Vampire Crush Page 5

"Don't get cocky," I warn even as he continues to grin. Flustered, I try to change the subject back to school. "What about your parents? How do they feel about you skipping?"

His smile vanishes immediately, and I realize what I've said. While my memory may hold on to stupid things from childhood, it doesn't hold on to the important information. Like the fact that one day toward the end of my freshman year, I came home to find Marcie sitting at the kitchen table with a pen and a card. She wasn't writing anything, just staring at the wall with a shattered expression. When I asked what was wrong, she told me that she had just found out that the Hallowells had been killed in a house fire a few months earlier. "I wanted to write James a letter," she said. "But then I realized that I have no idea where to send it."

Now James flicks off the lighter, his face dispassionate. "My parents are dead," he says, and then stalks back toward the house to sit on the porch's first step and stare down through his knees like he's going to be sick.

I don't know what to do, so I just stand in the middle of the yard, my mind flooded with images of the Hallowells - his mother bending down to give us both red popsicles on a hot day; his father wearing a fisherman hat at the many barbecues they hosted; the glow of the candlelight on his parents' faces when they set the birthday cake in front of James at all those parties I was forced to attend. Finally, I take a place next to him, wrapping my arms around my knees even though it's far from chilly. "I'm sorry," I say softly.

"Not your fault," he says after a short pause. "I shouldn't have snapped."

No, it wasn't my fault, but I could have tried harder to contact him. After he moved, I used to check his Facebook page every so often, looking at all the unfamiliar names on his wall and wondering what his new life was like. As soon as we learned what had happened, I searched for him again, with every intention of sending him some sort of message, but his profile had disappeared.

"How?" I finally ask. "I mean, I know that there was a fire, but - " I cut myself off, realizing that the last thing he probably wants to do is answer a bunch of my nosy questions. "You know what? Never mind."

We sit in silence for a few moments, listening to the night bugs. He starts to pull absently at the tall grass creeping up alongside the stairs. "I wasn't there," he says suddenly. "When it happened. I was playing video games at a friend's house."

"Was it an accident?"

"That's what the fire chief said. Faulty wiring. I was just lucky to be out of the house. Or unlucky," he notes darkly.

I don't know how to respond to that. I want to ask him another question, but I tell myself it's not the right time. Still, he must see something on my face.

"Just ask."

"How can you live here then? I mean, by yourself?"

"I turned eighteen in August. There was a lot of insurance money."

"Yeah, but a house? Doesn't that take some sort of credit history?"

He waves a hand in the air. "Look around, Sophie. It was on the market for six months - I could have told them that I wanted it because my old one was full of dead bodies, and they still would have asked me when I could sign."

We fall into another uncomfortable silence. "So you're not going to school?" I finally ask.



"Like it even matters anymore."

"What does that mean?"

He starts to say something, but then thinks better of it. "Who's going to care?" he asks after a few seconds, less impassioned.

"The future people who have to talk to you." The jab rolls off my tongue before I can stop it, and I'm immediately wracked with guilt for my insensitivity.

"You're just the same, you know," he says, and I am relieved to see that he's smiling.

"Mean and a slow runner?"


"Then what?"

"Honest," he says, giving me a look I can't decipher before pointing at my nose. "And you still have three freckles right there."

Caught off guard, I bring my hand up to my nose without thinking. Suddenly, I'm desperate to fill the silence with something that's not my misbehaving heartbeat. "It's late," I blurt.

James looks amused. "It's nine o'clock."

I check my watch. "Nine-oh-seven," I say, starting to feel foolish. In my scramble to think of a topic of conversation that's not my recent transformation into a giant spaz, my mind stumbles across a legitimate question. "Hey, if you're not going to school, why are you registered?"

"I'm not," he says.

"Yes, you are," I insist. "My friend is supposed to interview the new students, and your name is on her list. Unless there's another James that hasn't been showing up."

He doesn't answer for a few beats longer than natural. "It's a popular name," he says.

"Yeah, with pilgrims."

He stands up abruptly. "It's getting late. You should probably get back."

I stare up at him, baffled by this sudden about-face. He holds out a hand to help me up, and I take it without thinking. He pulls me forward quickly enough that I bump into his chest. When he apologizes, he sounds so frustrated that my only response is to mumble that it's okay. I open my mouth to ask him if he's sure he didn't just register one day and then get sudden amnesia, but I catch myself when I see how serious his expression has gotten. Maybe he deserves his secrets.

"Please don't tell your family that I'm here," he says softly. "I want to keep a low profile."

"Done," I say, knowing that the story of how I got caught peeping in his back window like a weirdo will be an easy secret to keep. After an awkward good night, I turn and head for the gap.

His voice calls out when I'm halfway there. "It's good to see you again, Sophie."

When I turn around, he's already back on the porch step, watching me.

"You too, James," I say, surprised at how much I mean it, and then duck through the bushes.

Chapter Four

True to his word, James isn't at school the next day, or the next, or the day after that. I know I should be planning some sort of antitruancy PSA for his benefit, but right now my time is occupied elsewhere. Since Vlad and his friends arrive early in the morning and linger in the halls until late at night, one would think that I'd have plenty of time to corner them, extract a few mundane details, and then call it a day.

One would be wrong.

That's why I'm spending my precious after-school time crouched in front of the room where the speech team practices. Lindsay told me that Neville joined their club on the first day and has since been laying waste to everyone in competition. At this point, I will drag him into the girls' restroom and corner him in a stall if it means I can start this stupid project. The excited laughter coming from behind the door tells me that it's going to be a while, so I camp out on the floor and try to recap what I've learned these past few days about my other targets.

Violet has been the easiest nut to crack, but that's not saying much. She volunteered for the French club on day two, bringing our total membership to five. I'm president, but she's nearly fluent. When I asked her if she had studied in France, she just blinked and said, "Governesses." While it's been nice to have someone advanced enough to talk about more than the weather and the physical characteristics of our classmates, she won't stop harping on her inattentive crush. She's found her own source of magazines, and in nearly every English class she hands me a rippled copy of Glamour with most of the corners folded down and then asks for my opinion. I don't know how she got the idea that I'm a wellspring of boy knowledge, but I'm afraid to reveal my inexperience in case she decides to stop answering the personal questions I manage to sneak in. So far I know that her favorite color is purple, she used to ride horses in a park, and she and her friends moved here from upstate New York.

"Look here," she said one day before English, deflecting my question about her dream vacation and pointing a finger at an article in the dating section. "This implies that kissing on the first date is appropriate. Is that true?"


"Then I have been going about this topsy-turvy for so many years," she said, seemingly close to tears.

"Have you ever thought about dating someone else?"

She just shook her head. "No, I can't give up on him. He owes everything to me. I refuse to let this happen again, do you hear? I refuse."

I decided to save the battle for another day, possibly armed with self-help books. Considering I've never seen her eat, I'm halfway convinced that she runs entirely on relationship advice.

Marisabel has been a more difficult target. While her schedule puts her in French with me, she has yet to show up to repetez, s'il vous pla?t. I hear she spends most of her time in the bathroom, sulking and commiserating with any girl who skips class. Most of the time they're the ones who dress in black, favor combat boots, and carry around battered copies of The Bell Jar in oversized messenger bags. Because I am scared of them, I've been waiting to catch her without her posse. So far, no luck.

And then there's James. I shouldn't even be thinking about him. James is not my problem, he's Lindsay's. In fact, he's her biggest problem.

"I pestered the attendance aide today," she fumed in journalism, flipping through her papers. "He hasn't been here at all! I told Mr. Amado so he would let me take him off my list, but he says that sometimes a journalist has to put a little work into finding her subject."

I just smiled nervously and told her that I understood. Even now, I feel guilty for keeping mum about James's whereabouts, especially since I suspect my silence is more because I want to prevent Lindsay from one-upping me than because of my promise to James. There's no reason I can't tell her something that will convince Mr. Amado to strike him from the list. I should do it. I will do it.

I'm frowning into my notebook, wondering how long I can legitimately stall without falling into the "bitchy" zone, when two voices float around the corner - one male, one female, and both angry. I scoot behind the door of an open classroom; they'll most likely be gone in a second, and I can still maintain surveillance on the speech practice.

"Marisabel, I told you. This is politics," growls a voice that I now recognize as Vlad's. So far, most of what know about him I've gotten secondhand from Caroline, who's still overflowing with giddiness at having snagged the mysterious new guy. The only thing that I, personally, have determined is that I would like to punch him. Hard. And not just because he refuses to give me my interview. I've watched him with Caroline. When her eyes are on him, he's relaxed and charming, but the second she turns away, his face grows cold and strangely . . . resolute.

Unable to resist the possibility of seeing Vlad uncensored, I peek around the edge of the door. They are by the far wall, Marisabel leaning against a locker with a knee up and Vlad looming over her. Devon and Ashley loiter to one side, silent as usual.

"But it's been a week," Marisabel says, "and you're getting nowhere. All I've seen you do is whisk around that blond girl."

"It's been three days. If you are so concerned, you might try helping instead of flitting around with that pack of harpies."

"They're not harpies - they're nice." When Vlad gives a dismissive snort, she changes tack, reaching out as though to brush his face. "Why don't we go away? Just the two of us, like before."

He smacks her hand away and then slams his fists into the locker, one on each side of her head. "I am sick of living like we don't exist," he spits as the clang echoes down the hallway. "If you want to traipse off and remain in obscurity, fine. I am staying here."

Marisabel doesn't respond, just rubs her arms and stares at the worn blue carpet. I check to see if Devon and Ashley are finding this as frightening as I am, but they are staring off into the distance.

"I am waiting for your answer," Vlad says, straightening but not allowing Marisabel any more space to breathe. I can hear the tick of the classroom clock that hangs over the doorway.

"I don't want to go anywhere without you," she finally murmurs.

"Excellent. Then I believe we can leave," Vlad says, and then he pivots so quickly that I barely have time to tuck my head back behind the door. I hold my breath as they stride past. When their voices echo enough to signal that they've reached the main lobby, I emerge from my hiding spot with a new plan. First I am going to convince Caroline that she needs to drop Vlad, and then, no matter what Mr. Amado says, I will be getting to the bottom of what these people are doing here. Because one thing's for sure: He and Marisabel are not stepsiblings and they're not just here because Vlad's parents are "off in Europe."

As if on cue, the door to the speech room bangs open, and students start to trickle out. When Neville emerges, I jump in front of him and rush through my boilerplate proposal: interviews, new students, embarrassing icebreaker questions, please help me. I leave out the part where, after I know his favorite B-movie, I am going to grill him senseless.

"Of course," he says, placing a hand on my back to usher me into the nearest empty classroom - health class, if the mutant ovaries on the board are any indication. Once we're seated he looks at me expectantly. Not wanting to scare him off too early, I start out with questions that I consider boring. But when I ask if he likes it here at Thomas Jeff, his face lights up.

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