Vampire Crush Page 7

She brightens. "Neville has something like that!"

My heart starts beating faster. "Anyone else you know?"

"Yes!" she says, and then turns to furiously open her locker and pull out a magazine. She flips to a picture of Rihanna. "Right there," she says, pointing to a spot below her ear. "I think it is very tasteful."

"I was talking about anyone else you know personally. Marisabel, maybe?"

She shakes her head. "No, no one. But that was a very informative article; I feel as though I know Rihanna," she insists before wandering off in the direction of her next class. She's left her locker door wide open. Thinking that there may be a clue, I peek inside, only to find that it's full of magazines and nothing else. At least I have quadruple confirmation that they're not here for academic reasons, I think as I shut it in frustration. So they aren't all in a Tattoo-of-the-Month club, but Neville definitely acted weird when I asked him about it. What's the connection?

I spend the next two periods trying to come up with at least one theory that's not stupid, but come lunchtime I have other things to focus on. It's Friday, which means that Mr. Amado wants the rough drafts of our articles, and I still don't have anything to show for Marisabel or Vlad. I decide to go over my questions for the umpteenth time in an effort to build up enough courage to approach him again. Once I've found a clean seat in a back corner of the cafeteria, I pull out my notebook and flip it open to the questions I've compiled, like "What book would you take to a desert island?" and "What are the top five songs in your playlist?" I debate adding the ones that are really running through my mind, like "Are you or are you not the leader of a cult?" and "If you were to rate your level of psychosis on a scale from one to ten, what would you be? Ten?"

Chewing on my pen cap, I stare at the lined paper, trying to think of euphemisms for "psychosis." A person-shaped shadow eclipses the table. My usual plan of action in these situations is to feign ignorance until the intruder goes away, but this proves impossible when they sit down and start drumming their fingers on the fake wood.

"Do you mind?" I ask without looking up.

"Considering you said I had to come here to talk to you, yeah, I do," the voice says, and then punctuates his sentence with one last tap. "Why are you sitting back here, anyway? It smells like Windex and ketchup."

My head snaps up. James sits across from me wearing a dark green T-shirt and a smirk. His dark bangs swoop rakishly over one eyebrow.

"The pen-in-mouth thing is very attractive, by the way," he says.

I pull it from between my teeth hard enough that they rattle. "What are you doing here?"

"Gives orders and then forgets them. Classy."

"I didn't think you'd take me seriously."

"It turns out that sitting in a house all day is kind of boring." He leans across the table to spy on my notebook. "What are you writing?"

"Journalism project. An important one," I say, hoping that will be the end of it. I'm still trying to get over the nostalgia that comes from sitting at a lunch table with James Hallowell again.

"Cool," he says, and then makes a point of peering at the empty seats around us. "I see you're still a loner."

"I was never a loner."

"Sure," James says, "you had plenty of friends. They just happened to be invisible - invisible friends that you ordered to sit on the other side of the sandbox."

I have a vague memory of ordering Pete the Pickle to give me more space, but I shove it to the side. "Maybe I did. Whatever," I say. "Can I please go back to what I'm working on?"

"Right. The journalism project." He twists his head to read the fourth question out loud. "'If you were an animal, what type of animal would you be?' Wow. Someone should tell Katie Couric to watch her back."

I knew I was scraping the bottom of the barrel with that one. I scratch the animal question out and tell James to shut up. "I have to interview the new students, and these guys are the only ones left." I point my pen at him. "There's someone looking to interview you, too, you know."

He pulls a crumpled wad of Post-it Notes from his pocket. "So that's what these are. They were shoved in my locker."

He drops them on the table. I immediately recognize Lindsay's loopy handwriting. The blue one on my notebook is a very polite "James, please let me know a good time for us to meet. I have some questions to ask you." The hot pink one on my folders screams "PLEASE TALK TO ME" in black marker. Looks like Lindsay's sliding down the same slippery academic slope as me. At least she's also struggling to find her last interview subject, I think, and then freeze.

James is here, at school. Which means the end of interviews for Lindsay, and the end of interviews for Lindsay means a lead in Mr. Amado's polls. I've orchestrated my own downfall. Scanning the lunchroom for bright red hair, I spot her at one of the round central tables, leaning over a stack of poster board with a fat red marker. If we can just get through this lunch period without her looking my way, I'll be golden.

"Dude!" someone yells. "You're back!"

When I turn my head, James and Danny Baumann are in the middle of a complicated series of fist bumps. After one final flourish, Danny plops down on the bench across from me. It's been a while since I've sat this close to him; the caramel color of his neck still has the power to mesmerize.

"What are you doing here?" Danny asks James. "You moved away in, like, fourth grade or something."

"Eighth," James says. "But close. What's up?"

Back in the day he and Danny were on all of the same teams, and at least three times a week I would come home to find them in the backyard throwing some sort of ball at each other - or trying to take a ball from each other. It was never entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that James doesn't seem all that happy to see his long-lost friend.

"Not much," Danny says. "I totally beat that campaign in Halo 2. On Legendary."

"That's awesome."

Danny nods proudly. "Yeah, I know. Why are you sitting over here all by yourself? Everyone knows it smells funky in this corner. Hey, Amanda! Guess who's here?" he yells across the cafeteria, and then turns back to James. "She'd totally go out with you again."

"Cool," James says. "I'm actually talking with Sophie right now, but I might come by later."

There's an awkward silence as Danny notices me for the first time. He blinks. I smile dorkily and give a little salute that I will regret for the rest of my life.

"Well, okay man," he says, standing up. "But we should hang out. Play some Halo for old times' sake."


They do another hand dance. I wait until Danny's safely ensconced back at his table to speak. "You could have gone to sit with them," I say, even though a part of me is ridiculously pleased that he is staying put.

"I came here to talk to you, not Danny Baumann," he says. Our eyes catch, and my chest suddenly feels too tight. I look away for a moment, only to spot something that makes it feel even tighter: Lindsay Allen, striding toward us, ecstatic.

Snatching up my notebook, I frantically brush all of the Post-it Notes she left in James's locker beneath it. "Help me," I plead.

"What - "

"Hey! Who's this?" Lindsay asks eagerly. She holds out her hand, already a tiny ambassador. "I'm Lindsay. Let me know if you want a tour. Student Council is in charge of them."

"Ted," I blurt before James can answer. "His name is Ted. Comes from Tennessee. Hates tours."

Two pairs of eyes study me, but James's green ones hold mine the longest. Finally, he reaches to shake her hand.

"I'm Ted," he says, affecting a slight twang. "And tours give me hives."

Either Lindsay's pissed that her offer to show him the Wall of Mathletes has been rebuffed, or she's not buying it.

"Really? I've been spending a lot of time in the attendance office lately, and I haven't seen your name on any of the incoming new-student forms."

"It was a very sudden move. One day my parents are happy nestled in the hills of Appalachia, and the next day they want to go work for Google." James gives an exaggerated shrug. "What can you do?"

"I see. What city did you say you were from?"

"Uh, Columbus."

Lindsay squints, and I can tell that she's trying to remember if there really is a Columbus, Tennessee. Nashville, I want to yell. Why didn't you pick Nashville? Or Memphis? Dammit, James, know your capitals! Not that it would have made this plan any less transparent.

"Ted wouldn't be short for 'James,' would it?" she asks.


It's obvious that Lindsay doesn't know how to confront an unwilling interview subject. She frowns at the tile and then looks at me, her eyes filled with confusion, betrayal, and a glimmer of anger.

"See you in Journalism, Sophie. Mr. Amado will be surprised to hear that he missed a new student," she says, her voice so cold that it kills me, and then walks away.

I am a ball of slime, the giant kind that families in minivans pull over to see on their summer vacation. Up until now I've been picking at my lunch, but now I shove it away, sending a few fries sailing off the edge.

"So what was that about?" James asks with a practiced casualness.

"Nothing," I mutter.

"You just gave me an alternate identity. Not that I mind that much, but you gave me a bad one. Ted, Sophie. From Tennessee."

Might as well admit it. "She's the girl who wants to interview you."

"I got that much," James says and then arches into a proud stretch. "It's cute how protective you are of me."

"You wish," I say, but it's halfhearted. "Here's the deal. She's my competition to be editor in chief, and you're her last interviewee. If she has hers finished by today while I'm still missing two, I might as well give up now. It's stupid and childish and petty. I know. But it wouldn't be a problem if Vlad and Marisabel would just talk to me," I finish, slamming my fists down on the table in frustration.

James says nothing. I try to gauge his expression, nervous that he's going to think I've turned into a horrible person. This unnerves me almost as much as my recent Mean Girl impression. When he finally speaks, it's not a question that I was expecting.

"Your last two interviewees are Vlad and Marisabel?"

My relief at not being judged brings out the whole enchilada. "Yes. But not only won't they talk to me, they scare the crap out of me. They're not normal students. I overheard a very strange conversation yesterday. And Vlad's dating my sister. And possibly dating his sister, too."

James looks at me, alarmed. "Sophie, stay away from them. Tell Caroline to steer clear, too."

His vehemence startles me. "Why?"

"Never mind why," he snaps. Before I can express my outrage at being bullied, he drops the heavy-handed act and leans forward. "What if I get them to answer the questions? You already have them written down."

"That's nice of you to offer," I say. "But why are they going to pay any more attention to you than they gave to me?"

There is another long pause. "Because I know them."

"You mean you met them this morning?"

"No, I mean they went to my last school," he says quickly - too quickly - while looking everywhere other than straight at me.

For a second I can only blink at him stupidly. "Are you telling me that they're your friends?" I ask.

"No!" he snaps. "I don't want anything to do with them."

"But I don't understand," I insist. "Six people from your old school follow another boy to your hometown, and it's not connected? That's ridiculous. It's too much of a coincidence. And they're up to something; I know it. The other day - "

James grabs my hand, surprising me enough that I stop talking. I can feel his fingers, firm but cool, against the underside of my palm.

"Sophie," he says, his voice low and insistent. "I need you to trust me when I tell you to stop. I mean it. I don't want you drawn into this. I want to let what's going to happen happen, and then I just want to try to go back. Back to like it was before. Before I moved, before my parents . . ."

"James, what are you doing? Why are you touching her?"

Violet's voice cuts through the din of cafeteria laughter. It's always been prone to squeaking, but now there's an edge to it, a tension and a disbelief that threatens to crack it right down the middle. She's clutching at the fabric of her dress with both hands. I tear my own hand away from James's and stuff it beneath the table in a rush of embarrassment.

"Violet," I start, but she rambles over me, growing more and more distressed.

"They said that if I gave you space you would come to your senses," she cries, her eyes skittering wildly back and forth. "They said that if I found my own activities, you would be attracted to my new and confident self. They said it. They said it. And now you are making eyes at a girl who dresses like a peasant - a male peasant - and kisses on the first date. She is a hussy, James."

The word "hussy" draws some attention, but I don't care. So James is Violet's mystery boy. Swinging my gaze to James, I join the forces waiting for an answer. He waits a beat before running his hands through his hair and letting out an exasperated sigh.

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