>by Jennifer Stevenson
Hel is an energy vampire. She has joined roller derby because skating counter-clockwise with twenty women generates extra prana, and so she doesn’t have to suck the life out of innocent people. Which is why her derby name is Sump Pump. This is from chapter 13.
At roller derby practice that night I take out four skaters in a row, including Sacker Tart and the fearsome Trigger Happy, recently voted Rookie of the Year and League’s Most Intimidating. Trig looks at me in surprise from the floor, but she grins, so I figure she won’t go after me with any special malice next time. Still, I watch my back. I always watch my back. In spite of my super-strength and speed, I’ve been careful not to seek Most Intimidating status in the league. I need derby too much.
Scrimmage practice ends, and those of us sufficiently hard core stay on for speed class. Trig asks me if I’ve got something on my mind. She has been friendlier since last summer, when she first joined. She’s a cop, an investigator with da Mayor’s anti-hinkiness division. I don’t trust her any farther than I would any other six-foot glamazon.
“I’m cool,” I lie. “Why, are you defending your title?”
“You’ve got some go-juice tonight.”
“Yeah. New vitamin.” It’s called fear, I’m thinking.
“Well get, ready for some vitamin J for Jamitupyourass,” she says, and we line up for the sprint. The whistle goes and I streak away from the line as if last night’s unremembered nightmares are catching up to me. I hear cheers. I’m putting everything I’ve got into it, and when I look around I realize I’m half the length of the track away from the rest. It’s too late to slow down. I’ve blown my cover. I don’t want to slow down anyway. I’m scared and angry, scared of Agent Nick Jones and angry at myself for lusting for him and scared for my Ma and angry at the world for, well, for about everything right now. The other girls start to catch up and I throw away caution. I pour it on. Within eleven seconds I’m lapping the laggers. Then the sprint is over, and I’m getting thumped on the back.
“Sheesh, Sump Pump, what the fuck is that vitamin? I gotta get me some of that,” says Trig. I respond suitably, panting, because that was a great sprint, and moreover there is extra prana in the air and I want to suck it up.
I’m careful to act tuckered out from my recent star sprint on the next round. Coach comes up to me and asks if I’ve been holding back on her, because she wants to see that kind of speed next time I jam. I promise she will. I’m not even angry at myself any more. Apparently even my energy-vampire-enhanced body can do more than I thought it could. I shouldn’t be surprised. That’s what I’ve been learning for the past year since I joined derby.
The prana is knee deep in here, and I’m higher than a 7‑Eleven full of stoners at three a.m.
Sacker Tart lines up next to me with a gleam in her eye, and I think, okay, I’ve challenged the league speed demon and she’s gonna lick me now.
I feel good, in a reckless, insane kind of way. It’s the prana talking, and I don’t care. I feel drunk. Only it’s a good kind of drunk, no a soggy, self-pitying, self-destructive kind of drunk.
“Skaters to your mark,” calls coach. The whistle goes. I blaze away from the line, pouring it on, breathing deeply and evenly. Again I am half a length ahead at the turn, and lap the last three people by the time I’ve made my three laps. The girls are cheering and clicking their wristguards. I think, I’m gonna skate like this in the next bout, and my next thought is, There won’t be a next bout, ‘cuz you’ll be in Hinky Guantanamo and nobody will set eyes on you again ever.
Speed sprints are over. We start the endurance section. I’ve never taken in prana during endurance. It would seem like cheating.
Tonight I do. It’s as if Ma’s hospital bills and Agent Nick and oh shit, I remember Dr. Katterfelto and his fakey German accent and his diagnosis of my screwed-up aura, does my life not suck enough? And I just want to skate as far and as fast as I can. I settle into a nice long stride with a deep breathing pattern, and soon I’ve lost the pack, in my own little world where the wheels meet the floor and the turns come like a video-game Indy 500.
I realize, fourteen laps into the heat, that I’m chanting in my head. What I’m chanting is “straighten up and fly right.”
There’s a message on my cell when I get out of practice. Agent Nick. “Call me.” I ignore it. For the first time since I don’t know when, I go out to the bar with the girls. Tenneby’s has been a bar for almost a hundred years, fancy pressed-tin walls and a suspended milk-glass ceiling, oak bar three inches thick, Tiffany lamps. We sit around the tall tables on the tall stools, laughing and throwing back car bombs, and I realize that I feel good. I’m not paranoid or angry or depressed. Trig has a hot boyfriend who shows up to bouts, and she tells extravagant lies about what they do in bed. Everyone laughs incredulously except Sacker Tart, who just looks thoughtful and a little wistful. Sacker Tart is a porn star in her day job. She’s by far the most glamorous of us all. Like me, many of the derby girls are schoolteachers.
Except for Trig, the anti-magic cop. I stay aware of her without seeming to watch. If she has the smallest clue who I am, I’m screwed for real.
But Trig is only crowing about my speed. “You rock,” she says, thumping my shoulder with a fist. “We’re gonna kill those bitches from Milwaukee next time.”
I lift my car bomb. “Here’s to killing Milwaukee.” We all drink to that. The energy in this bar right now is so sweet, so good. I wonder, in some rebel corner of my mind, if I’ve been wrong all these years. If I shouldn’t have just relaxed and had some fun. The girls all look at me suddenly, as if in answer to this thought, and I feel a sudden surge of good energy, with a little extra tingle in it.
Then I realize they’re looking behind me. There’s warmth on my back. I feel my face change before I can control it, and I turn around, and it’s Agent Nick, touching me, smirking at all the female good humor staring at him.
“You didn’t call back,” he says. “I worried.”
“I was busy,” I say. He stands there, radiating self-satisfaction and delicious, delicious energy. I take a tiny hit of chi off him before I can control myself. Oh, God. So good. I only meant to bring him down a little, keep his dick from leading him into saying something that will lead me into doing something that will get me into trouble.
He doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t even droop. He flushes, looking at me, and his energy output surges. I smell the woody on him as if he is the only warm body in the room.
“Introduce us, Sump Pump,” says Sacker Tart, and Skater Spice says, “Yeah.”
I raise my eyebrows at Agent Nick and he obliges, calling himself Nick Jones without the agent in front of it. He’s smiling as if he doesn’t know how to stop. The horndog.
I’d be jealous, only I know the woody is for me.
For two cents I could beat myself over the head with my car bomb mug. Instead I order another. Agent Nick takes advantage to draw up a stool and join us, ordering beer. The girls scoot over so he can sit next to me.
I feel like the candy store has parked itself in my pocket. Oh-God good. And bad. I don’t know.
Agent Nick drapes his arm across the wire back of my barstool and murmurs in my ear, under cover of the chatter and the sidelong looks, “How’d it go at the doctor?”
At least one girl nearby sends us a look that says Doctor? I roll my eyes at the ceiling. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Your thumb drive isn’t answering,” he added.
So it was a bug, or a tracer or something. “I threw it away,” I say.
He looks shocked. “That was very expensive.”
I shrug and smile, feeling drunk and loving it for the first time in years. “I should have told you. I lose things.”
He leans very close to my ear and murmurs, “It could be a tracer anklet.”
He draws back to see the effect of this.
“No,” I say, looking him in the eye with my vampire Look, “It couldn’t.” This should reduce him to something I can swat down, but he actually seems to expand a little. Does this guy not understand rejection? I’ve met his type, but most of them are, well, drunker or meaner, or both. Everything I do to him seems to make him hornier.
Now that’s interesting, says a completely ungovernable corner of my brain.
“Later,” I say firmly. “Drink your beer. It’s getting cold.”
And for a miracle he seems to accept this. He takes his arm off the back of my chair where it has been lying so temptingly, and picks up his beer and drinks, looking demurely around at the girls who are talking about everything except what they’re all thinking, which is undoubtedly, Sump Pump has a boyfriend?! Sacker in particular is getting runny over him, and I’m not being metaphorical here, I can smell it. Trigger Happy has a semiprofessional cop eye on him that makes me wonder if she’s sussed him. I drain my car bomb and order another.
But they finally relax, and I relax … a little more … and Nick talks like a normal person to Skater Spice and I tease the coach about her new tattoo and it’s fun again. I absolutely refuse to think about what a terrible, terrible idea it is for me to be drunk in public with friends. God, did I just call them friends? They must be friends, or I wouldn’t feel this good. Wake up, Hel, there’s a federal agent at your elbow. Who has the drop on you.
Yeah, and I want the drop on him.
My car bomb slips out of my fingers at this thought and he catches it before it can hit the table.
“Girl, you can’t hold your likker,” says coach in amusement, and I think, how wrong you are.
“Good thing I can hold her likker,” Nick says, and I turn to him to tell him to give me back my car bomb and he leans in and kisses me.
It’s like having a train come straight at me and touch me warm and soft on the lips. His energy is bigger than the sun. He’s hot and pink in the face. He smells like man. I do not even think of taking a hit off him.
He pulls away, looking surprised, and then kisses me again, harder, and I grab the back of his head and open my mouth to him.
I’m falling into his warm human flesh, the sweet strong pulse in his chest, in his throat. I smell oil from his car keys on his fingers where they touch my cheek. I want to crawl down his shirt front and sleep on his chest. I want to purr.
I come down to clapping, hoots, and cries of, “Get a room!”
“Busted,” he says breathlessly when our mouths part.
I look straight into his eyes. He’s glazed over with lust. “Yes. You are.”
I’d like to say that I have a hazy idea of getting the drop on him somehow if I can just get him into bed, but honestly all I want is to get him into bed. Now. Soon. Before I sober up and panic, or God forbid start to cry, because there are tears in my future now, fer sure. Let me have one quickie with the federal hottie before that happens. Before my life is officially over.
I could stop now, I suppose, but of course that won’t happen.
I look at the table and calculate hazily what my bar bill must be. “I make it about fifty bucks,” I say uncertainly.
Nick pulls out a roll and tosses a fifty on the table. “C’mon,” he says “let’s get you home.”
More hooting. I realize I have to keep my face on for a few more minutes anyway and throw a ribald glance around the table, rolling my eyes and smiling foolishly. They’re all looking at me with something I can’t figure out. Coach actually seems to look concerned, and Trig passes me a special wink as if from one ridiculously oversexed slut to another, and Sacker just looks envious, and I can’t bear it, I tuck my head down and blush and let Nick lead me out of there.