can stay firmly in my own head."
"Then how did you know I kept my word?" I asked her.
"Practice. There's this fragile balance between privacy and safety. Some thoughts need to be heard because if they aren't heard they'll be acted on and they must not be acted on. For me, I'm willing to take what comes with no warning, but most of those thoughts aren't directed at me and I cannot stand by and do nothing while I could have helped others.
"So for all that I've worked to avoid knowing what other people are thinking, I've also worked to make sure that some things I don't miss. They stand out like an out of tune player in an otherwise flawless band.
"So when there was a chance that I'd blown our cover and people would realize that my family isn't human I made sure that I'd notice if that note sounded in the cacophony. It never did. If you hadn't kept your word, I'd have known. Since I never knew, I know." There was a pause; I tried not to laugh. "That sounded stupid."
"I never said anything."
"It sounded stupid to me. If you had broken your promise I would have known you broke it pretty much the moment you did. Since that never happened I knew you didn't break it."
"Definitely sounded less stupid."
"I couldn't tell you right away because my family needed to prepare to leave if you wouldn't keep the whole, 'There are vampires in town,' thing a secret." Pause. "If you tell people --which please don't-- we need to leave."
"Can you read my mind?" I asked. "If I give you permission?"
"Yours? No." Another pause while I got to ponder that. "I don't know why, but I can't sense anything out of you. It's why I wish we didn't have to keep the whole thing a secret. If we were public then we could research things like that. What makes one mind readable and another one not? Could be all kinds of interesting advances come from looking into that, but we need to keep it a secret--"
"Why do you need to keep it a secret? You don't need to feed on human beings so unless angry vegans take over the world you're just long lived people on a liquid diet. What harm would come of the world knowing you exist?"
"If you ask me--"
"I did ask you."
"None. In my opinion." Which left the question of, "Why?" wide open. "The problem is that there's a group of vampires that fancy themselves our ruling council and they control a relatively small but extremely dangerous army. They've ordered that the existence of vampires be kept a secret and they enforce that order with excessive force.
"If it came out that my family were vampires first they'd kill us all, then they'd kill everyone we interacted with, and finally they'd probably decide to wipe out anyone left in the town for good measure."
"Don't know how to respond to that?"
"Thought you couldn't read my mind."
"I can guess."
"So you just stand by while this ruling council..."
"Yes and no. Open war would kill us all, so we don't do that. Someday we hope to overthrow them, but these things take time." Pause. Sigh. Somewhat downtrodden look. A glance away from my face toward a bare patch of earth no different than the surrounding earth. "Plus it's like trying to become the Kwisatz Haderach."
"They tried and failed?" I offered knowing I would be corrected.
"They tried and died," Edith said with a slight smile.
"So what do you do?"
"Foster alliances, try to convince people that different from humanity doesn't mean better than, read Havel, track down rumors of any other non-humans who might become our allies--"
"Have you found any?"
"Only one, and the whole ally thing failed to work out. The relationship was polite enough, but it only lasted long enough to draw up a mutual non-aggression treaty and agreement to stay out of each other's affairs and off each other's land." She made a sound that resembled, "pft" but longer and somewhat more annoyed. "Not the first contact we'd hoped for. There's another group we know of, but an attempt was made to exterminate them long before even my mother was born, of the tiny handful that survived into our lifetimes the only one we ever found was dead.
"We were maybe three days too late." Another pause, then she resumed in a more detached philosophical voice, "They say that when those ones have their power, when they've shape-shifted out of human form, they're nothing but mindless animals. We hope that that's propaganda. We know that they and we have a common enemy, we hope that they can be convinced to work with us against that enemy, if any of them still live."
"And that's why, right now, if anyone starts to seriously think we're vampires, we run away. Very fast.
"If we don't then it doesn't just put us at risk, it puts all the humans around us at risk."
There was a long pause, without Edith's power I can't say for sure, and for all I know her mind, like mine, can't be read so easily, but I think it was that neither of us knew what to say next. And as the pause expanded into a silence that showed no signs of stopping we each stood up and prepared to go our separate ways.
It was when Edith's back was already turned and she had begun to walk away that I said, "You were right."
She turned back, "About what?"
"Now that I know the secret I understand why you couldn't tell me right away."
"Actually, I said--"
"Close enough. You were right."
There was a short pause, then she said, "You know..." her tone was almost playful, "you never told me why you wanted me to read your mind."
"I wanted you to know that I wasn't going to tell anyone."
"How?" I asked with completely genuine confusion.
"I trust you," she said, and then turned and walked away.