“The Nights Get Shorter”

Linnie knew from a very young age that she’d never marry.  God had not been kind to her when it came to her appearance, preferring instead to make her too thin, too tall, and too plain to find love.  No man wants a woman with no womanly assets to loom over him with her forgettable face until death, not even the most desperate.

So when a stately, elegant man with translucent skin and eyes as black as coal smoke showed up at her family’s house inquiring about young women looking for work in war-ravaged times, seventeen year old Linnie volunteered without a second thought.  Kissing her father, mother, and younger, prettier sister goodbye two days later as she set out to embark on this new life, Linnie knew that they were happy that she’d found a place.  They certainly didn’t want her haunting their house, an unfortunate spinster the neighbors would cluck their tongues at and shake their heads about and say in the market how unfortunate it was that God had stuck such lovely people with such an unattractive child.  “Thankfully,” they’d say, “Betsy will marry well and take care of them all.  Such a great beauty.  Such a good daughter.”

Yes, Betsy was a good daughter.  And so was Linnie, for taking a place in someone else’s house.

Fifty years later, she was still in that same place.

Figuratively, of course.

When the Second World War began to lurk on the horizon, Linnie and the Master moved to America.  They first lived in Boston and then New York City.  Eventually, they worked their way out west to California, settling outside of Los Angeles.  They’d been there for ten years now and at sixty-seven, Linnie hoped they were done moving.

But the way the Master pined, both for Europe and the old times, Linnie didn’t get her hopes up too high.  Pining made him restless.

And it was just coming into the Master’s pining season.

When spring really started to stretch and the daylight got stronger and more insistent, when it really started pushing back against the night that had grown accustomed to ruling the winter days, that’s when the Master would take to pacing the rooms of his mansion.

“The nights are getting so short, Linnie.  So very short,” he’d say in his lovely voice, his accent of the old Eastern Europe but a tantalizing hint of something exotic.  “I don’t know what I’ll do, Linnie.  I don’t think I can survive another season.  I can’t abide such short nights.”

“You’ll do as you always do, Master,” Linnie would say as she worked.  He always seemed to pine while she was finishing something up before seeing him off and retiring for the evening.

“I suppose I have no choice, Linnie.  I have no choice at all.”

And after a bit more dramatic pacing and lamenting, he’d bid her goodnight and sweep out of the house.

Fifty years ago, she felt sorry for him.  She’d console and soothe him as best she could, coming just short of actual physical contact, which would be inappropriate, always falling short of really settling him.  As the years wore on, so did her patience, until it was so thin it could be mistaken for gauze.  Linnie found that feeding into his dramatics made them worse and did nothing to settle him.  Simply acknowledging his terrible plight and telling him that he’ll survive was good enough to placate him.  The scene might be repeated every night until the daylight started to recede again, but it was much more bearable this way.

It wasn’t that Linnie didn’t like the Master.  She did, very much.  He was a cultured, educated man, well-versed in literature, poetry, music, science.  He insisted on keeping up with the times no matter how much he wished they never changed.  His intake of knowledge never ceased and he never failed to dizzy Linnie with all that he’d learned over the years.  Like a child, he seemed to delight in that and it further endeared him to her.

The Master, of course, was handsome, more so because time couldn’t touch him.  He was perfectly preserved.  He liked beautiful things and beautiful women.  But despite his preference for beauty, he’d always been kind to Linnie, despite her obvious lack in that area.

The night before Linnie turned thirty, the Master made her a generous offer.

“I could make you like me,” he’d said as he stood in front of the roaring fire place, pulling on his leather gloves in preparation of going out for the evening.  They’d lived in Chicago then and the chilly wind had no difficulty lasting well into spring despite the lengthening days.  “There are aspects of the life that are unpleasant, as you know, as you’ve seen.  But you’d never age.  You’d never die.  You could be twenty-nine forever, Linnie, and you wouldn’t be lying about it.  Would you like that, Linnie?  Immortality?  Forever twenty-nine?”

Linnie thought about it a moment.  It was a truly a great gift to offer as turning someone into a vampire was no simple undertaking, but Linnie was practical and it was that practicality that helped her see the impracticalities of the offer, impracticalities that would become realities later and as nature would have its way have to be dealt with eventually, but not that night.

“Thank you very much, Master,” she’d said.  “Your offer is so very generous, but I cannot accept it.”

The Master had started to protest, but Linnie quickly carried on.

“I do not mind the age.  I do not mind getting older.  Perhaps time can add something to this face that God couldn’t see fit to.”

The Master had smiled at her then, a lovely and terrible sight with his aching fangs gleaming in the firelight, and Linnie returned a smile of her own, plain but genuine.

“You are a good woman, Linnie, and I am forever grateful for your company and loyalty.”

As he passed her to venture out into the night, he paused to pat her arm once with a gloved hand.

“Until tomorrow, Linnie.  Enjoy your last bit of twenty-nine.”

The Master never extended the offer again, on her birthday or otherwise, but there was something to suggest that it was always available.

But Linnie would never take it.

She meant what she’d said about age doing her face some good.  Linnie was closing in on seventy and the lines and wrinkles she’d accumulated had made her face, not pretty, but decidedly less plain.

More than that, though, she knew now, as she knew then, that if she decided to take the change, they’d need someone to replace Linnie, a new day-keeper.

They were going to need a new one soon anyway.  Linnie’s decision to grow older for the sake of her face doomed her to death.  She wasn’t going to be around forever.  Eventually, her daily duties would get to be too much for her to perform, if she didn’t keel over all together one day out of the blue.  How sad would that be?  The Master would wake up to find her stone cold somewhere in the house.

Oh, the Master.

For the past few years, Linnie had repeatedly broached the subject, but the Master refused to hear her out on it.

“Oh, Linnie, please,” he’d said.  “I don’t want to entertain the idea now.  No one could replace you.”

Though flattered, Linnie didn’t find it practical at all.  There was too much done on a daily basis to let it sit for one day.  The only time Linnie had taken a vacation, a trip home to see her family for what would be the last time forty-five years ago, it had been a disaster.  She hadn’t taken a single day off since.  The Master wouldn’t survive a lapse in employment like that again.

He certainly wouldn’t survive if she were to unfortunately pass on during his pining season.  He wouldn’t survive one night without someone to be there for him when the nights grew short.

Linnie had entertained the idea of going behind the Master’s back and interviewing prospective replacements herself, but there were too many problems with that plan.  Most importantly, the Master might think her disloyal and she didn’t want that.  Linnie was anything but.  She had to be loyal to stay with him for so many decades, to give up so much of her life to keep the Master safe.

There was also the small matter of the Master not liking who she picked.  Or liking them too well.  Either way, they wouldn’t last long; and Linnie didn’t have the energy to clean up messes like that anymore.  It’d be difficult to find anyone anyway.  Things weren’t like the way they were when she was a girl.  Plain girls not expected to marry or be of much use just weren’t as plentiful as they had been.  And those that were plain were still expected to and still could marry.  And further still, marriage today was different from the way it had been.  The idea that a girl HAD to get married was fading just as fast as the modesty of the girls in question.

No, the Master was just going to have to pick out her successor, the sooner rather than the later, and she was just going to make him do it.  She couldn’t afford to wait any longer.  The lines on her face had grown roots that had spread to her bones and she could feel her age more and more every day.  The Master could afford to keep two of them for a bit until Linnie could get the new girl trained up properly.  Linnie would slowly turn the lion’s share of the duties over until her absence wouldn’t be missed one day after she was gone.  It was the only sensible way to do it.

The Master came down the stairs that evening, pining with every step he took, unaware that tonight’s play, enacted so many times over the decades, had undergone changes to the dialogue.

“The nights, Linnie, the nights!  The nights are getting so short.  Soon there will be nothing left of them.  What will I do, Linnie?”

“You’ll do as you’ve always done, Master,” Linnie said as usual.  And then as not so usual she added, “The nights are getting short for all of us now.”

The Master stopped his pacing and looked down on her as she sat in the big, old armchair, doing a bit of mending.  Somehow, the years had tramped all over her face and worked its way into her bones, but time had not touched the nimbleness of her fingers, and even though she really didn’t need to sew things anymore, she still enjoyed it.

“What do you mean, Linnie?” he asked.

“I mean that I am getting older, Master,” Linnie said, focusing on her stitching.  “There will come a day when I’m not going to be around and it bothers me to know that you might be one day without someone to see to you needs and keep you safe during the day while you rest.  Just pains me.”

“Now, Linnie, it won’t come to that,” the Master said.

“It will if you keep putting off finding a new girl to mind you,” Linnie said, scolding him a little.

“What’s the matter?  Are you feeling poorly?  Are you ill?”

Suddenly the Master was at her side, kneeling, gloved hands resting on the arm of the old leather chair.  He’d always been slender and dark and beautiful, but now, with his black eyes so wide and his face so young, he looked like a child.

Linnie couldn’t help but smile at him.  She stopped her sewing long enough to give his suited arm a quick pat.

“No, Master, the only thing that troubles me now is the years,” she said, looking at him, smiling a little.  “I’ve got more behind me than in front of me and the ones I’ve got left aren’t guaranteed.  I’ve got no ability to see into the future, but I know I’ll be dying soon.  It’s coming for me like it does for most.  It would put my old mind and my old heart at ease knowing you’d be taken care of.”

The Master thought about it for a second before gracefully ascending to his feet.

“You are, of course, absolutely right, Linnie.  I shall start searching for your…protégé this evening.”

Linnie smiled at him.

“Thank you, Master.”

And so he searched.

Linnie knew the Master would be fussy with his selection of her eventual replacement as the Master was a fussy man, but his fussiness grew worse with his search and his temper grew shorter, following the night’s lead.

The Master never took his temper out on Linnie, nothing more than a few agitated words anyway, but Linnie found herself gluing together vases and throwing away broken dishes and sweeping up shattered glass.  Linnie wondered how he’d survived all of those years without her and how much he’d destroyed during his search for her.

When the Master started bringing prospective girls home, Linnie was disappointed.  Apparently, she was the last plain girl to exist.  The girls the Master interviewed were slim and pretty and unnaturally blonde and Linnie was more than just a little bit jealous.

But these girls had one other thing that Linnie didn’t have.  They all seemed to be mesmerized by the Master, completely hypnotized by him and his looks and his charms.  Linnie shook her head at every one of them.  It’s impossible to get any work done when you’re mooning.

That was something Linnie had seen in her years.  Almost every woman and many men became enchanted within a few minutes of being in the Master’s presence.  She’d seen it happen with her parents and sister.  Her sister had been so jealous when the Master had chosen her that she’d thrown a horrible tantrum once the Master had left, to the extent that she tried to scratch out Linnie’s eyes and Father had to restrain her.

It had mystified Linnie at the time.  She could see that the Master was good looking and charming, but she had no understanding of the magic that the other people felt.  It couldn’t touch her.  Oh, she’d grown very fond of the Master over the years, but she’d never been enamored.  Grateful?  Of course.  Enraptured?  Never.  At first, Linnie felt bad about it, like it was another way in which she was undesirable.  But in short order, Linnie found it to be her greatest asset.  Those that found themselves under the Master’s spell rarely came to a happy end.

So when Linnie saw the girls the Master brought home and so hopefully introduced to her, she quickly shook her head to them.  Perhaps the Master had forgotten that her quality was so valuable.  Familiarity can breed that sort of forgetfulness; getting so used to another person that it’s expected that other people are the same.  Unfortunately, it seemed that Linnie’s trait was quite rare.

At least the Master was eating well during this interview process.

The nights kept getting shorter, as the nights do during the Master’s pining season, and the Master’s search became more frantic.  It was as though a sudden clock had started in his mind, one counting down to doomsday.  Linnie shouldn’t find it so amusing, but she did.

He could be such a sweet, innocent thing for being several centuries old.

Linnie was up late that night, sitting in the big arm chair in the front room, mending one of her dresses.  It was a ratty thing that she’d mended a hundred times before and rarely wore, a bit of cloth that would be better served as a dusting rag, but Linnie was too fond of it to let it go.  One day it’d just disintegrate in her hands and then, Linnie decided, that’s when she’d stop repairing it.

The front door blew open and the Master swept in, a spring storm on his heels.  He wasn’t alone.  With him was a young woman, not more than twenty, with long blonde hair of a dirty shade, parted in the middle and hanging around a plain face.  She wore round, wire-rimmed glasses on a too long nose.  Several strands of glass beads hung around her neck, lost in the busy flower print of her blouse.  Her shapeless denim skirt hung to her sandaled feet.

The Master escorted her into the room as Linnie stood, setting aside her dress.

“Linnie, this is Peony,” the Master said with a smile.

Peony looked around the room as she entered, a dreamy sort of surveying, and then her eyes settled on Linnie.  She smiled and stepped forward, away from the Master, and took one of Linnie’s hands in both of hers.

“You have a wonderful aura, Linnie,” she said.  “It’s so nice to meet you.”

This girl was strange.  Plain and strange.  Linnie didn’t know anything about auras and had no idea what the girl was talking about but she seemed nice enough in her odd way.

And she was engaging with Linnie instead of fawning over the Master.

Linnie smiled at her.

“Very nice to meet you, Peony.  Tell me, do you sew?”

“I made this skirt.”  She stepped back, letting go of Linnie’s hand so Linnie could get a good look at it.  Linnie leaned forward, fingering the garment.  The stitching was quite fine.

“Did you sew this by hand?”

“Yeah.  I can’t get the hang of a sewing machine.”

Linnie straightened and looked at the Master, smiling.  She’d do.  Yes, she’d do quite fine.

By the time the nights started getting longer again, the Master wouldn’t miss Linnie at all.

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