Vampire Crush Page 6

"I do! Everything is so lawless," he says. "Yesterday I fought with a young man who said that I was staring at his girlfriend. And I was, but not for the reasons he believed." He points to his earlobe. "She had a hole as big as a button, right here."

It's hard to imagine a place that could make Principal Morgan's reign seem like anarchy. "Where did you go to school before?"

He hesitates a second too long. "Here and there."

"Where was here and where was there?"

"Oh, I don't remember," he says before leaning over to peek at my notepad. "What other questions do you have?"

I back off for the moment, and we chat about hobbies. He's not much into sports, although he knows enough about boxing to punch you in the nose if you trap him in a corner; he's always loved acting but it has been a while since he has had the opportunity; the speech meets have been wonderful because they've given him a reason to dust off his old monologues. Since things have been going so well, I decide to ease back into more sensitive topics.

"So, you're staying with Vlad, right?"

Neville has been the perfect interviewee, receptive to all my questions and nice enough to phrase all his replies in neat little sound bites. But now I see a wall go up behind his eyes, and he does nothing other than give a sharp little nod.

"How long have you known each other?"

"A few years."

"How did you meet?"

His eyes slide to the side like a senator who's just been asked that same question about the new intern. "The usual."

"Which is?"

"Class," he says quickly.

"What class?

"Music class."

I hope he is a better actor than improviser. "That's interesting," I say. "What do you play? I can't wait to get Vlad's side of the story. Oh, maybe we could take pictures of you both with your instruments!" I threaten, knowing that a person would have to be crazy to have something like that published in a high school newspaper.

"No, I don't want that!" he panics. "Don't write that."

I hide my smile in my notebook. "I'm sorry?"

"No, I was thinking of . . . another friend. George. Yes, George."

"How did you meet Vlad then?"

He leans back, his eyes flicking toward the door. After a discreet cough, he pushes his sleeves up, revealing a small, strangely iridescent tattoo on the inside of his forearm. Considering he got in a fight after ogling some girl's ear gauge, I would never have pegged Neville as someone who had even a dot of ink. It's a star with eight points, light in the middle and darkening to a shimmering blue as it approaches the tips. A swirl sits in the center - no, wait, not a swirl, an ornate letter "D."

"That's an interesting tattoo," I say. "What does the 'D' stand for?"

Neville follows my gaze and stares at the tattoo as though it's a scorpion perched on his arm.

"Ex-girlfriend?" I ask.

He snorts. "Hardly. There must be something else we can discuss. I will tell you about the time I played Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"What's the significance of the star?" I ask, refusing to be deterred, but then try to soften the question. "I'm sorry; I'm just really into tattoos. I'm thinking of getting one, but I really want it to, you know, mean something."

"There is no significance," he says with a new edge to his voice. "I would be rid of it if I could, but the damned thing won't come off. They make sure of that."

His inflection makes me pause. "You mean tattoo artists?" I ask innocently. "Because that's sort of the point."

"No, I mean the - " Neville stops, his mouth compressing as though he's trying to bite something back. He covers it up with an easy smile, but I can tell he's annoyed with himself. When my eyes flick to his tattoo again, he shoves his sleeve down. "Are we done? I should be heading home."

"No," I say, deciding that it's time to attack while he's rattled. "What's the real relationship between Vlad and Marisabel?"

His eyes widen. "That's not . . . I don't . . . they're siblings," he finishes lamely.

"Right. Then what sort of company do Vlad's parents work for that sends them on an extended business trip to Europe? And how are your parents okay with six teenagers living together? And what does Vlad mean when he says that he's - "

He stands up so quickly that the student desk crashes forward. Before I can react, he leans toward me and grabs my hand, his grip crushing. "It was wonderful chatting with you," he says. "I mean it; I enjoyed our talk. But you should stop asking so many questions," he says. "Please."

And then he's out the door before I can even ask him to wait.

I replay the interview on the drive home, cursing myself for being too aggressive and wondering about the tattoo and Neville's mysterious "they." I think back to the tiny snippet I overheard that first day in the cafeteria, when they were at odds over the importance of going to Basic Skills; Vlad definitely acts as though he is the boss of something and an organization of some sort would explain why they all arrived knowing one another. As I pull into the driveway behind Caroline's silver VW Bug, I brainstorm possibilities - a cult? A social experiment? A new low for MTV reality shows? - but all of them seem preposterous and none of them explain why his number-one priority upon arriving was to make a beeline for Caroline.

Which reminds me: The first order of business is to convince my sister to dump Vlad. Normally I try to avoid discussing guys with Caroline. When we were eight, I told her that the boy she had a crush on picked his nose and she punched me. But considering that dating Vlad seems far more dangerous than a few stray boogers, I'm going to have to try again. Still, I wish I could delay the talk until later, like after she's eaten a tub of ice cream. Or better yet, after she's been accidentally hit with a tranquilizer dart while on African safari.

Caroline's bedroom is on the second floor. The door is already open when I get there, and I catch her standing in the middle of the beige carpet, trying on a pink sundress that matches the walls and makes her look like the ballerina in a jewelry box. A tag still dangles beneath the armpit, and she tugs at it while sucking in her cheeks and examining herself in the full-length mirror. After a few deep, calming breaths, I knock lightly on the jamb.

"Sophie! Okay, so what do you think?" she asks as she whirls to face me, holding out the skirt of her sundress. "I think it makes me look like a cupcake."

"Do you want to look like a cupcake?"

"Sure." She twists around to check out her butt in the mirror. "I want Vlad to bite."

Thank you, segue gods. "I wanted to talk to you about him, actually," I say as I take a seat on the edge of her daybed. "I overheard something that made me uncomfortable."

"Like what? Sometimes he can get a little nosy with the questions," she says, alternating between a series of little flouncing hops and rocking onto the balls of her feet like she's wearing invisible heels. "I just ignore him."

"I heard him talking to Marisabel in the hallway, talking about you. I think he's hiding something, and I think he's dangerous." Out loud it sounds melodramatic, like I'm starring in a Lifetime movie. I would call this one He's Crazy and Has a Fake Sister.

She waves a hand in my general direction. "Don't be ridiculous. Do my calves look fat to you?"

I should have spent more time breathing outside the door. "Caroline, I'm serious. There's something weird about this whole situation."

Caroline stops twisting in front of the mirror to catch my gaze in the reflection. "You know, I'm surprised," she says. "I don't think I've ever seen you jealous before."

"You can't be serious."

"You never go for the guys at school, but Vlad's sophisticated enough that I should have known you'd be interested. I'm sorry he ignores you, but it's not my fault that he likes me. I told you that this was the year to embrace lip gloss." She whips around to face me, and I can practically see the lightbulb dinging over her head. "Amanda's brother, Jason, needs a date to homecoming. I could set you up. He likes writing and stuff."

"You mean the Jason who tells everyone that he's an elf from Middle Earth? I'll pass." I need to stop her before she tries more matchmaking. "And that's not even the point. The point is that you should ditch Vlad."

"Let's see," Caroline says, holding up her fingers and starting to count. "He's smart, sexy, a good dresser, doesn't spend half of his time on the computer playing Warcraft like Tommy, and is genuinely interested in my life. So . . . no. Find your own boyfriend." She swipes a tube of lipstick off her vanity and turns back to the mirror. "I'll talk to Jason about you."

"Caroline - "

"We're done here. Go away."

When I don't make any move to leave, she picks a stuffed bear off an armchair and throws it at me.

"You know what? Fine. Date him. Have rude little babies," I say and walk out the door, slamming it for good measure and stomping up to my room. When I reach the top of the stairs I'm still holding the bear, whose embroidered smirk mocks me. I send it on a header down the stairs. That will show her. Or something.

That did not go well, I think as I collapse on my bed. Why couldn't I have started with an easier intervention, like credit cards or caffeine pills? Obviously, I need to be armed with proof in order to shake Caroline away from Vlad. I grab my MacBook off the floor and haul it onto my lap. On a whim I type "Eight-pointed black star tattoo arm thing" into Google Image and get an assortment of people showing off their new tattoos as well as a handful of academic explanations about how eight-pointed stars normally represent chaos. Appropriate, but certainly not helpful. There's nothing with a "D" in the center and nothing that looks remotely like what Neville has on his arm.

Well, crap. I'm wondering why fiction gives you unrealistic expectations about the powers of the internet when something pops at my window. It's followed by three lesser pops and a loud crack. Rocks.

The window sticks, showering paint chips when I finally manage to wrestle it up. When the coast proves clear of further pebbly messages, I lift the screen and stick my head out to find James staring up at me with an expression that asks what took me so long.

"I don't think rock throwing is considered acceptable until after midnight," I say. "Next time try the doorbell."

"Yeah. I'm not positive, but that might be a good clue that I'm here."

"And why is that a problem exactly?"

He ignores my question. "You know, I'm surprised that you haven't come to see me yet. You used to always show up at my door to bug me. Remember when I wouldn't try out your 'Death Drop' magic trick?"

I do remember. Honestly, I can't fault him for not wanting to jump off the roof into a kiddie pool, and now that I think about it, that trick wasn't even very magical. But all of this is beside the point.

"I think your memories are skewed," I tell him. "You were the pesterer."

"It's sad that you live such a delusional life," he says and then nods toward the fence before I can deliver what I am sure would be a devastating retort. "Come outside. We can discuss how wrong you are."


"Very tempting," James says with a smile so angelic that it's not anymore. He's wearing a long-sleeved gray T-shirt and jeans that could use a tango with a washing machine, but the rumpled look is definitely working in his favor. Still, I'm a little wary of how I'll react with my guard torn down by exhaustion, frustration, and the fact that my sister now hates me. Not to mention that I think I've had my fill of veils and secrecy for the day, and James's strange new hermit act will only add more questions.

"Tell you what," I propose, leaning as far over the sill as possible without taking a header into the bushes. "Come to school tomorrow and we'll talk."

Whatever James was expecting, it wasn't a refusal. "But - "

"Night," I singsong, shutting the window before any more rumble-voiced persuasion can float through. Without the night air, my room suddenly feels stuffy and claustrophobic. Worse, my heart's fluttering around in a disconcerting manner. I decide to chalk it up to the thrill of leaning out the window. Besides, I think, as I slip under the covers and flip off my lamp, his new antischool bit should keep me safe from ever having to cash in that promise.

Chapter Five

The next morning I wait for Violet at her locker. When she bustles around the corner, I attack her with another round of questions, including one asking whether or not she has any body art. If they are all in a group of some sort, it stands to reason that they would all have the same tattoo, or at least a variation. I think I am very clever.

"Body art?" she says, pulling a thread off the hem of her dress, a floral cotton baby doll accessorized by blue tights and her multibuttoned boots. Her outfits are getting more and more avant-garde.

"A tattoo," I say. "Or a piercing. Or a tattoo."

She continues to look confused, and I feel my cleverness deflating. Nevertheless, I point at the wobbly-looking butterfly on the exposed ankle of someone who is digging a book out of her locker. "Like that."

"Oh no," she says. "I would never paint insects on myself."

"It doesn't have to be insects, it can be anything. Like a star, for example."

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