Vampire Crush Page 4

"And get this," she bubbles, holding her fork aloft. "He wants to know everything, absolutely everything about me. When I was born, where I was born, what my plans are after high school, if I have any birthmarks . . . everything! How cool is that?"

If I were a less petty person, I'd thank Caroline for plopping all this information at my feet, albeit coated in the slime of infatuation. Instead, I try to steer the conversation to other subjects. But when Caroline starts to reenact their good-bye scene by her locker, I can't take it anymore.

"He's weird," I say. "What's with all the bowing?"

Caroline colors. "He's European," she says defensively.

"No, you said his parents were in Europe."

"Same thing."

"Okay, that makes absolutely no sense at all. None of this makes any sense at - "

"Did you meet any of the new students, Sophie?" Marcie interrupts, attuned to stopping sibling fires before they start.

"Violet. I think she's crazy," I say and then pause, remembering our earlier address swap. "She, uh, might be coming over."

A childhood of saying things meant to shock Marcie has made it tricky for her to tell when I'm serious. Her lips twitch before finally deciding on an indulgent grin.

"Okay," she says. "Just let me know. I'll put the knives away."

She's still smiling at me, proud of her joke, so I smile back. She'll understand when Violet shows up looking like she just rolled around in her great-grandmother's suitcase. Thankfully, my dad dominates the rest of dinner with talk of bankish things. After I help do the dishes, I beat a hasty retreat to my room before Caroline can corner me with more Vlad babble.

Our house is a renovated Victorian that still retains a few creaks. My room is on the very top floor in what used to be the attic, and I'm in love with it, even though the ceilings are low and slanted and eau de mothball lingers in the air. When I was twelve I painted the walls a deep, dark red. Marcie once said that makes it look like a bordello, but if so, it's an inactive one - the only boy who's ever been in my room is James. (When we were nine and played doctor, I tried to give him an appendectomy with a plastic fork. He chickened out mid-surgery.) My favorite part is the two small windows that jut out and create little pockets of space. I have a padded window seat in one, and I've squeezed my desk in the other. When I take a break from doing homework, I like the cramped, cozy feeling of tucking my feet up on the chair and staring across at the house next door.

Tonight, however, I don't have time to waste. The info Caroline dropped at dinner at least gives me something to work with before the next class. I jot down what I know so far.

VladLikes: Expensive cars, being thecenter of attention, my sisterDislikes: Common courtesy, meMarisabelLikes: N/ADislikes: Vlad talking to CarolineVioletLikes: Mystery boy, showering inperfume, teen magazinesDislikes: Listening, making senseNevilleLikes: N/ADislikes: Basic Skills, going to itAnd I'm tapped. I throw my pencil down in frustration and end up staring out the window anyway. At first all I see is the reflection of my room - the light behind me, my daybed, and a darker version of my frustrated face - but then, beyond all that in the window across the way, a little halo of light.

Deja vu comes swift and cold. Since our parents were cheap and lame, James and I used to use flashlights in lieu of walkie-talkies. We even had our own Morse code, uncrackable by Caroline or Nazis. Two long flashes and one short meant "I'm so bored that I want you to come over"; one long and two short meant "Go to bed and stop bothering me"; and three short dashes meant "Please close your window, weirdo exhibitionist." Needless to say, that one got a lot of play during his sixth-grade, I'm-going-to-play-basketball-in-the-park-with-my-loser-friends-every-evening phase.

I press my face to the glass to get a clear view of the neighboring house. True, there are no cars, but Marcie did say that she thought someone had moved in, and she has a sixth sense about that sort of thing. When another dot of light flickers to life, I smoosh in closer, letting my cheek grow cool against the glass. Breath held, I wait to see if this is the beginning of an old pattern. But when it flickers out and doesn't repeat, I feel foolish for hoping . . . hoping what?

I'm not Veronica Mars or Nancy Drew. I'm too paranoid to sneak into someone's house to steal confidential files, and the old clocks and hidden staircases of the world can keep their secrets. But checking on that light isn't investigative rocket science. A quick peek should do it. I promise myself I'll come back up here afterward to stare at what remains of my high school journalism career.

That decided, I formulate my plan of attack. The easy thing to do would be to ring the doorbell, but what would I say if someone answered? "I was spying on you from my bedroom window and thought I should introduce myself at night and without cake." Not likely. I could peek in the front windows, but that might attract the attention of our neighborhood's resident cat lady, Mrs. Sims, who has a habit of calling the police if she sees anyone she doesn't recognize out and about after seven thirty. And since she's half blind, there are very few people she recognizes from more than five feet away. I'll have to cut through the back.

After tiptoeing downstairs, I ease past the living room where Caroline and the parents are watching some incarnation of CSI, head through the kitchen, and then slip out the back door into the summer heat. Our backyard is small and mostly taken up by Marcie's garden of pale tomato and cucumber plants. It is surrounded by a wooden fence that's older than me; whatever paint it once had has long since chipped away, and the wood is turning gray. But this is good - if someone had ever decided to paint it, they would have noticed the two missing planks that make a secret superhighway to the yard next door.

The gap is hidden by overgrown lilac bushes on both sides. I discovered it when I was ten and desperate to find the missing shoe that James had thrown over the fence in retaliation for my spraying him with water when Marcie wasn't looking. I said the hose had accidentally gotten away from me; he said my Little Mermaid flip-flop had accidentally flung itself into his yard; and Marcie told us both to be quiet, she was watching Oprah. James's clothes dried out, but I never recovered the flip-flop, even after several covert scouting missions. When I push away the bush's scratchy branches and duck through the gap, a part of me still hopes, irrationally, that I'll find it.

The yard is a mess. The remains of a rusting swing set lurk in the far corner, and the smell of urine emanating from the collapsed shed suggests that it's the new home of the local strays. James's mother's old, crumbling birdbath still stands in a small circle of defeated geraniums, and I wonder if it attracts only robins, like it used to. For a while the harried Realtor had attempted to keep up with the maintenance, but if the grass is any indication, he lost hope a couple of months ago. It's high enough to tickle my knees. If I were really dedicated, I could crawl on my belly and be invisible.

Settling on the half crouch of the semi-determined, I sneak onto the rickety back porch. There are no curtains hanging in the family room window, so I waddle up and peek over the sill. From this spot I can see down the hallway, all the way to the front door. Not much moonlight makes its way into the house, but there's enough to realize that, other than dust and a few snaking cable wires, the family room is empty.

I sit back on my heels; there must be some sort of limit to how many times I can be wrong in one day. I'm just about to start my return creep across the yard when a figure darts through the far hallway. For a second my shocked brain scans for a "Stop, drop, and roll" sort of acronym that explains what to do when you're about to be caught spying. I decide on RLH - Run Like Hell.

I take a flying leap off the porch and hit the ground sprinting, resisting the urge to look behind me, even when I hear the quick creak of a screen door opening and closing again. The tall grass slows me down, and I'm so panicked that my breath is coming in short, jagged little bursts. The lilac bush is only ten feet away when a heavy weight tackles me from behind. My attacker lets out a startled curse as we both fall to the ground.

My side hits first, but the weight of a person on top of me rolls me to my back. I know I should have my eyes open so I can defend myself, but fear is keeping them squeezed shut, and my brain is shouting stupidstupid-stupidstupidstupid. I'm flinging my fists up wildly, but they bounce off my attacker's shoulders. It finally registers that I should be screaming, so I suck in a deep breath and start to wail. But it's soon smothered by the hand that clamps across my mouth.


It's a male voice, but soft and exasperated whereas you would think a potential murderer's would be hard and menacing. All my concentration is currently occupied with trying to jerk my knee up where he has my legs pinned, so it takes a moment to realize that he's said my name. I open my eyes.

His features haven't changed, but they're sharper somehow, and squarer. He still has the hint of a scar on his forehead from the rock I lobbed at him from over the fence, and even though it's night out I can tell that his hair is still black. It's shaggier than I remember, but back when I knew him his mother was always dragging him off for haircuts twice a month.

Seeing that I recognize him, he lifts his hand away from my mouth.

"James? James Hallowell?" I yell in disbelief, causing him to clamp his hand back over my mouth. I scream a few other things into his palm, most of it not fit for my own ears, let alone children's. As my tirade rolls on, he starts to smile, his teeth glinting in the darkness. It only enrages me further.

When it comes to anything involving a ball or special shoes, I'm not very athletic, but once upon a time I attended a weekly karate class with the same fervor as a nun attending Mass. It was three years before my sensei told Marcie that he was afraid I was there for the wrong reasons. I believe the word "bloodthirsty" was used. Right before the phrase "I think you should get her checked out."

Now I channel all of my anger and lingering fear into one mighty upward chop to the nose. When he covers his face, I bend my knees up and use my legs to pop him off of me before rolling sideways and scrambling to my feet, my legs still shaky from the adrenaline. All the action has made me dizzy, and I bend over to catch my breath as I wait for the ringing in my ears to pass. When I look up, he's hauling himself off the ground. Now that he's standing, I should add about a foot and a half to my list of things that have changed.

Some people (Caroline) think that I am immune to boys. Not true. The boys of the world may ignore me, but that does not mean that I ignore the boys. I've had giggly crushes along with every other girl; after all, the only reason I like summer is that it makes Danny Baumann wear shorts. So James's attractiveness is not lost on me. But I know from experience that he is a pain in the neck.

"I guess this rules out a neighborly casserole," he snarks, touching his nose one last time before shoving his hands in his pockets. "Although, since all of the things you used to make me had dog food mashed up in them, maybe I should be grateful."

He looks at me expectantly. If he thinks I'm about to whip out a "Welcome Back" banner and tiny hats, he's going to be disappointed. "I'm sorry, were you expecting a parade?"

"Some people might say that it's the least you can do for the guy who gave you your first kiss."

"First kiss? I woke up in my family's hammock to find you slobbering over my cheek," I say and then cut to the chase. "What are you doing here?"

"I live here," he says, and then gestures back at the house just in case I thought he was talking about the lawn. "Again."

"And you couldn't have told me this without jumping me from behind?"

"In hindsight, it's possible that my plan had a few kinks," he says, but when he's met with only my irate incredulity, he drops the swagger. "I didn't mean to tackle you. I just had to catch you before you made it back to your house and told people that I was here." He gives me a long, considering look. "You know, you don't run very fast - maybe you should practice."

"Practice being assaulted? I'll try and remember to jot that down." My breathing has at least returned to a recognizable pattern of in and out, and my muscles have stopped trembling. "Why does it matter if other people know that you're here? They're going to find out tomorrow."

"What's tomorrow?"


James gives a short laugh. "Considering that I'm not going, I think my secret's safe."

That surprises me. James always loved school, mainly because around sixth grade, the popularity fairy visited. By the time he moved away the summer before freshman year, there wasn't a team roster or MASH list that didn't have his name on it. He had even dated Caroline's friend Amanda, in that they went to school dances and sometimes her dad drove them to the mall. I, on the other hand, only cared that when someone pointed me out to a friend in the library, they responded with, "Oh, that girl" instead of "Oh . . . that girl."

"Your public will be disappointed," I say.

"I doubt it," he says. "A lot of things have changed." James pulls a lighter out of his pocket and starts to flick it on and off. I recognize the source of the flickering halo in the upstairs window. He looks at me with a small smile. "Turns out messages are a lot trickier with a lighter," he says as though reading my mind. "What was the signal for 'come over'? Two long and three short?"

"Two long and one short."

"Nice memory," he says with a distinct hint of teasing, as though me remembering our long-ago code means something more than it does.

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