3 RETURN TO BATHORY HIGH
VLAD ZIPPED UP HIS BACKPACK and glanced at the clock. He was running late for his first day as a sophomore at Bathory High, and was exhausted from his late-night rendezvous with Otis. He stretched his thin arms over his head and yawned, his fangs pressing easily through his gums as a reminder that he’d yet to consume his morning meal. A second later, his stomach growled, as if agreeing that it was time to eat. Vlad pulled three blood bags from the freezer, stacked them in a pile, and bit into the plastic, breaking through the layers until cool, sweet, delicious blood seeped into his awaiting mouth. He sucked quickly and drained the bags. It wasn’t enough to satiate his gnawing hunger. Lately it seemed like nothing was.
“A word, Vladimir.” Otis placed his old leather doctor bag on the table beside Vlad’s backpack and yawned. It was funny how easily a vampire could get used to sleeping during the day and roaming around at night. Switching back was another story.
Vlad tossed the bags in the biohazard container beneath the sink and ignored his rumbling stomach. His fangs had already shrunk back, but slowly, as if forewarning him that his hunger couldn’t be ignored for long. He turned to Otis, half knowing what was coming and unwilling to hear it.
Otis paused, pressed his lips together, as if taking a moment to gather his thoughts. Then he took a deep breath and began his now familiar lecture. “Your hunger…”
Vlad couldn’t help but snap, “What about it?”
“It’s been growing considerably over the summer, don’t you think?”
Vlad shrugged and dropped his gaze to the plank floor. He’d been hoping nobody would notice. But Henry had remarked on it several times, Nelly complained about it constantly, and Otis kept flashing him these overly concerned glances. It seemed a guy just couldn’t keep a secret in this town.
Well, apart from that whole being a vampire thing.
“I assure you, it has. I’ve seen it, and you’ve struggled with it, Vlad.” Otis paused again, this time leaning closer, his eyes very serious, his tone no-nonsense. It wasn’t like Otis to get all parental. “It’s time we seriously discuss a change in your diet. Before you lose control of your appetite and harm someone close to you.”
Vlad’s jaw tightened, and he shook his head adamantly. “No way. I’m not killing anyone just because I need a snack.”
Otis’s tone remained insistent, but gently so. “It is not necessary to kill. And there are alternatives to taking blood against a human’s will. Donors, for instance.”
Vlad mulled this over for several moments, wondering exactly why Otis hadn’t brought up using a donor before-not that he was interested in feeding from a human, of course. He certainly didn’t lie awake thinking about it late at night, daydreaming about the taste of it. No way. No sir. He was completely in control of his enormous thirst. “What do you mean, donors?” he asked.
“There is a group of humans-drudges, actually-who donate their services in order to help a small, unusual sect of vampires-those against the idea of killing humans or forcing them to act as sustenance. The humans donate of their own free will, with no direction from their masters. So you see, you can feed on humans, Vladimir, without taking their lives.”
Vlad’s stomach rumbled its eagerness. He made sure to take a breath before saying, “I guess that would be okay.”
Relief flooded Otis’s eyes. “Good. Thank you for keeping an open mind. However, there is a minor problem with this option. This sect… it’s located in Paris. So you would have to attend school there in order to partake every day, the way that your body seems to require.”
“ Paris?” Vlad shook his head once again. Clearly, his uncle had lost his mind. “I can’t move to Paris, Otis.”
“It would be different if you were a monthly feeder, Vladimir. But as your appetite seems more demanding, we have to make adjustments. I have good friends there who will care for you, watch out for you.”
Vlad picked up his backpack, which was heavy with school supplies, and swung it over his shoulder. “What about Nelly? She won’t be safe without me here.”
Otis swallowed hard. When he spoke, it came out in hesitant, worried gasps. “ Vladimir… with your growing hunger and your refusal to drink from unwilling humans… soon she may not be safe with you here.”
Vlad furrowed his brow. He’d never hurt Nelly, no matter how hungry he got. Otis should know better. He headed for the front door. “I’m not going.”
Otis followed him all the way to the porch, his voice pleading. “Then let me teach you how to hunt. Just in case.”
“No.” Vlad moved down the steps and out the gate, leaving Otis and his bizarre ideas behind.
Henry was waiting for him across the street. “Dude, where’s your girlfriend?”
Vlad tried to hide his smile at the mention of Meredith-the Meredith Brookstone-being his girlfriend, but he couldn’t. “She’s not walking with us. Her dad kinda thinks I might be a serial killer.”
“On account of what, exactly?”
“On account of I’m dating his daughter, I think.”
Henry nodded toward Otis, who was still standing on the porch, watching them as they finally disappeared between houses. “What was that all about anyway?”
“Nothing.” Vlad’s grip on his backpack tightened as he relived the conversation. He still couldn’t believe Otis had suggested that he might someday be a threat to Nelly. And he was leaving tonight! Talk about picking a crappy time to get someone mad at you. And as if that weren’t bad enough, bringing it up on his first day of school was exactly what Vlad didn’t need.
“Oh man, I forgot to tell you.” They stepped out from between the houses and rounded the corner to face the front steps of Bathory High. “Snelgrove got a new job.”
“Oh yeah? As what? I’d kill to see the middle school principal shoveling dog turds for a living.” Vlad chuckled, but his amusement wasn’t long-lived. Standing on the top step was a familiar face, twitching his little mouse nose distrustfully and watching passing students like he was some kind of prison warden.
“Actually…” Henry winced. “He took over being principal of the high school.”
Vlad sighed, defeated. First Otis’s lecture, now Snelgrove. The only thing that remained was for Eddie Poe to tell everyone he was a monster, and Bill and Tom to shove him into a locker, and his day would be complete. “Great. Today officially sucks.”
Henry pulled him by his sleeve and whispered with a chuckle, “Dude, you’re a vampire. Every day sucks for you.”
“Vlad!” Across the sidewalk stood a pretty girl with chocolate brown hair and a penchant for wearing pink. Vlad grinned. Meredith.
She crossed the street and kind of skipped over to him, smiling, her pink backpack bouncing against her back. “I was hoping I’d see you before class.”
“Ditto.” Vlad’s heart thumped solidly against his chest, nice and strong. A few popular kids walked by, wrinkling their noses at him, but nothing they could do would bring his mood back down. He had a girlfriend. A real live actual girlfriend. And nothing could take that away. Not Snelgrove, not Eddie, and not even a million snotty looks from the popular kids.
And there had been a million snotty looks from the popular kids. They’d started during last year’s Freedom Fest, when Vlad had hung out with Meredith all night. And with each look, Vlad’s stomach had shrunk a little in fear. It seemed everyone but Meredith knew he didn’t belong at her side. Even Vlad knew it. Meredith deserved better.
Meredith smiled at Henry, then crooked her pointer finger, gesturing for Vlad to come closer. When he did, she whispered in his ear, her breath all warm and sugary-sweet. It sent chills up his spine. “I missed you. Maybe we could get together after school, just the two of us?”
He reached up, brushing her soft hair from her ear, and whispered, “Can’t tonight. My uncle is leaving and I need to see him off. But let me ditch Henry after school tomorrow and we can meet up at Eat around three-thirty, okay?”
She turned her head, lightly brushing her lips against his cheek in response.
Vlad’s heart nearly exploded from joy overload.
The food at Eat, the town’s diner, wasn’t exactly fantastic, but it was a place where they could be alone, without fear of Henry feeling left out or of Meredith’s father swooping down and stealing her away from the clutches of a homicidal maniac-i.e., her boyfriend. Suddenly, Eat seemed like paradise. And while it wasn’t technically called Eat, that’s what its single neon sign screamed into the streets. More of a command than a sign, really.
Meredith joined Melissa Hart at the bottom of the steps, and they walked up them with a bouncy gate. Vlad gazed after Meredith, still feeling floaty on the inside. Henry cleared his throat, his mood suddenly sullen. “We’d better find our lockers. Bell rings in five minutes.”
He led the way and Vlad followed, struggling to keep his happiness undercover. He knew it bothered Henry that he was seeing Meredith and that Henry wasn’t seeing Melissa, but it wasn’t like Vlad had planned it that way, or that he was going to spend much time feeling guilty over it. For once, Henry was struggling with girl issues, and Vlad wasn’t.
Truth be told, it was kind of nice.
“Don’t think I’m not watching you, Mr. Tod,” Principal Snelgrove snarled as Vlad walked by. Vlad waited until the coast was clear before rolling his eyes.
But just inside the doors stood someone whom Vlad was worried about, someone who’d also been watching him, and strapped to his neck was a brand-spanking-new digital SLR camera.
The boy who’d seen Vlad’s eyes flash that weird iridescent purple last year, the boy who’d photographed him floating up to the belfry. The bane of Vlad’s existence had just upgraded his equipment. And he was watching Vlad closely, as if waiting for him to latch onto the nearest cheerleader’s neck right here in the middle of school.
As if Vlad would bite a cheerleader. The thought left a bad taste in his mouth.
Vlad nodded curtly to Eddie, who did the same, gesturing to his new camera. Then Vlad pursed his lips and headed to locker number 313.
Ever since Eddie had seen Vlad’s eyes flash purple, he’d been following Vlad around, snapping pictures, staring. Your basic stalkeresque activities. But Vlad could handle that. What really made him crazy was the sudden surge of hungry confidence that Eddie’s budding obsession had brought on. At every turn, Eddie seemed to delight in taunting Vlad, as if waiting for the day he would snap and reveal his darkest secrets. It was as if Eddie had found a way out of his pit of nobody-ness, and Vlad was the one holding the ladder.
Vlad pulled his padlock from his backpack and slipped it into the hole in the locker’s door, then stuffed his notebooks, pens, and other school supplies inside. His locker already looked messy. Vlad closed the door.
Eddie was waiting for him. And he wasn’t smiling.
Neither was Vlad. “What do you want, Eddie?”
“Just to show you my new camera. You like it? I saved up all summer for it. Must have mowed every lawn in Bathory to afford this baby.” He patted the camera gently, his eyes never leaving Vlad’s.
Vlad shrugged. “It’s nice, I guess. I don’t know much about cameras.”
“I do. I know about lots of things.” Eddie’s normally quivering jaw set, a determined look in his eyes. Determined to expose Vlad’s secret. “Anyway… see ya around, I guess.”
“Yeah… and you can bet I’ll be seeing you.” Vlad watched Eddie walk away, his mood plummeting. He’d never be normal. He’d never fit in. And this kid was out to tell the world why.
Henry walked past Eddie, glaring at him the entire time. Eddie shrank away, and Vlad felt just a little bit better about their encounter. Henry opened his locker. “So what did the National Enquirer want anyway?”
Vlad shrugged. “The usual, I guess.”
He glanced over at Eddie, who had stopped at the drinking fountain for a sip, and bit his bottom lip. “He’s not going to stop until he exposes me, Henry. He’s different this year. Last year he was just annoying. But now… it’s like he’s got something to prove, and that something is me.”
Henry grabbed his English and science books and closed his locker. His forehead was creased, as if he was troubled. “Don’t worry about it, Vlad. We’ll figure something out. After all, it’s just Eddie Poe. He’s nothing. He’s empty space.”
Vlad nodded, unsure if he agreed with Henry’s assessment of the situation. Eddie might be a nobody, but a determined nobody could find his way into being a somebody if the right opportunity presented itself. Trying to push those troubling thoughts from his mind, he frowned down at his schedule. He didn’t share any classes with Henry or Meredith this year, which didn’t exactly give him a lot to look forward to. After receiving a friendly slug in the shoulder from Henry, he grabbed the teal book with a picture of what looked like a brain holding hands with a piece of broccoli on the cover and headed down the hall to first period.
Health class. Whoever had decided that forcing kids to sit in a room together while a teacher blushes and stumbles over the ins and outs of sex and drugs and puberty was a good idea should have realized that kids already know most of the stuff by the time they hit high school, and the stuff they don’t know, they really, really don’t want to hear from an old windbag like Mr. Cartel.
Mr. Cartel was born before the beginning of time, and he seemed to look fondly on those pre-dinosaur years, as he couldn’t help but comment on how things had been when he was a kid. Vlad had heard the horror stories about health class with Mr. Cartel. He’d been warned about the weird wheezing noise he made when he breathed, and about the fact that every time he was forced to say the word gonads he would stutter. But Vlad hadn’t been prepared for the life-size posters of two naked people and all their naked bits. Nor had he been prepared for the desktop models of the human reproductive systems.
Oh. My. God.
Vlad’s face flushed as he did a quick head count on the way to his desk. Twelve girls, eight guys, one very old teacher, and way too many naked parts at the front of the class. It was like a scene out of his worst nightmare.
Suddenly he was relieved that Meredith didn’t share first hour with him.
He took a desk in the back, as far away from all the nakedness as he could possibly get. No one, of course, was sitting in the front row. Mr. Cartel waited quietly until the bell rang, then leaned back in his chair and regarded the class with a somber expression. “Welcome to health. In this class, we will discuss physiological changes in a body as it ages, the reproductive process, the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and we will spend an entire month discussing how smoking cigarettes damages the human body.”
Vlad sank further down in his seat with each item the teacher had listed until he got to drugs, alcohol, and tobacco-he already knew those were things to be avoided if he planned on living past twenty. And not just because of the way they harmed his body-if he touched any of them, Nelly would kill him for sure.
Mr. Cartel cleared his throat and shifted in his seat a little before standing up. He picked up a long, wooden pointer and, much to Vlad’s horror, smacked the pointer against the nether regions of the man on the poster. “ The human reproductive system is a complicated and fascinating subject. We will study each part thoroughly, from glands to g-g-g-gonads…”
Vlad felt his face grow so hot that he was fairly certain he was glowing. He sank even further down in his seat and waited for the nightmare to be over.
After napping through geometry and accidentally freezing Mrs. Patterson’s beaker to the lab table in chemistry, Vlad stumbled into a lunchtime oasis. Meredith had saved a seat for him and Henry sat across from her, making moon eyes at Melissa Hart as she made her way through the lunch line. Vlad slid in beside Meredith and managed a smile. “Is it graduation time yet?”
Meredith laughed, sweet and giggly, making Vlad’s insides all gooey. “Is it that bad so far?”
Henry snorted. “Not all of us lucked out with challenging courses like art and Sucking Up to the Teacher 101, Meredith.”
Meredith wrinkled her nose in that cute way she did whenever she was irritated, and brushed a stray hair from her eyes. “It’s called teacher’s assistant, and maybe if you worked harder at your grades, you’d get to do it for a semester, too. Besides, art isn’t exactly easy.”
Henry shrugged and Vlad changed the subject-he wasn’t in the mood for another tiff between those two. “Cartel’s going to make this the longest year yet.”
A grin spread across Henry’s face. “Only if he keeps talking about gonads. Man, that guy can stutter. In second period we kept asking him questions, knowing the answer involved gonads, just to hear him rattle through the word a couple dozen times. It was funny.”
Vlad chuckled, but Meredith didn’t. In fact, she looked a little repulsed. Apparently, a girl’s idea of funny was very different from a guy’s.
Melissa sat down on the other side of Meredith, much to Henry’s dismay. The two girls were deep in conversation when Henry leaned across the table and raised his eyebrows with a smirk. “So… did you get a look at the woman on that poster?”
Vlad laughed aloud, shaking his head. “Dude, did you see the date on that poster? She’s way too old for you.”