The Chapters That Sent Us Over The Edge

February 20th, 2008

Dean Esmay and I worked for close to three years to create our novel, Methuselah’s Daughter. It was a great experience and I’ll never regret doing it, but it was far from a perfect collaboration. One issue that has always nagged at me is the how and why of Zsallia’s immortality, and when we began working on the book Dean had the same question. I’ve had lots of working theories over the past 30 years to explain this, starting with the pure fantasy/supernatural theory to a very nuts-and-bolts explanation involving intervention by an outside agency. I’ve never liked any of the theories, to be completely honest, and I’ve always tried to come up with a purely natural explanation that would at least semi-plausibly explain her halted aging and her ability to regenerate lost fingers, limbs, etc.

In the end I told Dean my current working theory, one I was very unhappy with… and he fell in love with it. In his interpretation the ‘reality’ of her immortality lent a crucial pathos to the character and it was absolutely imperative we reveal this in order to conclude the novel in a powerful and uplifting way. For me, revealing the nature of her immortality, particularly in the manner I had described to him, stripped Zsallia of all her mystery and rendered her… boring.

We wrote up a pair of chapters dealing with the revelation of how her immortality works, and the aftermath. They were pretty good pieces and I let myself be swayed into agreeing that this would be the ending we would work towards, but I was never happy about it, and as we worked on the book I would constantly come back to the problem, trying to convince Dean that i couldn’t let it work out this way. We fought over this off and on throughout the writing, even coming to a point where we stopped talking to each other for several months. In the end those chapters never made it into the book because I refused to do it and Dean was tired of fighting over it.

As it turns out, that was pretty much the end of Zsallia for me. I can’t write her anymore because I just can’t get back inside her head- we twisted and changed her too much for me to believe in her anymore. I’ve been trying to keep things going on, but it is a painful and ultimately disheartening effort. Compared to the way she used to flow from my head to my keyboard writing her today is like trying to type one-fingered in the dark, with an air raid siren blaring in my ears. I have to accept that the character is dead to me; murdered, really. This may sound bitter, but I’m not angry- the book is the single greatest piece of writing I have ever produced and it never would have happened without Dean. So we only sold a hundred copies- that’s more than most people do in a lifetime.

Given that Zsallia is dead I don’t see any reason not to post the chapters that killed her for me. I own the domain for another two years and the temptation to just leave the blog there is strong, but I know I’ll not be able to stop trying to finish her story as long as it’s there. I’m very seriously thinking of deleting it so I can move on to other things, even if it means i never write fiction again. If that means I was just a hack with only one good story in him, so be it. I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s time for the immortal woman to die.

So, in the extended entry you will find two chapters: Revelation, and In The Desert. Rest in Peace, Zsallia.


Zsallia was very quiet, and that worried me. Dr. Kelso had sounded excited when he asked to meet with her, and she had insisted I come along, but I could tell she was very nervous. I’d tried to get a hold of Dennis, but he was in Philadelphia and wasn’t picking up his cell phone, and I wasn’t certain that having Edna present would be a good idea. In the end it was just me. So I worried.

The conference room was new, the smell of new carpet and fresh paint still strong enough to challenge the air conditioning. There was a wall-spanning window facing south looking out past the edge of town to the fields beyond, and that gave the room a much less claustrophobic feel than your standard corporate meeting space. The table was long with rounded edges, made of dark mahogany, with twelve very comfortable leather chairs surrounding it. Before each seat there was an embedded LCD screen and discreet keyboard. Six Plasma screens decorated the walls, currently displaying paintings of assorted landscapes. The whole thing was an immense waste of money in my opinion, but Zsallia had approved it. Her own office in the facility was directly across the hall.

We arrived early, but Dr. Kelso was already there, playing with his monitor as he spread his notes around, taking up the entire south end of the table. In characteristic fashion he just looked up and nodded at us when we came in. Zsallia smiled at him, but it was a joyless expression and it was like I could see the color draining out of her face. I put my hand on her shoulder and she just shook me off. She took a seat and started off even before I’d pulled out my chair.

“I thought you expected to require several weeks, even months, before there would be any useful results, Dr. Kelso.”

“Sure. But I thought we’d be looking for something subtle. I mean beyond that tumor in your head, of course.”

“So you’ve found… what?”

“If I didn’t know better I would say what you’re looking at here is a bizarre and quite virulent systemic infection.”

Dr. Kelso sat back, running his hands across his head from front to back as his gaze wandered between the display in front of him and my face. He was pointedly not looking at Zsallia, whose face was utterly unreadable. I’d gotten to know and like the man and I could tell he was more than a little unhappy with what he had just said.

“Infection?” I asked him, just to prod him onward. He stared at me, and then graced me with his quick little jackhammer of a nod.

“Yes. It comes across as a massive blood infection at first glance, the vector apparently being viral. We managed to isolate several specimens, umm… one moment, I was setting up the display when you came in… ah, there.”

The screens on the wall abruptly changed, three of them displaying what were likely electron microscope images of what looked like small squares along with more complex arrangements like nested tic-tac-toe grids, or interconnected pyramids. The other three screens showed the same pictures, but they had been color-enhanced.

“The specimens were damned difficult to isolate,” he continued, “They just disintegrated after we drew blood samples. We had to draw, prep slides and freeze them within minutes or there wouldn’t be anything to look at, and even then, sometimes the damned sample wouldn’t fix until it hit minus 50 centigrade.”

“You said it was viral- these don’t look like a virus to me, they’re too big, too complex. So why viral?”

“Oh! The DNA, of course. In simple terms a virus is just a snip of genetic material wrapped in a protein coating. It infiltrates a cell and co-opts the cell’s internal machinery to produce more virus bits. These beasties are somewhat bigger and they have these assorted lattice structures, something we’d never seen before outside theoretical speculations. So we were able to strip some bits of it away and we tried to match it… and it was hers. These things are built from snippets of her own genetic code, and not small ones, either. If we assume a natural process behind all this a virus is the only one that fits the profile… badly, of course, but close enough for a working hypothesis.”

“So this looks like a runaway physical ailment,” Zsallia said, her voice very level and under control, “Except that you said ‘If I didn’t know better’. What do you know better?”

“Two things. We found, quite by accident mind you, that they consume a left-handed isomer of glucose. The human body burns glucose quite happily, but only the right-handed isomer… you look confused,” he said, looking at me.

“If they’re nothing but chunks of genetic material, how can they ‘consume’ anything?”

Precisely!” he exclaimed, clapping his hands together and nodding so rapidly I was certain he ought to get whiplash. “There is a flaw in the structure! It remains stable so long as it can grab these left-handed sugars- once it hasn’t got anymore the whole thing just unravels!” He sat there grinning like a maniac, his head vibrating up and down so fast I swore it started to blur.

“You said there were two things…”

“Yes, yes,” he paused and turned to face her. “It’s that lump in your brain… here, let me put this up on the wall.” He made a few mouse clicks and put up what looked like a three-dimensional representation of the brain with the tumor color coded in red and blue. “The tumor has two parts. This larger blue portion in the front appears to be dormant. If I expand this… ahh, there. See?”

I’d seen x-rays and cat scans of the tumor before, but this was far, far more detailed. The forward portion of the tumor had tendrils extending in to the forward part of the brain, branching out to several different discreet sections.

“It’s all through the visual cortex and the cognitive centers of the brain, but it looks almost dead. The PET scans showed only minimal energy consumption there. Now, the rear portion is something else entirely.”

He scrolled the display to show the image from the back of the skull. I could see the red image and its tendrils mostly running in a bunch to the rear of the brain, then down in to the brainstem. A few of them extended even further off screen, presumably down the spinal column.

“This little beastie is alive and kicking. It’s wrapped all through the central nervous system. We haven’t done a full body scan but I’ll bet it’s got its fingers into her lymphatic system as well. We also believe it may be the source of the left-hand glucose those viral lattice structures need to survive. Haven’t had a chance to figure out how it’s doing it, though, but…”

He tapered off, just staring at the screen and grinning for a few minutes while I digested what he’d told us. She was absolutely still, just staring at the screen, her face still emotionless.

“Where did it come from?” she asked.

“Where?” he asked, startled out of his grinning reverie, “I don’t know. Hell, half of what I’m telling you is guesswork. More than half, most of it, really. We only had two weeks to run the scans and take samples before you told us to piss off for a while. Once we started looking closely all sorts of things started leaping out at us. I mean there are a dozen Nobel prizes sitting on my computer right now and we haven’t looked at more than five percent of the data. This is going to take years…”

“Doc! Where?” I interrupted.

He paused and looked unhappily at us both in turn before sighing.

“I can only speculate. Given the way all this seems to interoperate there’s just no way to support the notion of it being a fluke or some infection. This is way too sophisticated for that.”

Zsallia didn’t look like she was listening, but my curiosity was huge, so I asked, “You don’t see anything… supernatural here?”

He made a face. “I’m a scientist, I don’t deal in the supernatural, and nature doesn’t allow paradoxes. These look like interdependent biological phenomena to me.”

“A mutation?” I asked.

He snorted. “Not bloody likely.”

“Some kind of parasite or….?”

“Maybe a symbiotic organism, but nothing we’ve ever…”

Zsallia interrupted suddenly, her voice rather quiet. “You think it is impossible for this to be natural, don’t you?”

“Impossible is a word I don’t throw around lightly,” he replied, suddenly looking cautious, “but if you’re asking my opinion… this is just too neat. It’s something we’ve never seen in nature. Either issue alone, the tumor or the ‘virus’, maybe, but together? And one dependent on the other?” He shook his head. “No. I don’t believe it’s natural. I can’t prove it, but if I were going to bet on it, that would be my choice.”

“I see,” she said, staring at the tabletop. The she looked up at him again and asked, “Am I a human being?” This time her voice was so very quiet I was surprised Kelso even heard it, but he nodded.


“Just yes? That simple?”

“Yes, that simple. Aside from the thing in your head you have the morphology of a human being, you have the correct number of gene pairs, and they’re the right length. Your anatomy is completely normal. So far I haven’t seen anything beyond that to suggest you’re not human.” He turned to me. “Do you find her sexually attractive?”

I stammered on that one and he nodded, “So you pass the test of our built in human female detector. I’d like to map your entire genome but really, that’s enough for me. What’s going on and why? There are still more questions than answers.”

She sat in her seat, arms crossed, staring at the display on the wall like it was some kind of dangerous animal. Dr. Kelso got a little fidgety after a minute or two.

“You said something about the virus,” I said, “about the structure- that there were theories…”

“The lattices and pyramids, yes- strictly theoretical, and not actually from the medical field. It was all about using DNA in the manufacture of nano-scale machines. It’s never been done, but…”

“But maybe it has been,” she finished for him.

“I don’t know. We haven’t seen these things actually do anything. We just know that every cell sample we’ve examined has this virus inserted in its DNA, and we see these virus-like structures all through your blood. Beyond that…” He ended with a shrug.

She was silent then, just staring at the screens on the wall and it was like I could see the storm clouds gathering. What was she thinking?

“I figured you’d want to see this…” he began, looking a little lost.

“Of course,” she snapped, then in a gentler tone, “would you please excuse us, Dr. Kelso?”

He looked surprised and glanced at me. I hazarded a microscopic nod and he rose from his seat. As he moved towards the door she spoke again.

“This is all in the utmost confidence, doctor. Make certain your team is reminded of that in no uncertain terms.

“Please close the door,” she asked me after he left.


I got up, keeping my eye on her as I secured the door to the conference room. She sat there, just staring at the display on the wall, absolutely still. I went to Dr. Kelso’s seat and started cycling through the other pictures he’d shown us. There was a loud bang, and I looked up to find her across the room.

There was a hidden bar in the conference room and she’d pulled it open, pouring scotch in to a ludicrously huge tumbler. I nearly laughed, except that she picked up the glass and downed the entire thing, and set it back down to refill it—a smooth, fluid motion that she repeated a second time. I could hear her throat crackling as she took it down in huge gulps.

“This is… pretty important information, Zsalli.” I offered. Her head snapped around and she wobbled slightly, off balance. Like she’d forgotten I was there and was shocked when I spoke. She looked at me in total incomprehension. It was like I could see her replaying what I’d said, trying to understand it. Then, for a brief moment, her face twisted and her eyes popped into raw, naked fury. It was just a second or two, but I stiffened from head to toe as she shook, visibly forcing herself to regain control.

“Well, it certainly makes sense, doesn’t it?” she said as she took up her glass and the bottle of Chivas, and moved stiffly back to the table, where she fell in to her chair. She took a sip from the tumbler, almost absently, and I could see the alcohol hitting her as she looked up at me again, her eyes a little glassy. “It would’ve been nice if I were just a mistake. I could handle being a genetic cluster fuck.”

“We’ve talked about this before,” I said, choosing my words very carefully, “you know that that was never very likely.”

She laughed, a little hysterically. “Nigh impossible,” she agreed, before taking another long pull from her glass, “but I see people making denial a centerpiece of their lives every day. Why not me? A quiet, happy little lie to keep the horror at arm’s length.” Her eyes focused on me again, and I could see her struggling with… with what? “It’s so simple, you see. Those viruses he was talking about, they run around fixing things. They keep me young, and healthy, and beautiful… but there’s another one,” she tapped her head then, “and just what the fuck do you think he’s doing, tucked up inside my brain?”

“We don’t know yet. You heard him- it seems to support the virus, maybe it even controls…” I regretted that word as soon as I said it, and her eyes hardened.

“Exactly,” she hissed. “I think he’s there to keep me out of trouble. He’s all wrapped through my brain, and down my spinal column, he’s got me all wired in, all tied up.” She stopped and drained her glass, looked at the bottle, then refilled it again.

“Maybe scotch isn’t such a good idea…”

“When I want your opinion… oh, the hell with it.” She laughed. “It’s not like this’ll hurt me you know. Here, fuck it, have some, get drunk with me. I’ll watch you pass out after half a bottle and I’ll drink two and in less than an hour I’ll be stone cold sober. Those little bastards won’t even let me have a hangover.”

She didn’t usually swear this much. She was obviously oscillating between bitterness and levity, and bitterness was winning out. I groped for something I could say, something I could give her to grab on to and pull herself out of this, but she was staring at me, and her eyes were narrow.

“Stop it. Stop trying to help me. I’ve got all the goddamned help I need right up here!” She smacked the palm of her hand against the side of her head so hard I could practically feel it myself. “Three Thousand Five Hundred years… give or take, and not once did I ever seriously consider killing myself. That’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it? Maybe my little friend up here has been hard at work?”

“But wait, there was that time you let that guy stab…”

“Stop talking to me.” She snapped. She stood unsteadily, banging against the table before regaining her balance, then stomped over to another recessed cabinet and threw it open, digging through it, tossing things on the floor until she pulled out a flat, square gun case. I was already on my feet. As I moved quickly around the table I barked my shins on a chair and stumbled and swore. When I looked up the pistol was in her hand, a ridiculously large automatic, dull grey with a worn handle, and she had expertly snapped a magazine into place. I took two more steps as she chambered a round and pointed it at the floor in front of me. I froze, then cursed to myself as I saw her thumb off the safety.

“Zsalli,” I said, trying to keep my voice low but firm. You just don’t charge somebody with a loaded pistol in her hand. Only three things can come of that and two of them are really bad. She was staring at the floor behind my feet. Her left hand pointed and I stepped back a pace. Her pupils were dilated widely, and I could see her starting to sweat.

“Zsalli, what are you doing? Zsallia. Zsallia Marieko, I need you to talk to me. You need to talk to me, girlfriend. You need to talk.” But she kept staring downward, toward my feet, her head rocking back and forth on her neck.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered, “this’ll only take a second.” She turned the pistol upside down and put the barrel in her mouth, closing her jaws around it as she pulled back the hammer with her thumb and slid her index finger over the trigger.

“Wait, wait, I need your help with something! I need your help with something!” I said, loudly, but as calmly as I could. But her eyes closed and she took a deep breath in and out through her nose, then again as she began to shake, her face tightening in to a sickening grimace as she leaned back against the cabinet, her arms taught now as she struggled to complete what she’d started. I took a step towards her, measuring the distance carefully. If I could jam my little finger behind the hammer… no, that would be stupid, I could kill her.

“Zsallia, there are people who love you. We care about you Zsalli.”

Her shoulders dropped first, then she let the weapon slide out of her mouth. I stepped up beside her and took it from her before she could drop it, carefully releasing the hammer, sliding out the magazine and clearing the chamber, then tossed the gun under the conference table. I turned back to her as quickly as I could.

She’d slid down into a sitting position on the floor, knees together, feet spread awkwardly apart, her back to the wall. She was sobbing quietly as I knelt in front of her and reached out to touch her face. Red eyes lifted to gaze up at me.

“It won’t even let me kill myself.” Her voice was so low, so sad and lonely I nearly choked.

“Give yourself some credit here. Maybe you’re just not ready to end it. Not like this.”

“Somebody did this to me,” she whispered, then her voice grew louder, angrier, “They did this to me on purpose.

“We don’t know that. You heard Lee- there are questions…”

“Kelso believes it,” she spat, “and so do you.”

“Okay, but whoever, whatever they were, I don’t think they meant to hurt you…”

“Oh, no, no… it was probably much worse than that,” she said, as she awkwardly stood up. I offered her my hand but she batted it away. “It probably never occurred to them to consider that they might be harming me,” she went on. She took a deep breath and buried her face in her hands. “I’m sorry. I have no right to… to be so…”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m just glad somebody was here.”

“Before this happened, was I happy?” she whispered, her words shaking as they left her mouth. “Did I have a man, or children?”

“Hey you know, we don’t know that right now, but…”

“Of course we don’t know!” she said, her eyes widening. She was still sweating, and her pupils were almost completely dilated. She still wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes kept roving from my chest to the floor and around the room. “Am I even real?”

“Hey girl, Occam’s Razor now. We know you’re….”

”…something mutated in a jar? Are my memories real? Did Jeremy exist? Was it all lies, dreams it fed me?” Her whole body was shaking.

“Zsalli, I’m your friend, please listen to me,” I said. I stepped forward, chin down, and put my hands on her upper arms. Her chest sunk as I touched her. I squeezed her upper arms gently.

“Cut it out,” she hissed. “Cut it out! I’m going to have them cut it out!” she said, and finally looked up at me. “I want it out of me!” she said, fiercely.

“We need to calm down,” I said, firmly, and gave her a little shake.

Her eyes narrowed, and her voice went very low and ominous. “This is all your goddamned fault!” she hissed.

As I took a breath to respond her fist lashed out and caught me square in the solar plexus. Fire exploded in my chest and stomach and my knees buckled as the room closed into a gray tunnel. On my hands and knees I struggled to regain my breath. When I was finally able to look around, she was gone.

In The Desert

Yuma’s not exactly an easy town to fly into. I had to take a flight into San Diego, and then take a connecting turbo-prop to the small airport outside of the little town. But once I got there I took my time. If Zsallia truly wanted to lose herself in the desert she could potentially hide forever. Arizona is physically bigger than most countries and the desert is huge. Having grown up in a desert town myself I knew that the one thing you don’t do in these cases is rush yourself unless human life is at stake. In her case that wasn’t the concern. A part of me still thought Dennis was right when he told me to let her go, that she’d been through enough. If Edna hadn’t convinced me that it would be a crime to do so, I wouldn’t even be here. At least the foundation had agreed to let me take my time and to spend whatever I wanted (within reason) to find her.

Fortunately, I had two starting points: the last station she’d gassed up at with her credit card and the name of a town about 50 miles outside of it that Dennis had said she’d mentioned before: Fortuna, a ghost town not far from the Mexican border. We’d managed to find it mapped on the internet. Arizona’s full of ghost towns, many of them are just tourist traps, but some are so far off the beaten path that almost no one ever visits them. This one was only accessible by back roads and four-wheel drive vehicles, far outside of anything remotely resembling civilization. Something told me that it was where I needed to go and if I was wrong, well, I’d be wrong. But I would start there.

Traveling in the desert can be dangerous, especially alone. I arranged to rent a 4-wheel-drive Jeep with two gas tanks. I made sure to have a satellite phone that should work even in the wilderness, a high-powered CB radio that worked on both the truck’s electricity and on batteries and a GPS system. I made other arrangements: cold-weather sleeping bag, several pairs of jeans, tough boots, a decent knife, some warm clothes to protect against the cold of the desert night, and lots of sunscreen to protect against the brutal sun of the desert days. A shotgun, an extra-large gas can for emergencies, an even larger water container, several boxes of field rations, a cooler full of fresh food, two cases of Chivas, a carton of Camel unfiltered and some beer completed the package for when I finally found her. If I found her.

I managed to get lost twice trying to find Fortuna, the terrain forcing me to detour widely, and wound up spending the first night wrapped in my sleeping bag under the stars. I finally bounced into the dead town in the mid-afternoon the next day, pretty sure I’d found it, and the GPS seemed to back me up on that. I was relieved to still have plenty of gas left. Basting myself in thick layers of sunscreen I explored a bit. Though the desert tends to preserve things fairly well there wasn’t much left: one old ramshackle general store, its roof caved in, and otherwise nothing but an empty road and a few foundations where buildings had once stood. I was a bit dismayed to note that there was no sign that anyone had been there in a long time.

I took out the shotgun, loaded it with buckshot, and fired three rounds into the air, the universal signal of distress: Boom! Boom! Boom! It could be heard for miles by any human ear and should be recognized as a call for attention. Either she would hear it and come, or she wouldn’t.

I sat in the jeep with both doors wide open and listened to a talk radio station I managed to find on the AM dial. As the afternoon wore on I shot three times into the air again. Then I found myself nodding off.

I knew I’d found her when I felt warm skin against my upper arm and a cold piece of sharp steel against my right ear.

Hijo de la chingada. Que coño quieres?” she hissed.

Staying calm I opened my eyes and found myself staring into those green pools of hers, hovering inches from my face. My Spanglish was rusty, but I forced a weak smile and said, “Tu hablas Español, eh Princesa?

“What the fuck do you want?” she asked.

“To talk,” I answered, simply.

“I ought to cut your throat so all of you people will know to stay the hell away from me,” she said. Her voice was low and dangerous. She looked serious, and she pressed harder with the knife with each word. But I refused to freak out.

“If you were going to do that, you would have done it already,” I said, keeping my voice even. “Besides, you’re not in the widow-making business anymore, are you?”

She made a disgusted noise and stepped back.

She was quite a sight there in the early desert twilight. She was wearing nothing but a drooping loincloth and a sun hat. She’d put on a deep, startling tan and had a holstered revolver strapped to her right thigh. She snapped the Bowie knife into a sheath on her opposite calf and stared at me with narrowed eyes. “Well?” she demanded.

“Fetching wardrobe,” I said.

“I’m not in the mood,” she snapped. “What do you want?”

“Well, we’ve all been a bit worried about you,” I said. “And personally, I’ve been wondering how long you planned to spend out here pouting.”

She snarled, leaned down and scooped up a handful of sand. She threw it in my face, then whirled around and stalked off. As I spat and rubbed sand out of my stinging eyes, I yelled at her back.

“I brought scotch!”

She took three more steps, then stopped dead in her tracks. Her head went down and she just stood there. Then I saw her shoulders start to shake and heard a low laugh.

“Chivas Regal,” I added. “And cigarettes.”

“Am I so simple a creature?” she asked, still not facing me.

“Hey, I’m one-sixteenth Cherokee- the idea of driving out here and plying the white woman with whiskey and cigarettes was just too rich to resist. Face it- if you didn’t want anyone to find you, you shouldn’t have used your credit card,” I paused then, reaching into the back and pulling out a bottle. “Gets cold out here at night.” I made a point of noisily unwrapping and uncorking it. “Wanna warm up with me?” I asked.

She just stood there for several moments, not moving. Finally she turned around, came back and reached for the bottle. Looking me in the eye she took a long pull from it, then handed it back. “You’re fired,” she said. “No more book. Go home.”

“I already quit,” I said. “I’m only here because I want to be. Dennis said I should leave you be, but Edna said I shouldn’t. I decided I agreed with her. I like to think I’m your friend, after all.”

“Edna…” she paused and looked down at the ground a moment and then looked at me again, “you tell Edna that I’ll be fine. Tell Dennis he was right. Now go.”

She said it, but something about the way she was standing there screamed that she was lying. I looked up at the sky and frowned. “It’s going to be dark soon. Only an idiot goes driving around out here in the middle of the night without a damned good reason. Besides, I bought all this scotch, and I sure as hell don’t need it.”

Her reply was nothing but a silent stare.

“Listen, I know I can’t make you do anything. If all I get out of this is what you just told me, then that’s just the way it is. But I have things here you’ll want, and I’m not leaving until morning. So why not let me drive this to your camp and drop it off?”

I saw her struggle with it. Then she shrugged her shoulders and walked around the jeep, sliding into the passenger seat.

“Due west, about two miles,” she said. Then she took the bottle from me. She didn’t offer another word as we pulled out of Fortuna and headed west.

Her camp turned out to be an old shed up on a small rocky rise overlooking the ruins of the town. There were some rusty pieces of equipment lying around, and a brand new Jeep Liberty parked about a hundred yards away. It was covered with tan netting, fairly effectively camouflaged. In the short time it took us to reach her camp, the sky had gone from twilight to utterly black. We wound up relying on the lights from my vehicle as we unloaded the supplies.

“Drink,” she said, handing me the half-empty bottle. I took a sip, and her eyes narrowed.

“I said drink. If you’re staying here tonight, you’re drinking. If you’re not drinking you can drive back to Fortuna and wait out the dawn there.”

I laughed. “Trying to humiliate me? I’ve got a hundred pounds on you, but I know I can’t keep up with you.”

She pointed back to the East. I took the hint and tipped the bottle back.

We ate dinner, just hamburgers cooked over the camp stove I’d brought, but the food helped me keep my equilibrium. As the night wore on Zsalli finally started to loosen up a little. She put on some clothes against the deepening cold and that seemed to make her a little more approachable.

Finally, she surprised me by asking if Dr. Kelso had discovered anything more from his examination of her blood. “He thinks we could replicate some of this if we had more samples, but it’s all guesswork right now. They identified some chemicals that look intriguing. When they do anything with the samples they just fall apart. He thinks it’s just something to do with being separated from the… separated from you.”

“Makes sense, I suppose. Wouldn’t want those little bastards getting loose in the wild, now would we?” She wolfed down the last of her hamburger and then washed it down with enough scotch to bring a grown man to his knees.

I gave her a couple of minutes, letting that latest slug of alcohol work its way in to her system. “I don’t understand it. I mean, I’m trying to, but I just don’t. These are answers, Zsalli. Answers to questions you’ve been asking for… for thousands of years. I know they aren’t what you hoped for, but I also know you must have suspected you might not like what you found out. Don’t you want to know more? Don’t you want to know if this can be understood?”

She looked at me, her eyes radiating skepticism. Then she softened a bit. She laughed quietly before tipping the bottle to her lips, then handed it back to me.

“It’s not so simple. I don’t really know what I hoped for, but I’ve never believed any good would come of this. It doesn’t change anything, though. How could it?” She paused, then stared at me fiercely. “Drink!” she commanded.

I took a small sip from the bottle, but it was starting to add up. There just wasn’t any way I could keep up with her, but she would know if I tried to fake it. So I got steadily more buzzed and I tried to think of the right thing to ask, some way to touch what I knew was inside her.

“I’m still trying to understand. Maybe I can’t,” I finally offered, “But I thought it might make it easier for you, to be able to have people who could finally relate to you. That you might have a chance to have somebody you love…”

I stopped as she angrily snatched at the bottle, then gestured at me with it. “You’re right,” she spat, “You can’t understand. By your very nature you are incapable of understanding me.”

That sounded arrogant, but I said nothing. Still, she saw the look in my eyes. “Can you imagine being with the same person for the rest of your life? Of course you can. You’re married. But what about a hundred years? Or a thousand years? Or three thousand…”

She stopped, and turned away from me. She lifted the bottle again, drinking deeply, her right hand wrapped around the neck in a death-grip.

“It’s not so simple as you think. I’m damaged goods. Maybe… maybe if there had been others like me… maybe I wouldn’t have been so… such a…”


Her head snapped around. There it was again: that fixed, angry glare of hers. But I was immune now, having seen it too many times, and having drank too much scotch.

“Monster,” I repeated, nodding. “That’s what you’ve always thought you were. A freak of some kind. Something inhuman. You’ve said it in everything but words. You’ve clutched it to you like a shield. You murdered what, nine hundred men in Rome? All to prove to yourself you’re a monster. But it didn’t work, did it?”

She stared at me, but said nothing.

“You killed and killed and killed,” I said. “But you couldn’t reach that point where you believed, really believed, that you were something other than just a girl who’d had a tough break. And even then you had to hold that thought back because it was just too terrible to accept.

“Better to be a freak, than a hard luck case, right?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment, her lips beginning to curl into contempt. “Fascinating,” she finally sighed. “So you make this diagnosis based on your centuries of study of immortal human beings?”

I reached out and took the bottle. I decided I needed another drink, and anyway, I didn’t want her to throw it at me.

“Those aren’t my words, Princess. They’re all yours. You’ve been telling me all about it for the better part of a year now. What, you thought I wasn’t paying attention?”

She didn’t answer. I took a real drink this time as a little celebration. I knew I’d got her, and I’d learned to enjoy those small victories when they came. But when I looked back to her I was surprised to see her eyes glistening. Her face was passive and she wasn’t really crying, but… I held out the bottle to her. She took it from me, but just held it.

“We were in Ann Arbor, we were going out for lunch, after my leg had healed and my arm was fairly whole. We ran in to a friend of yours outside the restaurant.”

“Yeah, I remember”

“You hadn’t seen him in what, fifteen years? You talked for a few minutes, caught up with each other. Things like that? They never happen to me. Ever.”

“Sure they do… I mean…”

“Did I ever tell you about William Travis? I spent a year with him after Dennis’s father passed away. I ran into him in a shopping mall outside Boston two years ago. I tried to pass myself off as my own daughter, but something clicked in him. He knew who I was. Even after I managed to convince him up here,” she tapped her head, “he never felt it here, in his heart. It’s always like that for me. No one can really believe it, or understand it, or accept it. So there aren’t any reminisces with old friends. All my old friends are dead.”

“Once the book is published…”

“He’s dead. He ran in to me in that mall and it just sucked the will to live right out of him.” Her eyes turned hollow. “I have that effect on people.”

The bottle rose, and stayed on her lips until it was empty.

“What about Edna?” I asked. I knew I was approaching dangerous ground, but it was the only thing I could think of.

“What about Edna? She never knew me. She hasn’t really had the time to know me, and she hasn’t got the time, has she?”

“But she does know you… because Jeremy knew you.”

She made to say something, but stopped as I reached in to my pack and drew out the diary. She watched, her face a bit bemused as I unwrapped it. When I finished she stared at it. I held it out to her, but she didn’t take it. “You said you never run in to old friends and reminisce? How about an old love?”

The lamp was pretty low, good for talking, but not reading. As her eyes stared at the book in my right hand I gave the fuel a twist with my left hand and it lit up our little site like a spotlight. We both winced at the brightness, but I ignored it. Since she didn’t move I just opened the old diary to its last page.

“March the Eighth, in the Year of Our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty-One,” I began, keeping my voice low and steady. “I have sinned against her, betrayed that which she offered only to those whose trust she could ensure was true. I cannot ask forgiveness, but must beg understanding from those who read this accounting and from the one whom these words must perforce dismay. My heart cannot endure the pain of her loneliness, for her mortal soul is in peril and I know I did fail her in life. I failed to show her that which I knew to be true: that she is the most loving, most precious, most truthful woman ever to walk this good Earth.

“Elaine, my love, you are God’s beloved child and as worthy of love as surely as was Our Lord Jesus Christ. Would that I could make you understand that which I know to be true.”

She looked at me, her face blank. Then a look of recognition flashed across her face and her chest heaved. I heard her make a small sound, almost beneath hearing, an animal sound. The look on her face was painful, but she just stared at me some more, her eyes widening.

I closed the diary and held it out to her again. She stared down at it almost like she was frightened by it. She looked up at me.

“Don’t read that again,” she said, anger creeping in to her voice.

I nodded, still holding it out for her. She stared at it some more, then looked up again.

“Where did you get that?” she asked. She just stared at me, her eyes practically sucking me in to her bottomless soul. “Where did you get that?” she demanded again, practically yelling.

“Well, Edna had it…” I started. But my voice trailed off.

She suddenly leapt forward, grabbing it from me, and nearly knocked me over backwards. I started to swear, but stopped myself. She had the book in her hands and was staring at it.

“It’s real,” she said. She was almost whimpering. She looked at me, her eyes pleading. “He wrote this?”

I nodded at her, knowing how important this was. “Well, so far as I know.”

She clutched the book to her breast, and a look of raw pain suffused her face. “You shouldn’t read this, it’s not yours,” she said, her voice breaking. “You shouldn’t read this, it’s not for anyone to read.”

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t read most of it. But Edna did, and she said it was time you saw it.”

“Edna! But…why would she keep this? Why didn’t she tell me?”

“I don’t know. I just know she’s had it for a long time, and she told me I had to give it to you. Said you needed it.”

She collapsed in to a sitting position, holding the diary in her left hand. Trembling, she slowly re-opened it to the first page. Her right hand shook as she ran her fingers over the words, and a single tear tumbled slowly from one eye. I’d seen her upset many times, but now she looked so angry, so lonely, and so fragile all at once that I was afraid to speak. I cleared my throat, searching for words, but as the first sound came out of me, she interrupted.

“Get away from me,” she said. She sounded almost like an angry cat, her low moan sounding a bit frightening, then she spat out a string of sounds, something of her old language. I couldn’t understand it,, but I didn’t need to.

“Zsalli,” I started, then stopped. I thought about it for a second, then opened my mouth again. “Zsallia Marieko. That’s such a beautiful name you’ve chosen for yourself,” I said. “He was right, you know,” I continued.

“Get the fuck away from me, boy!” she screamed, staring at the ground above the little book. My blood ran cold. “Go away! You have no right to this, this isn’t yours! Get away from me!”

Unsure of myself, I groped for the right thing to do or say. “Please…please, I need you so bad…” I heard her voice saying. “Please, please come to me ….” It was like a prayer, and obviously not addressed to me.

“You are worth it, you know,” I said, pulling myself to my feet. “You really are worth it,” I repeated. Drunkenly, I strode toward the Jeep. “You are beautiful, Zsallia Marieko,” I said. I felt like such a heel I could barely stand it.

I got into the Jeep, started it, and let its engine roar to life as I considered my next move. But rather than driving away, I just turned up the heat, leaned the seat back, and pulled out my sleeping blanket. I knew that leaving would be a horrible mistake, but also that she needed privacy right now.

I woke up a bit later, my back and head hurting. I got out of the car, and stretched my bag onto the ground. I didn’t even look for her, just went back to sleep. But I woke up again a bit later, feeling something small and warm up against my back.

She was curled up against me, one hand lightly touching my arm. I was afraid to move. If she were sleeping I really didn’t want to wake her. The sky was just barely beginning to turn gray.

“Don’t move,” she whispered. “Please, just don’t say anything.

Rome was so… so horrible. It was sickness. Soul-sickness. But it was nothing compared to California in 1829. I was so wicked, so full of hatred for everything and everyone. That’s when I met Jeremy.”

She stopped then, her entire body shaking as she strangled on her words. This went on for a few minutes, her arms tightening around me, then relaxing, bit by bit, until she continued.

“I was working as a whore again. I couldn’t stand being with families anymore. I was so tired, tired of everything and sick to death of dealing with people. I was going to kill them all, every last man woman and child… I could feel it in me and I couldn’t stop it, it was just building and building. Every wedding, every new child just shoved the pain deeper, fanned it hotter…

“He knocked on my door on a Thursday, after dark. I’d been sitting in my little room above the bar, thinking about murder, about how I could begin at night and probably slaughter half the town in their sleep… and when he knocked… it was the final bit, the final piece I needed. All that bitterness and hate and anger, and here was another horny john, looking for a good night…

“I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why when I saw him, when he asked me to just let him spend the night on my floor and he would be gone in the morning… what made him so different?”

“He was so kind. He didn’t think I was any different from him; just somebody stuck in a time and a place that didn’t offer a lot of options. It wasn’t pity, and it wasn’t charity, and it wasn’t… I just don’t know. Before he arrived I was so terribly far away from everywhere and everyone, but an hour after we met the thought of him leaving…

“I didn’t think I loved him. But I could barely endure having him out of my sight.”

She stopped again, saying nothing for a few minutes. Her hand was absently rubbing at my shoulders, kneading at my shirt. I found it a little bit of a turn-on, but squashed that thought. I wondered what it would be like to mourn for someone for a hundred and fifty years. I caught her hand, squeezed it a little, rolled over, and threw my arm around her. A shudder went through her, but she didn’t move. “Go on, Princess,” I said, gently. But she didn’t reply.

My shoulder suddenly felt wet, and I realized she was weeping. “You hate people, don’t you?” I asked.

“No,” she gasped. “No, and yes. You are what you are.”

“‘You?’” I asked. “I think you mean ‘we.’”

I felt her tense, but she said nothing, so I went on. “You’re one of us,” I said. “One of us. Sucks, don’t it?”

“It’s not fair,” she moaned.

“It’s never fair,” I replied. She shuddered again, and I squeezed her. “But he was real, and he loved you. You know he did, and you know he was no fool.”

“I don’t deserve this,” she moaned, and I caught her double-meaning.

“You don’t deserve what was done to you, but you do deserve people who love you.” I paused. “Jeremy was right. You’re a sinner, but you’re worthy of love. You really are.”

Something finally broke loose in her, and her whole body became wracked in sobs. “Thank you,” she said, gulping. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, but thank you.”

“We should find out how this happened,” I said. Then I kissed her forehead, and just held her some more.

It seemed like all she needed for now.

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