9 THE PERFECT GIFT
VLAD TWISTED THE BLACK RIBBON around the knot of an inflated red balloon and tied it before letting the balloon go. It flew up toward the ceiling and then bobbed pathetically at the end of its tether. “How many of these did Nelly say to fill?”
Henry emptied one of the helium-filled balloons into his mouth. When he spoke, he sounded like a deranged Mickey Mouse. “I think she said fifty.”
Vlad shook his head. The room was already so stuffed with balloons, streamers, and party favors that he was pretty sure once they opened the door to let any guests in, the house would explode, draping the entire neighborhood in his favorite colors-black and red. Which, now that he thought of it, wasn’t such a bad idea. Bathory could use a bold splash of color. Or two. Or twelve. He called out, hoping his aunt could hear him well enough over the sounds of food preparation. “Nelly, just how many people did you invite? I mean, this seems like a pretty big deal for just me, you, Meredith, and Henry.”
Nelly’s voice drifted in from the kitchen, so full of parental pride that it made Vlad’s eyes roll. “ Vladimir, it’s not every day that a boy turns fifteen.”
She was right. But, Vlad noted with a hint of terror rushing through his veins, she also didn’t answer his question. Dropping the bag of empty balloons, he rushed into the kitchen and was greeted by warm, sugary smells… and enough food to feed an army of teenagers. He stared suspiciously. “Exactly how many people did you invite to my birthday party?”
Nelly glanced at the calendar on the wall, where November 21 was circled in red. Scribbled on the square was Vlad’s B-Day: 38 RSVPs. She stirred something creamy and brown and smiled. “Around forty. Why?”
Vlad’s jaw dropped. “Nelly! I don’t know forty people!”
“Sure you do. You know Henry’s family, some of the nurses from the hospital, and the rest are your friends and teachers.”
It took every ounce of his brain to process the fact that she’d invited his teachers, and a small shudder shook through him. “You invited my teachers?”
She looked at him, completely oblivious. “What’s wrong with that?”
He stared at her, mouth agape. It was like the real Nelly had been abducted by little green men with a fondness for registered nurses who couldn’t cook. “Nelly, I spend all day with them. What makes you think I want to see any of them at my house?”
Nelly tapped the spoon on the side of the bowl and rested it on the counter. “Some of your teachers are very nice.”
“Yes, and some of them are descendants of Hitler himself.” Exasperated, Vlad threw his hands in the air. “Besides, do you have any idea what a high school faux pas that is? You might as well knit me a sweater that says KICK MY BUTT on it.”
Nelly cast him a knowing look. “Need I remind you that last time I invited your teacher over, he turned out to be your uncle?”
Vlad huffed quietly. “All right. But if I find out I’m related to Mr. Cartel, I’m going to g-g-g-go jump off a bridge.”
Nelly sighed. “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much. Most of your teachers didn’t RSVP anyway. It’ll mostly be all of your friends.”
Vlad raised an eyebrow. “How long have you been my guardian, Nelly?”
“Five years, this spring. But what does that have to do with-”
“And in all that time, haven’t you ever noticed that I only have one real friend? Henry?” Saying it aloud made Vlad’s stomach shrink. Suddenly he felt incredibly pathetic. And he wasn’t just saying it aloud. He was saying it loudly-his voice had risen until he was almost yelling. And he wasn’t even sure why, apart from the fact that the one person who should know him better than anyone didn’t seem to know him at all.
Nelly met Vlad’s eyes, her voice dropping to a tone that was sweet, calm-patient, even. “Henry is not your only friend. He’s your best friend. You’ve had others, Vladimir. Like Meredith. And that nice Joss boy last year.”
Her expression darkened. “Well, up until that unfortunate wooden stake incident, anyway.”
Oh yeah. Joss had been a great friend. If Vlad ever wanted to become a pincushion, he knew just who to call. “That’s not the point.”
“The point, Vladimir, is that you have a terrible habit of comparing everyone to Henry, and if they don’t measure up, you don’t give them a chance to even be your friend. Not everyone can show you the loyalty that Henry has, you know. You boys have a special bond. It’s unfair to compare other people to that. They don’t have a fighting chance to even come close to offering you the friendship that Henry has.”
Vlad bit his lip, quieting down. If only she knew that Henry was bound by an act of teeth and blood to be Vlad’s loyal slave, his drudge. Maybe she wouldn’t be so keen on the idea of their friendship then. And what about that other stuff? Did she have a point? Vlad mulled it over for a bit before deciding she was wrong. It wasn’t that he had avoided close friendship with other people besides Henry. It was as if, deep down, they knew he wasn’t like them. They knew he was different. And maybe, in a weird way, they were afraid of that.
Her eyes brimmed with concern. “I realize the guest list might not be exactly what you’d have come up with, but could you please just allow me a little time to dote on you and brag to the world that my s… well, that you’re turning fifteen?”
All the tension melted out of Vlad when he realized what Nelly had been saying. Not about making friends or doting on him or any of that stuff. Nelly had been about to call him her son.
His heart throbbed until it had squeezed its way up into his esophagus. When he met her eyes, he didn’t know exactly how he should feel. On one hand, Nelly had been every bit like a mother to him, ever since the day the fire had brought them together as a family. On the other, no one could or ever would replace his real mom.
Vlad cleared his throat and did the only thing he could. He nodded, turned, and walked out of the room.
When he got back to the living room, Henry sucked in another lungful of helium and said, “What’s wrong, dude?”
Vlad shook his head, clearing away his troubled thoughts. Well, most of them anyway. “Nothing. Let’s just get this crap cleaned up so we can cut the dumb cake and throw the stupid confetti and celebrate the fact that I’ve survived fifteen years.”
“Hey, for most people, that’s not such a feat. But for you… well, let’s see. In the past few years, you’ve managed to outwit a psychotic vampire who chased you down with the help of thugs the size of dump trucks, as well as a stake-wielding slayer, bent on your demise, who actually stabbed you through the chest. Not to mention various math classes and the great feat of getting the girl of your dreams to go out with you.” Henry smiled, slapping Vlad on the back. “I think we definitely have reason to celebrate.”
He knew Henry was right, but he still wasn’t in much of a celebratory mood. After all, Otis had made it clear that he likely wouldn’t be visiting until after he’d located that ritual, so the odds that he’d see Otis tonight were small. And with Vlad’s present troubles reaching his uncle by telepathy, right now a conversation with Otis was all he wanted to be having-not some lame party where he was expected to be nice to people he didn’t necessarily know or even like. But… there was Meredith… and he couldn’t deny that the allure of presents was pretty enticing.
Henry scooped up the extra decorations and placed them in the big cardboard box on the floor. Vlad followed his lead, his thoughts never too far away from the evening ahead, and the fact that Nelly had very nearly referred to him as her son.
Less than an hour later, the doorbell rang.
Vlad and Henry exchanged glances, and Nelly called from the kitchen. “ Vladimir, answer that, please. It could be your guests!”
Vlad snorted. He was fairly certain it was his guests, but that didn’t make him get to the door any faster. However, he was thankful when he did, because he could see a very familiar outline standing on the other side of the frosted glass. He smiled and opened the door to Meredith, who was bundled up in her fluffy pink coat, the faux-fur collar pulled up to her ears. Meredith’s lips looked almost blue. “It’s f-f-freezing out here.”
But there was no time to think of a witty retort, because soon the porch was full of people and Vlad was busy greeting them all and taking their coats. At one point, he couldn’t even see the people he was greeting anymore, and the coats were stacked so high that he resembled a walking pile of laundry. Henry took over and Vlad stumbled his way up the stairs to lay the coats on Nelly’s bed. Afterward, he raced back down the stairs and stared in awe at the gifts that were piled in towers on the coffee table, looking like a city in miniature. He moved through the crowd, searching for the one gift he really, really wanted for his birthday, but he couldn’t see Otis anywhere. Finally, he located Nelly in the kitchen and asked, “Have you seen Otis yet, Nelly? I thought maybe…”
But the expression on her face was all the answer he needed. Otis hadn’t come, wasn’t coming. Vlad’s heart sank down to his stomach. He wasn’t angry, just disappointed. He put on a fake smile. “That’s okay. I’m sure we’ll see him over winter break.”
Nelly smiled too-hers looked just as doubtful as Vlad’s felt. “I’m sure we will, Vladimir. Why don’t we cut the cake and you can open your presents?”
That did cheer him up, because any sentence that has “cake” and “presents” in it is worthy of a smile. Nelly gathered as many people as she could into the kitchen, including Meredith and Henry, who sat on either side of Vlad at the long plank table, and they all sang “Happy Birthday” off-key until Vlad’s ears had blushed so deeply they turned purple. Then Nelly cut the cake and started serving. Vlad and Henry and Meredith talked and laughed and devoured three slices each of Nelly’s fluffy, sweet cake until finally, Meredith said the magic words. “You should open your presents, Vlad.”
Vlad grabbed Meredith’s hand and led her back into the living room, through balloons and streamers and a crowd that looked like much more than forty people, stopping now and again to say hello to people he knew. By the time they reached the coffee table, the towering city of gifts had doubled in size. Vlad gawked. “I don’t know where to start.”
Meredith smiled sweetly and plucked a thin blue box from the bottom of the stack. The tower wavered, but remained standing. “This one’s from me.”
Vlad squeezed her hand once before letting go and ripping through the paper. He lifted the lid and gasped. Inside was a lovely leather journal. On the cover was inscribed The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. Vlad met her eyes. “It’s perfect. How did you know?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Well, I noticed that composition notebook you’re always scribbling in is looking pretty ratty. So I thought you could use a new one. It’s refillable.”
If Nelly hadn’t been standing a few feet away, Vlad would have kissed Meredith on the spot. Instead, he blushed and said, “ Thank you.”
Nelly slid a large box out from beneath the coffee table, and Vlad knew he must be dreaming. He tore open the wrapping, and sure enough, Nelly had gotten him an Xbox 360. “Nelly! This is so cool! Thank you!”
Henry grinned and shoved a box into his hand. It looked like it had been wrapped in a grocery sack and tied with twine. “Open this one. It’s from me.”
Vlad beamed at him and tore off the paper, revealing something that made his jaw drop. There were two Xbox games. One was Race to Armageddon 3: The Final Lap and the other was a game called When Vampires Attack! A quick glimpse of the back of the box revealed that players assumed vampire roles, and whoever attacked the most victims won. Vlad laughed loudly, and Henry joined him. Nelly chuckled. Along with the rest of the crowd, Meredith simply smiled, not understanding just how hysterical it was that Vlad would be playing a game as a vampire.
For the next two hours, Vlad opened gifts and thanked guests and ate food and laughed. And finally, once he’d said good night to Henry and Meredith and the other guests and closed the door behind them, Nelly approached him with one final present. It was a thick parchment envelope. On the front in Otis’s scratchy handwriting was For Vladimir on his fifteenth birthday.
Nelly smiled a sad smile. “Otis left this with me at the end of the summer. He said he’d try to be here in person to give it to you, but if he couldn’t, he still wanted to make sure you got it.”
Vlad didn’t open the letter right away. In fact, he tucked it into his back pocket. As he and Nelly cleaned up the aftereffects of the party, he took it out every few minutes to look at Otis’s handwriting and wonder where his uncle was and if he was thinking about the party that he had missed. More so, if he was thinking about his nephew, who missed him more than he could say.
Finally, after Nelly went to bed-not before reminding Vlad that it was okay to stay up late on his birthday, but to remember that he did have school to face in the morning- Vlad slipped on his jacket and stole out into the night, clutching Otis’s letter to his chest.
He zipped by trees and houses, casting careful, scrutinizing glances all around him, trying to make certain Eddie and his new camera were nowhere to be found. And once he reached the belfry, he floated effortlessly up to the ledge and stepped inside, staring at the envelope as he plopped down in his dad’s comfy leather chair.
The envelope was wrinkled in several places, and torn slightly on one end. Vlad read Otis’s handwriting once more before opening it slowly and withdrawing the letter inside. With the moonlight acting as his candle, he read.
It is with great regret that you are reading this letter, because it means that I was unable to return to Bathory for one of the most important days in a young man’s life-your birthday. Please accept my deepest apologies and know that I am thinking of you always. If my tone reads as a troubled one, it is because, at the moment I am writing this, you are upstairs, fast asleep, and in but a day I shall leave you yet again. It pains me, you see, as I have grown accustomed to our time together. But D’Ablo will not stop until he finds and performs this insane ritual that he spoke of last year, and so it is up to me to stop him by finding it first.
I won’t lie to you. It may be a long search. Very long, indeed, as I haven’t the slightest inkling where to start.
It has been years-if I am honest, it has been centuries-since I celebrated a birthday. Such celebrations are largely human in nature, you see. And it has been even longer since I celebrated a teen age, so I was lost on what gift I could give to you that you would truly enjoy. Initially, I had decided to purchase you something thrilling, like a dirt bike or perhaps a car, though your driver’s license is yet a year away. But upon Nelly’s input, I have decided to gift you with the one thing your life is truly lacking.
I shall gift you with the story of how your father and I met… and how we became vampires.
Vlad tore his eyes from the page long enough to release an anxious breath. At first, he was disappointed that Nelly had talked Otis out of that car-not that he could drive it yet-but this present was much, much better. He grabbed the lighter from the bookshelf and lit the candle next to the chair, illuminating the belfry with a soft glow. Then he sank deep into the chair and continued reading.
Your father was born in a small shire just outside of London in 1709. I was born in a small French village just a year later. Our friendship began in the Bastille prison in Paris, France, in 1743.
Now, if you’ve managed to stay awake during history class, you probably realize that only prisoners of stature were held in the Bastille. No, your father and I were not notable in any way, really. He was the only surviving son of a wealthy English aristocrat, and I was a French horse farmer. But upon being accused of a crime-and to this day, I know not which crimes we were accused of-we were brought to France, to the Bastille, to await death. We lived there for three years and spoke every day, though we could not look each other in the eye. Our cells were side by side. But when Tomas stretched his hand between the bars I could glimpse the signet ring on his little finger. It was made from black onyx. When I asked him about it, he said that the ring was a symbol of his heritage and all that he was. It was all that he had, and though our imprisoners might take our freedom and our dignity-and eventually, our lives-they could never take that from him.
Then, on the eve of my thirty-fourth birthday, a man came to visit. He offered Tomas and me our freedom. But so much more. He offered us eternity. Suspicious, I refused at first, but then Tomas agreed. The man went into Tomas’s cell, and all I heard was a scuffle, then slurping sounds, then silence. It was all I could do not to faint from fear when our visitor entered my cell.
He’d killed Tomas, I was certain, and so I had nothing else to live for. If not this man, it would be another to take my life, and I no longer had endless conversations with my new friend to keep me from losing my mind entirely. Let death come. Let it be quick.
But he didn’t attack. Instead, he asked me again if I would come with him into forever.
From the next room, I heard Tomas’s voice. It was but a whisper. “Come with me, Otis,” he said.
Though I hesitated, I eventually nodded to our guest and he leaped on me, biting into my neck. The rest is a blur. I passed out, but when I came to, I was in Siberia, and Tomas was at my side.
Fast-forward many, many years, to the day he told me of his plans to flee Elysia for the love of a human. The last thing he said to me was, “This ring is all that I am, Otis. But as it is a part of me, so are you.”
Then he handed me the signet ring… and walked out of my life forever.
Please take care of this ring, Vladimir. It belonged to your father, and it meant as much to him-and to me-as I am sure it will to you.
Yours in Eternity,
Vlad picked the envelope up again and tilted the open end over his cupped palm. Out tumbled a black ring made of stone, with a crest as its insignia. With tears brimming in his eyes, he slipped the small ring onto his pinkie. Despite the fact that he wasn’t sure whether or not his uncle could hear him, Vlad reached out with his mind and said, “ Thank you, Otis. This means more to me than any stupid car.”
Then he doused the candle, closed his eyes, and cried.