Page 14

Affliction (Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter 22) Laurell K. Hamilton 2022/8/5 16:53:54

When both men had dried their tears enough so they could pretend they hadn't been crying, Jerry took us to the family waiting room. It had a few couches, chairs, a coffee table full of magazines that almost no one ever read, and a few paintings on the walls, everything in colors that were supposed to be cheerful, or soothing, but never really were. It looked like a hundred other waiting rooms I'd seen, where I'd go to talk to families or police about the person in the other room, in surgery, and what had attacked them. To police it was, How do we hunt it down and kill it? To families of victims it was, What can you tell me that will help me hunt it down and kill it? It was a room like so many others, except this one had some of Micah's family in it, and that made it unique and strangely more intimidating. We might never walk down an aisle together, but Micah was a permanent part of my life and I was as happy as I'd ever been. Wedding band or not, these strangers were my potential in-laws. Scary, even to us tough-as-nails vampire hunters.

Micah's mom had the same big pale blue-gray eyes as Jerry, and she looked like him, or rather he looked like her. Her shoulder-length hair was the same tight curls, but the color was paler brown, on the borderline between ash brown and sandy blond. She had that clear, soft shade of skin that only nature and some very fun genetics give you. She looked a little more ethnic than her sister, but not by much. Her full lips were lipsticked and her makeup was perfect, but she wasn't wearing that much and if I hadn't known she was Micah's mom I would not have put her over fifty, but she had to be, didn't she? She was heavier than she'd probably been when she was younger, but it was mostly just more curves, so it looked good on her. A nicely tailored suit flattered the fuller figure rather than hid it, which I liked a lot. She was voluptuous, exotic, and beautiful, and Micah's mom. She was also a hugger.

She enveloped Micah in a hug like he was the last solid thing in the world and she was holding on for dear life. We caught snatches of what she was saying through the tears: 'So glad you're home ... your dad will be so happy ... love you ...'

Micah said the only things he could: 'Love you, and I'm sorry.' He said other things, but they were mostly lost to his mother's crying. Nathaniel probably heard more of it, but he stood there holding my hand and waited for the emotional storm to abate enough for us to matter. Dev and Nicky had moved back to the entrance to the waiting area. There was only one way in, so they could guard just fine from there, and give us room for the family reunion at the same time. It was bodyguard multitasking at its best.

Micah extracted himself enough to say, 'Mom, this is Anita, and Nathaniel.'

She hugged me to her, and I had to let go of Nathaniel's hand to return the hug. She started crying again, saying, 'Thank you, thank you for bringing Mike home! Thank you so much.'

I mumbled, 'You're welcome,' and tried to figure out how soon I could break free of the hug and still be polite. My face was buried in her shoulder because in her heels she was at least five foot nine and I hadn't had time to go on tiptoe to keep from being smashed in the hug.

Jerry said, 'Let her breathe, Mom.'

She pulled back, laughing a little, dabbing at her eyes with her well-manicured hands. 'I'm sorry; I'm a hugger, so just a warning.'

In my head I thought, Too late for the warning, but on the surface I smiled and nodded, because I had nothing useful to say. People took it wrong if you told them not to touch you in situations like this, so I'd learned to smile and keep my mouth shut.

Micah drew Nathaniel forward. 'Mom, this is Nathaniel Graison.' He didn't add my significant other like he had with Cousin Juliet. It was harder sometimes with parents.

His mom looked at Nathaniel, then looked at Micah for a clue as to who he was to him.

Micah took Nathaniel's hand and my hand, took a deep breath, and said, 'Nathaniel is our live-in partner.'

A look that I couldn't interpret crossed her face, and then she hugged Nathaniel as tightly and completely as she had me. He hesitated for a second, then returned the hug, his face a little puzzled, but smiling over her shoulder.

She said, 'So happy to meet you and Anita both; you have no idea how happy I am to meet my son's friends.'

Micah and I exchanged a look. I tried to say with my eyes, Well, that went well. I was betting my stepmom wouldn't do nearly as well with it, but then again, Micah had been convinced his mom wouldn't do this well with Nathaniel. Maybe our parents were more grown up than we gave them credit for?

Micah's mom drew back from the hug, and I heard Nathaniel say, 'I'm glad to meet you, too, really.' He was smiling, happy and relieved, because none of us had been betting on it going this well.

A tall man came up behind Micah's mom. He was over six feet by a few inches, completely bald, with what amounted to five o'clock shadow in a thin pale half-circle on his scalp to show that he had started shaving his head after he went bald, rather than as a fashion statement. His eyebrows were thick, nearly black, and arched over dark-rimmed glasses. His eyes were a bright, clear blue. His dark suit, pale blue shirt, and dark tie fit his slender frame well and helped bring out the blue of his eyes and the stark paleness of his skin. The glasses and the baldness distracted me from the rest of his face, so it took a moment to realize he was handsome.

He put his hands on Micah's mom's shoulders in a gesture that, though innocent, was totally a couple gesture. I felt, more than saw, Micah tense. 'So glad you could be here, Mike,' the tall man said, and held out his hand.

Micah took the hand. 'I'm glad I could be here, too.' He turned back to me and said, 'Anita, Nathaniel, this is Tyson Morgan, my mom's ... husband.'

I had my own stepmom so I knew the awkward moment when you wanted to acknowledge them but not claim them as your parent.

Micah's stepdad's hand was big with long, thin fingers to match the rest of his lanky frame. He smiled. 'Dr Tyson Morgan. I teach at the college with Bea.'

'Anita Blake, U.S. Marshal.'

His mouth quirked, like a small, lopsided smile, and then he shook his head, more at himself, I think. 'I guess I'm prouder than I should be of being Dr Morgan, sorry, but please call me Ty.'

'No need to be sorry, it's a big accomplishment. Doctor of what, since you teach at the college?'

'American literature,' he said.

Micah was searching the other people in the waiting room. 'Where's Beth?'

'She's at home with the other kids,' Ty said.

'Twain has to be what, fourteen now?' Micah said.

They both nodded. 'And Hawthorne is twelve,' Bea said.

I fought to keep my thoughts off my face. Twain and Hawthorne; I realized that the kids were named after Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both American authors, but names like that were usually reserved for cats that lived in the literature building, not for children. Twain was tolerable, but Hawthorne, for a boy? Elementary school must have been brutal.

Bea added, 'We have two more now; did you know that from our Facebook page?'

Micah shook his head. 'I go online mostly for business. Two more? Boys or girls?'

'One of each,' she said, smiling.

'Frost is six and Fen is four.'

Micah looked past them to Jerry. He shrugged. 'There's a lot of catching up to do.' He held up his left hand and we saw the wedding band for the first time.

'Who to, and how long?' Micah asked.

'Someone new; she's a nurse here at the hospital, her name's Janet. Less than two years. Before you ask, I did marry Kelsey after high school. It lasted about two years and didn't work from the start. Janet and I are doing good.'

'I don't even know what you do for a living,' Micah said.

'Work at a local engineering firm. I work with Janet's brother. That's how we met. How long have you ... all been together?'

'Almost three years,' Micah said, and he smiled and took my hand again. He hesitated only a moment and took Nathaniel's hand in his other hand. I had a moment to see a defiant look on his face, as if daring them to criticize. Our patient, diplomatic Micah was more aggressive around his family, more like me. It explained a lot of his patience with me early on.

Jerry's face didn't quite know what expression to have, but his mother beamed at us as if we'd told her she was getting a grandchild or something. Ty's entire body language relaxed, some tension going out of him that I didn't understand. He was smiling. Acceptance was great; this level of happy made me wonder what I'd missed. I was always suspicious if something was too good to be true; it wasn't an old saying for nothing. I'd come into the world with a healthy dose of cynicism, and being with the police for six years hadn't done anything to persuade me otherwise.

Micah squeezed our hands and changed the subject, sort of. 'Is Beth with anyone? I still see her as a kid, but she's twenty-two now, right?'

They all nodded. 'She just graduated with a double major in theology and philosophy,' Jerry said.

'Theology and philosophy?' Micah said. 'I wouldn't have thought that for her.'

'It took her a while to find herself,' Bea said, 'but she's already been accepted into her master's program for next semester.'

I heard Nicky's deep voice murmur something behind us. A woman's voice, much louder. 'Who are you and what gives you the right to question us?'

I turned to find two women trying to get past our bodyguards. Micah said, 'It's okay, Nicky, Dev, they're my aunts.' He went toward them as they walked between our blond guards. One woman had red curls that fell past her shoulders and was wearing work jeans, T-shirt, jacket, and boots that were not a fashion statement. The other woman had hair cut so short there was no curl left, a conservative skirt and jacket over a white blouse with a rounded collar, and sensible pumps. They were dressed so differently that it took a few seconds to realize that other than the superficial differences they were mirror images of each other, or damn close. They both looked a little like Micah, like his dad, and a lot like Juliet, who was hurrying to catch up with them both. There was another woman, or maybe girl, trailing behind Juliet. She was wearing an ankle-length skirt and a button-up blouse untucked over it, hair pulled back in a tight braid that couldn't quite hide the tight curls she'd have if she let her hair go. Where the lack of makeup on Juliet had looked fresh and like she didn't need it, on the girl it made her face look unfinished, or maybe it was the huge black-rimmed glasses that looked like they'd been issued by the military. The kind of glasses that were nicknamed contraceptive glasses, because no one could get laid while wearing them. I thought she belonged to the button-up skirt woman, maybe. Juliet was dressed so much like the woman with longer hair that I made a guess that she was Juliet's mom.

Micah introduced us to Aunt Jody and Aunt Bobbie; Jody was the long-haired rancher-looking woman, and Bobbie was the one who looked like a prim second grade school teacher at a parochial school. Jody did run a farm, and Juliet, her husband, and their two kids lived in a second house on the property and helped run it, but Jody wasn't her mom, Bobbie was. They were Rush's twin sisters. Bobbie was not a schoolteacher or a would-be nun; she was a lawyer.

'I'm sorry Monty couldn't be here tonight, Mike,' she said as she gave him one quick hug and stepped back. The blue eyes that had been warm and showed so much emotion in Juliet's face were cool and unreadable in Aunt Bobbie's. She looked at me like she was studying me for an exam. 'Monty is my second husband; he's a judge now.'

'Congratulations, I remember Monty. He, Dad, and Uncle Steve were friends,' Micah said.

Bobbie smiled with the first true warmth I'd seen. 'He's a good judge.' That one small display said she loved and cared for her husband. It was nice to know Bobbie had found love twice.

Micah gave her another quick hug. 'I'm sorry, Aunt Jody.'

She hugged him and then grinned. 'It's okay, Mike. I've never been happier.'

He grinned back, and I found myself joining in the grin-fest, because there was just something about Jody that had that effect. 'I'm glad,' he said.

'Me, too,' she said, 'and Juliet and her husband are wonderful. Another generation that wants to stay on the farm.'

Bobbie gave a mock shudder. 'No thank you, I am a city girl.' Then she grinned and you could see the same joy in her face as her sister. She took her sister's hand and said, 'I told you when I had Juliet that she was part yours; little did I know you'd make a farmer out of her.'

Jody smiled back at her sister and there was a history and a closeness there that was just good to see. 'Hey, we have a grandchild apiece.'

Bobbie smiled again. 'That we do.'

Juliet smiled at them both and I knew I was missing something, but it was a good something that had formed a bond; maybe it was a twin thing, or maybe not. I'd ask Micah later.

The second girl had drifted back to hug the wall, as if she weren't a part of the happy family moment. Bea called, 'Esther, you remember Mike.'

The girl stepped away from the wall slowly, as if she weren't sure what to do. 'Hi, Mike.' It was almost a whisper.

'How are you doing, Essie?' he asked, his voice soft as if there had always been something fragile, or wrong, with this cousin.

She gave a shy smile. 'You and Beth are the only ones who still call me Essie.'

'I'm going by Micah now; do you prefer Esther?' he asked.

'No, I always liked you calling me Essie,' she said quickly, looking up with big, startled blue-gray eyes that were so like Bea's that I knew which side this cousin was on, which meant she had to be Aunt Bertie and Uncle Jamie's daughter. Poor kid, though she was probably in her early twenties, so not a kid, just ... she seemed much younger than she looked; maybe it was the awful clothes and glasses?

I heard Dev say, 'Not these guys again.'

It made me look up, but my view was blocked. Ty at six feet plus could see farther and he swore softly under his breath. Bea chastised him, 'Not in front of the kids,' as if we were all five.

'It's your sister and her husband,' he said.

She said, 'Shi ... Shotgun! I can't take much more of them today.'

I looked at Micah and mouthed, Shotgun?

'If you meet my grandparents you'll understand why she doesn't cuss,' he said.

I gave him wide eyes.

Aunt Bertie and Uncle Jamie were being trailed by Al. I heard him say, 'Now, Bertie, it's enough for one night, with Rush hurt like this.'

'Rush knows he's outside God's grace,' Jamie said.

I wasn't sure what that meant, but nothing good. 'What do they want?' I asked.

'To save our souls,' Micah said, and he sounded tired.

'My soul is fine,' I said.

Nicky and Dev looked at us. 'Come on, let us keep them out of the room,' Dev said.

'Pleeeassse,' Dev said, drawing out the word as if he were three instead of twenty-three.

'So tempting,' Micah agreed, 'but let them through.'

Nicky watched the couple pass between him and Dev like he was watching a couple of wounded antelopes and it was just a matter of time.

Al spoke over their heads as they entered the room. 'I'm sorry, I couldn't distract them enough. Apparently, I'm not sinful enough to interest them.'

'You're a good boy,' Bertie said, patting his arm.

Al shrugged. 'Sorry, Mike.'

'Don't apologize to him because you aren't a sinner,' Jamie said.

'I don't think that's what he was apologizing for, Uncle Jamie,' Micah said.

'Leave the boy alone, Jamie,' Aunt Bobbie said. She sounded disgusted with the situation and she'd just gotten here.

'If you hadn't interfered in the first place, Bobbie, there wouldn't be any Coalition, and hundreds of people would have been saved from becoming monsters for them.'

'I checked into your allegations, Bertie, and it's paranoid nonsense,' Bobbie said.

Micah said, 'We do not encourage people to become lycanthropes. We help families deal with members who are already shapeshifters. We counsel people after attacks, but we do not encourage anyone to become wereanimals. We aren't like the Church of Eternal Life; we don't recruit.'

'You and the vampires want everyone to be like you,' Aunt Bertie said.

'That's unsubstantiated rumor,' Aunt Bobbie said.

'I don't know where the rumors started,' Micah said, 'but I can tell you that they are lies. We help people deal with the trauma of attacks the way I wish someone had helped me.'

'I've heard the rumors, but I didn't think anyone was taking them that seriously,' I said.

'A certain branch of religious conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon pretty strongly,' Micah said. He looked at his aunt and uncle.

'The rest of them here will believe your lies, but we know that you've deceived hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent humans.' Bertie turned on Bobbie and pointed an accusing finger at her. 'Innocent lives that could have been saved from evil if you hadn't gone against us.'

'You had no grounds to try to imprison Mike, and a judge agreed with me,' Bobbie said.

'What are they talking about?' Nathaniel asked.

'Jamie and Bertie wanted me to turn myself in to a government safe house when my tests came back positive for lycanthropy. Their church believed that all shapeshifters should be isolated like lepers. When I wouldn't do it voluntarily, they tried to get me declared legally incompetent and be made my guardians, because the rest of the family was too emotionally overwrought to take care of me.'

'The government safe houses are prisons,' Nathaniel said.

I said, 'Once you sign yourself in you can't get out, no matter what they tell you to get you there.'

'I know, and I had Aunt Bobbie to back me up in court.'

'Thank you,' I said to her.

She waved it away. 'They didn't have any right to do it, or legal ground to stand on, but they had a judge who was a church member. Once I got him recused, we were fine.'

'If the monster that attacked you had been in a safe house, Steve and Richie would still be alive and you'd still be human instead of an animal,' Bertie said.

'Aunt Bertie!' Juliet nearly yelled it.

'That's enough!' Bea said; her face was flushed, eyes paling to gray. I was betting that was her angry color of eyes, just a hunch.

'Just tell me these two are the craziest members of your family,' I said.

'Last time I visited, yes.'

Uncle Jamie turned on me like he'd been saving up. 'We know who you are, Anita Blake. You raise the dead from the grave, something only God is allowed to do.'

'I don't do resurrection, just zombies.'

'Of course you can't do what God can do,' Bertie said. 'The devil is only a poor imitation of God.'

I raised an eyebrow at her. 'Excuse me?'

Aunt Jody stepped up. 'You are an evil, narrow-minded person.'

'You are an abomination before the Lord,' Bertie said, in a voice full of such rage it was almost frightening. She'd been yelling at Micah and me, but she was furious with Jody.

'You didn't think that in high school,' Jody said; her voice was bland, empty, but it fell into the conversation like it was anything but.

'We were friends once, before you became perverted,' Bertie said.

'You liked my perversion just fine in high school and then we scared each other. I married the first man who would have me, and you started sleeping with any man who would have you.'

'Mama,' Essie said, and she looked like this was news to her.

'I'm happy now,' Jody said. 'Can you say the same, Bertha?'

'Don't call me that! Don't ever call me that!'

'It's your name,' Jody said.

I felt like I was missing a whole lot. Bertie launched herself at Jody. Al got in the way, keeping the two women apart. Nicky kept Uncle Jamie from joining the fight just by standing in his way and being big. The other man didn't even try to get past him. Dev moved between us and Aunt Bertie, moving us physically back from the almost-fight. None of us told them to stop; I think they were more afraid of what we might do if the fight spread than the other way around.

Jamie yelled around Nicky, 'You are the devil's blood whore!'

'Can I hit him, just once?' Nicky called out.

'No!' I said, and made sure my voice carried.

'Is he calling Micah the devil, or Jean-Claude?' Nathaniel asked.

Dev moved Micah, Nathaniel, and me farther back from the fight. Micah's mom and stepdad, Aunt Jody, Aunt Bobbie, Aunt Bertie, and Uncle Jamie were all screaming at one another. Juliet, Essie, and the rest of us watched like innocent bystanders at a train wreck. It's sort of awful, but you can't look away.

I put my mouth close to Micah's ear and said, 'Can't wait to hear what your family Christmases were like.'

'I've never seen them this bad,' he said.

Juliet and Essie came to stand near us. Essie gave quick covert glances at Dev and Nathaniel, and even Micah. I was suspecting a childhood crush that still had some life in it.

Juliet spoke above the shouting, 'Do you remember Ginger Dawson?'

'I remember the Dawson farm; it was next door to ours.'

'Do you remember the oldest daughter? The one who went away to the army?'

'Vaguely,' Micah said.

'She and Aunt Jody have been living together for about five years.'

'Living together, how?' Micah asked.

'What did you call cutie here? Your live-in partner?'

'His name's Nathaniel,' I said, automatically.

'They're living together like that.'

We all looked at one another. Micah said, 'I had no clue.'

'None of us did,' Juliet said.

Aunt Bertie screamed, 'You're bringing up your children with your two catamites!'

'I do not think that word means what she thinks it means,' I said.

'Bertie's gone crazy,' Juliet said.

Essie was hunching in on herself, trying to look like she didn't know any of these people. She muttered, 'I'm so sorry, Mike.'

He patted her arm. 'It's okay, Essie, your parents were never your fault.'

She flashed him adoring blue eyes, and he missed it completely as he watched his mother and aunts fight. Nathaniel looked at me; he hadn't missed it either.

'You contaminated one son,' Bertie yelled. 'Look what he brought home to you! Stop living in sin before you contaminate your other children!'

The three of us, and Dev, all exchanged looks. He said, 'I think they mean Nathaniel, but ...'

Bertie got a handful of Bea's hair and the fight was on. Hospital security arrived as the two sisters got down to some serious hair-pulling, fingernail-using girl fighting. It was kind of embarrassing, not that it was Micah's mom, but that they fought like girls. I'd have to teach Bea how to throw a punch.