Vampire Crush Page 2

She gives us the usual first-day speech - don't eat, don't shout, and don't knock over any of the expensive paints or your parents will pay - before she plops bowls of pinecones on our tables.

"Still Life with Pine Cones. Go," she barks and then slams her office door.

Not surprisingly, the glamour of drawing pinecones wears off quickly. After glancing back to check that Mrs. Levine is still hiding, I slip out the folder from Mr. Amado and find a list of the new students' names and a copy of their schedules inside.

Marisabel JonesViolet MartinNeville SmithVlad Smithson Drunken baby naming is a very serious problem, I think as I flip to their schedules. I half expect to find them signed up for Defense Against the Dark Arts, but their classes are normal. I have English with Vlad and Violet, and French with Marisabel. It's a start. The schedule I'm sketching is just starting to take shape when a shadow falls over my page.

"Pinecones, Miss McGee?" asks Mrs. Levine.

"Yep. Abstract ones."

"Cute. But this one's a realistic still life, okay?" she says before wandering back into her cave.

Five minutes before class is scheduled to end, the intercom begins to crackle, and Principal Morgan's voice reminds us that next period will be replaced by First Day Assembly. When the bell rings, I grudgingly gather my things and trudge to the auditorium.

By the time I push my way through the heavy wooden doors, most of the seats are taken. The back rows are dominated by the students in oversized band T-shirts who try without much success to hide earbuds beneath their shaggy hair; Caroline and crew hold court in the front. Usually they are the center of attention, laughing about nothing and jumping back and forth over the rows while the rest of us watch.

Today, however, their heads are turned to the side. I follow their gaze to the auditorium's right wing, where a tall blond boy is leaning against the stage. His features are sharp - a long nose, highly arched eyebrows, and slicing sideburns. Every so often he uncrosses his arms to tug fastidiously at the cuffs of his tailored black shirt. It's a strange gesture, as is the way he tilts his head whenever someone in the front row speaks to him. He must hear the whispers, now at a fever pitch, and yet he keeps his gaze trained on the row of students before him, seemingly oblivious to the five hundred pairs of eyes dissecting his every move. But now and then the corner of his mouth twitches as though he's fighting off a smirk.

Ten to one he's a new student - hopefully one of my new students. Editor in chief, here I come.

The heavy curtain begins to ripple, and Principal Morgan backs onto the stage, still barking commands at a helpless AV Club hopeful. Realizing that the show is about to begin, I slip into the nearest open seat a few rows back before anyone can point me out to Ms. Kate, the terrifying teachers' aide, who may or may not be 137 years old. I still have nightmares about the day she stood behind me in the lunchroom until I finished all of my peas.

The seat happens to be next to Neal Garrett, who's nice enough in an "I went to space camp this summer" way, but who brings his hamster to school at least once per year. The way he's murmuring to the left pocket of his khakis right now makes me think that today is the day.

"Good morning, students," Principal Morgan says from on high, and then sets to smoothing her hair as she waits for the microphone to cease whining. Satisfied her bun is scraped high enough to pull the edges of her eyebrows up demonically, she continues. "I'd like to welcome you to another year at Thomas Jefferson High and to remind you that it's time to put away your summer brains and bring out your thinking caps." She mimes putting on a hat. I hope that Neal's hamster bites me and gives me a strain of rabies that will kill me quickly.

The rest is familiar stuff: our sports teams are great, good grades are great, cl**vage is bad, short skirts should be burned immediately. By the time she gets to the evils of graphic tees, most of her audience has checked out, either staring blankly ahead or studying their crotches with great interest. I glance at the new kid to see how he's taking it, expecting to find the same glassy-eyed condition that has infected everyone else around me, but instead he's bravely sitting on the arm of an aisle seat and scribbling furiously in a small bound notebook. Every so often he looks up as though afraid he's missed a stray word. One of the teachers tasked with policing the crowd approaches, face stern, and says something in his ear, but he just waves her away impatiently. The teacher tries again, and this time he turns to look at her directly. I can't see what he says, but after a few seconds she backs off.

"So, in conclusion," Principal Morgan drones on, causing my ears to perk up in the misguided hope that she's reaching the end of her speech, "pointy shoes will no longer be allowed due to an unfortunate incident at the end of last year. I will determine what is pointy and what is not." She clears her throat and shuffles a stack of note cards. "Now, please be aware that we have a bumper crop of new students this year, and I hope you will welcome them and help them learn our rules." She moves on to the next card and announces that she will be recapping proper lunchroom decorum, but stops when something in the front row catches her eye. The new boy is taking large, purposeful strides up the staircase onto the stage.

The auditorium groans. Last year's assembly ran over two hours because of a skit where a student pretended to need the principal's help reading Thomas Jeff's code of conduct. Some people get annoying pop songs stuck in their heads; I get dialogue from "The Code and You." ("Gee, but is copying off Wikipedia really plagiarism, Principal Morgan?") She's obviously recruiting the new students early.

But Principal Morgan doesn't seem to be in on the skit. "What are you doing? Go back to your seat this instant!" she snaps, clutching the head of the microphone, but the boy doesn't stop until he reaches the podium. Ignoring the principal's stuttering, he covers her death grip on the microphone and catches her gaze with a smile.

"May I have the floor?" he asks, the microphone picking up enough that the question echoes. There's a precise quality to his speech that sharpens each word.

Principal Morgan sputters something about this being First Day Assembly, and the boy smiles encouragingly. Disconcerted, I look to Neal to see if he is registering the weirdness, but he is occupied with taming the wiggling bump in his lower pocket.

"Everything's fine," Principal Morgan says suddenly, and the few teachers who had pushed forward in anticipation of being backup retreat as she folds her hands in front of her and gives him the floor.

The boy's lips quirk as he eases behind the microphone. "I'd like to introduce myself," he says smoothly before another echoing rap of footsteps comes from the side stairs. His smile falters when he sees that a willowy girl has taken the stage and is now crossing to stand by his side. She is gorgeous in a dark, moody way, with thin black brows and long chestnut hair that breaks into a natural wave at her shoulders. If ever there were a girl meant to sit in a smoky cafe and tell you about the guinea pig that died tragically when she was four, it's her.

The boy clears his throat. "Yes, well," he begins, but then stops to glare at her when she tugs on his sleeve. His jaw tightens as he turns back to the microphone. "We'd like to introduce ourselves. My name is Vlad, and this is my . . ." He pauses and tilts his head to the side. "This is my stepsister, Marisabel. We hope that you'll welcome us to your charming state of Michigan. I know some of us will become fast friends."

Vlad and Marisabel - two of my interviewees. I confirm it with my list just as he winks at the front row, executes a stiff bow, and hops off the stage. Marisabel follows a few seconds later, looking suddenly glum. At first no one is sure how to react. There is a surge of whispers, a smattering of applause, and then, finally, a few admiring whoops. When he gets back to his seat, two guys in football jerseys lean over and pat him on the back like he's just pulled off the ultimate prank. At first he seems affronted, but when he sees that they are smiling at him, he matches it with a sly grin.

"Well, yes. Okay. Thank you," Principal Morgan says, her voice shaky as she moves back behind the podium. She clears her throat a few times as her hands flit around the microphone. "Assembly is dismissed," she says finally. "No running in the halls."

"That was weird," Neal remarks from beside me, his hand on the pocket of his khakis to calm the creature that is now visibly doing a wiggle dance, most likely agitated by the din of five hundred student bodies barreling toward the cafeteria.

"I think he broke her," I say, my eyes still on Principal Morgan. Teachers have surrounded her in a protective circle. She's shaking her head and waving them away, and while I can't tell what she's saying, she still looks a little vacant.

"That's not a totally bad thing," Neal muses. "Maybe we're due for a kinder, gentler regime at Thomas Jeff. Pointy shoes for all!"

"Maybe," I say and start to ask him what he thought of Vlad's performance when I see a pink nose emerge from beneath a khaki flap. "Your, um, friend is escaping."

"Oh crap, he's hungry. Check ya later," Neal says, and scoots out the back auditorium doors in an awkward run.

Figuring out where to sit for lunch is always a tricky process. Sometimes I sit with Lindsay, but most of the time she's saving the whales or forests or last season's winter coats. Caroline will always make room for me, but only on the condition that I don't speak to anyone. She doesn't like it when I ask her friends questions like "Don't you think wearing a shirt that says 'I Brake for Boys' is laying it on a little thick?" and follow it up with "I think it's generally illegal not to." Most of the time, I end up picking a quiet corner to read or work on upcoming articles.

But after the assembly weirdness, insider access is too good to pass up. I make my way to the sea of school colors that signifies Caroline's table, where she immediately scoots over to make room for me. Her eyes are glued across the middle aisle, where Vlad, Marisabel, and a few other students I don't recognize huddle around one of the central tables. Is this new-kid solidarity, or do they all know one another? Before I can mention it, Caroline demands my attention.

"Oh. My. God. Sophie, he winked at me! I mean it was at me, right?" Caroline looks around the table with an appraising eye. "Yeah. It was totally me. It was, like, so electric. I've never felt anything like it before in my life, not even when Tommy gave me his jersey after the homecoming game."

"I imagine that felt sweaty."

"You know what I mean. Amanda, tell her."

I look at Caroline's three best friends, sitting in a row across the table. They all look like the same person with different haircuts.

"Oh yeah, electric," the middle one says, bobbing her head until her dangly earrings swing in agreement.

That adds nothing, Amanda. Before I can ask for clarification, or even decide if I want clarification, Caroline grabs my arm and hisses my name.

Vlad is making his way across the cafeteria. He moves silently and with an easy grace, an achievement when you take into account the cheap tile that makes everyone in sneakers sound like farting mice. When he stops at the end of our table, his handsomeness is more apparent, even if my discount view only gives me a direct shot of nicely defined nostrils. Reaching across my chest, he picks up Caroline's hand.

"May I have your name?" he says, bending over and kissing a knuckle.

Caroline's close to hyperventilating, but she manages to croak it out.

"A lovely name for a lovely girl," he says, politely ignoring the fact that his "lovely girl" is acting lobotomized. "I wonder if you would do me the honor of showing me around your school."

The lines are corny and dated, like excerpts from the failed script of Pride & Prejudice: The High School Years, but that doesn't seem to bother Caroline.

"Yes," she blurts. "I would be delighted to chauffeur you around."

My sister has a tendency to lose her powers of vocabulary when nervous. I'm guessing she was going for "escort," but the rest of it's strangely formal, too, even for someone who's not her.

"Wonderful," Vlad says, and then probably follows it with something else ridiculous ("Your hair is like sunlight in space" or "Let's greet the dawn with kisses"), but I'm distracted by a loud huff, followed by a smacking sound and the swing of a lunchroom door. I sneak a peek at Vlad's table. Marisabel has disappeared. Either she thought too hard about the "Surprise!" part of "Lunchmeat Surprise!" or she does not approve of Vlad wooing Caroline.

I want to ask Vlad about his stepsister, but the bell rings, sadly bringing an end to our twitterpated weirdfest. After another strange little bow, Vlad strides back to his table, and I realize that this is probably as good a time as any to talk to him about getting that interview, which I have to admit is looking more interesting. After grabbing my stuff, I dump my tray and approach, annoyed to find that he's already in the middle of a group conversation with two beefy, athletic-looking guys and a boy with coppery hair who can't seem to decide whether or not to put his hands in his pockets. I slip into a seat at a nearby table and pretend to be searching for a worksheet as I wait for an opportunity to jump in.

"They already like me, Neville," Vlad says. "Did you see how many of them congratulated me afterward? Look, this is called a 'fist bump.' It is more accepted now than a handshake."

Neville - or, as I like to call him, "Interview Subject Three" - ignores Vlad's proffered fist. "I still think that it is unnecessary attention," he says and then pulls a crumpled schedule out of his khaki pocket. "What do you think one studies in 'Basic Skills'? I do not think I will attend that."

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